Read ARC: Essence Online

Authors: Lisa Ann O'Kane

Tags: #cultish Community, #loss, #Essential problems, #science fiction, #total suppression, #tragedy, #Yosemite, #young adult fiction, #zero emotion

ARC: Essence (10 page)

 

CHAPTER TWELVE

 

I ran into Javi outside the entrance to the clinic. He must have seen me enter, because he was sitting waiting on a split rail fence. His long legs were stretched in loose-fitting pants, and his hair was windblown.

“Got to you, too, didn’t he?”

I nodded. “He did. And I want to do this, Javi. I really want to do this now.”

“I do, too.” Javi looked taller this morning, and straighter, with a fierce expression and eyes that glinted almost black as charcoal. He stood.

“They’ve got me cleaning rooms at the Ahwahnee,” he said. “An unlucky chore assignment, but I finished early today, and I think we should go on a hike.” He motioned toward a dirt trail. “Rex tells me there’s a set of waterfalls up this way, and I’d like to see them.”

He paused. “And I want to hear why you’re here, Autumn,” he said. “If we’re going to try to do this together, it seems this should be our first step.”

 

We cut away from Curry Village and starting up a winding, sun-dotted trail. The air smelled crisp, like moss and sediment, and the air felt warm as it settled on our shoulders.

The trail was wide and steep as it curved alongside the granite canyon walls. A clear creek gurgled to our right, and rocks rose sharply to our left. Their towering height made me feel a bit claustrophobic – like I was stuck between buildings in San Francisco’s financial district – but this place didn’t remind me of the financial district
at all
.

It was wild here. And green. Instead of hearing cars, trains and chattering businessmen and women, all we heard were chirping birds, trickling water and the crunch of gravel as it ground beneath our feet.

We hiked in silence for a few minutes, and then I felt my breath shortening. The pain I’d felt in Golden Gate Park was back, but instead of panicking, I simply took a deep breath and reached sideways to stretch.

A stitch. This is called a stitch, and everybody gets them.

Javi frowned, but I shook my head. “I’m fine,” I said, and I hoped my voice didn’t betray my lingering fear. “It’s apparently no big deal. You’re just supposed to stretch, and it will go away.”

“What are you supposed to do when you can’t breathe?” Javi’s words were labored, and it relieved me to see I wasn’t the only one having trouble with this.

“It’s the altitude,” I said. “It’s harder to breathe when you’re high in the air, and this place is a lot higher than San Francisco.” I straightened as the pain in my side began subsiding. “We’ll get used to it. I think it only takes a few weeks for your body to adjust.”

Javi motioned to the trail twisting before us. “This is scary, isn’t it?”

“What?”

“This. Everything. The idea that we’re out here hiking, and we might not die, after all.”

“Yeah.” I wiped the sweat from my brow and glanced back toward the trailhead.

“I wonder if we’ll ever get used to this,” he said. “And I wonder which fear is worse: the fear of feeling nothing, or the fear of feeling everything?”

“What do you mean?”

“It just seems like you shouldn’t feel everything all the time, just like you shouldn’t feel nothing all the time. You know?”

“I guess. But Rex said you should do whatever you want. So if you want to be neutral, I guess you could be neutral. Right?”

He didn’t look convinced. “I guess so.”

 

We made our way higher and higher, past rockslides, cottonwood groves and drop-offs that grew increasingly steeper the farther we traveled. We didn’t say much – couldn’t say much, really, with our huffing and puffing.

When we finally reached the wooden footbridge, it was Javi who spoke first: “Wow. Would you look at that?”

I followed his line of sight. There, raging a mile or so upstream, I found myself staring at a waterfall so violent and massive, I felt myself shrinking back slightly. It was still far away, but its vertical drop-off was so daunting it made me dizzy. Wedged in the narrow span between two cliffs, it towered at least three hundred feet above the valley floor. The water that catapulted from its crest exploded in a heaving spray so thick, it completely shrouded its base in mist.

Javi consulted a wooden sign. “Vernal Fall, it says, and there’s apparently two ways we can get to the top.”

I reached his side and studied the sign. “It’s only about half a mile to the top if we take this Mist Trail,” I said and pointed to the path on our left. “The trail we’re on right now is much longer.”

“Mist Trail it is.” Javi surveyed the longer trail with a smirk. “Why in the world would anyone go the long way?”

 

Nearly six hundred stone stairs later, Javi and I both understood why someone might choose the long way. The Mist Trail – aptly named, I realized, when I became soaked – was nearly vertical. Its winding stone steps cut straight into the side of the cliff, and they crumbled and wiggled under our feet as we struggled to the top.

I was terrified. I climbed more than I hiked, and I slipped on the wet moss and crawled on my hands and knees in some places. I would have turned back several times if not for Javi’s quiet support. He walked a few paces behind me, and he caught me whenever I began to slip.

