“I was afraid of the dark,” she corrects me. She presses the next electrode to her own forehead, and attaches a wire to it. She shrugs. “Now it reminds me of the fear I’ve overcome. ”
She stands behind me. I squeeze the armrests so tightly the redness pulls away from my knuckles. She tugs wires toward her, attaching them to me, to her, to the machine behind her. Then she passes me a vial of clear liquid.
“Drink this,” she says.
“What is it?” My throat feels swollen. I swallow hard. “What’s going to happen?”
“Can’t tell you that. Just trust me. ”
I press air from my lungs and tip the contents of the vial into my mouth. My eyes close.
When they open, an instant has passed, but I am somewhere else. I stand in the school cafeteria again, but all the long tables are empty, and I see through the glass walls that it’s snowing. On the table in front of me are two baskets. In one is a hunk of cheese, and in the other, a knife the length of my forearm.
Behind me, a woman’s voice says, “Choose. ”
“Why?” I ask.
“Choose,” she repeats.
I look over my shoulder, but no one is there. I turn back to the baskets. “What will I do with them?”
“Choose!” she yells.
When she screams at me, my fear disappears and stubbornness replaces it. I scowl and cross my arms.
“Have it your way,” she says.
The baskets disappear. I hear a door squeak and turn to see who it is. I see not a “who” but a “what”: A dog with a pointed nose stands a few yards away from me. It crouches low and creeps toward me, its lips peeling back from its white teeth. A growl gurgles from deep in its throat, and I see why the cheese would have come in handy. Or the knife. But it’s too late now.
I think about running, but the dog will be faster than me. I can’t wrestle it to the ground. My head pounds. I have to make a decision. If I can jump over one of the tables and use it as a shield—no, I am too short to jump over the tables, and not strong enough to tip one over.
The dog snarls, and I can almost feel the sound vibrating in my skull.
My biology textbook said that dogs can smell fear because of a chemical secreted by human glands in a state of duress, the same chemical a dog’s prey secretes. Smelling fear leads them to attack. The dog inches toward me, its nails scraping the floor.
I can’t run. I can’t fight. Instead I breathe in the smell of the dog’s foul breath and try not to think about what it just ate. There are no whites in its eyes, just a black gleam.
What else do I know about dogs? I shouldn’t look it in the eye. That’s a sign of aggression. I remember asking my father for a pet dog when I was young, and now, staring at the ground in front of the dog’s paws, I can’t remember why. It comes closer, still growling. If staring into its eyes is a sign of aggression, what’s a sign of submission?
My breaths are loud but steady. I sink to my knees. The last thing I want to do is lie down on the ground in front of the dog—making its teeth level with my face—but it’s the best option I have. I stretch my legs out behind me and lean on my elbows. The dog creeps closer, and closer, until I feel its warm breath on my face. My arms are shaking.
It barks in my ear, and I clench my teeth to keep from screaming.
Something rough and wet touches my cheek. The dog’s growling stops, and when I lift my head to look at it again, it is panting. It licked my face. I frown and sit on my heels. The dog props its paws up on my knees and licks my chin. I cringe, wiping the drool from my skin, and laugh.
“You’re not such a vicious beast, huh?”
I get up slowly so I don’t startle it, but it seems like a different animal than the one that faced me a few seconds ago. I stretch out a hand, carefully, so I can draw it back if I need to. The dog nudges my hand with its head. I am suddenly glad I didn’t pick up the knife.
I blink, and when my eyes open, a child stands across the room wearing a white dress. She stretches out both hands and squeals, “Puppy!”
As she runs toward the dog at my side, I open my mouth to warn her, but I am too late. The dog turns. Instead of growling, it barks and snarls and snaps, and its muscles bunch up like coiled wire. About to pounce. I don’t think, I just jump; I hurl my body on top of the dog, wrapping my arms around its thick neck.
My head hits the ground. The dog is gone, and so is the little girl. Instead I am alone—in the testing room, now empty. I turn in a slow circle and can’t see myself in any of the mirrors. I push the door open and walk into the hallway, but it isn’t a hallway; it’s a bus, and all the seats are taken.
