The Long Walk
by R.D. Kimball
Rainfall has a smell to it. Indifferent, placid. It’s a cold smell. A lonely smell. It filters through the air-conditioning, adding a certain humidity to the car’s interior... that thick odor that comes from driving in the rain. Am I the only one who notices that?
My windshield wipers cut out. There’s a short in the motor, and they do that sometimes. Rain collects in transparent smearing patterns, distorting the glass until it’s a swirling shower door, and I have to strain my eyes to see the road. It all looks slick. It all looks shiny. So I follow the ominous glow of the taillights in front of me. Do taillights look more ominous in the rain? I’m not sure, really.
I’m alone. There’s nothing strange about that, I suppose, besides the fact that I usually take that for granted. I don’t usually notice that I’m alone. Today, I notice. And that’s how I know it, that I’m going to feel it today.
I usually don’t focus on the world in which I live. Most people, they live their lives, and they fucking know it, you know? I mean, they feel it. It’s at the forefront of their minds, confronting them, infiltrating every moment of the day. It’s the Real. The Real determines how you live. How you sleep, how you eat, how you brush your teeth. It’s everywhere, it’s everything, it’s the totality of your goddamn existence. That’s why people take those pills, the goofy pills, the take-your-mind-off-it pills. So they don’t feel the Real anymore. It’s not to feel happy, the pills, they don’t do happy, it’s the Void. It’s oblivion.
I don’t take the pills. I am the Void.
My world is a mischievous phantom, hiding in the darkest depths of my mind. It fools me into thinking that I’m Real. It plays me like a puppet from the shadows, it forces my hand, it directs my actions. It leads me to the point where I’m at my weakest before I notice it. Then it moves in for the kill. When I’m too tired to focus on the outside world. That’s when I slide from myself. I don’t know where I go, what I do, but it’s away. I lose the Real. That’s why I seek out the Void, that’s why I hide in the apathy. It’s a good thing, a clean thing, the rain.
The thing about rain, though, is that it never lasts forever.
• • •
Prison has a smell to it. Death, that’s what it is mostly... death, and shit, and sweat, and diesel fuel. It never leaves. You’re always aware of it. In the morning, when the apes come in and thrash you out of bed. When they put on your neck-iron and leg-irons. Screaming with those frightful, almost comic, primate grimaces, bellowing promises of violence through sharp, yellow teeth. They feel powerful in their padded armor, their warlike, metal helmets. If they like to hurt people, wearing such an outfit... and they do... they prefer to kill. It gives one caution, knowing that, should you show the slightest sign of resistance, they will not hesitate to tear your arms from their sockets.
I’ve seen it done. It isn’t pretty.
It’s afternoon now, topside, the sweltering heat and smog of the station-works. The smell is here, too, weaving between the transient columns, the rubber hoses throbbing with fuel, thick, fraying ropes holding the armada of dirigibles in place. In the rolling, pink smog of perpetual sunset, where I pay my debt to society. Fueling the shapes above me, cords of my muscles straining against the weight of a ship’s line and the weight of these damn cruel manacles. The ape-guards watch me suffer impassively, doing nothing to ease my labor, savage , golden eyes just waiting for me to falter or faint or slow, to give them an excuse to kill me.
At night, they’ll tear off my irons and give me a bowl of gruel and slam me in my cage. And I’ll smell it when I lie down on the cold stone floor, and I’ll smell it when I sleep. It smells like death, and it smells like oppression. It smells like forever, God help me.
It smells like the world.
• • •
Wipers back on, just in time to swipe away the last of the offending droplets. The deluge has ended, now, giving way to the damp and the misty. I’m four blocks from home, but I park the car in a strip mall parking lot. I don’t have to explain why. I’m not sure I know myself. It’s all a ritual, routine, something to do to keep myself in the Real world. Once, I let myself slide too far, when I was younger. They called it a nervous breakdown. Gave me some pills and said I was cured. But I wasn’t. No, just working, just focusing on the Real. It gets me through. I just wish I didn’t fucking feel it every time it comes on to rain.
