“Maybe you can just take a few hits and pretend to go unconscious,” suggests Al. “No one would blame you.”
“Yeah,” I say. “Maybe.”
I stare at my name on the board. My cheeks feel hot. Al and Christina are just trying to help, but the fact that they don’t believe, not even in a tiny corner of their minds, that I have a chance against Peter bothers me.
I stand at the side of the room, half listening to Al and Christina’s chatter, and watch Molly fight Edward. He’s much faster than she is, so I’m sure Molly will not win today.
As the fight goes on and my irritation fades, I start to get nervous. Four told us yesterday to exploit our opponent’s weaknesses, and aside from his utter lack of likable qualities, Peter doesn’t have any. He’s tall enough to be strong but not so big that he’s slow; he has an eye for other people’s soft spots; he’s vicious and won’t show me any mercy. I would like to say that he underestimates me, but that would be a lie. I am as unskilled as he suspects.
Maybe Al is right, and I should just take a few hits and pretend to be unconscious.
But I can’t afford not to try. I can’t be ranked last.
By the time Molly peels herself off the ground, looking only half-conscious thanks to Edward, my heart is pounding so hard I can feel it in my fingertips. I can’t remember how to stand. I can’t remember how to punch. I walk to the center of the arena and my guts writhe as Peter comes toward me, taller than I remembered, arm muscles standing at attention. He smiles at me. I wonder if throwing up on him will do me any good.
I doubt it.
“You okay there, Stiff?” he says. “You look like you’re about to cry. I might go easy on you if you cry.”
Over Peter’s shoulder, I see Four standing by the door with his arms folded. His mouth is puckered, like he just swallowed something sour. Next to him is Eric, who taps his foot faster than my heartbeat.
One second Peter and I are standing there, staring at each other, and the next Peter’s hands are up by his face, his elbows bent. His knees are bent too, like he’s ready to spring.
“Come on, Stiff,” he says, his eyes glinting. “Just one little tear. Maybe some begging.”
The thought of begging Peter for mercy makes me taste bile, and on an impulse, I kick him in the side. Or I would have kicked him in the side, if he hadn’t caught my foot and yanked it forward, knocking me off-balance. My back smacks into the floor, and I pull my foot free, scrambling to my feet.
I have to stay on my feet so he can’t kick me in the head. That’s the only thing I can think about.
“Stop playing with her,” snaps Eric. “I don’t have all day.”
Peter’s mischievous look disappears. His arm twitches and pain stabs my jaw and spreads across my face, making my vision go black at the edges and my ears ring. I blink and lurch to the side as the room dips and sways. I don’t remember his fist coming at me.
I am too off-balance to do anything but move away from him, as far as the arena will allow. He darts in front of me and kicks me hard in the stomach. His foot forces the air from my lungs and it hurts, hurts so badly I can’t breathe, or maybe that’s because of the kick, I don’t know, I just fall.
On your feet is the only thought in my mind. I push myself up, but Peter is already there. He grabs my hair with one hand and punches me in the nose with the other. This pain is different, less like a stab and more like a crackle, crackling in my brain, spotting my vision with different colors, blue, green, red. I try to shove him off, my hands slapping at his arms, and he punches me again, this time in the ribs. My face is wet. Bloody nose. More red, I guess, but I’m too dizzy to look down.
He shoves me and I fall again, scraping my hands on the ground, blinking, sluggish and slow and hot. I cough and drag myself to my feet. I really should be lying down if the room is spinning this fast. And Peter spins around me; I am the center of a spinning planet, the only thing staying still. Something hits me from the side and I almost fall over again.
On my feet on my feet. I see a solid mass in front of me, a body. I punch as hard as I can, and my fist hits something soft. Peter barely groans, and smacks my ear with the flat of his palm, laughing under his breath. I hear ringing and try to blink some of the black patches out of my eyes; how did something get in my eye?
Out of my peripheral vision, I see Four shove the door open and walk out. Apparently this fight isn’t interesting enough for him. Or maybe he’s going to find out why everything’s spinning like a top, and I don’t blame him; I want to know the answer too.
