Cliff just lay where he was, feeling light-headed and weak. How in the world had a sham detail like guarding the truck turned into a life-threatening situation like this? And why was he so much more afraid of being yelled at by the Warden than impending death? Suddenly, he realized that he had nothing to fear from this specter of death standing over him. Death, it suddenly occurred to him, would be a welcome respite from a life composed of a string of spectacular failures. Painfully, he worked himself up into a sitting position, and leaned his head against the truck. In this sudden moment of clarity, he nearly forgot about Walt and his mangled inmate uniform. For the first time in his life he realized that there was a light at the end of the tunnel, and it just could be death. There was no fear in the realization, no feeling of defeat or resignation; rather, there was a strange feeling of triumph. Death was the answer, total and absolute elimination of the pain of life could only come by total and absolute elimination of life itself. And here, standing above him, was the instrument of that blissful escape. All he had to do was incite this man to pull the trigger, and it would all be over.
At the same instant of Cliff's insane epiphany, Walt likewise made a stunning realization. While he had no qualms whatsoever of killing Cliff, it occurred to him that a gunshot would be sure to bring the guards back to the truck on the run; much more swiftly than he could disappear into the landscape. In addition, every second he spent standing here with this spineless weakling, the search party, wherever it was would be one second closer to returning to the truck. He had to act fast, but he realized that the easiest way of dispatching Cliff would not be in his best interest at this time. However, leaving him here to call for help would also be quite detrimental to his attempt at freedom, so in his brutally efficient manner, he developed a quick and easy solution.
Cliff turned back towards Walt, his mind scrambling for something inflammatory to say in the hope that he would raise the gun and fire. But Walt was no longer standing at the front of the truck. In the instant that it took Cliff to turn his head, Walt had taken two long strides and brought the barrel of the automatic down in a vicious chop. He had been aiming at the soft spot at the base of Cliff's skull, but his sudden burst of insight had caused him to turn his head at the same instant that Walt aimed his blow, and instead of crushing his skull, it merely glanced off the crown of his head. Still, Cliff was instantly and blissfully unconscious, and for the second time that day, blood streamed from his head. Walt felt a fleeting second of disappointment that he had missed his target, but now that his objective was no longer to simply kill, he had to admit that unconsciousness served that purpose just as well. He quickly stripped off his tattered jumpsuit, and replaced it with Cliff's uniform. Fortunately Cliff's shoes were a very close fit. Had Walt's feet not been cut and swollen, they might have been much too large, but by the time Walt was finished gingerly squeezing them in, he was grateful for a little bit of wiggle room. Finally, before leaving, Walt jumped back in the back of the truck and dumped the ice chest out on the ground and smashed all of the remaining bottles. As he walked away, he gave the prostrate form of Cliff a longing backwards glance.
"I really would have loved to kill that guy..." he thought to himself, as Cliff's prone figure disappeared from view.
* * *
Cliff was convinced that he had died. He was in a wonderful place, some sort of a garden, with beautiful flowers, shrubs and trees growing in a random profusion that was far more beautiful than anything he had ever seen or imagined. Songbirds winged overhead, and a rabbit nibbled contentedly at the grass at his feet. As he looked around, he noticed an old-fashioned wrought iron bench next to a gurgling fountain. Seated on this bench reading a book was a beautiful young woman with long brown hair. She was wearing a flowing white dress that managed to accentuate her shapely figure, rather than hiding it. Cliff gasped as he recognized his high-school sweetheart Emily, exactly as he remembered her from high school. At the sound of his gasp, her head came up, and she spotted him. Recognition dawned in her eyes, and she smiled that smile that had melted him so many times in his youth. She raised one hand and waved him over, saying something that he couldn't quite make out. He began to walk towards her, but it was more like gliding. He looked down, and realized that much like some cheesy love song, his feet were actually hovering about six inches above the ground and he was getting closer. Her lips moved again, but still, he could not quite make out what it was she was saying. As he got closer, he began to smell the wonderful perfume that she always wore. But now the wonderful flowery fragrance of her was filling his nostrils and making his head swim with pleasure. She opened her arms again, and this time he heard clearly what she said:
"Wake up you worthless piece of crap before I pound you into the sand with my boot heel!"
