“Avery,” Cameron said, relieved. “You’re really here.”
She didn’t believe that. As soon as she saw them standing there, she thought she was still half-asleep. She hadn’t showered yet. She was wearing a throw-away band t-shirt from sixth grade. How much worse could this nightmare have gotten? She hadn’t even prepped her parents on meeting Cameron yet, someone they’d not only hate, but not understand. How would she explain this to them?
Their expressions said it all: her father, thunderstruck as he held open the door; her mother, totally lost and a little insulted by a late-night guest.
Cameron’s skinny legs trembled. “I-I’ve been searching for you f-for hours. Why do you live so far away?”
Her parents looked at her to see if they needed to call the police. She called them off, then yelled at her dogs to go to their beds in the living room. It took two warnings before they finally listened. Their eyes never left Cameron.
Knowing they weren’t going to get bitten, Cameron entered their home without permission.
Avery, as well as her parents, stepped back. “What’re you doing here?”
They frowned at her use of English. She knew they didn’t like speaking it, but she had no choice. “I, uh, leave, to you.”
“Why? I thought you weren’t allowed to leave if you weren’t a—” She wanted to say “scavenger,” but she didn’t want her parents to question the odd work profession.
“My Moeder…say this, I think, in a reading. I go to you.” They acknowledged her parents with a bow. “Is this your Moeder and Fader? They look so much like you.”
“Is this a friend from school?” her father asked.
“Uh, yeah,” she said. “In my science class…and lunch period. They—” She winced. They wouldn’t get it. They wouldn’t get any of this. Why was Cameron here? Did they seriously travel all this way for her?
She chose the gender that’d make them the happiest. “This’s Cameron. She’d called me beforehand saying she wanted to come over. I forgot to tell you.”
“Oh.” Her mother checked the grandfather clock behind her. “It’s…so late, though. It’s almost ten.”
“Uh, yeah. She lives far away. I didn’t think she was going to walk here. That’s why she’s so dirty.”
“She must be freezing,” her father said, and Avery leapt at the chance. She just needed to get Cameron away from them.
“Right,” she said, and took Cameron’s sleeve. “Look at her. She’s shivering. Let me, uh, draw a bath for them to warm them up.”
“Does she need anything for those scrapes?” her father asked.
“They’re fine!” she almost shouted, and pushed Cameron up the stairs.
“I’m not a girl,” Cameron reminded her.
“I know, just play along,” she whispered, and locked them inside of her upstairs bathroom.
Cameron shook off her tight hand. “Why’re you acting so strange?”
“Me, acting strange? What about you? What’re you doing here?”
“I was worried. You never came back. I thought something might’ve happened to you. Are you okay?”
“Yes, but…” She gagged at their swollen knees. “What happened?”
“A car came close to me, so I ducked into the snow to avoid it. I walked everywhere trying to find your house.”
“You shouldn’t have left in the first place. It’s too dangerous here.” She squatted down to the tub and drew their bath. “You can wash up here, but do it quick.”
Cameron leaned over her. “This’s the thing you explained to me, right? A bathtub?”
“Is this yours?”
“Yeah.” She tested the water’s temperature on her pinkie.
A light hand touched the nape of her neck. “Hey.”
‘Apologize,’ her brain begged. ‘Tell them you’re sorry, that you didn’t mean the hurtful things you said. Say anything to keep their hands on you.’
Just a month without them and she was already thinking bad thoughts. What made it worse was that she wanted it. She wanted more of them. She would’ve apologized for everything she’d ever done if it meant they’d keep touching her.
They massaged her neck. “I’m sorry I left you back in the tunnle. I should’ve stayed with you so you weren’t alone. I wasn’t thinking. I’m sorry.”
‘Kiss them and apologize.’
She got up. She opened the medicine cabinet to search for nothing in particular. Her words spiraled into the sink. “It’s fine. The water should be fine now. Take a bath, wash up. I’ll be outside.”
Cameron wiggled out of their poncho, revealing their skin-tight bodysuit that hugged every inch of their body.
Avery ran out of the bathroom and sat on the corner of her bed, her hands folded around her mouth. Had Arkeh:nen always been so open like that, or was Cameron thinking too much into their relationship?
Their relationship. What did that mean? She’d just run away from them. Again. That’s all she knew how to do, to save herself.
A while later, Cameron came out wearing just their poncho and shorts. They’d scrubbed off a layer of dirt from their skin. Their curly hair now reached past their shoulders in soaking locks.
“You shouldn’t put on the same thing after you shower,” Avery said, “but I guess I didn’t leave you with anything to change into.”
“Do you have anything I can wear?”
“I think.” She pulled out a turtleneck and a pair of pajama bottoms from her drawers. She pushed down the t-shirts with animated characters on them. As they showered, she’d cleansed her room of embarrassing items and stuffed them in her closet. “These should be good.”
