Esther Velez

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Month: April 2015 (page 1 of 3)

The Wall: S1 Episode 6

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EPISODE SIX

“We are here.”

Jordan spoke the words softly, but he could not hide the excitement that was threatening to burst through his gut. He turned from the wooden door in front of him to the pale, frightened face of Asher on the steps beneath him. Jordan choked back a laugh, washing it down with sympathy. Sometime in the distant past, he too had held that same fear of the unknown. Jordan resisted the urge to spit on the ground. It was disgusting how the leaders in Aversano raised his generation to fear the unknown. The dangerous.

Jordan lived for danger. It was a thirst that had awakened inside of him around the same time that he first climbed these steps and saw what he as about to show his young friend Asher. Life. True life.

It was hard to explain to someone who swore they were experiencing life to its fullest potential that they were, in actuality, not experiencing it at all. That the things they enjoyed now were the appetizers, when they swore it was the full meal.

Jordan knew better. He hadn’t been born in Aversano, like Asher or his fool friends. Jordan hailed from the Hill Country, on the other side of the ominous wall. Granted, his family had climbed over the wall when he was five and he had little experience of what the Hill Country was actually like, but he knew enough to know that it was better than this. Aversano had its share of pleasures, but Jordan was no longer content with settling for the appetizer. He wanted meat, as raw and juicy as possible.

The satisfaction that came with enlightening a lost soul was fleeting at best. He wanted to claim the ultimate victory: climbing over the wall and basking in the glory of his new freedom.

What is keeping you back?

This voice whispered into his head on many occasions. Jordan called it his conscience, leading him in the direction he was supposed to go. He found himself making up excuses in response.

What if I am wrong?

There was always a small tinge of doubt in his heart. Jordan knew it came from all the years spent in the blasted Education Facilities for children and youth. The leaders tortured him, filling his mind with useless drivel about doing the right thing and being kind because the Giver of Life said so.

Jordan laughed aloud and pushed open the wooden door before him. He did not doubt that the Giver of Life existed and did indeed give and sustain all life. His only problem was the methods which the Giver of Life chose to employ. Unlimited mercy and grace for some and not for others was enough to make his head spin, as with the whole issue of the afterlife. It was good material for debate but little else. Jordan would never admit this to Asher until the boy’s curiosity had brought him to the point of no return. It didn’t matter to Jordan that his words did not reflect his heart. Aversano was full of pretenders. As Asher had put it the other day, they had perfected the art of make believe.

Jordan smiled. Asher had a great mind, full of potential, which was why Jordan delighted bringing the boy over to their side.

“Jordan, where are we?” The whispered voice that came from Asher did not sound like it came from a great mind, but Jordan did not grow irritated. Fear was synonymous with weakness, yes, but it took consistency, dedication, and determination in order to build and retain muscle. He himself struggled with fear, in the guise of doubt, and it disgusted him. He spat this time, startling the room’s occupants with the sound.

“So glad you could join us, friends,” a silky voice spoke from the center of the room. Portas, the middle aged leader of this small band of rebels (or the Lifers, as they called themselves), believed that the Giver of Life designed man to desire change, danger and adventure. He also believed that the people of Aversano were being made the fool and there was no real reason why the wall should remain standing. Jordan couldn’t remember how Portas came into his life, but the old man had quickly become a father to him.

“Portas, I brought-”

“Asher.” Portas beckoned his young friend forward. Jordan watched as Asher stepped awkwardly toward Portas, wondering how his mentor had known Asher’s name. They had never met, nor had Jordan mentioned him.

“There is little that goes on in Aversano that I do not know,” Portas declared, speaking as though he could sense Jordan’s thoughts. It scared him to think that Portas might actually be able to read his mind. He knew his mentor would be disappointed in his doubts and questions.

But Portas did not mention his thoughts; instead he directed his attention to the newcomer.

“Asher, we are delighted to have you in our presence, and we know that the Giver of Life is smiling with us today.” Portas clasped his hands on Asher’s shoulders, giving him such a tender gaze that it sent a pang of jealousy into Jordan’s heart. There was no reason to feel this way. Portas loved them all as his sons. No female had joined the ranks of life, something that needed to change soon. It just seemed that the young men his age were more prone to think about serious issues than the young women. Maybe in another generation…

His thoughts wandered from the scene unfolding before him, and he clawed his way back to the surface.

“You will do well with us,” Portas was speaking to Asher, patting him gently on the head. The older man immediately turned to the three others in the room. “Forgive me, friend, I have not introduced you to the others.”

Jordan stepped forward, eager to have a part in the initiation of his recruit. He pointed to the first boy, a seventeen year old with more muscle than brains, but enough wit to make him interesting.

“This is Dave. He was one of the first.” That was true. As much as Jordan hated to admit it, Dave was worth his salt.

“Aaron here, he came after me.”

“You lie!” Aaron snapped, jumping to his feet in mock offense. He raised his fists to his chest, twisting his lips in a feeble attempt to look enraged. Jordan laughed and pushed him back.

“Aaron is my brother,” he confessed to Asher, earning him a surprised look. Jordan nodded and looked at Aaron again, remembering the day when the young one had come into the world. Aaron was only thirteen, but he already possessed more knowledge than most teachers in this very education facility. He had a unique ability to retain information, regardless of how important or trivial. Aaron insisted that his gift was a curse and acted strangely to cover his symptoms. Jordan knew better. Aaron was just an awkward individual, with or without a curse.

“And lastly, we have Roman.”

“Yes, indeed, I would be introduced last.”

Jordan rolled his eyes.

“Everything must be a conflict with you.”

“No, not everything,” Roman corrected. “Merely the things in which you are involved.” The twenty year old hopped to his feet and extended a hand toward Asher.

“Don’t mind this chap,” Roman said, nodding toward Jordan. “He always seems to think he is the greatest.”

Jordan opened his mouth to protest, but Asher beat him to the punch.

“That is because he is the greatest.” Asher shook his head. “Jordan took down Timothy, wasn’t afraid of the sleeper, and kicked down your front door.”

“Boys that is enough!” Portas clapped his hands. Jordan smiled smugly at Roman, who looked away impatiently. On any other day, Jordan would have counted on Asher to defend him against Roman. Not that he needed any defending. He could take Roman’s inflated head of hot air any day, but instead he let others speak for him. Jordan planned to be a leader of some merit, and he wouldn’t get there unless he knew how to gain loyalties.

“Has it happened yet?” Jordan asked, turning toward his gray haired mentor.

Portas smiled broadly and gestured to the single window along the West wall of the small room.

“You brought Asher just in time.”

The five of them crowded around the window, flanked by their leader.

Jordan strained to trace the outline of figures dotting the grass in front of the wall. At least a half dozen men stood there, unmoving, eyes fixed at a point beyond the wall. It was a point Jordan had imagined to himself on several dark nights, when dared to let his imagination wander. As the nights wore on, however, he grew accustomed to such thoughts, and learned to embrace them. Such was the way of the men who stood below them, the desires of their heart no longer secret but made known to all men. They were the Wall Watchers.

The excitement threatened to burst from within him. He turned to Asher, hoping to share this moment with his new friend.

“Those are the Wall Watchers,” he explained proudly. “They spend their entire evenings staring at the Wall.”

“Has anyone ever made it out?” Asher asked. Jordan returned his gaze back to the window. A monster dressed entirely in white patrolled the grass along the Wall, eyes watching like a hungry hawk. Jordan knew as well as Asher that the answer was no. Not unless the guards suddenly decided to shirk their duties.

“It has been attempted on several occasions, but none have succeeded, as of yet,” Portas explained. Jordan frowned. He knew he should be the one to break that pattern, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. What if his parents had left the Hill Country for a valid reason? What if it had not been in vain?

Blast these doubts! He would never get anywhere with these lingering doubts. Jordan needed to trust his heart and ignore the parts of his mind infected by the leaders of Aversano. That was the only way to escape from the bondage of death and into the freedom of life. It was the only way.

A commotion on the ground below caught his attention. One of the Watchers had broken into a run as soon as the guard was out of sight.

“No way!” His brother Aaron shouted.

