Asher lives in a secluded town, where any mention of the Hill Country outside is forbidden. When his new friend reveals a hidden side to his town, Asher is forced to rethink everything he knows about the world outside.

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[haccordion title=”Chapter One”]

Chapter One

Twelve men stood abreast in front of the strong stone wall that separated Aversano from the Hill Country, watching. Always watching. Laws prohibited the men from scaling the wall, but their object was never to climb, it was only to watch. To watch for movement, for a breach, for a defector, for anything that would give them an excuse to satisfy their curiosity and peer over the ominous stone blocks. They stood by the wall every day from mid-afternoon till the sun disappeared behind the lavender horizon, oblivious to the young eyes that watched their backs, wondering what was so important about this huge wall.

Special guards, hired by the company that commissioned the construction of the wall, patrolled the perimeter day in and day out, giving the wall watchers a reason to feel fright. They stood a foot taller than most men, with muscles bulging from massive forearms, torsos, and legs. Dressed in pure white garments, they held no weapon in their hand, as theirs was not the way of violence. Every so often, a guard would pass by the spot where the men stood, watching the wall. Seeing their plight, he drew close to the first man, and rested a firm hand on the man’s shoulder.

“Come back with me,” he said gently. “Away from the wall.” Then, with a little more urgency in his voice: “There is nothing to see here.”

The first man looked up at the guard clad in white and immediately turned away, fearing a harsh rebuke or severe punishment. The guard merely stepped aside to let him pass, and then moved on to the next man.

A hand on the man’s shoulder, the guard repeated his plea to the first man.

“Come back with me. Away from the wall. There is nothing to see here.”

One by one, at the guard’s encouragement, the men began to drift away from the wall, back to their homes deep within the town of Aversano, back to their families and careers, their curiosity quelled for the moment. They never imagined they would be back at the wall again, but the guards knew, and they would remain on patrol, waiting. Patiently waiting.

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[haccordion title=”Chapter Two”]

Chapter Two

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.”

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[haccordion title=”Chapter Three”]

Chapter Three

Silence marked the long journey to the edge of town, interrupted only by the sound of Asher’s heavy breathing and an occasional unexplained snicker from Jordan. They took an alternate route to reach the Education Facility, to avoid the crowds entering the Meeting House, cutting across the housing developments along Artimas and Korimas Boulevard. Both roads received less traffic because of their proximity to the Great Forest. Asher, on the other hand, refused to allow a cluster of dark trees and a few fanciful tales to unsettle his nerves. He took Artimas and Korimas as often as he could. The quiet and extra distance gave him time to think.

The two teens passed an abandoned log cabin on their right, closest to the perimeter of the Great Forest. A strange smell emanated from the broken logs that fashioned the neglected abode. Asher’s mind raced through a dozen possibilities as he tried to place the sickly sweet aroma wafting in his direction.

“Dead animal,” Jordan coughed, shaking his head in disgust. Jordan turned from the foot path along Korimas and stood on the log cabin’s unkempt lawn. As his friend stood among the weeds and bushes of varying sizes, Asher was reminded of Jordan’s wild hair before the recent cut. It had been much like this plot of land, rejected and entirely ignored.

With a little trimming, Asher reasoned, this parcel of land could look as good as Jordan’s hair now did. Asher smiled. His friend remained standing knee deep in the grass, admiring the forsaken log cabin just beyond him.

Jordan suddenly spun around.

“Asher, my friend, we must continue,” Jordan said, stepping back onto the dirt path that was the Boulevard.

“Something the matter, Jordan?”

The older boy turned sharply to face his friend.

“Have you ever noticed that cabin before, Asher?”

“Well—”

“Tell me, have you?” Jordan was almost at his throat. Asher stepped back, confused by his friend’s sudden ferocity.

“No, I have not.” He leveled Jordan a curious gaze. “I rarely spend much time enjoying the nature around Korimas, simply because there is no nature to enjoy.”

Jordan stared at Asher and sighed.

“My friend, if only you had eyes to see.” He shook his head. “Hopefully, this trip will give you their eyes.” Jordan resumed his walk along the path, oblivious to Asher’s non-conformity.

Whose eyes?

“Whose eyes?” Asher asked, increasing his pace to a brisk walk to catch up with Jordan. He sucked in a huge breath, instantly regretting all the hours he spent daydreaming in his father’s field instead of training his body for physical activities.

“Whose eyes?” He repeated as he drew close to the boy in front of him. Jordan turned his head but didn’t change his pace as he answered.

“Why, the Wall Watcher’s eyes, of course.”

