Avery awoke to the smell of maple syrup and the popping of bacon fat. Her mouth watered at a chance for breakfast in bed. When she turned to tell Cameron, she found herself alone.
She jumped out of bed half-awake and searched her room, the bathroom, and over the railing. Where were they? Had they left in the middle of the night? Yes, she’d said things she didn’t mean last night, but that didn’t mean she wanted them gone. She still needed to apologize.
She ran down the steps and almost tripped over Pumpkin. “Dad, where’s Cameron?”
“Right over there,” her father said, and pointed his spatula at the fireplace.
Cameron was sitting on the marble hearth, eating a plate of eggs and toast. Oreo sat on their feet for warmth. When they snuck him a piece of egg, Pumpkin whined and nuzzled her snout into their lap.
“She told me she lives in the woods,” her father explained as he handed her her plate. “I asked if she wanted a ride home, but she said she wanted to wait for you to wake up.”
Avery looked over to them to see how much of that checked out.
They still wouldn’t look at her. Their head kept bobbing, sleep almost in reach. They must’ve stayed up all night.
Avery took their recluse seriously and ate at the kitchen island by herself. Memories of what she’d so boldly asked of them hit her like slow-motion bullets, each one piercing her slower than the next. She regretted everything. Their first sleepover should’ve been filled with movie watching and explaining what a movie was. Eating junk food, making terrible jokes, kissing…
And what had she done? Forced them to tell her what was in their pants when it never once mattered to her until now. Her self-hatred now equaled how much Cameron likely hated her.
Her father leaned over the counter. “Everything okay?”
She nodded without answering, which told him everything.
“If you want, I can drive her back home. I overheard what went down last night. I mean, I didn’t understand any of it. When did you learn how to speak Dutch?”
“That’s what your mother said. She said it sounds mostly like Dutch, with variants of other languages spliced in.”
She split open her egg. “I never knew. It comes easily to me.”
“Maybe you can take a class on it in high school. Cameron seems to understand you perfectly.”
“Right now, I doubt that.”
Cameron coughed over their meal. Oreo picked up his head and sniffed, then jumped back when Cameron started hacking out their lungs.
“I think they should leave now,” Avery said.
“Okay. Let me get my boots on and clean the kitchen.”
“No, it’s okay. It’ll be quicker if we walk.”
“Shouldn’t you leave a little later when it warms up?”
Avery calculated how much time she had left until the Sun rose. “No, she should leave now. Cameron.”
Cameron stood up immediately, their body swaying.
She gave them one of her old jackets along with a pair of boots that barely fit. Cameron didn’t complain. They hadn’t even said good morning to her, and she didn’t blame them. She hadn’t said it, either.
“Are you sure?” her father asked as they left. “There’s a storm coming down from Michigan. Should be here by tomorrow.”
Avery let go a little smile. “I’m sure I’ll be back by tomorrow.”
“Well, with how much you spend in that forest…” He waved them out without saying more.
Avery led the way. All of her favorite trees and boulders had iced over. Gone was the chatter of birds and cicadas. A few squirrels slogged through the snow with them, but they scampered up the trees whenever Cameron coughed.
After they finished, Avery asked, “Are you okay?”
“How long does it take to get to Arkeh:na?”
“It’s about ten minutes away.”
Cameron panted into their turtleneck. “I went that way,” they said, pointing right, down to the farmlands. “I didn’t know where you lived. I must’ve circled the whole town searching for you.”
“It’s not your fault.”
When the mouth of Arkeh:na came into view, Cameron walked past Avery and hid in its embrace. The Sun had started peeking through the pine trees. They must’ve felt content in natural darkness.
“You can keep the shoes and coat,” Avery said, “though you’ll probably give it to your neighbors.”
Cameron cast a look into the cave, focusing on the rock separating them from their true home.
“Cameron.” She forced herself not to look away. She just needed to say it. Two words, or more. Whatever they deserved. “I’m sorry…about what I said last night, and for how I yelled at you in the caves. I know your identity is important to you, and I don’t have a right to know anything you don’t want to tell me. I’m sorry for how I acted. You didn’t deserve it.”
Even though the Sun was moments away from hitting their cheeks, Cameron took a step out of the cave.
“I’m sorry,” she repeated, trying to match the words in her heart. “I’m sorry I hurt you.”
She’d memorized the path leading up to Arkeh:na, but Cameron hadn’t. They stumbled on loose rocks as they jogged back to her, not looking at their feet, and threw themselves into her arms.
She dropped her head against theirs. This. This was all she needed: them, and the knowledge that even with her faults, they could still find a reason to come back to her.
“I was scared,” they said into her chest. “You weren’t yourself. I thought something bad happened.”
“I’m sorry. Recently, I haven’t been feeling like myself.”
“Please tell me what’s wrong. Tell me so I can help you.”
She couldn’t. Saying it out loud outside of Arkeh:na made it true, and she didn’t believe she was strong enough to fight the fear it instilled in her. “I don’t feel like I’m a good person.”
Her bottom lip quivered. She’d pushed them away, and they didn’t even think her a bad person for it. “I don’t know, but I’ll get better, I promise. When I do, I’ll come back to Arkeh:na, back to my normal self.”
“Please do. I want to be with you again.” They stood up and kissed her cheek.
She closed her eyes and accepted them. “Thank you.”
“Thank you for apologizing.” Hacking into their hand, they patted her arm with reassurance that she’d come back and left for home.
Even though they couldn’t see her, Avery waved until the rock fell back into place and they disappeared underground.
Just before leaving herself, she noticed a wet spot on her jacket.
A bloody, mucus-covered handprint stained the white of her coat, dripping down the seams like fragile icicles.