1. Blue and Red text is my updates
2. Some text was deleted with no replacement text
3. Some text was moved
4. The year is 2020
5. This project was started April 2019 and finished July 2019
6. I purchased the eBook, converted it text, then copy/pasted it into Microsoft Word where I did my edits, then saved it as an HTML file
7. See bottom for notes on all changes
The Long Walk 2020
Fri 5/1/2020 6:47 AM
A black self-driving Telsa pulled into the guarded parking lot that morning. One of the guards, an expressionless young man wearing camouflage, asked the boy in the passenger seat, to look into the camera and say his full name. He spoke "Raymond Davis Garraty". The bio-metric artificial intelligence scanned his face, the iris in his eyes, and analyzed his voiceprint.
On the high-definition monitor it displayed:
99 Tuttle Road
ID Number 47-04069-1256-16
Pass: Mental Test
Pass: Physical Test
Pass: Essay Test
After a few seconds, the guard waved them forward.
Ray was occupied with looking around with confusion, anticipation and fear. He was out of the car before it came to a full stop —a tall, well-built boy wearing a faded army fatigue jacket against the spring chill.
His mother was also tall, but too thin. Her breasts were almost nonexistent: token nubs. Her eyes were wandering and unsure, somehow shocked. Her face was an invalid’s face. Her iron-colored hair had gone awry under the complication of clips that was supposed to hold it in place. Her dress hung badly on her body as if she had recently lost a lot of weight.
There were exactly 46 other black self-driving Tesla’s already in the lot. The parking spaces were numbered, and Ray’s Tesla auto-parked in space 47. The cars were programmed to arrive in a specific order. Ray knew that he would be number 47 on this walk.
To his left was Peter Gallant #46, age 16 from West Virginia. Pulling up on his right was Samuel Gribble, age 14 from Connecticut. The cars continued to arrive in 1-minute intervals.
The names, faces, numbers, ages, which state they are from, was all public knowledge on the Internet. He was starting to feel like a celebrity. Maine’s own. By chance, he happened to be the only boy picked from Maine this year. That made him feel special.
Ray noticed a separate parking lot filling with black Tesla’s every minute. It was for the backups. If any walkers didn’t show up, one of the backups would be chosen randomly to take their place. The news said that 12 of the backups had backed out, which meant there were 88 backups left, which meant that 88 walkers could decide not to show up, and they’d still have a full 100 walkers.
One of the guards was eating food from an MCI and reading a graphic novel. Garraty watched the guard eating and reading and thought for the ten thousandth time: It’s all real. And now, at last, the thought began to swing some weight.
Ray noticed his mother’s eye began to water. He put a hand on her shoulder. “I know you don’t understand why I’m doing this. It’s just something I have to do. I—” He glanced around. No one was paying the slightest attention to them. “I love you, but please try to understand.”
“I can’t,” she said, now verging on tears. “Ray, I can’t, if your father was here, he would not have allowed you to—”
“Well, he’s not, is he?” He was brutal, but in a softer voice he said, “Let it go now, Mom. Okay?” He forced a grin. “Okay,” he answered for her. She knew that the decision to do The Long Walk was entirely up to the boys. The parents had no say in the matter.
Her chin was still trembling, but she nodded. Not all right, but too late. There was nothing anyone could do. The last backout date was yesterday. If you backed out today, you bought your ticket.
A light wind soughed through the pines. The sky was pure blue. The road was just ahead and the simple stone post that marked the border between America and Canada. Suddenly his anticipation was greater than his fear, and he wanted to get going, get the show on the road.
“I made these. You can take them, can’t you? They’re not too heavy, are they?” She thrust a foil-wrapped package of cookies at him.
“Sorry, mom, no outside food or drink is allowed. It’s in the Walker’s Rule Book. Ever since that kid poisoned twenty other kids by sharing his raw hamburger, they’ve banned outside food.”
“OK, Goodbye, Ray. Be a good boy.”
Ray thought to himself, “You don’t win the Long Walk by being a good boy”, but he kept his mouth shut. He wanted to comfort his mom at this point, and be done with this business of saying good-bye so he clutched her awkwardly, trying to give her what she needed to have. He kissed her cheek. Her skin was like old silk. For a moment he could have cried himself. Then he thought of the smiling, mustachioed face of the Major and stepped back.
She stood there for a moment and he had a sense of her being very light, as if even the light puffs of breeze blowing this morning might send her sailing away like a dandelion gone to seed. Then she got back into the Tesla. Garraty stood there. She raised her hand and waved. The tears were flowing now. He could see them. He waved back and then as the Tesla pulled out he just stood there with his arms at his sides, conscious of how fine and brave and alone he must look. But when the car had passed back through the gate, forlornness struck him and he was only a sixteen-year-old boy again, alone in a strange place.
He turned and began to walk toward the processing zone, moving with the other walkers, head down, not paying attention, when he walked into another boy. Looking up, he noticed that this boy had a bad scar along one cheek, and suddenly he recognized him from the web page. “You’re #61, Peter Mcvries”. “Yeah, it’s the scar, right? I kinda stand out. Sorry, I don’t recognize you.”
“I’m Ray Garraty,” he said, feeling mildly like an asshole.
“Are you ready for this?” Garraty asked.
McVries shrugged. “I feel jumpy. That’s the worst.”
The two of them walked toward the processing zone. Behind them, other Teslas were pulling out. A woman began screaming abruptly. Unconsciously, Garraty and McVries drew closer together. Neither of them looked back. Ahead of them was the road, wide and black.
“That composition surface will be hot by noon,” McVries said abruptly. “I’m going to stick to the shoulder.”
Garraty nodded. McVries looked at him thoughtfully. Peter McVries looked awesomely fit.
“What do you weigh?”
“I’m 167. They say the heavier guys get tired quicker, but I think I’m in pretty good shape.”
Garraty said “Yeah, that’s what the statistics say, but 7 pounds isn’t much of a difference, plus there are so many other factors. I’ve listened to a bunch of interviews from the winners, and watched a lot of YouTube videos about strategy.”
Garraty and McVries proceeded to the inspection area where soldiers inspected the contents of the packsacks to make sure there were no items from the banned list like food, drink, weapons, pepper-spray. They were padded down and passed through a metal scanner. Garraty noticed that McVries had brought a lot of things. Garraty’s packsack was empty. Better to travel light, he thought. All food and water is provided, and most other items are banned. They were required to wear the official water-proof packsack. Each had their number printed on the back.
Other walkers carried with them rain-gear, extra clothing like spare socks, and even a change of shoes, just in case their current shoes starting giving them blisters, got wet, or fell apart. No drugs were allowed except for nicotine from vapes, which were provided on demand by drone. No pain-killers, no stimulants, nothing to prevent cramps, seizures, diarrhea, allergic reactions. No band-aids, tourniquets, or antibacterial ointments. Not even vitamins, insect repellent or sunscreen were allowed. The banned list was very long.
No electronic devices were allowed, including smart-phones because each walker was provided with the latest iPhone, Apple watch, and air-pods. Apple was on of the larger sponsors of this event. Each iPhone was loaded with the music play-list, audio-books, movies, TV-shows, etc., that they specified when they registered. Incoming and outgoing calls were disabled, but walkers could live-stream to their YouTube channel either by iPhone or by drone.
Certain clothing items were banned like hats, gloves and sunglasses. Umbrellas were banned because they could be used as weapons.
Garraty looked around at the other full packsacks and started to wonder if his “travel light” strategy would back-fire. He was feeling unprepared.
McVries sat down in the shade near a couple of other boys, and after a moment, Garraty sat beside him. McVries seemed to have dismissed him entirely. Garraty looked at his Apple watch. It was 7:11 AM. One hour and 49 minutes to go. Impatience and anticipation came back, and he did his best to squash them, telling himself to enjoy sitting while he could.
All of the boys were sitting. Sitting in groups and sitting alone; one boy had climbed onto the lowest branch of a pine overlooking the road. He was skinny and blond, wearing purple pants and a blue chambray shirt under an old green zip sweater with holes in the elbows. Garraty knew the skinny ones lasted longer. It’s all about the energy output to move your weight forward combined with wear and tear on the feet. This skinny boy also had long legs, another advantage. He was going to be tough to beat.
The boys he and McVries had sat down next to were talking.
“I’m not hurrying,” one of them said. “Why should I? If I get warned, so what? You just adjust, that’s all. Adjustment is the key word here. Remember where you heard that first.”
He looked around and discovered Garraty and McVries.
“More lambs to the slaughter. Hank Olson’s the name. Walking is my game.” He said this with no trace of a smile at all.
Garraty offered his own name. McVries spoke his own absently, still looking off toward the road.
“I’m Art Baker,” the other said quietly. He spoke with a very slight Southern accent. The four of them shook hands all around.
There was a moment’s silence, and McVries said, “Kind of scary, isn’t it?”
They all nodded except Hank Olson, who shrugged and grinned. Garraty watched the boy in the pine tree. “He’s a loner”, he thought. He knew based on statistics, that the loners do better. Making friends can actually hurt your chances. He knew this, but it seemed he was making friends anyway.
“You see that spot right by the marker post?” Olson said suddenly.
They all looked. The breeze made moving shadow-patterns across the road. Garraty didn’t know if he saw anything or not.
“That’s from the Long Walk the year before last,” Olson said with grim satisfaction. “Kid was so scared he just froze up at nine o’clock.”
They considered the horror of it silently.
“Just couldn’t move. He immediately got an interference warning for blocking other boys, then at 9:01 AM, with 30 second to live, the kill-drone flew over. He panicked and ran off the road, got his ticket before his timer reached zero. Two other boys were also killed in the cross-fire. Those death-drones don’t care who is in the way.”
Garraty wondered if his own legs would freeze, or if he’d panic and run off the road. He didn’t think so, but it was a thing you wouldn’t know for sure until the time came, and it was a terrible thought. He wondered why Hank Olson wanted to bring up such a terrible thing.
Suddenly Art Baker sat up straight. “Here he comes.”
A camouflaged jeep drove up to the stone marker and stopped. Some of the boys got up, but Garraty did not. Neither did Olson or Baker, and after his initial look, McVries seemed to have fallen back into his own thoughts. The skinny kid in the pine tree was swinging his feet idly.
The Major got out of the jeep. He was a tall, straight man with a deep desert tan. A pistol was strapped to his hip, and he was wearing reflector sunglasses. It was rumored that the Major’s eyes were extremely light-sensitive, and he was never seen in public without his sunglasses.
“Sit down, boys,” he said. “Keep Hint Thirteen in mind.” Hint Thirteen was “Conserve energy whenever possible.”
Those who had stood sat down. Garraty looked at his Apple watch again. It said 7:30. Of course it was 7:30. The Major always showed up on time. You could set your watch by him, Garraty thought. Garraty smiled at the old expression that no longer had meaning. Nobody sets their watch these days.
“I’m not going to make a speech,” the Major said, sweeping them with the blank lenses that covered his eyes. “I give my congratulations to the winner among your number, and my acknowledgments of valor to the losers.”
He turned to the back of the jeep. There was a living silence. Garraty breathed deep of the spring air. It would be warm. A good day to walk.
The Major turned back to them. He was holding an iPad. “When I call your name, please step forward for your tattoo ID and GPS injection. Then go back to your place until it is time to begin. Do this smartly, please. After this, I will review the rules, then we will proceed to the drone practice area.”
“You’re in the army now,” Olson whispered with a grin, but Garraty ignored it. You couldn’t help admiring the Major. Garraty’s father, before the Squads took him away, had been fond of calling the Major the rarest and most dangerous monster any nation can produce, a society-supported sociopath. But he had never seen the Major in person.
“Number 1, Aaronson.”
A short, chunky farmboy with a sunburned neck gangled forward, obviously awed by the Major’s presence. The major had him insert this right hand into a device. “This may hurt a little”, the Major warned. There was a bright flash and Aaronson winced. Upon removal, there was a large bright orange number 001 tattooed on the back of his hand. A soldier stepped up to the boy and said “Bend your head down” and placed a syringe looking device on the nape of his neck. There was the sound of air popping, and Aaronson let out a grunt, as it inserted his GPS tracking device into his cervical spine between vertebrae C3 and C4. There would be no way to remove it without becoming paralyzed. This would track his speed and let the AI know if he exited the road. There would be no way to escape.
The Major clapped him on the back. “Good job Aaronson!” and the boy smiled. “Follow his lead boys”, the Major said, then glanced at his iPad. “Number 2, Abraham.”
A tall boy with reddish hair in jeans and a T-shirt. His jacket was tied about his waist schoolboy style and flapped wildly around his knees. Olson sniggered. Flash! Pop!
“Number 3, Baker, Arthur.”
“That’s me,” Baker said, and got to his feet. He moved with deceptive leisure, and he made Garraty nervous. Baker was going to be tough. Baker was going to last a long time. Flash! Pop!
Baker came back with a bright orange 003 tattooed on the back of his right hand. “I’m not gonna lie. That hurt! My hand and neck are still stingin’!”
“Did he say anything to you?” Garraty asked.
“He asked me if it was commencing to come off hot down home,” Baker said shyly. “Yeah, he . . . the Major talked to me.”
“Not as hot as it’s gonna commence getting up here,” Olson cracked.
“Number 4, Baker, James,” the Major said.
Finally, his turn came.
“Number 47, Garraty, Raymond,” the Major said.
Flash! Pop! It hurt like hell! Garraty glanced at his bright orange tattoo that read 047.
The Major told him “Good luck.” Up close he smelled very masculine and somehow overpowering. Garraty had an almost insatiable urge to touch the man’s leg and make sure he was real.
Peter McVries was 61. Hank Olson was 70. He was with the Major longer than the rest. The Major laughed at something Olson said and clapped him on the back. “I told him to keep a lot of money on short call,” Olson said when he came back. “And he told me to give ’em hell. Said he liked to see someone who was raring to rip. Give ’em hell, boy, he said.”
“Pretty good,” McVries said, and then winked at Garraty. Garraty wondered what McVries had meant, winking like that. Was he making fun of Olson?
The skinny boy in the tree was named Bartholomew Stebbins. Olson sniggered “What a stupid name”. He got his tattoo ID and GPS injection with his head down the entire time, not speaking or making eye contact with the Major at all. Flash! Pop! Stebbins didn’t even wince or grunt like the other boys, then sat back at the base of his tree. Garraty noticed that the expression on the Major’s face somehow changed during Stebbins processing. Garraty was somehow fascinated by this.
It went on until 8:15. The last boy #100, was a red-headed fellow with a volcanic complexion. His name was Felix Zuck. Then they all sat and waited for what would come next.
Numbers 25 and 99 didn’t show up. “Cowards”, Olson muttered. In the backup parking lot, 77 black self-driving Teslas were parked with 77 backup boys. The computer randomly selected two of them, and voice over the loudhailer requested “Backups number 14 and 52, please report to processing.”
The two backup boys said their good byes to their parents, then were processed. Flash! Pop!
Backup 13 for no-show #1 got number 25. He was a blonde haired boy age 13, named Bobby Young. He looked too young to be in the Long Walk, but the age range was 13 to 18. As long as you were the right age on the day of the walk, they could volunteer for the lottery. “He must have just turned 13”, Garraty thought.
Bobby was trembling with fear, and looked like he was about to cry. Flash! Pop! The young boy burst out crying. He obviously doesn’t want to be here. Why didn’t he backout yesterday? Maybe he figured that his chances of getting picked were very small. Maybe he didn’t want his friends calling him a chicken for backing out.
Backup 14 for no-show #2, Edward Lorn, got #99. He was a short, stoutish boy who was wearing a battered green silk vest. Garraty wondered how this boy passed the physical test. That treadmill test where they set it at 4 mph, then increase the angle every minute to see how long you can last. Most boys get eliminated from that alone!
A blond haired soldier spoke up. “You’ve all been sent the rules, but by law, we must review them before the start. Each of you now has a GPS installed in the back of your neck. It will track your location and speed. Your Apple watch will display your speed and your time. You will start with two minutes on your timer which will display as 120. When your speed in the correct direction falls below 4 mph, your timer will count down. There will be yellow arrows to follow on the road at intersections where we change roads. Try to walk parallel with the center line to optimize your speed in the correct direction. Walking straight at the side of the road, perpendicular to the center-line will register your speed as zero, no matter how fast you are moving. You will be given a first courtesy-warning if your timer counts down to 90, then a second if it counts down to 60, then a third if it counts down to 30. If your timer reaches 0, you will given a ticket. If you leave the road for any reason, you will be given a ticket. If you attack a soldier, you will be given a ticket. If you break a rule, you will get a penalty-warning, which means your timer will instantly drop to 90 if you are above 90, otherwise 60 if you are above 60, otherwise 30 if you are above 30, otherwise 0 if you are above 0. Remember, zero equals ticket, so if you have 3 warnings, and you break a rule, you will get your ticket. Examples of rules that if broken, will get you penalty-warning are no interfering with your fellow walker, no throwing dangerous items at anyone, including the crowd, and no walking in the wrong direction. You lose a warning for every hour you walk without a warning. If you have one or more warnings, your Apple watch will display how many minutes and seconds you have before your timer resets if it is below 120. Your timer will reset 60 if you have 3 warnings, 90 if you have 2 warnings, and 120 if you have 1 or no warnings. Any questions?
Barkovitch raised his hand. Soldier, “Number 5”. “What if someone pushes me, then I bump someone else? Do I get a penalty-warning too?” “Yes!” Barkovitch mumbles “not fair”.
Barkovitch raises his hand again. Solder, “Number 5.” “If someone has 1 second left on their timer, and I trip them, and they get their ticket, do I just get a penalty-warning?” There was a loud gasp from the other walkers. Soldier, “You just get a penalty-warning.” Barkovitch smiles, and several walkers gave him the evil eye.
Barkovitch raised his hand again. Soldier, “Number 5.” “Can we gang up on our fellow walkers and take turns holding them down, so they get their ticket, but we don’t?” The soldier answered showing no emotion, “Yes, you can gang up, and you won’t get your ticket unless your timer reaches zero.” Some of the walkers began to show fear in their faces now. The quiet mumbling erupted into a loud mumble.
Barkovitch raised his hand again, and other walkers let out a huge groan. Soldier, “Number 5”. “What if I killed another walker with my bare hands? Will I just got a penalty-warning?” Soldier, “Directly killing another walker, gets you a ticket.” “Damn!”, Barkovitch mumbled under his breath.
Barkovitch raised his hand again, and how shouts from the other walkers were heard saying “C’mon!” and “Knock it off!” Soldier, “Number 5”. “What if I injured a fellow walker, so they couldn’t walk fast enough, and they got their ticket?” Soldier, “If you injure another walker so that their ability to walk 4 or more mph, is hindered, then you get your ticket.”
Soldier, “Any more questions?” Everyone looked at Barkovitch who just sat their smugly. After a long pause the soldier said, “OK, follow me”.
The soldier then lead them to nearby field. “You will now practice calling the service-drone which can provide food, water, vapes and do living streaming to your YouTube channel. You can use the app on your Apple watch or iPhone to select what you want. For your safety, the drones will lower the items on a cable. These drones cannot operate in the rain or in high-winds, so your access to them may be limited at times. The drone will only fly if it’s battery is at least 75% charged, so you may need to wait. The time you’ll have for streaming will be limited by the current state of the battery. The drone will return for recharging if its battery falls to 20%. Your Apple watch will display the battery level.”
Garraty was amazed at the wide selection of food and drink available, but was disappointed when he realized that none of the sodas were caffeinated, and there were no coffee or tea options. Caffeine was a banned substance.
Suddenly the air was buzzing with what sounded like an army of bees, as drones flew in to deliver the requested items. The loudhailer shouted “There are only ten drones total, so you might need to wait your turn. First come, first served.”
A drone flew to Olson hovering 10 feet above his head, then lowered a thin-cable with a box at the end. Olson opened door on the front of the box and removed the snickers bar. When he closed the door, the box was retracted back up to the drone, and it returned to its charging station in the trailer behind the Jeep. delivered a Snickers bar to Olson, and he devoured it. “Hungry? Grab a Snickers!” he said, grinning. Over the loudhailer they heard “Drones can only deliver one item at a time”.
Loudhailer: “If you attempt to pull the drone down by its cable, the cable will be cut, and you will receive a penalty-warning. If you throw something, and it hits the drone, you will receive a penalty-warning. The trailers containing the drones are off-limits. If you climb on a trailer or Jeep, you will receive a penalty-warning. If you damage a drone in any way, you will receive a penalty-warning.”
A Sprite was delivered to Olson soon after to wash down the Snickers bar. Garraty requested an apple, but was still waiting for his first drone when Olson got his third drone delivery. “Not fair”, Garraty said, but Olson just grinned.
This went on until everyone was done practicing and all drones were recalled. About twenty of the boys were vaping. “All drones are disabled until the start of the walk”, the loudhailer announced.
Garraty’s Apple watch read 8:55—how had it gotten so late? His stomach lurched painfully.
The loudhailer instructed “Proceed the starting post. Line up in 10 rows of 10 in any order.”
The Major looked them over soberly.
“Stay with your friends, if you like.”
Garraty felt numb and unreal. It was as if his body now belonged to someone else.
“Well here we go,” McVries said at his elbow. “Good luck, everyone.”
“Good luck to you,” Garraty said, surprised.
McVries, “I need my fucking head examined.” He looked suddenly pale and sweaty, not so awesomely fit as he had earlier. He was trying to smile and not making it. The scar stood out on his cheek like a wild punctuation mark.
Stebbins got up and ambled to the far left of the last row. Olson, Baker, McVries, and Garraty were in the third row. Zuck was in the second row in front of Garraty, and Young was in the first row in front of Zuck, still trembling. Garraty’s mouth was dry. He had never in his life been so aware of his feet. He wondered if he might freeze and get his ticket on the starting line. He wondered if Stebbins was nervous too. He wondered who would fold up first. He wondered what it would feel like if—
His Apple watch read 8:58.
The Major glanced at his iPad then raised his fingers slowly, and everything hung suspended with his hand. The hundred boys watched it carefully, and the silence was awful and immense. The silence was everything.
Garraty’s Apple watch now read 8:59. The anticipation was unbearable as his heart seemed like it was trying to beat out of his chest.
The Major’s fingers dropped. “Luck to all,” he said. His face was expressionless, and the reflector sunglasses hid his eyes. They began to walk.
Suddenly Zuck tripped and fell, then Garraty tripped over Zuck, and a boy tripped over Garraty. A small pile up began to form. The boys who passed were now walking backwards to see happened.
Alert: “Penalty-Warning! First Penalty Warning number 25!”
Alert: “Penalty-Warning! First Penalty Warning number 100!”
Garraty and Zuck got up and continued walking with the pack. Garraty could now see that Zuck had tripped over young Bobby Young, who had fainted at the start, and received his first penalty-warning for interfering with another walker. This meant that he had 90 seconds to live, if he didn’t wake up.
Zuck, “Why the fuck did I get a penalty-warning?” Garraty replied, “Because you interfered with me. I tripped over you.”
“That’s not fair”
“Yeah, but it’s the rules.”
The entire pack, except for Stebbins, was now walking backwards to see what would happen next. Stebbins was now passing boys moving up toward the front of the pack, not because he was walking faster, but because the entire pack was walking slower.
Suddenly there were a chorus of Siri from Apple watches buzzing and saying “Alert: Warning! First Warning number . . .” followed by that walker’s number, and everyone realized that their death-timers were counting down since their speed had dropped below 4 mph. Everyone but Stebbins and Young had gotten their first courtesy-warning.
Alert: Warning! Second Warning number 99!
Young now had one minute to live, but was still lying there unconscious.
About half of the boys returned to walking forward and picked up their speed, but the other half kept walking backwards, too fascinated by what might happen. Garraty was among the fascinated walking backward when he suddenly passed a boy standing still. He noticed the boy had a 5 tattooed on his hand. Then Garraty remembered Hint 13. “Conserve energy whenever possible”. It doesn’t matter if you’re walking at 3.9 mph or standing still. Your timer is still going to count down either way. So Garraty stopped to stand as well, and soon many of the other boys were following their lead, including McVries, Baker and Olson. They had to see what would happen next. Had to! But not Stebbins. He didn’t look back and just kept his pace.
“Alert: Warning! Third Warning 25!” was immediately followed by dozens of “Alert: Warning! Second Warning number . . .” from all the boys who standing and watching. They had less than 60 seconds to live if they didn’t start walking at or above 4 mph again.
Suddenly a large death-drone carrying a machinegun appeared and hovered 30 feet above Bobby Young who was waking up. The loudhailer on the drone counted down “10, 9, 8, 7, . . .” Upon seeing the death-drone, Bobby jumped to his feet, then began sprinting from it, well over 4 mph. Unfortunately, he was disoriented and running in the wrong direction, which is an instant penalty-warning, and in this case an instant-ticket, since young Bobby Young had used up his three warnings. The death-drone tracked the GPS in the nape of his neck, and fired with deadly accuracy, decapitating young Bobby Young.
Several of the boys vomited. Garraty felt like vomiting but didn’t. He looked at McVries who was staring, mouth agape, face pale, white scar on his face seeming to stand out more than before.
Garraty’s Apple watch got an alert that read:
Alert: Ticket 1: #99 Bobby Young, age 13 from New Mexico. Nickname: Booby. 99 walkers Remaining.
They had been walking for less than 2 minutes.
The boys who had stopped, got walking again, just short of their third courtesy warnings. They would need to walk 2 hours without warnings to fully reset their death timers and undo their two warnings.
They came out of the shade and into the sun, the warm spring sun. Garraty was in shock, and kept step with McVries. The group began to spread out, each person finding his own stride and speed. Nobody talked at first. Reality had slapped them in the face.
Garraty walked on at a good clip. He was starting to relax. They breasted a hill and began descending into a long, pine-studded valley. Here and there were rectangular fields with the earth just freshly turned.
Finally, McVries broke the uncomfortable silence. “Potatoes, they tell me,”.
“Best in the world,” Garraty answered automatically.
“You from Maine?” Baker asked.
“Yeah, downstate.” He looked up ahead. Several boys had drawn away from the main group, making perhaps 6 mph. Two of them were wearing identical leather jackets, with what looked like eagles on the back. It was a temptation to speed up, but Garraty refused to be hurried. “Conserve energy whenever possible”—Hint 13. He remembered the advice he got on YouTube: “This isn’t a race. There is no finish line. It’s not about who goes the furthest. It’s about who lasts the longest. It doesn’t matter if you walk at 4 mph or 5 mph. It’s all the same.”
“Does the road go anywhere near your hometown?” McVries asked.
“Funny you should ask! We go right through my hometown of Porterville, which is just North West of Freeport. My mother and girlfriend will come to see me.” He paused and added carefully: “If I’m still walking, of course.”
“Hell, there won’t be twenty-five gone when we get downstate,” Olson said.
A silence fell among them at that. Garraty knew it wasn’t so, and he thought Olson did, too.
Two other boys received courtesy-warnings, and in spite of what Olson had said, Garraty’s heart lurched each time. He checked on Stebbins. He was starting to fall back to the rear again, closely watching his speed on his Apple watch to stay just above 4 mph. He wasn’t talking to anyone. Heck, he didn’t even may eye contact with anyone. Head down, focused on the road.
“Why don’t they let people watch the start of a Long Walk?” Garraty asked.
“Spoils the Walkers’ concentration,” a sharp voice said.
Garraty turned his head. It was a small dark, intense-looking boy with 005 tattooed on his hand. Garraty instantly remembered him from the web site, and remembered his name, because Gary was similar to Garraty. He also had a face you couldn’t forget. “Concentration?” Garraty asked.
“Yes.” The boy moved up beside Garraty. “The Major has said it is very important to concentrate on calmness at the beginning of a Long Walk.” He pressed his thumb reflectively against the end of his rather sharp nose. There was a bright red pimple there. “I agree. Excitement, crowds, TV, Internet later. Right now, all we need to do is focus.” He stared at Garraty with his hooded dark brown eyes and said it again. “Focus.”
“All I’m focusing on is pickin’ ’em up and layin’ ’em down,” Olson said.
Gary looked insulted. “You have to pace yourself. You have to focus on yourself. You have to have a Plan. I’m Gary Barkovitch, by the way. My home is the 51st state, Washington, D.C., and I’m 17.”
“I’m John Carter,” Olson said. “My home is Barsoom, Mars.”
Don’t be a dick number 70. I’m trying to be nice, and you’re just being a dick. Let me give you guys an example of a guy with a plan. It’s number 88, Bart Stebbins. Did you notice when 25 bought his ticket, he didn’t even look back? The guy kept to himself and kept his pace. Later, I saw him stop, then sit on the road, and stretch for nearly a minute, getting one warning on purpose. Then he gets up and starts walking again right before his second warning, then stays above 4 mph for the next hour to undo his warning, and reset his timer back to 120. Smart! This guy isn’t like the other 99 of us. I checked the stats on my iPhone. His average speed has been 3.9 mph. This guy is the definition of Hint 13, save energy whenever possible.
“Plan Shman. All you gotta do is focus on pickin’ ‘em up and laying’ ‘em down” Olson said. Olson then turned to Garraty and McVries, then twirled his fingers near his temple to indicate Gary was crazy.
But Garraty thought Barkovitch was thinking pretty clearly. Garraty was thinking he needs a plan.
Gary said “Hank, obviously, you need a demo.” Suddenly, Gary sat down on the road, and removed his shoes.
Alert: Warning! First Warning number 5!
Siri said from his Apple watch.
Gary ignored the warning and took off his socks and sat relaxed twiddling his toes in the fresh air.
Alert: Warning! Second Warning number 5!
“Oh-oh,” Olson said. They had all turned around and were walking backward.
Stebbins, who had dropped back to the tag end, walked past Barkovitch without looking at him. Now Barkovitch was all alone, putting his socks back on.
Alert: Warning! Third Warning number 5!
There was something in Garraty’s belly that felt like a sticky ball of mucus. He didn’t want to look, but he couldn’t look away. He wasn’t conserving energy whenever possible by walking backward, but he couldn’t help that, either. He could almost feel Barkovitch’s death-timer counting down to zero.
“Oh, boy,” Olson said. “The Barkmeister is gonna get his ticket.”
Barkovitch put on his shoes and tied his laces, while closely watching his death-timer. Suddenly the death-drone was back, and hovering 30 feet above Gary with the machinegun pointed at his neck, and the loudhailer blaring “10, 9, 8, 7, . . .”. Gary casually leaned over to brush some road dirt from the knees of his pants “6, 5, 4, 3, . . .” then broke into a trot, and passed Stebbins, who still didn’t look at him, and caught up with Olson.
He grinned, brown eyes glittering. “See? I just got myself a rest. I dried out my feet and smoothed out my socks to avoid blisters. It’s all in my Plan.”
“Maybe you think so,” Olson said, his voice higher than usual. “All I see that you got is three warnings. For your lousy minute and 57 seconds break, you got to walk three . . . fucking . . . hours. Now you’re just 3 seconds from death. And why in hell did you need a rest? We just started, for Chrissake!”
Barkovitch looked insulted. His eyes burned at Olson. “We’ll see who gets his ticket first, you or me,” he said. “I’m the man with the plan.”
“Your Plan and the stuff that comes out of my asshole bear a suspicious resemblance to each other,” Olson said, and Baker chuckled.
With a snort, Barkovitch strode past them.
Olson couldn’t resist a parting shot. “Just don’t stumble, buddy, or Mister death-drone will be paying you a visit again.”
Barkovitch didn’t even look back and Olson gave up, disgusted.
At 9:13 AM, the Major’s jeep breasted the hill they had just started down. He came past them on the shoulder opposite the pacing halftrack and raised a loudhailer to his lips.
“I’m pleased to announce that you have finished the first mile of your journey, boys. The longest distance a full complement of Walkers has ever covered is 7.75 miles. I was hoping you’d do better but obviously that’s not an option now. Keep up the good work. Remember Hint 1: Have a plan. I’m proud of you!”
Barkovitch looked at Olson and smirked, and Olson flipped him the middle finger.
The jeep spurted ahead. Olson appeared to be considering this news with startled, even fearful, wonder. Not even eight miles, Garraty thought. It wasn’t nearly as far as he would have guessed. He hadn’t expected anyone to get a ticket until late afternoon at least. He thought of Barkovitch. All he had to do was fall below speed for 3 seconds in the next hour.
“Ray?” It was Art Baker. He had taken off his coat and stuffed it into his packsack, as the heat of the day caused the first sweat to break out. “Any particular reason you came on the Long Walk?”
“I don’t really know,” he said truthfully.
“Me either.” Baker thought for a moment. “Did you go out for track or anything? In school?”
“Me either. But I guess it don’t matter, does it? Not now.”
“No, not now,” Garraty asked.
Conversation lulled. Boys were starting get thirsty and drones were delivering various beverages. It became an obstacle course avoiding other people’s trash. “I hope I don’t sprain an ankle stepping on someone’s discarded bottle. I’m glad all these bottles are plastic. I wouldn’t want to step on someone’s broken glass.” Garraty said.
They passed through a small village with a country store and a gas station. Two old men sat on folding lawn-chairs outside the gas station, watching them with hooded and reptilian old men’s eyes. On the steps of the country store, a young woman held up her tiny son so he could see them. And a couple of older kids, around twelve, Garraty judged, watched them out of sight wistfully.
The word came back that a second jeep and drone trailer had been dispatched to cover the half a dozen boys in the vanguard . . . they were now completely out of sight. The app on their iPhones said these boys were averaging 6.6 mph. The app also showed them that a guy up ahead was flagging and had 2 warnings. Garraty wondered when they would catch up with him.
Olson was on his tenth Snickers bar and drank some Fanta, then turned to Garraty and said, “Taste the feeling.” Garraty chuckled “Wrong soda Hank, you’re thinking of Coke, which is banned. Why don’t you have an apple or carrot? All you’ve eaten is Snickers bars.” Olson laughed, “Carbs, my man! Carbs! Packed with peanuts, Snickers really satisfies. Plus, I hate fruits and vegetables. Give me cookies, cakes and ice-cream any time. Since I’m walking 24/7, I can eat whatever the fuck I want.”
A little after 10 AM, they passed a sign that said LIMESTONE 10 MI. Garraty thought about the only Long Walk his father had ever let him go to. They went to Freeport and watched them walk through. His mother had been with them. The Walkers were tired and hollow-eyed and barely conscious of the cheering and the waving signs and the constant hoorah as people cheered on their favorites and those on whom they had wagered. His father told him later that day that people lined the roads from Bangor on. Up-country it wasn’t so interesting, and the road was strictly cordoned off—maybe so they could concentrate on being calm, as Barkovitch had said. But as time passed, it got better, of course.
When the Walkers passed through Freeport that year, they had been on the road over seventy-two hours. Garraty had been ten and overwhelmed by everything. The Major had made a speech to the crowd while the boys were still five miles out of town. He began with Competition, progressed to Patriotism, and finished with something called the Gross National Product—Garraty had laughed at that, because to him gross meant something nasty, like boogers. He had eaten six hotdogs and when he finally saw the Walkers coming, he had wet his pants.
One boy had been screaming. That was his most vivid memory. Every time he put his foot down, he had screamed: I can’t. I CAN’T. I can’t. I CAN’T. But he went on walking. They all did, and pretty soon the last of them had gone past L.L. Bean’s on U.S. 1 and out of sight. Garraty had been mildly disappointed at not seeing anyone get a ticket. They had never gone to another Long Walk. Later that night Garraty had heard his father shouting thickly at someone into his Blackberry, the way he did when he was being drunk or political, and his mother in the background, her conspiratorial whisper, begging him to stop, please stop, the line could be tapped.
Garraty drank some more water and wondered how Barkovitch was making it.
They were passing more houses now. Families sat out on their front lawns, smiling, waving, drinking Coke. “Things go better with Coke”, Olson said, and the boys chuckled. Hank was a walking slogan-machine, Garraty thought.
“Garraty,” McVries said. “My, my, look what you got.”
A pretty girl of about sixteen in a white blouse and red-checked pedal pushers was holding up a big Magic Marker sign: GO-GO-GARRATY NUMBER 47 We Love You Ray “Maine’s Own.”
Garraty felt his heart swell. He suddenly knew he was going to win. The unnamed girl proved it.
Olson whistled wetly and began to slide his stiff index finger rapidly in and out of his loosely curled fist. Garraty thought that was a pretty goddam sick thing to be doing.
In his mind, he wanted to say, “To hell with Hint 13”. He imaged himself running over to the side of the road, the girl seeing his number and squealing. She would throw herself at him, kissing him hard. Garraty was suddenly, sweatily aroused. He would kiss her back vigorously. The girl would poke her tongue into his mouth, delicately. He would put one hand on a round buttock and squeeze gently. But the guilt of this fantasy caught up with him, and he imagined his Apple watching buzzing “Alert: Warning! First Warning number 47!” Garraty wished he could have a sexual fantasy without feeling guilty . . . without feeling like he was cheating on Jan. But he loved Jan. He wouldn’t cheat on her, even though his body was wishing otherwise.
Olson was also grinning. “For that I would take three warnings. I’m from Massachusetts. If I see any fangirls holding a sign for me, I’m going for it.”
Garraty said “We’re not going to make it that far. This walk only made it that far once and the experts said that was a fluke.”
McVries said “On top of that, you’re a bit of hypocrite, don’t you think?”
“You criticize others for taking a break, then you say you’d take a break too? Hey Siri, what’s the definition of hypocrite?”
Siri replies “a person who indulges in hypocrisy.”
“Fucking computers!” McVries replied.
“Hey Siri, you’re useless, did you know that?”
Siri “That doesn’t sound good.” They all laughed.
Garraty turned around and walked backward to wave to the girl but she was out of sight, so he turned around and began to walk firmly. He felt good. He felt fit. He felt like he could walk all the way to Florida. He started to walk faster.
“Ray.” McVries was still smiling. “What’s your hurry?”
Yeah, that was right. Hint 6: Slow and easy does it. “Thanks.”
McVries went on smiling. “Don’t thank me too much. I’m out to win, too.”
Garraty stared at him, disconcerted.
“I mean, let’s not put this on a Three Musketeers basis. I like you and it’s obvious you’re a big hit with the pretty girls. But if you fall over, I won’t pick you up.”
“Yeah.” He smiled back, but his smile felt lame.
“On the other hand,” Baker drawled softly, “we’re all in this together and we might as well keep each other amused.”
McVries smiled. “Why not?”
“I’ll tell you why not”, Barkovitch broke in. “If you improve the mood of everyone around you, they’ll last longer, making it harder for you. It’s actually in your favor if piss people off.”
“Get the fuck out of my face”, McVries yelled.
“Hah, it’s working . . . it’s all part of my plan, see you losers later.”
Garraty silently admired Barkovitch. He seemed to know what he was doing. What he said made sense, but it felt better to have friends than be a loner or rebel.
They came to an upslope and saved their breath for walking. Halfway up, Garraty took off his jacket and stuffed it into his packsack. A few moments later they passed someone’s discarded sweater lying on the road. Someone, Garraty thought, is going to wish they had that tonight. Up ahead, a couple of the point Walkers were losing ground.
Garraty concentrated on picking them up and putting them down. He still felt good. He felt strong.
“I’m Harkness. Number 49. You’re Garraty. Number 47. Right?”
Garraty looked at Harkness, who wore glasses and had a crewcut. Harkness’s face was red and sweaty. “That’s right.”
Harkness was taking notes on his iPhone using an app which listed all of the walkers, their stats, their face-shots, ages, hometowns, etc. He ran into a fellow named Collie Parker who told him to watch where the fuck he was going. Garraty suppressed a smile.
“I’m taking notes on everyone” Harkness said, “including that Collie Parker is an asshole.”, everyone laughed. When he looked up, the midmorning sun sparkled on the lenses of his glasses, and Garraty had to squint to see his face. It was 2:30 pm, and they were 8 miles out of Limestone.
“Do you want to know why?” Harkness asked.
“You’re with the Squads,” Olson cracked over his shoulder.
“No, I’m going to write a book,” Harkness said pleasantly. “When this is all over, I’m going to write a book.”
Garraty grinned. “If you win, you’re going to write a book, you mean.”
Harkness shrugged. “Yes, of course. But look at this: a book about the Long Walk from an insider’s point of view could make me a rich man.”
McVries burst out laughing. “If you win, you won’t need a book to make you a rich man, will you?”
Harkness frowned. “Well . . . I suppose not. But it would still make one heck of an interesting book, I think.”
They walked on, and Harkness continued taking notes, snapping pictures and shooting video. Most were willing to answer his questions, but they still joshed him about the great book.
The weather app forecast thunder showers for late afternoon. If it was true, it was bad news. Early May thundershowers weren’t the warmest.
They kept walking.
McVries walked firmly, keeping his head up and swinging his arms slightly. He had tried the shoulder, but fighting the loose soil there had made him give it up. If the knapsack was giving him any trouble or chafing, he showed no sign. His eyes were always searching the horizon. When they passed small clusters of people, he waved and smiled his thin-lipped smile. He showed no signs of tiring.
Baker ambled along, moving in a kind of knee-bent shuffle that seemed to cover the ground when you weren’t looking. He smiled at the pointing people, and sometimes whistled a low snatch of some tune or other. Garraty thought he looked like he could go on forever.
Olson wasn’t talking so much anymore, and every few moments he would bend one knee swiftly. Each time Garraty could hear the joint pop. Olson was stiffening up a little, Garraty thought, beginning to show six miles of walking.
Barkovitch kept up the same jerky pace, now ahead of the main group as if to catch up with the vanguard Walkers, now dropping back toward Stebbins’s position on drag. He lost one of his three warnings and gained it back five minutes later. Garraty decided he must like it there on the edge of nothing.
Stebbins just kept on walking off by himself. Garraty hadn’t seen him speak to anybody. He wondered if Stebbins was lonely or tired. Stebbins had put the old green sweater into his packsack. He looked at no one, and just stared down at his iPhone playing some game. In fact, a lot of walkers had retreated into playing games on their iPhones. They didn’t need to watch where you’re going since they had the whole road. They just had to watch for pot-holes.
There was no worry about dead batteries. Their packsacks had a battery for charging their iPhones and AirPods. The battery self-charges by converting physical motion into electricity via a nano-generator. The motion of their walking was enough to keep the battery charged. Their bodies were basically batteries that charged a battery that charged a battery.
They walked on.
The road was crossed by another, and policemen were holding up traffic as the Walkers passed. They saluted each Walker, and a couple of the boys, secure in their immunity, thumbed their noses. Garraty didn’t approve. He smiled and nodded to acknowledge the police and wondered if the police thought they were all crazy.
The cars honked, and then some woman yelled out to her son. She had parked beside the road, apparently waiting to make sure her boy was still along for the Walk.
It was 31. He blushed, then waved a little, and then hurried on with his head slightly bent. The woman tried to run out into the road. The security guards in the Jeep stiffened, but one of the policemen caught her arm and restrained her gently. Then the road curved and the intersection was out of sight.
The security guards that drove alongside the walkers in Jeeps were there to protect the walkers from crazy fans. They lead the walk in a bright red Jeep, clearing the way. As long as you caught sight of the red Jeep, you knew that you could not cross the street. Once the green Jeep passed, you knew the last walker had also passed, and it was once again, OK to cross the street. Entering the street while the walkers were passing could earn you a spectator-ticket from one of the guards.
The word came back about a boy named Seth Curley, number 7. Curley had a charley horse and had already picked up his first warning. Garraty put on some speed and came even with McVries and Olson. “Where is he?”
Olson jerked his thumb at a skinny, gangling boy in blue jeans. Curley had been trying to cultivate sideburns. The sideburns had failed. His lean and earnest face was now set in lines of terrific concentration, and he was staring at his right leg. He was favoring it. He was losing ground and his face showed it.
“Alert: Warning! First Warning number 7!”, his Apple watch announced.
