Authors: Lisa Ann O'Kane
Tags: #cultish Community, #loss, #Essential problems, #science fiction, #total suppression, #tragedy, #Yosemite, #young adult fiction, #zero emotion
I reported to the stables early the next morning – skipping breakfast and sliding out of the tent cabin while Javi was still sleeping. I wasn’t hungry, and I didn’t want to risk a chance encounter with Ryder – whom I had decided overnight I needed to avoid at all costs.
He was too smooth, too cocky and intrusive, and I didn’t like the way he slid into my personal space and sized me up like he owned me. He apparently did that to all the girls here, but I had news for him. He didn’t own me, and he would never own me.
owned me, and I wasn’t giving that up anytime soon. I didn’t care how tongue-tied I felt when he was around me.
Javi was a different story. His affection really
seem genuine, but it suddenly occurred to me that I didn’t even know him. Not really. I didn’t know why he was here, and he’d certainly never asked me about Brady. He’d never asked me about
actually. I didn’t blame him – I’d never asked him anything personal, either – but the knowledge certainly made me think twice about the way I’d caught myself feeling last night.
It made me think twice about a lot of things, actually, and it made me remember I wasn’t here for Javi or Ryder or Rex or anyone else I’d met here.
I was here for
, and it was about time I started acting like it.
The stables were cool and long – a wide sweep of wood and light that stretched in the shade beneath a grove of pine trees. A long row of horses stamped and swatted from their spots along a hitching post, and the air was thick with the earthy scents of hay and manure.
It was a strong smell – not quite unpleasant, but not quite pleasant, either – and it stuck with me as I strode inside the barn. Here, the smell mixed with leather, and the air became muted with blocky early-morning shadows.
“You’re here early,” a girl’s muffled voice called from one of the stalls. “Stable crews don’t usually get started until closer to eight or nine.”
“I wanted to get here as soon as I could,” I said, peering toward the source of the noise. “I need to talk to Rex today, so I figured if I came now, maybe I could leave a little early?”
There was the shuffle of something being put away, and then the girl appeared around the corner with a smile. My heart sank. It was Shayla.
“I’m sure we can work something out.” She wiped her hands on her thick khaki pants. “It’s good to see you, Autumn.”
I hated her. I instantly hated her, and I had no idea why.
Maybe it was the curtain of golden hair that swirled like silk as she closed the distance between us. Maybe it was the way she seemed to float rather than walk, willowy and fluid as a dancer. Maybe it was the soft, ivory glow of her cheeks, or the pale eyelashes that batted against eyes the color of a deep mountain pool.
Not that I’d ever actually seen a deep mountain pool. But this is what immediately sprang to mind as I tried to remind myself that I didn’t care if she glowed when Ryder spoke to her or not.
“I’m excited you got assigned to work with me,” she continued. “Too many boys here, and I can already tell you have good energy. The animals will love you.” She paused and checked a clipboard. “We have about three hours’ worth of training ahead of us, so we can probably be done by ten if we push it.”
We spent the next few hours touring the stables, and Shayla taught me more about the care of livestock than I would have ever thought possible. I learned about alfalfa versus Timothy hay, textured versus sweet feed… I learned how to chop vegetables and muck stables, how to measure supplements and record entries into medical and feed logs. I learned the difference between English and Western saddles, between hackamores and bitless bridles. I learned how to tell billy goats from nanny goats and how to scatter cracked corn so the chickens wouldn’t fight over it.
I stayed as far away from the animals as I could, and I cowered a little when the horses looked my way. They were huge, and their rippled muscles and sharp hooves made me uneasy. The way their liquid brown eyes flicked to follow me alarmed me even more.
If Shayla noticed my hesitation, she certainly covered it well. As much as I hated to admit it, she really did seem to be an animal expert. Every creature in her care perked up and stood a little straighter when she approached, and they flicked their ears and stamped their feet whenever she leaned forward to pet or speak to them.
Were they tongue-tied around her, too? Was the whole wide world enamored by pretty blond girls?
I realized at some point that stewing about Shayla certainly wasn’t helping me fulfill my promise to maintain a balanced, healthy outlook on life. But I couldn’t help it. She was impeccable. The way she slipped so seamlessly from a smile into a laugh, the way she slid her fingers across her horses’ flanks… It was like she wasn’t even on the same plane of existence as me.
And she was
. Unreasonably so. She took her time explaining my duties – mostly barn cleaning, with a little diet prep thrown in for good measure – and she patiently answered all my questions, no matter how redundant. She was warm and kind and friendly and understanding, and she seemed to light up every room she entered.
