Avery only visited Arkeh:na two times in the next two weeks. Something about being a “middle schooler” apparently made her life horrible. Traversing through “hallways” of judgmental “high-schoolers” who all “hated” her sounded awful. They couldn’t imagine someone hating her, and knowing she had to “learn about subjects she’d never use in life” made even less sense.
Sometimes she had time to visit, she just didn’t have the energy. Something called “Lime Disease” often made her tired and achy. Knowing those symptoms all too well, Cameron understood. They didn’t complain that every time they woke up and didn’t see her, their heart slipped into a dark hole. They bit their lip and stayed thankful for having her in their life.
But why? They could safely say she was their friend and they always liked spending time with friends. They ruled out her unique smell and hair, her outfits and personality. They liked all of those parts about her. Something more drew them towards her, something they’d never felt with another person before.
Maybe it was her hat. Not many Arkeh:nen wore hats.
On one of the rare days she’d come down, Cameron sat her down with her notebook spread between them. After a month or so of knowing her, they still couldn’t fully talk to her. Her English matched about thirty percent of Arkeh:nen words. They understood the gist of it, but sometimes she nervous-talked, speeding through her thoughts until she started mumbling. They applauded her ability to understand them when all they did was mumble.
“What…age…is Avery?” Cameron asked. They shared a bowl of porridge that morning. Cinnamon sticks and dandelions bobbed in the warm goop. While Cameron couldn’t scoff it down quick enough, Avery hesitated with every bite. After a back and forth in her notebook, Cameron found out that she didn’t like eating dandelions.
Some aspects of Autrean life still baffled them.
After swallowing down a big bite, Avery held up her age with her fingers.
“I’m thirteen, too,” Cameron said. “Me, same.”
Avery cuddled deeper into Cameron’s blankets. She said she’d never felt real fur before. When she discovered the pelt’s empty eye sockets and snout, she screamed loud enough for Nuvu to fly out of the den.
“What…do you learn…in school?” she asked in Arkeh:nen, and tapped her brain.
“Life,” they summarized. “How babies are made, how to care”—they cradled one of their pillows—“for them, how to scavenge, how to count, our history.”
“Medicine? We learn about medicine, sure. Mushroom medicine, remember? And if you’re a healer, you go to learn more about it under an apprenticeship. Why?”
“Your cough.” She coughed a fake cough. “And Maywood’s legs. I’m scared.”
She mentioned this a few times, so Cameron explained yet again, “Cave sickness is normal to us. We have to withstand it in order to stay here.”
She looked puzzled, and Cameron knew it wasn’t from the language barrier. They didn’t know how else to tell her this. They never met an Arkeh:nen who didn’t have an injury or sickness attached to them. To stray away from such bizarre thinking, they asked, “What do you learn in school?”
She took to her notebook. The light from the firebugs shined on her black hair as she drew.
Between the lines, she drew open books, music notes, numbers with smiley faces around them, something that looked like her fone device, an apple, a cooking pan, and a paper with a pencil against it. It looked like a lot to remember, especially since she was planning on going to school for eight more years. Cameron couldn’t imagine going for more than six in total. It made Avery’s determination all the more admirable.
“Do you learn how to do readings?” Cameron asked. “Like future telling.”
Avery cocked her head.
“Oh, psychic?” she asked. “Psychic, right. No, we don’t learn those things.”
Cameron thought they heard her wrong. “You don’t know anything about psychics apart from what you learned here?”
“No many psychic in my Autre world. No people believe it.”
“What don’t Autreans believe in?”
What did that even mean? Not believe in magic? Did they not believe in breathing, too?
Cameron gripped one of the gemmes on their necklace. A shivery feeling came over them. For once, they didn’t want to hear what she had to say next. “Do you believe in magic? My gemmes, do you like them?”
She lifted out her necklace from underneath her sweater. She caught her reflection in the gemme facets.
Cameron’s knee hopped. All this time they thought she’d believed in it, as if you couldn’t believe in something so real. And personal. Not just to them, but to all of Arkeh:na. If she didn’t believe in magic, if she thought they were just making it up…
She dropped the gemme. “Before I meet you, no. No believe in magic. No gemme magic.”
“B-but what about now?” they stuttered.
She took in their room. “Arkeh:na is magic. All the gemmes and people are magic. I believe now. You make me believe.”
Cameron sighed so aggressively that they needed to cough. Thank the Heavens. How could they have doubted her? Of course she liked magic. What person their age didn’t?
They wiped their lips of spit. “So you’ve never gotten your fortune read before?”
