I rest my hand on my rib cage, remembering the bruises that were, and the fear I felt for my own life. My father had a series of bad nights right after my mother died.
“You sure?” Tori says. “That’s maybe the most painful place possible.”Watch Divergent 4: Ascendant (2017)
“Good,” I say, and I sit down in the chair.
The crowd of Dauntless cheer and start passing around another flask, this one bigger than the last, and bronze instead of silver.
“So we have a masochist in the chair tonight. Lovely.” Tori sits on the stool next to me and puts on a pair of rubber gloves. I sit forward, lifting up the hem of my shirt, and she soaks a cotton ball in rubbing alcohol, covering my ribs with it. She’s about to move away when she frowns and pulls at my skin with her fingertip. Rubbing alcohol bites into the still-healing skin of my back, and I wince.
“How did this happen, Four?” she asks.
I look up and notice that Amar is staring at me, frowning.
“He’s an initiate,” Amar says. “They’re all cut and bruised at this point. You should see them all limping around together. It’s sad.”
“I have a giant one on my knee,” volunteers Zeke. “It’s the sickest blue color—”
Zeke rolls up his pant leg to display his bruise to the others, and they all start sharing their own bruises, their own scars: “Got this when they dropped me after the zip line.” “Well, I’ve got a stab wound from your grip slipping during knife-throwing, so I think we’re even.” Tori eyes me for a few seconds, and I’m sure she doesn’t accept Amar’s explanation for the marks on my back, but she doesn’t ask again. Instead, she turns on the needle, filling the air with the sound of buzzing, and Amar tosses me the flask.
The alcohol is still burning my throat when the tattoo needle touches my ribs, and I wince, but somehow I don’t mind the pain.
I relish it.
The next day, when I wake up, everything hurts. Especially my head.
Oh God, my head.
Eric is perched on the edge of the mattress next to mine, tying his shoelaces. The skin around the rings in his lip looks red—he must have pierced it recently. I haven’t been paying attention.
He looks at me. “You look like hell.”
I sit up, and the sudden motion makes my head throb more.
“I hope that when you lose, you don’t use it as an excuse,” he says, sneering a little. “Because I would have beat you anyway.”
He gets up, stretches, and leaves the dormitory. I cradle my head in my hands for a few seconds, then get up to take a shower. I have to stand with half my body under the water and half out, because of the ink on my side. The Dauntless stayed with me for hours, waiting for the tattoo to be finished, and by the time we left, all the flasks were empty. Tori gave me a thumbs-up as I stumbled out of the tattoo parlor, and Zeke slung an arm across my shoulders and said, “I think you’re Dauntless now.”
Last night I found myself relishing the words. Now I wish I could have my old head back, the one that was focused and determined and didn’t feel like tiny men with hammers had taken up residence inside it. I let the cool water spill over me for a few more minutes, then check the clock on the bathroom wall.
Ten minutes to the fight. I’m going to be late. And Eric is right—I’m going to lose.
I push my hand into my forehead as I run toward the training room, my feet halfway out of my shoes. When I burst through the doors, the transfer initiates and some of the Dauntless-born initiates are standing around the edge of the room. Amar is in the center of the arena, checking his watch. He gives me a pointed look.
“Nice of you to join us,” he says. I see in his raised eyebrows that the camaraderie of the night before does not extend to the training room. He points at my shoes. “Tie your shoes, and don’t waste any more of my time.”
Across the arena, Eric cracks each one of his knuckles, carefully, staring at me the whole time. I tie my shoes in a hurry and tuck the ends of the laces under so they don’t get in my way.
As I face Eric I can feel only the pounding of my heart, the throbbing of my head, the burning in my side. Then Amar steps back, and Eric rushes forward, fast, his fist hitting me square in the jaw.
I stumble back, holding my face. All the pain runs together in my mind. I put up my hands to block the next punch. My head throbs and I see his leg move. I try to twist away from the kick, but his foot hits me hard in the ribs. I feel a sensation like an electric shock through the left side of my body.Watch Divergent 4: Ascendant (2017)
“This is easier than I thought it would be,” Eric says.
I feel hot with embarrassment, and in the arrogant opening he leaves me, I uppercut him in the stomach.
The flat of his hand smacks into my ear, making it ring, and I lose my balance, my fingers touching the ground to steady me.
“You know,” Eric says quietly, “I think I’ve figured out your real name.”
My eyes are blurry with half a dozen different kinds of pain. I didn’t know it came in so many varieties, like flavors, acid and fire and ache and sting.
He hits me again, this time trying for my face but getting my collarbone instead. He shakes out his hand and says, “Should I tell them? Get everything out in the open?”
