The Selection Part 16

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"You'll have to adjust to that. When you leave here, eyes will be on you for the rest of your life. My mom still talks to some of the women she was with when she went through the Selection. They're all viewed as important women. Still."

"Great," I moaned. "Just one more thing I can't wait to go home to."

Maxon's face was apologetic, but I had to look away. I was freshly reminded of how much this stupid compet.i.tion was costing me, how my idea of normal was never coming back. It didn't seem fair....

But I checked myself again. I shouldn't take it out on Maxon. He was as much a victim in this as the rest of us, though in a very different way. I sighed and looked back to him. I saw his face set as he decided something.

"America, could I ask you something personal?"

"Maybe," I hedged. He gave me a humorless smile.

"It's just ... well, I can tell that you really don't like it here. You hate the rules and the compet.i.tion and the attention and the clothes and the ... well, no, you like the food." He smiled. I did, too. "You miss your home and your family ... and I suspect other people very, very much. Your feelings are incredibly close to the surface."

"Yeah." I rolled my eyes. "I know."

"But you're willing to be homesick and miserable here instead of going home. Why?"

I felt the lump rise in my throat, and I pushed it back down.

"I'm not miserable ... and you know why."

"Well, sometimes you seem okay. I see you smiling when you talk to some of the other girls, and you seem very content at meals, I'll give you that. But other times you just look so sad. Would you tell me why? The whole story?"

"It's just another failed love story. It's nothing big or exciting. Trust me." Please don't push me. I don't want to cry.

"For better or for worse, I'd like to know one true love story besides my parents', one that was outside these walls and the rules and the structure.... Please?"

The truth was I'd carried the secret for so long, I couldn't imagine putting it into words. And it hurt so much to think of Aspen. Could I even say his name out loud? I took a deep breath. Maxon was my friend now. He tried so hard to be nice to me. And he'd been so honest with me....

"In the world out there"-I pointed past the vast walls-"the castes take care of one another. Sometimes. Like my father has three families who buy at least one painting every year, and I have families that always pick me to sing at their Christmas parties. They're our patrons, see?

"Well, we were sort of patrons to his family. They're Sixes. When we could afford to have someone help clean or if we needed help with the inventory, we always called his mother. I knew him when we were kids, but he was older than me, closer to my brother's age. They always played rough, so I avoided them.

"My older brother, Kota, he's an artist like my dad. A few years back this one metal sculpture piece that he'd been working on for years sold for a ma.s.sive amount of money. You may have heard of him."

Maxon mouthed the words Kota Singer. The seconds pa.s.sed, and I saw the connection click in his brain.

I brushed my hair off my shoulders and braced myself.

"We were really excited for Kota; he'd worked really hard on that piece. And we needed that money so badly at the time, the whole family was elated. But Kota kept almost all the money for himself. That one sculpture catapulted him; people started calling for his work every day. Now he has a waiting list a mile long and charges through the roof because he can. I think he might be a little addicted to the fame. Fives rarely get that kind of notice."

Our eyes met in a very significant moment, and I thought again of how I was past ever going unnoticed again, whether I wanted to be or not.

"Anyway, after the calls started coming, Kota decided to detach himself from the family. My older sister had just gotten married, so we lost her income. Then Kota starts making real money, and he up and leaves us." I put my hands on Maxon's chest to emphasize my point. "You don't do that. You don't just leave your family. Sticking together ... it's the only way to survive."

I saw the understanding in Maxon's eyes. "He kept it all for himself. Trying to buy his way up?"

I nodded. "He's got his heart set on being a Two. If he was happy being a Three or Four, he could have bought that t.i.tle and helped us, but he's obsessed. It's stupid, really. He lives more than comfortably, but it's that d.a.m.n label he wants. He won't stop until he gets it."

Maxon shook his head. "That could take a lifetime."

"As long as he dies with a Two on his gravestone, I guess he doesn't care."

"I take it you're not close anymore?"

I sighed. "Not now. But at first I thought that I'd just misunderstood something. I thought that Kota was moving out to be independent, not to separate himself from us. In the beginning, I was on his side. When Kota got his apartment and studio set up, I went to help him. And he called the same family of Sixes we always did and their eldest son was available and eager and worked with Kota a few days helping set things up."

I paused, remembering.

"So there I was, just pulling things out of boxes ... and there he was. Our eyes met, and he didn't seem so old or rough anymore. It had been awhile since we'd seen each other, you know? We weren't kids anymore.

