Chapter no 11

The One (The Selection, 3)

AFTER ENDURING MARY’S SILENT SMIRK as she made me back up, I went to the Women’s Room, happy the rain was still coming down. It would always mean something special to me now.

But while Maxon and I could escape for a little while, once we were out of our bubble, the tension of the ultimatum the rebels had placed on the Elite was thick. All the girls were distracted and anxious.

Celeste wordlessly painted her nails at a nearby table, and I could see the slight tremor in her hand from time to time. I watched as she cleaned up her mistakes and tried to carry on. Elise held a book in her hands, but her eyes were trained on the window, lost in the downpour. None of us could quite manage to finish even the smallest task.

“How do you think it’s going out there?” Kriss asked me, her hand paused over the needlepoint pillow she was working on.

“I don’t know,” I answered quietly. “It doesn’t seem like they’d threaten something huge and then do nothing.” I was penciling out a melody I’d had in my head on some sheet music. I hadn’t written anything original in nearly six months. There wasn’t much point to it. At parties, people preferred the classics.

“Do you think they’re hiding the number of deaths from us?” she wondered.

“It’s possible. If we leave, they win.”

Kriss did another stitch. “I’m going to stay no matter what.” Something about the way she said it seemed to be directed specifically at me. Like I needed to know she wasn’t giving up on Maxon.

“Same here,” I promised.

The next day was much of the same, though I’d never been disappointed to see the sun shine before. The worry was so heavy that it was all we could do to stay put. I ached to run, to put some of the energy into something.

After lunch, our return to the Women’s Room was staggered. Elise was reading as I sat with my sheet music, but Kriss and Celeste were

missing. Maybe ten minutes later, Kriss walked in with full arms. She sat down with drawing paper and a collection of colored pencils.

“What are you working on?” I asked.

She shrugged. “Whatever keeps me busy.”

She sat for a long time with a red pencil in her hand, hovering over the paper.

“I don’t know what I’m doing,” she finally said. “I know that people are in danger, but I love him. I don’t want to leave.”

“The king won’t let anyone die,” Elise offered comfortingly.

“But people already have died.” Kriss wasn’t argumentative, only worried. “I just need to think about something else.”

“I bet Silvia would have work for us,” I offered.

Kriss gave a single chuckle. “I’m not that desperate.” She put the tip of the pencil down, making a smooth curve across the page. It was a start. “Everything will be fine. I’m sure of it.”

I rubbed my eyes, looking at my music. I needed to switch things up. “I’m going to hop over to one of the libraries. I’ll be right back.”

Elise and Kriss each gave me a cursory nod as they attempted to focus on their tasks, and I stood to leave.

I wandered down the hall to one of the rooms on the far end of the floor. There were a few books on those shelves I’d been wanting to read. The door of the parlor swung open quietly, and I realized I wasn’t alone. Someone was crying.

I searched for the source and found Celeste, hugging her knees to her chest, sitting on the wide perch of a windowsill. I felt immediately awkward. Celeste did not cry. Up until this moment, I hadn’t even been sure she was capable.

The only thing to do was leave, but as she wiped her eyes, she caught sight of me.

“Ugh!” she whined. “What do you want?” “Nothing. Sorry. I was looking for a book.”

“Well, get it and go. You get everything you want anyway.”

I stood there blankly for a moment, confused by her words. She heaved a sigh and pushed herself up from her seat. Snatching one of her many magazines, she flung the glossy pages at me, and I caught it clumsily.

“See for yourself. Your little speech on the Report pushed you over the top. They love you.” Her voice was angry, accusing. As if I’d

planned this all along.

I turned the magazine right side up, finding half of the page full of pictures of the four remaining girls with a graph beside our photos. Above the image, an elegant headline asked Who do YOU want as Queen? Next to my face, a wide line shot out, showing thirty-nine percent of the people were pulling for me. It wasn’t as high as I thought it should be for whoever won. but it was much higher than the others!

Quotes from those polled edged the graph, saying that Celeste was positively regal, though she was in third. Elise was so poised, it said, but she also only had eight percent of the population pulling for her. By my picture were opinions that made me want to cry.

“Lady America is just like the queen. She’s a fighter. It’s more than wanting her; we need her!”

I stared at the words. “Is . . . is this real?”

Celeste snatched back the magazine. “Of course it’s real. So go ahead, marry him or whatever. Be princess. Everyone will love it. The sad little Five gets a crown.”

She started walking away, her sour mood ruining the most incredible news I’d gotten during the entirety of the Selection.

