Authors: Lisa Ann O'Kane
Tags: #cultish Community, #loss, #Essential problems, #science fiction, #total suppression, #tragedy, #Yosemite, #young adult fiction, #zero emotion
I’m not exactly sure what happened next.
I know I swung my arm and freed myself from my mother’s grip somehow, and I know I glanced over my shoulder and said, “I’m not getting on that train,” before Jett whooped in delight and pulled me away from the tracks. I left my suitcases behind, didn’t even look back when we started running. And Jett’s laughter was so wild and disobedient that I soon found myself laughing, too.
My muscles burned, and adrenaline flowed freely through me as we raced, hand in hand, toward the platform exit. Jett pulled her trench coat free, and the brown cloth billowed as she thrust it to the ground behind her.
Ryder, Cody and Javi waited outside. They stood beside a black SUV, and they bolted upright when they saw us. “What the hell, Jett?” Ryder’s eyes widened. “This doesn’t exactly fall under the ‘don’t draw attention to yourself’ rule.”
“Go, go, go!” Jett fought giggles as we raced down the stairs. “I’m serious; we need to get out of here now!”
Cody’s eyes narrowed, and then he was at the wheel. The truck’s engine roared to life, and Jett and I crashed into the back seat with Javi. Ryder vaulted into the front seat and pulled the door shut behind him. “Go!”
Cody jammed the accelerator. As the truck slid into high gear, Jett’s frenzied giggles filled the air. She had collapsed, sweaty, against me, and my eye socket was crammed into Javi’s right shoulder. My coat was tangled in a bundle around us, and the zipper was pressed too hard against my neck.
“I think I’m choking,” I managed, and then we were all laughing.
It was a dizzying kind of laughter – the laughter that is born of close calls, adrenaline and danger. It was filled with friendship and camaraderie, with the mutual sense of relief that coats your insides when you realize you’ve come through something big together.
It was the first time I’d ever felt it, and part of me was scared by it. It felt reckless and defiant, and it filled the cab with a destructive energy that made me want to close my eyes, grasp my pendant and repeat the Centrist mantra over and over and over.
The energy was weightless, too – like the exhalation of a lifetime’s worth of repressed emotions. I could practically taste the burning of our Essences, but the solidarity of our rebelliousness was delicious, as well.
I thought of the Slip ’n Slide, of the way I’d felt my entire body sing when I crashed through the mud and when I tangled myself in the blankets at the mansion. That feeling of really being part of something was back again.
And part of me prayed it would never end.
“I’m sorry I left this morning,” I whispered once everyone had lapsed back into silence.
Our truck was racing over the new Bay Bridge, and the remains of Treasure Island lay overgrown and forgotten to our left. The vibrant emerald cliffs of Sausalito and Tiburon stretched like sleeping giants across the bay, and Oakland’s steel and glass high-rises caught the sun’s rays to our right.
“That’s OK, Red,” Ryder said, turning to make eye contact with me. “I just want to make sure you really want to be here.” Before I could answer, he added, “That’s why we have a policy never to chase recruits. We only want you if you really want to do this.”
I couldn’t help but notice his pointed pause, the way Jett shifted slightly at his words. “I do,” I said quickly. “I’m sorry…”
“Her mother was sending her to the retreat in Los Gatos,” Jett said. “She was supposed to leave this morning.”
“No wonder you were screwed up,” Cody said, and Ryder’s face softened slightly.
“Yeah,” he finally echoed. “It’s no wonder. And you really want to be here, Red? You’re absolutely sure?”
“I’m absolutely sure.” I hated that look of hesitation in his eyes, the invisible distance that seemed to span the space between us.
He regarded me without speaking for a moment, and then he finally nodded and extended his hand for a truce. “Great. Welcome back, then.”
The gentle slowing of the truck is what finally woke me from my nap. I hadn’t realized I was sleeping, and I was horrified to find I’d slid into the crevice between Javi’s shoulder and the seat back.
“Hey,” he whispered as I lifted my head.
“I’m sorry,” I stammered, wiping my hand across my chin. No drool. Whew. “How long have I been sleeping?”
“Maybe two hours.” He smiled. “They blindfolded me for a bit once we passed Merced. We turned into the mountains at some point, and now…” He motioned to the dark stand of pines that crowded the winding asphalt road. “I’m not exactly sure where we are now.”
“I’ve been asleep for two hours?” My disappointment was thinly veiled. My first trip out of the Bay Area, and I’d slept through most of it?
“Snored pretty good for a while, too,” Ryder said, grinning back at me. “Impressive lungs, Red. Didn’t know you had it in you.”
“You didn’t snore one bit, Autumn,” Jett insisted. “Don’t even listen to him.” She was sitting cross-legged, and she seemed to be knitting some kind of brightly colored scarf. “Ryder, on the other hand… Don’t let him fool you. You should hear that guy when he gets going.”
