In the timid glow of my rental car’s stereo display I watched the night outside. It was dark—too hopeless even for stars. A sliver of moon now and then appeared through the drifting sea of clouds, painting a pale silver outline on the treetops. Behind the giant relic projector screen, the forest grew unchecked, as wild as a young drunk and as dense as an old one, up to the clearing at top of the hill. There, like devil’s horns, rose the jagged turrets of Nelson Prison.
I passed three hours with no accompaniment but the military marches of state radio and a nagging terror in my stomach, before the car grew unpleasantly warm and the music repetitive. I turned off the radio and got out of the car. The air was cool and still; insects chirped. I wandered the grassy field that once served as the drive-in theatre’s parking area and began to wonder if there was some mistake in Rory’s plan. I also remembered I had failed to change one of the paragraphs in my newspaper article—it was going sound like New Zealand communists lived in burrows and defecated cubic faeces. I hoped my editor would pick it up.
The quiet rumble of an approaching engine disturbed my contemplation. It scared the hell out of me, actually. I dropped and laid flat on the ground, my heart beating rapid-fire, as the vehicle neared up the long, unlit road that passed out front of the theatre. I looked over at my rental car; I understood why Rory told me to park it there next to the bus: you couldn’t see it from the road. I would have liked to have hidden there myself, but it was too late for me to run back. Two bright, wide beams cut upward through the fog, as though Commissioner Gordon were summoning two Batmans, and then a burst of light leapt over the crest of the hill. I tried not to breathe, lest even the rise of my chest should draw attention. A black sedan slowed to a crawl as it approached the theatre entry—was it the police? Military? And what was I supposed to say if they saw me lying there? That I drove to an abandoned outdoor movie theatre to do some midnight push-ups? The car stopped. Its interior light came on, and a man stepped out. He staggered a few steps, unzipped his trousers and relieved himself against the drive-in entry sign. As he returned to the car, a bottle smashed on the road and young voices laughed; their echo bounced off the trees behind me. The car door slammed, and spray of loose gravel shot from under the rear tyres as the car sped off with a growl, out of sight.
I stood and brushed myself off. I felt weak; and, I remember, the tiniest bit disappointed. I guess I was expecting some action. It was Rory’s plan, after all.
As I walked back toward my car, tiny blinks of silver darted down before me: a sparse, gentle rain in no particular hurry. My shoe slid forward on a rock that mashed beneath it; I bent down to examine the soft stone, but it was too dark to see. Then the potent stench struck me. I reeled back and retched—dog poo! At least I assumed it was a dog that left it. Muttering curses upon the inconsiderate creature that chose that precise place to do its business, I dragged the sole of my shoe repeatedly over the grass.
Then I froze.
What was that? Had I heard something? Yes, there it was again—a distant rat-tat-tat. I lifted my eyes; narrow spotlights atop of Nelson prison were scrambling for targets. Rat-tat-tat… rat-tat-tat… tiny flashes of machine gun fire. A bright red flare ascended with a sparkling trail and lit up the sky above the prison. Rat-tat-tat… Rat-tat-tat…
I watched on, noticing (to my surprise) the beauty of it all. The soft drum of faraway gunfire, the dancing lights, the red glow—it was rather pretty. But then came the siren. It wound up like a stirring beast, and then sent its droning scream out across the valley to haunt its prey. There was a prison break.
Suddenly things were not so beautiful. My breathing quickened and I immediately thought of Rory. It had to be him. Had the spotlights found him? Had the shots hit him? I paced back and forth near my car; I considered jumping in and driving up to the prison. I’m ashamed to admit I considered jumping in the car and just driving away.
I managed to stay put (while pruning my fingernails as short as my teeth could chew them). After about five minutes the gunfire ceased. I opened the car door and turned on the radio, hoping to hear something on the news report. There was nothing about any prisoner escape, just the usual tripe about New Zealand’s economy being three hundred percent better (up from two hundred percent the previous week) than capitalist America’s, and then a sports report announcing New Zealand had won the FIFA World Cup.
Tense minutes crept by. The guns were silent, and the spotlights made only a slow scan of the tree line, but I felt no calmer. Another flare went up, refreshing the ruby halo of the first, and then the siren ceased howling.
Twenty minutes had passed from the first gunshots when I heard fast-moving footsteps crunching in the trees behind the big screen. I jumped in the car and eased the door shut; I switched off the radio. Crouching as low as I could, I peered above the dashboard into the forest ahead. I gasped as a wraith appeared through the trees, pale and gaunt, and stumbled out onto the field beside the projector screen. It doubled over, and then stood straight and looked at my car. I didn’t know if it could see me; my fingers fumbled around the keys in the ignition. When a wide, familiar smile stretched across the wraith’s face, relief flooded me: it was Rory.