In any case, I put the car into park. Remove the key, endure the obligatory whine until I switch the lights off. I sit there for a moment and stare at the passenger seat, imagining how the contours of the fabric would be bent if someone was sitting there. But nobody is sitting there. Of course.
My car door swings open, I get out. I push the button, the door locks click, I shut the door. If I had one of those remote thingies, I could lock the door after I shut it. Would that really make all that much of a difference? Is it that big of a deal to push the button on the door?
Maybe I think too much. Yeah. That’s probably it.
I tap my back pocket absentmindedly, making sure I didn’t leave my wallet in the car. Why would I leave my wallet in the car? Hell if I know. But I have it, and that’s the important thing. So I make my way down to the sidewalk, letting the storefronts point me in the right direction for the long walk home. The IcyTreats Creamery tells me to take a left, over there, by the apartment complex. I take a left. The Creamery has never steered me wrong before.
So, what the fuck’s my problem, anyway? It’s dark, it’s cold, and nobody loves me. It’s the world, get over it. And I have. You have to. It’s the Real world, you know, it’s all about dark and cold and scary. It’s all about being alone.
But loneliness isn’t my problem. That’s the easy way out of it, to pawn your real problems off on someone else. I’ll go find a pretty girl and expect her to fix me. That’s healthy. What about that cute waitress, the blonde one who flirted with me the other day? Maybe I could fuck up her life. She seemed like a caring sort of person, the kind of person who is ripe for an emotional leech like me.
I reach the end of the first block, arriving at the first of four intersections. I’m patiently waiting for the little orange hand in the box to turn into a little white man. Why is he white, anyway? I always thought green was for go. Why isn’t he a little green man? But there comes the white man, and I move across the street, following the series of painted stripes, trying not to get lost in them, trying not to drift. Stay here, stay in the Real. The stripes are white. White man, white stripes. Maybe that’s it. Some sort of strange whiteness motif. In any case, I’m at the other side of the street. The apartments are to my left... they’re pretty nice, actually. I pass them often. Little black cast iron apartment numbers, trailing ivy. Pretty classy shit. Streetlamps. Always did like a good streetlamp.
I’m twenty-five years old. If I’m generous, that’s one third of my life. I’ve spent a third of my time on this planet... spent it on what? Trying to keep my head on straight? A few classes at a community college? A dishwashing job? What have I ever accomplished?
Who invented the streetlamp?
Okay, so maybe it’s a little early to talk about regrets. But these aren’t the kind of problems that go away over time. They get worse. What if I just sit back, take it easy? I suck the marrow from society. Fiddle away at a useless job and die unknown. The growing stack of pizza boxes in my perpetually messy apartment. The mediocre wardrobe, the pity conversations at work. The 40 Year Old Virgin as a fucking documentary. All the time spent running from this inexplicable, slipping feeling, this fading. Is this what I have to look forward to? Am I powerless to stop it?
My fingers are clenched into fists. I try and clear my mind.
• • •
Prison is its own world, the hub of worlds. A tower of stone, so high as to be almost endless. Broad enough to hold a nation of slaves and miscreants, the roof stretches for thousands of feet... near half a mile squared. Nobody sets foot on the roof, nobody but prisoners and guards. Above our scurrying forms gather the airships of a million worlds... all impossible for me to imagine.
After all, those worlds are free.
Countless zeppelins, tossing heavy ropes for us to tie, lowering stretches of hose to connect to our diesel pumps. They form a spider-web of platforms and rope-bridges above us, a temporary city where fuel is gathered, goods are exchanged. The city never leaves, the various crafts which compose it merely shift, replacing each other, trading places. I can see their owners... dark forms through the slats, shadows bartering above me while I work. I can’t let the guards catch me looking. We aren’t supposed to acknowledge the floating city. They don’t want us to get ideas.
A midsized dirigible moves into my section. Looks to be a scrubby affair, worn leather skin over its frame, several obvious patches. He gets the poor-grade fuel. Whether he pays for the good stuff or not. That’s just the way it works here. It doesn’t matter to me. I just...
I close my eyes. Open them. Something is wrong.
Below me, the prison hums. The smell of the place pulses up through my feet, setting my mind back into the mindless drone of slavery. This is right. This is good. The heavy rope is lowered to me, and I grab it, the abrasive strands cutting into my calloused palms, straining.
