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“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.

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“What were you doing in here that you didn’t want me to see?”

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.

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“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.

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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 the 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 …”

I think of the lies I have told, year after year, about this bruise or that cut, the lies of omission I told when I kept Marcus’s secrets.

“Some said that it was ignorance, some aggression …”

I think of the peace of the Amity orchards, the freedom I would find there from violence and cruelty.

“Some said selfishness was the cause.”

This is for your own good is what Marcus said before the first blow fell. As if hitting me was an act of self-sacrifice. As if it hurt him to do it. Well, I didn’t see him limping around the kitchen this morning.

“And the last group said that it was cowardice that was to blame.”

A few hoots rise up from the Dauntless section, and the rest of the Dauntless laugh. I think of the fear swallowing me last night until I couldn’t feel, until I couldn’t breathe. I think of the years that have ground me into dust beneath my father’s heel.

“That is how we came by our factions: Candor, Erudite, Amity, Abnegation, and Dauntless.” Max smiles. “In them we find administrators and teachers and counselors and leaders and protectors. In them we find our sense of belonging, our sense of community, our very lives.” He clears his throat. “Enough of that. Let’s get to it. Come forward and get your knife, then make your choice. First up, Zellner, Gregory.”

It seems fitting that pain should follow me from my old life into my new one, with the knife digging into my palm. Still, even this morning I didn’t know which faction I would choose as a haven. Gregory Zellner holds his bleeding hand over the bowl of dirt, to choose Amity.

Amity seems like the obvious choice for a haven, with its peaceful life, its sweet-smelling orchards, its smiling community. In Amity I would find the kind of acceptance I’ve craved my entire life, and maybe, over time, it would teach me to feel steady in myself, comfortable with who I am.

But as I look at the people sitting in that section, in their reds and yellows, I see only whole, healed people, capable of cheering one another, capable of supporting one another. They are too perfect, too kind, for someone like me to be driven into their arms by rage and fear.

The ceremony is moving too fast. “Rogers, Helena.”

She chooses Candor.

I know what happens in Candor’s initiation. I heard whispers about it in school one day. There, I would have to expose every secret, dig it out with my fingernails. I would have to flay myself alive to join Candor. No, I can’t do that.

“Lovelace, Frederick.”

Frederick Lovelace, dressed all in blue, cuts his palm and lets his blood drip into the Erudite water, turning it a deeper shade of pink. I learn easily enough for Erudite, but I know myself well enough to understand that I am too volatile, too emotional, for a place like that. It would strangle me, and what I want is to be free, not to be shuffled into yet another prison.

It takes no time at all for the name of the Abnegation girl beside me to be called. “Erasmus, Anne.”

Anne—another one who never found more than a few words to speak to me—stumbles forward and walks the aisle to Max’s podium. She accepts her knife with shaking hands and cuts her palm, and holds her hand over the Abnegation bowl. It’s easy for her. She doesn’t have anything to run from, just a welcoming, kind community to rejoin. And besides, no one from Abnegation has transferred in years. It’s the most loyal faction, in terms of Choosing Ceremony statistics.

“Eaton, Tobias.”

I don’t feel nervous as I walk down the aisle to the bowls, though I still haven’t chosen my place. Max passes me the knife, and I wrap my fingers around the handle. It’s smooth and cool, the blade clean. A new knife for each person, and a new choice.

As I walk to the center of the room, to the center of the bowls, I pass Tori, the woman who administered my aptitude test. You’re the one who has to live with your choice, she said. Her hair is pulled back, and I can see a tattoo creeping over her collarbone, toward her throat. Her eyes touch mine with peculiar force, and I stare back, unflinching, as I take my place among the bowls.

What choice can I live with? Not Erudite, or Candor. Not Abnegation, the place I am trying to get away from. Not even Amity, where I am too broken to belong.

The truth is, I want my choice to drive a knife right through my father’s heart, to pierce him with as much pain and embarrassment and disappointment as possible.

There is only one choice that can do that.

I look at him, and he nods, and I cut deep into my own palm, so deep the pain brings tears to my eyes. I blink them away and curl my hand into a fist to let the blood collect there. His eyes are like my eyes, such a dark blue that in light like this they always look black, just pits in his skull. My back throbs and pinches, my collared shirt scratching at the raw skin there, the skin he wore into with that belt.

I open my palm over the coals. I feel like they’re burning in my stomach, filling me to the brim with fire and smoke.

I am free.

+++

I don’t hear the cheers of the Dauntless; all I hear is ringing.

My new faction is like a many-armed creature, stretching toward me. I move toward it, and I don’t dare to look back to see my father’s face. Hands slap my arms, commending me on my choice, and I move to the rear of the group, blood wrapping around my fingers.

I stand with the other initiates, next to a black-haired Erudite boy who appraises and dismisses me with one glance. I must not look like much, in my Abnegation grays, tall and scrawny after last year’s growth spurt. The cut in my hand is gushing, the blood spilling onto the floor and running down my wrist. I dug too deep with the knife.