He looked scared, too, but he also looked exhilarated. His dark hair was plastered to his forehead by the time we reached the summit, and his cotton pants clung to him, dripping and nearly transparent from the water. He was wearing dark undergarments, I noticed, and I would have blushed, had I not been so exhausted.

The trail petered out on the right side of the waterfall, and a wide, relatively flat stretch of granite and meadow opened behind it. The cliff’s drop-off loomed dangerously to our left, but a wide stretch of corroded chain link fencing blocked it for the most part.

My fear of heights kicked into overdrive, and I made sure to give the cliff a wide berth as I walked to inspect the point where the gushing creek cascaded into the waterfall below. I had never seen anything like it before. The water, relatively calm on top, dropped over the side in a raging explosion of roaring power. Water droplets burst and scattered apart in midair, and they collided and recombined dizzily as they streamed downward.

The view from up here was even more unfathomable than the one from the bottom, and I felt my head spinning when I stared for too long.
Vertigo
, I thought, clinging to another word I remembered from my temple lessons. I staggered backward and sank to a seat on a rock.

Javi followed, and we sat together in silence. After a few moments, he tilted his head and grinned. “We made it.”

I surveyed the jumbled cliff before us and felt victory and relief coat my insides. We
had
made it. We had scaled the side of a cliff together, and nothing bad had happened to us. Our Essences hadn’t faltered once.

The grin that swept across my face must have told Javi everything he needed to know, because he beamed when he motioned to what looked like a widened swimming area behind us. “Wanna take a walk?”

I nodded. We approached the water, blocked artificially from the waterfall by a series of stone boulders. The roar of the falls lessened, and it was easy to imagine there was no waterfall raging behind us.

“So, what made you leave the city, anyway?”

The question was unexpected, but Javi’s tone was so sincere that I only hesitated a moment before answering, “My little brother, Brady, died a few months ago.”

“Brady was your brother?” The color drained from his face. “Autumn, I’m so sorry; I had no idea.”

“No, it’s OK. But… Brady was a good kid, you know? He didn’t ever do anything he wasn’t supposed to, so when he…” I cleared my throat. “Well, that’s why I’m here, I guess. I don’t want his…
life
… to have been for nothing. If Essences really are bullshit, Centrists need to know that.”

Javi nodded and leaned sideways until our shoulders were touching. It was a good feeling – warm – and it didn’t make me uncomfortable like I expected. Instead, I felt reassured. Like I wasn’t alone anymore.

“Why are
you
here?”

“My girlfriend killed herself two years ago.”

Javi’s words were so unfathomable that I nearly tumbled to the ground. Instead, I jerked sideways and whirled to face him.

“I know, I know.” His smile was slow and sad. “There are so many things wrong with that sentence that you don’t even know where to begin.”

“I don’t.” My cheeks reddened. “Javi… I’m so sorry. I’ve never heard of anything like that before. What
happened
?”

“Well, the first rule we broke was the one that says you aren’t allowed to date.”

“Right.”

“But we did. Obviously. We grew up living next door to each other, and the feelings we had for each other just wouldn’t go away.” He bit his lower lip. “We started seeing each other when we were fifteen – sneaking out at night, cutting classes at the temple, all that. It was stupid, and we knew it was stupid. But we felt invincible, you know – after a while – because nothing
happened
to us. Our Essences seemed fine, and no one ever suspected anything.”

His eyebrows knotted. “We didn’t
do
anything too dangerous, anyway. We just kissed, and we held each other and talked about our future. We justified it because we figured I’d be a meditation master someday. Maybe I’d be assigned to her, anyway.”

He picked up a fragment of rock and began rolling it between his thumb and forefinger. “One night, her mother caught us kissing in the alley. Gabriella was terrified she would tell Cedar, so I suggested we desert – make a dash for San Jose, or Monterey, or anywhere, really, where we could be away from the Movement.”

The rock fell from his hands. “Gabriella said she couldn’t leave. Said it would bring too much shame to her family. So that night… I don’t know exactly what happened. Maybe her mother
did
tell Cedar; maybe Cedar decided to send her away somewhere. Or maybe she just couldn’t live with her guilt.” At this, his voice cracked. “Whatever the reason, she hung herself that night. I didn’t find out until the policemen arrived the next morning.”

I didn’t know what to say. My fingers quickly found his, and my shoulder pressed into his side until his breathing evened out slightly.

We stayed silent for a moment, and then his tone changed. “Here’s the thing that’s never made sense to me. Gabriella’s list of transgressions didn’t mention me – or suicide – once. Cedar covered the whole thing up, said her cause of Essence drain was too much laughter and the secret stash of romance novels she’d hidden in her bedroom.”

