“So...I’m just going to walk on ahead,” Kenny said doubtfully, a few minutes after the soldiers had handed out their second morning’s rations. His plan was to eat half a sandwich and give the rest of his rations to Butters just before they started saying their goodbyes. Butters was looking back and forth between Kenny and the clean pair of socks he was holding, an unopened towelette clutched in his other hand. Even though Kenny wanted to spend as much time with Butters as he could, he didn’t see the point of changing his socks an hour before he planned to die.

“A...all right, Ken.” He reached down to try to grab one of his shoelaces without slowing down and managed to get it on his third try; the lace flopped against the pavement as he walked and reached for the other one. Unlike yesterday, his movements were slow and clumsy, and Kenny wasn’t sure if it was from lack of sleep or sadness. “I’ll catch up to you in a minute.” His voice was a sad monotone, with none of the happiness that Kenny had fallen in love with two days ago.

Both of his shoelaces were untied now, their plastic tips clicking against the pavement as he walked. Kenny nodded and squeezed his arm reassuringly, then sped up, leaving him behind as he worked on catching up with Stan and Kyle. He winced when he heard the inevitable “Warning...first warning, number twelve!”

“He’s changing his socks again?” Stan asked when Kenny caught up with him a few seconds later. At Kenny’s nod, he added “How come you’re not changing yours with him?”

Kenny briefly considered telling Stan to fuck off for being nosy; instead he lied, “I’m gonna do mine later; I’m pretty hungry, so I wanted to eat something first.” Stan seemed to believe him, and they walked on quietly together. Kenny found himself wishing they would put coffee in with their daily rations.

“Warning! Second warning, number twelve!”

“Oh fuck,” Kenny moaned, turning his head to look behind him. Butters was still sitting on the highway, his boots back on and tied and two filthy-looking discarded socks on the road beside him. He was staring down at the asphalt between his knees, making no move to get up. Kenny stopped in his tracks and whirled around.

Warning...first warning, number six!”

“Butters!” he called loudly. “What are you doing?”

Butters looked at him, then sat up straighter and waved an arm frantically. “Keep going, Kenny! I’ll catch up!”

A few people in the crowd twenty feet away were taking an interest in this exchange. Kenny had no idea what Butters was doing, briefly wondering if Butters was staging his own suicide as a way out of all this. He stood rooted to the spot, watching as Butters turned his attention to his watch. Kenny was making up his mind to rush over and pull Butters to his feet when he suddenly stood up and began walking again, quickly closing the gap between them. Kenny turned and began walking again himself, only then realizing that he still had at least fifteen seconds left on his own first warning that he could have used to rest and had wasted it by walking again instead. Damn it.

Butters caught up with him a few moments later and they once again began matching each other’s stride. “Dude,” Kenny said a moment later. “What the hell was that?”

Butters’ face was pink and he was breathing hard. “I, uh...didn’t get my socks and shoes changed in time and got a second warning.” There was low-key fear in his eyes; it was only the second time since the walk had begun that he was walking with two warnings. “So I figured I might as well use the extra thirty seconds to rest. I’m sorry, Kenny! I didn’t mean to scare you!”

“It’s okay, man. I’m...I’m just real glad you got up again.” Kenny looked down at his watch, noting that he had less than an hour to go before the exact moment he needed to get his third warning—10:53:50—for his dad’s bet to be timed perfectly. And then he came to a frightening realization. “Dude! You’re not going to have time to walk either of those warnings off before know, leave the race.”

Butters nodded sadly and looked down toward the road. “I know. I just realized that too.”

“I don’t want you to get another warning when the time comes!” Kenny said, anger creeping into his voice even though he didn’t want it to. “ gotta start walking ahead of me about ten minutes before the time comes, okay? So we’re gonna start to say our goodbyes then, and afterward you just speed up, okay?” He waited for Butters to say something, and when he didn’t, Kenny continued: “We knew this was coming, man.”

Butters finally looked at him. “I know, Ken. I...” he sniffed. “I’m going to miss you.”

“I know, man...” He was hoping to find the right words. “I’m really glad I got to walk with you for the last two days. But afterward, dude...I need you to keep going and win this, okay? You have a real chance at it! I’m going to give you the rest of my rations right before I start this, and with all that other stuff you brought, you can make it. Don’t share any of your food with anyone else, okay? I know you’ll want to, but...don’t. Make sure you—“

Butters squeezed his hand and interrupted him. “I love you, Kenny. I...really wish we’d met a long time ago.”

