The Testing, Page 2Joelle Charbonneau
Ms. Jorghen, our teacher, fusses with our positioning and reminds us at least a dozen times to smile, stand straight, and pay attention. This is her first Graduation Day in Five Lakes Colony so she is no doubt nervous. Once she is happy with our arrangement on the stage, she takes her place in the middle of the platform and the trumpets and drums sound again. Magistrate Owens appears in the doorway of her house—the only three-story structure on the square—and walks stiffly through the crowd. She is a robust, gray-haired woman with deep lines on her face. Her red dress is a darker color than most, more of a rust tone. The minute she reaches the podium at the front of the stage, she leans into the microphone that is set to amplify her voice across the square and announces, “Happy Graduation Day.”
We all say the words back to her and several citizens applaud. Magistrate Owens waits for the square to grow quiet again before saying, “Graduation Day is an exciting time for us all, but especially for the students behind me. After today, they will become a very welcome addition to our colony’s workforce. Twenty-five years ago, the United Commonwealth government decided to send 150 men, women, and children to this area. They created Five Lakes Colony in the hopes that our hard work could make the scarred earth that was once rich with farmland and forests thrive. The five lakes that we are named after were once called the Great Lakes. With the aid of our citizens, we are helping restore them to their original name. We have needed every member of our community to make this happen. Graduation Day adds fourteen of you to our cause and for that we are fortunate. Each step we take forward creates the need for more hands to help cultivate progress. Trust me when I say we can never have enough hands. I know many of you have not yet decided what careers you will embark upon, but all of us are grateful for whatever work you will do here in the years to come.”
The crowd applauds. My heart swoops with nerves and excitement as Magistrate Owens announces, “Let the Graduation Day parade begin.”
I bite my lip to keep it from trembling as the trumpets and drums take up a marching melody. My eyes blur with unshed tears, blinding me for a moment to the entrance of my soon-to-be former schoolmates. Every year the students from the school parade into the square one class at a time to great applause. Each class makes a banner that two students carry at the front to announce what lessons were learned this year. After the ceremony, the banners will be displayed in the square and the favorite one will be voted on. There is often friendly betting among the adults as to which class will win. For the first time, I am not among those parading, and it hits me that I never will be again.
The youngest class leads the parade, followed by the next oldest and so on. They march around the fountain to the beat of the drums and over to an area left of the stage that is roped off for them. When all ten classes are standing near the stage, Magistrate Owens talks about the new train system that has been developed between Tosu City and ten of the other colonies and the plans to continue construction until all colonies are reachable by rail. From my place on the stage I can see the crowd’s excitement at the news. When she is done relating news from the United Commonwealth, Magistrate Owens invites the citizens in charge of water, power, agriculture, and other revitalization projects to make announcements. These take more than an hour and range from reminders about proper water usage to requests for volunteers to help build dwellings for newly married couples. Even my father makes an announcement about a new, heartier breed of potato that his team developed.
I blink and try not to show my surprise. Not at the new potato. That I knew about. The old strain of potato had a half-inch hard skin that turned black when exposed to air. Something to do with whatever genetic enhancement Dad gave it to survive in the blighted soil in the first place. For the most part no one cared about the black skin. Once you cut away the outside, the potato was safe to eat. But Zeen decided to try his hand at a new version and succeeded brilliantly. So, no, it is not the potatoes that have caught me off-guard, but the words Dad uses to announce them. Last week he told us that Zeen was going to get full credit for the project.
But he doesn’t. Zeen’s name is never mentioned.
I crane my neck, trying to see Zeen in the crowd. Does he look disappointed? This was supposed to be a moment of triumph for him. Is he as confused as I am? I find him leaning against a tree in the middle of the applauding crowd. Several people are slapping him on the back because he is a member of Dad’s team. But his smile doesn’t fool me. The set of his jaw and the narrowing of his eyes tell me better than words that he has felt the slight.
