"To me the Universe was all void of Life, or Purpose, of Volition, even of Hostility;
it was one huge, dead, immeasurable Steam engine, rolling on, in its dead indifference, to grind me limb from limb.
O vast, gloomy, solitary Golgotha, and Mill of Death!
Why was the Living banished thither companionless, conscious?
Why, if there is no Devil; nay, unless the Devil is your God?"
- Thomas Carlyle
The gate looks like any other gate. Large stone pillars on either side, the iron-wrought gate between them, now swung open. There's nothing mysterious about it, nothing unusual, nothing special. It's just a gate, opening onto the road that will lead them from Sunan and onwards, ever onwards.
"Just a gate," Kibum mutters to himself as he watches it, committing it to memory because it's easier to try to remember the static things rather than the faces of the boys gathered in the large open area around him. He's not alone, far from it; there are 49 other boys gathered around him. But he still likes to pretend that he's by himself.
Except that he's not quite lucky enough to be left alone. "Of course it's just a gate," a tall boy standing next to him says. "What did you expect, a magic portal?"
"Go away," Kibum says.
The tall boy just grins back at him. "Nice to meet you too. I'm Minho. You might've heard of me."
Kibum raises an eyebrow and takes another look at the boy, his competitor. He can tell already that Minho's ready for this; he has probably planned for it for years already. Minho wears not-new sneakers (Tip #4: Don't wear new shoes), dark slacks, a long-sleeved shirt, his jacket tied around his waist. His hair is a bit too long and he has to push it away almost constantly, but he looks full of confidence. As if he's sure he's going to win, no matter the fuck what.
"Never heard of you in my life," Kibum says. It's true. He doesn't pay much attention to this crap, never has.
Minho looks disappointed. "Well. I'm--"
"You're the one people are betting on, aren't you?" Another boy comes up to them and gawks at Minho curiously before smiling to Kibum. Kibum thinks the kid looks about five years too young to be participating in the Walk. "I'm Taemin," the boy adds, and bows.
Christ, Kibum thinks. This isn't exactly the setting for being polite.
Minho seems to enjoy it, however, and he pats Taemin's shoulder. "Nice to meet you! And you're right, I am. I'm in the lead in the polls. People know I'm the favorite. There's no doubt I'm going to win this; I've been training since I was thirteen. The rest of you might as well just give up now?"
"And get our ticket before we've even taken a step? Thanks, but no thanks," Kibum says dryly.
Taemin's smile falters; Minho's too sunny disposition darkens.
This time, Kibum grins.
They're given their numbers, their canteens of water and their pocketed belts filled with tubes of concentrate pastes, crackers and chocolate bars by the military officials that call them up, one by one. "I thought the General was going to be here," Taemin whispers. "Doesn't he usually give out the numbers?"
Kibum just shrugs; he couldn't care less about seeing the General.
"I think he's been ill," Minho says. "But there were rumors online that he's going to meet us when we pass outside Pyongyang."
"I heard that too, but I thought he would've changed his mind 'cause of what the netizens have been saying on the forums. You know, that he's losing his touch and that the Walk isn't the same anymore." Taemin keeps his voice hushed, as if he's afraid that anyone will hear him.
Minho nods. "I've seen that on the forums too. They think there should be more than fifty boys, for one."
"And that the speed should be quicker than six kilometers an hour."
"And that there should be more than one way of, you know, getting your ticket."
"I think you should both shut up and not care about what netizens say," Kibum says, interrupting their conversation. "Those people are the crazy fuckers that find all this entertaining, you're aware of that, right? The netizens are the reason we're here in the first place."
Taemin gives him a nervous look, Minho just shrugs.
Kibum kind of thinks that they're both idiots, but he still returns to stand with them after he's gotten his number, number nine.
They stand together for the next ten minutes, just waiting, because there's nothing better to do. Kibum knows that he should sit down (Tip #2: Conserve energy whenever possible), but he's too jittery, too restless, too... nervous. He hates to admit it, but he's nervous. So nervous his knees feel wobbly, so nervous he thinks his hands are shaking, so nervous that he wonders if he's going to freeze up at the start point, unable to take a single step.
