Entanglement (YA Dystopian Romance)
Author:Dan Rix

chapter TEN

0 Days, 6 hours, 29 minutes



Aaron’s pulse flickered. He shut his eyes and breathed in slowly. She sounded just like she was supposed to, like herself—safe.

“Tell me later,” he said. “You have to get out of your house right now.”

“Why did Clive have your phone?” she said.

“I got it back.”

“Obviously,” she said, her voice still bubbly. “Now aren’t you going to invite me over so I can tell you?

“I’m not home.”

“Where are you?”

Aaron stared at the moldy sky through a cage of dark, gnarled oak trees. Forty feet ahead, the pavement veered into the murky wilderness.

“I’m at Buff’s house.”

“You are such a bad liar—”

“Because I don’t do it all the time like you do,” he said. “Just meet me at his house, please.”

“Only if you tell me where you are,” she said.

Aaron sighed and stepped up to a lonely mailbox. He lit the number with his cell phone screen. “Number twenty-two, Via Cordillera. It’s out in the middle of nowhere—”

“Stay there,” she said. “I’m picking you up.”

Aaron peeled the phone from his ear and stared at it in disbelief. Was she serious? “Amber, stay where you are. Don’t come anywhere near this place.”

“I thought you wanted me out of my house?” she said.

“I’ll come get you.”

“So you’re wandering around alone in the middle of the night, out in the rain, and you think I’m the one who isn’t safe?”

“Good. You understand,” he said.

“No, what I understand is that knowing you, Aaron, you’ll probably get yourself thrown down a well or something. Bye.”

“Amber, don’t—”

But she’d already hung up. He redialed her number and it went straight to voicemail. Great, she was being reckless. Typical.

Aaron kicked the mailbox, and droplets tumbled into the grass. The post wobbled sleepily. Aaron had only just leaned against the mailbox, too exhausted to speculate about Amber’s good news, when he felt another twinge in the back of head.

Aaron’s questions resurfaced. Had he caused Clive’s bleeding? Or was it Clive’s weak connection to his half, a symptom of the “loose forces,” as his father called them? Was he sensing Clive again now, lurking nearby in the woods perhaps, following him—?

Aaron’s thoughts blurred together as fatigue weighed down his eyelids.

***

A few minutes later, Aaron’s eyelids sprang apart, and he found himself on the ground squinting into the silver glare of headlights. His jaw fell open as Amber’s blue beetle pulled off the road and stopped just short of him.

He stood, yanked open the door, and stared in at her. “How fast did you drive?” he said.

She smiled. “Fast.”

At four-forty-five on Saturday morning, Aaron peered around the dark street then slid in next to her, into soft, black suede. Warm vents glazed his skin. Her car smelled brand new, like toy plastic. The dashboard twinkled with purple LEDs, and in their glow, Amber’s hair looked glossy, almost translucent.They both hesitated, as if they wanted to lean in and kiss each other. But the moment passed.

“What’d you want to tell me?” he said.

“Aren’t you going to wish me happy birthday?” she said.

“It was my birthday first,” he said, shoving his fingers through his knotted, grimy hair. “Just drive.”

But her eyes froze on the fresh black blood trickling out from underneath the scraps of gauze still clinging to his arm, then darted to his tattered, bloodstained shirt.

“I’m fine,” he said.

“Why do you always get hurt?” she said, leaning over him.

“Just drive—please.” Aaron glanced at the rear view mirror, and for a terrifying split-second, he thought he saw a figure cross the road. He swiveled and looked behind them, but the road was dark.

Amber followed his gaze. “Are you running away from someone?”

“See the pedal on the right?” he said. “Push it!”

“So you are running?”

“Amber, can I drive?” he said.

“No,” she said, and the car glided forward. “I’ve seen you drive.” Through the windshield, the high beams chased the shadows, which scampered back and crouched behind bushes.

Aaron sighed, and Amber’s warm scent floated over him, confusing his nerves. Beneath him, the highway droned endlessly, and it would have put him to sleep but for the icy pricks of panic he felt across his skin. No, they weren’t being followed.

Instead, he watched the speedometer. The needle climbed past eighty, then ninety. Then a hundred.

He raised his eyebrows.

“Do I scare you?” said Amber.

“Are you trying to?”

“Usually.”

