Authors: Lisa Ann O'Kane
Tags: #cultish Community, #loss, #Essential problems, #science fiction, #total suppression, #tragedy, #Yosemite, #young adult fiction, #zero emotion
I felt myself paralyzed by uncertainty. Leave? Like, really leave and go with them?
I had never left the Bay Area in my entire life. Now, here, surrounded by strangers in the middle of the night… Was I actually considering this?
Amneet tossed her blanket to the floor and stood up. “That’s it; I’ve heard enough. Your community sounds like some kind of cult, and you guys seem like recruiters.” She paused with one narrow hand on the doorframe. “I don’t know what you guys are trying to sell here, but I don’t like what I’m hearing. I’m going home.”
I shifted my gaze back to Ryder, expecting to see frustration or disappointment in his eyes. Instead, he simply shrugged. “Suit yourself,” he said. “Be careful on your way out.”
Anger creased Amneet’s eyebrows, and I detected something in her stance I could hardly process. Is she waiting for him to protest? Does she actually feel
by him? The idea sounded strange, but somehow – in the curve of her stance, in the pursed line of her lips – it seemed to hit home.
Before I could make sense of the energy that seemed to pulse in her eyes, Ryder turned his back and reached for another cigarette. Within seconds, Amneet was gone.
Continuing as if she had never existed, he said, “Tell you guys what. Think on it. We aren’t leaving until tomorrow morning, so you don’t have to decide right now.” He glanced toward the window. “Besides, the rain’s about to let up, and we have some very important business to attend to in Sharon Meadows.” He cocked his head. “You guys ever heard of a Slip ’n Slide?”
Javi and I cowered beneath a Monterey cypress while Ryder, Cody and Jett untangled something large and dark on the water-clogged grass before us. The rain had lessened to an intermittent drizzle, and the air smelled strongly of grass and eucalyptus leaves. Javi held a blanket over both our heads, and his body felt warm as it radiated heat beside me.
I felt unsettled. And nervous, yet privileged somehow, to be standing here under this blanket so close to a boy, smelling the scent of cooking spice that lingered, indistinct, on his skin. It wasn’t even a particularly good smell. It was peppery and earthy, a shade shy of unpleasant, but it was
smell. For some reason, the knowledge that I knew it made me feel like I’d been let in on some kind of secret.
Watch it, Autumn. Seriously. What are you doing right now?
“What do you think about all this?” Javi finally asked. He kept his eyes focused forward as Ryder straightened the corners of a large plastic tarp. “Think it’s true?”
I swallowed. “I don’t know. They certainly seem confident about it.”
“Yeah. They do.” A thoughtful expression crinkled his forehead. “I just… really want to get away from this place. So I’m not sure if that’s clouding my judgment or not.”
“Yeah. Me, too.”
Something hummed between us – fluttery and expectant – before Ryder cried, “OK, we’re ready for you guys! Do you want to try this or not?”
“Of course they don’t want to try this,” Jett said. Her unnaturally dark hair was plastered in wet rivulets against her forehead. “Not this time, anyway. But maybe next time. Guys, watch this. Slip ’n Slides are pretty much the most amazing inventions ever. We set them up all the time back home in the Sierras.”
She took a few steps backward and began kicking out of her boots. They sloshed and protested, but soon she was barefoot. The sight of mud creeping between her toes was so strange that I found myself staring.
She unzipped her purple sweatshirt, and then she was only wearing a thin, lavender tank top – which quickly plastered itself to her small breasts. Then her pants were gone, and she was standing serene and long-legged in the middle of the park, in nothing more than her underwear.
My jaw dropped, and Javi’s sharp inhale told me he was equally stunned by her lack of modesty. No, even more stunned, because his arms wavered, and the blanket in his hands dipped forward for a second. A cascade of water soaked my toes, but his forced breathing and suddenly flared nostrils told me he hadn’t even noticed.
I ignored a stab of – something? – that surfaced when I glanced at him. And then Jett was running, leaping forward and diving headfirst across the plastic tarp.
Her long body was soon soaked with rainwater, and droplets ran down her legs as she threw her head back and laughed. “See? Told you it was awesome!”
I tried to ignore the curve of her thighs, the narrow scoop of her collarbone, and the hardness of her nipples as she smiled expectantly at Ryder and Cody. But the truth was, I felt paralyzed. And uncomfortable. And strangely stirred by the sight of so much skin.
What was wrong with me?
It was just a few moments before Ryder and Cody followed her lead. Kicking off their shoes, they pulled their shirts over their heads and tossed their pants to the lawn.
My heart nearly exploded. I had never seen an undressed boy before, and now two stood right in front of me, completely at ease and unruffled in nothing but tiny cotton undershorts.
