Authors: Lisa Ann O'Kane
Tags: #cultish Community, #loss, #Essential problems, #science fiction, #total suppression, #tragedy, #Yosemite, #young adult fiction, #zero emotion
The Ahwahnee Hotel was once Yosemite National Park’s crowning jewel. Multistoried and constructed of river stones, it had once inspired the world’s most affluent travelers to stop in and enjoy its amenities and sweeping views. Today, it served as the home base for all the Community’s operations. It also housed more than two thirds of the valley’s inhabitants.
That’s what Ryder told us, anyway, as we pulled into a parking lot filled with shining trucks and rusted older vehicles. The hotel, half visible through the pines, looked massive and rustic, with stone pillars, exposed beams and wide-paneled windows that gleamed with dazzling reflections in the afternoon sunlight.
“Finally home,” Jett said, leaping from the back seat. “Feels good, doesn’t it?”
“It does.” Ryder helped me to my feet and pulled a suitcase from the trunk. “What do you think of your new home, guys?”
“This place is incredible,” Javi stammered. “Do we get to live in the hotel?”
“Not quite.” Ryder smiled. “Newbies move into the tent cabins behind the hotel. From there, you get promoted to wood cabins, and then you move to a room inside the Ahwahnee if you’re lucky and persistent.”
“Lucky and persistent? But I thought the Community was closed. How do you get promoted if no one leaves?”
“Oh, people leave,” Ryder said, taking a few steps toward the hotel. “Sometimes through their own choice, sometimes through ours. Sometimes people just don’t fit in here, you know?”
“We also have another homestead in the High Country called Tuolumne Meadows,” Jett said. “People can ‘retire’ from our experiments and move up there any time they like.”
“It’s totally separate, and it’s a really big honor to go,” Cody said. “We have crossover celebrations and everything.”
“Why don’t people leave after they retire?”
“Leave?” Jett scoffed. “Why would they leave? We’re a family here, Autumn. That’s one of the biggest reasons we’re out here. Besides, look around. Why would you ever want to leave?”
Javi squinted at the hotel’s long entryway. “So, how do you get promoted to the hotel?”
“All you gotta do is be awesome,” Ryder said. “Participate in my old man’s experiments, do your chores, get involved in community events. The Founders will notice.”
“The Founders,” Cody explained, “are the two ruling leaders of the Community: Ryder’s dad Rex and Daniel Lynch, another former meditation master.”
“You’ll meet them tonight,” Jett said, approaching the hotel’s large glass and stone doors. “We have a little something special prepared for your arrival.”
Jett escorted us through a wide stone lobby. The hotel’s original artwork and furnishings had mostly been stripped, but southwestern rugs and leather couches still dotted the foyer. Candles lined the windowsills in neat rows, and the air smelled warm, like leather and smoke. There wasn’t a trace of dust or disrepair anywhere.
“Stay right here,” she instructed, following Ryder and Cody toward the back exit. “We’ll be back in a flash.”
Javi and I stopped as our new companions disappeared from view. Their footsteps echoed through the empty lobby for a moment, and then there was nothing but silence and the crackling of some unseen fireplace.
It felt strange to be alone after so many hours of camaraderie, and our new friends’ absence manifested itself as a whooshing blow of sadness and uncertainty so intense, it left me breathless. Brady would have loved it here.
Another thought: I abandoned him to come here.
I knew the thought was ridiculous. I knew Brady’s soul was no more wrapped in that urn than mine had been in the clump of hair my mother cut. And I was here
Brady. I wasn’t here for Ryder or my mother or anyone else. I was here because I wanted to prove the Essence theory wrong, and I believed Ryder’s father held the key.
“How are you holding up, Autumn?”
Javi’s voice startled me, and I turned, half surprised to see him still standing there. We had been traveling in affable silence for so long that I had almost forgotten we were capable of independent conversation.
He seemed to share my hesitation, and his dark eyes seemed timid as he adjusted the folds of his wrinkled suit. “Do you still think you made the right choice coming here?”
