Thursday, 26 March 2009 - 6:23 pm

Behind bars

I can’t believe it’s taking me so long to get all of this down! It certainly made an impression, this prison we found, stuck out in the middle of barren fields, a grey lump in the scorched earth. But I’m almost at the end! Not much longer until we’re free of it.


It took us a while to find somewhere to hole up in. They had been quite thorough in cracking this egg open; of the doors still on their hinges, many didn’t close and only some of those that did were able to be locked again.

We didn’t split up this time around. All ten of us clomped along, with the weight of the place making us try to move quietly. I felt big and heavy and obvious in this place of empty spaces. There was that crawl between my shoulderblades again, snicking up to the back of my neck, but there was never anything behind us when I looked. It felt like we were travelling in our own bubble of air, pushing it around these unwilling corridors and intruding on resting rooms.

There weren’t many rooms big enough to hold us all. I thought of the dining area, but I knew none of us would want to go back there. The place we wound up in was the laundry with its ranks of dead machines and cloth strewn everywhere. It was dusty but clean in there, and both sets of doors closed. We couldn’t lock one of them, so the boys dragged one of the washers in front of it instead.

It’s possible we were a little paranoid; it’s been a couple of days since that night, so I can say that now. At the time, blocking the door like that made us all breathe a little easier. And later on, we wished that we could have barricaded it more solidly.

We made ourselves as comfortable as we could, turning the laundry into makeshift beds and nests. It was musty but at least not soiled.

Ben had stuck close to me all day and when it was all done and we were settling down to sit, he pulled me into his side tightly. I think he needed the contact as much as I was taking comfort from it, and I was happy to share. I looked at Matt and Thorpe and wished I could do the same for them, but I only have one pair of arms. Dillon was talking quietly with the big fireman, and Nugget was still shunning Sax because he shouted at her; she nestled down next to Sally. Masterson said something to the girl that I couldn’t hear and Nugget responded by sticking her tongue out at him, safe on the other side of Sally. Poor Sally looked awkward in the middle and didn’t look at either of them.


The noises didn’t start until the rain brought a veil of darkness with it. At first it was just the sound of the water falling, smashing itself against the prison walls in a vain attempt to get in. The windows here were intact (as were the bars across them), so we felt secure in that regard. I noticed that Alice had esconced herself in a corner, pressed up against the wall, and she looked tense as that sound washed over us. I glanced up at Ben, wondering if he was thinking about his burns, too.

Then other movement started to creep towards us. The skitterings of many little claws across the hard floors, and a determined scraping that sounded like an unusually-sized rodent was gnawing a hole in the wall. Someone said that it was probably just mice, but those teeth sounded like they were at least a foot long.

Then the murder came. The flapping sounded like distant thunder, like an internal storm front that was sweeping closer and closer to break over us. Funnelled through the prison’s corridors, the crows were seeking a safe roost. One of them cawed just outside the doors and we all jumped – it was a raucous, threatening noise, and it seemed loud enough to cut the door down on its own. Then all we could hear was wings beating at the air, filling up the space around the room and sliced up by corvid screams.

None of us moved. The doors were still closed and someone had put our lamp out, and we stayed perfectly still. We stared at those thin wooden panels and barely dared to breathe in case they noticed us here and tried to get in.

Then it went quiet. All at once, as if a tap had been shut off, the flapping stopped. There was a moment of silence, and then the scrape of heavier claws. A rustle and the clack of a beak. They hadn’t gone past; they had decided to land nearby. It sounded like they had taken up position right outside the door, but there was nothing out there for them to perch on; it must have been a trick of the acoustics.

There were less of the smaller sounds now as the rodents wisely stayed out of the way of the carnivores. We chanced a tiny light to chase away the utter blackness that had fallen on us so that we could see to eat. The birds didn’t seem to notice it. Before we shifted to distribute the food, I caught sight of Thorpe with his hand on Dillon’s shoulder, offering some reassurance. We were all taking what courage we could get.


We didn’t say much as we ate, and I don’t think any of us managed to put more than a few mouthfuls away before we’d had enough. Too many of us were thinking of the other hungry creatures in the building to bear being one of them. We didn’t dare to sing or even talk loudly in case we drew attention to ourselves.

We agreed to sleep in shifts, with three always awake to keep watch. Even so, it was a wakeful night – I snatched only moments of sleep before a tiny scrape from three rooms away woke me up. I don’t think those on watch ever took their eyes off the doors, waiting for that moment when the panels would move, when the handle would turn slowly, creeping around to betray us.

At one point, I could have sworn I heard footsteps. Very soft, almost shuffling, but rhythmic in that walking way. I had been dozing and came awake sharply. I tried not to move in case I lost the sound in my own rustling; I held perfectly still, taut and listening. Then there was a plop and a flutter of feathers, and the grumbling of the nearby birds drowned it out. By the time they had quietened again, the footsteps were gone. I don’t know where they went to.


We were all relieved when reddened orange light snuck through the windows and fell on us. Everyone was up quickly, mostly because we hadn’t been that asleep, and we skipped breakfast in favour of getting back to the cars and the hell out of there.

But we hesitated when it came to opening the doors. The washer was moved out of the way and then we looked at each other; no-one had heard the birds leave. Then Thorpe leaned over and thumped on the door, loudly. It was just like being out in the courtyard again, all thrashing wings and cawing voices whirling around us, and we all covered our ears and found ourselves crouching reflexively. The crows were on the other side of the doors, but it was so loud.

Again, it was over very quickly. Ben peeked outside while the rest of us made sure we had collected everything, and then we made all speed out of the building. There was that sneaking fear as we half-jogged towards the gates, the one that said the cars wouldn’t be there, but they were, complete with Jones complaining about being shut in one of them all night, alone.

Nugget climbed in to fuss over him while I did the same to the burned engine. It didn’t look good and it smelt worse, but it seemed salvagable. The best I can figure, some petrol had leaked onto the engine when the hose had come loose and ignited when we started it up. I cleaned off as much of it as I could and I taped the hose securely in place, and we all crossed our fingers when we tried to get it going again. By some miracle, the damn thing choked to life and didn’t set itself on fire. We gave it ten minutes to warm up before we dared to let anyone climb in, though, and the packs were all piled up in the other car. Just in case.


When we were ready to go, I turned to look at the prison. Its grey walls reared up over us, trying to snag us into its shadow. It was plain and faceless and empty, and still set my nerves crawling. The crows were circling high overhead, calling out warning and directions. Perhaps they were for our benefit.

I’ve never been so glad to turn my back on a place and know that it was growing smaller with every calming heartbeat. Of all the places we’ve been, that’s the one I never want to go back to. I still feel lucky that we came out of it all right, as if we had sidestepped the swing of a great pendulum. Sometimes, I still feel its breath on the back of my neck.