The Long Walk : Chapter 1
PART ONE: STARTING OUT
"Say the secret word and win a hundred dollars. George, who are our first contestants? George...? Are you there, George?"
You Bet Your Life
An old blue Ford pulled into the guarded parking lot that morning, looking like a small, tired dog after a hard tun. One of the guards, an expressionless young man in a khaki uniform and a Sam Browne belt, asked to see the blue plastic ID card. The boy in the back seat handed it to his mother. His mother handed it to the guard. The guard took it to a computer terminal that looked strange and out of place in the rural stillness. The computer terminal ate the card and flashed this on its screen:
GARRATY RAYMOND DAVIS
RD 1 POWNAL MAINE
ID NUMBER 49-801-89
The guard punched another button and all of this disappeared, leaving the terminal screen smooth and green and blank again. He waved them forward.
"Don't they give the card back?" Mrs. Garraty asked. "Don't they-"
"No, Mom," Garraty said patiently.
"Well, I don't like it," she said, pulling forward into an empty space. She had been saying it ever since they set out in the dark of two in the morning. She had been moaning it, actually.
"Don't worry," he said without hearing himself. He was occupied with looking and with his own confusion of anticipation and fear. He was out of the car almost before the engine's last asthmatic wheeze-a tall, well-built boy wearing a faded army fatigue jacket against the eight o'clock spring chill.
His mother was also tall, but too thin. Her br**sts 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.
"Ray," she said in that whispery conspirator's voice that he had come to dread. "Ray, listen-"
He ducked his head and pretended to tuck in his shirt. One of the guards was eating C-rations from a can and reading a comic book. 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.
"There's still time to change your mind-"
The fear and anticipation cranked up a notch.
"No, there's no time for that," he said. "The backout date was yesterday."
Still in that low conspirator's voice that he hated: "They'd understand, I know they would. The Major-
"The Major would-" Garraty began, and saw his mother wince. "You know what the Major would do, Mom."
Another car had finished the small ritual at the gate and had parked. A boy with dark hair got out. His parents followed and for a moment the three of them stood in conference like worried baseball players. He, like some of the other boys, was wearing a light packsack. Garraty wondered if he hadn't been a little stupid not to bring one himself.
"You won't change your mind?"
It was guilt, guilt taking the face of anxiety. Although he was only sixteen, Ray Garraty knew something about guilt. She felt that she had been too dry, too tired, or maybe just too taken up with her older sorrows to halt her son's madness in its seedling stage-to halt it before the cumbersome machinery of the State with its guards in khaki and its computer terminals had taken over, binding himself more tightly to its insensate self with each passing day, until yesterday, when the lid had come down with a final bang.
He put a hand on her shoulder. "This is my idea, Mom. I know it wasn't yours. I-" He glanced around. No one was paying the slightest attention to them. "I love you, but this way is best, one way or the other."
"It's not," she said, now verging on tears. "Ray, it's not, if your father was here, he'd put a stop to-"
"Well, he's not, is he?" He was brutal, hoping to stave off her tears... what if they had to drag her off? He had heard that sometimes that happened. The thought made him feel cold. In a softer voice he said, "Let it go now, Mom. Okay?" He forced a grin. "Okay," he answered for her.
Her chin was still trembling, but she nodded. Not all right, but too late. There was nothing anyone could do.
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.
"Yeah." He took them and then 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, stuffing the cookies into the pocket of his fatigue jacket.
"Goodbye, Ray. Be a good boy."
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 car and started the engine. Garraty stood there. She raised her hand and waved. The tears were flowing now. He could see them. He waved back and then as she 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 back toward the road. The other boy, the dark-haired one, was watching his folks pull out. He had a bad scar along one cheek. Garraty walked over to him and said hello.
The dark-haired boy gave him a glance. "Hi."
"I'm Ray Garraty," he said, feeling mildly like an as**ole.
"I'm Peter McVries."
"You all ready?" Garraty asked.
McVries shrugged. "I feel jumpy. That's the worst."
The two of them walked toward the road and the stone marker. Behind them, other cars 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.
"What do you weigh?"
"Hundred and sixty."
"I'm one-sixty-seven. They say the heavier guys get tired quicker, but I think I'm in pretty good shape."
To Garraty, Peter McVries looked rather more than that-he looked awesomely fit. He wondered who they were that said the heavier guys got tired quicker, almost asked, and decided not to. The Walk was one of those things that existed on apocrypha, talismans, legend.
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 watch. It was five after eight. Fifty-five minutes to go. Impatience and anticipation came back, and he did his best to squash them, telling himself to enjoy sitting while he
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 and was eating what looked like a jelly sandwich. 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 wondered if the skinny ones would last or burn out quickly.
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 finish his sandwich, ball up the waxed paper it had been in, and toss it onto the soft shoulder. He'll burn out early, he decided. That made him feel a little better.
"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 took his three warnings and then at 9:02 AM they gave him his ticket. Right there by the starting post."
Garraty wondered if his own legs would freeze. 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 dun-colored jeep drove up to the stone marker and stopped. It was followed by a strange, tread-equipped vehicle that moved much more slowly. There were toy-sized radar dishes mounted on the front and back of this halftrack. Two soldiers lounged on its upper deck, and Garraty felt a chill in his belly when he looked at them. They were carrying army-type heavy-caliber carbine rifles.
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 that went well with his simple khakis. A pistol was strapped to his Sam Browne belt, 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 watch again. It said 8:16, and he decided it was a minute fast. The Major always showed up on time. He thought momentarily of setting it back a minute and then forgot it.
"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 a clipboard. "When I call your name, please step forward and take your number. Then go back to your place until it is time to begin. Do this smartly, please."
"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.
A short, chunky farmboy with a sunburned neck gargled forward, obviously awed by the Major's presence, and took his large plastic 1. He fixed it to his shirt by the pressure strip and the Major clapped him on the back.
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.
"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.
Baker came back. He had pressed his number 3 onto the right breast of his shirt.
"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.
"Baker, James," the Major said.
It went on until 8:40, and it came out right. No one had ducked out. Back in the parking lot, engines started and a number of cars began pulling out-boys from the backup list who would now go home and watch the Long Walk coverage on TV. It's on, Garraty thought, it's really on.
When his turn came, the Major gave him number47 and 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 Stebbins. He got his number with his head down, not speaking to the Major at all, and then sat back at the base of his tree. Garraty was somehow fascinated with the boy.
Number 100 was a red-headed fellow with a volcanic complexion. His name was Zuck. He got his number and then they all sat and waited for what would come next.
Then three soldiers from the halftrack passed out wide belts with snap pockets. The pockets were filled with tubes of high-energy concentrate pastes. More soldiers came around with canteens. They buckled on the belts and slung the canteens. Olson slung his belt low on his h*ps like a gunslinger, found a Waifa chocolate bar, and began to eat it. "Not bad," he said, grinning. He swigged from his canteen, washing down the chocolate, and Garraty wondered if Olson was just fronting, or if he knew something Garraty did not.
The Major looked them over soberly. Garraty's wristwatch said 8:56-how had it gotten so late? His stomach lurched painfully.