Hanover reached under his left arm for the water bottle that hung from the side of his backpack, uncorked it, put it to his lips. A few drops of warm water trickled into his leathery mouth. Always a few drops. Never more, never less. He corked the bottle and replaced it.
Behind him Farris giggled. Hanover glanced back. Farris was grinning, letting his fingers crawl across his bald forehead like a fleshy tarantula. He muttered something, looked at his other hand hanging limp at his side, and giggled again.
Hanover left Farris to his own amusements and focused forward again, where the mountains lay jagged across the horizon. Their stark, fractal peaks, partially silhouetted by the sun, were burned into his retinas, tattooed in negative on the insides of his eyelids. They had never gotten any nearer, not after all his uncountable steps.
He tilted his head back to glance at the sun. Force of habit; the sun never changed position. It just hung there, about forty-five degrees up from the horizon, as if it had stalled and was stuck at that height until it would someday corrode away.
He brought his head down again so the brim of his hat would block the sun from his face. His feet trudged through the ruddy sand. Sand particles eddied around his boots, rebounded from his pant legs and chased each other off across the desert.
He walked. The moving sand made a dull electric moan. Dust collected in his nostrils, clotted at the corners of his mouth, caked his eyelashes.
Farris jogged up beside him, grinning, with his tongue caressing one side of his lower lip. He opened a fist to show Hanover the sand collected in his palm.
“Fear in a handful of dust,” he slurred, and laughed like a whinnying horse as the wind piped up and blew the sand away.
It was later. With the sun stuck where it was, the only times were “now” and “later,” and only stopped walking when Farris found food, which hadn’t happened yet. Walking and walking, and suddenly the black woman was almost beside him. Her tracks said she had been walking to intercept him for a long time, but he hadn’t noticed until she was almost close enough to reach out and touch with his left hand. Was that his north side? South? It depended on whether the sun were frozen in the morning or evening sky. It also didn’t matter.
She watched Farris, who was walking backwards, windmilling his arms, then she fell into step beside Hanover. He kept watch on her out of the corner of his eye. She walked. He walked. Just two people—three, if Farris counted—going the same direction.
They passed a curled corner of metal sticking out of the sand. White paint had flaked off where it was bent, and rust striped the creases like a deeper shade of sand. The black woman stepped a few feet out of her path to kick at it. Drifted sand around it loosened enough for them to make out writing. 60 MILES/HOUR. The sign shuddered from her kicks, and the tip of the corner broke off and flipped over to embed itself straight up in the sand. Hanover watched without stopping. The woman caught up to him and matched his stride again.
Behind him, Hanover could hear Farris kicking at the sign and laughing…