Entanglement (YA Dystopian Romance)
Author:Dan Rix

chapter FIVE

7 Days, 9 hours, 1 minute



At two in the morning, Dominic skidded to a stop in front of Aaron’s house.

“That’s twenty dollars for the gas, fuckface.”

“What is this, Europe?” said Aaron, the image of Clive’s tattoo still vivid in his retinas. He threw his last two ones at Dominic and stepped out of the car, hardly caring that now the rugby player—and probably in a few minutes, Clive too—would know where he lived.

Amber has the other half. Those words haunted him still, as Dominic’s Beamer roared away from the curb, shattering the quiet of the sleeping neighborhood. But Aaron had to see the tattoo on Amber to know for sure. Her shoulders had been bare while they were dancing, but he hadn’t looked. The club was too dark.

Aaron knew he had to quit agonizing over her, his birthday was too close, but he couldn’t think about anything else. No way could he forget her enchanting green eyes, her maddening overconfidence, her nerve.

Seven days—seven days until he turned eighteen and never saw her again.

Back inside his room, Aaron dragged the torn stack of medical forms from his pocket and spread them out under his desk lamp, hands shaking. Under the “complications” section on a form titled “Physical Examination,” Dr. Selavio’s sloppy cursive was barely legible.

Scar tissue obstructing clairvoyant channel. Likely result of massive trauma to channel during birth.

Trauma during birth? But Aaron hadn’t sustained any trauma during birth. Not unless you counted the false alarm story his parents always bragged about to family—how an intern had misread one of the synchronized clocking machines and declared Aaron a stillborn, even though he was crying right in front of them.

With the uneasy feeling his parents hadn’t quite told him the full story, Aaron read the scribbles concerning his condition on the next form, titled “Aitherscope Imaging”—and felt his insides seize up.

Aitherscope registers zero clairvoyant activity and patient experiences inexplicable pain. Suggests extreme vulnerability to clairvoyance. Patient MUST NOT meet his half; initial surge of clairvoyance upon first contact will likely rupture his channel . . .

The rest was torn off, but those three sentences were more than plenty.

Darkness swallowed the bubble of light around Aaron’s desk. He tried to neaten the stack of forms, but they slipped through his jittery fingers and floated to the floor. He rose, tipping the chair backwards. His eyes throbbed, blurry.

Dr. Selavio’s notes about him made two things clear. First, if he met his half on Saturday, his channel would rip open and leak like Emma Mist’s. They would both die. Second, Amber wasn’t his half, otherwise they would already be dead.

Aaron shrank onto his bed and grabbed his volleyball, but instead of setting the ball to the ceiling, he just curled around it, hugging it between his knees.

For his whole life he had worried something would be missing when he met his half, when in fact he couldn’t meet her—No, shouldn’t meet her. No matter the risk, he still had to show up on his birthday.

Life without one’s half was no life at all, everybody knew that. Once mature, the human body required constant physical contact with its half. Aaron faced a simple choice. He either died on his birthday with his half, or withered away months later without her.

There was a third choice. It involved Amber and running away from their halves, and it burned him with such a deep sense of shame, he thought he would puke.

***

Aaron didn’t know how he made it through the weekend, or why he even bothered patching the crack in his oil pan on Saturday afternoon, but by Monday morning, he had successfully relegated Dr. Selavio’s medical report to the back of his mind. By first period, he even rekindled his delusional hope that he and Amber could be halves. Now, if he could just convince himself she wasn’t a juvengamy baby.

From what Aaron remembered of the video they watched in health class, juvengamy girls had been emptied of the most precious thing they had.

Clairvoyance was like your soul. It was the conscious, living part of you, and should you lose any of it—well, it wasn’t hard to imagine what that was like.

The worst part was that Amber Lilian supposedly had a scar branding her as one of them.

Aaron leaned toward Buff’s desk. “Besides the matching scars,” he said, “what else you know about them?”

