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 (3 page)

“And what exactly
are
you trying to do here?”

He grinned, and dimples appeared at the corners of his cheeks. “Nothing much. Just finally spread some truth.”

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

I tried to forget about my meeting with Ryder and his friends.

I snuck back home and woke early for meditation the next day, and I pushed aside reminders of my outburst when my temple mates commented on my new shoulder-length haircut.

“I think it looks nice,” my chore partner Juliet said as we dusted the classroom windows before lunch. I did my best to ignore the fleeting look of smugness that flashed in her eyes as she wiped the dust from her hands.

It was a bit harder to ignore my mother’s disapproval at home. She did her best to stay neutral – as always – but her expression seemed extra guarded as we prepared dinner that night. I often caught her staring when she thought I wasn’t looking.

The kitchen was dim, as always, and its soft overhead lights barely illuminated the sparse metal appliances and wooden cabinets. My mother stood chopping radishes in her blue cashier’s uniform, and her newly cut hair was pulled back.

Aunt Marie stood fussing over a bowl of spinach and arugula at her side. The greens – castoffs from my mother’s grocery store job – were past date, as usual, and the tips were slightly wilted and brown.

If she noticed, Marie hid her disappointment well. As she tossed the salad with fingers thick as sausages, she hummed softly to herself – a reckless habit that drove my mother crazy.

The women worked like bookends, and they leaned into each other slightly as they chopped canned tomatoes and beets. There was an easy solidarity to their movements – the quiet, neutral confidence that Cedar always preached about – and I felt guilt surge inside me in response.

“I’m sorry for leaving last night,” I finally whispered. I wished I could squeeze in beside them like usual. “I acted rashly, and my decision was selfish.”

My mother softened. “It worries me to see your aura so rippled, Autumn,” she said, glancing backward and exhaling as if the tension felt heavy in her chest. “Now more than ever, I’m pleased to hear your emotions are under control again.”

The guilt in my stomach twisted. “They are; I’m sorry for worrying you.”

She nodded. Making fleeting eye contact with Aunt Marie, she added, “I have some news, then; I had hoped to tell you earlier. Cedar has invited Brother Thomas to join us for dinner tonight.”

“Brother Thomas?” I felt my throat close. Mother hadn’t received a visit from a meditation master for years, not since Brady’s conception. The return of Brother Thomas – the master who had conceived me, too – could only mean one thing. “But Mother…”

“It’s time, Autumn. It has been three months since Brady passed, and Cedar thinks I should try again. I’m almost thirty-five now; I can’t waste time if I want to perform my duties and conceive two children.”

“Mother, you can’t be serious!”

The knife in her hand trembled. “Autumn,” she said. “I understand Brady’s death has affected you. It has certainly affected all of us. But I urge you to remember the lessons of your Free Soul Ceremony. Your Essence is precious, and every moment you dwell on Brady’s passing is a moment you will never get back.”

She paused. “You must understand I’m just trying to do what’s best for our family. Since nothing we do has the power to bring back Brady, it will be better for all of us if we simply try to move on with our lives.”

Tears sprang to my eyes again. This time, I didn’t even attempt to hide them. “Move on? You honestly expect me to forget about Brady and move on with my life?”

My voice came out remarkably angry, and Aunt Marie reacted by steadying her sister. Her eye contact with me was pleading, but her voice was gentle when she said, “Sweetheart, please calm down. Your outburst is…”

“Your outburst is very distressing to both of us.” My mother clutched a dish towel. “So I think it’s best if you go to your bedroom early tonight. There are some sleeping pills left over from Brady’s funeral in my cabinet; I will bring you a few as soon as we finish our dinner with Brother Thomas.”

I clenched my fists. “But I don’t
want
sleeping pills – just like I don’t want to forget about Brady or move on with my life. He was my
baby brother
, and I’m tired of feeling like there’s something wrong with me because I miss him!”

My mother scowled. “Autumn, please go to your room now.”

“Fine!” I knew I was being reckless, but I didn’t even care. I was already halfway up the stairs.