She made me incredibly uncomfortable.
I tried to remind myself I didn’t care how amazing she was, and I didn’t need to prove anything to her. I didn’t need to prove anything to anyone.
I slipped out of the barn as quickly as I could, waving goodbye and cutting down the road toward Curry Village. Cool air swirled through the forest canopy, but the asphalt was warm, and the sun shone brightly overhead. By the time I reached Rex’s clinic, I had begun to perspire slightly.
I couldn’t help the creep of fear that prickled through me as I wiped my temples. Perspiration and endorphins seemed to go hand in hand, and Cedar had always conditioned me to avoid both at all costs.
Now here I was, living in a forest and sweating in the sunshine, and I couldn’t quite figure out how that made me feel.
Uneasy, really. Panicked. And certainly ready for a proper explanation.
“OK, you gotta tell me why you think Essence drain is bullshit.”
I nearly fainted when the words left my lips. And this time, I
clasp my hand over my mouth. What was
with me lately?
Rex straightened from his clipboard at the sound of my voice. Turning from the wall of cabinets in his waiting room, he smiled. “Morning, Autumn. My son warned me you were a bit of a firecracker.”
Firecracker? His words made my stomach flip-flop. What does that even mean?
“Would you like to have a seat?”
I stuffed my hands in my pockets and sank to a seat in a small wooden chair. The lab to my right was darkened, but the door was slightly ajar. A faint green glow emanated from the gloom as Rex strode forward and sank into a seat across from me.
“You’re feeling off-balance today, aren’t you?” His warmth made me feel like squirming, but his attention also reminded me of Ryder. I couldn’t decide if I liked that or not.
“I came here because my brother died,” I said. “He was only six.”
Rex nodded, and I continued. “I ran into Ryder in the park, and he told me you could prove the Essence theory wrong. It’s why I came here; I need to know if Brady died because he ran out of Essence or not.”
Rex leaned back in his chair and remained silent. I paused for a second, and then I kept going. “I have been conditioned every single day of my life to believe emotions are bad. Hormones are dangerous, and exercise will kill you. And now I’m here – and it’s great you guys don’t believe that – but it’s only been a few days since I left the city, so I’m going to need more than just your word if you want me to be part of this.
“I just finished cleaning up after
,” I continued, blurting out the words before he had a chance to respond. “Cedar preaches against attachments to animals, but here we are in Yosemite, and there are animals
. I can’t believe I’m expected to be
“You aren’t expected to be OK with this.” Rex’s voice was patient. “If you don’t like your chore assignment, we can always relocate you somewhere else. Some people just never take to livestock.”
“But it isn’t about the animals,” I said. “It’s about trust… and transparency… and the fact that I need to know what’s actually going on out here before I decide if I want to stay or not.”
Instead of frowning like I expected, Rex simply regarded me with a smile. “I appreciate your tenacity, Autumn,” he said. “You are already connecting to your emotions in such a powerful way.”
Tenacity? I had only heard that word once, in reference to an Outsider my mother had once seen. He had missed his train and had stood banging his hands against its glass doors until it pulled away from the station.
Rex stood and motioned for me to enter the lab. “Would you like to go on a tour, then? Your friend Javier just finished one himself.”
“Javi was here?” I didn’t know why the sound of Javi’s name left me so flustered. “What was he doing here?”
“Exactly what you’re doing.” Rex’s slow smile told me he’d probably noticed my blush. “Making sure he didn’t make a mistake by joining us.”
“I founded the Community because I believe manipulators like Cedar should be stopped at all costs.”
Rex and I sat beside a wide computer monitor. The room was filled with long tables, refrigerators and rows upon rows of test tubes and neatly organized files. The light bulbs overhead were blinding – a shocking shade of fluorescent white – and one flickered slightly in the corner. This gave the room a weird, buzzing glow.
“My Community exists here as a sanctuary,” he said, “but we cannot stop at just existing. As long as monsters like Cedar are in positions of power, the happiness of our children is at stake.”
He leaned forward. “Have you heard the whispers, Autumn? The Haight-Ashbury temple is filled to overflowing. Cedar is looking to expand, to build a second temple near Telegraph Hill. Some even think he’ll run for office. Try to consolidate his power and turn the entire Bay Area into a Centrist stronghold.”
He paused. “I know about what happened to your brother, about the way Cedar’s meditation masters let Brady die in the street without lifting so much as a finger to save him. We can’t allow a society that promotes such gross negligence to exist.”
Before I could manage so much as a nod, he asked, “Who did you leave behind, Autumn? In that terrible, terrible place?”
