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 (18 page)

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

 

I stayed true to my word. With Trey and Adrian’s help, I practiced slacklining every single day that next week. By Friday – the day of Ryder, Jett and Cody’s return from the city – I felt comfortable walking seventy-five feet from one tree to another.

I was so excited about my progress that I stayed at Church Bowl long after Trey and Adrian had gone back to the Ahwahnee to prepare for the new recruits’ welcome feast. When Ryder, Cody and Jett sped past the Ahwahnee’s entrance gate – this time in a sleek, black all-terrain vehicle – I jumped from the line and decided to chase after them.

The path to the Ahwahnee was shady, and it couldn’t have been a more beautiful afternoon. The sun hung low in the western sky, and the air was warm and languid. The Ahwahnee kitchen smelled thickly of cooking bread, and lanterns already twinkled from the Meadow.

As I approached the truck, Cody waved from the driver’s seat. Jett popped out from the back, and then Ryder extended his hand to steady the new recruit.

Who just happened to be a girl.

Who just happened to be gorgeous.

“So, this is the Ahwahnee,” Ryder said. “Pretty sweet, huh?”

The girl had her back to me, but I could see she was tall and lean, with thick black hair and skin as tan as Javi’s. Her profile revealed a button nose, high cheekbones and a beaming smile.

“Absolutely gorgeous,” she said. Her accent was lilting – South American, maybe? – and her drab wool dress didn’t hang on her body the way mine had. Its boxy shape only seemed to accentuate her curves.

“Thought you’d like it.” Ryder made eye contact with me across the parking lot and winked, and then he swooped his arm around the girl’s lower back and began leading her forward. “So, more than two thirds of the Community lives in the Ahwahnee; the rest live in Tuolumne Meadows. If you want a room in the hotel, all you gotta do is be awesome. The Founders will notice.”

Jett began walking on the girl’s other side. “The Founders are the Community’s two leaders – Ryder’s father, Rex, and another former Centrist, Daniel Lynch…”

Jett’s words dissipated as the group approached the Ahwahnee’s entrance, but I found myself glued in place. Everything – from Ryder’s casual flirtation to Jett’s enthusiasm – was a mirror image of my first day in Yosemite.

I don’t know why this unsettled me so much. It only made sense they would give similar orientations to new recruits. It just bothered me to realize that even the moments I’d thought were spontaneous may have been scripted after all.

How far did the script extend? Did Jett usher me to the Balcony that first morning because she liked me, or did she simply do it because it was her job?

What about meals? Was it the recruiting team’s job to sit with new kids until they felt comfortable enough to find friends? Would Jett have been so excited to see me that night at moonbows if I hadn’t just arrived in the Valley?

What about Ryder? I swallowed and tried to push the question aside. Ryder and I were fine; we were more than fine, actually. He’d said he was tired of being the flirtatious one; he’d said he wanted to be honest for once in his life. But… What if he said that to everyone?

I swallowed. It wasn’t possible. Ryder had acted out of character; he’d even gotten in trouble for it. There’s no way you can make that up, right?

The clanging of the Ahwahnee Meadow bell signaled the start of the welcome feast. It also jolted me from my inner turmoil.

I guess there’s only one way to find out.

 

The new recruit’s name was Maria, and her mother had apparently moved from Costa Rica to join the Movement when she was eight. She was almost eighteen now, and she was completely opposed to the prospect of staying neutral forever – especially since her favorite memories of home involved festivals and dancing and colors.

She giggled more than anyone I’d ever met. As I sat watching her during dinner, I wondered how in the world she’d lasted in the Movement as long as she had.

“Easiest snag ever,” Jett whispered, cutting squash from her place beside me. “We found her strolling along Kezar Drive singing to herself, and she was even doing a little dance as she walked. She’s lucky we saw her before a meditation master did.”

I felt strange around Jett today – disillusioned, I think, both by her recruitment script and by her history with Ryder. Why hadn’t she told me?

Ryder sat beside Maria at the head table, and he seemed to be in fine form tonight, touching Maria’s wrist as she buttered her bread and glancing sideways to laugh or point whenever she asked a question.

He was mesmerizing up there – confident, relaxed and charming – and I could certainly see why Maria’s cheeks looked so flushed. She was captivated by him, just like me and every other girl in the Valley.

