Chapter 26: The Operation

Avery was screwed. What was she thinking? The weight of 300 lives rested on her shoulders, and now she had a pop quiz tomorrow in math.

She’d lied right to Cameron’s face. How could she help them? Sure, she’d laid out a plan. She’d laid out six plans, each one better than the next, but was that enough? What would she do with the sick, with people like Maywood who needed extra care? All of them needed medical attention to some degree. Who would pay for that? She’d read online that the state would care for some homeless people if their conditions were serious enough, but the Arkeh:nen weren’t even citizens. They could be refused care because of that.

But she had to do it. Everyone was probably waiting for her at the Centrum by now. It was her fail-safe in case she got cold feet and pushed the migration back another week. Hundreds of people were now waiting for her to act, and she was waiting for her mother to pick her up.

She’d skipped last period to hide in the bathroom. What was she doing? She just wanted to sink through the floor and pretend that Cameron would be alright without her help.

The bell rang and jumpstarted her heart. In one hour, she’d be responsible for three hundred lives.

She picked up her bag and walked out of the stall. She stared at herself in the mirror, swayed a bit, then lost her stomach in the sink. It burned coming out and smelled of sour food, but she withstood the feeling until she had nothing left inside of her. Spitting out the warm sludge around her gums, she looked back up at herself and saw the same girl, just a little sicker.

She washed down the grossness, made sure none of it had stained her shirt, and left. She’d hidden in the first-floor bathrooms near the lobby so nobody would walk in on her, but as she was halfway out the door, she knocked shoulders with someone in more of a hurry than her.

Bridget gasped and caught the pile of books about to spill out of her hands. Avery caught one and their fingers touched, but instead of getting flustered, her nerves stayed at critical high. Maybe she’d hit her limit and little nuances like touching her old crush’s hands didn’t faze her as much.

“Hi,” Bridget said. “I was searching all over for you. I was wondering when you wanted to do that interview. My teacher said he wanted it done this week.”

“I’m actually going to be really busy for a while.” Avery scanned the parking lot for her mother’s car.

Bridget stepped in front of her. “If you want, we can do it during a study hall.”

“Yeah, that sounds fine.” She fished out her phone and read over her notes. She’d typed out a speech for her mother to get her on board with Arkeh:na, but she’d edited it so much that it would’ve been better for her to ad lib it.

Bridget fidgeted with the corners of her books. “Actually, I was wondering if you wanted to hang out this Saturday to do it. I have to go grocery shopping with my father, but maybe we can…schedule something at my house.” She looked away as she said it, then looked at Avery to see if she’d heard her.

Avery paused, thinking over such an enticing offer. She’d deleted her number. Her username was blocked. She’d prepared on avoiding her until graduation and then throughout all of high school. Could they really start over like this, staying friends?

She opened her phone back to her notes. “I don’t think I’ll have a lot of free time for the next three or four…weeks.”

Bridget drooped. “Oh. Well, maybe we can hang out when you’re not busy. Can I have your schedule for next month? My family was planning a camping trip during Valentine’s Day—”

Avery went to text her mother when the buses churned out of the parking lot. Parked underneath the flagpole was her mother’s car.

“I-I gotta go,” she said, fixing her bag on her shoulder. “Sorry. I’ll text you.”

She didn’t turn back. Racing between the buses, she jumped over the curb and flew into her mother’s car.

“Hey,” her mother said. “What exciting news do you have for me now?”

“Would you believe me if I said it was something bigger than me coming out?”

Her mother’s face turned serious. She went to turn off the car. “You’ve been crying. What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. Can you drive? I need to tell you something important, but I don’t want…Can you please start driving?”

Looking at her skeptically, her mother pulled out to the main road. “Did you fail something? Did you get detention?”

“It has nothing to do with school.”

“Did you get in a fight with someone?”

She braced herself for a thousand questions she’d have to answer a thousand times. “Cameron—”

“Are you pregnant?”

Her jaw dropped, but the sheer illogical threads that tied her to Cameron made her smile for the first time that day. “We can’t get pregnant.”

“Oh, okay. I don’t…” Slightly embarrassed, she let go of the tension in her shoulders. “It’s always good to ask. What is it, then?”

She had to tell her soon enough, and she’d told her about her sexuality and nothing had gone wrong. What else did she have to lose? Her mother was one of her closest, smartest friends, and any other questions she had could’ve been answered by her.

Feeling slightly better, Avery took a deep breath. “Cameron lives in a cave in the middle of the forest. It’s the reason why I’ve been going out hiking so often. They live there with about three hundred other people. It’s a society. They call it Arkeh:na.”

Before her mother could react, Avery continued, her heart thumping. “And they’re sick. They’re getting sicker. It’s because they’ve been living inside of these caves all their life. I convinced their elders to leave, which’s very hard for them because they’ve been hiding for so long. Now they need to leave and I need help getting them out.”

Her mother kept driving. She drove down Main Street, took a turn where the farmlands met the post office. Her breathing picked up as she opened and closed her mouth like a gasping fish.

At least Avery hadn’t hidden this from her for years. She couldn’t have withstood holding in two secrets for that long.

“I knew it.”

Avery gulped back a mouthful of spit. “What?”

“When they slept over that one time, I got to talking to them.”

“What—How?”

“I brought up an online translator. It was patchy, but it worked. They speak a type of Dutch, and they told me something about a cave and their people. I thought it was a translation error. I didn’t know what Arkeh:na was. I tried researching it, but nothing came up.”

“So you’ve known for this long?”

“W-well, it depends. Are you serious?”

“I’m not lying, so, uhm…yes, I’m serious.”

Her mother gawked at the road, blinking rapidly. “So you’re serious? They really live in a cave? There’s, what, three hundred of them, you said? That’s not possible.”

“Well, it’s a system of caves, like how ants connect their tunnels from underground.”

“How long have they been living like this?”

She guesstimated. “Probably since the 1600s, maybe a little more. They don’t know what cars do, if that helps you paint a picture of how they live.”

The truth left her mother gaping for words. “Well…so, what do we do now? Do we call the police and have them take care of it?”

“T-they didn’t do anything wrong,” Avery defended. “They don’t know how our society works. They’re not citizens.”

“It’s not only that. There’s a whole bunch of procedures and rules that need to be followed. We’ll have to get in contact with…I don’t even know. Where are they in the forest?”

“Up the hill.”

“I can’t walk that far. We’ll wait until your father comes home before we start calling people. The police should be involved. If three hundred people leave the forest, unable to speak English, they’ll be questioned by the police regardless, or at least the state troopers. You said they’re sick?”

“A lot of them are, yes.”

“Then ambulances should be dispatched. But first, I want your father to confirm this for me, make sure you aren’t losing it in those caves. God, I knew my feelings about those mountains were true. Mother Instincts are never wrong.”

“But I can’t wait that long. I promised Cameron I’d be there after school. They’re all packed and ready to leave.”

“Well, they’ll just have to wait. You shouldn’t have waited this long to tell me this. We’ll have to take this slow. Are you sure this can’t wait until tomorrow?”

“I’m not sure. I’ll go out and ask.”

“Good. In the meantime, I’ll call your father. He’ll never believe me. How is this going to work?”

With the weight of Arkeh:na’s secret finally off of her mind, Avery sighed. The hardest part was over. Now all she had to do was pry Cameron out of those tunnels.

 

Continue to CHAPTER 27

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