“They’re spooks,” said Buff. “Ghosts. People say they’re hollow.”

“You can tell?”

“The girls act like their half’s pet. They’re not all there.”

“The parents must be out of their minds.”

“It’s in their blood, Buddy. Ever since that first generation.”

“So it’s like their inbred—”

“Mr. Harper—Mr. Normandy!” Mr. Sanders yelled from the front of the class. “Shut it.”

Buff leaned closer so he could whisper. “Their founder’s like a hundred-and-twenty years old. I heard they’re choosing an heir to replace him when he dies.”

“How do they know who goes with who when they’re putting kids together?” said Aaron, “Wouldn’t they need access to the Registry?”

“They keep their own records,” said Buff. “Most halves stay within juvengamy families.”

“And they’re always weird and empty?” said Aaron. “I mean, let’s say I met a juvengamy girl, would I be able to tell she’s one of them just by talking to her—”

“Congratulations, Mr. Harper,” said their teacher, his eyes intent on Aaron, “you’ve just earned yourself a detention.” He turned back to the board. “ . . . as I was saying, in response to Saudi Arabia’s ongoing refusal to legally recognize halves, the League of Nations imposed sanctions on any country that prevented, hindered, or in any way deterred halves from meeting safely . . . ”

Aaron slouched until his butt almost slid off the chair and fixed his eyes on the ceiling.

“However,” Mr. Sanders continued, “it wasn’t until almost fifty years later—about the year you guys were born—that Saudi Arabia became the final member state of the Chamber of Halves . . . ”

When the bell rang, Jessica Lim, a girl who sat at the front, bounded over to Tina Marcello’s desk.

“Oh my God! Can you believe it’s tomorrow?” she said, squealing and clapping her hands. “And guess what I overheard? My parents are sending us on a honeymoon cruise!”

Out in the hallway after class, Aaron thought about his conversation with Buff. So there was no way to determine if Amber was a juvengamy baby. Not unless—and the idea gave him a nervous twinge—he accepted Casler’s invitation to the Wednesday meeting of the Juvengamy Brotherhood.

Not the smartest idea, since he guessed the urine stain on Casler’s operating table came from Justin Gorski. On that night, Casler must have drained the boy’s clairvoyance into the vial, the same vial Clive brought to the beach a few hours later. Aaron couldn’t imagine what it must have felt like for Justin—and for Emma.

If only Aaron hadn’t dropped the vial out at the buoy, he could have brought it the police, maybe gotten the substance analyzed. He wiped the sweat off his forehead and swung his gym bag to his other shoulder. Today was going to be hot.

***

“Buddy, it’s ninety degrees out,” said Buff, collapsing into an empty picnic table at lunch. “We’re ditching practice and going to the beach.”

“Not me,” said Aaron, sliding on his sunglasses.

“Yes—you, me, Tina, and Amber. Tina invited us all to Arroyo beach.”

At the mention of Amber, Aaron’s heart fluttered. “Since when does Tina invite us to the beach?”

“She’s okay now,” said Buff. “She broke up with Breezie because his birthday’s in a few months . . . ”

Aaron missed the rest of Buff’s explanation. Even in the scorching heat, the prospect of seeing Amber again gave him goose bumps.

So she was fine with breaking their consensual goodbye. Okay, so they hadn’t really said goodbye. In fact, as Aaron recalled, their goodbye was interrupted . . .

Through his sunglasses, the sky blinded him. The sun’s heat seared his scalp and the back of his neck. His black T-shirt scalded him, and he clawed at the material, trying to pull it off his skin—at least he could take his shirt off at the beach.

Amber would take hers off.

And he could check her back for the mirror image of Clive’s tattoo.

***

At two in the afternoon, Aaron and Buff trudged through the sand to Amber and Tina, who were sunbathing on two fluffy beach towels—and the center of attention of three chatting teenage boys. Amber lay on her back with one knee raised, stunning in a bikini, Aaron noticed.

