Crossed, Page 2Ally Condie
“I think this might be the last time we can look at it,” I say. “It’s falling to pieces.”
“I never thought to bring any of the Hundred Paintings,” Lin says, looking down.
“I didn’t think of it either,” I say. “Someone gave this to me.”
Xander did, back in the Borough, the day we said good-bye. It’s #19 of the Hundred Paintings—Chasm of the Colorado, by Thomas Moran—and I gave a report on it once in school. I said then that it was my favorite painting and Xander must have remembered that all those years. The picture frightened and thrilled me in some vague way—the sky was so spectacular, the land so beautiful and dangerous, so full of heights and depths. I was afraid of the vastness of a place like that. At the same time, I felt sorrow that I would never see it: green trees clinging to red rocks, blue and gray clouds floating and streaming, gold and dark over all of it.
I wonder if some of that longing came through in my voice when I spoke of the painting, if Xander noticed and remembered. Xander still plays the game in a subtle way. This painting is one of his cards. Now, when I see the painting or touch one of the newrose petals, I remember the way he felt so familiar and knew so much, and I ache for what I’ve had to let go.
I was right about this being the last time we could look at the picture. When I pick it up, it falls to pieces. We all sigh, at the same time, our combined exhalation moving the fragments on its breeze.
“We could go view the painting on the port,” I tell them. The one port in camp sits humming over in the main hall, large and listening.
“No,” says Indie. “It’s too late.”
It’s true; we’re supposed to stay in our cabin after dinner. “Tomorrow during breakfast, then,” I say.
Indie makes a dismissive gesture, turns her face away. She’s right. I don’t know why it’s not the same, but it isn’t. At first, I thought it was having the picture that made it special, but it’s not even that. It’s looking at something without being watched, without being told how to see. That’s what the picture has given us.
I don’t know why I didn’t carry around pictures and poems all the time before I came here. All that paper in the ports, all that luxury. So many carefully selected pieces of beauty and still we didn’t look at them enough. How did I not see that the color of the green near the canyon was so new you could almost feel the smoothness of the leaf, the stickiness like butterfly wings opening for the first time?
In one swift motion, Indie brushes the pieces from my bed. She didn’t even look to do it. That’s how I know she cared about losing the picture, because she knew exactly where the fragments lay.
I carry them to be incinerated, my eyes blurring with tears.
It’s all right, I tell myself. You have other, solid things left, hidden under the papers and petals. A tablet container. A silver box from the Match Banquet.
Ky’s compass and the blue tablets from Xander.
I don’t usually keep the compass and the tablets in the bag with me. They’re too valuable. I don’t know if the Officers search through my things but I’m sure the other girls do.
So, on the first day in each new camp, I bring out the compass and the blue tablets, plant them deep, and come for them later. Besides being illegal, they are both valuable gifts: the compass, golden and bright, can tell me which direction I need to go. And the Society has always told us that, with water, the blue tablet can keep us alive for a day or two. Xander stole several dozen for me; I could live for a long time. Together, their gifts are the perfect combination for survival.
If I could only get to the Outer Provinces to use them.
On nights like tonight—the night before a transfer—I have to find my way back to where I planted them and hope I remember the spot. This evening I was the last one inside, my hands stained dark with dirt from a different part of the field. It’s why I hurried to wash my hands; what I hope Indie didn’t notice with her sharp eyes as she stood behind me. I hope that no traces of soil fall out of the bag and that no one hears the musical chime, the sound of promise, as the silver box and the compass bump into each other and against the tablet container.
In these camps, I try to conceal the fact that I’m a Citizen from the other workers. Though the Society usually keeps knowledge of status confidential, I’ve overheard conversations between some of the girls about having to give up their tablet containers. Which means that somehow—through their own mistakes or those of their parents—some of these girls have lost their Citizenship. They’re Aberrations, like Ky.
There’s only one classification lower than Aberration: Anomaly. But you almost never hear of them anymore. They seem to have vanished. And it seems to me now that, once the Anomalies were gone, the Aberrations took their place—at least in the collective mind of the Society.
No one talked about the Rules of Reclassification back in Oria, and I used to worry that I could cause the Reclassification of my family. But now I’ve figured out the rules from Ky’s story and from listening to the other girls speak in unguarded moments.
The rules are this: If a parent becomes Reclassified, the whole family does, too.
But if a child becomes Reclassified, the family does not. The child alone bears the weight of the Infraction.
Ky was Reclassified because of his father. And then he was brought to Oria when the first Markham boy died. I realize now how truly rare Ky’s situation was—how he could only come back from the Outer Provinces because someone else was killed, and how his aunt and uncle, Patrick and Aida Markham, might have been even higher up in the Society than any of us realized. I wonder what has happened to them now. The thought makes me cold.
But, I remind myself, leaving to find Ky will not destroy my family. I can cause my own Reclassification, but not theirs.
