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Crossed, Page 3

Ally Condie

  The Official gestures toward the exit, and I realize he’s not the same Official who accompanied us on our outing to the dining hall back in the Borough. That was a special arrangement for Xander and me, arranged in place of our first port-to-port communication since we already knew each other. The Official who escorted us that night was young. This one is, too, but kinder looking. He notices my glance and inclines his head, a gesture formal and polite but warm somehow. “There are no longer specific Officials assigned to each Match,” he tells me in an explanatory tone. “It’s more efficient.”

  “It’s too late for a meal,” Xander says. “But we can go into town. Where would you like to go?”

  “I don’t even know what’s there,” I say. I have a blurry memory of coming into town on the long-distance train and walking down the street to the transport that brought us to the camp. Of almost-bare trees sparking the sky with their sparse red and gold leaves. But was that this town, or one near a different camp? It must have been earlier in the fall for the leaves to be so bright.

  “The facilities are smaller here,” Xander says. “But they have what we did in the Borough—a music hall, a game center, a showing or two.”

  A showing. I haven’t been to one in so long. For a moment I think that’s what I’ll choose; I even open my mouth to say it. I picture the theater going dark and my heart pounding as I wait for images to come rising onto the screen and music to swell through the speakers. Then I remember the firings and the tears in Ky’s eyes as the lights came up, and another memory flickers inside me. “Do they have a museum?”

  Something dances in Xander’s eyes; I can’t tell what. Amusement? Surprise? I lean closer to try to see; Xander is not usually a mystery to me. He’s open, honest, a story I read again and again and love every time. But, in this moment, I can’t tell what he thinks. “Yes,” he says.

  “I’d like to go there,” I say, “if that would be all right with you.”

  Xander nods.

  It takes some time to walk into town and the smell of farming hangs thick in the air—burning wood and cool air and apples turning to cider. I feel a wave of affection for this place that I know has to do with the boy standing near me. Xander always makes every place, every person, better. The evening air holds the bittersweet tang of what might have been, and I catch my breath as Xander turns to look at me under the warm light of the street lamp. His eyes still speak of what might be.

  The museum only has one floor and my heart sinks. It’s so small. What if things here are different than they are in Oria?

  “We close in half an hour,” the man at the front desk says. His uniform seems threadbare and tired and so does he, as though he’s coming apart along the edges. He slides his hands along the top of the desk and pushes a datapod toward us. “Type in your names,” he says, and we do, the Official going first. Up close, the Official seems to have the same tired look about his eyes as the older man at the desk.

  “Thank you,” I say, after I enter my name and slide the datapod back across the surface toward the man.

  “We don’t have much to see,” he tells us.

  “We don’t mind,” I say.

  I wonder if our Official thinks it a strange choice to come here, but to my surprise he turns away almost immediately as we enter the museum’s main display room. As though he wants to give us space alone to talk. He walks to a glass-fronted case and leans forward, his hands behind his back in a posture that seems almost elegant in its casualness. A kind Official. Of course they must exist. Grandfather was one.

  Relief washes over me as I find what I’m looking for almost immediately—a glassed-in map of the Society. It’s in the middle of the room. “There,” I say to Xander. “Should we look at that one?”

  Xander nods. While I read the names of the rivers and Cities and Provinces, he shifts position next to me and runs his hand through his hair. Unlike Ky, who holds still in places like this, with Xander it’s always a series of confident movements, little waves of motion. It’s what makes him so effective in the games—the quirking of his eyebrows, the smiling, the way his hands continually move the cards.

  “That display hasn’t been updated recently,” a voice behind us says, startling me. It’s the man from the desk. I glance around the room, looking for another worker. He sees me doing it and smiles almost mournfully. “The others are in the back closing up for the night. If you want to know anything, I’m the only one to ask.”

  I look over at our Official. He still stands at the case nearest the entrance, his full interest seemingly absorbed by whatever is in the display. I look at Xander and try to send him a message without speaking. Please.

  For a moment I think he doesn’t understand or doesn’t want to. I feel his fingers tighten around mine and see a hardening in his eyes and a slight clenching of his jaw. But then his expression softens and he nods. “Hurry,” he says, and he lets go and walks toward the Official on the other side of the room.

  I have to try, even though I don’t think this tired gray man has any answers for me and the hope I had seems to be slipping away. “I want to know more about the Glorious History of Tana Province.”

  A pause. A beat.

  The man draws in a breath and begins to speak. “Tana Province has beautiful geography and is also renowned for its farming,” he says, his voice flat.

  He doesn’t know. My heart sinks. Back in Oria, Ky told me that the poems Grandfather gave me could be valuable, and also that asking the history of the Province was a way to let the Archivists know you wanted to trade. I’d hoped it would be the same way here. It was stupid of me. Perhaps there are no Archivists in Tana at all, and if there were, they must have better places to be than waiting for closing time in this sad little museum.

  The man continues. “Floods sometimes occurred in Tana pre-Society, but that has been controlled for many years now. We are one of the most productive farming Provinces in the Society.”