They had all these
. Their chests were knotted, and their waists narrowed into tight stomachs and rows of blocky lines that led… well… downward… to a spot below their waistbands where I could clearly see the outlines of
. Something that made me want to cover my eyes and meditate for three weeks; something that made me feel dizzy and sweaty and unglued and uncomfortable.
I cleared my throat and looked down, and guilt surged inside me at the realization that I was definitely not practicing neutrality right now. Watch it, Autumn. Seriously.
Javi shifted beside me, obviously uncomfortable, and then Ryder and Cody were flying. They laughed like twin missiles as they streamed across the plastic and collided with a crash into Jett. There was mud everywhere, and I couldn’t tell where one body ended and the others began. And then all three were up, racing toward the beginning of the slide again – laughing and pushing and shoving as they dove across the plastic a second, third and fourth time.
After the fifth time, Jett staggered over. Her breathing was heavy, and her tank top was smeared with long streaks of dark mud. Energy seemed to radiate from her, and her teeth gleamed unnaturally white as she leaned in and planted muddy kisses on both Javi’s and my cheeks.
“I’m really glad I met you guys.” Her breath was laced with the spicy, sweet scent of whatever had been in that flask. I tried not to jump when she touched me.
Ryder and Cody soon followed. They were both soaked and nearly unrecognizable, except for the wide grins that split both their faces.
“Wanna try, Red?” Ryder rushed forward and gripped my waist with two mud-covered hands.
I should have felt irritated by his proximity, by the familiar way he held me and by the mud that now smeared my dress with two identical pawprints. But I didn’t.
I felt shocked, for sure. And a little bit terrified. But the truth is, it didn’t even occur to me that I should push his hands from my sides. Instead, part of me actually wanted to lean
him. I had never been muddy before, and I had certainly never stood like this, staring into the eyes of a barely dressed boy in the middle of the night.
Ryder and his friends made me feel dangerous. And alive.
And they said they could prove the Essence theory wrong.
“I want to go to the Sierras with you.”
I didn’t realize I was thinking the words until they were already spoken.
I woke with a start just before daybreak. My cheek was pressed against the cold tile of the mansion floor, and my blanket was skewed sideways – not quite covering me, but not quite not, either.
Javi slept a few feet from me. Dried mud coated his hair, and I could tell by his slightly open mouth and regular breathing that my gasp hadn’t disturbed him. Am I actually sleeping on the floor this close to a boy? I wondered.
I rolled onto my back and dragged a hand through my own mud-caked curls. They were tangled – knotted, really – and the muscles in my arms ached from the force of the Slip ’n Slide.
Did last night really happen?
I felt something strange well inside me. Shame? My dress – which I’d insisted on wearing despite Ryder and Jett’s protests – was crinkly and stiff, and my arms and legs were smeared with beige spatters and grass.
The mansion was quiet, a jumble of blankets and muddy bodies. Jett and Cody were curled on my left, and Ryder was stretched like a cat on the window seat to my right. The cigarette clutched between his fingers had smoldered into an ash pile beside him, and his head was tipped slightly backward. The shadows below his cheekbones were particularly prominent in the morning light, and faint snores reverberated from his lips.
He was beautiful. They were all beautiful, but the reality of the evening was so foreign and pungent that it took me a moment to process.
I had slid through the mud and played with strangers on a Slip ’n Slide. I had laughed and run through a meadow in the middle of the night.
Although I had turned down the dark liquid in Ryder’s flask, I had secretly relished the feeling of his hand against mine as he tried to pass me the bottle. “You’re beautiful, Red,” he had said, his breath infused with that lovely spiced sweetness. “You really are. You know that?”
I had pulled Javi down the Slip ’n Slide with me, and I had felt my cheeks color when his gaze lingered on my legs, when he wiped the mud from his forehead and whispered, “I’m really glad we’re going through this together, Autumn.”
It had all seemed so exciting, so real and invigorating that I hadn’t even blinked when Jett and Cody started kissing. And the thought of sleeping on the floor in the middle of the mansion hadn’t sounded strange. It had sounded daring, like I was really part of something.
A hard object pressed into my side. I rolled onto my back and dug through the folds of my skirt. Brady’s lion, now damp and bedraggled, left mudstains in the palm of my hand.
What have I done?
I was struck by such a debilitating sadness that I nearly doubled over. How can I be here, doing dangerous things with strangers, when Brady is in an urn somewhere? Why do I get to live and be reckless with my Essence when he barely did anything wrong in his whole life?
I thought of Aunt Marie’s words.
Sometimes, sweetheart, you have to decide where your loyalties lie
And mine lie with you and my little sister.
After all that, had I actually considered abandoning my family?
I truly am the worst person in the world.
I pulled myself to my feet. Wiping the dirt clumps from my legs, I checked the sunrise and decided I probably had enough time to get home and get showered before morning meditation sessions began.
