I walk into my room, and when I close my door behind me, I realize that the decision might be simple. It will require a great act of selflessness to choose Abnegation, or a great act of courage to choose Dauntless, and maybe just choosing one over the other will prove that I belong. Tomorrow, those two qualities will struggle within me, and only one can win.
THE BUS WE take to get to the Choosing Ceremony is full of people in gray shirts and gray slacks. A pale ring of sunlight burns into the clouds like the end of a lit cigarette. I will never smoke one myself—they are closely tied to vanity—but a crowd of Candor smokes them in front of the building when we get off the bus.
I have to tilt my head back to see the top of the Hub, and even then, part of it disappears into the clouds. It is the tallest building in the city. I can see the lights on the two prongs on its roof from my bedroom window.
I follow my parents off the bus. Caleb seems calm, but so would I, if I knew what I was going to do. Instead I get the distinct impression that my heart will burst out of my chest any minute now, and I grab his arm to steady myself as I walk up the front steps.
The elevator is crowded, so my father volunteers to give a cluster of Amity our place. We climb the stairs instead, following him unquestioningly. We set an example for our fellow faction members, and soon the three of us are engulfed in the mass of gray fabric ascending cement stairs in the half light. I settle into their pace. The uniform pounding of feet in my ears and the homogeneity of the people around me makes me believe that I could choose this. I could be subsumed into Abnegation’s hive mind, projecting always outward.
But then my legs get sore, and I struggle to breathe, and I am again distracted by myself. We have to climb twenty flights of stairs to get to the Choosing Ceremony.
My father holds the door open on the twentieth floor and stands like a sentry as every Abnegation walks past him. I would wait for him, but the crowd presses me forward, out of the stairwell and into the room where I will decide the rest of my life.
The room is arranged in concentric circles. On the edges stand the sixteen-year-olds of every faction. We are not called members yet; our decisions today will make us initiates, and we will become members if we complete initiation.
We arrange ourselves in alphabetical order, according to the last names we may leave behind today. I stand between Caleb and Danielle Pohler, an Amity girl with rosy cheeks and a yellow dress.
Rows of chairs for our families make up the next circle. They are arranged in five sections, according to faction. Not everyone in each faction comes to the Choosing Ceremony, but enough of them come that the crowd looks huge.
The responsibility to conduct the ceremony rotates from faction to faction each year, and this year is Abnegation’s. Marcus will give the opening address and read the names in reverse alphabetical order. Caleb will choose before me.
In the last circle are five metal bowls so large they could hold my entire body, if I curled up. Each one contains a substance that represents each faction: gray stones for Abnegation, water for Erudite, earth for Amity, lit coals for Dauntless, and glass for Candor.
When Marcus calls my name, I will walk to the center of the three circles. I will not speak. He will offer me a knife. I will cut into my hand and sprinkle my blood into the bowl of the faction I choose.
My blood on the stones. My blood sizzling on the coals.
Before my parents sit down, they stand in front of Caleb and me. My father kisses my forehead and claps Caleb on the shoulder, grinning.
“See you soon,” he says. Without a trace of doubt.
My mother hugs me, and what little resolve I have left almost breaks. I clench my jaw and stare up at the ceiling, where globe lanterns hang and fill the room with blue light. She holds me for what feels like a long time, even after I let my hands fall. Before she pulls away, she turns her head and whispers in my ear, “I love you. No matter what.”
I frown at her back as she walks away. She knows what I might do. She must know, or she wouldn’t feel the need to say that.
Caleb grabs my hand, squeezing my palm so tightly it hurts, but I don’t let go. The last time we held hands was at my uncle’s funeral, as my father cried. We need each other’s strength now, just as we did then.
The room slowly comes to order. I should be observing the Dauntless; I should be taking in as much information as I can, but I can only stare at the lanterns across the room. I try to lose myself in the blue glow.
Marcus stands at the podium between the Erudite and the Dauntless and clears his throat into the microphone. “Welcome,” he says. “Welcome to the Choosing Ceremony. Welcome to the day we honor the democratic philosophy of our ancestors, which tells us that every man has the right to choose his own way in this world.”
