Esther Velez

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Month: May 2015

The Watchtower S2: Episode 3

The Watchtower is a serial novel about zombies.
Go to the Series Page

EPISODE THREE

It’s the way he’s always been.

There’s a wound, he’s there to patch it up.

He’s never been so good at finding out whatever caused the wound in the first place.

Especially when he’s the cause.

Crisis management.

Disaster relief.

That’s all he’s ever been good at.

Up until now, it’s all he’s ever needed.

***

The man with the gun inched closer to them.

“You two seem to be in a bit of trouble,” the man said, gesturing to their bus. “Is there any way that I can be of assistance to you?”

Rosemarie kept her eyes trained on his gun. He noticed and smiled.

“Oh, I see. This gun here has got the little miss spooked.” He lowered his weapon. “I’m not here to use it on you. It’s just a precaution in case any of the zombies show up.”

A few other men and two women came out of the jeeps, guns pointing toward the road, the bus, anywhere but at Rosemarie and Jace.

“What do you want?” Jace asked, taking a step closer to the man.

“What do I want?” The man laughed. “You’re the one who waved my group down. The question is, what do you want?”

“We’re trying to get to Homestead,” Rosemarie blurted out. “I need to get back to my boyfriend.”

“Now this is an interesting situation,” the man said, looking at Jace and then back at her. “You see, we’re heading to Homestead ourselves.” He turned to one of the men who had come out of the jeep. “Move Chris and Angie to your vehicle. I’ll take these two with me.”

“Wait a moment,” Rosemarie said, holding up her hand. “I appreciate your offer, but I can’t go with you unless I know your name.”

“Is that really the only thing you need to trust someone, little miss?” The man glanced at Jace. “Is that the only thing she needed from you?”

Jace didn’t seem to hear him. “What’s your name, sir?”

The man laughed again and extended a dirty hand to Rosemarie. “The name is Carl. And me and the rest of the group are Zombie Slayers. Now, is that enough information for you to trust me?”

***

“That’s not the way it works.”

They had been sitting here for all of five minutes, watching father and son argue back and forth. Lincoln was growing restless. It reminded him of conversations between his own father and Rosemarie. Maybe there was a reason his sister was involved with this guy.

It still would’ve been nice to know that, you know, he was lying about his identity.

“I’m sorry, Steven. Is there anything else you would like me to say?”

“There’s nothing you can say—”

Lincoln stood up.

“Okay, this is all very interesting, but it’s not Dr. Phil. We don’t have the time, nor the necessary education, to sift through all of this nonsense. Can we just move on with our lives?”

The room grew quiet.

“Miller, it’s kinda obvious that your son doesn’t want to talk about this,” Lincoln continued, “so maybe you should just let it go and wait for a better time.”

“Because that’s the most effective way to deal with problems,” Miller said, lowering his voice. “By running away from them.”

Who does this guy think he is?

“I think Lincoln is right,” Soren said, turning to his father. “I think it’s time for you to move on.”

Miller stood there, his face slowly becoming unreadable. Lincoln had seen this before, in his own father, after he tried to explain why he was staying with their mother. Whatever had happened between Soren and Miller was their deal, but he needed to find Rosemarie. That was the only thing that mattered.

“We’re going to the Watchtower,” Miller said slowly. “When you’re ready, that’s where we’ll be.” He reached out to shake Toby’s hand. “It was nice meeting you guys. I hope you find your sister.”

“Thank you for your help, Miller,” Toby said.

With one last awkward glance at his son, Miller walked out of the house.

“What was he talking about?” Lincoln asked. “What is the Watchtower?”

“It’s supposed to be a safe house,” Soren replied, crossing his arms, “but I don’t believe it exists. I don’t know how he expects me to find him there when it’s probably not even real.”

“Well, a safe house isn’t going to help us find Rosemarie,” Toby cut in. “Do you think she’s still in the Homestead area?”

Soren sighed. “To be honest, I think her car got stuck somewhere on the side of the road somewhere and she probably forgot her phone at home.”

“Then why weren’t you driving around looking for her?”

“I already tried that, but she’s not around.”

Lincoln didn’t understand. Wasn’t she this guy’s boyfriend? Didn’t he care about her safety? Didn’t he want to know where she was?

“Listen, Soren, we’re going to need a lot more than this if we’re going to find my sister,” he said. “Did she know anyone in this area that she might have gone to for help?”

“I don’t know, Lincoln. I don’t know anything.” Soren coughed and leaned back in his chair. “Right now, I’m not feeling so well, so if you would just leave me alone—”

Lincoln stood up. “I guess this is it, then. Toby and Lyn, we’re leaving.” He stepped over to Soren. “I don’t know how you got a girl like Rosemarie, but she sure doesn’t deserve someone who doesn’t even care if she’s all right.”

Soren didn’t reply, closing his eyes and wiping sweat from his forehead. He really didn’t look so good. Lincoln looked at his brother-in-law and nodded.

It was time to go.

***

The seats in the back of the jeep were uncomfortable. Rosemarie fiddled with the seatbelt, but it was stuck. She had agreed to get in this car with Carl and the other Zombie Slayers mainly because she had no other choice. Besides, these people had guns and they seemed to be concerned about surviving.

These are exactly my kind of people.

“So why aren’t you back home with your boyfriend, little miss?” Carl asked, glancing at her in the rear view mirror. “You’d think a girl as pretty as you would want to stay at home instead of wandering around with some guy who ain’t your boyfriend.”

Rosemarie looked up at him. “I was kidnapped. My car broke down and some guys offered to help. Turns out they had…ulterior motives.”

“So you don’t learn from your mistakes,” Carl laughed. “You get involved with a pretty boy bus driver, and now you’re riding in a jeep with self proclaimed Zombie Slayers.” He shook his head. “You are something else.”

Jace crossed his arms. “Listen, Carl, I don’t know who you think you are, but I don’t appreciate—”

“And I don’t care. I’m not in the business of making people happy. I’m in the business of killing things that are a threat to me.” He lowered his voice. “So don’t make the mistake of trying to tell me anything. Because, in my book, that’s a threat.”

The car grew silent. This guy didn’t scare her. She had fought off two of the so-called zombies, and she had survived a kidnapping. But she wanted to know why he was headed to Homestead. The news stations seemed to say that Homestead was the only place without zombies. So why were Zombie Slayers trying to get there?

“How much do the two of you know about all this?” Carl asked, most of the aggression gone from his voice.

Rosemarie glanced at Jace. “Well, the makeshift hospital we were in was overrun by them. We think it spread through the food.”

“We were attacked by one on the bus,” Jace added. “I had almost killed it, but it managed to escape from me.”

“Yeah, they’re crafty little things. They’ll come at you only if they think they can win. And, no, this thing didn’t spread through the food.” Carl paused. “This was done to them.”

“What do you mean?” Rosemarie leaned forward. “I saw the guy who kidnapped me turn into one right in front of my eyes. No one was doing anything to him.”

