Carol McCormick drove the family’s almost new SUV through a gate where a soldier checked her fake ID without incident over to the far end of the field. Kenny awoke and sat up in the back seat blinking, realizing with a disorienting jolt that he’d slept a lot longer than he had planned to. He had thought he was too nervous to sleep for very long when he had felt himself dozing off last night and was sure he would wake up while they were still on the road, driving all night to get here in time.
Instead, it was early morning and they had arrived at their destination. He rubbed his eyes and asked, “What time is it?” The sight of a dozen military jeeps and over thirty armed soldiers a hundred feet away was bringing it all home to him with alarming suddenness. This is it, this is happening, this is finally happening.
His mother turned to look at him, obviously nervous and wanting to leave as soon as possible. “It’s 7:25,” she told him, holding out the placard that he expected to be wearing around his neck for the next two days. “We’re over an hour and a half early. Here...” She held up the black nylon cord, intent on putting it on him and getting him out of the SUV as quickly as she could. “Put this on.”
Kenny nodded agreeably and ducked his head, letting her place the placard (which read “6 – Cramer”) over his neck, wondering again what number he would be if it was displaying his real last name. The signboard in place, he reached for the backpack he’d been using a few moments ago as a pillow but his father was quicker, grabbing the backpack by one of its straps and pulling it against himself. Kenny glared hatefully at his dad, who had spent the last four hours getting shitfaced on a $300 bottle of scotch while Kenny had been sleeping...it’d be nothing but the best for the McCormick family from now on.
“Don’t get out yet, Kenny,” Stuart McCormick slurred, holding the backpack even tighter. “We’ve got plenty of time. Let’s go over this again.”
“Stuart, hush your mouth,” Carol said, turning away to look out the windshield at the imposing military presence a short distance away. The two Army Police cars that had escorted them all night to make sure they arrived were parked just outside the gate. She was exhausted after driving all night and anxious to leave; the last thing she wanted to do right now was to get into a fight with her drunk husband. “You know Kenny can’t be seen with us. He knows what he’s doing, and we’ve been over it a million times already. Now be quiet and let him have his things.”
Kenny smirked, his hatred for his father ratcheting up another level as he took his backpack and pulled it into his lap. He’d said goodbye to his brother and sister ten hours ago, and now it had finally come down to this: his final moments with his parents. He’d rehearsed his next line in this scene dozens of times in his head over the past several weeks.
“I want to come back to life in satin sheets this time, ma.” He looked at her expectantly, and she looked away sadly and nodded.
“I know, honey,” Carol replied. “I promise you will.”
“You will as long as you don’t fuck this up,” Stuart said, turning away to lean the side of his head against the window and close his eyes dismissively. Kenny looked at him coldly for a moment and finally shook his head and turned away.
There was nothing left to say. Kenny leaned forward to give his mom a quick kiss on the cheek, opened the door and stepped out into the chilly dawn. He looked into the SUV at his father one last time. He wanted to scream at the miserable old bastard: Really, dad? Fifty fucking hours? But they’d had this fight enough times already; there was no point in rehashing it again now. It is what it is, and there was nothing any of them could do to change things.
“Bye mom, I love you,” he said and slammed the door. Carol started the vehicle almost immediately and pulled away, turning around to drive through the gate they’d just gone through. The two police cars drove off as well, evidently satisfied that he made it all the way to his destination. He watched until they were out of sight and there was nothing left for him to do but head toward the other end of the field, where people were beginning to gather. Several vans with network news logos and satellite dishes on their roofs were parked nearby and people were setting up large cameras and other equipment. He stopped at yet another gate (this one complete with a metal detector and manned by three menacing-looking soldiers, all with rifles slung over their shoulders, beneath a sign reading Please have your IDs ready and present all backpacks for inspection) where his ID was scanned, he was thoroughly frisked, and his bag searched. He had a moment of worry when they were checking his fake ID, but it was handed back to him a moment later without comment.
“Do you have any weapons of any kind?” the soldier rifling through his things asked. Kenny noted he was actually being respectful of the contents of his backpack, carefully moving the bologna sandwiches his mom had packed for him aside to look behind them.
“No sir,” Kenny replied. The soldier returned his backpack with a terse nod, perhaps meant to convey ‘good luck’. He walked through the gate and looked around, spotting a group of about a dozen other teenaged boys scattered in front of a small elevated stage complete with a podium and microphone. Most of them seemed to be keeping to themselves, but Kenny spotted two who were speaking animatedly to each other, each with a backpack at their feet. One was tall, dark-haired and athletic-looking with a placard reading 9 - Marsh hanging from his neck over a plain white tee shirt; the other was a smaller kid with a closely-cropped red jewfro (3 – Broflovski) who was laughing about something ‘Marsh’ was saying. These two seemed like they might be friendly, and Kenny angled toward them.