Cliff jerked awake, and there, inches from his face instead of his high-school sweetheart, was the chiseled face of Captain Williams. Instead of Emily's flowery perfume, he could smell the stench of anger and Copenhagen. The cognitive dissonance between where he had been and where he suddenly found himself was so great that he felt himself spinning downwards towards unconsciousness again. Captain Williams reached out a large hand and slapped his face hard enough to rattle his teeth. Cliff shook his head, trying desperately to find a foothold on reality. He had not succeeded, he was still alive. The prisoner had added insult to injury. Instead of providing the eternal painlessness of death, he had given the world another reason to hate and despise Cliff. Even something as simple as getting a convicted killer to kill him was beyond his limited skill. What kind of a loser couldn't even get murdered successfully? In the middle of his despair, Captain Williams yanked him to his feet and slammed him back against the truck. Something poked him in the foot, and he finally realized that he was standing in the scorching desert sun, naked except for his boxer shorts. Even his socks were gone, and he was standing on a cactus. The other guards stood in a semicircle around them, their faces ugly and mean. Although it was not unusual to see contempt or dislike in their eyes, Cliff was momentarily taken aback by the barely restrained violence in their faces. Still feeling groggy and dizzy, he looked around to try and determine the source of their anger. Then he saw the cooler, upside down on the ground and surrounded by empty bottles. Cliff began to realize exactly how much Walt had really messed up his already messed up life.
Captain Williams came face to face with Cliff again, his rancid breath making Cliff's stomach heave with nausea.
"So I show some pity for the poor loser, give him a chance to do something as simple as sit in a truck for a few hours, and what happens? That same worthless human waste puts the safety of my entire team at risk. Oh, and thanks to you, we are no longer looking for a guy with no water or food, now we are looking for a convicted killer with several days worth of water, food, wearing a guard uniform, AND... "
Captain Miller paused here to spit in the sand between Cliff's feet and glare at the tall muscular guard with the crew cut;
"?armed with a 9MM Glock with a 15-round magazine. I do share credit between you and Arnold for that work of genius. There was a reason I gave you a gun with no ammo. Thanks to Arnold and his own brand of stupidity, that reason has been justified."
The guard who had taken Cliff's shotgun earlier was standing in front of the rest with a guard on either side clasping his arms. His face was burning red and he looked even more murderous than the rest, if that were possible. Captain Williams turned away from Cliff, and addressed Arnold directly now.
"And since you two teamed up to create this little fiasco, I have in mind a way that you can also share in the solution."
He walked away from Cliff, and stood in the center of the angry semicircle of guards.
"What we have here is a guard without a uniform, and a guard who needs a good dose of humility. Arnold, take off your clothes and give them to Cliff. You will be riding back to the prison in your skivvies. Count yourself lucky that I don't leave you here with Cliff..."
At this, Cliff's heart skipped a beat. He knew that Captain Williams had never liked him, but he never thought his feelings were homicidal.
"Cliff, since you were responsible for the escape of the prisoner in the first place, you will stay out here in the desert until he is found. The good news is that you will some clothes to wear. The bad news is that you only get the water that your friend left here for you." He held up a single water bottle without a cap. It was less than halfway full, and what looked like crusted vomit was stuck to the sides. It was the bottle that Walt had first pulled out of the cooler, and which he had abandoned in the back of the truck.
"And since I am not a murderer, unlike the man you seem so eager to assist, I will leave you with some gifts out of the kindness of my heart. First, I will leave this radio. Don't try to call for help, the dispatcher is aware of your assignment and will not send help unless you state that you have the escapee in hand. And don't try lying either, he has been ordered to verify by hearing the voice of the criminal before he will believe you. So be very careful with my second gift."
At this, he turned and took from a nearby guard the same riot gun that he had thrown at Walt the day before. After handing him the gun, he reached into his shirt pocket and extracted a single shell. Holding it in front of Cliff's face, he sneered:
"And just to make sure you don't hurt any of us, we will drop this on the road a few hundred yards away. I hope you find it, because it is the only one you get. And I take back what I said earlier today about hurting yourself. Once we are out of the way, you can do whatever the hell you want to do with that scatter gun."
He turned to the group of men, and gestured for them to get in the truck. They all hurried to obey, except for the two guards restraining Arnold. Looking back at Cliff, he muttered too quietly for the others to hear: "If you want my opinion, hurting yourself would be the preferred course of action." Then barking at Arnold:
"Better get out of that uniform quick, or I'll leave you here with Cliff AND his loaded shotgun."
Arnold quickly complied, throwing his clothing in a pile at Cliff's feet. Cliff still leaned heavily against the truck, waiting for the punch line, trying to think of a way out of this. Nothing came; nobody suddenly burst out in laughter and said "Just Kidding!" Before Cliff realized it, they were loaded into the truck and were disappearing over the horizon. He stayed where he was for a few more minutes, waiting for them to return, but in vain. When his mind finally accepted the fact that they were not coming back, he collapsed sobbing on the pile of clothing at his feet.
To be continued...