I cling to this thought—that they will still be safe, and Xander, too, no matter where I have to go.
“Messages,” says the Officer as she enters the room. It’s the one with the sharp voice and the kind eyes. She gives us a nod as she begins to read the names. “Mira Waring.”
Mira steps forward. We all watch and count. Mira gets three messages, the same as usual. The Officer prints out and reads the pages before we see them to save the time of all of us lining up at the port.
There is nothing for Indie.
And only one message for me, a combined one from my parents and Bram. Nothing from Xander. He has never missed a week before.
What happened? I tighten my hand on my bag and I hear the crumple of paper inside.
“Cassia,” the Officer says. “Please come with me to the main hall. We have a communication for you.”
The other girls stare at me in surprise.
And then a chill cuts through me. I know who it must be. My Official, checking in on me from the port.
I can see her face clearly in my mind, every icy line of it.
I don’t want to go.
“Cassia,” the Officer says. Looking back at the girls, at the cabin that suddenly seems warm and cozy, I stand up to follow her. She leads me back along the path to the main hall and over to the port. I hear it humming all the way across the room.
I keep my eyes down for a moment before looking up toward the port. Compose your face, your hands, your eyes. Look out at them so they cannot see into you.
“Cassia,” someone else says, a voice I know.
And then I look up, and I don’t believe what I see.
The port is blank, and he stands before me, real.
Whole and healthy and unharmed.
Not alone—an Official stands behind him—but still, he’s—
I put my red, mapped hands over my eyes because it’s too much to see.
“Xander,” I say.
It’s been a month and a half since we left that boy in the water. Now I lie in the dirt and fire comes down from a
It’s a song, I tell myself, same as I always do. The bass sound of the heavy shots, the soprano of the screams, the tenor of my own fear. All part of the music.
Don’t try to run. I told the others too, but new decoys never listen. They believe what the Society told them on the way out here: Do your time in the villages and we’ll bring you home in six months. We’ll give you Citizen status again.
No one lasts six months.
When I climb out, there will be black buildings and splintered gray sagebrush. Burned, fallen bodies strewn along the orange sandy earth.
And now there’s a break in the song and I swear. The air ships are on the move. I know what draws their fire.
Early this morning, boots crunched in the frost behind me. I didn’t look back to see who followed me to the edge of the village.
“What are you doing?” someone asked. I didn’t recognize the voice, but that didn’t mean much. They’re always sending new people out here to the villages from the camp. We die faster and faster these days.
I knew even before they pushed me onto that train back in Oria that the Society would never use us to fight. They have plenty of technology and trained Officers for that. People who aren’t Aberrations or Anomalies.
What the Society needs—what we are for them—are bodies. Decoy villagers. They move us. Put us wherever they need more people to draw fire from the Enemy. They want the Enemy to think the Outer Provinces are still inhabited and viable, although the only people I’ve seen here are ones like us. Dropped down from the sky with just enough to keep us alive until the Enemy kills us.
No one goes home.
Except me. I came home. The Outer Provinces are where I once belonged.
“The snow,” I told the new decoy. “I’m looking at the snow.”
“It doesn’t snow here,” he scoffed.
I didn’t answer. I kept looking up at the top of the nearest plateau. It’s something worth seeing, white snow on red rocks. While it melts it turns from white to crystal clear and shot through with rainbows. I’ve been up high before when the snow came down. It was beautiful the way it feathered the winter-dead plants.
Behind me, I heard him turn and run back toward the camp. “Look up on the plateau!” he yelled, and the others stirred and called back in excitement.
“We’re going up to get the snow, Ky!” someone hollered at me a few moments later. “Come on.”
“You won’t make it,” I told them. “It will melt too fast.”
But no one listened to me. The Officials still keep us thirsty and what water we do have tastes like the insides of our canteens. The closest river now is poisoned and rain doesn’t come often.
One cold swallow of fresh water. I can see why they wanted to go.
“You sure?” one of them called back to me, and I nodded again.
“You going, Vick?” someone called out.
Vick stood up, shielded his hard blue eyes with one hand, and spit down into the frosted sagebrush. “No,” he said. “Ky says it’ll melt before we get there. And we’ve got graves to dig.”
“You’re always making us dig,” one of the decoys complained. “We’re supposed to act like farmers. That’s what the Society says.” He was right. They want us to use the shovels and seeds from the village sheds to plant winter crops and to leave the bodies where they lie. I’ve heard other decoys say that that’s what they do in the other villages. They leave the carcasses for the Society or the Enemy or any animals who might want them.
But Vick and I bury people. It started with the boy and the river and no one’s stopped us yet.
Vick laughed, a cold sound. In the absence of any Officials or Officers he has become the unofficial leader out here and sometimes the other decoys forget that he doesn’t actually have any power within the Society. They forget that he’s an Aberration, too. “I don’t make you do anything. Neither does Ky. You know who does, and if you want to take your chances up there, I won’t stop you.”