Curley began to force himself faster. He was panting a little. As much from fear as from his exertions, Garraty thought. Garraty lost all track of time. He forgot everything but Curley. He watched him struggle, realizing in a numb sort of way that this might be his struggle an hour from now or a day from now.
“Alert: Warning! Second Warning number 7!”, as his death-timer counted down past 60.
Curley fell back slowly, and several courtesy-warnings were issued to others before the group realized they were adjusting to his speed in their fascination. Which meant Curley was very close to the edge.
“Alert: Warning! Third Warning number 7!”, now 30 seconds to live, the death-drone spun up in one of the supply trailers pulled by the jeeps.
“I’ve got a charley horse!” Curley shouted hoarsely. “It ain’t no fair if you’ve got a charley horse!”
There was nobody to take pity on him. The system was all automated by a cold killing computer that only cared about your death-timer. The death-drone turned its machinegun toward Curley hovering 30 feet above him.
He was almost beside Garraty now. Garraty could see Curley’s adam’s apple going up and down. Curley was massaging his leg frantically. And Garraty could smell panic coming off Curley in waves, and it was like the smell of a ripe, freshly cut lemon.
The death-drone loudhailer began the final ten second count.
Garraty began to pull ahead of him to avoid getting shot, and the next moment Curley exclaimed: “Thank God! She’s loosening!”
No one said anything. Garraty felt a grudging disappointment. It was mean, and unsporting, he supposed, but the fact was, Curley was his competition. The sooner walkers started getting their tickets, the better.
Garraty saw Olson flex first one knee, then the other, again. Curious, he tried it himself. His knee joints popped audibly, and he was surprised to find how much stiffness had settled into them. Still, his feet didn’t hurt. That was something.
“Okay, everybody, take five,” Olson cracked suddenly, and got some laughs.
There were more roads now, more policemen and people honking and waving. Someone threw confetti. Garraty began to feel important. He was, after all, “Maine’s Own.”
Suddenly Curley screamed. Garraty looked back over his shoulder. Curley was doubled over, holding his leg and screaming. Somehow, incredibly, he was still walking, but very slowly. Much too slowly. Why didn’t he stop and massage his leg? If you can’t maintain 4 mph, you might as well stop and rest.
The death-drone had returned to its charger in the trailer, but suddenly came alive again as Curley’s death-timer began to count down sporadically as Curley struggled to maintain 4 mph.
Everything went slowly then, as if to match the way Curley was walking. The crowd gasped. The walkers gasped. Curley was going to get his ticket.
The death-drone suddenly rose from its charging trailer and flew toward Curley. Boys scattered from around Curley like quail. The death-drone would kill anything in the path of the shot. He was suddenly alone on the sunwashed road.
“It isn’t fair!” he screamed. “It just isn’t fair!”
The loudhailer on the death-drone picked up the count-down “5, 4, 3, . . .”
Garraty was looking. He had to look. The spectators had all whipped out their smart-phones and were live-streaming to their monetized YouTube channels.
Curley, stared up into the machine-gun, then tried to duck as his timer reached 0.
The machinegun fired. It was deafening.
Curley’s angular, pimply head disappeared in a hammer-smash of blood and brains and flying skull-fragments. The rest of him fell backward on the white line like a sack of mail.
98 now, Garraty thought sickly. 98 bottles of beer on the wall and if one of those bottles should happen to fall . . . oh Jesus . . . oh Jesus . . .
Stebbins stepped over the body. His foot slid a little in some of the blood, and his next step with that foot left a bloody track. Stebbins didn’t look down at what was left of Curley. His face didn’t change expression. Stebbins, you bastard, Garraty thought, you heartless machine. Then Garraty looked away. He didn’t want to be sick. He didn’t want to vomit.
All of the walkers received this alert.
Alert: Ticket 2: #7 Seth Curley, age 14 from Kansas. Nickname: Curles. 98 Remaining.
The Jeep pulling the body-trailer stopped next to Curley, and the guards quickly moved his body into a body bag, then threw it into the refrigerated trailer. As the green Jeep passed, people ran to get their souvenirs of what was left of Curley on the road. Some skull fragments, some brain matter. It could all be sold on eBay, Craigslist, LetGo, OfferUp, Amazon, Facebook, etc.
They walked on. Garraty found himself walking with Olson, Baker, and McVries again. They were almost protectively bunched up. All of them were looking straight ahead now, their faces carefully expressionless. Garraty kept thinking about the bloody footprint that Stebbins’s sneaker had left. He wondered if it was still tracking red, almost turned his head to look, then told himself not to be a fool. But he couldn’t help wondering. He wondered if it had hurt Curley. He wondered if Curley had felt the gas-tipped slugs hitting home or if he had just been alive one second and dead the next.
But of course it had hurt. It had hurt before, in the worst, rupturing way, knowing there would be no more you but the universe would roll on just the same, unharmed and unhampered.
“What have you got in that packsack?” Baker asked McVries suddenly. He was making an effort to be strictly conversational, but his voice was high and reedy, near to cracking.
“All kinds of stuff. A fresh shirt, spare socks, spare shoes, condoms in case I get lucky” McVries said. Everyone laughed.
Harkness asked “Are you serious? Condoms?” Sensing how gullible Harkness was, McVries decided to take him for a little ride.
“Didn’t you know that girls are reading and waiting up ahead? All I need is 30 seconds. They call me quicky-McVriesy!”
Harkness believed every word.
The word that one of the Walkers had been ticketed out, ran through the spectators, and for some reason they began to cheer even more loudly. Thin applause crackled like popcorn. Garraty wondered if it was embarrassing, being shot in front of people, and guessed by the time you got to that you probably didn’t give a shit. Curley hadn’t looked as if he gave a shit, certainly. Having to take a shit, though. That would be bad. Garraty decided not to think about that.
The hands on his Apple watch now stood firmly straight up at noon. They crossed a rusty iron bridge spanning a high, dry gorge, and on the other side was a sign reading: ENTERING LIMESTONE CITY LIMITS—WELCOME, LONG WALKERS!
Some of the boys cheered, but Garraty saved his breath.
The road widened and the Walkers spread across it comfortably, the groups loosening up a little. After all, Curley was three miles back now.
Garraty called for some cookies via drone delivery. Garraty thought homesickly of his mother, then stuffed the feeling aside. He would see Mom and Jan in Freeport. That was a promise. He ate a cookie and felt a little better.
“You know something?” McVries said.
Garraty shook his head. He took a swig from his Deer Park bottled water and waved at an elderly couple sitting beside the road with a small cardboard GARRATY sign.
“I have no idea what I’ll want if I do win this,” McVries said. “There’s nothing that I really need. I mean, I don’t have a sick old mother sitting home or a father on a kidney machine, or anything. I don’t even have a little brother dying gamely of leukemia.” He laughed then took a swig of his caffeine free Coke Zero.
“You’ve got a point there,” Garraty agreed.
“You mean I don’t have a point there. The whole thing is pointless.”
“You don’t really mean that,” Garraty said confidently. “If you had it to do all over again—”
“Yeah, yeah, I’d still do it, but—”
“Hey!” The boy ahead of them, Pearson, pointed. “Sidewalks!”
They were finally coming into the town proper. Handsome houses set back from the road looked down at them from the vantage of ascending green lawns. The lawns were crowded with people, waving and cheering. It seemed to Garraty that almost all of them were sitting down. Sitting on the ground, on lawn chairs like the old men back at the gas station, sitting on picnic tables. Even sitting on swings and porch gliders. He felt a touch of jealous anger.
Go ahead and wave your asses off. I’ll be damned if I’ll wave back anymore. Hint 13. Conserve energy whenever possible.
But finally he decided he was being foolish. People might decide he was getting snotty. He was, after all, “Maine’s Own.” He decided he would wave to all the people with GARRATY signs. And to all the pretty girls.
Sidestreets and cross-streets moved steadily past. Sycamore Street and Clark Avenue, Exchange Street and Juniper Lane. They passed a corner grocery with a Narragansett beer sign in the window, and a five-and-dime plastered with pictures of the Major.
The sidewalks were lined with people, but thinly lined. On the whole, Garraty was disappointed. He knew the real crowds would come further down the line, but it was still something of a wet firecracker. And poor old Curley had missed even this.
The Major’s jeep suddenly spurted out of a sidestreet and began pacing the main group. The vanguard was still some distance ahead.
A tremendous cheer went up. The Major nodded and smiled and waved to the crowd. Then he made a neat left-face and saluted the boys. Garraty felt a thrill go straight up his back. The Major’s sunglasses glinted in the early afternoon sunlight.
The Major raised the loudhailer to his lips. “I’m proud of you, boys. Proud!”
From somewhere behind Garraty a voice said softly but clearly: “Bull shit.”
Garraty turned his head, but there was no one back there but four or five boys watching the Major intently (one of them realized he was saluting and dropped his hand sheepishly), and Stebbins. Stebbins did not even seem to be looking at the Major.
The jeep roared ahead. A moment later the Major was gone again.
They reached downtown Limestone around twelve-thirty. Garraty was disappointed. There was Mike’s Family Market, a Pizza and Sub shop, a post-office, a used-clothing store, a small bank, a small public library, a United Methodist church, and that was Limestone.
“It isn’t very big, is it?” Baker said.
“It’s probably a nice place to live,” Garraty said defensively.
“God spare me from nice places to live,” McVries said, but he was smiling.
“Whatever turns you on,” Garraty said lamely.
By one o’clock, Limestone was a memory. A small swaggering boy in patched denim overalls walked along with them for almost a mile, then sat down and watched them go by.
The country grew hillier. Garraty felt the first real sweat of the day coming out on him. His shirt was patched to his back. On his right, thunderheads were forming, but they were still far away. There was a light, circulating breeze, and that helped a little. Garraty put on his AirPods and opened his iPhone via facial-recognition, then checked out his iTunes play-list. He was allowed up to 1000 songs. Garraty would get obsessed with one band, then get all their albums, and listen to nothing but them for months. Recently, a friend had introduced him to Rush, so that’s all he requested. He planned to listen to every album from start to finish. He was sad they no longer toured, but hoped they would keep putting out albums. He opened their first album, self-titled Rush, and hit play. The song Finding My Way, began to play. Geddy sung, “Yeah, Oh yeah! Ooh, said I, I’m comin’ to get you. Ooh, sit down. I’m comin’ out to find you. Ooh, yeah. Ooh yeah. Findin’ my way!” Garraty closed his eyes and bopped his head. Music always made him feel better.
“What’s the next big town, Garraty?” McVries asked.
“I said, what’s the next big town?” McVries yelled, to speak over Garraty’s music.
“Why are you asking me? You’ve got the route on Apple Maps. The route hasn’t changed in 20 years. Haven’t you watched The Long Walk on TV growing up?”
McVries appeared a little angry. “It’s embarrassing, but I’m a little ignorant when it comes to the tech. We were poor and didn’t have a TV growing up.”
“Holy shit, I’m sorry McVries . . . I didn’t know.”
“I’m pretty sure it’s Caribou. Do you want me to check Apple Maps?”
“Nah, I trust you. I’m just trying to make conversation.”
It was one-thirty. The Long Walk had progressed through eighteen miles.
Eighteen miles seemed pretty good to him. Eighteen miles was a figure a man could be proud of. I walked eighteen miles. Eighteen.
McVries asked “How far is Caribou?”
Garraty looked it up on Apple Maps. “About 30 miles from here.”
“Thirty,” Pearson said. “Jesus.”
“It’s a bigger town than Limestone,” Garraty said. He was still feeling defensive, God knew why. Maybe because so many of these boys would die here, maybe all of them. Probably all of them. Only six Long Walks in history had ended over the state line in New Hampshire, and only one had gotten into Massachusetts, and the experts said that was like Hank Aaron hitting seven hundred and thirty home runs, or whatever it was . . . a record that would never be equaled. Maybe he would die here, too. Maybe he would. But that was different. Native soil. He had an idea the Major would like that. “He died on his native soil.”
Number 93—Garraty didn’t know his name—walked past him on Garraty’s right. He was staring down at his feet and his lips moved soundlessly as he counted his paces. He was weaving slightly.
Garraty quickly looked him on his iPhone app. Tommy Tubbins, nickname Tub, age 16 from Arkansas.
“Hi Tub!” Garraty shouted.
Tom started. There was a blankness in his eyes, the same blankness that had been in Curley’s eyes while he was losing his fight with the charley horse. He’s tired, Garraty thought. He knows it, and he’s scared. Garraty suddenly felt his stomach tip over and right itself slowly.
Their shadows walked alongside them now. It was quarter of two. Nine in the morning, cool, sitting on the grass in the shade, was a month back.
At just before two, the word came back again. Garraty was getting a first-hand lesson in the psychology of the grapevine. Someone found something out, and suddenly it was all over. Rumors were created by mouth-to-mouth respiration. But it was funny how often the grapevine was right. And when the word came back that someone was slowing up, that someone was in trouble, the grapevine was always right.
Garraty was able to confirm it on the stats app. It could sort from slowest to fastest in the past hour, and number 9, Carl Ewing (Chas), age 15 from Texas, was slowing down.
The word was that Ewing had developed blisters and had two warnings. Lots of boys had been warned, but that was normal. The stats on the app indicated that things looked bad for Ewing.
All around the world, people monitored the app, then placed their bets as to who would be next. The app was very good at identifying who is struggling, but you had to use that info to predict who would get their ticket next.
Garraty passed the word to Baker, and Baker looked surprised. “The black fella?” Baker said. “So black he looks sorta blue?”
Garraty said “Yeah, he’s black, check out his profile pic. There he is.”
Garraty could see tiny jewels of perspiration gleaming in Ewing’s natural. With something like horror, Garraty observed that Ewing was wearing sneakers.
Hint 3: Do not, repeat, do not wear sneakers. Nothing will give you blisters faster than sneakers on a Long Walk.
“He rode up with us,” Baker said. “He’s from Texas.”
Garraty replied annoyed, “Yeah, I know, it’s in his profile.”
Baker picked up his pace until he was walking with Ewing. He talked with Ewing for quite a while. Then he dropped back slowly to avoid getting warned himself. His face was bleak. “He started to blister up two miles out. They started to break back in Limestone. He’s walkin’ in pus from broken blisters.”
They all listened silently. Garraty thought of Stebbins again. Stebbins was wearing tennis shoes. Maybe Stebbins was fighting blisters right now.
Ewing’s Apple watch buzzed “Alert: Warning! Third Warning number 9!”
You could hear the sound of the death-drone spinning up to make its kill. The back of his T-shirt, startlingly white against his black skin, was sweat-stained gray straight down the middle. Garraty could see the big muscles in his back ripple as he walked. Muscles enough to last for days, and Baker said he was walking in pus. Blisters and charley horses. Garraty shivered. Sudden death. All those muscles, all the training, couldn’t stop blisters and charley horses. What in the name of God had Ewing been thinking about when he put on those cheap Walmart high-tops? Hint 17: Wear light-weight high-quality hiking-boots.
Barkovitch joined them. Barkovitch was looking at Ewing, too. “Blisters!” He made it sound like Ewing’s mother was a whore. “What the hell can you expect from a dumb nigger? Now I ask you.”
“Move away,” Baker said evenly, “or I’ll poke you.”
“It’s against the rules,” Barkovitch said with a smirk. “Keep it in mind, cracker.” But he moved away. It was as if he took a small poison cloud with him.
2:00 PM became 2:30 PM. Their shadows got longer. They walked up a long hill, and at the crest Garraty could see low mountains, hazy and blue, in the distance. The encroaching thunderheads to the west were darker now, and the breeze had stiffened, making his flesh goose-bump as the sweat dried on him.
A group of men clustered around a Ford pickup truck with a camper on the back cheered them crazily. The men were all very drunk. They all waved back at the men, even Ewing. They were the first spectators they had seen since the swaggering little boy in the patched overalls.
Garraty was feeling hungry so he browsed the food app. They had concentration tubes of various flavors, so he ordered pork-flavor, and within a minute, a drone delivered it by cable. He was wishing for McDonald’s cheeseburger, but that wasn’t on the menu. He thought about a great big chocolate cake with a cherry on the top. He thought about flapjacks. For some crazy reason he wanted a cold flapjack full of apple jelly. The cold lunch his mother always made when he and his father went hunting in November.
Ewing bought a hole about ten minutes later.
The death-drone could smell his blood and was hovering. Ewing was clustered in with a group of boys. When the death-drone started its 10 second count-down, the boys sprinted ahead to avoid getting shot. Maybe he thought the boys would protect him. Ewing tried to sprint along with the boys, weaving and twisting to avoid the machinegun, but it was too accurate, and Ewing was decapitated by a spray of bullets. One leg kicked convulsively.
“He bleeds the same color as anyone else,” McVries said suddenly. It was very loud in the stillness after the single shot. His adam’s apple bobbed, and something clicked in his throat.
Alert: Ticket 3: #9 Carl Ewing, age 15 from Texas. Nickname: Chas. 97 walkers Remaining.
Three of them gone now. The odds infinitesimally adjusted in favor of those remaining. There was some subdued talk, and Garraty wondered again what they did with the bodies.
You wonder too goddam much! he shouted at himself suddenly.
And realized he was tired.
* * *
GOING DOWN THE ROAD
It was 3:00 PM when the first drops of rain fell on the road, big and dark and round. The sky overhead was tattered and black, wild and fascinating. Thunder clapped hands somewhere above the clouds. A blue fork of lightning went to earth somewhere up ahead. The boys put away their iPhones and AirPods into their water-proof packsacks.
Garraty had donned his coat shortly after Ewing had gotten his ticket, and now he zipped it and turned up his collar. Barkovitch had put on a yellow vinyl rainhat. There was something incredible about what it did to his face, but you would have been hard put to say just what. He peered out from beneath it like a truculent lighthouse keeper.
There was a stupendous crack of thunder. “Here it comes!” Olson cried.
The rain came pouring down. For a few moments it was so heavy that Garraty found himself totally isolated inside an undulating shower curtain. He was immediately soaked to the skin. His hair became a dripping pelt. He turned his face up into the rain, grinning. He wondered if the guards in their Jeeps could see them. The death-drone can’t fly in the rain or high winds, so if you buy your ticket now, your death is postponed until the storm clears.
Up ahead he thought he saw a boy wrapping his neck in tinfoil. He could barely see as the downpour reached its apex. Then suddenly the boy sprinted off the road, and into the woods, and was out of sight. Garraty realized that he was using the tinfoil to block the GPS signal and was making his escape.
The first vicious onslaught let up a little and he could see again. He looked over his shoulder at Stebbins. Stebbins had donned a black RUSH cap to protect his head, and for the first time, he felt he had something in common with Stebbins. Garraty didn’t know of anyone who obsessed about RUSH like he did. Even the friend who introduced him, only listened the popular hit songs. When Garraty tried to get him to listen to Cygnus-X1 or Xanadu, he had no interests in those longer songs. If they didn’t play them on the radio, then his friend wasn’t interested.
Thunder cracked stridently, artillery practice in the sky. Garraty felt exhilarated, and some of his tiredness seemed to wash away with the sweat from his body. The rain came again, hard and pelting, and finally let off into a steady drizzle. Overhead, the clouds began to tatter.
Pearson was now walking beside him. He hitched up his pants. He was wearing jeans that were too big for him and he hitched up his pants often. He wore horn-rimmed glasses with lenses like the bottoms of Coke bottles, and now he whipped them off and began to clean them on the tail of his shirt. He goggled in that myopic, defenseless way that people with very poor eyesight have when their glasses are off. “Enjoy your shower, Garraty?”
“You’ll never believe what I saw. This kid just escaped! He’s wearing a tinfoil tie to block the GPS signal.”
He checked the App and saw the number 18, Jose Flores, age 14, was now showing “SIGNAL LOST!” The death-drone was not spinning up, even though Jose had left the road. That’s an instant ticket. But the death-drone needs a GPS signal to target. Garraty never even considered trying to escape but obviously there was a way. Jose timed it perfectly. They had probably lost our signals during the electrical storm and extreme downpour.
The guard Jeep announced over the loudhailer “Raise your hand to show your number” as they drove up the road. They would soon figure out that it wasn’t a malfunction of his GPS, and that he was long gone.
Up ahead, McVries was urinating. He was walking backward while he did it, spraying the shoulder considerately away from the others.
Garraty checked the App which showed “96 Walkers Remaining”.
“Stebbins sure doesn’t say much, does he?” Baker said suddenly.
“No. No, he doesn’t.”
McVries pulled a warning for slowing down too much to zip up his fly. They pulled even with him, and Baker repeated what he had said about Stebbins.
“He’s a loner, so what?” McVries said, and shrugged. “I think—”
“Hey,” Olson broke in. It was the first thing he had said in some time, and he sounded queer. “My legs feel funny.”
Garraty looked at Olson closely and saw the seedling panic in his eyes already. The look of bravado was gone. “How funny?” he asked.
“Like the muscles are all turning . . . baggy.”
“Relax,” McVries said. “It happened to me a couple of hours ago. It passes off.”
Relief showed in Olson’s eyes. “Does it?”
“Yeah, sure it does.”
Olson didn’t say anything, but his lips moved. Garraty thought for a moment he was praying, but then he realized he was just counting his paces.
Alert: Ticket 4: #18 Jose Flores, age 14 from South Dakota. Nickname: Jojo. 96 walkers Remaining.
“They finally figured out that Jose has left the road . . . instant ticket.”, Garraty said. He’s probably still alive.
The death-drone suddenly spun-up and hovered over a boy up ahead. Garraty checked the app. It was number 82, Moses Rashad age 16 from California. He watched as the boys death-counter counted down 15, 14, 13, . . .
The boy stood still accepting his fate. He had obviously given up. The drone started it’s count down which synced perfectly with his death-timer in the app. Some boys sprinted ahead, but the rest of the pack came to a complete stop, to avoid getting caught in the cross fire.
The machinegun fired and Moses was decapitated like the rest. It was the cleanest beheading since he remained still instead of trying to duck, weave or run. Some of the boys who stopped, got a warning, then they continued on. Garraty saw that one of Moses’ shoes had come off and his head was lying face down in puddle of water. Garraty also noticed that he had been wearing white athletic socks. Hint 12 recommended them.
Garraty stepped over his body. Now it was Garraty leaving bloody foot tracks, just like Stebbins. The word came back that this boy had died of slowing down. Not blisters or a charley horse, he had just slowed down once too often and got a ticket.
Nobody knew him. He had been a loner like Stebbins.
Alert: Ticket 5: #82 Moses Rashad, age 16 from California. Nickname: Moz. 95 walkers Remaining.
Garraty checked the gambling app. Anyone who bet that Moses would be the next to get his ticket, got a 20 to 1 return on their money. Everyone else lost their money. Those unpredictable boys that die suddenly without warning cause a lot of people to lose their bets, and Vegas profits. Place your bets! Who will get their ticket next!?
The app also said they were 25 miles into the Long Walk. The scenery blended into a continuous mural of woods and fields, broken by an occasional house or a crossroads where waving, cheering people stood in spite of the dying drizzle. One old lady stood frozenly beneath a black umbrella, neither waving nor speaking nor smiling. She watched them go by with gimlet eyes.
They crossed a railroad track that had been abandoned long ago—the rails were rusty and witch-grass was growing in the cinders between the ties. Somebody stumbled and fell and was warned and got up and went on walking with a bleeding knee.
It was only nineteen miles to Caribou, but dark would come before that. No rest for the wicked, Garraty thought and that struck him funny. He laughed.
McVries looked at him closely. “Getting tired?”
“No,” Garraty said. “I’ve been tired for quite a while now.” He looked at McVries with something like animosity. “You mean you’re not?”
McVries said, “Just go on dancing with me like this forever, Garraty, and I’ll never tire. We’ll scrape our shoe on the stars and hang upside down from the moon.”
He blew Garraty a kiss and walked away.
Garraty looked after him. He didn’t know what to make of McVries.
By quarter of four the sky had cleared and there was a rainbow in the west, where the sun was sitting below gold-edged clouds. Slanting rays of the late afternoon sunlight colored the newly turned fields they were passing, making the furrows sharp and black where they contoured around the long, sloping hills.
The sound of the Jeep was quiet, almost soothing. Garraty let his head drop forward and semi-dozed as he walked. Somewhere up ahead was Freeport. Not tonight or tomorrow though. Lot of steps. Long way to go. He found himself still with too many questions and not enough answers. The whole Walk seemed nothing but one looming question mark. He told himself that a thing like this must have some deep meaning. Surely it was so. A thing like this must provide an answer to every question; it was just a matter of keeping your foot on the throttle. Now if he could only—
He put his foot down in a puddle of water and started fully awake again. Pearson looked at him quizzically and pushed his glasses up on his nose. “You know that guy that fell down and cut himself when we were crossing the tracks?”
“Yeah. It was Zuck, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah. I just heard he’s still bleeding.”
“How far to Caribou, Maniac?” somebody asked him. Garraty looked around. It was Barkovitch. He had tucked his rainhat into his back pocket where it flapped obscenely.
“Check the App! Why does everyone treat me like I’m some kind of map?”
“You live here, don’t you?”
“It’s about 17 miles,” McVries told him. “Now go bother someone else, shorty.”
Barkovitch put on his insulted look and moved away.
“There is something wrong with that guy” Garraty said.
“Don’t let him get under your skin,” McVries replied. “Just concentrate on walking him into the ground.”
McVries patted Garraty on the shoulder. “You’re going to win this one for the Gipper, my boy.”
“I don’t get your references. You must read a lot of books!”
“It seems like we’ve been walking forever, doesn’t it?”
“Is Yeah, the only word you know?”
“Did you ever hear that bit about a drowning man’s life passing before his eyes?”
“I think I read it once. Or heard someone say it in a movie.”
“Have you ever thought that might happen to us? On the Walk?”
McVries pretended to shudder. “Christ, I hope not.”
Garraty was silent for a moment and then said, “Do you think . . . never mind. The hell with it.”
“No, go on. Do I think what?”
“Do you think we could live the rest of our lives on this road? That’s what I meant. The part we would have had if we hadn’t . . . you know.”
McVries fumbled in his pocket and came up with a vape. “Toke?”
“I’m not into vapes.”
“Neither am I,” McVries said, and then put the vape into his mouth, then drew vapor in, and coughed it out. Garraty thought of Hint 10: Save your wind. If you smoke or vape ordinarily, try not to vape on the Long Walk.
“I thought I’d learn,” McVries said defiantly.
“It’s crap, isn’t it?” Garraty said sadly.
McVries looked at him, surprised, and then threw the vape away. “Yeah,” he said. “I think it is.”
“Maybe you got the wrong flavor. The App shows over 100 flavors! Here’s one called Orgasm! Check this out . . . they have Raspberry Orange, Lemon Meringue Pie, Killer Kustard, Strawbrerries Gone Wild, Skywalker Ice, Crazyberry Limeade, The Abyss, Between Jobs, Big Apple, God’s Gift Ice, Jeez . . . I don’t vape, but I’m now I’m curious how all these taste! What flavor did you try?”
“Well, that’s boring, considering there’s a flavor called Orgasm.”
“Do they have one called Pussy Juice? I need to vape me some Pussy Juice.”
“You’re disgusting. Maybe they have a flavor called Suck On This!”
They got to laughing so hard, they both got warnings for slowing down.
Between gasping for air, McVries struggles to say “Death . . . by . . . laughter. Not a bad . . . way to go.”
The rainbow was gone by 4:00 PM. Davidson, number 8, dropped back with them. He was a good-looking boy except for the rash of acne on his forehead. “That guy Zuck’s really hurting,” Davidson said.
“Still bleeding?” McVries asked.
“Like a stuck pig.” Davidson shook his head. “It’s funny the way things turn out, isn’t it? You fall down any other time, you get a little scrape. He needs stitches.” He pointed to the road. “Look at that.”
Garraty looked and saw tiny dark spots on the drying hardtop. “Blood?”
“It ain’t molasses,” Davidson said grimly.
“Is he scared?” Olson asked in a dry voice.
“He says he doesn’t give a damn,” Davidson said. “But I’m scared.” His eyes were wide and gray. “I’m scared for all of us.”
They kept on walking. Baker pointed out another Garraty sign.
“Hot shit,” Garraty said without looking up. He was following the trail of Zuck’s blood, like Dan’l Boone tracking a wounded Indian. It weaved slowly back and forth across the white line.
“McVries,” Olson said. His voice had gotten softer in the last couple of hours. Garraty had decided he liked Olson in spite of Olson’s brass-balls outer face. He didn’t like to see Olson getting scared, but there could be no doubt that he was.
“What?” McVries said.
“It isn’t going away. That baggy feeling I told you about. It isn’t going away.”
McVries didn’t say anything. The scar on his face looked very white in the light of the setting sun.
“It feels like my legs could just collapse. Like a bad foundation. That won’t happen, will it? Will it?” Olson’s voice had gotten a little shrill.
McVries didn’t say anything.
Olson took a deep puff of his vape with practiced ease, letting out a huge vapor cloud.” He raised his voice. “Mister Death-Drone is just a mindless machine. The real killers are the software developers who programmed it!”
Several of the Walkers looked around at him and then looked away quickly. Garraty wanted to look away too. There was hysteria in Olson’s voice. The guards looked at Olson impassively. The guards let the walkers do whatever they want. They were only there to protect the walkers from animals, spectators, meteors, etc. The guards did not issue tickets. Garraty wondered if the word would go back on Olson pretty quick, and couldn’t repress a shudder.
By 4:30 PM they had covered 30 miles. The sun was half-gone, and it had turned blood red on the horizon. The thunderheads had moved east, and overhead the sky was a darkening blue. Garraty thought about his hypothetical drowning man again. Not so hypothetical at that. The coming night was like water that would soon cover them.
A feeling of panic rose in his gullet. He was suddenly and terribly sure that he was looking at the last daylight in his life. He wanted it to stretch out. He wanted it to last. He wanted the dusk to go on for hours.
“Alert: Warning! Third Warning number 100!”, and right on cue, the death-drone began to spin up and take flight.
Zuck watched the drone rise, then turn its gun to face him down. There was a dazed, uncomprehending look in his eyes. His right pants-leg was caked with dried blood. And then, suddenly, he began to sprint. He weaved through the Walkers like a broken-field runner carrying a football. He ran with that same dazed expression on his face.
The drone had no trouble keeping up and paced his speed perfectly. Zuck heard it coming and ran faster. It was a queer, shambling, limping run. The wound on his knee broke open again, and as he burst into the open ahead of the main pack, Garraty could see the drops of fresh blood splashing and flying from the cuff of his pants. Zuck ran up the next rise, and for a moment he was starkly silhouetted against the red sky, a galvanic black shape, frozen for a moment in midstride like a scarecrow in full flight. Then he was gone, and the drone followed. The Jeep pulling the refrigerated body-trailer sped up in pursuit, prepared to store its next victim.
Nobody said a word. They only listened. There was no sound for a long time. An incredibly, unbelievably long time. Only a bird, and a few early May crickets, and somewhere behind them, the drone of a plane.
Then there was the familiar sound of hundreds of gas-tipped rounds being fired in seconds.
“I hope he doesn’t lose his head” someone joked. The death-drone flew back to its charging station on the trailer, landed, and reloaded and recharged for the next kill.
When they got up over the rise, they saw the body-trailer sitting on the shoulder half a mile away. There was no sign of Zuck except for a puddle of blood. The guards were very efficient.
Alert: Ticket 6: #100 Felix Zuck, age 16 from Delaware. Nickname: Fefe. 94 walkers Remaining.
“Where’s the Major?” someone screamed. The voice was on the raw edge of panic. It belonged to a bulletheaded boy named Gribble number 48. “I want to see the Major, goddammit! Where is he?”
The guards standing by the body-trailer did not answer. No one answered.
“Is he making another speech?” Gribble stormed. “Is that what he’s doing? Well, he’s a murderer! That’s what he is, a murderer! I . . . I’ll tell him! You think I won’t? I’ll tell him to his face! I’ll tell him right to his face!” In his excitement he had fallen below the pace, almost stopping.
“Alert: Warning! First Warning number 48!”
Gribble faltered to a stop, and then his legs picked up speed. He looked down at his feet as he walked. Soon they were up to where one of the pacer Jeeps waited. It picked up speed to exactly 4 MPH so the walkers could pace themselves without having to look at their speed on their Apple watches.
A guard in the pacer Jeep yells to Gribble, “Hey 48, The Major’s want to FaceTime you!” The iPhone in Gribble’s pocket starts ringing.
“Here’s your chance Gribble, you can tell him off to his face!”, said Olson.
Gribble takes out his iPhone, and looks around with an expression that reads “What should I do?”
“Answer it!”, several walkers yell!
Gribble accepts the FaceTime call, then the face of The Major appears.
“Samuel, I’m told you wanted to speak to me. Put on your AirPods so I can speak to you privately.”
Gribble puts in his AirPods, but then is speechless at first, then attempts “I . . . I . . I want . . .”
“Take your time son. I’m proud that you’ve come this far. I know you turned 14 back on February 14. That’s Valentines day. You’re one of those kids who has to share his birthday with a holiday. How does that make you feel?”
Gribble begins to blush, and continues to struggle, “I don’t mind . . . it’s . . . not bad . . .”
The Major says “My birthday is on Christmas, plus I share it with my twin brother, so I’ve got it worse than you. Hahaha! But I can relate.”
“Oh my God, sir, Christmas? I didn’t know you had a twin brother.”
“Yeah, we sometimes trade places for the fun of it. I could be that twin brother right now! How would you know? Hahaha!”
Gribble laughed along.
“Samuel, now that we’re talking on a friendly level, what is it you wanted to say to me?”
“It’s OK. I know what you wanted to say. You wanted to tell me that I’m a murderer. You were upset after Felix Zuck got his ticket. Hey, I completely understand.”
“It’s OK to express your feelings. This can’t be easy for someone who just turned 14. You hang in there. I’m proud of you!”
“Yes sir. Goodbye sir.”, and the call ends.
“That was lame!”, Olson says. “I thought you wanted to tell him off!”
“Yeah, I did but . . . “, Olson’s iPhone rings.
“Oh Crap! It’s the Major!”, he reluctantly answers.
“Put in your AirPods son. This has to be private between me and you. By the way, we hear everything via the mics on your iPhones.”
“I got my AirPods in. Nobody can hear you but me.”
“Henry . . . you’re about 3.5 years older than Samuel. Please son, do me a favor . . .”
“What is it sir?”
“Pick on someone your own size. I don’t mind the psychological warfare. That’s part of this sport. But when big kids gang up on little kids . . . it makes my blood boil.”
“OK then, carry on Henry. And listen . . . I loved your confidence at the start. You’re the only walker that made laugh. I know this is starting to get hard, but I also know that you’re raring to rip, and are going to give these boys hell. I can tell that you’re not a quitter. I’ve actually put money down on you as the winner, and I successfully picked the last 3 winners. You’ve got something special these others boys don’t. I can’t put my finger on it.”
“Statistically speaking, you’re the perfect age, you’re the perfect weight, you’ve got the perfect body for this walk. But it’s your mind that will make you a winner. Like you said . . . just keep pickin’ ‘em up and puttin’ ‘em down. Just focus, and you got this. Don’t let me down son.”
“Thank you sir!”
“Olson is your name. Walking is your game. Over and out.”, and the Major disconnects the connection.
McVries asks, “What did he say?”, but Olson just smiled. Olson felt good. He forgot about his rubbery legs. He knew that he was going to win. He was perfect, and the Major has picked the last winners. The Major knows a winner when he sees one.
At about 4:45, Garraty decided to call in his drone-dinner early before the other walkers start hogging the drones for their dinners. He ordered a tube of processed tuna fish, a few Ritz Crackers with cheese spread, and a lot of milk. Olson quipped “Protein, carbs and fat, part of a well-balanced dinner.”
“It beats just eating candy bars. Maybe that’s why your legs feel rubbery. You’re not getting your vitamins.”
“Proper eating may be a matter of life and death,” Baker said.
Garraty answered. “I don’t like the idea of fainting about two o’clock tomorrow morning.”
Now there was a genuinely unpleasant thought. You wouldn’t know anything, probably. Wouldn’t feel anything. You’d just wake up in eternity.
“Makes you think, doesn’t it?” Baker said softly.
Garraty looked at him. In the fading daylight, Baker’s face was soft and young and beautiful. “Yeah. I’ve been thinking about a whole hell of a lot of things.”
“Him, for one,” Garraty said, and jerked his head toward Stebbins, who was still walking along at the same pace he had been walking at when they started out. His pants were drying on him. His face was shadowy.
“What about him?”
“I wonder why he’s here, why he doesn’t say anything. And whether he’ll live or die.”
“Garraty, we’re all going to die.”
“But hopefully not tonight,” Garraty said. He kept his voice light, but a shudder suddenly wracked him. He didn’t know if Baker saw it or not. His kidneys contracted. He turned around, unzipped his fly, and began walking backward.
“What do you think about the Prize?” Baker asked.
“I don’t see much sense thinking about it,” Garraty said, and began to urinate. He finished, zipped his fly, and turned around again, mildly pleased that he had accomplished the operation without drawing a warning.
“I think about it,” Baker said dreamily. “Not so much the Prize itself as the money. All that money.”
“Rich men don’t enter the Kingdom of Heaven,” Garraty said. He watched his feet, the only things that were keeping him from finding out if there really was a Kingdom of Heaven or not.
“Hallelujah,” Olson said. “There’ll be refreshments after the meetin’.”
“You a religious fella?” Baker asked Garraty.
“No, not particularly. But I’m no money freak.”
“You might be if you grew up on potato soup and collards,” Baker said. “Side-meat only when your daddy could afford the ammunition.”
“Might make a difference,” Garraty agreed, and then paused, wondering whether to say anything else. “But it’s never really the important thing.” He saw Baker looking at him uncomprehendingly and a little scornfully.
“You can’t take it with you, that’s your next line,” McVries said.
Garraty glanced at him. McVries was wearing that irritating, slanted smile again. “It’s true, isn’t it?” he said. “We don’t bring anything into the world and we sure as shit don’t take anything out.”
“Yes, but the period in between those two events is more pleasant in comfort, don’t you think?” McVries said.
“Oh, comfort, shit,” Garraty said. “When Mister death-machine pays you a visit, no doctor in the world could revive you with a transfusion of 100 dollar bills.”
“I ain’t dead,” Baker said softly.
“Yeah, but you could be.” Suddenly it was very important to Garraty that he put this across. “What if you won? What if you spent the next six weeks planning what you were going to do with the cash—never mind the Prize, just the cash—and what if the first time you went out to buy something, you got flattened by a bus?”
Harkness had come over and was now walking beside Olson. “Not me, babe,” he said. “First thing I’d do is buy one of those self-driving Teslas. If I win this, I may never walk or drive again.”
“You don’t understand,” Garraty said, more exasperated than ever. “Potato soup or sirloin tips, a mansion or a hovel, once you’re dead that’s it, they put you in the refrigerated trailer like Zuck or Ewing and that’s it. You’re better to take it a day at a time, is all I’m saying. If people just took it a day at a time, they’d be a lot happier.”
“Oh, such a golden flood of bullshit,” McVries said.
“Is that so?” Garraty cried. “How much planning are you doing?”
“Well, right now I’ve sort of adjusted my horizons, that’s true—”
“You bet it is,” Garraty said grimly. “The only difference is we’re involved in dying right now.”
Total silence followed that. Harkness took off his glasses and began to polish them. Olson looked a shade paler. Garraty wished he hadn’t said it; he had gone too far.
Then someone in back said quite clearly: “Hear, hear!”
Garraty looked around, sure it was Stebbins even though he had never heard Stebbins’s voice. But Stebbins gave no sign. He was looking down at the road.
“I guess I got carried away,” Garraty muttered, even though he wasn’t the one who had gotten carried away. That had been Zuck. “Anyone want an Oreo?”
He handed the Oreo cookies around, and it got to be 5:00 PM. The sun seemed to hang suspended halfway over the horizon. The earth might have stopped turning. The 3 or 4 eager beavers who were still ahead of the pack had dropped back until they were less than 50 yards ahead of the main group.
It seemed to Garraty that the road had become a sly combination of upgrades with no corresponding downs. He was thinking that if that were true, they’d all end up breathing through oxygen faceplates before long when his foot came down on a discarded Sprite bottle. Surprised, he looked up. It had been Olson’s. His hands were twitching. There was a look of frowning surprise on his face.
“I dropped it,” he said. “I wanted something to drink and I dropped it.” He laughed, as if to show what a silly thing that had been. The laugh stopped abruptly. “My hands have started to shake. I don’t know why.” he said.
No one answered.
“I’m thirsty,” Olson repeated patiently. He tried to order another Sprite on his iPhone, but his hands were shaking too much.
The Major likes to see someone who’s raring to rip, wasn’t that what Olson had said when he came back from getting his number? Olson didn’t look quite so raring to rip anymore. Garraty looked at the bottle of milk in his hand.
“Here,” he said, and gave Olson the milk.
Olson looked like he was going make one of his food-jokes about drinking milk, but then didn’t say anything, and struggled to drink the milk, spilling half of it.
“Got Milk?”, Baker cracked.
“Milk, a part of this balanced diet.”, McVries followed.
“Milk . . . it does a body good”, Garraty said with a smile.
“We are the four Musketeers,” McVries said, and they all smiled.
By 5:30 PM the air was smoky with twilight. A few early lightning bugs flitted aimlessly through the air. A ground-fog had curdled milkily in the ditches and lower gullies of the fields. Up ahead someone asked what happened if it got so foggy you walked off the road by mistake.
Barkovitch’s unmistakable voice came back quickly and nastily: “What do you think, Dumbo? The drone doesn’t know it’s a mistake. It’s an instant ticket, you idiot.”
Six gone, Garraty thought. Garraty recalled their names in order of ticket . . . Young, Curley, Ewing, Flores, Rashad, and Zuck. He wondered if Flores was still alive. He thought he was since app still showed Flores as disconnected. Eight and a half hours on the road and only 6 gone. There was a small, pinched feeling in his stomach. I’ll never outlast all of them, he thought. Not all of them. But on the other hand, why not. Someone had to.
Talk had faded with the daylight. The silence that set in was oppressive. The encroaching dark, the ground-mist collecting into small, curdled pools . . . for the first time it seemed perfectly real and totally unnatural, and he wanted either Jan or his mother, some woman, and he wondered what in the hell he was doing and how he ever could have gotten involved. He could not even kid himself that everything had not been up front, because it had been. And he hadn’t even done it alone. There were currently 93 other fools in this parade.
The mucus ball was in his throat again, making it hard to swallow. He realized that someone up ahead was sobbing softly. He had not heard the sound begin, and no one had called his attention to it; it was as if it had been there all along.
Apple Maps showed ten miles to Caribou now, and at least there would be lights. The thought cheered Garraty a little. It was okay after all, wasn’t it? He was alive, and there was no sense thinking ahead to a time when he might not be. As McVries had said, it was all a matter of adjusting your horizons.
At 5:45 PM, the App gave an alert that a boy was slowing down. His name was Todd Travin, age 16 from Arizona, nicknamed Fox. He was now falling slowly back through the main group. The words was that Travin had diarrhea. Garraty heard it and couldn’t believe it was true, but when he saw Travin he knew that it was. The boy was walking and holding his pants up at the same time. Every time he squatted he picked up a warning.
Travin was bent over, and every time he shuddered, Garraty knew that another stomach cramp was ripping through him. Garraty felt disgusted. There was no fascination in this, no mystery. It was a boy with a bellyache, that was all, and it was impossible to feel anything but disgust and a kind of animal terror. His own stomach rolled queasily.
Garraty watched Travin’s death-timer count down on the app. When it reached 30, Travin got his third courtesy-warning, and as expected, the death-drone came to life.
Travin squatted as the drone hovered, then began its deadly count-down.
Garraty wondered sickly why Travin didn’t just let it roll down his legs. Better to be dirty than dead.