“Amber, I know what’s going to happen to you,” he said. “I overheard them. When you become the heiress, they’re going to make you like the other juvengamy women.”

“They’re not.” An orange street lamp streaked past them and illuminated her expression—a mixture of exasperation and helplessness.

“You know I’d give myself to Dr. Selavio before I let him do that to you,” said Aaron.

“That’s your best plan?” she said.

“What’s yours?”

She took her eyes off the road to look at him. “Clive isn’t my half,” she said. “You are.”

“Haven’t we been over this?” said Aaron, scanning the deserted lanes in the rear-view mirror one more time.

“So? Isn’t it your deepest, most erotic fantasy?” she said, turning back to the road.

“Be mature for five seconds—”

“And it’s the truth,” she said. “He isn’t my real half. It’s an arrangement.”

Aaron glanced over at her. “Meaning what?”

“Don’t you think it’s too convenient?” she said.

“You and Clive?”

“We’re two of the oldest families,” she said. “Together we’d form a perfect bloodline.”

The time had passed too quickly when she pulled in front of his house, leaving the engine running—and Aaron noticed the state of his front yard.

Runny sediment trickled from cracked flowerpots, mustard yellow, and drained in rivulets off the curb. On the lawn, murky rainwater rippled in the deep tire tracks left by the Beamer. And next to his front door, glass splinters dangled from a broken window. He watched as a breeze severed one loose and it shattered onto the porch.

“Keep driving,” he said.

Amber gunned it down the street, and Aaron directed her to the botanical garden several blocks away. They parked in the vacant lot. In front of them, dark, muddy steps climbed into a grove. She killed the engine, and silence flooded in.

“A perfect bloodline,” Aaron repeated, at last beginning to understand. “In other words, the bloodline of an heir.”

“Clive and I weren’t juvengamy babies because we aren’t even halves,” she said. “They’re going to switch me with his half.”

“But halves can’t be switched,” he said.

“What about faked?” she said.

“Faked? What do you mean?”

“Why do you think Casler wants to test the machine on you?” she said. “Because you’re my real half. He wants you out of the picture, but still alive; he’s going to drain your clairvoyance.”

“But what about Clive’s half?” he said.

“Wouldn’t you have seen her by now?”

Aaron opened his mouth to protest, but stopped when he remembered Clive’s tattoo. Suddenly, the mysterious absence of Clive’s half made sense. She was hidden away somewhere, brain dead but still alive. Dr. Selavio had already operated on her, drained her, taken her out of the picture so Clive could pretend to be Amber’s half. Now, in order to complete the switch, Dr. Selavio had to do the same thing to Aaron.

“So we’re halves?” he said.

She bit her lip, waiting for his reaction, and as Aaron stared at her, he realized she had solved the riddle. They had chosen her for the heir, the perfect half—when really she belonged to Aaron.

“We have to run away,” he said.

“I’m already packed,” she said proudly, gesturing to the back seat where a huge, overstuffed suitcase was spilling onto the floor.

Aaron eyed the bag doubtfully. “Did you pack underwear?” he said.

“Check”

“Socks?”

“Socks?” she said. “That’s the second thing on your list?”

Aaron stared at her. “You didn’t pack socks.”

“You didn’t pack anything,” she said.

The intensity of her green eyes stunned him. They were richer, he noticed, and all the colors were showing. The night was over.

Amber’s cell phone rang, making her jump.

She stared at the caller ID, then silenced it. They both checked the clock—and caught each other. Five-forty-five in the morning. Suddenly, they staggered out of the car and into each other’s arms, just starting to grasp that they were halves. A strip of pink stained the eastern horizon, their first day.

“What was that about your deepest, most erotic fantasy?” said Aaron, his skin igniting as he held her.

“You,” she said, locking eyes with him, taking short, shallow breaths. “Where should we go?”

“Paris,” he said, “then Spain, then Sicily—”

“I want to explore the coral reefs,” she said. “Will you buy me a sailboat?”

“And what do I get?”

“Me,” she said, batting her eyelashes.

“Don’t push your luck,” said Aaron, “or I might change my mind about letting you be my half.”

“Actually, it’s you who’s on thin ice, buddy.”

Through a hole in the clouds, silver rays pierced the canopy, glittered, and struck the soil. Sunrise.

