The heat doesn't bother either of them. They're used to worse down home, after all, endless days weeks months of dry heat with no relief, nothing but the dry rocks and no water and the dust that rises wherever they put their feet, walking in step around the village, dust that rises and gets in their eyes, in their hair, in their lungs.
The watching crowd doesn't bother either of them. They're used to that from down home as well, dark eyes watching them from doorways or open unguarded stares from the people they pass. Here, the eyes are set in faces they do not know, and that makes it easier.
The steep upgrades and shin-straining downgrades don't bother either of them. Pongsikya has more than its fair share of hills, after all, and though they don't run up and down the hills the way they used to when they were children, like the swift scampering ringtail cats that hunt mice and rats through the village and flee to the safety of the hills when chased, they can keep a steady unchanging pace, ignoring the grumbling and moaning of the Walkers behind them.
Only when the torrential rain comes do they react. It rolls off the shoulders of their matching leather jackets, but gets into their shoes, making them squelch, and Mike lets out a little surprised grunt, which Joe echoes. It only lasts for a moment, though, before they both hunch their shoulders and duck their heads and walk on into the rain.
They drove themselves up, unlike a lot of the other boys; Joe, older by one year exactly, behind the wheel. People often mistake them for twins. They left the car in the parking lot, back at the beginning. If one of them wins, they won't need it any more, battered broken old thing that it is; if neither of them wins, it won't matter anyway. They practice calling each other by their Walk names, until it's Ahote and Kwahu who start the drive but Joe and Mike who finish it, the syllables snapping off their tongues instead of rolling out with ease.
When Harkness comes up to them, his shorter legs working overtime to keep up with them, and asks for their names, they give him the ones they registered with: Mike Smith and Joe Smith. Harkness doesn't question this. If Smith is an alias because it is so common, a lot of people must really be named Smith, even if they are clearly not the Smith sort of people, more the Sakiestewa or Sahmea or Shebala sort of people. Joe senses Harkness's eyes sizing them both up, even though he doesn't look sideways at the boy trotting along beside them. He knows when people are looking at them and, when they are the only two non-Caucasians in this parade of lemmings, everyone is looking even if they don't intend to.
Their numbers and names go into Harkness's notebook, jolted jagged handwriting that is illegible to anyone but Harkness, and he tucks it back away in his pocket.
'How'd that rain feel for you guys?' he asks.
'Good,' Mike says. 'Cool.'
Joe says nothing, waiting to see if Harkness is being friendly or making small talk or fishing for information. Friendliness seems a little pointless here on the road, but the laughter that goes off like firecrackers from behind them every so often makes it sound as though friendliness is helping some people. Small talk is a waste of breath and goes against Hint 13, but again, it seems to be working for some people. Fishing for information, though: that's not on Joe's agenda, either doing it or having it done to him.
'Do you get much rain down home?'
'Nah, it's pretty dry. This is nice,' Mike turns his face up to the sky, clouded but dry for the moment, and draws in a deep breath of the cool, fresh air. They are surrounded by so much greenery that it seems almost fake, like a picture in a book, a picture they're walking through with these other odd characters, stick figures with names and numbers, trying to develop their personalities enough for the writer to keep them on instead of edit them out.
Harkness looks as though he wants to ask another question (Joe sneaks a peek sideways through his black eyelashes instead of keeping his eyes on the road ahead, unreeling under their feet like an endless strip of dark film), but instead slows down, dropping back to merge with the rest of the pack. When the next laugh goes up Joe is almost certain it's something about them. Harkness may not have asked questions, but he has answers nonetheless, or at least he thinks he does. Joe has heard the word 'queer' bandied about enough about himself and his brother, even by those who know they are brothers, to know when it is being used. By now he considers it less of an offensive slur to them and more of a statement of the speaker's level of intellect if that is all they manage to deduce from two boys who prefer each other's company to that of other people.
Then it's nothing but the road ahead and the staccato applause and laughter punctuating the underlying endless hum of the crowd and of the pack behind them. They have chosen this othering by walking faster than the rest of the boys to make sure they top the pace, and it should be as simple as that, but in a way it's not. People wave to them, but the cheers and applause are mostly reserved for the white boys, their boys, our boys. Yes.
