Two men fresh out of basic training meet a recently released felon.
|Freedom. It’s the crunch of leaves beneath my boots, the feel of a cool autumn breeze blowing against the bare skin of my arms. After thirteen weeks of hell at Parris Island, Josh and I are finally, for now anyway, free. For weeks we awoke before the dawn to the sound of Staff Sergeant Bradford’s harsh voice and faced a day of grueling work under the late summer sun. We fell into bed each night long after the last rays of light had vanished and awoke a few short hours later to do it all again. After months of belonging to the United States Marine Corps, we have a few blessed weeks to belong only to ourselves.
Mom and Dad came to my graduation from basic training. She cried and he shook my hand. They are proud of me and they can’t wait to get me back home. I know I hurt Mom’s feelings when I told her the plan. Josh and I are hiking part of the Appalachian Trail in celebration of our acceptance into the few and the proud. Our families weren’t thrilled when we told them but they understand. We just need some time to readjust.
So Mom and Dad left me the car and caught a flight back home. Josh and I made the almost five hours drive to Asheville, where we spent more money than I have ever even had in my bank account at a sporting goods store. We then drove a little farther to reach the trailhead in Hot Springs. There we began our celebratory journey.
Here we are, three days later, standing at a break in the trees where a grassy meadow spreads out before us. At the far side of the expanse sits an old stone shelter which will serve as our camp for the night. While I dislike taking refuge in these buildings, Josh loves them. He enjoys the eclectic groups of people we inevitably meet. I, on the other hand, prefer the solitude of my tent.
This shelter appears empty. The only evidence of occupation is a pile of ashes from a fire. Josh reaches the building first and throws down his heavy pack by the door before heading inside. I take my time and enjoy the setting sun and the view of the autumn colored leaves in the distance. When I reach the shelter I hear voices, two distinct voices.
I enter the small one room building and I see Josh sitting on the floor across from a dark haired guy in his thirties. I’m surprised to see him alone. We have only met groups of people along the trail, never a single traveler. The man stands up to shake my hand.
“Hey there, I’m Wiley Wright.” I grasp his outstretched hand.
“Wiley?” I ask.
“Yes sir. Old family name. You’re Mike, right?”
“Yeah, that’s right.”
“Nice to meet you. So ya’ll are Marines then? That’s real nice. Wish I could’ve gone in the military. They don’t accept us felons though.” he says with a laugh. Josh and I exchange a look.
“Oh, I know what you boys are thinking. Don’t care to spend a night under the same roof with a career criminal. Don’t worry. I’m harmless. Even if I wasn’t, ya’ll are Marines. Anyway, it’s been petty stuff. Last time I wanted to get locked up I stole a real nice flat screen TV. You know, in West Virginia, it ain’t a felony unless you either break and enter or take $1,000 worth of stuff. So, just to be safe I did both.”
“I’m sorry. Just to be safe you did both?” I ask..
“Oh yeah. I wanted to get a few years. Just got out today, actually. I hopped on the trail a few miles back. I’ve got this plan you see.”
“A plan?” Josh says, eyes wide.
“Yes sir. I didn’t much care for the prison system in North Carolina, and I’ve already been in Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia. Georgia’s the worst. Never commit a crime in Georgia, boys. I’m going to be good as gold on my way through that state, you can bet some money on that. Anyway, I was in the pen with this old fellar, he said that the best years of his life were spent in the Florida system. So that’s where I’m headed. I’m going to follow the trail to Georgia and hitch hike the rest of the way.”
Wiley rests his hands behind his head and closes in eyes. Within moments he is snoring. I turn to Josh, who is rolling out his sleeping bag.
“What are you doing?” I say.
“Going to sleep.” he says.
“You’re not worried about our new friend here?”
“Nah, he’s harmless.”
“If he isn’t?” I say.
“We can take him.” Josh lies down and closes his eyes.
I roll out my sleeping bag but don’t lie down. While Josh snoozes, I keep an eye on Wiley. After an hour or so of listening to the snores of my companions my eyes start to droop.
The next morning I awake to the smell of something cooking over a wood fire. Josh and Wiley are both outside talking. I roll up my bag and follow the sound. Wiley has warmed up a can of beans over the flame.
“Good morning, sleeping beauty.” Wiley says.
“Morning.” I say, rubbing the sleep from my eyes.
“I was just telling your buddy here about Florida. The old fellar from my last pen, he said they even got a prison farm down there. If you ain’t violent, you can work on the farm, out in the sun. Ain’t that nice? I figure I might just stay in Florida forever, if I can ever get there that is.”
“You are planning to go to Florida, just so you can go to jail?” I ask. Wiley smiles.
“Yes sir. I reckon I’ve been in the system bout all my life. Free meals, roof over your head, don’t have to work if you don’t want to. Not a bad life. Besides, I’ve never been much good on the outside.” Wiley says as he starts to pack his bag. Josh and I watch, speechless. Wiley straps on a rough looking pack covered in a multitude of patches.
“Well, boys, I guess I better be heading out. Don’t have a lot of money left so I want to get through Georgia quick as I can. Wouldn’t want to have to steal anything there.” he says, eyes alight with laughter.
He steps forward and shakes my hand. Josh is on the ground eating the beans so Wiley gives him a poor version of a salute.
“Good luck.” I call as he heads down the trail.
Josh drops his spoon and yells, “Thanks for the beans!”