“Well, you see, that’s how they managed to trick everyone. They put something in them, something latent, and then, when the time is right, they trigger it.”

“So why are you killing them? Aren’t they just victims?” Jace asked.

Carl frowned. “No, I wouldn’t say they’re victims. I don’t know why they were chosen for this, but they’re killing people. I can’t just sit around and watch that.”

“So you became a Zombie Slayer.” Rosemarie sighed. “I killed the one who kidnapped me. I guess that makes me a zombie slayer, too.”

Carl turned around to face her and held out his hand.

“Welcome to the club, little miss.”

***

“Some help that guy was,” Lyn said, slipping her arm through her husband’s. “What are the chances that he was Miller’s long lost estranged son?”

“I don’t know,” Toby said, “but Miller being there really complicated things. I didn’t think he would end up leaving us behind.”

“Now we don’t even have a car to drive back home once we find her,” Lincoln said.

Lyn sighed. This was getting out of control. They had absolutely no idea where to look for Rosemarie, and they didn’t have a car to protect them from the zombies, or whatever they were, that were roaming around.

They walked away from Soren’s house in silence. The streets were busy, which gave Lyn a strange sense of comfort. If there were a lot of people around, maybe they wouldn’t have to worry about zombies.

“Excuse me, ma’am, do you have any change?”

Lyn felt someone tugging at her pants and looked down. A small elderly woman looked up at her, hands extended.

“No, I don’t have any—”

The woman’s face turned white. “I—I know you!”

Lyn glanced at Toby. What is she talking about?

“I’m sorry, I’ve never seen you before.”

“Yes, yes, you have,” the woman continued, pulling herself to her feet. “You were driving on the side of the road a mile from here. I saw you…” The woman suddenly started to cough and Toby pulled Lyn behind him.

“What are you talking about?” He asked. “You saw us in front of that elementary school?”

The woman continued coughing, doubling over and falling back. Lyn took a step closer. She felt a strange desire to help the woman, although she was sure she couldn’t do anything.

“Excuse me, ma’am, are you okay?”

Suddenly, the woman lunged at Lyn, reaching for her throat. Her face had turned gray and her fingers were cold around Lyn’s neck. She clawed at the fingers, trying to pry them away.

“Toby!” She tried to scream, but no sound came out. The woman was squeezing tighter and tighter, and she was struggling for her.

And then there was a loud noise and it was over. Lyn fell back into Toby’s arms, gasping for air, rubbing her neck, watching her attacker crumble to the ground in front of her.

“Toby—” she gasped. “What did you do?”

“I didn’t do anything,” Toby said, holding on to her so she wouldn’t fall over. “Lincoln did.”

Lyn looked to her brother. He was standing in front of her, shoulders hunched, eyes dark. Gun in his hands. He had fired at her attacker and had made it stop.

He had saved her life.

Thank you, she wanted to say. Thank you for stopping that…thing.

But she couldn’t.

He wouldn’t have accepted it anyway.

That’s just the way things worked.

***

The lights were off when he walked through the door. His wife must have gone upstairs to sleep.

Sleeps sounds so good right now.

Last night had been hard, waiting for his children to come home knowing he couldn’t do anything about it. But he was tired of letting things happen to him. Emmy hadn’t been herself this morning, rambling on and on about that man. How did she think that made him feel? Did she think he didn’t care?

“Emmy?” He called out as he climbed up the stairs to their bedroom.

“Jamison?” Her small voice floated from the top of the stairs. “Is everything all right? You left so suddenly, and I was worried—”

He didn’t reply, but continued climbing the stairs slowly. He was going to find out the truth behind her behavior this morning. Even if he had to pry it out of her.

“Why were you talking about him this morning?”

Emmy looked away. “Jamison, I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking straight—”

“I thought we had an understanding, Emmy. You were never supposed to talk about him again, and I would forget it ever happened.”

“I know, Jamison, and I’ve tried, but this morning—”

He reached for her arm and pulled her close to him.

“You broke the terms of our arrangement, Emmy.”

She slumped forward and started to cough.

“Jamison, I’m so sorry. I’m just not feeling so well.”

This wasn’t the first time she’d pretended to be sick in the middle of a conversation. He wasn’t buying it this time.

“Emmy, this is the last time we’re going to talk about this, do you understand?” Jamison lifted her chin and waited until she looked him in the eye. “If I hear you talking about him—”

“It won’t happen again, Jamison,” she replied, her voice shaking.

He let her go and felt a strange satisfaction in her reaction. He’d never lashed out at her before, but this time, she had pushed him.

And she deserved it.

His cell phone began to ring and he felt a new anger rush through him.

“Jamison, this is Trace again.”

“What do you want, Trace?” He tried to stabilize his voice. There was no use in letting Trace know he was upset.

“It’s really bad, Jamison—”

“Just tell me, Trace.” Too late.

“They’re closing the quarantine, Jamison.”

“What?”

“They just packed up and left, blocking the entrance. No one can come in, and no one can leave.”

“…Thank you, Trace.”

Jamison hung up the phone. He looked at Emmy, his anger toward her forgotten.

“This is it, Emmy,” he said, trying to ignore the fear in her eyes.

“This is when everything changes.”

The Watchtower S2: Episode 2

The Watchtower is a serial novel about zombies.
Go to the Series Page

EPISODE TWO

She had seen that look before.

Her father had sat at the head of the table, dinner dishes cleared away, hands entwined in their mother’s. He had told them he was sorry for the way he’d treated them in the years following the affair. He had promised that from here on out, things would be different. He had asked them for forgiveness.

And none of them had given it to him.

He had sat there, at the head of the table, listening to his three children list reasons why he didn’t deserve it.

And his eyes had held the same look she saw in Miller’s: complete and utter helplessness, with a touch of self-doubt.

But that wasn’t the only time she had seen that look.

She had seen it in her own eyes the day after she had gotten married, and she realized that she didn’t have what it took to be a wife. She had wept at her own reflection, begging a God she wasn’t even sure existed to make her a person worthy of the man who had chosen her.

And she had seen it one other time.

In the eyes of the girl she had killed.

 ***

“So tell me a little bit about this boyfriend of yours.”

The traffic had cleared on the highway and they were moving again.

Rosemarie sat in the front row of the school bus they had taken from the makeshift hospital, holding her head. Even though the wound from her attack wasn’t fatal, it had left her with a throbbing headache.

And now Jace wanted to hear about Soren.

“Why do you want to know? Are you going to write about it in the hospital’s gossip column?”

Jace laughed. “No, I just want to know who this guy is we’re traveling all this distance to find.”

Rosemarie looked out the window. The sun was just starting to come up in the sky. It had only been a few hours since she had last talked to Soren, telling him she would be on her way soon. He would be worried about her.

“I don’t know what to talk about.”

Jace wasn’t convinced. “You’re together with this guy and you don’t have anything to say about him? Let’s start with how you met.”

