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 (7 page)

Cody flicked on a lantern and pulled open the tent’s wooden front door. The light illuminated a small square room with canvas walls, a wooden floor and a wooden frame. A woodstove sat darkened in front of us, and two cots lined the right and left walls.

After showing us how to light the fire, he said, “They’ll serve breakfast in the dining hall tomorrow morning. Something light. Probably leftovers from tonight’s meal, and then you’ll report to Rex for some initial tests and fittings. A tour guide will give you a proper orientation, and then someone will assign you your chores.”

“Welcome to the Community,” Jett finished, dropping our bedsheets and new clothes before pulling us into tight hugs. “I think you will both love it here.”


The awkwardness started the moment Jett and Cody said goodnight. I had already claimed the right cot, and I was sitting, swinging my legs, when Javi turned and said, “I’m sorry I said you were pretty earlier.”

He flinched and tossed his bundle of new clothes aside. “I mean, I’m not sorry, because I meant it. But it was a weird thing to say, so I’m sorry if it made you feel uncomfortable.”

“That’s OK. I…” For some reason, I couldn’t look him in the eyes. Instead, I found myself staring at the floor between our feet.

The pulse of drums echoed outside the tent. “I know I’m not off to a great start,” he said, “but I really want us to be friends. I know we just met, and I know this whole thing is crazy, but I feel a little less crazy when I remember you’re here, too.”

“I do, too.” I wasn’t sure how I felt about Javi, but I knew I liked the crinkle of his eyes and the way he bit his lip when he was nervous.

He seemed nervous right now. Maybe even more nervous than me. And I don’t know why, but I realized I liked that as well.

“Good,” he said, and his smile was shy when he reached to unfold his clothes. “I’m really glad to hear that.”




I didn’t sleep well. My head was swimming with thoughts of Javi, with thoughts of Brady and with questions about whether or not I had just made the biggest mistake of my life. Music from the gathering echoed from the Meadow until nearly dawn, and my cot creaked like it might collapse at any minute. Javi’s repeated tosses and turns told me he probably didn’t appreciate my squirming.

Not that his presence lent
to easy sleeping. I was panicked by the idea that I was sharing a bedroom with a boy, and I was so self-conscious that I’d snore or drool or look stupid in my sleep that I kept adjusting my expression to look as pretty as possible in case he happened to glance my way. When that became too tiresome, I turned my back to him, and that’s how I stayed for most of the night.

I’m not sure how he kept the woodstove burning. He must have gotten up several times to tend it, but I don’t remember any of those moments. That led me to believe I
have slept some, but I sure didn’t feel refreshed when our front door began rattling the next morning.

“Morning has broken, you guys! Get up; you’re missing it.”

Jett was vivacious, filled with laughter and dancing in impatience as we stumbled from our tent. Cody waited beside her, and he greeted us with a much less enthusiastic nod. His hair was skewed in a wild tuft, and it was easy to see he wasn’t a morning person, either.

“OK, Javi, you go with Cody. Autumn, you’re coming with me.”

Jett dragged me from the boys before I had time to protest. My long cotton nightgown dragged behind me as she pulled me through the dappled light of the pine trees.

“I packed a towel and a change of clothes for you; hurry or the Balcony’s gonna fill up.”


She pointed to the cliffs just past the hotel. “There’s a ledge up there where the water flows through a couple of natural pools before it feeds down into a creek. The sun warms it up – just slightly – so we use it for bathing.”

“You bathe in a creek?”

“No,” she laughed. “We bathe at the Balcony. The boys bathe in the creek.”

She paused for a moment and then pointed at the hotel. “We don’t have electricity at the Ahwahnee, but we do have solar panels in case we need an emergency heat source. The panels also power our refrigerators, and we use them to warm our bath water in the winter.

“We go on occasional supply runs for any outside materials we can’t produce here, but we live simply for the most part, and that includes bathing outside during warm weather instead of wasting drinking water. Does that make sense?”

“Yes. But people can’t… I mean, you don’t bathe out in the
, do you?”

“No.” She laughed as we began climbing a steep trail. “Well, actually, I don’t know. How do you define ‘open’?”


‘Open’, it turned out, was the perfect description for the scene awaiting us. The Balcony was little more than a ledge – probably only fifteen feet wide from base to edge. Formed by the trickling of a sheet waterfall from a stream high above the canyon, its pools were simple hollows crowded between the ledge and the wall, where water collected briefly before cascading sideways toward a creek.

My cheeks immediately flared when I saw the cluster of half-naked and naked girls crowded around the pools. They brushed their hair and laughed and seemed completely unaffected by the massive, sweeping views of the Valley below them.

That’s when I realized we were above the pine trees. I crept toward the edge, cheeks still burning, and I could barely detect the outline of the Ahwahnee through the foliage.

“Hidden in plain sight,” Jett explained, coming to stand beside me. “We’re too high up here for anyone to see us from the hotel.”