Another boy, a heavyset mean-looking brunette (4 - Cartman) stepped into his path and blocked him. “Well, look what the cat dragged in!” Kenny turned to him, uncertain if he was just being fucked with or if ‘Cartman’ seriously thought he was going to get away with trying to bully him. “You look like someone I would have stolen lunch money from.”
Kenny noticed that a few of the boys, including the two he’d been walking toward, were watching them. He turned back to Cartman and said, “Yeah? Well, I would have told you I left my lunch money on your mom’s dresser.”
Broflovski burst out laughing at that, while Cartman’s eyes darkened in anger. He seemed as if he was about to reply when Marsh interrupted him. “Oh, just shut up, fatass. You’re not impressing anyone.”
Kenny gave him a grateful look, and turned back to Cartman. “He’s right. Besides, you’re not worth getting shot over...at least not before the race starts. Go fuck with someone else.” He brushed past a stunned-looking Cartman and joined the two he’d been walking toward a moment ago. “Hi, I’m Kenny.” He offered Marsh his hand.
“Stan.” He gave Kenny a friendly smile and they shook hands. “And this is Kyle.”
“Did you two know each other before today?” Kenny asked as he shook Kyle’s hand. The idea seemed impossible, that two friends would enter the Long Walk together, but the easygoing way in which they had been talking a few moments ago made it seem as if they’d known each other for a long time.
“Nope,” Stan replied. “We just met about an hour ago. Guess we kind of hit it off pretty quick.” He shuffled his feet nervously. “My dad kept telling me not to make any friends here, because of how fucked up it’ll be watching them get taken out of the race...but that seems stupid. I think you should have someone to talk to during a thing like this, don’t you?”
Kenny nodded, pleased that it appeared they were going to be friends. “Mine told me the same thing.” He grinned. “I decided not to listen either.”
“Let’s sit down,” Kyle said. “You know, conserve our energy?”
They sat down cross-legged in a circle of three, holding their backpacks in their laps and began talking, about where they were from (Kyle had traveled the farthest to be here, all the way from Connecticut), and how they’d ended up being one of fifteen (out of hundreds of applicants) to be selected to take part in this year’s Long Walk.
“I guess one reason I wanted to do this,” Stan said half-jokingly, “is that I’ve never seen the Rocky Mountains before. Hell, I’ve never seen anything higher than a small hill.”
“That’s a really screwed up reason for doing this,” Kyle replied, grimacing. “I’m here for a chance at the prize, nothing more. Enough money...”
“...to buy anything I could ever want, for the rest of my life,” Kenny and Stan finished the Long Walk’s recruitment slogan for him, and they smiled at each other.
There was a lull in the conversation, and Kenny used the opportunity to look around. He had never seen mountains before either, and the Rocky Mountains (as viewed from a field on the side of Interstate 70 a few miles east of Aurora, Colorado) were pretty impressive. The rising sun was lighting up the snowcapped tops of the higher peaks. He almost wished he wouldn’t be walking away from them in a couple hours.
His attention was drawn a moment later from the scenery back to the gate he’d gone through a few minutes ago. Another boy was having his backpack searched, and Kenny’s first thought on seeing him was what the fuck is he doing here? The new arrival looked about 17, the same age as Kenny, but he seemed too frail for this, rubbing his knuckles together nervously as a soldier searched through his things. Kenny could barely make out his name from here, 12 – Stotch. The backpack was returned and he carried it through the gate, setting it beside his boots as he looked around. His backpack seemed unusually heavy. He and Kenny made eye contact, and after a moment he picked his pack up again and began walking toward Kenny and his new friends.
Cartman had spotted him too, and stepped in front of him, blocking his path when he was a dozen feet away. “Look what the cat dragged in this time!” the larger boy said gleefully, taking a menacing step toward him.
Stan sighed. “Guess he’s going to welcome everyone this way.” Kenny was watching with interest to see how Stotch was going to handle this. What happened next was a complete surprise.
“If you get any closer, I’m going to shout for one of the soldiers!” Stotch said angrily. It almost sounded rehearsed, but at least it got Cartman’s attention as he halted and looked around nervously. Interfering with another walker was against the rules and could get him disqualified before the contest even began. Stan and Kyle were watching the scene unfold as well.