Dad leaves the stage to more applause and our teacher takes his place. My stomach clenches and my breathing quickens. This is it. I am about to graduate.
Ms. Jorghen smiles back at us. Then she says into the microphone, “I am very proud to read the roster of graduates who today pass from their studies into adulthood.”
One by one she announces the names of our graduating class. One by one my classmates walk to the center of the stage, shake Magistrate Owens’s hand, and then take their place back in line. The names are read in alphabetical order, so mine isn’t called until the end.
My legs are unsteady from nerves and stiff from standing. I walk over to the podium and shake both Ms. Jorghen’s and the magistrate’s hands while the crowd applauds. Daileen’s cheers can be heard above all others, and her smile makes me respond with one of my own. My heart soars. I’m officially an adult. I did it.
Still grinning, I return to my place with my class as Magistrate Owens takes the podium. The crowd goes silent. A ripple of anticipation makes my stomach churn. My hands clench and unclench in anticipation. If any students have been selected for The Testing, this is when it will be announced. I crane my neck, trying to spot an unknown face in the crowd—the rumored Tosu City official.
Only there is no Tosu City official. Magistrate Owens gives us all a big smile and says, “Congratulations to all of this year’s students and especially to our graduates. I can’t wait to see what your futures hold.”
The crowd cheers again and my lips curl into an automatic smile even as disappointment and tears lodge in my throat. I have been preparing for this day for years and now it is over. As are my dreams for the future. No matter how hard I worked, I wasn’t good enough to be chosen for The Testing.
As I leave the stage and am given hugs of congratulations by my friends, I can only wonder, What will I do now?
I startle at my brother’s voice. Zeen’s knowing smile makes the denial I was about to give die on my lips. Instead, I shrug. “Things have been kind of crazy today. I just needed a few minutes to catch my breath.”
Guitars, drums, and several horns play music in front of the bakery while dozens of people dance and clap their hands to the beat. On the other side of the square, roasted meats continue to be sliced and carved. A combination of torchlight and electricity illuminates the rest of the square where people laugh, sing, and play games. But the light doesn’t reach me in the shadows where I stand. For the past few hours, I’ve been dancing and singing because it is expected. To do anything less would be to show my disappointment, which would also reveal my arrogance in thinking I was smart enough to be chosen.
“Here.” Zeen hands me a cup with an understanding nod. “You could use this.”
The drink is sweet, but underneath there is the distinct flavor of something sharp and bitter. Alcohol. Since most fruits and grains that can be turned into alcohol are needed to feed Five Lakes Colony citizens, very little of the crop is turned into liquor. But a small amount is set aside every year for special occasions—like graduation night. Only adults are allowed to consume the special drinks, but my brothers have allowed me to sip from their cups in the past. The flavor isn’t to my liking, so I only take a quick sip and pass the cup back to Zeen.
“Feel better, kiddo?”
I look down to avoid his eyes. “Not exactly.”
h.” He leans back against a large oak tree and drains the rest of the liquid from the cup. “Things don’t always work out the way we hope. You just have to pick yourself up and find a new direction to go in.”
The edge to his voice makes me ask, “Is that what you’re going to do then?” In the past couple years Zeen had toyed with seeing what opportunities existed outside of Five Lakes. I would hate it if he did it now. Having him leave our colony would be sad. Knowing he’d be leaving mad would break my heart.
His hand tightens around the cup, but his words are mild when he answers, “I’m not sending an application to Tosu City, if that’s what you mean. The magistrate asked Dad to change his announcement today, so he did. You know me. I’ll be pissed for a few days and then I’ll get over it.” He shrugs, and his eyes shift to the party in the square. It’s getting late. While some will dance and sing until morning, many are already starting to make the journey home. Graduation Day is coming to an end.
After several minutes, Zeen says, “You could do it, you know.”
“Talk to the magistrate. Send an application to Tosu City.”