Seeing my expression, she glanced back at the girls and added, “This group will be moving on soon. I… I guess I forget how weird this must be for you.”

“No, it’s OK.”

I was lying. As I continued staring out at the Valley, I realized the only naked girls I’d ever seen were my mother and Aunt Marie. And from the moment I could comfortably bathe and dress myself, they’d left me alone to do just that.

I couldn’t imagine stripping down out here in the open like this. Although I knew the other girls wouldn’t care,
would care, and that’s all that mattered.

I was already sharing my bedroom with a boy and listening to people dance until dawn. What was the Community going to ask me to do next?


Strap on a metal wristband that recorded every fluctuation in my heart rate, apparently.

I finally managed to get undressed at the Balcony, but only after everyone left and Jett turned her back to guard the entrance for me. Her face seemed uncharacteristically serious, and she nodded without hesitation at my request. “Of course I’ll do that,” she said, squeezing my hand. “I used to be terrified of this place.”

There was something lingering in her voice, and I thought I detected sadness in the slump of her shoulders as she added, “Don’t ever let anyone talk you into changing, OK, Autumn? You can be as modest and shy as you like.”

Javi seemed likewise rattled by his experience of showering in the outdoors. “How was your bath?” he asked when we regrouped to head with Cody to Curry Village. Apparently rethinking his question, he turned and walked the rest of the way in silence.

Now, as we sat side by side in Rex’s glowing clinic, Javi stared at the complicated metal bracelet shining on his left wrist. Rex was kind – overly explanatory and cautious – as he said, “It’s completely painless, and everyone here has one. All it does is record your heart rate.”

The laboratory’s fluorescent lighting, strange equipment and beeping computer panels jarred me as I studied my own wristband.

“We will download your heart rate readings into our database once a week to track fluctuations and changes,” Rex continued. “We will also swab your saliva once a day to check your hormone levels.” He swiveled in his chair and motioned to a counter crowded with swabs and test tubes. “By tracking your heart rates and hormone levels through time, we can show the non-alignment of these things to Essence drain and the length of your lifespan.”

“Your information is completely confidential,” Rex’s associate Daniel Lynch said, entering through a side door and pulling on a pair of gloves. His thick muscles were coiled, and his red hair gleamed with an oily sheen. I guessed he hadn’t taken it upon himself to bathe this morning.

Rex smiled as Daniel reached for a cotton swab. “Daniel and I are the only people who will ever see your results, and we promise to keep everything between us. Now open up, and let’s see what your first swab has to say.”


I couldn’t get out of that clinic fast enough. I understood why Rex’s tests were necessary, but that didn’t stop me from viewing my new wristband as a hidden camera or a secret thought recorder. Could it really track

My cheeks burned at the impure thoughts that had been swirling around my head the last few days: the way I’d been so affected by the sight of everyone’s mud-covered bodies on the Slip ’n Slide, the way I’d been flattered by Ryder and Javi’s attention.

Would the wristband have been able to detect
? And would Rex have known I had been having impure thoughts about his own

Without realizing it, I began tracing my fingers over my pendant necklace.
Neutrality is the key to longevity, neutrality is the key to longevity, neutrality is the key to longevity

I remembered the Community’s counter-mantra –
Abundance is the key to longevity
– but the words felt wrong in my mouth. Abundance? What does that even mean?

I was so preoccupied that I nearly bypassed the girl signaling to me from a nearby Jeep. Cody and Javi nodded and disappeared through the trees, and I approached the rusted vehicle to find a stranger waiting inside for me.

“I’m Kadence,” the girl said, extending her hand. “I’m here to take you on your orientation tour.”

She was short and curvy, with round eyes and a spray of wispy blonde hair. Her skin was luminous, and her lips were a perfect pale rose. Although I couldn’t put my finger on why, I decided I liked her right away.

“What about Javi? Doesn’t he need to go on a tour, too?”

“He’ll go on his own tour later this afternoon.” Kadence turned the ignition switch and patted the faded passenger seat. “Are you coming or not? This thing’s ancient; probably can’t get it moving again if we don’t go now.”


As Kadence accelerated through the towering pine trees, I realized my first instinct about her had been right. She was funny. And unpretentious. And as she pointed out the Valley’s natural and manmade landmarks, I could tell how much she loved it here. That made me feel a little better, too.

“It’s a pretty sweet setup,” she explained, pointing out a handful of trails that apparently led to waterfalls, lakes and hidden caves. “The Community really is a family, and we chip in equally to keep this place running.

“Well, not exactly equally,” she amended. “Job assignments are based on seniority, but you can petition to get your job reviewed twice a year. So, if you don’t like your assigned job, you can always move on to something else.”

She took a breath. “Our days are fairly organized. Six days a week, we wake up, eat breakfast, and then most of us have three to four hours of chores. Everyone breaks for lunch, and then we do Essence research for a few hours before nightfall. We meet again for dinner, and then we go about our business. The rest of the night is ours.”

