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The Testing

The Testing

The Testing/3

Chapter 3
THE SOUND OF my family's laughter greets me as I open the front door. A congratulatory banner hangs on the far wall. The kitchen table is covered with plates stacked high with bread, meats, and sweets for my graduation celebration. Now it will also be a party of farewell.   "There she is," Zeen yells as he spots me in the doorway. "I told you she wouldn't be late for her own party. Not when cinnamon bread is involved. "   My father turns with a smile. The minute he spots the bag hanging from my shoulder, the smile fades and recognition blooms in his eyes. "You've been chosen for The Testing. "   The laughter disappears. Smiles falter as all eyes turn to me for confirmation. For all my happiness at being chosen, my throat tightens when I nod. University graduates go where United Commonwealth officials send them — where their skills are most needed. If I succeed in passing The Testing, the chances of my returning home are almost none.   The twins recover first. Before I know what hits me, the boys have me squeezed between them in one of their sandwich hugs, yelling congratulations. Hamin hugs me next. His excitement is less boisterous, but no less genuine. Then my mother is there. Her hands shake when she embraces me, but her smile is filled with pride as she asks what I'm allowed to bring and when I'm supposed to leave. I barely have time to answer or notice Zeen slipping out of the room before there is knocking at the door signaling the arrival of my friends.   I am so happy to see them, especially Daileen. So happy I get the chance to say goodbye in person. There are more shouts of happiness and far more tears as I explain about The Testing and the others who were selected. Daileen's happiness and sorrow are greatest of all. She tries to hide the sadness behind wide smiles, but as the party continues, I notice she slips more and more into the background, away from me, away from the others who she has always considered more my friends than hers. And I'm scared. While my family will feel the loss of my presence, they still have one another. Daileen will have no one.   Which is why, when my mother tells everyone the party has to end early, the first person I search out for farewell is Lyane Maddows. She isn't bouncing with excitement or yelling to get my attention. Instead, she stands quietly near the door, waiting for my brothers to escort her home. Lyane and I aren't the best of friends. We always say hello when we see each other, but rarely do we sit together at lunchtime or chat after school. But Lyane and I share a connection, which is why I invited her today. One I know she hasn't forgotten. I hope that memory means I can count on her help.   As the girls still squeal and chatter behind me, I wrap my arms around Lyane and give her a hug. Her shoulders tense with surprise, but she doesn't pull back. In her ear, I whisper, "Daileen needs a friend when I leave tomorrow. Will you watch out for her and keep her from being alone? Please. "   Lyane's arms hug me tighter. I can almost feel her weighing my request. Her return whisper makes tears prick the back of my eyes from relief and gratitude. Daileen will not be alone.   Lyane walks out of the house without a backward glance as I turn to say goodbye to the others. Daileen waits to be last. I can tell how hard she fights to hold back tears as she promises to see me next year in Tosu City. "I'm going to study harder than ever. They'll have no choice but to choose me. "   It is only the sound of Lyane's voice from outside calling, "Daileen, will you walk next to me?" that keeps my heart from breaking as I watch Daileen slip out of view. Lyane knows what the darkness of too much solitude can do to a person. I helped pull her out of that black place four years before when I found her at the end of the colony limits looking over the edge of the ravine preparing to jump. Only, I wouldn't let her. Instead, I made her talk. About her father who was a government official in Tosu City and her mother who hated living in Five Lakes and took out her frustration and anger on her daughter. As far as I know, Lyane has never shown anyone else but me the scars she received at the hands of her mother. With my father's and the magistrate's help, Lyane's mother joined her husband in Tosu City while Lyane was taken in by another Five Lakes family and found reasons to smile. I trust Lyane to help Daileen find those reasons, too.   With my brothers acting as escorts for my friends, the house feels larger than usual as I help my parents clear dishes and tidy up the main room. Our current house is large by most standards. In addition to the central living space, we have two other rooms in the back of the house. The one on the right belongs to my parents. My brothers and I sleep in the one on the left, although Zeen and Hamin snore so loudly that I have taken to sleeping on a pile of blankets in front of the fireplace in the main room. I smile. Going to Tosu City for The Testing means I might sleep in a bed again.   