At 2 seconds to live, Travin stood up suddenly and attempted to pull up his pants and run, but failed to get his pants up in his panic. He continued run with his pants around his ankles. The count-down stopped and the death-drone followed.
Finally, Travin stumbled, and the count-down continued to zero, and he was shot with his pants down. Travin’s head rolled down the road, finally coming to a stop facing upward, his eye-lids blinking as he stared into the sun. Garraty had read that you remain conscious for a short time after you are decapitated, which meant Travis could still see, hear, taste, and feel, until he lost consciousness from lack of blood flow to his brain. He couldn’t scream because his head was now disconnected from his body containing his lungs.
Alert: Ticket 7: #91 Todd Travin, age 16 from Arizona. Nickname: Fox. 93 walkers Remaining.
Someone retched noisily and was warned. It sounded to Garraty as if he was spewing his belly up whole.
“He’ll go next,” Harkness said in a businesslike way.
“Shut up,” Garraty choked thickly. “Can’t you just shut up?”
No one replied. Harkness looked ashamed and began to polish his glasses again. The boy who vomited was not shot.
They passed a group of cheering teenagers sitting on a blanket and drinking Cokes. They recognized Garraty and gave him a standing ovation. It made him feel uncomfortable. One of the girls had very large breasts. Her boyfriend was watching them jiggle as she jumped up and down. Garraty decided that he was turning in to a sex maniac.
“Look at them jahoobies,” Pearson said. “Dear, dear me.”
Garraty wondered if she was a virgin, like he was.
They passed by a still, almost perfectly circular pond, faintly misted over. It looked like a gently clouded mirror, and in the mysterious tangle of water plants growing around the edge, a bull-frog croaked hoarsely. Garraty thought the pond was one of the most beautiful things he had ever seen.
“This is one hell of a big state,” Barkovitch said some place up ahead.
“That guy gives me a royal pain in the ass,” McVries said solemnly. “Right now, my one goal in life is to outlast him.”
Olson was saying a Hail Mary.
Garraty looked at him, alarmed.
“How many warnings has he got?” Pearson asked.
“None that I know of,” Baker said.
“Yeah, but he don’t look so good.”
“At this point, none of us do,” McVries said.
Another silence fell. Garraty was aware for the first time that his feet hurt. Not just his legs, which had been troubling him for some time, but his feet. He noticed that he had been unconsciously walking on the outside of the soles, but every now and then he put a foot down flat and winced. He zipped his jacket all the way up and turned the collar against his neck. The air was still damp and raw.
“Hey! Over there!” McVries said cheerfully.
Garraty and the others looked to the left. They were passing a graveyard situated atop a small grassy knoll. A fieldstone wall surrounded it, and now the mist was creeping slowly around the leaning gravestones. An angel with a broken wing stared at them with empty eyes. A nuthatch perched atop a rust flaking flagholder left over from some patriotic holiday and looked them over perkily.
“Our first boneyard,” McVries said. “It’s on your side. Ray, you lose all your points. Remember that game?”
“You talk too goddam much,” Olson said suddenly.
“What’s wrong with graveyards, Henry, old buddy? A fine and private place, as the poet said. A nice watertight casket—”
“Just shut up!”
“Oh, pickles,” McVries said. His scar flashed very white in the dying daylight. “You don’t really mind the thought of dying, do you, Olson? Like the poet also said, it ain’t the dying, it’s laying in the grave so long. Is that what’s bugging you, booby?” McVries began to trumpet. “Well, cheer up, Charlie! There’s a brighter day com—”
“Leave him alone,” Baker said quietly.
“Why should I? He’s busy convincing himself he can crap out any time he feels like it. That if he just lays down and dies, it won’t be as bad as everyone makes out. Well, I’m not going to let him get away with it.”
“If he doesn’t die, you will,” Garraty said.
“Yeah, I’m remembering,” McVries said, and gave Garraty his tight, slanted smile . . . only this time there was absolutely no humor in it at all. Suddenly McVries looked furious, and Garraty was almost afraid of him. “He’s the one that’s forgetting.”
“I don’t want to do it anymore,” Olson said hollowly, “I’m sick of it.”
“Raring to rip,” McVries said, turning on him. “Isn’t that what you said? Fuck it, then. Why don’t you just fall down and die then?”
“Leave him alone,” Garraty said.
“No, you listen. One Barkovitch is enough. Let him do it his own way. No musketeers, remember.”
McVries smiled again. “Okay, Garraty. You win.”
Olson didn’t say anything. He put in his AirPods, then cranked up his Death Metal play-list, so he could tune out the world. He just kept picking them up and laying them down. Most of the time, Olson was walking with his eyes closed, opening occasionally to make sure he was still tracking the center line.
Full dark had come by 6:30. Caribou, now only 6 miles away, could be seen on the horizon as a dim glow. There were few people along the road to see them into town. They seemed to have all gone home to supper. The mist was chilly around Ray Garraty’s feet. It hung over the hills in ghostly limp banners. The stars were coming brighter overhead, Venus glowing steadily, the Dipper in its accustomed place. He had always been good at the constellations. He pointed out Cassiopeia to Pearson, who only grunted.
He thought about Jan, his girl. He began to fantasize about the sex they would have if he won. Surely, they would both lose their virginity to each other in celebration. He felt a clockspring of pressure in his groin that made him wince a little as he walked.
Jan had long hair, almost to her waist. She was 16. Her breasts were not as big as your typical 16-year-old girl. He had played with her breasts a lot. It drove him crazy. She wouldn’t let him make love to her, and he didn’t know how to make her. She wanted to, but she wouldn’t. Garraty knew that some boys could do that, could get a girl to go along, but he didn’t seem to have quite enough personality—or maybe not quite enough will—to convince her. He wondered how many of the others here were virgins. Gribble had called the Major a murderer. He wondered if Gribble was a virgin. He decided Gribble probably was.
They passed the Caribou city limits. There was a large crowd there, and a news truck from one of the networks. A battery of lights bathed the road in a warm white glare. It was like walking into a sudden warm lagoon of sunlight, wading through it, and then emerging again.
A fat newspaperman in a three-piece suit trotted along with them, poking his long-reach microphone at different Walkers.
“How do you feel?”
“Okay. I guess I feel okay.”
“Yeah, well, you know. Yeah. But I’m still okay.”
“What do you think your chances are now?”
“I dunno . . . okay, I guess. I still feel pretty strong.”
He asked a big bull of a fellow, Scramm, what he thought of the Long Walk. Scramm grinned, said he thought it was the biggest fucking thing he’d ever seen. The technician sighed, knowing each obscenity meant more work for him to censor.
The crowd, drawn as much by the TV crew as by the Long Walkers themselves, cheered enthusiastically. Posters of the Major were raised and lowered rhythmically on sticks. When the drone cameras panned over them, they cheered more frantically than ever and waved to Aunt Betty and Uncle Fred.
They rounded a bend and passed a small shop where the owner, a little man wearing stained white, had set up a soft drink cooler with a sign over it which read: ON THE HOUSE FOR THE LONG WALKERS!! COURTESY OF “EV’S” MARKET! A police cruiser was parked close by, and two policemen were patiently explaining to Ev, as they undoubtedly did every year, that it was against the rules for spectators to offer any kind of aid or assistance—including soft drinks—to the Walkers.
When The Long Walk first started back in ‘66, it was OK for spectators to give the walkers food and drink, but since the poisoning event of ’99, it’s been a banned practice. Any walker who accepts food and drink from anything other than an official delivery drone, will receive a penalty-warning.
They passed by the Caribou Paper Mills, Inc., a huge, soot-blackened building. It had closed long ago and was now filled with rusty and crumbling buildings.
“Did he ask you?” a strident voice inquired of Garraty. With a feeling of great weariness, Garraty looked down at Gary Barkovitch.
“Did who ask me what?”
“The reporter, Dumbo. Did he ask you how you felt?”
“No, he didn’t get to me.” He wished Barkovitch would go away. He wished the throbbing pain in the soles of his feet would go away.
“They asked me,” Barkovitch said. “You know what I told them?”
“I told them I felt great,” Barkovitch said aggressively. “I told them I felt real strong. I told them I felt prepared to go on forever. And do you know what else I told them?”
“Oh, shut up,” Pearson said.
“Who asked you, long, tall and ugly?” Barkovitch said.
“Go away,” McVries said. “You give me a headache.”
Insulted once more, Barkovitch moved on up the line and grabbed Collie Parker. “Did he ask you what—”
“Get out of here before I pull your fucking nose off and make you eat it,” Collie Parker snarled. Barkovitch moved on quickly. The word on Collie Parker was that he was one mean son of a bitch.
“That guy drives me up the wall,” Pearson said.
“He’d be glad to hear it,” McVries said. “It’s all part of his plan, the old psy-war. He’s being annoying on purpose just to mess with your head. He also told that reporter that he planned to dance on a lot of graves. He means it, too. That’s what keeps him going.”
“Next time he comes around I think I’ll trip him,” Olson said. His voice sounded dull and drained.
“Go for it” McVries said. “But keep Rule 8 in mind. No interference with your fellow Walkers. You’d get a penalty-warning if a guard saw you do it.”
“It would totally be worth it. I’d walk off a warning just to see the expression on his face” Olson said with a pallid smile.
“Watch out,” McVries grinned, “you’re starting to sound pretty lively again.”
At 7 PM Garraty noticed the app reported that the pace, which had been lagging very close to the minimum limit, began to pick up a little. It was cool and if you walked faster you kept warmer. They passed beneath a turnpike overpass, and several people cheered them around mouthfuls of Dunkin’ Donuts from the glass-walled shop situated near the base of the exit ramp.
“We join up with the turnpike someplace, don’t we?” Baker asked.
“In Old Town,” Garraty said. “Approximately one hundred and twenty miles.”
Harkness whistled through his teeth.
Not long after that, they walked into downtown Caribou. They were 40 miles from their starting point.
Everyone was disappointed with Caribou.
It was just like Limestone.
The crowds were bigger, but otherwise it was just another small town with a scattering of stores and gas stations, one shopping center that was having, according to the signs plastered everywhere, OUR ANNUAL WALK-IN FOR VALUES SALE!, and a park with a war memorial in it. A small, evil-sounding high school band struck up the National Anthem, then a medley of Sousa marches, and then, with taste so bad it was almost grisly, Marching to Pretoria.
The same woman who had made a fuss at the crossroads so far back turned up again. She was still looking for Percy. This time she made it through the police cordon and right onto the road. She pawed through the boys, unintentionally tripping one of them up. She was yelling for her Percy to come home now. The guards went for their guns, and for a moment it looked very much as if Percy’s mom was going to buy herself an interference ticket. Then a cop got an armlock on her and dragged her away. A small boy sat on a KEEP MAINE TIDY barrel and ate a hotdog and watched the cops put Percy’s mom in a police cruiser. Percy’s mom was the high point of going through Caribou.
“What comes after Old Town, Ray?” McVries asked.
“You really need to learn how to use Apple Maps” Garraty said irritably. “Bangor, Augusta, then Kittery and the state line, over 300 miles from here. Okay?”
Somebody whistled. “300 miles.”
“It’s unbelievable,” Harkness said gloomily.
“The whole damn thing is unbelievable,” McVries said. “I wonder where the Major is?”
“Shacked up in Augusta,” Olson said.
“You know they hear everything we say, right? There is someone always listening through the mics in our iPhones and AirPods.”
“The Major can suck my wiener.”, Harkness suddenly blurted, followed by “Can you hear me now?” and everyone cracked up. Garraty reflected how strange it was about the Major, who had gone from God to Mammon in just ten hours.
The app confirmed there were 93 left. But that wasn’t even the worst anymore. The worst was trying to visualize McVries buying it, or Baker. Or Harkness with his silly book idea. His mind shied away from the thought.
Once Caribou was behind them, the road became all but deserted. They walked through a country crossroads with a single lightpole rearing high above, spotlighting them and making crisp black shadows as they passed through the glare. Far away a train whistle hooted. The moon cast a dubious light on the ground-fog, leaving it pearly and opalescent in the fields.
Garraty called a drone to deliver a bottle of milk.
“Alert: Warning! Third Warning number 12!”
Garraty looked up walker 12 on his app. Saul Fenter, age 14 from Washington, nickname Sully. He was wearing a souvenir T-shirt which read I RODE THE MT. WASHINGTON COG RAILWAY. Fenter was licking his lips. The word was that his foot had stiffened up on him badly. When he was decapitated ten minutes later, Garraty didn’t feel much. He was too tired. He walked around Fenter. Looking down he saw something glittering in Fenter’s hand. A St. Christopher’s medal.
He Googled it and read: In addition to being the patron saint of travelers, Saint Christopher is believed to protect people from epilepsy, lightning, storms, pestilence, and floods. Too bad that list didn’t include death-drone, he thought.
Alert: Ticket 8: #12 Saul Fenter, age 14 from Washington. Nickname: Sully. 92 walkers Remaining.
Garraty browsed the growing list.
1. #25 Bobby Young
2. #7 Seth Curley
3. #9 Carl Ewing
4. #18 Jose Flores (disconnected)
5. #82 Moses Rashad
6. #100 Felix Zuck
7. #91 Todd Travin
8. #12 Saul Fenter
“If I get out of this,” McVries said abruptly, “you know what I’m going to do?”
“What?” Baker asked.
“Fuck until my cock turns blue. I’ve never been so horny in my life as I am right this minute, at quarter of eight on May first.”
“You mean it?” Garraty asked.
“I do,” McVries assured. “I could even get horny for you, Ray, if you didn’t need a shave.”
“Prince Charming, that’s who I am,” McVries said. His hand went to the scar on his cheek and touched it. “Now all I need is a Sleeping Beauty. I could awake her with a biggy sloppy soul kiss and the two of us would ride away into the sunset. At least as far as the nearest Holiday Inn.”
“Walk,” Harkness corrected.
“Walk into the sunset.”
“Walk into the sunset, okay,” McVries said. “True love either way. Do you believe in true love, Hank dear?”
“But Olson had tuned out the world and wasn’t listening. He was slowly going deaf having turned up his AirPods to dangerously high levels.”
“Hey Pickles! Hank! Henry! Olson!”, McVries screamed at him and finally got his attention.
Olson removed his AirPods and slowly turned to McVries.
“What is so important that you’d disturb my trance?”
Garraty spoke up, “We were having a conversation about love. Do you believe in true love, or love at first sight?”
“I believe in a good screw,” Olson said, and Art Baker burst out laughing.
“I believe in true love and love at first sight,” Garraty said, and then felt sorry he had said it. It sounded naive.
“You want to know why I don’t?” Olson said. He looked up at Garraty and grinned a scary, furtive grin. “Ask Fenter. Ask Zuck. They know.”
“That’s a hell of an attitude,” Pearson said. He had come out of the dark from someplace and was walking with them again. Pearson was limping, not badly, but very obviously limping.
“No, it’s not,” McVries said, and then, after a moment, he added cryptically: “Nobody loves a deader.”
“Edgar Allan Poe did,” Baker said. “I did a report on him in school and it said he had tendencies that were ne-necro—”
“Necrophiliac,” Garraty said.
“Yeah, that’s right.”
“What’s that?” Pearson asked.
“It means you got an urge to sleep with a dead woman,” Baker said. “Or a dead man, if you’re a woman.”
“Or if you’re a fruit,” McVries put in.
“Or a woman, if you’re a lesbo”, Harkness added.
“Harkness, you say the strangest shit.”, Garraty replied, “but you always tend to crack me up.”
“How the hell did we get on this?” Olson croaked. “Just how in the hell did we get on the subject of screwing dead people? It’s fucking repulsive.”
“Why not?” a deep, somber voice said. It was Abraham, number 2. He was tall and disjointed-looking; he walked in a perpetual shamble. “I think we all might take a moment or two to stop and think about whatever kind of sex life there may be in the next world.”
“I get Marilyn Monroe,” McVries said. “You can have Eleanor Roosevelt, Abe old buddy.”
Abraham gave him the finger. Up ahead, someone’s Apple watch buzzed then droned out a warning.
“Just a second now. Just one mother-fucking second here.” Olson spoke slowly, as if he wrestled with a tremendous problem in expression. “You’re all off the subject. All off.”
“The Transcendental Quality of Love, a lecture by the noted philosopher and Ethiopian jug-rammer Henry Olson,” McVries said. “Author of A Peach Is Not a Peach without a Pit and other works of—”
“Wait!” Olson cried out. His voice was as shrill as broken glass. “You wait just one goddam second! Love is a put-on! It’s nothing! One big fat el zilcho! You got it?”
No one replied, and there was a long uncomfortable silence, until Harkness spoke up.
“I’m recording our conversations for my book, I hope you know. I’ve taking tons of pics and video too.”
“I’m not sure how I feel about that”, McVries pondered.
Garraty looked out ahead of him, where the dark charcoal hills met the star-punched darkness of the sky. He wondered if he couldn’t feel the first faint twinges of a charley horse in the arch of his left foot. I want to sit down, he thought irritably. Damn it all, I want to sit down.
“Love is a fake!” Olson was blaring. “There are three great truths in the world and they are a good meal, a good screw, and a good shit, and that’s all! And when you get like Fenter and Zuck—”
“Shut up,” a bored voice said, and Garraty knew it was Stebbins. But when he looked back, Stebbins was only looking at the road and walking along near the left-hand edge.
Baker was whistling again. Garraty let his eyelids drop mostly shut. His feet moved on their own.
His half-dozing mind began to slip away from him. Random thoughts began to chase each other lazily across its field.
His Apple watched buzzed and startled him awake, “Alert: Warning! First Warning number 47!”
An elbow poked him rudely in the ribs. “That’s you, boy. Rise and shine.” McVries was grinning at him.
“What time is it?” Garraty asked thickly.
“But I’ve been—”
“—dozing for hours,” McVries said. “I know the feeling.”
“Well, it sure seemed that way.”
“It’s your mind,” McVries said, “using the old escape hatch. Don’t you wish your feet could?”
“I use Dial,” Harkness said, pulling an idiotic face. “Don’t you wish everybody did?”
Garraty looked at him puzzled. “I don’t get it.”
“It’s from an old ad for this soap from the seventies.”
“You just keeping getting more weird as time passes.”
Garraty thought that memories were like a line drawn in the dirt. The further back you went the scuffier and harder to see that line got. Until finally there was nothing but smooth sand and the black hole of nothingness that you came out of. The memories were in a way like the road. Here it was real and hard and tangible. But that early road, that nine in the morning road, was far back and meaningless.
They were almost 50 miles into the Walk. The word came back that the Major would be by in his jeep to review them and make a short speech when they got to the 50-mile point. Garraty thought that was most probably horse-shit.
They breasted a long, steep rise, and Garraty was tempted to take his jacket off again. He didn’t. He unzipped it, though, and then walked backward for a minute. The lights of Caribou twinkled at him, and he thought about Lot’s wife, who had looked back and turned into a pillar of salt.
Alert: Warning! Second warning number 47!
It took Garraty a moment to realize it was him. His second warning in 10 minutes. He started to feel afraid again. He thought of the unnamed boy who had died because he had slowed down once too often. Was that what he was doing?
He looked around. McVries, Harkness, Baker and Olson were all staring at him. Olson was having a particularly good look. He could make out the intent expression on Olson’s face even in the dark. Olson had outlasted six. He wanted to make Garraty lucky seven. He wanted Garraty to die.
“What are you looking at?” Garraty asked irritably.
“Nothing” Olson said, his eyes sliding away.
Garraty walked with determination now, his arms swinging aggressively. It was 8:40 PM. At 10:40 PM—eight miles down the road—he would be free again. He felt a hysterical urge to proclaim he could do it, they needn’t send the word back on him, they weren’t going to watch him get a ticket . . . at least not yet.
When the app reported they had walked 50 miles, the Major didn’t come. No one came.
Garraty knew from Apple Maps that there was a long steep hill up ahead. They were all dreading it. The sign read:
STEEP GRADE TRUCKS USE LOW GEAR
Groans and moans. Somewhere up ahead Barkovitch called out merrily: “Step into it, brothers! Who wants to race me to the top?”
“Shut your goddam mouth, you little freak,” someone said quietly.
“Make me, Dumbo!” Barkovitch shrilled. “Come on up here and make me!”
“He’s crackin’,” Baker said.
“No,” McVries replied. “It’s his plan . . . remember?”
Olson’s voice was deadly quiet. “I don’t think I can climb that hill. Not at four miles an hour.”
The hill stretched above them. They were almost to it now. With the fog it was impossible to see the top. For all we know, it might just go up forever, Garraty thought.
They started up.
It wasn’t as bad, Garraty discovered, if you stared down at your feet as you walked and leaned forward a little. You stared strictly down at the tiny patch of pavement between your feet and it gave you the impression that you were walking on level ground. Of course, you couldn’t kid yourself that your lungs and the breath in your throat weren’t heating up, because they were.
Somehow, the word started coming back—some people still had breath to spare, apparently. The word was that no Walker had ever gotten a ticket on this hill. The word was that three boys had gotten tickets here just last year. And after that, the word stopped coming back.
“I can’t do it,” Olson was saying monotonously. “I can’t do it anymore.” His breath was coming in dog-like pants. But he kept on walking and they all kept on walking. Little grunting noises and soft, plosive breathing became audible. The only other sounds were Olson’s chant, the scuff of many feet, and the grind of the Jeep engines in low gear as they lugged the trailers along beside them.
Garraty felt the bewildered fear in his stomach grow. He could actually die here. It wouldn’t be hard at all. He had screwed around and had gotten 2 warnings on him already. He couldn’t be much over the limit right now. All he had to do was slip his pace a little and he’d have number three—final warning. And then . . .
Alert: Warning! First Warning number 70!
“C’mon, Olson,” McVries said between pants. “Pick up your feet. I want to see you dance up this hill like Fred Astaire.”
“What do you care?” Olson asked fiercely.
McVries didn’t answer. Olson found a little more inside himself and managed to pick it up. Garraty wondered morbidly if the little more Olson had found was his last legs. He also wondered about Stebbins, back there tailing the group. How are you, Stebbins? Getting tired?
Up ahead, a boy named Kevin Larson, number 60, suddenly sat down on the road. He got a warning. He was having trouble catching his breath.
“Alert: Warning! Second Warning number 60!” buzzed his Apple watch. He just sat there, gasping for breath like he was having an asthma attack.
Garraty felt his pulse beating warmly in his temples. Larson got his third warning . . . now he’ll get up and start flogging it.
The Jeep pulling the death-drone trailer just happened to be passing Larson, so it stopped. The drone didn’t spin up this time. It didn’t have to. The landing platform raised up and had a perfect shot from the trailer.
The walkers behind Larson stopped to avoid getting shot and the ten second count-down began.
Larson crawled toward the trailer then rolled under it. The count down reached 0, but the gun did not fire. The target was no longer in view.
Everyone’s Apple watch got this alert.
Alert: Ticket 9: #60 Kevin Larson, age 15 from New Hampshire. Nickname: Kevo. 91 walkers Remaining.
Larson received his ticket, which means he was to be shot.
The boys cheered! Larson had cheated death for now, and the guards were not authorized to give tickets. The Jeep pulling the body-trailer stopped and waited.
Finally, Larson’s heart beat had slowed enough to the point where he could form words. “Guys!”, pant, pant, “I can walk now”, pant, pant, “I can catch up.”, pant, pant, “There’s no need to —”
The Jeep pulling the trailer suddenly accelerated up the hill as the death-drone spun up and took off. It all happened very quickly.
Larson sprinted away from the death-drone, down the hill, past walkers, past the body-trailer. “You don’t have to shoot me! I’m fine! I can —”, the machine-gun fired with deadly accuracy, and Larson lost his head. Literally. His head went bouncing down the steep hill and was soon out of sight.”
“You don’t see that every day” McVries said between breaths.
Garraty made no reply. He stared at his feet and walked and focused all his concentration on getting to the top without that third warning. His death-timer stood at 33, just 3 seconds from his third warning and his speed lingered right on the edge of 4 mph. It couldn’t go on much longer, this monster hill. Surely not.
The death-drone came flying up the hill. It was counting down to zero from 10. It flew past its trailer and past Garraty. He felt the wind as it passed. It obviously had a new target.
Up ahead someone uttered a high, gobbling scream, and then the machine-gun claimed its second victim on this hill.
“Barkovitch,” Baker said hoarsely. “That was Barkovitch, I’m sure it was.”
“Wrong, redneck!” Barkovitch yelled out of the darkness. “One hundred per cent dead wrong!”
Alert: Ticket 10: #58 Peter Kealoha, age 15 from Hawaii, nickname: Petey. 90 Remaining.
Garraty gasped, “Hey Peter, . . . they got one of you.”.
“It’s no surprise . . . There are 7 guys in this walk named Peter . . . 10 walkers have the last name Foster . . . So, as you’d expect . . . there’s a Peter Foster too.”
“Actually,” Garraty corrected, “I see 2 Peter Foster’s.”
They never did see Peter Kealoha. He had been part of the vanguard. The Jeep pulling the body-trailer was able to bag and stash him quickly. Garraty ventured a look up from the pavement and was immediately sorry. He could see the top of the hill—just barely. They still had the length of a football field to go. It looked like a hundred miles. No one said anything else. Each of them had retreated into his own private world of pain and effort. Seconds seemed to telescope into hours.
Near the top of the hill, a rutted dirt road branched off the main drag, and a farmer and his family stood there. They watched the Walkers go past—an old man with a deeply seamed brow, a hatchet-faced woman in a bulky cloth coat, three teenaged children who all looked half-witted.
“All he needs . . . is a pitchfork,” McVries told Garraty breathlessly. Sweat was streaming down McVries’s face. “And . . . Grant Wood . . . to paint him.”
The hill went on. The death-drone had just landed but did not have enough time to spin-down when it spun-up again, then headed for Toland. Toland had fainted and was shot after his Apple watch had warned his unconscious body three times
Alert: Ticket 11: #90 Jake Toland, age 15 from West Virginia, nickname Jakie. 89 Remaining.
It seemed to Garraty that they had been climbing the hill for at least a month now. Yes, it had to be a month at least, and that was a conservative estimate because they had been walking for just over three years. He giggled a little, took another mouthful of milk, sloshed it around in his mouth, and then swallowed it. No cramps. A cramp would finish him now. But it could happen. It could happen because someone had dipped his shoes in liquid lead while he wasn’t looking.
3 gone just from this hill. The Major had told Olson to give them hell, and if this wasn’t hell, it was a pretty good approximation. A pretty good . . .
Garraty was suddenly aware that he felt quite giddy, as if he might faint himself. He brought one hand up and slapped himself across the face, backward and forward, hard.
“You all right?” McVries asked.
“Pour my . . .” Quick, whistling breath, “. . . Polar Springs over your head.”
Garraty did it. I christen thee Raymond Davis Garraty, pax vobiscum. The water was very cold. He stopped feeling faint. Some of the water trickled down inside his shirt in freezing cold rivulets.
They kept climbing and no one else got it and then they were at the top. It was 9:00 PM. They had been on the road 12 hours. It didn’t mean anything. The only thing that mattered was the cool breeze blowing over the top of the hill. And the sound of a bird. And the feel of his damp shirt against his skin. And the memories in his head. Those things mattered, and Garraty clung to them with desperate awareness. They were his things and he still had them.
“Man, I’m glad to be alive.”
McVries didn’t answer. They were on the downslope now. Walking was easy.
“I’m going to try hard to stay alive,” Garraty said, almost apologetically.
The road curved gently downward. They were still 115 miles from Old Town and the comparative levelness of the turnpike.
“That’s the idea, isn’t it?” McVries asked finally. His voice sounded cracked and cobwebby, as if it had issued from a dusty cellar.
Neither of them said anything for a while. No one was talking. Baker ambled steadily along—he hadn’t drawn a warning yet—with his hands in his pockets, his head nodding slightly with the flat-footed rhythm of his walk. Olson had gone back to Hail Mary, full of grace. His face was a white splotch in the darkness. Harkness was eating.
“Garraty,” McVries said.
“You ever see the end of a Long Walk in person?”
“Not in person. Only highlights on TV. Have you ever seen it in person?”
“Hell, no. I just thought, you being close to it and all—”
“My father hated them. He took me to one as a what-do-you-call-it, object lesson. But that was the only time.”
Garraty jumped at the sound of that voice. It was Stebbins. He had pulled almost even with them, his head still bent forward, his blond hair flapping around his ears like a sickly halo.
“What was it like?” McVries asked. His voice was younger somehow.
“You don’t want to know,” Stebbins said.
“I asked, didn’t I?”
Stebbins made no reply, Garraty’s curiosity about him was stronger than ever. According to the App, Stebbins was the only walker who had no warnings.
“Yeah, what’s it like?” he heard himself asking.
“I saw the end four years ago for the Long Walk 2016,” Stebbins said. “I was 13. It ended about 16 miles over the New Hampshire border. They had the National Guard out and 16 Federal Squads to augment the State Police. They had to. The people were packed 60-deep on both sides of the road for 50 miles. Over 20 people were trampled to death before it was all over. It happened because people were trying to move with the Walkers, trying to see the end of it. I had a front-row seat. My dad got it for me.”
“What does your dad do?” Garraty asked.
“He’s in the Squads. And he had it figured just right. I didn’t even have to move. The Walk ended practically in front of me.”
“What happened?” Olson asked softly.
“I could hear them coming before I could see them. We all could. It was one big soundwave, getting closer and closer. And it was still an hour before they got close enough to see. They weren’t looking at the crowd, either of the two that were left. It was like they didn’t even know the crowd was there. What they were looking at was the road. They were hobbling along, both of them. Like they had been crucified and then taken down and made to walk with the nails still through their feet.”
They were all listening to Stebbins now. A horrified silence had fallen like a rubber sheet.
“The crowd was yelling at them, almost as if they could still hear. Some were yelling one guy’s name, and some were yelling the other guy’s, but the only thing that really came through was this Go . . . Go . . . Go chant. I was getting shoved around like a beanbag. The guy next to me either pissed himself or jacked off in his pants, you couldn’t tell which.
“They walked right past me. One of them was a big blond with his shirt open. One of his shoe soles had come unglued or unstitched or whatever, and it was flapping. The other guy wasn’t even wearing his shoes anymore. He was in his stocking feet. His socks ended at his ankles. The rest of them . . . why, he’d just walked them away, hadn’t he? His feet were purple. You could see the broken blood vessels in his feet. I don’t think he really felt it anymore. Maybe they were able to do something with his feet later, I don’t know. Maybe they were.”
“Stop. For God’s sake, stop it.” It was McVries. He sounded dazed and sick.
“You wanted to know,” Stebbins said, almost genially. “Didn’t you say that?”
No answer. Somewhere farther up someone drew a warning.
“It was the big blond that lost. I saw it all. They were just a little past me. He threw both of his arms up, like he was Superman. But instead of flying he just fell flat on his face and they gave him his ticket after thirty seconds because he was walking with three. They were both walking with three.
“Then the crowd started to cheer. They cheered and they cheered and then they could see that the kid that won was trying to say something. So they shut up. He had fallen on his knees, you know, like he was going to pray, only he was just crying. And then he crawled over to the other boy and put his face in that big blond kid’s shirt. Then he started to say whatever it was he had to say, but we couldn’t hear it. He was talking into the dead kid’s shirt. He was telling the dead kid. Then the loudhailer announced he had won the Prize. The Major asked him how he wanted to start.”
“What did he say?” Garraty asked. It seemed to him that with the question he had laid his whole life on the line.
“He didn’t say anything, not then,” Stebbins said. “He was talking to the dead kid. He was telling the dead kid something, so someone put a microphone near his mouth and we all heard him. He was saying he was sorry. He was saying how much he loved him.”
“What happened then?” Pearson asked.
“He fainted from exhaustion and they took him away. The other boy was bagged and stashed.” Stebbins said remotely.
No one said anything. Garraty felt a panicked, trapped sensation, as if someone had stuffed him into an underground pipe that was too small to get out of. Up ahead a third warning was given out and a boy made a croaking, despairing sound, like a dying crow. Please God, don’t let anyone die now, Garraty thought. I’ll go crazy if I hear the death-drone now. Please God, please God.
A few minutes later the death-drone came to life and machinegun echoed into the night. This time it was a short boy in a flapping red and white football jersey. For a moment Garraty thought Percy’s mom would not have to wonder or worry anymore, but it wasn’t Percy.
Alert: Ticket 12: #76 Tracy Quentin, age 15 from Oklahoma. Nickname: Tray. 88 walkers Remaining.
Garraty didn’t go crazy. He turned around to say angry words at Stebbins—to ask him, perhaps, how it felt to inflict a boy’s last minutes with such a horror—but Stebbins had dropped back to his usual position and Garraty was alone again.
They walked on.
At 20 minutes of 10:00 PM on that endless May first, Garraty sluffed one of his 2 warnings. His death-timer was back to 90. Two more Walkers had bought it since the boy in the football jersey.
Alert: Ticket 13: #50 Steven Hawksworth, age 14 from New Hampshire. Nickname: Steve. 87 walkers Remaining.
Alert: Ticket 14: #53 Gregory Hill, age 17 from Missouri. Nickname: Greg. 86 walkers Remaining.
Garraty barely noticed. He was taking a careful inventory of himself.
One head, a little confused and crazied up, but basically okay. Two eyes, grainy. One neck, pretty stiff. Two arms, no problem there. One torso, okay except for a gnawing in his gut that no food couldn’t satisfy. Two damn tired legs. Muscles aching. He wondered how far his legs would carry him on their own—how long before his brain took them over and began punishing them, making them work past any sane limit, to keep 100 bullets from separating his head from his body. How long before the legs began to kink and then to bind up, to protest and finally to seize up and stop.
His legs were tired, but so far as he could tell, still pretty much okay.
And two feet. Aching. They were tender, no use denying it. He was a big boy. Those feet were shifting 160 pounds back and forth. The soles ached. There were occasional strange shooting pains in them. His left great toe had poked through his sock (he thought of Stebbins’s tale and felt a kind of creeping horror at that), and had begun to rub uncomfortably against his shoe. But his feet were working, there were still no blisters on them, and he felt his feet were still pretty much okay, too.
Garraty, he pep-talked himself, you’re in good shape. 14 guys dead, twice that many maybe hurting bad by now, but you’re okay. You’re going good. You’re great. You’re alive.
Conversation, which had died violently at the end of Stebbins’s story, picked up again. Talking was what living people did. Yannick, number 98, was discussing the history of The Long Walk in an overloud voice with Wyman, number 97. Both agreed that it was mixed, colorful, hirsute, and bastardized.
Pearson, meanwhile, abruptly asked Garraty: “Ever have an enema?”
“Enema?” Garraty repeated. He thought about it. “No. I don’t think so.”
“Any of you guys?” Pearson asked. “Tell the truth, now.”
“I did,” Harkness said, and chuckled a little. “My mother gave me one after Halloween once when I was little. I ate pretty near a whole shopping bag of candy.”
“Did you like it?” Pearson pressed.
“Hell, no! Who in hell would like a half a quart of warm soapsuds up your—”
“My little brother,” Pearson said sadly. “I asked the little snot if he was sorry I was going and he said no because Ma said he could have an enema if he was good and didn’t cry. He loves ’em.”
“That’s sickening,” Harkness said loudly.
Pearson looked glum. “I thought so, too.”
A few minutes later Davidson joined the group and told them about the times he got drunk at the Steubenville State Fair and crawled into the hoochie-kooch tent and got biffed in the head by a big fat momma wearing nothing but a G-string. When Davidson told her (so he said) that he was drunk and thought it was the tattooing tent he was crawling into, the red-hot big fat momma let him feel her up for a while (so he said). He had told her he wanted to get a Stars and Bars tattooed on his stomach.
Art Baker told them about a contest they’d had back home, to see who could light the biggest fart, and this hairy-assed old boy named Davey Popham had managed to burn off almost all the hair on his ass and the small of his back as well. Smelled like a grassfire, Baker said. Harkness slowed from laughing so hard and drew a warning.
After that, the race was on. Tall story followed tall story until the whole shaky structure came tumbling down. Someone else was warned, and not long after, the other Baker (James) bought a ticket.
Alert: Ticket 15: #4 James Baker, age 15 from Nevada. Nickname: Jimmy. 85 walkers Remaining.
The good humor went out of the group. Some of them began to talk about their girlfriends, and the conversation became stumbling and maudlin. Garraty said nothing about Jan, but as tired 10:00 PM came rolling in, a black coal-sack splattered with milky ground-mist, it seemed to him that she was the best thing he had ever known.
They passed under a short string of mercury-vapor street-lights, through a closed and shuttered town, all of them subdued now, speaking in low murmurs. In front of the Shopwell near the far end of this wide place in the road a young couple sat asleep on a sidewalk bench with their heads leaning together. A sign that could not be read dangled between them. The girl was very young—she looked no more than fourteen—and her boyfriend was wearing a sport shirt that had been washed too many times to ever look very sporty again. Their shadows in the street made a merge that the Walkers passed quietly over.
Garraty glanced back over his shoulder, quite sure that the deep chug of the Jeep’s Diesel V-8 engine must have awakened them. But they still slept, unaware that the Event had come and passed them by. He wondered if the girl would get in trouble when she got home past her bed-time. She looked awfully young. He wondered if their sign was for Go-Go Garraty, “Maine’s Own.” Somehow, he hoped not. Somehow the idea was a little repulsive.
He ate the last of a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich and felt a little better. He helped Olson eat and drink since his hands were still shaking. He got Olson to eat some healthy-food this time. Olson no longer had a choice. He was the mercy of his Musketeers. It was funny about Olson. Garraty would have bet 6 hours ago that Olson was pretty well-done in. But he was still walking, and now without warnings. Garraty glanced at Olson’s Apple watch. He had the full 120 on his timer. The last warning Olson had gotten was over 5 hours ago. Garraty supposed a person could do a lot of things when his life was at stake. According to the App, they had come about 54 miles now.
The last of the talk died with the nameless town. They marched in silence for an hour or so, and the chill began to seep into Garraty again. He ate the last of his Oreo cookies, then pitched the wrapper into the brush at the side of the road. Just another litterbug on the great tomato plant of life. All of the food wrappers have the Long Walk logo on them, so someone will find it, and it will become a collector’s item.
McVries had produced a toothbrush of all things from his small packsack and was busy dry-brushing his teeth. It all goes on, Garraty thought wonderingly. You burp, you say excuse me. You wave back at the people who wave to you because that’s the polite thing to do. No one argues very much with anyone else (except for Barkovitch) because that’s also the polite thing to do. It all goes on.
Or did it? He thought of McVries sobbing at Stebbins to shut up. Of Olson taking his food and drink with the dumb humility of a paraplegic. It all seemed to have a heightened intensity about it, a sharper contrast of colors and light and shadow.
At 11:00 PM, several things happened almost at once. They got a news alert that a small bridge up ahead had been washed out by a heavy afternoon thunder-storm. With the bridge out, the Walk would have to be temporarily stopped. A weak cheer went up through the ragged ranks, and Olson, in a very soft voice, muttered “Thank God.”
A moment later Barkovitch began to scream a flood of profanity at the boy next to him, a squat, ugly boy with the unfortunate name of Rank. Rank took a swing at him—something expressly forbidden by the rules. The guards saw it, and issued a penalty-warning to Rank. His Apple watch buzzed “Alert: Penalty-Warning! First Warning number 80”. Rank’s death-timer instantly dropped from 120 to 90. Barkovitch didn’t even break stride. He simply lowered his head and ducked under the punch and went on yelling.
“Come on, you sonofabitch! I’ll dance on your goddam grave! Come on, Dumbo, pick up your feet! Don’t make it too easy for me!”
Rank threw another punch. Barkovitch nimbly stepped around it, but tripped over Gribble. They both received penalty-warnings by the guards, who were now watching the developments carefully but emotionlessly—like men watching a couple of ants squabbling over a crumb of bread, Garraty thought bitterly.
Rank started to walk faster, not looking at Barkovitch. Barkovitch himself, furious at being warned, yelled at him: “What are you a pussy? A little scared chicken-shit?”
With that, Rank suddenly turned around and charged Barkovitch.
Cries of “Break it up!” and “Cut the shit!” filled the air, but Rank took no notice. He went for Barkovitch with his head down, bellowing.
Barkovitch side-stepped him. Rank went stumbling and pin-wheeling across the soft shoulder, skidded in the sand, and sat down with his feet splayed out. He was given his third penalty-warning, and his timer dropped to 30, then continued to count down from there.
“Come on, Faggot!” Barkovitch goaded. “Get up queer-boy!” Rank was so consumed with rage, that he failed to hear the third warning. He failed to hear the death-drone spinning up.
Rank did get up, but felt dazed and woozy, then fell flat on face in a faint.
The third thing that happened around 11:00 PM was Rank’s death. There was a moment of extreme noise as the machinegun fired removing Rank’s head from his body, then silence once the drone landed. Baker’s voice was loud and clearly audible: “There, Barkovitch, you’re not a pest anymore. Now you’re a murderer.”
Alert: Ticket 16: #80 Stephen Rank, age 14 from Hawaii. Nickname: Rank. 84 walkers Remaining.
“Rule 8 bitches!” Barkovitch yelled. “You saw him, he swung first! It’s all part of my plan.”
No one said anything.
“Olson, you made fun of my plan. I will dance on your grave ass-hole. I’ll dance on all your graves!”
McVries said easily: “Go on back and dance on him a little, Barker-boy. Go entertain us. Boogie on him a little bit.”
“You are all a bunch of fools to help each other. Garraty is helping Olson to eat. McVries prevented Garraty from fainting. You’re just making it harder on everyone including yourselves. These are not your friends. They’re your enemies. The sooner this ends the better. If we’re still doing this on day 5, the winner is going to need his feet amputated.” Barkovitch said matter-of-factly.
“Can’t wait to see your head rolling down the road” McVries said quietly. His hand had gone to the scar and was rubbing, rubbing, rubbing. “I’ll cheer when it happens, you murdering little bastard.”
Barkovitch smiled, “That’s the spirit! Now apply that thinking to everyone else so we can end this on day 3, and I can keep my feet.”
McVries gave him the evil-eye, then turned to Garraty, Baker and Olson and said “C’mon”, then picked up speed to leave Barkovitch behind. The musketeers followed, but Garraty secretly thought Barkovitch made a good point.
They hit 60 miles at about 11:10 PM, with no sign of a bridge of any kind when they cleared a small hill and looked down into a pool of light where a small crowd of hustling, bustling men moved.
The lights were the beams of several trucks, directed at the fast-running rill of water where the bridge had been. “Truly I love that bridge,” Olson said.
Just then the death-drone spun up and started flying toward a walker on their third warning, but suddenly turned back. “The walk is being temporarily stopped” was heard of over the loudhailer. Garraty thought, someone just got very lucky.
The loudhailer continued, “Your timers have been suspended at their current times. Benches and mattresses have been provided. Stay within the staging area outlined in orange. You must not leave the road. Portable toilets have been provided. The drones have been disabled. There is a table with food and drink.”, this message repeated itself until all 85 walkers had assembled within the staging area.
There were not enough benches and mattresses for everyone, so about half the boys just collapsed onto the road, Olson included, who instantly fell asleep. “Hey Olson”, McVries shouted, but Olson did not stir. “Is he dead?”, Baker inquired.
“Oh my god, my feet are killing me with the pins and needles right now.”, Garraty admitted. The four Musketeers huddled together sharing their aches and pains. The road was hard and cold, but they didn’t care. It felt so good to take the weight off.
Garraty monitored the news App and said “They’re flying in a bridge with a heavy-lift aerial-crane helicopter right now. It should be arriving soon. This thing could carry a tank!”
Pearson said in a breaking, weepy voice, “Aw, shit!”
Within minutes they could hear it approaching, then it was above them. All anyone could see were its powerful spot-lights turning night into day. The downdraft became so intense, it was picking up debris, so everyone had to turn their backs and close their eyes. Nobody could watch as this bridge was lowered into place, then the aerial crane severed the cables and flew away.
