Today is the day.
The thought played through Thea’s mind like a mantra as she brushed her teeth and pulled on her sneakers. She raked a comb through her shoulder-length brown hair before deciding to tie it up in a ponytail. She wouldn’t want her hair to get in her way today of all days. When she stepped downstairs, her mom had a balloon taped to her chair at the table and a banner that said Happy Birthday/Testing Day! Thea grabbed an apple from the kitchen counter and took a quick bite.
“Nervous?” Her mom’s voice startled her.
“Not really,” Thea lied, turning to see her mom standing in the doorway with the mail clutched in her hands. “As long as they don’t try to drown me, I’ll be fine.” The joke fell flat. Her mom’s mouth was set in a thin line.
“Today is a big day. Twenty years old and heading to the Testing.” Her mom swiped at an invisible tear with a smile. “You go do me proud today. You do me proud and you get yourself through that Testing better than me.”
Thea swallowed and nodded. She grabbed her bookbag from where it hung over a kitchen chair. “Yeah, I know,” she said. “I’ve got to get going. Don’t want to be late on the biggest day of my life.” And she scurried outside, grateful to be out of her mother’s gaze.
At Advancement School, where she was studying to be a paralegal, she didn’t want to talk to anyone or focus on anything but preparing herself for the Testing. Her friend Gloria brought her a coffee before first period and squeezed her hand but didn’t say anything. Thea loved her for it. She didn’t know when her test would begin or what it would consist of, but she did know that the people who went into the testing room were not the people who came out.
The Testing. A great mystery. The single event in every citizen’s life that would either lead them on to great things or leave them behind to some mundanity. It wasn’t required, per se, but she had never met a person who hadn’t done it or wasn’t planning to. It always came on a person’s twentieth birthday, when adolescence was put aside for maturity, and citizens were considered ready for the next step in the advancement of their lives. Thea had been looking forward to this day all her life—a day when she could get through the test and escape this dead-end city with its hosts of issues. All she had to do was get through her test and pass. Unlike her mother.
Thea couldn’t focus in her classes, but the teachers must have known that it was her Testing day because they left her alone. Halfway through third period, a disembodied voice crackled over the intercom. “Theadora Larkins and Oliver Wainwright, please report to the Testing room. Theadora Larkins and Oliver Wainwright to the testing room.”
Thea’s heart hammered in her chest as she stood up, chair screeching against the linoleum floor. She slung her bag over her shoulder and scurried out of the classroom, catching Gloria’s eye on the way. Thea couldn’t resist a smile as she slipped into the empty halls. It was finally happening.
From down the hall, someone else exited a class, and Thea had to keep herself from audibly sighing. Oliver Wainwright, the only other person in her class who was born on the same day as she was. She’d known his Testing day and hers would be the same, but she’d hoped his would at least be at a different time. He was always at the top of his class and competed in speech and debate, along with numerous academic bowls. Whatever this test was, he’d probably ace it in no time, and Thea didn’t need that kind of pressure. Not today. She squared her shoulders as Oliver approached. He was taller than she remembered and lanky, with a mess of honey-brown hair and a pair of glasses that Thea guessed he wore just so he would look smarter. As if he needed the help.
“Hey,” he said when he caught up to her. She forced a smile in response, and Oliver fidgeted with his backpack straps as they walked down the hall toward the Testing room. When they got there, Thea hesitated. What would be in there? Over the years, she had tried to imagine so many times what she would see in there, what kinds of things could possibly be hidden behind this door. She had even tried to swipe her ID card on it before on a dare, but it hadn’t allowed her access. She twisted her ID in her hand now, and Oliver cleared his throat.
“Shall we enter?” he asked, gesturing to the door.
Thea tried to center herself, then took in a deep breath, swiped her ID, and pushed open the Testing room door.
Bright lights blinded her when she stepped in, and when her eyes adjusted, she squinted around the room hopefully. Her shoulders slumped. The room was square and white with nothing but a table and two chairs in the center. The brightness seemed to be coming from the ceiling and walls and floor, eliminating shadows in an eerie way.
