“No, May, I can’t come home. I have to stay here.”
“Why?” May moaned.
“Because,” I said simply.
“Just … because.”
May was quiet for a moment, thinking. “Are you in love with Maxon?” For a minute I heard the boy-crazy May that I was used to. She’d be fine.
“Umm, I don’t know about that, but—”
“America! You’re in love with Maxon! Oh my gosh!” I heard Dad yelling, “What?” in the background and then Mom’s “Yes, yes, yes!”
“May, I never said—”
“I knew it!” May just laughed and laughed. Just like that, all her fears of losing me vanished.
“May, I have to go. The others need the phone. But I just wanted you all to know that I’m okay. I’ll write you soon, I promise.”
“Okay, okay. Tell me about Maxon! And send more treats! I love you!” she yelled.
“I love you, too. Bye.”
I hung up the phone before she could ask for anything else. The moment her voice was gone, though, I missed her more than I had before.
Silvia was swift. She had the phone out of my hand in a matter of seconds and was walking to the door.
“There’s a good girl,” she said, and disappeared down the hall.
I certainly didn’t feel good. But I knew that once I figured out how to set things right with Aspen and Maxon, I would.
AMY, FIONA, AND TALLULAH were gone within hours. I wasn’t sure if the speed was due to the efficiency of Silvia or the nerves of the girls. We dropped to nineteen, and it suddenly felt like this was all moving quickly. Still, I couldn’t have predicted how much faster it would become.
The Monday after the attacks, we returned to our routine. Breakfast was as delicious as ever, and I wondered if there would come a time when I wouldn’t appreciate these amazing meals.
“Kriss, isn’t this divine?” I asked as I bit into a piece of star-shaped fruit. I’d never seen it before I came to the palace. Kriss’s mouth was full, but she nodded in agreement. I felt a warm sense of sisterhood this morning. Now that we had survived a major rebel attack together, it felt like these small bonds had sealed into something unbreakable. Beside Kriss, Emily was passing me honey. Next to me, Tiny was asking where my songbird necklace came from with admiration in her eyes. The atmosphere was that of my family dinners a few years ago, before Kota turned into a jerk and we lost Kenna to a husband: full, bright, chatty.
I suddenly knew, just as Maxon had said his mother had done, that I would contact these girls down the road. I would want to know who everyone married and send them Christmas cards. And in twenty-some-odd years, if Maxon had a son, I’d call to ask them about their favorite girls in the new Selection. And we’d remember everything we’d gone through and laugh about it as if it had been an adventure, not a competition.
Oddly enough, the only person in the room who appeared to be distressed was Maxon. He didn’t touch his food but instead gazed up and down the rows of girls with a clear look of concentration on his face. Every once in a while, he paused midthought and seemed to debate with himself over something, and then moved on.
When he came to my row, he caught me looking at him and gave me a weak smile. Except for the quick interlude last night, we hadn’t spoken since our argument, and there were things that needed to be said. This time, I needed to be the initiator. With an expression that said it was a request, not a demand, I tugged my ear. His expression remained strained, but he tugged his ear, too.
I sighed with relief and found my eyes moving toward the doors of the massive room. As I’d suspected, another pair of eyes was looking my way. I’d noticed Aspen when I entered, but I tried not to acknowledge him. I supposed it was impossible to ignore someone you’ve loved that much.
Maxon stood up. The sudden movement made his chair screech in a way that drew our collective attention. As we all turned toward him, he looked like he wished he could sit back down unnoticed. Realizing that wasn’t an option, he spoke instead.
“Ladies,” he said with a bow of his head. He looked genuinely pained. “I’m afraid that after yesterday’s attack, I’ve been forced to seriously reconsider the operation of the Selection. As you know, three ladies asked to leave yesterday, and I obliged. I wouldn’t want anyone here against their will. Furthermore, I don’t feel comfortable keeping anyone in the palace, facing this constant threat of danger, when I feel confident that we don’t have any sort of future together.”
Around the room, the confusion changed to a clear and unhappy understanding.
“He’s not…,” Tiny whispered.
“Yes, he is,” I replied.
“Though it grieves me to do this, I have discussed the matter with my family and a few close advisers and have decided to go ahead and narrow the Selection down to the Elite. However, instead of ten, I’ve decided to send all but six of you home,” Maxon stated in a businesslike tone.
“Six?” Kriss gasped.
“That’s not fair,” Tiny breathed, already starting to cry.
I looked around the room as the hum of complaints rose and fell. Celeste braced herself, as if she could fight for a spot. Bariel had closed her eyes and crossed her fingers, perhaps hoping that image would garner her some sympathy. Marlee, who had admitted that she didn’t care for Maxon, looked incredibly tense. Why did she want to stay so badly?
“I don’t wish to draw this out unnecessarily, so only the following ladies will be staying. Lady Marlee and Lady Kriss.”
Marlee breathed out a sigh of relief and put a hand to her chest. Kriss did a happy, fidgety dance in her chair and looked at the girls around her, expecting us to be happy. And I was until I realized that two of the six spots were already gone. With a disagreement hanging between Maxon and me, would he send me home? Did he not see any future with me? Did I want him to? What would I do if I had to go?
This whole time, the power had been in my hands as to when I would leave. I was abruptly aware of how important it was to me to stay.
“Lady Natalie and Lady Celeste,” he continued, looking at them both in turn. I cringed at Celeste’s name. He couldn’t keep her and not me. I could hardly believe he was keeping her at all. But was that a sign I was going? We’d fought about her very presence here.
“Lady Elise,” he said, and the room inhaled a breath, awaiting the final name. I realized Tiny and I were squeezing each other’s hands.