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 (8 page)

Our last stop was a narrow trail just before the entrance to the Ahwahnee. Its dirt path led toward a cluster of large white tents and cabins, and these were decorated with multi-colored flags that flapped like rainbows in the breeze.

“Meditation rooms,” Kadence said. “A few Community members lead meditation sessions there every morning and afternoon.”

“You meditate here?”

“Not that ‘smooth out your aura’ Centrist stuff, but actual meditation. Meditation as it was meant to be,” she explained. “You aren’t required to go, but some people think it helps. Awakens your Essence, realigns your chakras, all that stuff.”

“You don’t sound convinced.”

“Oh, no,
I
love it,” she said. “There just seem to be two schools of thought here, so not everyone sees its value. It’s really a personal preference.”

I studied the meditation rooms. “What are the schools of thought?”

“Well…” For a minute, she seemed to slip from her orientation mode. Drumming her fingers against the steering wheel, she said, “So, Rex and Daniel favor ‘active’ Essence pursuits – like climbing and celebrating and taking risks – but some of us believe the power of your Essence should be harnessed internally. Like an inner strength, you know?”

I didn’t, but I nodded anyway.

“Some people try to do a combination of both – like my friend Shayla. She’s one of the most active people in this entire Valley, but she and I still make time to meditate almost every single day. Depends what you’re comfortable with, I guess.”

My thoughts flashed back to the beautiful girl I’d met at the dinner table. Before I could stop myself, I asked, “So, what’s up with that girl, anyway?”

Kadence’s chuckle made my cheeks burn. I stared down at my wristband again, and I wondered if my heart monitor was picking up on the embarrassing way my pulse was now racing.

Before I could worry too long, she answered, “Shayla’s great. Amazing, really. Probably the nicest person in this entire Valley.”

“Has she ever dated Ryder?”

Where are these questions coming from? I grimaced and almost clasped my hand over my mouth to prevent a future outburst, but Kadence seemed to take my question seriously.

“No,” she said after a moment. “I don’t think so, but nearly every other girl here has.” She turned down the Ahwahnee’s long driveway. “Autumn, I know you’re new here, and I know everything seems really exciting and promising right now. But if I can give you one word of advice…? Stay away from Ryder Stone.”

 

CHAPTER TEN

 

“How you liking that wristband so far, Red? Looks good on you.”

I fought the flip-flop that skittered in my chest at the sight of Ryder reclined in an overstuffed lobby chair. His boots were dusty, and a book was propped open on his lap.

“What are you reading?” My stride was tense, and my words came out more aggressive than I’d intended.

“Whoa. What’s with the attitude?” Ryder flashed a smile and the cover of a well-worn book. “
The Beach
, by Alex Garland. Ever read it?”

“No.” I continued walking.

“Hold up a sec.” He jumped from his seat and rushed to intercept me. “Why are you in such a rush? Are you pissed at me for something?”

“No.” I stared at a spot on the floor. Watch it, Autumn. That’s the face he apparently gives everyone here.

“Unhappy with your chore assignment?”

I started. “I haven’t gotten my chore assignment yet. That’s where I’m going right now.”

“Oh.” He took a step sideways to let me pass. “Well, I just asked, and I’m kinda bummed. I was hoping you’d be assigned to the clinic with me, but it looks like my old man put you at the stables.” He shrugged. “It’s a good gig – you’ll be there with Cody – but I was kinda hoping…” He let the sentence trail off. “I was hoping you and me might get to spend some more time together during the day. You know?”

His words made me woozy, but I forced myself to begin walking away. “Yeah,” I managed. “That’s too bad.”

“Hey, and Red?” Ryder was beside me again. “I’m sorry I didn’t see you at the bonfire last night. I looked for you after dinner, but there were just so many people, you know?”

He paused. “I was thinking… There’s supposed to be this great meteor shower tonight. Everyone’s watching in the Meadow, so… maybe we could share a blanket or something?”