Thea glanced at Oliver. “So,” she said, watching him fiddle with his own ID card. “Any idea what we’re supposed to do now?”
Oliver opened his mouth to speak but was cut off.
“Please take a seat,” came a computerized female voice. Oliver looked startled, but Thea didn’t wait to be told again. She dropped down on the seat closest to the door, and Oliver sauntered around the table to sink into his own chair. He started bouncing his knee immediately.
“Theadora Larkins and Oliver Wainwright—welcome to the Testing.”
Blood rushed in Thea’s ears, and she found herself holding her breath so as not to miss a word.
“The Testing will begin shortly and will be in four parts. Your test has been designed specifically for both of you, and when you exit the Testing area, you may not discuss the test or any of its facets at all. Do you understand?”
Oliver and Thea said, “Yes,” in unison.
“Very well. Please note that at any stage of the test, a red button will be accessible. Pressing the button will immediately deport you from the Testing area, and you will not be able to reenter. If one of you exits, both of you will be disqualified. Do you understand these rules?”
The two answered in the affirmative again, and the voice continued.
“Very well. You will have two hours to complete the Testing. Unfinished tests are disqualified. Your time will begin when you exit the briefing room. On behalf of the Testing Consortium, good luck. You may begin.”
The lights in the room instantly dimmed until only the door through which they’d entered remained illuminated. Thea stood up and took a deep breath.
“You ready?” she asked.
Oliver shrugged and stood up. “I guess,” he said. “I don’t know what we’re supposed to do in the school halls, but I guess we’ll figure it out, right?”
Thea nodded and wrapped her fingers around the door handle. Before she opened it, she looked back at Oliver. “Don’t mess this up for me with the red button junk, okay?” she said. Oliver just raised his eyebrows.
“Why do you assume I’m the one that would mess you up and not the other way around?”
Thea turned to face him. “I don’t need you for this, okay? I am perfectly capable of doing whatever we have to do on my own. I don’t need you to drag me down with you if there’s something you can’t figure out.”
Oliver folded his arms and set his jaw. “I don’t think this is the best way to start our joint Testing, do you? Let’s just get on with it.”
Thea turned back to the door and braced herself for whatever kind of test they would encounter. “Here goes nothing,” she muttered, and opened the door.
It took a second for her to put together what she was seeing. Where the linoleum floors, scuffed lockers, and fluorescent lights had been, there now stood rows and rows of bookcases stuffed with tomes of a thousand shapes, colors, and sizes. Plush rugs covered the floor, and lamps littered around the room cast a warm golden glow over everything. The door clicked shut behind them just as Thea noticed the red button on the opposite wall, with a digital clock ticking off the seconds from two hours. Some kind of number poster hung just beneath the clock, but the numbers were all mixed up. How on earth had this happened? They’d come out of the same door they had entered, yet this was a room that Thea had never seen before. Where even were they?
“What do you think we’re supposed to do?” Oliver asked, startling Thea. She shook her head to clear the useless questions out of it. He was right—they had to focus on what to do now. Their time had started. Her first instinct was to open the door they had just come through, but when she tried to twist the handle, it didn’t budge. She turned back around, folded her arms, and swept her eyes over the room again.
“Hey, before we get started, there’s a little factoid you should know about me,” Oliver said without making eye contact. Thea raised an eyebrow as he swallowed noticeably. “I really like facts, and I know a lot of them, and sometimes they crowd my brain so much that I have to let a couple of them out. Did you know that the wood frog can hold its urine for eight months?”
Thea looked at him. “What?” she asked. Oliver pushed his glasses up on his nose and didn’t look at her.
“I read that it actually helps them hibernate, if you can believe that.” He chucked to himself and bounced on the balls of his feet. Thea rolled her eyes. Great, she thought, I’m stuck in a locked room with a psycho fascinated by frog bladders. She walked farther into the room to have a look around. She needed to tune Oliver out and just focus on what was before her.
