As Avery hiked up the mountain home, the leaves from yesterday’s storm tripped her up and slammed her into the mud. She reacted fast enough and saved herself from losing a tooth, but the Earth finally ripped up the last pair of clean leggings she owned.
At the sound of her fall, her two huskies, Oreo and Pumpkin, exploded with barks. They were in the garage up ahead, tied to the support beam so they couldn’t get loose. They had enough leash length to sniff the edges of the unending forest, and their respective black and orange ears jumped behind the bushes outlining the property, eager to see their owner from school.
Avery wiped the mud off her leggings as she eyed her cabin home. Her parents had chosen this house to feel more “rustic,” but it didn’t fit the picture at all: tall, polished windows, decorated porches, and empty balconies. It only impressed their neighbors of squirrels and robins.
She stared through the curtained windows. She waited to see if her parents would come outside to the commotion, maybe see if she needed help.
She fixed her beanie over her eyes, pet her dogs, and went inside.
Her mother was planted where she always was after school, at the dining table between mountains of work. Her father was cooking in the kitchen. The familiar scent of their Friday dinner of herb chicken wafted through the first floor and grounded Avery back home.
When she closed the garage door, her father looked up. His glasses, fogged from cooking, slipped down his long nose. “Hey there. How was your first Friday of school?”
“Good,” Avery said, but it wasn’t. Sidestepping around her two hungry dogs, she pulled out their food dishes from the cabinets and divided their food can into two mushy piles. Pumpkin jumped and scratched the granite counter while Oreo waited patiently by her side. He’d gotten used to her feeding him. Pumpkin still thought Avery’s mother and father would find the time to feed them.
After feeding them and cleaning out her lunch bag, Avery gave the dining room a quick nod—it looked like her mother nodded back—before she climbed up the stairs on her hands and knees to her loft.
She had the loft to herself, complete with a small bath and fireplace. Her bed lay unmade near the banister. Pictures of her from throughout the years snaked around the poles. From preschool to last spring, young Averys beamed up at the camera, holding frogs or flowers she thought looked pretty. This timeline had holes, though, missing pieces she’d ripped from her own memory. Those pictures were currently in a pile by her fireplace, ready to be burned.
She looked past the railing to the windows overlooking the Adirondack Mountains. Whenever she had a troubling day—like today, every day—she outlined the blurry mountaintops and waited for a line of geese to fly up to Canada.
But nothing beat backpacking down its trails and losing herself in the woodsy depths.
After her dogs gobbled up their food, Pumpkin scampered to the staircase and pawed the first step, waiting with her tail wagging.
Avery checked the Sun’s position in the sky. She had three hours of daylight left.
She acted fast. She unhooked her hiking backpack from her closet and equipped it with two water bottles, her flashlight, her extra batteries, and her pocket knife. She switched out her tennis shoes for a pair of Timberlands and changed into a longer sweater. She didn’t bother with her leggings now that they mirrored every other pant in her closet. Before leaving, she snatched her walkie-talkie from her mirror wardrobe. Her mother insisted that she carry one in case her phone ever lost signal and she found herself trapped inside a dark crevasse. It’d only happened once, but once was enough for her mother.
After checking herself in the mirror and grimacing at what she saw, Avery pulled her beanie back over her unruly brows and climbed down to the first floor. Pumpkin yipped when she saw her new attire, and Oreo, still finishing his meal, wiggled his butt at the opportunity for a hike.
“Where’re you going?” her father asked.
“Hiking. I’ll be back before it gets dark.”
Her mother closed one of her laptops. “You just got home. Where’re you going?”
“Just my usual path. I’m taking the dogs, too, if that’s okay.”
Her mother went for her cane to stand up. “Do you have—?”
Avery dangled her walkie-talkie from the strap.
Her mother sat back down. She pulled her pocketbook to her lap and made sure that she, too, had her walkie-talkie at the ready. She set it beside her phone buzzing with work emails.
“Have fun,” her father said, “and watch out for ticks. Check yourself if you walk into any tall grass.”
“No tall grass at all,” her mother added. “You’re immediately taking a shower when you come home.”
Avery almost shut the door on Oreo’s tail. “Got it,” she said to the closing door.
As she maneuvered around the patio furniture, Avery finally, finally escaped into the forest. Pavement morphed into earth. Fallen leaves became her path. Gone was the normal hike up the hill from school. Now the scent of freedom welcomed her to her second home.
She’d lived her whole life here, in upstate New York. Back in the early nineties, her parents had moved here from Manhattan to be closer to her grandparents. This was back when Avery was still in her mother’s belly and her mother didn’t need a cane to walk. As her parents worked odd hours, taking business calls outside on the balconies, Avery had spent her time climbing boulders and creating her own trails to lose herself on.
Who needed friends when the Earth welcomed everyone into it? They—the woods, the caves—didn’t care about how you looked, they cared if you left only footprints. They didn’t make fun of you for wearing the same top more than once. They didn’t question the type of person you’d become. They weren’t jerks.