While we work, Mom chatters about what I should take with me and how I should behave while in the city. More than once she stops what she is doing and tears up at the idea of me being the first of her children to leave home. My father says nothing during these moments, although I can tell he wants to.   When all the dishes have been washed and stored away, my father says, "Why don't we take a walk?" When my mother opens her mouth to protest, he says, "I know Cia needs to pack, but before the boys get back and things get crazy, I'd like to spend a bit of quiet time with my little girl. "   My mom sniffles and my heart squeezes as I head into the darkening night with my father.   My father takes my hand, and together we stroll around the house to the back gardens. A hazy moon and stars are starting to shine above us. They say at one time the sky was clear and on a cloudless night the stars looked like diamonds. Perhaps that was true. It's hard to imagine.   Near the back of the house, Dad hits a switch. First there is a humming sound, then one by one lights flicker around the backyard, illuminating the beautiful daisies, roses, and vegetable plants behind our house. While the plants belong to Dad and my brothers, the lights belong to me. The colony has strict laws governing electricity usage. Production and storage of electricity in our area is limited. Most personal dwellings don't use electricity at all unless the citizens can create their own. Not many bother to try since candles and firelight work perfectly well. A few years ago, I decided to take up the challenge and talked Dad into letting me experiment with some left over irrigation tubes, scrap copper plating, and wire. I conned Mom into giving me some glass jars, a little of our precious salt, and a bunch of other odds and ends, and got to work. The result is a network of fifteen lights all powered by the energy my solar panels harvest during the day. While I could create a much more sophisticated system now, Dad insists on using this one. This is the third backyard it has illuminated. For a moment, I wonder how long it will be before we have to move it again. Then I realize that I won't be here to help when the time comes.   Dad leads me over to the oak bench Hamin made Mom for her birthday and takes a seat. I sit next to him and wait for him to speak.   Crickets chirp. Wind rustles the tree branches above us. From somewhere deep in the lengthening shadows come the faint sounds of wolves and other animals prowling in the night.   After what seems like forever, Dad takes my hand and holds it tight. When he speaks, I have to lean close to hear him. "There are things I've never told you. I had hoped to never tell you. Even now I'm not certain I should. "   I sit up straighter. "Is it about The Testing?"   Dad has never talked about his Testing or much about his days spent at the University no matter how many questions I've asked. For a moment I feel closer to him, knowing we'll share this experience. Then the moment is shattered.   "You should never have been chosen. "   The words slap me across the face. I try to pull my hand free, but my father holds on tight. His eyes are staring into the darkness, but the expression on his face says he is not seeing anything. The glint of fear in his expression makes me forget my hurt. A knot of worry grows in my chest as my father's eyes meet mine.   "My parents and I dreamed of me being chosen for The Testing. Our family was barely surviving. Omaha Colony was one of the largest colonies in the Commonwealth. There were too many people. Not enough resources. There was never enough food for everyone. We all knew someone who had died from starvation. My parents believed I could help fix that. Restore balance to the earth. I wanted them to have the money the government gives Testing candidate families to compensate them for the loss of the student. And I admit that part of me believed my parents. I believed I could help. I wanted to try. "   That the government compensates Testing candidate families is news to me. I want to ask if he and Mother will be compensated when I leave, but I withhold my question as Dad continues talking.   "There were only fourteen colonies then. Seventy-one of us assembled in the Testing Center. They tell me The Testing for my class took four weeks. I don't remember a single day. Sixteen of us were chosen to move on. The head of the Testing committee said Testing memories are wiped clean after the process is complete to ensure confidentiality. "   "So you can't tell me what the tests will be like?" Disappointment churns in my stomach. I had hoped my father's experience would help me prepare — give me an edge. No doubt this was exactly what the Commonwealth government was preventing by removing my father's memories.   "I remember arriving at the Testing Center. I remember being assigned a roommate, Geoff Billings. I remember us toasting our bright futures with full glasses of fresh milk and eating cake. There was lots of food and excitement. We could barely sleep that first night knowing our dreams could end the next day if we didn't perform well on the tests. The next thing I remember is sitting in a room filled with chairs being told The Testing was complete. I started attending University classes three weeks later. Geoff wasn't there. Neither were the two girls from my colony who traveled with me. "   Somewhere in the night an owl screeches, but Dad doesn't seem to hear it. "The University was challenging. I enjoyed my classes. I liked knowing I was doing something important. My parents were able to send word that they were safe and well and proud. I was happy. I never gave a thought to Geoff or the other Testing candidates who didn't pass. "   He closes his eyes and I sit beside him, wondering what it would feel like to lose the memories of my friends. To only remember the day I met Daileen. To not remember the giggles and the adventures we've had. The idea makes me want to cry, and I lace my fingers through my father's to make us both feel better.   "I went to Lenox Colony after I graduated. There was a botanist who was close to a breakthrough, and the Commonwealth thought my ideas might help. I worked there a year before I ran into a boy who reminded me of Geoff. That night I started having dreams. I'd wake up sweating, heart racing, not knowing why. Not a night would pass uninterrupted. My work began to suffer, and the government medics gave me pills to help with sleep. The pills didn't stop the dreams. They just made it harder for me to escape them. In the light of day I began to remember the dreams. Just flashes at first. Geoff giving me a thumbs-up from across a white room with black desks. A large red-numbered clock counting down the time as my fingers manipulated three blue wires. A girl screaming. "   My father lets go of my hand and stands. I feel a flicker of fear as he runs a hand through his hair and then begins to pace.   "The flashes stopped. In their place was one recurring dream. Geoff, a girl named Mina, and me walking down a street lined with burned-out steel buildings. Broken glass covers the street. We're looking for water and a place to sleep for the night. The buildings are so badly damaged that we're nervous about using them for shelter, but we might have to because of the predators we've seen at night. Mina is limping. I spot a large branch and offer to make her a walking stick. While I'm working, Geoff scouts down the block. Mina tells him not to go too far. He promises he won't. A few minutes later he yells he's found something. Then the world explodes. "   Dad goes still. My heart pounds loud in my chest. Dad's voice has gotten so quiet I have to lean forward to hear him say, "I find Mina first — half buried under a slab of concrete, blood running down her face. "   Dad swallows hard. His breathing is rough. His hands clench and unclench at his sides. I can tell he wants to stop talking. I want him to stop. This feels too real. I can see the blood. I can feel my father's fear.   "I find one of Geoff 's boots ten feet away from Mina's body. It takes me a minute to realize his foot is still in the boot and I start to scream. That's where the dream ends. "   For a moment the night goes silent. No more sound of owls. No bugs flutter. Just the image of a boy not much older than me in pieces on an abandoned street. A boy who went to be tested . . .   "It was just a dream. " That's what Dad used to tell me when I had nightmares. I always believed it. I want to believe it now.   "Maybe. " My father raises his eyes. The haunted despair in their depths makes me catch my breath. "For years I told myself it was just a dream. I consoled myself with the knowledge that I didn't have a single waking memory of a girl named Mina. We made breakthroughs in our experiments. New plants I helped create began to thrive. I never told a soul about the dreams. Then the Commonwealth assigned me to work in Five Lakes. God, I was angry. Being assigned to Five Lakes was like an insult. Only a handful of University graduates were stationed here. I didn't even have my own house when I first arrived. I had to sleep in Flint Carro's living room. "   This part of the story is familiar. Normally, he tells it with a smile. Becoming friends with the colony's doctor. Being dragged into the tailor's shop by Flint. Seeing my mother sit ting at a loom, weaving. Falling in love with her grace and kindness.   But that isn't the story this time. And my father isn't smiling.   "Flint's house is small. There was no hiding the nightmares. Flint waited a week before he asked about them. I tried to brush him off. That's when he told me about his own dreams. Not as scary. But disturbing. Faces of people he didn't remember. Waiting for friends to return from an exam, but they never come. Over the next year, Flint and I talked to the other University graduates. There were seven of us then. We had to be careful because every Commonwealth employee is in contact with the officials in Tosu City. We didn't want to jeopardize our jobs. I'm certain four of the others never lost a night's sleep, but one, the head of the school, had a haunted look that I understood. She denied she had nightmares, but she must have. "   "You can't know that. " I stand up and cross my arms over my chest, waiting for him to agree with me. I need him to agree.   His eyes meet mine. "No, but not a single student who graduated from Five Lakes was chosen for The Testing while she was in charge of the school. I don't believe it was a coincidence. Do you?"   A shiver snakes up my spine. I don't know what to believe. To believe my father's dreams are something more than dreams is unthinkable. Tomorrow I leave for Tosu City. At the end of the week I will begin my Testing. To refuse is treason and all that implies. I want to scream and shout, but all I can do is stand there and shiver.   My father puts his arm around me and leads me back to the bench. I lean my head on his shoulder like I used to do when I was small. For a moment, I feel safe, but it doesn't last.   "Flint says whatever process they used to wipe our memories could have caused the dreams. Our brains might be creating false memories to replace the ones that were taken. "   "But you don't believe that. "   He shakes his head. "I was grateful when your brothers graduated and no one from Tosu City came to take them to be tested. Yesterday, I upset your brother by not publicly giving him the credit due to him because the magistrate received word a Tosu official was on his way. I didn't want anyone questioning whether students should have been chosen before and whether past graduates should be reevaluated. "   He pulls me tight against him and rests his chin on top of my head. A tear falls on my cheek, but it isn't mine. My father, who has always been so strong and smart and sure, is crying.   "So now what?" I squirm out of his arms and jump to my feet, angry. Angry that never once in all of our walks or conversations did he tell me these things. Never once when I was studying late into the night so I would do well on a test did he tell me what the consequences might be. "I leave in the morning. Why tell me this now? What good does it do?"   My father doesn't raise his voice to meet mine. "Maybe none. Maybe Flint is right and our dreams are just hallucinations. But if there's a chance they aren't, it is better you know. Better that you go to Tosu City prepared to question everything you see and everyone you meet. That might be the difference between success or failure. " He crosses to me and puts his hands on my shoulders. I start to pull away, but then I notice the light reflecting off the tears pooling in his eyes. The fight goes out of me.   "Does Mom know?" I think she must, but at this point I'm not sure of anything.   "Your mother knows about the memory wipe and that I have nightmares, but not what they contain. "   I roll the words over in my head, testing them for the truth. "So, is that why Mom didn't want me to be chosen?"   My father lays a hand on my face and rubs his thumb against my cheek. "Cia, I haven't seen my parents since the day I left to be tested. To have a child chosen is an honor, but it also means loss. Your mother didn't want to lose you. "    I don't know how long we sit in silence. Long enough to hear my brothers' voices announcing their return and my mother's shouts chastising them for sneaking sweets. It all sounds so normal.   When my face is dry of tears, my father takes my hand and walks me back inside. We don't mention Dad's dreams or my new fears as Hamin teases the twins about my friends flirting with them. Mom puts out a platter of small cakes and sweetened mint tea as the boys pull out a deck of cards so we can all play one last game as a family. Even as I enjoy the laughter and warmth around the table, it feels incomplete without Zeen, who has yet to return. More than once I find myself watching the front door. I love all my brothers, but Zeen's the one I go to when I have a problem I need to talk about. Zeen is always patient and insightful. He asks questions, and without fail I feel better after any discussion. Tonight I have a problem, but Zeen isn't here.   When the game is over, my mother gently reminds me of the hour and of the task still in front of me. Excusing myself, I take the Commonwealth bag and slip into the bedroom I share with my brothers.   