It’s graduation day for sixteen-year-old Malencia Vale, and the entire Five Lakes Colony (the former Great Lakes) is celebrating. All Cia can think about—hope for—is whether she’ll be chosen for The Testing, a United Commonwealth program that selects the best and brightest new graduates to become possible leaders of the slowly revitalizing post-war civilization. When Cia is chosen, her father finally tells her about his own nightmarish half-memories of The Testing. Armed with his dire warnings (”Cia, trust no one”), she bravely heads off to Tosu City, far away from friends and family, perhaps forever.
Read “The Testing Guide,” an exclusive prequel story to The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau, out on June 4th from Houghton Mifflin.
Today is the day.
I lean against the trunk of a thin, healthy tree and watch the sun crest over the horizon. Thirty feet from where I sit, I can see where green grass meets cracked earth. Brown, scraggly plants. The twisted branches of trees that fight for life in the corrupted soil. An area where my father and his team have yet to ply their revitalization efforts. But they will. My father is hoping I’ll be here to help. I have different plans. Today will determine whether all of the studying, pushing myself to learn more, will pay off. It has to.
The wind catches the edges of the papers in my hand and pulls my focus back to where it belongs—studying. If I am selected for The Testing today, I need to be prepared. Being ranked first in my colony’s graduating class and being chosen to go to Tosu City will mean nothing if I am not prepared enough to pass The Testing and continue on to the University.
I touch the words on the cover of the booklet in my hands: THE TESTING PREPARATION GUIDE. A knot of guilt forms in my gut as I think about the head teacher of Five Lakes Colony, Mrs. Bryskim. Just yesterday she was saying how proud she was of me for graduating first. How proud my father must be to have his oldest take after him. I wonder if she’d express that same pride if she knew I stole this booklet out of her desk drawer?
Not that I wanted to. Stealing is not the Five Lakes way. But what choice did I have after Mrs. Bryskim refused to let me borrow it? I thought she understood how much I need to be chosen. To succeed. That I have to get out of Five Lakes colony and make my mark on the world. I don’t want to work for my father for the rest of my life. I need the chance to make my own mark on revitalizing our damaged world. To do that, I have to be selected for and pass The Testing. This booklet will help me grab hold of the future that is waiting for me.
I flip to the opening page and read the first question: Describe each of the Seven Stages of War.
In my head I list the stages—the first four stages of manmade warfare that started on the other side of the globe and tore apart civilization as people knew it. Then the next three stages when the earth, corrupted by radiation and biologically engineered weaponry, fought back. Windstorms. Tornadoes. Earthquakes. Hurricanes. Until finally the earth quieted and the rebuilding process could begin.
I smile as I consider how far we’ve come in more than a hundred years. Then I move on to the next question. Explain kinetic theory and write the formula that best explains how to determine the temperature of a gas. It isn’t a difficult question, but not as easy as the first. Pulling a piece of chalk and a black slate from my bag, I get to work. Though I would prefer to write on paper, I can’t. Not for this kind of practice. Paper is precious. In school, paper is used only for the most important tests. Once the test scores are determined, the paper is immediately sent off to Ames Colony for recycling. Trees are too precious to waste on frivolous things.
My head snaps up at the sound of my name coming from our dwelling’s kitchen window. “I’m out here, Mom,” I yell back, and go back to reading the next question.
“You’d better be in here in the next five minutes or you’ll be late for graduation.”
I start to yell that I have plenty of time, but then I notice the position of the sun in the sky. Damn. I shove my chalk, slate, and the booklet into my bag, sling it over my shoulder, and head for the house. I will have to study later. Mom is right. Graduation is important. I don’t want to be late.
My mother fusses over every detail. I let her even though the way she frets and fiddles makes me want to scream. No matter how I brush my hair, it’s not right. Finally, Mom takes over, which makes my brother Hamin snort with laughter. We’ll see how funny he finds it in two years when Mom does the same to him.
Finally, after more than an hour of buffing dirt and grime only my mother can see from my boots and a lot of jokes from my twin brothers, Win and Hart, Mom declares me presentable. A glance in the reflector tells me she’s right. My blond hair is neatly swept back behind my ears. My chin is whisker-free. As I straighten the deep purple sleeve of my tunic, I smile. Purple. The ceremonial color of adulthood. I am a man.
As the rest of the family hurries to get ready, I pull the booklet from my bag and take a seat at the scarred oak kitchen table, hoping there is time for just one more question.
“Are you nervous?” asks my favorite voice in the world.
Without regret, I push the booklet aside and smile into my little sister Cia’s deep brown eyes. “Not a bit. All I have to do is stand on stage and listen to a bunch of speeches. That’s nothing to be nervous about.”