“You three,” he said, once they’d made it to the boys, “beat it.”

Buff smacked his palm. The kids, probably juniors, took one look at the rugby player and stumbled away.

“So you’re rude to everybody,” said Amber, perching herself up on her elbows as Aaron approached her.

Now was his chance.

Heart racing, Aaron tossed his shoes behind her, and while he pretended to stash his wallet and phone inside them, he glanced at her exposed back. At first he wasn’t sure, the way sunlight glanced off her bare skin, silvery white. A spiral shaped scar, or was it sunscreen? It was almost too bright to tell, even with sunglasses.

Aaron squinted, shifted positions, then perceived her back clearly. He felt a wobbly twinge in his knees. Amber’s skin was unblemished, and he let himself sigh his relief.

Next to them, Buff and Tina were arguing.

“Stop blotting out the sun,” said Tina, arching her upper lip in disgust. “I’m trying to tan!”

“Why’d you bring this bullshit washcloth?” said Buff.

“Oh my God,” said Tina. “Don’t you own a towel?”

To Aaron, their voices sounded distant, hollow. Still feeling faint, he crouched in the sand next to Amber and scrutinized her face. Today, her eyes sparkled brighter than he’d ever seen them. Her golden hair winked at him in the sunlight.

“So . . . I kind of missed you.” she said, holding his gaze.

Those simple words made his heart race. Up until now, he doubted she felt anything for him. This was the closest she had ever come to admitting she did.

“Yeah, you might have crossed my mind once or twice,” said Aaron.

“Per second,” she said.

“Has Clive tried to see you?”

“I’ve been ignoring his calls.” She scooted over to make room for him on her beach towel. When he didn’t move, she said, “What? Am I too cool for you?”

He eased in next to her, careful not to brush her skin. She tugged his shirt over his head again and dropped it in the sand.

Buff, now sick of Tina, paced a few feet away.

“First league game this Friday,” he muttered, mostly to himself. “We play Corona Blanca, and coach won’t let me play because of my grades—this is bullshit!” He kicked a crater in the sand. “I bet Breezie set me up.”

Tina sighed. “All you and him ever talk about is getting revenge on each other—it’s so lame.”

Buff threw a practice punch through the air, then another. His fists whistled. “Friday, Breezie’s gonna get it.”

Aaron scanned the distant line of buoys lost in thought, and his eyes settled on the one he and Clive swam to the night of the bonfire, hardly more than a dot on the horizon. What did it all mean? If Amber didn’t have the matching tattoo, then who did?

And why had Clive insisted all this time that Amber was his half?

Aaron blinked. It was right in front of him.

The buoy.

***

The buoy marked the exact location where the vial sank. He could swim back out; he could dive to the bottom. He could recover the vial.

A wave of sweat soaked his skin, and he peeked at Amber, afraid she might have read his thoughts. At the same time, she glanced at him too, and their gazes snapped apart.

It was a stupid idea, he decided, now hyper-aware of Amber as she played with her hair. An underwater current would have swept the vial away by now, or buried it in the sand.

Amber leaned against him and whispered in his ear, her breath hot. “Aren’t we supposed to say goodbye to each other?”

He tensed up, doing all he could to resist bringing her into his arms. But he nodded. That’s what they had come here for.

He hadn’t seen a tattoo, but that didn’t prove anything. Obviously, Clive knew something about her he didn’t. But what? Aaron scooped up a palmful of sand and watched the grains slip through his trembling fingers.

“Fine. If you’re just going to sit there, I’m going to leave,” said Amber, shoving him off her towel so she could fold it up. “Can you at least give me a ride home?”

“Look, I’m not really in the mood to be chivalrous right now,” he said.

“So you want me to walk back? My house is way up on Mission Ridge.”

“Then take it at a jog. You’re athletic.”

“In sandals?”

