I see a factionless man standing on the corner up ahead. He wears ragged brown clothing and skin sags from his jaw. He stares at me, and I stare back at him, unable to look away.
“Excuse me,” he says. His voice is raspy. “Do you have something I can eat?”
I feel a lump in my throat. A stern voice in my head says, Duck your head and keep walking.
No. I shake my head. I should not be afraid of this man. He needs help and I am supposed to help him.
“Um…yes,” I say. I reach into my bag. My father tells me to keep food in my bag at all times for exactly this reason. I offer the man a small bag of dried apple slices.
He reaches for them, but instead of taking the bag, his hand closes around my wrist. He smiles at me. He has a gap between his front teeth.
“My, don’t you have pretty eyes,” he says. “It’s a shame the rest of you is so plain.”
My heart pounds. I tug my hand back, but his grip tightens. I smell something acrid and unpleasant on his breath.
“You look a little young to be walking around by yourself, dear,” he says.
I stop tugging, and stand up straighter. I know I look young; I don’t need to be reminded. “I’m older than I look,” I retort. “I’m sixteen.”
His lips spread wide, revealing a gray molar with a dark pit in the side. I can’t tell if he’s smiling or grimacing. “Then isn’t today a special day for you? The day before you choose?”
“Let go of me,” I say. I hear ringing in my ears. My voice sounds clear and stern—not what I expected to hear. I feel like it doesn’t belong to me.
I am ready. I know what to do. I picture myself bringing my elbow back and hitting him. I see the bag of apples flying away from me. I hear my running footsteps. I am prepared to act.
But then he releases my wrist, takes the apples, and says, “Choose wisely, little girl.”
I REACH MY street five minutes before I usually do, according to my watch—which is the only adornment Abnegation allows, and only because it’s practical. It has a gray band and a glass face. If I tilt it right, I can almost see my reflection over the hands.
The houses on my street are all the same size and shape. They are made of gray cement, with few windows, in economical, no-nonsense rectangles. Their lawns are crabgrass and their mailboxes are dull metal. To some the sight might be gloomy, but to me their simplicity is comforting.
The reason for the simplicity isn’t disdain for uniqueness, as the other factions have sometimes interpreted it. Everything—our houses, our clothes, our hairstyles—is meant to help us forget ourselves and to protect us from vanity, greed, and envy, which are just forms of selfishness. If we have little, and want for little, and we are all equal, we envy no one.
I try to love it.
I sit on the front step and wait for Caleb to arrive. It doesn’t take long. After a minute I see gray-robed forms walking down the street. I hear laughter. At school we try not to draw attention to ourselves, but once we’re home, the games and jokes start. My natural tendency toward sarcasm is still not appreciated. Sarcasm is always at someone’s expense. Maybe it’s better that Abnegation wants me to suppress it. Maybe I don’t have to leave my family. Maybe if I fight to make Abnegation work, my act will turn into reality.
“Beatrice!” Caleb says. “What happened? Are you all right?”
“I’m fine.” He is with Susan and her brother, Robert, and Susan is giving me a strange look, like I am a different person than the one she knew this morning. I shrug. “When the test was over, I got sick. Must have been that liquid they gave us. I feel better now, though.”
I try to smile convincingly. I seem to have persuaded Susan and Robert, who no longer look concerned for my mental stability, but Caleb narrows his eyes at me, the way he does when he suspects someone of duplicity.
“Did you two take the bus today?” I ask. I don’t care how Susan and Robert got home from school, but I need to change the subject.
“Our father had to work late,” Susan says, “and he told us we should spend some time thinking before the ceremony tomorrow.”
My heart pounds at the mention of the ceremony.
“You’re welcome to come over later, if you’d like,” Caleb says politely.
“Thank you.” Susan smiles at Caleb.
