Authors: Dawn Rae Miller
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, transmitted, or stored in an information retrieval system in any form or by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, taping, and recording without prior written permission from the publisher.
Copyright 2011 Dawn Rae Miller
Cover Illustration: Copyright 2011 Sarah Marino
This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and events are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
For my boys Keegan, Finn and Boone.
And Bug, all good things come from you.
“Beck, c’mon. It’s time to get up.”
I glance at my wristlet. We’re going to be late.
“Beck,” I whisper, putting my face closer to his.
A warm, bronze hand reaches for my arm, as if trying to pull me into the twin bed, but then it goes limp and nothing else happens. Beck lies curled in a ball and his unruly mop of blond waves peeks out from beneath the striped comforter. His other arm is flung across his face and holds the covers in place. He looks like his eight-year-old self when he sleeps. Not a nearly eighteen-year-old man.
“Beck!” I raise my voice.
“Lark? Hmmm.” His eyelids flutter without making any sort of commitment.
I rub his warm hand with my free one. “Please get up. You’ll make us late for school.”
He yawns and grins at me. “All right.”
Now alert, he kicks back the covers and stands up. His foot strikes his history book and it skids under the bed. I shift my weight and take care not to crumple the scattered papers next to Beck’s bed.
“Your area is disgusting.” I wrinkle my nose.
He flashes a toothy grin at me and tightens my wrap around my shoulders. “I know. I like it that way.”
Of the twenty-six students who live in our house, Beck and I are the only boy and girl who share a room. My eyes dart around his side. A sharp division of cleanliness separates my half from Beck’s. His sid
a mess. His lacrosse gear hangs off his desk with the stick acting as a makeshift coat rack. Piles of
both clean and dirty
clothes litter the floor.
Despite Beck’s messiness, sharing a room with a boy only bothers me when the other students tease us about it. It’s not as if we had any say in the matter
My mother demanded we be placed together as infants since we’re both descendants of Founders. According to Mother, the State, and everyone else in the world, this means we belong together.
Not that I disagree. Even if we weren’t the Greenes and the Channings, I’d still want to be paired with Beck. No one else understands me the way he does
how can they? Beck and I are two of the best-known members of our society. Our every movement is captured, analyzed, and commented on.
So even though I’m in a hurry to get to school, I’m not exactly thrilled about having to step outside this room. Every time I do, I leave my privacy behind and have to become Lark Greene: perfect, responsible student and prominent member of the Western Society.
I hate it.
I reach around him and flip off his reading lamp. He must have studied long after I fell asleep last night. A frown forms on my lips. I’m barely edging out Beck for first place in our class rankings. But if he studied longer…
He places his hands on my cheeks. “Hey, why so deso?” His eyes waver with concern.
I blink. “I’m not
it’s just nerves.”
“Worried you won’t get the mate of your dreams?” he teases. I roll my eyes. Unlike, ninety-nine point nine percent of the population, Beck and I have been promised to each other since birth. Birth-mated. We don’t have to sit for mate-selection portions of the assessments. Only the job placement exams.
A hard, tense knot forms in my stomach. More than anything, I want a good placement in State. Preferably in the Agriculture division. I have to do well. And that means not being late.
Beck pushes his nose against mine and wiggles his eyebrows. When I give a half-hearted smile, he releases me.
“We’re going to do great today. I know it.” He beams at me, the brightness of his smile matched only by his lively, deep green eyes. Other than our birthday, this is the one thing we share
even the freckles in our eyes line up perfectly when facing each other. Bethina, our housemother, says it’s a sign we’re meant to be together.
But I don’t need eye freckles to tell me that. The State wants us together. And the State doesn’t make mistakes.
“I hope so.” I reach up on my tiptoes and brush a hair out of his eye. My feeble smile is a sad match for his optimism. Beck’s always laughing, always steady. Sometimes I feel like a lost little moon floating around in his orbit. But our opposite natures work well together. He pushes me socially, dragging me from my relentless studying, and I get him to actually focus on school and do his homework.
Worried about the time, I check my blue wristlet again before flinging it next to my hairbrush. We have thirty minutes to get dressed, eat breakfast and get out the door.
I pull open one of Beck’s drawers and dig through the tangle of clothes until I find a shirt and pants for him.
While he showers, I consider the pair of jeans my best friend Kyra bought me and immediately reject them. I don’t want to go to my assessment wearing something uncomfortable and odd.
As I change behind a scree
my small attempt at privacy
Beck emerges from the shower. The scent of Beck’s soap
tickles my nose and I grin. Thankfully, I’m hidden and he can’t see my reaction.
He doesn’t need the encouragement - things are hard enough as it is.
“How do these even fit you?” he asks.
I peek around the screen. He stands next to my closet, dressed, but his hair is damp and tousled. He holds the jeans out in front of him like they’re some sort of foreign object, though I know he’s seen a pair before—they’re not
obsolete. “They’re so small. Look!” He shoves his feet into the legs and they get stuck around his ankles. He hops to my bed, nearly tripping in the process, and tries tugging them off.
I pull on my blouse and walk around the screen toward the mirror. “They’re authentic, Beck. There’s no smart technology in them to stretch to the right size. And even if there was, they’re still not meant to be worn by a six-foot-two giant.”
While he struggles to disentangle himself, I smooth my chestnut hair into a loose ponytail. Neat and tidy, just like a future Stateswoman. In the mirror, I see Beck has stopped fighting my jeans and is watching me. Flutters tickle my heart. His eyes burn for a second but then he returns to just regular old Beck.