His voice became heated. “How can it be that we carried on a secret relationship for more than two years, but Cedar blamed her death on
romance novels
?”

He looked so struck by the inconsistency that I felt my knot of determination solidify. Gabriella’s list of transgressions was exactly like Brady’s.

“How many more?” I said. “How many more transgression lists have been lies?”

Our metal wristbands clinked together as I grabbed both his hands. “I can’t tell you how sorry I am about Gabriella, Javi, but more than that, I’m pissed. I can’t believe we’ve allowed ourselves to be controlled by Cedar for so long. I can’t believe the things he’s made us do.”

“How about the things he’s made us
not
do?” The fervor in Javi’s voice mirrored my own. “My whole life, I’ve been terrified to feel
anything
, but look where that got Gabriella. Look where that got Brady.”

I nodded. “I
hate
him, Javi. I’m sick and tired of his lies, and I want to do this. I want to help Rex destroy the Movement.”

I glanced toward the swimming area, to the gurgle of clear water and the reflection of the sun off its ripples. The weight of my wristband felt heavy, and I instantly knew where we could start. “Javi, have you ever gone swimming before?”

 

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

 

Javi’s shirt was off before I could even finish my question. Ripping it over his head, he kicked off his new hiking boots and fumbled with his pants’ drawstrings.

Then he was standing there with his hand extended – bare chest gleaming in the sun and long legs tense beneath dark undergarments. His expression was resolute, and he waited for me without a trace of uncertainty in his eyes. “Let’s do this, Autumn.”

I couldn’t help my hesitation, and I couldn’t help the blush that crept through my cheeks at the sight of him. But I could make the decision to do something about it.

So I did.

I loosened the ribbon that kept my flimsy blouse tied, and I dropped it to the ground. I kicked off my shoes and stepped out of my pants, and then I was standing there, nearly naked, too. My Community-appointed undergarments were much more flattering than my bulky Centrist ones – soft blue panties and a matching cotton bra – but the thought that I was actually standing here letting a boy look at me was still so foreign and uncomfortable that I only paused for a second before I darted toward the swimming area.

“Do you know how to swim?” I called over my shoulder as I ran.

“No! Do you?”

“No!”

“Can’t be that hard, right?”

He ran a few paces behind me – I could hear the slap of his feet against the granite – but I tried not to think about what my butt might look like from that angle as I approached the creek and splashed into the water.

“Wait, wait, wait!” I shouted, stopping a few paces in when the creek’s icy chill stunned me. It was glacial – absolutely freezing even in May – and I began to rethink our decision to swim until Javi crashed into me and sent us both catapulting forward into deeper water.

Javi’s cry was strangled. Surfacing in a flurry beside me, he struggled and kicked, backpedaling toward the shallows and dragging me with him.

We clambered up the bank, shivering and sputtering and finally collapsing on a sun-warmed rock. “Wow,” he said, fighting his coughs as I wiped the hair from my eyes. We made eye contact and instantly erupted into laughter. Javi looked like a drowned rat, and I’m sure I looked no better. My hair was an absolute mess, and my pale skin had begun taking on blue undertones. My teeth were chattering, and I’m sure my lips were turning blue as well. Even Javi’s skin was starting to look sickly. Goose bumps and sand particles covered his chest and stomach as he lay on his back and laughed until he cried.

Tears were streaming from my eyes, too, by the time we were finished. The sun had warmed my frigid skin by then, so I may have looked a little less ridiculous when he propped himself on his elbow and said, “Wanna go in again?”

It suddenly occurred to me that I actually
was
lying here in my underwear next to him. I stole a glance downward, and although I was relieved to see that my clothing still wasn’t see-through, my nipples were certainly making quite a show through the thin fabric of my bra.

I quickly covered my chest with my arms.

I was too late, I think, because the playful expression in Javi’s eyes changed when he saw me survey myself. This led him, I’d imagine, to glance downward as well, because he shuddered slightly and inhaled in one shaky breath.

Energy hovered between us, and I felt my body become electrified. Before I realized it, I was up on my elbow, and my desire to taste his lips finally became overpowering. I had never kissed a boy before, but suddenly I wanted to feel what it felt like to press my body against his.

Our lips were only a few inches apart when I heard the leaves crunch behind us. And then, a loud voice boomed, “Red! Javi! You found the swimming hole!”

I jerked backward and locked eyes with Ryder. He stood a short distance away, shirtless and flanked by two boys I didn’t recognize.

There was a defiant set to his jaw, and his eyes drilled into Javi’s as he asked, “Having fun, guys?”

Javi straightened, and an edge crept into his voice. “Water’s colder than it looks.”

