She paused midway up the last porch step carefully avoiding the rotted wooden edge to listen to the night’s silence. She knew that sound, had known it for her fifty-two years. She smiled in reverence to Trinity, North Carolina’s country nights.
Barbara’s porch features two paint chipped rocking chairs. She sits in one and begins moving back and forth slowly, the stillness still attached to her weathered face, “I’m just a country girl. I live at a dead end street. My neighbors are wonderful. We all know each other. I’ve lived there for years and years.”
Buster, the black & white, totters up the stairs and moves close to Barbara’s hand for a head pat, then eases down belly to wood. His three brothers follow and repeat the ritual. “These are my children.” Buster snorts.
“I don’t have family. Both of my brothers got killed. My mother is in a nursing home. My father’s gone. I have no children. So it’s me and my dogs and I like it.” The dogs, like Barbara, were comfortable with routines and remoteness.
A smile softens the deep crevices around her upper lip. She stops rocking, starts remembering and lights a cigarette.
Deep inhale. “I love crime shows.” Exhale. “That’s how I met Jamie.” Pause. “I was watching Almost Got Away With It on TV one night. I’ve always watched these shows, just didn’t pay attention. But this one got my attention. Oh yeah.”
The episode featured former honor student and star athlete Jamie Wiley. On November 24, 1990, 15 year-old Jamie Wiley picked up a shotgun and methodically gunned down his stepmother Becky, and two of his brothers, Jesse Lee 13 and Tyrone 5. When his ten year old brother Willy ran out of the house, Jamie reloaded the shotgun and went looking for him. He caught Willy in the front yard, dragged him back into the home and shot him in the head. Once everyone was dead, he set fire to the home. When it was engulfed in flames, Jamie walked to a neighbor’s house and called the fire department. Jamie has been in the Wyoming prison system for over twenty years.
As she reminisces about the first time she saw Jamie on TV, the cigarette ash grows longer and licks her finger with heat. She shakes her hand quickly, the ash falling to the floor, she stubs out the cigarette and leans forward with young eyes. “So I watched the whole thing and at the end of it I looked up the prison’s address on the Internet and wrote to him.” Buster’s eyes open, he stands up, reconsiders and settles back down.
She is suddenly cautious. The lighter flame against the end of another cigarette. Deep inhale. Slow rocking. Eyes ahead. “This might sound morbid, but I’ve always wanted to know how it felt to kill someone. I mean, I don’t think anybody could say that they haven’t felt that way. What would it take for someone to kill their own family?”
There. It is said. Her silent thoughts exposed. Her eyes snap open. The rocking abruptly stops. The air becomes prickly. Buster is on his feet, followed by his brothers. Then, like Barbara, they begin pacing back and forth from one end of the porch to the other; like Confederate troops marching into battle.
The troops stop suddenly, Buster bumping headfirst against his brother’s back leg. Barbara slaps the porch post. “So, I thought…I’m going to find out. I’m going to write him.”
“So I did.” She sits back down and begins to rock.
“And he wrote me back.”
It had been raining the day the letter arrived. Barbara slogged through the muddy path to the mailbox and opened the dented tin door. There were the bills from Peace Electric Co. and Archdale Animal Clinic, the April issue of Country Living and an envelope stamped in red Inmate. Wyoming Medium Correctional Institution. She gasped, stared at it, looked around quickly, then hid it tightly against her chest and ran toward the porch, each muddy step spraying water up her legs. She was covered with wet grit.
“I stumped my toe running in the house with the letter, and when I was holding it before I opened it, I thought I’m holding a letter that, excuse this, but I’m holding a letter that a murderer wrote.” Tap. Tap. Tap. Raindrops on the tin farmhouse roof. She opens the letter. Tap. Tap. “Hi Barbara, what are you doing today?”
“You ready for this? My favorite TV station is that religious one, Trinity Broadcast Network. I watch all their shows. And the second thing is – I always told people when I get out of here I want to live in North Carolina. So I get your letter and it’s from Trinity, North Carolina. It’s fate.”