"Has anyone been given the ticket right here?" he asks, though he's not sure if he wants to get the answer.
Taemin and Minho both look at him, bewildered, and then shrug. They don't know. Maybe nobody knows. Information about past Walks is not easy to come by, not even on the forums. They are too heavily regulated for that. Anonymity does not exist, not even online.
"Just one," says a boy - number 38 - who's leaning against one of the stone pillars, watching them. "Six years ago. Poor bastard froze up, couldn't move at all. Got his ticket right over there," he says, pointing to the middle of the gate.
Kibum looks, swallows roughly. He's still not sure he'll be able to do this, but it's too late to back out now.
The officer in charge - a major by the looks of it - calls out to them, telling them to line up in front of the gate. Kibum lines up on the second row, with Taemin on his right and Minho on Taemin's right. They're seven in each line, in seven lines. Kibum looks around; finding that number 38 is bringing up the rear, alone on the last line. Fifty altogether. Fifty teenage boys lining up in front of an open gate at nine in the morning on what should be just another Tuesday.
Kibum leans his head back and looks up into the blue sky as he listens to the major's speech, then he focuses on the road. Nothing but the wide, open road. "Good luck," the major says, and pulls the trigger of his gun. The start shot rings through the silence, and fifty boys start walking.
Kibum takes a step forwards, then another, then another, falling into step with the others. It's far less dramatic than he had imagined, but the constant sound of feet hitting the asphalt feels too loud, resonating through him as if someone's hitting his back repeatedly.
This is it, this is it, this is it.
Kibum smiles to himself and starts to relax as they cover some ground, putting meters behind them. A standard military half-track runs beside them, one soldier driving it, one keeping his eyes on the advanced radar that registers all the Walkers' walking speed, two soldiers relaxing, four soldiers with rifles in their hands, watching the Walkers intently. They're just nameless faces, these soldiers, and Kibum prefers to pretend that they're not there.
At least he tries to pretend they're not there.
"Warning! Warning, number 38!" one of the soldiers call out, and Kibum flinches, before he remembers that nope, he's not number 38.
"Smart," number eighteen says, coming up next to Kibum.
"What do you mean?"
"Now he knows where the limit is, what kind of pace he has to keep up. Better to find that out now than when he's already tired. Just one hour, and he'll be rid of that warning," the boy says, nodding as if he actually knows what he's talking about. "You know how it works, right?"
Kibum nods curtly; of course he knows, it's in the rule book, after all. The soldiers give you three warnings. The fourth time you fall below six kilometers an hour you're... Well, you're out of the Walk. But if you have three warnings and then walk for three hours, you're free and clear again. "Still seems stupid to risk it," Kibum says.
"We're all idiots here," number eighteen says with a slanted grin.
Kibum snorts and decides that he likes this guy. "I'm Kibum," he says. "That's Taemin, and that tall freak is Minho."
"Jonghyun," number eighteen replies, and completely ignores Minho's indignant protests over being called a freak.
It's roughly 25 kilometers from their starting point in Sunan to Pyongyang, and they cover the distance in four hours. Kibum's surprised to find that they're all alone on the road, just fifty walking boys and eight soldiers watching them. "Why aren't there any spectators?" he asks Jonghyun, but Jonghyun just shrugs in return.
"They're not allowed until after Pyongyang," number 38 says. He's free of his warning by now, but he's still been walking by himself, not participating in any conversations. "They say it interferes with the Walkers' concentration."
Taemin slows down until he's side by side with him. "What's your name?"
"Lee Jinki," number 38 replies. Almost reluctantly, as if he would have preferred to be just a number to everyone.
"Nice to meet you," Taemin says with a smile, and Kibum and Jonghyun snort with laughter at the same time.
They pass outside of Pyongyang at around one in the afternoon, and while they can still see the city skyline, a jeep drives up to an intersection in front of them. "It's the General," Minho says, a hint of awe in his voice. "He's really here to meet us."
When the General picks up a megaphone and says hello to them, they all cheer, all of them except Jinki. Even Kibum cheers. It's hard not to, even if he knows that it's stupid of him (Tip #15: Save your wind. If you smoke normally, try not to do it during the Walk).
