Avery always wondered what passing out felt like. She’d seen movies where people lost consciousness, and whenever she presented in class, she dreaded the lightheadedness that foreshadowed the tumble. She didn’t even remember it happening, but when she awoke, she couldn’t breathe, and the memories of the cave-in buried her.
She was still alive—she had to count her blessings—but she couldn’t see anything. A pile of dirt was crushing her chest. Whenever she took a slight breath, the rocks shifted, threatening to entomb her.
Minutes passed. Why had Cameron left her? Surely she’d said everything right, so why hadn’t they returned? Why hadn’t they stayed to comfort her in a situation so dire?
Another wave of tearful panic suffocated her. She started breathing more and more until she was wheezing on the dusty air. When she felt something light touch her cheek, she imagined a long-legged spider and thrashed to keep it from entering her mouth.
Then she heard it: footsteps. Savior footsteps, stranger footsteps. Nonetheless, she screamed to be heard. “Help!”
The person carried the daintiest light source with them that barely illuminated the rocks around them. Avery had imagined the rocks as boulders incapable of moving, but it turned out to be a soft mountain of pebbles fused together to create a wall.
The person spoke in Arkeh:nen and loomed over her.
It was Cameron’s Moeder. Her lantern shone against the curve of her chin, depicting her as a bodiless ghost. She had a scary head injury that was bleeding into her eye socket. Even though she was hurt, she kept her face calculated and emotionless.
When she fondled Avery’s cheek, Avery welled up. She thought she’d never feel the touch of another person again. “I can’t move. I can’t—I’m scared.”
“Can you feel your legs?” she asked in Arkeh:nen.
“No. A little. They’re…” She couldn’t remember the word for “numb,” so she said, “It hurts.”
Checking the stability of the wall, Cameron’s Moeder tried to move it only for pieces of it to fall on Avery’s face.
Cameron’s Moeder took in the gravity of the situation with a bit lip, then shouted something at the rocks. At first, Avery thought she was trying to communicate with the dirt, but then she heard muffled voices from the other side. They talked back and forth with Cameron’s Moeder, and she nodded to herself and rubbed Avery’s cheek like a mother would. Then she put her arms around Avery’s armpits.
Pain radiated down her lower back. Her upper half pulled away from the wreckage while her legs refused to move. Someone grabbed her boot from the other side and pushed, sending a tidal wave of rocks over her. Before she could warn them to stop, she started coming loose like a tooth around decaying gums.
Lantern light shone through the wall. Excavators cut her out with shovels and pickaxes, covering her with pebbles, and through the hole, exerting themselves the hardest, was Cameron. They had dirt caked underneath their fingernails and scratches on their face, but they smiled as their hand touched hers.
She tore away from them. Tears fell down her own dirt-covered cheeks. Even though she’d been freed, the suffocating feelings stayed inside of her, growing like a forest fire. “Why did you leave me alone? Why didn’t you tell me you were leaving? You left almost immediately and I didn’t know what happened to you!”
Cameron fell back. “The Community…I couldn’t dig you out myself.”
“But you knew I was scared! You knew I didn’t want to be here alone.”
“Oh, enough with the Community already!”
Cameron’s face cracked with affliction.
“I don’t want to hear about them right now. I almost died, and you left me. You left me for them.”
“Well, of course I did.”
Avery choked. Why was she arguing with them? Of course that’s what they thought. They’d never change their opinion on something so ingrained into them.
So she ran. She stumbled around the Moeder who’d consoled her and ignored the people who’d dug her out. Anger overtook reason. Her brains had been crushed and her feelings were bleeding into her veins, driving her away from her rescuers.
The niche the tree had grown in for so many years had been buried. The oak was uprooted, now halfway out of the ground, creating a bridge to the surface.
Before any of them stopped her, before she had a moment to rethink herself, she climbed across the dead tree and broke for the night world above.
A coating of frost slipped her down the hill outside the cave. Every stump and outcrop knocked the wind out of her and filled her mouth with ice cold dirt.
She rolled halfway down the grass and ended up on her back, staring up at the starry night sky. The pain that’d drove her away throbbed into her hip, reminding her of her fragileness.
She breathed on puffs of frozen air. Snowflakes melted on her cheeks. Through the evergreen pine, some faraway planet twinkled like a star.
With her back wet with snow, she flipped to her side and heaved herself up. Her guilt kept her warm as she limped back home.
Sometimes, she thought her dogs were human. When she trudged through the bushes and hit the driveway, they sprung up as one expected of two huskies. They barked and tugged on their leashes to reach her, but when they saw her disheveled nature, they drew back in whimpers.
Too hurt to indulge in their energy, she pet each of them once and forced herself up the steps.
The door thrust open before she touched the handle. Her father, breath caught in his throat, puffed out his chest and barred her from entering.
Avery looked up at him, his glasses skewed, and he looked at her, her sweater torn and face streaked with tears.