"The whole day I was there, we would accidentally touch each other as we moved things around. He would look at me or smile, and I felt like I was really alive for the first time. I just... I was crazy about him."

My voice finally broke, and some of the tears I'd been longing to shed came out.

"We lived pretty close to each other, so I'd take walks during the day just in case I might get to see him. Whenever his mother came by to help, sometimes he'd show up too. And we'd just watch each other-that's all we could do." I let out a tiny sob. "He's a Six and I'm a Five, and there are laws ... and my mother! Oh, she would have been furious. No one could know."

I was moving my hands a little spastically, the stress of all the secret-keeping coming to the surface.

"Soon, there were little anonymous notes left taped to my window telling me I was beautiful or that I sang like an angel. And I knew they were from him.

"The night of my fifteenth birthday, my mom threw a party and his family was invited. He cornered me and gave me my birthday card and told me to read it when I was alone. When I finally got to it, it didn't have his name or even a *Happy Birthday' on the inside. It just said, *Tree house. Midnight.'"

Maxon's eyes widened. "Midnight? But-"

"You should know that I break Illea curfew regularly."

"You could have landed yourself in jail, America." He shook his head.

I shrugged. "Back then, it seemed inconsequential. That first time, I felt like I was flying. Here he was, figuring out a way for us to be alone together. I just couldn't believe he wanted to be alone with me.

"That night I waited up in my room and watched the tree house in my backyard. Near midnight, I saw someone climb up. I remember I actually went to brush my teeth again, just in case. I crept out my window and up the tree. And he was there. I just... I couldn't believe it.

"I don't remember how it started, but soon we were confessing how we felt about each other, and we couldn't stop laughing because we were so happy the other one felt the same way. And I just couldn't be bothered to worry about breaking curfew or lying to my parents. And I didn't care that I was a Five and he was a Six. I didn't worry about the future. Because nothing could matter as much as him loving me...

"And he did, Maxon, he did...."

More tears. I clutched my chest, feeling Aspen's absence like I never had. Saying it out loud only made it more real. There was nothing to do but finish the story.

"We dated in secret for two years. We were happy, but he was always worried about us sneaking around and how he couldn't give me what he thought I deserved. When we got the notice about the Selection, he insisted that I sign up."

Maxon's mouth dropped open.

"I know. It was so stupid. But it would have hung over him forever if I didn't try. And I honestly, honestly thought that I would never get chosen. How could I?"

I raised my hands in the air and let them fall. I was still baffled by it all.

"I found out from his mom that he'd been saving up to marry some mystery girl. I was so excited. I made him a little surprise dinner, thinking I could coax the proposal out of him. I was so ready.

"But when he saw all the money that I'd spent on him, it upset him. He's very proud. He wanted to spoil me, not the other way around, and I guess he saw then that he'd never be able to. So he broke up with me instead....

"One week later, my name got called."

I heard Maxon whisper something unintelligible.

"The last time I saw him was at my send-off," I choked. "He was with another girl."

"WHAT?" Maxon shouted.

I buried my head in my hands.

"The thing is, it drives me crazy because I know other girls are after him, they always were, and now he has no reason to turn them down. Maybe he's even with the girl from my send-off. I don't know. And I can't do anything about it. But the thought of going home and watching it... I just can't, Maxon...."

I wept and wept, and Maxon didn't rush me. When the tears finally started to slow, I spoke.

"Maxon, I hope you find someone you can't live without. I really do. And I hope you never have to know what it's like to have to try and live without them."

Maxon's face was a shallow echo of my own pain. He looked absolutely brokenhearted for me. More than that, he looked angry.

"I'm sorry, America. I don't..." His face shifted a little. "Is this a good time to pat your shoulder?"

His uncertainty made me smile. "Yes. Now would be a great time."

He seemed as skeptical as he'd been the other day, but instead of just patting my shoulder, he leaned in and tentatively wrapped his arms around me.

"I only really ever hug my mother. Is this okay?" he asked.

I laughed. "It's hard to get a hug wrong."

After a minute, I spoke again. "I know what you mean, though. I don't really hug anyone besides my family."

I felt so drained after the long day of dressing and the Report and dinner and talking. It was nice to have Maxon just hold me, sometimes even patting my hair. He wasn't as lost as he seemed. He patiently waited for my breathing to slow, and when it did, he pulled back to look at me.

"America, I promise you I'll keep you here until the last possible moment. I understand that they want me to narrow the Elite down to three and then choose. But I swear to you, I'll make it to two and keep you here until then. I won't make you leave a moment before I have to. Or the moment you're ready. Whichever comes first."

