Their world trembled beneath them, a fearful animal too scared to move. Even when it stopped, Cameron’s dirty hands continued to shake. They were a part of this destruction. They shouldered its pain.
They didn’t move straight away. One because they didn’t want to risk hitting their head. They couldn’t see very well and couldn’t tell how close they were to a pointed rock. Two because it kept them grounded. Whatever was left of Arkeh:na, as long as they could touch the Earth, they had a place to stay.
But they couldn’t keel over and get buried by their own home.
Confused outcries sprouted from the ruins of Arkeh:na. Dust poisoned the air and made it hard to breathe. The unnatural smell of wet soil replaced the odor of the Arkeh:nen tunnles. As the rumbling subsided, not many babies or children cried. It made their mothers cry in their wake.
Someone touched them. The feeling of their calloused hand was enough for Cameron to bury their face in their bosoms.
“Moeder.” They reached out for her through the dust. She was on the ground.
“I hurt my hip.” She struggled to stand and failed, breathing so abnormally that Cameron considered if they were truly talking to their Moeder at all.
“Don’t,” they said. “Lean on me. I’ll carry you.”
“You carry me?” she said, almost chuckling before coughing. “Where is everyone?”
“I-I’m here,” Maywood said off to their left.
Cameron didn’t know who said it first, because both they, their Moeder, and Maywood asked it at the same time. They didn’t wait long to hear an answer.
Basil grunted as he shoved something away from him. “I’m here.”
Maywood pushed aside their fallen world and helped him stand with her cane. Their Moeder came out next, who seemed in better health aside from her shawl, which was now stuck between the rocks. She hugged both of her children.
They’d survived, but those whose fates were not accounted for, the ones who guided them…
“Where’re the Grandmoeders?”
The single question sent everyone into a frenzy. Here, there, people darted around the rocks to locate their beloved leaders. Some even climbed over the new mountains in order to see farther out. While all of them took the hands of those calling out for help, their real loyalties lied with the women buried somewhere beneath their feet.
Cameron braced themselves and lifted their Moeder up. She kept off her right leg entirely.
Maywood knelt beside her. Her own Moeder’s hand wouldn’t leave her shoulder. “Where’re you hurt?”
“My side, and my back. I’m alive. Look for others.”
“How is this real?” Basil asked, his hand digging through his hair.
Cameron’s Moeder held her own head. Either she had a headache or something else was upsetting her. Did she know this would happen? Was she experiencing a swell of new possibilities that would affect so many? Was she scared? Was she in pain?
Cameron nuzzled their head on her good shoulder. In return, she ran a hand through their hair, then sat on a rock to catch her breath. She covered her mouth with her shirt.
“Moeder, may I go search for others?”
Their Moeder stared at them from around her knuckles, never breaking eye contact with them. And neither did Cameron. If they didn’t cough, if they could fake being healthy for a few seconds, they could go out and save others.
She nodded once, and Cameron pulled their shirt over their face and set off. Their Moeder shouted advice and warnings at them, all of which they knew and practiced regularly, but they took it to heart. They didn’t run. They didn’t panic. Avery had once told them that sometimes, if her laptop was covered by her covers, it would overheat and shut down until it cooled off, so Cameron imagined themselves as a machine. They took their time. They breathed out of their mouth. They were seconds away from shutting down, but they still had a few more tasks to complete.
Families cried as they tried organizing those around them. Most clung to one another and kept asking the same questions to everyone’s vague answers. Cameron wanted to go to each of them and give them false senses of security, but they couldn’t dwell on those wants.
On they went, zigzagging around boulders. They discovered more families that’d been ripped apart and those who’d just been reunited. While they shared a collective comfort, their eyes kept searching through the unturned rock.
Cameron stopped. A tingle ran down their spine. They tried to shake it off, but the feeling yanked on them like a child.
It brought them between the Grandmoeders’ tunnle and a collapsed part of the ceiling. While the tunnle looked relatively safe to enter, the feeling instead led them to the crushed pile of rock.
From the rubble, a weak, elderly hand tried digging itself free. “Help.”