“Come on.” Aaron took her hand and led her up the muddy steps into the botanical garden. They collapsed on a bench between two dripping rose bushes, opposite a wall of mossy stones. As warm dew evaporated from the grass and perfumed the air around them, Amber curled up at his side. Their bodies melted together. Aaron filled his lungs, euphoric, unable and unwilling to calm the fire burning in every last nerve.

“Aaron, if I’m wrong,” she whispered, “if we’re not actually halves, will you promise me something?”

“What?”

“If I decide to do something you think is really stupid, promise me you won’t try to protect me. Promise me you’ll leave, that you’ll go somewhere safe instead of trying to bargain with Dr. Selavio.”

“Stop it,” he said.

“Just promise me,” she said.

“I promise we’re halves.”

Of course there was more to the story. But here, with Amber’s silky hair flowing across his chest, everything was perfect.

And they fell asleep thinking they were halves.

***

While he slept, he had a nightmare that Clive came out of the shadows and took her. As he carried Amber into the morning light, they both looked like angels, perfect in every way. It seemed so vivid at the time, but he soon forgot.

On his birthday, Aaron woke up alone. It was daytime and his arms were empty. Like a single breath of air, she had gone. And from high, high above the hills, the sun’s rays burned into his eyeballs and crushed his pupils to the size of pinheads.

But how high?

Aaron tore through his pockets and wrenched open his cell phone. His heart slammed against his chest. How high? A blank screen—the damn thing was out of batteries.

And it felt like being in a furnace. He squinted into the sun’s glare. Sweat steamed off his neck. Was it nine o’clock in the morning?

Or high noon?

Aaron rolled off the bench and ran back down the trail. Her car was gone.

The morning with Amber was a distant memory, fading as if it had never happened. He clung to some details, but others vanished, dreamlike in their elusiveness. But worst of all was his memory of their conversation, the logic of why they were halves: dream logic.

Desperate, Aaron struggled to recall their plans. Were they running away first and working things out later? Or were they first going to the Chamber, confirming they were halves, and then running?

It must have been the latter. Amber had gone off somewhere to change out of her suitcase. Yeah, that was it. She would be waiting for him at the Chamber at eleven.

Aaron sprinted home, and he counted out exactly sixty seconds before he crashed through his front door. He stormed into the kitchen, into a blaze of golden sunlight. But even when he shaded the numerals, he couldn’t read the clock. They were stifled beneath a white-hot haze of glare.

Still wheezing, he dashed to his bedroom—his alarm clock. The display faced the wall. Clive must have bumped it the night before. Aaron stepped forward, his heart squirming in his throat, and flipped it around.

***

At first, Aaron just blinked at the digits. They looked backwards, like he was seeing them through a mirror. Nine-fifty-nine.

With effort, he determined he had one hour to get ready. He did it in half.

Thirty minutes until his appointment, Aaron twisted his Mazda’s ignition wires together. The engine roared for a few seconds, then idled obediently.

He pressed down on the gas, and the car’s acceleration made his insides squirm. But it wasn’t nervousness, it was excitement.

As the streets flew by, he thought about his scar tissue, and the belief he’d held his whole life that when he finally met his half, something would be missing.

At dawn, gazing into Amber’s eyes, he’d realized nothing was missing. He and Amber had entered the world at the same moment, destined for each other, halves. She was everything.

Twenty-one minutes until his appointment, he turned onto Gibraltar road and the engine lugged. He downshifted into second, and the surge made him dizzy.

Thirteen minutes until his appointment, his tires squealed around the turnoff for the Chamber of Halves. Somewhere on the other side of the mountain there was another entrance, he would enter this one.

The driveway followed the top of a ridge between two lines of palm trees and then ducked through a stone arch into paradise. A miniature valley unfolded before him, blindingly green. A brook twinkled in the sunlight. Orchids blossomed in its sandy banks, and upstream, a waterfall sprayed off moss-covered rocks. The sparkling vapor rose like powdered crystals. Everywhere, clusters of cherry trees frosted the grass with pink petals.

A mile from the Chamber, Aaron started passing cars. Cadillacs and Mercedes. Their black bodies glinted in the sun.

Then, without warning, the Chamber of Halves was upon him. A towering castle of bleached adobe, nesting in the high cliffs above the valley—parting a great sea of silver mist.