She rests the letter gently on the pine knotted kitchen table and gets up. Standing over it, she looks down at its large curly letters as she savors the thrill of danger and of destiny.
The letter contains a killer’s friendship request. It has traveled from a prison cell, to a dirt road mailbox, over a weedy path, up a porch’s rotted steps, into a lonely heart. A heart that had sworn off all men and relationships ten years earlier.
Reaching up to put the dinner dishes back inside the pine cabinet, she stops and stiffens, noticing the dent inside the cupboard door. “This was where my head landed.”
The dent is the size of a tennis ball. “A lot of people don’t like the way Jamie and I are writing each other but I was married to a man worse than him. I mean, he raped me. He beat me for five hours and never went to prison for it.” She closes the door to the memory and sits. Then a cigarette. A tear. No more cigarette. Many more tears. “Last year he beat his girlfriend to death.”
“Sometimes I wonder if I’m a magnet for killers.” I look at the dent in the cabinet then at the growing stack of letters from Wyoming Correctional Institute she has accumulated during this last year.
An amber light drifts in through the faded blue and white ruffled kitchen curtains, caressing her face and softening her skin to a luminescent youthfulness. “I feel so sorry for Jamie. I know he’s done what he’s done, but he’s paid for it. People change.”
Jamie’s parents divorced when he was five. He stayed with his mother in Florida while his younger brother moved with their father across the country. His dad eventually remarried and had two more sons. Jamie’s mother dealt with her loneliness by swallowing pills during the day then taking Jamie into her bed each night for comfort.
Between the ages of five and fifteen, Jamie was invited to visit his father’s new family three times. In 1990, just after his fifteenth birthday, his father decided that Jamie would live with them and he could bring along his beloved spaniel, Sandy. His step-mother did not want Jamie there, causing much disharmony between her and her husband.
For a few months, Jamie thrived in school. He wanted desperately to please his father. He won school wrestling matches then came home and studied late most nights to maintain an A average . At home, however, his father and stepmother continued to argue. She felt Jamie was an intrusion in their family’s lives and she wanted him gone.
One afternoon Jamie came home from school and Sandy didn’t run up to greet him. His stepmother walked into the living room. Jamie turned to her.
“Have you seen Sandy?”
“He ran out of the house this morning and a truck killed him.”
Jamie walked into the back bedroom and quietly loaded his shotgun.
Rocking gently back and forth, back and forth, porch floor slats creaking rhythmically, Buster snuggles in Barbara’s lap. She gazes out at the night. “Jamie’s the smartest person I’ve ever known. Since he’s been in prison he’s earned a college degree and has lots of computer awards. If I’m having a problem with my computer, he tells me over the phone how to fix it in two seconds. He says he wants to make a million dollars and take care of me. Can you believe it? He wants to take care of me.”
“I’m not someone that really loves, I’m a loner and I’m scared to love because I’ve been…I can’t say that word.” She says that word. “I’ve been shit on so much. Before I met him I didn’t feel like I had anybody else that cared about me.”
Nearly a year after that first letter, Barbara flew to Wyoming and visited Jamie in prison. “It was just like I pictured it. He grabbed me and kissed me. It was the first time he’s ever kissed a girl.” Jamie proposed to Barbara that day. She said yes.
It is unlikely he will ever be released from his Wyoming prison. Barbara will stay in the North Carolina farmhouse where she grew up. They will never be physically intimate because conjugal visits are prohibited.
She will marry Jamie soon by signing a document, having it notarized and sent to the prison’s warden. With Jamie’s signature it becomes legal and they are husband and wife on paper.
Holding up a keychain braided with colorful strands of plastic gimp, she says, ”Jamie made this for me.” She twirls it around, then sets it down on top of the stack of letters.
“This is a perfect relationship for me. Jamie loves me unconditionally. I have my independence. No one is trying to tell me what to do, where to go, how long to stay. Most of my relationships have been like the Honeymooners. With Jamie, I feel like I really am on a Honeymoon.”
Joy Krause is a creative writing student at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga. For several years, she has researched the psychology of serial killers and the people who are attracted to them. She recently completed a documentary film called Serial Killer Groupies – A Love Story.