The train station was crowded, buzzing with Outsiders in dark suits and tourists with bright jackets and cameras. I stood with my back to the turnstiles, suitcases in hand and my hair still damp from my frenzied morning shower. My long trench coat was buttoned, and its hood was pulled low over my forehead to discourage inappropriate attention.
“There,” my mother said, approaching from the ticket counter and passing me two plastic cards. “One stop in San Jose, and then on to Los Gatos. Cedar’s brother will be waiting for you at the station.” She pulled the hood from my eyes and smoothed my hair.
I swallowed and stared at the empty train tracks before us. My entire world felt like it was spinning out of control. I really thought this Los Gatos thing was still open for discussion.
“I am so pleased you’ve finally come around this morning,” she said. “This retreat’s combination of meditation and self-deprivation is decades ahead of its time, and you will feel so much better once you’ve been freed from the constraints of your anger and grief.” She paused and touched the silver pendant around my neck. “Neutrality is the key to longevity, after all. Don’t ever forget that.”
I nodded, but for some reason, I didn’t feel the need to repeat the mantra in agreement. My mother’s words felt off this morning. Void in some way.
For once, I felt like I could almost see beneath the mantra – to the dark-paneled meditation room where Cedar and his followers had sat brainstorming its creation. Were they really concerned about their Essences, about the best way to express the gravity of the situation to their followers? Or were they just trying to figure out the smartest way to scare us into submission so they could dominate us?
I realized I didn’t know the answer.
My mother was droning on about the private bedrooms, the spacious sanctuaries and the busy daily schedule, when two things happened nearly simultaneously. She narrowed her eyes with her hand poised above my ear, and I caught a glimpse of someone walking purposefully down the platform toward us.
“What is this?” My mother’s eyes widened as she reached into the crevices of my ear lobe. Inspecting the muddy remnants I had somehow missed in my shower, she held her finger up for me to see. “Is this… dirt? Autumn Grace, why on earth do you have
in your ear?”
But I wasn’t listening. I was watching the willowy figure march across the platform. She wore a long trench coat like me, but there was something defiant about the way she strode through the crowd. Although her face was mostly hidden beneath the folds of her hood, her jangling boots were unmistakable.
“Autumn, are you listening to me?” I tried to focus on my mother, but my insides were suddenly so queasy I was having trouble concentrating. “Autumn Grace, what is
“Be right back,” I managed, brushing past her and walking forward to meet Jett.
Sadness filled Jett’s expression as she closed the distance between us. “Why did you leave us, Autumn? You didn’t even say goodbye.”
“Jett… I’m sorry. I just…”
“Do you know how long it took me to track you down here?” She twisted her hands together. “We don’t usually… We don’t
come after recruits when they leave us, but I had to know. Didn’t you have fun with us? Didn’t you like us?”
“I did. I do.” I cast a worried glance over my shoulder. My mother’s mouth hung open, and I knew it was only a matter of time before she ended what she deemed to be an overly emotional conversation.
“Listen, Jett, it’s just…”
“Where are you going? You’re not leaving because of us, are you?”
“No.” I almost laughed. “No,” I said again, this time more quietly. “Jett, I’m going to a Centrist retreat in Los Gatos. After everything that’s happened with my brother, Cedar thinks…”
?” Jett’s eyes widened. “Autumn, you can’t be serious. Do you know what they
to people at the Los Gatos retreat?”
“Is clearly trying to turn you into a vegetable!” She grabbed my arm. “Autumn, I’m serious. It’s like a prison camp. They barely feed you, and they make you sit in dark, empty rooms until you aren’t even
anymore. You can’t possibly go along with this.”
From somewhere in the distance, a train whistle blared. I cast another glance at my mother. “Hurry along, Autumn,” she called, struggling to keep her voice light. “It’s time to tell your friend goodbye.”
“Autumn.” Jett clutched both my shoulders. “I’m serious. I’ve known people who’ve been sent to Los Gatos, and they’ve come back so screwed up you can’t even recognize them.”
“But… my brother…”
“Is exactly why you can’t get on that train! Look, Autumn, I know you’re messed up right now. I know your brother just died, but going to Los Gatos isn’t going to bring Brady back.”
The train’s gleaming silver nose appeared in a blur, and the platform bustled with movement as everyone began jostling toward the tracks.
“Autumn, I’m serious.” Now Jett’s expression became pleading. “You owe it to yourself – and to your brother’s memory – to ditch this train, get the hell out of here and do something with your life.”
Passersby began shoving past us, and I felt my mother’s grip tighten around my bicep as she clutched me from behind. “It’s time to go, Autumn,” she hissed, pulling me toward the train. “Tell your friend you’ll see her when you return.”
Jett’s hand clasped mine. “Autumn,” she said. “You may think we’re wrong about Essences, but we just may be right. And your brother’s death will be meaningless if you don’t have the courage to find out.”