“Oh, a little narc, huh?” Cartman sneered, trying to regain control of the situation. “I had you pegged for a pussy the moment I saw you.”
“Not really!” Broflovski called over to them. “It’s not like he’d be getting you sent to the principal’s office...unless the principal at your school had the power to execute kids who caused trouble. Threatening to get you shot sounds pretty badass to me.”
Kenny chuckled. “Ooh...burn.”
The scene had caught the attention of a couple of the soldiers, and one of them strode over and stepped between Cartman and Stotch. “You should move along,” the soldier told Cartman in a tone that made it clear he wouldn’t put up with any argument. Cartman’s lips tightened and he turned and hurried away.
“Thank you, sir,” Stotch said, but the soldier was already walking away, ignoring him. The small blond looked nervously down at the ground again.
“Hey,” Kenny called over to him. “You can hang out with us if you want to.”
Stotch looked at him anxiously for a moment, then came over and sat down next to him, his backpack hitting the ground beside him with a solid thud. Kenny thought again that it seemed extremely heavy. “M—my dad told me I shouldn’t make friends here...” he said sadly while he studied his shoelaces.
“So did ours’, dude,” Stan replied. “We were just talking about that. It looks like we all said ‘fuck it’ and decided to anyway.”
Stotch nodded, still looking down and grinding his knuckles together.
“So, Stotch,” Kenny said, hoping to make him feel more at ease. This kid seemed like a nervous wreck. “What’s your first name? I’m Kenny.”
The blond boy looked up and met his eyes. Kenny thought that of all the boys he’d seen here so far today, this one seemed the least likely to win this year’s walk.
“I’m Leo...Leopold,” Stotch replied. “But my friends back home call me ‘Butters’.”
“Well, hey Butters,” Stan said, once again introducing himself and his friend.
“You don’t seem quite cut out for this,” Kyle observed. “I mean, no offense, but...”
“Well, I...” Butters trailed off, and Kenny was about to conclude he was just nervous or shy, but Butters surprised him when he added with more than a trace of defiance in his voice, “You might just be surprised!”
Kenny nodded, thinking that if nothing else this kid was fucking cute, and Kenny thought that talking to him over the next couple days (or however long Butters managed to last) could be interesting. “So, Butters...where do you hail from?”
Butters told him that he was from a small town in West Virginia, and the four of them talked while the sun rose higher in the sky. Stan stood up a few minutes later, holding a hand over his eyebrows to block the sun as he looked toward the east.
“Hey guys,” he said. “It looks like shit’s about to start getting real.”
Kenny looked in the same direction Stan was. Both sides of the interstate had been closed for the Long Walk, and he could see a motorcade with over a dozen vehicles driving the wrong way in the eastbound lane toward them, red and blue lights flashing on top of several of them. The motorcade arrived a minute later, and several men in business suits climbed out, one of them opening a door on an obviously heavily armored vehicle. Kenny recognized the President of the United States as he climbed out and began walking toward the podium surrounded by half a dozen men all wearing sunglasses. The group of boys fell silent as he climbed the steps and took his place at the podium; half a dozen cameras were trained on him, broadcasting his arrival to the world.
“Good morning!” he said into the microphone. “If we can settle down, I have a couple of announcements and then we can get started.” Two of the soldiers were carrying several boxes from one of the vehicles onto the stage and set them next to the President as he removed some notes from his coat pocket. “We’ll begin with what I know you’re all anxious to hear. All government-sanctioned betting for this year’s Long Walk has ended, and I can now announce the amount of the grand prize...” He paused dramatically, holding up a slip of paper. “This year’s prize for the winner of the Long Walk is...” another pause, and Kenny rolled his eyes; enough with the dramatics already. “Three hundred forty one billion, five hundred seventy eight million—“
An excited rumble went through the small gathering in front of the President, and Kenny stopped listening after that. He suspected they were all thinking roughly the same thing: For the first time in the history of The Long Walk, the prize for the winner had exceeded a third of a trillion dollars; when the number was that big, the exact amount was superfluous. One of this group of fifteen kids Kenny was now a part of was going to be rich beyond their wildest dreams in less than a week, with more money than any one person should be able to spend in a lifetime.
