A WEEK LATER, I BEAT Aspen to the tree house.
It took a bit of work to get the things I wanted up there in silence, but I managed. I rearranged the plates one last time as I heard someone climbing the tree.
Aspen started and laughed. I lit the new candle I’d purchased just for us. He crossed the tree house to kiss me, and after a moment, I started talking about all that had happened during the week.
“I never got to tell you about the sign-ups,” I said, excited about the news.
“How’d it go? Mom said it was packed.”
“It was crazy, Aspen. You should have seen what people were wearing! And I’m sure you know that it’s less of a lottery than they’re claiming. So I was right all along. There are far more interesting people to choose in Carolina than me, so this was all a big nothing.”
“All the same, thank you for doing it. It means a lot to me.” His eyes were still focused on me. He hadn’t even bothered looking around the tree house. Drinking me in, like always.
“Well, the best part is that since my mother had no idea I’d already promised you, she bribed me to sign up.” I couldn’t contain my smile. This week families had already started throwing parties for their daughters, sure that they would be the one chosen for the Selection. I’d sung at no less than seven celebrations, packing two into a night for the sake of getting my own paychecks. And Mom was true to her word. It felt liberating to have money that was mine.
“Bribed you? With what?” His face was lit with excitement.
“Money, of course. Look, I made you a feast!” I pulled away from him and started grabbing plates. I’d made too much dinner on purpose to save him some, and I’d been baking pastries for days. May and I both had a terrible addiction to sweets anyway, and she was jubilant that this was how I was choosing to spend my money.
“What’s all this?”
“Food. I made it myself.” I was beaming with pride at my efforts. Finally, tonight, Aspen could be full. But his smile faded as he took in plate after plate.
“Aspen, is something wrong?”
“This isn’t right.” He shook his head and looked away from the treats.
“What do you mean?”
“America, I’m supposed to be providing for you. It’s humiliating for me to come here and have you do all this for me.”
“But I give you food all the time.”
“Your little leftovers. You think I don’t know better? I don’t feel bad about taking something you don’t want. But to have you—I’m supposed to—”
“Aspen, you give me things all the time. You provide for me. I have all my pen—”
“Pennies? You think bringing that up now is a good idea? Don’t you know how much I hate that? That I love to hear you sing but can’t really pay you when everyone else does?”
“You shouldn’t pay me at all! It’s a gift. Anything of mine you want you can have!” I knew we needed to be careful to keep our voices down. But at the moment I didn’t care.
“I’m not some charity case, America. I’m a man. I’m supposed to be a provider.”
Aspen put his hands in his hair. I could see his breaths coming fast. Just like always, he was thinking his way through the argument. But this time, there was something different in his eyes. Instead of his face growing focused, it fell into confusion one millimeter at a time. My anger faded quickly as I saw him there, looking so lost. I felt guilty instead. I had meant to spoil him, not humiliate him.
“I love you,” I whispered.
He shook his head.
“I love you, too, America.” But he still wouldn’t look at me. I picked up some of the bread I’d made and put it in his hand. He was too hungry not to take a bite.
“I didn’t mean to hurt you. I thought it would make you happy.”
“No, Mer, I love it. I can’t believe you did all this for me. It’s just … you don’t know how much it bothers me that I can’t do this for you. You deserve better.” Mercifully, he kept eating as he spoke.
“You’ve got to stop thinking of me that way. When it’s just you and me, I’m not a Five and you’re not a Six. We’re just Aspen and America. And I don’t want anything in the world but you.”
“But I can’t stop thinking that way.” He looked at me. “That’s how I was raised. Since I was little, it was ‘Sixes are born to serve’ and ‘Sixes aren’t meant to be seen.’ My whole life, I’ve been taught to be invisible.” He grabbed my hand in a viselike grip. “If we’re together, Mer, you’re going to be invisible, too. And I don’t want that for you.”
“Aspen, we’ve talked about this. I know that things will be different, and I’m prepared. I don’t know how to make it any clearer.” I put my hand on his heart. “The moment you’re ready to ask, I’m ready to say yes.”
It was terrifying to put myself out there like that, to make it absolutely clear how deep my affections ran. He knew what I was saying. But if making myself vulnerable meant he’d be brave, I’d endure it. His eyes searched mine. If he was looking for doubt, he was wasting his time. Aspen was the one thing I was sure of.
“No.” The word felt like a slap across the face.
“I don’t know how I fooled myself into ever thinking this would work.” He ran his fingers through his hair again, like he was trying to get all the thoughts he’d ever had about me out of his head.
“But you just said you loved me.”
“I do, Mer. That’s the point. I can’t make you like me. I can’t stand the thought of you hungry or cold or scared. I can’t make you a Six.”
I felt the tears coming. He didn’t mean that. He couldn’t. But before I could tell him to take it back, Aspen was already moving to crawl out of the tree house.
