I watch Eric take a deep breath into his gut and release it through his nose. His body shakes, shivers, like the ground is rumbling beneath him, but his breaths are slow and even, his muscles clenching and then relaxing every few seconds, like he keeps tensing up by accident and then correcting his mistake. I watch his heart rate on the monitor in front of Amar, watch it slow down more and more until Amar taps the screen, forcing the program to move on.
This happens over and over again with each new fear. I count the fears as they pass in silence, ten, eleven, twelve. Then Amar taps the screen one last time, and Eric’s body relaxes. He blinks, slowly, then smirks at the window.
I notice that the Dauntless-borns, usually so quick to comment on everything, are silent. That must mean that what I’m feeling is correct—that Eric is someone to watch out for. Maybe even someone to be afraid of.
For more than an hour I watch the other initiates face their fears, running and jumping and aiming invisible guns and, in some cases, lying facedown on the floor, sobbing. Sometimes I get a sense of what they see, of the crawling, creeping fears that torment them, but most of the time the villains they’re warding off are private ones, known only to them and Amar.
I stay near the back of the room, shrinking down every time he calls on the next person. But then I’m the last one in the room, and Mia is just finishing, pulled out of her fear landscape when she’s crouching against the back wall, her head in her hands. She stands, looking worn, and shuffles out of the room without waiting for Amar to dismiss her. He glances at the last syringe on the table, then at me.
“Just you and me, Stiff,” he says. “Come on, let’s get this over with.”
I stand in front of him. I barely feel the needle go in; I’ve never had a problem with shots, though some of the other initiates got teary-eyed before the injection. I walk into the next room and face the window, which looks like a mirror on this side. In the moment before the simulation takes effect, I can see myself the way the others must have seen me, slouched and buried in fabric, tall and bony and bleeding. I try to straighten up, and I’m surprised by the difference it makes, surprised by the shadow of strength I see in myself right before the room disappears.
Images fill the space in pieces, the skyline of our city, the hole in the pavement seven stories below me, the line of the ledge beneath my feet. Wind rushes up the side of the building, stronger than it was when I was here in real life, whipping my clothes so hard they snap, and pushing against me from all angles. Then the building grows with me on top of it, moving me far away from the ground. The hole seals up, and hard pavement covers it.
I cringe away from the edge, but the wind won’t let me move backward. My heart pounds harder and faster as I confront the reality of what I have to do; I have to jump again, this time not trusting that there won’t be pain when I slam into the ground.
A Stiff pancake.
I shake out my hands, squeeze my eyes shut, and scream into my teeth. Then I follow the push of the wind and I drop, fast. I hit the ground.
Searing, white-hot pain rushes through me, just for a second.
I stand up, wiping dust from my cheek, and wait for the next obstacle. I have no idea what it will be. I haven’t taken much time to consider my fears, or even what it would mean to be free from fear, to conquer it. It occurs to me that without fear, I might be strong, powerful, unstoppable. The idea seduces me for just a second before something hits my back, hard.
Then something hits my left side, and my right side, and I’m enclosed in a box large enough only for my body. Shock protects me from panic, at first, and then I breathe the close air and stare into the empty darkness, and my insides squeeze tighter and tighter. I can’t breathe anymore. I can’t breathe.
I bite down on my lip to keep from sobbing—I don’t want Amar to see me cry, don’t want him to tell the Dauntless that I’m a coward. I have to think, can’t think, through the suffocation of this box. The wall against my back here is the same as the one in my memory, from when I was young, shut in the darkness in the upstairs hallway as punishment. I was never sure when it would end, how many hours I would be stuck there with imaginary monsters creeping up on me in the dark, with the sound of my mother’s sobs leaking through the walls.
I slam my hands against the wall in front of me, again and again, then claw at it, though the splinters stab the skin under my fingernails. I put up my forearms and hit the box with the full weight of my body, again and again, closing my eyes so I can pretend I’m not in here, I’m not in here. Let me out let me out let me out let me out.
“Think it through, Stiff!” a voice shouts, and I go still. I remember that this is a simulation.
Think it through. What do I need to get out of this box? I need a tool, something stronger than I am. I nudge something with my toes and reach down to pick it up. But when I reach down, the top of the box moves with me, and I can’t straighten again. I swallow a scream and find the pointy end of a crowbar with my fingers. I wedge it between the boards that form the left corner of the box and push as hard as I can.
All the boards spring apart at once and fall on the ground around me. I breathe the fresh air, relieved.
Then a woman appears in front of me. I don’t recognize her face, and her clothes are white, not belonging to any faction. I move toward her, and a table springs up in front of me, with a gun and a bullet on it. I frown at it.
Is this a fear?
“Who are you?” I ask her, and she doesn’t answer.