The President waited until the hubbub had died down and continued, looking back down at his notes. “Next is something I am required by law to do. You should all already be extremely familiar with the rules of the Long Walk, but I am required to repeat them to you now. They are as follows: You will all line up together across the width of the eastbound lane of Interstate 70, and at 9:00 AM this Monday morning, you will begin walking. You must maintain a minimum speed of three and a half miles per hour. The watches you’ll be wearing—“ he turned to look at the two soldiers beside him opening boxes and removing small items from them. “—allow us to track each one of you. If you slow down below that threshold at any point, you will be given a verbal warning. You will have thirty seconds to get your speed above 3.5 miles per hour again; if you fail to do so, or if you slow down again within one hour’s time, you will receive a second warning. If you accumulate three warnings and slow below the 3.5 miles per hour threshold a fourth time, you will be eliminated from the race by way of immediate execution via at least two gunshots to the head. If you have one or more warnings and can walk one hour without receiving another one, one warning will be taken away. Remember: It is possible to be walking with three warnings, and if you can walk three hours without receiving another one, you will be back at zero again.”
Kenny looked around; a complete silence had fallen over the small crowd. Of course they all knew the rules, but it was sobering to hear them being read aloud by the most powerful man in the world.
The President continued: “There are no rest breaks of any kind. You cannot stop to sleep, eat, answer nature’s call, etcetera. You can do those things as long as you maintain the minimum speed when you do, or receive one warning every thirty seconds, ending in the consequences I just set forth.” Kenny’s heart was racing. The President was nearing the end of his remarks (he knew because he’d heard the same speech exactly one year ago in this very spot) and then it would be time to get started.
The President leaned over the podium, looking out at the small audience standing before him, as well as the worldwide one on the other side of the cameras. “If you are one of the walkers who end up being removed from the race, as long as you obey the rules of the Long Walk, your deaths will be quick and merciful. However, if you attempt to leave the highway to run away, attempt to attack any of the soldiers, accept any form of assistance from a spectator, physically interfere with another walker, or break the rules in any other way, you will be shot in both knees and left to die on the side of the road. If that happens, anyone, walker or spectator, attempting to help you will be shot in similar fashion. Since it may take a day or more for you to die this way, you are strongly encouraged not to break the rules. Are there any questions?”
There was an uneasy silence. Kenny looked around at the other boys sitting with him. Butters’ face was almost as pale as his hair, while Stan just looked eager to get going.
“Yeah, I have a question.” A chubby boy with brown hair, wearing a name tag with 7- Donovan had stood up and was looking around as if to make sure everyone was paying attention to him. The news cameras were trained on him as well, giving him a worldwide audience. “I’ve got a medical condition,” he said, lifting the front of his shirt and revealing a flabby stomach as well as something no one had expected: A brown plastic pouch taped to his belly. It was clearly a colostomy bag. “I have one of these!” Donovan said. “My question is: Instead of leaving my shit in the middle of the road for some scavenger to scrape up and sell on Craigslist, can I sell it already all bagged up to a spectator?”
There was a ripple of laughter from the group of walkers at this question. Even some of the soldiers were snickering.
“I have to admit,” The President replied, completely unfazed. “That’s an original question! The rules say you can leave anything you want in the road, and spectators are allowed to pick up things left behind once all the walkers have gone past. One problem is that you’re not allowed to accept anything from the spectators. That rule is intended to prevent them from giving you food, but they can’t give you anything else either, including money. The only way to make that work would be to make arrangements with the buyer to pay you after the Long Walk has ended. So yes, that would be legal.”
Donovan grinned, and it was a welcome moment of levity for them all...until Cartman ruined it a moment later by saying loudly: “You’ll have to win to collect your money though, asshole.” He sneered. “I bet you didn’t think of that.”
After a moment, the President asked again: “Are there any more questions?” They looked amongst themselves, and when no one else spoke the President continued, “Then we’ll get started. When I call your name, come up and get your watches and your first day’s food rations and then line up across the highway. You don’t have to line up in order; stay with your friends if you want.”
“Here we go,” Kyle said nervously, and they watched as the President began reading through the list of names. “Number one, Bill Allen.” A dark-haired boy stood up and made his way toward the stage. “Number two, Trent Boyette.” This time a tough looking kid who looked as though he could have spent some time in juvenile hall walked toward the stage. “Number three, Kyle Broflovski.” Kyle stood and walked away from them.
The President continued reading through numbers four, Eric Cartman and five, Mark Cotswold. When he read “number six, Kenny Cramer,” Kenny stood and got in line behind Cotswold, making his way up the stairs toward the two soldiers while the President continued reading off names. “Seven, Clyde Donovan; eight, Gary Harrison; nine, Stanley Marsh; ten, Fosse McDonald; eleven, Kevin Stoley; twelve, Leopold Stotch—“ Kenny turned to look over his shoulder as his new friend stood, picked up his backpack and walked toward the stage. “Thirteen, Scott Tenorman; fourteen, Craig Tucker; and number fifteen—“ He paused, studying the paper for a moment. “Tweek Tweak.”