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[haccordion title=”Chapter Four”]

Chapter Four

The Education Facility loomed in the distance, tucked in a shadowy corner where the Wall and the Great Forest intersected. A concrete cluster of three buildings known affectionately as the EFC, this was the epitome of educational instruction in all of Aversano. Two smaller facilities bordered the Meeting House, but neither was as large or influential as the EFC. Generations of thinkers and leaders were bred here, leaving behind a legacy of excellence and success.

Asher had enrolled in the EFC a year ago, earlier than most his age by more than three years. It had been this decision that caused the first rift between himself, Mick and Abigail. They didn’t understand his passion for the discovery of knowledge. Asher loved to learn for the sake of learning. Mick and Abigail were still stuck in the belief that they went to school to spend time with their friends.

This was another thing that drew him into friendship with Jordan. Jordan wasn’t afraid of knowledge; like Asher, he embraced it. Learning was an adventure for the mind, an unexplored map that delighted you when you made a discovery and terrified you when you stumbled across something you simply could not understand. The quest for knowledge was filled with risks and tough decisions, as you had to know your limitations, when to stop and when to continue.

It was this journey that Asher found himself on. He was grateful to have Jordan alongside him to user him into the way of wisdom.

“We’ll be entering through the back entrance,” Jordan informed him as they drew closer to the EFC’s well manicured front lawn. All traffic into the EFC stemmed from the central oval building into two rectangular four story buildings. Jordan’s proposition to enter through the back confused Asher, but he ignored his own feelings and followed his friend.

At this time of day, shortly after the gathering had begun, the EFC was entirely deserted. Asher gazed up at the tall building that rose from the ground before him. This was the second tallest structure in all of Aversano, not considering the seventy foot tall Tarkine Falls. The only structure that stood taller than the West Wing of the EFC was the Wall itself.

Jordan reached the building’s back entrance first, pulling roughly on the huge metal doors. Asher watched as Jordan struggled with the weight, his biceps straining. Asher glanced at his own spindly arms beneath the sleeves of his black collared shirt. He had never been overweight; he was simply out of shape. As Jordan finally won his battle with the rusting door, Asher couldn’t help envy the strength his friend possessed.

“Come on, Asher,” Jordan said, his voice dropping to a whisper. He put his finger to his lips and nodded to the door. “When you go up,” he said, “you must be sure not to wake them up.”

Asher looked at Jordan.

“Wake who up?”

“You’ll find out. Now hurry and climb the stairs,” Jordan commanded, impatient.

Asher could feel a lump rising in his throat. Somehow, it felt wrong to sneak into the back of the EFC in the middle of the day. To make matters worse, Jordan’s talk of people sleeping in the staircase frightened him.

Jordan stared at Asher angrily, almost as though he had read his thoughts.

“You feel afraid, Asher? Do you not know that fear is the path of weakness? I abhor weakness.” Jordan spat on the ground at his feet. “I can easily find someone else to do this, Asher, but I chose you because you didn’t seem afraid. Let me know now if I need to find someone else.”

“I want to do this, Jordan,” Asher interjected, still uncertain what ‘this’ was. But whatever it was, he need not be afraid of it. It wasn’t as though they were going to kill him or anything, whoever ‘they’ were anyway.

“Alright.” Jordan grinned and nodded towards the staircase once again. “Climb.”

And so Asher climbed.

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[haccordion title=”Chapter Five”]

Chapter 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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[haccordion title=”Chapter Six”]

Chapter 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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[haccordion title=”Chapter Seven”]

Chapter Seven

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

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

“Dinner is ready!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That is correct.”

His father picked up a fork and began to eat.

“Where did you go, Asher?”

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

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

“What is the Hill Country like, Father?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His father faced him angrily.

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

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

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[haccordion title=”Chapter Eight”]

Chapter Eight

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

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

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

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

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

The Giver of Life knows this.

The thought came to him briefly, but he rejected it immediately. Regardless of how well the Giver of Life understood his mind, Asher would never get what his heart desired. He would never experience true freedom within the confines of Aversano and its treacherous wall. It mattered little to him what the Giver of Life knew, for the simple reason that he would never given Asher what he wanted. In fact, Asher was sure that the Giver of Life couldn’t give it to him. Everyone believed that Aversano was set apart by the Giver of Life, and the Hill Country was a land to be condemned and feared. The people of Aversano were free, and the Hill Country lived in slavery.

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

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

“What are you talking about?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am ready to play.”

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

“How old are you?”

“Fifteen.”

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

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

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

“You’ll do better next time, Joe.”

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

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

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

“He always does that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the truth did not bother him.

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

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