“Then why have you been getting up so early and studying like your life depends on it?”
I laugh. Although her tiny stature and dark curls make my sister look younger than her ten years, she is smarter than almost anyone in Five Lakes. Except for our father, the magistrate, Dr. Flint, and me. It doesn’t come as a surprise that she has noticed my Testing preparations while others have not.
“I’m just making sure I’m ready in case I get chosen for The Testing, kiddo.”
Cia’s teasing smile fades. “You’re going to get chosen. Everyone says you’re the smartest student to graduate from Five Lakes in the last ten years. I overheard Mom talking to Dad about it this morning. She’s sure you’re going to be chosen and you’ll go away forever.”
The tears lurking in my sister’s voice have me pulling her up onto my lap the way I did when she was a toddler. “What did Dad say?”
“He told Mom that she should be more concerned with what’s going to happen if you don’t get chosen. He doesn’t think you’ll be happy living in Five Lakes with us. That’s not true, is it?”
I do the only thing I can. I lie. “I’ll be happy no matter what. I promise.”
“Good.” Cia wraps her arms around my neck and hugs me tight. Which I’m glad for, because it means she can’t see the anger that must show on my face. Our father went to the University. He should be pleased that I have worked hard to be chosen in order to follow in his footsteps. But instead of being proud and hoping for my success, my father is planning for how he will placate me when I fail.
I have worked too hard. There is no one who has worked harder. I can’t fail.
But I do.
I stand on the stage so proud. So confident. I look out at the gathering of our entire colony — just over nine hundred people strong — and smile. I don’t care how long the presentation is or how many announcements the magistrate and other leaders need to make. This yearly event is the only opportunity to address the entire colony. Why should I begrudge them their announcements about building a barn or constructing a new fountain in the square in honor of the man who helped purify our water? While my fellow graduates fidget, anxious for the event to be over, I stand with my hands clasped behind my back. Patient. Because the prize I’ve waited so long for is coming.
Only it never arrives. No Tosu Official takes the stage. No announcement about Testing candidates selected. Nothing but the stab of defeat followed by bone-chilling shame.
The minute the sky turns dark, I slip away from the graduation celebration. No more smiling to hide the bitterness of disappointment. No more pretending to be excited to start work with my father.
For the first time, I am grateful for the isolated location of my family’s dwelling. Normally, I get irritated being so far from friends. Today, the long walk by hazy moonlight gives me time to think. My father offered me a job working with him. Everyone expects me to take it. It’s only natural. I want to be part of the country’s revitalization. My father is doing important work.
And yet, I don’t want to stay in Five Lakes, where I know every face and everyone knows mine. I could apply to Tosu City and hope they find a job for me in another colony, but the chances of that happening are rare. If I want to see more of the world than Five Lakes, I have to do it on my own.
When I reach our home, I am glad to know no one will disturb me as decide what choices I still have left for my future. I pass through the living room into the bedroom I share with my brothers and sister and flip on the light Cia built out of spare wire and solar panels. As I cross the threshold, the purple tunic I’d been so pleased to wear hits the floor. I give it a kick under the bottom bunk of my bed and try to decide what to do next.
I should get ready for sleep, but instead I find myself pulling on my work clothes and my most comfortable boots. I take several more shirts out of the wooden trunk at the foot of my bed. Three pairs of socks. Two pairs of pants. I grab my bag, pull the practice test out, and throw it on the floor. Funny how just hours ago those pages seemed so important. Now they are nothing compared to the need to pack. To leave Five Lakes Colony behind me. To run far and fast from my failure. To do it now.
“I had a feeling I’d find you here.”
The sound of my father’s voice makes my heart stop. I’d been so focused on gathering my things, I never heard him come in. Taking a deep breath, I turn and face the man I’ve always been told I look like. The man I’ve always wanted to make proud. “I thought you’d still be at the party.”
“Did you intend to leave without saying goodbye?”
The bag in my hand feels impossibly heavy. “I don’t know.” The truth of the words makes the shame inside me grow.
My father nods. “I know you wanted to be selected for The Testing, but I’m relieved you weren’t. Especially after seeing you now.” He points to my packed bag. “Your passion is one of your greatest assets even as it is your biggest flaw. You always lead with emotion and think through the consequences later. It’s the reason you’d never have survived The Testing.”
Anger flares hot and deep in my stomach. “I know how to take a test. I would have passed.”
“The Testing is about more than the right answers. A great deal more.”
“How would I know what The Testing is about?” I throw the bag to the floor. “You never talk about it. It might have helped me get selected if you had, but never once did you tell me what The Testing was like.”