Robert raises an eyebrow at me. He and I have been exchanging looks for the past year as Susan and Caleb flirt in the tentative way known only to the Abnegation. Caleb’s eyes follow Susan down the walk. I have to grab his arm to startle him from his daze. I lead him into the house and close the door behind us.
He turns to me. His dark, straight eyebrows draw together so that a crease appears between them. When he frowns, he looks more like my mother than my father. In an instant I can see him living the same kind of life my father did: staying in Abnegation, learning a trade, marrying Susan, and having a family. It will be wonderful.
I may not see it.
“Are you going to tell me the truth now?” he asks softly.
“The truth is,” I say, “I’m not supposed to discuss it. And you’re not supposed to ask.”
“All those rules you bend, and you can’t bend this one? Not even for something this important?” His eyebrows tug together, and he bites the corner of his lip. Though his words are accusatory, it sounds like he is probing me for information—like he actually wants my answer.
I narrow my eyes. “Will you? What happened in your test, Caleb?”
Our eyes meet. I hear a train horn, so faint it could easily be wind whistling through an alleyway. But I know it when I hear it. It sounds like the Dauntless, calling me to them.
“Just…don’t tell our parents what happened, okay?” I say.
His eyes stay on mine for a few seconds, and then he nods.
I want to go upstairs and lie down. The test, the walk, and my encounter with the factionless man exhausted me. But my brother made breakfast this morning, and my mother prepared our lunches, and my father made dinner last night, so it’s my turn to cook. I breathe deeply and walk into the kitchen to start cooking.
A minute later, Caleb joins me. I grit my teeth. He helps with everything. What irritates me most about him is his natural goodness, his inborn selflessness.
Caleb and I work together without speaking. I cook peas on the stove. He defrosts four pieces of chicken. Most of what we eat is frozen or canned, because farms these days are far away. My mother told me once that, a long time ago, there were people who wouldn’t buy genetically engineered produce because they viewed it as unnatural. Now we have no other option.
By the time my parents get home, dinner is ready and the table is set. My father drops his bag at the door and kisses my head. Other people see him as an opinionated man—too opinionated, maybe—but he’s also loving. I try to see only the good in him; I try.
“How did the test go?” he asks me. I pour the peas into a serving bowl.
“Fine,” I say. I couldn’t be Candor. I lie too easily.
“I heard there was some kind of upset with one of the tests,” my mother says. Like my father, she works for the government, but she manages city improvement projects. She recruited volunteers to administer the aptitude tests. Most of the time, though, she organizes workers to help the factionless with food and shelter and job opportunities.
“Really?” says my father. A problem with the aptitude tests is rare.
“I don’t know much about it, but my friend Erin told me that something went wrong with one of the tests, so the results had to be reported verbally.” My mother places a napkin next to each plate on the table. “Apparently the student got sick and was sent home early.” My mother shrugs. “I hope they’re all right. Did you two hear about that?”
“No,” Caleb says. He smiles at my mother.
My brother couldn’t be Candor either.
We sit at the table. We always pass food to the right, and no one eats until everyone is served. My father extends his hands to my mother and my brother, and they extend their hands to him and me, and my father gives thanks to God for food and work and friends and family. Not every Abnegation family is religious, but my father says we should try not to see those differences because they will only divide us. I am not sure what to make of that.
“So,” my mother says to my father. “Tell me.”
She takes my father’s hand and moves her thumb in a small circle over his knuckles. I stare at their joined hands. My parents love each other, but they rarely show affection like this in front of us. They taught us that physical contact is powerful, so I have been wary of it since I was young.
“Tell me what’s bothering you,” she adds.
I stare at my plate. My mother’s acute senses sometimes surprise me, but now they chide me. Why was I so focused on myself that I didn’t notice his deep frown and his sagging posture?
“I had a difficult day at work,” he says. “Well, really, it was Marcus who had the difficult day. I shouldn’t lay claim to it.”
