I walk to school like I have every day for the last year. It’s a bright, sunny day, and I couldn’t be in a worse mood. Today is the day that all the sixteen year olds from very faction take the aptitude test that will show us which of the five factions we belong in. And tomorrow, at the Choosing Ceremony, we will decide which faction we will ally ourselves with, and the rest of our lives. It is a heavy weight.
When I cross from Abnegation into the factionless part of the city, I am joined by Harold, an old man born and raised factionless. He’d taken a liking to me the day after my brother’s Choosing Ceremony, and has walked me to school every day since. I am not afraid of Harold. I can speak my mind, and ask my questions, and be as selfish as I please without the judgment I would receive elsewhere. Harold will listen and offer his opinion, and I do not feel it is a duty to do the same.
“Good morning, Starshine. The earth says hello.”
“You twinkle above us, we twinkle below,” I greet in return.
It’s an odd ritual that we’ve repeated a thousand times over, and it is comforting. We walk for several blocks in silence, merely enjoying the company of someone who holds no expectations of us, or us of them. We pass the same buildings we do every morning, the same shattered windows, the same crumbling bricks, and if I take a deep breath I can almost pretend that this isn’t the day that will lead to the rest of my life.
“Today is the day, hmm?”
“Yes,” I say. “Today is the Aptitude Test.”
“You’ll have to tell me what it’s like,” he says. “The other ones,” he means the factionless who were not born that way, but came to be so in one way or another, “won’t talk about it, like it’s some big secret.”
“It’s supposed to be. No one is supposed to know what happens until it does.”
“What’s the point of test you can’t study for?” he says testily, stroking the beard on his face.
“Spoken like a would-be Erudite,” I tease.
“That is where I know you do not belong,” he says, pointing his finger at me. “No, you are a brave one; you do not belong with the Erudite.”
“And where do you say I belong, Harold?” I ask. I am allowed to be curious here. “Surely not in Amity, or Candor.”
“No,” he says again. “You are a brave one.”
The school is the oldest building in the area, made up of glass and steel; there is a tall metal sculpture in the front that the Dauntless climb like fools after school. I’d tell someone that I thought it was dreadfully ugly, if anyone had bothered to ask before. The building itself isn’t that appealing either, but it is what we’ve been given.
I am one of the first to arrive. Harold and I take a seat on the lip of the small barricade that surrounds the sculpture and I hand him one of the two apples that I brought with me this morning. Acts of selflessness like this, given to people that have proved they are willing to return the favor, I do not mind, but the rest of the world is take, take, take, and they do not give back. These are the thought that make me realize that I couldn’t survive a life in Abnegations, even if I wanted to spend the rest of my life in the same boring concrete communities. But I don’t.
When I have eaten all the meat off of my apple, I hand the core to Harold and he tucks it into one of his pockets; he will break it into small pieces later and feed it to the birds. When he is done with his he takes my hands and we say our goodbyes. This is not the last I’ll see of Harold, but it may be a few weeks yet.
“Goodnight, Starshine. The earth says goodbye.”
“We’ll wait another day for you to come by.”
My first class of the day is Faction Relations, in which a tart woman from Candor explains to us the roles and relationships each faction plays to the city and to each other. She’s a dull person. I take the same seat I have always taken, in the back with a mix of Dauntless and Erudite and away from the other Abnegations of my age. The Dauntless crowding around me, brushing against me and talking over me, and their constant noise makes it easy to ignore the last Faction Relations lecture I will ever receive.
By the time my first three classes are over and it is time for lunch, I’m no longer hungry. My stomach has become a knot of nerves, pulling tighter every time I think of what could possibly be coming. It can’t be anything too serious, I tell myself, no one has ever died from the Aptitude Test. After lunch is no longer being eaten, we stay in our seats. It only takes the volunteer test administrators moments to begin calling names, ten at a time, one for each testing room.
I sit alone and concentrate on my hands. The first group is called, then the second, then it’s my turn. I follow the others in my group into the back hallway where other administrators stand by open doorways. Most of the volunteers are from Abnegation, though there are two Dauntless women as well. Other factions are required to send a volunteer as the rules state that one cannot be tested by someone else in their faction. One of the Dauntless must test me.
The first Dauntless to catch my eye is older than I am, maybe in her mid-thirties, with short blond hair and brown eyes. She beckons me into her room and closes the door. She’s dressed all in black, and she has tattoos that curls down both of her arms. Several rings hang from each ear, and a single silver bar adorns her eyebrow.
