Joshua J. Hines, Stephen F. Austin State University
You feel them, rather than hear them: the beeps of the crosswalk light, as it flashes a crimson palm meant to hinder your progress. So you stand, panting, tense, and waiting, with your headphones thumping some quick-paced rhythmic drumbeat that drowns out the world. You feel them though, the beeps, each one intensifying the need for movement, for speed, and most of all for freedom.
Still, you stand, shaking out your legs one at a time. You have to keep the blood flowing, the muscles from getting stiff. You look down at your favorite running shoes, the ones with the hole in the pinky toe and the brown stains from the countless runs through mud and rain.
You feel it before you see it, the blazing hand transforming into the still figure of a luminescent man, telling you to walk. You’re not here to walk though, you’re here to run. Your body bursts into movement, as you sprint across the white stripes leading you forward, down the concrete slabs of the sidewalk. Each breath powered, in and out, through the billows of your lungs, propelling oxygen through your veins, lightning breathing life into the freedom born from the movement of your legs.
The rhythmic music in your ears, the speeding earth beneath your feet, and the star lit sky above your head send your mind wandering the recesses of memories.
Inside a government building, in downtown Dallas, a twenty-three year old child puts pen to paper then raises hand to God, swearing to a life of loyalty, brotherhood, and defense.
On a bus, a child is given a hotel room to wait out the night before being shipped to California for training.
Inside a hotel room, a child lies awake contemplating the abandonment of all possessions, friends, and family.
In contemplation, a child cries.
You stop at the cross walk, then you feel it, the tinge of pain in your left ankle. The one all of the doctors said, “If you hurt it one more time, we’ll have to put a screw in it.”
Under the blazing afternoon sun, in California, a twenty-three year old boy plays Marine, dressed in deep green camouflage, donned with body armor, and armed with his M16 A-1 rifle. The boy crawls, face down in the dust, beneath the razor-wire obstacle, to rise triumphant on the other side, before charging the four-foot barrier that lies ahead. Sprinting with the speed of a two-ton turtle, the boy lumbers to the concrete hurdle and throws himself over the wall to find no purchase for his foot on the five-foot fall to the other side.
Luckily, the boy’s weighted decent to the dust-covered stone below is placed solely on the boy’s booted bent left ankle. The boy lies stunned, but gathers himself and tries to stand, only to cry out in agony and topple to the ground screaming in pain. The boy cries out for help and is dragged to the medical tent then placed on a bench.
The boy’s boot is slowly removed, accompanied by the sound of anguished grunts, seeping from the boy’s gritted teeth. Unable to look anywhere, but the roof of the tent, thanks to the heavily-plated jacket pressing down on his chest, the boy asks, “Is it broken?” The medic’s look of uncertainty tells the boy everything, and knowing a broken ankle would see him dropped from the platoon, the boy’s tears begin to fall.
The boy’s Gunnery Sergeant strides into the tent yelling, “What the fuck happened to you?” Stumbling to explain, the boy tells the Gunnery Sergeant everything.
The Gunnery Sergeant rages, screaming, “God damn it, you little bastard. Go ahead and cry. I swear to God I’m going to drop your ass for this.” Turning to leave the tent, he stops at the exit and looks back at the boy and swears, “I hope it’s fucking snapped!”
Then the Gunnery Sergeant exits the tent, followed by the medic, leaving the boy alone with nothing, but his tears.
Your stride opens with the quickening of your pulse and your body devours the distance to the next light, fueled by the steam rising from the blood boiling in your veins. Your breath burns in your chest with every swing of your arms fanning the billows.
You blaze past the crosswalk’s red warning, without a second look for oncoming cars. The world is seared from your mind, but the sting in your ankle still bites.
The boy waits in the barracks with the other rejected children, awaiting the decision to be let go or held on to. The pain is nothing compared to the agony of the wait. Two weeks pass and the boy’s ankle is still a black and purple cantaloupe, too large to fit inside his boot. He hobbles here and there, until the Gunnery Sergeant makes his decision.
The light says walk, walk, walk, but you lean forward violently and convulse. Your hand snaps to your side and you fight the urge to loose your stomach across the pavement. Doubled over, legs shaking, struggling to think of anything except the idea of painting the sidewalk with the remnants of the ham sandwich you had for lunch, you force your mind back to memories of even greater pains.
The boy fights to keep up with the rest of his platoon. He has made it to the final challenge of his training: The Crucible, A three-day field exercise, during which he is to be deprived of sleep and food. Exhausted and hungry, he trails behind his platoon in the blackness of a moonless night, struggling under the weight of his pack.
Hours and miles later, unexpectedly, he stumbles into the boy ahead of him, as the entire platoon halts to the cries of the platoon leaders. The boy feels a slap on his arm, as the Gunnery Sergeant passes by, counting the number of recruits; no one’s missing. Everyone is told to drink water and to get ready for what’s next.
The boy’s attention is grabbed by the cries of people yelling, “Vehicle to the rear.”
The boy steps out of the way with the rest of the platoon to let the brilliant beams of light pass by in the blanket of darkness. His eyes continue to follow the light as it moves further and further away, until suddenly, the lights begin to curve upward. Steadily, they continue to rise ahead of the platoon, revealing the sheer cliff side of a scarcely sloped hill, more akin to a mountain.
Still, the lights continue to rise, until they stop sharply and the distant sounds of tires spinning and an engine revving, franticly make their way to the boy’s ears. With wide eyes, the boy watches the vehicle miraculously make it over the edge of the hill and drive on.
“Forward March!” The words echo down the platoon lines and with them begins the climb.
Five hours, eight miles, and four more agonizingly tall hills later, on the black asphalt of a parade deck, the boy finds himself fighting tooth and nail, just to stand at attention in formation without passing out. Out of the sixty-eight who made it through, three collapse to the ground and are dragged away to be looked after.
The boy is placed in the front of the formation, specifically chosen by the Gunnery Sergeant. The boy’s eyelids threaten to shut again and again, only through sheer force of will do his legs keep from buckling, but still he sways and wobbles.
The Gunnery Sergeant steps in front of the boy at attention and stares him dead in the eye. The Gunnery Sergeant’s intense quiet stare sends shivers down the spine of the boy, whose own eyes bore scorched daggers into the forehead of the Gunnery Sergeant.
Without warning, the Gunnery Sergeant says, “You’ve overcome more than most and fought hard to get here. I knew you could do it, I’m proud of you.” With the steady movement of his hand, he places a solid black eagle, globe, and anchor into the boy’s hand and says, “Congratulations Marine.”
Tears slide from the eyes of the man, the Marine.
The memory fades, your legs no longer shake and your stomach becomes solid. You compose yourself before the bloodshot palm of the crosswalk light that mocks you.
You feel it, rather than see it.
Joshua J. Hines is an undergraduate attending Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, where he is a sophomore, majoring in creative writing, while minoring in literature and marketing. Following receiving his Creative Writing BFA, Joshua plans to continue on in his academic career and attend Graduate School for Creative Writing. Joshua began attending Stephen F. Austin after being Honorably Discharged as a Sergeant from the U.S. Marine Corps. Joshua was stationed in Camp Lejeune, N.C. and was deployed twice, while in the Marines where he worked as a military journalist and photojournalist.