"I'm very proud of you all," the General says, the jeep starting to roll along with the Walkers. The Walk doesn't stop for anything, not even a speech by the General. He talks to them for a couple of minutes, tells them to fight a good fight, tells them to be shining role models for all the boys in the country, tells them to be strong and proud and true. He gives them advice and cracks a joke, before wishing them good luck. The jeep speeds up, heading back to Pyongyang and leaving the Walkers behind in a cloud of dust.
"Well," Jonghyun says. "I don't know about you, but I think I could walk all the way to Busan."
Kibum groans at the very thought.
Not long after the General leaves them, number fifteen - a pale, short boy named Insung - gets a cramp. "It's just a cramp," he says, slowing down, grimacing over the pain.
"Warning! Warning, number fifteen!"
Kibum exchange glances with Taemin, and they turn around, walking backwards. Most of the others do the same thing. Only Jinki keeps his head down, focused on the road instead of anything that goes on around him. Four soldiers hop off the half-track and walks over to Insung, keeping a close eye on him as they give him his second warning, then his third.
"But it's just a cramp!" Insung says, looking at them pleadingly.
None of the soldiers say anything, and instead they raise their rifles, clicking off the safety. The Walkers gasp, a small group of people hanging out next to the road gasp, and it dawns on Kibum that this is real, this is happening, Insung's really going to get his ticket. Right here, right now.
Insung straightens up, tries to force himself to keep walking, but after just a few steps, he falters again, limping too badly to keep going. He screams. "It's just a--"
Four rifles fire at the same time, and Insung's head disappears in spray of red blood and brains and skull fragments. His body falls to the road, pool of blood quickly forming around him, and Kibum feels like throwing up. Beside him, Taemin whispers "49 now, only 49" and then he shudders and keeps walking.
Fuck, Kibum thinks, and he's tempted to stop, just stop. But now it's all too clear what will happen if he stops, and instead he turns around, facing forwards, looking at the road, thinking about the road and nothing else. They leave Insung behind, and after a small hill and a bad joke from number 25, Woohyun; Insung is nothing more than a memory, just the first one to get his ticket.
Kibum puts one foot in front of the other. He walks.
Going down the road
"The ultimate game show would be one where the losing contestant was killed."
- Chuck Barns
By four in the afternoon, it starts raining. Light drizzle at first, before it starts tipping down. Kibum is drenched to the skin within minutes, but he doesn't mind it. He's in good shape; a bit of rain doesn't bother him. Not even when it's bordering on torrential rain.
Number 50, a chubby boy named Jaehyun, isn't quite as lucky. He slips on the wet asphalt, his face connecting with the ground with a loud crack. "Warning! First warning, number 50!" one of the soldiers call out, and Jaehyun staggers to his feet again and keeps walking, his pace far quicker than it needs to be.
Kibum catches a glimpse of Jaehyun as he passes; there's blood streaming down his face and neck, soaking the front of his white t-shirt. His nose looks like it's broken. Kibum shakes his head, but there's nothing that he can do about it. All he can do is watch; these are boys that he doesn’t know the first thing about. He knows their numbers, some of them he knows by name, but they're still strangers.
Jaehyun breaks into a run, sprinting through the other boys until he's in front of everyone. A soldier follows him, jogging to keep up. Kibum can just barely make them out through the rain, but he doesn't hear it when Jaehyun is given his second and third warning. He does hear the rifle-shot, however.
By the time the group reaches the soldier, Jaehyun's body has been dragged to the edge of the road. All that's left of him is a bloodstain and a tennis shoe left in the middle of the road. All the boys part, walking on either side of the stain. Only Jinki steps right through it, leaving bloody footprints for a few meters before the rain washes the blood away.
Two down, 48 left.
Kibum shudders. He didn't think it would be like this. He thought that it would be about who could walk the longest. He didn't think that people could get ticketed for cramps or nosebleeds. He didn't think that small, arbitrary factors could come to be the difference between life and death. He didn't think that the difference between keeping on walking and lying dead on the side of the road could be something as simple as having shoes with good traction.
"We're all screwed," Jonghyun comments.
Kibum tries to laugh, but it only comes out as a weird croak.
