With midterms behind her and a promising three-day weekend in sight, Avery had lightened her emotional load. She had the chance to finally go back to Arkeh:na, but when would be the right time? She’d apologized properly to Cameron, so she felt a little better, though this rotting feeling had yet to go away.
That Monday, she wasted the last few minutes of school wandering the halls. The buses had just pulled into the driveway and students were slowly gathering their belongings in their classrooms. Not too afraid of missing the last ten minutes of Spanish class, she sat on the foyer staircase and watched the clock tick by. Cameron was probably waking up right now, but after their sleepover, she wouldn’t have blamed them for sleeping in. Even after she’d apologized, she still had trouble sleeping.
When the bell rang, she made herself small on her step. Students ran down the stairs or stood and mingled with their friends. The girls’ and boys’ basketball teams lined up at the front doors to leave for a game, wearing their shorts and loose tank tops. Avery caught herself staring and relocated herself appropriately.
She tried finding company with their school’s fish tank. The small tank stood in the cafeteria hall next to the truant officer’s room and the “cursed” bathrooms. “Cursed” because someone had allegedly fought a tenth grader in one of the stalls and punctured one of their lungs with a protractor. Avery didn’t believe the rumor, but its unsavory past kept her and most students away.
But as she traced her fingers down the tank, the curse was broken. Someone left the girls’ bathroom carrying far too many books in their hands, about to spill everything at Avery’s feet.
Bridget collected herself, spotted Avery by the fish tank, then proceeded to walk towards the main hall as if to catch the bus. Then she second-guessed herself, admired her workload, and backtracked to Avery. “Are you catching a bus?”
Avery almost fainted. Was she planning these meetings from the future? She had to deal with her in both her classes and the cafeteria, so why was she here, now? She was so close to having her out of mind.
She fixed her bangs underneath her beanie. “My mom’s picking me up.”
“Oh, right.” She restacked her books using the edge of the fish tank. A rainbow-colored fish watched her while others hid behind Avery, wondering why an eighth grader did so much for so little.
“I was, uh, thinking,” she said casually. “Do you think you’d be interested in giving an interview for the school newspaper?”
“Oh, you got into the program?” she asked, knowing full well she’d not only gotten into the club but held more creative control than the teacher who ran it.
“Yeah. This month’s theme is reinvention, like fresh starts to the new year. We wanted to get it out by early January, but…” She looked at the fish tank rather than the person standing in front of it. “We’ve been getting these small stories about wanting to do better at school and junk, but I think your story might, uh, make people want to read.”
Maybe she really was a time traveler, or a spy who’d been following her into Arkeh:na without her knowing. She gulped. What had she seen? Had she seen her with Cameron? “What, uhm, what story?”
She turned away from her completely. “I didn’t tell anybody. I know you’re not supposed to do that. I know you’re not ‘out of the closet’ or whatever.”
She didn’t know what she preferred more: Bridget knowing about Arkeh:na or her broadcasting Avery’s private love life to the whole school. They were in a secluded part of school, but still, they were out in the open, speaking about “it” outside of Avery’s brain. That one little word, it didn’t matter what you did or what you wanted to be. It latched onto you and reshaped your whole identity without your permission.
She gripped the straps of her backpack.
“Henry James interviewed Jacob Sarkozy last week. We got a good story from him and his decision to join the theater club. He came out last year.”
She searched for an adult, someone to save her.
“It’d make a great piece, having a girl’s voice on the topic.”
She fumbled out her tangled headphones and turned away.
For so long she’d wished to get back on speaking terms with her friend, and now she wished for anything but. When she returned home, she’d mute her on her computer, delete her number. Anything to get away from this conversation she’d never be ready for.
Her phone vibrated in her hand. Betwixt the yellow buses revved her mother’s car.
Avery bolted for the nearest doors. She wouldn’t talk about it. Not now. Not ever. Embarrassed, she felt like she was being peeled apart by hands she wished to caress. She wanted to feel whole for just a bit longer before she came undone like a knitted doll.
Bridget stopped her by pulling on her sweater sleeve. “I thought you were, you know, queer,” she whispered, whispered like a dirty secret, something forbidden to be uttered within these halls. “Aren’t you?”
Avery had been untangling her headphones, trying to silence Bridget, but she stopped. Her headphones ticked on the ground and spun in circles until they tangled together as one.
With a vacant expression, she picked them back up and rolled them around her iPod. She’d heard that word before. On forums, trying to find what word she clung to most. At first, she didn’t understand its usage. Terrible people used it as an insult. But as she read through dozens of other people’s discussions about why their hearts fluttered so, her eyes always lingered on that strange word.
The realization dawned over her. “That’s me.”
“I’m queer. That’s me.” She laughed. “That’s me, and that’s okay!”
“Are you giving the interview now, because if you are, I can record you—”
Avery sprang through the double doors. Adrenaline hopped her into the car and flicked her feet together like celebrating cymbals. She got in so quickly that her beanie fell off somewhere between the seat and floor. She left it be.
“Hi?” her mother said in a question.
“Everything alright? You got in like a bear was chasing you.”
She gave it a heartbeat of thought. She didn’t have to tell her. Nobody had any business knowing. But her mother, someone she admired so passionately, she should’ve known. Even if it cost them their friendship. Even if Avery had to move in with her grandparents or get indoctrinated as an Arkeh:nen. It had to be done, because she wanted it done, and it had to be now, otherwise she’d never summon up the courage to again.