Rosemarie smiled, remembering. “It was about a year ago. He came to work on a service project at the nursing home. He asked me out without even knowing my name.”

“So you like those blunt, direct types.”

“No, actually, I told him off,” Rosemarie said, shaking her head. “I said I couldn’t be with someone who didn’t care enough about the little details.” Rosemarie looked down at her fingers. “So he spent the next two weeks learning every single little detail.”

“And then he asked you out again,” Jace offered.

“Yep.” Rosemarie closed her eyes. She remembered how close they had gotten the first few months. And then it happened, and she was never the same again. Soren had forgiven her, but she couldn’t understand why. How could you forgive someone who does something like that?

“Do you love him?”

Rosemarie looked at Jace. “What are you talking about? Of course I love him.”

Jace turned back to look at her, but didn’t say anything.

“What?”

“I was just checking to make sure.” Jace returned his focus to the street outside.

Rosemarie tried not to think about Jace’s question, but it was the only thing on her mind now.

Of course I love him, she told herself.

Well, then, if you loved him, why did you do that to him? Why did you hurt him like that?

There it was, that voice that never grew tired. The voice that could shout discouragement, accusations, and remind her of her failures with just one or two sentences.

The voice that sounded an awful lot like her own.

 ***

Jamison made the two minute walk to the Main Office without seeing a single soul. Most seemed to understand the gravity of their situation. They wanted to, like Emmy, watch the news and obsess over what was going to happen to them. Others didn’t seem to mind at all, and had gone home to get some rest.

Standing in the Main Office parking lot was Trace, arms in his pockets, stress on his face. He had definitely not gone home for any rest. Jamison waved, and the man practically ran toward him.

“Jamison, thanks for coming.”

“Yeah, Trace. What’s going on?” The phone call he’d received earlier had been more than a little vague.

“The agents working at the blockade are causing trouble,” Trace said, wiping sweat from his forehead.

“What kind of trouble can they cause, Trace? Aren’t they here to help us?”

“That’s just the thing. They won’t let anybody out now, not even to get supplies.” Trace shook his head. “Even though they extended the quarantine, they can’t just keep people in here.”

Jamison sighed. This was getting a little too complicated. The government was supposed to be here to help the. They had set up the quarantine to ensure that the disease didn’t reach their community. They were screening people coming in and going out. Why couldn’t they keep doing that until the quarantine closed?

“Listen, I’ll go talk to them, okay?”

Trace nodded, his eyes blinking rapidly.

Jamison put a hand on his shoulder. “Hey, Trace, are you all right? You don’t look so well.”

“Yes, I’m fine, Jamison.” Trace shook his head. “I’m just a little tired from all of this.”

“Well, why don’t you go home and get some rest? And tell your wife Emmy and I say hello.”

Trace wiped sweat from his face again. “Yeah, I’ll do that. You go talk to those agents.”

Jamison watched his friend make his way over to his car, start it up, and begin the short drive home.

God, let him rest.

 ***

“What are you doing here, Father?” Soren asked through tight lips and narrowed eyes.

Lyn watched the exchange with mild interest. She had been through this before, with her father, and she knew how it would end.

“They came to me for help, Steven. I didn’t know—”

“Wait, you’re name is really Steven?” Lincoln laughed. “Did Rosemarie know anything about this?”

Soren wouldn’t look at him. “Not exactly.”

“So she kind of knew that you had run away from your family and had changed your name?”

“Lincoln, calm down,” Toby said, sitting down beside her brother. “Let them square things. We’re not involved in this.”

“I’m sorry, Toby, but we became involved the minute this guy started dating Rosemarie.” Lincoln turned to Soren. “Now, you’re going to answer my question—”

“I am not answering any questions until my father is out of my house.” Soren stood up. “I don’t know why you brought him here, but I don’t want anything to do with him.”

Where have I heard this before?

No wonder Soren and Rosemarie had clicked. Both had a mutual disdain for their fathers. Both had run away from their families. Lyn wouldn’t be surprised if Soren turned out to be a religious fanatic as well.

A religious fanatic that doesn’t want to talk to his own father. 

Sounds about right. 

“Steven, can we at least talk about it?” Miller asked, taking a step closer. “Your mother and Sean are in the car —”

“You brought them with you?” Soren crossed his arms. “What is wrong with you? Don’t you know that I don’t want to talk to you?”

“Whatever happened in the past is in the past, Steven. Can’t we just bury it all and move forward from there?”

Lyn tried not to say anything. Miller couldn’t expect Soren to just forgive him, could he?

That’s not the way it works. You can’t ever bury the past. It’ll always be there, the good and the bad.

And if you’ve wronged someone, they’re never gonna forget, no matter how deep they’re buried.

That’s just the way it works. 

 ***

A crowd was starting to form around the blockade. People were just starting to wake up, and it would take a little more than men in dark suits with large guns to keep people from asking questions.

Jamison made his way through the group of people. Most recognized him and began assaulting him with questions, but he didn’t answer any of them. He had a few questions of his own that he needed answered first.

He found the man who had knocked on his door last night.

“Excuse, me, Mr. Smith, was it?”

The man frowned.

“Yes, that’s me. What do you want?”

“My name is Jamison Valera. I represent the community of Goulds Point.” He offered his hand, but the man didn’t shake it. “I wanted to ask you a few questions concerning this quarantine.”

Mr. Smith took a step forward. “We’re not here to answer questions, sir. We’re here to enforce this quarantine, and you’re to stay within the confines of the zone.”

“Yes, I understand that, but—”

“No more questions. We’re doing this for your safety more than anything.” Mr. Smith lifted his gun and pointed it at Jamison. “Now, are you going to listen to me and move on, or am I going to have to shoot?”

Jamison raised his hands in surrender. “I’m not looking for trouble, Mr. Smith. I just wanted some more information.”

The man continued to train his weapon at Jamison until he turned away from him.

So much for that.

If the government agents in charge of the quarantine were treating them more like prisoners than anything else, were they really trying to protect them like they claimed? And if they weren’t letting anyone in or out, how were his kids going to make it back inside?

 ***

They hadn’t much to say to each other on the bus. Rosemarie had wanted to ask Jace about himself, but he seemed too preoccupied with the bus to hold any conversations.

Rosemarie wondered why she had been so trusting. She didn’t even know who this guy was. And, yet, here she was, speeding down the highway with him in a noisy, smelly school bus.

But he said he would help me, and he seems genuine enough.

The bus starting to shake. Rosemarie looked at Jace, who was frantically checking the dashboard.

“Is everything okay?”

“I’m afraid not,” he said. “We’re breaking down, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

The bus sputtered and died just as he pulled it over onto the shoulder. This was the second time in their journey to Homestead that they’d been stalled.

Jace stood up. “I’m not a mechanic, Rosemarie. I have no idea how to fix this.” He made his way over to the front door. “The only thing I can think of is hitching a ride down there.”

“Do you think anyone will take us?” Rosemarie followed him down the steps and out of the bus.