“Are you guys ready for the fun part?” It was Cody, and he followed the question with a sharp tug on the steering wheel. The truck jerked hard to the left, and I was afraid it would tip as it barreled sideways off the road and crashed onto a rutted, hidden trail.
I may have screamed. I’m almost certain I shrieked, because Javi and I were thrown forward, and we smashed together as Jett whooped and cheered beside us. “Love this part!” she cried, dropping her knitting and bracing herself with her handrail.
The truck jerked through the pine trees, and it weaved and bottomed out as Cody attempted to avoid the very deepest ruts. Branches slapped against the windshield, and they screeched like knives against the metal doors.
“Don’t worry,” Ryder shouted over the chaos. “Just another mile or so. Road got beat to shit during the earthquake; we’ll pop back out onto the asphalt once we pass the rockslides.”
I nodded, but my gritted jaw made a real response impossible. I felt my teeth chattering in my skull, and I wondered how Jett could possibly laugh at a time like this.
“Checkpoint’s just ahead,” Cody announced, a few nail-biting, joint-crushing minutes later. “Almost there, guys.”
I fought my nausea as the truck rounded a corner and crashed back onto asphalt. Up ahead, a wooden sign dangled from a stone structure by the roadside, its words completely obscured by a thick layer of moss. Just past the sign, a roadblock was set up with metal gates, sandbags and a sign that read, “Danger: Radon Gas Present in this Area. No Trespassing, by Order of the U. S. Department of Energy”.
A duo of militaristic guards stood at our arrival. They were dressed in olive green camouflage, and their faces hardened into masks as Cody slowed to a stop and opened his window. My stomach knotted as I sized up their machine guns, the knives strapped to their thighs and the dark lenses of their sunglasses.
“No trespassing. Can’t you read the sign?” one said, leaning forward. His scowl only lasted for a second. “Holy shit, guys, didn’t even recognize you in this thing. Sorry bout that; welcome back!”
Cody shook hands with the guard, and Javi and I sat stupefied while Jett leaned forward and said, “Wow, Brian. They’ve got you on duty out here now?”
“Twice a week, once they get me trained,” Brian replied with a grin. “Today’s my second day.” Sunglasses removed, I could see he was only a few years older than me, maybe in his early twenties. His eyelashes and eyebrows were so pale, they almost looked white.
“Congrats,” Jett said brightly. “A big damn deal.”
“Thanks.” He locked eyes with me. “Hi, guys, I’m Brian. Welcome to Yosemite.”
Yosemite? I reached forward to shake Brian’s hand, and I felt my mind spin as I remembered the word from some forgotten history lesson.
Yosemite was a park. A national park. A big one back in its heyday, but shut down and abandoned after the Great Quake.
“Yosemite?” Javi clearly remembered the history lessons as well. His face pinched as Cody accelerated again. “Isn’t this place dangerous? What about the radon gas?”
“Only gas we have to worry about here is Cody’s farts,” Ryder laughed. “Ain’t that right, bro?”
I frowned. “There’s no radon gas here? What about the history lessons?”
“Only halfway accurate. The government didn’t know what to do with this place after the Quake hit,” Jett said. “Roads were damaged beyond repair, radon gas was found in the redwood forests…”
“A few public hearings were held,” Cody added, “but the National Park Service called it quits when Mammoth Mountain became an active volcano again.”
“It never erupted, though, right?” Javi’s lack of American history knowledge was apparent in the quaver in his voice.
“Right. And radon gas disperses fairly quickly. Hasn’t been measured at dangerous levels here in years.” Cody shrugged. “Doesn’t matter, I guess. The damage had already been done. No government agency is ever going to approve the reopening of such a volatile place.”
“My old man always thought the government gave up on Yosemite too soon,” Ryder said. “So when we ditched LA and headed back north, this was a natural place for us to end up. We arrived in ’31, and we’ve been here ever since.”
“You’ve been living here for seven years? What about the Department of Energy?”
“Has no idea we’re even here.” He smiled and re-propped his feet on the dashboard. “When my old man stumbled onto this place, it really was deserted. We lay low for the first few months, but when it became clear no one was ever coming back…” He shrugged. “We rigged up that fake checkpoint about six months into our research. Capitalized on the already-public knowledge that this place is supposed to be toxic, and that’s that. The Community’s closed, and new members are only accepted through invitation.”
“Which is why you were in San Francisco.”
“Right.” Ryder said the word matter-of-factly, without explanation or apology. “Monthly visits during the summer, a little less often during the off-season. We don’t always pick up new recruits, but we always try.”
I felt strangely let down by his words. Monthly visits during the summer? Nine or ten visits per year? Twenty, thirty, forty new recruits?
I surveyed my companions, and I felt hesitation creep into my bones. Does Ryder tell every girl he meets she’s beautiful? I wondered. Does Jett always peel off her sweater without a trace of modesty? Were these people, my so-called new “friends”, simply working off a script?
Ryder continued. “Nowadays, the Community has grown to about two hundred and fifty former Centrists. Mostly young folks. Farmers and artists and freethinkers… The absolute best of the best.”