“This is crazy!” The words slipped from Asher’s lips.

“Watch,” Portas commanded.

Only Jordan could not speak. His eyes traced the lone figure cutting across the bright green grass and into the vicinity of the wall. His heart caught in his throat as the white garbed guards made a beeline for the Watcher.

He has to make it, Jordan thought to himself.

“He has to make it!” The words startled him. The others didn’t seem to notice and remained fixated on the Watcher.

“The guard!” This came from Portas. Everyone but Jordan turned to their mentor in disbelief. The usually calm man had lost his cool. But it was understandable. Never in all of Portas’ years of watching the Watchers had he seen an actual success. Jordan kept his gaze fixed on the window. Hopefully, today would leave them with a success.

The guard was not as fast as Jordan had first assumed. The Watcher threw himself at the Wall, clinging to crevices in the stone. All of the breath escaped Jordan’s lungs as the Watcher began to scale the wall.

Suddenly, two guards were upon the man.

“No!” The scream came from Roman and was quickly repeated by the others.

No!

The white monsters had the Watcher by the feet, tugging him back to the ground. The man struggled, kicking wildly, landing a flat foot on one of the guard’s cheeks.

BOOM!

Jordan ducked, unaware of what had just transpired. A scream registered in his ears. He scrambled to his feet and peered out the window, oblivious to all the others around him.

The Watcher lay prone in the grass, a large red splotch growing on the back of his tan shorts. Someone had shot him in the thigh; he would survive the wound, that much Jordan knew. The guards had used force on this man, something that was whispered in cafeterias and acted out by adventurous children in the streets. Jordan had never seen a gun with his own eyes, but he knew what damage it could do. The guards hefted the injured man onto his good leg, supporting him from either side with a shoulder.

“Move away from the window,” Portas ordered Jordan, grabbing a fistful of his shirt and tugging him onto his seat.

A hidden drum pounded in his chest, working its beat into his temples. Jordan closed his eyes, trying to calm himself down, but the adrenaline rushed through his veins. He forced open his eyes. Aaron sat with his arms arms crossed, frustrated at the failed attempt. Dave didn’t seem to care. Roman stood by Portas, chuckling at Jordan’s fear. Only Portas seemed to understand the importance of what transported a few moments ago.

And Asher! Jordan crawled over to his forgotten friend. The poor child was a shivering mess and the blood had run free from his face. His eyes stared widely at Jordan but seemed to be focused on something far beyond him.

“Asher?” Jordan asked. His voice caught in his throat, his mouth parched. He swallowed and licked his dry, cracked lips.

“Asher, are you alright?”

“Course he’s alright,” Roman mumbled. Jordan ignored him.

“Asher?”

The boy turned his eyes toward Jordan. He blinked.

“Yes, I am—” His voiced trailed off.

Jordan rose.

“I must get him home.”

Portas nodded and clambered to his feet.

“That would be a wise decision, my friend. Take Korimas Boulevard back to the Meeting House,” Portas said, peering out the window. “I would not want anyone seeing you. Not after what has just occurred.”

Jordan nodded and helped Asher to his feet. He didn’t bother telling Portas that he was smart enough and he had already decided to return the way they came. Jordan led his younger friend to the staircase, stopping long enough to give his brother a glance, reminding him that he, too, needed to return home soon. Their parents trusted him enough to stay out of trouble on his own, but thirteen year old Aaron was not in the same boat.

Pushing open the wooden door that led to the staircase, Jordan wondered about the man who had just attempted to escape Aversano. Was he married, or single? A widower? Did he have children? A job? Of course. Everyone in Aversano worked, unless they were a student. What if he was a student? That would account for the higher level of thinking that placed him in front of the wall. Or maybe not. The desire for true life was not limited to the academia. Sleepers, like the man who accosted Asher on these very stairs earlier, were regular men who had grown tired of their lives and just wanted something more. They didn’t understand their desires, they didn’t understand the concept of life and freedom, which could only be found in the Hill Country, but that didn’t stop them from craving it.

Jordan had heard that the Sleepers only come out at midnight, after the Watchers have been chased away by the guards. It was rumored that these men spent their nights with their eyes glued to little cracks in the wall, which shone great pillars of light. Jordan had never seen these lights, but he had read about them with Portas. The blinding nature of the light was intoxicating, the book had said, and it equated to several pints of the strongest liquor in Aversano, a substance Jordan had yet to taste, but had been taught to fear.

While he may have appeared to be living in freedom, demonstrated by the fact that he wore no chains, Jordan knew that his mind was enslaved to fear. Everything about Aversano stemmed from the fear of punishment or retaliation from the Giver of Life.

Fear is weakness. The proverb he had uttered so many times reared itself onto the forefront of his mind. Fear is weakness. And a society run by fear was more than weak, it was wicked. Jordan knew that the Giver of Life was not glorified in wickedness; therefore, he was not glorified in Aversano.

Jordan hurried down the steps, careful to avert his eyes from a Sleeper, who had woken from his slumber and was trying to spark a conversation. Jordan wished his mind was as simple as the Sleeper. Because then he wouldn’t need to continually convince himself that he was alive and that Aversano was dead. Because then he wouldn’t have to live with this fear that told him that his heart was lying. Because then he wouldn’t be weak.

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The Study Club: Episode 4

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EPISODE FOUR: The Chance to Grow

**1**

“But I don’t understand. You’ve got a million plants. Why do you want me to take care of this one?”

Xavier stood in front of the school, arms crossed. It had been a long day. Study Club had been especially difficult, with Maurice forcing them to take back-to-back practice exams for no real reason. Xavier had hoped that he could spend some extra time with Jenna this afternoon, but now she was sending him off.

“You understand how important this is to me, Xavier, don’t you?” Jenna looked up at him from her seat on the ground. “I have to go away for a few days, and I can’t bring any plants with me.”

“Why won’t your grandmother let you bring them?”

Jenna sighed. “I don’t know, but I want to respect her wishes. Will you help me?”

Xavier closed his eyes. This particular plant she wanted him to take care of was a tricky one. Jenna called it Spikeweed, even though it didn’t have spikes and it wasn’t a weed. She claimed she got the name from a video game, but Xavier had never heard of it and didn’t believe it existed. She had a huge list of things he had to do for the plant, things he wasn’t sure you should be doing for a plant.

Watering it three times a day was normal, but feeding it special vitamins and minerals? He wanted to ask her if that was safe, but didn’t want to insult her. After all, she spent far more hours on this than he ever would. He would have to take her word for it.

“Okay, since there seems to be no other choice, I’ll take care of it.”

“Yes!” Jenna jumped up and gave him a hug. He felt his face turning red.

Why does this always happen to me when girls hug me?

He smiled guiltily at the thought. A few weeks ago, that wasn’t a problem. It was a problem he could sure get used to.

“And his name is Spikeweed,” she said, pulling away from him. “He’s very sensitive about his name, so I’d be sure to use it as often as possible.”

“Okay.”

Jenna handed him a thick green folder decorated with a sunflower. “In here is all the information pertaining to Spikeweed. You’ll find instructions regarding his feeding schedule, as well as his activity list.”

Xavier choked back a laugh. Jenna was his friend, but she was a few eggs short of a basket case. An activity list? For a plant? Thankfully he didn’t have any other friends. They’d think he was crazy.

“Hey, Xavier, what are you doing out here?”

He whirled around. It was Maurice. He smiled nervously.

“I’m here with my friend, Jenna. She’s showing me her plants.”

“Interesting.”

Xavier felt his face turning red. He hoped Jenna wouldn’t start talking about why he was really here. Maurice already thought he was a brainless buffoon and peasant who passed tests out of sheer luck. He didn’t need to give the guy any more fuel.

“He’s going to be taking care of Spikeweed for me over the weekend,” Jenna said. She gave Maurice a funny look. “Hey, I know you! You’re Maurice, the super smart guy who is running the Study Club. Xavier has told me all about you.”

Maurice raised an eyebrow.

“Well, it’s good to know that word of my intelligence precedes me.”