  I don’t look back at Xander. Or the Official. Just at the map in front of me. I tried to trade before and it didn’t work then either. But the first time it was because I couldn’t bring myself to give away the poem Ky and I shared.

  Then I notice that the man has stopped speaking. He looks at me directly. “Is there anything else?” he asks.

  I should give up. Should smile and turn away to Xander and forget about this, accept that the man knows nothing and move on. But for some reason I think suddenly of one of those last red leaves holding on against the sky. I breathe. It falls.

  “Yes,” I say softly.

  Grandfather gave me two poems. Ky and I loved the Thomas one, but there were other words, too, and those are the ones that come to me now. I don’t remember all of it, that poem by Tennyson, but one stanza comes back to me clear in my mind as though it were written there all along. Perhaps it was the man’s mention of flooding that brought it back:

  “For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place

  The flood may bear me far,

  I hope to see my Pilot face to face

  When I have crossed the bar.”

  As I speak the words quietly, the man’s face changes. He becomes clever, alert, alive. I must have remembered correctly. “That’s an interesting poem,” he says. “Not, I think, one of the Hundred.”

  “No,” I say. My hands tremble and I dare to hope again. “But still worth something.”

  “I’m afraid not,” he says. “Unless you have the original.”

  “No,” I say. “It was destroyed.” I destroyed it. I remember that moment at the Restoration site and how the paper fluttered up before it went down to burn.

  “I’m sorry,” he says, and it sounds as though he is. “What is it you were hoping to trade for?” he asks, a hint of curiosity in his voice.

  I point to the Outer Provinces. If I can just get to them, there’s a slim but real chance I can find Ky. “I know they’re taking the Aberrations there,” I say softly. “But I want to know exactly where and how I can get there
. A map.”

  He shakes his head at me. No.

  He can’t tell me? Or he won’t? “I have something else,” I say.

  I angle my back so that neither Xander nor the Official can see my hands; I reach into the bag. My fingers brush the foil of the tablets and the hard surface of the compass at the same time and I stop.

  Which should I trade?

  Suddenly I’m dizzy, confused, remembering the time I had to sort Ky. The steam in the room, the sweat, the ache of the decision pressing against me . . .

  Stay clear, I tell myself. I glance over my shoulder at Xander and meet the blue of his eyes for one brief moment before he turns back to the Official. I remember Ky looking down at me from the air-train platform before they took him away and feel again the panic of time running out.

  I make up my mind and reach into the bag, pulling out the item for trade. I hold it up just high enough for the man to see, trying to keep my hands from shaking and attempting to convince myself that I can give this up.

  He smiles and nods at me. “Yes,” he says. “That is worth something. But what you want would take days—weeks—to arrange.”

  “I only have tonight,” I say.

  Before I can say anything more, the man takes the offering and leaves my hand empty. “Where are you going next?”

  “The music hall,” I say.

  “Check under your seat when you leave,” he whispers. “I will do the best I can.” Above us, the lights dim. His eyes do, too, and then, in the flat voice he first used he tells me, “We’re closing. You all need to go.”

  Xander leans over during the music. “Did you get what you needed?” he asks, his voice deep and low and his breath brushing my neck. On his other side, the Official stares ahead. He taps his fingers on the armrest of his chair, keeping time to the music.

  “I don’t know yet,” I tell him. The Archivist said to look under my seat when I left, not before, but I am still tempted to try earlier. “Thank you for helping me.”

  “It’s what I do,” Xander says.

  “I know it is,” I say. I remember the gifts he gave me: the painting, the blue tablets neatly rowed in their compartments. Even the compass, I realize, my gift from Ky, was something Xander saved for me once, on that day back in the Borough when they took the artifacts.

  “But you don’t know everything about me,” Xander says. A mischievous grin crosses his face.

  I glance down at his hand around mine, his thumb brushing across my skin, and then I look back up into his eyes. Though he still smiles there’s something serious about his expression now. “No,” I agree. “I don’t.”

  We hold on to each other. The Society’s music plays around and over us, but our thoughts are always our own.

  When I stand up, I brush my hand underneath the chair. Something’s there—a folded square of paper—and it comes away easily when I tug on it. Though I want to look now, I slip it into my pocket instead, wondering what I have, what I’ve traded for.

  The Official walks us back to the main hall of the camp. When we go inside, he glances around the hall, at the long tables and the single hulking port, and when he looks back at me there’s an expression in his eyes that I think might be pity. I lift my chin.

  “You have ten minutes to say good-bye,” the Official tells us. His voice, now that we are back in the camp, sounds sharper than it did before. He pulls out his datapod and nods to the Officer waiting to take me back to my cabin.

  Xander and I both take a deep breath at the same time and then we laugh together. I like the sound of it, our laughter echoing around the almost empty hall. “What was he looking at for so long?” I ask Xander, nodding toward the Official.

  “A display on the history of Matching,” Xander says quietly. He looks at me as though there’s some meaning there I should understand, but I don’t. I wasn’t paying close enough attention to the Official.