The room looked like any normal library, albeit an eclectic one. In the far-left corner, a stack of books towering up to Thea’s height balanced precariously. Thea scanned a few of the titles, but they weren’t related, so she moved on. What was she supposed to be looking for? Should she be reading? Was the test about what kind of book she’d choose? She started looking for a book with a title that would make her seem smart when Oliver’s voice cut in.
“It’s a locked room.” He was looking around with a crease between his eyebrows, like he was just puzzling something out.
She looked up. “Uh, yeah, I got that already,” she said.
He shook his head. “No, I mean like an escape room. We have to figure out how to get out of it.”
“Correct,” came the same disembodied voice from before. Thea jumped, surprised to hear it. “The object of this phase is to escape the room before time runs out and you are buried alive.”
Thea stopped dead in her tracks. Buried alive? What was that supposed to mean?
As if in answer to her question, the whole room shook, like the low rumble of a garage door opening beneath them. Thea looked down and jumped back. Down the center of the room, a crack was beginning to form, opening slowly and steadily. Through the small crack, Thea spotted dark soil churning like it was being stirred in a giant mixer.
Her heart pounded in her chest as her eyes flew wildly around the room. How were they supposed to get out of here? Stop freaking out and think, she scolded herself. Think! There had to be a door somewhere, right? Or there could be a key hidden in one of the books. She grabbed books at random, flipping them open and tossing them aside when she came up empty. There had to be something in here that could help her. In her scramble to grab books, she turned to attack another shelf and saw Oliver just standing there, that crease between his eyebrows even deeper now.
“Come on,” she yelled, “do something!” The crack was almost two feet wide now, and Thea knew she wouldn’t be able to jump over it much longer. What if the key was on the other side? She hopped over the widening crack, and the pungent odor of rich soil being churned and tossed filled her nostrils. She didn’t know what was churning the soil, but she didn’t want to think about what it would do to a human body that fell in there. She ripped through another handful of books.
“Did you know that a chef’s toque has exactly a hundred folds in it?” Oliver called over to her. Thea tried to tune him out as she ran her hand along the undersides of every shelf to see if there was some kind of lever or handle. “They’re supposed to represent the hundred ways to cook an egg. Hey Thea, wait, I think I’ve got it!” Oliver bounced faster. “It’s a book cipher!”
Thea spun around. The gap in the floor spanned at least six feet now, and she had to choose whether she should jump back. She bit her lip. Once she jumped back, she wouldn’t be able to get the key if it was on this side. But then again, staying here would cut her off from Oliver if he was on to something. She blew air through her cheeks and dashed towards the ever-widening gap in the floor, leaping over it. She crashed down onto the floor on the other side, her elbow jamming into the corner of a bookcase.
Wincing, she got up and stood beside Oliver. “You better be right,” she muttered.
“I am!” he said. “Look, see that chart over there?” He pointed to the poster with numbers on it that hung under the clock. “Each of the numbers represents a page, line, and word in one of these books. We have to find the keyword to get out of here.” His eyes sparkled with excitement, but Thea’s heart sank.
“How are we supposed to know what book to use?” she asked. “There are hundreds of books in here!”
Oliver didn’t seem to have an answer to that. “Um, is there anything with the word key in the title?”
Thea raked a hand through her hair. She’d seen flashes of so many titles when she was flipping through them that it was hard to zero in on any of them in particular. “I don’t know!” she exclaimed.
“Let me think,” Oliver said, a hint of fear coloring his voice. The floor was still moving, opening wider and wider. As Thea watched, a book toppled from the top of one of the shelves and disappeared into the seething soil.
Thea couldn’t just stand there to be sucked in and buried alive. She grabbed a book at random and ran her eyes over the words. She tucked that book under her arm and grabbed another one. She noticed something and grabbed another book to check.
“Hold up,” she said, tossing a book to Oliver. “They’re all the same. Different covers, but all the words are the same inside.”
Oliver’s eyes lit up, and he flipped through the book. “Okay, so we need to figure out what the keyword is based on those numbers on the wall.”
The crack in the floor spanned at least three-quarters of the room by now. Thea dashed over to the poster. “I’ll call out the numbers, and you tell me what words, okay?”