“I do.” My answer was automatic. Realizing I didn’t need to convince him, I backpedaled slightly. “I mean… it’s exciting. And this place is gorgeous. It’s just kinda… scary. You know?”
“I know. A bit overwhelming, isn’t it?” He steadied himself by placing one wide hand on a leather chair. “And, you know… I believe in this. I really think I believe in this, but I don’t want them to force us to become Essence test subjects. We didn’t sign up for that.”
“I know.” His words made me realize how much Ryder had worried me, too.
“OK, we’re ready for you in the Meadow now.” It was Jett’s voice, and she appeared from the back exit with a little leap and a bow. Her grin was wide as she motioned to the door. “Are you guys ready?”
The Meadow was a wide clearing circled by pines and dotted with maples and dogwoods. The lower trees were strung with a flickering assortment of paper lanterns, and these glimmered like stars as the afternoon faded into twilight.
White canvas tents and wooden cabins were scattered in concentric half-circles under the trees to my left, and countless circular dining tables sprawled to my right. Made of raw wood and dotted with wildflower vases, the tables were set with gleaming white plates and silverware.
I made eye contact with Javi as Ryder strode forward. “Welcome to the Meadow, guys. Are you ready to meet your new family?”
He reached sideways and pulled a gilded rope near the back door. This prompted a bell mounted in one of the stone turrets to begin ringing. It was a vibrant sound, clanging and melodic, and it echoed from the building’s stone eaves and overhangs.
On cue, the Meadow began to fill.
Lanterns flickered in the trees as teenagers and young adults began appearing from all directions. First arriving in small groups, and then swelling until their numbers blended together, the Community assembled before us in a wash of colors and flowers.
I couldn’t believe their sheer numbers. Most of the kids wore street clothes like Ryder, but some were barefoot, and they dressed in long, loose-fitting skirts and tunics. Their hair was long and as wild as mine had been before my mother cut it, and flowers were woven into many of their hairstyles. A few girls had babies propped on their hips, and young children weaved happily through the gathering.
“Ryder.” An older man strode forward and clasped Ryder’s forearm in greeting. His silver hair was curly, and the dimples in his cheeks left no doubt who he was. Ryder’s father.
“Rex Stone,” the man said. “We’re so thankful you’ve joined us.” He affixed us with a smile so bright, it made me want to blush and look away.
His presence felt as poised and magnetic as Cedar’s, and his pale eyes seemed lit with that same inner glow. But where Cedar was distant, Rex seemed warm and so vibrant I could almost feel energy radiating from him.
The sun, I caught myself thinking. Rex reminds me of the sun.
I stammered a “hello” and leaned into Javi for support as Rex announced our names to the Community. Cheers erupted, and then we were surrounded. Cody, Jett, Ryder and his father acted as a buffer, and they led us to our seats at a very large rectangular head table. It overflowed with wildflowers and clean gray placemats.
“All right, back off, you,” Rex said to a group of children as we passed. “You will have plenty of time to meet our new friends after dinner.”
Javi and I were soon seated beside Ryder, his father, and a burly red-haired man who squeezed my hand a little too hard when he said, “Daniel Lynch. Good to meet you.”
As I turned my attention to my place setting, the most beautiful girl I had ever seen rushed forward and kissed both my cheeks before returning to her table. Her hair was the color of warmed honey, and her skin smelled fresh, like sage and lavender. “I’m Shayla,” she said warmly. “Welcome to our home.”
Our feast was a blur of roasted vegetables, soups and breads so savory and sweet, they left my mouth watery and my stomach gurgling for more. I had never tasted food so good in my entire life, wasn’t even aware food like this existed. I had been conditioned to expect grocery store castoffs, canned goods and potluck dinners at the temple; I had never experienced a meal that emphasized taste this much.