“He also told me that you—”

“Okay, I think that’s enough, Jenna,” Xavier said, shaking his head. He hadn’t said many good things about Maurice, but he didn’t want the guy to hear them. “I’m pretty sure Maurice has got a ton of stuff to do this afternoon, so we should let him get on with it.”

Maurice nodded. “I do, actually. Vicki invited me to go to the park with her brother. She says that he’s interested in learning more about my study habits. I thought it would be a good idea to get the little one started before he develops habits that he cannot undo.”

“Like my habits?” Xavier said dryly.

Maurice did not reply. He said goodbye to the two of them and walked off.

Xavier sighed. “You know all that stuff about teaching her little brother is hogwash. Vicki just wants to spend as much time with Maurice as possible. For all his smarts, he hasn’t realized that this is a trap.”

“I don’t know,” Jenna said, crossing her arms. “I think he knows. And I think he doesn’t mind as much as he pretends.”

Xavier raised an eyebrow. “You think he has feelings for her?”

“I didn’t say that,” Jenna replied. “I just think there’s more to Maurice than you realize.” She placed a clay pot in his hands. “This is Spikeweed. I’ve got to head home. You take good care of him, okay? He means a lot to me.”

“Sure thing.”

He watched as she gathered her things and walked away, leaving him standing in the garden. What had he gotten himself into?

I guess this is what friends do for one another.

“Come on, Spikey,” he said, touching the plant. “Let’s get to work on your activity list.”

 

**2**

The park was relatively quiet by the time they got there. The weekend crowd wasn’t here yet, so that meant all the good spots were still open. She chose a nice table under a huge tree to set up shop. Vicki watched as Cameron and Maurice played with a Frisbee on the grass. Her parents hadn’t remembered to pick the little boy up from school, so she convinced Maurice to stop by and get him first.

The two had hit it off fairly well. Cameron was very interested in history, and Maurice enjoyed explaining it to him. She smiled as her brother caught the flying disk with his head. Cameron needed at least one good male role model in his life.

“Your brother’s a fun little boy,” Maurice said, walking toward her.

“I know.” She watched her brother throw the Frisbee straight in the air, trying to catch it with his head again. She sighed. “He doesn’t get out much, but I know he needs it.”

“It’s hard trying to raise your brother.” Maurice sat at the table. “I know. I’m trying to do the same with my sister.”

“You should’ve invited her,” Vicki said, reaching for her drink. “I would love to meet her.”

Maurice shook his head. “No, Katy doesn’t like the outdoors. Every evening I force her to sit in the back porch with me, and she hates it.” He paused. “Unless it’s really dark and the stars are out. Then, she doesn’t want to go back inside.”

“Why do you sit on your back porch?” Vicki could tell her question struck a nerve. She tried to take it back. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”

“No, it’s okay,” Maurice said, rubbing his face in his hands. “It’s just something I started ever since my mother left. It’s kind of a routine now, and I’ve gotten used to it.”

“So what do you do with your life, Maurice?” Vicki asked.

“Well, I go to school. And I run the Study Club.”

“No, no,” Vicki shook her head, “what do you do? With your life? You can’t possibly study and do schoolwork all the time.”

Maurice nodded. “I do. That’s how I make it through life, Vicki.”

She blinked twice. Was he really hiding from his pain in schoolwork? She couldn’t blame him, though. She was doing the same thing; although she wasn’t doing schoolwork, she was hiding her pain in other things. Like her obsession with Maurice.

“Does it help?”

“It does.”

Vicki felt tears welling up in her eyes. We are two sad, pathetic children, trying to figure out what we are to do with ourselves in this crazy, messed up world. Why doesn’t he see how alike we are? How we could help each other?

She sighed. It was going to be a long afternoon.

 

 

**3**

“Okay, so the next item on your list is—”

Xavier squinted at the paper in his hands. He couldn’t possibly be reading this right. Did it really say to watch the History Channel for thirty minutes?

Is Jenna out of her mind? Who does this nonsense for a plant?

He closed the folder and picked up Spikeweed.

“I don’t know what’s up with Jenna,” he said, sitting on his bed, “but I’ve gotta respect her wishes.” He turned on the television and found the channel.

“Which way are your eyes? How do I know if you’ll be able to see?”

The plant doesn’t have eyes, you dummy. It can’t see no matter which way you position it.

He felt ridiculous.

Xavier left the plant on his bed and headed for the kitchen. The next activity on the list was an evening snack, which consisted of peanut butter and salad dressing. He wondered if Jenna had made all of this up to torment him, or if this was really what Spikeweed needed to eat.

“What are you doing with that?”

It was his father, sitting at the kitchen table, reading from the newspaper. Xavier swallowed hard.

“I’m feeding Spikeweed.”

His father nodded, not looking up once from the paper. “Yes, okay, I understand.” He had explained the ordeal to his father when he walked in the house, and although his father claimed he understood, Xavier was almost sure he didn’t.

What do you know about having to care for some annoying plant that has a million things to do, lists of what he can and cannot eat, places where he can go and places that will kill him? No, Dad, you don’t understand, so stop acting like you do!

Of course, he’d never say this to his father. He was just angry and he was letting it get to him. All of his plans for the weekend were put on hold for this silly plant, and it just wasn’t fair.

You could have said ‘no’ to Jenna.

The thought made a lot of sense now that he’d already done the opposite. He sighed as he clambered up the steps, the peanut butter and salad dressing containers in his arms. This was going to be a long weekend.

 

 

**4**

“Will you come with me in the water, Maurice?”

He shook his head at the little boy sitting next to him. “Not today, Cameron,” he said, taking another bite from his sandwich. Vicki had done a great job with this picnic. He wanted to thank her, but he wasn’t sure how to do it without giving her any ideas.

“Oh, come on, please? I really, really, really want to go in the lake and Vicki says I can’t go by myself,” the boy begged.

“Why don’t you ask Vicki, then?”

“Because she doesn’t know how to swim.”

Maurice raised an eyebrow and met her gaze. He took a deep breath. “I’m sorry, Cameron, but I won’t be going in the water.”

Vicki shot her brother a look. “Don’t ask him again,” she said. The boy ran off, clearly upset.

“You could’ve told him you don’t know how to swim,” she began, giving him a look. “He would have respected that.”

“Well, I—”

“No, no, it’s fine,” Vicki said, waving her hand dismissively. “I know how embarrassing it is to admit you don’t know how to swim. I was almost a lifeguard two summers ago. I had done the interviews and everything, thinking that swimming can’t possibly be that hard and I’d figure it out once I started training.”

“And you found out the hard way.”

Vicki shook her head. “No, not really. I walked off the job when the first kid got in the water. They fired me, but I already knew it wasn’t where I needed to be.”

Maurice nodded. “And where do you need to be?”

“With Cameron.” She sighed deeply. “It’s not easy for me, doing what I’m doing, trying to keep him alive. My parents don’t care, as you can tell. I kinda want them to leave already, so they don’t keep giving him false hope that one day things might be different.”

“Things might change, Vicki,” he said slowly. “You never know with people.”

She didn’t respond.

He sighed. “Where did Cameron go?”

“He kinda just ran off.”

Maurice stood up. “I think we should check on him. He was a little upset.”

Vicki joined him. “That sounds like a good idea.”

They walked together in silence for a few minutes. The path they were on led to the small lake in the center of the park.

“Do you ever think we could be friends?”

Maurice raised an eyebrow. “Maybe. In the future.”

“After we graduate?”

He paused. He needed to choose his words carefully. No use giving her any false hopes about—

“Help me!”

Maurice felt the blood drain from his face. That was Cameron’s voice, and it was coming from the water not two feet away. He pulled his uniform shirt over his head and handed it to Vicki.

“Hold this,” he said, making for the water. “I’m going to get him out of there.”

 

 

**5**

His father was still sitting at the kitchen table when he came down to get some more food for Spikeweed. This time, his father was eating something and looking at his phone.

“Must be nice to do whatever you want on a Friday night,” Xavier said under his breath.

“What was that?”

“Oh, nothing,” he said, opening the refrigerator.

“No, no, I heard what you said.” His father set his phone down. “Come over here, son. I want to talk to you.”

