She’d planned on spending her birthday with them. She’d planned on having two Christmas parties, one with her family around their fake tree and honeyed ham, one with Cameron, celebrating whatever harvest or winter solstice they believed in. Maybe they didn’t believe in anything and continued on into the new year without flair.
She never got to find out.
December went by like the weather: slow, and cold. Four inches coated the balconies at any given time. Storms cancelled half of her father’s work, her mother didn’t get called into the office, and school lost almost all of its Fridays to snow. Through November into December, Avery ghosted through her humdrum life with a snowed-in head.
Nothing about her life made sense after the cave-in. She didn’t feel depressed—she didn’t talk or smile as much, but she never talked or smiled much before Arkeh:na. She had nothing to be sad about, anyway; with Christmas coming into view, all she had to look forward to was spending time with her family.
A week before Christmas break and normalcy soaked back into her. She kept her head down at her locker. She received average marks in English and above-average ones in science. Nobody asked how her Thanksgiving went, nobody asked about her caving adventures. The shortened school week carried on without her speaking a word to anyone.
Skipping class was easy when nobody wanted to teach in the first place. Every student and teacher had their eyes on the windows, waiting for that one flake of snow. Because of this, Avery got to sneak her lunch bag to the library. With the amount of students at her school, nobody would go looking for one missing girl during study hall. She’d left her phone in Arkeh:na, anyway, so she had nothing to distract herself with.
Their library resided on the first floor. It had the least amount of renovations done to it compared to the whole building. It still retained its creaky floors and paling wallpaper from the early 1900s. Before she took up hiking, she’d spent several long, lonely years in this expansive room. She knew its layout almost as well as her hiking trails.
Finding her favorite shelf in the library—the comic book section—Avery picked up a random title and began reading. She looked at the pictures more than anything, partly due to her feelings, partly due to a class being held in the library’s recreational room. Its doors were closed, but she could still hear the thrum of a distracting lecture.
When the bell rang, students gathered their bags and filed out of the double doors.
She hid her face in her comic. Cameron would definitely like comics. Whenever she returned, she had to bring back a couple for them. They could read them together underneath a firebug lantern, sharing a bowl of warm porridge.
Someone came up behind her, their eyes digging into her back. She waited it out, hoping they’d leave, but they didn’t. Sighing, she peeked behind her to see who was upset with her now.
Bridget Rodríguez stared at her with her backpack halfway off of her shoulder, her books slipping out of her hands. She had her hair down, a hairstyle she’d once told Avery she wasn’t confident in, and had on a white button down she’d never seen her in before. It showed off the cross around her neck.
Avery waited for somebody to speak first. Bridget examined the books on her left. She tucked her gelled hair around her ears. She had on that perfume she’d worn the day Avery lost her. Tropical fruit.
Avery shoved the comic back onto the shelf and walked passed her. Her legs brought her to the tall windows showcasing the track field outside. She settled down in one of the library bean bags and didn’t breathe until all the beads in the bag shifted to her weight.
Second period of lunch started. Students turned on the computers. The librarian went to fix herself some coffee.
Silent tears fell from Avery’s face as she watched a flock of geese land on the field. Too stubborn to fly south, they searched the snowy grounds for food. After thirty minutes of pecking, one flew away, and the rest followed behind it as hungry stragglers.
She told herself she was okay throughout Christmas break.
Her father picked up her grandparents that Monday and drove them up the hill for a week-long sleepover. He’d pressured them to close down the shop to spend the week with them, something they almost got into a fight about. When Avery teared up at the sound of their arguing, they folded and slept upstairs in the spare bedroom.
She didn’t know if that made her feel better. Now she needed to maneuver around four observant family members instead of two. Questions about her health and mood dogged her around the house, and she had to keep up with the lies while digging herself a deeper hole.
Christmas dinner worked out in her favor. Sitting around the table, nobody wanted to drop their forks and delve into Avery’s problems when conversations about the weather and mountains proved to be less dispiriting.
“How much longer are you gonna be out in those mountains?” her grandmother asked from across the table. “Your wife needs someone around the house to babysit this one, since she’s still under house arrest.”
“I’m happy with him working and earning money for the family,” her mother said.
“The plan’s set to be done around next summer,” her father said. “Avery, I was thinking we can go hiking together before then…in some newer parts of the forest. Do you want to go to Black River and hike up its riverbed?”
“No caves to get lost in there,” her grandfather said. “Hey, Avery, when did you get that necklace? It’s pretty.”
Avery stopped twirling Cameron’s necklace around her finger. Normally, she’d hide it inside of her shirt, but it kept popping out, giving her hands something to play with.
“It is pretty,” her grandmother added.
“A good friend of mine gave it to me.”
“Was it that witch friend of yours?”
She dragged her fork through her mashed potatoes.