“How’d you get here anyway?” said Aaron, standing up next to her.

“I got a ride like a normal person,” said Amber. “How do you think?”

Aaron cocked his eyebrow. “Would it kill you to be polite for once?” he said.

“Polite to you? Maybe if you weren’t about to blow me off . . . ” She gave up and sighed, “Whatever.” Then raised her voice. “Buff! Aaron’s being a butthead.”

Unable to resist, Aaron gave into the urge and tousled her hair—and was stunned how soft it felt.

“I thought you weren’t touching me?” she said, smoothing her hair back again.

“I shouldn’t be,” said Aaron. “But you’re . . . ” he trailed off, not sure what he’d been about to say.

Amber stepped close to him. Kissing distance. “But what?” she said, “But I’m getting hard to resist?”

Aaron studied her face, the mischievous glint that lit up her eyes—concealing everything behind them that was dark. “I think I can manage to keep my hands off you for five days,” he said.

Her piercing green eyes held him captive. “What about a lifetime?”

***

After Amber slipped into a jean skirt, she and Aaron walked across the sunbaked asphalt toward his Mazda. She held his shirt hostage.

When they reached the car, Amber faced him. “Did you have fun today?” she said.

Aaron held open the passenger door for her.

She didn’t budge. “Did you?”

“If I was bored I would have told you,” he said.

“What kind of answer is that?”

“I did.”

She cocked her head. “Did what?”

“I did have fun.” But even before the words left his mouth, a lump formed in his throat.

Amber’s golden hair shimmered in the sun and blew across her cheek. “Me too,” she said, and she climbed into the car.

Once inside, Aaron pulled off the panel under his steering wheel and dug through the wires. His fingers trembled.

“Are you stealing this car?” she said.

Aaron pressed the wires together and jerked his thumb away as they burnt him. His car rumbled to life. “It’s my car,” he said.

“But you stole it?”

“I lost the keys.”

“Uh-huh,” she said, eying the wires doubtfully.

Aaron revved the engine, yanked the wheel, and they flew out of the parking lot. He was aware of Amber’s gaze on the side of his face.

“Why didn’t you steal a nicer car?” she said.

“I didn’t steal it,” he said.

She wrinkled her nose. “This one smells.”

For the next few minutes he followed her directions up Mission Ridge, past glinting red convertibles and glass mansions. The ocean glittered through the palm trees.

But he hardly noticed. He focused on Amber, radiating heat right next to him, just as tense as he was. Her warm scent floated through the car, and the thought of saying goodbye to her was unbearable.

Aaron spun the wheel, shifted into second, and carved around a switchback.

Below them, the green valley shimmered under waves of heat, and the sun’s reflection winked off hundreds of tiny cars. Up here, the mansions were even bigger.

“This is my house,” said Amber, pointing to a Mediterranean-style palace.

Aaron parked in front of a blue Corvette on Loma Sierra Drive. He unwound the ignition wires and his car shuddered to a stop.

The moment the AC quit, a yellow heat flashed through the car and the sun blazed their skin. For half a minute, neither of them spoke.

Because now that it was silent, now that they were alone—

Aaron faced her and slid off his sunglasses. She fidgeted with one of the laces on her bathing suit top.

“So I guess this is it then,” he said.

“No duh,” she said. “You’re horrible at goodbyes . . . and you’re not getting a steamy goodbye kiss if that’s what you’re fantasizing about.”

“I think that would be inappropriate,” he said.

“You’re worried about your half, aren’t you?” she said, her tone daring, and he hated the way she referred to his half like she didn’t expect it to be her, didn’t even want it to be her.

“It’s complicated,” he said, facing forward again, his mind in turmoil. It was true; their involvement with each other this close to their birthdays could damage both of them. Like underage sex, enough emotion for the wrong person right now could drain clairvoyance from their channels, never to be replaced. Not a lot, but enough to notice, and they would feel what was missing the second they laid eyes on their halves.