Mirrors cover the inner walls of the room. I’ve never seen myself so clearly before, though I notice that my dress does a rather good job of covering the bruises on my neck, back, and arms. The ceiling is a solid block of lighting, and in the center of the room is a reclining chair, like a dentist’s. There is a machine set up next to it that does not look friendly.
“It doesn’t hurt,” the woman says, and it sounds like a line she practices in the morning until it’s just right. “My name is Cate. Go ahead and make yourself comfortable.”
I slide into the chair and cross my ankles.
“Drink this,” Cate says, handing me a vial. As I inspect the contents, she attaches an electrode to my forehead, and another to her own.
“What is it?”
“That would be telling,” she smiles. “Drink up.”
I don’t remember what happens next.
When I come to I have a pounding headache and I’m contemplating making a break for the bathroom, or at least a trashcan. There are no lights above me, and no mirrors around me, so I am no longer in the testing room. When I can convince myself to roll onto one side, I see I am surrounded by a white curtain, and I figure I must by in the school’s infirmary. Another wave of nausea passes over me and a lean over the bed and vomit; it isn’t until I’m done that I realize someone already had the thought to place a trashcan at by bedside. The noise brings the nurse around, a calm Abnegation woman who is the spitting image of what our faction is supposed to be, and she lays a cold cloth over my head.
“Don’t worry about it, dear. Every few years we have one or two who are allergic to the test. The sickness will pass. You get some sleep, and I’ll send word to your father.”
I want to protest, but I can’t make the words leave my mouth.
“And your administrator left you this,” she motions to a sealed envelope on the table next to my bed.
“She said it’s your results.”
My father never comes.
It’s a small relief not to have to deal with him on top of the lingering ache in my head and roll of my stomach. He does send another man, also Abnegation, to drive me home. I can’t decide whose idea it was, but I doubt it was this man’s, though he’s never anything other than polite to me. The ride is smooth out of the city, until we reach Abnegation, where the good road runs out. The man drops me at my house, and I trudge up the stairs to my room without any dinner.
My alarm clock rings before I am ready for it to. Its five o’clock in the morning, far earlier than I have ever wished to rise. The sky is still asleep on the other side of my window, but I push back my sheets and blankets and slip from my bed. The floor is cold beneath my bare feet, and I trudge to the bathroom that is mine alone now. The tile is grey, the shower curtain is grey, the bath mat is grey, even the bags under my eyes are grey in the small mirror I’ve squirreled away and hidden from my father.
I shower for twice as long as normal, taking small pleasure in using hot water that would be my father’s if he wasn’t, once again, absent. Once I’ve used our allotted amounts, I cut the spray and wrap myself in a grey towel. The walk back to my room is colder than the walk away. I stand in my bedroom and stare into my closet for longer than is necessary considering I only own one color and two variations of the same dress. I’ve never told anybody, but I have a pair of my brother’s pants and a black shirt I traded a Dauntless boy at school for buried in the bottom of my dresser.
I pick out my highest necked dress, and, as a second thought, dig the pants and shirt out of my dresser. They feel awkward under my dress, and I have to roll up the edges of the pants, but no one will notice them under the bulky, unfitted figure of my dress. My shoes are the same shoes I’ve worn for the last several months, flat and grey, just like the rest of Abnegation.
My house is dark and empty downstairs; my father has taken to staying at the Hub, in the center of the city, on as many nights as he can. The result has been a blessed quiet, and on his nights away this house, for all its monotone and dullness, becomes the sanctuary I never thought it would be. I am calmer when he is away, more focused, less bruised. I make myself a minimal breakfast, a bowl of bland grain cereal with milk and a glass of water, and, out of spite, I leave the dirty dishes in the sink.
Before I leave, I walk back up the steps to see my room one last time. I won’t miss it. The plain walls, the dead air that resides in the whole house, this place has not been a home for me in a long, long time. I take the only book in my room from the shelf above my desk and tuck it into the waistband of my brother’s pants. It’s old, and barely one hundred pages, but it is the only thing I wish to take with me from my old life.
Today is my Choosing Day.
I walk from Abnegation to the Hub, escorted only by Harold and his customary greeting. We walk, and we walk, and we say our farewells.
“Be brave, Starshine.”
“Watch out for yourself, Old Earth.”
They are not ‘goodbyes’, only ‘see you later’s.
The Ceremony room is already crowded when I take my place in the line of other soon-to-be initiates. I stand between two girls from Amity. The talk around me, ignoring me, and I am somewhat grateful; I could not manage a conversation now. Parents and their children continue to flood into the room, wishing luck before separating, the children to the line, the parents to their seats.
That’s all we are, I realize, We’re just children.