Both of them figured that putting their whitest names on the Walk forms – the names they planned to use for school applications, someday – would give them a better chance of getting in, random draw or no random draw. They figured that one of them would get in and the other would stay home with the family, listening to the radio, stay home to be support and source of money and sympathy for their mother when the other fell. They figured if that one came home with the money, so much the better, and if he didn't, well. One less mouth to feed on the depressing blend of Government rations and what little wildlife fell to their bows and arrows. The problem with having their own special lands, their own reservation, was that when the resources ran out, there was nowhere else to go.
The Walk rations are better than the ones at home. Different, blander in a way, but better. Joe feels like they actually provide energy. At home, Government rations are something to put in their mouths to pretend they are getting some sort of sustenance while they spend long days moving slowly in the heat, hunting not buffalo nor bison nor any of the majestic big beasts of past days, but stringy rabbits and rattlesnakes. The rabbits are often too apathetic to care when they get shot. The snakes are a little more lively, but not after their heads get beaten in by rocks.
When Curley, the first boy down, gets shot, Joe glances back out of instinct (the guns are not pointed at him or his brother and so that's all right) and thinks that the lank body looks a little like one of those snakes, brains everywhere, just meat now to be dragged away. Except nobody will eat Curley. Or, at least, he assumes nobody will eat Curley. What happens to ticketed Walkers after they leave the road? Cremation, lead-lined caskets, Soylent Green. It doesn't matter. Dead is dead.
It does make him wonder, though, what their mother will do without her boys. She has baby Muna to love, at least, but babies can't work or hunt. Maybe baby Muna's father will come back if he hears that the boys are gone. There are the other women, too; they already help with baby Muna, the village raising the child, as they helped bring the boys up. Joe runs their names through his head as he walks, the syllables matching up to his pace, though it makes some of the names sound odd. Their names, their use-names at least, not the entire litany of names they might use, paired to the names that they gave him. Once he gets through those, he runs through the names that they gave his brother. Good, strong names. He hopes that when they are remembered back home it's by those names and not by the names they use here.
Neither of them ever figured on both of them getting in. When they did, when their names were both read out by the excited announcer, no more than six names apart, the click and hum of the spinning barrel constant in the background, they tried not to look surprised in front of the family, and went outside to walk together, in perfect step around and around their small village as their mother cried inside the cracking adobe hut. After they had done four miles, Mike brought water and Joe brought earth and together they fixed the cracks in the walls. It didn't stop their mother crying, though. There were bigger cracks to mend than those in the walls, cracks that couldn't be plastered over with water and earth and left to dry.
All the long hours, long miles on the Long Walk, they barely speak. The word that goes back from time to time, about the weather or the changing Vegas odds or the likelihood of who will be next to fall doesn't originate with them. It does reach them though, although nobody actively comes to pass the information to them. The word about how people think they're queer for each other. The word about how Scramm's getting pretty sick and how the odds are changing. The word about the Major's next intended visit. The word, the word, the word.
McVries, who thinks that their participation is a late, late-term abortion, brings them the word in person once, pushing his stride to match theirs with greater ease than Harkness managed, walking in step with them for just a few minutes.
'So are we all,' Joe says before he can stop himself.
'Yeah, well.' McVries doesn't seem to know quite what to say in response to that, so he goes on with what sounds like his pre-prepared speech, about how Scramm's married, how Cathy's pregnant, how whoever wins should do something for Cathy. Joe remembers his mother, big with baby Muna, swollen with the baby and with the fear of being unable to look after her properly. Nobody passed the hat for her then and nobody will now. What they're doing, Joe and Mike, is all anyone can do to ease the pressure a little.
'He's from down our way,' Mike says. 'Sure we'll do something for his wife.'
'Good. Good,' McVries says. He drops back into the pack and is gone.
'You know they wouldn't do it for us, right?' Joe looks sideways at his brother.
'Maybe they would.' Mike looks straight ahead at the road. 'Maybe we're already doing what we can.'
Behind them, Barkovitch is loudly expressing his disapproval of Scramm's decision to participate in the Walk given his marital status. Joe decided early on in the Walk not to listen to Barkovitch. Mike turns his head and then turns it back once he has established that Barkovitch is not saying anything worth listening to. He pulls a tube from a pouch on his belt and sucks out the contents.
'What're you eating?'
'Who knows?' Mike pitches the tube into the crowd, who fight for it like dogs fighting over a bone. 'It's all just nutrients.'
