Crossed, p.5
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       Crossed, p.5

         Part #2 of Matched series by Ally Condie
 
Page 6

 

  I know all of this because I’ve been to the edge several times.

  But I’ve never been inside.

  “What are you grinning about?” Vick asks me, but before I can answer, the Bram kid comes up to us and gets right in Vick’s face.

  “I’m Eli,” the kid says.

  “All right,” Vick says, and then turns away in irritation, back to the row of faces who have selected him as their leader even when he never wanted to be one. Some people can’t help being leaders. It’s in their blood and bones and brains, and there’s no getting around it.

  And some people follow.

  You have a better chance of surviving if you follow, I remind myself. Your father thought he was a leader. Couldn’t get enough of being a leader, and look what happened to him. I stand one step behind Vick.

  “Aren’t you going to give us a speech or anything?” Eli asks. “We just got here. ”

  “I’m not in charge of this mess,” Vick says. And there it is. The anger that he spends most of his energy keeping in check shows a little. “I’m not the Society’s spokesman. ”

  “But you’re the only one with one of those,” Eli says, pointing at the port clipped to Vick’s belt.

  “You want a speech?” Vick asks, and all the new kids nod and stare at him. They’ll have heard the same lecture we did when we came in on the air ships about how the Society needs us to act like villagers and civilians to draw out the Enemy. How it’s only a six-month job, and once we go back to Society our Aberration status will be wiped clean.

  It will take exactly one day of firing for them to realize that no one has lasted six months. Not even Vick comes close to having that many notches on his boots.

  “Watch the rest of us,” Vick says. “Act like a villager. That’s what we’re supposed to do here. ” He pauses. Then he pulls the port from his belt and tosses it to a decoy who has been around a couple of weeks. “Take this for a run,” he says. “Make sure it still works out by the end of the town. ”

  The kid takes off. As soon as the port is out of earshot, Vick says, “The ammunition is all blanks. So don’t bother trying to defend yourselves. ”

  Eli interrupts. “But we practiced firing with them back in training camp,” he protests. I start grinning, in spite of myself and the fact that I should and do feel sick that someone so young ended up out here. This kid is like Bram.

  “Doesn’t matter,” Vick says. “They’re all blanks now. ”

  Eli digests this, but then he has another question. “If this is a village, where are all the women and kids?”

  “You’re a kid,” Vick says.

  “Am not,” Eli says. “And I’m not a girl. Where are they?”

  “No girls,” Vick says. “No women here. ”

  “But the Enemy must know we’re not real villagers, then,” Eli says. “They must have figured it out. ”

  “Right,” Vick says. “They’re killing us anyway. No one cares. And now we’ve got work to do. We’re supposed to be a village full of farmers. So let’s get farming. ”

  We start toward the fields. The sun shines hot overhead. I can feel Eli’s angry gaze even after we turn away from him.

  “At least we have enough water to drink,” I say to Vick, gesturing to the full canteen. “Thanks to you. ”

  “Don’t thank me,” Vick says. He lowers his voice. “There’s not even enough to drown in. ”

  The crop here is cotton—nearly impossible to grow. The poor-quality wisps inside the cotton bolls come apart easily.

  “No wonder we don’t worry about there being no girls or kids,” Eli says behind me. “The Enemy must know this isn’t a real village just from looking at it. No one would be stupid enough to farm cotton out here. ”

  At first I don’t answer him. I haven’t fallen into the trap of talking to anyone while we work, except for Vick. I’ve stayed away from all the others.

  But I’m weak right now. The cotton today and the snow yesterday have made me think again of Cassia’s story of the cottonwood seeds snowing in June. The Society hated the cottonwood trees, but they are exactly the kind of trees that are right in the Outer Provinces. The wood is good for carving. If I could find one, I would cover the bark with her name the way I used to cover her hand with mine on the Hill.

  I start talking to Eli to keep from wanting what’s too hard to have.

  “It’s stupid,” I tell Eli, “but it’s more realistic than some of the stuff the Society has done. A few of the villages around here started as farming communities for Aberrations. Cotton was one of the crops the Society had them try to grow. This was back when there was more water. So it’s not completely impossible that someone would be farming here. ”

  “Oh,” Eli says. And then he falls silent. I don’t know why I’m trying to give him hope. Maybe it was remembering the cottonwood seeds.

  Or remembering her.

  When I look over later, I see that Eli is crying, but it’s not enough to drown in so I don’t do anything yet.

  On our walk back into the village from the field, I jerk my head at Vick, our signal that I want to talk without the port. “Here,” he says, tossing the port to Eli, who has stopped crying. “Take this for a run. ” Eli nods and takes off.

