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

LISA ANN O'KANE

Essence

Please Note!

This is an Advanced Reading Copy of the book and may not have been through the final editorial and proof-reading process prior to publication. Please do not quote from the text in reviews, or critique the text on the basis of perceived errors, without double-checking with Strange Chemistry to see if the final version has been amended.

Thank you.

 

 

 

 

To my sister Shana,

for always believing I could do this

and for moving mountains

to make sure I did

PART ONE
:

GOLDEN GATE PARK

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

I wish I could say I left because my brother died.

I wish the truth were as simple as me turning and running the moment Cedar ascended the worn altar steps. His face was drawn, and he clutched Brady’s urn gingerly between his fingers. But the urn was all wrong – too small and too plain, not nearly vast enough to fit the joy and laughter and miracle that had been my baby brother’s life.

So I should have left. I should have jumped from my meditation mat and burst through the peeling, tinted glass of Cedar’s temple door. I should have dodged the crumbling sidewalk cracks and barricades, and I should have dashed from the Haight-Ashbury District and never, ever looked back.

But I didn’t.

Of course I didn’t. My mother would have never forgiven a display like that.

Instead, I sat stock-still during Brady’s memorial, eyes focused and legs folded with everybody else. I bowed my head when Cedar read Brady’s transgressions, and I repeated the mantra with just the right emphasis: not too fervent, and not too lax.

“Neutrality is the key to longevity.”

I nodded to Cedar before leaving, and I followed my mother and Aunt Marie away from the converted Victorian homes that served as our temple headquarters. We walked through the barricades on Ashbury Street, past the Jesus freaks and lingering protesters with megaphones.

We didn’t discuss the protesters – that day or any day. Instead, we skirted the condemned entrance to Golden Gate Park and took three left turns to make sure we weren’t being followed. Aunt Marie nodded when the coast was clear, and then we entered the quiet home we shared on Fifth Avenue without another word.

I took a shower and said my evening prayers as usual, but the truth is, our mantra had begun to sound hollow that day. The protesters’ words lingered in my thoughts even when their demonstrations dissipated, and they cast questions and doubt onto the very foundations of my faith.

Brady was only six when the universe took him. And he
was
neutral. Mostly. As neutral as any six year-old could be, separated from his family and starting kinder classes at the temple for the first time in his life.

So what if he had nightmares and cried to be held sometimes? So what if he held hands with his classmates when no one was looking?

Did he really deserve to die for it?

The presence of these questions frightened me even more than my fear Cedar would discover them. They filled the crevices of my mind even during my most solemn moments of reflection, and no amount of self-deprivation or meditation could curb them.

I tried increasing my fasting periods – dropping from two meals per day to one, and then finally skipping meals entirely until the hollowness in my gut became a raging fever that kept me bedridden for nearly a week. Then I tried increasing the length of my meditation sessions – arriving at the temple at dawn and lying prone on my mat until the masters shooed me out to begin morning lessons.

Still, my questions wouldn’t cease. They followed me everywhere, and they distracted and poisoned my neutrality until they were finally noticed by Cedar himself.

I was vacuuming the temple’s reflection room after evening services when Aunt Marie entered without a knock. Her face seemed uncharacteristically anxious, and blue circles marred the half-moons below her eyes.

“Cedar wants to see you,” she whispered. “Right away.”

A stab of dread settled in my chest. Cedar
never
summoned us; he was too busy leading the Movement.

I unplugged the vacuum and turned. “Why?”

“I don’t know. But I doubt it’s good news, sweetheart.”

We stood in silence for a moment, and then Marie began fussing – straightening the hem of my white meditation robe and smoothing the hair from my forehead. The fabric was stiff – thick and uncomfortable – and it was marred with sweat stains from the countless women who had worn it before me. Marie insisted on hand-washing it every time I was chosen to assist during services, but her extra attention only highlighted the fact that no amount of cleaning could safeguard it from the wear and tear of an entire temple of followers.

