I escaped a year ago today–too nervous to tell my tale, too embarrassed. The prisons of Meteora are well known as hell on earth. The atrocities committed there over its fifty-year history are too numerous to count. I was sentenced to six years of brutal labor in the scorching sands that made up Sinking Valley’s deserted tundra. It was a harsh sentence for a conscientious objector such as myself, but the dictatorship was looking to make an example out of me, and I didn’t have the money to put up a proper defense for myself. I probably wouldn’t have received a fair trial anyway, but I could have been able to put together a decent enough of a bribe to stay out of jail.
I survived the first two summers of imprisonment all right, but the third was unbearable. I was able to manage the daily tyranny of the guards out in the fields, but after two months of oppressive heat, the monsoon storms struck, and they were more violent than ever. The pounding rains pierced my dry, leathery skin like a needle. It felt like a constant barrage of incessant mosquitoes were nipping at my back all day. It made me mad in the head.
By the time the rains had ended, all the prisoners (and most of the sentries) were frazzled to the brink of implosion. So, what happened on the first day of the new month was not a surprise to anyone.
A sandstorm crept into the valley from parts of the desert that had missed the rains altogether. The dirt was stifling, but the guards didn’t care. They forced us into the fields anyway so we could pick what was left of the harvest before Mother Nature yanked the rest of it from the earth.
Discontent among the inmates grew with the racing tempest until a rebellion broke out against our captors. Two guards were savagely beaten to death by a swarm of hand flails. Soon bullets rained down at us from all directions. The swirl of sand from the passing gales blocked my vision, but I had enough of my wits to crawl 500 yards to an Indian school that was deteriorating on the edge of the camp. Stories of hauntings, ghosts and strange disappearances kept most away from the ramshackle buildings, but I disregarded them as fanciful fairy tales that meant to keep inmates out. The school would provide me with much needed cover.
I came across the entrance, and pushed my way inside the building. I waited until the riot consumed the other side of the prison before I ventured forth to see if the campus led to a way out of my captivity. With the thunder of ammunition diminishing, I convinced myself I was relatively safe, and entered into a long hallway, which at this time of day had the afternoon sun blaring through it with a mix of blinding intensity and whirling sand. The wind had pierced the glass windows and was shooting down the unsteady foyer like a small canyon. I needed all my strength to reach the other end. I turned the corner and scuttled down another lonely hall that led to old classrooms. Many unwilling natives had their haircut into the style of the white man, and were then forced into one of these cells of modern thinking.
Continuing down the path, the corridor grew dark, and the air muted into an unworldly calm. I could only see a few steps in front of me, but eventually, I came to a door that led into one of the classrooms. I peered through the door’s dusty window, but could barely make out the vaporous forms of the desks sitting neatly in rows. My hairs stood on end. Something was amiss. Maybe it was the faint booms from the prison guns outside against the calmness of the school. I don’t know, but I felt like little eyes were all around me, watching.
When I turned to go back, I saw a flash out of the corner of my eye. I paused. Something was sparkling at me from another classroom I just passed. As I approached, I could see into the classroom, and through it’s outer windows. Just outside of the room was a soaring gate softly swinging back and forth between two immense walls in the mottled sunlight. I don’t know how I could have missed it.
The door was locked, so I pushed on it. It didn’t budge. I shoved it–nothing. Finally, I gave the door a firm kick below the handle, and it broke free from its frame. It snapped at the hinges, and crashed to the ground. A hollow gasp echoed from the room. I froze. It sounded all too human, but I was alone. The gate began to swing violently in a sudden gust of wind, and then slammed shut with a loud clank. Timidly, I approached; hoping an exit to freedom existed out there. I clicked open the window, and fell into the brilliant light before the gate.
The metal door was caked in rust, and took all my strength to push it open, but eventually, it gave way. I walked though its entrance into a small, burnt-out courtyard. On one side, there was a dirt lot closed in by three stonewalls and a shorter chain-link fence covered in ingrown weeds. It looked like an old campsite with the skeletal remains of once proud tents sprawled throughout the tattered lawn. On the other side of the square, there was a series of concrete cells with wood stoves for heat and metal bars for doors. I wandered through row after row. Captivating shadows from archaic manacles sulked over me. The wind picked up again, and I heard the gate creak shut. I ran over to it, but the door was wedged tight in its frame. This time, no amount of pulling would unlock it, and it appeared too tall for me to climb.
