No wonder Avery wore so many layers when she came to visit. They hadn’t even touched the surface yet and their teeth were chattering. When they pushed the boulder out of the way, they collapsed outside the Main Exit Tunnle panting out cold breath. Avery made it look easy, but the rock weighed almost as much as they did. And the coldness, it burned their fingers. They thought the rock was wet, but frost had collected on the side facing the Autre world.
Acclimating their eyes to the moonlight, Cameron bunched up their hands in their poncho and stepped outside.
The Autre night held a smell to its darkness. Crisp and clean, the smell of ice and pine. Perhaps it was the scent of the Moon, which colored the snow blue and trees black. Its cold rays of light twinkled the snow like pure gemmes.
They took their first step into snow and shivered with amusement. They hadn’t expected it to crunch like that. Some parts were light, other parts sharp as rocks. They felt bad for stepping all over it. In the artisan huts, they melted this stuff down for drinking and healing water.
As they walked down the path, they turned back to see Arkeh:na’s mountain growing small. The massiveness of the mountain never crossed their mind. It built itself up like an ant hill, birthing trees on its incline and helping them reach the stars. They expected more houses, at least someone wandering by. To their astonishment, not a lot of humans lived in the forest, just underneath it.
They looked behind them again to see how far they’d gotten.
They couldn’t see the mountain.
They stopped. They couldn’t see the mountain. They hadn’t been paying attention to where they were walking, and now they were lost. Never in the past five years had they gotten lost.
They traced their kaart scars and kept going. They’d find Avery soon enough. How many people could live in New York? They’d seen pictures of her home. Finding a log cabin in the woods would be easy.
After traveling around trees and icy patches of snow, they came across a path made of hard stone. They almost crossed it before remembering what Basil had told them about “streets.” Taking his advice, they checked both ways and didn’t see or hear any “cars.” Only crickets whistling their songs.
They followed a faded line painted on the edge of the street. They had yet to see any houses or dens. The thought of Avery traveling so long for their sake astounded them.
A low rumbling revved up behind them. They stepped out of the way, thinking it a low cave-in, but two bright, burning lights blinded them with bestial screams.
Cameron rolled into the snowbank to keep from getting eaten. What on Earth was it? Their eyes hurt too much to take it in. They were left to listen to it bare its mechanical teeth at them. When it drove off, the wind sliced off its wheels in a snarl and screeched like a banshee grieving for her lost child.
Cameron clutched their pounding chest and stumbled down the road opposite of the “car.” They swore they saw a pair of human eyes trapped within the contraption, but they didn’t dwell on that nightmare image for long.
Ten minutes later and they braced themselves on a tree to wheeze. The air was beginning to hurt their throat and numb their feet. This never happened in Arkeh:na, as it kept a modest temperature year round. How did Autreans survive this weather outside of dens?
They looked up. Through the trees, peeking out like curious cat eyes, the Autrean homes came out of hiding.
Cameron stepped onto a wider road. This one had balls of light affixed to branchless trees. Ghostly dogs howled into the night as cars revved down distant roads.
They took out Avery’s phone. Things like footprints or breathing weren’t enough to announce your presence here. For Autreans, you needed light in order to be seen.
So they entered the town of Foxfield. Its name rang true: It had fields as long as tunnles where foxes could safely live. And it smelled like animals, and not in a cooked meat kind of way. They smelled poop and fur and the living spaces of hefty work animals. One even crossed the street with them, its large eyes glowing yellow.
Wondering what types of critters lived with modern humans, Cameron crept up to a red house surrounded by a wooden fence. They stuck their head through an opened window.
Something as large as a car and equally formidable pressed up against their cheek. It sniffed them with teeth, grazing their skin, before pulling back and chuffing. It had a snout as big as Cameron’s head with eyes as black as a bear’s. It didn’t move, but its breathing came from deep within its spotted stomach.
Cameron knew them vaguely as “cows.”
They lowered the phone and slowly backed away, never taking their eyes off the beast. Its pupil-less eyes faded back into the darkness.