'I had beef, earlier,' Joe says.
'I don't know how you can tell.'
They return to their companionable silence.
At the beginning, they waited like everyone else, they lined up like everyone else, they started walking like everyone else.
At the end, they died like everyone else, and fuck you, McVries; if this is an abortion, the death of these two boys, then what the hell is the death of the ninety-seven other boys, a happy carnival ride? Genocide comes to mind; the genocide of the nation's young men, worsened because it is voluntary and it is so drawn out, ninety-nine of them at a time if you believe that the winner doesn't just get dragged off and shot like the others.
At the beginning even those who had seen it before had trouble believing in the reality.
At the end, it was real for everyone.
Mike's initial reaction to his cramps is a single surprised grunt, a slowed step or two, and the immediate clamping of his hands to his midsection. Joe looks sideways at him.
'No.' Mike almost doubles over, but then straightens up again. 'Cramp.'
'Walk it off.'
Joe can see the strain and pain on his face, the pale fear beneath the bronze of his skin. He tries not to think, We knew we couldn't both finish, little brother.
Mike does not walk it off. Joe can see his willpower draining with each step. Mike does not complain, but Joe can feel his pain as though it were his own.
At last Scramm, wheezing steadily, joins them; he has tilted his head back to open his airway up as much as possible, but although the pathway is clear, it's the clearing at the end of the path that's choked with weeds.
'Heard you were hurtin',' he says to Mike.
'Thought you might like some company.'
'He's got me,' Joe says sharply.
Scramm looks at Joe, meets his eyes. Joe can see the clear shine of the specialised knowledge that impending death brings. 'Yeah, but you can't go with him where he's going. Not unless you're ready to give up.'
Mike looks a little shaken at this. Joe knows that 'a little shaken' on the surface means pure panic underneath. 'No, Ahote, you can't give up. Not now.'
'I won't, Kwahu. I'll win this for you and Mama and Muna.'
It's Mike who sits down with Scramm, but it's Kwahu whose spirit soars as the gunshots ring out. Joe steels his face and his legs and does not look back.
Muna, the overflowing spring, named tongue-in-cheek because once Mama's milk started flowing for her, it seemed to never stop.
Kwahu, the eagle, named for the great bird that sat on a nearby rock during the ceremony and fixed its eye firmly on the baby boy.
Ahote, the restless one, named because his little feet kept kicking and his little arms kept waving nonstop as his relatives brought gifts to Mama.
Joe has seen a few of the boys pass him to become the temporary vanguard of this parade of fools, but again and again they slow down or fall down. He leads alone for a time and then watches McVries and Garraty pass him. They walk in step the way he and Mike walked in step and he wonders why people wasted time speculating about him and Mike being queer when these two look like they ought to be holding hands and mincing along in the Mardi Gras.
They've not long passed him when he feels the first cramp; a twinge up along his inner right thigh. The second cramp is an imaginary one and it's the spasm of his heart as he realises that he will not be winning this for Mama, or Muna, or anyone.
Then it's as though a row of dominoes, knocked over by the first cramp, ripples down his leg. He drops to his knees but barely feels the pain as they contact the asphalt; the agony in his right leg is too overwhelming. He bites his lip and tastes blood; he keeps his lip between his teeth, sucking, to avoid screaming. His fingers dig deftly into the thigh muscle; it's got more knots in it than a Boy Scout's test rope.
The rest of the pack start passing him and that's when he knows it's over; he has lost his position at the front and it's over. Joe lets go of his leg; it twitches in restless pain-spasms, but he ignores it as he settles down, rolling from the asphalt onto the median strip of grass. It's too green and too alive to be the grass of home, but as he closes his eyes and inhales deeply of the good earth smell, he can at least pretend.
He has time to hear his final warning as one of the soldiers comes right up to him. Service without a smile. Service with a stopwatch and a six-shooter, more like it. He sees the sky, sunlight slanting between the clouds like holy fingers (and a shadow across his face from the soldier); he smells the earth below him (and the sweat and stink of his own used-up body); he tastes the last of the water he drank a few minutes ago (and the blood from his torn lip).
He hears the warning, and the voyeuristic murmur of the crowd.
He has time to wonder if he will hear the shot that kills him.
It's Joe who sits down; Ahote who rests at last.