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THE TESTS BEGIN after lunch. We sit at the long tables in the cafeteria, and the test administrators call ten names at a time, one for each testing room. I sit next to Caleb and across from our neighbor Susan.Watch Divergent 4: Ascendant (2017)
Susan’s father travels throughout the city for his job, so he has a car and drives her to and from school every day. He offered to drive us, too, but as Caleb says, we prefer to leave later and would not want to inconvenience him.
Of course not.
The test administrators are mostly Abnegation volunteers, although there is an Erudite in one of the testing rooms and a Dauntless in another to test those of us from Abnegation, because the rules state that we can’t be tested by someone from our own faction. The rules also say that we can’t prepare for the test in any way, so I don’t know what to expect.
My gaze drifts from Susan to the Dauntless tables across the room. They are laughing and shouting and playing cards. At another set of tables, the Erudite chatter over books and newspapers, in constant pursuit of knowledge.
A group of Amity girls in yellow and red sit in a circle on the cafeteria floor, playing some kind of hand-slapping game involving a rhyming song. Every few minutes I hear a chorus of laughter from them as someone is eliminated and has to sit in the center of the circle. At the table next to them, Candor boys make wide gestures with their hands. They appear to be arguing about something, but it must not be serious, because some of them are still smiling.
At the Abnegation table, we sit quietly and wait. Faction customs dictate even idle behavior and supersede individual preference. I doubt all the Erudite want to study all the time, or that every Candor enjoys a lively debate, but they can’t defy the norms of their factions any more than I can.
Caleb’s name is called in the next group. He moves confidently toward the exit. I don’t need to wish him luck or assure him that he shouldn’t be nervous. He knows where he belongs, and as far as I know, he always has. My earliest memory of him is from when we were four years old. He scolded me for not giving my jump rope to a little girl on the playground who didn’t have anything to play with. He doesn’t lecture me often anymore, but I have his look of disapproval memorized.
I have tried to explain to him that my instincts are not the same as his—it didn’t even enter my mind to give my seat to the Candor man on the bus—but he doesn’t understand. “Just do what you’re supposed to,” he always says. It is that easy for him. It should be that easy for me.
My stomach wrenches. I close my eyes and keep them closed until ten minutes later, when Caleb sits down again.
He is plaster-pale. He pushes his palms along his legs like I do when I wipe off sweat, and when he brings them back, his fingers shake. I open my mouth to ask him something, but the words don’t come. I am not allowed to ask him about his results, and he is not allowed to tell me.
An Abnegation volunteer speaks the next round of names. Two from Dauntless, two from Erudite, two from Amity, two from Candor, and then: “From Abnegation: Susan Black and Beatrice Prior. ”
I get up because I’m supposed to, but if it were up to me, I would stay in my seat for the rest of time. I feel like there is a bubble in my chest that expands more by the second, threatening to break me apart from the inside. I follow Susan to the exit. The people I pass probably can’t tell us apart. We wear the same clothes and we wear our blond hair the same way. The only difference is that Susan might not feel like she’s going to throw up, and from what I can tell, her hands aren’t shaking so hard she has to clutch the hem of her shirt to steady them.
Waiting for us outside the cafeteria is a row of ten rooms. They are used only for the aptitude tests, so I have never been in one before. Unlike the other rooms in the school, they are separated, not by glass, but by mirrors. I watch myself, pale and terrified, walking toward one of the doors. Susan grins nervously at me as she walks into room 5, and I walk into room 6, where a Dauntless woman waits for me.
She is not as severe-looking as the young Dauntless I have seen. She has small, dark, angular eyes and wears a black blazer—like a man’s suit—and jeans. It is only when she turns to close the door that I see a tattoo on the back of her neck, a black-and-white hawk with a red eye. If I didn’t feel like my heart had migrated to my throat, I would ask her what it signifies. It must signify something.
Mirrors cover the inner walls of the room. I can see my reflection from all angles: the gray fabric obscuring the shape of my back, my long neck, my knobby-knuckled hands, red with a blood blush. The ceiling glows white with light. In the center of the room is a reclined chair, like a dentist’s, with a machine next to it. It looks like a place where terrible things happen.
“Don’t worry,” the woman says, “it doesn’t hurt. ”
Her hair is black and straight, but in the light I see that it is streaked with gray.
“Have a seat and get comfortable,” she says. “My name is Tori. ”
Clumsily I sit in the chair and recline, putting my head on the headrest. The lights hurt my eyes. Tori busies herself with the machine on my right. I try to focus on her and not on the wires in her hands.
“Why the hawk?” I blurt out as she attaches an electrode to my forehead.
“Never met a curious Abnegation before,” she says, raising her eyebrows at me.
I shiver, and goose bumps appear on my arms. My curiosity is a mistake, a betrayal of Abnegation values.
Humming a little, she presses another electrode to my forehead and explains, “In some parts of the ancient world, the hawk symbolized the sun. Back when I got this, I figured if I always had the sun on me, I wouldn’t be afraid of the dark. ”
I try to stop myself from asking another question, but I can’t help it. “You’re afraid of the dark?”
“I was afraid of the dark,” she corrects me. She presses the next electrode to her own forehead, and attaches a wire to it. She shrugs. “Now it reminds me of the fear I’ve overcome. ”Watch Divergent 4: Ascendant (2017)
She stands behind me. I squeeze the armrests so tightly the redness pulls away from my knuckles. She tugs wires toward her, attaching them to me, to her, to the machine behind her. Then she passes me a vial of clear liquid.