“We can only try.” He took a few steps forward and looked at the oncoming traffic. He started to wave when a jeep started to slow down.

“Well, would you look at that. Someone’s stopping already.”

AS Rosemarie strained to see the people in the jeep, she noticed two more vehicles slowing down behind them.

“Jace, do you see that? There are two more cars back there.”

He nodded. “Well, I guess that’s more people trying to help.

But when people began spilling from the vehicles, Rosemarie wasn’t so sure.

A man approached them from the jeep, gun extended.

“Jace, I don’t think they’re trying to help us.”

The Wall: S1 Episode 8

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Previous Episode

EPISODE EIGHT

It was a black, moonless night. Stars sparsely dotted the sky, blinking in and out. Winter whispered gentle reminders, disrupting small piles of crunchy brown leaves along the road with cool, foreboding breezes. An energetic squirrel scampered across the twisted branches of an oak tree, a small snake squirming in its jaws. The weeks before hibernation sent the animals of the Great Forest into a fit of desperation. Asher had seen his fair share of squirrels, badgers, and foxes running around town, scavenging for discarded fruits and helpless animals. It had never bothered him before, but today he felt tiny eyes boring into him, tracking his movements, reminding him that he was being watched.

Walking on bare feet since he left his home, Asher stepped off the grass and onto the road which led to Rinkar Avenue. Small rocks wedged between his toes and stung his soles as he trudged along the well worn dirt path. His mother always scolded his shoe-less tendencies, however lightheartedly. Growing up a farm girl had done the same thing to her, and when her son had exhibited desires to bond with nature, she couldn’t have been more pleased. For Asher, it all came down to how his feet felt. Nature could run off Tarkine Falls for all he cared. There was something about trotting along the grass or dirt uninhibited that set his aching feet at ease. But not so tonight. Nothing could calm his nerves tonight.

Black mumbling figures paced in the forefront of his vision, while the wall stood further behind, motionless and silent. The guards had surrendered their duties to the night, leaving only the shadows of their many watchtowers to frighten rebels into obedience. Those who shuffled noisily ahead of him, however, were not afraid. Asher had never ventured beyond his home during the twilight hours; he knew little of this gathering at the wall, only the few that stood before the wall during sunset. He had heard a few tales of men who came out after the guards had turned in for the night, but he knew nothing of their motivations, their desires, or their struggles. What were their reasons for coming out this late at night? Were they afraid of getting caught? Or is this the only time that their consciences allow them to leave?

Asher walked steadily until he came within a few feet from the end of the road. Beyond him, a patch of grass stretched ahead twenty feet to the wall, covering a width of several hundred, as it traced the outline of the wall and the Tarkine Mountains. Asher had never crossed the patch of grass. He had never dared to venture a step onto it. The closest he had been to the wall itself had been from within the safety of the EFC’s wooden walls, last week.

The idea of stepping onto the grass nauseated him. Asher remembered the color of the blood from the man who had been shot. He remembered the fear that surged through his heart and sent his body into a series of vicious convulsions. He would retain all thoughts of fleeing over to the Hill Country, and even his anger towards the Giver of Life, but he would never seriously consider it. These ideas were wonderful, they engaged his vibrant mind, but, logically, he could never entertain any of them. As much as Jordan would be disappointed, as much as Portas and the Lifers would look down upon him, he knew, in the deepest part of his heart, that he could never muster enough courage to step on the grass, let along climb over the wall.

The Giver of Life knows this.

The thought came to him briefly, but he rejected it immediately. Regardless of how well the Giver of Life understood his mind, Asher would never get what his heart desired. He would never experience true freedom within the confines of Aversano and its treacherous wall. It mattered little to him what the Giver of Life knew, for the simple reason that he would never given Asher what he wanted. In fact, Asher was sure that the Giver of Life couldn’tgive it to him. Everyone believed that Aversano was set apart by the Giver of Life, and the Hill Country was a land to be condemned and feared. The people of Aversano were free, and the Hill Country lived in slavery.

But, if the Giver of Life was so powerful, mighty, and great, why would he lie to his people? Asher wondered to himself. Why would he tell them that they lived in freedom when in reality they were slaves? The Giver of Life had made a mistake, this much Asher knew, and even in his omnipotence he had shown himself weak. The Giver of Life could not fulfill the desires of Asher’s heart, this much he knew. And even if he did not have the strength to flee from this abominable land, restlessness would take root in his heart, and grow into resistance. But it wouldn’t matter to the Giver of Life, as long as Asher didn’t kill anyone, steal their wife or consume too much liquor. Those were the only sins that the Giver of Life seemed to care about.

“Hey, are you ready to play?” An older teen appeared in front of him, dressed completely in black.

“What are you talking about?”

“The game,” a female voice said from behind. He turned around. Three more boys stood next to her, all dressed in black. She crossed her arms and smiled at him. “Tell me you know about the game.”

Asher took a step away from them. “I don’t know anything about a game.”

The girl laughed in his face. He smelled liquor on her breath.

“Somebody, tell this one what the game is.” She produced a silver flask and took a swig.

The game is designed to test your courage,” one of the younger boys said, rubbing his hands together. “In order from youngest to oldest, each player takes as many steps onto the grass towards the wall as they can.”

“And the one with the most steps wins.” The girl handed the flask to the boy who had been speaking. She lifted an eyebrow as she addressed Asher. “Are you ready to play?”

Asher slipped his hands into his pockets. This is exactly the kind of game that Jordan would like. He was the brave one, always ready to do anything, even if it seemed dangerous. Asher wasn’t brave. He had barely recovered from the event last week. But maybe…

An idea came to him. If he could play this game—if he could win it—maybe he could be as brave as Jordan. Maybe he could be brave enough to leave Aversano.

“I am ready to play.”

The girl smiled and motioned for the other kids to form a line. They immediately obeyed her, ordering themselves in what he assumed to be ascending age order. Asher wondered if Jordan had ever met her before. He would like her.

“How old are you?”

“Fifteen.”

She scanned the line and pointed to one of the boys. “You stand in front of him.”

Asher slipped into the line. He counted the boys in front of him. He was third in line. Couldn’t they bend the rules for a first time player? No, he shouldn’t be afraid, he reminded himself. This was his chance to show his bravery, and if he didn’t have it, this would help him get it.

The first boy stepped onto the grass and immediately turned back. The girl sighed but gave him a pat on the arm as he walked to the back of the line.

“You’ll do better next time, Joe.”

“He always does one step,” a boy whispered behind him.

Just one more boy and then it would be his turn. Hopefully the other boy had more guts than Joe.

The boy lasted five steps before fear got the better of him. He did not return to the line, but ran away.

“He always does that.”

It was now Asher’s turn. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply. This was his moment, his chance to be brave. It was his chance to do what no other had done in the history of Aversano. Or, at least, the recorded history. With his eyes still closed, he set his foot onto the grass. The cool blades sent a shiver up his spine and his shoulders shook. His second step was easier. Then the third. Then the fourth. And the fifth.