He has my name between his teeth, Eaton, a far more threatening weapon than his feet or his elbows or his fists. The Abnegation say, in hushed voices, that the problem with many Erudite is their selfishness, but I think it is their arrogance, the pride they take in knowing things that others do not. In that moment, overwhelmed with fear, I recognize it as Eric’s weakness. He doesn’t believe that I can hurt him as much as he can hurt me. He believes that I am everything he assumed me to be at the outset, humble and selfless and passive.
I feel my pain disappear into rage, and I grab his arm to hold him in place as I swing at him again, and again, and again. I don’t even see where I’m hitting him; I don’t see or feel or hear anything. I am empty, alone, nothing.
Then I finally hear his screams, see him clutching his face with both hands. Blood soaks his chin, runs into his teeth. He tries to wrench away but I am holding on as hard as I can, holding on for dear life.
I kick him hard in the side, so he topples. Over his clutched hands, I meet his eyes.
His eyes are glassy and unfocused. His blood is bright against his skin. It occurs to me that I did that, it was me, and fear creeps back in, a different kind of fear this time. A fear of what I am, what I might be becoming.
My knuckles throb, and I walk out of the arena without being dismissed.
The Dauntless compound is a good place to recover, dark and full of secret, quiet places.
I find a hallway near the Pit and sit against the wall, letting the cold from the stone seep into me. My headache has returned, as well as various aches and pains from the fight, but I barely register any of them. My knuckles are tacky with blood, Eric’s. I try to rub it off but it’s been drying too long. I won the fight, and that means my place in Dauntless is secure for the time being—I should feel satisfied, not afraid. Maybe even happy, to finally belong somewhere, to be among people whose eyes don’t skirt mine at the lunch table. But I know that for every good thing that comes along, there is always a cost. What is the cost of being Dauntless?
“Hey.” I look up and see Shauna knocking on the stone wall like it’s a door. She grins. “This is not quite the victory dance I was expecting.”
“I don’t dance,” I say.
“Yeah, I should have known better.” She sits across from me, her back against the opposite wall. She draws her knees up to her chest and wraps her arms around them. Our feet are just a few inches apart. I don’t know why I notice that. Well, yes I do—she’s a girl.
I don’t know how to talk to girls. Especially not a Dauntless girl. Something tells me you can never know what to expect from a Dauntless girl.
“Eric’s in the hospital,” she says, and there’s a grin on her face. “They think you broke his nose. You definitely knocked out one of his teeth.”Watch Divergent 4: Ascendant (2017)
I look down. I knocked out someone’s tooth?
“I was wondering if you could help me,” she says, nudging my shoe with her toe.
As I suspected: Dauntless girls are unpredictable. “Help you with what?”
“Fighting. I’m no good at it. I keep getting humiliated in the arena.” She shakes her head. “I have to face off with this girl in two days, her name’s Ashley but she makes everyone call her Ash.” Shauna rolls her eyes. “You know, Dauntless flames, ash, whatever. Anyway, she’s one of the best people in our group, and I’m afraid she’s going to kill me. Like actually kill me.”
“Why do you want my help?” I say, suddenly suspicious. “Because you know I’m a Stiff and we’re supposed to help people?”
“What? No, of course not,” she says. Her eyebrows furrow in confusion. “I want your help because you’re the best in your group, obviously.”
I laugh. “No, I’m not.”
“You and Eric were the only undefeated ones and you just beat him, so yeah, you are. Listen, if you don’t want to help me, all you have to do is—”
“I’ll help,” I say. “I just don’t really know how.”
“We’ll figure it out,” she says. “Tomorrow afternoon? Meet you in the arena?”
I nod. She grins, gets up, and starts to leave. But a few steps away and she turns around, moving backward down the hallway.
“Quit sulking, Four,” she says. “Everyone’s impressed with you. Embrace it.”
I watch her silhouette turn the corner at the end of the hallway. I was so disturbed by the fight that I never thought about what beating Eric meant—that I am now first in my initiate class. I may have chosen Dauntless as a haven, but I’m not just surviving here, I’m excelling.
I stare at Eric’s blood on my knuckles and smile.
The next morning I decide to take a risk. I sit with Zeke and Shauna at breakfast. Shauna mostly just slumps over her food and answers questions in grunts. Zeke yawns into his coffee, but he points out his family to me: his little brother, Uriah, sits at one of the other tables with Lynn, Shauna’s little sister. His mother, Hana—the tamest Dauntless I’ve ever seen, her faction indicated only by the color of her clothing—is still in the breakfast line.
“Do you miss living at home?” I say.
The Dauntless have a proclivity for baked goods, I’ve noticed. There are always at least two different kinds of cake at dinner, and a mountain of muffins rests on a table near the end of the breakfast line. When I got there, all the good flavors were gone, so I was left with bran.