“It is at that.” Ryder tossed his backpack to the ground. His signature confidence returned, and he grinned broadly as he strode toward us. “Boys and I blew off chores to scope out Taft Point for our summer highlining route. Should be set to go soon, if either of you wanna join us.”

He motioned to the group behind him. “Trey and Adrian. Guys, this is Javier and Autumn. New recruits.” He winked and reached for the buttons of his pants. “Think we could use a swim, too. Room for a few more?”

 

I was astonished when Ryder dropped not only his pants, but his undergarments, too. His back was to me, but every curve and muscle of his butt was clearly visible when he took off running and crashed into the deep water.

Trey and Adrian quickly followed. Although I never saw their fronts, I clearly saw both of their backs as they cast off their clothes and catapulted naked into the swimming hole after him.

I realized my mouth was hanging open when Javi snarled and straightened from the ground. “Assholes,” he said and extended his hand for me. “I’m so sorry, Autumn. Let’s get out of here, OK?”

Stunned – both by his anger and by the nakedness that had just flashed before my eyes – I let him pull me from the rock and lead me back to our clothes.

He turned to block me as I struggled into my pants. “He knows you just got here,” he fumed, rage barely concealed. “How could he possibly think it’s OK to strip down naked in front of you?”

I didn’t answer. Still shocked, I pulled my blouse over my head and gathered my hair into a sloppy ponytail.

“I’m so sorry.” He turned to pull on his own pants. “That was unbelievably disrespectful. Let me take you home, OK?”

 

I tried to tell myself I was horrified – and I kinda was, I guess – but mostly, I was just surprised. And later that night, when I replayed the sight of Ryder running naked toward the creek, I felt a little amused, too.

The sight of his white butt, so out of sync with his tanned back and legs, was pretty funny. I wondered what his front looked like – giggled a little when I tried to picture it – and then I remembered the highlight of my afternoon was supposed to be my almost-kiss with Javi, not my almost-sighting of Ryder’s package.

Javi and I had been thankfully reassigned to separate tent cabins, so I didn’t need to worry about his presence in the cot beside me. This relieved me, but it still struck me as odd that – as incredible as the feeling of almost-kissing him had been – it was Ryder’s interruption that kept running through my mind.

That smoldering moment when he sized us up across the clearing… His eyes had been filled with… what? Outrage? Envy?

I felt a little giddy at the idea that he may have been jealous to see me with Javi, but I stopped myself before I could go any further. After all, Ryder apparently dated everyone around here. So even if I could have him, I didn’t want him, anyway. Right?

Get yourself together, Autumn.

 

“Get a good look?”

I jumped at the sound of Ryder’s voice. The rake in my hands clattered against the stall wall in front of me, and I whirled to see him waiting in the stable aisle. His arms were crossed, and dimples creased the smoothness of his cheeks.

“What are you doing here?” I reached for my fallen rake and picked a stray piece of hay from my hair. “Blowing off chores again?”

“Nope.” He took a step forward. “Clinic’s a piece of cake; I just organize samples for my old man until he gets bored and tells me to beat it.” He narrowed his eyes playfully. “But you didn’t answer my question. Get a good look?”

“At what?”

“At
it
.” He tilted his head and motioned to his pants. “The business. You know.”

“No.” My blush was becoming painful. “No, Ryder, I did
not
see your business yesterday. Thank you very much.”

He beamed and turned around. Glancing at me over his shoulder, he said, “How ’bout the ass, then? Get a good look at that sweet thing?”

“That sweet thing?” I couldn’t help but laugh. “If by ‘that sweet thing’ you mean ‘the whitest butt in the world,’ then yes, I did see that.”

“Ah, Red, you’re killing me over here.” He slumped against the stall door. “I go out of my way to impress you, and here you are, breaking my heart all over again.”

“As if your heart is capable of being broken,” I said with a smirk. “I’ve heard all about you, Ryder, and I think heartbreak is probably last on your list of concerns.”

“Shows how much you don’t know about me.” He sighed and hung his head. “Next, you’re going to tell me it
didn’t
destroy me to see you kiss that dude yesterday.”

“I didn’t kiss that dude yesterday!” I don’t know why my protest came out so fast. “Javi, I mean. I didn’t kiss
Javi
yesterday. I
almost
kissed him, but you managed to kill that moment pretty quickly.”

“Good.” His grin was radiant. “Then I’ll make it my mission to continue killing those moments whenever I can.” He paused and leaned a little closer. “Seriously, Red, you don’t want to waste your kisses on that guy. He can’t make you happy like I can.”

“Like you can? Did you actually just say that?”

“I did.” His eyes lingered as he turned to go. “You know I’ve been crazy about you ever since I met you. My heart is yours, whenever you’re ready to collect it.”

I tried to think of something snappy to say – some way to make the situation funny again – but by the time I’d gathered my words, Ryder was already gone.

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