“Okay! Call them out three at a time.”
Thea squinted at the poster, but it was hard to focus when the floor seemed to be speeding up. “Seven, nine, four,” she called, listening to Oliver rustling through the book.
“T,” he called, and the floor quaked.
Thea called out the rest of the numbers, and Oliver kept rustling through the book, responding with letters—R-U-S-T.
“That’s it,” Oliver said. “The word is trust. It’s trust!”
Instantly, the floor stopped quaking, and the calm female voice again filled the room.
“Correct,” she said, and Thea bent over and put her hands on her knees to take a few long breaths. “Please continue to the next phase of the Testing, and good luck.”
Thea’s heart started to calm down, and when she straightened, she was able to mostly hide the shaking of her hands. Oliver was staring at her.
“Well, that was easier than I expected,” he said. Thea wanted to punch his arm but restrained herself.
“Easy?” she asked incredulously, and then just shook her head.
“What do you think they’re even trying to measure with these things?” Oliver asked and bit his lip.
Thea shrugged. “I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. All I know is that this is my ticket out of here. Come on, time’s a-wasting.” She pushed past Oliver. One down, she thought, three to go. The door opened easily, and once again, Thea was surprised by the room that faced her.
Like the last room, there was a digital clock still ticking away the time and a large red button on the far wall, but that’s where the similarities ended. The room was a long, hallway-like room, and the ceiling soared at least thirty feet above them. But it was the long wall that really stuck out. Dotted all along it were brightly colored, misshapen blobs that could be only one thing—it was a rock-climbing wall. Thea looked up to see what looked like a green button shining at the top of the curved wall. She pointed it out to Oliver.
“I bet we have to press that to get out of here.”
Oliver was still biting his lip. “Did you know that space smells like seared steak?” He shoved his hands in his pockets. “Astronauts have described space as smelling like either seared steak or hot metal, but I like to think of it as the steak one; it seems more pungent that way.”
“Oliver, focus,” Thea snapped. The last thing she needed was for him to start spouting useless facts and waste their precious seconds. “I think we have to press that button to get out of here. Do you agree?”
Oliver’s eyes bounced up for a second and then back down. “Yeah, that seems likely.”
“Correct,” the voice said again. This time, it didn’t startle them. “You must each press the green button before your air runs out. Good luck.”
Thea and Oliver exchanged a glance. Oliver shook his head.
“I can’t,” he said, and Thea saw his eyes dart over to the red button. No. There was no way he was going to throw all this away now. She stepped in front of him and put her hands on his shoulders. The gesture felt oddly intimate, and she quickly pulled her hands away.
“You can do this, okay?”
But he was shaking his head with more and more vigor. “I can’t,” he said. “I don’t do well with heights, and there’s no belay.”
Thea felt the blood rushing to her ears, but she couldn’t blame him, not honestly. Heights were one of those things that she could understand being afraid of, even if she wasn’t necessarily afraid of them herself. She walked over to the wall and tugged on a few of the gripping rocks. They were sturdy and easy to hold.
“Have you ever gone rock climbing before?” she asked. Oliver shook his head. “Okay, I don’t know how much oxygen we have left, so we shouldn’t talk very much. I’ll go first, and you just do exactly what I do, okay?” Oliver nodded, and Thea found a good portion of wall that looked plenty straight. She gripped a rock and hoisted herself up a foot, two feet, three, until her ankles were at eye-level with Oliver. With her head, she gestured for him to follow what she was doing, and he stepped up to the rocks. She kept going, scaling higher and higher and listening for the sounds of him falling below her, but the sound didn’t come. Her muscles ached from the effort, and the fact that she was trying not to breathe too much caused her heart to go wild in her chest. When she was only a few feet from the top, she glanced down to check on Oliver, but he wasn’t there. She looked down farther and saw him standing at the bottom of the climbing wall, hands in his pockets, squinting up at her.
“What are you doing?” she called. “You should be climbing!”
Oliver shrugged, and Thea thought she heard a twinge of embarrassment in his voice when he responded. “I couldn’t pull myself up,” he said. “I’m not strong enough.”
