Aaron had been the first to reach the shadows of the forest. The thick undergrowth and low branches scratched and clawed at him as he barreled his way through. He could hear the others crashing though behind him.
A faint path opened up before him, and Aaron dashed down it, lithe and nimble, putting more distance between himself and the rest of the pack. A born runner, it took only a few minutes before the sound of their pursuit dimmed to a whisper. And then the lush forest swallowed even that sound.
Aaron ran along the path for several more minutes; down a slope, leaping over a small stream, clambering over fallen logs. Up another rise, grasping at exposed roots for purchase. Sweat streamed down his face, darkening the green jumpsuit he wore. The bright white D.O.C. lettering soon smudged with dirt.
After what seemed like an hour, he slowed, panting. Resting his hands on his knees, he filled his lungs with long, shuddering gasps. After a quick look around, he settled back against a soaring tree and took stock of recent events.
A week ago, the warden of San Clemente, Henry Santos, had made an announcement to a group of 100 inmates. “We are opening up a trial labor system, in which there is the possibility of release. You will notice that those gathered here today are all facing life sentences, without the possibility of parole.” The warden cast his eyes around them, concentrating on a few.
“Some of you have been brought here from Death Row,” he continued. “This opportunity has been extended to you as well, depending on your current plea arrangements.” Warden Santos cleared his throat, his eye narrowing. “While I, personally, would love to see all of you pissing yourselves before a firing squad immediately, you have been,” he coughed, seeming to choke on the words, “ahem, selected, to participate in this trial.”
A murmur broke out amongst the inmates; a few cheered, several yelled choice epithets at the warden, many exchanged whispered comments with each other. Most of the men though, Aaron included, stood in incredulous silnce.
A man Aaron knew from his cellblock nudged him in the ribs. Aaron turned, startled. Vance Dubois raised his eyebrows in question, to which Aaron could only shrug and shake his head. “What do you think of this?” “Not sure, but I don’t think I buy it.”
Vance had had his tongue cut out a month after being in lockup. He’d been sentenced to death, only having his sentence reduced after ratting out a few of his colleagues. Some of his fellow inmates had taken offense to that. After slicing out his tongue, they’d beaten him so badly they’d left his hearing badly damaged as well.
The warden let the talk go on for a moment before continuing. “None of you are obligated to participate in this trial. Those who are interested have 48 hours to declare. After that, there will be no more admissions, and those choosing to participate will be moved to another cellblock to begin the final qualifications process.”
When Warden Santos walked off, the guards slowly began ushering the prisoners back to their designated blocks. Vance fell in with Aaron, exchanging looks and gestures.
“You going to sign up?” Vance mimed.
Aaron shrugged again, then tilted his head and spread his hands. “Dunno. Maybe?”
Vance grasped him by the shoulder, pointing to Aaron then back at himself.
“If you do, I will.”
Aaron sighed, nodded. “I’ll let you know,” he said.
Aaron caught himself nodding off, slumped against the tree. The forest – “tropical forest,” he noted – had fallen silent, a deep gloom descending as the sun set somewhere beyond the trees. He wasn’t sure how long he’d rested, but the sweat on his skin had cooled, and a clamminess had risen from the forest floor. He stood, legs and back protesting as he stretched. Hearing no movement close by, he decided it might be safe to move on, find some shelter.
He wondered, as he trudged through the darkness, where Vance had wound up.