Authors: Lisa Ann O'Kane
Tags: #cultish Community, #loss, #Essential problems, #science fiction, #total suppression, #tragedy, #Yosemite, #young adult fiction, #zero emotion
Ryder didn’t begin to crumble until he had driven us a few miles away from Taft Point. Pulling to the side of the road, he motioned to the steering wheel and said, “Can you drive, Red?”
I nodded. I had never sat in the driver’s seat before, but the challenge seemed remarkably straightforward compared to everything we had just overcome.
“What the hell just happened?”
His eyes were wild as he slid into the passenger seat beside me. We made eye contact, and I realized it was my turn to carry him. Climbing into the driver’s seat, I reached sideways and grabbed his hand. “We did the right thing. Now we’re getting out of here.”
He nodded and took a shaky breath. “Daniel should have left for Fresno by now,” he managed. “The Valley will be unguarded, but what…?”
“We need to unlock Camp Four,” I said. “Tell everyone what’s really been happening in there. Let the Community dissolve if it wants to.”
“And then what?”
“I have no idea.” My words hovered between us. In that pause, I felt the full weight of our situation. It drifted on the wind and settled on our shoulders – as thick and heavy as it was devastating: we had both built our realities around truths that didn’t exist.
Neutrality wasn’t the key to longevity, but abundance wasn’t, either. Both mantras were just words. They were as hollow and meaningless as the heart rate monitors that still clinked on both of our wrists.
I looked down at my wristband, and I tried to remember how nervous and excited I’d felt when I first arrived here. The Community was supposed to be the answer, and Rex was supposed to be our savior. He was going to overthrow Cedar and the Centrist Movement, and he was going to justify Brady’s death with a truth that actually made sense.
But what was the truth, anyway? What had happened to Brady had been a terrible accident, but overthrowing Cedar wouldn’t stop the pain that sank in my chest every time I thought about him. Nothing would ever stop that. It was now part of my truth – just as the Movement was part of Cedar’s truth and the overthrow was part of Rex’s truth.
“Maybe the truth isn’t a reality like we think it is,” I finally said. “Maybe it’s just a choice – something you make up for yourself to give your life some meaning. Isn’t right or wrong; just is.”
Ryder closed his eyes. “So if the truth isn’t a reality, what is?”
I pictured the twisting strands of light I’d seen spanning the distance between us. “This is true,” I said, placing my hand on his chest. “Essences are true. That feeling you get, when you think your heart is going to burst through your chest?”
His expression softened. “Yeah. That’s true.”
“And so is this.” I pressed my lips against his, and I felt energy ignite between us. He wrapped his arms around me, and I was enveloped by the taste of him, by the scent of his skin, and by the overpowering sense of
I felt when he was with me.
“Love is true,” he finally said. “This is true.”
“It is.” I tightened my fingers around his. The future didn’t seem quite so frightening with him by my side.
“So, where to?” he asked. “San Francisco? The East Side? Where should we head first?”
I touched Brady’s stuffed lion in my pocket. I thought of Aunt Marie and my mother, of our friends waiting for us on the East Side, and I shrugged. “I’m not really sure yet.”
I cast one last look at the Valley, and then I stomped the gas pedal. The Jeep jerked forward, and Ryder laughed. “Don’t worry, Red. You’ll get it. We’ll figure it out together.”
I smiled as we accelerated down the road. These things were true: the sunshine on my skin, the warmth of Ryder’s hand in mine and the breeze that twisted through the tendrils of my no longer jagged hair.
I didn’t know where the future would take us, but I did know one thing: as imperfect and flawed as we were, we were in this together.
Maybe that’s the only truth we needed.
First and foremost, I would like to thank my parents, Kevin and Tammy O’Kane, my sister, Shana Laflin, and my grandmother, Ethel Odom, for always being my biggest fans. Same goes for Allen Walker, the best darn friend and critique partner a girl could ever ask for. This book would not exist without your unwavering support and encouragement.
Hannah Bowman, my literary agent extraordinaire, deserves five pages of acknowledgements for all the time and dedication she has put into this project. Suffice it to say ESSENCE has grown tremendously under her guidance, and I will be forever in her debt for always inspiring me to become a better writer. Many thanks for believing in me even when I wasn’t sure I believed in myself.
Amanda Rutter and the folks at Strange Chemistry—Michael Underwood, Caroline Lambe and Rhube Smith—took a chance on ESSENCE even when it didn’t exactly fit into any of their usual genres. Their faith in this story means so much more than words can say.
I would also like to thank the rest of my family, particularly Jamie Watson, whose first draft feedback was spot-on and very much appreciated. My Colorado writers group—Beth Christopher, Christina McCarthy, Eugene Scott, Sean McAfee, Joe Kovacs and Rene Zimbelman—contributed immensely to my first fifty pages. I’m also so appreciative of Keith Wood for the fabulous brainstorming sessions and Mark Stevens for taking me under his wing during my very first writers’ conference.
Molly Horner and Theresa Ho served as my resident Yosemite National Park fact-checkers, and they patiently answered many of my most inane questions, like, “Could you really climb a Pacific dogwood tree?” and “How probable is that Tunnelview zipline?” Many of the events in this book were inspired by the actual summer I spent living and working in Yosemite, so a special shout-out to all my 2004 Boystown partners-in-crime and all the real adrenaline junkies whose Camp Four antics and death-defying stunts never ceased to amaze me. I would especially like to acknowledge Mary Siner, who inspired the character of Kadence and who has always been the yin to my yang. Mary, I would live in Tent #44 with you again in an instant!
Erik Cobb and Anita Hunter are the two English teachers whose life lessons have left the biggest footprints in my heart. I am also incredibly grateful to Michael, Darlene and Larry Chickos for sharing in my excitement and joy while I wrote this book.
Special thanks to all the writerly friends I have met along the way
, particularly the Goat Posse, the WIPMADNESS crew, and my QT Forum peeps. Also an immeasurable thank you to all the amazing soulmate friends who have inspired me through the years. You have shown me love, compassion, loyalty and adventure, and I wouldn’t be able to write about any of these things if you hadn’t taught me how to feel things with my soul.
My life is richer because you are part of it.