Cameron began undressing at her bedside.
Avery choked and turned around. She felt lightheaded with how many ups and downs they were dragging her through. Was she truly awake right now?
“You’re acting so jumpy,” Cameron said. “What’s wrong?”
“I didn’t expect you, so I’m trying to keep it cool so my parents don’t freak out.”
They sat on her bed. “Why do you say that like it’s a bad thing?”
“It’s not. You don’t know my parents. I don’t think they’ll like you.”
“I just met them. How do they not like me?”
“Because they don’t like strange things. They like order and things they understand.”
“So you think I’m strange?”
“Of course not, but to them, yes.” She checked downstairs. Of course they’d think them strange. Her mother thought so badly about magic people, and her father was so…normal. She couldn’t let them break someone so precious to her.
Her father appeared by the staircase. “Avery, how long is your friend staying over again? Is she hungry?”
Avery translated the question to Cameron, but she didn’t receive an answer. Through the moonlight, they found them scowling at her, their upper lip curled like she’d offended them.
“I’m strange?” they asked, defensive. “Why would you say that?”
“I didn’t. I said my parents will think you’re strange.”
“But that doesn’t make a difference.”
“What’re you getting on about?”
“Uh, sure, Dad,” she called down.
“You know I have problems with my image. All my life I thought I was weird because I couldn’t do magic readings like my Moeder. Why would you reinforce it?”
“But you just did!”
Avery glanced over the railing. “Okay,” she whispered. “I’m sorry. I’m not thinking straight right now. I have a lot on my mind.”
“About what? You’re not telling me anything.”
“You wouldn’t understand, and I don’t want to talk about it right now. It’ll only make me sadder.”
“But maybe talking about it would—”
“Can you please just drop it?”
That finally got Cameron to quit. “This isn’t you,” they muttered. “This isn’t like you.”
They shared the rest of last night’s macaroni and cheese in silence. Avery drank hot chocolate while Cameron figured out how to eat Autrean food. Apparently, they’d never eaten cheese before.
“It tastes bad,” they’d told her.
“So don’t eat it.”
As the clock chimed ten, Avery yawned and felt up her pillow for rest. Cameron, working on Arkeh:nen time, kept getting up and exploring her room. They inspected her closet and fireplace, then got lost in the bathroom and played with the faucet.
She didn’t know why she wouldn’t allow herself to enjoy this rare moment with them, but something inside of her told her to keep quiet. In the right circumstances, having a sleepover with them would’ve been a dream. Now she couldn’t wait to wake up to an empty bedroom.
At eleven, she thought she heard her parents go to bed, so she covered her lower half with her blankets. “I’m going to bed.”
Cameron, fully awake, jumped into bed with her.
She felt every shuffle they made. Their wheezy breathing slowed down, they couldn’t find a comfortable spot next to her. When they sat on their back, they crossed their legs underneath the covers and kicked their foot, an anxious tic Avery never knew they had.
She didn’t know a lot about them, now that they were sharing a bed. Their anxieties, their insecurities. She had a lot of them, too, some she needed to keep buried in Arkeh:na. If they resurfaced here…
She shifted the bed. “Can I ask you a question?”
They didn’t answer.
Taking that as a defiant “I guess,” Avery worded very carefully, “When you were born…were you born a boy or a girl?”
They stopped kicking their foot, her question freezing them in troubled waters.
“Because, well, in this world, Autreans look down on girls who kiss other girls. You know I don’t care either way how you identify, really, but if you were born, say, a boy, life would be a lot easier for us on the surface. We wouldn’t have to hide what we have. We wouldn’t have to fear what others say about us. We could be together.”
A full minute passed. Neither of them spoke.
Had she asked too much? She’d never questioned them in this regard before. It didn’t feel right, but if they answered in the way society wanted them to answer, maybe she could fix this broken part of herself.
Cameron sat up and dragged the blanket off of her head. Their eyes glistened with hateful tears. “I don’t know what your problem is with me right now, but if that’s your way of making me appear more ‘normal’ to you or your parents, then work out this issue on your own, because I’m not helping you anymore.”
Her heart crumbled through her ribs. “Cameron, I don’t—”
“Don’t. I know exactly what you mean.”
“No, I’m sorry. I really…I shouldn’t have—”
“Choosing how I identify is so important to me, and you know that. I thought you were okay with it.”
“I am. Really, I—”
“Whatever,” they said, and slid off the bed to sit on the ground, away from her.
Avery covered her mouth in disgust. What’d she done? What’d she asked of them? She just needed to apologize and everything would’ve gone back to normal. What was wrong with her?
A single tear hit her pillow that night, a silent streak that cooled down her face into the midnight hours.