I cried out for help, hoping another prisoner followed me from the riot, but there was no reply. The wind howled through the courtyard with a gleeful cackle; another poor soul lost in the wicked school. There had to be another exit I missed.
As I scuttled around, searching for false doors and loose bricks, I heard a dull scraping echo through the cells. The sound grew louder with each step. I called out, but no reply. I continued on further into the tiny labyrinth until I came across a tiny Indian woman, with the age of time worn into her wrinkled face. She was softly sweeping the room with a straw broom. Her weathered rag of a dress was barely held together at the seams. I needed to get her attention. If she somehow managed to enter without my spying her, then surely she new of another way out. I waved at her, yelled at her, even banged on the bars, but the tired woman never replied. She never looked up. Her hips were hypnotically synchronized to the mellow rasps of the broom against the stone floor.
I took a step into the cage, and grabbed her bony arm. She snapped around, and looked at me through a set of decayed black eyes that looked as if they had been cut out of her head. In a frightened whirl, I gasped, and shoved her back toward the wall. She started to hobble towards me with her lame leg dragging behind her. She pointed her clubbed hand at me. “We knew you would return, Master Andrews,” she whispered with gravely voice. “We have been waiting.” I didn’t know what she was talking about. My name wasn’t Andrews nor had it ever been, but before I could reply, something struck me from behind.
I woke up under the night sky cold, naked, and alone. A light rain sprinlked over me. My back, my arms, and my legs were bruised and beaten. I ached everywhere. Sitting up, I found myself to have been dumped in the abandoned campground. I could see a fire glowing from one of the furnaces in the cells across from the fence. I definitely wasn’t alone. I slowly stood up through the pain of aching bones. Eventually, I was able to gather the strength to wobble over the short enclosure, and traipse across the leaf-blown bricks that filled the tiny courtyard. Shivering, I peered into the small room to find the old woman in what appeared to be a deep trance. I needed to find an exit before she awoke. I couldn’t fathom how this frail woman could beat those bruises into me, but I wasn’t going to stick around to find out. If she had help, I had to be extra careful.
I crept around for what seemed to be an eternity, but found no noticeable exits. Once again, I found myself face to face with that tall gate. If I could somehow climb to the top, the roof was a short hop away. I gripped the rusty slats and slowly climbed. My feet were too wet to grip them, and I flopped to the ground, landing on my back. The whole door clattered in its frame, and once again, I froze, hoping that no one would inquire about the ruckus.
I lay there in silence for a few minutes. Convinced I was safe, I did my best to dry my hands and feet with the leaves strewn about, and attempted the climb once more. Naked, cold, and in much pain, I slowly rose. The gate shook here and there, but nobody came after me. As I approached the top, one of the bars snapped off the gate, and crashed to the ground with a metallic thunder. I could hear a low growl echo through the complex–there was no mistaking the accursed voice of the old woman.
I scampered up the door in a panic. A rock zipped past me, then another, and another. I hit the top, and pulled myself to the roof. I was thirty feet high, and stones were flying all around me. I briefly looked down at my attacker, and was immediately popped in the face by a sharp stone. For a blind lady, she had an amazing aim. I flew back in pain as blood poured from my lip. The impact almost knocked me out again.
With no time to stop the bleeding, I leapt up and ran. I ran like man possessed; faster than I thought was possible. I couldn’t let this she-devil catch me.
I took flight over creaking rooftops, never looking back until I hit the edge of the school–the farthest border of the prison. Below me was a four-story hurdle to freedom. The ground looked soft in the moonlit night. I didn’t know if it was just an illusion, but it looked as if the scattering rain had yielded an earthen cushion.
With no time to spare, I prepared myself for the fall. Concentrating on the spot I wanted to land, I crouched down, and tried to get the courage to jump, but a rock interrupted as it struck my shoulder. I turned around just as another one smashed into my chest with a hallow thud. I fell over the side, and tumbled into the cold mud, twisting my left ankle. I cried out in pain, but had no time to rest. The woman glowered down at me.
A stone fell, then a rock, and then another. They grew more menacing with each one that puddled in the ground around me. I scrambled down the hillside in a muddy flurry. A loathsome screech echoed from the prison.
Her onslaught was over, unable to follow further. I escaped to the highway, trying to catch a ride, wearing nothing more than a mix of grimy muck and pickled blood. Out by mile marker 172, next to a sign that read: “Hikers may be escaping inmates,” an old Chevy truck slowed, and I climbed in the back. Off into the night I went–free.
By Chris Haley