They thought they’d read Avery right. Even though they were covered in dirt, even if they didn’t have magical abilities like their Moeder, they thought she still liked them for them.
They’d been wrong.
Although, as they sat on her bedroom floor, tracing designs into the “carpet,” they didn’t believe that as much anymore. After she finally fell asleep, they realized something.
Something was wrong with Avery. She never acted like this in Arkeh:na, so shy and hidden into herself that they could no longer reach her. She’d acted like this during their first week of getting to know one another, but something had changed.
“You wouldn’t understand, and I don’t want to talk about it right now. It’ll only make me sadder.”
Cameron rolled that over in their mind. What’d happened to her? Had Bridget said something mean? Had she gotten into a fight? Had she hurt herself?
Dropping their head on her soft bed, they listened for that change in her breathing. They had so much left to say to her, but they didn’t want to widen the crevasse forming between them. Did she really care about their gender enough to fight about it, or was there something more?
When the Moon passed through a cloud, Avery’s room brightened up in bluish light. Cameron shivered and pulled their sweater over their nose. Maybe the weather was affecting her. If it was this cold in Arkeh:na, they’d never find a reason to be happy.
Oreo and Pumpkin whimpered downstairs and scratched at the wood for some type of attention.
Cameron, safe on the second floor, peered through the railing.
Pumpkin whined and pawed at the first step. They didn’t know if Autrean dogs could walk up steps or if she wasn’t allowed up here, but she seemed determined to see them again.
Cameron blinked twice at her.
She cocked her head and returned double the amount of blinks.
They checked that Avery was still asleep before tiptoeing down the steps. The dogs hopped in place when they saw them coming, and the orange one yipped expectantly. Avery had told them once that they’d never bitten anyone before, but they looked hungry for something.
Keeping on the second step for protection, they stuck out a hesitant hand, and the black and white dog licked their fingers before wetting their hand with kisses.
While a little pointy, they got why Autreans kept these as pets. If they bypassed the wolf-like features, they were pretty cute. Not as cute as bats, but still.
As they got reintroduced to their first dog, they met Avery’s Fader’s eyes from across the room.
They looked away. Keeping a Fader’s gaze made them sweat. They didn’t know how to act around them or new people. Avery had been their first.
The Fader said something to them.
Thinking they heard the word “food,” they just said, “No, thanks,” and walked towards a window showing off the forest, the dogs sniffing behind them. The Fader had too many lights on on his side of the house, but next to the window, nothing but the Moon shone down on the land. They even saw a mountain. They wondered if it was Arkeh:na.
The Fader cornered them into the niche. He stood so tall and had enough authority to almost challenge a Grandmoeder’s power. Cameron had just enough time to prepare themselves for their first Autrean conversation.
If he knew they couldn’t understand English, it showed in his manner of speaking. He talked slower than when he talked to Avery. He used his hands, enunciated his words. How much he knew was expressed in his longer, more sophisticated words.
Between the nonsense, Cameron heard, “I’m sorry”—Avery said that a lot in English—“but do you need anything? I can get you something to eat, or are you too cold? Do you need any pelts?”
They were sure he hadn’t said “pelts,” but they felt more comfortable hearing that than “electric blanket.” “I don’t need that. I don’t sleep during the night, and I’m not hungry. I’m good.”
They were lying—they were not fine, and they were very hungry—but they didn’t want to push their needs onto Avery’s Fader, who looked more tired than Avery.
Smiling with tight lips, Avery’s Fader said, “Okay,” and almost ran back into the cooking area. Even though he worked as an excavator, it seemed like he enjoyed cooking above all else.
But what about Avery’s Moeder? Currently, she was sitting at her “computer,” surrounded by parchment and pens just like Avery described. She did something called “journaling,” which sounded like record keeping, the closest parallel they had in Arkeh:na.
Her unfamiliar aura pulled Cameron into her space. They hadn’t looked her in the eyes yet—a normal greeting when first introduced to a new Moeder—but they were curious, curious about how this world worked.
Curious about how two parents worked so close to one another without fighting.
They tiptoed across the shiny floor and looked around her shoulder. Oreo and Pumpkin backed them up from behind.
Avery’s Moeder side-eyed them. Her computer was so bright that they had trouble believing she could actually see the words on screen. When they accidentally coughed on her, she turned and asked sternly, “Do you need something?”
Oreo and Pumpkin lowered their ears and slunk back to the living room. Unlike Avery’s Fader, Avery’s Moeder spoke quickly as if Cameron could understand her.