“My aunt.” My voice came out as a squeak. “I left my aunt and my mother behind.”
“Let us take a moment, then, to imagine what they are doing right now. Working low-paid, entry-level jobs? Tithing their entire paychecks to the Movement in exchange for paltry weekly allotments that don’t even cover their living expenses?”
He frowned. “Or are they surviving on grocery store castoffs and slaving away in the temple? Sewing quilts and souvenirs, when they never see so much as one cent in profit?”
A pause. “Because that’s what Cedar does, you know. Conducts. Orchestrates. Sits in his lofty quarters and reaps the benefits of everyone else’s sacrifices. Especially the sacrifices of his children.”
He clenched his fists. “Don’t get me started on his supposed ‘neutrality’. Cedar is demented, perverse. Most of his meditation masters are, too.” At this, his voice faltered. “Autumn, I have seen so many wicked deeds performed in the name of the Centrist Movement; I have participated in them myself. I did it because I was tricked, seduced into believing I was serving a higher purpose.”
He leaned back in his chair. “You’ve known, haven’t you? For years. Some part of you has always doubted his teachings. His methods. Those late-night visits from his meditation masters. Because you’re almost seventeen now, aren’t you? Your first visit couldn’t have been too far from now.”
As dread filled the pit of my stomach, he reached forward to squeeze my hand. “Don’t worry, Autumn. You’re safe now. But you understand why I can’t rest until every other Centrist child is likewise freed?”
As I fumbled through an awkward nod, he swiveled to his computer. “Let me show you the data we’ve been collecting. It isn’t enough to simply discuss the fallacy of Cedar’s teachings; we intend to dismantle every principle he has ever preached.”
He turned to address the darkened computer: “Ryder Stone, please. Patient number zero-zero-three. Inception to present, stabilized with averages.”
The computer whirred to life, and the monitor brightened. A neon green line graph appeared against a background of black, and two wiggly lines stretched diagonally upward across its x- and y-axes.
“This is my son’s file,” he explained. “I have been monitoring his heart rate and hormones since we arrived here. This graph shows the interrelation between the two; it also tracks his highs and lows through time.”
He pointed to the horizontal x-axis, which started with the number ten and ended with the number seventeen. “This axis tracks Ryder’s age. Right now, there are hash marks every year, but if I had imported a smaller amount of data, I could see months, weeks, days, even minutes or seconds.”
He pointed to the vertical y-axis. “This tracks the highs and lows of Ryder’s heart rate and hormones. So, if we consult the data” – here, he motioned to the two squiggly lines, one a brighter shade of green than the other – “we can see that his hormone fluctuations tend to follow the patterns of his heart rate. So, if he’s keyed up at the top of a mountain, for instance, his heart rate and hormones will reflect this.”
The sight of Ryder’s heart and hormone lines squiggling across the screen left me strangely unsettled. I felt like a voyeur – like I was reading his mind or scoping out his secrets.
“Let me show you Ryder’s first kiss,” Rex continued. “I don’t usually know the catalysts for each patients’ fluctuations – and it’s certainly none of my business to find out – but I’m specially privy to Ryder’s information, as he reports his milestones to me whenever possible. We use the timing system to backtrack events and assign profiles to each one.”
He turned and addressed the computer again. “Ryder Stone, patient number zero-zero-three. April 30, 2033, 2.30pm-6.30pm.”
I felt a tightening in the pit of my stomach when I saw the two green lines appear again. This time, they started relatively low on the graph, and they arched slowly upward, weaving up and down until they spiked and peaked somewhere around 4 o’clock. The peak held for quite some time before the lines began their slow descent an hour or so later.
Rex pointed to the moment the lines began to dip. “He was twelve when it happened. And this is when she was called back to the stables.”
“The stables?” My heart sank. Surely Shayla wasn’t Ryder’s first kiss. Was she?
My cheeks burned, and I looked away from the monitor. “OK, so how do you use this to research Essence drain?”
“Excellent question.” Rex turned to address the computer again. “Elsa Holly, please. Patient number zero-seven-eight. Inception to death, stabilized with averages.”
Death? A lump rose in my throat as another set of green lines appeared on the screen. This time, the x-axis began at nineteen and ended at twenty-three. The up-and-down fluctuations weren’t nearly as exaggerated as Ryder’s.
“Elsa joined us five years ago,” Rex explained. “Passed away just this last summer.”
I studied the abrupt ending of the graph. Its last reading peaked at the very edge of its upper limits. Elsa was terrified when she died.