The first sniffle cascaded into a rainfall of tears. She’d saved face in front of Cameron’s Moeder and in the presence of the forest, but with him, she couldn’t hold back. Falling against him, she clung to his chest and sobbed.
He doubled over her and hugged back. “Juniper, it’s her. Oh, Avery, baby, what happened to you? Are you okay?”
Her mother was already at the door. She threw her cane against the wall, spooking the dogs, and collapsed into her family. She hid her tears better than her husband.
Avery bit her cheek. Her mother’s embrace felt more crushing than rocks.
“W-were you still on line with the police?” her father asked.
Her mother held Avery tighter, hurting her, loving her, in ways she’d never felt before. Not even when she’d fallen into the crevasse a year ago had her mother acted this way.
Her father forced himself away and picked up the phone, which had also been thrown due to Avery’s arrival. “Yes, hello. It’s Ethan. She just came home. She’s okay. She’s scraped and bruised—Avery, what happened?”
“A cave-in. I got trapped. I couldn’t get out.”
Her father retold the story to the person on the phone, but what did that matter? The police would come regardless to hear the story from her firsthand. When that happened, they’d find out about her secrets and question her about questions she didn’t want to answer. Right now, all she wanted was her bed, her headphones, and her music set to max.
Her mother held her at arm’s reach. “Are you hurt?”
“My legs hurt. My lower half got buried.”
Her mother hobbled into the kitchen. Avery, suddenly alone despite everyone talking about her, picked up her mother’s cane and walked it over to her.
“Get off your legs,” her mother said. “Sit down in the living room. Ethan, get some blankets. She’s freezing. Get the heated one.”
Her mother and father coddled her with care. Blankets, pillows, dinner from that night, hot chocolate. She drank it scalding to shock her back awake.
“So you feel okay?” her father asked, sitting beside her on the couch.
“Yeah, I just hurt all over. I’m sorry for making you worry. I lost my bag.”
“I don’t care about your bag,” her mother said. “Avery, we thought you got kidnapped or…” She stopped herself before her mind went someplace dark. “No more exploring the forest, okay? You’re done.”
As much as she wanted to argue that the forest was her safe place, she found herself nodding. “Okay.”
Then her mother hugged her once more, and that somehow made Avery cry more.
With her stomach full and body warm, she walked up to her room with her mother’s help. Her mother even allowed something she’d never allowed since getting them: She let Pumpkin and Oreo upstairs on the carpet. It could’ve been because someone had driven up the driveway with their lights on—a police car—and her father motioned the dogs upstairs. Pumpkin and Oreo didn’t complain. Neither did Avery.
The dogs cuddled around her bed as her mother propped up her legs with pillows. Aside from bruising, they looked fine, but her mother didn’t take her eyes off the wounded skin.
“I’m sorry,” Avery repeated. “I wasn’t thinking.”
“Don’t apologize. I’m sure you did everything you could.”
“I don’t think I did.”
The front door opened to a stern-sounding man asking her father questions.
Avery buried her face in Pumpkin’s fur.
“It’s okay,” her mother said. “You’re not in trouble.”
“I feel like I am. I shouldn’t have gone as far as I did. I screwed up.”
“Don’t worry about that right now.” She pushed back her hair. “No more woods, okay? No more woods for a while.”
“I know.” She wiped her frozen nose on Pumpkin and waited until the front door closed. She wondered if the session with the officer was over or if her father had politely taken the conversation outside. “Mom, can I ask you a question?”
“No, your Forest Ban isn’t over yet. It just started.”
She almost smiled, but her feelings reconsidered that. “With Cameron, do you think…?”
What was she going to ask? What did her mother need to know about them, someone who she didn’t even like in the first place? Even after running away from them—yelling at them—they still wouldn’t leave her mind.
“What about her? Did she have something to do with this?”
“No,” Avery lied. “I was going to meet with them, but the cave-in stopped that from happening.” She covered her face completely in Pumpkin’s fur. “Do you like them? Even if they’re strange, even if they believe in certain things, is it okay for me to be with them?”
“Well, I’ve never met this person before. Why do you ask?”
“Because I like them, but sometimes what they believe in and how they act is strange to me. Sometimes I don’t get it, and it makes me frustrated. Today, I think I…I said something mean to them.”
“Well, when you’re feeling better, you can text her and apologize. If it’s really bad, call her.”
Avery sighed. She’d never convince her that Cameron didn’t have access to a phone and that she wouldn’t be seeing them at school in a few days.
Her father opened the front door. “Jun, can you come down here for a second?”
Her mother sat up. “I’ll be right back, okay? I’ll be right outside. And these two can stay up here tonight, but just for tonight, okay?”
“Okay. Thank you.”
Once her mother left, Avery stared up vacantly at the ceiling. She could still smell the musty cave on her hands. So badly had she wanted to tell her mother everything right there, about the cave people living underneath the mountains, about Cameron, about what they shared.
Distraught with grief, she beckoned Oreo onto her lap and cried into his black and white fur.