I leapt out of the car and ran over to him. I was going to embrace him, but stopped a few feet from him and stared, stunned. He was thin, like an Oscar-desperate Hollywood actor starving himself for a role. His shoulder bones jutted out, and his skin was vacuum sealed around his ribs. Dirt and blood covered his bare torso; all he wore was ratty pyjama pants, and boots not worthy of a hobo. I almost cried. He shrugged his shoulders.
“Yeah, I haven’t been to the gym lately,” he said.
I laughed, and then suddenly stopped. “Whose foot is that?” I asked.
Rory looked in his right hand: he was carrying a severed foot. He looked at me in confusion for a second, as though trying to grasp a foggy memory, and then said, “I don’t know.”
He threw the foot into the trees, and I put my arm around him to help him toward the car. He was exhausted, and he stank like potting mix.
By the car I gave him my water bottle and he drained the whole thing in a matter of seconds. I thought he might have saved me some water, but no, he drank it all. Fair enough—anyone would have a mighty thirst after what he had just been through—but still, it would have been nice if I could have had a drink too.
“You brought the clothes?” he asked.
“Yeah, why?” I said.
“Give ’em here, I need to change.”
“What? Have you got the spare clothes or not?”
“Uh, yeah, I brought them,” I said, retrieving a plastic bag from the back seat. “But, see…”
“I thought you meant bring a spare set of clothes for myself.”
“What? Are you serious?”
“Yeah. Well, I mean, you didn’t specify.”
“Of course the clothes were for me! All I’ve got are prison pyjamas. Why do you think I said to bring spare clothes?”
“I dunno. In case we stayed somewhere overnight. I’d have to change.”
“For f**k’s sake… Well what have you got, anyway?”
I handed him the bag; he rummaged through it.
“Well, it’s gonna be loose on me, and red isn’t my colour—but it’ll do, I suppose.”
Vicious barking rang out in trees up the hill.
“Oh sh**!” I said. “The guards followed you. Come on, get in the car—I don’t want to get shot.”
“Don’t worry,” said Rory, putting on my favourite red t-shirt. “They can’t shoot us—they haven’t got any bullets.”
“What? What do you mean? I heard them shooting.”
“Yeah, you heard them before. But they ran out. No more bullets. You know the prime minister?”
I nodded. “Yeah.”
“Well, she bought herself a solid gold jet.”
“Yeah, solid bloody gold. And the first time they try to fly the thing it crashes off the end of her private runway—doesn’t even get off the ground. So, she buys another one. Solid gold. It crashes. Then a third. So, she’s got three crashed planes made of gold sitting in a pile in her backyard, and guess what? Now there’s not enough money for ammunition. Serious. They had to ration bullets among the prisons. Ha!”
I didn’t believe such a tale, but I wasn’t keen on sticking around for an argument. On top of that, the barks in the trees were getting louder and more ferocious.
“Well the dogs can still get us,” I said, getting into the car. “Let’s go.”
“Yeah, good idea,” said Rory.
He climbed into the passenger seat, still wearing his pyjama pants.
I revved the engine and put it into gear. The tyres tore up the grass as I drove out.
“Wait!” said Rory before we had made it to the road.
I hit the brakes and the car skidded to a halt.
“I need to ditch these clothes,” he said.
He jumped out of the car, and out of his old boots; he practically ripped the pants from his legs. He bundled the pants and boots under his arm, and the ran bare-arsed back to the old minibus near the movie screen. The first flashes of yellow torchlights peeked from deep in the trees.
“What are you doing?” I yelled. “Hurry up!”
He threw his prison gear through one of the broken bus windows then turned and ran back for the car. Four snarling German Shepherds emerged from the trees; the guards holding their leashes were barely able to restrain them.
“Oh sh**!” I said, throwing the car into reverse. I backed up to try and meet Rory halfway.
“Hurry up man!” I screamed. “The guards are here!”
The guards unhooked the leashes; the way those dogs ran, and the killer look in their eyes, made me think that if they could just get organised, dogs could wipe out mankind and take over.
“Come on!” I yelled, slamming the brakes.
I leaned across and threw open the passenger door. Looking out the rear window I saw Rory sprinting for dear life, his manhood whipping side to side like nunchucks, while bloodthirsty dogs closed in on him. Behind the dogs, a line of grey-uniformed prison guards charged, taking small stones from their pockets and throwing them at Rory.
“Well how about that?” I said to myself.
They really had run out bullets.
Rory jumped in the car and slammed the door.
“Floor it, man!” he roared, as two massive dogs thumped the side of the car.
I can still picture their faces—wide, crazed eyes; glistening snouts; salivating fangs clawing at the window. One of them tore off the side mirror. No kidding—just bit it off. I put my foot down and we were out of there.
“Oh man, that was intense,” I said.
“Yeah, pretty wild huh?” said Rory, putting on my spare shorts. He turned to me and screwed his face up. “You smell like sh**, bro.”
“I stood in dog poo.”
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