“But I have to get this for Spikeweed—”

“Come over here.”

He sat in front of his father.

“Dad, I have to—”

“Listen to me for a moment, okay, son?” His father smiled. “You’re running all over the place, trying to take care of this plant of yours.”

“His name is Spikeweed, and he’s not my plant.” Xavier felt the hostility in his voice and sighed. He didn’t mean to be cross with his father. He was still upset over the whole deal.

“Okay, then, you are running all over the place trying to take care of Spikeweed.” He father shook his head. “You don’t have to be upset about this. In fact, come a few years, and you’ll be doing this all over again, except, you won’t be able to give it back.”

Xavier sat up straight. “What are you talking about? Do you know something I don’t, Dad?”

“Yes, son.” He folded his hands together. “This whole experience you’re having with Spikewood is a lot like having a kid.”

Xavier resisted the urge to tell his father that is was Spikeweed, not Spikewood.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, when you have a kid, you’ve got to rearrange your entire life. You can’t do the things you used to do when you were single. You’ve got a whole list of activities your child has to do, plus you’ve got to feed it specific foods so your kid doesn’t die.” His father shook his head. “A child is a whole lot more work than your friend’s plant.”

“So what you’re saying is: you think this is bad, wait until you have a child?” Xavier frowned. “And this helps, how?”

“I’ve been in your situation, Xavier, and it’s been a whole lot harder than Spikewood. You were a whole lot harder than him. I mean, you still are, but you know what I mean.”

Xavier nodded. “Yeah, I guess.”

“I’m not trying to make myself into something greater. I just want you to know that I understand. And I’m glad that you are taking the first steps to being a responsible adult.”

“A responsible adult, huh.”

“Life is going to change pretty soon, Xavier, and you aren’t going to be able to go back to how you lived as a child. This is just the first step.”

“Yeah.” He stood up. “Well, I’ve got to go now, Dad. Spikeweed’s ready for some more food.”

His father laughed. “You take care of him, son. And remember to thank Jenna when you return him on Monday.”

“Thank her for what?” Xavier grumbled. “ A headache?”

“For the opportunity to grow.”

 

 

**6**

She didn’t even have time to protest. Maurice was in the water, splashing and flapping along with her brother and there was nothing she could do about it. She felt the panic come on then, but knew she could not give in to it. As she watched Maurice disappear under the water, she knew it was too late to be strong.

They’re going to die.

Vicki rushed to the edge of the lake. Memories of her father trying in vain to teach her to swim filled her mind. She had always protested, hating the water. If only she had known how to swim! Then, she could save her brother. Instead, she let Maurice go in there. For all his perfection, for all his knowledge and expertise, that boy did not know how to swim. And now, because of her, they were both going to die.

“Maurice! Cameron!”

She knew that calling their names wouldn’t accomplish anything, but she had to do something.

I can get help for them!

The thought barely had a second to register before she saw them. Maurice struggled to stay afloat as he pulled her brother to safety. Tears of joy found their way to the surface and she clapped her hands together.

“You’re alive!”

Maurice grunted as he dropped her brother onto the bank. He immediately began pumping the boy’s chest, trying to get the boy breathing. Finally, her brother began to cough, sputtering water everywhere.

“Oh, Cameron, you’re alive!” She pulled her brother into a close hug, not caring that she was ruining her clothes. He was her brother, and he was alive.

“Cameron, I don’t know what I would’ve done if you had drowned,” she said in between sobs. “You’re the only one I have left.”

“Do you have a towel?” Her brother said, his breathing still labored. “I’m cold.”

Vicki laughed and dashed to their table. She grabbed two towels and ran back. Maurice sat on the ground beside her brother, breathing heavily. She handed Maurice a towel and began to dry her brother.

“You saved my brother’s life, Maurice.”

He nodded. “It had to be done.”

“Why’d you do it, though? You don’t know how to swim. You could’ve died and then I’d have lost two people.”

Maurice draped the towel around his neck and looked her straight in the face. “Because he’s your brother. I know what it’s like to lose family, Vicki. I couldn’t let that happen to you.”

“But what about your sister? She would’ve lost her brother if you had drowned.”

“There’s something I haven’t told you, Vicki.”

She stopped toweling her brother. Cameron grabbed for it to finish drying his ears.

“What are you talking about?”

Maurice crossed his arms and leaned forward.

“I know how to swim.”

“But—”

“I didn’t correct you earlier because I didn’t feel like getting wet.” He looked at her brother. “It’s a good thing I knew how, isn’t it Cameron?”

“Yup,” the little boy said, beaming as Maurice patted him on the shoulder. “I could’ve been dead.”

“Thank you, Maurice,” she said, tears welling in her eyes. Why was this all so difficult? She had convinced him that teachers and students could be friends, but with every second they spent together, she knew it would never be enough for her. Why wasn’t she satisfied? Why couldn’t she control herself? Why was she so in love?

“Well, it’s been a fine afternoon,” Maurice said, “but you’d better get your brother home. He needs to be cleaned up, and he should probably get something to eat.” He handed her the damp towel. “I have to get going myself.”

“Thank you.” She paused and bit her lip, wanting to hold back the words, but knowing they were necessary and true. “You’re a good man, Maurice.”

“I’m only seventeen years old,” he replied, shaking his head. “I have a long way to go before I get to the status of man.”

Vicki smiled, realizing that he was teasing. “You’re a good teenager, then. Is that better?”

“Much better.”

Although he didn’t smile, she could hear it in his voice. He was going to be a good man one day. But more than that she knew he would be her good man.

She was certain of it.

 

 

**7**

Jenna had been nice about it. She didn’t ask any questions when he returned Spikeweed on Monday morning. She thanked him and he thanked her, then they went their separate ways. He had gone through the rest of the day on auto-pilot, thinking about what his father had said.

“Life is going to change pretty soon, Xavier, and you aren’t going to be able to go back to how you lived as a child. This is just the first step.”

He didn’t like change. As much as he enjoyed his new school, he didn’t like having to start things. He didn’t like having to leave things behind, either.

Couldn’t I just freeze this moment in time? Couldn’t I just stay here forever? I have everything I want. Nothing is going wrong. Why does it have to change?

He was no stranger to change. He had only just moved to this school a few months ago, and they’d moved into the new place a few weeks before that. Because of his father’s job, they’d moved to least a dozen new houses in the last ten years.

Xavier was no stranger to change, but he was no friend either.

“Good. You haven’t left yet.”

He jumped at the voice. He turned around to see who was standing behind him.

“Maurice?” Xavier frowned. “What are you still doing here?”

“I’d like to ask you the same thing.”

“I’m waiting for my ride,” Xavier replied, slipping his hands into his pocket. “Don’t you have your bike? It’s already almost five. You should be long gone by now.”

Maurice nodded and leaned against the school building. They stood in front of the school, a few steps away from the main doors. His father liked him to stand in that area because it was easier for him to get in the car.

“I’m just not ready yet,” the boy said, sighing.

Xavier stood straight. This was entirely new from Maurice.

“Are you doing all right, Maurice?”

“No, actually, I’m not.” Maurice looked him square in the face. “I’ve got a problem, Xavier.”

“And you’re coming to talk to me about it?” Xavier laughed. “But I’m just a lowly peasant. I have not the brains to converse with you on any level, much less give you advice.”

Maurice shook his head. “I’m not asking for your advice. I need to tell someone before my head explodes.”

“Whoa there, buddy,” Xavier said. “That wouldn’t do. Tell me what’s going on.”

“I don’t know how to say this,” Maurice said, running a hand through his hair. “I think,” he paused and closed his eyes. “I think I’m in love with Vicki. And I don’t know what to do about it.”

Xavier felt the edges of his mouth turning up in a smile as he crossed his arms.

Well, well. I guess, change isn’t so bad after all.

 

What do you think about this episode? Leave a comment!

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The Wall: S1 Episode 5

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EPISODE FIVE

The staircase was narrow, dark, and damp. A few streaks of light from the window in the rusting metal door below him lit his steps. Asher kept his gaze fixed forward, where the outline of a column of steps stretched into eternity. The sun would be setting soon, and whatever light they may have had would diminish by the time they reached the top. His foot suddenly rested on something soft—and yet hard. He looked down.