Kenny nodded, his throat suddenly raw. “I know, man.” They walked quietly for a few minutes, the rising sun in front of them warming the day. Kenny caught the infuriating smell of barbecue and spotted someone in the crowd flipping hamburgers on a large gas grill. Butters abruptly let go of Kenny’s hand, reached into his pocket for his phone and held it up between them. “Kenny? Would it be all right if I took your picture, so I have something to remember you by?”

Kenny nodded, thinking: Sure, but once I’ve gone through that whole reincarnation bullshit, you probably won’t remember me anyway; I don’t think I’ve been around you long enough to make enough of an impression for you to. Don’t be surprised if that picture either disappears with your memories, or it stays on your phone but you have no idea who it’s a picture of. “Sure man, go ahead.”

Kenny tried to look happy and smile while Butters took not one but three pictures, and as he was looking through them afterwards, Kenny bumped his shoulder and said: “Hey, I have an idea: how about a couple to remember me by besides how I look today? I probably look like shit right now.”

“No you don’t!” Butters replied with a faint smile. “You look beautiful, Ken.” Kenny smiled back, took out his own phone and began scrolling through pictures he had saved on it while Butters watched, thumbing through several of himself taken at home, and one at the beach of him wearing only a pair of cutoffs. His skin was tanned golden bronze and the ocean and a lifeguard stand were visible in the background against a cloudless blue sky. Butters nodded at Kenny’s phone and said, “I like that one.”

“Give me your number and I’ll send it to you.” Butters recited his number and Kenny sent him that picture along with two more. Once Butters had looked through them, he called Kenny’s phone back and sent him a single picture of himself. It looked like a junior high school class photo; he was about 14, not a hair on his head was out of place and he had a bright eager smile. He probably had no idea he was going to be in the Long Walk in a few years. Kenny looked up from it curiously.

“It—it’s the best picture I have of me, case you want something to look at while you’re waiting to...get taken out of the race.”

Kenny nodded grimly, looking down again at the picture Butters had sent. “Thank you.”

“Kenny...if I’d met you before the Walk and we’d become friends...neither one of us would be here right now. You know?”

Kenny nodded. “We’d probably be in a school library together somewhere, studying. Or making out behind a bookshelf.”

Butters smiled again, but it was sad and forced. “Thank you...for making the last two days of my life, y’know, the best two days I’ve ever had.” He pulled Kenny’s hand to his mouth so he could kiss the knuckles. “I love you, Ken. I’ll never forget you.” His eyelids overflowed and Butters swiped angrily at his cheeks with his free hand. Kenny’s own eyes swam with tears, mostly at the terrible irony of Butters’ last words.

“I love you too, Leopold. Promise me you’re going to win this.” Butters nodded, and they walked onward together. Time went by much too quickly and soon Kenny looked down at his watch and said quietly. “I’ve got ten more minutes.” He handed Butters his food ration bucket and added, “I’ve gotta go, man.”

Butters nodded, looking grimly at the road. “Okay, Ken.”

“Dude, I’d stop and give you a hug if you didn’t already have two warnings.” He squeezed Butters’ hand, desperately wanting him to be all right. “Don’t watch them do it, okay? Just...keep walking afterward. Don’t stop for anything.” He squeezed again. “All right?”

Butters finally turned to him and nodded. “Okay, Ken.” He swiped angrily at the tears in his eyes. “I love you...thank you for being my friend.”

“I love you too, man.” There was nothing else to say. Butters shook his head, turned away and began walking faster.

Kenny waited until Butters had gotten several dozen feet ahead of him and nonchalantly checked his watch. It was almost time; time to put on the greatest (or at least the most important) performance of his lifetime. He removed a roll of toilet paper from his backpack and stopped, sank to his knees and crossed his arms over his stomach, pinching his face into what he hoped was a convincing grimace of pain.

“Warning! Second warning, number six!”

Kenny closed his eyes for a moment, grateful for the few seconds of rest he was getting even as the crowd once again grew louder with anticipation of seeing another execution happen. He looked up, watching Butters walking away, hoping he would keep his promise and not look back to watch.