By midnight, only four more Walkers have gotten their ticket. Number 30, Chansung, twisted his ankle. Number five, Kibum never caught his name, tried to sneak off the road under the cover of rain and darkness. The two last ones, number 22 and 43, simply slowed down one too many times.
Fifteen hours on the road, and they're down to 44 Walkers. Kibum thinks that this, this is going to be hard. There's no way he's going to outwalk them all. Maybe he'd be able to take most of them down, but not all.
"Crumbles," Jonghyun says, his voice faint. He's wheezing a little. "They're like crumbles."
"Wha'?" Kibum asks, barely paying attention.
Jonghyun nods; it's like he's talking to himself, not to Kibum. "The people that get their ticket early. They're the small cookie crumbles. They fall through the cracks and disappear. Next comes the big pieces that break easily. The ones that'll last are the hard pieces. The ones that don't crumble completely. You can chip away little pieces of them, but they'll still stay strong."
Kibum thinks it's far too late to be philosophical, and he just grunts a vague response before letting himself fall into a slumber.
Walking and sleeping at the same time isn't the easiest thing to do, but Kibum manages. Maybe it's just his mind shutting off, refusing to take part in this insanity any longer. Kibum doesn't really care, as long as he can keep walking and make it through the night without getting warnings or a bullet to the brain.
He's jolted awake by shots ringing through the still night, and for a split second, Kibum thinks he's the one they shot. Then he realizes that there's no pain, other than the strange numbness of his feet, and he's still walking. Oh. Not dead yet, then.
"Who was that?" he asks, finding that Taemin's next to him now instead of Jonghyun.
Taemin shakes his head. "Don't know. I think he was a loner."
"Like that Jinki guy."
"Yeah. Like him. What's his deal, anyway?"
Kibum shrugs, feeling irritable. He's still tired, still groggy, and he just wants to go back to sleep. "How the fuck should I know? Go ask him yourself."
Taemin doesn't reply, but he disappears into the night, probably to go find Jinki. Kibum doesn't care, and falls into a light slumber again.
By the time he's jolted awake for the second time, it's nearing dawn. Kibum's not sure what woke him up this time, and he yawns and stretches, trying to will himself awake. He can't see Taemin or Jonghyun, but number 50, Woohyun, is right beside him, Minho not far from him again. "Morning, sunshine," Woohyun says with a grin and offers Kibum half of his orange.
Kibum smiles and accepts it. Woohyun is a nice guy; funny and kind and playing this all off like it's nothing but a big joke. He doesn't even look tired yet.
"How many are we now?" Kibum asks, clearing his throat a couple of times before he can speak.
"Dunno," Woohyun says. "I was sleeping most of the night."
Beside him, Minho coughs. "Three less than we were at midnight. It's pathetic, really, how these people can't last any longer."
"Shut your mouth," Kibum says, and ignores Minho until he goes away. He sticks with Woohyun for the rest of the morning, talking about girls and school and girls and their families and girls and their hobbies and girls. They don't mention the Walk at all, they don't try to figure out the meaning of life, they don't talk about the boys that have been ticketed. It's refreshing to pretend that they're just out walking on an early morning, and that whenever they feel like it, they can sit down and relax.
But of course they can't, and they don't.
They're heading east now, instead of south, and there are small crowds along the way, especially when they pass through small towns. The rain has cleared up and the air is fresh and cold.
Kibum thinks that this isn't so bad. He doesn't feel too tired, his feet are still doing okay, so are his legs.
He yawns again, and looks around. Somehow, he's near the front of the group; there's only a handful of boys in front of him, and two boys a good twenty meters ahead of everyone else. "Who's that?" he asks, as if Woohyun knows all the Walkers.
Woohyun shrugs. "Don't know. I just know they're number two and three. The other Kibum said that he thought they were a couple."
"Yeah, right," Kibum says.
Nine rolls around, and four of the soldiers walk through the Walkers, giving them a new belt filled with food. Kibum almost snatches it out of the soldier's hand, straps it around his waist, and empties a tube of chicken concentrate. It's only now that he realizes that he's practically starving, and he has to restrain himself to keep from keeping on eating. Instead he tosses the empty tube to the side of the road, watching as a group of children make a mad dash for it. The winning boy grins and pumps his fist in the air. "This will make me so popular on the forums," he yells in triumph, and Kibum shakes his head. He has never been a fan of the forums, even if he knows that everyone's on them, usually every day.