The pit in my stomach made anything other than picking at my food impossible. Although Ryder looked my way and smiled a few times, he certainly didn’t make an effort to come over and talk to me. Even when dinner concluded and the music and festivities began, he simply slipped into the crowd with his hand on the small of Maria’s back.

Kadence and Javi noticed. I caught them staring at me a few minutes into the celebration, and I felt a pang in my chest at the sight of them. Did they actually
pity
me?

I didn’t need their pity, just like I didn’t need to stand there and wait for Ryder to come find me. It was late, and I was tired, and I didn’t need to stay there, anyway.

I turned and tramped back to my tent cabin.

 

When someone began knocking on my door a couple hours later, I assumed it must be Kadence or Javi. I unfurled myself from my blankets and stomped toward the door – intent on telling them I didn’t need their pity, now or ever – but it wasn’t Kadence or Javi. It was Ryder, and he rushed forward and buried me in his arms with a ferocity that was nearly crushing. “I missed you so much, babe,” he whispered. “How’ve you been? How’s training?” His light eyes were intense, and his presence nearly filled the tent cabin. “Been thinking about you all week. Have you made it to fifty feet yet?”

It was as if he had never left, and the transformation was so startling, it took a minute for me to process it. When I finally did, I pulled myself from his grip. “That’s it?”

His face fell. “What do you mean, ‘that’s it’?”

“You ignore me the entire night and spend all your time flirting with the new girl, and all you have to say is, ‘Have you made it to fifty feet yet?’”

“Red.” Ryder’s eyebrows furrowed. “You know all that was bullshit, right? Just part of the act?”

“I don’t know.” I crossed my arms. “I’m not sure what’s an act and what’s not anymore.”

“What are you talking about?” He reached for my hands. “Everything was fine between us when I left; what changed while I was gone?”

“Nothing changed, Ryder. It’s just… it’s really hard to see you flirt with another girl. You must understand that.”

“I do. It’s hard for me, too. I don’t give a shit about Maria; I just have to act like I do until she gets comfortable here.”

“But where does it end? Do you have to spend all your time with her? Hold hands with her? Kiss her on the Housekeeping Camp bridge?”

“Red, no.” He squeezed my hands. “I don’t have to do any of those things with her. I just have to orient her to the Valley, and then I’m free of her. My old man will be satisfied as long as
someone
sweeps her up; maybe Trey or Adrian would like to…”

“Wait, wait, wait.” I pulled my arms free. “It’s part of your job description to play matchmaker, too? Was that your responsibility with me?”

“No, of course not. And it isn’t my responsibility with Maria, either. I just think an easy way to get rid of her would be to introduce her to my friends.” He met my eyes. “Red, I want to be with
you
. I don’t want to be with Maria or anyone else, OK? How many different ways do I have to say this?”

My anger loosened slightly. “You’re sure that was bullshit?”

“Yes.” His answer was firm. “It was most definitely bullshit. And it will continue to be bullshit. You’re the one I want, Red. You’re the one I’m going to conquer Taft Point with. As soon as we’ve proved ourselves, we can let the whole world know. How does that sound?”

“It sounds good.” My heart swelled as he tightened his arms around me. He kissed my forehead again, and then he tilted my chin upward until our lips met. I felt my insides catch on fire, and then my arms wrapped around him, too.

The woodsmoke from the stove, the salty scent of his skin, and the tinge of wind and sweat blurred together as we held each other in the darkness. And then later, when he asked if he could stay the night, I sank into the army cot and let him hold me in his arms.

I didn’t know much, but I did know one thing. I didn’t have anything to worry about as long as Ryder was by my side.

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

 

The next morning at breakfast, I had to remind myself Ryder’s and my night together wasn’t a dream. Ryder had kissed my cheek and slipped out sometime around sunrise. Now I sat across from him as he laughed and showed Maria how to peel her hard-boiled eggs.

She had slept well. She proudly told everyone she’d happily pulled off her scratchy wool dress and tossed it in the nearest garbage bin. “I always hated those cheap bras and panties,” she said, adjusting her new blouse. “You ladies know what I’m talking about?”

“You ladies” was, predictably, Jett and me. As Jett smiled and agreed they’d always bunched, I could tell from Cody, Trey and Adrian’s dropped jaws that they were most likely picturing Maria without them.

Ryder was a different story. He gave me a fleeting eye roll when she detailed the way her new bra supported her breasts so much better, and he made a big show of yawning when Maria fumbled with her blouse ties, and giggled that she would have to work on keeping them secured.