  “Nine minutes,” he says without looking up.

  “I still can’t believe they let you come,” I tell Xander. “I’m so glad they did.”

  “The timing was optimal,” Xander says. “I’m leaving Oria. I’m only passing through Tana on my way to Camas Province.”

  “What?” I blink in surprise. Camas is one of the Border Provinces, right along the edge of the Outer Provinces. I feel strangely untethered. Much as I love looking at the stars, I never learned to guide by them. I mark my course by people: Xander, a point on the map; my parents, another point; Ky, the final destination. When Xander moves, the geography of everything changes.

  “I have my final work position,” Xander says. “It’s in Central. Like yours. But they want me to have experience in the Border Provinces first.”

  “Why?” I ask him softly.

  Xander’s tone is sober. “There are things I need to learn there for my work assignment that I can’t learn anywhere else.”

  “And then to Central,” I say. The idea of Xander in Central feels right and final. Of course he would belong in the capital of the Society. Of course they would see his potential and bring him there. “You’re really leaving.”

  An expression of what looks like anger flashes momentarily across his face. “Do you have any idea what it’s like being left?”

  “Of course I do,” I say, stung.

  “No,” he says. “Not the way Ky left you. He didn’t want to go. Do you know what it’s like for someone to choose to leave you?”

  “I didn’t choose to leave you behind. We were Relocated.”

  Xander exhales. “You still don’t understand,” he says. “You left me before you left Oria.” He glances over at the Official and then back at me, his blue eyes serious. He’s changed, since I’ve seen him, become harder. More careful.

  More like Ky.

  I know what he means now about my leaving. For Xander, I began to leave when I chose Ky.

  Xander looks down at our hands, still clasped together.

  My gaze follows his. His hand is strong, the knuckles rough. He can’t write with his hands, but they are quick and sure over the cards and in the games. This physical contact, though not with Ky, is still with someone I love. I hold on as if I won’t ever let go, and part of me doesn’t want to.

  The air in the main hall feels cool and I shiver. Would you call this season late fall? Early winter? I can’t tell. The Society, with their extra crops, has blurred the line between seasons, between when you can plant and harvest and when you must let things lie. Xander takes his hands away and leans forward, looking at me deep. I catch myself gazing at his mouth, remembering our kiss back in the Borough, that sweet innocent kiss before everything changed. I think Xander and I would kiss differently now.

  In a whisper that brushes along my collarbone, Xander asks, “Are you still going to the Outer Provinces to find him?”

  “ Yes,” I whisper.

  The Official calls out the time. Only a few minutes left. Xander forces a smile, tries to speak lightly. “You really want this? You want Ky, whatever the cost?” I can almost imagine the words the Official taps into the datapod as he watches us now: Female Matchee expressed some agitation, soon after the male Matchee told her about his field assignment in Camas. Male was able to console her.

  “No,” I say. “Not at any cost.”

  Xander draws in his breath sharply. “So where do you draw the line? What won’t you give up?”

  I swallow. “My family.”

  “But you don’t mind giving me up,” he says. His jaw tightens and he looks away. Look back, I think. Don’t you know that I love you, too? That you have been my friend for years? That I still feel Matched to you in some ways?

  “I’m not,” I say softly. “I’m not giving you up. Look.” And then I risk it. I pull open the bag and show him what’s still inside, what I kept. The blue tablets. Though he gave them to me to find Ky, they are still Xander’s gift.

  Xander’s eyes widen. “You traded Ky’s compass?”

  “Yes,” I say.

  Xander smiles an
d in the expression I see surprise and cunning and happiness all mingled there together. I’ve surprised Xander—and myself. I love Xander in ways that are perhaps more complicated than I first expected.

  But it’s Ky I have to find.

  “It’s time,” the Official calls. The Officer looks in my direction.

  “Good-bye,” I tell Xander, my voice catching.

  “I don’t think so,” he says, and he leans down to kiss me the way I kissed him earlier, right near my mouth. If either of us moved a little, everything would change.



  Vick and I lift one of the bodies and carry it toward a grave. I recite the words I say over all of the dead now:

  “For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place

  The flood may bear me far,

  I hope to see my Pilot face to face

  When I have crossed the bar.”

  I don’t see how there can be more than this. How anything from these bodies can last when they die so easily and decay so fast. Still, part of me wants to believe that the flood of death carries us someplace after all. That there’s someone to see at the end. That’s the part of me that says the words over the dead when I know they don’t hear a thing I say.

  “Why do you say that every time?” Vick asks me.

  “I like the sound.”

  Vick waits. He wants me to speak more but I won’t. “You know what it means?” he asks, finally.

  “It’s about someone hoping for more,” I tell him noncommittally. “It’s part of a poem from before the Society.” Not from the poem that belongs to Cassia and me. I won’t speak those words to anyone again until I can tell them to her. The poem I say now is the other one she found in her artifact when she opened it that day in the woods.