"That's fucked up," Woohyun comments, shaking his head.
"Yeah," Kibum says, agreeing whole-heartedly.
Less than ten minutes later, number 40 throws up repeatedly from eating too much, and is given his ticket.
Kibum wonders if the kids can hear the shots.
Right after noon, they walk into Wonsan. They've covered nearly 170 kilometers since they've started - "You'd think people can't wait to die, with the speed we're keeping," Jonghyun jokes - and only one more boy has fallen since they were given their rations.
Wonsan brings a definite change in the Walk. From small groups of people gathered here and there along the way, what meets them now is a wall of people, an actual crowd. It seems impossible to make out individual faces now, and Kibum watches the crowd as they walk through the city, tries to focus on a face, a person, an individual. But it's all one big crowd, the people, the netizens come out to watch the fruit of their work. They're the Crowd, and against them, the Walkers don't stand a chance.
It's easier to catch sight of the signs spread out through the crowd, one bigger than the other. Most of them are dedicated to number 46, Choi Minho. Kibum scoffs as he sees it, but he's not surprised. He's certainly not surprised to find that most of the signs are held by gangs of giggling, squealing girls that shriek every time Minho waves at them.
"Can't find anybody cheering for you?" Jonghyun asks, waving at a group of young boys holding a sign with his name on it, snickering a little as they yell and try to take pictures of him with their cheap, government-brand cell phones.
Kibum shrugs. "Not really looking."
"I didn't see your picture on the forums when the Walkers were announced."
"I didn't see it either," Taemin says, coming up behind them. "And I would've remembered someone like you, hyung." He pauses, then blushes faintly and shrugs.
Kibum resists the urge to make fun of Taemin because of it. "Yeah, I wasn't on the forums. I was a back-up. Got the call on Saturday."
"What, seriously?" Both Taemin and Jonghyun stare at him, wide-eyed.
"Yeah. Three of the original Walkers chose to withdraw. I was the third back-up. Funny how things work out, huh? If one of those guys had come through, I would've been at home right now, probably at school, getting yelled at by a teacher."
"And instead you're here, dying with the rest of us," Jonghyun says, grinning. "I know this doesn't sound like a positive thing, but I'm glad you're here."
"Me too," Taemin says quickly, and he's blushing again.
Kibum just grins.
"Why are you doing the Walk?" Taemin asks Minho. Somehow, they're all walking together; even Jinki's close enough that he could be considered part of their group. They're joined by number 41, a quiet boy named Hyunseung who wears blue sweatpants with white stars all over it, and Kibum wonders where the fuck he got those, because they're certainly not government-approved jeans or pants.
"To win," Minho replies without missing a beat.
Kibum rolls his eyes, because he's starting to get pretty fucking sick of hearing that. "Yeah, you moron, we know that part, but why do you want to win this so badly? There's plenty of other shit you could compete in."
Minho looks like he wants to strangle Kibum, and when he speaks, it's Taemin and Jonghyun he's addressing. "I'm doing it for my brother. He competed in the Walk two years ago. He was the second runner-up. I'm honoring his memory." He sniffs, but Kibum can't tell if it's from sadness or from getting a cold.
Even Kibum can't find anything to say in response to that, so he just turns to Jonghyun instead. "So what about you?"
Jonghyun shrugs, hesitating before he replies. "My sister."
"She didn't die in the Walk, did she?" Taemin asks, and Kibum can't help but laugh.
Jonghyun doesn't even crack a smile. "She... She was squadded. They kept her for nearly a month. When she came back, she was pregnant and insane. Right after the baby was born, she killed both herself and the baby. I applied for the Walk to... To take revenge, I guess."
"That makes absolutely no sense," Kibum points out, but not even he's about to joke about something like this. Everybody knows someone that has been squadded, sure, but few ever come back, and not all that many women get squadded. Maybe that's why there's no female version of the Walk.