Six minutes until his appointment, he pulled up to the entrance, double-parked a blue Corvette, and killed the engine. Silence closed around him.

As soon as he stepped out of his Mazda, a crosswind sliced through his tuxedo, making his knees wobble. The Chamber of Halves loomed in front of him, immense and impenetrable.

There were thirty-six steps up to the oak doors. But it felt like three hundred.

A man waited at the top. He wore the red vest and black slacks of a bellhop or valet.

“Welcome to the Tularosa Chamber of Halves, Mr. Harper.” The man bowed and hauled open the giant oak doors. “We have you in a special office today. We’ll let you know when it’s time.”

On March 30th, three minutes until his appointment, Aaron stepped inside the Chamber of Halves, into the dry and decadent aroma of royalty—alone.

***

The lobby was huge. Tapestries hung from a sixty-foot ceiling, from timbers carved of whole trees. Curving majestically up to the second floor, a staircase draped in purple carpet spanned the entire space. Velvet couches lined the walls, dwarfed under a mosaic of framed photos that reached the ceiling.

Photos of Chambers from around the world.

Their founding dates, most within five years of the discovery, were engraved alongside on plaques.

Aaron slung his jacket over his shoulder and strolled into the lobby. He leaned against the receptionist’s mahogany desk, which looked to be proportioned for a giant.

He closed his eyes, and the thought of Amber sent shivers down his spine.

She was all his, forever. They were halves.

And in two minutes, they would be whole.

Then again, his sense of time could have been off by two minutes.

Aaron felt the eleven o’clock gong before he heard it, and his eyelids sprang open as the walls began to thunder. The roar of the Chamber’s bell tower vibrated his bones, deafeningly close. In his ears, blood rippled and throbbed against his skull.

A searing pain shot through the back of his head, making him wince, and at that moment, he knew everything was wrong. He couldn’t catch his breath, the air was sluggish, burdened by the bell’s lingering vibrations—the clairvoyance of things to come.

He glanced around, then started toward the stairs. It was all wrong, they had gotten everything wrong. Before he even made it halfway across the lobby, the elevator chimed, and its doors opened. Half a dozen photographers filed out, carrying flash units and tripods. They waddled to the foot of the stairs.

Aaron slowed and watched them. Then he heard footsteps, hundreds of them, marching down the stairs into the lobby. A camera flashed, followed by another. Soon the bursts came like fireworks, flooding the stairs with blinding light.

It was a formal wedding party, and Aaron caught a glimpse of the two people they were photographing at the front of the procession—and it felt like an eighty-pound dumbbell landing in his stomach.

The closer one was Clive Selavio. He wore a white tuxedo. And walking to his right, her arm linked with his—was Amber Lilian.

***

She had straightened her hair and put some of it up. Her lips sparkled, so did her long white gown, trailing on the steps behind her. She glittered with every flash from the cameras.

She stared straight ahead, her expression blank, detached.

Her father walked behind her, next to her mother, whom Aaron had never met. The woman’s golden hair had silver streaks from age. She looked stoic, like a mannequin. Yet her eyes gleamed with pride.

Towering over the others, Casler Selavio walked in step behind Clive and next to Mr. Lilian, his huge arm firmly linked with his half, also whom Aaron had never seen. But judging by her blank stare, she was just like the woman he’d seen in the car. Empty. Another camera flashed and Casler’s white teeth twinkled.

Dominic Brees came next, followed by hundreds more in crisp suits and gowns, including Father Dravin in full priest attire a few rows back. Most of the women had the vacant looks of juvengamy women.

Clive grinned for the cameramen as they circled him and Amber, flashing away. He put his arm around her shoulder and squeezed her closer. Her limp body obeyed like a rag doll. She smiled once, briefly, and the onslaught of flashes that bleached her face forced her to lower her eyes.

Aaron stared at them as they crossed the lobby, unable to draw breath, unable to pivot his frozen knees. Unable to save her. Between his eyes, there was only frigid, black confusion as every last drop of his conviction evaporated. There was so much they hadn’t considered the night before, so much delusion. Of course halves couldn’t be faked. He saw the truth now—in Amber and Clive’s synchronized steps, in the identical sparkle of their bright eyes, in their equally perfect features—what he’d been blinded to for a month.