For the first time, Thea was beginning to notice the air. It was colder, and she felt it being pulled away. Maybe she was crazy, but she could’ve sworn she could feel it being sucked out of the room. Her arms ached as her heart thumped faster and louder in her chest. She realized what this meant. She would have to climb the wall if Oliver couldn’t, but the voice had said they both had to do it, so the button must have to be pressed twice. But if that didn’t work, they’d be out of air before they could think of anything else. She had to think of something. There had to be something.
Thea climbed back down the wall and stood before Oliver. “You have to work with me, okay?” she said. “We both have to climb this wall, and I’m going to help you do just that. I’ll talk to you while we climb—I’ll tell you every fact I know, and you’ll pay attention to me and nothing else. But we have to go now, or we’re going to run out of air before we make it, okay?” She didn’t wait for him to respond; she turned and hoisted herself back on the wall, this time checking that he did the same. Oliver hesitated for a second longer and then followed suit.
“Did you know,” Thea asked, pulling herself up again, “that the national animal of Scotland is the unicorn?” She looked down and saw Oliver gripping the wall, keeping his face close to it while he climbed. As long as he was climbing, though, she was happy. She reached for another stone. “Did you know that sometimes bees sting each other to protect their honey?” She didn’t know how she remembered these things, but she knew she had to keep going. She eyed the green button above her head and saw stars. Every muscle in her body was on fire, from both exertion and lack of air. She may not have known what suffocation felt like before, but now? Now she felt the thousand hot pinpricks that assaulted her body.
“Did you know,” she forced the words out, trying to push through her lightheadedness, “that e is the most common letter in English?” She was running out of things to say. She looked down at Oliver. His biceps bulged as he pulled himself up again, and Thea thought she could make out a faint tremor in his muscles. She looked back up at the green button. They were almost there. Thea’s arms and core stung with every dry intake of breath.
“Did you know that Roger Bannister was the first man to run a four-minute mile?” Her words came out as wheeze, and when she looked down at Oliver again, he was looking up at her. He mouthed something to her, but she couldn’t tell what it was. She turned back and tried to focus through the black spots filling her vision. The green button was so close. She pulled herself up once more while her body screamed for air.
And then she was there. With a final burst of energy, Thea slapped the green button, which lit up at her touch. Oliver hoisted himself up closer and touched the button as well, and as soon as he did, a giant whirring as of fans filled the room, and Thea sucked in a deep breath. The oxygen made her lightheaded, and she had to descend quickly. They’d done it—by some miracle, room two was done.
Gasping back on the floor, Oliver looked at Thea.
“Thank you,” he said in a small voice. “I—I couldn’t have done it without you.” Thea huffed once and tried to convince her body that breathing was a good thing.
“Sure,” she said. “Now we should get going.” Oliver agreed, and they trudged to the door, wondering what kind of challenge would be waiting for them.
Oliver opened the door, and a blast of searing heat slammed into them. Thea took a step back and looked into the next room.
Fire licked up the walls and scorched all along the floor. The acrid smoke stung her eyes, and she coughed and pulled her shirt collar up over her mouth and nose for protection.
“Look,” Oliver said, pointing to one corner of the room near them. A small table stood there with three extinguishers. That seemed easy enough, so Thea risked a step into the fiery room. The heat was so much more intense inside it that she could have sworn she felt the top layer of her skin melting off, and she had to grit her teeth to continue on. When she looked at the extinguishers, she noticed there were different labels with a different chemical sign on each of them. She turned to tell Oliver, but he was already beside her.
He pointed to one of them. “That’s hydrogen,” he said. “It will combust if we try to use that.”
Thea nodded. “Okay, hydrogen’s out. What about this one?”
Oliver squinted at the label. “Did you know that dolphins have been trained to be used in war?”
A flame reached out dangerously close to Thea’s ankle, and she stepped closer to the table. She knew better than to question Oliver’s methods by now, but she wished he’d hurry up. He was still squinting at the labels.
“Dolphins were used in the Vietnam War and the Cold War to find mines and guard submarines and stuff.” The flames were getting closer.