"Hey, don't question my sanity," Jonghyun says, elbowing Kibum's side, almost hard enough to earn them both a warning from the soldiers.
Kibum laughs. "Oh, I'm not questioning it at all. I'm pretty sure you've lost your marbles."
"That he's got a few loose screws," Taemin interjects.
"Or that he's lost those altogether too," Minho adds helpfully.
"Just waiting for the straight-jacket and the men in white coats," Hyunseung says, smiling, like the rest of them. It’s easier to joke than to attempt serious conversations.
Jonghyun gives them all the finger. "Listen, I know it doesn't make sense. But it was the only thing I could come up with," he says. "I wasn't thinking clearly at the time."
"The fact that you didn't withdraw tells me that you're still not thinking very clearly," Kibum says dryly, and Jonghyun elbows him again.
Minho turns his head and looks at Jinki. "Why are you a part of this?" he asks, but Jinki doesn't answer. He doesn't speak when Taemin prods him either, and they all give up on it.
"So, why are you here, hyung?" Taemin asks Kibum instead, trying to lighten the mood again. As much as the mood can be lightened, anyway.
Kibum laughs again, too loudly this time. "Me? I've just got a good, old-fashioned death wish. That's why we're all here, whether we like to admit it or not. I feel sorry for the last bastard, the one that doesn't get his wish. The soldiers should drag him behind a building and shoot him too."
Taemin looks uneasy, Minho scoffs. Jonghyun seems like he wants to agree, but then he shrugs and empties a tube of beef concentrate into his mouth instead.
This time, Jinki is the one laughing.
"Do you have a girlfriend back home, hyung?" Taemin asks him as they both eat a tube of strawberry jam.
The taste is fresh and intense in Kibum's mouth, and he almost doesn't even answer, too caught up in licking the last remnants of jam off of his fingers. "What? No, no girlfriend for me. Not anymore," Kibum says in a tone of voice that doesn't invite any more questions. "What about you?" he asks Taemin instead.
Taemin covers his mouth, and Kibum suspects that he might be hiding a giggle. "I guess so. Kind of. Maybe."
"Oh well, if you're that sure," Kibum says with a snort.
Taemin swats him, but laughs as well. "It's not really for sure, and you know how it is, we can't exactly go on dates or anything. But I know she likes me. We've been talking on the forums pretty much every day, and I talk to her at school when the teachers aren't looking."
"With skills like that, I'm surprised the girl still has her panties on."
"But her parents are really strict! I don't think they'd consider me a good prospect, my grades aren't good enough and my parents' jobs aren't good enough," Taemin says.
Kibum shakes his head. "This is why I don't have girlfriends anymore. Too much pressure. You're what, ten, you shouldn't even be thinking about marriage."
"I'm sixteen," Taemin corrects him immediately. He almost sounds offended, and he doesn't bring up the subject of girls a second time.
And anyway, their conversation is interrupted as number thirteen, a boy named Sukchul, proves that the number really is unlucky by stumbling over the only obstacle in the road, an empty carton of food that one of the soldiers dropped. Sukchul crashes down and scrapes his knee on the road, getting a warning in the process.
Cursing, Sukchul glares at the soldiers, and keeps going.
They keep walking. Onwards, onwards. No way back now. Kibum closes his eyes, but he can't sleep.
It starts raining again late in the afternoon; another heavy rainfall coupled with strong winds that almost blow the Walkers sideways. Before they get used to it and change their walking, two boys, number seven and number twenty, are given their tickets. They simply stumbled one too many times. It's only after he passes their bodies that Kibum realizes that he never knew their names.
Kibum huddles closer to Woohyun and Jonghyun; walking closely together makes it easier to combat the winds.
"Why the hell do they have to make so much of the route go along the east coast?" Jonghyun yells through the winds, his voice hardly even carrying the short distance over to Kibum.
"Because they want to fuck with us as much as possible, why else?" Kibum replies, and all three of them grin.
Woohyun shudders in the cold and curls an arm around Kibum and one around Jonghyun in order to keep warm. Touching isn't prohibited, as long as they're not actively hindering one another. "Don't get any funny ideas," Woohyun warns them.
"You're not my type," Kibum says, turning his head and speaking almost against Woohyun's ear, snickering as Woohyun tenses a little.