“You know, I don’t even see why this matters so much to you. Some very happy Two is going to marry you anyway. And you’re still going to be famous when this is over,” I accused.

“As a has-been, America.”

“You’re a model, for goodness’ sake!” I yelled. “You’ve got everything.”

“But for how long?” she shot back. Then quieter. “How long?” “What do you mean?” I said, my voice becoming softer. “Celeste,

you’re beautiful. You’re a Two for the rest of your life.”

She was shaking her head before I was even done speaking. “You think you’re the only one who’s ever felt trapped by your caste? Yes, I’m a model. I can’t sing. I can’t act. So when my face isn’t good enough anymore, they’re going to forget all about me. I’ve got maybe five years left, ten if I’m lucky.”

She stared at me. “You’ve spent your whole life in the background. I can see you miss it sometimes. Well, I’ve spent mine in the spotlight. Maybe it’s a stupid fear to you, but it’s real for me: I don’t want to lose it.”

“That makes sense, actually.”

“Yeah?” she dabbed under her eyes, gazing out the window.

I walked over and stood beside her. “Yeah. But, Celeste, did you ever even like him?”

She tilted her head to the side, thinking. “He’s cute. And a great kisser,” she added with a smile.

I grinned back. “I know.”

“I know you do. That was a serious blow to my plan, when I found out how far you two had gone. I thought I had him in the palm of my hand, making him dream about the possibility of more.”

“That’s no way to get to someone’s heart.”

“I didn’t need his heart,” she confessed. “I just needed him to want me enough to keep me. Fine, it’s not love. I need the fame more than I need the love.”

For the first time, she wasn’t my enemy. I understood that now. Yes, she was conniving when it came to the competition, but that was her being desperate. She simply felt she had to intimidate us out of something that most of us wanted but that she felt she needed.

“First of all, you do need the love. Everyone does. And it’s okay to want that right along with the fame.”

She rolled her eyes but didn’t interrupt.

“Second of all, the Celeste Newsome I know doesn’t need a man to get fame.”

She laughed out loud at that. “I have been a bit vicious,” she said, more playful than ashamed.

“You ripped my dress!” “Well, at the time I needed it!”

And suddenly all of it was funny. All the arguing, the wicked faces, the little tricks—they felt like a really long joke. We stood there for a minute, laughing over the past few months, and I found myself wanting to look after her the way I did Marlee.

Surprisingly, her laughter faded away quickly, and she averted her eyes as she spoke.

“I’ve done so many things, America. Horrible, shameful things. Part of it was not reacting well to the stress of this, but mostly it was because I was ready to do anything to get that crown, to get to Maxon.”

I was a little shocked as I watched my hand rise up to pat her on the shoulder.

“Honestly,” I started, “I don’t think you need Maxon to get anything you want out of life. You’ve got the drive, the talent; and probably, most importantly, you’ve got the ability. Half of the country would give anything to have what you have.”

“I know,” she said. “It’s not that I’m completely unaware of how lucky I am. It’s just hard to accept the possibility of . . . I don’t know, being less.”

“Then don’t accept it.”

She shook her head. “I didn’t stand a chance, did I? It’s been you the whole time.”

“Not only me,” I admitted. “Kriss. She’s at the top, too.”

“Do you need me to break her leg? I could make it happen.” She chuckled to herself. “I’m kidding.”

“You want to come back with me? It’s hard to sit through the days right now, and you do add a little something to the mix.”

“Not right now. I don’t want the others to know I was crying.” She gave me a pleading look.

“Not a word, I promise.” “Thanks.”

There was a tense pause, as if one of us ought to say more. It felt significant, this moment of finally, truly seeing Celeste. I wasn’t sure if I could let go of everything she’d done to me, but at least I understood now. There was nothing to add, so I gave her a little wave and left.

Only once I closed the door did I realize that I’d forgotten to grab a book. And then I thought of the glossy chart with my smiling face and the huge number beside it. I’d have to tug my ear at dinner. Maxon needed to know about this. I hoped that maybe if he knew how the people felt about me, it would raise his feelings a little closer to the surface.

As I reached the corner to turn toward the Women’s Room, a familiar face reminded me that I had even bigger plans to think about right now. I’d told Maxon that I’d find us a way to get to August, and I felt certain our only shot was coming my way.

Aspen walked down the hall, seeming even bigger and taller than the last time I’d seen him.

I looked around, seeing if we were alone. There were a few guards down the hall just past him, but they were out of earshot.

“Hey,” I said, beckoning him over. I bit my lip, hoping that Aspen would be as able as I thought he was. “I need your help.”

Without batting an eye, he responded. “Anything.”

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