Someone in the crowd yelled “Uh oh!” and began singing, raucous and off-key, to the tune of the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’: “Diiii....uh ree uh! Diarrhea! Die—”

“Shut up!” Butters shrieked, putting his hands over his ears. This incited others to join in the song, and one of the singer’s drunk buddies to call out. “Talk about a shitty way to die!”

Kenny rose to his feet and began walking again, forcing himself to stay in character as he held his hands over his stomach in mock pain while staring at his watch out of the corner of his eye, waiting for the exact moment he needed to stop again and get his third warning. Several people from the front of the crowd began following him along the sidelines, hoping to see him get shot right in front of them. Kenny ignored them, focusing on Butters and hoping he wouldn’t take the crowd’s bait and slow down (and get another warning) to scream at them again. Still more people began singing along with the first heckler, and Kenny wondered if this was what Jesus felt like when he was carrying the cross. Butters was still walking, despite the cruel taunts coming from the spectators.

What he hadn’t counted on was Cartman, who had spotted Kenny’s ‘distress’ and zeroed in on Butters like a hawk to its prey. “Uh oh...doesn’t look like your boyfriend’s going to be around to protect you anymore.”

“Just go away,” Butters replied tearfully. “Go away...or I’ll call out to the soldiers—“

“I’m not anywhere near you!” Cartman said loudly. “I’m not doing anything except talking to you! And you know what? Once they shoot your boyfriend, I’m going to take a warning just so I can run back there and piss all over his brains!” Cartman shouted gleefully. “Hell! I’ll take two warnings, just to see the look on your face while I’m doing it.”

“Just shut up and leave me alone!” Butters screamed, stopping in the middle of the road and pressing his hands against the sides of his head. Kenny wanted to scream at him, or run after him and tell him to get moving again, but there was too much riding on this...

“Warning! Third warning, number 12!”

There were two soldiers walking a few feet away from Kenny, one holding his gun pointed at the ground while the other stared at his own watch while Cartman continued to badger Butters relentlessly. Kenny wanted to murder Cartman, but he had less than five seconds, which quickly dwindled to nothing... and then it was time and Kenny grabbed his stomach and knelt again. His timing was absolutely perfect.

“Third warning, number six!” the soldier said into his megaphone, lowering it again and staring at his watch. Kenny squeezed his eyes almost shut, squinting at Butters while clutching his stomach and trying to block out the sounds around him. Cartman was merciless as he continued to berate Butters.

“Why don’t you just sit down?” he asked, a dreadfully pleasant tone creeping into his voice. “Maybe his soul will stick around and wait, and you can enter the pearly gates together.”

“Shut UP!” Butters shrieked, pressing his hands against his ears even harder.

“There won’t be so bad. You won’t feel a thing...” Butters was staring at him as if he were hypnotized, and by God it looked like he was about to actually sit down—

His last seconds were slipping away; both soldiers raised their rifles toward his head. Kenny could see one of the soldier’s fingers slipping the safety off as he prepared to fire. Butters was looking at his feet, and even from this far away it was obvious to Kenny that he was calculating how to fold his knees and sit—

The second soldier had released the safety from his own rifle and now there was seconds left.

Kenny surged to his feet and began running, ignoring the surprised looks of the two soldiers who had been about to shoot him and the roar of the crowd at this unexpected turn of events as he rapidly closed the distance between himself and Butters. Cartman’s head turned and he took a surprised step back when he saw Kenny approaching, drawing a warning of his own.

“Get away from him!” Kenny shouted when he was still ten feet away, all too aware that he had three warnings and if he slowed down again he would be shot immediately, as would Butters. “Leave him alone, you miserable disgusting piece of shit!” He had to remind himself that punching Cartman would get him shot as well. “From now on, you don’t talk to him, you don’t look at him...” He caught up to Butters and grabbed his arm and dragged him away from the spot he was about to sit down. “Walk, damn it!”

“Kenny?” Butters shouted, staring at him in horror. “What are you doing?!” It wasn’t until that instant that Kenny fully realized what he had done; even if he sat down right now and let the soldiers shoot him, the most his dad could win was a few thousand bucks from a smaller runner up prize. The billion dollars he had entered this to win was now out of reach.

Kenny turned to look at him, the gravity of what he’d just done evident on both their faces.

“ didn’t have to do that.”

“Yeah...I did.” At Butters’ sad look, he continued: “ were about to get shot! I wasn’t going to let that happen. This was my choice to make.”