It is Erudite’s turn to host the Ceremony, and the hall quiets when Jeanine Matthews, their representative, takes her position at the podium. She’s a tall woman, blonde and commanding and upright, and she smiles at the crowd like she means it.
“Welcome to the Choosing Ceremony,” she says. “Welcome to the day we honor the democratic philosophy of our ancestors, which tells us that every man has the right to choose his own way in this world.”
She pauses and looks around.
“Our dependents are now sixteen. And they stand of the precipice of adulthood, and it is now up to them to decide what kind of people they will be. Decades ago our ancestors realized that it is not political ideology, religious belief, race, or nationalism that is to blame for a warring world. Rather, they determined that it is the fault of human personality – of humankind’s inclinations towards evil, in whatever form that is. They divided into factions that sought to eradicate those qualities they believed responsible for the world’s disarray.”
I roll my eyes; this is still the exact same speech given at every Ceremony.
“Those who blamed aggression formed Amity.”
The two girls on either side of me high-five over my head and earn disapproving stares from the rest of Erudite.
“Those who blamed ignorance became the Erudite. Those who blamed duplicity created Candor. Those who blamed selfishness made Abnegation. And those who blamed cowardice were the Dauntless.”
I realize my fingers have gone numb from the tight grip I have on my dress.
“Working together, these five faction have worked together for many years, each contributing to a different sector of society. Abnegation has fulfilled our need for selfless leaders in government; Candor has provided us with trustworthy and sound leaders in law; Erudite has supplied us with intelligent teachers and researchers; Amity has given us understanding councilors and caretakers; AND Dauntless provides us with protection from threats both within and without. But the reach of each faction is not limited to these areas. We give one another far more than can be adequately summarized. In our factions, we find meaning, we find purpose, we find life.”
What about Harold, my mind whispers, where is he supposed to find meaning and purpose?
“Therefor, this day marks a happy occasion – the day on which we receive our new initiates, who will work with us toward a better society and a better world!”
There’s a round of applause, just like there always is, and Jeanine calls the first name. One, two, five, eight other sixteen year olds go before me. And then it is my turn. I step down on from the edge we are lined up on. I have not seen my father, though I do not doubt he in the crowd of other Abnegation parents. I refuse to look at him. My walk is steady as I make my way towards the podium. I do not trip or stumble. My hands shake when Jeanine hands me a new blade.
This is it, I think, this is the rest of my life.
I stare at the blade as it rest in my palm, and I have the stray thought that no one else has taken this long before. I close my fingers over the edge and cut into my skin. It tingles, stings. Blood begins to pool in my hand, and over the quiet of the rest of the room, I hear my father whisper my name. When I raise my head, my eyes meet his, and my blood sizzles over the lit coals of the Dauntless bowl.
I am not his daughter anymore. I am Dauntless now.
The Dauntless, both members and initiates, herd each other out of the Ceremony hall. They turn toward the stairs, and it seems like we fly down each flight, jumping and running and falling. We’re the first faction in the lobby and the first out the door. As soon as the leaders of the pack push the glass doors open the Dauntless begin to cheer. Whooping and yelling and celebrating like we were never allowed to in Abnegation. They start to run, faster and faster until the lines between people are blurred and I’m left with nothing other than the sense of moving forward.
I hear the train horn as we near the tracks and I know what we’ve got to do. The Dauntless travel by train, though they do so by jumping into and out of open cars. This is the first step to our initiation; if we can’t jump a train we’re useless. The Dauntless tether us out in a single line along the steel tracks. I’m breathless, my heart is beating too fast, and I’m not at all prepared for what is to come.
I’m the first of the faction transfers to start running, but soon enough the rest of them catch on. Each of the car doors are open and before I let myself think twice about it, I reach up and grab onto handle, hoisting myself up. I am the first initiate on the train. I turn around to see another initiate, a Dauntless born, lose her grip on the same handle I grasped, and I reach out to take her hand and haul her into the car.
“Thanks,” she says strangely. She moves away from me to join the other Dauntless born.
No one else has trouble jumping the train.
I lean out of the car and watch the Hub shrink into the distance. It’s such a small task that we undertake for such a big change. I’ve left Abnegation for good; even if I decide that Dauntless is not what I want to be, I can become factionless and leave this madness behind. As a second thought I begin to pull my dress up, and one of the Dauntless born boys whistles at me. I pull off the last piece of gray clothing I will ever wear and hold it in my hands. When I let it go, it whips through the sky like an angry bird nad then it’s out of sight.
I am not Abnegation anymore.
I am Dauntless.