They continued on. Ten houses down that road, six up that hill. Just outside the cow’s house lived hundreds, maybe even thousands of homes. On instinct, they kept tracing their kaart for direction, but they wouldn’t find it here. Every house had some element of Avery’s home: doors, windows, garages. Which one did she live in?
They looked down at the phone. Avery had explained to them that you needed to press buttons to call someone. She’d demonstrated it months ago, but the calls never “went through” because they were in a cave. Cameron had nodded like they understood what that meant.
They started pressing buttons.
The screen shut off, reflecting their confused face back at them.
Of course. If they didn’t crack the world in half come March of next year, they’d be so impressed with their luck.
They kept walking, on and on, down the unwinding streets. The snow had molded dirty mountains around the roads that they needed to keep climbing over. Sometimes the lights atop the branchless trees flickered when they neared and startled them.
Some Autreans even walked past. Usually, when two Arkeh:nen walked past one another in tunnles, they’d say “hello” or affectionately touch one another’s hands. The Autreans did neither. Most of them looked at Cameron with distasteful looks.
Cameron patted down their hair. The Autreans looked so pretty and well kept. Their clothes didn’t have holes in them and their faces were scarless. They’d always thought Avery looked one-of-a-kind, but seeing other Autreans en masse, they began thinking that they were the strange one.
At the end of one street, Cameron passed a group of people their own age. One of the girls stopped like they recognized them. She looked a little like Avery with her dark hair and skin, so they explained to her that they were looking for a girl named Avery and that they needed to find her house so that they could apologize to her for leaving her behind during a cave-in.
The girl and her group of friends chuckled nervously and walked away, leaving Cameron underneath a flickering light.
Head down, Cameron sped up the closest hill near an empty farm. They now understood why Avery had closed herself off when they first met. Instead of wanting to get to know you, Autreans found ways of hating you before anything else. At least in Arkeh:na, people pretended to like you and never said anything about it. You had to see them the next day, after all.
They passed something that looked like a log cabin, but painted apples with unnerving smiles glared at them and sent them up the mountain.
They sneezed into the open air. How did Avery walk all this way multiple times a week? How did Basil enjoy this, going out without permission and exploring such unforgiving lands? Arkeh:na had nothing akin to these hills—their ancestors would’ve put up ladders or rope for smoother travels. This road stretched on for nearly a mile with only a metal railing to hold on to. It burned to the touch.
But then finally, after breathing in the freezing air, after getting coated in ice, Cameron found something. The cabin looked almost identical to the one on Avery’s phone, but the sizing looked wrong. It felt too flamboyant and spacious for her. Still, they were freezing, tired, and angry at themselves that they’d even left in the first place. If anything, they’d hide beneath this cabin’s many roofs, which, angled in the way they were, had been built to keep snow from piling up on top of them. Autreans had thought of everything except how to walk up and down icy streets during winter.
The house had multiple doors and multiple door-sized windows. Picking one at random, Cameron walked up its slippery steps and tried opening it.
It was locked. Why did Autreans lock their doors?
They didn’t know what they’d done wrong, but the house exploded with commotion. Lights zapped on. Dogs barked. Before they could run away, someone unlocked the door.
Avery’s Fader, a tall, black Fader with glasses, held back Avery’s two dogs by their collars. He didn’t look angry, but he didn’t look happy. He looked ready to sic these animals on them for trespassing. “Who…need…you…you?”
Cameron understood half of his words. “Avery, I think she live here. She’s a friend, my—”
The Fader turned around and called out Avery’s name, followed by a question. While they waited, Cameron stared at the dogs’ wolf-like muzzles. They were “Oreo” and “Pumpkin.” Avery said they were sweet and tempered. Did she know what “sweet” and “tempered” meant?
Another dark-skinned Autrean—Avery’s Moeder—looked around the Fader’s broad shoulder, her eyebrow cocked with suspicion.
She made room for her daughter, who plowed through her own Moeder and Fader to see Cameron cowering on her doorstep.
“Cameron?” Avery asked. “What’re you doing here?”