“Shit, my AirPods got blown away”, Olson said. “I needed those to get into the zone listening to Christian Death, Alien Sex Friend and The Flesh Eaters.”
“You can borrow mine”, said Garraty. “We’re the four Musketeers. We help each other, right?” They all mumbled in agreement.
“Would you massage my feet, my dear boy Ray?”, McVries jokingly asked.
“Sure, as long as you jerk me off”, Garraty replied with a smile.
McVries burst out laughing, and gave Garraty a wink.
Garraty noticed Stebbins was doing Yoga. Barkovitch was also sitting on the road and stretching. So Garraty decided he needed to stretch too and was surprised at how stiff and store his muscles were.
Loudhailer “The walk will resume in 10 minutes at midnight.”, there were moans and groans. “Your timers will be enabled at midnight.”, more moans and groans. “Drones will be also enabled at midnight.”
“Wake me when it’s time to go”, Olson said, and fell promptly back to sleep.
Nobody stirred when at the 5-minute warning, but walkers started to rise when the loudhailer announced “This is your 2-minute warning. Your timers will be enabled in 2 minutes, but you can begin walking now.”
The 4 boys that remained in the vanguard began walking. Garraty wondered what advantage they had to leading the walk. The 4 Musketeers like to hang near the back of the pack, closer to the caboose known as Stebbins, for some reason.
Loudhailer: “This is your 1-minute warning. Your timers will be enabled in 1 minute. You can begin walking now if you want.”
About twenty of the boys had started walking, most were limping, muscles stiff from not moving for 25 minutes. Everyone else was getting to their feet . . . except for one boy.
“No puedo levantarme ¡Mis piernas! ¡Mis piernas!” It was #71. Garraty looked him up. Pablo Pablo, nickname Pablo. Garraty snickered, and wondered if that was his real name. His death-timer stood at 19. He was the walker that got his third warning right before they stopped the walk”. It appeared that his leg muscles had frozen, or cramped up. Two boys tried to help him to his feet, but he couldn’t straight his legs. They obviously had their own Musketeers and helped each other.
Loudhailer: “The walk begins in 10 seconds. Your timers and the drones will all be enabled. You may begin walking now if you want.”
Most boys had started walking at this point, but the 4 Musketeers just stood and watched as the other group of 4 Musketeers try to help one of their own.
They were speaking Spanish, and Garraty didn’t understand what they were saying, but he could see that they were trying to carry him.
The death-drone spun up to finish what it started. The walk had begun again. Garraty and friends started walking as the drone flew over their heads toward Pablo, whose death-timer was counting down again. His friends were attempting to carry him, but failing to maintain the 4 mph speed-limit. The death-drone matched their pace, staying in position as his timer counted down. The loudhailer on death-drone commenced the 10-second count-down, but this time in Spanish. Diez, nueve, ocho, siete, seis, … his friends put him down, and were apologizing in Spanish. Garraty couldn’t understand what they were saying but he assumed he was saying “Stay with me” because they stayed by his side and held his hands, right up until 1 seconds before Pablo’s ticket was issued, then they jumped clear and Pablo got ticket 16.
Alert: Ticket 17: #71 Pablo Pablo, age 17 from Georgia. Nickname: Pablo. 83 walkers Remaining.
After they had crossed the bridge in a loose sort of group, Stebbins, Davidson, McVries, Olson, Pearson, Harkness, Baker, and Garraty, one of the spectators said “That’s him. That’s Garraty.”
“Keep goin’, boy!” the other yelled. “I got 50 bucks on you at 12-to-1!”
The road dog-legged, and the only reminder of the rest they’d just had was a wedge-shaped swath of light on the trees at the side of the road. Soon that was gone, too.
“Has a Long Walk ever been stopped before for anything?” Harkness asked.
“Yeah, a few times. Nature and people can be unpredictable sometimes. You can Google it, or just visit longwalk.com” Garraty said. “More material for the book?”
“Everything is material for my book” Harkness said. He sounded tired.
“It stops every year,” Stebbins said from behind them. “Once.”
Harkness spoke in his best professor of English voice, “My good man Stebbins. I asked if it had BEEN stopped, NOT if it stopped. There’s a difference. English, my good sir!“
“Good one Harkness. You got me. High Five!”
About 20 minutes later, McVries came up beside Garraty and walked with him in silence for a little while. Then, very quietly, he said: “Do you think you’ll win, Ray?”
“Not as long as you’re still breathing”, Garraty quickly joked back.
Garraty considered it for a long, long time.
“No,” he said finally. “No, I . . . no.”
The stark admission frightened him. He thought again about buying a ticket, no, getting shot in the neck by 100 gas tipped slugs, losing his head, of the final frozen half-second of total knowledge, seeing the flying death machine swing toward him. Legs frozen. Guts crawling and clawing. Muscles, genitals, brain all cowering away from the oblivion a blood-beat away.
He swallowed dryly. “How about yourself?”
“I guess not,” McVries said. “I stopped thinking I had any real chance around nine tonight. You see, I . . .” He cleared his throat. “It’s hard to say, but . . . I went into it with my eyes open, you know?” He gestured around himself at the other boys. “Lots of these guys didn’t, you know? I knew the odds. But I didn’t figure on people. And I don’t think I ever realized the real gut truth of what this is. I think I had the idea that when the first guy got so he couldn’t cut it anymore the death drone would shoot little pieces of paper with the word BANG printed on them would . . . would . . . and the Major would say April Fool and we’d all go home. Do you get what I’m saying at all?”
Garraty thought of his own rending shock when Young had lost his head at the start. “Yes,” he said. “I know what you’re saying.”
“It took me a while to figure it out, but it was faster after I got around that mental block. Walk or die, that’s the moral of this story. Simple as that. It’s not survival of the physically fittest, that’s where I went wrong when I let myself get into this. If it was, I’d have a fair chance. But there are weak men who can lift cars if their wives are pinned underneath. The brain, Garraty.” McVries’s voice had dropped to a hoarse whisper. “It isn’t man or God. It’s something . . . in the brain.”
A whippoorwill called once in the darkness. The groundfog was lifting.
“Some of these guys will go on walking long after they’ve broken the laws of biochemistry and physics. There was a guy last year that crawled for two miles at four miles an hour after both of his feet cramped up at the same time, you remember reading about that? Look at Olson, he’s worn out but he keeps going. That goddam Barkovitch is running on high-octane hate and he just keeps going and he’s as fresh as a daisy. Maybe he’s just acting but I don’t think I can do that. I’m not tired—not really tired—yet. But I will be.” The scar stood out on the side of his haggard face as he looked ahead into the darkness. “And I think . . . when I get tired enough . . . I think I’ll just sit down.”
Garraty was silent, but he felt alarmed. Very alarmed.
“I’ll outlast Barkovitch, though,” McVries said, almost to himself. “I can do that, by Christ.”
“It sounds like you’re running on a little high-octane hate as well. Hey, whatever works. Do it for hate. Do it for love. Or just do it.”
“Yeah, Nike, Just do it. Sounds like something Hank ‘Mr. Slogan’ Olson would say.”
Garraty glanced at his Apple watch and saw it was 12:34 AM. They passed through a deserted crossroads where a sleepy-looking constable was parked. The possible traffic he had been sent out to halt was nonexistent. They walked past him, out of the bright circle of light thrown by the single mercury lamp. Darkness fell over them like a coal-sack again.
“We could do what Flores did, and block our GPS signal, then slip into the woods now and they’d never see us,” Garraty said thoughtfully.
“Try it,” Olson said. “They’ve got drones with infrared cameras, along with forty other kinds of monitoring gear, including high-intensity microphones. They hear everything we’re saying. They can almost pick up your heartbeat. And they see you like daylight, Ray. The only reason Flores got away was because the drones can’t fly when it’s raining or in high winds. By the time they knew he was missing, he was long gone.”
A boy behind them got his second warning.
“You take all the fun outta livin’,” Baker said softly. His faint Southern drawl sounded out of place and foreign to Garraty’s ears.
McVries had walked away. The darkness seemed to isolate each of them, and Garraty felt a shaft of intense loneliness. There were mutters and half-yelps every time something crashed through the woods they were going past, and Garraty realized with some amusement that a late evening stroll through the Maine woods could be no picnic for the city boys in the crew. An owl made a mysterious noise somewhere to their left. On the other side something rustled, was still, rustled again, was still, and then made a crashing break for less populated acreage. There was another nervous cry of “What was that?”
The guards were monitoring for dangerous wildlife like a bear, fox, wolf, rabid dog or deer in heat. They would see it coming and take it out before it could do harm to walkers. There was no need to worry.
Overhead, capricious spring clouds began to scud across the sky in mackerel shapes, promising more rain. Garraty turned up his collar and listened to the sound of his feet pounding the pavement. There was a trick to that, a subtle mental adjustment, like having better night vision the longer you were in the dark. This morning the sound of his feet had been lost to him. They had been lost in the tramp of 99 other pairs, not to mention the sounds of the Jeeps and their trailers. But now he heard them easily. His own particular stride, and the way his left foot scraped the pavement every now and then. It seemed to him that the sound of his foot-falls had become as loud to his ears as the sound of his own heartbeat. Vital, life and death sound.
His eyes felt grainy, trapped in their sockets. The lids were heavy. His energy seemed to be draining down some sink-hole in the middle of him. Warnings were droned out with monotonous regularity, but the death-drone never flew. Barkovitch had shut up. Stebbins was a ghost again, not even visible in back of them.
The hands on his watch read 12:47 AM.
Now is the time when all good little boys are sacked out. When wives and lovers have given up the carnal pillow-fight for the evening. When passengers sleep uneasy on the Greyhound to New York. When Glenn Miller plays uninterrupted on the radio and bartenders think about putting the chairs up on the tables, and—
Jan’s face came into his mind again. He thought of kissing her at Christmas, almost half a year ago, under the plastic mistletoe his mother always hung from the big light globe in the kitchen. Stupid kid stuff. Look where you’re standing. Her lips had been surprised and soft, not resisting. A nice kiss. One to dream on. His first real kiss. He did it again when he took her home. They had been standing in her driveway, standing in the silent grayness of falling Christmas snow. That had been something more than a nice kiss. His arms around her waist. Her arms around his neck, locked there, her eyes closed (he had peeked), the soft feel of her breasts—muffled up in her coat, of course—against him. He had almost told her he loved her then, but no . . . that would have been too quick.
After that, they taught each other. She taught him that books were sometimes just to be read and discarded, not studied (he was something of a grind, which amused Jan, and her amusement first exasperated him and then he also saw the funny side of it). He taught her to knit. That had been a funny thing. His father, of all people, had taught him how to knit . . . before the Squads got him. His father had taught Garraty’s father, as well. It was something of a male tradition in the clan Garraty, it seemed. Jan had been fascinated by the pattern of the increases and decreases, and she left him behind soon enough, overstepping his laborious scarves and mittens to sweaters, cableknits, and finally to crocheting and even the tatting of doilies, which she gave up as ridiculous as soon as the skill was mastered.
He had also taught her how to rhumba and cha-cha, skills he had learned on endless Saturday mornings at Mrs. Amelia Dorgens’s School for Modern Dance . . . that had been his mother’s idea, one he had objected to strenuously. His mother had stuck to her guns, thank God.
He thought now of the patterns of light and shadow on the nearly perfect oval of her face, the way she walked, the lift and fall of her voice, the easy, desirable swing of one hip, and he wondered in terror what he was doing here, walking down this dark road. He wanted her now. He wanted to do it all over again, but differently. Now, when he thought of the Major’s tanned face, the salt-and-pepper mustache, the mirrored sunglasses, he felt a horror so deep it made his legs feel rubbery and weak. Why am I here? he asked himself desperately, and there was no answer, so he asked the question again: Why am—
He could hear the death-drone taking flight, the 10-second count-down, then 100 gas-tipped slugs firing in 1/6th of a second, severing the head from the body in their explosive penetrations, followed by the unmistakable mailsack thud of a body falling on the concrete. The fear was on him again, the hot, throat-choking fear that made him want to run blindly, to dive into the bushes and just keep on running until he found Jan and safety.
Alert: Ticket 18: #6 Henry Begay, age 15 from Alaska. Nickname: Heni. 82 walkers Remaining.
McVries had Barkovitch to keep him going. He would concentrate on Jan. He would walk to Jan. They reserved space for Long Walkers’ relatives and loved ones in the front lines. He would see her.
He thought about the temptation to kiss that other girl and felt good that he resisted that urge. He knew that meant something.
How do you know you’ll make it? A cramp . . . blisters . . . a bad cut or a nosebleed that just won’t quit . . . a big hill that was just too big and too long. How do you know you’ll make it?
I’ll make it, I’ll make it.
“The app says 150 miles to Old Town, if you care,” Olson put in tiredly.
“Who gives a shit about Old Town?” McVries demanded. “You ever been there, Garraty?”
“How about Augusta? Christ, I thought that was in Georgia.”
“Yeah, I’ve been in Augusta. It’s the state capital—”
“Regional,” Abraham said.
“And the Corporate Governor’s mansion, and a couple of traffic circles, and a couple of movies—”
“You have those in Maine?” McVries asked.
“Well, it’s a small state capital, okay?” Garraty said, smiling.
“Wait’ll we hit Boston,” McVries said.
There were groans.
From up ahead there came cheers, shouts, and catcalls. Garraty was alarmed to hear his own name called out. Up ahead, about half a mile away, was a ramshackle farmhouse, deserted and fallen down. But a battered Klieg light had been plugged in somewhere, and a huge sign, lettered with pine boughs across the front of the house, read:
GARRATY’S OUR MAN!!!
Aroostook County Parents’ Association
“Hey, Garraty, where’s the parents?” someone yelled.
“Back home making kids,” Garraty said, embarrassed. There could be no doubt that Maine was Garraty country, but he found the signs and cheers and the gibes of the others all a little mortifying. He had found—among other things—in the last 15 hours that he didn’t much crave the limelight. The thought of a million people all over the state rooting for him and laying bets on him (at 12-to-1, the spectator had said) was a little scary.
Garraty checked the betting App. His odds had dropped to 11-to-1. That’s a good thing, right? It means your chances of winning just went up. Only the long-shots were paying out 20-to-1. The top picks were paying 2-to-1. For some reason, Olson was a top pick. What did they see in Olson? Some guy named Scramm was also a top pick. Oh crap, Stebbins was also a top pick! Garraty’s heart skipped a beat. Baker’s odds were set at 4-to-1 and McVries 6-to-1. Garraty was feeling some jealousy since Vegas felt they had better odds of winning. Garraty wondered how they calculate these odds, and why they placed his odds so low.
“You’d think they would have left a few plump, juicy parents lying around somewhere,” Davidson said.
“Poontang from the PTA?” Abraham asked.
The ribbing was half-hearted and didn’t last very long. The road killed most ribbing very quickly. They crossed another bridge, this time a cement one that spanned a good-sized river. The water rippled below them like black silk. A few crickets chirred cautiously, and around 1:27 AM, a spatter of light, cold rain fell.
Up ahead, someone began to play a harmonica. The music relaxed Garraty. Just when Garraty was feeling in the zone, the peaceful moment was shattered by the sound of the death-drone lurching to life, and seeking out its new target.
Up ahead someone began to scream, and Garraty felt his blood go cold. It was a very young voice. It was not screaming words. It was only screaming. A dark figure broke from the pack, pelted across the shoulder of the road, and dived for the woods. The machine-gun roared. There was a rending crash as a dead weight fell through the juniper bushes and underbrush to the ground.
Alert: Ticket 19: #44 Bryant Fulcher, age 13 from Minnesota. Nickname: Brant. 81 walkers Remaining.
One of the guards dragged the inert form by the hands to the body-trailer, as the drone returned to its perch to await its next victim. Garraty watched apathetically and thought, even the horror wears thin. There’s a surfeit even of death.
The harmonica player started in satirically on Taps and somebody—Collie Parker, by the sound—told him angrily to shut the fuck up. Stebbins laughed. Garraty felt suddenly furious with Stebbins, and wanted to turn to him and ask him how he’d like someone laughing at his death. It was something you’d expect of Barkovitch. Barkovitch had said he’d dance on a lot of graves, and there were 18 he could dance on already.
I doubt that he’ll have much left of his feet to dance with, Garraty thought. A sharp twinge of pain went through the arch of his right foot. The muscle there tightened heart-stoppingly, then loosened. Garraty waited with his heart in his mouth for it to happen again. It would hit harder. It would turn his foot into a block of useless wood. But it didn’t happen.
“I can’t walk much further,” Olson croaked. His face was a white blur in the darkness. No one answered him.
The darkness. Goddam the darkness. It seemed to Garraty they had been buried alive in it. Dawn was a century away. Many of them would never see the dawn. Or the sun. They were buried six feet deep in the darkness.
I could go crazy, Garraty thought. I could go right the fuck off my rocker.
A little breeze soughed through the pines.
Garraty turned around and urinated. Stebbins moved over a little, and Harkness made a coughing, snoring sound. He was walking half-asleep.
Garraty became acutely conscious of all the little sounds of life: someone hawked and spat, someone else sneezed, someone ahead and to the left was chewing something noisily. Someone asked someone else softly how he felt. There was a murmured answer. Yannick was singing at a whisper level, soft and very much off-key.
Awareness. It was all a function of awareness. But it wasn’t forever.
“Why did I volunteer for this?” Olson suddenly asked hopelessly, echoing Garraty’s thoughts not so many minutes ago. “Why was I so sure that I could win this?”
No one answered him. No one had answered him for a long time now. Garraty thought it was as if Olson were already dead.
Another light spatter of rain fell. They passed another ancient graveyard, a church next door, a tiny shopfront, and then they were walking through a small New England community of small, neat homes. The road crosshatched a miniature business section where perhaps a dozen people had gathered to watch them pass. They cheered, but it was a subdued sound, as if they were afraid they might wake their neighbors. None of them was young, Garraty saw. The youngest was an intense-eyed man of about 35. He was wearing rimless glasses and a shabby sport coat, pulled against him to protect against the chill. His hair stuck up in back, and Garraty noted with amusement that his fly was half-unzipped.
“Go! Great! Go! Go! Oh, great!” he chanted softly. He waved one soft plump hand ceaselessly, and his eyes seemed to burn over each of them as they passed.
On the far side of the village a sleepy-eyed policeman held up a rumbling trailer truck until they had passed. There were four more streetlights, an abandoned, crumbling building with EUREKA GRANGE NO. 81 written over the big double doors at the front, and then the town was gone.
McVries nudged him. “Look at that dude,” he said.
“That dude” was a tall boy in a ridiculous loden-green trenchcoat. It flapped around his knees. He was walking with his arms wrapped around his head like a gigantic poultice. He was weaving unsteadily back and forth. Garraty watched him closely, with a kind of academic interest. He couldn’t recall ever having seen this particular Walker before . . . but of course the darkness changed faces.
The boy stumbled over one of his own feet and almost fell down. Then he went on walking. Garraty and McVries watched him in fascinated silence for perhaps ten minutes, losing their own aches and tiredness in the trenchcoated boy’s struggle. The boy in the trenchcoat didn’t make a sound, not a groan or a moan.
Finally he did fall over and got his first warning. Garraty didn’t think the boy would be able to get up, but he did. Now he was walking almost with Garraty and the boys around him. He was an extremely ugly boy, with the number 45 on this hand.
Olson whispered, “What’s the matter with you?” but the boy seemed not to hear. They got that way, Garraty had noticed. Complete withdrawal from everything and everyone around them. Everything but the road. They stared at the road with a kind of horrid fascination, as if it were a tight-rope they had to walk over an endless, bottomless chasm.
Garraty looked up Walker 45 on the App and saw that his name was Amanuel, age 18. Garraty took up the questioning, “Amanuel, what’s wrong? Why are you walking funny? Why won’t you answer me? Amanuel! Hey!”
“Ray.” McVries was tugging at his sleeve.
“He won’t talk to me, Pete, make him talk to me, make him tell me what’s wrong—”
“Don’t bother him,” McVries said. “He’s dying, don’t bother him.”
The guy with the trenchcoat fell over again, this time on his face, and got his second warning. When he got up, there were scratches on his forehead, slowly welling blood. He was behind Garraty’s group now. They didn’t hear him get his third warning, but they did hear the death-drone, and assumed he had. Garraty confirmed it on the App, which highlighted the walker it was targeting. The death-drone struggled to avoid the tree branches since they were basically walking through a tunnel of trees. It found a hole in the branches, and ascended far higher than usual, to fly above the trees.
They passed through a hollow of deeper darkness that was a railroad overpass. Rain dripped somewhere, hollow and mysterious in this stone throat. It was very damp.
45 sat down on purpose, knowing the drone could not get him. Garraty heard the death-drone start its 10-second count-down. Footsteps quickened as boys ran past 45. But the machine-gun did not fire when he his death-timer reached 0. The overpass was preventing the death-drone from getting a clear shot. 45 just sat there, and the drone continued to hover. The pack moved on, leaving 45 behind, sheltered under the overpass.
Alert: Ticket 20: #45 Amanuel Gadaffi, age 18 from Kentucky. Nickname: Aman. 80 walkers Remaining.
The App automatically posted an alert when a walker’s timer reached 0.
Garraty knew that there was only one death-drone on this walk, and its battery life was roughly 30 minutes per flight. But the guards could quickly swap out the battery for a new one, so its flight-time was unlimited with one-minute pit-stops. It seems they were at a stalemate, but they couldn’t wait there. There would be many other tickets to issue this night.
Most of the walkers had brought up the App that gave a real-time first-person view from the machine-gun. The drone had landed, and the guards transferred the machine-gun to something with wheels. Garraty knew that millions of other people were watching too. The camera view of the machine-gun was live streamed to the Internet. People actually paid to watch boys die.
By the time the automated rolling machinegun rolled under the overpass, Amanuel was gone. You could over-hear a guard say “He’s hopped the train”. Apparently Amanuel was the luckiest guy on Earth, since a train passed overhead during the gun swap. Amanuel had nothing to lose, so he went for it.
“Unless he finds a way to block his GPS signal, the squads will easily locate him, and shoot him on site.”, Olson said.
Seven more had gotten tickets since the boy in the trenchcoat, starting with Peter Foster. That seemed to kick off a trend of tickets by Peter’s or Foster’s.
Alert: Ticket 21: #26 Peter Foster, age 17 from New York. Nickname: Peter. 79 walkers Remaining.
Alert: Ticket 22: #22 Darrell Foster, age 14 from California. Nickname: Darry. 78 walkers Remaining.
Alert: Ticket 23: #27 Peter Foster, age 18 from Rhode Island. Nickname: Pumpkin eater. 77 walkers Remaining.
Alert: Ticket 24: #87 Peter Smith, age 15 from Illinois. Nickname: two-meter Peter. 76 walkers Remaining.
Alert: Ticket 25: #66 Peter Morrison, age 18 from Wisconsin. Nickname: Pan Man. 75 walkers Remaining.
Alert: Ticket 26: #33 Valentino Foti, age 14 from Rhode Island. Nickname: Val. 74 walkers Remaining.
Alert: Ticket 27: #39 Peter Fox, age 14 from New Jersey. Nickname: Pete. 73 walkers Remaining.
At one time, around 3:00 AM, two had gone down almost together, like dried cornshocks in the first hard autumn wind. It seemed like a lot of the younger boys were falling now. The last 4 boys were 14. Garraty kept noticing these patterns and wondered if it meant anything. You could flip a coin 100 times, and it might come up heads every time, but would that mean anything?
Alert: Ticket 28: #30 Patrick Foster, age 14 from Texas. Nickname: Pat. 72 walkers Remaining.
Alert: Ticket 29: #95 Stephen Wayne, age 14 from Rhode Island. Nickname: Steve. 71 walkers Remaining.
They were 75 miles into the Walk.
But none of that mattered. All that mattered was 3:30 AM and the dead ebb. It’s like the darkness was sucking away their will to live. Another walker got their 3rd warning, and shortly after, the machine-gun fired once more. If it weren’t for the spare battery packs, the death-drone would not be able to keep up. This time the face was a familiar one. It was 8, Davidson, who claimed he had once sneaked into the hoochie-kooch tent at the Steubenville State Fair.
Alert: Ticket 30: #8 William Davidson, age 17 from Ohio. Nickname: Bill. 70 walkers Remaining.
Garraty looked at Davidson’s white, blood-spattered disembodied head for just a moment and then he looked back at the road. He looked at the road quite a lot now. Sometimes the white line was solid, sometimes it was broken, and sometimes it was double, like streetcar tracks. He wondered how people could ride over this road all the other days of the year and not see the pattern of life and death in that white paint. Or did they see, after all?
The pavement fascinated him. He remembered how good and easy it was to sit on that pavement. He remembered how he started by squatting, and his stiff knee-joints popped like toy air-pistols. Then he put bracing hands back on the cool, pebbled surface and snuggled his butt down, feeling the screaming pressure of his 160 pounds leave his feet . . . and then the feeling of lying down, falling backward and lying there, spread-eagled, feeling his tired spine stretch . . . looking up at the encircling trees and the majestic wheel of the stars . . . no warnings to be heard, just watching the sky and waiting . . . waiting . . .
Hearing the scatter of footsteps as Walkers moved out of the line of fire, leaving him alone, like a sacrificial offering. Hearing the whispers. It’s Garraty, hey, it’s Garraty getting a ticket! Perhaps there would be time to hear Barkovitch laugh as he strapped on his metaphorical dancing shoes one more time. The death-drone machine-gun zeroing in, then—
He tore his glance forcibly from the road and stared blearily at the moving shadows around him, then looked up at the horizon, hunting for even a trace of dawn light. There was none, of course. The night was still dark.
They had passed through two or three more small towns, all of them dark and closed. Since 1:00 AM they had passed maybe 3 dozen sleepy spectators, the die-hard type who grimly watch in the New Year each December 31st, come hell or high water. The rest of the last 2 and a half hours was nothing but a dream montage, an insomniac’s half-sleeping wakemare.
Garraty looked more closely at the faces around him, but none seemed familiar. An irrational panic stole over him. He tapped the shoulder of the Walker in front of him. “Pete? Pete, that you?”
The figure slipped away from him with an irritated grunt and didn’t look back. Olson had been on his left, Baker on his right, but now there was no one at all on his left side and the boy to his right was much chubbier than Art Baker.
Somehow he had wandered off the road and fallen in with a bunch of late-hiking Boy Scouts. The squads would be looking for him. Hunting for him. Drones, Guns and dogs with radar and heat-tracers and—
Relief washed over him. That was Abraham, up ahead and at four o’clock. All he’d had to do was turn his head a little. The gangling form was unmistakable.
“Abraham!” he stage-whispered. “Abraham, you awake?”
Abraham muttered something.
“I said, you awake?”
“Yes goddammit Garraty lea’me alone.”
At least he was still with them. That feeling of total disorientation passed away.
Someone up ahead was got their third warning and Garraty thought, I don’t have any! My death-timer is at its max of 120 seconds. I could sit down for a minute or a minute and a half.
“Abraham, I need a break. Seriously. My feet really hurt. I’m gonna sit for like 80 seconds and massage my feet. Do you want to join me? I’ll get up right before my third warning.”
“I can’t. I’m walking with 2. I wish I could join you. My feet are hurting too. I bought these new hiking boots before the walk, but forgot to break them in, so they’re a little uncomfortable.”
Garraty saw boys taking breaks before. It was a good strategy, as long as your muscles didn’t freeze up suddenly, like what happened to Pablo.
Garraty slowed to a stop, and his death-timer began it’s deadly count-down. He bent over to stretch his back and hamstrings, trying to touch his toes. He couldn’t. He was too stiff.
His death-timer passed 100.
Garraty knelt, knees popping, then sat down, quickly removing his shoes.
“Alert: Warning! First Warning number 47” buzzed his Apple watch at 90 seconds.
“Mind of I join you?”
It was Stebbins. The only boy with no warnings.
“Are you sure you want to ruin your perfect record of no warnings?”
Stebbins spread his legs and leaned over into a stretch, pulling his head toward one knee than the other.
“I take breaks to stretch all the time, but nobody notices because I’m in the back of the packs. My strategy is to stop and stretch for 25 seconds, every hour when my timer resets back to 120.”
“Alert: Warning! Second Warning number 47!” was followed by “Alert: Warning! First Warning number 88!”
“Congratulations! You’re first warning. I’m proud of you.”, Garraty sniggered, then started putting his shoes back on.
Stebbins continued, “Anyone who tries to walk non-stop is dooming themselves to failure. The body needs a rest sometimes. Your muscles need to be stretched. Your feet need a break.”
Garraty got to his feet and they started walking. “My timer reads 34. What does yours say?”
“I’m at 67. In 58 minutes, it will reset back to 90, then an hour later to 120. It’s all good. Barkovitch has the right idea, which is why he could win. He’s playing this game smarter than anyone. Getting Rank to kill himself was genius. Who cares if people call you a murderer? You’ll win and they’ll be dead. I don’t play dirty, but I also don’t help anyone like other groups of boys, like you Musketeers. You think you’re being nice, and making friends, but what you’re really doing is extending the walk for everyone. We be done in 2 days if everyone played the game like Barkovitch.”
Garraty looked at Stebbins with a confused face, “Why are you telling me all this?”
“You’re right. I shouldn’t be telling you my strategy. But I like you. If it was just you and me at the end, I’d like that, no matter how it turned out. Vegas gives you low odds of winning this thing, but they don’t see what I see. I think you’ve got a much better chance than they give you credit for. You’re too nice though. If it was just you and me at the end, you’d probably let me win, just to be nice.”, Stebbins let out a loud weird laugh, and walkers nearby turned to see what he was laughing about.
It was 4:00 AM, and they walked into the night, trailing the pack. There was a brightening band on the horizon, and Garraty felt his spirits lift. He stared back at the long tunnel of the night in actual horror, and wondered how he ever could have gotten through it.
Garraty remembered promising his mother that he would see her and Jan in Freeport. He had made the promise lightheartedly, almost carelessly. At 9:00 AM yesterday morning, his arrival in Freeport had been a foregone conclusion. But it wasn’t a game anymore, it was a 3D reality, and the possibility of walking into Freeport on nothing but a pair of bloody stumps seemed a horribly possible possibility.
The drone was flying again and someone else was shot down . . . behind him, this time. They must have tried to duck at a split second before the machine-gun fired, and the unlucky ticket-holder screamed hoarsely for what seemed a very long time before another clip of bullets cut off the sound.
Alert: Ticket 31: #47 David Johnson, age 13 from Wisconsin. Nickname: Dave. 69 walkers Remaining.
Garraty wondered if 31 down was an unusually high or an unusually low number for 75 miles into a Long Walk. He checked the Stat-App, and saw it was low. The average was 38 for 75 miles. He thought the Major would be pleased. Stebbins began to drop back. He liked being one the loners bringing up the rear. He didn’t want to be a Musketeer.
Garraty’s head dropped slowly between his shoulders, and his feet carried them forward on their own. He thought about a funeral he had gone to as a boy. That had been the only dead person he had ever seen before all of this, and it had been a clean, neat dead person. Nothing like Ewing, or the boy in the loden trenchcoat, or Davidson with blood on his livid, tired face.
It’s sick, Garraty thought with dismal realization. It’s just sick.
At 4:55 AM Garraty lost his second warning, but at 4:59 AM, he got it back. His Apple watch was buzzing when his speed fell below 4 mph, but he didn’t notice. He was too tired to notice.
He slapped himself twice smartly across the face, trying to make himself wake up. His body felt chilled clear through. His kidneys dragged at him, but at the same time he felt that he didn’t quite have to pee yet. It might have been his imagination, but the stars in the east seemed a trifle paler. With real amazement it occurred to him that at this time yesterday he had been asleep in the back of the car as they drove up toward the stone marking post at the border. He could almost see himself stretched out on his back, sprawling there, not even moving. He felt an intense longing to be back there. Just to bring back yesterday morning.
5:05 AM now.
He looked around himself, getting a superior, lonely kind of gratification from knowing he was one of the few fully awake and aware. It was definitely lighter now, light enough to make out snatches of features in the walking silhouettes. Baker was up ahead—he could tell it was him by the flapping red-striped shirt—and McVries was behind Baker. He saw Olson was off to the left, keeping pace with the pacer-Jeep, and was surprised. He was sure that Olson would buy his ticket last night, and had been relieved that he hadn’t had to see Hank go down. It was too dark even now to see how he looked, but Olson’s head was bouncing up and down in time to his stride like the head of a rag doll.
Percy, whose mom kept showing up, was back by Stebbins now. Percy was walking with a kind of lopsided roll, like a long-time sailor on his first day ashore. He also spotted Gribble, Harkness, Wyman, and Collie Parker. Most of the people he knew were still in it.
He stepped up his pace a little, approaching McVries, who was walking with his chin against his breast, his eyes half-open but glazed and vacant, more asleep than awake. A thin, delicate cord of saliva hung from the corner of his mouth, picking up the first tremulous touch of dawn with pearly, beautiful fidelity. Garraty stared at this strange phenomenon, fascinated. He didn’t want to wake McVries out of his doze. For the time being it was enough to be close to someone he liked, someone else who had made it through the night.
They passed a rocky, steeply slanting meadow where five cows stood gravely at a bark-peeled pole fence, staring out at the Walkers and chewing thoughtfully. A small dog tore out of a farmyard and barked at them ratchetingly. The guards raised their guns to high post, ready to shoot the animal if he interfered with any Walker’s progress, but the dog only chased back and forth along the shoulder, bravely voicing defiance and territoriality from a safe distance. Someone yelled thickly at him to shut up, goddammit.
Garraty became entranced with the coming dawn. He watched as the sky and the land lightened by degrees. He watched the white band on the horizon deepen a delicate pink, then red, then gold. The death-drone got one more before the last of the night was finally banished, but Garraty didn’t hear or know about it until he got the alert.
Alert: Ticket 32: #84 Pablo Santana, age 16 from New Mexico. Nickname: Pabs. 68 walkers Remaining.
The first red arc of sun was peering over the horizon, faded behind a fluff of cloud, then came again in an onslaught. It looked to be a perfect day, and Garraty greeted it only half-coherently by thinking: Thank God I can die in the daylight.
A bird twitted sleepily. They passed another farmhouse where a man with a beard waved at them after putting down a wheelbarrow filled with hoes, rakes, and planting-seed.
A crow cawed raucously off in the shadowy woods. The first heat of the day touched Garraty’s face gently, and he welcomed it. He grinned and yelled loudly for a canteen.
McVries twitched his head oddly, like a dog interrupted in a dream of cat-chasing, and then looked around with muddy eyes. “My God, daylight. Daylight, Garraty. What time?”
Garraty looked at his Apple watch and was surprised to find it was 5:20 AM.
“How many miles have we gone so far?”
“The App says I’ve gone 79.8 miles. And 31 down. More than a quarter of the way home, Pete.”
“Yeah.” McVries smiled.
“You feel better?” Garraty asked.
“So do I. I think it’s the daylight.”
“My God, I bet we see some people today. Did you read that article that went viral on Reddit about the Long Walk?”
“Skimmed it,” Garraty said. “Mostly to check out the pics of the other boys, and get a feel for my competition. I remember you from that article. You kind of stand out with that scar.”
“Yeah, I don’t like talking about my scar. I hope you respect that.”
“Yeah, no, that’s cool.”
“That article said that over 100 billion dollars gets bet on the Long Walk every year. 100 billion!”
Baker had awakened from his own doze and had joined them. “We used to have a pool in my high school,” he said. “Everybody’d kick in a 5 bucks, and then we’d each pick a 3-digit number out of a hat. And the guy holding the number closest to the last mile of the Walk, he got the money.”
Garraty looked up the betting App again, and saw that Olson was currently the favorite to win. Based on his body type, weight, age, mental and physical test, and other statistics, he was most likely to win, as determined by some algorithm, so the most money was bet on him. Currently over 100 million people in the world had bet on average USD 100 on Olson winning, which was over 10 billion just on Olson.
“Olson!” McVries yelled over cheerily. “You got over 10 billion riding on you, boy! Think of the people with a bundle resting right on your skinny ass!”
Olson told him in a tired, washed-out voice that the people with a bundle wagered on his skinny ass could perform two obscene acts upon themselves, the second proceeding directly from the first. McVries, Baker, and Garraty laughed.
“Be a lotta pretty girls on the road today,” Baker said, eyeing Garraty roguishly.
“I know I could run up to them and make out, it’s tempting,” Garraty said. “but I got a girl up ahead. I want to stay true to her. I love her.”
“Sinless in thought, word, and deed,” McVries said sententiously.
“You sound like the son of a preacher.”
“Beware the seven trumpets that signify the end of an age, mah boy.”
Garraty just gave McVries a confused look, as usual.
“I feel like I could walk forever,” he said boldly. A couple of the Walkers around him grimaced. “I know I’ll see Jan again.”
They passed an all-night gas station and the attendant came out to wave. Just about everyone waved back. The attendant was calling encouragement to Wayne, 94, in particular.
“Garraty,” McVries said quietly.
“I couldn’t tell all the guys that bought it. Can you check the App?”
“No. Up ahead. In front of Scramm. See him?”
McVries looked. “Oh. Yeah, I think I do.”
“No, he’s still back there, too.”
“Not surprised. Funny guy, isn’t he?”
“Funny how? Like a clown? Does he amuse you?”
There was silence between them, then McVries let out a deep laugh. McVries browsed the food menu on the App. “Guys! Guys! Oh my God! Guys”
“What’s wrong? What’s happening?”, Garraty said in a startled voice.
“They just added macaroons to the menu! They weren’t there yesterday.”
“What the fuck, McVries, you nearly gave me a heart attack. What’s so special about macaroons?”
“I don’t like talking about my macaroons. I hope you’ll respect my privacy”, and he smiled.
The food drone soon delivered a package of 5 coconut macaroons. He offered one to Garraty, who took one. “I wish this was over,” he said. “One way or the other.”
They ate their macaroons in silence.
“We must be halfway to Old Town, huh?” McVries said. “80 down, 80 to go?”
“I guess so,” Garraty said. “I haven’t checked the App in a while.”
“Won’t get there until tonight, then.”
The mention of night made Garraty’s flesh crawl. “Yeah, no, we won’t.” he said. Then, abruptly: “I know you don’t like talking about your macaroons and scars, but we’re all really curious. Would you consider it at least?”
McVries’s hand went involuntarily to his cheek and the scar. “It’s a long story,” he said briefly, “but, I’ll consider it.”
Garraty took a closer look at him. His hair was rumpled and clotty with dust and sweat. His clothes were limp and wrinkled. His face was pallid and his eyes were deeply circled in their bloodshot orbs.
“You look like shit,” he said, and suddenly burst out laughing.
McVries grinned. “You don’t exactly look like a deodorant ad yourself, Ray.”
They both laughed then, long and hysterically, clutching each other and trying to keep walking at the same time. It was as good a way as any to put an end to the night once and for all. It went on until Garraty and McVries both got warnings. They stopped laughing and talking then, and settled into the day’s business.
Thinking, Garraty thought. That’s the day’s business. Thinking. Thinking and isolation, because it doesn’t matter if you pass the time of day with someone or not; in the end, you’re alone. He seemed to have put in as many miles in his brain as he had with his feet. The thoughts kept coming and there was no way to deny them. It was enough to make you wonder what Socrates had thought about right after he had tossed off his hemlock cocktail.
At a little past 6:00 AM they passed their first clump of bona fide spectators, 4 little boys sitting cross-legged like Indians outside a pup tent in a dewy field. One was still wrapped up in his sleeping bag, as solemn as an Eskimo. Their hands went back and forth like timed metronomes. None of them smiled.
Shortly afterward, the road forked into another, larger road. This one was a smooth, wide expanse of asphalt, three lanes wide. They passed a truck-stop restaurant, and everyone whistled and waved at the 3 young waitresses sitting on the steps, just to show them they were still starchy. The only one who sounded halfway serious was Collie Parker.
“Tuesday night,” Collie yelled loudly. “Keep it in mind. You and me, Tuesday night.”
Garraty thought they were all acting a little immature, but he waved politely and the waitresses seemed not to mind. The Walkers spread out across the wider road as more of them came fully awake to the May 2nd morning sunshine. Garraty caught sight of Barkovitch again and wondered if Barkovitch was the only smart one in this parade of fools. With no friends you had no grief.
A few minutes later the word came back, and this time the word was a knock-knock joke. Bruce Pastor, the boy just in front of Garraty, turned around to Garraty and said, “Knock, knock, Garraty.”
“Major buggers his mother before breakfast,” Bruce Pastor said, and laughed uproariously. Garraty chuckled and passed it back to McVries, who passed it to Olson. When the joke came back the second time, the Major was buggering his grandmother before breakfast. The third time he was buggering Sheila, the Bedlington terrier that appeared with him in so many of his press releases.
This even got the guards laughing hysterically. Their Jeep was pulling the body-trailer which held at least 10 bodies and 10 heads from the night before.
Garraty was still laughing over that one when he noticed that McVries’s laughter had tapered off and disappeared. He was staring with an odd fixity at the two laughing guards in their Jeep.
“You think that’s funny?” he yelled suddenly. The sound of his shout cut cleanly through the laughter and silenced it. McVries’s face was dark with suffused blood. The scar stood out in dead white contrast, like a slashed exclamation mark, and for one fear-filled moment Garraty thought he was having a stroke.
“Major buggers himself, that’s what I think!” McVries cried hoarsely. “You guys, you probably bugger each other. Pretty funny, huh? Pretty funny, you bunch of motherfuckers, right? Pretty goddam FUNNY, am I right?”
Other Walkers stared uneasily at McVries and then eased away.
McVries suddenly ran at the Jeep. The guard closest to McVries raised his hand-gun, ready, but McVries halted, halted dead, and raised his fists at them, shaking them above his head like a mad conductor.
The guards can only shoot the walkers in self-defense. McVries could buy himself a ticket here and now if the guard felt a need to defend himself.
“Come on! Put down that pistol and come on! I’ll show you what’s funny!”
One of the guards issued a penalty-warning to McVries. Showing aggression toward a guard gets you a penalty-warning.
McVries Apple watched buzzed “Alert: Penalty-Warning! First Penalty Warning number 61” McVries death-timer instantly dropped to 90 seconds and counting.
McVries had 10 seconds to comply or get another penalty-warning.
Oh my God, Garraty thought numbly. He’s going to get it and he’s so close . . . so close to them.
McVries ignored the penalty-warning and spat on the Jeep.
“Alert: Penalty-Warning! Second Penalty Warning number 61” His timer dropped to 60 and counting.
“Come on!” McVries screamed. “I’ll kick your asses! One at a time or all at once, I don’t give a shit!”
“Alert: Penalty-Warning! Third Penalty Warning 61”, and his timer dropped to 30 and counting.
“Fuck your warnings!”
Suddenly, unaware he was going to do it, Garraty turned and ran back in the wrong direction, drawing his own penalty-warning. He only heard the warning with some back part of his mind. The guard was pointing his pistol at McVries now. The death-drone did not take flight. It didn’t need to. The guard would issue McVries’ ticket. Garraty grabbed McVries’s arm. “Come on.”
“Get out of here, Ray, I’m gonna fight them!”
Garraty put out his hands and gave McVries a hard, flat shove. “You’re going to get shot, you asshole.”
Stebbins passed them by.
McVries looked at Garraty, seeming to recognize him for the first time. A second later Garraty drew his third courtesy-warning, and he knew McVries could only be seconds away from his ticket.
“Go to hell,” McVries said in a dead, washed-out voice. He began to walk again.
Garraty walked with him. “I thought you were going to buy it, that’s all,” he said.
“But I didn’t, thanks to the musketeer,” McVries said sullenly. His hand went to the scar. “Fuck, we’re all going to buy it.”