“That’s because I can’t.” My father runs a hand through his hair. The hurt in his eyes drains away, leaving sadness and something more haunting behind. “The United Commonwealth has procedures in place to ensure that successful candidates can never reveal their Testing experience. But I can tell you this—the Testing doesn’t always reward the smartest or the fastest to finish the test. Unlike you, I was not at the top of my colony’s class. There were candidates smarter than me who walked through The Testing Center’s doors. Whatever happened inside was too much for them. They never walked out.”
My father’s admission that he wasn’t the smartest of his class surprises me. I always assumed he was. Now I am forced to wonder what else about my life is not as it seems.
“Look,” my father continues. “I understand you’re disappointed, but leaving Five Lakes isn’t the answer. At least not today.”
I cock my head to the side. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Dad’s eyes meet mine. “There are things outside the safety of Five Lakes Colony that you don’t understand. That you aren’t prepared to deal with. You’ve only seen glimpses of the damaged world that exists out there.”
“Whose fault is that?” Frustration storms through me and punches through my words.
“Mine.” My father shouts back. “I take responsibility for keeping you sheltered, and I will not apologize for making choices that have kept my children safe. There is more than poisoned water, rabid animals, and a lack of food waiting lurking outside Five Lakes.”
“Promise you won’t run off in anger. That you’ll stay in Five Lakes and let me help prepare you for what exists beyond our colony’s borders. If in a couple years you still want to leave, I swear I won’t stand in your way.” Before I can answer, he adds, “Don’t give me your answer now. Sleep on it. The world will still be waiting tomorrow.”
With that he’s gone, taking my anger with him. All that remains in its place is the weary ache of misery.
Stay home and hope to find answers?
Leave and on my own discover the secrets my father hints at?
Fatigue jumbles my thoughts together. My head pounds. Bitterness churns my stomach as I try to focus. When I can’t, I am forced to admit Dad is right. I cannot make the decision now. Tomorrow. Tomorrow I’ll be rested. If I choose to, tomorrow is soon enough to leave.
My brothers are still sleeping when I wake and carefully slide out of bed. Cia’s bed is empty. Not a surprise, since Win is snoring. Carefully, I slip out of the room and smile as I spot the tiny body curled up in front of the fireplace. In that moment, my choice to leave or stay is made. While I love my parents and brothers, Cia is special. I’m the one she comes to when she’s worried or confused. She’s the one person I know needs me. So for now, I will stay and learn what Dad has to teach. Once Cia is older and Dad has shared what secrets he knows . . .
I’m so focused on my own problems that I barely notice the booklet clutched in Cia’s hand. The same booklet I studied yesterday morning. Cia must have found it on the floor in our bedroom.
Careful to step around the floorboards that squeak, I cross to where Cia is sleeping. When I reach to take the booklet from her hands I notice how tightly she holds it. As if it is as important to her as it was to me.
So, instead of retrieving it, I go in search of my father to tell him that I will stay and leave the study guide clutched tight in my sister’s hands. After all, what harm could encouraging her dreams do?
TEST 1 HISTORY
Authorized by THE TESTING
The United Commonwealth
Q: Explain the First Stage of the War of the Nations.
A: The assassination of Prime Minister Chae fractured the Asian Alliance and sparked a power struggle among the other nations and a civil war. During the civil war, bombs were dropped on the Korean States, destroying most of the population and causing the meltdown of two nuclear reactors.
Q: What were the first two genetically altered crops to be cultivated successfully in the fields outside Tosu City?
A: Wheat and corn.
Q: Explain the cause of the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Stages of War and their impact on North America.
A: Use of nuclear and biological weapons increased the pressure near fault lines. This sudden rise of pressure caused earthquake swarms and aftershocks that began in what was once the state of California and traveled across the continent. Earthquakes also disrupted the ocean floors, triggering the first of the floods that signaled the start of the Sixth Stage and submerged what remained of the coastal states, destroying most of the population. The Seventh Stage was marked by a shift in the weather patterns. Tornadoes, radioactive windstorms, and droughts caused the population to decrease even further and tainted all but the hardiest of plants, animals, and food sources. When the weather calmed, those who survived could finally begin to rebuild.
Q: Why was Tosu City chosen as the site for the United Commonwealth capital?
A: Because of the non-strategic nature of the state of Kansas, the city of Wichita was not targeted during the first four stages of war. While earthquakes and tornadoes ripped apart the north side of the city, the majority of the city was untouched, making it the ideal site to start the rebuilding process. The city name was changed from Wichita to Tosu to symbolize the hope of a people set on rebuilding what was lost.
“The Testing Guide” copyright © 2013 Joelle Charbonneau