“That’s how you do it.” He heard the girl whispering to one of the boys on the line. He opened his eyes. Only a few more steps and he would be at the wall. He wondered if games like these had gotten the Wall Watchers started. Had they played this particular game in their youth, daring their friends to step further and further, only to get hooked to the adrenaline? Asher took another step.

The shrill of a whistle cut through the night. He turned around. The girl and her friends had broke out into a run. He turned to his left. There, in the darkness, a single beam of light approached him. He felt the fear rise in his throat. A guard. He had two options: turn back now and forever lose this game or get caught and subjected to whatever punishment his actions demanded.

There was, of course, a third choice. He could climb over the wall. Asher swallowed hard. Could he really do that? Could he really leave his family behind? His friends? Jordan? Would he like what he found there?

The light approached. Asher made up his mind. He dashed toward the wall. He could hear the guard’s footsteps now. The man was running, his light bouncing along the grass. Asher pushed forward, heart pounding, determined to reach the large stone blocks. The guard was shouting now, blowing into his whistle, then shouting again. But Asher kept running, eyes focused on the wall as the distance quickly closed.

He placed his hands on the stone blocks and nearly fainted. Here it was. The wall. The one thing separating him from the Hill Country. Asher knew he would have to climb up the wall. There was no turning back.

“Get back here, boy!” The guard shouted, almost behind him.

Asher lifted his foot and found a crevice. He reached up for a place to grab and hefted himself up. One step. He found another crevice. Two steps. Then, three. Then four. And five.

The guard was at the wall now, shouting and yelling for him to get down. The fear of getting caught pushed him faster, but it was the hope of the Hill Country that made him continue climbing. With one step at a time, he climbed higher and higher, until he had reached the top.

He glanced down. Four guards had joined the first and were all shouting his name. How do they know who I am? It didn’t matter if they knew him, though. He was at the top of the wall. There was nothing they could do to him now.

Asher turned his body around, facing the Hill Country. He felt accomplished, like this was what he had been waiting for his entire life. Something surprised him, although it didn’t keep him from starting the climb to the ground. He had heard of the light that the Wall Watchers were addicted to. He had heard that it was beautiful, and it was. But its beauty was not what had surprised him.

In a long line surrounding the wall, giant mechanical lights had been set up, linked together by chains, facing the wall. The light that the Wall Watchers stared at every night was not real light. It had been set up there by someone else.

But the truth did not bother him.

Asher set his feet on the soft ground of the Hill Country. He was ready to begin his new, free life.

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The Study Club: Episode 5

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EPISODE FIVE: New Ventures

Xavier knocked on the classroom door three times but no one responded. He checked the number on the door, then glanced at the number on the paper in his hand again.

Room 212. Chess Club. 4:30-6:30.

He was in the right place, and it was already 4:30. Why wasn’t anyone answering?

Well, at least you can say that you tried.

Xavier didn’t want anything to do with the Chess Club, but his father was convinced that he still needed friends, and this, according to him, was the only way to make any.

“Maurice doesn’t count as a friend. He’s your tutor, and he won’t allow friendship,” his father had said, handing him the Chess Club flier. “This club, on the other hand, is full of young kids like yourself, who are more than willing to accept a new friend.”

“How do you know anything about them, Dad? They could be crazy, for all we know.”

Xavier’s father had shrugged at the question, refusing to answer it. He had also refused to let Xavier argue against him.

He was about to turn away when a boy opened the door.

“Hello?”

Xavier swallowed. “My name is Xavier. I’m looking for the Chess Club. This flier said you guys meet in here.”

“Yep, that’s us. Why don’t you come inside, Xavier? It’s been a while since we’ve had any visitors.”

He swallowed again and stepped inside. So far, so good. The room was spacious enough for a classroom, although only five people, aside from himself, filled it. Two girls and three boys, if he guessed correctly. They were all dressed in school uniform, although the girls looked much more comfortable than the boys. They all stared at him as he walked in, but it wasn’t one of those intrusive stares. It was more of a curious stare than anything else.

“Guys, this is Xavier. He’s here to join our club.”

“Hey, Xavier,” said one of the girls. “My name is Alice. Nice to meet you.”

One of the taller boys with blond hair reached out to shake his hand. “I’m Dylan.”

“My name is Rich,” the other boy said, following suit. He was the only male in the group with a beard.

“You can call me Jamie,” said the other girl. She looked older than the rest. Xavier guessed she had to be a senior. Or maybe she’d been held back before?

“And my name is Ethan, and I’m the leader of this merry group.” The boy who had opened the door for him patted him on the shoulder. “Welcome to the Chess Club.”

“Thanks.”

“So, Xavier, what made you want to join us?” Jamie stood up from her chair and made her way over to him.

“Well,” he hesitated. He didn’t want to tell them that he was only here because his dad wanted him to make friends. That would make me sound too desperate. “I thought about learning chess. Is this a good place to learn?”

“Is it ever!” Rich crossed his arms and stroked his beard with his left hand. “I am the best player here, and I’ll have you know that I knew absolutely nothing about chess before I joined this club.” He pretended to give Xavier a death glare. “I’ll teach you everything that I know, but you will never beat me. I won’t let a rookie dethrone me.”

Xavier laughed. “Thanks for the offer, but if I’m going to learn from you, you’d better believe I will get better than you.”

Rich grinned. “This kid has a little bit of fight in him. I’ll take him.”

“No, no, if anyone gets to claim him as an apprentice, it has to be me,” Alice said, pouting. Her voice was high pitched and whiny. He guessed she might be a tenth grader. “I’ve been in this club for almost two years,” — I guessed right! — “and every time someone new shows up, you guys always take them.” Alice grabbed Xavier’s arm and pulled him to one of the desks. “This time, I want to claim him as my own.” She smiled at him. “I am way better at chess than any of these guys. The only one better than me is Jamie, and she isn’t interested in making apprentices.”

“Well, I—”

“Hey, I introduced him to the group, and, as leader, I should get final say on who gets to apprentice him.” Ethan pulled out a chess board. “Who says we battle for him?”

“A fight to the death!” Dylan took the board from Ethan and set it on the desk. “I will challenge anyone for the opportunity to train this young man in the art of chess playing.” He glared at the others. “Who dares battle, to the death, for his soul?”

Alice loosened her grip on Xavier’s arm and rushed to the board. “Prepare to lose, good sir,” she said, rolling up her sleeves. The others crowded around the board. Xavier made eye contact with Jamie, who now sat a few seats away from the match.

“Is it usually this lively in here?” He asked, sitting next to her. She smiled.

“This is a rowdy bunch,” she said. “I see they love you already.”

Xavier shrugged. “I think they just want someone they can claim as their apprentice.”

“No, they love you,” she teased. “For as long as I’ve been in this school, and for all the clubs I’ve been a part of, the Chess Club is, by far, the friendliest.”