Or, it occurs to me, one of five predetermined ways. I squeeze Caleb’s fingers as hard as he is squeezing mine.
“Our dependents are now sixteen. They stand on the precipice of adulthood, and it is now up to them to decide what kind of people they will be.” Marcus’s voice is solemn and gives equal weight to each word. “Decades ago our ancestors realized that it is not political ideology, religious belief, race, or nationalism that is to blame for a warring world. Rather, they determined that it was the fault of human personality—of humankind’s inclination toward evil, in whatever form that is. They divided into factions that sought to eradicate those qualities they believed responsible for the world’s disarray.”
My eyes shift to the bowls in the center of the room. What do I believe? I do not know; I do not know; I do not know.
“Those who blamed aggression formed Amity.”
The Amity exchange smiles. They are dressed comfortably, in red or yellow. Every time I see them, they seem kind, loving, free. But joining them has never been an option for me.
“Those who blamed ignorance became the Erudite.”
Ruling out Erudite was the only part of my choice that was easy.
“Those who blamed duplicity created Candor.”
I have never liked Candor.
“Those who blamed selfishness made Abnegation.”
I blame selfishness; I do.
“And those who blamed cowardice were the Dauntless.”
But I am not selfless enough. Sixteen years of trying and I am not enough.
My legs go numb, like all the life has gone out of them, and I wonder how I will walk when my name is called.
“Working together, these five factions have lived in peace for many years, each contributing to a different sector of society. Abnegation has fulfilled our need for selfless leaders in government; Candor has provided us with trustworthy and sound leaders in law; Erudite has supplied us with intelligent teachers and researchers; Amity has given us understanding counselors and caretakers; and Dauntless provides us with protection from threats both within and without. But the reach of each faction is not limited to these areas. We give one another far more than can be adequately summarized. In our factions, we find meaning, we find purpose, we find life.”
I think of the motto I read in my Faction History textbook: Faction before blood. More than family, our factions are where we belong. Can that possibly be right?
Marcus adds, “Apart from them, we would not survive.”
The silence that follows his words is heavier than other silences. It is heavy with our worst fear, greater even than the fear of death: to be factionless.
Marcus continues, “Therefore this day marks a happy occasion—the day on which we receive our new initiates, who will work with us toward a better society and a better world.”
A round of applause. It sounds muffled. I try to stand completely still, because if my knees are locked and my body is stiff, I don’t shake. Marcus reads the first names, but I can’t tell one syllable from the other. How will I know when he calls my name?
One by one, each sixteen-year-old steps out of line and walks to the middle of the room. The first girl to choose decides on Amity, the same faction from which she came. I watch her blood droplets fall on soil, and she stands behind their seats alone.
The room is constantly moving, a new name and a new person choosing, a new knife and a new choice. I recognize most of them, but I doubt they know me.
“James Tucker,” Marcus says.
James Tucker of the Dauntless is the first person to stumble on his way to the bowls. He throws his arms out and regains his balance before hitting the floor. His face turns red and he walks fast to the middle of the room. When he stands in the center, he looks from the Dauntless bowl to the Candor bowl—the orange flames that rise higher each moment, and the glass reflecting blue light.
Marcus offers him the knife. He breathes deeply—I watch his chest rise—and, as he exhales, accepts the knife. Then he drags it across his palm with a jerk and holds his arm out to the side. His blood falls onto glass, and he is the first of us to switch factions. The first faction transfer. A mutter rises from the Dauntless section, and I stare at the floor.
They will see him as a traitor from now on. His Dauntless family will have the option of visiting him in his new faction, a week and a half from now on Visiting Day, but they won’t, because he left them. His absence will haunt their hallways, and he will be a space they can’t fill. And then time will pass, and the hole will be gone, like when an organ is removed and the body’s fluids flow into the space it leaves. Humans can’t tolerate emptiness for long.
“Caleb Prior,” says Marcus.
