The room was tidy now, and that backpack seemed huge for some reason. The flowers he’d brought looked so bright on my desk compared to the drab things I owned. Or maybe it was just that everything seemed paler now … now that it was over.
“That’s not much,” he noted.
“I’ve never needed very much to be happy. I thought you knew that.”
He closed his eyes. “Stop it, America. I did the right thing.”
“The right thing? Aspen, you made me believe we could do it. You made me love you. And then you talked me into this damn contest. Do you know they’re practically shipping me off to be one of Maxon’s playthings?”
He whipped his head around to face me. “What?”
“I’m not allowed to turn him down. Not for anything.”
Aspen looked sick, angry. His hands clenched up into fists. “Even … even if he doesn’t want to marry you … he could…?”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.” He took a few deep breaths. “But if he does pick you … that’ll be good. You deserve to be happy.”
That was it. I slapped him. “You idiot!” I whisper-yelled at him. “I hate him! I loved you! I wanted you; all I ever wanted was you!”
His eyes welled up, but I couldn’t care. He’d hurt me enough, and now it was his turn.
“I should go,” he said, and started heading to the door.
“Wait. I didn’t pay you.”
“America, you don’t have to pay me.” He went to leave again.
“Aspen Leger, don’t you dare move!” My voice was fierce. And he stopped, finally paying attention to me.
“That’ll be good practice for when you’re a One.” If it hadn’t been for his eyes, I would have thought it was a joke, not an insult.
I just shook my head and went to my desk, pulling out all the money I’d earned by myself. I put every last bit of it in his hands.
“America, I’m not taking this.”
“The hell you aren’t. I don’t need it and you do. If you ever loved me at all, you’ll take it. Hasn’t your pride done enough for us?” I could feel a part of him shut down. He stopped fighting.
“And here.” I dug behind my bed, pulled out my tiny jar of pennies, and poured them into his hand. One rebellious penny that must have been sticky stayed glued to the bottom. “Those were always yours. You should use them.”
Now I didn’t have anything of his. And once he spent those pennies out of desperation, he wouldn’t have anything of mine. I felt the hurt coming up. My eyes got wet, and I breathed hard to keep the sobs back.
“I’m sorry, Mer. Good luck.” He shoved the money and the pennies into his pockets and ran out.
This wasn’t how I thought I’d cry. I was expecting huge, jarring sobs, not slow, tiny tears.
I started to put the jar on a shelf, but I noticed that little penny again. I put my finger in the jar and got it unstuck. It rattled around in the glass all by itself. It was a hollow sound, and I could feel it echo in my chest. I knew, for better or for worse, I wasn’t really free of Aspen, not yet. Maybe not ever. I opened the backpack, put in my jar, and sealed it all away.
May snuck into my room, and I took one of those stupid pills. I fell asleep holding her, finally feeling numb.
THE NEXT MORNING, I DRESSED myself in the uniform of the Selected: black pants, white shirt, and my province flower—a lily—in my hair. My shoes I got to pick. I chose worn-out red flats. I figured I should make it clear from the start that I wasn’t princess material.
We were set to leave for the square shortly. Each of the Selected was getting a send-off in her home province today, and I wasn’t looking forward to mine. All those people staring while I did nothing more than stand there. The whole thing already felt ridiculous, as I had to be driven the two short miles for security reasons.
The day began uncomfortably. Kenna came with James to send me off, which was kind of her, considering she was pregnant and tired. Kota came by, too, though his presence added more tension than ease. As we walked from our house to the car we’d been provided, Kota was by far the slowest, letting the few photographers and well-wishers who were there get a good look at him. Dad just shook his head.
May was my only solace. She held my hand and tried to inject some of her enthusiasm into me. We were still linked when I stepped into the crowded square. It seemed like everyone in the province of Carolina came out to see me off. Or just see what the big deal was.
Standing on the raised stage, I could see the boundaries between the castes. Margareta Stines was a Three, and she and her parents were staring daggers at me. Tenile Digger was a Seven, and she was blowing kisses. The upper castes looked at me like I’d stolen something that was theirs. The Fours on down were cheering for me—an average girl who’d been elevated. I became aware of what I meant to everyone here, as if I represented something for all of them.
I tried to focus in on those faces, holding my head high. I was determined to do this well. I would be the best of us, the Highest of the Lows. It gave me a sense of purpose. America Singer: the champion of the lower castes.
The mayor spoke with a flourish.
“And Carolina will be cheering on the beautiful daughter of Magda and Shalom Singer, the new Lady America Singer!”
The crowd clapped and cheered. Some threw flowers.
I took in the sound for a moment, smiling and waving, and then went back to surveying the crowd, but this time for a different purpose.
I wanted to see his face one more time if I could. I didn’t know if he would come. He told me I looked beautiful yesterday but was even more distant and guarded than he had been in the tree house. It was over, and I knew that. But you don’t love someone for almost two years and then turn it off overnight.
It took a few passes of the crowd before I found him. I immediately wished I hadn’t. Aspen was standing there with Brenna Butler in front of him, casually holding her around the waist and smiling.
Maybe some people could turn it off overnight.
Brenna was a Six and about my age. Pretty enough, I supposed, though she didn’t look a bit like me. I guessed she’d get the wedding and life he’d been saving for with me. And apparently the draft didn’t bother him so much anymore. She smiled at him and walked away to her family.
Had he liked her all along? Was she the girl he saw every day and was I the girl who fed him and showered him with kisses once a week? It occurred to me that maybe all the time he omitted in our stolen conversations wasn’t simply long, boring hours of inventory.