"That reminds me," Woohyun says. "You know those two up front? The ones we thought were a couple?"
Woohyun laughs. "Turns out they're twins. Can you believe it? Twins!"
It isn't really all that funny, but Kibum still laughs, and Jonghyun joins them, walking and laughing with their arms around each other.
They seem to be the only one keeping their spirits up, however. The rest of the Walkers are reduced to blurry outlines in the rain, but the way the yell and curse the weather makes it easy to tell how they feel about this. It's like one big cosmic fuck you, and honestly, Kibum thinks it's pretty apt.
Kibum wonders how Taemin's dealing with this. The boy's so skinny that the gusts of winds seem likely to blow him right off the road. Kibum doesn't hear Taemin's number when the occasional warnings are called out, however, and after the wind dies down somewhat, sometime around seven in the evening, he catches a glimpse of Taemin and walks over to him. "how are you holding up?" he asks, wondering when he got so supportive of a kid he never even knew existed a couple of days ago.
"I think I have a blister on my left foot," Taemin replies. "Other than that, I'm good. I think. You?"
"Oh, you know me, nothing can get me down," Kibum jokes.
They eat dinner together; soggy crackers and something that tastes vaguely of fish. Kibum's stomach feels like it's in knots, but he knows that if he stops eating, he might as well walk up to the soldiers, grab a rifle and shoot himself in the head. He knows that he needs to keep eating, keep drinking (Tip #21: Stay hydrated and don't let food go to waste), if he wants to have a shot at making it through this. Kibum empties the rest of his canteen, then raises in the air. "Canteen, number nine," he calls out, and he smirks at the soldier that comes over to refill his canteen.
The soldier doesn't even look at him.
As darkness falls, the road makes a sudden turn upwards. It catches Kibum by surprise, and as he looks up, he sees a hill in front of him, a steep hill, at least 200 meters long, though to him it looks like it goes on forever and ever. He groans in protest, first over the mere thought of having to go up there, then again as the muscles in his thighs and legs start throbbing when he forces himself to keep his speed up.
Taemin swears quietly next to him, sounding out of breath, but he matches Kibum's speed, and they climb the hill together, step by step.
"Warning! Warning, number 32! Warning, number fourteen! Warning, number six!"
Almost immediately, the soldiers start yelling out warnings, one after another. First warnings, second warnings, third warnings. Kibum listens for his own number and Taemin's number, but doesn't hear either one. Instead he hears the rifles being fired. First once, then a second time, and a third. For a second, Kibum wonders if this hill is going to be the end of them all, if it's going to kill him, because he thinks it might. If this isn't hell, it's a pretty good approximation. It hurts, it fucking hurts and his legs feel like they're melting away beneath him, becoming more and more useless by the second, but he wills himself to take one more step, one more step, one more step, and then--
Then the hill gives way to flat road again and Kibum straightens up, trying to ignore the warning twinges of pain in both his legs, trying to ignore the way his heart is racing, trying to ignore the way it feels like he can't catch a full breath.
"One more of those, and I'm gone," Taemin breathes. Kibum can only nod. He's starting to become pretty fucking aware of his own mortality.
They pass several cities during the night; Kosong, Gansung and Sokcho. Kibum dozes through all of them, only registers the flashes of light and the chanting of names from the crowds.
By the time their third morning on the road rolls around, six more boys are gone, bringing the total up to 22 ticketed boys. 22 gone, 28 left. 48 hours on the road, nearly 300 kilometers covered, and not even half the boys are gone yet. Kibum thinks they're all starting to blend together now, just names and numbers and indistinguishable faces. He wonders is he should care, if he should feel bad for them.
In the end, he finds he's just happy that it's not him with his brains splattered all over the road.
They pass through Kangnung not long after they get their rations, and while in the city, they turn and start heading east instead of just going south. Kibum is not going to miss the coast, with its hills and its almost constant battering of strong winds. Kibum prefers staying inland; he hopes he never has to see the fucking ocean again in his (possibly very short) life.