But as soon as she stood to throw her garbage away, he jumped to his feet and snatched her tray from her hands. “For you, milady,” he said, striding to the compost bin with a smile. “And do you want some company while you get your wristband fitted?”

 

I tried to tell myself I didn’t care, and I didn’t. Almost.

It wasn’t until later – a few days later, really – that I began to regress into my own doubts. It was Thursday afternoon, and I was busy slacklining at Church Bowl with Trey and Adrian. When I heard the approaching footsteps, I assumed it must be Jett or Cody.

But it wasn’t. It was Ryder, and he was strolling toward us with Maria by his side. She was laughing at something he was saying, and her hand was tucked neatly beneath his bicep.

I was so shocked to see her that I nearly lost my balance, but I forced myself to turn and stare straight ahead at the slackline. The webbing buckled beneath my feet, but I managed to take two more steps before she cried, “Autumn, you are
such
a badass!”

That was it. Concentration ruined, I sidestepped and jumped nimbly to the ground.

“You shouldn’t have jumped off just because of me.” Maria squeezed Ryder’s arm and then hurried toward me. “That was
fantastic
; what are you doing, anyway? Tightrope-walking?”

I locked eyes with Ryder over her shoulder. Her very presence here, in this place that meant so much to us, felt like a betrayal. Never mind the fact that he allowed her to entwine her arm with his.

“Why don’t you tell her what I’m doing, Ryder?” I asked, teeth clenched.

Ryder gave me a plaintive face and inclined his head toward Trey and Adrian – who sat surprised with their hands suspended over their drums. I’m here with her for them, his eyes seemed to say, but I didn’t care.

Maria was at Church Bowl, and she didn’t look the slightest bit interested in Trey or Adrian. She looked fully and squarely interested in
him.

When I didn’t answer, Ryder followed her and said, “She’s slacklining, Ria. Kinda like tightrope-walking, but way harder. Most girls can’t do it, but Red’s tougher than most girls. One of the only girls I know who can walk seventy-five feet.”

He smiled as he said this, but his compliment didn’t calm me. Instead, I found myself clinging to one word: Ria. Apparently, Maria had a nickname now.

“Can I try?”

Maria seemed cocky, overly confident, so I stepped aside and motioned to the slackline. “Be my guest.”

She pulled off her shoes, and her dark hair cascaded forward to cover her shoulders. Her blouse slipped a bit, and the sight of her tan breasts peeking through the top of her bra made my jaw clench even more than before.

“Don’t worry; it’s really easy,” I said. I knew I was being horrible, but I couldn’t help it. “All you have to do is put one foot forward and pull yourself to a standing position. Take a second to catch your breath, and then start walking.”

I popped onto the line and took several quick steps to demonstrate. “See? Easy.”

Maria nodded. She gathered her hair into a high bun and then placed her foot on the slackline. “Like this?”

“Yes. Exactly. And now straighten your leg.”

I tried to hide my smirk when her knee collapsed beneath her, but I couldn’t help my chuckle when the webbing jerked and bucked until she gave up.

I didn’t feel bad until a few minutes later when she laughed and slipped back into her shoes. “You
are
hardcore, Autumn. That was actually really hard!”

She spent the rest of the afternoon cheering and clapping as Trey, Adrian, Ryder and I took turns walking. Her enthusiasm was so unbridled that I couldn’t help but feel guilty for disliking her.

It wasn’t even Maria I disliked, I realized with a sigh sometime around sunset. Trey and Adrian were busy playing their drums, and Ryder was balancing on one foot, just shy of the slackline’s turn-around point.

Maria was looking pensive and rubbing the shiny surface of her Centrist pendant. “I was old enough to know better, you know? When my mom joined the Movement? But she believed in it so strongly that I let myself believe in it, too. You know how hard that is? When you just want to believe in something?”

I nodded. It had taken me weeks to finally take my pendant off, but it still sat on a ledge in my tent cabin. Its mantra seemed hollow now, but I couldn’t bear to part with it. It was one of my only tokens from home.

As I studied her identical pendant, I realized the two of us weren’t very different after all. Even though she was loud and overly flirtatious, she had no way of knowing she was stepping on my toes with Ryder.

She was just trying to fit in here, and none of this was her fault, anyway. It was Rex’s fault for forbidding Ryder and me from dating, and it was about time I started remembering that.

“He’s hot, isn’t he?”

