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 (2 page)

“There. Doesn’t that feel better?” My mother extended the ponytail for me to see. Her face was serene – smiling and content – but my insides were anything but tranquil when I glimpsed the hair clutched between her fingers. It was dull, lifeless, the color of burnt earth and the texture of a dead squirrel.

That was
mine
.

I met Cedar’s gaze over the bundle, and tears sprang to my eyes at the sheer injustice of it all. I gritted my teeth and tried to swallow those tears back, but it was too late.

Cedar’s eyes hardened. “Sister Autumn, are you
crying
?”

I didn’t know what to say. The walls suddenly felt like they were closing in on me, and the smell of incense became suffocating. Before I could stop myself, I blurted, “Brady didn’t deserve any of this, and I don’t, either.”

My mother’s jaw dropped, and the ponytail slipped from her hands. A cascade of twisted, cinnamon strands tumbled to the floor, and I turned and rushed from Cedar’s quarters before I had time to change my mind.

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

Fog swirled, thick as sludge, as I exited the temple and began running west on Haight Street. The wooden barricades were mostly gone now, but graffiti still marred the sidewalks where Outsiders sometimes protested. I surged past them, feeling the watchful gaze of the street’s remaining Victorian homes as I lengthened my strides and began sprinting.

I shouldn’t be running like this, I thought.

I shouldn’t have been running at all, actually. It was one of the activities Cedar preached against in the interest of public safety. Aerobic activities not only affected oxygen levels and blood flow, but they also increased endorphins – which were the leading cause of Essence drain and death in teenagers and young adults.

If it was absolutely necessary, running should be approached with caution. Short breaks should be taken every ten feet or so, and movements should never be conducted in a state of heightened emotion. The conflicting hormones were powerful enough to kill you.

But tonight, I didn’t care.

I was furious, and the sting of the pavement below my sandals drove me faster and harder than I’d ever moved before. My muscles burned and my breath came in gasps as I pushed through the shifting fog and began sprinting toward the crumbling, condemned entrance to Golden Gate Park.

The unfairness of Brady’s passing stabbed me like a knife. I slowed to a trot and clutched my side in pain. Brady was so good. And light. And beautiful. He had only attended his Free Soul Ceremony eight months before; it wasn’t his fault he hadn’t quite gotten the hang of neutrality yet.

I took a breath and tried to run again, but the pain in my side didn’t go away. Instead, it twisted somehow, and it jabbed the space below my ribcage until I felt my side knotting.

What’s happening to me?

Fear sucked the air from my lungs as I dropped to my knees and clutched my ribs. Sweat rose on my temples, and I let myself sink sideways until I was lying on the ground. Cold seeped through the asphalt against my cheekbone, and my vision became blurred.

Oh, no, I’m dying now, too.

A mixture of terror and mortification filled me – so Cedar wasn’t kidding about this whole not-running thing? – and then the pain intensified until my insides felt like they had turned into broken glass. What am I supposed to do now?

A vision of Brady flashed in my mind. Not the beautiful, rosy Brady of my memories, but the cold Brady, the stone Brady encapsulated inside that tiny urn. The artificial Brady, walled off behind a vessel, never to be seen or touched or held ever again.

Did Brady feel like this right before he swallowed that cherry pit?

I wheezed as fear began drumming in my ears. And then, a voice in my head:
Get yourself together, Autumn.

The words took me back to the memorial, to the stoic grace on my mother’s face as she observed me from her place beside the altar. We were supposed to file past Brady’s urn – to demonstrate our detachment by not giving it so much as a sideways glance – but I stalled at the sight of it. My head pounded, and I braced myself against the altar to keep from collapsing.

“Take a moment to compose yourself,” my mother had said. “You look like you’re about to cry.”

What could I say? I
was
about to cry. I knew I’d be shunned if anyone saw me, but what could I do? My baby brother was on an altar. My baby brother was
dead.

“I’m serious, Autumn. Take a moment to get yourself together, or excuse yourself and go outside until you are under control.” Her gaze shifted to the crowded sanctuary behind us. “I won’t let you disgrace our family with your tears. Haven’t we been through enough already?”

We had, but that didn’t stop the grief from welling inside me. And now, lying on this crumbling trail, I felt those repressed cries finally running over.

I’m going to die here. I’m going to die here just like Brady, and no one is ever going to find me.