“Somebody wins. It might be one of us.”
“It’s a fake,” McVries said, his voice trembling. “There’s no winner, no Prize. They take the last guy out behind a barn somewhere and shoot him too.”
“Don’t be so fucking stupid!” Garraty yelled at him furiously. “You don’t have the slightest idea what you’re sa—”
“Everyone loses,” McVries said. His eyes peered out of the dark cave of his sockets like baleful animals. They were walking by themselves. The other Walkers were keeping away, at least for the time being. McVries had shown red, and so had Garraty, in a way—he had gone against his own best interest when he ran back to McVries. In all probability he had kept McVries from being number 33.
“Everyone loses,” McVries repeated. “You better believe it.”
They walked over a railroad track. They walked under a cement bridge. On the other side they passed a boarded-up Dairy Queen with a sign that read: WILL REOPEN FOR SEASON JUNE 5.
Olson drew a warning.
Garraty felt a tap on his shoulder and turned around. It was Stebbins. He looked no better or worse than he had the night before. “Your friend there is jerked at the Major,” he said.
McVries showed no sign of hearing.
“I guess so, yeah,” Garraty said. “I myself have passed the point where I’d want to invite him home for tea.”
“The News App says Major’s coming,” Stebbins said, “and everybody will cheer.” He smiled, and his smile was oddly lizardlike. “They don’t really hate him yet. Not yet. They just think they do. They think they’ve been through hell. But wait until tonight. Wait until tomorrow.”
Garraty looked at Stebbins uneasily. “What if they hiss and boo and throw bottles and cans at him, or something?”
“Are you going to hiss and boo and throw bottles and cans at him?”
“Neither will anyone else. You’ll see.”
Stebbins raised his eyebrows.
“You think you’ll win, don’t you?”
“Yes,” Stebbins said calmly. “I’m quite sure of it.” And he dropped back to his usual position.
At 6:25 AM, Yannick bought his ticket.
Alert: Ticket 33: #98 Noah Yannick, age 17 from Utah. Nickname: Nanoo. 67 walkers Remaining.
At 6:30 AM, the Major came.
There was a winding, growling roar as his jeep bounced over the crest of the hill behind them. Then it was roaring past them, along the shoulder. The Major was standing at full attention. As before, he was holding a stiff, eyes-right salute. A funny chill of pride went through Garraty’s chest.
Not all of them cheered. Collie Parker spat on the ground. Barkovitch thumbed his nose. And McVries only looked, his lips moving soundlessly. Olson appeared not to notice at all as the Major went by; he was back to looking at his feet.
Garraty cheered. So did Percy and Harkness, who wanted to write a book, and Wyman and Art Baker and Abraham and Sledge, who had just picked up his second warning.
Then the Major was gone, moving fast. Garraty felt a little ashamed of himself. He had, after all, wasted energy.
A short time later the road took them past a used car lot where they were given a 21-horn salute. An amplified voice roaring out over double rows of fluttering plastic pennants told the Walkers—and the spectators—that no one outtraded McLaren’s Dodge. Garraty found it all a little disheartening.
“You feel any better?” he asked McVries hesitantly.
“Sure,” McVries said. “Great. I’m just going to walk along and watch them drop all around me. What fun it is. I just did all the division in my head—math was my good subject in school—and I figure we should be able to make at least 320 miles at the rate we’re going. That’s not even a record distance.”
“Why don’t you just go and have it on someplace else if you’re going to talk like that, Pete,” Baker said. He sounded strained for the first time.
“Sorry, Mum,” McVries said sullenly, but he shut up.
The day brightened. Garraty removed fatigue jacket and stored it in his packsack. The road was level here. It was dotted with houses, small businesses, and occasional farms. The pines that had lined the road last night had given way to Dairy Queens and gas stations and little crackerbox ranchos. A great many of the ranchos were FOR SALE. In two of the windows Garraty saw the familiar signs: MY SON GAVE HIS LIFE IN THE SQUADS.
“Where’s the ocean?” Collie Parker asked Garraty. “Looks like I was back in Illy-noy.”
“Just keep walking,” Garraty said. He was thinking of Jan and Freeport again. Freeport was on the ocean. “It’s there. About 108 miles south.”
“Shit,” said Collie Parker. “What a dipshit state this is.”
Parker was a big-muscled blond in a polo shirt. He had an insolent look in his eye that not even a night on the road had been able to knock out. “Goddam trees everyplace! Is there a city in the whole damn place?”
“We’re funny up here,” Garraty said. “We think it’s fun to breathe real air instead of smog.”
“Ain’t no smog in Joliet, you fucking hick,” Collie Parker said furiously. “What are you laying on me?”
“No smog but a lot of hot air,” Garraty said. He was angry.
“If we was home, I’d twist your balls for that.”
“Now boys,” McVries said. He had recovered and was his old sardonic self again. “Why don’t you settle this like gentlemen? First one to lose his head has to buy the other one a beer.”
“I hate beer,” Garraty said automatically.
Parker cackled. “You fucking bumpkin,” he said, and walked away.
“He’s buggy,” McVries said. “Everybody’s buggy this morning. Even me. And it’s a beautiful day. Don’t you agree, Olson?”
Olson said nothing.
“Olson’s got bugs, too,” McVries confided to Garraty. “Olson! Hey, Hank!”
“Why don’t you leave him alone?” Baker asked.
“Hey Hank!” McVries shouted, ignoring Baker. “Wanna go for a walk?”
“Go to hell,” Olson muttered.
“What?” McVries cried merrily, cupping a hand to his ear. “Wha choo say, bo?”
“Hell! Hell!” Olson screamed. “Go to hell!”
“Is that what you said.” McVries nodded wisely.
Olson went back to looking at his feet, and McVries tired of baiting him. Garraty thought McVries might be taking some of Barkovitch’s advice and trying the old psy-war.
Garraty thought about what Parker had said. Parker was a bastard. Parker was a big drugstore cowboy and Saturday night tough guy. Parker was a leather jacket hero. What did he know about Maine? He had lived in Maine all his life, in a little town called Porterville, just northwest of Freeport. Population 970 and not so much as a blinker light and just what’s so damn special about Joliet, Illy-noy anyway?
Garraty’s father used to say Porterville was the only town in the county with more graveyards than people. But it was a clean place. The unemployment was high, the cars were rusty, and there was plenty of screwing around going on, but it was a clean place. The only action was Wednesday Bingo at the grange hall (last game a coverall for a twenty-pound turkey and a twenty-dollar bill), but it was clean. And it was quiet. What was wrong with that?
He looked at Collie Parker’s back resentfully. You missed out, buddy, that’s all. You take Joliet and your candy-store ratpack and your mills and you jam them. Jam them crossways, if they’ll fit.
He thought about Jan again. He needed her. I love you, Jan, he thought. He wasn’t dumb, and he knew she had become more to him than she actually was. She had turned into a life-symbol. A shield against the sudden death that came from the death-drone. More and more he wanted her because she symbolized the time when he could have a piece of ass—his own.
It was 6:45 AM now. He stared at a clump of cheering housewives bundled together near an intersection, small nerve-center of some unknown village. One of them was wearing tight slacks and a tighter sweater. Her face was plain. She wore three gold bracelets on her right wrist that clinked as she waved. Garraty could hear them clink. He waved back, not really thinking about it. He was thinking about Jan, who had come up from Connecticut, who had seemed so smooth and self-confident, with her long blond hair and her flat shoes. She almost always wore flats because she was so tall. He met her at school. It went slow, but finally it clicked. God, had it clicked.
It was Harkness. He looked concerned. “I got a cramp in my foot, man. I don’t know if I can walk on it.” Harkness’s eyes seemed to be pleading for Garraty to do something.
Garraty didn’t know what to say. Jan’s voice, her laughter, the tawny caramel-colored sweater and her cranberry-red slacks, the time they took his little brother’s sled and ended up making out in a snowbank (before she put snow down the back of his parka) . . . those things were life. Harkness was death. By now Garraty could smell it.
“I can’t help you,” Garraty said. “You have to do it yourself.”
Harkness looked at him in panicked consternation, and then his face turned grim and he nodded. He stopped, kneeled, and fumbled off his loafer.
Alert: Warning! First Warning number 49!
He was massaging his foot now. Garraty had turned around and was walking backwards to watch him. Two small boys in Little League shirts with their baseball gloves hung from their bicycle handlebars were also watching him from the side of the road, their mouths hung open.
Alert: Warning! Second Warning number 49!
Harkness got up and began to limp onward in his stocking foot, his good leg already trying to buckle with the extra weight it was bearing. He dropped his shoe, grabbed for it, got two fingers on it, juggled it, and lost it. He stopped to pick it up and got his third warning. Seconds later, they heard the death-drone spinning up in the distance.
Harkness’s normally florid face was now fire-engine red. His mouth hung open in a wet, sloppy O. Garraty found himself rooting for Harkness. Come on, he thought, come on, catch up. Harkness, you can.
Harkness limped faster. The Little League boys began to pedal along, watching him. Garraty turned around frontward, not wanting to watch Harkness anymore. He stared straight ahead, trying to remember just how it had felt to kiss Jan, to touch her swelling breast. The death-drone was now airborne and on its way.
A Shell station came slowly up on the right. There was a dusty, fender-dented pickup parked on the tarmac, and two men in red-and-black-checked hunting shirts sitting on the tailgate, drinking beer. There was a mailbox at the end of a rutted dirt driveway, its lid hanging open like a mouth. A dog was barking hoarsely and endlessly somewhere just out of sight.
The death-drone was now hovering 30 feet above and 50 feet off to the side, matching the pace of Harkness with it’s machine-gun pointed at his neck. It’s collision-avoidance system making slight adjustments to avoid houses, branches, and telephone wires. As Harkness struggled to stay at or above 4 mph, Garraty watched the Harkness death-timer occasionally creep toward 0. Timer: 15, 14, 13 . . . pause.
Garraty could hear Harkness’s hurried, wet breathing.
The two Little Leaguers were still keeping pace. “Get outta here!” Baker said suddenly, hoarsely. “You don’t want to see this. Scat!” Timer: 12, 11, . . . pause . . . 10, 9 . . . pause.
They looked with flat curiosity at Baker and kept on. They had looked at Baker as if he was some kind of fish. One of them, a small, bullet-headed kid with a crew-cut and dish-sized eyes, blipped the horn bolted to his bike and grinned. He wore braces, and the sun made a savage metal glitter in his mouth. Timer: 8, . . . pause . . . 7, 6, 5, . . . pause . . . 4, . . . pause.
Harkness rode the edge of maintaining 4 mph. Timer: 3 . . . pause . . . 2 . . . pause . . . 1 . . . pause.
Garraty looked at his watch. The second hand swung around once, twice, three times. Harkness caught up to him, passed him by. His face was set and rigid. His eyes looked straight ahead. His pupils were contracted to tiny points. His lips had a faint bluish cast, and his fiery complexion had faded to the color of cream, except for two garish spots of color, one on each cheek. But he was not favoring the bad foot anymore. The cramp had loosened. His stocking foot slapped the road rhythmically. How long can you walk without your shoes? Garraty wondered.
He felt a loosening in his chest all the same, and heard Baker let out his breath. It was stupid to feel that way. The sooner Harkness stopped walking, the sooner he could stop walking. That was the simple truth. That was logic. But something went deeper, a truer, more frightening logic. Harkness was a part of the group that Garraty was a part of, a segment of his subclan. Part of a magic circle that Garraty belonged to. And if one part of that circle could be broken, any part of it could be broken.
The Little Leaguers biked along with them for another two miles before losing interest and turning back. It was better, Garraty thought. It didn’t matter if they had looked at Baker as though he were something in a zoo. It was better for them to be cheated of their death. He watched them out of sight.
Up ahead, Harkness had formed a new one-man vanguard, walking very rapidly, almost running. He looked neither right nor left. Garraty wondered what he was thinking.
The death-drone was forced to return to its trailer and recharge. If Harkness could maintain 4+ mph for the next 42 minutes, he’d lose his third warning, and his timer would reset to 60.
Scramm, 85, did not fascinate Garraty because of his flashing intelligence, because Scramm wasn’t all that bright. He didn’t fascinate Garraty because of his moon face, his crew-cut, or his build, which was moose-like. He fascinated Garraty because he was married.
“Really?” Garraty asked for the third time. He still wasn’t convinced Scramm wasn’t having him on. “You’re really married?”
“Yeah.” Scramm looked up at the early morning sun with real pleasure. “I dropped out of school when I was 14. There was no point to it, not for me. I wasn’t no troublemaker, just not able to make grades. And our history teacher read us an article about how schools are over-populated. So I figured why not let somebody who can learn sit in, and I’ll get down to business. I wanted to marry Cathy anyway.”
“How old were you?” Garraty asked, more fascinated than ever. They were passing through another small town, and the sidewalks were lined with signs and spectators, but he hardly noticed. Already the watchers were in another world, not related to him in any way. They might have been behind a thick plate-glass shield.
“I was 15,” Scramm answered. He scratched his chin, which was blue with beard stubble.
“No one tried to talk you out of it?”
“There was a guidance counselor at school, he gave me a lot of shit about sticking with it and not being a ditch digger, but he had more important things to do besides keep me in school. I guess you could say he gave me the soft sell. Besides, somebody has to dig ditches, right?”
He waved enthusiastically at a group of little girls who were going through a spastic cheerleader routine, pleated skirts and scabbed knees flying.
“Anyhow, I never did dig no ditch. Never dug a one in my whole career. Went to work for a bedsheet factory out in Phoenix, nine dollars an hour. Me and Cathy, we’re happy people.” Scramm smiled. “Sometimes we’ll be watching TV and Cath will grab me and say, ‘We’re happy people, honey.’ She’s a peach.”
“You got any kids?” Garraty asked, feeling more and more that this was an insane discussion.
“Well, Cathy’s pregnant right now. She said we should wait until we had enough in the bank to pay for the delivery. When we got up to $2000, she said go, and we went. She caught pregnant in no time at all.” Scramm looked sternly at Garraty. “My kid’s going to college. They say dumb guys like me never have smart kids, but Cathy’s smart enough for both of us. Cathy finished high school. I made her finish. 4 night courses and then she took the HSET. My kid’s going to as much college as he wants.”
Garraty didn’t say anything. He couldn’t think of anything to say. McVries was off to the side, in close conversation with Olson. Baker and Abraham were playing a word game called Ghost. He wondered where Harkness was. Far out of sight, anyway. That was Scramm, too. Really out of sight. Hey Scramm, I think you made a bad mistake. Your wife, she’s pregnant, Scramm, but that doesn’t win you any special favors around here. $2000 in the bank? The cost of a baby is more than just the delivery, Scramm. And no life-insurance company in the world would touch a Long Walker.
“Scramm, what happens if you buy it?” he asked cautiously.
Scramm smiled gently. “Not me. I feel like I could walk forever. Say, I wanted to be in the Long Walk ever since I was old enough to want anything. I walked 80 miles just 2 weeks ago, no sweat.”
“But suppose something should happen—”
But Scramm only chuckled.
“How old’s Cathy?”
“About a year older than me. Almost 18. Her folks are with her now, there in Phoenix.”
It sounded to Garraty as if Cathy Scramm’s folks knew something Scramm himself did not.
“You must love her a lot,” he said, a little wistfully.
Scramm smiled, showing the stubborn last survivors of his teeth. “I ain’t looked at anyone else since I married her. Cathy’s a peach.”
“And you’re doing this.”
Scramm laughed. “Ain’t it fun?”
“Not for Harkness,” Garraty said sourly. “Go ask him if he thinks it’s fun.”
“You don’t have any grasp of the consequences,” Pearson said, falling in between Garraty and Scramm. “You could lose. You have to admit you could lose.”
“Vegas odds made me the second favorite just before the Walk started,” Scramm said. “Right behind Olson, and Olson don’t look too good.”
“Sure,” Pearson said glumly. “And you’re in shape, too, anyone can see that.” Pearson himself looked pale and peaked after the long night on the road. He glanced disinterestedly at the crowd gathered in a supermarket parking lot they were just passing. “Everyone who wasn’t in shape is dead now, or almost dead. But there’s still 67 of us left.”
“Yeah, but . . .” A thinking frown spread over the broad circle of Scramm’s face. Garraty could almost hear the machinery up there working: slow, ponderous, but in the end as sure as death and as inescapable as taxes. It was somehow awesome.
“I don’t want to make you guys mad,” Scramm said. “You’re good guys. But you didn’t get into this thinking of winning out and getting the Prize. Most of these guys don’t know why they got into it. Look at that Collie Parker. He ain’t in it to get no Prize. He’s just walkin’ to see other people die. He lives on it. When someone gets a ticket, he gets a little more go-power. It ain’t enough. He’ll dry up just like a leaf on a tree.”
“And me?” Garraty asked.
Scramm looked troubled. “Aw, hell . . .”
“No, go on.”
“Well, the way I see it, you don’t know why you are walking, either. It’s the same thing. You’re going now because you’re afraid, but . . . that’s not enough. That wears out.” Scramm looked down at the road and rubbed his hands together. “And when it wears out, I guess you’ll buy a ticket like all the rest, Ray.”
Garraty thought about McVries saying, When I get tired . . . really tired . . . why, I guess I will sit down.
“You’ll have to walk a long time to walk me down,” Garraty said, but Scramm’s simple assessment of the situation had scared him badly.
“I,” Scramm said, “am ready to walk a long time.”
Their feet rose and fell on the asphalt, carrying them forward, around a curve, down into a dip and then over a railroad track that was metal grooves in the road. They passed a closed fried clam shack. Then they were out in the country again.
“I understand what it is to die, I think,” Pearson said abruptly. “Now I do, anyway. Not death itself, I still can’t comprehend that. But dying. If I stop walking, I’ll come to an end.” He swallowed, and there was a click in his throat. “Just like a record after the last groove.” He looked at Scramm earnestly. “Maybe it’s like you say. Maybe it’s not enough. But . . . I don’t want to die.”
Scramm looked at him almost scornfully. “You think just knowing about death will keep you from dying?”
Pearson smiled a funny, sick little smile, like a businessman on a heaving boat trying to keep his dinner down. “Right now that’s about all that’s keeping me going.” And Garraty felt a huge gratefulness, because his defenses had not been reduced to that. At least, not yet.
Up ahead, quite suddenly and as if to illustrate the subject they had been discussing, a boy in a black turtleneck sweater suddenly had a convulsion. He fell on the road and began to snap and sunfish and jackknife viciously. His limbs jerked and flopped. There was a funny gargling noise in his throat, aaa-aaa-aaa, a sheeplike sound that was entirely mindless. As Garraty hurried past, one of the fluttering hands bounced against his shoe and he felt a wave of frantic revulsion. The boy’s eyes were rolled up to the whites. There were splotches of foam splattered on his lips and chin. He was being second-warned, but of course he was beyond hearing, and when his 2 minutes were up, he was shot like a dog.
Alert: Ticket 34: #55 Peter Hughes, age 14 from Kentucky. Nickname: Pete. 66 walkers Remaining.
Not long after that they reached the top of a gentle grade and stared down into the green, unpopulated country ahead. Garraty was grateful for the cool morning breeze that slipped over his fast-perspiring body.
“That’s some view,” Scramm said.
The road could be seen for perhaps 12 miles ahead. It slid down the long slope, ran in flat zigzags through the woods, a blackish-gray charcoal mark across a green swatch of crepe paper. Far ahead it began to climb again, and faded into the rosy-pink haze of early morning light.
“This might be what they call the Hainesville Woods,” Garraty said, not too sure. “Truckers’ graveyard. Hell in the wintertime.”
“I never seen nothing like it,” Scramm said reverently. “There isn’t this much green in the whole state of Arizona.”
“Enjoy it while you can,” Baker said, joining the group. “It’s going to be a scorcher. It’s hot already and it’s only 7:15 AM in the morning.”
“Think you’d get used to it, where you come from,” Pearson said, almost resentfully.
“You don’t get used to it,” Baker said, slinging his light jacket over his arm. “You just learn to live with it.”
“I’d like to build a house up here,” Scramm said. He sneezed heartily, twice, sounding a little like a bull in heat. “Build it right up here with my own two hands, and look at the view every morning. Me and Cathy. Maybe I will someday, when this is all over.”
Nobody said anything.
By 7:30 AM the ridge was above and behind them, the breeze mostly cut off, and the heat already walked among them. Garraty took off his own jacket, rolled it, and tied it securely about his waist. The road through the woods was no longer deserted. Here and there early risers had parked their cars off the road and stood or sat in clumps, cheering, waving, and holding signs.
Two girls stood beside a battered MG at the bottom of one dip. They were wearing tight summer shorts, middy blouses, and sandals. There were cheers and whistles. The faces of these girls were hot, flushed, and excited by something ancient, sinuous, and, to Garraty, erotic almost to the point of insanity. He felt animal lust rising in him, an aggressively alive thing that made his body shake with a palsied fever all its own.
It was Gribble, the radical among them, that suddenly dashed at them, his feet kicking up spurts of dust along the shoulder. One of them leaned back against the hood of the MG and spread her legs slightly, tilting her hips at him. Gribble put his hands over her breasts. She made no effort to stop him. He got his first courtesy-warning, hesitated, and then plunged against her, a jamming, hurtling, frustrated, angry, frightened figure in a sweaty white shirt and cord pants. The girl hooked her ankles around Gribble’s calves and put her arms lightly around his neck. They kissed.
Gribble got a second courtesy-warning, then a third, and then, as the death-drone paid him a visit with perhaps 15 seconds of grace left, he stumbled away and broke into a frantic, shambling run. He fell down, picked himself up, clutched at his crotch and staggered back onto the road. His tin face was hectically flushed.
“Couldn’t,” he was sobbing. “Wasn’t enough time and she wanted me to and I couldn’t . . . I . . .” He was weeping and staggering, his hands pressed against his crotch. His words were little more than indistinct wails.
“So you gave them their little thrill,” Barkovitch said. “Something for them to talk about in Show and Tell tomorrow. At least we’re getting a nice breeze from Mister Death Drone, so thank you for that.”
“Just shut up!” Gribble screamed. He dug at his crotch. “It hurts, I got a cramp—”
“Blue balls,” Pearson said. “That’s what he’s got.”
Gribble looked at him through the stringy bangs of black hair that had fallen over his eyes. He looked like a stunned weasel. “It hurts,” he muttered again. He dropped slowly to his knees, hands pressed into his lower belly, head drooping, back bowed. He was shivering and snuffling and Garraty could see the beads of sweat on his neck, some of them caught in the fine hairs on the nape—what Garraty’s own father had always called quackfuzz. Walkers scattered to avoid getting shot, as the ten second count-down blared over the drone loudhailer.
Then he was dead.
Garraty turned his head to look at the girls, but they had retreated inside their MG. They were nothing but shadow-shapes.
Alert: Ticket 35: #48 Samuel Gribble, age 14 from Connecticut. Nickname: bullet-head. 65 walkers Remaining.
He made a determined effort to push them from his mind, but they kept creeping back in. How must it have been, dry-humping that warm, willing flesh? Her thighs had twitched, my God, they had twitched, in a kind of spasm, orgasm, oh God, the uncontrollable urge to squeeze and caress . . . and most of all to feel that heat . . . that heat.
He felt himself go. That warm, shooting flow of sensation, warming him. Wetting him. Oh Christ, it would soak through his pants and someone would notice.
Oh Jan I love you really I love you, he thought, but it was confused, all mixed up in something else.
He retied his jacket about his waist and then went on walking as before, and the memory slowly faded.
The pace stepped up. They were on a steep downhill grade now, and it was hard to walk slowly. Muscles worked and pistoned and squeezed against each other. The sweat rolled freely. Incredibly, Garraty found himself wishing for night again. He looked over at Olson curiously, wondering how he was making it.
Olson was staring at his feet again. The cords in his neck were knotted and ridged. His lips were drawn back in a frozen grin.
“He’s almost there now,” McVries said at his elbow, startling him. “When they start half-hoping someone will shoot them so they can rest their feet, they’re not far away.”
“Is that right?” Garraty asked crossly. “How come everybody else around here knows so much more about it than me?”
“Because you’re so sweet,” McVries said tenderly, and then he sped up, letting his legs catch the downgrade, and passed Garraty by.
Stebbins. He hadn’t thought about Stebbins in a long time. He turned his head to look for Stebbins. Stebbins was there. The pack had strung out coming down the long hill, and Stebbins was about a quarter of a mile back, but there was no mistaking those purple pants and that chambray workshirt. Stebbins was still tailing the pack like some thin vulture, just waiting for them to fall—
Garraty felt a wave of rage. He had a sudden urge to rush back and throttle Stebbins. There was no rhyme or reason to it, but he had to actively fight the compulsion down.
By the time they had reached the bottom of the grade, Garraty’s legs felt rubbery and unsteady. The state of numb weariness his flesh had more or less settled into was broken by unexpected darning-needles of pain that drove through his feet and legs, threatening to make his muscles knot and cramp. And Jesus, he thought, why not? They had been on the road for 23 hours. 23 hours of nonstop walking, it was unbelievable.
Garraty checked on Harkness on the App. It had passed 7:50 AM which meant that Harkness had lost his third warning, but Harkness’ death-counter was not at 60. It was at 33 and occasionally counting down. Old Harkness was still struggling and on his way to his third courtesy-warning again.
“How do you feel now?” he asked Scramm, as if the last time he had asked him had been 12 hours ago.
The death-drone could be heard in the distance. Harkness had this third courtesy-warning.
“Fit and fine,” Scramm said. He wiped the back of his hand across his nose, sniffed, and spat. “Just as fit and fine as can be.”
“You sound like you’re getting a cold.”
“Naw, it’s the pollen. Happens every spring. Hay fever. I even get it in Arizona. But I never catch colds.”
Garraty opened his mouth to reply when the sound of machine-gun could be heard in the distance. Harkness had burnt out.
Alert: Ticket 36: #49 Tracy Harkness, age 15 from Alabama. Nickname: Trace. 64 walkers Remaining.
There was an odd, elevatorish sensation in Garraty’s stomach when he got the alert. The magic circle was broken. Harkness would never write his book about the Long Walk. Harkness’s body and head were being tossed into a body-bag, then into the refrigerated body trailer. For Harkness, the Long Walk was over.
“Harkness,” McVries said. “Ol’ Harkness bought a ticket to see the farm.”
“Why don’t you write him a poime?” Barkovitch called over.
“Shut up, killer,” McVries answered absently. He shook his head. “Ol’ Harkness, sonofabitch.”
“That’s right, I’m the killer, and proud of it.” Barkovitch screamed. “At least I don’t lose my shit and scream at the guards like some—”
A chorus of angry shouts silenced him. Barkovitch just smiled. Mission accomplished. Barkovitch loved pushing people’s buttons. Especially those people who were trying to push his buttons.
“You know what my uncle did?” Baker said suddenly. They were passing through a shady tunnel of overleafing trees, and Garraty was trying to forget about Harkness and Gribble and think only of the coolness.
“What?” Abraham asked.
“He was an undertaker,” Baker said.
“Good deal,” Abraham said disinterestedly.
“When I was a kid, I always used to wonder,” Baker said vaguely. He seemed to lose track of his thought, then glanced at Garraty and smiled. It was a peculiar smile. “Who’d embalm him, I mean. Like you wonder who cuts the barber’s hair or who operates on the doctor for gallstones. See?”
“It takes a lot of gall to be a doctor,” McVries said solemnly.
“You know what I mean.”
“So who got the call when the time came?” Abraham asked.
“Yeah,” Scramm added. “Who did?”
Baker looked up at the twining, heavy branches under which they were passing, and Garraty noticed again that Baker now looked exhausted. Not that we don’t all look that way, he added to himself.
“Come on,” McVries said. “Don’t keep us hanging. Who buried him?”
“This is the oldest joke in the world,” Abraham said. “Baker says, whatever made you think he was dead?”
“He is, though,” Baker said. “Lung cancer. 6 years ago.”
“Did he smoke?” Abraham asked, waving at a family of 4 and their cat. The cat was on a leash. It was a Persian cat. It looked mean and pissed off.
“No, not even a pipe,” Baker said. “He was afraid it would give him cancer.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” McVries said, “who buried him? Tell us so we can discuss world problems, or baseball, or birth control or something.”
“I think birth control is a world problem,” Garraty said seriously. “My girlfriend is a Catholic and—”
“Come on!” McVries bellowed. “Who the fuck buried your grandfather, Baker?”
“My uncle. He was my uncle. My grandfather was a lawyer in Shreveport. He—”
“I don’t give a shit,” McVries said. “I don’t give a shit if the old gentleman had three cocks, I just want to know who buried him so we can get on.”
“Actually, nobody buried him. He wanted to be cremated.”
“Oh my aching balls,” Abraham said, and then laughed a little.
“My aunt’s got his ashes in a ceramic vase. At her house in Baton Rouge. She tried to keep the business going—the undertaking business—but nobody much seemed to cotton to a lady undertaker.”
“I doubt if that was it,” McVries said.
“No. I think your uncle jinxed her.”
“Jinx? How do you mean?” Baker was interested.
“Well, you have to admit it wasn’t a very good advertisement for the business.”
“No,” McVries said. “Getting cremated.”
Scramm chuckled stuffily through his plugged nose. “He’s got you there, old buddy.”
“I expect he might,” Baker said. He and McVries beamed at each other.
“Your uncle,” Abraham said heavily, “bores the tits off me. And might I also add that he—”
At that moment, Olson began begging one of the guards to let him rest.
He did not stop walking, or slow down enough to be warned, but his voice rose and fell in a begging, pleading, totally craven monotone that made Garraty crawl with embarrassment for him. Conversation lagged. Spectators watched Olson with horrified fascination. Garraty wished Olson would shut up before he gave the rest of them a black eye. He didn’t want to die either, but if he had to he wanted to go out without people thinking he was a coward. The soldiers stared over Olson, through him, around him, wooden-faced, deaf and dumb. They gave an occasional warning, though, so Garraty supposed you couldn’t call them dumb.
It was 8:15 AM and they had gone 94 miles. Garraty checked the Stat-App which reported that the largest number to ever complete the first 100 miles of a Long Walk was 57, back in 2003. They looked a sure bet to crack that record; there were still 64 in this group. Not that it mattered, one way or the other.
Olson’s pleas rose in a constant, garbled litany to Garraty’s left, somehow seeming to make the day hotter and more uncomfortable than it was. Several of the boys had shouted at Olson, but he seemed either not to hear or not to care.
They passed through a wooden covered bridge, the planks rumbling and bumping under their feet. Garraty could hear the secretive flap and swoop of the barn swallows that had made their homes among the rafters. It was refreshingly cool, and the sun seemed to drill down even hotter when they reached the other side. Wait till later if you think it’s hot now, he told himself. Wait until you get back into open country.
The food drones were beginning to fly, delivering breakfast to the remaining walkers. Garraty checked the breakfast menu and was impressed to see such delicious offerings as breakfast-burritos, fruit-filled pancakes and waffles, Italian cannoli, bacon, bananas, toast, and his favorite drink, milk. The food-trailer was freshly restocked at 7:00 AM and the hot-foods were kept hot, and the cold foods were kept cold. Everything was in small boxes. The boxes were automatically conveyed to the drone box, which was lowered to the walkers. The walkers generated a lot of trash, but it was soon cleaned up by those seeking souvenirs.
Garraty got a WaWa Sizzlie which is sausage, egg, cheese, bacon, onions, wrapped in a tortilla, and of course whole-milk to was it down.
Suddenly, he saw Baker sprint past him, along with some other boys. Up ahead, ten porto-potty booths lined the road. Baker ran into one. They filled up fast and short lines formed, and you could hear the warnings being given as their timers counted down.
Baker popped out and caught up with Garraty and McVries again, badly out of breath. He was cinching his pants.
“Fastest crap I evah took!” he said, badly out of breath. “And I only got my first warning. A few more seconds, and I’d be walking with 2.”
“I never could go very long without a crap,” Baker said. “Some guys, hell, they crap once a week. I’m a once-a-day man.”
Garraty realized, “I haven’t had the urge since we started. I must be burning off all the food I eat. I hope I never need to take a crap.”
“Same here”, McVries agreed, as he woofed down his Italian cannoli filled with Strawberries.
“If I don’t crap once a day, I take a laxative,” Baker admitted.
“Those laxatives will ruin your intestines,” Pearson said.
“Oh, shit,” Baker scoffed.
McVries threw back his head and laughed, then said “Baker, you’d better get some breakfast before all the good stuff is gone.”
Abraham twisted his head around to join the conversation. “My grandfather never used a laxative in his life and he lived to be—”
“You kept records, I presume,” Pearson said.
“You wouldn’t be doubting my grandfather’s word, would you?”
“Heaven forbid.” Pearson rolled his eyes.
“Okay. My grandfather—”
“Look,” Garraty said softly. Not interested in either side of the laxative argument, he had been idly watching Percy. Now he was watching him closely, hardly believing what his eyes were seeing. Percy had been edging closer and closer to the side of the road. Now he was walking on the sandy shoulder. Every now and then he snapped a tight, frightened glance at the guards in the Jeep, then to his right, at the thick screen of trees less than seven feet away.
“I think he’s going to break for it,” Garraty said, “Why does he keep looking at the guards? They’re not going to stop him.”
“Mister Death Drone will get him sure as hell,” Baker said. His voice had dropped to a whisper.
“He needs to block the GPS in his neck if he wants any chance of escape,” Pearson whispered.
“He’s only 13 years old,” McVries said, “doesn’t he understand there is no escape?”
“Someone should warn him”, Baker said, but nobody did.
“He hasn’t got the guts,” Pearson muttered finally, and before any of them could answer, Percy suddenly sprinted into the thick woods and was gone. They brought out their iPhones and switched to Death-Drone First-Person view.
“His goose is cooked now”, Baker said. Garraty watched on the App as Percy’s timer dropped instantly to 0. The computer knew that walker #31 had left the road. It was an instant ticket.
Alert: Ticket 37: #31 Percy Foster, age 13 from Mississippi. Nickname: Fost. 63 walkers Remaining.
Oh Percy, what is your mother going to say? Do you, tell me, do you really have the nerve to die?
The drone flew over the trees in pursuit. All Garraty could see was the tops of trees. Maybe the GPS signal was being blocked by the trees, maybe he’s got chance, Garraty thought.
But the death-drone found him using infrared-vision. All they saw was the machine-gun firing into some tree tops. They could only assume that Percy was dead. Two guards headed into the woods to retrieve his body, while the death-drone hovered to mark the kill spot.
“Let this ground be seeded with salt,” McVries said suddenly, very rapidly. “So that no stalk of corn or stalk of wheat shall ever grow. Cursed be the children of this ground and cursed be their loins. Also cursed be their hams and hocks. Hail Mary full of grace, let us blow this goddam place.”
McVries began to laugh.
“Shut up,” Abraham said hoarsely. “Stop talking like that.”
“All the world is God,” McVries said, and giggled hysterically. “We’re walking on the Lord, and back there the flies are crawling on the Lord, in fact the flies are also the Lord, so blessed be the fruit of thy womb Percy. Amen, hallelujah, chunky peanut butter. Our father, which art in tinfoil, hallow’d be thy name.”
“I’ll hit you!” Abraham warned. His face was very pale. “I will, Pete!”
“A praaayin’ man!” McVries gibed, and he giggled again. “Oh my suds and body! Oh my sainted hat!”
Abraham completed his promise and knocks McVries to the ground with a punch to the face.
Alert: Penalty-Warning! First Penalty-Warning number 2
Garraty suddenly realized that McVries was turning into Barkovitch and had flashbacks of Rank. McVries would soon be a killer too. McVries realized how to push Abrahams buttons.
“Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Kevin. Give us this day our daily Fred.”
Abraham kicks McVries and screams, “Stop it I said, or I’ll kill you!”
Alert: Penalty-Warning! Second Penalty-Warning number 2
“And forgive us our EZ-Passes, as we forgive those who pass gas upon us.”
Garraty and Baker attempt to restrain Abraham.
Alert: Penalty-Warning! First Penalty-Warning number 47
Alert: Penalty-Warning! First Penalty-Warning number 3
“and lead us not into castration, but deliver us from boll weevils.”
Garraty yelled, “Abraham, he’s just baiting you so you get your ticket! Stop Abraham!”, and suddenly Abraham stopped struggling.
McVries’s Apple watch, “Alert: Warning! First Warning number 51”
“Please Peter . . . one Barkovitch is enough! Please stop!”, Garraty yelled, and it was as if McVries snapped out of a trance.
“Oh jeez, you’re right . . . I am becoming Barkovitch,” and gets up, “c’mon, before we get any more warnings.”
They all begin to walk again.
“Abraham, I’m sorry. Obviously I’ve got a screw loose somewhere.”
“You’re all right McVries. I’m just tired, and when I get tired, I get irritable, and lose my temper sometimes.”
“Percy was awful young to be on this hike,” Baker said sadly. “13 is too young in my opinion.”
“Mother spoiled him,” Abraham said in a trembling voice. “You could tell.” He looked around at Garraty and Pearson pleadingly. “You could tell, couldn’t you?”
“She won’t spoil him anymore,” McVries said.
Olson suddenly began babbling at the guards again. It was 9:00 AM. Walkers were compulsively celebrating the end of the first 24 hours on the road.
They passed a sunny gas station where a mechanic in greasy coveralls was hosing off the tarmac.
“Wish they’d spray us with water,” Scramm said. “I’m as hot as a poker.”
“We’re all hot,” Garraty said.
“I thought it never got hot in Maine,” Pearson said. He sounded more tired than ever. “I thought Maine was s’posed to be cool.”
“Well then, now you know different,” Garraty said shortly.
“You’re a lot of fun, Garraty,” Pearson said. “You know that? You’re really a lot of fun. Gee, I’m glad I met you.”
Garraty to McVries, “Give us this day our daily FRED???” Is that the best you can do?
They all laughed.
They passed another truck stop. 3 big rigs were pulled in, hauled off the highway no doubt to make room for the Long Walkers. One of the drivers was standing anxiously by his rig, a huge refrigerator truck, and feeling the side. Feeling the cold that was slipping away in the morning sun. Several of the waitresses cheered as the Walkers trudged by, and the trucker who had been feeling the side of his refrigerator compartment turned and gave them the finger. He was a huge man with a red neck bulling its way out of a dirty T-shirt.
“Now why’d he wanna do that?” Scramm cried. “Just a rotten old sport!”
McVries laughed. “That’s the first honest citizen we’ve seen since we started, Scramm. Man, do I love him!”
“Probably he’s loaded up with perishables headed for Montreal,” Garraty said. “All the way from Boston. We forced him off the road. He’s probably afraid he’ll lose his job—or his rig, if he’s an independent.”
“Isn’t that tough?” Collie Parker brayed. “Isn’t that too goddam tough? They only been tellin’ people what the route was gonna be for 2 months or more. Just another goddam hick, that’s all!”
“You seem to know a lot about it,” Abraham said to Garraty.
“A little,” Garraty said, staring at Parker. “My father drove a rig before he got . . . before he went away. It’s a hard job to make a buck in. Probably that guy back there thought he had time to make it to the next cutoff. He wouldn’t have come this way if there was a shorter route.”
“He didn’t have to give us the finger,” Scramm insisted. “He didn’t have to do that. By God, his rotten old tomatoes ain’t life and death, like this is.”
“Your father took off on your mother?” McVries asked Garraty.
“My dad was Squaded,” Garraty said shortly. Silently he dared Parker—or anyone else—to open his mouth, but no one said anything.
Stebbins was still walking last with the Green Jeep following about 50 feet behind. Once the green Jeep had passed the truck stop, the burly driver was swinging back up into the cab of his jimmy. Up ahead, the death-drone claimed another. A body spun, flipped over, and lay still. Two guards bagged and stored it. They all ignored the following alert.
Alert: Ticket 38: #24 Solan Foster, age 16 from Florida. Nickname: Sol. 62 walkers Remaining.
“I had an uncle that was Squaded,” Wyman said hesitantly. Garraty noticed that the tongue of Wyman’s left shoe had worked out from beneath the lacings and was flapping obscenely.
“No one but goddam fools get Squaded,” Collie Parker said clearly.
Garraty looked at him and wanted to feel angry, but he dropped his head and stared at the road. His father had been a goddam fool, all right. A goddam drunkard who could not keep two cents together in the same place for long no matter what he tried his hand at, a man without the sense to keep his political opinions to himself. Garraty felt old and sick.
“Shut your stinking trap,” McVries said coldly.
“You want to try and make m—”
“No, I don’t want to try and make you. Just shut up, you sonofabitch.”
Collie Parker dropped back between Garraty and McVries. Pearson and Abraham moved away a little. The guards watched, ready to assign penalty-warnings if a walker interfered with another walker. Parker studied Garraty for a long moment. His face was broad and beaded with sweat, his eyes still arrogant. Then he clapped Garraty briefly on the arm.
“I got a loose lip sometimes. I didn’t mean nothing by it. Okay?” Garraty nodded wearily, and Parker shifted his glance to McVries. “Piss on you, Jack,” he said, and moved up again toward the vanguard.
“What an unreal bastard,” McVries said glumly.
“No worse than Barkovitch,” Abraham said. “Maybe even a little better.”
“Besides,” Pearson added, “what’s getting Squaded? It beats the hell out of getting dead, am I right?”
“How would you know?” Garraty asked. “How would any of us know?”
His father had been a sandy-haired giant with a booming voice and a bellowing laugh that had sounded to Garraty’s small ears like mountains cracking open. After he lost his own rig, he made a living driving Government trucks out of Brunswick. It would have been a good living if Jim Garraty could have kept his politics to himself. But when you work for the Government, the Government is twice as aware that you’re alive, twice as ready to call in a Squad if things seem a little dicky around the edges. And Jim Garraty had not been much of a Long Walk booster. So one day he got a telegram and the next day two soldiers turned up on the doorstep and Jim Garraty had gone with them, blustering, and his wife had closed the door and her cheeks had been pale as milk and when Garraty asked his mother where Daddy was going with the soldier mens, she had slapped him hard enough to make his mouth bleed and told him to shut up, shut up. Garraty had never seen his father since. It had been eleven years. It had been a neat removal. Odorless, sanitized, pasteurized, and dandruff-free.
“I had a brother that was in law trouble,” Baker said. “Not the Government, just the law. He stole himself a car and drove all the way from our town to Hattiesburg, Mississippi. He got two years’ suspended sentence. He’s dead now.”
“Dead?” The voice was a dried husk, wraithlike. Olson had joined them. His haggard face seemed to stick out a mile from his body.
“He had a heart attack,” Baker said. “He was only three years older than me. Ma used to say he was her cross, but he only got into bad trouble that once. I did worse. I was a night rider for three years.”
Garraty looked over at him. There was shame in Baker’s tired face, but there was also dignity there, outlined against a dusky shaft of sunlight poking through the trees.
“That’s a Squading offense, but I didn’t care. I was only 12 when I got into it. Ain’t hardly nothing but kids who go night-riding now, you know. Older heads are wiser heads. They’d tell us to go to it and pat our heads, but they weren’t out to get Squaded, not them. I got out after we burnt a cross on some black man’s lawn. I was scairt green. And ashamed, too. Why does anybody want to go burning a cross on some black man’s lawn? Jesus Christ, that stuff’s history, ain’t it? Sure it is.” Baker shook his head vaguely. “It wasn’t right.”
The death-drone got one more. They were starting to ignore the sound of the drones now. Food-drone, Video Streaming-drone, or death-drone. They sound the same.
“There goes one more,” Scramm said. His voice sounded clogged and nasal, and he wiped his nose with the back of his hand.
Alert: Ticket 39: #37 Kirby Foveaux, age 16 from Texas. Nickname: Kirbin. 61 walkers Remaining.
Olson started to beg the guards for a rest again.
“Oh, quit it,” Abraham said. “Quit getting on my nerves.”
