“This way,” Nathaniel says from the side of the stage. We’re like cows being herded into individual
pens to await sacrifice. There are closed-in cubicles constructed backstage, and each of us is placed in
one without a word of guidance or encouragement.
“Wait a second,” I say as I try to scan down the row one last time for Katie, but I’m shoved into my
cubicle and the door shuts, enclosing me in between four confining walls with only the light of a
lamp. I drag my hands down the fabric of the walls until I fall down into my seat. I tug on my braid
again and again and again. Calm down. Breathe. Calm down. I chant this over and over again,
imagining that Katie’s the one who’s coaching me. I shut my eyes and am back in her room. The
scent of her perfume overwhelms the small space, but instead of making me sneeze, it comforts me.
It makes my imagined state more real.
I hear loud clapping coming from off the stage and know someone must’ve just gone. They obviously
weren’t a Defect. No one wants a Defect at their ceremony. A voice shouts, “Let’s go, Todd Jenson.
It’s time to meet your partner.” I wonder if it was Katie on stage. I wonder if he’s her partner. I
wonder this through eighteen more times worth of clapping and cheering and name calling. Anytime
now, they’ll open my door and force me to stand before the crowd, force me to touch the quartz, force
me to face my peers in shame. If they deem me a Defect, I’ll be the first this Culling, and most likely
I twist my hands into knots and think about my parents. They have to be out there by now. I’m going
to walk out there and they’re going to be in the front row smiling. I open my eyes. Four walls. They’re
closing in on me. They’re suffocating me. I have to get out.
“Faye Middleton?” The door opens and air rushes in. I draw sharply on it as the cheering continues.
Another novice and her new partner walk off stage. It’s the girl with black hair. She’s coyly looking at
him from under her lashes. He looks pissed.
Nathaniel guides me forward, and I want to yank my arm from him. I want to tell him I left my
courage back in that cubicle, but I don’t. I can’t. My lips are glued shut by fear. My knees have turned
into two extremities of doubt, and I know I’m going to fall. I’m going to forget how to speak.
Steel blue eyes find mine from across the stage. Elder Maddock. He bows ever so slightly in my
direction, his eyes seeking past my outer appearance. I wonder if he knows who I am. He has to.
I stop right before him and feel like a bird trapped in a cage. I can’t escape the thousands of eyes
studying me. I can’t escape the hundreds of assumptions building me into something I’m not.
“Faye Middleton,” he says, his voice eager and curious. There’s a friendly lightness in his voice I don’t
expect, a sound that makes me feel safe and comfortable under his gaze. He has thick, golden brown
hair combed neatly over to the side and back, showing off the squared planes of his face. He looks
much younger than he should, but older than my father. “Are you ready to begin?”
I turn to the crowd and scan desperately for my parents. Eyes. There are so many eyes. Too many.
They form together, creating an awful monster that wants to swallow me whole. I can’t find them.
The eyes have hidden them from me. I’m all alone. I try to swallow, but my mouth is so dry. I bite the
inside of my cheek, curbing the need to release tears.
The Witch standing next to him says, “Faye, he asked you a question.”
I take in a tight breath and force myself to look away and back at Maddock. “I’m sorry,” I whisper,
my stomach twisting a little tighter.
He pretends not to notice the panic I’m sure my face is masked in and offers me the kindest, most
patient smile. “Everyone is nervous on the day of the Culling,” he says knowingly. “I was a wreck the
day of mine.”
Polite laughter comes from the audience, and I feel myself relax just enough so that I can breathe
He offers me a small wink…a knowing sort of wink, and says, “Your parents will be proud.” He says
these words carefully, evenly, and I know he’s trying to tell me something. They’re okay? He’s aware
of who I am. “So are you ready to begin?”
Candace Knoebel is the award-winning author of Born in Flames-a young adult fantasy trilogy.
Published by 48fourteen in 2012, Born in Flames went on to win Turning the Pages Book of the Year award in February of 2013. Embracing the Flames, the second in the trilogy, is scheduled for release in the summer of 2013.
Candace Knoebel discovered through lunch breaks and late nights after putting her kids to bed, a world where she could escape the ever-pressing days of an eight to five Purgatory. Since then, she crawled out of Purgatory and has devoted her time to writing and sometimes heelying.
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