Knowing I may never see the room again makes me look at it with fresh eyes. A fire glows in the hearth nestled into the back wall. A square, worn brown rug sits in the middle of the room. Two sets of bunk beds are arranged on either side of the rug. Only mine, the bottom bed closest to the fireplace, has the sheets tucked in and the quilt smoothed. As soon as the boys graduated from school, Mom declared them old enough to tidy up their own beds. And they decided they were old enough not to care whether they slept in tightly tucked sheets.   We each have a wooden chest for our everyday clothes and shoes. The special clothes are hung in the large wooden armoire in the corner. Mother always talks about first impressions. I gnaw on my bottom lip and weigh the merits of all my clothes. Feeling confident is always easier when dressed in something special, but I hear my father's voice replay in my head. I imagine the abandoned city street he walked in his dream. The two dresses I own won't help me there. And even if the dreams aren't real, I know in my heart pretty clothes won't help once The Testing begins.   Ignoring the special attire, I walk to the wooden chest I've used since I was a little girl. I select two pairs of strong, comfortable pants and two sturdy shirts and my most comfortable boots. They are all hand-me-downs from my brothers. Know ing I have a piece of them coming with me helps ease the loneliness I already feel. I grab sleepwear and undergarments and carefully stow the selections in my bag. There is still plenty of room for the two personal items I am allowed to bring with me.   Sitting on the edge of my bed, I look around the room. Had my father not shared his dreams, I might have taken my flute or the silver necklace my mother gave me on my sixteenth birthday. Instead, I consider what might help me if The Testing is more than paper and pencil examinations.   After several minutes I slide off the bed and pull a small pocket hunting knife out of my chest. Each of my brothers has a similar knife — a gift from Dad. The knife also has a screwdriver and a few other gadgets attached. That's one. Now for number two. There is only one other thing I can think of that might help, but it doesn't belong to me. And Zeen isn't here to ask permission.   Last year, Dad began letting Zeen experiment at work with his own projects. Some of those projects take him outside the colony boundaries. The boundaries were designed not so much to keep people or animals out, but to remind Five Colony citizens that the land beyond is potentially unsafe. Poisonous plants and meat-seeking animals are only part of the danger. During the last three stages of war, violent earthquakes ripped the fabric of the land. A lone traveler who falls into one of the earthquake-made fissures can easily find death waiting at the bottom from a broken neck, exposure, or hunger. To prevent the latter two, Dad gave Zeen a small handheld device called a Transit Communicator sent to him by the Commonwealth government. The device has a compass, a calculator, and a communication system that allows Zeen to contact a matching device in Dad's office if ever there is a problem. I don't know how it works, but I'm betting if necessary I can figure it out.   When Zeen isn't working beyond the border, he keeps the device on a shelf next to his bed. Sure enough. My heart aches as my fingers close over the device. I wish Zeen were here to give me permission — to tell me he forgives me for being chosen when he was not. I want to tell Zeen that our father was trying to protect him when the announcement about the potato was made yesterday. That it wasn't motivated by ego, but by love.   I wrap the Transit Communicator in a pair of socks to keep it safe and slide it into my bag, hoping Zeen returns in time for me to tell him I've taken a piece of him with me to Tosu City. Even though I know he will not. Zeen is the smartest of my brothers, but he is also the most emotional. While Win, Hart, and Hamin are loving and kind, they possess a carefree attitude about life that frustrates our mother. Zeen, however, is fiercely passionate. His temper is quick to flare, but his love is all encompassing. Which makes the loss of one he loves almost unbearable. He barely spoke for a month when our grandfather died.   Sitting on Zeen's bed, I write a note that will serve as a request for his device and a reminder of my love. Not the farewell I hope for, but the only one I am certain I will have.   Now that my selections are made, panic sets in. Tomorrow I will be walking away from everything I know into something strange and potentially dangerous. What I want most in the world is to climb into bed and pull the covers over my head. Instead, I snap the bag shut, sling it onto my shoulder, and walk back out to my family, hoping to enjoy the last hours I have left with them.