“What do you think’s on the other side?”
“Maybe it’s a dragon.”
Arjun stopped in his tracks, his hands barely gripping the ball it was his turn to toss.
“What?” Omar asked, mostly with his hands.
“There are no dragons in Georgia,” Arjun said. He dropped the ball, then reached over to pick it back up.
“You don’t know that. Why else would they build a wall this tall? No person’s that big.”
“Maybe they like their privacy.”
“Touch it,” Omar demanded in the bossy way only a kid of his age could. “It’s hot.”
“It’s like a bajillion degrees outside,” Arjun retorted, touching the wall anyway. “My house is just as hot.”
“But this is from dragon fire.”
“Catch,” Arjun said, starting to regret having asked the question. He lobbed the ball at Omar.
The nine-year-old caught it easily. He and Arjun had tossed this ball back and forth every weekday for nearly two years. Their school was only a few blocks away, across the street from row after row of cookie-cutter, two-bedroom houses. But each day it was this giant wall that enthralled them both to and from school. What could be so dangerous this close to the school that it needed to reside behind a concrete fortress?
Omar was young, but he wasn’t stupid. He had facts to back up his theory. He and a bunch of other kids had seen giant trucks filled with food ride through the front gate, and just as regularly, vehicles rolled out loaded with garbage. This, as the kids knew, was routine dragon-rearing behavior. Omar didn’t need Arjun to agree with him when so many other classmates were just as able to put together the pieces.
Dozens of kids walked by the wall each day. Most students rode buses to school, but this lot was from the same neighborhood. Their parents trusted them to move in a group, feeling there was safety in large numbers. A few kids were older, some even old enough to go to high school. They knew the answers to everything, but when asked about the wall, they could only shrug. They had their doubts, but a dragon was only marginally less plausible, to them, than the countless explanations they had entertained since birth.
The wall was where veterinarians took the animals they had to put to sleep, so that their owners wouldn’t have to watch. The military used that land to train black ops soldiers. Companies placed shipments there when there wasn’t any space left in their factories. A British king built a modern day castle there, because land was cheaper than back home.
When Autumn came, trees grew weary and unloaded their leaves all over every yard in the area. Even the schoolyard was buried in this sea of decaying foliage. Yet as parents and grumpy children came out into their yards and raked away, the few trees that stood up from behind the wall remained bright green. They were immune from the falling temperatures, as though a magical stone had fallen nearby that fed them eternal life (another theory that, while less popular than others, continued to thrive).
The wall was huge, too, encircling an area half as large as the neighborhood it was adjacent to. Trees blocked it most of the year, but in the winter, it intimidated the landscape around it. Warm glows emitted from most houses as residents fired up aging heaters for heat, but not from the wall, which, unlike in the summer, was ice cold during this time of the year. It could suck out your soul if you touched it for too long. The older kids regularly had to drag the young ones along, as they would challenge each other to see who could keep their palm against the wall for the longest. None wanted to be the one with the weakest soul.
When the spring returned, the wall became a welcoming place. The children could smell the most wonderful fragrances coming from the other side. Sometimes it smelled of rows upon rows of endless flowers. Other days there was the taste of a fresh garden in the air. But as curious as each student was, none dared peek through the one opening in the entire fortress. There was a gap in the wall just large enough for a small driveway, which went on for at least a dozen yards before it running into a giant iron gate. There was nothing explicitly forbidding the kids from glancing over and making an extended effort to see what was inside, but the old man who lived in the box near the entrance of the driveway made them uncomfortable. He didn’t speak or wave or so much as smile. He just stood there holding a gun.
This wasn’t a small one either. Some of the kids had lost their siblings to handguns, and this left them forever scarred. It was for this reason that they were especially afraid of the weapon in this man’s hands, which could be nothing short of a bazooka. They wouldn’t dare do anything that would get on his bad side, so they tried to look down at the ground as they walked by. Only after they had passed him would they dare touch the wall again.
It was then each day when the man reached for his collar and whispered just two words: “Road’s clear.”
The iron gate opened and out rolled a luxury SUV. The maiden of the house sat behind the wheel, and she, without fail, nodded at the guard as she pulled out to the road. He responded, as he did, by waving at the girl in the backseat who wasn’t quite as little as she used to be. Next year her baby sister would be old enough to sit beside her.
“Are you prepared for today’s test?” Mom asked as she turned onto the street.
“Yes,” Susan responded in a drawn out tone that gave the word two more syllables than it needed. “You only made me study for three hours.”
“Your grades slipped last quarter. I don’t want to see that again.”
“I know, Mom.”
The SUV pulled up in front of the school. Susan hopped out, but as always, her mother made her come back for a kiss. Then, after a few love you’s were exchanged, the nine-year-old made her way through the front doors.
“Hi, Omar,” she said to her friend once inside.
“Hi, Susan,” he greeted back.
In the old days, kids like Susan and Omar wouldn’t have gone to the same school. But these days, there just weren’t enough Susans around to warrant their own building anymore. In a few years the two would realize all that divided them, but at least for now, that wall had yet to be built.