There was a shrill cry of surprise at the sound of that name and Kenny turned around to face forward again. A moment later Cotswold was finished and it was his turn with the soldiers. One of them strapped a military-issue watch to his left wrist while the other handed him a canteen of water and his first food ration. It was a cardboard bucket like one would get from Kentucky Fried Chicken, only this one was a dull olive drab green with Long Walk daily ration, 3,500 calories written on it.
“You get one of these food buckets every morning at 9:00 AM,” the soldier told him. “And you can ask for a canteen whenever you want.”
Kenny nodded, looking down at his left wrist, where the other soldier was securing a metal locking clamp to the wristband of his watch with a pair of pliers.
“That’s not too tight, is it?” he asked.
Kenny shook his wrist, making sure the watch had room to move and turn. “No sir.”
“Okay. That watch allows us to keep track of your speed; and if you attempt to escape it will sound an alarm that can be heard from a hundred feet away.” He looked at the person behind Kenny. “Now move along...the starting line is clearly marked.”
Kenny took a few steps and stopped and looked down at his watch. Like the bucket of food, it too was a military green color; its LCD display showed a dual, split-screen readout. The bottom half was showing the current time down to the second (08:48:33 AM), while the top half read in much larger numbers 0.0; Kenny walked slowly toward the steps and the numbers crept upward, leveling off at 2.2 then climbed quickly to 4.3 as he hurried down the steps toward the starting line, the high-tech GPS within the watch displaying the exact speed he was walking. He stopped alongside Kyle and watched it drop back to 0.0 again.
“Pretty cool, huh?” Kyle asked, looking up from his own watch.
“Uh huh,” Kenny replied. He began slowly walking in a large circle around Kyle, trying to get the display on his watch to read exactly 3.5.
Kyle observed what he was doing and remarked, “I was doing the same thing you are a minute ago; three point five miles an hour is pretty easy, dude.”
“Yeah, it is,” Kenny agreed, knowing Kyle would be feeling very differently about it after a couple days of doing it nonstop. Stan joined them followed by Butters a moment later, and the four of them (along with nearly all the other walkers) wandered around near the starting line, gazing at their wrists.
Kenny felt a buzzing in his pocket and reached for his cellphone. The display read: Text message from Mom: Good luck, Kenny.
Kenny smiled and put his phone away; they had agreed beforehand that he wouldn’t reply.
“Four more minutes,” Stan said, finally looking up from his watch and stopping. “Maybe we should get in line and sit down? It’ll be our last chance for a while.”
That seemed like a good idea, and the four of them sat on the far right side of the highway beside the white line that had been painted across the width of the asphalt. News cameras were trained on them a dozen yards away, and the jeeps were being repositioned along both side of the highway to follow the walkers in the breakdown lanes. Butters had peeled off the lid of his food bucket and was transferring its contents into his backpack; so Kenny began doing the same, inspecting each item as he removed them. There were half a dozen separate containers with labels like ‘macaroni and cheese’ and ‘tuna salad sandwich X2’, along with packages of crackers, snack cakes, and what looked like two oversized tubes of toothpaste, only one was labeled ‘meatloaf’ and the other ‘potato salad’. Kenny picked up the tube of meatloaf, unscrewed the lid and sniffed it curiously. It smelled vaguely like meatloaf, and he squeezed a small amount of reddish paste onto his finger and tasted it.
Another walker a few feet away (14 – Tucker) was watching him, and when he caught Kenny’s eye he said, “It’s like astronaut food.” Kenny nodded, replaced the lid on his tube of ‘meatloaf’ and put it along with the rest of his rations into his backpack, leaving the now empty bucket on the road in front of him.
The President, along with his cadre of guards, came down the steps from the stage a minute later and stood a few feet behind the starting line. “One minute, walkers,” he called out. “Get ready, and good luck to you all.”
A few of the boys stood up, but Kenny and his group remained seated, staring at their watches as they counted down the final seconds before the start of the race. Kenny stood when there was twenty seconds to go and put his backpack on, settling it comfortably onto his shoulders. He smiled when Butters stood beside him, apparently intending to stay as close to him as possible. The President held a starter pistol over his head aimed toward the cloudless blue sky.
“This is it, guys,” Stan said, and a second later the President pulled the trigger.