“I don’t think so.”
“I have. You should get one done. When I was younger, all I wanted to be was a psychic.”
“You, a psychic?”
“Right?” they said through a sigh. “My Moeder says psychics are born intuitive. She said I wasn’t. I think I was, but I never argue.” Oddly, the jump in their knee had yet to fade. Something about the conversation still needed to be said, something their gemmes wanted mentioned.
They stole another look from her. “Can I do one for you?”
“A psychic reading.” Before they received her answer, they started prepping the area. They took out their strongest gemmes and laid them out on their lap. They found a piece of bark that’d act as their board. They didn’t own tarot cards like their Moeder, but they did have sage they’d light during birthdays and special events. They lit two bundles and set them outside of their bed.
Avery pulled the pelt around her, giving them space. Her gaze nestled that familiar sense of stage fright in Cameron’s head. They could talk to their gemmes just fine, but when faced with someone else’s emotions, everything stalled. The magic dripped back into the Earth. Their Moeder could carve out someone’s inner demons into something approachable. Cameron could barely figure out their own feelings.
They pushed their bangs out of their face. If they could channel any amount of magic from their gemmes, please let it be with Avery.
They closed their eyes and rolled the gemmes in their hands. They felt a little agitated. One dropped out and hid underneath the covers.
“It’s okay,” Cameron told them. “Don’t be scared.”
The edges cut into their palm. Confused, Cameron dropped them into Avery’s hands. They tried remembering how their Moeder did this. “Feel the grooves on each side, roll them around, hear what they have to say.”
Avery closed her eyes and did as told. Cameron watched for any eye flickers or jaw clenching. When the magic didn’t come, she peeked an eye open and waited for further instruction.
Why did it never work for them? It came so easily to their Moeder. Even Basil had more spiritual power than they did.
Cameron took back the gemmes. She must’ve thought them a fool, trying to summon magic, something she’d only recently started believing in, and being unable to read a simple fortune. For a fraction of a second, they wondered if it even existed at all. If most Autreans could go about their day without confiding in a gemme or reading their fortune, did it exist outside of an Arkeh:nen mind? Should they give up and accept that magic simply didn’t care for them as much as they cared for it?
They covered their mouth. What was wrong with them? How disrespectful, and in front of Avery, no less.
When they went to put away their gemmes, electricity snapped down their right side and shivered them with ice. It slapped them hard enough to make them gasp and search for what they’d done wrong.
They hadn’t noticed it before, but Avery wasn’t wearing her beanie. For the first time since they met, they saw her pure face unobstructed by fabric.
Lingering electricity stood Cameron’s hair on end. “I don’t think I did this right. Something went wrong.”
She asked a question.
“I…” They tried to shake the dirt out of their head, but couldn’t. There wasn’t any. All that clouded their head sat in front of them.
Avery pushed herself into their bubble. “You okay?” she asked.
They pushed their sweaty back against their bed wall. “Where’s your hat, on your head? I can see…more of your face.”
They said it slowly so they didn’t have to say it in English, and the gears turned in Avery’s eyes. First through Arkeh:nen, then with the actual realization that she’d forgotten to wear the hat she loved so much. She patted for it and messed up her hair.
“It’s okay,” Cameron said. “You look just as nice without it.”
She chuckled, a laugh that concealed rather than unveiled. It shattered whatever confidence Cameron had left.
Too lost to ask themselves, they asked their gemme a single question to help them better navigate these feelings.
“Take her hand.”
‘Why?’ they thought.
“Take her hand and kiss her.”
Their heart clenched. What? Why would they do that? Weren’t they friends? Why mess everything up with their feelings?
“You won’t mess anything up.”
They didn’t want to.
“Yes, you do.”
They didn’t deserve to kiss her.
“Yes, you do.”
They didn’t. She didn’t like hand-holding. She didn’t like them like that.
“How can you be so sure if you don’t ask?”
They balled up their gemme to quiet it. They adored these rocks. Why would they be sabotaging them like this?
“Something not okay?” Avery asked. “What do your gemmes say?”
They took a brief glance down at her hand. It was curled inside the blanket, the perfect place to be held.
If this didn’t work, they’d be sure to gift these stupid gemmes to their neighbors.
Wiping their hand clean, they placed it over hers and waited for her to flinch.
She did, but not one of her normal flinches that sent her back. She inhaled slightly, stilled herself, then placed her other hand over theirs.
