The next day school flew by, and afterwards Jonas walked Maia and Rachelle home. He said he didn't want to draw attention to themselves during school, but asked if he could walk her home everyday. Maia still felt shy whenever he was nearby, but the sensation was a good one, and she was happier than she had been in a long time.
On Thursday, Jonas had to stay late at school, and Maia wanted to wait for him, but he insisted she and Rachelle go on without him. To Maia, the walk seemed colder and longer, and more lonely than it ever had before.
Friday after school, Rachelle went to visit a friend's house, and Maia and Jonas walked home alone. They talked about many things, families, school, and faith.
"Do you really believe the Chosen One is coming?" Maia asked. "I know Ayam has not abandoned us here, but our ancestors waited in deserts for centuries without a sign from Ayam. What are the chances that the Chosen is coming in our lifetime?"
Jonas considered his answer. "We cannot know Ayam's plans for sure, only what he has spoken through the Writings and his Prophets."
"My brother Isaiah is always talking about the coming of the Chosen One. He says we should all be preparing for battle so that when the One comes we will be ready to fight the government with him."
"We just escaped a war and now he wants to start a new one?"
"Pretty much. He reads the Writings everyday and practices fighting with his friends, though they do not have real weapons. He hardly spends any time with our family anymore. He used to be such a fun big brother, and always protected us when Father was away. Now he just hides in the basement, plotting."
"Even if the Chosen one does come in our lifetime, I'm not so sure war is his intention. The Writings are not clear, only saying that he will bring hope."
"Our ancestors fought many wars for Ayam."
"And very few of them ended well. No, I think the Chosen One will bring change, the way our ancestors Mosas, Alija and Davod brought change."
"Don't forget the great leader Jonas, for whom you are named."
They stopped walking. They were shaded by a few scattered trees in what used to be a green park for citizens to walk in and enjoy the scenery. A soft breeze lifted Maia's curls, which she had untied when they were out of the schoolyard. Jonas stroked them and tucked them behind her ear. "Only a strong faith can ask questions and not be weakened by want of answers. But questions can also strengthen your faith in Ayam. Don't let the religious leaders tell you otherwise." He kissed her cheek, his lips lingering. His hands wrapped around hers.
Maia's head spun. In a moment of boldness, she pulled him off the sidewalk and into the trees, locked her hands behind his neck and kissed him on the mouth. He smiled, and they held each other, foreheads touching, nose to nose. Maia thought of all that had changed in her life, the war and hunger that had plagued her family, the death that had touched her family and those around her, the struggle to find her place in a foreign land. It all seemed to melt away when she was with him. She felt like herself - the Maia that remembered feasts and happiness, innocence, and child-like faith. Ayam had not forgotten her. He had restored her hope and innocence. This new land was not perfect, but together she and Jonas would find a way. He was smart and faithful, and had skills that could make a living for them. She thanked Ayam silently, wondering what she had done to deserve such blessings.
They heard footsteps on the sidewalk. "Police," Jonas whispered. They stood still and quiet until the steps were long gone. As the evening sun began to set, Jonas and Maia went their separate ways.
Church was held on Sundays in a small building that had once been a bank, but had been looted and burned many times over the course of the war, leaving nothing but the walls and floor. Plastic chairs littered the atrium, but many had to sit on the cool stone floor. On Sunday at church, the religious leaders announced their relationship in front of everyone. "Jonas, son of Ibram and Sierra Greenwood and Maia, daughter of Zachar and Rehana Merron have begun their journey toward marriage. They will be betrothed for two years until they are both eighteen and then will be married. If either of them breaks the faith of this betrothal, they will be outcast from Ayam's people and find his judgment upon them. May Ayam bless their journey together."
Maia blushed, some of the girls around her giggling. She looked over at Jonas, who was receiving congratulatory pats on the back from the young men around him.
After the worship service, several of the older women congratulated her. "Ayam smiles on you," they told her. "May you bear many children," some said. Maia thought her blush would never recede.
Just then, four policemen came into the building wielding guns and stern faces.
The room was suddenly silent but for gasps and harsh whispers and some crying children. Many sank to the floor - a defensive strategy the people had learned well back in the homeland. One of the leaders came forward. "We have a license to worship here," the confidence in his words was betrayed by his shaking voice.
The biggest policeman hit his head with the butt of his weapon. The leader went down like a stone. Some women screamed. "The cost of the license has gone up. To continue worshiping here you must pay us $500 a week, plus whatever offerings are collected. If you cannot afford it, we will confiscate the building and imprison the leaders."
One of the leaders came forward with the offering box. A policeman grabbed it and dumped the contents into a sack. He tossed the empty box on the floor.
"We will return next week. Have the payment ready." The four policemen left the building.
The gathered people remained silent for many minutes. Then the leader who had brought the money stood up and began to pray out loud.
The rest of the people stood and prayed to Ayam for deliverance. The sound of weeping women and children rose to Ayam and rang in Maia's ears. This land was not so different from home. When would Ayam begin protecting his people again?