“That’s the second time you’ve lied to me today,” Marcus says. “I didn’t raise my son to be a liar.”
“I—” I can’t think of a single thing to say, so I just close my mouth and carry the chair back to my desk where it belongs, right behind the perfect stack of schoolbooks.
“What were you doing in here that you didn’t want me to see?”
I clutch the back of the chair, hard, and stare at my books.
“Nothing,” I say quietly.
“That’s three lies,” he says, and his voice is low but hard as flint. He starts toward me, and I back up instinctively. But instead of reaching for me, he bends down and pulls the trunk from beneath the bed, then tries the lid. It doesn’t budge.
Fear slides into my gut like a blade. I pinch the hem of my shirt, but I can’t feel my fingertips.
“Your mother claimed this was for blankets,” he says. “Said you got cold at night. But what I’ve always wondered is, if it still has blankets in it, why do you keep it locked?”
He holds out his hand, palm up, and raises his eyebrows at me. I know what he wants—the key. And I have to give it to him, because he can see when I’m lying; he can see everything about me. I reach into my pocket, then drop the key in his hand. Now I can’t feel my palms, and the breathing is starting, the shallow breathing that always comes when I know he’s about to explode.
I close my eyes as he opens the trunk.
“What is this?” His hand moves through the treasured objects carelessly, scattering them to the left and right. He takes them out one by one and thrusts them toward me. “What do you need with this, or this …!”
I flinch, over and over again, and don’t have an answer. I don’t need them. I don’t need any of them.
“This is rank with self-indulgence!” he shouts, and he shoves the trunk off the edge of the bed so its contents scatter all over the floor. “It poisons this house with selfishness!”
I can’t feel my face, either.
His hands collide with my chest. I stumble back and hit the dresser. Then he draws his hand back by his face to hit me, and I say, my throat tight with fear, “The Choosing Ceremony, Dad!”
He pauses with his hand raised, and I cower, shrinking back against the dresser, my eyes too blurry to see out of. He usually tries not to bruise my face, especially for days like tomorrow, when so many people will be staring at me, watching me choose.
He lowers his hand, and for a second I think the violence is over, the anger stalled. But then he says, “Fine. Stay here.”
I sag against the dresser. I know better than to think he’ll leave and mull things over and come back apologizing. He never does that.
He will return with a belt, and the stripes he carves into my back will be easily hidden by a shirt and an obedient Abnegation expression.
I turn around, a shudder claiming my body. I clutch the edge of the dresser and wait.
That night I sleep on my stomach, pain biting each thought, with my broken possessions on the floor around me. After he hit me until I had to stuff my fist into my mouth to muffle a scream, he stomped on each object until it was broken or dented beyond recognition, then threw the trunk into the wall so the lid broke from the hinges.
The thought surfaces: If you choose Abnegation, you will never get away from him.
I push my face into my pillow.
But I’m not strong enough to resist this Abnegation-inertia, this fear that drives me down the path my father has set for me.
The next morning I take a cold shower, not to conserve resources as the Abnegation instruct, but because it numbs my back. I dress slowly in my loose, plain Abnegation clothes, and stand in front of the hallway mirror to cut my hair.
“Let me,” my father says from the end of the hallway. “It’s your Choosing Day, after all.”
I set the clippers down on the ledge created by the sliding panel and try to straighten up. He stands behind me, and I avert my eyes as the clippers start to buzz. There’s only one guard for the blade, only one length of hair acceptable for an Abnegation male. I wince as his fingers stabilize my head, and hope he doesn’t see it, doesn’t see how even his slightest touch terrifies me.
“You know what to expect,” he says. He covers the top of my ear with one hand as he drags the clippers over the side of my head. Today he’s trying to protect my ear from getting nicked by clippers, and yesterday he took a belt to me. The thought feels like poison working through me. It’s almost funny. I almost want to laugh.
“You’ll stand in your place; when your name is called, you’ll go forward to get your knife. Then you’ll cut yourself and drop the blood into the right bowl.” Our eyes meet in the mirror, and he presses his mouth into a near-smile. He touches my shoulder, and I realize that we are about the same height now, about the same size, though I still feel so much smaller.
Then he adds gently, “The knife will only hurt for a moment. Then your choice will be made, and it will all be over.”
I wonder if he even remembers what happened yesterday, or if he’s already shoved it into a separate compartment in his mind, keeping his monster half separate from his father half. But I don’t have those compartments, and I can see all his identities layered over one another, monster and father and man and council leader and widower.