Amber and Clive simply looked right together.

After today, they would belong only to each other; the rules were different. When Casler’s machine was through with Amber, she would become Clive’s puppet, to do with as he pleased. There was nothing Aaron could do about it. Nothing.

That was the law of halves.

The paparazzi followed Clive and Amber through the doors. For a full five minutes, the procession filed through the lobby, until finally, the footsteps of the last couple echoed through the hall.

Gradually, the stabbing pain in his skull faded. But the pain in his heart did not.

“Mr. Harper—” The receptionist leaned forward. “It’s time.”

***

Amber felt Clive gripping her waist, holding her steady as they descended the thirty-six steps outside the Chamber of Halves, most likely unaware that his arm was the only thing keeping her vertical. Every step was a leap of faith, a petrifying free-fall, threatening to drain her already empty stomach onto the flashing cameras in front of her.

At the bottom she let unfamiliar hands guide her into a limousine, and she fell into a cold leather seat strewn with rose petals. Clive slid in next to her, and without warning they were alone, unnervingly alone—as the guests’ chatter was muted outside the tinted glass.

The limo pulled away, leaving her stomach far behind. Clive was whispering something, sliding closer to her, touching her in places he shouldn’t, but all she could do was fix her stare helplessly on the horizon and wait for it to stop spinning.

Clive had discovered her that morning, sleeping with Aaron. Amber shut her eyes, but the memory had already stung her. The urge to cry out his name was unbearable. Even in the Chamber, she expected Aaron. Even after Clive entered, grabbed her hand, and led her wordlessly before their parents—and the roaring applause of the Juvengamy Brotherhood—she still believed it was an arrangement.

What finally convinced her otherwise was the image of Clive’s pale blue eyes through the aitherscope during the confirmation.

The limo descended into the valley below and dropped them off at the Chamber Ballroom, where a hundred silk covered tables were set with crystal glasses and silver.

When the first course was served, shrimp salad over half an avocado, smothered in a thick reddish sauce, Amber took one look and barely managed to excuse herself to the bathroom before she threw up.

Clive followed her and banged on the door.

Amber coughed and stared at the watery contents of her stomach as they seeped down the drain, and another knot formed in her stomach.

She wondered vaguely about Aaron’s half, but she couldn’t hold the thought. Her stomach convulsed again. Good, the sooner it was all out, the better.

Just like the sooner they emptied her out with that machine, the better.

Clive banged harder, threw his weight against the door, and broke the lock. He swooped in and grabbed her shoulders.

“What’s wrong?” he said.

“You’re really asking?” she said.

“Is this how it’s going to be, Amber?” he said. “Is this how it’s going to be on our wedding night?”

“No,” she said, “this is how it’s going to be forever.”

“Does it matter that I love you?”

“Clive, none of this has ever been about love,” she said.

He stared at her. “It’s Harper, isn’t it?”

“Why does it matter?” she said. “We’re halves, just like you always wanted.”

“You used to love me,” he said.

“Funny. I don’t remember that,” she said.

His blue eyes held her captive. “Well I do.”

***

Aaron stepped into the special office and found Walter Wu cradling his forehead in his hands, gazing at a photo of his half through thick glasses. Aaron shut the door behind him and the man flinched, knocking the frame into his lap.

“Mr. Harper—?” he said, his eyes widening as Aaron lowered himself into the chair opposite his desk.

“Who’d you expect?” said Aaron.

Walter chewed on his lip for a moment, considering him carefully. Then he pulled off his glasses and massaged his bald forehead. “Aaron, you seem like an ordinary kid to me so I’ll just get right to it.”

In the special office, there was only a desk and a chair. No tapestries, no chandeliers, no paintings. It was an office for delivering bad news, for explaining complications.

And it was wrong to be here. It was wrong to meet his half. He was in love with Amber.

“Yes, perfectly ordinary,” Walter added, and he didn’t look Aaron in the eye. He slid his glasses back into place and turned to the file that was open on his desk, “which is why your situation is so curious.”

He flipped over one of the pages. “Of course, halves aren’t born exactly the same time. Sometimes they’re off by a fraction of a second, but eighteen years?”

Walter Wu shook his head and set the page down. “No, your situation is quite different.” He looked up. “I’m afraid you don’t have a half.”





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