 

I lay fuming, facedown on my bed, for nearly an hour. Tears ran freely down my cheeks, and I let them fall, surprised by the feeling of relief.

I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had an outburst like that. Maybe when I was five, just before my own Free Soul Ceremony. A scratched knee or a splinter or something; a childhood tantrum followed by a stern lecture from my mother.

“You will be a Free Soul in three weeks,” she had said, clutching both my cheeks in her hands. “Do you know what that means, Autumn? It means we will go to the temple, and your Essence will be symbolically cut from mine. You won’t be a baby anymore, so your outbursts will begin shortening your own life instead of mine. You don’t want that, do you, sweetheart?”

I didn’t. I still don’t, but what if Cedar is wrong about Essence drain?

I felt like my foundation was crumbling, like everything I’d ever believed in was being called into question.
The Centrist way is the right way. Neutrality is the key to longevity. Too much happiness is just as dangerous as too much sadness.

But what if it isn’t?

I was so consumed by the question that I nearly missed the sound of my bedroom door creaking open. Aunt Marie’s movements were tentative, and her expression seemed concerned. She cradled something small in her hands.

“I have something to give you, child.”

I wiped the tears from my eyes. Into my palms, she dropped something soft and fuzzy. Brady’s stuffed lion.

I opened my mouth, but she shook her head. “This never happened. Do you understand?”

“Aunt Marie, how did you–?”

“Fairly easy once the two of them got to talking last night.” She squeezed my shoulder. “She’s upset, too, you know. Doesn’t like the idea of having another baby any more than you do.”

“Then why is she doing it?”

“Because Cedar wants her to.” She sank to the bed beside me. “She was only sixteen when she met him, you know. Cedar. Fell in love with every word he said. Joined his camp before there even was a Movement.”

“I know.”

She cleared her throat. “Yes, but you need to understand that our way of life isn’t the only way. Your grandmother didn’t even approve of this.”

“My grandmother?” I felt myself reeling. No one ever spoke of my grandmother.

“Left the Bay Area soon after the Quake,” Marie said. “Tried to take us with her, but your mother was already enchanted with Cedar’s teachings by then. Wasn’t long before she was pregnant with you.”

“But…” The world took an unexpected spin. “Why did you stay? Why didn’t you leave with her?”

She leaned sideways until our shoulders touched. “Sometimes, sweetheart, you have to decide where your loyalties lie. And mine lie with you and my little sister.”

As she smoothed her pants and stood to go, she added, “I love your mother more than anyone in this world, but I don’t always agree with her choices. And you are the only one who can decide what fits for you, because you are the one who has to live with that choice.”

 

I was still holding the stuffed lion when a second pair of footsteps echoed up the wooden stairs. I started and shoved the doll beneath my pillow.

The second my mother entered, I knew something was wrong.

I mean, bad wrong.

Her jaw was set in a firm line, and she clutched a piece of paper in one hand and a bottle of painkillers in the other. “Autumn,” she said. “I brought you some medicine for your nerves, and I also brought you this.” She extended the paper. It was crisp and official, with
Caltrain Voucher
printed carefully at the top.

I felt my stomach drop. “A train ticket? Why did you buy me a train ticket?”

“It’s not just a train ticket.” She pressed the paper into my hand. “It’s a ticket to Los Gatos, to a Centrist meditation retreat run by Cedar’s cousin Rayn.”

“You can’t be serious.” My voice cracked. “I don’t need to go to an Essence treatment center.”

“It’s not an Essence treatment center. It’s a
retreat.
A good one, filled with space and peace and light, everything you need to get back in touch with your neutrality.” She frowned and closed my fingers around the ticket. “Autumn, I’m only suggesting this because Cedar thinks it’s the best decision. For all of us. You have been an emotional wreck ever since Brady died, and, frankly, I can’t understand this recent explosion about your hair. You are becoming a danger, both to yourself and to this family, and I refuse to let you–”

“Oh, I see.” I felt my temper rising. “You want to send me away, not because you care about my well-being, but because you don’t want to have to
deal
with me anymore. Three months of sadness is just too much for Cedar, and we both know you’ll always choose him over me. Isn’t that right?”

