It’s late at night when you crawl through the hole in the chain link fence and stumble out, lurching across those metal tracks. Covered in mud and scratches, up you climb in to the open carriage of a freight train slowly trundling along the rusted lines.
You hide in the darkness, terrified that someone saw you, or the cameras saw you, or a passer-by saw you. Because it can’t be that easy to leave, can it? You are plagued with the grim fantasy that the train will suddenly grind to a halt and you will be hauled from the carriage by faceless soldiers and beaten to death. But nothing happens. So you cautiously sit in the back of the empty, shit smelling livestock carrier that is bound for wherever, and you stare out at the city, bathed in chalky moonlight as it shrinks behind you. All those spires and towers and all the rest of it, locked behind tons of poured concrete, topped with razor wire and all of those mechanical, scrying eyes. Oh how we viciously protect our freedom.
After a while you can relax and enjoy the view, as bottle green hills and sweet smelling valleys roll by. Silvery rivers and clearings filled with bluebells, fields of white corn and swathes of knee high grass dance in the brisk night wind. The land criss-crossed by towering pylons knitted together by power lines like ancient old women trying to stich it all together, as wind farms spin away in the dark like Earth’s great propeller.
It’s a ruddy dawn when the train slows to a crawl as it cuts through some old town. You jump out and run between the barriers of an empty level crossing. The alarms are bleating, but no-one is around. You watch from the side of the road as the train chugs away into the distance, destined for god-knows-where.
You spend some of what little money you brought with you in a diner on something warm, then you sit at the window watching the long tarmac road and the sporadic traffic coming and going. You wonder where they hide the cameras this far out of the city.
You open your hastily packed rucksack and pull out your battered copy of On The Road by Jack Kerouac. Leafing through it, you read your own annotations, you note that Kerouac cheated at his own writing style. He revised and redrafted, but told everyone he didn’t, and that they shouldn’t. Strict rules followed to give the appearance of free thought. I think about my own paranoia and the poisonous dream of absolute freedom. The banned book you hold in your hand is the seed of that poisonous thought.
You sip burnt coffee and eat your food watching the shadows of clouds pass over the grey road outside and you wonder if this is freedom, because it doesn’t feel like it. Not yet. It feels more like running away, like shirking your responsibilities, which is not the same thing. Yesterday you were working, doing whatever repetitive task that you are mandated to do in order to pay your debts, your dues, your obligations.
The threat of rain starts to lick at the windows and you see a distorted figure walking by, caught in the droplets before a sharp wind shears the drop away.
The dirty brass bell above the door chimes and a pale faced woman comes in. She is youngish, but has the weight of the world drawn across her brow. She sits down orders a coffee and a stack of sweet pancakes and listens to an old couple laughing with her eyes closed. The ringing of the bell ignites some primal fear in the back of your mind and sit and sweat, and wring your hands, until you stagger up and run-walk-run to the bathroom.
You have a panic attack in the cramped and dirty stall. Suddenly you realise how much you fear the idea of freedom. How paralysed you are by the thought of no longer having a purpose or duty and the ramifications of being cut adrift amongst your blank faced peers. You are loudly sick into the stinking toilet, thinking all the time as you clutch the clammy porcelain, that eating was just a waste of what little money you have. You leave Kerouac on the dirty cistern and you return, pale faced back to the table. The woman is gone. You pay, but leave no tip.
The dirty brass bell above the door rings again as you leave, triggering that nausea. So you rush out into the thankfully cold air and examine your still shaking hands. You turn and face the long road stretching out ahead of you. You still feel unsafe, but you tell yourself that you have only been conditioned to feel this way.
The outskirts of town are flanked by pine and spruce and other bathroom smells. A family car with wooden panelling screeches past and fishtails to a halt in a cloud of gravel dust. From a cracked window a young man asks if you want a ride and you nod and get in. You sit in the rear passenger seat behind the reed thin boy who makes desperate small talk, as the woman in the front seat furiously ignores him. The way she shifts gears makes you start to doubt that this is her car at all.
The woman recklessly navigates the thin venous strip of worn road that winds up a steep hill in rough sinuous loops, like a length of rope unravelling. Bright spokes of light stab through the tiny breaks in the tall trees like searchlights. You grip the seat in the sudden terror that this could just be some god awful protracted government sting operation and maybe you shouldn’t have gotten in the car with these two in the first place.
The ruffled looking young man makes awkward conversation, asking you things like, “where you from buddy?” And “where you heading to buddy?” You give the flimsy story that you rehearsed back in the train. It elicits a protracted groan from the angry driver. You consider telling them your story, but the moment passes and you go back to watching the country roll by.
The damp air carries the car on a shimmer further away from the city and the diner, until you skid into the empty lot of a gas station. Wreaths of coloured bulbs hang from the lilting roof. Oily water pools around the lonely pumps reflecting rainbows from the neon lights.
You climb out and the woman leans back in her chair and stares out at you over the rims of her heart shaped glasses, “You can’t ever escape, you know that right?” She says.
You smile politely, lost for words.
“Fuckin’ idiot,” she sighs, and you think she might be right.
You close the door and the car is gone, leaving only the vicious thought and the smell of rubber; a wake of hazy cloud following behind them.
You walk into the gas station, where a single attendant is lazily flipping through a pornographic magazine. You buy an old paper map and a pen. The attendant asks, “Where you headed buddy?” You just pretend you didn’t hear the question, pay and leave, because not all questions need answers.
You wander outside and look around, taking in the ticking of the old metal and the crickets, who are beginning to sing down the sun with their chirruping. You take a deep breath and breathe as if it was the first time you ever have. There’s more road stretching on and on forever and there are fields and fields and fields. The pale blue and white tips of mountain ranges loom above a distant tree line. You leave the road and walk towards them even though they seem an impossible number of miles away.
Night falls. You lay on your back under a twinkling fairy light canopy. A billion-trillion long dead stars. You no longer worry about your insignificance when faced with infinite space. The wind soughs through the grass. The world’s saddest song yet to be arranged. In the spaces that you left behind, fireworks bloom and fade soundlessly. You think of Kerouac’s spiders, crawling across the night sky and how this, finally is freedom. How wonderfully terrifying.