“Not really,” he says. “I mean, they’re right there. Dauntless-born initiates aren’t really supposed to talk to family until Visiting Day, but I know if I really needed something, they’d be there.”
I nod. Beside him, Shauna’s eyes close, and she falls asleep with her chin resting on her hand.
“What about you?” he says. “Do you miss home?”
I am about to answer no, but right at that moment Shauna’s chin slips off her hand and she smashes her chocolate muffin with her face. Zeke laughs so hard he cries, and I can’t help but grin as I finish my juice.
Later that morning I meet Shauna in the training room. She has her short hair pulled back from her face, and her Dauntless boots, normally untied and flapping when she walks, laced up tight. She’s punching at nothing, pausing between each hit to adjust her position, and for a moment I watch her, not sure how to start. I only just learned to throw a punch myself; I’m hardly qualified to teach her anything.
But as I watch her, I start to notice things. How she stands with her knees locked, how she doesn’t hold up a hand to protect her jaw, how she punches from her elbow instead of throwing her body weight behind each hit. She stops, wiping her forehead with the back of her hand. When she notices me, she jumps like she just touched a live wire.
“Rule number one for not being creepy,” she says. “Announce your presence in a room if another person doesn’t see you come in.”
“Sorry,” I say. “I was coming up with some pointers for you.”
“Oh.” She chews on the inside of her cheek. “What are they?”
I tell her what I noticed, and then we face off in the fighting arena. We begin slowly, pulling back on each hit so we don’t hurt each other. I have to keep tapping her elbow with my fist to remind her to keep her hand up by her face, but a half hour later, she’s at least moving better than she was before.
“This girl you have to fight tomorrow,” I say. “I’d get her right here, in the jaw.” I touch the underside of my jaw. “A good uppercut should do it. Let’s practice those.”
She squares off, and I notice with satisfaction that her knees are bent, and there’s a bounce in her stance that wasn’t there before. We shuffle around each other for a few seconds, and then she punches up. As she does, her left hand drops from her face. I block the first punch, then start to attack the hole she left in her guard. At the last second, I stop my fist in the air and raise my eyebrows at her.
“You know, maybe I would learn my lesson if you actually hit me,” she says, straightening. Her skin is flushed from exertion, and sweat shines along her hairline. Her eyes are bright and critical. It occurs to me, for the first time, that she’s pretty. Not in the way I usually think of—she’s not soft, delicate—but in a way that’s strong, capable.
I say, “I would really rather not.”
“What you think is some kind of lingering Abnegation chivalry is really kind of insulting,” she says. “I can take care of myself. I can take a little pain.”
“It’s not that,” I say. “It’s not because you’re a girl. I just … I’m not really into violence for no reason.”
“Some kind of Stiff thing, huh?” she says.
“Not really. Stiffs aren’t into violence, period. Put a Stiff in Dauntless and they just let themselves get punched a lot,” I say, letting myself smile a little. I’m not used to using Dauntless slang, but it feels good to claim it as my own, to let myself relax into their rhythms of speech. “It just doesn’t feel like a game to me, that’s all.”
It’s the first time I’ve expressed that to anyone. I know why it doesn’t feel like a game—because for so long, it was my reality, it was my waking and my sleeping. Here, I’ve learned to defend myself, I’ve learned to be stronger, but one thing I haven’t learned, won’t let myself learn, is how to enjoy causing someone else pain. If I’m going to become Dauntless, I’m going to do it on my terms, even if that means that a part of me will always be a Stiff.
“All right,” she says. “Let’s go again.”
We spar until she’s mastered the uppercut and we’ve almost missed dinner. When we leave, she thanks me, and casually, she wraps an arm around me. It’s just a quick embrace, but she laughs at how tense it makes me.
“How to Be Dauntless: An Introductory Course,” she says. “Lesson one: It’s okay to hug your friends here.”
“We’re friends?” I say, only halfway joking.
“Oh, shut up,” she says, and she jogs down the hallway toward the dormitory.
The next morning, all the transfer initiates follow Amar past the training room to a grim hallway with a heavy door at the end of it. He tells us to sit against the wall, and then disappears behind the door without saying anything. I check my watch. Shauna will be fighting any minute now—it’s taking the Dauntless-borns longer to get through the first phase of initiation than us, since there are more of them.
Eric sits as far away from me as he can, and I am glad for the distance. The night after I fought him, it occurred to me that he might tell everyone that I’m Marcus Eaton’s son just to spite me for beating him, but he hasn’t done it. I wonder if he’s just waiting for the right opportunity to strike, or if he’s holding back for another reason. No matter what, it’s probably better for me to stay away from him as much as possible.
