She skipped me, Jonas thought, stunned. Had he heard wrong? No. There was a sudden hush in the crowd, and he knew that the entire community realized that the Chief Elder had moved from Eighteen to Twenty, leaving a gap. On his right, Pierre, with a startled look, rose from his seat and moved to the stage.
A mistake. She made a mistake. But Jonas knew, even as he had the thought, that she hadn't. The Chief Elder made no mistakes. Not at the Ceremony of Twelve.
He felt dizzy, and couldn't focus his attention. He didn't hear what Assignment Pierre received, and was only dimly aware of the applause as the boy returned, wearing his new badge. Then: Twenty-one. Twenty-two.
The numbers continued in order. Jonas sat, dazed, as they moved into the Thirties and then the Forties, nearing the end. Each time, at each announcement, his heart jumped for a moment, and he thought wild thoughts. Perhaps now she would call his name. Could he have forgotten his own number? No. He had always been Nineteen. He was sitting in the seat marked Nineteen.
But she had skipped him. He saw the others in his group glance at him, embarrassed, and then avert their eyes quickly. He saw a worried look on the face of his group leader.
He hunched his shoulders and tried to make himself smaller in the seat. He wanted to disappear, to fade away, not to exist. He didn't dare to turn and find his parents in the crowd. He couldn't bear to see their faces darkened with shame.
Jonas bowed his head and searched through his mind. What had he done wrong?
The audience was clearly ill at ease. They applauded at the final Assignment; but the applause was piecemeal, no longer a crescendo of united enthusiasm. There were murmurs of confusion.
Jonas moved his hands together, clapping, but it was an automatic, meaningless gesture that he wasn't even aware of. His mind had shut out all of the earlier emotions: the anticipation, excitement, pride, and even the happy kinship with his friends. Now he felt only humiliation and terror.
The Chief Elder waited until the uneasy applause subsided. Then she spoke again.
"I know," she said in her vibrant, gracious voice, "that you are all concerned. That you feel I have made a mistake."
She smiled. The community, relieved from its discomfort very slightly by her benign statement, seemed to breathe more easily. It was very silent.
Jonas looked up.
"I have caused you anxiety," she said. "I apologize to my community." Her voice flowed over the assembled crowd.
"We accept your apology," they all uttered together.
"Jonas," she said, looking down at him, "I apologize to you in particular. I caused you anguish."
"I accept your apology," Jonas replied shakily.
"Please come to the stage now."
Earlier that day, dressing in his own dwelling, he had practiced the kind of jaunty, self-assured walk that he hoped he could make to the stage when his turn came. All of that was forgotten now. He simply willed himself to stand, to move his feet that felt weighted and clumsy, to go forward, up the steps and across the platform until he stood at her side.
Reassuringly she placed her arm across his tense shoulders.
"Jonas has not been assigned," she informed the crowd, and his heart sank.
Then she went on. "Jonas has been selected."
He blinked. What did that mean? He felt a collective, questioning stir from the audience. They, too, were puzzled.
In a firm, commanding voice she announced, "Jonas has been selected to be our next Receiver of Memory."
Then he heard the gasp—the sudden intake of breath, drawn sharply in astonishment, by each of the seated citizens. He saw their faces; the eyes widened in awe.
And still he did not understand.
"Such a selection is very, very rare," the Chief Elder told the audience. "Our community has only one Receiver. It is he who trains his successor.
"We have had our current Receiver for a very long time," she went on. Jonas followed her eyes and saw that she was looking at one of the Elders. The Committee of Elders was sitting together in a group; and the Chief Elder's eyes were now on one who sat in the midst but seemed oddly separate from them. It was a man Jonas had never noticed before, a bearded man with pale eyes. He was watching Jonas intently.
"We failed in our last selection," the Chief Elder said solemnly. "It was ten years ago, when Jonas was just a toddler. I will not dwell on the experience because it causes us all terrible discomfort."
Jonas didn't know what she was referring to, but he could sense the discomfort of the audience. They shifted uneasily in their seats.
"We have not been hasty this time," she continued. "We could not afford another failure."
"Sometimes," she went on, speaking now in a lighter tone, relaxing the tension in the Auditorium, "we are not entirely certain about the Assignments, even after the most painstaking observations. Sometimes we worry that the one assigned might not develop, through training, every attribute necessary. Elevens are still children, after all. What we observe as playfulness and patience—the requirements to become Nurturer—could, with maturity, be revealed as simply foolishness and indolence. So we continue to observe during training, and to modify behavior when necessary.
"But the Receiver-in-training cannot be observed, cannot be modified. That is stated quite clearly in the rules. He is to be alone, apart, while he is prepared by the current Receiver for the job which is the most honored in our community."
Alone? Apart? Jonas listened with increasing unease.