She shouldn’t have cared what I looked like, anyway. Cedar preached against trivialities and displays of affection, but Marie seemed to relish these tiny acts of rebellion.

“You will be fine,” she whispered as we slipped from the room. “Just remember to keep your head down.”

We strode toward the staircase to Cedar’s quarters, nodding silently to the Movement’s other followers as they filed out of the temple for the evening. Cedar had converted every house on this block into classrooms and reflection rooms, but he chose to live upstairs in this one, in the converted loft/living room right above the main meditation sanctuary.

As we ascended the stairs, I glimpsed San Francisco’s glass and steel high-rises through the dark glass windows. They shone in the distance, foreign and as incomprehensible as stars.

“Do you think he noticed when I fell behind on the quilts?”

“Probably.” Marie’s wool skirt swooshed as she followed me. “But maybe not. I tried to sew extras for you…”

From somewhere outside, a car alarm blared. We both started, and she smiled ruefully. “The quilts are trinkets, anyway. Centrist souvenirs. No one out there takes them seriously.”

We arrived at the top of the stairs, and I realized Cedar’s door was propped open at the end of the hall. Behind its thin wooden frame, my mother waited. Her pale hair – usually long and flowing – was chopped in a jagged line above her shoulders. She knelt in plain clothes beside the altar at Cedar’s feet, and her eyes looked hardened and weary. Her lips were pressed in a thin line, and she seemed much older than her thirty-four years.

Before I could say anything, she motioned for me to enter.

Cedar’s space was the most luxurious in the temple, but it was still sparse by Outsider standards. The walls were unadorned, and a simple bed sat in the room’s back corner. A low altar opened just past the entrance, and it was decorated with candles, incense and tokens. Some were Buddhist, some were Centrist and all were arranged around the mantel’s centerpiece – an open book framed and protected by glass. Its pages were affected by ash and debris, but its words were still legible.
The Four Noble Truths
.

I had only been invited inside Cedar’s quarters a handful of times, but I still knew the significance of the book. Everybody did. It was the basis of everything we believed in, the beginning of the entire Centrist Movement. If it had fallen open to any other page during the Great Quake of ’20, if it had been burned or crushed beneath the beam that held Cedar pinned for seven days, he may have never had his Essence vision. None of us would even be here.

Cedar nodded as I entered the room. Heat surged to my cheeks, and my eyes immediately dropped to the floor.

It wasn’t that Cedar was particularly handsome. He was rather normal-looking, with graying copper hair, a square jaw and a scar that stretched diagonally across the bridge of his nose. Still dressed in his forest green meditation master robe, he vaguely resembled the twentieth-century cartoon Brady and I had dug up while organizing earthquake supplies last fall. “The Jolly Green Giant”, the can had said, and we had both clasped our hands over our mouths to prevent anyone from hearing our eruption of giggles.

It wasn’t Cedar’s appearance that made me self-conscious. It was his
presence
– the way light filled his eyes and pulled everyone to him like a magnet. It was the way the earth seemed to shiver a little every time he spoke, the way his words flowed like a current. They filled us and guided us and imparted us with so much wisdom that I felt like a shadow in comparison.

“Welcome, Sister Autumn. Sister Laurel and I have been waiting for you.”

I couldn’t help it; I blushed at the sound of my name. Cedar knew who I was – of course he knew who I was – but it was still startling to hear the word spoken aloud. He usually had so many more important things to think about.

I kept my eyes locked on the floor. “Good evening, sir.”

“Do you know why I called you here?”

“No, sir.”

“Please, have a seat.”

He motioned to the floor, where Aunt Marie had already taken her place beside my mother. I slipped into a seat beside them, and Marie pressed her shin against mine. The warmth comforted me a little, but I felt a tightening in the pit of my stomach when I glimpsed the pruning shears resting on Cedar’s window ledge.

He followed my gaze. Instead of addressing the shears, he took a step sideways to block my view of them. “Do you know why your brother died, Sister Autumn? Because he didn’t follow the rules. Do
you
know the rules?”