“Where … where are you going?”
“I’m leaving. I’m going home. I’m sorry I did this to you, America. It’s over now.”
“It’s over. I won’t come around anymore. Not like this.”
I started crying. “Aspen, please. Let’s talk about this. You’re just upset.”
“I’m more upset than you know. But not at you. I just can’t do this, Mer. I can’t.”
He pulled me in tight and kissed me—really kissed me—one last time. Then he disappeared into the night. And because this country is the way it is, because of all the rules that had kept us in hiding, I couldn’t even call out after him. I couldn’t tell him I loved him one more time.
As the next few days passed, I knew my family could tell that something was wrong, but they must have assumed I was nervous about the Selection. I wanted to cry a thousand times, but held it back. I just pushed on to Friday, hoping that everything would go back to normal after the Capital Report broadcast the names.
I dreamed it up in my head. How they would announce Celia or Kamber, and my mother would be disappointed, but not as disappointed as she would have been if it was a stranger. Dad and May would be excited for them; our families were close. I knew Aspen had to be thinking about me like I’d been thinking about him. I bet he’d be over here before the program was over, begging me for forgiveness and asking for my hand. It would be a little premature, since there was nothing guaranteed for the girls, but he could capitalize on the general excitement of the day. It would probably smooth a lot of things over.
In my head, it worked out perfectly. In my head, everyone was happy…
It was ten minutes until the Report came on, and we were all in place early. I couldn’t imagine we were alone in not wanting to miss a second of this announcement.
“I remember when Queen Amberly was chosen! Oh, I knew from the beginning she would make it.” Mom was making popcorn, as if this were a movie.
“Did you go in the lottery, Mama?” Gerad asked.
“No, sweetie, Mama was two years too young for the cutoff. But lucky me, I got your father instead.” She smiled and winked.
Whoa. She must have been in a good mood. I couldn’t remember the last time she was that affectionate toward Dad.
“Queen Amberly is the best queen ever. She’s so beautiful and smart. Every time I see her on TV, I want to be just like her,” May said with a sigh.
“She is a good queen,” I added quietly.
Finally eight o’clock rolled around, and the national emblem rose on the screen along with the instrumental version of our anthem. Was I actually trembling? I was so ready for this to be over.
The king appeared and gave a brief update on the war. The other announcements were also short. It seemed like everyone there was in a good mood. I guessed this must be exciting for them, too.
Finally the Master of Events came up and introduced Gavril, who walked straight over to the royal family.
“Good evening, Your Majesty,” he said to the king.
“Gavril, always good to see you.” The king was borderline giddy.
“Looking forward to the announcement?”
“Ah, yes. I was in the room yesterday as a few were drawn; all very lovely girls.”
“So you know who they are already?” Gavril exclaimed.
“Just a few, just a few.”
“Did he happen to share any of this information with you, sir?” Gavril turned to Maxon.
“Not at all. I’ll see them when everyone else does,” Maxon replied. You could see he was trying to hide his nerves.
I realized my palms were sweating.
“Your Majesty,” Gavril went over to the queen. “Any advice for the Selected?”
She smiled her serene smile. I didn’t know what the other women looked like when she went through the Selection, but I couldn’t imagine anyone being as graceful and lovely as her.
“Enjoy your last night as an average girl. Tomorrow, no matter what, your life will be different forever. And it’s old advice, but it’s good: Be yourself.”
“Wise words, my queen, wise words. And with that, let us reveal the thirty-five young ladies chosen for the Selection. Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in congratulating the following Daughters of Illéa!”
The screen changed to the national emblem. In the upper right-hand corner, there was a small box with Maxon’s face, to see his reactions as the pictures went across the monitor. He would already be making decisions about them, the way we all would.
Gavril had a set of cards in his hands, ready to read out the names of the girls whose worlds, according to the queen, were about to change forever.
“Miss Elayna Stoles of Hansport, Three.” A photo of a tiny girl with porcelain skin popped up. She looked like a lady. Maxon beamed.
“Miss Tuesday Keeper of Waverly, Four.” A girl with freckles appeared. She looked older, more mature. Maxon whispered something to the king.
“Miss Fiona Castley of Paloma, Three.” A brunette with smoldering eyes this time. Maybe my age, but she seemed more … experienced.
I turned to Mom and May on the couch. “Doesn’t she seem awfully—”
“Miss America Singer of Carolina, Five.”
I whipped my head back around, and there it was. The picture of me just after I’d found out Aspen was saving up to marry me. I looked radiant, hopeful, beautiful. I looked like I was in love. And some idiot thought that love was for Prince Maxon.
Mom screamed by my ear, and May jumped up, sending popcorn everywhere. Gerad got excited too and started dancing. Dad … it’s hard to say, but I think he was secretly smiling behind his book.
I missed what Maxon’s expression was.
The phone rang.
And it didn’t stop for days.