"Therefore the selection must be sound. It must be a unanimous choice of the Committee. They can have no doubts, however fleeting. If, during the process, an Elder reports a dream of uncertainty, that dream has the power to set a candidate aside instantly.
"Jonas was identified as a possible Receiver many years ago. We have observed him meticulously. There were no dreams of uncertainty.
"He has shown all of the qualities that a Receiver must have."
With her hand still firmly on his shoulder, the Chief Elder listed the qualities.
"Intelligence." she said. "We are all aware that Jonas has been a top student throughout his school days.
"Integrity" she said next. "Jonas has, like all of us, committed minor transgressions." She smiled at him. "We expect that. We hoped, also, that he would present himself promptly for chastisement, and he has always done so.
"Courage," she went on. "Only one of us here today has ever undergone the rigorous training required of a Receiver. He, of course, is the most important member of the Committee: the current Receiver. It was he who reminded us, again and again, of the courage required.
"Jonas," she said, turning to him, but speaking in a voice that the entire community could hear, "the training required of you involves pain. Physical pain."
He felt fear flutter within him.
"You have never experienced that. Yes, you have scraped your knees in falls from your bicycle. Yes, you crushed your finger in a door last year."
Jonas nodded, agreeing, as he recalled the incident, and its accompanying misery.
"But you will be faced, now," she explained gently, "with pain of a magnitude that none of us here can comprehend because it is beyond our experience. The Receiver himself was not able to describe it, only to remind us that you would be faced with it, that you would need immense courage. We cannot prepare you for that.
"But we feel certain that you are brave," she said to him.
He did not feel brave at all. Not now.
"The fourth essential attribute," the Chief Elder said, "is wisdom. Jonas has not yet acquired that. The acquisition of wisdom will come through his training.
"We are convinced that Jonas has the ability to acquire wisdom. That is what we looked for.
"Finally, The Receiver must have one more quality, and it is one which I can only name, but not describe. I do not understand it. You members of the community will not understand it, either. Perhaps Jonas will, because the current Receiver has told us that Jonas already has this quality. He calls it the Capacity to See Beyond."
The Chief Elder looked at Jonas with a question in her eyes. The audience watched him, too. They were silent.
For a moment he froze, consumed with despair. He didn't have it, the whatever-she-had-said. He didn't know what it was. Now was the moment when he would have to confess, to say, "No, I don't. I can't," and throw himself on their mercy, ask their forgiveness, to explain that he had been wrongly chosen, that he was not the right one at all.
But when he looked out across the crowd, the sea of faces, the thing happened again. The thing that had happened with the apple.
He blinked, and it was gone. His shoulders straightened slightly. Briefly he felt a tiny sliver of sureness for the first time.
She was still watching him. They all were.
"I think it's true," he told the Chief Elder and the community. "I don't understand it yet. I don't know what it is. But sometimes I see something. And maybe it's beyond."
She took her arm from his shoulders.
"Jonas," she said, speaking not to him alone but to the entire community of which he was a part, "you will be trained to be our next Receiver of Memory. We thank you for your childhood."
Then she turned and left the stage, left him there alone, standing and facing the crowd, which began spontaneously the collective murmur of his name.
"Jonas." It was a whisper at first: hushed, barely audible. "Jonas. Jonas."
Then louder, faster. "JONAS. JONAS. JONAS."
With the chant, Jonas knew, the community was accepting him and his new role, giving him life, the way they had given it to the newchild Caleb. His heart swelled with gratitude and pride.
But at the same time he was filled with fear. He did not know what his selection meant. He did not know what he was to become.
Or what would become of him.
Now, for the first time in his twelve years of life, Jonas felt separate, different. He remembered what the Chief Elder had said: that his training would be alone and apart.
But his training had not yet begun and already, upon leaving the Auditorium, he felt the apartness. Holding the folder she had given him, he made his way through the throng, looking for his family unit and for Asher. People moved aside for him. They watched him. He thought he could hear whispers.
"Ash!" he called, spotting his friend near the rows of bicycles. "Ride back with me?"
"Sure." Asher smiled, his usual smile, friendly and familiar. But Jonas felt a moment of hesitation from his friend, an uncertainty.
"Congratulations," Asher said.
"You too," Jonas replied. "It was really funny, when she told about the smacks. You got more applause than almost anybody else."
The other new Twelves clustered nearby, placing their folders carefully into the carrying containers on the backs of the bikes. In each dwelling tonight they would be studying the instructions for the beginning of their training. Each night for years the children had memorized the required lessons for school, often yawning with boredom. Tonight they would all begin eagerly to memorize the rules for their adult Assignments.
"Congratulations, Asher!" someone called. Then that hesitation again. "You too, Jonas!"