Cameron lay in bed, staring at Avery’s phone, holding their stomach in pain. They would’ve blamed the throbbing on hunger—they hadn’t eaten all day—but they knew why they felt so awful.
Every time they closed their eyes, they saw Avery yelling at them for their misdoings. They’d tried to explain themselves, but it hadn’t been enough. Nothing could ever be enough for her.
They didn’t understand. Avery knew about their condition—she called it “asthma”—so she knew they couldn’t have dug her out by themselves. They’d done what they thought was best by calling the Community for help. And the whole ordeal with the Grandmoeders didn’t help at all. It felt like a part of them was still buried in that tunnle and they hadn’t the strength to call out for help.
Maybe they should’ve comforted her first, or maybe they should’ve told her they were going to get help. Maybe, maybe, maybe. The word haunted them and their spur-of-the-moment decisions.
A burning feeling settled in their throat. Choking, they reached for the bucket they’d borrowed from their neighbors and coughed hard into it. They’d hidden their ailments for days now, but they couldn’t do it anymore. They had to face the truth: Their sickness was getting worse, and it was all because of what they’d done to Arkeh:na and Avery.
After spitting into the bucket, Cameron staggered to their feet and went to their gemme collection. None of them bothered to talk to them anymore. After several weeks of thought, Cameron had decided that they deserved a better owner.
So, taking one of their oldest gemme cases, Cameron packed away their most precious gemstones and brought them to Basil and Maywood.
They heard Basil from two tunnles away. Maywood was trying to sew him new bandages while he complained from their bed. They had a spinning wheel in their den from their Fader’s time as a needleworker. It was never touched until Maywood took up her Fader’s occupation.
When Cameron came in, Basil stopped arguing. “You’re up.”
They nodded, then looked to his swollen ankle.
He covered it. “It’s getting better.”
“He went outside,” Maywood tattled. “When he came home, I found pine all over him, all sappy and torn.”
“I was just scavenging.”
“With a broken ankle! You need to take better care of yourself. I worry.”
She said the last word while looking at Cameron, but Cameron couldn’t look into her doting eyes for too long.
They opened their gemme box. “None of my gemmes are working for me anymore. I was wondering if you two wanted any.”
“They’re not working?” Maywood asked.
“No. If you could take a few off my hands, I’m sure they’ll work for you. They like hard-working, loving people, so they’ll like you and Basil.”
Maywood touched their side, comforting them. “Cameron, I’m sorry.”
“About Avery, about what our Grandmoeder said to you.”
“What she said to you was wrong,” Basil said. “She’s always had it out for you and me. I’d be hard-pressed to say she likes anything.”
“Don’t be rude to them behind their backs,” Maywood said. “Not all of us can live as long as they can. If they’re able to live past fifty, they’re important.”
Cameron dropped four gemmes in Maywood’s hand. “Use this one for Basil’s legs and these for your Moeder. They used to help with my sadness.”
Maywood pocketed them. “Cameron, I’m sure she’ll come back.”
“And she doesn’t hate you,” Basil promised. “She’ll be back any day now, I know it.”
“Whatever you say,” Cameron said, and walked out.
They traveled around Arkeh:na like a struggling salesperson. Some neighbors took the gemmes, but no one wanted them in the same way no one wanted food with a bite mark in it. Yes, it’d work for its purpose, and you should’ve been grateful for the offer, but you’d take nearly anything else and usually felt disgusted with the overall exchange. But it was all Cameron had. What more could they do?
With nearly the same amount of gemmes they’d started with, Cameron climbed up to the first layer and rested at the Centrum. The Centrum had been resurrected, but the artisan corner was still destroyed. Nobody could buy new clothes or replace their cups and plates. Scavengers and strong Arkeh:nen were still digging out salvable pieces of wood.
Cameron should’ve been excavating with them, or going door to door to see if everyone was okay. They should’ve helped out weeks ago, but no. They were waiting on the girl who’d pushed them away, hoping she’d take them back the next time they disappointed her.
“Oh, enough with the Community already!”
The faintest smell of spices wafted around the Centrum pillars. Behind them, next to the Rivière, was the hole leading down to the psychics’ dens. The falls created a foam of water that wafted magical herbs throughout Arkeh:na.
Cameron tapped their foot. They swore they saw the air sparkle with energy, but they knew they couldn’t see such magic.
Groaning tiredly, they got up and brought their gemmes to the psychics’ dens.
Step after step into the pits and the air cooled with misty energy. They needed to walk down a cramped tunnle filled with dried asters, sage, and acorns. Quilts from past Grandmoeders hung up as makeshift doors that Cameron needed to duck under. They couldn’t dare touch them. Pushing them aside with such hands felt shameful.