An arm.

Asher gasped and lost his footing, tumbling backward into an irritated Jordan.

“What’s the matter?” Jordan hissed through clenched teeth. Asher’s heart pounded in his chest as he struggled to find words.

“An ar— ar—I stepped—”

Jordan sucked his teeth and gave Asher a light push.

“I told you not to step on them.”

“You told me to not wake them up,” Asher corrected. “You said absolutely nothing about stepping on them.”

“Does it matter? Let us just move on from here as quickly— and carefully—as possible.” Jordan began to ascend the stairs ahead of Asher.

They had scaled a mere five flights when a hand reached out and grabbed Asher’s leg. Everything within him cried out, but no sound escaped his lips. The hand pulled Asher onto his knees, bringing him face to face with the owner of that hand.

A yellow toothed mouth filled with putrid breath assaulted his senses. His throat constricted as bile rose from his stomach. Asher choked a breath and covered his nose as he yanked his leg free.

“You aren’t ready,” the voice rasped from the shadows. Asher tried to pull his eyes away from the rotting mouth peeking out of the darkness, but his gaze was transfixed. What happened to this man, he wondered. How was he able to live like this when Aversano was a very charitable town? Never had Asher seen anyone in such a horrible condition. He looked up at Jordan, who had halted his climb.

“Asher, do not listen to him. He is a Sleeper,” Jordan said calmly. “They never have anything good to say.”

“But why is he like this?” Asher asked, turning back to the man; he had retreated into the shadows, the only evidence of his existence a series of wheezes and raspy exhalations.

Jordan blinked rapidly.

“Because he couldn’t handle the truth.”

With that, Jordan began to climb. Asher followed in silence.

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The Watchtower S2: Episode 1

The Watchtower is a serial novel about zombies.
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EPISODE ONE

The gentle rays of first light stroked the grey morning sky.

It was the dawn of a new day.

Jamison stepped out of the Main Office and into the quiet of Goulds Point. It was still too early for panic, but Jamison knew that before long, the community would want answers.

And he was afraid he wouldn’t have any to give them.

The government had barricaded the entrance to their community several hours ago, mentioning a dangerous virus that was spreading throughout South Florida. His community, Goulds Point, was one of the few safe zones, and the government wanted to protect them. But that was the only information they had.

Questions stumped him: Why was this happening? How long would it last? And questions haunted him: How do we know that we are safe? What do we do if we aren’t?

He could not answer them, and for a moment, he wondered why he should. Why should he be the one with the information? Why should he be the one the community turned to for direction?

Because you volunteered.

It was true. When the leaders of the community gathered and called to vote for a single leader, he had raised his hand.

“I nominate myself.”

And he had won. Three of the four saw him as their only hope. The fate of their entire community was now in his capable hands.

Now, he wished he hadn’t raised them. He wished he hadn’t won. His children still weren’t back from outside the quarantine, and now that he had authority—no, responsibility—he couldn’t leave to find them. He couldn’t bring them back to the only safe place he knew, because if he left, it wouldn’t be safe any longer.

***

Toby eased the car onto the side of the road. He glanced at Lyn through the rear view mirror. She was staring straight ahead, trying to get a look at the road in front of them. He smiled slightly. Lyn had been through a lot the past few hours. He was surprised that she was still holding up.

“Is it safe to assume that we’re here?” Miller readjusted the seatbelt strap against his neck. Toby hadn’t even bothered. If what Miller said was true, and there were creatures that even vaguely resembled zombies, then wearing a seatbelt was the least of his worries.

Toby turned around in his seat to face his wife. “Is this the place?”

Without looking at him, she shook her head. “Soren lives a few streets over.”

“Hey, can we walk the rest of the way?” Lincoln shifted in his seat. “I don’t want to spend any more time in this car.”

Lyn let out a short laugh. “You’ve been sitting in here for all of twenty minutes.”

“Well, that’s twenty minutes too many.” Lincoln looked at Toby again. “Can we please walk the rest of the way?”

Miller cleared his throat. “Why don’t you go on ahead?”

“Are you sure?” Toby asked. If what Miller had said earlier was true, then walking around Homestead on foot might not be the wisest thing.

“Let Lincoln stretch his legs,” Miller continued, taking off his seatbelt. “I know the address, so we’ll just meet you there.”

Although he wasn’t sure if it was a good plan, Toby knew that they needed to get going. And since they were doing this for Lincoln more than anyone else, it might be best to walk a few minutes to get there.

“All right, then, let’s go.”

***

Jace reached for the window beside him.

“Well, if we’re going to get a move on, we should open up some windows. We need some ventilation in here. Once we finish that, we’ll be on our way.”

They’d been stuck on the side of the road for long enough, waiting for the traffic to clear up. Jace had decided to take some time to clean up her wound, after declaring that it wasn’t serious enough to kill her.

It was a good thing he was a doctor before all this started.

She turned to face the window closest to her and stopped. She thought she saw a dark shape moving near the bus. The sun was just starting to come up, but her visibility was still very limited, so she couldn’t be sure.

It was probably just a tree.

She wedged her fingers in the metal latch and pulled the window down.

“Well, it looks like we’re all done.” Jace was standing in the row behind her. He’d finished all but three windows in less than a few minutes.

Always a damsel in distress, needing to be rescued, Rosemarie chided. She hated being in need. But ever since her car had gotten stranded on the US-1, she’d been in need of rescuing. She was used to being the one doing the rescuing, whether it had been at work, or even at home with Lincoln. Being in a different position unnerved her.

Rosemarie watched as Jace returned to the driver’s seat.

“Why are you doing this, Jace?” She asked. “You don’t even know who I am. And you probably have family that you want to be sure is safe as well. Why are you helping me?”

Jace turned the ignition, firing up the noisy school bus engine. He turned his head slightly.

“I don’t have any family in Florida,” he said, his voice raised above the noise. “I said I would take you back to yours, so that’s what I’m going to do.”

***

“It looks like we’re here.”

Lincoln counted up the windows and tried to imagine what it looked like inside. Three bedrooms, two bathrooms. A spacious front yard. Soren lived alone in a house that could’ve sold to a young family.

“He lives here by himself?” Toby asked, moving for the front door.

Maybe he’s planning on marrying Rosemarie and living here with her, Lincoln thought.

Whatever the case, they had arrived. A small car sitting in the driveway and a few lights visible inside indicated that someone was home.

Toby stopped walking.

“Didn’t Rosemarie drive up here?” He asked. “Why isn’t her car in the driveway?”

“I don’t know Toby,” Lincoln said. “Maybe they met up somewhere and she drove back alone.”

“Why would they do something like that?” Lyn asked. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

“You want to know what doesn’t make any sense?” Lincoln replied. “Zombies, okay? Zombies don’t make any sense. But according to Miller and the government, they’re real and they’re in this area. So unless you want to stay out here long enough to turn into one, I suggest we knock on that door and get my sister back.”

***

“It’s happening again.” Emmy sat across from him at the table, head in her hands, sobbing. He reached for her hand, but she wouldn’t let him hold her.

“Emmy, what’s wrong?”

She lifted her head long enough to look at him puffy red eyes. “The children are gone again. And it’s all my fault. This is God’s punishment for what I’ve done.”

Jamison caught her hands. Earlier this morning, he had been sitting where she now sat and she had given him words of encouragement. Now, it was his turn.

“Don’t you ever say that, Emmy. You’ve been forgiven for what you’ve done. God has forgiven you. I have forgiven you.”

But she wouldn’t accept it. Her eyes grew hollow and she looked through him. “I should never have run to him. He wasn’t what he said he was, Jamison. He said he would leave his wife for me, but he never did.”

“Emmy…” When she talked like this, he wondered if she had ever wanted to come back to him. Was it only because she had been so hurt by this man that she’d returned?

His phone began to ring. It always seemed to ring at the wrong time.

“Hello?” He asked, turning away from his wife.

“Jamison, we’ve got trouble.”