Golden Gate Park had nearly been destroyed during the Great Quake’s shocks and aftershocks. The west side had been renovated and reopened, but this far east side had been condemned ten years ago. It stood vacant, overgrown and silent, and it had always reminded me of a cemetery.

It chilled me to imagine how many endorphins had probably been released on this very spot, and it chilled me even more to realize I had no idea where “this very spot” was.

The unfairness of the situation twisted my gut, and I felt my anger resurfacing. “Fine!” I shouted. “Take him, take me; I don’t even care anymore!”

My words disappeared into the eucalyptus trees. The night was eerily silent for a moment, and then: “Doing all right over there, Red?”

The male voice startled me. I struggled to my knees and realized I was a lot farther into the park than I thought. I was a lot farther than I’d ever been, and this recognition sent a jolt of fear coursing through me.

I had veered north off Kezar Drive at some point, and the trail now wound through a moonlit stand of dripping green trees and rusty park benches. A sprawling sandstone mansion stood vacant and vandalized to my left, and a rotted, crumbling carousel lay silent to my right.

Through the fog bank beside the carousel, a match flared. A cigarette appeared in the mouth of a boy about my age, and he leaned forward until it caught. The tip flared for an instant, and it illuminated a long face, a strong jaw and a tapered expanse of smooth, tanned skin.

My stomach clenched. Cedar preached so strongly against cigarettes that I had rarely seen one up close before. Its lit tip was now the only clue that a person – an
Outsider
– stood waiting in the shadows for me.

“What do you want?” I didn’t say what I wanted to say, which was:
When will you people realize we’re not interested in converting? When will you stop heckling us and just leave us alone?

“Name’s Ryder.” The boy shifted his cigarette from one hand to the other. “But here’s a better question. Why is a Centrist running alone this late at night? In temple robes, no less? Kinda rebellious, don’t you think?”

I narrowed my eyes. “What do you want?”

“Why? You got something you wanna give me?” Before my fear could escalate, Ryder laughed. “Only screwing with you, Red. Hold on a sec; we don’t often get visitors out here.”

An antique lantern sprang to life in his hand. It was followed by two more, and I quickly realized Ryder wasn’t alone out here. A hulking boy with thick brown hair and coiled shoulders leaned against the carousel beside him, and a willowy, elfish girl rested near one of the rotten wooden horses.

They were an outlandish sight. Ryder – with vintage camouflage pants and a mop of white-blond hair. The big guy – with a shell necklace and scuffed sneakers. The girl – by far the most bizarre – with dyed black hair, tall boots and a sweater that hung provocatively off one narrow shoulder.

All three wore matching metal wristbands, and I felt bewilderment surge in my chest at the sight of them. They didn’t look like tourists, and they didn’t look like the Outsiders that usually loitered outside our temple, condemning us to Hell or trying to convert us to Jesus.

The girl smiled and leapt from the carousel. The metal clasps on her boots jangled as she took a step toward me. “I’m Jett,” she said. “And this is Cody. Sorry if we startled you.”

Chipped, colored paint adorned her fingernails, and an assortment of bangles decorated her narrow wrists. Pale roots peeked beneath her choppy, black hair, and her smile was crowded with perfect teeth.

“I’m Autumn,” I stammered.

The big guy, Cody, cleared his throat. “How’s that pain in your side? It’s called a stitch; happens when you don’t stretch before you run. Try warming up next time.”

Next time? I clutched my side and realized my pain had already disappeared.

“I love a good run,” Jett said. “Especially when I feel frustrated or antsy. Sure beats staying bottled up, don’t you think?”

“I’ve never… Well, this is the first time I’ve ever really…”

“Right.” Ryder smiled and flicked his cigarette to the asphalt. Snubbing it with the heel of his boot, he said, “Gets the blood flowing; gets those hormones pumping a little too much. Detrimental to a long life, isn’t that what you Centrists say?”

I stiffened. “Look, I’ve met enough Outsiders to know I’m not interested in converting. The Centrist way is the right way, and I don’t care what you people think about it.”

Ryder laughed. “We aren’t here to convert you, Red. Aren’t even real Outsiders. Grew up right inside that temple complex, just like you.”

“Then what are you doing out here?”

“What are
you
doing out here?”

“I’m… running.”

“Mm-hmm. Because?”

“Because… Well, because I’m kinda…”

“Pissed off?”