A thick, sticky heat smothered the inside of the car. Amber shifted in her seat. “Do you ever get scared?” she said.

“I’m scared right now,” he said.

“I’m not.” Her green eyes sparkled. “You make me forget.”

“Stop it,” he said.

“What if this is all we ever get?”

“This is not all you get,” he said. “You get to spend your entire life—”

“With the wrong person,” she said, finishing his sentence. “Do you want to meet my parents and see for yourself?”

“Amber, you don’t have to be like them,” he said. “You’re not Clive’s half; halves love each other. That’s the only thing that’s real.”

“And what’s this?” she said.

“It’s fake.”

At first she didn’t move, but then she clicked open the door and stepped onto the curb. “Then maybe I was just being naïve,” she said, her voice flat. The door latched behind her.

It was done.

Aaron took a deep breath and tried to connect his ignition wires. They sparked, but he couldn’t hold them together.

Something felt wrong. He and Amber turned eighteen in five days. Halves or not, they both knew the danger of falling for each other. The decision to wait should have been easy, an obvious precaution. Anyone would have done the same in their shoes.

Instead, she acted exactly how he felt—as if these five days were her last. Ever. She acted like she didn’t want to say goodbye. He didn’t want to say goodbye, either. Because in five days, his own connection to his half would be uncertain, unlikely even. It might not even exist.

But Amber was real now.

Aaron kicked open his door. He caught her halfway up the broad, terra cotta steps leading to her front door and grabbed her by the hand.

“We don’t have to end this—” he said, pausing to catch his breath, “if you still want to do this.”

“I changed my mind.”

“No you didn’t.” He pulled Amber closer, and her hair loosened and gathered over her eyes. The ocean reflected in her irises like glitter.

Suddenly his sprint up the stairs caught up with him. He tried to catch his breath but couldn’t, or was it her, the heat emanating from every inch of her bare skin? Because he felt dizzy just looking at her.

And then he did it.

On impulse, while his brain was infuriatingly absent, he did the very worst thing he could have done. He kissed her.

The kiss surprised her at first, but then she sank into him, and he felt her fingernails digging into his back, squeezing him even closer. In his arms, her body felt naked and hauntingly appealing. Around them, the horizon’s silver haze swirled endlessly. They were weightless. And Aaron realized his nerves had been frozen up until now, numb, asleep for his whole life.

Waiting for her.

He pulled away slowly, and the citrusy, salty taste of her lips lingered pleasantly in his mouth. But before he could speak, movement in one of the windows drew his gaze. “Are your parents home?” he said.

“Are you hoping they saw?” she said, goose bumps spreading down her forearms.

“They’re inside, aren’t they?”

“I don’t actually want you to meet them.”

Aaron tried to read her expression, but she was closed off once again, guarded. “Amber,” he said, “is it a bad idea for me to keep seeing you? Will I end up hurting you?”

She stared at him, biting her lip, but said nothing.

“But you want me to anyway?” he said.

Slowly, she nodded.

And she looked very different than the girl he had met at the bonfire—disturbed, more dangerous. Involved in things she shouldn’t be. Instinct told him this was wrong.

He should have let her go.

***

But the feeling passed quickly, like a wave of vertigo. Maybe he was still unsteady from the kiss. Yeah, that was it.

He and Amber climbed the rest of way to the front door. A sea breeze followed them through a marble archway, and into her house through two glass-inlaid mahogany doors.

Inside, the peach colored carpet was spotless. Someone had even vacuumed it in perfect rows, like farmland. The scent of lavender and orange soap wafted over them.

Aaron knelt to unlace his shoes, but Amber yanked him back up. She pressed her finger to her lips, then hurried him past a living room, where her dad was watching television.

Aaron strained his neck to get a look at the man’s face. But all he saw was gray hair, cut military style—before he tripped on a staircase and slammed his knee into the riser, rattling the whole flight.