Her mother pulled out of the parking lot and onto the main road, taking Avery’s silence as her answer.
Avery took a swig from her water bottle to wet her mouth. “Hey, Mom?”
She didn’t take her eyes off the road. “Yeah?”
Her mother said nothing. She continued driving on. She itched her nose, then continued itching it like it wouldn’t go away. Then she adjusted her grip on the steering wheel and checked herself through the rear-view mirror.
Avery’s heart iced over in regret. Her heart sped up to an uncomfortable level, waiting, waiting. She hadn’t planned on saying anything else. She just wanted a reaction, anything to end this terrifying silence.
Then her mother said, “Okay.”
“Okay?” she repeated.
Avery’s brain skipped on its tracks. “Huh?”
“Do you not want me to be okay with it?”
Well, no. She couldn’t register it. She needed her mother to question her or hate her, react negatively, at least. Why else had she hidden this secret from her for almost two years?
“Do you think I’d hate my own child for something she couldn’t control?” her mother asked. “I can be wary of her exploring caves and befriending magical people who don’t speak English, but this? This’s fine.” She turned down a hill. “I was wondering when you’d tell me.”
Was she a psychic just like Moeder Ellinor? “How long have you known?”
“Oh, for a while. I remember in third grade you told me you wanted to marry those two twins with the red, curly hair. One was a boy and one was a girl. When I told you that, you replied with, ‘So?’. After that, I kept my eye on you and how you acted around your peers. It became obvious to me. Your father, not so much. Is it just girls you’re into?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Okay.” Stopping at a long red light, her mother reached over and rubbed Avery’s leg. “I was worried for a while, ever since you stopped talking to Bridget. You lost your smile. I’m guessing she had something to do with this?”
“That’s what I thought. Want me to tell your father for you?”
The gears in her brain finally started to turn. “Yeah. Yeah! Can I, uh, maybe go out into the forests when you do that, so you can talk in private?”
Her mother went to answer too soon, so Avery stammered out, “I-I’ve just been having a rough month trying to figure out a way to tell you guys, and midterms were really hard.”
“You could’ve told us that.”
“I know, but can I please go into the forest? Please? Just for an hour?”
“You know, you say that every time, but you stay out there for at least four, sometimes five hours.”
“I’ll be back before dark,” she bargained.
“It gets dark at five. It’s three.”
“Mom, please,” she begged. “I need to.”
“Is it because of that boy, or girl…that person who slept over? What was their name, Cameron?”
Avery’s face flushed.
“I guessed as much.” She smiled. “Be home soon, okay?”
Avery nodded, though it was more to keep herself from sobbing over her mother’s pristine car interior. Season after season she’d kept this part of her a secret. She’d taken a chance with Bridget and lost her because of it. She planned on moving out in case her parents ever opened her laptop and found what types of things she looked up. She expected them to denounce her as their daughter, but it was as easy as an “okay.”
Most people like her didn’t get an “okay.”
She held herself back with her hand pressed tight over her lips, keeping back a smile ready to burst from her cheeks.
Had it not been for the hidden black ice and fallen leaves, Avery would’ve run the whole way to Cameron’s place. She had a time limit now, but she knew her mother was worrying the second after she ran out of the car.
Arkeh:na was as alive as she left it, with some differences. The collapse had decimated part of the artisan corner. Builders had created makeshift huts to keep their world running. From there, a few artisans waved to her. Some covered their mouths and whispered Cameron’s name between their fingers. She paid those people no mind.
She parted through the ville with a bright smile not because she’d crawled back underground, but because she’d finally lifted the cover off of herself. Her steps became more lighthearted. She didn’t fear where she’d step next. She even waved to some shoppekeeps before they waved to her. The woman with the monocle gave her a grim nod.
There seemed to be more people down Cameron’s tunnle than usual. They kept whispering and running down the hall like they’d forgotten something crucial. Some slowed down to gawk at Avery, but continued on as if they hadn’t seen her.
Avery’s adrenaline and anxiety danced in her stomach as she slowed to Cameron’s room. Neighbors craned their necks to see around Cameron’s curtain, which was strangely closed. Others sat on the other side of the curved tunnle, rocking and covering their mouths.
“What’s going on?” Avery asked them.
“They had an attack—”
“—and stopped breathing—”
“The psychics have them now.”
Coughing broke through the curtains. A panic. Shuffling. “Keep their head straight!” someone shouted.
Avery pushed through the crowd and hooked a finger around the curtain.
Cameron was lying on the ground of their den, naked and sweating. Three Moeders sat around them with gemme necklaces snaked around their fingers. Someone had lit two branches on fire and infested the room with arboreal smoke.
Cameron’s Moeder sat right beside them. She held one of the branches and was funneling its fumes into Cameron’s nose. It didn’t stop them from coughing up brown mucus.
Someone dragged Avery back. She fought her way back in, her body moving on its own, but then another hand much stronger than the first yanked her out.
She turned to Basil and Maywood with their hands still on her. Their eyes were bloodshot from crying.
“What happened?” Avery demanded.
“They’re having trouble breathing,” Maywood said.
“Then they need a doctor. They need to go to the hospital!”
“We aren’t allowed in when the healers are working,” Basil said, still hobbling on his hurt ankle. “Come on. You can wait with us until it’s over.”