Their gemmes had been right. They’d known all along, this part of Cameron they’d been avoiding. They did want to hug her, and kiss her, and hold her hand. They wanted to be with her for however long they had left on the Earth. Too afraid of rejection, they’d wanted to live in total ignorance of her love rather than take her hand.
But that was all they could do, or allow themselves to do, right now.
They massaged the top of her hand. “Do you like this?”
They should’ve taken their hand away by now. Their sweat was sticking them to her. “Can I take you somewhere special?”
Her hand tightened over theirs, ready to follow them.
Not many Arkeh:nen used the gondolas for leisure anymore. Sometimes lovers did, but more often than not they just helped carry supplies across Arkeh:na. Their Fader had been a gondolier and therefore tarnished all the charm that they had, but maybe Cameron could revive this piece of Arkeh:nen culture with Avery. Young Arkeh:nen did try to make this trip once in their life with someone they liked.
They led Avery towards the Grandmoeders’ Den and took a left instead of a right. They felt her tense up, but they ushered her away, their heart pounding just as fast.
They wondered if their Moeder ever took this trip with their Fader. They hated thinking about him now, but all they knew about love stuff came from them. Basil had never dated and Maywood said she wasn’t interested in any of the girls she knew. They felt like, deep down, they had memories of their parents being close. Their Fader holding their Moeder in bed, them sitting next to one another and not saying a word. They couldn’t imagine sitting with Avery and doing nothing. They had so much to learn from her.
A shout echoed off the wet rock. Cameron recognized the voice and, like always, they wished they hadn’t.
Basil stood on a rickety gondola, holding a mooring pole as he shouted at Maywood. It looked like her legs had given out on her again. She sat on a low rock while trying to bring her brother back down.
“Why’re you shouting?” Cameron asked.
Basil stepped off the gondola and rippled the water. “What’re you doing here with her?”
They pushed his pointed finger out of their face. “What’re you doing here?”
“He’s trying out to be a gondolier,” Maywood explained. “It’s temporary, to try to find his place. I came down to see if he was hungry, and then he started yelling at me. It’s getting worse.”
“What’s getting worse? I told you, everything’s fine!”
“No, it’s not.”
“She’s right,” Cameron said. They didn’t want to get involved, but they couldn’t leave Maywood unsupported. They realized just then that they hadn’t asked Avery to look for Basil’s father. They deserved this argument for selfishly helping themselves instead of him.
“Why’re you spending so much time with her?” he demanded. “I’ve seen the way she looks at you. She looks at you like a meal, and you’ve been acting different ever since you met her.”
“Uh—” Avery started, but Cameron put their hand out. She didn’t need her energy drained by this.
“Who cares how she looks at me? I…I look at her the same way.”
It was like Cameron had hit him or something. He faltered backwards and rocked the boat. “Are you saying you like her?”
Their brain told them to say “no,” but why? Was it so wrong of them to like her? They couldn’t speak to her that well and had only known her for a few weeks, but they knew they liked holding her hand and feeling her fingers curl around theirs. “Yes.”
“But she’s an Autrean!” Basil reminded them.
“You are, too, Basil. It’s not a bad thing to be.”
“Yes, it is! You don’t understand. Your Grandmoeder might like her and think she’s interesting, but mine doesn’t. Ours hates her. Arkeh:na has been unsettled about this for weeks. You should bring her back home before something bad happens.”
“Are you threatening her?”
“Threatening her? Are you serious? Why’re you two suddenly so scared about what I’ll do? I haven’t done anything. I’m just trying to make sure this girl doesn’t ruin what we have.”
“She hasn’t ruined anything.”
“You’re not a psychic—”
“Shut up!” he shouted, and kicked his gondola into the other docked boat.
Droplets of water splashed into the river. The boats rocked a ticking echo down the river. Once it faded out, Cameron, shaking with rage, went to chastise Basil for shouting at her. What gave him the right to talk to her like this? Why did he hate her so much? They could’ve talked out their differences, so why was he shouting?
But when they tried to speak, they couldn’t. They couldn’t defend her or shout for her. They stood there, stunned, emotions racking against their weak chest.
Without her hat, Avery used her turtleneck to hide her reddening face. She turned away to keep herself together, but she couldn’t stop herself from breaking down and sobbing into her collar. “I’m sorry,” she cried. “I didn’t…I…”
Cameron’s heart sped up in the opposite direction. They’d never seen her cry before. Why couldn’t they move? As she gasped for breath, why did they feel just as breathless?
Maywood stood up quicker than Cameron had ever seen her move, put all of her weight onto her cane, and slapped Basil straight across the face. Then she took Avery’s hand and stomped away.