It was Trace, his only ally among the other leaders.

“What’s going on?”

“There’s commotion at the main gate.”

Jamison glanced at Emmy. “Can’t the government take care of that?”

“That’s just it, Jamison. The government’s the one causing the commotion.”

“I’ll be right outside.”

He closed his phone and reached for Emmy’s hand.

“I have to go, Emmy.”

She didn’t seem to hear him.

Jamison stood up and pulled her into a hug. “I will be back soon.”

Still, she stared off into the distance, unable to hear him.

He would have to deal with her later.

***

“All right, Lincoln, there’s no need to get excited. I was just asking a question.” Toby placed a hand on his shoulder. “Do you want to lead the way?”

Lincoln didn’t need him to ask twice. As he worked his way up the driveway, he saw Miller turning around the corner. If that man hadn’t crashed into the side of Lighthouse Church, they never would have gotten here in the first place.

Thank God for miracles.

Well, he would thank God. If he believed in him.

He reached for the doorbell and pushed it.

A man’s voice called out from inside that he was on his way. Toby and Lyn came up behind him.

“Someone’s coming,” Lincoln told them.

“Miller said he would wait for us in the car,” Toby said. “Once we get Rosemarie, he said he’d drive us back home.”

“You know they aren’t going to let us back in, right?” Lyn said. “We’ve been gone for too long. They’ve probably already closed the quarantine.”

“Well, we’re still going to try,” Toby replied.

This boyfriend of Rosemarie’s was taking too long to come to the door.

What was his name again?

The door opened quickly, and a young man stood on the other side. He was a bit taller than Lincoln, but his hair was a mess. He looked like he hadn’t slept in at least a few days, and his skin was pale. Whoever this was, he was in pretty bad condition.

“Hello?” The man asked. “Can I help you?”

“Yes, my name is Lincoln Valera. I believe you know my sister, Rosemarie?”

The man smiled. “Of course I know her. Rosemarie’s my girlfriend.” He extended his hand. “My name is Soren. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, Lincoln.” The man looked behind him. “And this must be your sister, Lyn, and her husband.” He reached out to shake their hands, but Lincoln stopped him.

“Soren, I know this must be very interesting for you, but where is Rosemarie?”

“I was going to ask you the same question,” Soren replied. “She called me a few hours ago saying that she wanted to stop by, but she never arrived.”

“She never arrived?” Lincoln didn’t know what to think. This was supposed to be it. She was supposed to be here. If not here with Soren, then where on Earth could she possibly be?

“I’m sorry, man, but she’s not here. I’ve been trying to call her, but she won’t pick up.” Soren pushed his door open wider. “Would you like to come inside?”

“What for? She’s not in there.”

Soren looked at Lincoln for a long time before replying. “Are you really giving up on Rosemarie? How many times did she give up on you, Lincoln?”

“He’s right, Lincoln,” Toby said. “Let’s go inside, regroup, figure out a plan to find her.”

Lincoln nodded slowly. This wasn’t going how he thought it’d go. Rosemarie was supposed to be here. But now that she wasn’t, they had to do something. He couldn’t just go back home and leave her out here in the world. She’d never do that to him.

Toby patted him on the shoulder. He turned to Soren. “We’ve got some friends outside. I’ll tell them to join us in here. Then, we’ll talk about how we’re going to find Rosemarie.”

“That sounds like an excellent plan.” Soren stepped back into his house, gesturing for Lincoln and Lyn to follow.

Soren’s house was exactly as Lincoln predicted. Large living room in the center, two rooms off to one side, the master a little further down. A spacious kitchen to the other side.

“Why such a huge house?” He asked. Soren laughed and directed him to the table in the dining room area.

“Well, I plan on marrying your sister one of these days,” he began, “and I wanted to have something nice to start our new life together.”

I knew it!

“Does she know anything about this?” Lyn asked.

Soren looked away. “We’ve talked about it a bit before. She says that she’ll be ready soon.”

“I’ve heard a lot of good things about you,” Lincoln said as he took a seat. “How about I hear some of the not-so-good things.”

“What are you talking about?” Soren sat across from him. “I’m not a bad guy, Lincoln. I don’t have anything to hide.”

“Everybody’s got something to hide, Soren.” Lincoln leaned forward. “I just want to know yours.”

The front door opened, drawing their attention to Toby coming through it. Miller followed closely behind, but stopped when he came into view. The man’s face froze and his eyes widened.

“Miller? Are you all right?”

The man took a step forward.

“Steven? Is that you?”

Lincoln turned to face Rosemarie’s boyfriend, who looked about as shocked as Miller.

“Father? What are you doing here?”

Lincoln crossed his arms.

“Well, what do you know. Looks like you had something to hide after all.”

The Study Club: Episode 3

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EPISODE THREE: First Test

“Well,” Maurice said, folding his hands, “it’s been two weeks since we started this Study Club. Tomorrow is your first exam. I hope you two do well on it.”

Xavier rolled his eyes. He’d never felt more unprepared for a test in his life.

“There’s no way we’re going to do well on it, Maurice. I’ve seen the study guide. There’s a whole lot of stuff we never covered.”

“You have the rest of the evening,” Maurice said, narrowing his eyes. “It is not my responsibility to spoon feed you all of the information. My job is to reinforce good study habits in all club members.”

“I don’t have any study habits,” Vicki said, closing her folder. “Do you think you could help me a little more this evening?”

Maurice stood up. “We talked about this. I am your tutor, so that means—”

“Yes, I know, we can’t be together, but—”

“No ‘buts’,” Maurice said. “Now, it’s time for the two of you to leave.”

Xavier sighed, gathered his things, and left the classroom. It’d been two long weeks and he didn’t feel any smarter than when he’d started. The only thing he’d gotten from this whole thing was his new friend, Jenna.

Oh, that’s right! I agreed to meet her after Study Club today.

They were supposed to take care of her plants again. But he couldn’t hang out with her today, not when he needed to study. He would have to hurry to the front of the school, to let her know.

“I am so stressed about this test.”

Vicki’s voice startled him. She leaned against the closed door, wringing her hands together.

“Are you talking to me?”

She ignored his question. “Do you feel stressed?”

He thought about it.

“A little. I mean, I’ve always done poorly on tests. Why should this be any different?”

Vicki rolled her eyes. “Because, Xavier, we made a commitment to this Study Club. We’ve told the whole world that we want to be better students. We can’t just fail tests like we did before. How would that make my Maurice look?”

Xavier shrugged. “I don’t really care how it’d make ‘your Maurice’ look, to be honest.”

“Well, I care,” she said, turning up her nose at him. “And I know I told you that I could never be with you, but for the tiny shred of respect you still have left for me, you will do well on this exam.”

“I don’t owe you anything, Vicki,” he spat, turning away from her. “You’ll never have Maurice, no matter how well you do on this exam.”

“I don’t owe you anything, Vicki,” he spat, turning away from her. “You’ll never have your Maurice, no matter how well you do on this exam.”

“I’m not trying to get nasty here, Xavier,” she said, reaching out and touching his arm. He raised an eyebrow. She was making physical contact with him? Could this mean something?

“Look, I’m just stressed out, so I don’t know what I’m saying. I don’t know what I’m going to do.” Vicki closed her eyes and shook her head. “Maybe I’ll have a panic attack.”

“No, that wouldn’t do.” Xavier crossed his arms. “What about meditation? I’m sure if you do some meditation, you’ll get rid of your stress.”

Vicki’s eyes popped open. “That sounds like a wonderful idea! You are the greatest!” She pulled him into a quick hug, then realized what she had done and stepped back. He felt his face turning red.

“I’m going to go home and spend the rest of the night in meditation.”

“But what about studying for the test?” He asked. “Aren’t you gonna do that?”

Vicki shrugged and ran down the hall.

He sighed. She was one crazy chick.

But that hug was cool, though.

*****

She sat on her bed, legs crossed, mind focused on an invisible dot. She thought of the dot, watched it grow and dance across a red background. The dot continued to grow until it took the shape of a face. It began to smile and soon grew a nose, eyes, ears, glasses and—

It’s Maurice!