Garraty looked at his Apple watch. It was 9:20 AM. He thought how nice it would be to go into one of those little roadside diners that dotted the road, snuggle his fanny against one of the padded counter stools, put his feet up on the rail (oh God, the relief of just that!) and order steak and fried onions, with a side of French fries and a big dish of vanilla ice cream with strawberry sauce for dessert. Or maybe a big plate of spaghetti and meatballs, with Italian bread and peas swimming in butter on the side. And milk. A whole pitcher of milk. A place to sit and eat would be so fine.
Just ahead a family of five—mother, father, boy, girl, and white-haired grandmother—were spread beneath a large elm, eating a picnic breakfast of sandwiches and what looked like hot cocoa. They waved cheerily at the Walkers.
“Freaks,” Garraty muttered.
“What was that?” McVries asked.
“I said I want to sit down and have something to eat. Look at those people. Fucking bunch of pigs.”
“You’d be doing the same thing,” McVries said.
“The hell I would. Those people, they’re animals. They want to see someone’s brains on the road, that’s why they turn out.”
McVries uttered a short, ugly-sounding laugh. “Sure they’re animals. You think you just found out a new principle? Sometimes I wonder just how naive you really are. The French lords and ladies used to screw after the guillotinings. The old Romans used to stuff each other during the gladiatorial matches. Most people watch NASCAR for the car crashes. That’s entertainment, Garraty. It’s nothing new.” He laughed again. Garraty stared at him, fascinated.
“Go on,” someone said. “You’re at second base, McVries. Want to try for third?”
Garraty didn’t have to turn. It was Stebbins, of course. Stebbins the lean Buddha. His feet carried him along automatically, but he was dimly aware that they felt swollen and slippery, as if they were filling with pus.
“Death is great for the appetites,” McVries said. “How about those two girls and Gribble? They wanted to see what screwing a dead man felt like. Now for Something Completely New and Different. I don’t know if Gribble got much out of it, but they sure as shit did. It’s the same with anybody. It doesn’t matter if they’re eating or drinking or sitting on their cans. They like it better, they feel it and taste it better because they’re watching men die.
“But even that’s not the real point of this little expedition, Garraty. The point is, they’re the smart ones. They’re not getting thrown to the lions. They’re not staggering along and hoping they won’t have to take a shit with 2 warnings against them. You’re dumb, Garraty. You and me and Pearson and Barkovitch and Stebbins, we’re all dumb. Scramm’s dumb because he thinks he understands, and he doesn’t. Olson’s dumb because he understood too much too late. They’re animals, all right. But why are you so goddam sure that makes us human beings?”
He paused, badly out of breath.
“There,” he said. “You went and got me going. I told you that I had a screw loose. Sermonette No. 342 in a series of 6000, et cetera, et cetera. Probably cut my lifespan by 5 hours or more.”
“Then why are you doing it?” Garraty asked him. “If you know that much, and if you’re that sure, why are you doing it?”
“The same reason we’re all doing it,” Stebbins said. He smiled gently, almost lovingly. His lips were a little sun-parched; otherwise, his face was still unlined and seemingly invincible. “We want to die, that’s why we’re doing it. Why else, Garraty? Why else?”
At 9:37 AM, Wayne, the walker that the gas jockey had been cheering for a ways back, got his ticket.
Alert: Ticket 40: #94 Jonathan Wayne, age 17 from New Hampshire. Nickname: Jon. 60 walkers Remaining.
At 9:47 AM, another walker Garraty didn’t know got his ticket.
Alert: Ticket 41: #17 Peter Flavin, age 14 from Arkansas. Nickname: Repeater. 59 walkers Remaining.
They had come 99 miles with just 41 gone. 59 left which is 2 more than the record set 17 years ago. We’re going to beat the record when we reach 100 miles! Isn’t that wonderful, Garraty thought. Great. I hope they all drop dead right now.
McVries tossed his empty bottle of Fanta Grape (he was fond of anything grape flavored) into the crowd and a teenager in torn jeans raced a middle-aged housewife for it, which had stopped being something useful and had begun its new career as a souvenir. The housewife was closer, but the kid was faster, and he beat her by half a length. “Thanks!” he hollered to McVries, holding the Grape Fanta bottle aloft. He scampered back to his friends, still waving it. The housewife eyed him sourly.
“You know something?” McVries said finally.
“If I had a dollar . . . just a dollar, mind you . . . I think I’d put it on you, Garraty. I think you’ve got a chance to win this thing.”
Garraty laughed self-consciously. “Putting the whammy on me?”
“The whammy. Like telling a pitcher he’s got a no-hitter going.”
“Maybe I am,” McVries said. He put his hands out in front of him. They were shaking very slightly. “Looks like I got Olson’s cooties.” McVries frowned at his quivering hands in a distracted sort of concentration. It was a half-lunatic sort of gaze. “I hope Barkovitch buys out soon,” he said.
“If you had it to do all over again . . . if you knew you could get this far and still be walking . . . would you do it?”
McVries put his hands down and stared at Garraty. “Are you kidding? You must be.”
“No, I’m serious.”
“Ray, I don’t think I’d do it again if the Major put his pistol up against my nates. This is the next thing to suicide, except that a regular suicide is quicker.”
“True,” Olson said. “How true.” He smiled a hollow, concentration-camp smile that made Garraty’s belly crawl.
Ten minutes later they passed under a huge red-and-white banner that proclaimed: 100 MILES!! CONGRATULATIONS FROM THE JEFFERSON PLANTATION CHAMBER OF COMMERCE! CONGRATULATIONS TO THIS YEAR’S “CENTURY CLUB” LONG WALKERS!!
“I got a place where they can put their Century Club,” Collie Parker said. “It’s long and brown and the sun never shines there.”
Garraty, “Yeah, but we beat the record by 2 for the most walkers to make it 100 miles. The old record was set 17 years ago!”
Collie Parker replied, “You know where they can shove that record?”
Garraty, “Is it long and brown?”
“Does the sun shine there?”
Suddenly the spotty stands of second-growth pine and spruce that had bordered the road in scruffy patches were gone, hidden by the first real crowd they had seen. A tremendous cheer went up, and that was followed by another and another. Everyone had their smart-phones out and were taking pics, video, selfies or vlogging. A spectator drone went flying overhead and was promptly shot down by a guard. State police held the deep ranks of people back, and bright orange nylon restraining ropes were strung along the soft shoulders. A policeman struggled with a screaming little boy. The boy had a dirty face and a snotty nose. He was waving a toy glider in one hand and an autograph book in the other.
10:10 AM “Jeez!” Baker yelled. “Jeez, look at ’em, just look at ’em all!”
Collie Parker was waving and smiling, and it was not until Garraty closed up with him a little that he could hear him calling in his flat Midwestern accent: “Glad to seeya, ya goddam bunch of fools!” A grin and a wave. “Your face and my ass, what a match. Howaya, howaya?”
Garraty clapped his hands over his mouth and giggled hysterically. A man in the first rank waving a sloppily lettered sign with Scramm’s name on it had popped his fly. A row back a fat woman in a ridiculous yellow sunsuit was being ground between three college students who were drinking beer. Stone-ground fatty, Garraty thought, and laughed harder.
You’re going to have hysterics, oh my God, don’t let it get you, think about Gribble . . . and don’t . . . don’t let . . . don’t . . .
But it was happening. The laughter came roaring out of him until his stomach was knotted and cramped and he was walking bent-legged and somebody was hollering at him, screaming at him over the roar of the crowd. It was McVries. “Ray! Ray! What is it? You all right?”
“They’re funny!” He was nearly weeping with laughter now. “Pete, Pete, they’re so funny, it’s just . . . just . . . that they’re so funny!”
A hard-faced little girl in a dirty sundress sat on the ground, pouty-mouthed and frowning. She made a horrible face as they passed. Garraty nearly collapsed with laughter and drew a warning. His apple watched buzzed.
10:17 AM Alert: Warning! First Warning number 47
I could die, he thought. I could just die laughing, wouldn’t that be a scream?
Collie was still smiling gaily and waving and cursing spectators and newsmen roundly, and that seemed funniest of all. Garraty fell to his knees.
10:18 AM Alert: Warning! Second Warning number 47
He continued to laugh in short, barking spurts, which were all his laboring lungs would allow.
“He’s gonna puke!” someone cried in an ecstasy of delight. “Watch ’im, Alice, he’s gonna puke!”
“Garraty! Garraty for God’s sake!” McVries was yelling. He got an arm around Garraty’s back and hooked a hand into his armpit. Somehow he yanked him to his feet and Garraty stumbled on.
“Oh God,” Garraty gasped. “Oh Jesus Christ they’re killing me. I . . . I can’t . . .” He broke into loose, trickling laughter once more. His knees buckled. McVries ripped him to his feet once more. Garraty’s collar tore.
10:20 AM Alert: Warning! Third Warning number 47
A few seconds later, Mcvries got a warning.
Alert: Warning! First Warning number 61
That’s my last warning, Garraty thought dimly. I’m on my way to see that fabled farm. Sorry, Jan, I . . .
“Come on ass-hole, I can’t lug you!” McVries hissed.
The death-drone had taken flight and was on its way. The crowd OOOH’d and AAAH’d. This is what they came for! They were animals.
“I can’t do it,” Garraty gasped. “My wind’s gone, I—”
McVries slapped him twice quickly, forehand on the right cheek, backhand on the left. Then he walked away quickly, not looking back.
The laughter had gone out of him now but his gut was jelly, his lungs empty and seemingly unable to refill. He staggered drunkenly along, weaving, trying to find his wind. Black spots danced in front of his eyes, and a part of him understood how close to fainting he was. His one foot fetched against his other foot, he stumbled, almost fell, and somehow kept his balance.
If I fall, I die. I’ll never get up. The death-drone was hovering and targeting his neck.
10:24 AM The crowd was watching him. The cheers had died away to a muted, almost sexual murmur. They were waiting for him to fall down.
He walked on, now concentrating only on putting one foot out in front of the other. I’m going to live a little longer, Garraty told them. I’m going to live. I’m going to live a little longer.
He made his feet rise and fall to the steady cadence in his head. He blotted everything else out, even Jan. He was not even aware of the steady dull pain in his feet and the frozen stiffness of the hamstring muscles behind his knees. The thought pounded in his mind like a big kettledrum. Like a heartbeat. Live a little longer. Live a little longer. Live a little longer. Until the words themselves became meaningless and signified nothing.
Garraty didn’t notice that the death-drone, so he didn’t see it turn and target someone else. When it started it’s 10-second count-down, Garraty didn’t hear it.
What he did hear was the sound of the machine-gun.
In the crowd-hushed stillness the sound was shockingly loud, and he could hear someone screaming. Now you know, he thought, you live long enough to hear the sound of the machine-gun, long enough to hear yourself screaming—
10:28 AM But one of his feet kicked a small stone then and there was pain and it wasn’t him that had bought it, it was 64, a pleasant, smiling boy named Frank Morgan.
Alert: Ticket 42: #64 Frank Morgan, age 17 from Iowa. Nickname: Franky. 58 walkers Remaining.
One guard was dragging Frank Morgan’s body off the road. Another guard was carrying his head. He was promptly bagged and stored.
“I’m not dead,” he said dazedly. Shock hit him in a warm blue wave, threatening to turn his legs to water again.
“Yeah, but you ought to be,” McVries said.
“You saved him,” Olson said, turning it into a curse. “Why did you do that? Why did you do that?” His eyes were as shiny and as blank as doorknobs. “I’d kill you if I could. I hate you. You’re gonna die, McVries. You wait and see. God’s gonna strike you dead for what you did. God’s gonna strike you dead as dogshit.”
“Piss on you,” McVries said calmly. “If Garraty dies, who’s going to help you get food and water? Your hands are shaking so badly, you can’t even hold your iPhone. If Garraty dies, you die. Ain’t nobody else is gonna help you.”
“Plus, I owed him one for saving my life.” He looked at Garraty. “We’re square, man.”
Garraty’s wind came back, but very slowly, and for a long time he was sure he could feel a stitch coming in his side . . . but at last that faded. McVries had saved his life. He had gone into hysterics, had a laughing jag, and McVries had saved him from going down.
“God will punish him,” Hank Olson was blaring with dead and unearthly assurance. “God will strike him down.”
McVries laughed, “You’re not making sense Henry. What would Jesus do?“ There was a long pause, but no reply. “OK, I’ll tell you what Jesus would do. If Jesus were on this walk, he would sacrifice his life to help others. You could say, I’m doing God’s work.”
“Can’t argue with that Hank!” Abraham laughed.
“Clearly, you’re not thinking straight, Olson”, McVries said rather of factly.
Garraty whispered to McVries, “Not that I’m keeping score but, I still owe you one. You saved me twice, and I only saved you once. There’s that time I almost fainted when we were climbing that steep hill. You gave me your Poland Springs to pour over my head. Then there’s the time you slapped me when I had my laughing fit. I only saved you from getting shot when you picked a fight with the guards.”
“We don’t need to keep score. I just told Olson that to get him off my back. I get Olson’s frustration. At some point we’ll have to stop helping each other.”
10:35 AM The day grew yet hotter, and small, quibbling arguments broke out like brushfires. The huge crowd dwindled a little as they walked out of the radius of TV cameras and microphones, but it did not disappear or even break up into isolated knots of spectators. The crowd had come now, and the crowd was here to stay. The people who made it up merged into one anonymous Crowd Face, a vapid, eager visage that duplicated itself mile by mile. It peopled doorsteps, lawns, driveways, picnic areas, gas station tarmacs (where enterprising owners had charged admission), and, in the next town they passed through, both sides of the street and the parking lot of the town’s supermarket. The Crowd Face mugged and gibbered and cheered, but always remained essentially the same. It watched voraciously as Wyman squatted to make his bowels work. Men, women, and children, the Crowd Face was always the same, and Garraty tired of it quickly.
He wanted to thank McVries, but somehow doubted that McVries wanted to be thanked. He could see him up ahead, walking behind Barkovitch. McVries was staring intently at Barkovitch’s neck.
The crowd seemed to intensify the heat, and Garraty unbuttoned his shirt to just above his belt buckle.
The road inclined steeply, and the crowd fell away momentarily as they climbed up and over four sets of east/west railroad tracks that ran below, glittering hotly in their bed of cinders. At the top, as they crossed the wooden bridge, Garraty could see another belt of woods ahead, and the built-up, almost suburban area through which they had just passed to the right and left.
A cool breeze played over his sweaty skin, making him shiver. Scramm sneezed sharply 3 times.
“I am getting a cold,” he announced disgustedly.
“That’ll take the starch right out of you,” Pearson said. “That’s a bitch.”
“I’ll just have to work harder,” Scramm said.
“You must be made of steel,” Pearson said. “If I had a cold I think I’d roll right over and die. That’s how little energy I’ve got left.”
“Roll over and die now!” Barkovitch yelled back. “Save some energy!”
“Shut up and keep walking, killer,” McVries said immediately.
Barkovitch looked around at him. “Why don’t you get off my back, McVries? Go walk somewhere else.”
“It’s a free road. I’ll walk where I damn well please, killer.”
“You keep calling me killer, but you should be happy that I took out some of the competition.”
“How tall are you killer, 5 foot?”
“Four foot, 9 inches”
“Statistically speaking, the winners tend to be tall guys with long legs. You’re a short guy with short legs. Look at me, Garray, Olson and Stebbins. What makes you think you can beat us?”
“I told you . . . I have a plan, and it seems to be working. You haven’t seen my dirty work. I’ve been up hanging with the vanguard picking off those guys, then I’ll fall back and pick off some other guys. I convinced Percy he could get away, when I knew he couldn’t. I told him the trees would block his GPS signal, and he believed me because he was a gullible 13 year old.”
“Look McVries . . . the goal is not to make friends and help each other, so we break the distance record. It’s quite the opposite. Our goal should be to make this walk as short as possible. I see cliques forming like your musketeers, where they help each other, but you’re doing it wrong. We should all be back-stabbing loners using psychological warfare to take out our competition.”
Alert: Warning! Second Warning number 61
Alert: Warning! First Warning number 5
McVries looked surprised, “Damnit! I was just about to walk off my first warning! What do you think you’re doing?”
“When someone tailgates me on the highway, I just take my foot off the gas, and gliiiiide . . . slowly losing speed until they pass me. You’re like the boiling-frog, McVries. Put a frog in cold water, then slowly raise the temperature, and they won’t notice and just boil to death.”
Alert: Warning! Third Warning number 61
Alert: Warning! Second Warning number 5
McVries could hear the death-drone spin up. Barkovitch comes to a complete stop, then turns to face McVries.
“What’s it going to be McVries? Are you going to get off my back now? I’ve got the upper-hand. You’ll get your ticket before I get my third warning.”
McVries glances at his Apple watch death-timer, 20, 19, 18, . . . the death-drone on its way.
10:59 AM “This isn’t over Barkovitch. I will find a way to take you down.” McVries passes Barkovitch and catches up with the musketeers, with the death-drone in tow. It followed for 5 minutes as programmed, then returned to its trailer.
At 11:05 AM they walked by a lumberyard where men stood atop stacks of planks, silhouetted against the sky like Indians, waving to them. Then they were in the woods again and silence seemed to fall with a crash. It was not silent, of course; Walkers talked, the Jeeps chugged along, somebody broke wind, somebody laughed, somebody behind Garraty made a hopeless little groaning sound. The sides of the road were still lined with spectators, but the great “Century Club” crowd had disappeared, and it seemed quiet by comparison. Birds sang in the high-crowned trees, the furtive breeze now and then masked the heat for a moment or two, sounding like a lost soul as it soughed through the trees. A brown squirrel froze on a high branch, tail bushed out, black eyes brutally attentive, a nut caught between his rat-like front paws. He chittered at them, then scurried higher up and disappeared. A plane droned far away, like a giant fly.
11:15 AM To Garraty it seemed that everyone was deliberately giving him the silent treatment. McVries was angry that Barkovitch bested him. Pearson and Baker were talking about chess. Abraham was eating noisily and wiping his hands on his shirt. Scramm had torn off a piece of his T-shirt and was using it as a hanky. Collie Parker was swapping girls with Wyman. And Olson . . . but he didn’t even want to look at Olson, who seemed to want to implicate everyone else as an accessory in his own approaching death.
11:20 AM Garraty’s Apple watch buzzed a notification. He looked down and got an alert that read:
Alert: Third warning removed. Timer reset to 60. Two warnings remain.
With a 60 second buffer on his death-timer, Garraty felt confident to drop back, very carefully, just a little at a time (very mindful of his 2 warnings), until he was in step with Stebbins. The purple pants were dusty now. There were dark circles of sweat under the armpits of the chambray shirt. Whatever else Stebbins was, he wasn’t Superman. He looked up at Garraty for a moment, lean face questioning, and then he dropped his gaze back to the road. The knob of spine at the back of his neck was very prominent.
11:30 AM “How come there aren’t more people?” Garraty asked hesitantly. “Watching, I mean.”
For a moment he didn’t think Stebbins was going to answer. But finally, he looked up again, brushed the hair off his forehead and replied, “There will be. Wait awhile. They’ll be sitting on roofs three deep to look at you.”
“But somebody said there was over 100 billion bet on this. You’d think they’d be lined up 3 deep the whole way. And that there’d be live-streaming coverage—”
“Most of these walkers live-stream to their vlogs to their monetized YouTube channels, and YouTube gets a cut. The Long Walk Corporation has an exclusive deal with YouTube for the first 2 days. That’s good for us. Consider how long would you last with people screaming at you from both sides? The body odor alone would be enough to drive you insane after a while. It would be like walking 3 hundred miles through Times Square on New Year’s Eve.”
“But they do let them watch, don’t they? Someone said it was one big crowd from Old Town on.”
“Yeah, starting from Old Town the damper is off. By then no one is thinking very much about mundane things like B.O. And there’s continuous live-streaming coverage from Augusta. The Long Walk is the national pastime, after all.”
From around the next curve the death-drone roared again, startling a pheasant that rose from the underbrush in an electric uprush of beating feathers. Garraty and Stebbins rounded the curve, but the boy was already bagged and stored. Fast work.
11:37 AM Alert: Ticket 43: #43 Peter Fufkin, age 17 from New Jersey. Nickname: Pete. 57 walkers Remaining.
“You reach a certain point,” Stebbins said, “when the crowd ceases to matter, either as an incentive or a drawback. It ceases to be there. Like a man on a scaffold, I think. You burrow away from the crowd.”
“I think I understand that,” Garraty said. He felt timid.
“If you understood it, you wouldn’t have gone into hysterics back there and needed your friend to save your ass. But you will.”
“How far do you burrow, I wonder?”
“How deep are you?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, that’s something you’ll get to find out, too. Plumb the unplumbed depths of Garraty. Sounds almost like a travel ad, doesn’t it? You burrow until you hit bedrock. Then you burrow into the bedrock. And finally you get to the bottom. And then you buy out. That’s my idea. Let’s hear yours.”
Garraty said nothing. Right at present, he had no ideas.
The Walk went on. The heat went on. The sun hung suspended just above the line of trees the road cut its way through. Their shadows were stubby dwarves.
Garraty didn’t want to walk with Stebbins anymore, not right now. Stebbins made him uneasy. He could only take Stebbins in small doses. He walked faster, leaving Stebbins by himself again.
11:57 AM In 23 minutes he could drop his second warning, but for now he was still walking with 2. There was still the unshakable, blind assurances that this organism Ray Garraty could not die. The others could die, they were extras in the movie of his life, but not Ray Garraty, star of that long-running hit film, The Ray Garraty Story. Maybe he would eventually come to understand the untruth of that emotionally as well as intellectually . . . maybe that was the final depth of which Stebbins had spoken. It was a shivery, unwelcome thought.
Without realizing it, he had walked 3 quarters of the way through the pack. He was behind Barkovitch who was tail-gaiting McVries now, tables turned, psy-war in full-swing. It was the 3 of them in a fatigue-ridden conga line: McVries at the front, his head slumped, hands half-clenched, favoring his left foot a little now; Barkovitch still trying to look cocky but flaking a bit around the edges; and, bringing up the rear, the star of The Ray Garraty Story himself. And how do I look? he wondered.
He rubbed a hand up the side of his cheek and listened to the rasp his hand made against his light beard-stubble. Probably he didn’t look all that snappy himself.
He stepped up his pace a little more until he was walking abreast of McVries, who looked over briefly and then back at Barkovitch. His eyes were dark and hard to read.
McVries didn’t say anything. Garraty cleared his throat twice but said nothing. He thought that the longer you went without speaking, the harder it gets to break the silence.
12:10 PM Garraty said “I dropped my third warning”.
McVries replied “Me too”.
Barkovitch “Me too . . . second warning actually.”
Garraty “My second warning will clear in 10 minutes.”
McVries “I’ve got 39 minutes before my second clears.”
Barkovitch “Me too . . . first warning actually.”
McVries ignored Barkovitch, knowing he was just trying to be annoying on purpose.
The lunch drones were flying now. Garraty said, “Those food-drones are making me hungry like a Pavlov dog. They stocked the food-trailer with lunch items at 11:30 AM. I’m gonna check out what new food items they have and get me some—”
“Don’t hurt me!” someone screamed. “Please don’t hurt me!”
It was a redhead with a plaid shirt tied around his waist, his tears cutting runnels through the sweaty dirt on his face, red hair glinting like a fire in the sun. “Don’t . . . I can’t . . . please . . . my mother . . . I can’t . . . don’t . . . no more . . . my feet . . .” He climbed up on the front of the pacer-Jeep. “Can’t . . . my feet . . . can’t walk . . . anymore . . . please . . . please . . . help me!”
Garraty knew he would get a penalty warning for climbing onto a transportation vehicle.
Alert: Penalty-Warning! First Penalty Warning number 38!
To remove walkers from transport vehicles, the vehicles had a self-defense system built in where they could apply an electrical charge to the outside surface.
Number 38 screamed as short-duration electric shocks were applied to the Jeep exterior. The voltage started out high enough to be very painful, but not enough to kill. The guards had 3 setting. Pain, Stun and Kill. The Kill setting should only be used if the guard’s life was in danger.
Number 38 begged “Oh God! . . . Please Stop! . . . Aaaaaahhhhh!! . . . Noooo!! . . . Help me! . . . Someone . . . Help me!”
Alert: Penalty-Warning! Second Penalty Warning number 38!
As per protocol, the guards increased the voltage to Stun. Number 38’s muscles seized as they contracted, and he fell off to the side.
He screamed again, a high, incredibly thin note that seemed sharp enough to shatter glass and what he was screaming was:
“Jesus,” Garraty muttered. “Why doesn’t he stop that?” The screams went on and on.
“I doubt if he can,” McVries said clinically. “The pacer-Jeep ran over his ankles. It’s on cruise-control and auto-pilot, so it will run you over if you don’t move.”
Garraty looked. It was true. No wonder the red-headed kid was screaming about his feet. His ankles were broken.
Alert: Warning! Third Warning number 38!
“I want to go home,” someone behind Garraty said very quietly. “Oh Christ, do I ever want to go home.”
20 seconds later, the red-headed boy lost his head.
Alert: Ticket 44: #38 Alexander Fowler, age 14 from South Dakota. Nickname: Alex. 56 walkers Remaining.
“I’m gonna see my girl in Freeport,” Garraty said rapidly. “And I’m not gonna have any warnings and I’m gonna kiss her, God I miss her, God, Jesus, did you see his ankles? They didn’t care that he couldn’t walk, Pete, business as usual, all automated, nobody cares—”
“Another boy has gone ober to dat Silver City, lawd, lawd,” Barkovitch intoned.
“Shut up, killer,” McVries said absently. “She pretty, Ray? Your girl?”
“She’s beautiful. I love her.”
McVries smiled. “Gonna marry her?”
“Yeah,” Garraty babbled. “We’re gonna be Mr. and Mrs. Norman Normal, 1 boy, 1 girl, and a collie dog, his ankles, the guards didn’t even try to swerve, they’re supposed protect us, not hurt us, somebody ought to report that, somebody—”
Barkovitch interrupts, “Why are you getting so upset? That’s one less walker to worry about. He wasn’t going to make it any way.”
McVries continues ignoring Barkovitch, “Two boys and two girls, that what you’re gonna have?”
“Yeah, yeah, she’s beautiful, I just wish I hadn’t—”
“And the first kid will be Ray Junior and the dog’ll have a dish with its name on it, right?”
Garraty raised his head slowly, like a punch-drunk fighter. “Are you making fun of me? Or what?”
“No!” Barkovitch exclaimed. “He’s shitting on you, boy! And don’t you forget it. But I’ll dance on his grave for you, don’t worry.” He cackled briefly.
“Shut up, killer,” McVries said. “I’m not dumping on you, Ray. Come on, let’s get away from the killer, here.”
“Shove it up your ass!” Barkovitch screamed after them.
“She love you? Your girl? Jan?”
“Yeah, I think so,” Garraty said.
McVries shook his head slowly. “All of that romantic horseshit . . . you know, it’s true. At least, for some people for some short time, it is. It was for me. I felt like you.” He looked at Garraty. “You still want to hear about the scar?”
They rounded a bend and a camper-load of children squealed and waved.
“Yes,” Garraty said.
“Why?” He looked at Garraty, but his suddenly naked eyes might have been searching himself.
“I want to help you,” Garraty said.
McVries looked down at his left foot. “Hurts. I can’t wiggle the toes very much anymore. My neck is stiff and my kidneys ache. My girl turned out to be a bitch, Garraty. I got into this Long Walk shit the same way that guys used to get into the Foreign Legion. In the words of the great rock and roll poet, I gave her my heart, she tore it apart, and who gives a fart.”
Garraty looked at his Apple watch. It was 12:15 PM. Freeport was still far. In 5 minutes, he’d clear his second warnings.
“I’m starving. Let’s get lunch before all the good stuff is taken.”
5 minutes later they had their food and drink and Garraty got this alert.
12:20 PM Alert: Second warning removed. Timer reset to 30. One warning remains.
“One more hour and I’ll have my 2 minutes for Jan.”, Garraty said, “What were you saying about the scar.”
“I told you it was a long story, so let me start at the beginning. Her name was Priscilla,” McVries said. “You think you got a case? I was the original Korny Kid, Moon-June was my middle name.
Confused Garraty asked “Moon-June? I don’t get your references.”
“I used to kiss her fingers. I even took to reading Keats to her out behind the house, when the wind was right. Her old man kept cows, and the smell of cow-shit goes, to put it in the most delicate way, in a peculiar fashion with the works of John Keats. Maybe I should have read her Swinburne when the wind was wrong.” McVries laughed.
“Swinburne when the wind was wrong? I don’t get it.” Garraty said.
McVries seemed not to have heard. “J. D. Salinger . . . John Knowles . . . even James Kirkwood and that guy Don Bredes . . . “
“Who?”, Garraty looking more confused.
“they’ve destroyed being an adolescent, Garraty. If you’re a 16-year-old boy, you can’t discuss the pains of adolescent love with any decency anymore. You just come off sounding like fucking Asa Butterfield with a hardon.”
“Asa butter-who?”, McVries laughed a little hysterically. Garraty had no idea what McVries was talking about.
He was secure in his love for Jan, he didn’t feel in the least self-conscious about it. Their feet scuffed on the road. Garraty could feel his right heel wobbling. Pretty soon the nails would let go, and he would shed the shoe-heel like dead skin. Behind them, Scramm had a coughing fit. It was the Walk that bothered Garraty, not all this weird shit about romantic love.
“But that doesn’t have anything to do with the story,” McVries said, as if reading his mind. “About the scar. It was last summer. We both wanted to get away from home, away from our parents, and away from the smell of all that cow-shit so the Great Romance could bloom in earnest. So we got jobs working for a pajama factory in New Jersey. How does that grab you, Garraty? A pajama factory in Ringoes New Jersey.
“C’mon, Ringoes? Seriously? You’re making that up.”
Ignoring Garraty, he continued, “We got separate apartments there. Great town, Ringoes, on a given day you can smell all the cow-shit in New Jersey thanks to the dairy farm. Our parents kicked a little, but with separate apartments and good summer jobs, they didn’t kick too much. My place was with 2 other guys, and there were 3 girls in with Pris. We left on June the third in my car, and we stopped once around 3 in the afternoon at a motel and got rid of the virginity problem. I felt like a real crook. She didn’t really want to screw, but she wanted to please me. That was the Shady Nook motel. When we were done, I flushed that Trojan down the Shady Nook john and washed out my mouth with a Shady Nook paper cup. It was all very romantic, very ethereal.
“Then it was on to Ringoes, smelling the cow-shit and being so sure it was different cow-shit. I dropped her at her apartment and then went on to my own. The next Monday we started in at the Plymouth Sleepwear factory. It wasn’t much like the movies, Garraty. It stank of raw cloth and my foreman was a bastard. But I didn’t mind because it was love. See? It was love.”
He spat dryly into the dust, then finished off his Poland Springs water, then ordered another from the drone. They were climbing a long, curve-banked hill now, and his words came in out-of-breath bursts.
“Pris was on the first floor, the showcase for all the idiot tourists who didn’t have anything better to do than go on a guided tour of the place that made their jam-jams. It was nice down where Pris was. Pretty pastel walls, nice modern machinery, air conditioning. Pris sewed on buttons from 7 till 3. Just think, there are kids all over the country wearing pj’s held up by Priscilla’s buttons. There is a thought to warm the coldest heart.
“I was on the 5th floor. I was a bagger. See, down in the basement they dyed the raw cloth and sent it up to the 5th floor in these warm-air tubes. They’d ring a bell when the whole lot was done, and I’d open my bin and there’d be a whole shit-load of loose fiber, all the colors of the rainbow. I’d pitchfork it out, put it in 200-pound sacks, and chain-hoist the sacks onto a big pile of other sacks for the picker machine. They’d separate it, the weaving machines wove it, some other guys cut it and sewed it into pajamas, and down there on that pretty pastel first floor Pris put on the buttons while the dumbass tourists watched her and the other girls through this glass wall . . . just like the people are watching us today. Am I getting through to you at all, Garraty?”
“The scar,” Garraty reminded.
“I keep wandering away from that, don’t I?” McVries wiped his forehead and unbuttoned his shirt as they breasted the hill. Waves of woods stretched away before them to a horizon poked with mountains. They met the sky like interlocking jigsaw pieces. Perhaps 10 miles away, almost lost in the heat-haze, a fire tower jutted up through the green. The road cut through it all like a sliding gray serpent.
“At first, the joy and bliss was Keatsville all the way.
“More references I don’t get”, Garraty thought.
“I screwed her 3 more times in my car, with the smell of cow-shit coming in through the car window from the next pasture. And I could never get all of the loose fabric out of my hair no matter how many times I shampooed it, and the worst thing was she was getting away from me, going beyond me; I loved her, I really did, I knew it and there was no way I could tell her anymore so she’d understand. I couldn’t even screw it into her. There was always that smell of cow-shit.
“The thing of it was, Garraty, the factory was on piecework. That means we got lousy wages, but a percentage for all we did over a certain minimum. I wasn’t a very good bagger. I did about 23 bags a day, but the norm was usually right around 30. And this did not endear me to the rest of the boys, because I was fucking them up. Harlan down in the dyehouse couldn’t make piecework because I was tying up his blower with full bins. Ralph on the picker couldn’t make piecework because I wasn’t shifting enough bags over to him. It wasn’t pleasant. They saw to it that it wasn’t pleasant. You understand?”
“Yeah,” Garraty said. He wiped the back of his hand across his neck and then wiped his hand on his pants. It made a dark stain.
“Meanwhile, down in buttoning, Pris was keeping herself busy. Some nights she’d talk for hours about her girlfriends, and it was usually the same tune. How much this one was making. How much that one was making. And most of all, how much she was making. And she was making plenty. So I got to find out how much fun it is to be in competition with the girl you want to marry. At the end of the week I’d go home with a check for $280.40 and put some Cornhusker’s Lotion on my blisters. She was making closer to $400 a week, and socking it away as fast as she could run to the bank. And when I suggested we go someplace dutch, you would have thought I’d suggested ritual murder.
“After a while I stopped screwing her. I’d like to say I stopped going to bed with her, it’s more pleasant, but we never had a bed to go to. I couldn’t take her to my apartment, there were usually about 16 guys there drinking beer, and there were always people at her place—that’s what she said, anyway—and I couldn’t afford another motel room and I certainly wasn’t going to suggest we go dutch on that, so it was just screwing in the back seat of my car on the private road alongside the dairy farm. And I could tell she was getting disgusted. And since I knew it and since I had started to hate her even though I still loved her, I asked her to marry me. Right then. She started wriggling around, trying to put me off, but I made her come out with it, yes or no.”
“And it was no.”
“Sure it was no. ‘Pete, we can’t afford it. What would my mom say. Pete, we have to wait.’ Pete this and Pete that and all the time the real reason was her money, the money she was making sewing on buttons.”
“Well, you were damned unfair to ask her.”
“Sure I was unfair!” McVries said savagely. “I knew that. I wanted to make her feel like a greedy, self-centered little bitch because she was making me feel like a failure.”
His hand crept up to the scar.
“Only she didn’t have to make me feel like a failure, because I was a failure. I didn’t have anything in particular going for me except a cock to stick in her and she wouldn’t even make me feel like a man by refusing that.”
The death-drone claimed another walker in the distance.
“Olson?” McVries asked.
“No. He’s still back there.”
Alert: Ticket 45: #36 Eric Foulkes, age 16 from Texas. Nickname: Rick. 55 walkers Remaining.
“Oh . . .”
“The scar,” Garraty reminded.
“Oh, why don’t you let it alone?”
“You saved my life.”
“Shit on you.”
“I got into a fight,” McVries said finally, after a long pause. “With Ralph, the guy on the picker. He blacked both my eyes and told me I better take off or he’d break my arms as well. I turned in my time and told Pris that night that I’d quit. She could see what I looked like for herself. She understood. She said that was probably best. I told her I was going home, and I asked her to come. She said she couldn’t. I said she was nothing but a slave to her fucking buttons and that I wished I’d never seen her. There was just so much poison inside me, Garraty. I told her she was a fool and an unfeeling bitch that couldn’t see any further than the goddam bank book she carried around in her purse. Nothing I said was fair, but . . . there was some truth in all of it, I guess. Enough. We were at her apartment. That was the first time I’d ever been there when all her roommates were out. They were at the movies. I tried to take her to bed and she cut my face open with a letter-opener. It was a gag letter-opener, some friend of hers sent it to her from England. It had Paddington Bear on it. She cut me like I was trying to rape her. Like I was germs and I’d infect her. Am I giving you the drift, Ray?”
“Yes, I’m getting it,” Garraty said.
“I cried,” McVries said. “I cried like a baby. I got down on my knees and held her skirt and begged her to forgive me, and all the blood was getting on the floor, it was a basically disgusting scene, Garraty. She gagged and ran off into the bathroom. She threw up. I could hear her throwing up. When she came out, she had a towel for my face. She said she never wanted to see me again. She was crying. She asked me why I’d done that to her, hurt her like that. She said I had no right. There I was, Ray, with my face cut wide open and she’s asking me why I hurt her.”
“I left with the towel still on my face. I had twelve stitches and that’s the story of the fabulous scar and aren’t you happy?”
“Have you ever seen her since?”
“No,” McVries said. “And I have no real urge to. She seems very small to me now, very far away. Pris at this point in my life is no more than a speck on the horizon. She really was mental, Ray. Something . . . her mother, maybe, her mother was a lush . . . something had fixed her on the subject of money. She was a real miser. Distance lends perspective, they say. Yesterday morning Pris was still very important to me. Now she’s nothing. That story I just told you, I thought that would hurt. It didn’t hurt. Besides, I doubt if all that shit really has anything to do with why I’m here. It just made a handy excuse at the time.”
“What do you mean?”
“Why are you here, Garraty?”
“I don’t know.” His voice was mechanical, doll-like. He remembered hitting his best friend Jimmy in the mouth with the barrel of an air rifle. Maybe he had a scar like McVries. He remembered getting caught playing doctor with Jimmy, at age 5. His mother asked him how he would like it if she made him go out and walk down the street with no clothes on.
“You don’t know,” McVries said. “You’re dying and you don’t know why.”
“It’s not important after you’re dead.”
“Yeah, maybe,” McVries said, “but there’s one thing you ought to know, Ray, so it won’t be all so pointless.”
“Why, that you’ve been had. You mean you really didn’t know that, Ray? You really didn’t?”
At 1:00 PM, Garraty took inventory again. In 20 minutes, he’d lose his first-warning, and be 2 minutes from death again.
Garraty checked the Apple Maps. 115 miles traveled. They were 40 miles north of Old Town, 125 miles north of Augusta, the state capital, 150 to Freeport, 230 to the New Hampshire border. And the word was that this Walk was sure to go that far.
1:20 PM Alert: First warning removed. Timer reset to 120. No warnings remain.
He felt good. McVries would be clear of warnings too, at 1:59 PM. Life was good again.
They walked, they half-listened to the cheers from the sidelines, and they stared at mile after monotonous mile of piney woods. Garraty discovered fresh twinges of pain in his left calf to go with the steady, wooden throbbing that lived in both of his legs, and the low-key agony that was his feet.
At 1:59 PM, McVries got the same alert.
Alert: First warning removed. Timer reset to 120. No warnings remain.
Nobody got a ticket for over an hour, then, around 2:30 PM, as the day’s heat mounted toward its zenith, the death-drone began to make itself heard again. A boy named Tressler, 92, had a sunstroke and lost his head as he lay unconscious.
Alert: Ticket 46: #92 Peter Tressler, age 16 from Kansas. Nickname: TP. 54 walkers Remaining.
Another boy suffered a convulsion and got a ticket as he crawdaddied on the road, making ugly noises around his swallowed tongue.
Alert: Ticket 47: #96 Johnny Waynes, age 15 from Michigan. Nickname: John. 53 walkers Remaining.
Aaronson, cramped up in both feet and was shot on the white line, standing like a statue, his face turned up to the sun in neck-straining concentration.
Alert: Ticket 48: #1 Wendell Aaronson, age 15 from Wisconsin. Nickname: Dell. 52 walkers Remaining.
And at five minutes to one, another boy Garraty did not know had a sunstroke.
This is where I came in, Garraty thought, walking around the twitching, mumbling form on the road where the death-drone aims, seeing the jewels of sweat in the exhausted and soon-to-be-dead boy’s hair. This is where I came in, can’t I leave now?
The machine-gun roared, and a covey of high school boys sitting in the scant shade of a Scout camper applauded briefly.
Alert: Ticket 49: #19 Giovanni Floyd, age 16 from Washington. Nickname: Gio. 51 walkers Remaining.
“I wish the Major would come through,” Baker said pettishly. “I want to see the Major.”
“What?” Abraham asked mechanically. He had grown gaunter in the last few hours. His eyes were sunk deeper in their sockets. The blue suggestion of a beard patched his face.
“So I can piss on him,” Baker said.
“Relax,” Garraty said. “Just relax.” Garraty was more relaxed after his 3 warnings cleared.
“You relax,” Baker said. “See what it gets you.”
“You’ve got no right to hate the Major. He didn’t force you.”
“Force me? FORCE me? He’s KILLING me, that’s all!”
“It’s still not—”
“Shut up,” Baker said curtly, and Garraty shut. He rubbed the back of his neck where the GPS was inserted. He could feel a bump and it still stung a little. He stared up into the whitish-blue sky. His shadow was a deformed huddle almost beneath his feet. He turned up his third bottle of water for the day and drained it, then ordered another one.
Baker said: “I’m sorry. I surely didn’t mean to shout. My feet—”
“Sure,” Garraty said.
“We’re all getting this way,” Baker said. “I sometimes think that’s the worst part.”
Garraty closed his eyes. He was very sleepy.
“You know what I’d like to do?” Pearson said. He was walking between Garraty and Baker.
“Piss on the Major,” Garraty said. “Everybody wants to piss on the Major. When he comes through again we’ll gang up on him and drag him down and all unzip and drown him in—”
“That isn’t what I want to do.” Pearson was walking like a man in the last stages of conscious drunkenness. His head made half-rolls on his neck. His eyelids snapped up and down like spastic window-blinds. “It’s got nothin’ to do with the Major. I just want to go into the next field and lay down and close my eyes. Just lay there on my back in the wheat—”
“That’s not wheat,” Garraty said. “It’s hay.”
“—in the hay, then. And compose myself a poem. While I go to sleep.”
Garraty said, “I feel like a sieve,” he said. “I drink it and it pops out on my skin 2 minutes later.”
The death-drone roared again and another figure collapsed gracelessly, like a tired jack-in-the-box.
Olson was still back there; halfhearted bets had gone round to the effect that Olson would be the 50th to buy a ticket, the halfway boy. But he hadn’t. That signal honor had gone to 99, Edward Lorn.
Garraty hardly jumped when the death-drone finally claimed its prize. The boy in the green silk vest had bought a ticket. His head rolled to a stop and was staring up at the sun.
Alert: Ticket 50: #99 Edward Lorn, age 15 from Alabama. Nickname: E. 50 walkers Remaining.
Garraty was beginning to think that Olson would go on indefinitely. Maybe until he starved to death. He had locked himself safely away in a place beyond pain. In a way he supposed it would be poetic justice if Olson won. He could see the headlines: LONG WALK WON BY DEAD MAN.
Not even death was that bad, maybe. Everybody, even the Major himself, had to face it sooner or later. So who was swindling who, when you came right down to it? He made a mental note to mention that to McVries the next time they spoke.
“Fiby,” Scramm said, joining them. “I don’t thing we’ll even get to Pordland ad this rade.”
“You don’t sound so good,” Pearson said, and there might have been careful optimism in his voice.
“Luggy for me I god a good codstitution,” Scramm said cheerfully. “I thing I’be rudding a fever now.”
“Jesus, how do you keep going?” Abraham asked, and there was a kind of religious fear in his voice.