Xavier laughed. “I can see that.” He watched Dylan and Alice frantically moving pieces on the chessboard. If for nothing else, he wanted to learn how to play chess so he could settle scores much easier. Oh, you want to watch this movie? Well, I want to watch another movie. Let’s have a chess battle to decide who gets to watch what!

Why did his father have to be so smart? How did he know that the Chess Club would be this accepting? This friendly?

Xavier leaned back in his chair. I wonder if Jenna would like these people?

 

 

“Hey, Xavier, are you going to come hang with us after this?”

It’d been almost a week since he joined the Chess Club, and they still wanted to hang out with him. Xavier didn’t think he was a bad guy. He didn’t think he was uninteresting, or unworthy of friends. He just thought it strange that these five wanted to be his friends so badly. They created opportunities to hang out, and they really tried getting to know him. It was unlike anything he’d experienced before.

Xavier leaned back in his seat. He studied the board in front of him, pretending to be fully concentrated on his next move.

“Come on, Xavier, did you hear what I asked?” Alice grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him. He held back a smile.

“Trying to pay attention to my moves here,” he said, shaking her off. “I want to give Rich a run for his money.”

In the battle for his soul, Rich had emerged victorious. Xavier enjoyed learning from the older boy, although he wasn’t sure if he’d ever beat him. Rich was, indeed, the best chess player in this club. No one, neither rookie nor experienced vet, could dethrone the master.

He made a move on the board and smiled confidently. “Check.”

Rich raised an eyebrow. “Don’t smile too soon, young padawan.” He lifted a piece from the board and set it down. “Checkmate.”

Xavier felt his face grow red. He hadn’t expected to win, but he thought he’d at least give Rich some kind of challenge. Instead, Rich had destroyed him in a matter of minutes.

“That was a good game, Xavier,” Rich said, standing up and shaking his hand. “Your skills will only grow as time progresses. Who knows? You may even get good enough to fight in our championship game.”

Xavier shook his head. “I’m not good enough for any competitions yet.”

“Don’t underestimate yourself, Xavier,” Jamie said from her seat by the door. “Our Chess Club was the least likely to succeed in any competition, and we’re heading out in two weeks to contend for the state championship.”

“Yeah, all it took was some hard work and knowing a few judges,” Ethan said, rubbing his hands together. Everyone laughed.

He’s gotta be kidding, right?

Ethan must’ve noticed his uneasiness and put a hand on his shoulder. “But, in all seriousness, we worked hard and proved everyone wrong. You can do the same.”

Xavier crossed his arms. “As much as I enjoy playing with you guys, I don’t have as much time to devote to chess as you do. I don’t want to play in any championships anyway.”

“Don’t worry about that, Xavier,” Ethan said. “Our championship team only has three slots that can’t be changed. Once we chose who was going to play, that was it.”

Xavier nodded. He realized they were only trying to encourage his growing fondness for chess. He smiled and stood up.

“Alright, Alice, where did you say you guys were going after this?”

 

 

Light poured into the darkened hallway as Xavier made his way back to the Chess Club room. Someone had left the light on and the door ajar before leaving for the evening.

I guess the janitors trust the teachers to turn the lights off before they leave.

He had forgotten his bookbag in his rush to hang out with Alice and Dylan. He hadn’t noticed that it was missing until his father had already picked him up from the restaurant.

“Can we please go back, Dad? It’s super important,” he had begged after they had already pulled away. “I have a test in a few days, and I left all my notes in my bookbag.”

His father had frowned. “I appreciate you having new friends, Xavier, but if you can’t be responsible, then I’m going to have to limit the amount of time you get to spend with them.”

“Please, Dad, I’m really sorry,” he had said in response. “It won’t happen again.”

And he wouldn’t let it. His father wasn’t the kind of person he wanted to disrespect or mess with. He also wasn’t the kind of person to listen to begging. The fact that he’d turned around and driven back to the school was enough for Xavier. He wouldn’t let his friends, old or new, make him any less responsible.

I’m my own person, aren’t I? My friends don’t have to change who I am.

And he didn’t have to change himself for them, either. They accepted him exactly the way he was, no questions asked. That was something he hadn’t experienced often in his school days. He never had trouble with bullies or anything like that, but people usually don’t like hanging around people who didn’t have an outrageous personality, or who weren’t overly friendly or extremely funny or insanely popular. He wasn’t any of those things, and, yet, these kids were so quick to befriend him.

Xavier started to push open the door to Room 212, when he heard some voices.

Someone is still here?

He opened the door a little more and peeked inside. He could see the outline of a few people huddled by the teacher’s desk. He focused a bit more, and recognized the back of Jamie’s head. And isn’t that Ethan? But who is the third person?

Xavier was about to enter the room when they began to speak again.

“I don’t know how I feel about this.”

“What are you worried about? We’ve got everything under control. Do you think I would try to do this if it wouldn’t work? If I thought we could get caught?”

Xavier swallowed hard. I don’t like the sound of that. They were both whispering, so he couldn’t make out who was saying what. Either way, it didn’t sound like they were planning a nice after school get together. It sounded pretty serious.

“Listen, the two of you.” The third voice came in strong and loud. This guy didn’t seem to care if he was heard. “I’ve been doing things like this for ages. In fact, we’ve already done it three times with your little club, so I don’t understand why you’re so worried.”

“But things are different this time around. There’s a new guy…”

“There’s always a new guy. Why do you keep inviting them into your club if you don’t want them to know what you’re doing?”

Xavier wanted to bang the door open and demand to know what they were talking about. He wanted to tell them that whatever it was that they were planning was wrong, and they shouldn’t do it. But what if it isn’t anything bad? What if they’re just talking mysteriously, like they always do? What if they’re just being dramatic? He didn’t know what to do.

“The new guy we’ve got, he’s a safeguard.”

Wait— that’s me they’re talking about.”

“If we need to use him as a scapegoat, he’s ready.”

“Well, then. I guess I came to the right school, huh? You guys are pretty tough, and you aren’t afraid to use whoever you have to in order to get what you want.”

“That’s how you survive, isn’t it?”

Xavier couldn’t listen any more.

But I have to get my bookbag! If I don’t, I’ll have to tell Dad why, and he won’t let me walk away from this.

He looked inside the classroom again, but this time, the occupants were starting to move. He dashed across the hallway and found a staircase to hide in. He peered around the corner.

Three figures moved slowly down the other direction of the hallway. Xavier held in his breath and ran for the Chess Club Room. He tried the door — it was locked!

What am I going to do now? I can’t tell Dad what I heard…right?

 

 

He hadn’t told his father what he overheard, only that the door was locked and he wasn’t able to get his bookbag. His father had been a little upset over the wasted trip, but his anger didn’t last that long.

“You’ll just have to call Maurice or Vicki,” he had said. “They’ll help you out.”