Twenty minutes into her hike and Avery’s feelings about school and Bridget faded. She’d live easy like this, free of friends who didn’t care about your feelings when they knew darn well how much they meant to you. She already had two of the best friends she could ask for, and they didn’t even have fleas. That’s how you treated a real friend.
She came to her favorite parts of the mountain range: the caves. Some of the cooler, deeper caves had tourist traps bitten into them and cost money to experience, but these smaller caves were abandoned to nature. They didn’t have fancy waterfalls or crystals in them, and they didn’t have railings to keep you from falling, but she didn’t mind; she’d gotten trapped between two large rocks when she was twelve, not thirteen. Not that the one-year difference meant a lot, but she had a lot of time to practice spelunking now that her only friend had decided that her company was no longer worth it.
Something magical emanated from these caves, especially when a sudden rain caught her by surprise. She’d hunker down in their entrances, watch the ground darken as water pattered off the ancient rocks. Once, she’d even fallen asleep here, waking up in a panic that she’d been swallowed by something bigger than herself.
As Avery lowered her head to walk in, Oreo turned his black ears to the end of the ominous cave.
“You’ve been here before,” she reminded them. “It’s okay.”
The couple refused. Oreo planted his butt at the entrance while Pumpkin started licking the walls.
“Hey!” She pulled her back and sat her beside Oreo. “Stay, then. Just know you’ll have a lot more fun in there than out here.”
Not understanding a word of English, her dogs settled down and waited for her return.
She never found a justification for her fascination with caves, with spelunking, but she guessed most people didn’t. They simply crawled into the tight spaces just to say they’d done it. The shivery echoes announced your presence to no one, yet you always felt like you were invading someone’s home, stepping into territory you were never prepared for.
Sitting down on a dry spot, she rolled her head back and forth on the cave’s grimy wall. She checked the insides of her socks and boots for any ticks, then took off her beanie to ruffle out her long, black hair for twigs. After picking out a few, she studied the pins fixed to her beanie: the one she and Bridget bought at a maple syrup festival, the one marking their survival from their first comic book convention. She rubbed over their nicks and scratch marks. She’d traded both of them with Bridget because she’d wanted the shiny ones.
Avery forced her hat back over her eyes, stretching it down to her chin so she couldn’t see. She didn’t need her. She’d find a new best friend in a new class. Who cared if she was in almost every class of Avery’s? She didn’t care for Avery anymore, so neither would she.
Her stomach growled. Moaning, she pulled off her backpack and went for her stash of sour gummy worms.
The rock she was sitting against, once stable and firm, suddenly gave out from behind her, dropping her like a phantom step. This drop, however, didn’t have a decorated railing for her to grab on to.
She reached for the wall only to break off a piece in her hand. She kicked out her long legs to catch something, but the ground crumbled beneath her, her backpack her anchor, and she plummeted backwards into darkness.
She tumbled down an invisible decline. Her backpack ripped away from her as stalagmites knocked the wind out of her, making themselves seen. The earth felt colder here, damper with more of a mildew smell than a cave one. She didn’t know a cave existed here. She didn’t think anything existed beyond these walls.
When the world stopped turning and she heard herself breathe again, she choked on a cry. The soreness rushed her in waves, reminding her of every nerve and muscle she owned. When she found the strength to open her watering eyes, she saw nothing but absolute blackness.
Fearing she’d gone blind from hitting her head, she flipped open her phone.
It didn’t help. The space she’d fallen into was so cramped that the walls touched. She couldn’t stretch out her legs. She couldn’t breathe. She looked up to see where she’d fallen from and saw no light.
Panic swirled in her gut. She couldn’t die here. Even if she somehow survived this, her parents would never let her out of the house again. She’d get homeschooled, rumors would spread, Bridget would call her names again…
She shined her phone up the incline. She spotted her backpack hanging on a log. As she angled her light, she discovered a long ladder of prehistoric logs embedded into the wall. Bugs hopped from step to step. In her peripheral vision, they appeared to glow.
Behind her, someone asked a question.
Avery yelped and shined her phone on them like a weapon.
The person yelped back and shielded their eyes. They looked like a boy about her age, but smaller, incredibly small. He carried a handmade backpack with him with a lantern hooked to it—a traveler. His clothes, poked with moth holes, were stitched together with thick stitches like he’d sewn them himself. On his paper-thin, paper-colored skin, Avery saw grooves etched into his inner right forearm. It looked like a map carved from skin.
When she lowered her phone, the boy squinted at her. His left eye was injured due to a thick scar that cut across his face into his nose and cheek. Dirt and other less noticeable scars marred the rest of his skin. He looked in rougher shape than Avery felt.
“I-I need help,” she told him. “I fell. I’m hurt. I don’t know where I am.”
The boy responded back with his own question in his own language. Everything about him, from his words to his strange clothes, seemed otherworldly. When he didn’t get the answer he wanted, he balanced on his knees and sniffed her. Whatever he got from her scent, he shook his head and waited to hear an explanation from her that he’d never understand.