“I don’t think…” her father started, then restarted with, “You know, Ash, I wanted to ask you something about the business. I was thinking you take off next week for your health…”
Avery slumped into her hand. Her mind told her to listen to the conversation, but she couldn’t. What she had with Cameron had been a fallen tree in her trail, yet instead of picking a new way to walk, she’d been sitting in the middle of the wet dirt, waiting for someone to redirect her.
She sighed so as not to provoke a reaction from her family and lifted her droopy head to watch the snow fall.
A pair of brown eyes locked onto hers. Through the frost-covered windows, Basil was somehow staring back at her. He hung from the balcony like a criminal peering through jail bars, his fingerless gloves latched onto the balusters.
After catching her eyes, he let go and disappeared. By the sound of his fall, it sounded like he landed on his back.
Avery sprung up from her chair. “I have to go.”
“Where?” her father asked.
“Uh, outside. I heard Pumpkin…fussing.”
“Don’t bring them in,” her mother said. “When Pumpkin sees the turkey, there’ll be no stopping her.”
“I won’t,” she said, and sped-walked to the garage.
Pumpkin and Oreo were gone, but their long leashes were wrapped around the open garage door.
She plodded around the side of the house, following their trail. Had she really seen him? While she couldn’t let her parents find a boy creeping around their home, she couldn’t let them see her walking through the snow, calling out a type of spice to see if it answered back.
Pumpkin and Oreo had found Basil first. He stood casually beneath their laundry room windows, petting the two of them. He wore a fur jacket, thick and brown like a bear pelt, with a rabbit-fur hood framing his face and black gloves. He brought a traveling pack with him along with Avery’s backpack. She’d lied about misplacing her bag and phone, so her parents had bought her new ones for Christmas, but her sketchbook, her hat, her pins…
“Hey,” he greeted, and tossed her her backpack.
She grabbed it awkwardly and opened it, revealing her untouched sketchbook and hat, everything but her phone.
“After the cave-in, none of the scavengers wanted to bring this back,” Basil said. “Cameron kept sleeping with it. I thought it’d be healthier if I returned it.”
She almost missed half of his words. It’d been so long since she’d spoken the language. “I thought you weren’t allowed outside. You’re not a scavenger.”
Basil scratched Pumpkin’s chin. “It’s easy to leave. It’s harder to stay away.”
Avery looked over his odd stance. As he pet her dogs, he had one foot off the ground like a flamingo. Strange bandages were wrapped around his ankle.
Once he noticed her staring, he tugged down his pant cuff.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I left your phone with Cameron. It’s not expensive, right?”
She didn’t know if he was being sarcastic, but with his curious expression, she said, “It’s okay. How’re they doing?”
He looked away. “They told me not to tell you.”
She hadn’t meant to sound so assertive, but Basil blinked back before saying, “They don’t leave their den anymore. Only to bathe and eat, but it’s infrequent. And they’ve stopped talking to the Community. A baby was born a few weeks ago and they still haven’t gone to see it. I’ve never seen them like this before. Do you hate them?”
“No,” she said instantly. “Never. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I’ve been feeling scared and…wrong. I haven’t felt like this since I met Cameron. Please tell them I’ll come back soon. I just need to fix something inside me, and I think I have to be alone to do that.”
“Alright,” he said, verbally unsatisfied with her reasoning. “Hopefully that’ll make both you and them happy.” He looked up to the balcony he’d just jumped from. “Today’s a holiday, right?”
“Yeah. We call it Christmas.”
“Was that your family up there? Are you celebrating it with them?”
“They look like you. That must be nice.”
She didn’t know what to say. She knew he was still looking for his father. She’d told him she’d look, but there was no real way she could find him without taking a blood sample from Basil and every man who looked like him in the county. In her mind, he knew that, and he still kept looking.
She checked to make sure none of her family members were spying on her. “Do you want to come in?”
He snorted. “I once entered an Autrean house. I saw a black cat on the windowsill and wanted to pet it. The old woman living there screamed when she saw me and grabbed her gun.”
“Oh, dear. Were you hurt? I don’t think people can shoot you if you break into their property in New York.”
“New York,” he said fondly. “That’s what this place is called, isn’t it? Isn’t that weird? I’ve lived here all my life, yet I don’t know anything about it. Don’t they say something to one another on this day? Something like Happy…Merry…”
He pulled off his hood. “Merry Christmas. I hope you get to fix whatever’s broken inside of you today, if it’s able to be fixed at all. I know it’s hard to move forwards when you’re busy picking up the broken pieces left behind.”
She went to wish him an equally healing Christmas, but a snowflake caught in her throat. Sniffling, she dropped her head and choked on her tears. She’d gone most of the holiday keeping it together. She was so proud of herself for making it this far.
Breaking the distance between them, Basil took Avery in his arms and held her until she felt warm.