“And your father? You said he’s doing Essence experiments out here?”
“In order to prove the Essence theory wrong, he’s gotta have a mountain of evidence behind him. So a big part of what we do out here is participate in experiments. Monitor our heart rate and hormone levels while we perform a variety of activities. My old man compiles all this information into a database, and someday when he’s finished…” He smiled proudly. “Someday, we’ll present our evidence to Cedar’s followers, and we’ll save everyone from his tyranny.”
“Participate in experiments?” I swallowed. I knew Ryder’s father was doing research out here, but the idea that I’d be a test subject seemed somehow overwhelming.
“Yeah. Fun ones.” Ryder’s smile was genuine, but I couldn’t help my shiver of apprehension. I leaned slightly into Javi, and I wanted nothing more than to glance sideways at him, to see if the expression on his face reflected any of my doubts.
But I didn’t. It would have been too awkward. Ryder’s attention was focused fully on me, and his smile widened when he said, “Trust me, Red. You’re gonna love the stuff we get to do out here.”
“Big Rocks, straight ahead.” Cody motioned as our truck reached a clearing in the trees.
I crouched to peer through the windshield, and I instantly felt my breath catch in my lungs. Two massive walls of granite towered before us, and they formed a narrow opening to a valley so immense, it seemed to stretch forever. The canyons gleamed golden-gray in the afternoon sunlight, and they were so massive that their summits were blocked by the upper limits of the truck’s windshield.
A waterfall cascaded to our right, and a wide, grassy meadow sprawled to our left. The valley smelled fresh, like pine needles and water, and I must have started sniffing the air, because Jett nudged me after a moment and giggled. “Smells good, doesn’t it?”
“It’s the Ponderosa pines,” Cody explained as I slouched back in my seat. “I must have walked around with my nose stuck in their trunks for the first two weeks I was here.”
“Very attractive, hon,” Jett said. “Had all the girls fainting over you right away.”
“Like you cared, anyway.” Locking eyes with me in the rearview mirror, Cody said, “You should have seen her, Autumn. We grew up side by side in San Francisco, but she didn’t even notice I was alive until we’d been here for more than a year. Too busy with other guys to give me the time of day.”
“Whatever!” Jett punched Cody’s arm as Ryder absently rolled another cigarette between his thumb and forefinger.
He continued. “Yosemite Valley was formed by the Merced River and by the movement of glaciers through this area about a million years ago. That’s Bridalveil Falls over there on our right. And that cliff face on our left is El Capitan. Three thousand feet from base to summit, with more than a hundred established climbing routes and a perfect ledge for BASE jumping.”
“El Cap is kind of a big deal around here,” Jett said, rolling her eyes. “I call it Mount Testosterone.”
“Oh, yeah? I seem to recall you chomping at the bit the first time I took you there,” Ryder said, blowing smoke out the cracked window. “Couldn’t wait to get a shot at it.”
“I did a lot of stupid things back then,” she snapped, and for the first time, I noticed tension simmering in the air between them.
“This place was discovered by explorers back in the 1850s,” she continued, slipping into tour-guide mode. “After they captured the native tribes and burned their villages – in an epic display of brotherly love – they decided to make Yosemite a tourist attraction. Lodges were built, roads were laid out and this place became a national park. Who knows what it would look like now if the Great Quake hadn’t hit?”
“You can still see the remains of some of the valley’s landmarks,” Cody said, pointing to a half-collapsed wooden structure on our right. “This used to be Yosemite Chapel, and that road to our right leads to what’s left of Curry Village. Was a lodge and tent camp for the park’s visitors.”
“That’s where my old man has his clinic set up nowadays,” Ryder said, glancing down the road. “We check in there once a week to download our heart rates and hormone readings.”
The truck veered left and crossed a bridge, and I glimpsed a bizarre cliff towering above the valley to our right. “What’s that?” I asked, leaning across Jett.
“That,” Ryder said, “is Half Dome. Grandfather of all of Yosemite Valley.”
I was struck by the cliff’s peculiar shape, by its sheer expanse of rock and its towering, rounded face. For the first time in my life, I felt awed, and speechless, and completely overwhelmed by the idea that something so beautiful had existed here this whole time, just beyond my reach.
I thought back to the city, to the afternoons my mother and I made small talk while preparing dinner. I thought of my nightly meditation exercises – the slow unruffling and smoothing of my aura’s ripples as I released my pent-up emotions before bed.
Neutrality is the key to longevity.
An unfamiliar emotion welled in my eyes as I stared hard at this new world outside my window. I felt
. And amazed. And alive.
Every neuron in my body began singing, and suddenly, I didn’t care if Ryder told every girl he met she was beautiful. I didn’t care if Jett had been working off a script, and I didn’t care if I was just one of the thirty or more recruits they brought to this place every year.
I was in Yosemite now.
And for the first time in a long time, I felt like I was home.