I hoped he wouldn’t notice my blush. “No,” I stammered. “I… I’m not sure if I’ll make it tonight or not. I still have a lot of moving in to do.”

 

It was a lame excuse, but I tried to tell myself it didn’t matter. I tried to tell myself I hadn’t wanted to spend time with Ryder anyway, but the truth is, I became hyper-aware of him during dinner that night. The meal was a much less ornate affair in the Ahwahnee’s interior dining room, and he seemed to be aware of me, too. I kept catching him staring as he stood in the buffet line, leaning like a cowboy against a tall stone pillar.

Javi noticed my preoccupation. When we returned to our tent cabin after dinner, he disappeared and then reemerged with a huge patchwork quilt. Holding it up hopefully, he said, “So I hear there’s this meteor shower tonight. I know you’ve had a long day, but maybe… Wanna watch it with me?”

I didn’t – not really – but I said yes anyway. And the smile that split Javi’s face almost made me forget about Ryder.

Almost.

 

The Meadow was packed. It was late, but even the children and babies were still awake, dressed in pastel nightgowns and spread onto quilts and blankets with their young parents.

I couldn’t believe I was surrounded by so many wives and husbands and fathers. Hadn’t I always secretly longed for the affection and tenderness of Outsider families? Hadn’t I always been jealous of their unity, of the way they showed their love for each other without feeling bad about it?

But here, crowded together in the middle of this meadow, I couldn’t decide if I felt pleased or terrified by them. Their laughter, their entwined hands and the way the girls rested their heads in the crooks of the boys’ arms… It was almost too much to process.

I hesitated for a moment in the grass, but then Kadence waved us over. “Come sit with me,” she said. I shook off my discomfort, and I tried to smile and remember her friends’ names as Javi spread our blanket on the grass beside them.

As I waited, I couldn’t help but look for Ryder in the shifting crowd. When I finally spotted him, half lit on a blanket beside Cody, Jett and two girls I didn’t recognize, his face was luminous with candlelight. A curl of smoke twisted from his lips, and one of the girls laughed and reached sideways to run a hand through his hair.

I found myself stewing when Javi reached up to touch my wrist. “Blanket’s all ready.”

Nestled between Kadence and Javi, with only a few inches of space separating us, I cast one last glance at Ryder and then peered toward the heavens. “Is everyone ready?” a melodic female voice called after a few minutes. “Does anyone need time to find their seats?”

It was Shayla. When no one protested, she clapped her hands and said, “All right, then. On the count of three!”

The Community came alive with chanting: “Three… two… one!” And then we were cast into darkness, hushed by the simultaneous snuffing of every candle and flashlight in the entire Meadow.

Within a few moments, the sky sprang to life. No longer hidden by ambient light – or San Francisco’s jarring high-rises – it glistened with violet darkness and so many stars, it seemed impossible to find a swatch of empty sky. Stars upon stars upon stars, washed by a pale wisp of lightness that stretched in a band from one end of the sky to the other.

“That’s the Milky Way.” It was Javi’s voice, and it possessed the same awed humbleness that kept my words lodged in my throat.

I felt stunned. And amazed. Like I’d never even seen the sky before. And then, just when I thought my mind couldn’t process any more beauty, the first meteor streaked like an artist’s brush across the eastern horizon.

The Meadow erupted with a low exclamation, and then giggles and shushing followed as another meteor followed the first one’s path. And then another. And another, racing like spirits across the glowing velvet sky.

“It’s beautiful,” Javi whispered.

I slowly became aware of the warmth of his body, of the intake of his breath and the pulsing heartbeat that radiated outward from his skin. His heart was hammering, too – I could sense it – and I wondered if he was thinking about the heart monitor on his wrist.

Then I wondered if he was thinking about me – about the warmth of my body, the intake of my breath or the hammering of
my
heart. We were just a few inches apart, after all, and we were surrounded by so much love and togetherness that it only made sense he would feel it, too.

