“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.
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.
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.
The boy turned his eyes toward Jordan. He blinked.
“Yes, I am—” His voiced trailed off.
“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.