This is Real.
• • •
The thing about rain, is that the smell doesn’t go away. Not when the rain does, anyway. It lingers. It gathers in little puddles on the sidewalk, it drips from the trees, it beads off the streetlamps. It reminds you that the rain isn’t far off. You almost long for it to start again, to fill up the smell. It doesn’t belong here, in the dryness. It’s like seeing a ghost. It doesn’t belong here.
I don’t belong here.
The second intersection, and I’m halfway there, striding through the blinking orange hand in the nick of time before the cars get their signal, the green one. I pass someone, she’s attractive, she notices me. I do the smile and nod. She ignores me. Hey, that’s cool. I’m used to it. I’m not what you’d call traditionally handsome. I might have had a chance, if she could have seen my eyes. I’ve been told they’re nice. Brown eyes. The color of stability.
Accomplishments... they don’t mean shit, anyway. I mean, Hemmingway offed himself. Praise never did him much good, did it? It’s all kind of empty, when you get right down and think about it. What does it matter, if you accomplish something? Who’s going to know about it? I mean... well...
I look ahead to intersection number three. There’s a gas station up there, where garish posters levitating in the windows inform me that fountain drinks are only 79 cents. Who invented the neon sign? You can’t tell me, can you? What does it matter, inventing something, if nobody knows it was you? It’s a meaningless accomplishment. How many of those can you take, before it’s all over?
Hell, I don’t know. I’m probably just making up excuses.
• • •
I’ve been in this place for so long I don’t remember much about before. I don’t remember what I look like. I know my hair is dark, I know my eyes are blue. That is, I’d like to think they are. Blue eyes. The color of freedom.
I don’t even remember what I did to get in here. If anything. I’ve lost my grip on it... on anything non-Prison. And you have to, if you want to survive in here. To stand the sight of ragged, moldy stone and shit-encrusted black fur and soot-belching silos. You block it all out and work. Work hard, work well, and live. The smell helps you with that because it’s everywhere, it doesn’t give you room to dream. And that’s what scares me.
Because, lately, I’ve been dreaming anyway.
My grasp of the Real world, it’s slipping. Today I find myself sliding away from the world of Prison, being pulled somewhere else. Visions. Spells. Call them what you will. The moments are brief and violent and terrifying. I beg myself, no, stay, this rope, tie off the vessel, it needs to fuel, but to no avail. I see it in flashes: some other face, some other mind, some other bondage.
I don’t know where I go, but it frightens me. The idea of another place, another life. Sliding between worlds. Maybe not so bad, if I could only control it. But I can’t. Or don’t. Instead I slide away from what’s real, from the work and iron and slavery and instant death. Which is treacherous. The apes might think I’m daydreaming.
Daydreamers don’t last long here. They slow down once and then are mauled by the guards, or thrown from the roof of the station-works to plummet to their doom. Or, worse, they are taken on the Long Walk, though the prison, down to the lowest levels, to the execution rooms, to the chair. I’ve seen them, prodded along by an ape-guard with a spear, weeping and gnashing their teeth and gripping the walls in terror and “Oh God I Don’t Want To Die.” Nobody sees them again. That’s if they’re lucky. Sometimes, later, we see pieces.
My world goes red for a moment, the pain of a steel-cord whip snapping at my back. I steal a glance at the guard who did it. Her gold eyes are burning, nostrils flared, bellowing out the wordless command. Sliding, I’ve been sliding, and I can’t help it.
I pull harder on the rope, ignore the pain as the ape thrashes me again with her metal whip. Once they mark you, it’s over. I should just stop now. But no. I yank at the shabby craft floating above my head, try to pull it lower, to bring the hose in reach of the fuel pump, but my arms are failing me. I wait for another lash, but nothing comes. I steal a glance at the guard. She smiles that evil apish smile, to let me know she hasn’t forgotten me. That this is the end. That I’m going to provide her with some amusement before I die.
It ends like this. Torture, my arms are screaming and my brain freezes and all I can think is Torture.
I can’t let this happen to me. I won’t. They’ve taken everything away from me, every choice I’ve ever had. That’s fine. I don’t need ‘em. But I won’t let them make that choice for me. Not this. Not the Long Walk.