“Bear attack,” he said, noticing my hesitation. “A terrible day for the entire Community. I’m sorry to show you this – it’s hard to relive it – but what’s interesting about Elsa’s chart is the fact that she lived a relatively quiet life until the moment of her death.” He motioned to the fairly even flow of Elsa’s emotions through time. “Mostly kept to herself. Didn’t exercise or explore or put herself out there at all.”
His expression became somber. “She eventually decided to leave the Community, but she startled a bear on the outskirts of our camp. We found her heart rate monitor a few days later.”
He shook his head as I gasped. “If I were Cedar, I would tell you Elsa lived a very cautious life. She was extremely careful with her Essence, yet fate snuffed her out far too soon, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Yeah, but maybe Elsa was just born with a very low supply of Essence? You never know how much your body stores to begin with.”
“That’s exactly what your friend Javier suggested, and I would be compelled to agree if this were a singular occurrence. But the data we have collected suggests a very powerful non-alignment of hormones, heart rates and life spans across the board. Regardless of the variables.”
He paused. “Let me show you some files from Community members who have retired and crossed over to our second encampment in Tuolumne Meadows.” He addressed the computer: “James Elliott, please. Patient number zero-two-five. Inception to retirement, stabilized with averages.”
James’s file flashed on the screen. It started at sixteen, ended at twenty-one and was filled with ups and downs that surpassed even Ryder’s.
“Here are a few more,” he continued, ordering up a handful of other retirees’ files. Each graph peaked and dipped crazily, and the last reading on each file maxed out at the upper end of the spectrum.
“Our retirees, for the most part, are exemplary members of the Community,” he said. “They have given us everything they can possibly give us. When they make the decision to retire to Tuolumne Meadows, we remain eternally grateful for their sacrifices.”
He ordered the screen to darken again. “We compare these graphs to those unfortunate enough to be taken by Mother Nature, and what we’ve found so far is absolutely no correlation between heart rates, hormones and life spans.” He paused. “Our data is irrefutable, even if everyone
born with a different supply of Essence.”
“So, why are you still collecting data? Why haven’t you already confronted Cedar?”
Rex took a breath. “I would like nothing more than to destroy the Movement tomorrow, especially now that it has been weakened by the controversy surrounding your brother’s passing. But we must first collect as much data as possible to ensure a solid scientific result. By the first of August – the seven-year anniversary of our little Community – we will have a high enough relative chi-squared to exceed a ninety-nine percent confidence level–”
He chuckled when he realized I wasn’t following. “Which is a fancy way of saying we will have enough data for an unimpeachable result. Cedar may be able to fight back against anecdotes and anomalies, but he can’t fight back against a plethora of scientific evidence. He also can’t fight the brewing opposition that has risen in response to the way he has handled your brother’s passing – especially when the world finds out Brady’s own sister left his Movement to join our cause.”
Rex smiled and patted my arm. “The first of August is only the tip of the iceberg, of course. Our data won't be complete until the end of our lives. But with these results, no one will be able to claim our long lives here are just statistical flukes. We will have real scientific credibility, which we will need to categorically destroy the Movement.”
He swiveled away from the desk. “We will continue collecting data after August, but we will also begin to shift our focus. We will begin compiling our findings into pamphlets for distribution, and we will start converting as many Centrists as we can. We will also attempt to turn public opinion against the Movement. Once Outsiders realize how dangerous Cedar actually is, they will stop viewing his Movement as a harmless hippie anomaly.
“We will accuse him of gross negligence, of child abuse, of sexual assault, of violating child labor laws… We will expose Brady’s death as the senseless tragedy it was, and we will dismantle the entire Movement brick by brick. We won’t stop until Cedar and his meditation masters are locked away forever.”
He took a breath. “What we’re looking for over the course of the next few months is an amazing final push. We have already tested our methods, and we know what we’re doing out here is safe. So now we want our study’s final numbers to be off the charts.
“My son picked you,” he finished, “because he tells me he sees a spark in you. He knows how hard you’ve taken your brother’s death, and he thinks you have the drive and passion necessary to become an important part of our team.”
He paused. “Can you imagine how different Brady’s life would have been if he had been allowed to embrace inner spirit? If he had been able to run and play and experience life the way it’s supposed to be experienced? Without
He stood and began leading me toward the exit. “You do want to help us free other children like Brady, don’t you, Autumn?”
“I do.” I didn’t seem to have any control of my words, much like I hadn’t been able to control my words around Ryder. But as Rex escorted me out the front door, I felt determination solidify inside me, and I realized how much I really wanted to do this.
I wanted to help bring Cedar down.