“Autumn!” She stared at me in horror. “This is exactly why Cedar suggested Los Gatos in the first place.” She backed away from me. “We can discuss this more tomorrow, but I’m going to ask you to get your temper under control. Your emotions are becoming dangerous, and I will not allow you to ruin everything we have given you.”

She strode away, but my anger didn’t cease. I was livid, but more than that, I was determined. I was
not
going to Los Gatos.

 

CHAPTER FOUR

 

I’m not sure what I said in the note I left. I know I scribbled it haphazardly on the back of my train ticket, and I imagine it said something like “
I left to find out if Brady’s death was an accident. I’m not sure I believe in Essences anymore
.”

But that’s just a guess. I was so panicked and infuriated that I honestly blacked out for a little while. It wasn’t until I’d thrown a fistful of belongings into a backpack, squeezed out my window and started running back toward Golden Gate Park that I finally began to comprehend the reality of my situation.

If I stay, Cedar may send me to Los Gatos. If I go…

What will happen?

I slowed to a trot inside the park’s entrance. I’d had a strange conversation with Ryder and his friends, but I didn’t know who they were. I didn’t know what they were doing, or what they stood for, or really anything about them – except that they wore showy clothes and smiled a lot and seemed unconcerned about the parameters of what was expected of them.

They mentioned going to a place called the Sierras in a couple of days. Wasn’t that a mountain range? If I went with them, would I be able to return?

Was I even really invited?

I shifted my backpack and clutched the silver pendant around my neck. This excursion definitely wasn’t a practice in neutrality. What if Cedar was right?

“This is stupid.” I didn’t realize I’d said the words aloud until I saw my breath mist in the night air. Golden Gate Park was silent, socked in once again with fog, and the air felt cold and electric as it swirled around my skin.

I peered toward the outline of the carousel in the distance. How do I know they’ll even still be there?

I was playing with the idea of turning around when I felt the vibration of footsteps on the trail behind me. I spun to see the outline of a very tall, dark-haired person approaching me through the haze.

My heart dropped.

“Who’s there?” The male voice on the other side of the fog was tremulous, even shakier than mine. “Is someone out there?”

I clenched my fists and attempted to disappear in the foliage.

“I can see your outline. Who are you? Are you with Ryder’s group?”

I found myself stammering: “No. Um… not really. Well, I wanted…”

The figure approached. A break in the fog briefly revealed him as a lanky boy about my age, with a tangle of coal-colored hair and a drab, rumpled suit.

He relaxed when he saw me. “Hey, I know you. Autumn, right? What are you doing out here?”

His voice was warm, lilting, and he spoke with a degree of tenderness unusual to hear in a stranger’s voice. It was unusual to hear in
anyone’s
voice, actually, and it was so unexpected that I felt myself softening.

I squinted. “I’m sorry. I don’t think I recognize…”

“I’m Javier.” He extended his hand. “But everyone calls me Javi. I see you at morning meditation sometimes.” He paused. “So, they got to you, too?”

“Yeah.” I exhaled. “Found me in the park last night.”

“Cornered me on my way home from afternoon lessons yesterday.” He tugged at his Centrist pendant. “Think there’s any truth to what they’re saying about Essence drain?”

“I don’t know. But… I really hope so.”

He swallowed. “Yeah. Me too.”

We began walking toward the carousel, and a knot of tension tightened in my chest. A few scattered raindrops dripped against the top of my head, and I felt a pang of longing for my bedroom’s warm blankets. What am I doing out here?

It struck me that I didn’t know Javi any more than I knew Ryder or Jett or Cody. This left my insides jumbled and unsteady. “I haven’t really decided what I want to do yet, actually,” I said. “I want to listen to what they have to say, but I’ll probably go home if I don’t like what I hear. I haven’t made my mind up either way.”