Xavier sat on his bed, phone in hand. He couldn’t call Vicki. She would be too busy daydreaming about Maurice and their supposed life together. Even if Maurice had admitted to him that he liked her, the guy wasn’t making any serious moves. He was keeping things at a nice distance, which was cool. Maurice shouldn’t rush into anything as crazy as Vicki without spending a few months thinking about it. Xavier realized that now.

Why did I ever even like that girl? Uh, because she’s super pretty and…

He punched in Maurice’s number and waited. It felt weird, calling his tutor. He knew that Maurice would help him, but their growing friendship wasn’t something he’d expected.

“Hello?”

It was a young girl’s voice. That’s probably his sister. He’s talked about her before.

“Hi, my name is Xavier, I’d like to speak to your brother.”

“I’ll get him.”

He grabbed a few sheets of paper and a pen from his desk and set it on his lap.

“Hello?”

Xavier laughed. “You sound just like your sister, Maurice.”

“That’s encouraging.” He didn’t sound very amused. “What do you need this late at night?”

“It’s kind of a big favor I need to ask you, Maurice.” Xavier swallowed. “You see, I was with the Chess Club today—”

“Which club?”

“The Chess Club. I’m not leaving the Study Club or anything like that,” he said quickly. “My father just wanted me to try something new.”

“I don’t mind,” Maurice said. “I just hadn’t heard what you said. What happened with the Chess Club?”

Xavier paused. Should I tell him? He wondered if it would do any good. Maurice was a well-behaved student with connections to every single teacher, staff member, and administrator. He probably had the Board of Education on speed-dial. If he did tell him, Maurice would tell him to report them. But isn’t that the right thing? Isn’t that what I should do anyway?

Maybe I should tell him, Xavier thought. He’s smart and has good opinions. It wouldn’t hurt to get his input.

“Yeah, I left my bookbag in the classroom before we went out to eat,” he continued, “so I went back a few hours ago with my father to go get it, and there were some people in there,” — Xavier closed his eyes — “two of the club members, plus some other guy. They were talking about something that seemed really shady.”

Maurice cleared his throat. “What were they saying?”

“They said they were doing something that might get them in trouble, and that they would use me as a scapegoat, just in case anything went wrong.”

The phone went silent on the other end.

Why did I even tell this guy? He’s probably switching to the Principal’s personal phone line, telling him that the Chess Club is plotting something. But why am I afraid of that? Isn’t that the right thing to do anyway?

“Do they play in tournaments?”

Xavier blinked. “Uh, yes, they do. How did you know?”

“That guy was most likely a judge. I’ve heard of clubs doing things like this all the time. Most of these club members have large egos. They don’t want to waste time playing any lowly matches. They pay off a judge to rig a few games for them, so that they can win the last rounds by themselves.”

“Now that you mention it, I did hear something about them knowing a judge the first time I went to the club. I thought it was a joke at the time, but now, I’m not so sure.”

“Who was the judge? Was he someone from our school?”

“I’m not sure. I didn’t recognize him. But he did make a comment about coming to the right school.” Xavier gasped as a new thought registered to him. “What if it’s that Claudio kid?”

“Who?” Maurice asked on the other line.

“Claudio, that super rebellious kid everyone’s always talking about. He used to tie up hall monitors by their shoelaces and hang them upside down in the stairwells.”

Maurice laughed. “That’s an urban legend, my friend. I’ll agree with you that this Claudio guy is bad, but tying people upside down?” He laughed again.

Xavier felt his face turning red. “Maurice, you can laugh all you want, but they were doing something bad, and I’m pretty sure he was involved. They say he just transferred to that school, so it’s possible.”

“Well, I’m not too sure about that, but I won’t discredit the idea entirely.” He paused. “What are you going to do about it? You can’t report something that you aren’t entirely certain of yet, but you shouldn’t just sit on this information. Telling it to me doesn’t count.”

“I could confront them.” The minute he said it, he knew he would never have the guts to do it. “They’re just so nice. If I’m wrong, I don’t know how they would take it.”

“You said they were nice. They’d probably forgive and forget.”

“But they were so kind to me. They accepted me into their group without a second thought.”

Maurice cleared his throat again. “Well, if what they said in their little rendezvous was true, they only did that to use you as a scapegoat. If that’s true, then these people are not your friends.”

Xavier sighed. “Yeah, I guess.”

“So is this what you called me for? I’m sorry, but I have to continue preparing dinner for my sister.”

“No, I wanted—” Xavier stopped himself. He knew he wouldn’t be able to concentrate on any studying, not with this on his mind. “It’s all right, I don’t need anything else. Thanks for your time. You have a good night, Maurice.”

“Likewise.”

Xavier set the phone on the bed beside him.

Why did I even get involved with this club in the first place? Oh, that’s right, Dad wanted me to make some new friends. Well, I did it, I made new friends, and they’re crazy.

He closed his eyes and leaned back on his pillow. He’d figure out what to do in the morning. But, for now, he needed to sleep.

 

 

They were all there, sitting around a chess board, discussing strategies and afternoon plans, and not a single one of them was real. They’d lied to him, convinced him that he could be a part of their group, when they only wanted him in the event that something went wrong. He’d never experienced betrayal before, and it bothered him. To have blindly trusted and thought the best, and then to have that trust violated…

Xavier shuddered as he stood in the doorway of the Chess Club room. This wasn’t even something he should be thinking about. He deserved better than betrayal and manipulation. He should just walk away from these kids; he didn’t owe them any explanation.

But what about forgiveness?

A strange thought wandered into his mind. Does forgiveness apply in this situation? And if he forgave them, did that mean he had to remain their friend? Could he forgive them and move on with his life? Could he do that?

Xavier cleared his throat, alerting the room of his presence. Five pairs of eyes searched for the noise, eventually landing on his own. Four smiles broke out – Rich had returned his focus to the board – and they beckoned him to enter. He took a step forward.

“We were waiting for you, Xavier,” Alice said, getting up from her seat to welcome him. “I’ll get a game started.” He lifted a hand to stop her.

“I’m not here to play, Alice,” he said, trying to keep his voice calm. This time he got their attention, and kept it.

Rich cleared his throat. “Why not, apprentice? Playing consistently is the only way you can get better.”

Xavier almost laughed. They were still trying to make him feel welcome. Ridiculous.

“I came back to this room last night, after hanging out with Alice and Dylan. I’d left my bookbag in my rush to go out with them.” He studied their faces for any hint of nervousness. Their faces remained blank. He continued. “I ran into a few of you in here, talking about some interesting things.”

“You didn’t hear anything at all, Xavier,” Ethan said, standing up. “There was no one in here last night.”

Xavier raised an eyebrow. “I see you’re no stranger to lying to people, Ethan,” he said. “Or have you not told everyone in here your plan?”

Ethan gritted his teeth. “Would you like to discuss this outside?”

Xavier shrugged. “It doesn’t matter to me.”

Ethan glanced at Jamie, who nodded. “Let’s go outside.”

