Cameron’s kisses could only quiet Avery for so long.
“You can’t live your whole life in these caves. Look at what it’s doing to your body.”
“But I’m fine. This’s normal.”
“You puked three times last night! Do you know how many times I’ve puked this year? Not once. The last time was when I was seven after I got off a rollercoaster.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
Thus went the next two weeks, and the more she visited Arkeh:na, the more she realized how sick these people lived. Their knees, bow legged. Their eyes, yellowed. She’d been so impressed by this world that she hadn’t noticed how deteriorated their bodies were. And Cameron didn’t think it a big deal.
They did get better, though. They stopped fainting whenever they sat up from bed, but they were bedridden during the times they could keep themselves awake.
After passive-aggressively fighting with them one day, Avery left to walk off her fumes. Ever since living through their escalating sickness, she’d typed up a thousand-word document on her phone listing out every sickness she spotted. Face pores, unexplained rashes, bloated joints. Question marks surrounded each new bullet point.
Back at home, Avery kicked her feet above her. How could she, some thirteen-year-old girl with anxiety, move three hundred people out of a home their ancestors had built up for more than three hundred years?
“They’re doing a disservice to their ancestors if they died in a crumbling hole,” she murmured into Pumpkin’s fur. She was on her bed, problem-solving this dilemma. She grabbed her pen to write that down, but her thoughts turned to jelly before it touched paper.
Stuffing her mouth with sour gummy worms, she scribbled out the sentence she’d been working on and grumbled more at Pumpkin. “What if we build them cave-like houses? They can be close to the forest, too, just ventilated and clean.”
Pumpkin licked her face.
“How about we get a community center to house them until we figure out a way to get…the state of New York to house three hundred homeless…” She stopped herself. Throughout her research, she discovered that New York had 100,000 homeless people. She didn’t think 300 cave people would catch their eyes unless it was for shock value and TV interviews.
“Avery, dinner,” her mother called from downstairs. “Bring down the dogs and feed them.”
Avery hid her laptop underneath her pillow. Even after she came out to them, she still hadn’t told her parents the truth about Cameron. If she told them now, they might ban her from spelunking and hand everything over to the police, people who couldn’t speak the language as well as she could. She couldn’t let that happen, but she couldn’t let Cameron’s health worsen.
Both her mother and father were home that night. Her father just kicked off his work boots and was booting up his computer to continue working. Her mother, like always, had her favorite seat at the end of the kitchen table, her laptop open, her phone charging by her mouse.
“Make your plates,” her mother said. “Food’s in the oven. I’m hitting a deadline for a paper. Turns out my editor decided to go to Martha’s Vineyard for the weekend and not answer her emails. Now I’m scrambling to reach her for this edit on abandoned warehouses in Manhattan.”
Abandoned warehouses. That could be a housing option for the Arkeh:nen people. They just needed to set up plumbing, electricity, a company to clean out the mold and cockroaches…
Avery sat beside her mother, careful so as not to spill her spaghetti over her work. She had piles of it strewed over the table. So many articles for reference, so many multicolored sticky notes labeling her drafts.
Avery’s fork clattered to her plate.
“You alright?” her father asked.
She shoveled down two bites of spaghetti. “Yeah. Hey, Mom? I was, uh, hiking in the woods, walking north like normal, when I discovered this cave—”
“Oh, no,” her mother said. “No more caves, Avery, please. Your father was just telling me about more cave-ins happening at work.”
“One got us unexpectedly. It almost buried a guy.”
“I-it was before I fell. I was exploring it for a few minutes, then I started getting a really weird feeling, like I was being followed. So I turned on my flashlight and explored the darker tunnels. When I hit a dead end, I heard something. It was like…” She paused, drawing in her father and raising her mother’s eyebrow. “…people were talking to me through the walls.”
“That’s strange,” her mother said.
“Maybe you heard a hiker’s voice reverberating off the walls.”
“I don’t think it was a hiker. They were speaking a different language.”
“Why didn’t you tell us this before?” her mother questioned.
