The road stretched on ahead of them, visible for miles, charcoal gray cutting through the green. It sloped gradually down, before rising again and disappearing into the distance. On the right side of the road was a huge field, stretching on for miles, and they were bordered on the left by a pine forest. Early morning fog clung to the fields and the pine trees. The rosy morning light cast an ethereal, dreamlike glow over everything.
“That’s some view,” Scramm said, awe in his voice.
“This might be what they call the Hainesville Woods,” Garraty told him. “Truckers’ graveyard. Hell in the wintertime.”
“I never seen nothing like it,” Scramm said, voice soft. He never felt small, but the expanse of green and the pink sunrise made him feel tiny. “There isn’t this much green in the whole state of Arizona.”
“Enjoy it while you can,” Baker said, coming up behind them and joining the group “It’s going to be a scorcher. It’s hot already and it’s only six-thirty in the morning.”
“Think you’d get used to it, where you come from,” Pearson said.
“You don’t get used to it. You just learn to live with it.”
Scramm wasn’t paying attention to them at that point. Their voices sounded distant and detached. The road went on forever, and Scramm was mesmerized by it. “I’d like to build a house up here,” he said, and sneezed once, twice, wiping at his nose before continuing. “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.”
The group fell silent after that.
Scramm was sick.
There was pressure in his head, and he felt like his whole body was on fire, but his steps remained strong. He could do it, because he had something to walk for. He was walking to win.
The rest of these boys, they didn’t stand a chance. They kept walking because they were scared, or out of spite. They didn’t know why they were walking, or they’d had a death wish that they regretted by now.
But Scramm was walking for Cathy, and their baby, and that stretch of woods.
He walked next to Mike and Joe for a while in the vanguard. The two liked to keep to themselves and they and Scramm didn’t talk much. It was still nice to be close to people from home.
Time meant nothing anymore. All that he could focus on was the aching in his feet, and the shivers that gripped him at random times and made him feel like he’d fall down, and the sickly pounding in his head.
He pulled even with Garraty. Garraty looked gaunt and scared, but more worn down than Scramm had seen him before. “Garraty?” he asked.
Garraty startled and looked at him. It was like he had been walking asleep and Scramm had just woken him up. “What is it?” he asked, raking his hands over his face.
“Garraty, what was the name of those woods we passed earlier?” he asked. He was desperate for it.
“Uh… pretty sure it’s the Hainesville Woods,” Garraty answered, giving him a funny look.
“Hainesville Woods,” Scramm repeated. “Thanks, Garraty.”
Garraty kept walking like he couldn’t even see him
It hurt to watch Garraty buy a ticket. It was a day after Scramm had asked him about the Hainesville Woods. He’d gotten a charley horse, and couldn’t get his leg to work in time, and the soldiers had blown his head away in a hammersmash of blood while he sat on the pavement, desperately massaging his leg, willing it to work again.
Scramm had liked Garraty. He was a nice enough guy, not the type of guy you’d expect to find on a Long Walk. He’d joined for the hell of it. He didn’t know what he was walking for, and his luck had just run out.
From then on, he’d walked mostly with Abraham, Baker, and Pearson, until one by one, they all got their tickets too. They’d helped him, giving him water from their canteens and dabbing at his broad, sweaty face with strips of fabric that Scramm had torn from his T-shirt. He couldn’t ignore the way Pearson looked at him, though he pretended not to notice. Pearson looked at him with a morbid fascination with his sickness, and like he couldn’t wait to see him dead. Because if Scramm, the Vegas favorite, could fall, then anyone could. And then Pearson could have a chance.
Scramm remembered the next night when Pearson bought it. Just like that, he was done. His fear had run out, exhaustion had won, and he bought a ticket just like the rest.
When the sun rose on another day of the Long Walk, Scramm looked on with unseeing eyes. He knew that the sickness had taken sharp hold of him. Abraham and Baker were looking after them, but he didn’t know how much longer their kindness would last. They were getting down to the end of the Walk, when friendships fractured and self-preservation kicked in.