It’s clear what I’m supposed to do—load the gun, fire the bullet. Dread builds inside of me, as
powerful as any fear. My mouth goes dry, and I fumble for the bullet and the gun. I’ve never held a gun before, so it takes me a few seconds to figure out how to open the chamber of the pistol. In those seconds I think of the light leaving her eyes, this woman I don’t know, don’t know enough to care about her.
I am afraid—I am afraid of what I will be asked to do in Dauntless, of what I will want to do.
Afraid of some kind of hidden violence inside of me, wrought by my father and by the years of silence my faction forced on me.
I slide the bullet into the chamber, then hold the gun in both hands, the cut in my palm throbbing. I look at the woman’s face. Her lower lip wobbles, and her eyes fill with tears.
“I’m sorry,” I say, and I pull the trigger.
I see the dark hole the bullet creates in her body, and she falls to the floor, evaporating into a cloud of dust on contact.
But the dread doesn’t go away. I know that something’s coming; I can feel it building inside me. Marcus has not appeared yet, and he will, I know it as surely as I know my own name. Our name.
A circle of light envelops me, and at its edge, I see worn gray shoes pacing. Marcus Eaton steps into the edge of the light, but not the Marcus Eaton I know. This one has pits for eyes and a gaping black maw instead of a mouth.
Another Marcus Eaton stands beside him, and slowly, all around the circle, more and more monstrous versions of my father step forward to surround me, their yawning, toothless mouths open wide, their heads tilting at odd angles. I squeeze my hands into fists. It’s not real. It’s obviously not real.
The first Marcus undoes his belt and then slides it out from around his waist, loop by loop, and as he does, so do the other Marcuses. As they do, the belts turn into ropes made of metal, barbed at the ends. They drag their belts in lines across the floor, their oily black tongues sliding over the edges of their dark mouths. At once they draw back the metal ropes, and I scream at the top of my lungs, wrapping my arms around my head.
“This is for your own good,” the Marcuses say in metallic, united voices, like a choir.
I feel pain, tearing, ripping, shredding. I fall to my knees and squeeze my arms against my ears like they can protect me, but nothing can protect me, nothing. I scream again and again but the pain continues, and so does his voice. “I will not have self-indulgent behavior in my house!” “I did not raise my son to be a liar!”
I can’t hear, I won’t hear.
An image of the sculpture my mother gave me rises into my mind, unbidden. I see it where I placed it on my desk, and the pain starts to recede. I focus all my thoughts on it and the other objects scattered around my room, broken, the top of the trunk loose from its hinges. I remember my mother’s hands, with their slim fingers, closing the trunk and locking it and handing me the key.
One by one, the voices disappear, until there are none left.
I let my arms fall to the ground, waiting for the next obstacle. My knuckles brush the stone floor, which is cold and grainy with dirt. I hear footsteps and brace myself for what’s coming, but then I hear Amar’s voice:
“That’s it?” he says. “That’s all there is? God, Stiff.”
He stops next to me and offers me his hand. I take it and let him pull me to my feet. I don’t look at him. I don’t want to see his expression. I don’t want him to know what he knows, don’t want to become the pathetic initiate with the messed-up childhood.
“We should come up with another name for you,” he says casually. “Something tougher than ‘Stiff.’ Like ‘Blade’ or ‘Killer’ or something.”
At that I do look at him. He’s smiling a little. I do see some pity in that smile, but not as much as I thought I would.
“I wouldn’t want to tell people my name either,” he says. “Come on, let’s get some food.”
Amar walks me over to the initiates’ table once we’re in the dining hall. There are a few Dauntless already sitting at the surrounding tables, eyeing the other side of the room, where pierced and tattooed cooks are still setting out the food. The dining hall is a cavern lit from beneath by blue-white lamps, giving everything an eerie glow.
I sit down in one of the empty chairs.
“Jeez, Stiff. You look like you’re about to faint,” Eric says, and one of the Candor boys grins.
“You all made it out alive,” Amar says. “Congratulations. You made it through the first day of initiation, with varying degrees of success.” He looks at Eric. “None of you did as well as Four over here, though.”
He points at me as he speaks. I frown—four? Is he talking about my fears?
“Hey, Tori,” Amar calls over his shoulder. “You ever hear of anyone having only four fears in their fear landscape?”
“Last I heard, the record was seven or eight. Why?” Tori calls back.
“I’ve got a transfer over here with only four fears.”
Tori points at me, and Amar nods.
“That’s gotta be a new record,” Tori says.
“Well done,” Amar says to me. Then he turns and walks toward Tori’s table.
All the other initiates stare at me, wide-eyed and quiet. Before the fear landscape, I was just someone they could step on, on their way to Dauntless membership. Now I’m like Eric—someone worth watching out for, maybe even someone worth being afraid of.
Amar gave me more than a new name. He gave me power.
“What’s your real name, again? Starts with an E …?” Eric asks me, narrowing his eyes. Like he knows something but isn’t sure that now is the time to share it.
The others might remember my name too, vaguely, from the Choosing Ceremony,