“Because both of you were gone when I came back,” she lied. “You were so busy with your work and I was so, uh, tired and flabbergasted that I just went to bed. Wouldn’t that be a great story to tell your firm? Maybe I can bring you in and you can check it out yourself.”
Her mother held up her pointer finger. “First: I don’t take on writing pieces without discussing it with my editor.” She put up a second finger. “Second: I can’t hike up those long trails like you can, and third—” A third finger. “I’m not going into some creepy cave that’s pitch black to follow voices who whisper to passerbys. I’m not letting God take me that easily.”
“If you want, I can take you on easier trails,” her father suggested. “I can make sure they’re safer.”
Slightly discouraged that the reporter had no interest in this story, Avery ate her dinner in silence. Even if she brought them on board, she still needed to convince the Arkeh:nen that they needed to leave. She didn’t know which one scared her more, and which would be more impossible to achieve.
The next day, she walked down into Arkeh:na with her head buried in her phone. Knowing Cameron wouldn’t be up at two in the afternoon, she turned right, walked over the Rivière’s bridge, and made sure not to disrupt the psychics’ dens with her heavy steps.
Maywood was carefully threading silk through her spinning wheel when she walked in. “Hi,” she said. “I don’t think Cameron’s up yet.”
“I guessed as much.”
Basil walked in from another room on a single crutch, trying to carry a box with one hand. He barely made it before Avery swooped in and helped him.
“Thanks,” he said.
“No problem. How’s your leg feeling?”
“It still hurts.”
“Still hurts, huh?” She looked over Maywood’s legs. “Maywood, have you always had leg pain?”
“As long as I can remember, yes. My Fader was unusually tall, and I unfortunately carried on that gene.”
Avery consulted her notes.
“What’re you doing with that phone?” Basil asked. “You’re going to blind yourself.”
“I’m trying to convince Cameron that these pains you’re suffering from are a result of Arkeh:na. I want you all to become Autrean.”
Maywood, startled, dropped her cane on the floor. “What do you mean?”
Avery picked it up. “Living in a cave your whole life isn’t healthy. It’s like being trapped inside your room all day with no Sun. You’ll get sick.”
“We’re fine the way we are,” Basil argued. “Aren’t we?”
“No. If you lived on the surface, your ankle would heal faster, Maywood could get braces for her legs, and Cameron could take medicine for their cough.”
Basil touched the bandages around his ankle. He flinched, hissing back the pain.
“I love Arkeh:na and do want to see it grow, but I don’t want one cave-in or sudden sickness to ruin what you’ve all created. I know it sounds scary, leaving a place you feel safe in, but society can benefit a lot from what Arkeh:na has to offer. You just have to be brave enough to take the first step.”
She hadn’t meant to go as far as she did, but once she finished, Maywood and Basil lowered their heads in thought. The two other workers in the room cleared their throats, letting Avery know they overheard her.
As she went to clarify a few of her points, a knock came from outside.
Cameron stepped in. They were wearing one of Avery’s turtlenecks with their bear pelt wrapped around their shoulders. Their nose was red and scratchy like they’d been itching it all day, and their bedhead looked messier than normal. It shaded their sleepy eyes.
“Are you feeling better?” Maywood asked hopefully.
“Worse,” they said. “The Grandmoeders called me down. I don’t know what I did, being that I’ve been in bed all month.”
“Let me come with you,” Avery said.
She got up anyway and waved to Basil and Maywood still thinking over her offer. “I can walk with you. You can barely stand.”
Cameron leaned on the doorway. “I can walk by myself.”
“You’re such a bad liar,” she said, and hooked her arm around theirs.
The chilly air from the Grandmoeders’ Den welcomed them. All five Grandmoeders sat accounted for, all sitting on their blanketed beds decorated with candles and gemmes. Grandmoeder Geneva smiled at them when they entered.
Grandmoeder Nai curled her upper lip. “We didn’t call you.”
“Cameron’s sick. It’s hard for them to move around right now.”