“Essence research?” There was that phrase again.

Kadence smiled. “Don’t worry; it’s not nearly as scary as it sounds. Basically, we just have free time. We can spend it doing whatever we want – but whatever we choose needs to be something that will awaken our senses. Hiking, climbing, dancing… pretty much anything the Centrists would describe as ‘emotional’, because Rex thinks that’s critical to our rehabilitation. He also uses our readings to prove his theories.”

I nodded. “Rex takes this whole thing really seriously, doesn’t he?”

Kadence chuckled. “That’s an understatement. Rex used to be Cedar’s number two, so after everything that happened in the temple… I think Rex now realizes what a gifted manipulator Cedar is. He wants to save everyone else from repeating his mistakes.”

She pointed to a cluster of wooden buildings on our right. “These are the stables. We aren’t permitted to drive – except during orientation tours, recruiting missions and hunting trips. Our cars always break down, and we have to keep replacing them, so everyone gets around by walking, horse-riding or cycling.”

Nodding toward a series of pens, she added, “We keep our horses, sheep, goats, chicken and geese over there. Most other livestock are too resource-intensive, so we don’t eat too much meat. We usually only harvest our chickens and geese, and we mostly use our sheep and goats for wool and milk.”

The stables faded from sight, and then we were looping around Curry Village again. We drove past a series of high-tech-looking dams and a few rows of metal storage tanks. “Merced River, and there’s the hydroelectric dams and solar panels,” she said. “Rex was an investment genius back in LA. He made enough money outright to get this place started, but we have to live simply to continue being sustainable.”

She paused. “Coming up on our right, do you see those little rows of corn? Got those in at the end of March. There’s also cucumbers, potatoes, wheat, pumpkins, watermelons, beans… We have a few greenhouses behind Curry Village, so we can grow stuff over winter, too.”

We passed the far side of the Ahwahnee Meadow, and then we were twisting through the moss-covered remains of what, at one time, must have been a wooden community. Today, its peeling roofs and planks were collapsed into splinters, and they hung half-framed by their foundations.

“Yosemite Village,” she said, and a note of sadness crept into her voice. “This place was the heart of Yosemite forty years ago.”

I surveyed the destruction in front of me, the slow decomposition and moldering of what once must have been a thriving community of tourists and adventurers. The ruins felt heavy, like the headstones in a graveyard, and I tried to imagine what the scene must have looked like.

Kadence seemed to read my mind. As she pointed to a massive waterfall churning to our right – Yosemite Falls, apparently – she smiled and said, “We have some vintage photographs in one of the sitting rooms in the Ahwahnee. You really ought to check those out sometime. Totally put this place into perspective.”

We passed the falls and pulled through the ruins of another cluster of buildings. “This was Yosemite Lodge,” she said, encompassing more broken-down structures with a sweep of her hand. “Another hotel back in the park’s heyday. And do you see that high wall behind the remains of the Lodge? That’s Camp Four.”

The stone wall seemed to encircle a tree-filled encampment of some sort, but it was impossible to tell from this distance. “What’s Camp Four?”

“The only place in the entire Valley you aren’t allowed to go. Rex keeps emergency food rations, medicines and survival gear there in case we have another earthquake.”

She paused. “Keeps kerosene and gasoline there, too. We use new trucks for trips to the city, supply runs, things like that. But we rely on older, gas-dependent vehicles to get around out here. Gas is almost impossible to get in this part of the state, so Rex keeps storage tanks inside, and Daniel drains our vehicles every night.” She shrugged. “Makes sense, I guess. He wants to keep order, in case anything weird ever happens out here.”

Camp Four’s high walls and foreboding entrance troubled me. “Has anyone ever been inside?”

“Not that I know of. A few kids tried to break in a few years ago – wanted to steal some gas and joyride up to Tuolumne Meadows. Rex caught them, and he was so pissed he nearly kicked them out of the Community.” She shrugged. “He’s a pretty relaxed leader overall, but there are two places in this park that are sacred to him: Camp Four and Tuolumne Meadows. He has a low tolerance for people who don’t respect that.”

“Tuolumne Meadows.” I remembered the name from Jett’s explanation. “That’s where people retire, right?”

“Right.” She motioned to a road that twisted away from the Valley. “There’s the route that leads there. It’s an incredible honor to be accepted at Tuolumne Meadows – the pinnacle of Community life, really – but it’s also a huge decision, because Tuolumne is in the High Country. It’s totally separate from the rest of the Community, and no one but retirees and the Founders are allowed to go up there.”

“No one else? Not even to visit?”

“No.” Kadence’s headshake was emphatic. “Rex is very clear about that. Once retirees make the decision to cross over, we need to respect their right to privacy. It’s part of the cycle of life out here. Disobedience is grounds for banishment, actually.”

“Can retirees ever come back?”

“They can, but I’ve never heard of one who did. Crossing over is a really big deal, and I guess they just want some peace and quiet.”


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