  “What is it?” Vick asks.

  “I used to live near here,” I say, trying to keep any emotion from my voice. This part of the world used to be my home. I hate what the Society has done to it. “My village was only a few miles away. I know the area. ”

  “So are you going to run?” Vick asks.

  There it is. The real question. The one we all ask ourselves all the time. Am I going to run? I’ve thought about it every day, every hour.

  “Are you thinking about going back to your village?” Vick asks. “Can someone there help you?”

  “No,” I say. “It’s gone. ”

  Vick shakes his head. “Then there’s no point in running. We can’t go far without someone seeing us. ”

  “And the closest river is too far away,” I say. “We can’t escape that way. ”

  “Then how?” Vick asks.

  “We’re not going to go across or down. We’re going to go through. ”

  Vick turns. “Through what?”

  “The canyons,” I tell him, pointing to the Carving near us, miles long and cut with little openings impossible to see from here. “If you hike in far enough there’s fresh water. ”

  “The Officers always tell us that the canyons in the Outer Provinces are crawling with Anomalies,” Vick says.

  “I’ve heard that, too,” I admit. “But some of them have built a settlement and they help travelers. I heard that from people who’d been inside. ”

  “Wait. You know people who’ve gone into the canyons?” Vick asks.

  “I knew people who had been there,” I say.

  “People you could trust?”

  “My father,” I say, as if that ends the conversation and Vick nods.

  We walk a few steps more. “So when do we leave?” Vick asks.

  “That’s the problem,” I say, trying not to let him see how relieved I am that he’ll come. Facing those canyons is something I’d rather not do alone. “To keep the Society from hunting us down and making an example of us, the best time to go is during a firing when there’s chaos. Like a night firing. But with a full moon, so that we can see. They might think we died instead of escaped. ”

  Vick laughs. “Both the Society and the Enemy have infrared. Whoever’s above will see us run. ”

  “I know, but they might miss three little bodies when there’s plenty more right here. ”

  “Three?” Vick asks.

  “Eli’s coming with us. ” I hadn’t known until I said it.

  Silence.

  “You’re crazy,” Vick says. “There’s no way that kid will last until then. ”

  “I know,” I tell Vick. He’s right. It’s only a matter of time before Eli goes down.
He’s small. He’s impulsive. He asks too many questions. Then again, it’s only a matter of time for all of us.

  “So why keep him around? Why bring him along?”

  “There’s a girl I know back in Oria,” I say. “He reminds me of her brother. ”

  “That’s not reason enough. ”

  “It is for me,” I say.

  Silence stretches between us.

  “You’re getting weak,” Vick says finally. “And that might kill you. Might mean you never see her again. ”

  “If I don’t look out for him,” I tell Vick, “I’d be someone she didn’t know, even if she did see me again. ”

  Chapter 6

  CASSIA

  Once I’m sure the others sleep, their breathing heavy in the room, I roll over onto my side and slip the Archivist’s paper from my pocket.

  The page feels pulpy and cheap, not like the thick cream-colored sheet with Grandfather’s poems. It’s old, but not as old as Grandfather’s paper. My father might be able to tell me the age; but he’s not here, he let me go. As I unfold the page carefully it makes small sounds that seem loud, and I hope the other girls will think it is the rustling of blankets or an insect singing its wings.

  It took a long time for everyone to fall asleep tonight. When I came back from my outing they told me that none of us have received our transfer assignments yet; that the Officer said they would tell us our destinations in the morning. I understood the girls’ uneasiness—I feel it, too. We’ve always known the night before where we’d be sent the next day. Why the change? With the Society, there’s always a reason.

  I slide the paper into a square of spilled-white light from the moon outside. My heart pounds quickly, a running beat though I am still. Please let this be worth the cost, I think to nothing and no one, and then I look at the page.

  No.

  I push my fist against my mouth to keep from saying the word out loud into the sleeping room.

  It’s not a map, or even a set of directions.

  It’s a story, and I know the moment I read the first line that it’s not one of the Hundred:

  A man pushed a rock up the hill. When he reached the top, the stone rolled down to the bottom of the hill and he began again. In the village nearby, the people took note. “A judgment,” they said. They never joined him or tried to help because they feared those who issued the punishment. He pushed. They watched.

  Years later, a new generation noticed that the man and his stone were sinking into the hill, like the setting of the sun and moon. They could only see part of the rock and part of the man as he rolled the stone along to the top of the hill.

  One of the children became curious. So, one day, the child walked up the hill. As she drew closer, she was surprised to see that the stone was carved with names and dates and places.

  “What are all these words?” the child asked.

  “The sorrows of the world,” the man told her. “I pilot them up the hill over and over again. ”

 
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