"How are you two doing?" Minho asks. "I reckon I could keep walking for at least five more days, if I really had to. My legs are good." He looks confident enough, but his face is red and he's coughing. Maybe his legs are good, but it doesn't look like the rest of him is doing too good.
"Your ass is even better," Kibum says and leers at him; Minho somehow gets on his nerves, brings out the part of him that makes him want to punch people in the face. Minho gives up trying to hold a conversation, huffs and veers off to the other side of the road. "He thinks we're gay for each other," Kibum comments.
Taemin chokes. "W-what?"
"Maybe he's right," Kibum continues, as if he didn't hear Taemin at all. "Maybe I am kinda gay for you."
"B-but," Taemin stutters. He looks scared, and he glances over at the soldiers, as if he expects one of them to punish them for even talking about something like this. Being gay is not something you joke about, it's not something you talk about, not something you are, and it's certainly not something you admit to.
Kibum grins and winks at Taemin. "There's nothing in the rules about it, don't worry. It's getting pretty dark; I could jerk you off right here and now, and nobody would even know."
"Uhm," Taemin says, and Kibum can see his ears getting red.
"What do you say? You're still a virgin, right? I can't exactly fuck you, we'd both get shot for that, but I'm good at hand-jobs," Kibum says, pressing the matter. He doesn't even know why he's doing it, and to Taemin, of all people. Maybe it's because it's Taemin. Young and innocent Taemin, so misplaced in all of this. Sweet Taemin, polite to his hyungs and sharing his food. Cute Taemin, too skinny for his own good and too clueless half of the time.
Taemin sputters, helplessly, almost flails. "Do whatever you want!"
Kibum laughs over the hint of sheer want in Taemin's strained voice, pats his back and picks up his pace, leaving Taemin behind without another word.
The next time Kibum slows down enough to find Taemin, Taemin's walking next to Jinki, talking to him. Kibum wonders if it should bother him, but he decides that this isn't really the time to be petty, so he just walks on the other side of Taemin, not saying anything for a while.
Taemin and Jinki talk about past Walks. "Do you know why they started in the first place?" Taemin asks.
Jinki gives a non-committal shrug. "Netizens," he says, and doesn't elaborate.
"Pretty sure the Night Riders had something to do about it as well," Kibum says. "People thought they were getting out of control. Motorcycles, fashion, music, art; that sort of thing. Terrible, right? Of course the General had to do something about that. Can't have anyone wearing foreign clothes or listening to music or, god forbid, painting a picture, now can we?"
For once, Jinki turns his head, actually looking at Kibum. He even smiles a little. Third day on the road, and he still looks exactly like he did before they started. His hair might be a bit more matted and his pale blue shirt is dirtier than it was on Tuesday morning, but apart from that, he looks the same. Lee Jinki looks like he could keep going until the end of time. "Exactly. It would be atrocious."
"Anarchy." Jinki nods and eats one of his tubes of concentrate. Almost out of habit, Kibum does the same, but it doesn't taste anything at all and he struggles to keep it down.
Taemin looks from Jinki to Kibum and back to Jinki again, then shakes his head, as if the whole conversation has gone straight over his head. "What about the longest Walk? How long was it?"
"It went all the way to Daegu," Kibum says instantly. This, he knows. "It's my home town. It happened before I was born, but the older generations still boast about it. It's why my mother was proud that I was selected. She figures I'll take the Walk to Daegu again and make our family rich and famous."
Before, Kibum kind of liked the thought. Now, it just makes him feel nauseated.
Going inland means less wind and less rain, but instead there's the constant heat of the sun, beating down on them. Kibum tugs off his sweater and ties it around his waist before stretching his arms above his head, trying to work out the kinks and aches in his muscles. It doesn't particularly help, but it doesn't make it worse either.
"If I win this, I'm not gonna walk another step in my life," he comments to Jonghyun, who laughs.
"Warning! Third warning, number 33!"
Kibum turns his head to find boy number 33, a pimply-faced kid named Dongmin, crawling on his hands and knees with tears streaming down his face as he's pleading with the soldiers to give him a minute, just to minute to get back up on his feet.
They don't give him a minute. They don't even give him ten seconds.
"You should get a wheelchair made of gold and five hot girls to push you around in it," Jonghyun says after the shots have died down.