I struggled to my feet. “I shouldn’t be talking to Outsiders like this. I need to go.”

“Wait.” Ryder approached, and I cursed myself for the nervous way his nearness affected my insides. Watch it, Autumn.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I promise we’re not here to lecture you for running. You just look like something’s bothering you.” He narrowed his eyes. “Wait, I know you. You’re Autumn Grace, the girl outside the temple.”

“What?”

“Your brother choked on something a few months back, didn’t he? Centrist meditation masters wouldn’t let the tourists resuscitate him.”

I paled. I had done everything in my power to forget that day – the flashing cameras, the throngs of people, the meditation masters shoving aside the tourists and screaming, “Get back! It’s the universe’s way!”

Cedar maintained we had a religious exemption from Outsider interference, and Brady shouldn’t have been talking to tourists in the first place. He certainly shouldn’t have taken strange food from them. But still I had surged forward, hoping to fight the meditation masters and lead him to an Outsider who could save him. My struggles had been in vain.

Jett’s face paled. “I recognize you now, too, Autumn. I’m so sorry for your loss.”

Ryder and I made eye contact. For a moment, his bravado seemed to fade, and an emotion – sympathy? – flicked across his face. “I’m really sorry, Red. For everything.”

No one spoke for a few moments, and then Cody finally cleared his throat. This seemed to jolt Ryder, and he snapped back to attention.

“Here’s the thing that gets me,” he continued. “Your brother was only five or six, right? So, my thought is, how much Essence could he have possibly drained in that short a time? I mean,
really
? He spent an entire
lifetime’s
worth of Essence, and he didn’t even
do
anything all that crazy? Doesn’t that sound a little funny to you, Red?”

“What Ryder’s trying to say, Autumn,” Jett said, “is that sometimes, when someone as young as your brother dies… doesn’t it ever make you wonder if maybe it wasn’t his Essence giving out on him after all? What if it was just a freak thing, like an accident?”

I clutched the Centrist pendant around my neck, the one my mother told me to look to anytime I needed to refresh myself on the lessons of my Free Soul Ceremony. It was carved with our mantra –
Neutrality is the key to longevity
– and I repeated it to myself before answering, “There’s no such thing as an accident. Accidents are just manifestations of Essence drain.”

“I knew you’d say that,” she said. “But just think about it. Your brother was so young.”

“And I’ve smoked a lot of cigarettes,” Ryder said. “I’ve raised a lot of hell, and I’ve done pretty much everything in Cedar’s warnings at least once. Doesn’t it seem – if anyone was gonna die – it should have been someone like me instead?”

“Yeah, it does seem like that.” I frowned. “But you didn’t. Brady did, and I’m getting tired of talking to you about it.”

“Wait.” Ryder reached to stop me. “Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying, Red. I’m sorry about what happened to your brother, and I’m certainly not bragging that I’m here and he’s not. I’m just saying…” He leaned closer, and I inhaled the tangy odor of tobacco on his breath. “I’m just saying that sometimes we wonder if there’s any truth to this Essence thing at all. What if the Centrists got it wrong?”

He began walking in a slow circle. “I mean, what if your Essence doesn’t have anything to do with how old you are when you die?”

I shook my head. “Cedar found a direct link between emotions, auras and Essence drain. It’s a fact; says so in
The Four Noble Truths
and all the Centrist texts.”

“Yeah, but what if it’s a made-up fact? What if Cedar is just trying to control you by telling you not to have fun?”

“You aren’t supposed to feel
anything
,” Cody said. “You can’t be happy; can’t be sad. You’re just supposed to disregard the rest of the world and meditate until you turn into a zombie.”

“We don’t disregard the rest of the world,” I snapped. “We know perfectly well what’s going on out here.”

“Do you?”

“Yeah. It’s reckless, and it’s dangerous. It’s the very self-indulgence and excess that caused the Great Quake in the first place. We choose not to be part of it.”

Ryder raised his eyebrows. “Just think about it,” he said. “The Quake was nearly twenty years ago; lots of stuff has happened out here since.” He paused. “Haven’t you ever wondered what the rest of the world is doing?”

I frowned. “You guys said you weren’t here to convert me.”

“We aren’t. Not exactly.” He tilted his head. “My friends and I live in the Sierras now, but we’ll be here a couple more days. If what we’re saying makes sense to you, we’d love to tell you more about what we’re trying to do here.”

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