I stand in the aisle and hold on to a pole. Sitting near me is a man with a newspaper. I can’t see his face over the top of the paper, but I can see his hands. They are scarred, like he was burned, and they clench around the paper like he wants to crumple it.
“Do you know this guy?” he asks. He taps the picture on the front page of the newspaper. The headline reads: “Brutal Murderer Finally Apprehended!” I stare at the word “murderer. ” It has been a long time since I last read that word, but even its shape fills me with dread.
In the picture beneath the headline is a young man with a plain face and a beard. I feel like I do know him, though I don’t remember how. And at the same time, I feel like it would be a bad idea to tell the man that.
“Well?” I hear anger in his voice. “Do you?”
A bad idea—no, a very bad idea. My heart pounds and I clutch the pole to keep my hands from shaking, from giving me away. If I tell him I know the man from the article, something awful will happen to me. But I can convince him that I don’t. I can clear my throat and shrug my shoulders—but that would be a lie.
I clear my throat.
“Do you?” he repeats.
I shrug my shoulders.
A shudder goes through me. My fear is irrational; this is just a test, it isn’t real. “Nope,” I say, my voice casual. “No idea who he is. ”
He stands, and finally I see his face. He wears dark sunglasses and his mouth is bent into a snarl. His cheek is rippled with scars, like his hands. He leans close to my face. His breath smells like cigarettes. Not real, I remind myself. Not real.
“You’re lying,” he says. “You’re lying!”
“I am not. ”
“I can see it in your eyes. ”
I pull myself up straighter. “You can’t. ”
“If you know him,” he says in a low voice, “you could save me. You could save me!”
I narrow my eyes. “Well,” I say. I set my jaw. “I don’t. ”
I WAKE TO sweaty palms and a pang of guilt in my chest. I am lying in the chair in the mirrored room. When I tilt my head back, I see Tori behind me. She pinches her lips together and removes electrodes from our heads. I wait for her to say something about the test—that it’s over, or that I did well, although how could I do poorly on a test like this?—but she says nothing, just pulls the wires from my forehead.
I sit forward and wipe my palms off on my slacks. I had to have done something wrong, even if it only happened in my mind. Is that strange look on Tori’s face because she doesn’t know how to tell me what a terrible person I am? I wish she would just come out with it.
“That,” she says, “was perplexing. Excuse me, I’ll be right back. ”
I bring my knees to my chest and bury my face in them. I wish I felt like crying, because the tears might bring me a sense of release, but I don’t. How can you fail a test you aren’t allowed to prepare for?
As the moments pass, I get more nervous. I have to wipe off my hands every few seconds as the sweat collects—or maybe I just do it because it helps me feel calmer. What if they tell me that I’m not cut out for any faction? I would have to live on the streets, with the factionless. I can’t do that. To live factionless is not ju
st to live in poverty and discomfort; it is to live divorced from society, separated from the most important thing in life: community.
My mother told me once that we can’t survive alone, but even if we could, we wouldn’t want to. Without a faction, we have no purpose and no reason to live.
I shake my head. I can’t think like this. I have to stay calm.
Finally the door opens, and Tori walks back in. I grip the arms of the chair.
“Sorry to worry you,” Tori says. She stands by my feet with her hands in her pockets. She looks tense and pale.
“Beatrice, your results were inconclusive,” she says. “Typically, each stage of the simulation eliminates one or more of the factions, but in your case, only two have been ruled out. ”
I stare at her. “Two?” I ask. My throat is so tight it’s hard to talk.
“If you had shown an automatic distaste for the knife and selected the cheese, the simulation would have led you to a different scenario that confirmed your aptitude for Amity. That didn’t happen, which is why Amity is out. ” Tori scratches the back of her neck. “Normally, the simulation progresses in a linear fashion, isolating one faction by ruling out the rest. The choices you made didn’t even allow Candor, the next possibility, to be ruled out, so I had to alter the simulation to put you on the bus. And there your insistence upon dishonesty ruled out Candor. ” She half smiles. “Don’t worry about that. Only the Candor tell the truth in that one. ”
One of the knots in my chest loosens. Maybe I’m not an awful person.