Her question jolted me from her pendant. Her eyes were far away now, and I could see from her dreamy, half-smile that she was focused on the slackline. Ryder was walking shirtless, and the muscles in his back flexed as he braced himself and swung into another turn.

“What?”

Maria giggled and twined a strand of hair around her finger. “I mean, I broke Centrist rules with guys before I got here, you know? But never with a guy that hot, and never without being nervous I’d get caught.” She turned and beamed at me. “So, what’s his deal, anyway? Is he available? He seems interested; do you think we’d make a good match?”

In an instant, my dislike was back. “No,” I said, springing to my feet. “Sorry, Ria, I just don’t see it.”

“Why not?” Her voice was incredulous – so shocked by my audacity that she didn’t even sound mad.

“I just… don’t.” I shrugged and glanced over my shoulder. “Ryder likes athletic girls; you just don’t seem to fit his mold.”

“But
I’m
athletic.”

Her protest faded away as I approached the slackline. Ryder jumped from the webbing and whispered, “Heard that, Red. Not funny.”

“I’m not trying to be funny.” I climbed onto the slackline and took a moment to gain my balance. “I’m just telling her the truth. You two would be horrible together, because you’re already dating me.”

“I am at that.” He nodded appreciatively as I began striding from one side of the webbing to the other. “And I’m quickly realizing it’s gonna be hard to keep up with you.”

 

That’s how I found myself wedged in the crack between two cliffs the next day. It was early afternoon, and the spot was a Church Bowl climbing route called the Parkay Squeeze. The name was apparently a word play on a twentieth-century brand of margarine, and my legs certainly felt liquid as I hovered in midair and clung, spiderlike, to the cracks.

The rock climbing harness dug into the skin of my thighs, and sweat poured into my eyes as I struggled to keep from feeling dizzy. All I apparently had to do was make my way through this cavelike crack and drop down on the other side. But no matter how hard I tried to concentrate on the end goal, I couldn’t get past the idea that I may get crushed or fall to my death at any moment.

On a normal day, there’s no way I would have ever even attempted this. But when Maria showed up at the slackline this morning, eyes focused and hair secured, I knew I had to step up my game.

When Trey suggested we take a break and try rock climbing for a while, how could I say no? Especially when Maria grinned and slipped on a pair of climbing shoes. Ryder insisted I didn’t have to climb if I didn’t want to, but I wanted to. Or at least I wanted to
have
climbed, so I pulled on another pair and approached the cliff myself.

Trey took a few moments to explain our gear and the mechanics of climbing, and he emphasized that it’s your legs that give you the most lift, not your arms. I was starting to feel smug about my superior leg strength, but then Maria took to the wall, and she looked nothing short of a dark-haired jungle cat.

She was so long and lean that she reached handholds and toeholds I would have had to jump for. She was also stronger than I’d first imagined, and the muscles in her shoulders flexed as she braced herself and ascended the first climb with ease.

Then it was my turn, and I was sweating and cursing as I attempted to duplicate her movements. But she had a good three inches on me, and this made all the difference. Although I finally made it up the wall, I certainly didn’t do it with the grace or poise she’d shown.

She noticed. She didn’t say anything, but the little smirk at the corner of her lips was all the motivation I needed. When Trey suggested we step it up and try a slightly harder route, I knew I had to do better.

In my defense, I had no idea the Parkay Squeeze was classified as a “slightly harder” route. And again, Maria made it look so easy that I had no choice but to follow in her footsteps.

So here I was, wedged in the crack between two cliffs. As I struggled to keep my balance, I questioned why I’d ever let any of them talk me into taking my feet off the ground in the first place.

It wasn’t even the height that scared me the most. It was the claustrophobia – the feeling of being crushed as the cold cliff walls closed in around me. My wobbly legs and the impossible toeholds didn’t help, and my borrowed climbing shoes were at least two sizes too big.

When I finally emerged on the other side of the crack, I was a sweaty, breathless mess. My muscles felt like they were on fire, and the tiny scrapes that marred my skin burned with my sweat. I crumpled to the ground and struggled to catch my breath, and I questioned why I’d even bothered to attempt such a stupid, pointless feat. It wasn’t like it changed anything or made any difference, anyway.

But then Ryder was there beside me, and he was pulling me into a wordless, secret kiss. That moment of togetherness, of being hidden by rocks and dappled with sunshine… That feeling made everything worth it.

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