As the last of my peers choose, I pinch the hem of my loose Abnegation shirt between my fingers and rip. I tear a strip of fabric from the front and wrap it around my hand to stop the bleeding. I won’t need these clothes anymore.

The Dauntless sitting in front of us come to their feet as soon as the last person chooses, and they rush toward the doors, carrying me with them. I turn back right before the doors, unable to stop myself, and I see my father sitting in the front row still, a few other Abnegation huddled around him. He looks stunned.

I smirk a little. I did it, I put that expression on his face. I am not the perfect Abnegation child, doomed to be swallowed whole by the system and dissolved into obscurity. Instead, I am the first Abnegation-Dauntless transfer in more than a decade.

I turn and run to catch up with the others, not wanting to be left behind. Before I exit the room, I unbutton my ripped long-sleeved shirt and let it fall on the ground. The gray T-shirt I am wearing beneath it is still oversized, but it’s darker, blends in better with the black Dauntless clothes.

They storm down the stairs, flinging doors open, laughing, shouting. I feel burning in my back and shoulders and lungs and legs, and suddenly I am unsure of this choice I’ve made, of these people I’ve claimed. They are so loud and so wild. Can I possibly make a place for myself among them? I don’t know.

I guess I don’t have a choice.

I push my way through the group, searching for my fellow initiates, but they seem to have disappeared. I move to the side of the group, hoping to get a glimpse of where we’re headed, and I see the train tracks suspended over the street in front of us, in a cage of latticed wood and metal. The Dauntless climb the stairs and spill out onto the train platform. At the foot of the stairs, the crowd is so dense that I can’t find a way to get in, but I know if I don’t climb the stairs soon, I might miss the train, so I decide to push my way in. I have to clench my teeth to keep myself from apologizing as I elbow people aside, and the momentum of the crowd presses me up the steps.

“You’re not a bad runner,” Tori says as she sidles up to me on the platform. “At least for an Abnegation kid.”

“Thanks,” I say.

“You know what’s going to happen next, right?” She turns and points at a light in the distance, fixed to the front of an oncoming train. “It’s not going to stop. It’s just going to slow down a little. And if you don’t make it on, that’s it for you. Factionless. It’s that easy to get kicked out.”

I nod. I’m not surprised that the trial of initiation has already begun, that it began the second we left the Choosing Ceremony. And I’m not surprised that the Dauntless expect me to prove myself either. I watch the train come closer—I can hear it now, whistling on the tracks.

She grins at me. “You’re going to do just fine here, aren’t you?”

“What makes you say that?”

She shrugs. “You strike me as someone who’s ready to fight, that’s all.”

The train thunders toward us, and the Dauntless start piling on. Tori runs toward the edge, and I follow her, copying her stance and her movements as she prepares to jump. She grabs a handle at the edge of the door and swings herself inside, so I do the same thing, fumbling at first for my grip and then yanking myself in.

But I’m unprepared for the turning of the train, and I stumble, smacking my face against the metal wall. I grab my aching nose.

“Smooth,” one of the Dauntless inside says. He’s younger than Tori, with dark skin and an easy smile.

“Finesse is for Erudite show-offs,” Tori says. “He made it on the train, Amar, that’s what counts.”

“He’s supposed to be in the other car, though. With the other initiates,” Amar says. He eyes me, but not the way the Erudite transfer did a few minutes ago. He seems more curious than anything else, like I’m an oddity he needs to examine carefully in order to understand it. “If he’s friends with you, I guess it’s okay. What’s your name, Stiff?”

The name is in my mouth the second he asks me the question, and I am about to answer like I always do, that I am Tobias Eaton. It should be natural, but in that moment I can’t bear to say my name out loud, not here, among the people I hoped would be my new friends, my new family. I can’t—I won’t—be Marcus Eaton’s son anymore.

“You can call me ‘Stiff’ for all I care,” I say, trying out the cutting Dauntless banter I’ve only listened to across hallways and classrooms until now. Wind rushes into the train car as it picks up speed, and it’s loud, roaring in my ears.

Tori gives me a strange look, and for a moment I am afraid that she’s going to tell Amar my name, which I’m sure she remembers from my aptitude test. But she just nods a little, and relieved, I turn toward the open doorway, my hand still on the handle.

It never occurred to me before that I could refuse to give my name, or that I could give a false one, construct a new identity for myself. I’m free here, free to snap at people and free to refuse them and free even to lie.

I see the street between the wooden beams that support the train tracks, just a story beneath us. But up ahead, the old tracks give way to new ones, and the platforms go higher, wrapping around the roofs of buildings. The climb happens gradually, so I wouldn’t have noticed it was happening if I hadn’t been staring at the ground as we traveled farther and farther away from it, farther and farther into the sky.

Fear makes my legs go weak, so I back away from the doorway and sink into a crouch by one wall as I wait to get to wherever we’re going.

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