I nodded.

"I know we just met, but I think you're wonderful. And it bothers me to see you hurt. If he were here, I'd... I'd..." Maxon shook with frustration, then sighed. "I'm so sorry, America."

He pulled me back in, and I rested my head on his broad shoulder. I knew Maxon would keep his promises. So I settled into perhaps the last place I ever thought I'd find genuine comfort.


WHEN I WOKE THE NEXT MORNING, my eyelids felt heavy. As I rubbed the tiny ache out of them, I felt glad that I'd told Maxon everything. It seemed so funny that the palace-the beautiful cage-was the one place I could actually let myself be open about everything I'd been feeling.

Maxon's promise settled in during the night, and I felt sure that I'd be safe here. This whole process of Maxon whittling down thirty-five women to one was going to take weeks, maybe months. Time and s.p.a.ce were just what I needed. I couldn't be sure I'd ever get over Aspen. I'd heard my mom talk about your first love being the one that sticks with you. But maybe I'd be able to just feel normal sooner rather than later with this time in between us.

My maids didn't ask about my puffy eyes, they just made them less swollen. They didn't question my mess of hair, they just smoothed it. And I appreciated that. It wasn't like home, where everyone saw that I was sad and didn't do anything about it. Here I could feel that they were all worried about me and whatever it was I was going through. In response they handled me with extreme care.

By midmorning I was ready to start my day. It was Sat.u.r.day, so there was no routine or schedule, but it was the one day a week we were all required to stay in the Women's Room. The palace saw guests on Sat.u.r.days, and we had been warned that people might want to meet us. I wasn't too excited about it, but at least I got to wear my new jeans for the first time. Of course, they were the best-fitting pair of pants I'd ever owned. I hoped that since Maxon and I were on such good terms, he'd let me keep them after I left.

I went downstairs slowly, a little tired from a late night. Before I even got to the Women's Room, I heard the buzz of talking girls, and when I walked in, Marlee grabbed me and pulled me toward two chairs in the back of the room.

"There you are! I've been waiting for you," she said.

"Sorry, Marlee. I had a long night and slept in."

She turned to look at me, probably noting the leftover sadness in my voice, but sweetly decided to focus on my jeans. "Those look fantastic."

"I know. I've never felt anything like them." My voice lifted a bit. I decided to go back to my old rule: Aspen wasn't allowed here. I pushed him away and focused on my second-favorite person in the palace. "Sorry to keep you waiting. What did you want to talk about?"

Marlee hesitated. She bit her lip as we sat down. There was no one else around. She must have a secret.

"Actually, now that I think of it, maybe I shouldn't tell you. Sometimes I forget that we're competing against each other."

Oh. She had secrets of the Maxon variety. This I had to hear.

"I know just how you feel, Marlee. I think we could become really close friends. I can't bring myself to think of you as an enemy, you know?"

"Yeah. I think you're so sweet. And the people love you. I mean, you're probably going to win...." She seemed a little defeated at the idea.

I had to will myself not to wince or laugh at those words.

"Marlee, can I tell you a secret?" My voice was full of gentle truth. I hoped she would believe my words.

"Of course, America. Anything."

"I don't know who will win this whole thing. Really, it could be anyone in this room. I guess everyone thinks that it'll be them, but I already know that if it can't be me, I'd want it to be you. You seem generous and fair. I think you'd be a great princess. Honestly." It was almost all the truth.

"I think you're smart and personable," she whispered. "You'd be great, too."

I bowed my head. It was sweet of her to think so highly of me. I felt a bit uncomfortable when people talked about me that way, though... May, Kenna, my maids ... it was hard to believe how many people thought I'd be a good princess. Was I the only one who saw how flawed I was? I was unrefined. I didn't have it in me to be bossy or overly organized. I was selfish and had a horrible temper, and I didn't like being in front of people. And I wasn't brave. You had to be brave to take this job. And that's what this was. Not just a marriage, but a position.

"I feel that way about a lot of the girls," she confessed. "Like everyone has some quality that I don't that would make them better than me."

"That's the thing, Marlee. You could probably find something special about everyone in this room. But who knows exactly what Maxon is looking for?"

She shook her head.

"So let's not worry about that. You can tell me anything you want to. I'll keep your secrets if you keep mine. I'll pull for you, and if you want to, you can pull for me. It's nice to have friends here."

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The Selection Part 16 summary

You're reading The Selection. This manga has been translated by Updating. Author(s): Kiera Cass. Already has 503 views.

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