Caleb squeezes my hand one last time, and as he walks away, casts a long look at me over his shoulder. I watch his feet move to the center of the room, and his hands, steady as they accept the knife from Marcus, are deft as one presses the knife into the other. Then he stands with blood pooling in his palm, and his lip snags on his teeth.
He breathes out. And then in. And then he holds his hand over the Erudite bowl, and his blood drips into the water, turning it a deeper shade of red.
I hear mutters that lift into outraged cries. I can barely think straight. My brother, my selfless brother, a faction transfer? My brother, born for Abnegation, Erudite?
When I close my eyes, I see the stack of books on Caleb’s desk, and his shaking hands sliding along his legs after the aptitude test. Why didn’t I realize that when he told me to think of myself yesterday, he was also giving that advice to himself?
I scan the crowd of the Erudite—they wear smug smiles and nudge each other. The Abnegation, normally so placid, speak to one another in tense whispers and glare across the room at the faction that has become our enemy.
“Excuse me,” says Marcus, but the crowd doesn’t hear him. He shouts, “Quiet, please!”
The room goes silent. Except for a ringing sound.
I hear my name and a shudder propels me forward. Halfway to the bowls, I am sure that I will choose Abnegation. I can see it now. I watch myself grow into a woman in Abnegation robes, marrying Susan’s brother, Robert, volunteering on the weekends, the peace of routine, the quiet nights spent in front of the fireplace, the certainty that I will be safe, and if not good enough, better than I am now.
The ringing, I realize, is in my ears.
I look at Caleb, who now stands behind the Erudite. He stares back at me and nods a little, like he knows what I’m thinking, and agrees. My footsteps falter. If Caleb wasn’t fit for Abnegation, how can I be? But what choice do I have, now that he left us and I’m the only one who remains? He left me no other option.
I set my jaw. I will be the child that stays; I have to do this for my parents. I have to.
Marcus offers me my knife. I look into his eyes—they are dark blue, a strange color—and take it. He nods, and I turn toward the bowls. Dauntless fire and Abnegation stones are both on my left, one in front of my shoulder and one behind. I hold the knife in my right hand and touch the blade to my palm. Gritting my teeth, I drag the blade down. It stings, but I barely notice. I hold both hands to my chest, and my next breath shudders on the way out.
I open my eyes and thrust my arm out. My blood drips onto the carpet between the two bowls. Then, with a gasp I can’t contain, I shift my hand forward, and my blood sizzles on the coals.
I am selfish. I am brave.
I TRAIN MY eyes on the floor and stand behind the Dauntless-born initiates who chose to return to their own faction. They are all taller than I am, so even when I lift my head, I see only black-clothed shoulders. When the last girl makes her choice—Amity—it’s time to leave. The Dauntless exit first. I walk past the gray-clothed men and women who were my faction, staring determinedly at the back of someone’s head.
But I have to see my parents one more time. I look over my shoulder at the last second before I pass them, and immediately wish I hadn’t. My father’s eyes burn into mine with a look of accusation. At first, when I feel the heat behind my eyes, I think he’s found a way to set me on fire, to punish me for what I’ve done, but no—I’m about to cry.
Beside him, my mother is smiling.
The people behind me press me forward, away from my family, who will be the last ones to leave. They may even stay to stack the chairs and clean the bowls. I twist my head around to find Caleb in the crowd of Erudite behind me. He stands among the other initiates, shaking hands with a faction transfer, a boy who was Candor. The easy smile he wears is an act of betrayal. My stomach wrenches and I turn away. If it’s so easy for him, maybe it should be easy for me, too.
I glance at the boy to my left, who was Erudite and now looks as pale and nervous as I should feel. I spent all my time worrying about which faction I would choose and never considered what would happen if I chose Dauntless. What waits for me at Dauntless headquarters?
The crowd of Dauntless leading us go to the stairs instead of the elevators. I thought only the Abnegation used the stairs.
Then everyone starts running. I hear whoops and shouts and laughter all around me, and dozens of thundering feet moving at different rhythms. It is not a selfless act for the Dauntless to take the stairs; it is a wild act.