Scramm was dead to the rest of the world, hearing and seeing nothing. He wondered what the odds were like in Vegas right now. He wondered if he was still the favorite. He figured not, considering how he looked and all. Maybe it was Baker, with his deceptively easy gait, or Stebbins, with his consistency and the fact he never tired. It was probably Stebbins. Scramm didn’t care about all that anymore.
All he knew was that he needed to win. And he would. He was going to win for Cathy, and their baby, and when this was all over he’d move out to Maine and build a house and watch the sunrise every morning, with Cathy by his side.
Fuck everything else. He had to do this for Cathy.
There was no finish line. All Scramm had to do was last. His body had to make it even if his brain was confused and addled by fever.
Scramm hardly remembered when Stebbins bought it. All that he remembered was the roar of the crowd- already deafening- reached a fever pitch. He was dimly aware of the halftrack stopping and an opening appearing in the crowd. Several men rushed onto the road, and there were hands grabbing his, a hand shaking his own.
“Congratulations, son,” a voice said, and he kept walking.
He kept walking until they stopped him, and he slipped out of consciousness.
Scramm was sick for a long time after that.
He had pneumonia, and he was severely dehydrated. Plus the fact that his feet had been nearly destroyed during the Walk.
It was over a week before he was lucid enough to know where he was. He woke up in a hospital bed, covered in clean white sheets. The whole room was entirely sterile, and silent aside from the beeping of machines, and the soft breathing coming from the chair beside his bed.
It was Cathy, sleeping in the hospital chair, her arms folded over her pregnant stomach.
“Cathy,” he choked out, and Scramm realized he was crying.
When he said her name, her eyes fluttered open, and relief flashed across her face before she was getting up and leaning down to hug him. “Oh, honey,” she breathed out, and she was crying too. “You’re alive. You won. We’re together.”
He clung to her, breathing in her scent and feeling her soft hair under his hands. He had won. Cathy was here, and everything would be okay.
Scramm’s first request was that something be done for Joe and Mike’s family, and the rest of the Hopi reservation. He didn’t visit. He didn’t want anyone to look at him and thank him like he’d done a good thing, when it was really his fault that Mike and Joe were dead.
By staying alive, he had killed them. Giving their family some money was just the least he could do.
He sent money to Garraty’s, Abraham’s, and Baker’s families too. It was the least he could. Those guys had kept him alive, and they never got anything in return.
Once he recovered enough, he asked for a plot of land in Hainesville Woods, where he would build a house for him and Cathy and their baby.
“What do you think, Cathy?” he asked, when they pulled to the side of the road and stepped out to look at their new land.
“It’s… it’s beautiful,” she answered, tucking herself into his side. His arm came around her shoulders. “It’s nothing like Arizona. More green than I’ve ever seen in my whole life.”
At that, he kissed her. After they pulled apart, she said, “The Long Walk will pass us by every year. Are you sure that’s alright with you?”
Scramm hadn’t considered that before, but he nodded. “It’ll be alright. It’s beautiful here. Like nothing I’ve ever seen in my whole life. We can be happy here. We can raise a kid here.”
Scramm wasn’t strong enough to build a house by himself, so the Major hired a crew to help him. The Hainesville Woods were still the most beautiful place he’d ever seen, and the Walk hadn’t ruined that. The Walk couldn’t kill the magic.
The house was built and ready in a month, and Cathy and Scramm were glad to move out of their hotel room in Bangor and into their own home. They stood on the porch, watching the sun set. Purple and red and orange exploded across the sky and disappeared behind the pine trees. The field was cast into shadowy dusk.
“It’s beautiful,” Cathy breathed out, an awe-filled, reverent sound.
“It sure is,” Scramm echoed.
“We’re happy people, right, honey?” she asked, looking up at him. “We’re gonna be happy?”
Scramm grinned and pulled her closer to him. “Yeah, we’re happy people.”
They stood out there until the sun completely disappeared. They were happy people. Scramm was alive, they had built a house in the most beautiful place either of them had ever seen, and soon they’d have a kid of their own.
Everything would be okay.