“I, uh, don’t know. I don’t speak English. It’s hard to talk…without Avery.”
The Moeder put one hand to her mouth in puzzlement.
It was true, now that they thought about it. They ventured to say more English words with Avery. They didn’t feel embarrassed practicing around her. Now they felt like they’d just cursed out her mother.
She took out her phone and started typing. Her phone spoke in a strange voice. It sounded neither Arkeh:nen nor English.
She cycled through six or seven other languages, each asking a question in a mechanical voice. Each one sounded more foreign than the next. They were about to ask what she was getting at when one question pushed through the drabble.
“Do you understand this?”
It came from the phone, so Cameron didn’t know who to answer: her or the machine. Guessing logically, they said to her, “Yeah. How did you do that? How does your phone know Arkeh:nen?”
Getting the result she must’ve wanted, she typed in another line of bright text. Her phone spoke: “It sounds like you speak Dutch, although some. I did not know you did not speak English. I did not know how much about you and Avery. Or your magical religion. I think it’s good, as long as Avery is happy, however. She was worried about how I thought about you and her. Where do you live?”
A small bubble of pride swelled in Cameron’s throat. “I live in a place called Arkeh:na. It’s a Community underneath a mountain that’s interconnected by tunnles and rivers. It’s a beautiful place filled with beautiful gemmes and even more beautiful people. Avery used to come visit me all the time, but after getting stuck in a cave-in, she hasn’t visited once. That’s why I came here. I wanted to make sure she was okay.”
The phone somehow translated what they’d said into English. Avery’s Moeder read it over as if she’d be tested on it later. Her hand never left her mouth, keeping back her true words. She was definitely Avery’s mom. She wrote: “I beckoned it. Thank you. Are you hungry or thirsty, or are you warm enough? Do you need something?”
Hearing the questions in broken Arkeh:nen was somehow more encouraging than having it questioned in broken English. “I can take some water, if that’s okay, and something small to eat.”
She read the translated line of text, then got up using her cane. Cameron went to help, but she lifted herself up without assistance. No wonder Avery was so strong.
“Ethan,” she called out. “Can you get the kid some water and some leftover mac and cheese?”
“What happened? I’d just asked if she needed anything.”
“I asked them. It’s okay. And they’re okay. More okay than I thought.”
They took it as a compliment.
As they waited by the Moeder’s computer for their cheesy noodles and water, their anxiety about the Autre world faded. They’d survived talking to not only Avery’s Fader, but also her Moeder, alone, without help. Avery worried too much; they didn’t hate them, they just didn’t understand them.
The Fader put down their glass and bowl of noodles.
If they could finally speak Avery’s language, could they unveil this darkness enshrouding her? Could they get her to understand who they were and who she was both inside and outside of Arkeh:na? The possibility of finally talking to her about how they felt broadened as they repeated the words they heard her parents speak.
The Moeder came back with a cup of brown, steaming liquid and sat back down in front of her computer.
Cameron ate a bite of cheesy noodles. It still tasted bad, but they were getting used to the flavor. “Avery’s Moeder?”
She held up a finger, pulled out her phone, and held it out across the table.
“Something’s wrong with Avery. She’s been getting upset with me, but when I ask what’s wrong, she won’t tell me. She says talking about it will only make things worse. Do you know what’s making her so sad?”
She read over their translated words. “I do.”
They smiled. “Then what is it?”
“I cannot say.”
They lost it. “Why?”
She typed for a few minutes, backspacing her thoughts to clear up her meaning. “I do not want to tell you if she has not told you. It’s a secret she does not think I know. It hurts her, until she asks for help. And, if you know my daughter, she does not do that easily.”
Cameron felt like they were talking to their Moeder through her cards. “Can you at least tell me her secret, so I can better help her?”
“No, but I hope she tells you quickly. You are one of the few people who can help her.”
They ate the rest of their cheesy noodles, then bowed to Avery’s Moeder and Fader and climbed back up the steps. What did they have that could save Avery? If they knew, they would’ve given it to her by now.
They felt so drained that they crawled back into bed to rest. The way Avery breathed suggested that she’d woken up, but they didn’t ask. Like her Moeder had said, she seldom asked for help. She’d rather entangle herself in her thoughts until she tripped over them and got hurt.
Tired yet not sleepy, Cameron closed their eyes to think. Their thoughts never left the girl pretending to sleep beside them.