Marcus is my father’s coworker; they are both political leaders. The city is ruled by a council of fifty people, composed entirely of representatives from Abnegation, because our faction is regarded as incorruptible, due to our commitment to selflessness. Our leaders are selected by their peers for their impeccable character, moral fortitude, and leadership skills. Representatives from each of the other factions can speak in the meetings on behalf of a particular issue, but ultimately, the decision is the council’s. And while the council technically makes decisions together, Marcus is particularly influential.
It has been this way since the beginning of the great peace, when the factions were formed. I think the system persists because we’re afraid of what might happen if it didn’t: war.
“Is this about that report Jeanine Matthews released?” my mother says. Jeanine Matthews is Erudite’s sole representative, selected based on her IQ score. My father complains about her often.
I look up. “A report?”
Caleb gives me a warning look. We aren’t supposed to speak at the dinner table unless our parents ask us a direct question, and they usually don’t. Our listening ears are a gift to them, my father says. They give us their listening ears after dinner, in the family room.
“Yes,” my father says. His eyes narrow. “Those arrogant, self-righteous—” He stops and clears his throat. “Sorry. But she released a report attacking Marcus’s character.”
I raise my eyebrows.
“What did it say?” I ask.
“Beatrice,” Caleb says quietly.
I duck my head, turning my fork over and over and over until the warmth leaves my cheeks. I don’t like to be chastised. Especially by my brother.
“It said,” my father says, “that Marcus’s violence and cruelty toward his son is the reason his son chose Dauntless instead of Abnegation.”
Few people who are born into Abnegation choose to leave it. When they do, we remember. Two years ago, Marcus’s son, Tobias, left us for the Dauntless, and Marcus was devastated. Tobias was his only child—and his only family, since his wife died giving birth to their second child. The infant died minutes later.
I never met Tobias. He rarely attended community events and never joined his father at our house for dinner. My father often remarked that it was strange, but now it doesn’t matter.
“Cruel? Marcus?” My mother shakes her head. “That poor man. As if he needs to be reminded of his loss.”
“Of his son’s betrayal, you mean?” my father says coldly. “I shouldn’t be surprised at this point. The Erudite have been attacking us with these reports for months. And this isn’t the end. There will be more, I guarantee it.”
I shouldn’t speak again, but I can’t help myself. I blurt out, “Why are they doing this?”
“Why don’t you take this opportunity to listen to your father, Beatrice?” my mother says gently. It is phrased like a suggestion, not a command. I look across the table at Caleb, who has that look of disapproval in his eyes.
I stare at my peas. I am not sure I can live this life of obligation any longer. I am not good enough.
“You know why,” my father says. “Because we have something they want. Valuing knowledge above all else results in a lust for power, and that leads men into dark and empty places. We should be thankful that we know better.”
I nod. I know I will not choose Erudite, even though my test results suggested that I could. I am my father’s daughter.
My parents clean up after dinner. They don’t even let Caleb help them, because we’re supposed to keep to ourselves tonight instead of gathering in the family room, so we can think about our results.
My family might be able to help me choose, if I could talk about my results. But I can’t. Tori’s warning whispers in my memory every time my resolve to keep my mouth shut falters.
Caleb and I climb the stairs and, at the top, when we divide to go to our separate bedrooms, he stops me with a hand on my shoulder.
“Beatrice,” he says, looking sternly into my eyes. “We should think of our family.” There is an edge to his voice. “But. But we must also think of ourselves.”
For a moment I stare at him. I have never seen him think of himself, never heard him insist on anything but selflessness.
I am so startled by his comment that I just say what I am supposed to say: “The tests don’t have to change our choices.”
He smiles a little. “Don’t they, though?”
He squeezes my shoulder and walks into his bedroom. I peer into his room and see an unmade bed and a stack of books on his desk. He closes the door. I wish I could tell him that we’re going through the same thing. I wish I could speak to him like I want to instead of like I’m supposed to. But the idea of admitting that I need help is too much to bear, so I turn away.