Javi glanced at me, no doubt appraising my backpack. “Yeah,” he finally said. “I can definitely respect that.”

A flashlight beam suddenly blasted me. Shielding my eyes and staggering backward, I groped blindly for a moment as Ryder’s voice boomed through the darkness: “Red! Javi! You came back!”

Lanterns flared, and we were abruptly surrounded. Jett flitted forward and pulled me into a hug. “I was hoping you’d come back,” she said. “Cody, what did I tell you?”

“Good to see you again, Autumn. Javi.” Cody’s voice was deep and genuine, and he lingered at the outskirts of the circle while Ryder strode back and forth between Javi and me.

His hair was damp from condensation, but his eyes were bright. “Wow, you guys already know each other? How fantastic is this?”

“No… we met on the way in,” I stammered, glancing sideways at Javi.

Tall and affable, like a puppy that hadn’t quite grown into himself yet, Javi appraised me through almond-shaped eyes the color of copper. His lips were curled in a tentative smile, and his skin was deeply tanned and smooth-looking. We made eye contact, and I quickly glanced at my feet.

“I want you guys to meet Amneet,” Ryder continued, motioning to a small, olive-skinned girl with hair long and thick as a horse’s mane. She wore a plain brown dress just like mine, and her eyes shifted back and forth as she sized us up.

“Amneet joined us this afternoon and, wow, it really is great to see all of you again.” Ryder motioned toward the sandstone mansion nearby. “There. The Sharon Building. The rain’s gonna really start coming down soon. Let’s get inside, and then we’ll tell you what we’re all about.”

 

Jett busied herself by tending the candles that crowded the turret’s wide stone windows. We were seated in the one remaining wing of the mansion that still had glass in its windowpanes. Outside, the rain was pouring in sheets, and its chill infused the room with an eerie, expectant stillness.

“The first thing you probably want to know is who we are.” Ryder pulled a handful of blankets from a pile in the corner and tossed them to the spot where Amneet, Javi and I sat on the floor.

He motioned and said, “There, get comfortable,” before continuing, “So, Cody, Jett and I were raised right here in San Francisco. We grew up with the ‘rules’, we attended our own Free Soul Ceremonies… We even wore those terrible white temple robes, just like you guys.” At this, he grinned over his shoulder. “Not that you don’t look great in them, because I’m sure you totally do.”

“Ryder’s father was one of Cedar’s very first followers,” Jett said, waving an extinguished match and flitting to a seat on Cody’s lap. It was an unexpected act of affection that made me blush and quickly look away. “Helped organize the movement, and even oversaw the purchase of all those buildings on Haight Street. Started as an apprentice under Cedar and then worked his way all the way up to meditation master.”

“He was a good one, too,” Ryder said, retrieving a flask of dark liquid from a box in the corner. He pulled the cork with his teeth and spat it to the floor. “Probably procreated about twenty kids in the name of the Movement over the course of the first few years, but then my mother had me, and everything changed.”

Amneet snorted. “This isn’t one of those ‘love at first sight’ deserter stories, is it? Because we’ve all heard those before, and I’m not impressed by people who are too weak to control their emotions.”

Ryder chuckled. “Don’t worry, Amneet. This isn’t one of those stories.” He took a swig of the liquid and passed it to Cody. “But everything did change when my mother had me, because he got attached. To both of us.”

Jett motioned from her place on Cody’s lap. “Cedar noticed, and it wasn’t long before Ryder’s father got reassigned. He was forbidden from spending time with Ryder or his mother, and when it was time for her to conceive her second child, another meditation master was given the task.”

“My old man got upset,” Ryder said. “Was generally pretty good at staying neutral, but when it came to my mother and me…”

He shook his head and sank to a seat on an empty windowsill. “So, one night, he decides he’s gonna protest his reassignment. Shows up at the temple late, figures Cedar’s gonna be there somewhere, and guess what he finds? Way back in one of the meditation rooms – the small ones they use for students? – he finds Cedar all tangled up with not one, but two of his meditation masters. Male ones.” He smirked. “Let’s just say conception didn’t seem to be on their list of priorities.”