The thought is both terrifying and tempting. Any colonist interested in working in Tosu City or another colony can fill out an application and file it with the magistrate’s office. The United Commonwealth government will then contact the applicant with an appropriate job assignment if one is available. In my sixteen years, I’ve known of only two applicants who were contacted and offered positions. After the disappointment of today, I’m not sure I’m ready to face another.
My uncertainty must show on my face, because Zeen throws an arm around my shoulders and gives me a quick hug. “Don’t worry, kiddo. You have lots of time to figure out what you’re going to do with the rest of your life.”
Too bad Mom doesn’t agree.
We all sleep late the next morning, but I’ve barely had a chance to get dressed before my mother says, “If you are determined not to work with your father, Kip Drysten has an opening on his team. You should talk to him before one of the other graduates takes the position.”
Kip Drysten’s team repairs farming equipment. While I like working with mechanical things, the idea of repairing broken-down tractors for the rest of my life is depressing. “I’ll think about it,” I say.
My mother’s frown speaks volumes, which is why I find myself climbing on my bicycle and slowly riding toward town in search of Mr. Drysten.
The Drystens live in a small, pretty cottage on the other side of the colony. Knocking on the front door, I swallow hard. I can’t help the swell of relief I feel when Mr. Drysten’s wife tells me that Kip left early this morning for the Endress farm. He isn’t expected back for several days. I’ve been granted a reprieve.
The day after graduation is a day of rest. Most businesses are closed. Families stay home to hold more private celebrations. My mother is planning a large meal later and even has invited a few of my friends over to share. I should probably go home and help with the preparations. Instead, I get off my bicycle when I reach the town square.
I lean my bicycle against a tree and sit next to the fountain. One or two citizens wave, but they are busy and don’t stop to talk. Which I prefer. Resting my head on my hands, I watch the water gurgle in the fountain and try to ignore the hollowness that has taken root since yesterday’s ceremony. I am an adult. Ever since I was little I watched my parents and the other adults and wished for the day I would be one of them—confident and strong. Never have I felt so unsure of myself.
The clock above the magistrate’s house gongs. Three o’clock. Time to get home before my mother starts to worry. I’m over halfway there when I spot my brother Hart speeding down the dirt path toward me. Crap. If Mom sent him to find me, I’m really in trouble.
But it isn’t my mother looking for me. “Magistrate Owens sent a pulse radio message to Dad just after you left the house. You’re supposed to report to her house at four o’clock to talk about your future plans. When you didn’t come home right away, Mom sent us all out to look for you.” Hart gives me a wicked grin. “You’d better hurry if you’re going to make it.”
He’s right. By the time I arrive back in the square, sweat is dripping down my face, my hair is a wreck, and my stomach is tied in knots. While my father and brothers have had occasion to be summoned to the magistrate’s house to talk about their various projects, this is a first for me. My future plans? I can’t help but wonder if this summons was prompted by my mother’s concern. Did she contact Magistrate Owens and enlist her help or has my lack of career path been obvious to others? The idea that my disappointment has been noticed by those outside my family makes my stomach roil with shame.
Preparing for a lecture, I run my hands through my hair and straighten my white short-sleeved tunic and gray pants before knocking on the magistrate’s front door.
“Good. You made it.” Magistrate Owens gives me a smile that doesn’t quite reach her eyes. “Please come in, Cia. Everyone else is already here.”
Magistrate Owens leads me into a large, carpeted sitting room and four faces turn to look at me. The three people who are seated are familiar. Gray-eyed, handsome Tomas Endress. Shy but sweet Malachi Rourke. Beautiful, artistic Zandri Hicks. They are fellow graduates. People I have known almost my entire life. The other is not.
Tomas motions for me to take a seat next to him and gives me a dimpled smile that makes it impossible not to smile in return. Magistrate Owens crosses the room, stands next to the stranger, and says, “Thank you all for coming on such short notice. I apologize for pulling you away from your family celebrations, but it was unavoidable.” Her eyes sweep the room, looking at each one of us. “This is Tosu City official Michal Gallen. He intended on arriving yesterday for graduation, but was unavoidably delayed due to a mechanical problem.”