The end of the hall opened up to a dark antechamber lined with gemmes on high shelves. Barron, the guard who stood watch at the main entrance, looked Cameron up and down with his arms crossed. His head reached the highest shelf. “Your Moeder’s in the middle of a reading. What do you need?”
“I don’t know,” they said honestly. “I wanted to get rid of my gemmes, but no one wants them. I think they brought me here. Do you need any?”
Barron pulled out his bracelet of purple gemmes. “Sorry.”
“Do you want to schedule a reading?”
They didn’t hate the idea of readings. They knew their influence could very well save a person’s life. But when their Fader had left, they were forced to get a joint-reading with their Moeder. They were young, so they didn’t remember much. All they remembered was the guilt that they’d been the one to drive their Fader away and their Moeder. She’d cried. It was the first time they’d seen her like that, like a person with feelings and not an all-knowing Goddess.
“You seem lost,” Barron went on. “I think a reading would help. Some people”—he nodded to where the psychics worked—“come in with much more to talk about looking far better than you do. And don’t say other people deserve to be seen before you.”
Cameron, who’d just opened their mouth to refute him, clamped up.
Barron rolled his bracelet gemmes around his wrist. “Cameron, your Moeder…”
Before he said whatever he’d wanted to say, someone new entered the antechamber. Moeder Exia, Basil’s and Maywood’s Moeder, left the dens fixing her shawl around her bony shoulders. She would’ve slammed the wooden door behind her before a ringed hand lurched out from the darkness.
Cameron’s Moeder left the shadows as she held open the door. “I’ll take you.”
They hid their box behind their back. Even though they were making eye contact with her, they didn’t want to come out and ask if she wanted to see them or someone else, maybe Barron, maybe Moeder Exia again.
When their Moeder said nothing, Cameron lowered their head and followed her in.
“Good luck,” Barron whispered.
The tunnle to the psychic rooms was built against the waterfall, letting a gentle flow of water sprinkle over the ceiling like rain. Cameron paused at such a rare sight. The falls in the caves burst with so much power that they couldn’t near them without losing their hearing. Even water knew how to act around the psychics.
Cameron had visited their Moeder’s psychic den three times. Once on accident, as they didn’t know the consequences for entering without permission, the second when their Fader left, and the third from when they sliced open their skull from their first cave-in, resulting in their facial scar. Their Moeder hadn’t slept as she worked tirelessly on healing her degenerate child.
Her room looked exactly the same as it did those times. Two quilts padded the ground, one for her, one for her client. Skulls and bones of dead animals made up her altars, and candles and incense had been lit to cleanse the area. The scents Cameron had smelled in the Centrum now dizzied them.
Their Moeder motioned for them to sit on the quilt adjacent from hers.
“I don’t really need a reading,” Cameron said, sitting down. “I wanted to know if any Moeders needed my gemmes.”
“Why don’t you want them?”
“I don’t think they work for me anymore.”
“So you think you don’t deserve them?”
Their Moeder placed their box on one of her altars. A stuffed crow watched over its contents with a permanently open beak. “Why’re you here?”
They laced their fingers over their lap. “I’m not sure.”
“Have you heard from Avery?”
“Has anyone told you about her?”
Their heart thumped in their ears. “What happened to her? Is she sick? Is she okay?”
Their Moeder sat across from them. “She’s fine,” she said in monotone. “Scavengers have been keeping an eye on her. One returned her backpack to her a few days ago.” She took a candle and lit it with another. Then she sat in silence for almost a minute, looking directly at Cameron.
They wished she didn’t prep her sessions like this, but what did they know? They’d only heard of her practices through impressed whispers in the ville. But did she have to act so secretly? Didn’t she already know them as her child?
She arched her back. “Close your eyes.”
Cameron did as told.
The incense enhanced. The waterfall outside grew louder, as if rapping on the curtains for a fortune. They noticed the softness of the quilts and the echoes off the room. They recognized themselves as a simple, breathing person.
Cameron opened their eyes to their Moeder holding out her signature deck. Each card had its own unique drawing and spirituality attached to it. Only skilled Moeders understood their wordless magic.
She fanned out the cards in front of them. “Pick three.”
They did. Each time they picked one, their Moeder’s eyebrow twitched. Cameron tried to plan out each pick, but they knew their say meant nothing. By picking these random cards, she must’ve known the name of their firstborn child and the date of their death or something. When they’d tried to read Avery’s fortune, they couldn’t even figure out what they were feeling, let alone her.