“Drink this,” she says.
“What is it?” My throat feels swollen. I swallow hard. “What’s going to happen?”
“Can’t tell you that. Just trust me. ”
I press air from my lungs and tip the contents of the vial into my mouth. My eyes close.
When they open, an instant has passed, but I am somewhere else. I stand in the school cafeteria again, but all the long tables are empty, and I see through the glass walls that it’s snowing. On the table in front of me are two baskets. In one is a hunk of cheese, and in the other, a knife the length of my forearm.
Behind me, a woman’s voice says, “Choose. ”
“Why?” I ask.
“Choose,” she repeats.
I look over my shoulder, but no one is there. I turn back to the baskets. “What will I do with them?”
“Choose!” she yells.
When she screams at me, my fear disappears and stubbornness replaces it. I scowl and cross my arms.
“Have it your way,” she says.
The baskets disappear. I hear a door squeak and turn to see who it is. I see not a “who” but a “what”: A dog with a pointed nose stands a few yards away from me. It crouches low and creeps toward me, its lips peeling back from its white teeth. A growl gurgles from deep in its throat, and I see why the cheese would have come in handy. Or the knife. But it’s too late now.
I think about running, but the dog will be faster than me. I can’t wrestle it to the ground. My head pounds. I have to make a decision. If I can jump over one of the tables and use it as a shield—no, I am too short to jump over the tables, and not strong enough to tip one over.
The dog snarls, and I can almost feel the sound vibrating in my skull.
My biology textbook said that dogs can smell fear because of a chemical secreted by human glands in a state of duress, the same chemical a dog’s prey secretes. Smelling fear leads them to attack. The dog inches toward me, its nails scraping the floor.
I can’t run. I can’t fight. Instead I breathe in the smell of the dog’s foul breath and try not to think about what it just ate. There are no whites in its eyes, just a black gleam.
What else do I know about dogs? I shouldn’t look it in the eye. That’s a sign of aggression. I remember asking my father for a pet dog when I was young, and now, staring at the ground in front of the dog’s paws, I can’t remember why. It comes closer, still growling. If staring into its eyes is a sign of aggression, what’s a sign of submission?
My breaths are loud but steady. I sink to my knees. The last thing I want to do is lie down on the ground in front of the dog—making its teeth level with my face—but it’s the best option I have. I stretch my legs out behind me and lean on my elbows. The dog creeps closer, and closer, until I feel its warm breath on my face. My arms are shaking.Watch Divergent 4: Ascendant (2017)
It barks in my ear, and I clench my teeth to keep from screaming.
Something rough and wet touches my cheek. The dog’s growling stops, and when I lift my head to look at it again, it is panting. It licked my face. I frown and sit on my heels. The dog props its paws up on my knees and licks my chin. I cringe, wiping the drool from my skin, and laugh.
“You’re not such a vicious beast, huh?”
I get up slowly so I don’t startle it, but it seems like a different animal than the one that faced me a few seconds ago. I stretch out a hand, carefully, so I can draw it back if I need to. The dog nudges my hand with its head. I am suddenly glad I didn’t pick up the knife.
I blink, and when my eyes open, a child stands across the room wearing a white dress. She stretches out both hands and squeals, “Puppy!”
As she runs toward the dog at my side, I open my mouth to warn her, but I am too late. The dog turns. Instead of growling, it barks and snarls and snaps, and its muscles bunch up like coiled wire. About to pounce. I don’t think, I just jump; I hurl my body on top of the dog, wrapping my arms around its thick neck.
My head hits the ground. The dog is gone, and so is the little girl. Instead I am alone—in the testing room, now empty. I turn in a slow circle and can’t see myself in any of the mirrors. I push the door open and walk into the hallway, but it isn’t a hallway; it’s a bus, and all the seats are taken.
I stand in the aisle and hold on to a pole. Sitting near me is a man with a newspaper. I can’t see his face over the top of the paper, but I can see his hands. They are scarred, like he was burned, and they clench around the paper like he wants to crumple it.
“Do you know this guy?” he asks. He taps the picture on the front page of the newspaper. The headline reads: “Brutal Murderer Finally Apprehended!” I stare at the word “murderer. ” It has been a long time since I last read that word, but even its shape fills me with dread.
In the picture beneath the headline is a young man with a plain face and a beard. I feel like I do know him, though I don’t remember how. And at the same time, I feel like it would be a bad idea to tell the man that.
“Well?” I hear anger in his voice. “Do you?”
A bad idea—no, a very bad idea. My heart pounds and I clutch the pole to keep my hands from shaking, from giving me away. If I tell him I know the man from the article, something awful will happen to me. But I can convince him that I don’t. I can clear my throat and shrug my shoulders—but that would be a lie.
I clear my throat.
“Do you?” he repeats.
I shrug my shoulders.
A shudder goes through me. My fear is irrational; this is just a test, it isn’t real. “Nope,” I say, my voice casual. “No idea who he is. ”
He stands, and finally I see his face. He wears dark sunglasses and his mouth is bent into a snarl. His cheek is rippled with scars, like his hands. He leans close to my face. His breath smells like cigarettes. Not real, I remind myself. Not real.
“You’re lying,” he says. “You’re lying!”
“I am not. ”
“I can see it in your eyes. ”
I pull myself up straighter. “You can’t. ”
“If you know him,” he says in a low voice, “you could save me. You could save me!”
I narrow my eyes. “Well,” I say. I set my jaw. “I don’t. ”
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