Simple, really, the plan consisted of Eli setting his little brother up to be in trouble as often as possible whenever they went out into the neighborhood. The older boys had explained that, while the parental votes were heavily weighted, they only had partial say in the outcome of a Choosing. The townspeople also had a say. Eli set about making sure that his younger brother made as many enemies as possible while he made as man allies as he could.
First, there were the incident with the broken window. One of Noah’s balls was found nearby but Noah denied knowing anything about it. Of course, everyone assumed he was lying. Eli volunteered to help clean up the glass and hold tools while his father replaced the pane.
Another time, Eli told Noah about fainting goats and suggested that the does in the neighbor’s pasture had just the right coloring. Noah proceeded to test the theory by sneaking up on the herd, yelling and banging garbage lids together. He didn’t manage to make any of them faint, but he did put several of them off their milking for a week.
Often toys and treats from the kitchen were found under Noah’s bed or in his section of the closet. Each time his parents confronted him, he declared his ignorance with typical two-year-old grace. The high-pitched screams of his temper tantrums could be heard throughout the village.
By the time Choosing Day arrived, the townsfolk outvoted the boys’ parents by a wide margin. Eli’s name was announced to the relief of the neighbors and the shock of his parents. Eli basked in satisfaction for several minutes.
When all the results were announced, the women—including his mother, her face as pale as one of her meticulously bleached sheets—gathered the Chosen children and steered them toward the church, where a celebratory feast waited. As he walked Eli watched the men file into the square where the remaining children waited. Each man, including Eli’s own father, carried a bucket of water. Most of the men had carefully blank expressions on their faces. A few, like the General Store proprietor, had sharp, hungry grins and wild eyes.
Eli poked at an older boy walking near him. “What’s in the buckets?”
“Water from the Sacred Springs,” the boy muttered under his breath.
The hairs on Eli’s neck stood up as the men circled the small huddle of children, many under the age of four, huddled in the center of the well-manicured grass. A couple of girls, about Eli’s age, stood shielding the younger children, sobbing and beating at the men who approached them.
“No! No! No!”
Eli stopped walking. He watched, enthralled, as pairs of men walked toward the group of children, selected one, and carried them back to the buckets. The sun glinted off each watery surface.
“Keep moving, dearie,” said a grandmotherly woman. “It’s time for your feast!” She nudged Eli through the wide church door and swung it closed behind them, cutting off his view.
Eli sat at his place of honor alongside the other Chosen, letting the prayers and declarations of gratitude from the village women watch over him, unheard. His mind flicked between images of his father, his little brother, and the large wooden bucket filled with clear, cool water.
It wasn’t until later, in his sleep, that Eli’s mind put all these puzzle pieces together.
He woke up screaming.
When Jonah was born, Eli refused to meet him. He still suffered from frequent nightmares about the Choosing, although he’d learned to wake from them silently. He would huddle alone in the dark, panting and drenched in sweat, grateful his parents hadn’t woken. He couldn’t bear the way they looked at him since that day. The idea of going through it all over again was unbearable, so Eli simply pretended that Jonah didn’t exist.
Jonah was the opposite of Noah, though. He had an eager-to-please nature, even as an infant. Their parents, as if broken by the results of the last Choosing, kept their distance from both boys. They fed them and provided them with all their earthly needs, but they held back their emotions and affection. Jonah worshiped Eli and they shared many interests. Over time, Eli found himself drawn to protect this gentle soul despite his best efforts.
Now Choosing Day was upon them again and Eli found himself standing over his younger brother’s bed, heart breaking at what must be done. And done quickly, Eli reminded himself. Jonah and their parents were sure to wake up soon.
Eli found the ripe plum in his jacket pocket where he’d saved it since their visit to the General Store. He went to the kitchen and pulled the box of rat poison from its place under the sink. He put a large spoonful in a glass of hot water and stirred until the crystals dissolved completely. He had taken one of the syringes they used to administer medication to sick cows during last night’s milking. He filled the syringe with the solution he’d created and carefully injected it into the plum, moving injection sites whenever liquid started to leak out. Then he cleaned up, washing the glass and hiding the syringe in the far reaches of a high cupboard.
He had only just finished when Jonah crept out of the bedroom, yawning and scratching at his belly. Jonah’s eyes opened in astonishment and a wide smile split his face when he saw the plum in Eli’s hand.
(read the conclusion of this story here)