So I drop the rope.
• • •
I don’t wear a watch. The last one broke, and I never replaced it. What kind of a person can’t maintain a decent watch, anyway? Fishing through my pockets, I locate the cell phone. I have to flip open the screen to see what time it is. Almost midnight. I should be home. I could study or something. Eh, who am I kidding? Maybe a quick bite, probably a crappy late night talk show. The musical guest will suck. They always do.
I feel it, now, sudden. It tears at me, my inner world, pulling with irresistible force. No, please. Let me keep the Real. I’m okay with the lonely and depressing. I don’t want to slide. Just let me stay here.
For a moment, I can’t remember who I am. Where I’m going, what I’m doing. I’m surprised how light everything feels, my neck and my ankles free to move as they will. It’s a minor miracle for some reason, that and the clean air I’m breathing. Nothing makes sense, but everything is clear, which is how I know I’ve slipped it. Where are the monsters? Where are the guards? Who invented the streetlamp? Part of me is a prisoner, part of me is a lonely little bastard, part of me is a ghost or a shadow or an alien. I gasp, Nirvana skating elusive around my skull. I know everything. I am everything.
But a tiny part of that cacophony refuses to give up. Find the Real, it beckons, the Real. So I fight enlightenment, a reluctant Buddha defending his ego, weeping and gnashing his teeth and gripping the world in terror. Stay here. Stay here. Stay here.
And I do. I take a deep breath, the scales fall off my eyes, and a semblance of the Real returns. I can still feel the sliding, but I know who I am now. I know where I am now. I even know what I’m doing... I’m still looking at my phone to check the time.
In the distance, a horn blows. No... no, not the distance, it’s closer than that. Looking up from the phone, I have time to see several things. It is just past midnight. I am standing on a white stripe. The man in the box is an angry orange hand.
• • •
I try to run, know I can’t. The leg-irons are too much. It’s an awkward shuffle, away from my section. Frantically scraping my way through the zones of fellow prisoners too scared to look at me, too scared to risk sharing my fate. Behind me, I can hear the bellow of the guard. She’s not chasing me, doesn’t need to. She’s calling to her fellow apes.
The apes don’t speak. They have one brutal howl, which can translate into two separate phrases. When directed to us, it means “Work harder or we’ll kill you.” When directed to its fellows, it roughly translates to “Help me kill this.”
This was most definitely the latter.
I continue to run. They think I’m stupid, simple, that I can’t escape Prison. No one does that. But I’m aware. I don’t have escape on my mind. I know, when this is over, I won’t be living. I have one thing on my mind: choice. If I’m going to die, it won’t be in the bowels of Babel.
I’ve set my eyes on the edge of the roof.
I’m closer to it than most. The troublesome ones get the central sections, where they can be monitored. I’ve had years of adequate service under my belt, the sure sign of someone with no ambition and a strong will to live. Which is the case, I suppose, in my Real life. My Prison life. But sometimes Reality is not worth it.
Perhaps the guard has noticed me before, has decided I’m not a risk. It’s the only way I can explain how I managed to clamber this far unmolested. But now the bellows grow harsher, louder. She must have figured out the plan. No, I’ve gone too far. I won’t let her stop me.
As I reach the edge, the wind pushing against me, discouraging me from any rash decisions, I feel the longing snap of prisoner-heads. Attention focused in my direction. But I don’t waste time. I do not look back to encourage my brothers and sisters, fellow prisoners who I barely have seen in my peripheral vision over the course of my internment. I don’t want to give the guards, loping on all fours at me with breakneck speed, the chance to grab me.
I won’t be made an example of. I will not take the Long Walk.
So I leap.
I fall fast, the wind at my face, the irons tugging their way back to the hard earth which spawned them. It is rushing up at me, but in no hurry, giving me time to relish my freedom. My choice.
I start to slide, and this time I embrace it. Other worlds beckon. My mind opens wide, doors and windows flung open to reveal the countless shadows I have been, the ghosts I will be. I Am Everything, I cry to the wind. I will cleave to the mystery. I don’t need the Prison. I am the Void.