A weird tension hangs between us. It’s been happening more and more lately. When I catch Beck staring at me, he’ll look away or pretend to be doing something else, and then we avoid each other for a while until the awkwardness passes.
But we don’t have time for that this morning, so I stick out my tongue and hope it distracts him.
“Oh, you did it now!” he growls playfully.
I’m pulled off the ground and hurled through space. The unexpected sensation leaves me dazed and unprepared for what comes next. I land on my bed, my legs dangling over the edge. Beck leaps on me and straddles my waist. He deftly pins me, holding both my hands over my head with one hand.
I look up at him, suppressing my urge to shriek and laugh simultaneously. “We’re going to be
The burning look returns to his eyes.
It stops me cold.
“Late,” he says, and with his free hand, pinches my pendant
a soaring bird
between two fingers.
“Do you really like this?” He turns it over, examining the patina bird he gave me last year, on our seventeenth birthday, and lays it softly onto my chest. His fingers brush my collarbone, and he jerks his hand away. A shiver ripples down my spine.
“Of course I do.”
He frowns, like my answer wasn’t what he’d hoped for. I’m not sure what Beck wanted me to say
it’s a necklace he gave me. I like it
My eyes lock onto his and I draw a ragged breath. For the first time in my life, I don’t care about the State’s rules. I want Beck to kiss me.
He leans close to me, our mouths inches apart. His warm breath fans across my face. “It looks pretty on you.”
My heart races, pumping blood faster and faster through my body
leaving a wave of heat in its path. I close my eyes, waiting for his lips to touch mine, anticipating the sensation. Waiting for everything I know we shouldn’t do but can’t help wishing we would.
At the last second, as the electricity between our skin sparks, I turn my head.
My eyes flutter open and I catch a glimmer of disappointment in his eyes before he turns on his normal bright smile.
“Can you get out?” he asks with a hint of mischief
while pinning my hands above my head.
I twist my wrists, and with one strong shove, I push him off me and throw myself on his back. Unlike everyone else, Beck’s never surprised by my strength or athleticism.
“Of course I can.” I push my face into his hair.
“Not bad, Birdie.” He stands up with me clinging to his back. He hesitates, and for a second, I think he’s going to drop me to the ground, but then he grasps my thighs and holds me tight. “We should get our breakfast.”
I’m thankful he can’t see the blush I know is creeping across my cheeks and pray he can’t feel my heart hammering against his back.
The bedroom doors of all the other students
four boys or four girls per room
are open and empty. Everyone must be at breakfast, which means Beck and I are late.
When we reach the kitchen doorway, twenty-four pairs of eyes stare at us from the tables. Fortunately, Bethina has her back to us.
Beck releases my legs, and I slide off his back and smooth my skirt. It’s my sad attempt to act like riding around on his back is completely normal and not at all borderline rule-breaking.
Rule number one: Students must not engage in any intimate activity until after their bindings.
“Will you two stop messing around and hurry up?” Bethina turns around and hands Beck a plate. Her dark hair is pulled back into a bun and her olive skin looks more ashen than normal in the dim kitchen light. “You’re going to make everyone late for school.”
Beck takes the plate. “Aw, c’mon Bethina. Don’t be mad. I was just trying to shake the nervousness out of Lark. Can’t be mad at me for that, can you?”
Bethina snaps a towel at him. “Beck Channing, I’ve never met anyone so hard to be upset with.” He grins and ducks his head in mock embarrassment. “Now, sit and eat before you really do make everyone late.”
I squeeze in between Ryker and Lina. Or more correctly, Lina begrudgingly moves so I can sit. Beck takes the spot across from me and piles his plate high with food.
“Is that all you’re eating?” He points at my plate of strawberries. “No wonder you’re so little.” He takes a bite of pancake and washes it down with some orange juice.
“I like to eat healthy.”
Beck never thinks about what he eats. If you put it in front of him, he’ll eat it without question. He turns his attention to his best friend, Maz, and falls into deep conversation. Behind them, the wall
screen broadcasts the daily news – more Sensitive trials, as usual, along with a report about the Society’s planned improvements to existing security systems.
I should focus on the news, but my mind drifts back to the way Beck looked at me earlier. The disappointment in his eyes. I thought, for a moment
okay, I hoped he’d kiss me.
A sticky wetness drips between my fingers. A smashed strawberry.
Beck moves his head slightly toward me. His full lips turn upward and he winks. A blush threatens to creep up my cheeks, and I force myself to focus on the wall
screen. Perhaps my assessors will test me on today’s farm reports? I need to be prepared.
As the newscaster runs through the names of students being bound this week, my eyes dart around the room and I notice, for the first time, how my housemates have begun to pair off. It used to be boys on one side of the room and girls on the other. Not because of rules, but because we liked it that way.
I wonder what my housemates will do if they don’t end up with who they want? How many tears will be shed in the coming days as the results come in?
The State doesn’t give us a choice. And why should they? During our school career, our caregivers, along with our teachers and select State representatives, evaluate us and give careful consideration to creating pairs that will help create a stronger society and the best possible offspring. We spend our entire lives learning how to get along and how to work with our housemates so that, when it’s our turn to run the State, we already understand each other’s strengths and shortcomings. That’s why we’re only bound to someone from our house.
Rarely, some children, like Beck and I, are paired off at birth. But like all other students, the State won’t legally recognize our relationship until after our shared eighteenth birthday, when our families will celebrate with an elaborate ceremony called a binding. After that, Beck and I will be together for the rest of lives. Not that we haven’t already been, but the binding will make it official.