My knees give out and the floor is cool against my cheek. Something slams into my side and I scream for the first time, a high screech that belongs to someone else and not me, and it slams into my side again, and I can’t see anything at all, not even whatever is right in front of my face, the lights out. Someone shouts, “Enough!” and I think too much and nothing at all.
When I wake up, I don’t feel much, but the inside of my head is fuzzy, like it’s packed with cotton balls.
I know that I lost, and the only thing keeping the pain at bay is what is making it difficult to think straight.
“Is her eye already black?” someone asks.
I open one eye—the other stays shut like it’s glued that way. Sitting to my right are Will and Al; Christina sits on the bed to my left with an ice pack on her jaw.
“What happened to your face?” I say. My lips feel clumsy and too large.
She laughs. “Look who’s talking. Should we get you an eye patch?”
“Well, I already know what happened to my face,” I say. “I was there. Sort of.”
“Did you just make a joke, Tris?” Will says, grinning. “We should get you on painkillers more often if you’re going to start cracking jokes. Oh, and to answer your question—I beat her up.”
“I can’t believe you couldn’t beat Will,” Al says, shaking his head.
“What? He’s good,” she says, shrugging. “Plus, I think I’ve finally learned how to stop losing. I just need to stop people from punching me in the jaw.”
“You know, you’d think you would have figured that out already.” Will winks at her. “Now I know why you aren’t Erudite. Not too bright, are you?”
“You feeling okay, Tris?” Al says. His eyes are dark brown, almost the same color as Christina’s skin. His cheek looks rough, like if he didn’t shave it, he would have a thick beard. Hard to believe he’s only sixteen.
“Yeah,” I say. “Just wish I could stay here forever so I never have to see Peter again.”
But I don’t know where “here” is. I am in a large, narrow room with a row of beds on either side. Some of the beds have curtains between them. On the right side of the room is a nurse’s station. This must be where the Dauntless go when they’re sick or hurt. The woman there looks at us over a clipboard. I’ve never seen a nurse with so many piercings in her ear before. Some Dauntless must volunteer to do jobs that traditionally belong to other factions. After all, it wouldn’t make sense for the Dauntless to make the trek to the city hospital every time they get hurt.
The first time I went to the hospital, I was six years old. My mother fell on the sidewalk in front of our house and broke her arm. Hearing her scream made me burst into tears, but Caleb just ran for my father without saying a word. At the hospital, an Amity woman in a yellow shirt with clean fingernails took my mother’s blood pressure and set her bone with a smile.
I remember Caleb telling her that it would only take a month to mend, because it was a hairline fracture. I thought he was reassuring her, because that’s what selfless people do, but now I wonder if he was repeating something he had studied; if all his Abnegation tendencies were just Erudite traits in disguise.
“Don’t worry about Peter,” says Will. “He’ll at least get beat up by Edward, who has been studying hand-to-hand combat since we were ten years old. For fun.”
“Good,” says Christina. She checks her watch. “I think we’re missing dinner. Do you want us to stay here, Tris?”
I shake my head. “I’m fine.”
Christina and Will get up, but Al waves them ahead. He has a distinct smell—sweet and fresh, like sage and lemongrass. When he tosses and turns at night, I get a whiff of it and I know he’s having a nightmare.
“I just wanted to tell you that you missed Eric’s announcement. We’re going on a field trip tomorrow, to the fence, to learn about Dauntless jobs,” he says. “We have to be at the train by eight fifteen.”
“Good,” I say. “Thanks.”
“And don’t pay attention to Christina. Your face doesn’t look that bad.” He smiles a little. “I mean, it looks good. It always looks good. I mean—you look brave. Dauntless.”
His eyes skirt mine, and he scratches the back of his head. The silence seems to grow between us. It was a nice thing to say, but he acts like it meant more than just the words. I hope I am wrong. I could not be attracted to Al—I could not be attracted to anyone that fragile. I smile as much as my bruised cheek will allow, hoping that will diffuse the tension.
“I should let you rest,” he says. He gets up to leave, but before he can go, I grab his wrist.