“They don’t need your help,” she said, but her words meant little to Avery. Her need to help them stay alive a few more years made her ignore the sweat dripping down her armpits.
“I had a feeling they’d come together,” Grandmoeder Geneva said. “I’ve heard they don’t often leave each other’s sides.”
“They didn’t talk for nearly a month,” Nai reminded her.
“Yes, but I’m sure they didn’t leave each other’s minds, did they?”
Avery didn’t know if she expected an answer. Her beating heart should’ve made it obvious, but she wanted to believe the Grandmoeders couldn’t hear her heartbeat from across the den.
“Anywho,” Grandmoeder Geneva said. “I wanted to ask you two a few questions I’m sure you have the answers to. Avery, your head seems quite full these days. Do you wish to let go some of those thoughts?”
“May I?” she asked, glancing at the other Grandmoeders.
Grandmoeder Geneva held out her hands. “You may.”
She looked at her phone for fifteen or so seconds, quickly scrolling through her notes, then tried regurgitating them in a sophisticated manner. She hadn’t expected this presentation to come so soon. Luckily, she had Cameron to help define the untranslatable words like airborne illnesses and neurological disorders. Saying it in English would’ve been easier, but it felt unjust in anything other than Arkeh:nen.
She listed off all the problems cave dwelling could give them. She mentioned that most Autreans would be kind to them, but that they would need an adjustment period to understand them. The idea of hospitals, the benefits of fresh water. Everything that could help them understand their situation, she explained with facts and love. While she spoke, she wanted to hold Cameron’s hand, but they’d only distract her. She kept her argument focused on the ones whose decisions affected the whole.
When she had no more arguments to bring up, Grandmoeder Geneva, like always, smiled. “That’s quite a case you’ve created on your own, and to speak it in our native tongue, too.”
“She has the vocabulary of a child,” Grandmoeder Nai commented on, though her aggressive stance had disappeared.
“I see your concerns, my child, and I do agree with a lot of your points. I, too, have had unease about our living conditions since I was small.”
Cameron gasped at that. They clutched their pelt close to their heart, hanging on to her every word.
“To see my children perishing in, as you put it, avoidable ways scares me for our future. Even if some of us might not be able to admit it, we know that our sicknesses are becoming deadlier than we can handle and need to be addressed.”
She lifted her hand from underneath her blankets. Her bloated, age-spotted joints shook from arthritis. “We all face the troubles Arkeh:na has beset us with. While it’s been our home for generations, it seems time we think carefully about what we cherish more: our ancestry, or our future.”
“Let me pose a question,” Grandmoeder Nai said. “Why do you want to help us? Is it just because of Cameron?”
“Cameron was the first person to introduce me to Arkeh:na. They showed me how loving and magical it can be. Now I want to be able to protect it just as much as I want to protect them.”
She closed her phone. “Your traditions, your families, all of that can stay with you. It’s just your place of living that needs to change in order to keep those traditions alive. Living here used to keep you safe, but now it’s killing you, and you owe it to your ancestors to keep their efforts alive.”
Grandmoeder Geneva nodded along with most of the other Grandmoeders. Grandmoeder Nai lowered her head and kept her arguments to herself.
“We shall discuss it together,” Geneva said. “You two are free to leave now.”
To Avery’s surprise, Cameron took her hand first and darted for the exit. She needed to be careful not to step on their dragging pelt.
When they shut the wooden door, she exhaled. “That went okay, right? Did I mess anything up?”
Cameron crumpled against the wall just above the gemme-lit lantern. Their blanket snagged on it and gave them a cover to cry under.
Avery knelt beside them. “What’s wrong?”
Their sniffling escaped their curled fists. “I…I don’t want to leave. It’s our home, it’s everything we know. If we leave now…”
Having no other way to console them, Avery rubbed their back in nothing but understanding and support.
“Why do we have to leave?” they asked.
“Because you’ll die otherwise.”
“I’d rather die here.”
“You can’t. I still have to marry you.”
“I don’t know what that means,” they said, and hugged her back, readying themselves for an unpredictable future.