“No way,” Amneet said. “There’s no way Cedar would have ever…”

“Yeah? Then why did the meditation masters come after my father? Why did he find himself kicked out of the Movement the very next day?”

She snorted. “Because he was
trespassing
! Attempting to sneak into the temple without Cedar’s permission!”

Irritation seemed to flash in Ryder’s eyes for an instant. “Yeah, maybe,” he said. “And that would make sense if they’d stopped at just kicking him out of the Movement. But they didn’t. Soon he started noticing strange men following him everywhere he went, and then he started having near-death experiences – like the time someone shoved him toward the tracks just as a train pulled into the station.”

He cleared his throat. “When it became clear Cedar was out to get him, my old man took the only option he had left. He appealed to my mother to skip town with him. When she refused, he took me and left without her.”

“They headed down south first,” Cody said. “Just outside LA, where Ryder’s father decided to prove the Essence theory wrong once and for all. Spent the next few years investing his money, and studying as a medical doctor, and then he packed up Ryder and moved north to the Sierras. That’s where he’s been ever since.”

My heart stuttered. Outsiders often claimed they’d disproved the Essence theory, but Cedar always countered by saying everyone is born with a different supply of Essence. No Outsider I’d ever heard of had taken the time to formulate a fully scientific approach.

“He’s actually disproved the theories?”

Ryder sprang from his seat. “Red, we’ve been doing some incredible stuff out there. Groundbreaking stuff. Experiments that undoubtedly, unequivocally prove the Essence theory is bullshit – nothing but a Centrist scare tactic designed to control us.”

Amneet frowned. “What kind of experiments? What are you doing out there?”

“I can’t tell you, but I can show you. That’s why we asked you guys here tonight.”

“Our community is always on the look-out for intelligent, capable freethinkers,” Cody said. “People who want to help us spread the truth.”

“That’s how they hooked us, anyway,” Jett added, planting a kiss on Cody’s cheek. “Two years ago, and we haven’t looked back since. Have we, hon?”

Javi looked stunned. “You guys are allowed to… date? Isn’t that–?”

“We’re allowed to do anything we want,” Ryder said. “Do those two look like they’re worried about their Essences?”

“So, let me get this straight,” Amneet said. “You expect us to believe your father saw Cedar engaging in sexual affairs with his meditation masters. You want us to leave our homes and join you – you’re even telling us we can
date
if we go – but you won’t tell us where you live or what kind of Essence experiments you’re doing out there?”

“I’ve already told you where we live,” Ryder corrected. “The Sierra Nevadas. It’s a mountain range. But it wouldn’t make sense for us to go around broadcasting our exact location to every stranger we pass on the street, now would it? Same goes for our experiments.”

He leaned toward her, and I thought I detected his smirk when she squirmed and looked away. “Because we’re not just out there plotting and planning,” he said. “We’re also helping people. Protecting them. Rehabilitating Centrists like you guys and helping you realize there’s nothing wrong with allowing yourselves to
feel
things every once in a while.”

He sauntered back to the center of the room. “And here’s the thing. If you don’t believe what we’re saying – if you don’t feel like it’s a good fit for you – that’s fine, too. We’re not here to beg you. It’s your life, and you gotta live it the way you feel is right. But…”

He motioned to our surroundings – to the crumbling, plaster walls and dusty, forgotten corners. “Don’t forget, Amneet, that this place used to be a park. A real, live city park, where kids played and people laughed and no one was afraid they’d just drop dead at any moment.”

He made eye contact with me. “Don’t you ever wish you could just laugh, Red? And Javi, haven’t you always wondered if there’s something more out there?”

He flashed us a smile, and his face became serene. Knowing. Magnetic, and so filled with energy that I felt mesmerized by it.

“Well,” he said. “We’re here to tell you guys there
is
something more. And if you come with us, we’ll prove it.”

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