Right or left?
Both tracks from the junction taunt you. Both disappear into a heat that broils the earth. In both directions, the sky is vast and inconclusive.
Your neck burns. Sweat ponds on your forehead beneath your drenched bandanna. Feet ache in molten runners. Your leg muscles sag like hot lava. You went out too early, too keen to get ahead of the pack.
Leslie, a running mate, is not well. He is trembling, shoulders slumped, eyes closed; his breathing is sharp and hot. He fumbles with the tube from his Camelbak, but can’t get it to his mouth. He is close to tears.
Susan, the third in your team, unwraps an energy bar. “Here,” she says, “chew this.”
Leslie bites it, then bends over and vomits violently, flinging purple globules from the bar across the ochre dirt amid a fibrous yellowing spittle. A lizard scuttles shadowless across red stones.
“Which way?” says Susan.
You shake your head. She stares at you incredulously. “Jesus, Stu. It’s your job to know.” Tears well in your eyes.
Leslie sits sluggishly on the angled rocks. Each breath shakes him.
“Drink,” says Susan, and forces the tube into Leslie’s mouth. He gulps, and vomits again.
“Left or right?” she shouts. She is holding Leslie up.
Shame cuts you harsher than the sun. We came from the south, so it must be right, right? Or left?
“How far have we come?” she says.
“The last checkpoint was twenty-six,” you say. “We’re about twelve k’s out of there.”
“So twelve to go. Can you manage twelve more?” she says to Leslie. He nods feebly. You doubt he will.
“It’s fifty-fifty,” you say.
“It’s thirty-six twelve,” she says.
“If left is right, we run the last twelve, if it’s not, we run twelve the wrong way, twelve back here then the twelve. Makes thirty-six.” She wipes sweat off her brow. “Or it’s twelve back.”
Sweat pricks your eye. You wince and think of the last checkpoint, where you left the maps and comms gear. You could die without them. Especially Les.
“Or we wait for someone to come,” says Susan. She is still holding Leslie. The sun presses down on you all, mercilessly.
You drink hot, bitter water from your Camelbak. Around you, the world is red and silent and blue and hot. You stifle your tears.
Leslie raises a hand, and points. You and Susan look. The horizon is a red scar. He jabs his hand feverishly. His breath is laboured. His hand sways unsteadily.
“You sure?” says Susan. Leslie nods, almost imperceptibly.
“It’s left,” she says. “C’mon, we have to carry him.”
You put one of his arms about your shoulder and lift. He is clammy and heavy and stinks of vomit.
You hope, you hope beyond all that is hot and painful and odious in this heat that he is right.
His head lies on your shoulder. You whisper, “Thanks.”
His response is a hot grimace,
“We. Can. Still. Win. This.”