My heart tilts as Tosu City official Gallen takes a step forward and pulls a folded piece of paper from his pocket. He’s older than us, but not by much. Around Zeen’s age, with shaggy brown hair and a lanky awkwardness that belies the authority he must bring with him from Tosu.
His dark eyes are serious as he looks down at the paper and reads, “Every year the United Commonwealth reviews the achievements of the graduates in all eighteen colonies. The top students from that pool of graduates are brought to Tosu City for Testing to attend the University. Being chosen is an honor. The graduates of the University are our great hope—the ones we are all counting on to help regenerate the earth and improve our quality of life. They are the future scientists, doctors, teachers, and government officials.” The paper lowers, and he gives us a smile. “You four have been selected to participate in The Testing.”
A wave of excitement washes over me. I look around to see if I have heard correctly. Tomas’s face is lit with a smile. He is the smartest in our class, so it is no wonder he has been chosen. According to this Tosu City official, I have too. Four of us have. This is real. I won’t have to work with tractors. I have been chosen for The Testing. I did it.
“You will leave for The Testing tomorrow.”
The glow of happiness fades as the reality of the Tosu City official’s words slam into my chest. We leave tomorrow.
“Why tomorrow?” Magistrate Owens asks. “I remember there being more time in between selection and The Testing.”
“Things have changed since your colony last had a Testing candidate,” the Tosu City official answers. His voice is deep with a hint of impatience. “The candidates will begin the Testing process this week. I think you’ll agree they stand a better chance of passing if they arrive on time.”
“What if we don’t want to go?”
We all turn to look at Zandri. Her face is almost the same crimson shade as her tunic. At first I think it is from embarrassment. Then she lifts her chin. By the way her blue eyes glitter, it is clear she is angry. The fact that four of us were chosen for The Testing is astonishing, but
Zandri being one of the four is perhaps the bigger surprise. Not that Zandri isn’t smart. She is, although many of us would think of her as an artist first and a scholar second. Zandri only excels at science when it helps her create new paints. And while she has never indicated a desire to continue her education, I am still surprised at her question. Who would turn down the honor of being chosen for The Testing?
The Tosu City official smiles, and I shiver. It is a smile devoid of warmth. “You don’t have a choice. The law states that every United Commonwealth citizen chosen must present him or herself for The Testing by the appointed date or face punishment.”
“What kind of punishment?” Zandri looks to Magistrate Owens, who glances at the Tosu City official.
The two lock eyes before Magistrate Owens says, “According to the law, not presenting oneself for The Testing is a form of treason.”
And the most common punishment for treason is death.
Someone, perhaps Malachi, whispers a protest. My chest feels as though someone has wrapped his arms around me and squeezed tight. All my excitement about being chosen is gone—replaced with an icy fear. Only, there is no reason to fear. I want to be tested. Punishment will not be required for me.
Or for any of my fellow candidates. At the word treason, the fight goes out of Zandri.
Seeing our shock, Magistrate Owens explains that the law that governs the punishment for not accepting our place in The Testing goes back to the very early days of the United Commonwealth. There were lawless factions that wished to tear apart the new government and tried to convince Testing candidates to rebel. There is talk of the law being changed, but these things take time.
I feel a bit better knowing the law hasn’t been invoked in decades, and the excitement that had been extinguished begins to resurface as the magistrate discusses the basics we will need to bring with us to Tosu City. Testing candidates are allowed to bring two changes of everyday clothing. Two sets of undergarments. One set of nightclothes. Two pairs of shoes. Two personal items. No books. No papers. Nothing that might give one candidate an advantage over another. Everything must fit in the bags we will be given when we leave the meeting. We are expected to be in the square tomorrow at first light, with our bags. Tosu City official Michal Gallen will be waiting to escort us to the Testing Center.