Why didn’t I pay more attention in Chemistry? Thea thought. She was useless.
“Ah! This one’s potassium bicarbonate!” Oliver grabbed it and pointed the hose at the flames.
“Wait, are you sure it’s safe?” Thea asked. When she looked at Oliver, his face glowing orange in the firelight and glistening with a layer of sweat, she saw a gleam in his eyes that she hadn’t seen before. He was sure.
She bit her lip and nodded for him to continue. He aimed and sprayed. A thick, foamy, white substance shot out of the hose, and the fire started going down. He sprayed all along one wall and turned to spray the other as Thea watched. The smoke was so thick now that she could barely breathe, even with her shirt over her mouth and nose. Thea and Oliver took a few more steps into the fire-ridden room, Oliver spraying down everything the extinguisher could reach. And then, about halfway through the room, it sputtered and died.
Thea’s eyes were watering profusely to clear out the smoke, but she looked at Oliver. “What happened?” she croaked, smoke burning her throat.
“I used too much,” he said. At that particular moment, Thea could have hit him over the head with the empty extinguisher, but she knew that wouldn’t help anything. She looked ahead at the room. The door was about twelve feet away.
“We’re going to have to run for it,” she said, and Oliver agreed. “On the count of three. One, two, three—” and they dashed through the flames. Thea reached the door first and burst through it, toppling over and landing on the floor. Oliver tumbled in after her, and she slammed the door behind him. When she turned around, he was rolling around on the floor wildly, trying to put out a flame on his leg. Thea jerked off her jacket to smother it, and in a second the fire was out.
Oliver gasped as the two collapsed in the new room and heaved. Thea coughed, throat stinging and raw. She had to blink several times to clear the smoke from her eyes.
“Well, that…was unexpected,” Oliver gasped.
Thea pushed herself up to a sitting position. She didn’t want to look around, didn’t want to start whatever new challenge this was. She wanted to just sit here for a moment and appreciate the fact that they had made it through back there. She glanced at Oliver, who was still gasping as he sat up. She hadn’t really noticed before how much he wanted this, to pass the Testing. But back there, when he’d been figuring it out, she’d seen in his eyes the same hunger that often burned in her, and she was curious.
“Why did you want to do the Testing?” she asked. “What do you want out of it?”
Oliver looked surprised at her question. “What do I want? That’s a loaded question. I guess I want to make a difference in the world; I want to make things better for people, especially in terms of farming.”
“Farming?” Thea raised an eyebrow and Oliver laughed.
“I know, not very glamourous. But there’s so much you can do with food to make it healthier and more accessible. If I could find a way to help farmers grow better crops, can you imagine the difference that would make? Imagine fresh fruits and vegetables that all came from a farm less than ten miles away from you. Food would be fresher and cheaper. It would be amazing!” His eyes gleamed as his voice rose in excitement. Thea couldn’t help but smile a little.
“That actually sounds pretty cool,” she admitted.
Oliver smiled and thanked her, but then he looked at her, really looked at her, and Thea felt as if he could see right through her.
“You said earlier that you just wanted to do this so you can get out of here,” he said, “but I don’t think that’s true. I think you want to do this so you can prove to your mom that you can, so that you can prove to yourself that you can.”
Thea couldn’t look at him as he spoke, and he went on. “You’re stronger than you think, Thea. You don’t need to prove it for it to be so.”
Blood rushed to her cheeks as she fought to keep back her smile. “We can’t sit around all day,” she said. “This is the last room, and the clock hasn’t stopped.”
She and Oliver looked around the room. The walls were smooth and shiny, like milky glass, and the only other items of note in the room were the red button and clock, just as in every room. In here, though, the red button was higher, almost all the way to the ceiling, and Thea couldn’t puzzle out why it was so high.
“I know what it is,” Oliver said.
He hit his forehead. “I’m an idiot, I don’t know why I didn’t see it before.”
“What?” Thea asked again, a hint of impatience in her voice.
“Think about it.” Oliver grinned. “The first room was what?”