Amber shot him a furious look and dragged him up the stairs and out of view just as her dad turned around. Upstairs, her bedroom had a balcony and a view of the islands.

“Sorry, it’s a mess,” she said, shutting the door quietly.

“Amber!” her dad yelled from downstairs.

“Fine Dad!” Amber rolled her eyes. “He wants me to leave the door open.” She kept it closed, though.

Aaron narrowed his eyes. “Am I in danger?”

“Only if you do that again,” she said.

“And then what?”

“He’ll get his rifle.”

Amber circled her room, tossing laundry into the closet. Meanwhile Aaron reclined on her bed next to a powder-white teddy bear the size of real bear. His body sank into the turquoise down comforter, and his elbow struck an object. An open shoebox, doodled with hearts. He looked closer . . . letters.

Amber saw the shoebox and snatched it up. Blushing, she shoved it out of view.

“What are those?” said Aaron.

“Love letters.”

“From wh—?” But before he could finish the question, an odd stiffness gripped his chest. “Oh.” He sat forward, kneading his palms. “Never mind.”

“Well since you’re jealous,” said Amber, plopping down next to him, “they’re letters my great-grandparents wrote each other.” She slid closer to him, and he felt his breath stop in his throat.

“You still have their letters?” he said, sounding more relieved than he should have.

“I’m weird. I know,” she said.

“How old were they?”

“Our age. It was right before everything changed.”

He understood what she meant. “So they weren’t halves.”

Amber nodded. “Don’t you think it’s scary that everyone from before the discovery is dead?” she said. “I guess that’s why we’re special . . . the fourth generation and all that. Because there’s no one left who remembers.”

“You mean what it was like?”

“What true love is.”

Aaron felt a chill. “Is that why you keep their letters?”

She glanced up. “I want to know what it’s like to have a choice.” Over her head, dust swirled through shafts of sunlight, blazing like flecks of magnesium. “You’re the only boy I’ve ever kissed like that. Are you proud of yourself?”

“No. Now I’m never going to get you out of my head.”

Up close, her eyes appeared layered, freckled like jade crystals. “I wish I had more than five days to know you, Aaron.”

“How do you know you don’t?” he said.

She leaned forward to kiss him. “Stop asking questions you don’t want to know the answer to,” she said. “Let’s just make it count.”

At that moment, the door banged open, and Amber jumped away from him. Her father stood in the doorway.

“Son—” His gray eyes flashed between them. “I expect your folks are having dinner soon. It’s best you headed home.”

Aaron walked downstairs in front of Mr. Lilian, still drunk off the man’s daughter, euphoric.

The TV in the living room showed a televised political speech of some sort. Aaron was almost at the door when he recognized the politician on the screen—and his scalp tingled.

It was Dr. Casler Selavio, towering over an audience of reporters and flashing his dazzling rows of teeth for the cameras.

Aaron halted to listen.

“Rest assured the Brotherhood does not endorse the juvengamy procedure,” said Casler. “Our mission is to help past victims cope with their loss, not create new ones.”

A journalist asked a question. “Doctor, you claim you’ve invented a cure for half death, but have you considered the ethical implications of such a cure?”

“I’ll leave that to the Chamber of Halves,” said Casler. “For those interested, a demonstration of the technology will be given on Wednesday.” He signaled for another question.

“Dr. Selavio—” yelled a reporter. “Are the rumors true that you’ve been chosen as the heir to the Juvengamy Brotherhood?”

Aaron felt a hand grab the top of his head and aim it out the door.

“That way,” growled Mr. Lilian, before Aaron could hear the response. More questions he might be able to answer if he accepted Dr. Selavio’s invitation to the Brotherhood’s meeting. Outside, a twilight breeze sliced through his hair.

“Just one last thing,” said Mr. Lilian, before Aaron left, “and this is for your own good, son. My daughter isn’t allowed to date. If you ever go near her again, it’s going to be your ass.”