Butters looked miserable. “Kenny, I didn’t want you to—“

Kenny held up a hand, cutting him off. “This is what you’re going to do for me,” he said seriously. “You are going to win this. And when you get all that money? You’re going to go find my family and help them, all right? Hell, give them a billion dollars if it’ll make you feel better about this.” He forced himself to smile. “But don’t give it to my dad, give it to my brother, Kevin. Butters...I’m glad I did what I did, okay? I’m going to walk with you as long as I can...but you are the one that’s going to win.” He squeezed Butters’ arm. “You got that?”

Butters was staring at him, wide-eyed. “Okay...” he finally said, once again reaching to take Kenny’s hand. And the Long Walk continued.

They managed to walk off all three of their warnings without incident and they continued walking into the afternoon. Kenny and Butters celebrated having their last warning taken away three hours later by eating their lasagna portions. Cartman was still making his way among the walkers, avoiding Kenny and telling anyone else who would listen to “be ready”, and the soldiers would occasionally call out a warning to someone who had slowed down. Two things happened to break up the monotony of the otherwise uneventful afternoon.

Just before 3:30, one of the soldiers in a jeep 50 feet ahead raised a megaphone and called: “Warning! Second warning, number eleven!”

Kenny and Butters both craned their necks trying to see who had just received a second warning. Kenny spotted him first, and the only reason he didn’t see him sooner was that number eleven wasn’t among the people walking; he was down on the asphalt on his side, his eyes half closed and unaware and his legs and body twitching rhythmically.

“Oh no,” Butters whispered once he’d spotted him too. “He’s having a seizure!”

The crowd was cheering and screaming louder, many of them holding cameras in front of their faces. One of the jeeps came to a halt and two soldiers emerged from it and approached the boy thrashing in the middle of the highway.

“Oh Jesus, they’re going to shoot him, even though he can’t help it!” Butters said, his voice barely audible above the noise of the crowd.

“Don’t watch this,” Kenny replied, grabbing his arm and urging him to walk faster. “Just watch the road.” They were close enough now that Kenny could read the name tag around his neck (11—Stoley), and he hoped that Butters was looking away, as if knowing the last name of this kid would make it more personal or something.

“Warning! Third warning, number eleven!”

They were walking past him now, close enough to hear his boots hitting the pavement again and again as he thrashed with no one to help him. Kenny let go of Butters arm and reached down to take his hand again, urging him to walk even faster. Butters squeezed his fingers and matched his pace as they hurried on, while Kenny silently counted down the seconds.

Two gunshots rang out and the crowd screamed as one. Kenny squeezed Butters’ hand and said, “Don’t look back.” It had been the closest execution to them since the very first one only six miles into the walk. That already seemed like a lifetime ago.

“I’m not going to,” Butters replied resolutely and they walked on.

Not fifteen minutes later, Kenny felt his cell phone vibrate in his pocket. He removed it and read the display: Incoming call from: Dad.

“Ah shit,” Kenny said, squeezing Butters’ hand and then releasing it. “I need to answer this.”

Butters looked up from Kenny’s phone at him anxiously. “I’m sorry, Kenny.”

“Dude! Don’t be...okay? I already told you: It was my choice to do this. Look, um...I’ll see you soon.” He sped up, moving away from Butters so he could talk privately. He answered the call and said “Hi dad.”

“I could fucking kill you right now, Kenny,” his dad snarled angrily from the phone. Kenny smirked.

“Yeah dad, okay. I’ll tell you what.” He craned his neck looking at the highway ahead. “I’m about to pass mile marker 209. Why don’t you come down here, walk right out onto the highway and kill me. Let’s see how that works out for both of us, okay?”

There was dead silence from the phone. Kenny wanted to end this quickly, so he jumped into the silence before his dad could gather his thoughts. “You know what you should do, dad? Go find a bookie somewhere who’s still taking bets, and put a big one on me, that I’m going to be the last person to get shot. That’s one I guarantee you’ll win.” With that he turned off his phone and made his way back to Butters again.

Something had occurred to him halfway through that call: He had died more times than he could count, sometimes in the most painful ways imaginable. The very worst is burning to death, and having endured that more than once, his pain threshold was considerably higher than that of most peoples. Literally walking himself to death, even if he was starving as well, couldn’t possibly be any worse.

Kenny made up his mind to do everything he possibly could to make sure Butters won this year’s walk.