“Yes, sir.” Of course I did. Everyone knew the rules, including Brady:
You are born with a finite limit to your Essence, and once you use yours, it’s gone. You’re gone.

But knowing and understanding are two different things, and no one would have ever suspected Brady had so little Essence to begin with. He had nightmares and cried when he was lonely, but most children would have survived such small transgressions without issue.

It wasn’t until they were much older that their indulgences usually caught up with them. Maybe their hearts simply went out. Or maybe their Essence-drain manifested itself in a slow and painful death, like a disease; or a split-second ending, like a jet crash.

Because it was impossible to tell how much Essence your body stored to begin with, you never knew when you’d meet your ending.

Neutrality is the key to longevity.

Too much happiness is just as dangerous as too much sadness.

Cedar gazed at the book on his altar, and I dared a glimpse at his profile. “You must remember the Four Truths, Sister Autumn. Life means suffering. You must conserve your Essence by living neutrally, and you must honor the Buddhist and Centrist visions.” He locked eyes with me. “Although it is unfortunate your brother’s Essence wasn’t stronger, you must remember he did this to himself. Every moment you grieve for him is a moment you will never get back.”

I managed a weak nod. Cedar’s words were harsh, but they were no harsher than the words I’d been repeating on a loop these past three months:
It’s your fault, Autumn. You let him wander off by himself and choke to death. You weren’t there for him when he needed you most.

“I need you to give me the lion now,” Cedar said.

Now,
these
words were unexpected. I wheeled to face my mother, and the panic that flashed in her eyes left no doubt who had turned me in.

Cedar waited with his hand extended. “Brady’s lion,” he repeated. “I know you carry it with you.”

I hung my head and dug through the folds of my robe. Brady’s lion – the tiny cotton doll I’d snuck to him when his nightmares started – rested just beneath my stole.

I shouldn’t have even bought it. Cedar’s distaste for material attachments was so well-known that the street vendor had spied the Centrist pendant around my neck and charged me at least double what it was worth. I had forked over nearly all of my weekly allotment for it – and I had gone without lunch for two days to make up for the expense – but how could I have ignored Brady’s late-night sobbing?

Cedar plucked the little animal from my hands and dropped it on the windowsill. Reaching for the pruning shears, he passed them to my mother. “Thank you. And now, Sister Laurel, will you please assist me with her hair?”

“My hair?”

My mother pulled herself to her feet. “I notice the way you take care of it,” she said. “I’m not being critical, because I’m the one who taught you. But with all that washing and brushing and styling… Well, it isn’t a good practice for either of us to engage in. And in light of Brady’s…” She opened and closed the shears before me, and the metal made a grating shriek. “Well, in light of everything that’s happened, I think it’s best if we reexamine our own indulgences. And we should start with the unhealthy relationships we have with our hair.”

I knew I should take a breath and thank my mother for her concern. I knew I should be grateful, because deep down, I realized she was right.

I
loved
my hair. I loved its springy cinnamon curls and amber-gold highlights; I loved the way it framed my face and spilled down my back like a lion’s mane. I loved the way it bounced when I walked, and I loved the distinction it gave me – setting me apart from the sea of secondhand dresses and suits that crowded the temple classes.

Worse, I realized, I liked the way boys looked at it. I liked their sideways glances and the way they sometimes seemed flustered around me. I liked being sixteen and pretty and different.

I am the worst human being in the world.

I nodded in resignation. I pried myself from the floor, slumping my shoulders and presenting my hair for my mother’s inspection.

“That’s better,” she said, gathering my hair into a ponytail. “After everything that happened with Brady… We’re just looking out for you.”

I tried to say thank you, but a funny thing happened when I glimpsed my reflection in the dark glass of Cedar’s window. I saw a girl with wide, frightened eyes and a golden-red halo, and I saw that halo extinguish the instant my mother’s shears snipped the gathered hair at the base of my neck.

Looking at my reflection, I didn’t see
anyone
anymore.

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