“Me? Talk about me?” Scramm said. “Look at hib! How does he keep going? Thad’s what I’d like to know!” And he cocked his thumb at Olson.
Olson had not spoken, drank or eaten in 2 hours. His eyes, darkly obsidian, were fixed straight ahead. His face was speckled by 2 days of beard and it looked sickly vulpine. Even his hair, frizzed up in back and hanging across his forehead in front, added to the overall impression of ghoulishness. His lips were parched dry and blistering. His tongue hung over his bottom lip like a dead serpent on the lip of a cave. Its healthy pinkness had disappeared. It was dirty-gray now. Road-dust clung to it.
He’s there, Garraty thought, sure he is. Where Stebbins said we’d all go if we stuck with it long enough. How deep inside himself is he? Fathoms? Miles? Light-years? How deep and how dark? And the answer came back to him: too deep to see out. He’s hiding down there in the darkness and it’s too deep to see out.
“Olson?” he said softly. “Olson?”
Olson didn’t answer. Nothing moved but his feet.
“I wish he’d put his tongue in at least,” Pearson whispered nervously.
The Walk went on.
The woods melted back and they were passing through another wide place in the road. The sidewalks were lined with cheering spectators. Garraty signs again predominated. Then the woods closed in again. But not even the woods could hold the spectators back now. They were beginning to line the soft shoulders. Pretty girls in shorts and halters. Boys in basketball shorts and muscle shirts.
Garraty could no longer wish he wasn’t here; he was too tired and numb for retrospect. What was done was done. Nothing in the world would change it. Soon enough, he supposed, it would even become too much of an effort to talk to the others. He wished he could hide inside himself like a little boy rolled up inside a rug, with no more worries. Then everything would be much simpler.
He had wondered a great deal about what McVries had said. That they had all been swindled, rooked. But that couldn’t be right, he insisted stubbornly to himself. One of them had not been swindled. One of them was going to swindle everyone else . . . wasn’t that right?
He licked his lips then finished his water bottle, flung it into the crowd, then watched amused as they dove for it like woman diving for flowers when the wedding bouquet is thrown. He opened the drone App and called for another water bottle. The meal food may be limited to certain times of the day, but thank God, the water is unlimited.
Garraty then called for live-stream drone. Each walker could live-stream themselves walking for 10 minutes per day. He knew his videos would get thousands of hits, but he mainly wanted his mom and Jan to see how he was doing. The money earned by the walkers who got their ticket, went to their families. The walker who won, didn’t need the YouTube money, since they were set for life financially. He checked his YouTube page and saw that his subscriber count was nearly 1 million. He knew he was popular, but he didn’t realize he was this popular. He held out his iPhone and recorded another video, that would be a video inside the drone video, so he could narrate the video. “Hey mom, hey Jan. Sorry it took so long for me to make a video. I only get 10 minutes per day. I’ve made some friends. McVries … say hi, McVries …”
“Hi Mrs. Garraty!”
“… and Baker …”
“Hi Jan, I’m Arthur Baker.”
“And that’s Olson, and this is Scramm …”
“Hebbo Mrs. Garraty and Jan …”
“You know where I am from the web site, so you know that we’re almost to the Maine turnpike. We gotta pass through Old Town first. I hear the crowd will be really dense once we reach Old Town, and you’ll be able to see me on TV once we reach Augusta, then I’ll meet you in Freeport in front of L.L. Bean. I know the route after Old Town, so that will help.”
Garraty paused . . . he wasn’t sure how to end his recording. He didn’t have a good outro planned. He wanted to tell his mother and Jan that he loved them, but he had never told Jan that he loved her. It felt like an awkward time to be admitting such a thing.
“I’m not sure what else to say. I’m feeling OK so far … oh yeah, I just remembered . . . you know how we get into those laughing fits sometimes and can’t stop until we’re nearly passing out? Well, that happened to me recently. It wasn’t funny. I could have died. Sorry to worry you, but Parker was waving to the crowd, all the while insulting them. HEY PARKER! SAY HI TO MY MOM AND JAN!! Never mind. He can’t hear me. He’s listening to music or something. But then I started noticing at how funny everyone looked, and I just lost it to the point where I fell to my knees. McVries picked me up and I think he tore my collar, but that pain helped snapped me out of it. He also slapped me twice. He saved my life. I nearly died laughing. I probably shouldn’t be telling you this. I don’t want you to worry, but things do get a little crazy here sometimes, as you can imagine. Anyway, I’ll another video tomorrow. Bye!”
He made the video unlisted, because he knew his mom and Jan would still get notified.
They passed a small green sign that informed them the Maine turnpike was 40 miles hence.
“That’s it,” he said to no one in particular. “40 miles to Old Town.”
No one replied and Garraty was just considering taking a walk back up to McVries when they came to another intersection and a woman began to scream. The traffic had been roped off, and the crowd pressed eagerly against the barriers and the cops manning them. They waved their hands, their signs, their bottles of suntan lotion.
The screaming woman was large and red-faced. She threw herself against one of the waist-high sawhorse barriers, toppling it and yanking a lot of the bright yellow guard-rope after it. Then she was fighting and clawing and screaming at the policemen who held her. The cops were grunting with effort.
I know her, Garraty thought. Don’t I know her?
The blue kerchief. The belligerent, gleaming eyes. Even the navy dress with the crooked hem. They were all familiar. The woman’s screams had become incoherent. One pinwheeling hand ripped stripes of blood across the face of one of the cops holding her—trying to hold her.
Garraty passed within 10 feet of her. As he walked past, he knew where he had seen her before—she was Percy’s mom, of course. Percy who had sprinted into the woods then snuck right into the next world. Percy, who was tricked into committing suicide by Barkovitch because he was 13 and gullible. How many boys had Barkovitch gotten killed, he wondered. That’s why he’s always moving to the front, then falling to the back. He’s on the hunt for his next kill. McVries was a fool trying to beat him at his own game. Barkovitch is probably the smartest guy out here.
“I want m’boy!” she hollered. “I want m’boy!”
The crowd cheered her enthusiastically and impartially. A small boy behind her spat on her leg and then darted away.
Jan, Garraty thought. I’m walking to you, Jan, fuck this other shit, I swear to God I’m coming. But McVries had been right. Jan hadn’t wanted him to come. She had cried. She had begged him to change his mind. They could wait, she didn’t want to lose him, please Ray, don’t be dumb, the Long Walk is nothing but murder—
They had been sitting on a bench beside the bandstand. It had been a month ago, April, and he had his arm around her. She had been wearing the perfume he had gotten her for her birthday. It seemed to bring out the secret girl-smell of her, a dark smell, fleshy and heady. I have to go, he had told her. I have to, don’t you understand, I have to.
Ray, you don’t understand what you’re doing. Ray, please don’t. I love you.
Well, he thought now, as he walked on down the road, she was right about that. I sure didn’t understand what I was doing.
But I don’t understand it even now. That’s the hell of it. The pure and simple hell of it.
He jerked his head up, startled. He had been half-asleep again. It was McVries, walking beside him.
“How you feeling?”
“Feeling?” Garraty said cautiously. “All right, I guess. I guess I’m all right.”
“Barkovitch is cracking,” McVries said with quiet joy. “I’m sure of it. He’s talking to himself. And he’s limping.”
“You’re limping, too,” Garraty said. “So’s Pearson. So am I.”
“My foot hurts, that’s all. But Barkovitch . . . he keeps rubbing his leg. I think he’s got a pulled muscle.”
“Why do you hate him so much? Why not Collie Parker? Or Olson? Or all of us?”
“Because Barkovitch knows what he’s doing.”
“He plays to win, do you mean?”
“Sure he’s a bastard. Maybe it takes a bastard to win.”
“Good guys finish last?”
“That about sums it up.”
They passed a clapboard one-room schoolhouse. The children stood out in the play yard and waved. Several boys stood atop the jungle gym like sentries, and Garraty was reminded of the men in the lumberyard a ways back.
“Garraty!” One of them yelled. “Ray Garraty! Gar-ra-tee!” A small boy with a tousled head of hair jumped up and down on the top level of the jungle gym, waving with both arms. Garraty waved back half-heartedly. The boy flipped over, hung upside down by the backs of his legs, and continued to wave.
Pearson joined them. “I’ve been thinking.”
“Save your strength,” McVries said.
“Feeble, man. That is feeble.”
“What have you been thinking about?” Garraty asked.
“How tough it’s going to be for the second-to-last guy.”
“Why so tough?” McVries asked.
“Well . . .” Pearson rubbed his eyes, then squinted at a pine tree that had been struck by lightning sometime in the past. “You know, to walk down everybody, absolutely everybody but that last guy. There ought to be a runner-up Prize, that’s what I think.”
“What?” McVries asked flatly.
“How about his life?” Garraty asked.
“Who’d walk for that?”
“Nobody, before the Walk started, maybe. But right now I’d be happy enough with just that, the hell with the Prize, the hell with having my every heart’s desire. How about you?”
Pearson thought about it for a long time. “I just don’t see the sense of it,” he said at last, apologetically.
“You tell him, Pete,” Garraty said.
“Tell him what? He’s right. The whole banana or no banana at all.”
“You’re crazy,” Garraty said, but without much conviction. He was very hot and very tired, and there were the remotest beginnings of a headache in back of his eyes. Maybe this is how sunstroke starts, he thought. Maybe that would be the best way, too. Just go down in a dreamy, slow-motion half-knowingness, and wake up dead.
“Sure,” McVries said amiably. “We’re all crazy or we wouldn’t be here. I thought we’d thrashed that out a long time ago. We want to die, Ray. Haven’t you got that through your sick, thick head yet? Look at Olson. A skull on top of a stick. Tell me he doesn’t want to die. You can’t. Second place? It’s bad enough that even one of us has got to get gypped out of what he really wants.”
“I don’t know about all that fucking psychohistory,” Pearson said finally. “I just don’t think anyone should get to cop out second.”
Garraty burst out laughing. “You’re nuts,” he said.
McVries also laughed. “Now you’re starting to see it my way. Get a little more sun, stew your brain a little more, and we’ll make a real believer out of you.”
The Walk went on.
The sun seemed neatly poised on the roof of the world. The weather App said it was 80F. 80, Garraty thought. 80. Not that hot. In July it would go 10 degrees higher. 80. Just the right temperature to sit in the backyard under an elm tree eating a chicken salad on lettuce. Mighty. Just the ticket for belly-flopping into the nearest piece of the Royal River, oh Jesus, wouldn’t that feel good. The water was warm on the top, but down by your feet it was cold and you could feel the current pull at you just a little and there were suckers by the rocks, but you could pick ’em off if you weren’t a pussy. All that water, bathing your skin, your hair, your crotch. His hot flesh trembled as he thought about it. 80. Just right for shucking down to your swim trunks and laying up in the canvas hammock in the backyard with a good book. And maybe drowse off. Once he had pulled Jan into the hammock with him and they had lain there together, swinging and necking until his cock felt like a long hot stone against his lower belly. She hadn’t seemed to mind. 80. Christ in a Chevrolet, 80 degrees.
80. 80-80-80. Make it nonsense, make it gone.
“I’d never been so hod id by whole life,” Scramm said through his plugged nose. His broad face was red and dripping sweat. He had stripped off his shirt and bared his shaggy torso. Sweat was running all over him like small creeks in spring flow. He’d call for another Liter of Poland Springs water every 5 minutes, mostly to pour it over himself.
“You better put your shirt back on,” Baker said. “You’ll catch a chill when the sun starts to go down. Then you’ll really be in trouble.”
“This goddab code,” Scramm said. “I’be burding ub.”
“It’ll rain,” Baker said. His eyes searched the empty sky. “It has to rain.”
“It doesn’t have to do a goddam thing,” Collie Parker said. “I never seen such a fucked-up state.”
“If you don’t like it, why don’t you go on home?” Garraty asked, and giggled foolishly.
“Stuff it up your ass.”
Garraty forced himself to drink just a little water. He didn’t want water cramps. That would be a hell of a way to buy out. He’d had them once, and once had been enough. He had been helping their next-door neighbors, the Elwells, get in their hay. It was explosively hot in the loft of the Elwells’ barn, and they had been throwing up the big 70-pound bales in a fireman’s relay. Garraty had made the tactical mistake of drinking 3 dipperfuls of the ice-cold water Mrs. Elwell had brought out. There had been sudden blinding pain in his chest and belly and head, he had slipped on some loose hay and had fallen bonelessly out of the loft and into the truck. Mr. Elwell held him around the middle with his work-callused hands while he threw up over the side, weak with pain and shame. They had sent him home, a boy who had flunked one of his first manhood tests, hay-rash on his arms and chaff in his hair. He had walked home, and the sun had beaten down on the back of his sunburned neck like a 10-pound hammer.
He shivered convulsively, and his body broke out momentarily in heat-bumps. The headache thumped sickishly behind his eyes . . . how easy it would be to let go of the rope.
He looked over at Olson. Olson was there. His tongue was turning blackish. His face was dirty. His eyes stared blindly. I’m not like him. Dear God, not like him. Please, I don’t want to go out like Olson.
“This’ll take the starch out,” Baker said gloomily. “We won’t make it into New Hampshire. I’d bet money on it.”
“Two years ago they had sleet,” Abraham said. “They made it over the border. Four of ’em did, anyway.”
“Yeah, but the heat’s different,” Jensen said. “When you’re cold you can walk faster and get warmed up. When you’re hot you can walk slower . . . and get iced. What can you do?”
“No justice,” Collie Parker said angrily. “Why couldn’t they have the goddam Walk in Illinois, where the ground’s flat?”
“I like Baine,” Scramm said. “Why do you swear so buch, Parger?”
“Why do you have to wipe so much snot out of your nose?” Parker asked. “Because that’s the way I am, that’s why. Any objections?”
Garraty looked at his Apple watch. It was only 2:02 PM.
Pearson looked up at the sky. “That sun isn’t going to set for a long time.”
The sun was poised malevolently over the fringe of woods. There was not enough angle on it yet to throw the road into the shade, and wouldn’t be for another hour or two. Far off to the south, Garraty thought he could see purple smudges that might be thunderheads or only wishful thinking.
Abraham and Collie Parker were lackadaisically discussing the advantages and disadvantages of 4 and 8-barrel carbs. No one else seemed much disposed to talk, so Garraty wandered off by himself to the far side of the road, waving now and then to someone.
The Walkers were not spread out as much as they had been. The vanguard was in plain sight: 2 tall, tanned boys with black leather jackets tied around their waists. The word was that they were queer for each other, but Garraty believed that like he believed the moon was green cheese. They didn’t look effeminate, and they seemed like nice enough guys . . . not that either one of those things had much to do with whether or not they were queer, he supposed. And not that it was any of his business if they were. But . . .
Barkovitch was behind the leather boys and McVries was behind him, staring intently at Barkovitch’s back again. Why is McVries wasting his time with Barkovitch. He’s not going to crack. He didn’t look like he was cracking to Garraty. In fact, Barkovitch looked pretty solid. He thought with a painful twinge, that McVries was the one who was starting to crack.
Behind McVries and Barkovitch was a loose knot of 7 or 8 boys, the kind of carelessly knit confederation that seemed to form and re-form during the course of the Walk, new and old members constantly coming and going. Behind them was a smaller group, and behind that group was Scramm, Pearson, Baker, Abraham, Parker, and Jensen. His group. There had been others with it near the start, and now he could barely remember their names.
There were two groups behind his, and scattered through the whole raggle-taggle column like pepper through salt were the loners. A few of them, like Olson, were withdrawn and catatonic. Others, like Stebbins, seemed to genuinely prefer their own company. And almost all of them had that intent, frightened look stamped on their faces. Garraty had come to know that look so well.
The death-drone followed one of the loners he had been looking at. It was that short, stoutish boy who was wearing a battered green silk vest. He was one of the backups from the start who filled in for no-show #99. He had collected his third and final warning about half an hour ago, and the death-drone had followed for 5 minutes then returned to its nest. But it was back again. The boy threw a short, terrified glance toward the sound of the drone and stepped up his pace. After 5 minutes, the death-drone lost interest in him, at least for the time being.
Garraty looked up walker #99 and saw that his death-timer was at 3. He was walking the edge. If he could maintain 4+ mph for another 29 minutes, he’d lose his third warning, and his death-timer would reset to 60.
Garraty felt a sudden incomprehensible rise in spirits. They couldn’t be much more than 40 miles from Old Town and civilization now. He remembered having dinner with his parents at the Thai Orchard, at the corner of Stillwater Ave and Main St, overlooking the Penobscot River. He loved the Pad Thai with a Thai iced-tea to wash it down. They’d pull in there sometime late tonight, and get on the turnpike. The turnpike would be smooth sailing, compared to this. On the turnpike you could walk on the grassy median strip with your shoes off if you wanted. Feel the cold dew. Good Christ, that would be great. He mopped his brow with his forearm. Maybe things were going to turn out okay after all. The purple smudges were a little closer, and they were definitely thunderheads.
Alert: Ticket 51: #89 Charles Stevens, age 14 from Rhode Island. Nickname: Charlie. 49 walkers Remaining.
Garraty picked up his heels a little and made up his mind to wave to the next pretty girl he saw. But before there was a pretty girl, there was the little Italian man.
He was a caricature Italian man, a small guy with a battered felt hat and a black mustache that curled up at the ends. He was beside an old station wagon with the back hatch standing open. He was waving and grinning with incredibly white, incredibly square teeth.
An insulating mat had been laid on the bottom of the station wagon’s cargo compartment. The mat had been piled high with crushed ice, and peeking through the ice in dozens of places, like wide pink peppermint grins, were wedges of watermelon.
Garraty felt his stomach flop over twice, exactly like a flip-rolling high diver. A sign on top of the station wagon read: DOM L’ANTIO LOVES ALL LONG WALKERS—FREE WATERMELON!!!
The food App did not offer watermelon slices, so this would be a special treat. It’s against the rules to give walkers food, and the walkers are warned that the food might be poisonous, but they didn’t seem to care.
Several of the Walkers, Abraham and Collie Parker among them, back tracked to the shoulder. All received penalty-warnings for moving in the wrong direction. Dom L’Antio saw them coming and laughed—a crystal, joyous, uncomplicated sound. He clapped his hands, dug into the ice, and came out with double handfuls of pink grinning watermelons. Garraty felt his mouth shrivel with want. But they won’t let him, he thought. Just like they wouldn’t let the storekeeper give the sodas. And then: But oh God, it’d taste good. Would it be too much, God, for them to be a little slow with the hook this time? Where did he get watermelon this time of year, anyway?
The Long Walkers milled outside the restraining ropes, the small crowd around Dom went mad with happiness, second warnings were parceled out, and three State Troopers appeared miraculously to restrain Dom, whose voice came loud and clear:
“Whatcha mean? Whatcha mean I can’t? These my wat’amelon, you dumb cop! I wanna give, I gonna give, hey! what you t’ink? Get offa my case, you hardass!”
One of the Troopers made a grab for the watermelons Dom held in his hands. Another button-hooked around him and slammed the cargo door of the wagon shut.
“You bastards!” Garraty screamed with all his force. His shriek sped through the bright day like a glass spear, and one of the Troopers looked around, startled and embarrassed.
“Stinking sonsofbitches!” Garraty shrieked at them.
“You tell ’em Garraty!” someone else yelled.
They were all screaming now, and the Troopers were not handpicked Long Walk soldiers fresh off the National Squads. Their faces were red and embarrassed, but all the same they were hustling Dom and his double handfuls of cool pink grins away from the sidelines at double time.
Dom either lost his English or gave it up. He began to yell fruity Italian curses. The crowd booed the State Troopers.
Just as it seemed that Dom L’Antio would be removed from their view for good, the little Italian slipped free and dashed back toward them, the crowd parting magically for him and closing—or trying to—against the police. One of the Troopers threw a flying tackle at him, caught him around the knees, and spilled him forward. At the last instant of balance Dom let his beautiful pink grins fly in a wide-swinging throw.
“DOM L’ANTIO LOVES YOU ALL!” he cried.
The crowd cheered hysterically. Dom landed headfirst in the dirt, and his hands were cuffed behind him in a trice. The watermelon slices arced and pinwheeled through the bright air, and Garraty laughed aloud and raised both hands to the sky and shook his fists triumphantly as he saw Abraham catch one with nonchalant deftness.
Others were third-warned for stopping to pick up chunks of watermelon, but amazingly, no one got a ticket and 5—no, 6, of the boys had ended up with watermelon. The rest of them alternately cheered those who had managed to get some.
“I love everybody!” Abraham bellowed. His grinning face was streaked with pink watermelon juice. He spat three brown seeds into the air.
“Goddam,” Collie Parker said happily. “I’m goddamned, goddam if I ain’t.” He drove his face into the watermelon, gobbled hungrily, then busted his piece in two. He threw half of it over to Garraty, who almost fumbled it in his surprise. “There ya go, hicksville!” Collie shouted. “Don’t say I never gave ya nothin’!”
Garraty laughed. “Go fuck yourself,” he said. The watermelon was cold, cold. Some of the juice got up his nose, some more ran down his chin, and oh sweet heaven in his throat, running down his throat.
He only let himself eat half. “Pete!” he shouted, and tossed the remaining chunk to him.
McVries caught it with a flashy backhand, showing the sort of stuff that makes college shortstops and, maybe, major league ballplayers. He grinned at Garraty and ate the melon.
Garraty looked around and felt a crazy joy breaking through him, pumping at his heart, making him want to run around in circles on his hands. Almost everyone had gotten a scrap of the melon, even if it was no more than a scrap of the pink meat clinging to a seed.
Stebbins, as usual, was the exception. He was looking at the road. There was nothing in his hands, no smile on his face.
Screw him, Garraty thought. But a little of the joy went out of him, nevertheless. His feet felt heavy again. He knew that it wasn’t that Stebbins hadn’t gotten any. Or that Stebbins didn’t want any. Stebbins didn’t need any.
2:30 PM. They had walked a hundred and twenty-one miles. The thunderheads drifted closer. A cool breeze sprang up, chill against Garraty’s hot skin. It’s going to rain again, he thought. Good.
The people at the sides of the road were rolling up blankets, catching flying bits of paper, reloading their picnic baskets. The storm came flying lazily at them, and all at once the temperature plummeted and it felt like autumn. Garraty buttoned his shirt quickly.
“Here it comes again,” he told Scramm. “Better get your shirt on.”
“Are you kidding?” Scramm grinned. “This is the besd I’ve feld all day!”
“It’s gonna be a boomer!” Parker yelled gleefully.
They were on top of a gradually slanting plateau, and they could see the curtain of rain beating across the woods toward them below the purple thunderheads. Directly above them the sky had gone a sick yellow. A tornado sky, Garraty thought. Wouldn’t that be the living end. What would they do if a tornado just came tearing ass down the road and carried them all off to Oz in a whirling cloud of dirt, flapping shoe leather, and whirling watermelon seeds?
He laughed. The wind ripped the laugh out of his mouth.
McVries angled to meet him. He was bent into the wind, his clothes plastered against his body and streaming out behind him. The black hair and the white scar etched against his tanned face made him look like a weathered, slightly mad sea captain astride the bridge of his ship.
“What?” he bellowed.
“Is there a provision in the rules for an act of God?”
McVries considered. “No, I don’t think so.” He began buttoning his jacket.
“What happens if we get struck by lightning?”
McVries threw back his head and cackled. “We’ll be dead!”
Garraty snorted and walked away. Some of the others were looking up into the sky anxiously. This was going to be no little shower, the kind that had cooled them off after yesterday’s heat. What had Parker said? A boomer. Yes, it certainly was going to be a boomer.
A baseball cap went cartwheeling between his legs, and Garraty looked over his shoulder and saw a small boy looking after it longingly. Scramm grabbed it and tried to scale it back to the kid, but the wind took it in a big boomerang arc and it wound up in a wildly lashing tree.
Thunder whacked. A white-purple tine of lightning jabbed the horizon. The comforting sough of the wind in the pines had become a hundred mad ghosts, flapping and hooting.
Alert: Ticket 52: #51 Peter Henderson, age 16 from Virginia. Nickname: Pep. 48 walkers Remaining.
Someone’s death-timer hit zero, but the death-drone can’t fly in the rain or high winds. The kill would have to wait.
Garraty looked around, and saw Olson, his flapping clothes revealing how amazingly fast the weight had melted off him. Olson had lost his jacket somewhere; the arms that poked out of his short shirtsleeves were bony and as thin as pencils.
“If it was a tailwind, we could be in Old Town by 4:30!” Barkovitch said gleefully. He had his rainhat jammed down over his ears, and his sharp face was joyful.
A few minutes later the wind suddenly dropped off. The thunder faded to a series of thick mutters. The heat sucked back at them, clammy and nearly unbearable after the rushy coolness of the wind.
The death-drone was finally able to fly, but #51 had fled during the storm. The walkers opened their first-person view Apps to follow the action. Peter Henderson had obtained a car and was headed out of town. The death-drone could not fire. He might have a hostage, so the drone returned. This was a matter for the Squads now. This was the third walker to escape.
“Garraty, what happened to the storm?” Collie Parker brayed. “Does this goddam state punk out on its rainstorms, too?”
“I think you’ll get what you want,” Garraty said. “I don’t know if you’ll want it when you get it, though.”
“Yoo-hoo! Raymond! Raymond Garraty!”
Garraty’s head jerked up. For one awful moment he thought it was his mother, and visions of Percy danced through his head. But it was only an elderly, sweet-faced lady peeping at him from beneath a Vogue magazine she was using as a rainhat.
“Old bag,” Art Baker muttered at his elbow.
“She looks sweet enough to me. Do you know her?”
“I know the type,” Baker said balefully. “She looks just like my Aunt Hattie. She used to like to go to funerals, listen to the weeping and wailing and carrying-ons with just that same smile. Like a cat that got into the aigs.”
“She’s probably the Major’s mother,” Garraty said. It was supposed to be funny, but it fell flat. Baker’s face was strained and pallid under the fading light in the rushing sky.
“My Aunt Hattie had 9 kids. Nine, Garraty. She buried 4 of ’em with just that same look. Her own young. Some folks like to see other folks die. I can’t understand that, can you?”
“No,” Garraty said. Baker was making him uneasy. The thunder had begun to roll its wagons across the sky again. “Your Aunt Hattie, is she dead now?”
“No.” Baker looked up at the sky. “She’s down home. Probably out on the front porch in her rockin’ chair. She can’t walk much anymore. Just sittin’ and rockin’ and listenin’ to the the radio.”
“Does everybody in your family study up on dying?”
Baker smiled pallidly. “Well, before the walk, I was turnin’ over the idea of going to mortician’s school in a few years. Good job. Morticians go on eating even in a depression.”
“I always thought I’d get into urinal manufacture,” Garraty said. “But if I win this, I won’t need to work. I can just do whatever I want.”
“Yeah, our old goals and dreams are gone,” Baker said. “Ain’t no way I’m gonna be a mortician if I win this.”
A huge flash of lightning tore across the sky. A gargantuan clap of thunder followed. The wind picked up in jerky gusts. Clouds raced across the sky like crazed privateers across an ebony nightmare sea.
“It’s coming,” Garraty said. “It’s coming, Art.”
“Some people say they don’t care,” Baker said suddenly. “ ‘Something simple, that’s all I want when I go, Don.’ That’s what they’d tell him. My uncle. But most of ’em care plenty. That’s what he always told me. They say, ‘Just a pine box will do me fine.’ But they end up having a big one . . . with a lead sleeve if they can afford it. Lots of them even write the model number in their wills.”
“Why?” Garraty asked.
“Down home, most of them want to be buried in mausoleums. Aboveground. They don’t want to be underground ’cause the water table’s so high where I come from. Things rot quick in the damp. But if you’re buried aboveground, you got the rats to worry about. Big Louisiana bayou rats. Graveyard rats. They’d gnaw through one of them pine boxes in zip flat.”
The wind pulled at them with invisible hands. Garraty wished the storm would come on and come. It was like an insane merry-go-round. No matter who you talked to, you came around to this damned subject again.
“Be fucked if I’d do it,” Garraty said. “Lay out 5000 dollars or something just to keep the rats away after I was dead.”
“I dunno,” Baker said. His eyes were half-lidded, sleepy. “They go for the soft parts, that’s what troubles my mind. I could see ’em worryin’ a hole in my own coffin, then makin’ it bigger, finally wrigglin’ through. And goin’ right for my eyes like they was jujubes. They’d eat my eyes and then I’d be part of that rat. Ain’t that right?”
“Right, but you’d be dead. Why do you care?” Garraty asked.
“I just don’t like the idea of rats eating my eye balls. I’d pay extra to avoid that. I know it’s irrational, but that’s how I feel.”
Lightning forked again, an almost pink streak that left the air smelling of ozone. A moment later the storm smote them again. But it wasn’t rain this time. It was hail.
In a space of five seconds they were being pelted by hailstones the size of small pebbles. Several of the boys cried out, and Garraty shielded his eyes with one hand. The wind rose to a shriek. Hailstones bounced and smashed against the road, against faces and bodies.
Jensen ran in a huge, rambling circle, eyes covered, feet stumbling and rebounding against each other, in a total panic. He finally blundered off the shoulder, then returned to the road, without realizing what he had done. He didn’t even see the alert of his ticket.
Alert: Ticket 53: #56 Leroy Jensen, age 16 from Virginia. Nickname: Lee. 47 walkers Remaining.
Once again, the death-drone had to wait out the storm.
Then rain began to fall through the hail, sluicing down the hill they were climbing, melting the hail scattered around their feet. Another wave of stones hit them, more rain, another splatter of hail, and then the rain was falling in steady sheets, punctuated by loud claps of thunder.
“Goddam!” Parker yelled, striding up to Garraty. His face was covered with red blotches, and he looked like a drowned water rat. “Garraty, this is without a doubt—”
“—yeah, the most fucked-up state in the 51,” Garraty finished. “Go soak your head.”
Parker threw his head back, opened his mouth, and let the cold rain patter in. “I am, goddammit, I am!”
Garraty bent himself into the wind and caught up with McVries. “How does this grab you?” he asked.
McVries clutched himself and shivered. “You can’t win. Now I wish the sun was out.”
“It won’t last long,” Garraty said, but he was wrong. As they walked into 4:00 PM, it was still raining.
The food-trailer was being stocked in the heavy rain for the dinner period of 4:30 PM to 6:30 PM. Drones would deliver dinner requests, if the weather behaved.
There was no sunset as they walked into their second night on the road. The rainstorm gave way to a light, chilling drizzle around 4:30 PM. The guards determined that drones could fly in his light wind and light drizzle, so all drones were enabled again, and the dinner drones began to take flight.
The death-drone also took flight, but hovered off to the side while Jensen finished receiving his dinner from a drone. Jensen had missed the alert and was clueless as to what was about to happen. No one had warned this loner of his fate. If he had seen the alert, he would have had about 30 minutes to make his escape. The walkers scattered, including Jensen, who was trying to avoid getting hit by the crossfire. Finally, the death-drone had a clear shot and Jensen’s head was separated from his body. Unlike a condemned man on death-row, he didn’t get a chance to eat his final meal, which was a grilled-cheese sandwich, mac-and-cheese, and chocolate milk.
5:57 PM Alert: Ticket 54: #65 Robert Morris, age 13 from Indiana. Nickname: Bob. 46 walkers Remaining.
6:20 PM Alert: Ticket 55: #16 Lewis Fields, age 14 from Virginia. Nickname: Lew. 45 walkers Remaining.
The drizzle continued until almost 8:00 PM. Then the clouds began to break up and show bright, coldly flickering stars. If it was blood the crowds were looking for, they hadn’t gotten much of it. They had lost only 2 since Jensen, both of them younger boys who had simply fainted dead away. 54 down, 45 to go.
Garraty pulled himself closer together inside his damp clothes and did not need a weatherman to know which way the wind blew. Fickle spring had pulled the balmy warmth that had come with them this far from beneath them like an old rug.
Maybe the crowds provided some warmth. Radiant heat, or something. More and more of them lined the road. They were huddled together for warmth but were undemonstrative. They watched the Walkers go past and then went home or hurried on to the next vantage point.
Garraty was walking by himself. He was too cold to be sleepy. His lips were pressed together to keep the tremble out of them.
Garraty’s toes were numb. He wiggled them against the shredded inner linings of his shoes and could feel nothing. The real pain was not in his toes now. It was in his arches. A sharp, blatting pain that knifed up into his calves each time he took a step. It made him think of a story his mother had read him when he was small. It was about a mermaid who wanted to be a woman. Only she had a tail and a good fairy, or someone said she could have legs if she wanted them badly enough. Every step she took on dry land would be like walking on knives, but she could have them if she wanted them, and she said yeah, okay, and that was the Long Walk. In a nutshell—
Alert: Warning! First Warning number 47!
“Damn,” Garraty snapped awake, and picked up his feet.
The woods were thinner. The real northern part of the state was behind them. They had gone through two quietly residential towns, the road cutting them lengthwise and the sidewalks packed with people that were little more than shadows beneath the drizzle-diffused streetlamps. No one cheered much. It was too cold, he supposed. Too cold and too dark and Jesus Christ now he had another warning to walk off and if that wasn’t a royal pisser, nothing was.
His feet were slowing again and he forced himself to pick them up. Somewhere quite far up ahead Barkovitch said something and followed it up with a short burst of his unpleasant laughter. He could hear McVries’s response clearly: “Shut up, killer.” That familiarity made Garraty smiled wanly in the darkness. He thought “When is McVries going to learn that Barkovitch is unshakeable?”
He had dropped back almost to the tail of the column and reluctantly realized he was angling toward Stebbins again. Something about Stebbins fascinated him. But he decided he didn’t particularly care what that something was. It was time to give up wondering about things. There was no percentage in it. It was just another royal pisser.
There was a huge, luminescent arrow ahead in the dark. It glowed like an evil spirit. Suddenly a brass band struck up a march. A good-sized band, by the sound. There were louder cheers. The air was full of drifting fragments, and for a crazy moment Garraty thought it was snowing. But it wasn’t snow. It was confetti. They were changing roads. The old one met the new one at a right angle and another Maine Turnpike sign announced that Old Town was now a mere 16 miles away. Garraty felt a tentative feeler of excitement, maybe even pride. After Old Town he knew the route. He could have traced it on the palm of his hand.
“Maybe it’s your edge. I don’t think so, but maybe it is.”
Garraty jumped. It was as if Stebbins had pried the lid of his mind and peeked down inside.
“It’s your country, isn’t it?”
“Not up here. I’ve never been north of Greenbush in my life, except when we drove up to the marker. And we didn’t come this way.” They left the brass band behind them, its tubas and clarinets glistening softly in the moist night.
“But we go through your hometown, don’t we?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
Stebbins grunted. Garraty looked down at Stebbins’s feet and saw with surprise that Stebbins had removed his tennis shoes and was wearing a pair of soft-looking moccasins. His shoes were in his packsack.
“My tennis shoes started to rub after the rain storm,” Stebbins said, “so I switched to the mocs. I’ll probably finish in them.”
They passed a radio tower standing skeletal in an empty field. A red light pulsed as regular as a heartbeat at its tip.
“Looking forward to seeing your loved ones?”
“Yes, I am,” Garraty said.
“What happens after that?”
“Happens?” Garraty shrugged. “Keep on walking down the road, I guess. Unless you are all considerate enough to buy out by then.”
“Oh, I don’t think so,” Stebbins said, smiling remotely. “Are you sure you won’t be walked out? After you see them?”
“Man, I’m not sure of anything,” Garraty said. “I didn’t know much when I started, and I know less now.”
“You think you have a chance?”
“I don’t know that either. I don’t even know why I bother talking to you. It’s like talking to smoke.”
Far ahead, police sirens howled and gobbled in the night.
“Somebody broke through to the road up ahead where the police are spread thinner,” Stebbins said. “The natives are getting restless, Garraty. Just think of all the people diligently making way for you up ahead.”
“For you too.”
“Me too,” Stebbins agreed, then didn’t say anything for a long time. The collar of his chambray work shirt flapped vacuously against his neck. “It’s amazing how the mind operates the body,” he said at last. “It’s amazing how it can take over and dictate to the body. A door-to-door salesman might do 20 miles per day. A high school kid in training for football walks 25 to 28 . . . that’s in 1 day from getting up in the morning to going to bed at night. Both of them get tired, but none of them get exhausted.”
“But suppose you told the salesman: today you must walk 16 miles before you can have your supper.”
Garraty nodded. “He’d be exhausted instead of tired.”
Stebbins said nothing. Garraty had the perverse feeling that Stebbins was disappointed in him.
“Well . . . wouldn’t he?”
“Don’t you think he’d have her 16 miles in by noon so he could kick off his shoes and spend the afternoon watching the NetFlix? I do. Are you tired, Garraty?”
“Yeah,” Garraty said shortly. “I’m tired.”
“Well, I’m getting there.”
“No, you’re not getting exhausted yet, Garraty.” He jerked a thumb at Olson’s silhouette. “That’s exhausted. He’s almost through now.”
Garraty watched Olson, fascinated, almost expecting him to drop at Stebbins’s word. “What are you driving at?”
“Ask your cracker friend, Art Baker. A mule doesn’t like to plow. But he likes carrots. So you hang a carrot in front of his eyes. A mule without a carrot gets exhausted. A mule with a carrot spends a long time being tired. You get it?”
“All we need is the right motivation, and we can push ourselves much further.”
Stebbins smiled again. “Right. Watch Olson. He’s lost his appetite for the carrot. He doesn’t quite know it yet, but he has. Watch Olson, Garraty. You can learn from Olson.”
Garraty looked at Stebbins closely, not sure how seriously to take him. Stebbins laughed aloud. His laugh was rich and full—a startling sound that made other Walkers turn their heads. “Go on. Go talk to him, Garraty. And if he won’t talk, just get up close and have a good look. It’s never too late to learn.”
Garraty swallowed. “Is it a very important lesson, would you say?”
Stebbins stopped laughing. He caught Garraty’s wrist in a strong grip. “The most important lesson you’ll ever learn, maybe. The secret of life over death. Reduce that equation and you can afford to die, Garraty. You can spend your life like a drunkard on a spree.”
Stebbins dropped his hand. Garraty massaged his wrist slowly. Stebbins seemed to have dismissed him again. Nervously, Garraty walked away from him, and toward Olson.
It seemed to Garraty that he was drawn toward Olson on an invisible wire. He flanked him at four o’clock. He tried to fathom Olson’s face.
Olson’s form had seemed to elongate as the weight sloughed off him. His skin had gone scaly with dehydration. His eyes had sunk into hollowed sockets. His hair flew aimlessly on his skull like wind-driven cornsilk.
Why, he’s nothing but a robot, nothing but an automation, really. Can there still be an Olson in there hiding? No. He’s gone. I am quite sure that the Olson who sat on the grass and joked and told about the kid who froze on the starting line and bought his ticket right there, that Olson is gone. This is a dead clay thing.
“Olson?” he whispered.
Olson walked on. He was a shambling haunted house on legs. Olson had fouled himself. Olson smelled bad.
“Olson, can you talk?”
Olson swept onward. His face was turned into the darkness, and he was moving, yes he was moving. Something was going on here, something was still ticking over, but—
Something, yes, there was something, but what?
They breasted another rise. The breath came shorter and shorter in Garraty’s lungs until he was panting like a dog. Tiny vapors of steam rose from his wet clothes. There was a river below them, lying in the dark like a silver snake. The Stillwater, he imagined. The Stillwater passed near Old Town. A few halfhearted cheers went up, but not many. Further on, nestled against the far side of the river’s dogleg (maybe it was the Penobscot, after all), was a nestle of lights. Old Town. A smaller nestle of light on the other side would be Milford and Bradley. Old Town. They had made it to Old Town.
“Olson,” he said. “That’s Old Town. Those lights are Old Town. We’re getting there, fellow.”
Olson made no answer. And now he could remember what had been eluding him and it was nothing so vital after all. Just that Olson reminded him of the Flying Dutchman, sailing on and on after the whole crew had disappeared.
They walked rapidly down a long hill, passed through an S-curve, and crossed a bridge that spanned, according to the sign, Meadow Brook. On the far side of this bridge was another STEEP GRADE TRUCKS USE LOW GEAR sign. There were groans from some of the Walkers.
It was indeed a steep hill. It seemed to rise above them like a toboggan slide. It was not long; even in the dark they could see the summit. But it was steep, all right. Plenty steep.
They started up.
Garraty leaned into the slope, feeling his grip on his respiration start to trickle away almost at once. Be panting like a dog at the top, he thought . . . and then thought, if I get to the top. There was a protesting clamor rising in both legs. It started in his thighs and worked its way down. His legs were screaming at him that they simply weren’t going to do this shit any longer.
But you will, Garraty told them. You will or you’ll die.
I don’t care, his legs answered back. Don’t care if I do die, do die, do die.
The muscles seemed to be softening, melting like Jell-O left out in a hot sun. They trembled almost helplessly. They twitched like badly controlled puppets.
Warnings buzzed from Apple watches, and Garraty realized he would be getting one for his very own soon enough. He kept his eyes fixed on Olson, forcing himself to match his pace to Olson’s. They would make it together, up over the top of this killer hill, and then he would get Olson to tell him his secret. Then everything would be fine and he wouldn’t have to worry about Stebbins or McVries or Jan or his father.
What was it, a 100 feet on? 50? What?
Now he was panting.
As expected, the death-drone took flight but this time took out two more of the Fosters in one continuous shot.
Alert: Ticket 56: #29 Joseph Foster, age 15 from Oklahoma. Nickname: Joe. 44 walkers Remaining.
Alert: Ticket 57: #28 Bobby Foster, age 16 from Indiana. Nickname: Bob. 43 walkers Remaining.
When Garraty saw the alerts later, he would assume that the two Foster boys made friends, then decided to die together, standing side-by-side.
But for now, he found that he didn’t give a fuck who had bought it this time. It didn’t matter. Only the pain mattered, the tearing pain in his legs and lungs. Garraty could see nothing in the dark. His tortured pulse hammered in his temples.
The hill rounded, flattened, and rounded still more on the downslope. The far side was gently sloping, perfect for regaining wind. But that soft jelly feeling in his muscles didn’t want to leave. My legs are going to collapse, Garraty thought calmly. They’ll never take me as far as Freeport. I don’t think I can make it to Old Town. I’m dying, I think.
A sound began to beat its way into the night then, savage and orgiastic. It was a voice, it was many voices, and it was repeating the same thing over and over.
Garraty! Garraty! GARRATY! GARRATY! GARRATY!
It was God or his father, about to cut the legs out from under him before he could learn the secret, the secret, the secret of—
Like thunder: GARRATY! GARRATY! GARRATY!
It wasn’t his father and it wasn’t God. It was what appeared to be the entire student body of Old Town High School, chanting his name in unison. As they caught sight of his white, weary, and strained face, the steady beating cry dissolved into wild cheering. Cheerleaders fluttered pompoms. Boys whistled shrilly and kissed their girls. Garraty waved back, smiled, nodded, and craftily crept closer to Olson.
“Olson,” he whispered. “Olson.”
Olson’s eyes might have flickered a tiny bit. A spark of life like the single turn of an old starter in a junked automobile.
“Tell me how, Olson,” he whispered. “Tell me what to do.”
The high school girls and boys (did I once go to high school? Garraty wondered, was that a dream?) were behind them now, still cheering rapturously.
Olson’s eyes moved jerkily in their sockets, as if long rusted and in need of oil. His mouth fell open with a nearly audible clunk.
“That’s it,” Garraty whispered eagerly. “Talk. Talk to me, Olson. Tell me. Tell me.”
“Ah,” Olson said. “Ah. Ah.”
Garraty moved even closer. He put a hand on Olson’s shoulder and leaned into an evil nimbus of sweat, halitosis, and urine.
“Please,” Garraty said. “Try hard.”