I close my eyes, my blue eyes longing for freedom. I open my arms wide. I suddenly understand that I will never hit the ground. I will pass through it unscathed. I will arrive at a better world. A free world. A world far away from Reality.
I am the ground. And now, at last, I will meet myself.
• • •
I didn’t actually hear the sound... I suppose it was probably more like a thud. If you ever happen to hear someone’s head collapsing into the hood of a minivan, let me know. I was there, phone, intersection number three, orange hand, then my head, cupped in hands. My eyes are open, and the images focus in, the man is talking to me, but I can’t make it out. I’m fine, really. I’m —
He’s tilting my head, to keep me from choking on my own blood. Maybe I’m not fine.
My hands are warm, slick. My body is impossibly heavy. And I can’t feel my legs. The observations come flying and I feel a weight bearing down on my chest, a cough. Was there blood in the cough? I’m not sure. Wow, that fucker caught me pretty hard.
The fucker is trying to ask me something, but the noises all blur together. I’m sorry, fucker, I can’t understand you. Don’t worry, I’ll be fine. I wonder if he thought about calling an ambulance? Oh, I’m sure he did. It’s probably on the way. Good. Good. Good. The fucker is trying to stop the bleeding, he’s got something; a shirt, maybe? He’s applying pressure to... somewhere. I wonder what could possibly cause me to bleed this much. Did he have a bayonet on his minivan? Did I land on a javelin?
I’m trying to speak, but I can’t, I think my body’s going into shock. Too much effort. Let’s just focus on breathing. I’ll do that. In. Out. In. Out.
This fucker’s a real mess, he’s crying, I feel sorry for him. Wow. I hope I don’t die. I wouldn’t want this guy to carry that kind of guilt around. I want to tell him, the fucker, that it’s not his fault, it was mine, that I’d slid away, that I wasn’t watching, but only these pathetic wheezing noises come out. I’ll tell him in the hospital. If I make it there.
I can make it. It’s all about choice.
It’s all one step at a time, I guess. Survive the asphalt, make it to the ICU. Survive that, make it to the hospital. (I hope they don’t make me eat grape Jell-O. Why do hospitals always serve grape Jell-O?) Then therapy. Then try to walk, maybe. Am I thinking about this right now?
I think I see red flashing lights, it’s kind of hard to focus. The one noise that I do hear seems to be higher in pitch. Hands are grabbing at me. Am I on a litter? Ah, hell, I don’t care anymore. It’s getting nice and easy now, the pain is dwindling down. I’m sleepy.
I must be inside the ambulance now because everything’s whiter. There are sounds, angry voice sounds. But people sounds, not apes, and that sets me at ease. They slide around my head. Age Twenty Five White Male Brown Hair Blue Eyes are they talking about me? But it doesn’t matter, the voices are angry, and those aren’t very good sounds. I’m bleeding, and I should probably stop that soon.
There’s a smell here, too. A cold, antiseptic smell. I like it. It’s a heavy smell. A thick odor that comes from driving in the rain.
So, what the fuck’s my problem, anyway? I’m bleeding to death, have a serious head injury, most likely paralyzed from the waist down. It’s the world. Get over it. And I have. It’s rough shit, but you manage. Hopefully.
The paramedic, she’s trying to stop the bleeding too. She’s either blonde or her hair is blending into the ceiling of the ambulance. Does she get fired if I die? Hey, my prayer has been answered. I’ve got pretty girl to fix me. I’m not alone.
But the images are spinning around too fast. I close my eyes. I picture the thrumming of the windshield wipers. I imagine the contours of the passenger seat. Freedom. This is where it all comes to a head. This is the old proverbial moment of truth. This is the Long Walk home, where you go your farthest until your legs give out from under you.
I feel the edges getting fuzzy, and I start to slip from consciousness. If I wake up, this is gonna hurt like a bitch. But for now, I don’t focus on that. I focus on living. I focus on the soft embrace of sleep as it slips gently around me. I focus on the outskirts of oblivion. I am the Void. I am the Real. I am everything.
The fucker, he did me a favor.
I don’t feel it. Not today.
Copyright © 2011 by R.D. Kimball