“Al, are you okay?” I say. He stares blankly at me, and I add, “I mean, is it getting any easier?”
“Uh…” He shrugs. “A little.”
He pulls his hand free and shoves it in his pocket. The question must have embarrassed him, because I’ve never seen him so red before. If I spent my nights sobbing into my pillow, I would be a little embarrassed too. At least when I cry, I know how to hide it.
“I lost to Drew. After your fight with Peter.” He looks at me. “I took a few hits, fell down, and stayed there. Even though I didn’t have to. I figure…I figure that since I beat Will, if I lose all the rest, I won’t be ranked last, but I won’t have to hurt anyone anymore.”
“Is that really what you want?”
He looks down. “I just can’t do it. Maybe that means I’m a coward.”
“You’re not a coward just because you don’t want to hurt people,” I say, because I know it’s the right thing to say, even if I’m not sure I mean it.
For a moment we are both still, looking at each other. Maybe I do mean it. If he is a coward, it isn’t because he doesn’t enjoy pain. It is because he refuses to act.
He gives me a pained look and says, “You think our families will visit us? They say transfer families never come on Visiting Day.”
“I don’t know,” I say. “I don’t know if it would be good or bad if they did.”
“I think bad.” He nods. “Yeah, it’s already hard enough.” He nods again, as if confirming what he just said, and walks away.
In less than a week, the Abnegation initiates will be able to visit their families for the first time since the Choosing Ceremony. They will go home and sit in their living rooms and interact with their parents for the first time as adults.
I used to look forward to that day. I used to think about what I would say to my mother and father when I was allowed to ask them questions at the dinner table.
In less than a week, the Dauntless-born initiates will find their families on the Pit floor, or in the glass building above the compound, and do whatever it is the Dauntless do when they reunite. Maybe they take turns throwing knives at each other’s heads—it wouldn’t surprise me.
And the transfer initiates with forgiving parents will be able to see them again too. I suspect mine will not be among them. Not after my father’s cry of outrage at the ceremony. Not after both their children left them.
Maybe if I could have told them I was Divergent, and I was confused about what to choose, they would have understood. Maybe they would have helped me figure out what Divergent is, and what it means, and why it’s dangerous. But I didn’t trust them with that secret, so I will never know.
I clench my teeth as the tears come. I am fed up. I am fed up with tears and weakness. But there isn’t much I can do to stop them.
Maybe I drift off to sleep, and maybe I don’t. Later that night, though, I slip out of the room and go back to the dormitory. The only thing worse than letting Peter put me in the hospital would be letting him put me there overnight.
THE NEXT MORNING, I don’t hear the alarm, shuffling feet, or conversations as the other initiates get ready. I wake to Christina shaking my shoulder with one hand and tapping my cheek with the other. She already wears a black jacket zipped up to her throat. If she has bruises from yesterday’s fight, her dark skin makes them difficult to see.
“Come on,” she says. “Up and at ’em.”
I dreamt that Peter tied me to a chair and asked me if I was Divergent. I answered no, and he punched me until I said yes. I woke up with wet cheeks.
I mean to say something, but all I can do is groan. My body aches so badly it hurts to breathe. It doesn’t help that last night’s bout of crying made my eyes swell. Christina offers me her hand.
The clock reads eight. We’re supposed to be at the tracks by eight fifteen.
“I’ll run and get us some breakfast. You just…get ready. Looks like it might take you a while,” she says.
I grunt. Trying not to bend at the waist, I fumble in the drawer under my bed for a clean shirt. Luckily Peter isn’t here to see me struggle. Once Christina leaves, the dormitory is empty.
I unbutton my shirt and stare at my bare side, which is patched with bruises. For a second the colors mesmerize me, bright green and deep blue and brown. I change as fast as I can and let my hair hang loose because I can’t lift my arms to tie it back.
I look at my reflection in the small mirror on the back wall and see a stranger. She is blond like me, with a narrow face like mine, but that’s where the similarities stop. I do not have a black eye, and a split lip, and a bruised jaw. I am not as pale as a sheet. She can’t possibly be me, though she moves when I move.