“Maywood, stop it!” Basil said. “You don’t have to keep walking us home. I know the way by heart, even if I don’t have my kaart like you.”
“Then neither of us have to worry about getting lost, right, Cameron?”
Cameron stuck their tongue out at her as they walked through the ville. They’d just gotten out of school and were on their way home. Basil had been convinced that he didn’t need his older sister to walk them home, but Cameron didn’t mind. It’d given them the opportunity to tell Maywood all about their new identity.
“Call me ‘they’ from now on!”
Their “they,” a new way to live out their life. It felt so right. Their teacher, Moeder Claire, had explained it to them so perfectly, too, like it had been made for them.
“Your new word’s a little confusing,” Basil said, catching up with them. “Are you sure you don’t wanna be a girl anymore?”
“It’s not like that,” Cameron said. “It’s confusing to explain, but I’m not a boy or a girl. I never was. I just want to go by ‘they’ now.”
Basil gave them a skeptical look, then sighed and tossed his head back. “Fine, just don’t get mad if I call you by the wrong word. It’ll take some time for me to adjust.”
“Me, too,” Maywood said, “but I’m still proud of you.”
When the time came, Basil and Maywood waved Cameron goodbye and went to their own den. Alone, Cameron smiled and jogged home, their school bag thumping against them like a dog’s tail. Their Moeder might not have been home, but they knew their Fader would be. Sometimes after work he’d bring back fresh water or a new gemme he found in the Rivière. They couldn’t wait to tell him.
When they got home, they found both of their parents waiting for them. They went to rush them with hugs and the good news, but an ominous air in the den dissuaded them.
Their parents weren’t looking at each other. Their Moeder had a hand over her eyes. Their Fader had both hands over his face in some type of shame. What did their Fader have to be ashamed of? What was upsetting their Moeder?
For the first time in their life, Cameron was scared to talk to their parents.
Their Moeder clicked her tongue. “Well, go on. Tell her. Tell her what you told me.”
“Tell me what?” Cameron asked, already unsure of responding to the pronoun.
Their Fader dropped his hands. “Cameron…”
Sensing that he didn’t know where to start, Cameron eased him into conversation. “You know, this week in class we learned that you can call someone by ‘they’ if they don’t feel like a boy or girl. I really related to that, so instead of ‘she’, you can start calling me by ‘they’. Isn’t that great?”
The thought passed between their parents like choppy waters, hitting them hard enough to knock them over.
“Is that so?” their Moeder asked.
“That’s…great,” their Fader said. “I’m really happy to hear that.”
Their Moeder shot him a dirty look. “Oh, don’t act like you care about her—them—now.”
Their Fader’s jaw dropped. “O-of course I care. They’re my own child.”
“Like that matters to you anymore.”
“What’s going on?” Cameron asked. “Why’re you two fighting again?”
Their Moeder sighed through the storm building inside of her. “Your Fader’s decided that he’d rather live away from us than provide for us. He’s leaving for the surface tomorrow morning and never coming back.”
Their Fader became rigid. “Why would you say it like that? It’s not that I’d rather live away from you. I love you, Ellinor, and I love Cameron just as much. I just can’t keep living like this knowing what’s out there.” He looked up past all the rock and soil that made up Arkeh:na. “I have to see it for myself. I can’t live in the dark anymore.”
Cameron tried to see what their Fader saw, but all they saw was their den’s roof, the den that’d protected them for generations.
They reached out for him. They couldn’t say goodbye. They’d just discovered such a big part of themselves. They should’ve shared this experience with him for years to come.
Their Fader, already packed, left their den without a goodbye. Cameron wailed for him to come back, but their throat burned with hot air.
Their Moeder wrapped her arms around their naked body. “You’re okay,” she whispered. “Just keep breathing.”
“But I’m not okay,” they wanted to shout. “We’re not okay,” but their Moeder kept squeezing until she materialized through their breaking body.
They came to slowly, not fully aware they were asleep at all. They had a horrible headache and shaky eyesight. Then they smelled a high concentration of cedar and flowers that watered their eyes, making it even harder to see. Had they gone to see Avery and collapsed in the forest? Had they traveled into the afterlife, death finally taking them? Their throat and chest hurt enough to assume so, but after taking a few breaths, they proved themselves wrong.
When they finally had the strength to open their eyes, they awoke in their bed. They were sweating underneath three furry blankets. Someone had lit candles around their bed as if they needed light to sleep. It did provide a sweet smell to their den, but they didn’t want to seem indulgent to their neighbors.
They sat up, their head filled with sand, and coughed. It alone drained away the rest of their energy.
Avery, who was sitting in the corner of the room, awoke with a start, snorting back the spit in her mouth. She sat beside their Moeder, who was cross-legged and flicking through her tarot deck. It looked like she was giving herself a reading. She shuffled the cards together after seeing Cameron up.
Avery scrambled towards them on her hands and knees. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah. When did you get here? What time is it?”
“About eight-thirty Avery’s time,” their Moeder said.