“Ga. Go. God. God’s garden—”
“God’s garden,” Garraty repeated doubtfully. “What about God’s garden, Olson?”
“It’s full. Of. Weeds,” Olson said sadly. His head bounced against his chest. “I.”
Garraty said nothing. He could not. They were going up another hill now and he was panting again. Olson did not seem to be out of breath at all.
“I don’t. Want. To die,” Olson finished.
Garraty’s eyes were soldered to the shadowed ruin that was Olson’s face. Olson turned creakily toward him.
Olson looked at his Apple watch. The time was 8:45 PM. “It’s only 8:45 PM?” Mild surprise washed over Olson’s shattered old man’s face.
“Olson—” He shook Olson’s shoulder gently and Olson’s whole frame seemed to tremble, like a gantry in a high wind. “What’s it all about?”
Olson looked at Garraty with calculated shrewdness.
“Garraty,” he whispered. His breath was like a sewer-draught.
“What time is it?”
“Dammit!” Garraty shouted at him. He turned his head quickly, but Stebbins was staring down at the road. If he was laughing at Garraty, it was too dark to see.
“What?” Garraty said more quietly.
“Je. Jesus will save you.”
Olson’s head came up all the way. He angled toward the trailer carrying the death-drone.
Olson never slowed. There was a ruinous dignity about him. The gabble of the crowd quieted. They watched, wide-eyed.
Olson never hesitated. He climbed atop the trailer holding the death-drone.
“Olson!” Abraham yelled, startled. “Hey, that’s Hank Olson!”
Alert: Penalty-Warning! First Penalty Warning number 70!
Olson pried open the retractable roof protecting the death-drone from the weather, then jumped down into its housing, and lifted the octocopter over his head and threw it onto the road, breaking two of its arms.
Alert: Penalty-Warning! Second Penalty Warning number 70!
Olson did not stop. He jumped down from the trailer, then proceeded to snap off the other arms on the drone.
Alert: Penalty-Warning! Third Penalty Warning number 70!
The software in the death-drone commanded it to take flight, sending commands to propellers that were no longer connected to the body.
Olson picked up the drone, then jogged past the Jeep which pulled the death-drone, and held the armless drone up to his head so the machine-gun faced the Jeep as it passed.
Alert: Ticket 58: #70 Henry Olson, age 17 from Massachusetts. Nickname: Hank. 42 walkers Remaining.
The machine targeted Olson’s neck and fired, also killing the two guards in the Jeep. The self-driving Jeep continued down the road with the dead guards.
Garraty heard someone laughing softly. It was Stebbins.
Many of the walkers stomped on the death-drone as they passed.
“Now that’s how you make an exit.” Stebbins said from behind Garraty. “What have we learned from Olson?”
“Get away from me,” Garraty hissed. “Or I’ll knock you out!”
Stebbins passed Garraty and kept walking.
Stebbins’s laugh drifted softly to him.
Garraty dropped to his knees next to Olson’s body and cried.
Alert: First Warning! First Warning number 47!
Alert: First Warning! First Warning number 61!
McVries knelt down next to Garraty and spoke softly. “Come on Ray. We have to go.”
“It’s not fair!” Garraty wept. “It’s just not fair!”
“I know. Come on. You need your 2 minutes for Jan. No more warnings, OK?”
Garraty struggled to his feet with McVries’ help, and got walking over 4 mph again.
They walked quietly for 10 minutes or so, Garraty drawing a low-key comfort just from McVries’s presence. “I’m starting to see something in it, Pete,” he said at last. “There’s a pattern. It isn’t all senseless.”
“We don’t have to accept death by other people’s rules. We can fight back and exit this world by our rules.”
“I put us about 13 miles outside of Old Town,” Garraty said.
“Well hot shit!”
“Do you know how Scramm is?”
“I’m not his doctor. Why don’t you scram yourself?”
“What the hell’s eating you?”
McVries laughed wildly. “Here we are, here we are and you want to know what’s eating me! I’m worried about next year’s income taxes, that’s what’s eating me. I’m worried about the price of grain in South Dakota, that’s what’s eating me. Olson, getting this head blown off, and that’s eating me, that’s eating me—” He broke off and Garraty watched him struggle to keep from vomiting. Abruptly McVries said, “Scramm’s not doing so well.”
“Is he getting worse?”
“Collie Parker felt his forehead and said he was burning up. He’s talking funny. About his wife, about Phoenix, Flagstaff, weird stuff about the Hopis and the Navajos and kachina dolls . . . it’s hard to make out.”
“How much longer can he go?”
“Who can say. He still might outlast us all. He’s built like a buffalo and he’s trying awful hard. Jesus, am I tired.”
“What about Barkovitch?”
“He knows a lot of us’ll be glad to see him buy a ticket. I keep nagging him. He acts like it doesn’t bother him, but I know it does.” McVries uttered his wild laugh again. Garraty didn’t like the sound of it. “He’s starting to show cracks. He’s easing up on the lung-power and going to leg-power.”
“We all are.”
“Yeah. Old Town coming up. 13 miles?”
“Can I say something to you, Garraty?”
“Sure. I’ll carry it with me to the grave.”
“I suppose that’s true.”
Someone near the front of the crowd set off a firecracker, and both Garraty and McVries jumped. Several women screeched. A burly man in the front row said “Goddammit!” through a mouthful of popcorn.
“The reason all of this is so horrible,” McVries said, “is because it’s just trivial. You know? We’ve sold ourselves and traded our souls on trivialities. Olson, he was trivial. He was magnificent, too, but those things aren’t mutually exclusive. He was magnificent and trivial. Either way, or both, he died like a bug under a microscope.”
“You’re as bad as Stebbins,” Garraty said resentfully.
“I wish Priscilla had killed me,” McVries said. “At least that wouldn’t have been—”
“Trivial,” Garraty finished.
“Yes. I think—”
“Look, I want to doze a little if I can. You mind?”
“No. I’m sorry.” McVries sounded stiff and offended.
“I’m sorry,” Garraty said. “Look, don’t take it to heart. It’s really—”
“Trivial,” McVries finished. He laughed his wild laugh for the third time and walked away. Garraty wished—not for the first time—that he had made no friends on the Long Walk. It was going to make it hard. In fact, it was already hard.
There was a sluggish stirring in his bowels. Soon they would have to be emptied. The thought made him grind his mental teeth. People would point and laugh. He would drop his shit in the street like a mongrel hound and afterward people would gather it up in paper napkins and put it in bottles for souvenirs. It seemed impossible that people would do such things, but he knew it happened. He hoped that Old Town would provide Porto-Potties for the walkers.
McVries and Priscilla and the pajama factory.
Scramm, glowing fever-bright.
Garraty’s head dropped. He dozed. The Walk went on. A new Jeep pulling a new death-drone trailer replaced the old one.
Another firecracker went off. There were whoops and cheers. Garraty dozed deeper.
Daddy, I wasn’t glad when you had to go, but I never really missed you when you were gone. Sorry. But that’s not the reason I’m here. I have no subconscious urge to kill myself, sorry Stebbins. So sorry but—
The new death-drone awoke, startling him awake, and there was the familiar count-down, followed by the machine-gun, followed by the mailsack thud of another boy going home to Jesus. The crowd screamed its horror and roared its approval.
Alert: Ticket 59: #67 Brendan Murphy, age 16 from New York. Nickname: Bren. 41 walkers Remaining.
“Garraty!” a woman squealed. “Ray Garraty!” Her voice was harsh and scabbed. “We’re with you, boy! We’re with you Ray!”
Her voice cut through the crowd and heads turned, necks craned, so that they could get a better look at Maine’s Own. There were scattered boos drowned in a rising cheer.
The crowd took up the chant again. Garraty heard his name until it was reduced to a jumble of nonsense syllables that had nothing to do with him.
He waved briefly and dozed again.
They passed into Old Town around midnight. They switched through two feeder roads, joined Route 2, and went through the center of town.
For Ray Garraty the entire passage was a blurred, sleep-hazed nightmare. The cheering rose and swelled until it seemed to cut off any possibility of thought or reason. Night was turned into glaring, shadowless day by flaring arc-sodium lamps that threw a strange orange light. In such a light even the most friendly face looked like something from a crypt. Confetti, newspaper, shredded pieces of telephone book, and long streamers of toilet paper floated and soared from second- and third-story windows. It was a New York tickertape parade in Bush League U.S.A.
No one died in Old Town. The orange arc-lamps faded and the crowd depleted a little as they walked along the Stillwater River in the trench of morning. It was May 3rd now. The ripe smell of paper mill smote them. A juicy smell of chemicals, woodsmoke, polluted river, and stomach cancer waiting to happen. There were conical piles of sawdust higher than the buildings downtown. Heaped stacks of pulpwood stood to the sky like monoliths. Garraty dozed and dreamed his shadowy dreams of relief and redemption and after what seemed to be an eternity, someone began jabbing him in the ribs. It was McVries.
“We’re going on the turnpike,” McVries said. He was excited. “The word’s back. They got a whole sonofabitchin’ color guard on the entrance ramp. We’re gonna get a 400-gun salute!”
“Into the valley of death rode the 400,” Garraty muttered, rubbing the sleepy-seeds out of his eyes. “I’ve heard too many machine-gun salutes tonight. Not interested. Lemme sleep.”
“That isn’t the point. After they get done, we’re gonna give them a salute.”
“Yeah. A 41-man raspberry.”
Garraty grinned a little. It felt stiff and uncertain on his lips. “That right?”
“It certainly is. Well . . . more like a 30-man raspberry. A lot of the guys are pretty far gone now.”
“Well, count me in,” he said.
“Bunch up with us a little, then.”
Garraty picked it up. He and McVries moved in tighter with Pearson, Abraham, Baker, Barkovitch and Scramm. The leather boys had further shortened their vanguard.
“Barkovitch in on it?” Garraty asked.
McVries snorted. “He thinks it’s the greatest idea since pay toilets.”
Garraty clutched his cold body a little tighter to himself and let out a humorless little giggle. “I bet he’s got a hell of a wicked raspberry.”
They were paralleling the turnpike now. Garraty could see the steep embankment to his right, and the fuzzy glow of more arc-sodiums—bone-white this time—above. A distance ahead, perhaps half a mile, the entrance ramp split off and climbed.
“Here we come,” McVries said.
“Cathy!” Scramm yelled suddenly, making Garraty start. “I ain’t gave up yet, Cathy!” He turned his blank, fever-glittering eyes on Garraty. There was no recognition in them. His cheeks were flushed, his lips cracked with fever blisters.
“He ain’t so good,” Baker said apologetically, as if he had caused it. “We been givin’ him water every now and again, also sort of pourin’ it over his head. We keep dronin’ in more liters of water, trying to keep him hydrated.”
Barkovitch injects, “Scramm was the second favorite to win after Olson. If Scramm recovers, we’re all dead. Better to realize that now, before it’s too late.”
Baker, “Nobody is interested in what you have to say. Don’t you get that?”
“We didn’t come here to make friends and help each other. You’re here to stay alive and win. When you help others, you’re hurting yourself.”
McVries, “Give it up killer. Your words fall on deaf ears. You play the game your way, we’ll play it our way.”
“Scramm,” Garraty said.
“Who’s that?” Scramm’s eyes rolled wildly in their sockets.
“Oh. You seen Cathy?”
“Yeah man, she’s up ahead, waiting for you,” Garraty said uncomfortably. “you just need to hang on a little—”
Barkovitch interrupted, “Why are you encouraging him? If you give him enough hope, he’s just gonna—”
“Here we come,” McVries said. The crowd’s cheers rose in volume again, and a ghostly green sign came out of the darkness: INTERSTATE 95 AUGUSTA PORTLAND PORTSMOUTH POINTS SOUTH.
“That’s us,” Abraham whispered. “God help us an’ points south.”
The entrance angled down slightly as the turned onto the on ramp. They passed into the first splash of light from the overhead arcs, placed there to illuminate the color guard. The new paving was smoother beneath their feet, and Garraty felt a familiar lift-drop of excitement.
The soldiers of the color guard had displaced the crowd along the downward ramp. They silently held their rifles to high port. Their dress uniforms gleamed resplendently.
It was like rising above a huge and restless sea of noise and into the calm air. The only sound was their footfalls and the hurried pace of their breathing. The entrance ramp seemed to go on forever, and always the way was fringed by soldiers in scarlet uniforms, their arms held in high-port salute.
And then, from the darkness somewhere, came the Major’s electronically amplified voice: “Pre-sent harms!”
Weapons slapped flesh.
Guns to shoulders, pointed skyward above them in a steely arch. Everyone instinctively huddled together against the crash which meant death—it had been Pavloved into them.
400 guns in the night, stupendous, ear-shattering. Garraty fought down the urge to put his hands to his head.
Again the smell of powder smoke, acrid, heavy with cordite.
“My head,” Scramm moaned. “Oh Jesus my head aches.”
The guns exploded for the third and last time.
McVries immediately turned around and walked backward, his face going a spotty red with the effort it cost him to shout. “Pre-sent harms!”
30 tongues pursed 30 sets of lips.
Garraty drew breath into his lungs and fought to hold it.
It was pitiful, really. A pitiful little noise of defiance in the big dark. It was not repeated. The wooden faces of their color guard did not change.
“Oh, screw it,” said McVries. He turned around and began to walk frontwards again, with his head down.
The turnpike pavement had a slight steady rise you barely noticed. They were on the south-bound side, and the crowd filled the north-bound side. There was a brief vision of the Major’s jeep spurting away to the south, a flicker of cold fluorescent light against black sunglasses, and then the crowd closed in again, but farther from them now, for the south-bound side of the turnpike was 2 lanes wide. Garraty’s heart sank when he saw the crowd also occupied the median. He would not feel that soothing wet grass.
Someone was warned. The turnpike stretched ahead, either slowly rising or slowly falling, illuminated by the white light from the arc-sodiums above. Their shadows were sharp and clear and long, as if thrown by a summer moon.
Garraty drank the last of his water, droned in another liter, then began to doze again. 80 miles to Augusta, according to Apple maps.
Garraty moved over to the left lane, where most of them were walking.
“They’ll drop out tonight,” he said. “They’ll go like bugs on a wall tonight.”
“I wouldn’t count on it,” Collie Parker said, and now he sounded worn and tired—subdued at last.
“It’s like shaking a box of crackers through a sieve, Garraty. The crumbs fall through pretty fast. Then the little pieces break up and they go, too. But the big crackers”—Parker’s grin was a crescent flash of saliva-coated teeth in the darkness—“the whole crackers have to bust off a crumb at a time.”
“But such a long way to walk . . . still . . .”
“I still want to live,” Parker said roughly. “So do you, don’t shit me, Garraty. You and that guy McVries can walk down the road and bullshit the universe and each other, so what, it’s all a bunch of phony crap but it passes the time. But don’t shit me. The bottom line is you still want to live. So do most of the others. They’ll die slow. They’ll die one piece at a time. I may get it, but right now I feel like I could walk all the way to New Orleans before I fell down on my knees for those wet ends in their kiddy car.”
“Really?” He felt a wave of despair wash over him. “Really?”
“Yeah, really. Settle down, Garraty. We still got a long way to go.” He strode away, up to where the leather boys, Mike and Joe, were pacing the group. Garraty’s head dropped and he dozed again.
His mind began to drift clear of his body. He thought of his father striding off big in green rubber boots. He thought of Jimmy Owens, he had hit Jimmy with the barrel of his air rifle, and yes he had meant to, because it had been Jimmy’s idea, taking off their clothes and touching each other had been Jimmy’s idea, it had been Jimmy’s idea. The gun swinging in a glittering arc, a glittering purposeful arc, the splash of blood (“I’m sorry Jim oh jeez you need a bandaid”) across Jimmy’s chin, helping him into the house . . . Jimmy hollering . . . hollering.
Garraty was startled awake by the buzz of the death-drone, half-stupefied and a little sweaty in spite of the night chill. Someone had hollered. The death-drone was targeting a small, nearly portly figure. It looked like Barkovitch. The boy was limping badly attempting to walk 4+ mph and barely making it. The ten second count down kept pausing but finally reached 0. The small, nearly portly figure collapsed like a limp laundry sack as his head seemed to take flight briefly, finally coming to rest staring straight at Garraty as he passed. Now I know why the vanguard stay ahead of the pack. They don’t have to see these horrors. The bepimpled moon face was not Barkovitch’s. To Garraty the face looked rested, at peace.
Alert: Ticket 60: #41 Vincent Fucci, age 15 from Pennsylvania. Nickname: Vin. 40 walkers Remaining.
He found himself wondering if they wouldn’t all be better off dead, and shied away from the thought skittishly. But wasn’t it true? The thought was inexorable. The pain in his feet would double, perhaps treble before the end came, and the pain seemed insupportable now. And it was not even pain that was the worst. It was the death, the constant death, the stink of carrion that had settled into his nostrils. The crowd’s cheers were a constant background to his thoughts. The sound lulled him. He began to doze again, and this time it was the image of Jan that came. For a while he had forgotten all about her. In a way, he thought disjointedly, it was better to doze than to sleep. The pain in his feet and his legs seemed to belong to someone else to whom he was tethered only loosely, and with just a little effort he could regulate his thoughts. Put them to work for him.
He built her image slowly in his mind. Her small feet. Her sturdy but completely feminine legs—small calves swelling to full earthy peasant thighs. Her waist was small, her breasts full and proud. The intelligent, rounded planes of her face. Her long blond hair. Whore’s hair he thought it for some reason. Once he had told her that—it had simply slipped out and he thought she would be angry, but she had not replied at all. He thought she had been secretly pleased . . .
It was the steady, reluctant contraction in his bowels that raised him this time. He had to grit his teeth to keep walking at speed until the sensation had passed. His Apple watch read 12:58 AM.
Oh God, please don’t make me have to take a crap in front of all these people. Please God. I’ll give You half of everything I get if I win, only please constipate me. Please. Please. Pl—
His bowels contracted again, strongly and hurtfully, perhaps affirming the fact that he was still essentially healthy in spite of the pounding his body had taken. He forced himself to go on until he had passed out of the merciless glare of the nearest overhead. He nervously unbuckled his belt, paused, then, grimacing, shoved his pants down with one hand held protectively across his genitals, and squatted. His knees popped explosively. The muscles in his thighs and calves protested screamingly and threatened to knot as they were bullied unwillingly in a new direction.
His Apple watched buzzed, and a friendly female voice spoke . . .
Alert: First Warning! First Warning number 47!
“John! Hey Johnny, look at that poor bastard over there.”
Pointing fingers, half-seen and half-imagined in the darkness. High powered flashes from expensive SLR cameras and lights from dozens of smartphones suddenly lit the night. Garraty turned his head away miserably. Nothing could be worse than this. Nothing.
He almost fell on his back and managed to prop himself up with one arm.
A squealing girlish voice: “I see it! I see his thing!”
Baker passed him without a glance.
For a terrifying moment he thought it was all going to be for nothing anyway—a false alarm—but then it was all right. He was able to take care of business. Then, with a grunting half-sob, he rose to his feet and stumbled into a half-walk, half-run, cinching his pants tight again, leaving part of him behind to steam in the dark, eyed avidly by a thousand people.
He caught up with McVries and walked beside him, head down.
“Tough?” McVries asked. There was unmistakable admiration in his voice.
“Real tough,” Garraty said, and let out a shivery, loosening sigh. “I knew I forgot something.”
“I left my toilet paper home.”
McVries cackled. “As my old granny used to say, if you ain’t got toilet-paper, then just let your hips slide a little freer.”
Garraty burst out laughing, a clear, hearty laugh with no hysteria in it. He felt lighter, looser. No matter how things turned out, he wouldn’t have to go through that again.
“Well, you made it,” Baker said, falling in step.
“Jesus,” Garraty said, surprised. “Why don’t all you guys just send me a get-well card, or something?”
“It’s no fun, with all those people staring at you,” Baker said soberly. “Listen, I just heard something. I don’t know if I believe it. I don’t know if I even want to believe it.”
“What is it?” Garraty asked.
“Joe and Mike? The leather-jacket guys everybody thought was queer for each other? They’re Hopis. I think that was what Scramm was trying to tell us before, and we weren’t gettin’ him. But I checked the app, and they both have the last name . . . Qwak-EE-Tee-Wa . . . or something like that. They’re probably related.”
Garraty’s jaw dropped. “Yeah, but we had two Bakers, and they weren’t related, and what about the 10 Foster boys?”
“Bobby Young replaced one of them, so there are only 9 on the walk,” Baker said, “and I’m pretty sure that none are related. Qwak-EE-Tee-Wa is not a common name. I walked up and took a good look at ’em,” Baker was going on. “And I’ll be goddamned if they don’t look like brothers.”
“That’s twisted,” McVries said angrily. “That’s fucking twisted! Their folks ought to be Squaded for allowing something like that!”
Barkovitch sniped, “How is that even possible? We’re picked randomly from a lottery of 40,000 boys. The odds of two brothers getting picked is astronomical.”
Abraham added, “With billions bet on The Long Walk, you can be sure that some rich guy has paid off officials to hand-pick certain super-athletes. I’ll bet Joe and Mike are two such dudes. They’ve been leading the pack this whole time. You couldn’t do that unless you were super fit. I’d be willing to bet that every kid in the vanguard was hand-picked, so we don’t stand a chance of winning. I heard some of them have been taking 50-second breaks with personal trainers who stretch and massage their muscles. We don’t see it, because we’re so far behind.”
“You ever know any Indians?” Baker asked quietly changing the subject.
“Not unless they came from Passaic,” McVries said. He still sounded angry.
“There’s a Seminole reservation down home, across the state line,” Baker said. “They’re funny people. They don’t think of things like ‘responsibility’ the same way we do. They’re proud. And poor. I guess those things are the same for the Hopis as they are for the Seminoles. And they know how to die.”
“None of that makes it right,” McVries said.
“They come from New Mexico,” Baker said.
“It’s an abortion. The parents know they’re gonna lose at least one of their sons!” McVries said with finality, and Garraty tended to agree.
Baker added, “I’ll bet some rich guy paid off the family, and paid off the Major, so the Major would palm their names when pulling the 200 from the drum. Joe and Mike have probably been training for the past year at high altitude.”
Talk eventually flagged all up and down the line, partially because of the noise from the crowd, but more, Garraty suspected, because of the very monotony of the turnpike itself. The hills were long and gradual, barely seeming like hills. Walkers dozed, snorted fitfully, and seemed to pull their belts tighter and resign themselves to a long, barely understood bitterness ahead. The little clots of society dissolved into threes, twos, solitary islands.
The crowd knew no fatigue. They cheered steadily with one hoarse voice, they waved unreadable placards. Garraty’s name was shouted with monotonous frequency, but blocs of out-of-staters cheered briefly for Barkovitch, Pearson, Wyman. Other names blipped past and were gone.
Firecrackers popped and spluttered in strings. Someone threw a burning road flare into the cold sky and the crowd scattered, screaming, as it pinwheeled down to hiss its glaring purple light into the dirt of a gravel shoulder beyond the breakdown lane. There were other crowd standouts. A man with an electric bullhorn who alternately praised Garraty and advertised his own candidacy to represent the second district; a woman with a big crow in a small cage which she hugged jealously to her giant bosom; a human pyramid made out of college boys in University of New Hampshire sweatshirts; a hollow-cheeked man with no teeth in an Uncle Sam suit. But otherwise the crowd seemed as dull and bland as the turnpike itself.
Garraty dozed on fitfully, and the visions in his head were alternately of love and horror. In one of the dreams a low and droning voice asked over and over again: Are you experienced? Are you experienced? Are you experienced? and he could not tell if it was the voice of Stebbins or of the Major.
3:13 AM Alert: Ticket 61: #40 Atshuya Fubuku, age 15 from Wyoming. Nickname: Shu. 39 walkers Remaining.
6:32 AM Alert: Ticket 62: #34 Jason Fotre, age 15 from Delaware. Nickname: Jay. 38 walkers Remaining.
Somehow it had got around to 9:00 AM again.
Ray Garraty turned his bottle of spring water over his head, leaning back until his neck popped. It had only just warmed up enough so you could no longer see your breath, and the water was frigid, driving back the constant drowsiness a little.
He looked his traveling companions over. McVries had a heavy scrub of beard now, as black as his hair. Collie Parker looked haggard but tougher than ever. Baker seemed almost ethereal. Scramm was not so flushed, but he was coughing steadily—a deep, thundering cough that reminded Garraty of himself, long ago. He had had pneumonia when he was 5.
The night had passed in a dream-sequence of odd names on the reflectorized overhead signs. Veazie. Bangor. Hermon. Jampden. Winterport. The soldiers had made only 2 kills, and Garraty was beginning to accept the truth of Parker’s cracker analogy.
And now bright daylight had come again. The little protective groups had re-formed, Walkers joking about beards but not about feet . . . never about feet. Garraty had felt several small blisters break on his right heel during the night, but the soft, absorbent sock had buffered the raw flesh somewhat. Now they had just passed a sign that read AUGUSTA 48 PORTLAND 117.
Pearson’s tired voice. “Boy, I’d never do this again in a hundred thousand years.” He was horribly haggard, his hair hanging lifelessly about his cheeks.
“You should live so long.”
“Yeah.” Pearson’s voice dropped. “I’ve made up my mind, though. If I get so tired and I can’t go on, I’m gonna run over there and dive into the crowd. They death-drone won’t shoot with spectators in the way. Maybe I can get away.”
“True, the death-drone doesn’t care about killing us in the crossfire, but it does try to avoid hitting spectators. They warn spectators about getting hit by a ricochet. Many spectators are killed each year by the death-drone, and many more are injured. They don’t care . . . they keep coming.”
“I think it’d be like hitting a trampoline,” Garraty said. “They’ll bounce you right back onto the pavement.”
Pearson looked curiously at Garraty. “Aren’t you tired, Ray?”
“Shit, no.” Garraty flapped his thin arms with mock grandeur. “I’m coasting, couldn’t you tell?”
“I’m in bad shape,” Pearson said, and licked his lips. “I’m havin’ a hard job just thinking straight. And my legs feel like they got harpoons in them all the way up to—”
McVries came up behind them. “Scramm’s dying,” he said bluntly.
Garraty and Pearson said “Huh?” in unison.
“He’s got pneumonia,” McVries said.
Garraty nodded. “I was afraid it might be that.”
“You can hear his lungs five feet away. It sounds like somebody pumped the Gulf Stream through them. If it gets hot again today, he’ll just burn up.”
“Poor bastard,” Pearson said, and the tone of relief in his voice was both unconscious and unmistakable. “He could have taken us all, I think. And he’s married. What’s his wife gonna do?”
“What can she do?” Garraty asked.
They were walking fairly close to the crowd, no longer noticing the outstretched hands that strove to touch them—you got to know your distance after fingernails had taken skin off your arm once or twice. A small boy whined that he wanted to go home.
“I’ve been talking to everybody,” McVries said. “Well, just about everybody. I think the winner should do something for her.”
“Like what?” Garraty asked.
“That’ll have to be between the winner and Scramm’s wife. And if the bastard welshes, we can all come back and haunt him.”
“Okay,” Pearson said. “What’s to lose?”
“All right. Sure. Have you talked to Gary Barkovitch?”
“That prick? He wouldn’t give his mother artificial respiration if she was drowning.”
“I’ll talk to him,” Garraty said.
“You won’t get anywhere.”
“Just the same. I’ll do it now.”
“Ray, why don’t you talk to Stebbins, too? You seem to be the only one he talks to.”
Garraty snorted. “I can tell you what he’ll say in advance.”
“He’ll say why. And by the time he gets done, I won’t have any idea.”
“Skip him then.”
“Can’t.” Garraty began angling toward the small, slumped figure of Barkovitch. “He’s the only guy that still thinks he’s going to win.”
Barkovitch was in a doze. With his eyes nearly closed and the faint peach-fuzz that coated his olive cheeks, he looked like a put-upon and badly used teddy bear.
Barkovitch snapped awake. “Wassamatter? Whozat? Garraty?”
“Yes. Listen, Scramm’s dying.”
“Who? Oh, right. Beaver-brains over there. Good for him.”
“He’s got pneumonia. He probably won’t last until noon.”
Barkovitch looked slowly around at Garraty with his bright black shoe-button eyes. Yes, he looked remarkably like some destructive child’s teddy bear this morning.
“Look at you there with your big earnest face hanging out, Garraty. What’s your pitch?”
“Well, if you didn’t know, he’s married, and—”
Barkovitch’s eyes widened until it seemed they were in danger of falling out. “Married! MARRIED? ARE YOU TELLING ME THAT NUMBSKULL IS—”
“Shut up, you asshole! He’ll hear you!”
“I don’t give a sweet fuck! He’s crazy!” Barkovitch looked over at Scramm, outraged. “WHAT DID YOU THINK YOU WERE DOING, NUMBNUTS, PLAYING GIN RUMMY?” he screamed at the top of his lungs. Scramm looked around blearily at Barkovitch, and then raised his hand in a half-hearted wave. He apparently thought Barkovitch was a spectator. Abraham, who was walking near Scramm, gave Barkovitch the finger. Barkovitch gave it right back, and then turned to Garraty. Suddenly he smiled.
“Aw, goodness,” he said. “It shines from your dumb hick face, Garraty. Passing the hat for the dying guy’s wifey, right? Ain’t that cute.”
“Count you out, huh?” Garraty said stiffly.
“You’ll do it then?”
“Ya asked me if ya can count me out. I said yes. Count me out.”
Garraty dropped back fast, too fast, got a warning, and spent the next 10 minutes working back to where Stebbins was ambling along.
“Ray Garraty,” Stebbins said. “Happy May 3rd, Garraty.”
Garraty nodded cautiously. “Same goes both ways.”
“I was counting my toes,” Stebbins said companionably. “They are fabulously good company because they always add up the same way.”
“Until they start going numb, then you’ll always count less than 10.”
“True. What’s on your mind?”
So Garraty went through the business about Scramm and Scramm’s wife for the second time, and halfway through another boy got his ticket (HELL’S ANGELS ON WHEELS stenciled on the back of his battered jeans jacket) and made it all seem rather meaningless and trite. Finished, he waited tensely for Stebbins to start anatomizing the idea.
Alert: Ticket 63: #17 Dean Nelson, age 14 from Oregon. Nickname: Deanosauraus. 37 walkers Remaining.
“Why not?” Stebbins said amiably. He looked up at Garraty and smiled. Garraty could see that fatigue was finally making its inroads, even in Stebbins.
“You sound like you’ve got nothing to lose,” he said.
“That’s right,” Stebbins said jovially. “None of us really has anything to lose. That makes it easier to give away.”
Garraty looked at Stebbins, depressed. There was too much truth in what he said. It made their gesture toward Scramm look small.
“Don’t get me wrong, Garraty old chum. I’m a bit weird, but I’m no old meanie. If I could make Scramm croak any faster by withholding my promise, I would. But I can’t. I don’t know for sure, but I’ll bet every Long Walk finds some poor dog like Scramm and makes a gesture like this, Garraty, and I’ll further bet it always comes at just about this time in the Walk, when the old realities and mortalities are starting to sink in. In the old days, before the Change and the Squads, when there were still millionaires, they used to set up foundations and build libraries and all that good shit. Everyone wants a bulwark against mortality, Garraty. Some people can kid themselves that it’s their kids. But none of those poor lost children”—Stebbins swung one thin arm to indicate the other Walkers and laughed, but Garraty thought he sounded sad—“they’re never even going to leave any bastards.” He winked at Garrity. “Shock you?”
“I . . . I guess not.”
“You and your friend McVries stand out in this motley crew, Garraty. I don’t understand how either of you got here. I’m willing to bet it runs deeper than you think, though. You took me seriously last night, didn’t you? About Olson.”
“I suppose so,” Garraty said slowly.
Stebbins laughed delightedly. “You’re the bee’s knees, Ray. Olson had no secrets.”
“I don’t think you were ribbing last night.”
“Oh, yes. I was.”
Garraty smiled tightly. “You know what I think? I think you had some sort of insight and now you want to deny it. Maybe it scared you.”
Stebbins’s eyes went gray. “Have it how you like it, Garraty. It’s your funeral. Now what say you flake off? You got your promise.”
“You want to cheat it. Maybe that’s your trouble. You like to think the game is rigged. But maybe it’s a straight game. That scare you, Stebbins?”
“Go on, admit it.”
“I admit nothing, except your own basic foolishness. Go ahead and tell yourself it’s a straight game.” Thin color had come into Stebbins’s cheeks. “Any game looks straight if everyone is being cheated at once.”
“You’re all wet,” Garraty said, but now his voice lacked conviction. Stebbins smiled briefly and looked back down at his feet.
They were climbing out of a long, swaybacked dip, and Garraty felt sweat pop out on him as he hurried back up through the line to where McVries, Pearson, Abraham, Baker, and Scramm were bundled up together—or, more exactly, the others were bundled around Scramm. They looked like worried seconds around a punchy fighter.
“How is he?” Garraty asked.
“Why ask them?” Scramm demanded. His former husky voice had been reduced to a mere whisper. The fever had broken, leaving his face pallid and waxy.
“Okay, I’ll ask you.”
“Aw, not bad,” Scramm said. He coughed. It was a raspy, bubbling sound that seemed to come from underwater. “I’m not so bad. It’s nice, what you guys are doing for Cathy. A man likes to take care of his own, but I guess I wouldn’t be doing right to stand on my pride. Not the way things are now.”
“Don’t talk so much,” Pearson said, “you’ll wear yourself out.”
“What’s the difference? Now or later, what’s the difference?” Scramm looked at them dumbly, then shook his head slowly from side to side. “Why’d I have to get sick? I was going good, I really was. Odds-on second favorite behind Olson. Even when I’m tired I like to walk. Look at folks, smell the air . . . why? Is it God? Did God do it to me?”
“I don’t know,” Abraham said.
Garraty felt the death-fascination coming over him again, and was repulsed. He tried to shake it off. It wasn’t fair. Not when it was a friend.
Scramm looked at his Apple watch, “It’s 10 past 10, and Apple maps says we’ve gone 199 miles. My feet ain’t tired,” Scramm said. “That’s something. Hey, before I forget, what did Stebbins and Barkovitch says when you asked them to make the promise for Cathy?”
“Stebbins said Yes, Barkovitch said No.”
“Tha’s better than I expected . . . thanks for trying, Garraty. You all are good guys.”
A little boy was screaming lustily on the sidelines. His voice rose above the low crowd rumble by virtue of pure shrillness. “Hey Ma! Look at the big guy! Look at that moose, Ma! Hey Ma! Look!”
Garraty’s eyes swept the crowd briefly and picked out the boy in the first row. He was wearing a Randy the Robot T-shirt and goggling around a half-eaten jam sandwich. Scramm waved at him.
“Kids’re nice,” he said. “Yeah. I hope Cathy has a boy. We both wanted a boy. A girl would be all right, but you guys know . . . a boy . . . he keeps your name and passes it on. Not that Scramm’s such a great name.” He laughed, and Garraty thought of what Stebbins had said, about bulwarks against mortality.
An apple-cheeked Walker in a droopy blue sweater dropped through them, bringing the word back. Mike, of Mike and Joe, the leather boys, had been struck suddenly with gut cramps.
Scramm passed a hand across his forehead. His chest rose and fell in a spasm of heavy coughing that he somehow walked through. “Those boys are from my neck of the woods,” he said. “We all coulda come together if I’d known. They’re Hopis.”
“Yeah,” Pearson said. “You told us.”
Scramm looked puzzled. “Did I? Well, it don’t matter. Seems like I won’t be making the trip alone, anyway. I wonder—”
An expression of determination settled over Scramm’s face. He began to step up his pace. Then he slowed again for a moment and turned around to face them. It seemed calm now, settled. Garraty looked at him, fascinated in spite of himself.
“I’m going to do something for you all. I don’t guess I’ll be seeing you guys again.” There was nothing in Scramm’s voice but simple dignity. “Goodbye.”
McVries was the first to respond. “Goodbye, man,” he said hoarsely. “Good trip.”
“Yeah, good luck,” Pearson said, and then looked away.
Abraham tried to speak and couldn’t. He turned away, pale, his lips writhing.
“Take it easy,” Baker said. His face was solemn.
“Goodbye,” Garraty said through frozen lips. “Goodbye, Scramm, good trip, good rest.”
“Good rest?” Scramm smiled a little. “The real Walk may still be coming.”
He sped up until he had caught up with Mike and Joe, with their impassive faces and their worn leather jackets. Mike had not allowed the cramps to bow him over. He was walking with both hands pressed against his lower belly. His speed was constant.
Scramm talked with them.
They all watched. It seemed that the three of them conferred for a very long time.
“Now what the hell are they up to?” Pearson whispered fearfully to himself.
Suddenly the conference was over. Scramm began to walk ahead of Mike and Joe. The soldiers were watching all three of them carefully. Joe put a hand on his brother’s shoulder and squeezed it hard. They looked at each other. Garraty could discern no emotion on their bronzed faces. Then Mike suddenly stopped walking. He just stood there. Garraty and the gang passed him, then he started walking again, as soon as he got his first warning.
Garraty looked at Pearson and said, “This is the first time I’ve seen Joe and Mike separated. Something is definitely about to happen.”
Garraty noticed that Barkovitch was now at the front of the vanguard. He was talking to an evil looking boy named Harold Quince. Garraty thought, if Stebbins was the caboose of this train, then Harold would be the engine. Harold liked to stay about 1000 feet in front the pack. He was a loner, but Barkovitch liked to join him occasionally, just like Garraty like to join the loner Stebbins once in a while.
According to the walker-statistics App on Garraty’s iPhone, Barkovitch’s timer was at 95, and he was 7 minutes from losing his first warning, which meant his timer would reset back to 120. Scramm had 118 on his timer, and Mike’s timer had dropped 89.
Scramm picked up speed and was slowly reeling in Harold and Barkovitch. Scramm moved with purposeful stealth, while stifling his cough, so they didn’t hear him coming. When he caught up, Scramm tripped Barkovitch, who fell forward, then Scramm sat on his back. Harold continued, not wanting any part of this.
“Get off me ya big moose!”
Alert: Penalty-Warning! First Penalty Warning number 85!
“You should have promised to help Cathy.”
Alert: Warning! Second Warning number 5
“You dick! I was just about to walk off my first warning, and now I got my second warning again!”
Alert: Penalty-Warning! Second Penalty Warning number 85!
“Scramm! You’re gonna get a penalty-warning every 10 seconds! You’ll get your ticket long before I do!”
Alert: Penalty-Warning! Third Penalty Warning number 85!
The death-drone begins to spin up.
“I’m doing this to help Cathy. I want one of the guys who made the promise, to win.”
Joe passed, and he and Scramm waved.
“This is pointless! You’re gonna die, and I’ll just make up the warnings, what . . . “
Alert: Ticket 64: #85 Fredrick Scramm, age 16 from Arizona. Nickname: Freddy. 36 walkers Remaining.
Garraty and the gang passed, and gave Scramm a wave. They started walking backwards, fascinated by what was happening.
Alert: Warning! Third Warning number 5
The death-drone took flight. Mike caught up.
“Hello Mike, Goodbye Barkovitch”
Mike traded places with Scramm, holding down Barkovitch. Scramm faced his death head on as the death-drone fired. Scramm was dead, and Mike and Barkovitch were spattered in his gore.
Alert: Penalty-Warning! Second Penalty Warning number 79!
“Mike! Get the fuck off me!”
Mike said something in his language, but of course Barkovitch didn’t understand.
Most of the pack had since passed, and we’re looking back to watch the action.
Alert: Penalty-Warning! Third Penalty Warning number 79!
The death-drone was returning to its nest, but now reversed direction and returned to hover 30 feet up and off to the side, aiming its gun at Mike.
Barkovitch thought to himself “I need a plan”. He looked at his death-timer. 14, 13, 12, 10 . . . he realized that Mike would die before him, so he gave up the struggle, and waited for the death-drone to fire.
The death-drone fired. Mike was dead, and Barkovitch was spattered in Mike’s blood. Barkovitch pushed him off and sprung to his feet and got moving. Barkovitch’s death-timer had stopped at 5 seconds. The death-drone would target Barkovitch for 10 minutes, then return to its nest.
Alert: Ticket 65: #79 Masichuvio Quochytewa, age 18 from New Mexico. Nickname: Mike. 35 walkers Remaining.
“Fuck you Mike! Fuck you Scramm! Your plan failed! In 3 hours, I’ll walk off my 3 warnings, and none of this will have mattered. I’ll dance on your . . .”
Suddenly he found himself face down again . . . tripped . . . but by who?
Alert: Penalty-Warning! First Penalty Warning number 88!
The death-drone started announcing its count-down . . .
“Stebbins! What are you doing?!”
“What I have to!”, Barkovitch may have been short, but he was strong, and Stebbins struggled to hold him down.
Barkovitch tried his best to buck Stebbins off. He screamed “NO!!”
Stebbins jumped back just before the death-drone fired. Barkovitch was dead, and Stebbins was dotted with his blood.
Alert: Ticket 66: #5 Gary Barkovitch, age 17 from District of Columbia. Nickname: Barker. 34 walkers Remaining.
Garraty turned around and walked forward again. He was dimly grateful that he hadn’t been warned. He saw a carbon copy of his horror on the faces of all about him. The Barkovitch part of it was over. Garraty thought it did not bode well for the rest of them, for their future on this dark and bloody road.
“I’m starting to like that Stebbins”, McVries stated.
“I don’t feel good,” Pearson said. His voice was flat. He dry-retched and walked doubled over for a moment. “Oh. Not so good. Oh God. I don’t. Feel. So good. Oh.”
“Whoever wins better keep his word,” McVries said suddenly. “He just better.”
No one said anything for a long time.
Then McVries broke the silence. “I think . . . I wish I were insane,” he said thoughtfully.
2 PM: “You’re cheating, you fuck!” Abraham shouted.
Baker said calmly. “That’s four thousand you owe me.”
“I don’t pay cheaters.” Abraham clutched the quarter he had been flipping tightly in his hand.
“And I usually don’t match quarters with guys that call me that,” Baker said grimly, and then smiled. “But in your case, Abe, I’ll make an exception. You have so many winning ways I just can’t help myself.”
“Shut up and flip,” Abraham said, “double or nothin.”
“Oh please don’t take that tone of voice to me,” Baker said abjectly, rolling his eyes. “I might fall over in a dead faint!” Garraty laughed.
Abraham snorted and flicked his quarter, caught it, and slapped it down on his wrist. “You match me.”
“Okay.” Baker flipped his quarter higher, caught it more deftly and, Garraty was sure, palmed it on edge.
“You show first this time,” Baker said.
“Nuh-uh. I showed first last time.”
“Oh shit, Abe, I showed first 3 times in a row before that. Maybe you’re the one cheating.”
Abraham muttered, considered, and then revealed his quarter. It was tails.
Baker raised his hand, peeked under it, and smiled. His quarter also showed tails. “That’s eight thousand you owe me.”
“My God you must think I’m dumb!” Abraham hollered. “You think I’m some kind of idiot, right? Go on and admit it! Just taking the hick to the cleaners, right?”
Baker appeared to consider.
“Go on, go on!” Abraham bellowed. “I can take it!”
“Now that you put it to me,” Baker said, “whether or not you’re a hick never entered my mind. That you’re an ijit is pretty well established. As far as taking you to the cleaners”—he put a hand on Abraham’s shoulder—“that, my friend, is a certainty.”
“Come on,” Abraham said craftily. “Double or nothing again. And this time you show first.”
Baker considered. He looked at Garraty. “Ray, would you?”
“Would I what?” Garraty had lost track of the conversation. His left leg had begun to feel decidedly strange.
“Would you go double or nothing against this here fella?”
“How do you expect to collect? You can’t both win the Long Walk. Even if you agree to pay a friend or family member, the amount is so trivial compared to the amount you’ll win. You should be playing for $100,000 per flip!”