The sun climbed higher and so did they. I watched for a while. Their black plainclothes and the distance between the village and the plateau made them look like ants swarming a hill. Then I stood up and started back to work, digging holes in the graveyard for the ones who died in the firing the night before.
Vick and the others worked next to me. We had seven holes to dig. Not too many, considering the intensity of the firing and the fact that there were almost a hundred of us to lose.
I kept my back to the climbers so I didn’t have to see how the snow was all gone by the time they reached the top of the plateau. Climbing up there was a waste of time.
It’s also a waste of time to think about people who are gone. And judging by the way things out here are going, I don’t have a lot of time to waste.
But I can’t help it.
On my first night in Mapletree Borough, I looked out of the window in my new bedroom and not one thing was familiar or seemed like home. So I turned away. And then Aida came through the door, and she looked enough like my mother that I could breathe again.
She held out her hand with the compass in it. “Our parents only had one artifact, and two daughters. Your mother and I agreed that we would take turns sharing it, but then she left.” She opened my hand and put the compass inside. “We had the same artifact. And now we both have the same son. It’s for you.”
“I can’t have it,” I told her. “I’m an Aberration. We’re not allowed to keep things like this.”
“Nevertheless,” Aida said. “It is yours.”
And then I gave it to Cassia to keep and she gave me the green silk. I knew they’d take it from me someday. I knew I would never get to keep it. And so that’s why, when we walked down from the Hill the last time, I paused and tied it to a tree. Quickly, so she wouldn’t notice.
I like to think of it out there on top of the Hill under wind and rain.
Because in the end you can’t always choose what to keep. You can only choose how you let it go.
I was thinking of her when I first saw the snow. I thought, We could climb up there. Even if it all melted. We’d sit and write words on the still-damp sand. We could do that, if you weren’t gone.
But then, I remembered, you’re not the one who’s gone. I am.
A boot appears now at the edge of the grave. I know whose it is by the notches carved around the edge of the sole—a method some use out here to mark time survived. No one else has as many cuts, as many days tracked. “You’re not dead,” Vick says.
“No,” I say, pushing myself to my feet. I spit dirt out of my mouth and reach for the shovel.
Vick digs next to me. Neither of us talk about the people we won’t be able to bury today. The ones who tried to climb to the snow.
Back in the village, I hear the decoys calling to each other and to us. Three more dead here, they cry out, and then fall silent as they look up.
Not one of the decoys who went up to the plateau will be coming back. I find myself hoping the impossible, that at least they quenched their thirst before the fire. That they had mouths full of clean, cold snow when they died.
Xander, here, in front of me. Blond hair, blue eyes, smile so warm that I can’t stop from reaching out to him even before the Official has given us permission to touch.
“Cassia,” Xander says, and doesn’t wait, either. He pulls me into his arms and we both hold on tight. I don’t even try to keep myself from burying my face against his chest, against his clothes that smell like home and him.
“I’ve missed you,” Xander tells me, his voice rumbling above my head. It sounds deeper. He seems stronger. It’s such a good and glorious feeling, this being with him, that I lean back and grab his face in both my hands and pull him down and kiss him on the cheek, in a place dangerously near his mouth. When I step away we both have tears in our eyes. It is such a strange sight, Xander with tears, that I catch my breath.
sed you,” I tell him, and I wonder how much of the ache inside me comes from having lost Xander, too.
The Official behind Xander smiles. Our reunion lacks nothing. He steps away a little, discreet, giving us space, and enters something into his datapod. Probably something like: Both subjects expressed appropriate reaction upon seeing each other.
“How?” I ask Xander. “How are you here?” Though it’s so good to see him, it’s almost too good. Is this another test from my Official?
“It’s been five months since our Matching,” he says. “All the Matchees from our month are having their first face-to-face meetings. The Department hasn’t eliminated that yet.” He smiles down at me, something sad in his eyes. “I pointed out that we don’t live near each other anymore, so we deserved a meeting, too. And it’s customary to meet where the girl lives.”
He didn’t say at the girl’s home. He understands. He’s right. I live here. But this work camp is not home. I could call Oria home, because Xander lives there, and Em, and because I began there. Although I haven’t lived there, I could also call the new place in Keya home, because my parents and Bram live there.
And there is a place where Ky lives that I think of as home, even though I cannot name it and don’t know where, exactly, it is.
Xander reaches for my hand. “We’re allowed to go on an outing,” he says. “If you’d like.”
“Of course,” I say, laughing; I can’t help it. Minutes ago I stood scrubbing my hands and feeling alone and now Xander is here. It’s as though I have walked by the lighted windows of a house in the Borough, pretending I don’t care about what I’ve lost and left behind, and then suddenly I’m in that golden-warm room without even having lifted my hand to open the door.