I had been stood up, for breakfast on a Sunday, no less. He was a good guy though, truly good. He would drive me to church events when my grandparents were unable, and I had read all the horror stories that he had written since I was 13. He fancied himself a young Stephen King, and his stories were the first raw exposures of an aspiring writer that I would be inspired by. My grandparents wanted me to marry this boy, and encouraged our slow courtship that last years and had never gone anywhere.
Nevertheless, I was shocked when I received the phone call that he wouldn’t be coming. I was already in my car, driving into town to meet him, when my flip phone rang. It was easy to maneuver a manual car and hold a phone. The days of my stick-shift driving had prepared me for moments like these. I answered and we spoke briefly as I careened through the country backroads of Georgia in my Ford Taurus with faded blue paint. When I hung up, I passed by the Waffle House where we were supposed to meet. I wasn’t about to waste a Sunday being upset about a boy, especially not when he had sounded so concerned about canceling on me. So I decided to just keep driving.
A few weeks before, I had spoken to a Marine recruiter. I had received extremely high marks on the ASVAB test for people interested in enlisting in the Marine Corps, and the recruiter was waiting for me to finish high school a semester early in December before he “shipped me off to Parris Island”.
“South Carolina. You’ll love it there.”
I had a vague idea of which direction South Carolina was from my tiny hometown of Covington, Georgia and clearly the only logical thing to do was immediately set off to check out this place, without a map, without directions, without a friend, and with a cell phone on 90% battery life.
My 17 year old naive self took off, 10 am on a Sunday in September, and went east. Guessing randomly, I started taking left turns, heading in the direction of towns I’d heard of, and maybe visited once or twice. I had no GPS, because those contraptions only existed for the rich. The radio was on and I sang loudly with the windows down and imagined that I had a few more months of high school before I was free of this shitty town. As I flew down I-20, I didn’t notice I had passed a cop car on the other side of the highway in a speed trap.
His tires spun as he crossed the median to catch me. I burned a little rubber slamming on the brakes and getting over to the side of the road when I saw his flashing lights. When the cop saw me, shakily handing him my license, registration, and proof of insurance, he seemed surprised, probably because I looked 14.
“Where are you heading, young lady?”
“I’m sorry, Officer, I didn’t realize how fast I was going. I’m heading to…I guess Parris Island. I’m so sorry.”
“You were going 20 over.”
I tapped my speedometer.
“I dunno, sir, my car only said 11.”
He went back to run my plate and make sure I wasn’t a more serious criminal, I guess. My hands shook in my lap as I clasped my hands together and watched him in the rear view. When he walked back about twenty minutes later, I had already organized my center console and had begun reading the book I had brought along for the impromptu trip. I never went anywhere without a book, because you never knew when you would have to wait twenty minutes for a cop to make you regret ever going a smidge over the speed limit.
“Slow down, ma’am, and have a nice day.”
Thanking him profusely, I took my papers back from him and painstakingly took my time returning every item back to its rightful place while I prayed he would leave before me.
He did not.
Creeping along, I pulled out in front of him slow as molasses and continued down the interstate. He eventually stopped following me and went to catch another unknowing speed racer.
Realizing that I was almost out of gas, I pulled into a gas station and walked inside to pay the attendant. I had my bank card, and I quickly checked my checkbook to make sure I still had some money in my account. As I waited in line, I twirled around the stand next to the counter. The MAPS OF AMERICA spun in front of me. I thought I should probably grab one real quick so I would stop wasting gas money on a wild goose chase of a vague location I only had the name of.
“Sir, can you tell me where we are?”
I called out to the cashier. He looked at me concernedly.
“Oh, okay, thank you!”
Athens is the home of the University of Georgia, where my sister had gone to college. I guessed that she probably would know where I was, but she had long graduated from UGA and had moved to Honduras so I couldn’t exactly call her up and ask for help. I continued to twirl the map stand, and it tilted back and forth as it spun.
I guess I looked lost, because a man came up to me asking if I needed help. He was tall and well-built. He had brown hair, and he looked like every typical Georgia good ol’ boy.
“Oh, no, thank you. I’m just looking for a map to get me to South Carolina.”
“Uhh, Parris Island? I guess that’s where they make Marines.”
He laughed and I looked at him, confused. He saw my face and stopped laughing.
“Why do you want to go to Parris Island? Your boyfriend there?”
“No, I’m going to be a Marine. Just wanted to check it out.”
“No shit, well, why don’t you follow me? I’m actually heading that way, to Parris Island.”
“I’m not. My trucks outside. Which tank are you on?”
He got out his wallet and paid the attendant for my tank of gas. He threw a map on the counter too. (“You always need one in your car.”) I shook his hand and introduced myself.
I followed Patrick Morehead outside to my car. He pumped my gas for me, and pulled his truck around to be in front of my car. A dozen stickers covered his truck’s back window. US MARINE SEMPER FI IRAQ VETERAN.
“YOU’RE A MARINE?”
I leaned out of my car to yell at him.
“Yeah, sweetheart, I’m going to check back into my unit and need to be there by tomorrow morning. Stay close!”
We pulled out of the gas station parking lot and headed to South Carolina.