The idea that he might be paying attention to me became so distracting that I took a quick breath and glanced sideways to check. Our eyes locked, and my question was immediately answered. Javi’s dark irises were barely visible in the blackness, but they gleamed with starlight as he lay looking at me across the spread of the quilt.

His expression was intense – unwavering and unapologetic – and the strength of it sent that pulse of energy racing down my abdomen again. A jolt of adrenaline swept through me… or was that desire?

“Hi,” I whispered. My voice sounded lame – childish and in no way reflective of the way I was beginning to feel.

“Hi.” He echoed my tone, but there was nothing childlike about the expression on his face. Instead, he looked
focused
– almost as focused as Jett had looked when she curled herself into Cody, breathing heavy and eyes half closed with wanting.

My heart stuttered at the thought. Guilt surged through me, and I immediately looked away. “I’m tired,” I whispered. “I think I need to go to bed now.”

Before he could stop me, I pulled myself to my feet and rushed back to our tent cabin.

 

Again, I didn’t sleep. This time, it was Javi’s twists and turns that kept me awake most of the night.

He wasn’t sleeping, either. I could tell that much from the uneven hitch in his breathing, but I wasn’t about to roll over to face him. I didn’t know what I’d see in his eyes, and I didn’t think I could handle another moment like the one we’d shared in the Meadow.

It wasn’t even an official “moment”, anyway. It was just a blip – a flicker of sustained eye contact, lasting no more than twenty seconds – but Javi’s hungry expression said so much. I wasn’t ready to deal with the implications of that just yet.

I also wasn’t ready to deal with my reaction, or with whatever emotion he may have been able to sense in
my
expression. Did he think I looked hungry? Could he feel and smell and sense
my
desire?

I couldn’t handle that thought right now. It made me feel embarrassed and self-conscious, and I wanted nothing more than to take that moment back.

But then again, I didn’t.

Javi was so big. And strong. And the realization that he could look at
me
like that… Well, that made me feel beautiful. And powerful. Like all those times I’d caught boys staring at me during temple classes.

But these were terrible thoughts. And their presence in my mind scared me more than anything else. Watch it, Autumn.

I gripped Brady’s lion a little tighter and repeated the Centrist mantra in my head:
Neutrality is the key to longevity, neutrality is the key to longevity

A pause. Do I still believe that?

I heaved a sigh and twisted onto my back – purposefully avoiding the energy that emanated like a furnace from Javi’s side of the tent. Every moment of every interaction I’ve ever had in my entire life has been based on the Centrist mantra, I thought.

And now… just like that… I’m expected to forget it?

Now
abundance
is the key to longevity?

I felt like everything I’d ever stood for was being ripped out from under me. When I took away the constructs of who I was supposed to be – Autumn Grace, obedient Centrist; Autumn Grace, dutiful daughter – I realized I had no idea who I actually was.

My identity was built around the Centrist Movement – around meditation sessions and shared living with Aunt Marie and my mother. Around chores and neutrality. Around reflection rituals and Cedar.

If my values were suddenly flip-flopped, did that mean I actually
was
the type of girl who could turn her back on the Movement? Who could be attracted to not one but two boys at the same time?

What about my Essence?

The thought made a lump rise in my throat. I didn’t know much, but I knew I didn’t want to just forget about everything I’d ever learned. Because even if the Centrists were wrong about some things, they couldn’t be wrong about
everything
. Attachment
did
lead to suffering, and selfishness and recklessness
were
very dangerous things.

Weren’t they?

A tear spilled unbidden from the corner of my left eye. I hastily wiped it away, and Javi shifted on his cot in response. “Hey, Autumn?” he whispered.

I stiffened and closed my eyes as tight as I possibly could. A few moments passed, and then Javi sighed and sank back into his blankets. Sometime around midnight, his breathing finally settled.

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