“Oh, it’s no use,” she sighed, opening her eyes. She’d been trying the meditation as Xavier suggested, but it wasn’t working. That’s what she got for taking the advice of a poor student like him. She should’ve asked Maurice for stress reducing techniques. He was a good student. Surely he felt stress every now and then.

But he’s the greatest. There’s no way someone that perfect could ever feel stress.

Vicki sighed again and flopped down on her bed. She stared at the glow-in-the-dark stars tacked onto her ceiling. When she was in first grade, she had been so obsessed with astronomy that she convinced her father to buy her a telescope. She had decorated her room with stars, planets, asteroids, and the Milky Way. When she made it to middle school, the fascination had worn off and she’d thrown everything away except for the stars on her ceiling. She’d never admit it to anyone, but every night, just before falling asleep, she stared at those stars. They reminded her of a time when she was still passionate about something.

Dreams for the future were great, but she knew they never came true. Just look at her parents. They had such incredible dreams for their marriage and family, and look how they turned out. She had dreams too, but every single one of them had withered in the face of reality.

But she couldn’t think about that anymore. She had a test to study for, and stress to alleviate. Vicki could feel the stress in her veins, pumping through her blood, working its way into her heart. She couldn’t let it get there. If it did, she would explode.

She had a panic attack before, when she was fourteen. It was the first time her father had left them. There would be more times, but that time had terrified her. She was the only one who knew about the attack, and she wanted to keep it that way. Her mother would never forgive her for it.

Vicki closed her eyes and tried to think of something else. She saw the invisible dot in her mind again. How can you see something that is invisible? Didn’t it become visible once she thought of it? She was so confused.

Suddenly, the door to her room burst open. She bolted upright.

“Vicki, can you play with me?”

“Cameron, I can’t play right now,” she said, sighing as her little brother stood in the doorway, tiny fingers clutching the handle. “I’m trying to study.” It wasn’t entirely true, but her little brother was too young to understand the implications of stress.

“Well, can you take a break?” He shut the door and held up a board game. “I wanted to play with Dad, but he’s talking loud with Mom, so I didn’t want to interrupt them.”

Vicki smiled. “Come sit up here with me,” she said, patting her mattress. He climbed up.

Her parents had no respect. It didn’t matter to them that he was only five years old. He didn’t understand what they were fighting about half the time, but he still had to hear it anyway. What’s the point of hearing all of that if you can’t do anything about it? Healthy arguments are fine. But the destructive ones? What could a little five year old do about that? Could he be a mediator? Could he take sides? Could he give advice? Vicki was old enough. She could handle it. But it was a burden Cameron should never have to carry.

“It’s gonna be okay, Cameron,” she said, taking the box from him.

“I know.” He smiled. “Can I have the blue piece?”

“Youngest gets to choose first.”

Vicki knew she wasn’t going to get any studying in. But school could take a backseat. This little guy was more important. Her parents wouldn’t understand, and neither would Maurice.

But Cameron would. And for the moment, that was all that mattered.

*****

“Do you ever wish the sky was filled with rainbows?”

Maurice tried not to laugh as his sister leaned against the back door, staring into the heavens. They sat together at the back porch as they had every evening since their mother stopped coming home. Katy was too young to remember it, but he couldn’t forget it. He couldn’t stand being around the front door after dinner, hoping she’d walk through but knowing she’d never show. Maybe he was hiding, running away from his problems. Or maybe he was sparing himself some pain.

He looked up at the dark night sky.

“Not sure you’d see those rainbows,” he said, crossing his arms. “Rainbows are formed, in part, by sunlight.”

“I know,” Katy said, smiling. “But it’s an interesting thought.”

Maurice returned his gaze to the field behind their house. Tilting his head back was hurting his neck.

“Katy,” he began, but stopped. He wasn’t sure how to say what he needed to say. He didn’t want to hurt her. But if he didn’t say anything, that good-for-nothing Jimmy would hurt her far worse.

“Katy,” he started again, “I’ve had a chance to research and study this Jimmy character—”

“You mean my boyfriend?” Katy smiled. “Well, what do you think?”

“He’s not a good guy, Katy.”

She shrugged. “No one’s perfect. Not even you.”

“But there’s a difference between being imperfect and being a bad guy.” Maurice sighed. What could he say to make her understand? “You’re young, Katy. I don’t want you to get hurt.”

“I’m fourteen, and I’m old enough to decide who I want to date.” Katy stood up and yanked open the porch door. “You aren’t my father. Only one man could fill that position, and he’s already long gone.”

She slammed the door behind her as she stormed in the house. Maurice sighed and rested his head in his hands. She was right. He wasn’t her father. He couldn’t command her to stop seeing Jimmy. The only thing he could do was warn her of danger and be there to catch her when she eventually did fall.

Why did you have to leave, Dad? Why did you force this position on me without giving me authority?

He didn’t know who he was talking to. His father had left long before he got a chance to know him. He didn’t want to think about this anymore. That’s why he studied so hard. It was easier to think about formulas, dates, and assignments than dwell on the past.

The club was going pretty well. His two students were about to take their first test in the morning. They weren’t the best of students, but for this test, Maurice knew that they were ready.

Vicki is probably crying her eyes out because she can’t remember anything we studied.

He smiled. She was a funny character. He wasn’t sure why she fawned over him all the time. He wasn’t even that good looking, and he didn’t even know how to have a normal conversation about things that mattered to him. He knew math, science, English, history, economics, and a host of other things. But he didn’t know anything about interacting with humans, much less girls who were in love with him.

Of course, he’d never had any before.

This must be what it’s like to be a celebrity. It’s actually pretty nice.

He stood up. He’d have to talk to Jimmy one of these days. Tell that boy to leave his sister alone. If he was right about him, Jimmy wouldn’t listen. But at least, when it was all over, he could tell Katy that he’d tried. That would have to be enough.

*****

He found Jenna sitting in the plants in front of the school, just as they planned. Xavier sighed. He knew she was counting on his help today, but he couldn’t stay. At least four more hours of studying awaited him. If he wasted any more time, there was no way he’d get anything done. Plus, aside from the test, he had at least four more projects for other classes that were due next week. And he had to practice his speech for Mrs. Delano’s class.

Xavier shook his head. Stop thinking about this, bro. You’re just gonna stress yourself out.

It was already too late. He felt the stress in veins. Maybe that’s what Vicki had been feeling earlier. He laughed. That girl was purposely subjecting herself to pain. Didn’t she realize that she could never get anywhere with Maurice?

“Hey, Xavier! Thanks so much for coming,” Jenna said, waving as he drew closer. “I was starting to think you wouldn’t come.”

He laughed nervously. “Well, we’ve got our first test since starting this study club. I was trying to get some extra studying in.”

Jenna nodded. “That’s okay. You’re here now, though, so you can still help out.” She stood up. “For starters, I need some water for these guys over here.”

“Jenna, I won’t be able to stay,” he said slowly. “I’ve still got tons more to study for, plus I’ve got at least four projects and a speech to practice—”

“Xavier, I understand.” Jenna put a hand on his shoulder. “I go to school here, too, remember?” She frowned. “You sound like you’re stressed about this test and all the work you have to do for it.”

“A little,” he admitted. “I thought I was fine, but once I start thinking about all the work I have to do, all of it gets to me. I don’t think I’ll have enough time to do it all and still pass my classes with a decent grade.”

“School just started, Xavier,” she said, smiling. “There’s more than enough time for you to do all that you need to do, and for you to do it well.”

“I know. And thanks for the reminder. I was just letting all of this overwhelm me.”

Jenna snapped her fingers. “I just remembered! I have just the thing for you.” She began to search through her plants.

“What are you looking for?” Xavier asked, following her fingers as she checked each individual plant. Some of them had grown faster than the others, and there were a few that she’d planted before he met her that were already sprouting and budding.

“It’s got to be here somewhere,” she said, not looking up. He wanted to ask her what it was, but she was paying any attention to him anymore. He watched her work. She really did love her plants. He wondered if she and the science teachers got along with each other. He knew they didn’t get along with him. One of these days, Mr. Harmon was going to kill him. Especially if he kept spilling solution all over the place.