Thea shook her head. “A library that tried to bury us alive?”
“Exactly, and the next room was a room that sucked out all the air, and the next room was full of fire…”
It slammed into her like a freight train. Earth, air, and fire. There was only one element left.
Thea scrambled to her feet, heart pounding. “I can’t,” she said, “I can’t—” but she was cut off by the sound of rushing water.
It was falling from the ceiling and over the walls like a waterfall, and already a puddle reached out its fingers to touch her feet. She jumped back like it was scalding lava, but it was already almost ankle deep and rising quickly. Her breathing was erratic. She had to get out of here. The water was up to her knees now. There had to be some way to get out before the water reached her face. Her eyes locked on the red button. She had to press it. The water was up to her waist now. Oliver said something, but she wasn’t listening. She could see her father fighting the current in the ocean that day, hear him screaming for her to swim back to shore. The water was up to her elbows now, and she could feel it closing in on her. Why was the red button so high? She wanted to press it now.
“Thea, stop!” Oliver said, loud enough to cut through the noise in her head. He waded over to her and looked her in the eye. “We’re going to make it through this, okay?”
She shook her head and looked away. He didn’t understand—she couldn’t do this.
“Hey,” he said. “You got me through the rock climbing, so let me get you through this.” The water was up to her shoulders now, cold and deadly, and she had to start treading water to stay upright. She heard her father’s laugh in her head and saw his smile from that day on the beach. And then she saw that smile turn to a look of cold fear when the riptide tossed him out to sea and didn’t let him back. Oliver couldn’t understand. The cold water around her rose steadily as her heart beat so hard she thought it would give out. She wanted to cry. Why wouldn’t this end?
The water washed over her head, and a fresh wave of panic overtook her as she broke the surface again. She kicked her legs wildly, pushing away from Oliver, and she saw the red button again. The water was high enough now that she could reach it. A thought of her mom flashed through her head, but she squashed it. She wanted out, and this was the only way. She reached up to press the button.
Strong hands jerked her away from the button. “Don’t give up,” Oliver whispered. “I’m right here.” Their heads were almost touching the smooth ceiling, and then they’d be out of room to breathe. Thea’s heart constricted, and she turned toward Oliver and buried her face in his shoulder. He wrapped his arms around her, and while there was air, he whispered good things to her.
And then the water totally engulfed them.
Underwater, Thea could clearly hear every beat of her heart and feel every breath she wasn’t taking. She knew it wouldn’t be long before her lungs cried out for air, and her greatest shame glowed in her memory like a lighthouse.
That day on the beach, when her father had gotten caught in the riptide current, Thea could have helped. She could have swum over to him and grabbed his hand and pulled him back to safety, but she didn’t. She’d stood there in the shallow water, paralyzed by fear, and watched her father drown. She didn’t even call for help. And now, because she was going to die in the Testing, she would never get to make up for what she’d done, or escape it.
Oliver’s arms tightened around her, as if he could see into her mind and knew what she needed. Her lungs were beginning to cry out from lack of oxygen, but she just squeezed her eyes tighter and held on to Oliver for what felt like a little eternity.
And then there was a change in the water. It was draining, going down through someplace in the floor, and when their heads burst through the top, they both gasped and heaved, but they didn’t let go of each other until it was completely drained.
“Congratulations,” came the voice. “You have successfully passed the Testing. An official will be by shortly to bring you dry clothes and the necessary paperwork. Thank you for your participation.”
Thea took a step back from Oliver. In the light of day, she couldn’t help feeling a little embarrassed about the way she had held on to him so tight in there.
“Hey,” he said, voice low, “I know about your dad.” It still felt like a punch in the gut to hear anyone say that, but she didn’t say anything. “It wasn’t your fault,” he said, “and if he was here today, he would be proud of you.”
All the sudden she wasn’t cold anymore as heat burned in her face and hot tears pricked her eyes. She looked up at Oliver, a boy who had been a stranger and was now a friend. “Thank you,” she said. She looked to the door. “I think I need to go home.”
Oliver smiled at her, and together, they made their way out of the Testing.