“I suppose that’s not entirely true. People who tell the truth are the Candor…and the Abnegation,” she says. “Which gives us a problem. ”
My mouth falls open.
“On the one hand, you threw yourself on the dog rather than let it attack the little girl, which is an Abnegation-oriented response…but on the other, when the man told you that the truth would save him, you still refused to tell it. Not an Abnegation-oriented response. ” She sighs. “Not running from the dog suggests Dauntless, but so does taking the knife, which you didn’t do. ”
She clears her throat and continues. “Your intelligent response to the dog indicates strong alignment with the Erudite. I have no idea what to make of your indecision in stage one, but—”
“Yes and no. My conclusion,” she explains, “is that you display equal aptitude for Abnegation, Dauntless, and Erudite. People who get this kind of result are…” She looks over her shoulder like she expects someone to appear behind her. “…are called…Divergent. ” She says the last word so quietly that I almost don’t hear it, and her tense, worried look returns. She walks around the side of the chair and leans in close to me.
“Beatrice,” she says, “under no circumstances should you share that information with anyone. This is very important. ”
“We aren’t supposed to share our results. ” I nod. “I know that. ”
“No. ” Tori kneels next to the chair now and places her arms on the armrest. Our faces are inches apart. “This is different. I don’t mean you shouldn’t share them now; I mean you should never share them with anyone, ever, no matter what happens. Divergence is extremely dangerous. You understand?”
I don’t understand—how could inconclusive test results be dangerous?—but I still nod. I don’t want to share my test results with anyone anyway.
“Okay. ” I peel my hands from the arms of the chair and stand. I feel unsteady.
“I suggest,” Tori says, “that you go home. You have a lot of thinking to do, and waiting with the others may not benefit you. ”
“I have to tell my brother where I’m going. ”
“I’ll let him know. ”
I touch my forehead and stare at the floor as I walk out of the room. I can’t bear to look her in the eye. I can’t bear to think about the Choosing Ceremony tomorrow.
It’s my choice now, no matter what the test says.
Abnegation. Dauntless. Erudite.
I decide not to take the bus. If I get home early, my father will notice when he checks the house log at the end of the day, and I’ll have to explain what happened. Instead I walk. I’ll have to intercept Caleb before he mentions anything to our parents, but Caleb can keep a secret.
I walk in the middle of the road. The buses tend to hug the curb, so it’s safer here. Sometimes, on the streets near my house, I can see places where the yellow lines used to be. We have no use for them now that there are so few cars. We don’t need stoplights, either, but in some places they dangle precariously over the road like they might crash down any minute.
Renovation moves slowly through the city, which is a patchwork of new, clean buildings and old, crumbling ones. Most of the new buildings are next to the marsh, which used to be a lake a long time ago. The Abnegation volunteer agency my mother works for is responsible for most of those renovations.
When I look at the Abnegation lifestyle as an outsider, I think it’s beautiful. When I watch my family move in harmony; when we go to dinner parties and everyone cleans together afterward without having to be asked; when I see Caleb help strangers carry their groceries, I fall in love with this life all over again. It’s only when I try to live it myself that I have trouble. It never feels genuine.
But choosing a different faction means I forsake my family. Permanently.
Just past the Abnegation sector of the city is the stretch of building skeletons and broken sidewalks that I now walk through. There are places where the road has completely collapsed, revealing sewer systems and empty subways that I have to be careful to avoid, and places that stink so powerfully of sewage and trash that I have to plug my nose.
This is where the factionless live. Because they failed to complete initiation into whatever faction they chose, they live in poverty, doing the work no one else wants to do. They are janitors and construction workers and garbage collectors; they make fabric and operate trains and drive buses. In return for their work they get food and clothing, but, as my mother says, not enough of either.