And suddenly my heart is pounding so hard, my face is so hot, I can barely stand it.
“Don’t worry about me handling the pain,” I say. “I’ve had a lot of practice.”
For a second his eyes are like daggers in the mirror, and my strong anger is gone, replaced by familiar fear. But all he does is switch off the clippers and set them on the ledge and walk down the stairs, leaving me to sweep up the trimmed hair, to brush it from my shoulders and neck, to put the clippers away in their drawer in the bathroom.
Then I go back into my room and stare at the broken objects on the floor. Carefully, I gather them into a pile and put them in the wastebasket next to my desk, piece by piece.
Wincing, I come to my feet. My legs are shaking.
In that moment, staring at the bare life I’ve made for myself here, at the destroyed remnants of what little I had, I think, I have to get out.
It’s a strong thought. I feel its strength ringing inside me like the toll of a bell, so I think it again. I have to get out.
I walk toward the bed and slide my hand under the pillow, where my mother’s sculpture is still safe, still blue and gleaming with morning light. I put it on my desk, next to the stack of books, and leave my bedroom, closing the door behind me.
Downstairs, I’m too nervous to eat, but I stuff a piece of toast into my mouth anyway so my father won’t ask me any questions. I shouldn’t worry. Now he’s pretending I don’t exist, pretending I’m not flinching every time I have to bend down to pick something up.
I have to get out. It’s a chant now, a mantra, the only thing I have left to hold on to.
He finishes reading the news the Erudite release every morning, and I finish washing my own dishes, and we walk out of the house together without speaking. We walk down the sidewalk, and he greets our neighbors with a smile, and everything is always in perfect order for Marcus Eaton, except for his son. Except for me; I am not in order, I am in constant disarray.
But today, I’m glad for that.
We get on the bus and stand in the aisle to let others sit down around us, the perfect picture of Abnegation deference. I watch the others get on, Candor boys and girls with loud mouths, Erudite with studious stares. I watch the other Abnegation rise from their seats to give them away. Everyone is going to the same place today—the Hub, a black pillar in the distance, its two prongs stabbing the sky.
When we get there, my father puts a hand on my shoulder as we walk to the entrance, sending shocks of pain through my body.
I have to get out.
It’s a desperate thought, and the pain only spurs it on with each footstep as I walk the stairs to th
e Choosing Ceremony floor. I struggle for air, but it’s not because of my aching legs; it’s because of my weak heart, growing stronger with each passing second. Beside me, Marcus wipes beads of sweat from his forehead, and all the other Abnegation close their lips to keep from breathing too loudly, lest they appear to be complaining.
I lift my eyes to the stairs ahead of me, and I am on fire with this thought, this need, this chance to escape.
We reach the right floor, and everyone pauses to catch their breath before entering. The room is dim, the windows blocked off, the seats arranged around the circle of bowls that hold glass and water and stones and coal and earth. I find my place in line, between an Abnegation girl and an Amity boy. Marcus stands in front of me.
“You know what to do,” he says, and it’s more like he’s telling himself than me. “You know what the right choice is. I know you do.”
I just stare somewhere south of his eyes.
“I’ll see you soon,” he says.
He moves toward the Abnegation section and sits in the front row, with some of the other council leaders. Gradually people fill the room, those who are about to choose standing in a square at the edge, those watching sitting in the chairs in the middle. The doors close, and there’s a moment of quiet as the council representative from Dauntless moves to the podium. Max is his name. He wraps his fingers around the edge of the podium, and I can see, even from here, that his knuckles are bruised.
Do they learn to fight in Dauntless? They must.
“Welcome to the Choosing Ceremony,” Max says, his deep voice filling the room easily. He doesn’t need the microphone; his voice is loud enough and strong enough to penetrate my skull and wrap around my brain. “Today you will choose your factions. Until this point you have followed your parents’ paths, your parents’ rules. Today you will find your own path, make your own rules.”
I can almost see my father pressing his lips together with disdain at such a typical Dauntless speech. I know his habits so well, I almost do it myself, though I don’t share the feeling. I have no particular opinions about Dauntless.
“A long time ago our ancestors realized that each of us, each individual, was responsible for the evil that exists in the world. But they didn’t agree on exactly what that evil was,” Max says. “Some said that it was dishonesty …”