He walked outside with the leader of the club, careful to make eye contact with the remaining members. Alice and Dylan looked surprised and confused. Jamie kept her eyes on the ground. Rich had returned his focus to the chess board in front of him.

Ethan closed the door softly. “Now, I don’t know what you think you heard—”

Xavier held up a hand. “I’m sorry, Ethan, but I’m the one who wanted to talk to you. I have a few things I need to say first. I heard enough to know that you are planning something with Claudio, and that you intend to use me as a scapegoat if something goes wrong. Did I hear all of that correctly?”

“So you were here last night.” Suddenly, his demeanor changed. He stood up straighter and crossed his arms. “Well, you’re right, we are planning on using you as a scapegoat. But this thing about Claudio is off. He’s not involved in any of this.”

“What are you planning, Ethan?”

The boy laughed. “Do you plan on reporting me? We’ve bought the entire competition, Xavier. Why waste our best players on entry level matches? Once we win this competition, we go on for a state championship. That is where I want to spend the most of my energy.”

“It doesn’t bother you that this is all…wrong?”

Ethan shrugged. “Who says that it’s wrong? You?” He laughed. “You have no place in all of this. We’ll never get caught, so we don’t need you.”

“This isn’t about getting caught, Ethan. It’s about right and wrong. This has got to be against the rules.”

“We own the rulebook, Xavier,” Ethan replied. “We own the entire thing. We’re playing in it for kicks, but it isn’t real.”

“What about all the other kids, the ones who are actually playing the game? You’re wasting all their time and energy, all their talent, just so you can win a championship you guys probably aren’t ready for.”

“Is this conversation over?” Ethan asked, sighing. “Are you coming back inside?”

Xavier crossed his arms. “I’m not going back, Ethan. I’m going to report you all—”

“And you’ll learn that no one is listening.” Ethan reached for the doorknob of the Chess Club room. “You stepped into something much deeper than yourself, Xavier. You can keep your mouth shut like all those kids in there and enjoy our friendship, or you can walk away. Either way, it doesn’t matter to me.”

“I think I’ve made my choice already.”

“Suit yourself.” Ethan opened the door. “It was great knowing you.”

Xavier stood outside, watching the door close on the strangest week of his life. He watched the door close on five people who’d confused, tricked, and manipulated him into thinking they were his friends. And he watched the door close on his need for friends. Not that he’d give up the ones he had or that he wouldn’t make any more, but he realized he had been desperate for them. His father must’ve noticed. That’s why he kept pushing him to various clubs, including this one. And that’s why he hadn’t noticed any warning signs about this little group.

He turned away and found a staircase. There was one group of people he really wanted to see right now. He pushed open the door to the Study Club room and smiled. Maurice stood at the board, working out a math problem while Vicki watched, head in her hands, mind in a far off land of love, or wherever she went when she was daydreaming.

Yep, this is where I belong. These are the ones I need to worry about.

Xavier shut the door behind him and took a step forward.

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The Wall: S1 Episode 7

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EPISODE SEVEN

A light fog descended upon Aversano following the setting sun. On better days, Asher could be found tracing the celestial giant’s path to its lodging beneath the horizon, but not so today. It had been a full week since the incident at the Education Facility, but Asher still felt a shiver crawl up his spine whenever the sun began to set.

He sat alone in his bedroom, staring through the window into the fog like he had for the past few days. Jordan hadn’t spoken to him, but that was understandable. The older boy had a life; he had other friends and responsibilities to take care of. Even so, Asher wished he were here. Jordan possessed strength and courage that Asher could only dream of having for himself. It was the calm in his friend’s eyes as they walked home that assuaged Asher’s fear. Now, as he sat on his small bed in his small attic bedroom, he wished Jordan could help him understand.

“Dinner is ready!”

The voice of his mother, irritated as though she had called him a dozen times already, called from below. Asher sighed and slid onto the ground. His mother spent most of the day working with customers down at the market that were less than cooperative. When she returned home in the afternoons, some of that negativity rubbed off onto her. That, and the fact that she was pregnant, meant she could be rather mean at times.

“One would think that these townsfolk wouldn’t be so cheap,” she had complained one evening after a troubling incident with a carton of eggs. “We are exposed to the Words of Life nearly all hours of the day. One would think that it would rub off onto them.”

“Well, make sure you keep showing them love,” his father had replied. “Don’t repay them with what they have given you. You will be surprised by how far that gets you.”

Of course, they raised their voices while speaking to each other many times in the past month, repaying each other for the rude words spoken during those arguments. And they spent many more times engaged in less than calm, never-ending discussion about what was said, or what was meant to be said, and how one should not do this, but so does the other and on and on and on.

Asher knew it was not easy for his parents, and he didn’t expect them to get along all the time. He just wished they could bring the love they showed to the outside world into their home.

That was why this new child bothered him. The way his mother spent hours rubbing her bulging belly, speaking to the child about how much she loved him, while shouting at Asher about how lazy he was and how he needed to work harder disturbed him. Was there something wrong with him that they could not find it in their hearts to treat him well?

Granted, they provided him with a lot, but he was no longer satisfied with what little they had to offer.

He climbed down the wooden ladder from the attic and into the kitchen. Both parents were seated at the table, awaiting his presence. Asher smiled nervously and settled into one of the wicker chairs his father had fashioned earlier this year.

“Asher, will you say the blessings for our food?”

He closed his eyes and mumbled a few words about the Giver of Life and his wonderful provisions. He immediately began to eat, not looking at his parents.

“Mr. Timothy told us that you weren’t in class last week.”

“That is correct.”

His father picked up a fork and began to eat.

“Where did you go, Asher?”

“I went to Tarkine Falls,” he lied. “I was tired.”

“Well. Next time, tell us before you go running off.”

“What is the Hill Country like, Father?”

His parents exchanged glances. He knew he had caught them off guard. They didn’t like to talk about the Hill Country, but he wanted to know what they knew about it.

“Asher, the Hill Country is in the past. We don’t like to dwell on the past.” His mother filled her wooden cup with some water and took a drink. “There’s nothing we can tell you that you don’t already know.”

“But you lived there, Mother. The only thing we know about the Hill Country is what they tell us in books, and it isn’t much.”

“Asher,” his father said, setting down his fork. “The Hill Country is exactly as they say in the books. It is a violent land—”

“Filled with oppression and endless destruction. All who live there are bound to the chains of self and live in constant fear,” he finished, reciting the axiom that every child is forced to learn before they turn five years old. “But you have to know more than that, Father. You chose to leave it behind. Why did you make that choice?”

“Asher, we will not speak of this any further.” Picking up the fork he had set down, his father resumed his meal.

“Why did you make that choice?” Asher persisted.

His father faced him angrily.

“I said, we will not speak of this any further. If you cannot respect my authority, then you can go upstairs without finishing your dinner.”

Asher stood up. “I’m not hungry.” He pushed open the front door and slipped outside, ignoring the shouts of his mother to come back inside.

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