At the mention of the time, Avery yawned.
“Why’re you here so late? Won’t your Moeder get upset?”
“I went back home and told her I was sleeping over your house. She wanted to argue, but I told her you’d gotten into an accident and that I wanted to be here when you woke up.”
They rifled through their memories. All they remembered was their Fader turning their back on them. They hadn’t even seen his face. It was a blur, just like the past several hours. “What happened?”
“Noel said she heard you wheezing, then came in to find you clutching your chest,” their Moeder explained.
Noel was one of their neighbors who lived with her three kids. “I don’t even remember seeing her,” Cameron said.
“She said you were coughing up blood and not responding. She didn’t know what to do, so she ran to get us. Me, Yuna, and Willow cleansed your body with smoke and fire.”
“Which you shouldn’t have done,” Avery interrupted.
Their Moeder continued as if she hadn’t heard her. “You ended up passing out after we calmed you down. Avery and I have been waiting for you to wake up.”
Avery straightened her shoulders and met their Moeder’s eyes. Had she ever done that before? Had she done that with anyone before? “I know you said you didn’t want to hear this—”
“And I still don’t.” Their Moeder reached for Cameron’s cheek. They gave it to her, shocked at her level of intimacy.
“I think you have to hear this. You aren’t supposed to inhale that type of smoke if you’re trying to clear out your lungs. We have something on the surface called an inhaler that can help open up their lungs—”
“They don’t need that. What we provide for them is enough.”
Exasperated, Avery said, “But it’s not. They’re getting sicker. You said so yourself.”
Cameron pulled back from their Moeder to see Avery properly. They’d never heard this side of her before, so standoffish. No, so impassioned. They never thought someone could get annoyed by their Moeder, but Avery sounded beyond annoyed.
She stood up and over their Moeder. Sensing the challenge, their Moeder did the same. They almost stood as equals, both in height and in the fierceness in their eyes. “I was just like you. I looked past Cameron’s coughing for a long time. I didn’t think it was right to stick my nose into a culture I wasn’t brought up in. But their sickness is a direct result of them—of all of you—living in Arkeh:na. Arkeh:na is killing you, and you need to leave before it takes Cameron away.”
Their Moeder placed a hand on her hip. “I thought this sudden noncompliant attitude of yours was a result of my child’s sickness. I was willing to leave such insolence unnoticed. I’m shocked at your willingness to keep this up.”
Cameron knew Avery wasn’t familiar with those larger Arkeh:nen words, but she didn’t waver. Maybe she’d taught herself the words to stay on-level with their Moeder. “I’m not trying to be rude. I’m giving you the truth and the facts that living here is not healthy and that it will hurt you more than help you.”
Their Moeder began turning away, but Avery stepped in front of her. “Please. I know Arkeh:na means a lot to you.”
“But I have to speak my mind now. I love what Cameron and I have together. I love them.”
Cameron inhaled. She’d never said those words before.
“You need to take this into consideration. If you want Cameron to live past thirty, even twenty, you need to think about finding a different place to live. You don’t even have to leave the mountains. You can live in the forest.” She licked her lips, knowing the lie when she heard it. Cameron knew they couldn’t live in the forest without an Autrean messing with them. “Please. Think it over. Think about Cameron.”
Their Moeder withdrew the anger in her eyes, falling back into her composed self. “We’re done talking about this.”
“I said we’re done,” she said, and shoved the curtain aside. “Maywood and Basil asked me to get them once you awoke. I’ll be right back.”
Cameron heard her stomping feet all the way down the tunnle, her anger still at the surface, unable to be buried. “What happened between you two?”
Avery threw up her hands. “I’m trying to convince myself that I can talk to a brick wall. I’ll get through to her, though. I have to.” As she spoke, she wiggled down into Cameron’s bed.
Cameron scooted back. A fire had been lit underneath her bum. “You seem strong about this.”
“I am.” She pushed back the hair from her eyes. She’d lost her beanie. “Your sickness isn’t contagious.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Good,” she said, and kissed them.
Fate must’ve really hated them. It had to be now, of course, that Avery felt the most comfortable with kisses, when they felt the sickest. Fate just worked out like that, always slapping you with cruelties only to sprinkle the wound with momentary gaiety.
They fell back, bringing her forwards. She had so much vigor now, nothing like the other times they’d kissed. She wanted this more than anything. She was hungry.
When she pulled back, she smiled. She even licked her lips.
“You…you said you didn’t like this,” Cameron panted, trying to catch their breath.
“I’m okay with it now,” she confessed. “I’m not afraid anymore.”
Cameron breathed a few more times to get themselves back up to speed, then kissed her with newfound strength.
As they kissed her, a thought passed through them. Maybe, if they had Avery and everyone who filled up Arkeh:na’s tunnles, maybe they could relocate to a new home to “get better.” They felt silly thinking this; it was an impossible idea no one would ever entertain.
But with every kiss they shared, the possibility grew and grew until it never left their head.