Once they had their three cards, their Moeder reorganized them in front of her. “This card represents your past,” she explained, pointing to one card, “this one’s your present, and this’s your future.” She picked up the past card. It was of a man balancing over the edge of a cliff. “The Fool. A reckless, selfish being.”
“But I’m not selfish.”
“Selfishness doesn’t come from your actions, it comes from your feelings.” She placed down the card. “You’re getting sicker, and you haven’t told me.”
They tightened their core, but it caused them to cough. “I didn’t want you to worry.”
“You think carrying your burdens alone will somehow make things better, because you don’t want your loved ones to worry. That’s why you’re selfish.”
“The cards don’t care about how you feel,” their Moeder stressed. “They’re designed to slap you into rethinking your actions.” She picked up the next card. “The World, reversed.”
Cameron winced. While they didn’t know much about cards, they knew how disastrous reversed cards meant. “I don’t want to do this anymore.”
Their Moeder continued. “You’re incomplete. You’re living in a world without trees. You’re stagnating without closure.”
Cameron covered their ears.
“You must listen to them. They know my own child. They only want what’s best for you.”
“But I don’t. I only want what’s best for other people.”
“The Magician. It can mean willpower and a great passion. I don’t believe this’s your case. I believe you’re heading for disaster, and you’ll be facing a great deal of pain and loss very soon.”
“Yes. This’s the person you were in the past, this’s who you are now, and this’s who you’ll be in the future. Selfish, incomplete, and heading for disaster. Stop hiding from your problems and stop wallowing. Realize that Avery’s gone because of what you did.”
Cameron dropped their hands onto the quilt, their tension gone, restraints broken. Hearing it for the first time spoken so soberly, their face scrunched up in anguish, and they cried. They ugly-cried into their hands, facing their Moeder who knew best and who’d always known so.
She crawled over and held them.
“It’s all my fault,” they sobbed. “I’m a terrible Arkeh:nen.”
“You’re neither the worst nor the best. None of us are.”
“But Avery’s gone because of me.”
“She is, and she’ll return.”
“No, she won’t. I know she won’t. Oh, Moeder, she was so angry with me when she ran away. She hates me, I know it.”
“She won’t hate you forever. Forever is something young people like to cling to, but you don’t know what forever means. Avery will forgive you, and both of you will get to apologize to one another very soon.”
“I hate it. Moeder, I hate this. I miss her so much. I want her back.”
“You’re in love, Cameron. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
At that, they cried louder. They didn’t want this. They’d known since the beginning that they’d wanted Avery as a friend, maybe even a best friend, but seeing her in this light hurt beyond reason. Why did anyone fall in love if it invited so much pain into your heart?
“I know. I know falling in love is…It can be difficult, and sometimes it feels like it’s not worth it. It’s one thing to fall in love. It’s another to stay in love and keep that love prospering, especially when both of you are changing. Me and Erik—” She corrected herself. “Your Fader and I became two very different people after I had you. He needed to leave. I needed to stay.”
“But do you still love him even though he left and hurt you?”
“Do you still love Avery?”
They snuggled into her chest. They knew the answer just as well as she did.
“I know my reading for you was rather harsh. Yes, you’re selfish, but you’re selfish in the best possible way. And everyone’s incomplete, and everyone should expect loss in life. Just prepare yourself for it. If people aren’t prepared for loss, they’ll lose themselves completely.”
They let her words sink in. “I need to prepare?”
“Yes. You need to clear your mind and focus on what you need to do next. You need to realize what’s important to you and act on it.”
Cameron relished in their Moeder’s hug for one more minute before they pulled away and dried their eyes. When they looked back up at her, she was faintly but noticeably smiling.
After another hug, Cameron left the psychic room in higher spirits than when they’d entered. They waved to Barron and Moeder Exia, who was spacing out near the falls. Cameron hadn’t realized they’d left without their gemme box until they passed the Centrum, but they didn’t care. While they loved the devotion they put into gemmes, something more important was guiding them now.
Trying to be as slick as possible, Cameron went back to their den and packed a bag. They packed the gifts their neighbors and friends had given them and put on an extra gemme necklace for good luck. After dressing into their poncho and slinging their bag onto their back, they then took hold of Avery’s phone. It now radiated with more energy than any one of their gemmes.
Nuvu chittered at their owner’s unexplained energy.
Cameron pet underneath her chin. “I’ll be back soon,” they promised, and left for the Main Exit Tunnle.
They’d seen Avery climb up these tunnle’s steps a dozen times before, and scavengers had no problems with them. Still, they faltered at the height, unsure of what really lived in the Autre world.
They knew one thing, though: Avery lived somewhere on the surface, and if fate treated them kindly, it would lead them to her.
Coughing into the open air, they took hold of the first rung and started climbing.