“What do you think is in there?” Mia, the Amity transfer, sounds nervous.
No one answers. For some reason I don’t feel nervous. There’s nothing behind that door that can hurt me. So when Amar steps into the hallway again and calls my name first, I don’t cast desperate looks at my fellow initiates. I just follow him in.
The room is dim and grungy, with just a chair and a computer in it. The chair is reclined, like the one I sat in for my aptitude test. The computer screen is bright and running a program that amounts to lines of dark text on a white background. When I was younger, I used to volunteer at the school in the computer labs, maintaining the facilities, and sometimes even fixing the computers themselves when they failed. I worked under the supervision of an Erudite woman named Katherine, and she taught me far more than she had to, happy to share her knowledge with someone who was willing to listen. So I know, looking at that code, what kind of program I’m looking at, though I would never be able to do much with it.
“A simulation?” I say.
“The less you know, the better,” he says. “Sit down.”
I sit, leaning back in the chair and setting my arms on the armrests. Amar prepares a syringe, holding it up to the light to make sure the vial is locked in place. He sticks the needle into my neck without warning and presses down on the plunger. I flinch.
“Let’s see which of your four fears comes up first,” he says. “You know, I’m getting kind of bored of them, you might try to show me something new.”
“I’ll work on it,” I say.
The simulation swallows me.
I am sitting on the hard wooden bench at an Abnegation kitchen table, an empty plate in front of me. All the shades are drawn over the windows, so the only light comes from the bulb dangling over the table, its filament glowing orange. I stare at the dark fabric covering my knee. Why am I wearing black instead of gray?
When I lift my head, he—Marcus—is across from me. For a split second, he’s just like the man I saw across the Choosing Ceremony hall not long ago, his eyes dark blue to match mine, his mouth pressed into a frown.
I’m wearing black because I’m Dauntless now, I remind myself. So why am I in an Abnegation house, sitting across from my father?
I see the outline of the lightbulb reflected in my empty plate. This must be a simulation, I think.
Then the light above us flickers, and he turns into the man I always see in my fear landscape, a twisted monster with pits for eyes and a wide, empty mouth. He lunges across the table with both hands outstretched, and instead of fingernails he has razor blades embedded in his fingertips.
He swipes at me, and I lurch back, falling off the bench. I scramble on the floor for my balance, then run into the living room. There is another Marcus there, reaching for me from the wall. I search for the front door, but someone has sealed it with cinder blocks, trapping me.
Gasping, I sprint up the stairs. At the top I trip, and sprawl on the wooden floor in the hallway. A Marcus opens the closet door from the inside; another one walks out of my parents’ bedroom; yet another one claws across the floor from the bathroom. I shrink back against the wall. The house is dark. There are no windows.
This place is full of him.
Suddenly one of the Marcuses is right in front of me, pressing me to the wall with both hands around my throat. Another one drags his fingernails down my arms, provoking a stinging pain that brings tears to my eyes.
I am paralyzed, panicking.
I swallow air. I can’t scream. I feel pain and my pounding heart and I kick as hard as I can, hitting only air. The Marcus with his hands around my throat shoves me up the wall, so my toes drag along the floor. My limbs are limp, like a rag doll’s. I can’t move.
This place, this place is full of him. It’s not real, I realize. It’s a simulation. It’s just like the fear landscape.
There are more Marcuses now, waiting below me with their hands outstretched, so I’m staring down at a sea of blades. Their fingers clutch at my legs, cutting me, and I feel a hot trail down the side of my neck as the Marcus who is choking me digs in harder.
Simulation, I remind myself. I try to send life into every one of my limbs. I imagine my blood on fire, racing through me. I slap my hand against the wall, searching for a weapon. One of the Marcuses reaches up, his fingers poised over my eyes. I scream and thrash as the blades dig into my eyelids.
My hands find not a weapon but a doorknob. I twist it, hard, and fall back into another closet. The Marcuses lose their hold on me. In the closet is a window, just big enough for my body. As they chase me into the darkness, I throw my shoulder against the glass, and it shatters. Fresh air fills my lungs.
I sit upright in the chair, gasping.
I put my hands against my throat, on my arms, on my legs, checking for wounds that aren’t there. I can still feel the cuts and the unfurling of blood from my veins, but my skin is intact.
My breaths slow down, and with them, my thoughts. Amar is sitting at the computer, hooked up to the simulation, and he’s staring at me.
“What?” I say, breathless.
“You were in there for five minutes,” Amar says.
“Is that long?”
“No.” He frowns at me. “No, it’s not long at all. It’s very good, actually.”
I put my feet on the floor and hold my head in my hands. I may not have panicked for that long during the simulation, but the image of my warped father
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