Asher walked slowly along the dirt path behind his mother and father, not wanting to overhear the subject matter of their conversation. It had been a full week since his mother received the news that she was having another child, and it seemed that all they could talk about was the newest edition to their family. It was as though they had forgotten that they already had a family: him. Asher wouldn’t consider himself jealous of the new child, but he certainly did not want to hear another word about him. Or was it a her? He couldn’t remember.
“Asher! Catch up, will you?” His father bellowed from several yards ahead. Asher hurried toward the man, observing his face, wondering if there were any similarities between them as everyone seemed to think. Both had sharp jaws and thin noses, but it was the brow that made all the difference. His father’s bright blue eyes were buried beneath a protruding brow, whereas Asher had nearly no brow to speak of. He had gotten his dark brown hair and eyes from his mother, but his tall and lanky frame had come from neither of them, as both were rather short and portly.
“Asher, we really should not have to wait for you,” his mother chimed in as he reached her side. She patted him lightly on the back as he caught his breath. “A boy in your condition should be able to run for longer distances than your father and I combined.”
“When Conner is born, we must be sure to enroll him in an engaging sport. Come, we must hurry, otherwise, we won’t make it there on time,” his father said, resuming his walk down the path. Asher plodded along beside them, letting his mind wander to the place where they were headed. The Meeting House. The place where the town gathered every Sunday evening in order to celebrate the Giver of Life, or something to that effect. The adults always seemed to have an answer when asked about the weekly meetings, but for Asher, it was merely a place where he could see his friends again. Even now, his eyes were peeled for any sign of Mick and Abigail, his best friends.
The three had arranged to meet at the edge of Rinkar Avenue as soon as possible. From there, they would walk to their Sunday evening class together. Mick was most likely snagging a few extra mints from the greeters at the door. The tall, blond boy loved mints, but taking them without being noticed was the real game. Abigail may have gone to inform her parents that she wouldn’t be sitting with them after class was over.
Asher didn’t have to worry about his parents. As soon as they entered the Meeting House, they found their friends and forget that he existed. When he was younger, there were days when they walked home by themselves, leaving him waiting by the front door, looking for them in the dark. They still did it on occasion, but he no longer waited for them.
“Asher!” A familiar voice broke through the crowd, shattering his thoughts. He scanned the sea of faces, pulling himself onto his toes to increase his line of sight. A few faces stood out to him: his third grade teacher Ms. Spencer, the lumberjack Mr. Tom, the man who transported their dairy to the market, but none who matched the voice.
“Asher! Over here!” The call came from his left. He swiveled his head in that direction, his eyes moving like mad. They soon found their target, focusing on a tall black haired boy standing on a bench. Jordan.
Asher grinned and pushed through the crowd to get to his new friend. The two had met earlier this year during a trip to Tarkine Falls, and Asher wondered why they had not become friends sooner.
Jordan was a year older than Asher, but he seemed so much wiser. During class on Sunday, when they discussed the Words of Life, Jordan knew all of the answers. The sixteen year old had even challenged Timothy, the secondary student’s leader, on a point the man had made about the afterlife.
“The Giver of Life clearly states that man is to live once, and then face judgment,” Jordan explained to Asher the night after the ‘doctrine battle’, as the other kids had called it. “Timothy would like to believe that man lives again and again until he makes the right choice to receive a favorable verdict.”
“But are we not alive during the judgment?” Asher had asked, confused by these ideas he had heard little of before.
Jordan had smiled and patted Asher on the shoulder as though Jordan were a father proudly instructing his son in the way of manhood.
“My friend,” Jordan replied, his words spilling slowly from his lips as though he were sharing a forbidden secret. “The afterlife is where true life begins.
Asher hadn’t understood what Jordan meant. He felt alive, he felt like he had true life. He had tried to ask his parents about the afterlife, but then the harvest came, and they grew too busy to worry about theological questioning.
As he drew closer to Jordan, Asher recalled the many discussions they had engaged in. As the weeks of friendship stretched into months, their conversation topics drifted from the theological to the personal. Jordan was growing dissatisfied with the weekly gatherings of the people of Aversano. And the more he thought about it, Asher realized that he too was dissatisfied.
“My friend! It is good to see you!” Jordan clasped him in a quick embrace.
“I see you convinced Mother Mary to lend you her shears,” Asher joked, running a hand across his friend’s now short black curls. Jordan’s wild hair had been legendarily unkempt, and Asher had threatened to cut it off himself a few times.
“It takes one beast to know another,” Jordan retorted, gesturing to Asher’s own mane. Asher smiled and pulled his brown locks across his forehead. His hair had long been a sore point with his parents. To say they disapproved would be an understatement. Many an hour had passed reciting the same arguments, neither side gaining any ground. In the end, Asher kept his hair and they kept their criticism.
Again with my parents! Asher shook his head, sending brown locks flying wildly against the side of his head. This was his afternoon to spend with friends, not one wasted reminiscing of old arguments with mother and father.
“So, are you ready to go?” Jordan asked, oblivious to his friend’s thoughts. Asher nodded quickly, and then sighed. Mick and Abigail! He had forgotten about their arrangement to meet before gathering.
“Jordan, I promised—”
“What, to meet with Mick and Abigail?” Jordan snickered and rested a firm hand on Asher’s shoulder. “My friend, when are you going to terminate your partnership with those fools?”
Asher winced, certain the older boy felt him flinch. Jordan was not a mincer of words. He spoke his mind as he saw fit, regardless of who he hurt in the process. But wasn’t that what drew Asher to him in the first place? Jordan wasn’t afraid to voice his opinion, something that was scarce in this town. Buried beneath their bright smiles and kind words were a layer of unspoken thoughts and hidden secrets. Asher knew this was only an effort to keep peace among Aversano’s growing population, but it frustrated him. It was the things you thought in the dark, when no one was watching, that showed who you really were. Everyone around him had perfected the art of the make believe, cranking out stellar performances whenever they stepped out in public.
But Jordan wasn’t like the other fakers. Jordan was real. And if Asher wanted to spend another second in reality, he’d have to leave behind whatever was holding him back, even if it meant cutting ties with Mick and Abigail.
“I am ready,” he said. Jordan nodded and turned away from the building.
“Wait. Aren’t we going inside?”
Jordan did not reply, but continued walking. Asher rushed to his side.
“Where are we going, Jordan?” Asher asked.
The older teen smiled broadly as he replied.
“To the Education Facility.”