I must have gone into a trance at some point, because Ryder’s eyes glinted when he finally placed his hand on mine and said, “Just wait until you taste the bread pudding, Red; it’s gonna knock your socks off. Be right back with yours, OK?”
My cheeks burned. I replaced the buttery roll I had been reaching for, and I made awkward eye contact with Shayla as she popped from her chair and followed Ryder to the kitchen. Smooth, Autumn. Very, very smooth.
Something strange knotted my stomach at the sight of her with him. Was it jealousy? Shayla hadn’t looked Ryder’s way once during dinner – hadn’t even greeted him when she strode to a nearby table – but now she positively glowed when he opened the door for her. She threw her head back and laughed at something he said, and her fingers were light against his shoulder as she reached to squeeze his upper arm.
“You’re just as pretty as she is.”
It was Javi’s voice. I jumped, and his cheeks reddened. “I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s… none of my business. I just think you should know.”
I couldn’t decide which emotion was stronger – my embarrassment at being caught staring or my gratitude at being called pretty. Embarrassment won, and I quickly glanced down at my own plate.
We ate the rest of our meal in silence.
When the last plate had finally been cleared, Rex stood and addressed the crowd. His voice was rich and smooth as velvet. “Our new friends have only just said goodbye to the Centrist Movement. They have lived through many struggles, and they will fear for their Essences in the coming days. It is your responsibility to assuage their fears – just as it was our responsibility when you arrived.”
Daniel Lynch stood, too. His voice was deeper, but it lacked the purring quality of Rex’s. “Take a moment to remember how you felt when you became part of the Community,” he said. “Remember how Cedar and his followers conditioned you to believe your death was just one errant emotion away.”
A murmur of agreement filtered through the gathering, and Rex continued. “Cedar is a tyrant and a liar, and his Movement is a fallacy. Our mission here is not only to disprove his theories, but to provide a refuge where former Centrists can receive the treatment and rehabilitation they need – away from the prying eyes of Outsiders or Cedar’s spies.”
“We are here, united as a family, because we have all survived a terrible ordeal,” Daniel said. “We have found a new faith in the rocks and trees and miracles of this land, and we cannot rest until every Centrist is likewise freed.” He paused. “Remember
motto. Abundance is the key to longevity.”
Rex raised his arms. “Now let us welcome our friends with a proper celebration – one that shows how much transcendence can be achieved through the true amplification of our emotions.”
On cue, music exploded through the Meadow. Bonfires burst into flame behind the dining area, and everyone jumped from their tables and began dancing. Jett pulled Javi to his feet, and Cody pulled me to mine.
Music hummed through the gathering – an eruption of drums and guitars and other instruments I’d never heard before. The Community seemed to transform from hundreds of individuals into one living being – a being that pulsed and writhed and danced with so much joy and passion that I couldn’t even process it.
I felt Essences burning like wildfires around us, but no one seemed the least bit concerned about it. Instead, they seemed
, and fulfilled, and completely swelling with life.
I knew I should feel grateful to be here with them, but the thought that I may someday become one of them was way too much to handle. Their energy felt claustrophobic. And reckless. And dangerous.
Cody seemed to read my mind. After a few minutes, he leaned into my ear and whispered, “Ready for bed, Autumn? The dancing’ll go on all night, but it’s usually too much for new recruits to handle. Sure scared the shit out of me my first night. Wanna get a good night’s sleep and then start fresh in the morning?”
I nodded. We squeezed back through the crowd, and we were soon met by Jett and Javi. They were also heading toward the gathering’s outskirts, and Jett smiled when she saw us. “Let’s get you guys away from this craziness.”
“I’m so sorry,” Jett said a few minutes later. Her hands were filled with linens, and we were standing before a canvas-wrapped tent cabin. “We would never, ever house two new arrivals of opposite genders in the same tent cabin, but a storm blew through here the other night and knocked out a row of housing. They’ve been working all day to get the tents repaired, but it hasn’t happened yet. We’ll get you reassigned as soon as we can, I promise.”