“Aha! I’ve found it,” she said. Jenna pulled out a pair of scissors and snipped a few leaves from one of the plants. She lifted the tiny purple plant to his face.

“This, my friend, is passion flower.”

“Passion flower?” He shook his head. “I’ve never heard of it before.”

“Well, it’s one hundred percent real,” she said, “and it has anxiety reducing properties in it.”

“I’m not anxious,” he cut in. Jenna smiled.

“Yes, you are,” she said. “You just don’t realize it yet.” She handed him the plant. “Put this in your tea, or ask your mother to do it for you. Drink that before you start studying again, and you’ll be able to focus better because the anxiety will be gone.”

Xavier laughed. “Wow. I didn’t expect these plants to actually mean something in real life.”

“You thought this was just a hobby, right?” Jenna shook her head. “Most people feel that way. But, as in any area of study, there are real world applications. Finding and using them is worth all the effort in learning them.”

“Thank you, so much,” he said, putting the plant in his pocket. “I’ll catch you around.”

“Good luck on that test of yours.”

“Thanks.”

Xavier smiled. He doubted that the plant would do anything for him. He wasn’t even sure if he would put it in his tea. What mattered was that she had done something to help him. That’s what real friends did.

What until I tell Dad!

*****

Maurice unlocked Room 305 at 1:30pm. His last teacher was more understanding than most and allowed him to leave early to set up for his Study Club that afternoon. He was such a good student. They didn’t need to worry about him. They loved him so much that they let him go off campus to pick up some things for an event he was planning.

He pushed open the door and was about to take a step inside when he felt a hand on his shoulder.

“What do you think you’re doing?”

He stiffened and slowly set the cooler he was holding on the ground. If worse came to worse, he needed both hands to defend himself.

“My name is Maurice and I run the Study Club that meets in this room every afternoon.”

“I know who you are.” He started to turn around, but the speaker tightened their grip on his shoulder. “I want to know why you are trying to break up me and my girlfriend.”

Maurice felt a smile coming on. There was only one person he was doing that to, and that was Jimmy and his sister. If this clown was Jimmy, he didn’t need to worry. He ducked out of the boy’s grip and turned around.

He was right.

“Listen, Jimmy, I’m only doing what’s best for Katy.”

“Yeah, well you don’t know anything about her. How can you know what’s best for her?”

Maurice stared at the boy. He was tall, slim, muscular, handsome. He understood why his sister had fallen for him. But he obviously had no brains in his head. If that was what his sister was attracted to, he needed to have a serious talk with her.

“Of course I know her—”

“I don’t care what you have to say. You just want to take her for yourself.” Jimmy stepped closer to him, ready to strangle him.

Maurice raised his hand to stop him.

“She’s my sister.”

That did the trick. Jimmy’s eyes widened and he took a step back.

“I see the resemblance.”

“I’m only trying to look out for her. You understand. You’ve got sisters yourself.”

“I didn’t know your connection,” Jimmy said, shaking his head. “I thought you were jealous of me.”

“Nope.”

Jimmy laughed nervously. “Look, I wasn’t trying to hurt you or your sister, okay? I realize now that she’s a bit too young for me.” He shrugged. “To be honest, I thought she was older. Now that I know, I won’t lead her on any further.”

“Thank you.”

“I’m not that kind of guy, you know.”

Maurice raised an eyebrow. “Really?”

“Yeah,” Jimmy said, shaking his head. “You’ve heard about that Claudio kid, right?”

“Sure.”

“I’m not like him.”

“He’s not the only bad person around, you know,” Maurice said.

“I know, but he’s the only one that comes to mind right now. I want you to know that I’m not like him. I would never purposefully hurt your sister.”

Maurice sighed. Jimmy was just as bad, maybe even worse than the guy he was talking about. Maurice didn’t believe any of his fronting. “Okay, we’ve settled it. Are you finished?”

Jimmy nodded. “Sorry again for coming at you like that.”

“It’s all right.” Maurice paused. “How did you know I didn’t want you to be with my sister?”

“Katy pointed you out one day when you were following us. She said you were against us being together. I thought she was trying to make me jealous at first, but it didn’t work.” He shrugged. “Then, I recognized you as the Study Club guy and it got me all fired up.”

Maurice nodded. “Okay. Make sure you tell my sister, face to face, and not over the phone.”

Jimmy laughed but didn’t respond. Maurice didn’t watch him walk away, but stooped to pick up the cooler. His sister was going to kill him, he knew. But she would understand. One day, she’d meet some girl that Jimmy had ruined and she’d thank him.

He was about to walk into Room 305, but stopped in his tracks. All the lights were off. This was unusual. He had an agreement with Mr. Tracy that he’d leave all the lights on if Maurice promised to turn them off before he left. It wasn’t hard to turn on himself, but he was so used to the routine that he wondered if something had gone wrong with Mr. Tracy.

He took a step forward.

And nearly lost his mind.

*****

Maurice’s face was to die for.

They both stood crouched under the front desk, peeking out at him from the thin slits on the sides. Vicki giggled. He looked even cuter when he was afraid. She knew he was probably wondering why all the lights were off. When they found out that he would be coming earlier, it had taken them thirty minutes each to convince their teachers to let them do this.

Vicki could barely contain herself. She kept looking at Xavier, asking with her eyes, Is it time yet? Can I go now?

And each time, he shook his head. No. Not yet.

Finally, she couldn’t take it anymore. She screamed at the top of her lungs and jumped out from under the desk.

Maurice had nearly had a heart attack. Xavier stepped from behind the desk, camera snapping away casually.

“Oh, Maurice, we wanted to surprise you!” Vicki danced over to him and gave him a huge hug.

“Vicki, what is the meaning of this? You nearly scared me to death!”

“This is a moment of celebration,” she said, pulling back from him. She could see his face was growing red. She smiled.

“What are we celebrating?”

Vicki glanced back at Xavier, who nodded to her. She turned to Maurice.

“Xavier and I both passed our exams!” She hugged him again, this time only for a second. She didn’t want to impose on their teacher-student relationship. Vicki knew he wouldn’t let two hugs slide in one day. But she was so excited!

It’d been so hard to study, but when the test came around, she knew she would do well. And Xavier felt the same way, too. He’d come to her afterward and was beaming, holding his grade. For a moment, she was proud of him. Then, she remembered her own grade, and all feelings of pride transferred to herself. She had done it! And all with Maurice’s help.

“Well, I want to congratulate the two of you on this wondrous accomplishment,” Maurice said, smiling slightly. “This was your first test, but I know you two will do just as well on the others. So that’s why I brought you guys something.”

Vicki raised an eyebrow.

Maurice brought something for us?

She turned to Xavier, who just shrugged. He’d been silent this whole time. She wondered if he was really excited as he’d claimed to be earlier. Or maybe that was just how he showed it.

To each his own, huh?

Maurice opened his cooler and showed them the contents.

“Ice cream?” The question came from Xavier. He laughed. “What is that for?”

“It’s for a job well done,” Maurice said.

“But you didn’t even know our grades yet,” Vicki protested. “Why did you buy ice cream if you didn’t know we’d passed?”

Maurice smiled as he handed her a carton of chocolate ice cream.

“Because you guys worked so hard. I wanted to give you something nice to reward your effort.” He closed the cooler and opened his bag to find some spoons. “Grades aren’t the only thing in the world, you know. Sometimes, working hard deserves its own reward, whether you do well on an exam or not.”

Vicki wanted to hug him again, but held herself in check.

“I can’t believe you would do something so nice for us, Maurice,” she said, holding back tears. “I think I’m in love with you more now than ever.”

He laughed and it sounded so perfect that she let the tears flow.

“Here, why don’t you give me that ice cream carton,” he said, taking it from her. “And what have I told you about our student-teacher—”

“I know, I know,” she said, wiping her eyes. “Falling in love is not a feature of our relationship.”

But as she watched him scoop ice cream into a clear plastic cup, she wondered if she could ever get him to change his mind. The smile he gave when she thanked him for the ice cream gave her hope that maybe, one day, she could.

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