Cameron ran and tripped right before the hand. They rounded its bulging veins and wrinkles. It felt deathly cold, but it shivered with determination to survive.
A tear fell from their eye. “Help!” they screamed, then coughed, cleared their throat, and raised their voice. “It’s Grandmoeder Nai! She’s hurt! Help!”
A dozen heads sprung up and rushed to their aid. Muscular men and women bounded over and started digging without question. One lifted up a heavy plank to give others room to dig.
Grandmoeder Nai had lost her blankets and had a purplish bruise on her temple. She couldn’t stand without the help of three large men, but once she found her feet, she didn’t fall.
“Are you hurt?”
“Do you need anything?”
“Can you stand?”
“Wait,” she wheezed, and pointed behind her.
Cameron’s eyes narrowed into the small opening of rocky dirt. They went on their hands and knees to go in themselves, but the larger-bodied Arkeh:nen jumped in one by one. They shuffled around the debris and made a sizeable hole to carry out Grandmoeder Geneva.
Grandmoeder Nai’s blanket was wrapped around her. Her leg was twisted. Her head sagged as if asleep. When her rescuers asked her questions, she didn’t respond.
Cameron didn’t know when one tear morphed into sobbing, but when they fell beside her, they cried into her side.
Her hand touched the top of their head. She barely felt there at all, a snowflake melting into their hair.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Cameron apologized. For what, they didn’t know.
“Do…not apologize,” she whispered. “You did…everything right.”
They wanted to believe it, but they couldn’t stop imagining a world without their grandmother. Fate couldn’t take her away now, not when it’d already taken away their home.
“Is there any water?” one person asked. “Does anyone have any food or bandages?”
“The falls collapsed,” another said.
“Here, take my shirt.”
“I have a few pieces of jerky.”
“They can’t eat that. Someone chew it for them.”
“I’ll do it.”
In a half hour of panicked searching, they tried digging out every Grandmoeder they could. Some were worse than others, some more conscious than others. The worst injuries came from Grandmoeder Geneva, who kept falling asleep whenever someone stopped talking to her.
But even with her injuries, she wouldn’t let Cameron be her crutch. Neither would their Moeder. It was like they cared more for Cameron’s well-being than their own, which was something they couldn’t wrap their head around. The only way they understood it was relating it to how Avery treated them. They wondered if that came from being “stronger” than the other person or from love.
They’d been sectioned off from two-thirds of Arkeh:na. The ones with the loudest voices relayed information to those deeper in the tunnles. Cameron’s side had three Grandmoeders, many of the psychics, and the remains of the Falls and Main Exit Tunnle.
“Where should we go?” one person—Barron—asked, which created a wave of questions with no clear answers.
Cameron’s Moeder sat on the ground during these discussions. Whenever someone asked about her hip, she clenched her jaw and lied, saying she was fine.
Cameron didn’t have the strength to call her out on her hypocrisy. Maybe it was genetic, this stubborn worry they had for everyone other than themselves. What they couldn’t keep to themselves, however, was the easiest answer most Arkeh:nen had yet to discover.
When the questions died out to mere mumbling, Cameron announced, “I can find a way out.”
Half of them turned. A third of them eyed them with justifiable doubt.
“The tunnle where Grandmoeder Nai and Grandmoeder Geneva were found is still stable. If we want to leave, we should leave through there.”
“But some of us are too hurt to move,” one person argued. “Your own Moeder can’t even walk.”
Cameron remembered to inhale calmly so they didn’t cough. “Staying here is too dangerous. The ceiling could collapse again, and I know these tunnles better than”—They stopped short before they insulted anyone listening—“my own den. I can go by myself or with others, but I don’t think we should leave anyone behind.”
Just then, a sizable rock broke off from the ceiling and rolled towards Grandmoeder Nai. Basil jerked and pulled her out of the way just in time.
Grandmoeder Nai whimpered and held onto her grandson for safety. He blushed with conflicting emotions.
“It’s not safe either way,” Cameron pushed, “but please, if someone can just follow me and see, I’m sure it’ll be safe.”
“How do you know?” one person asked.
“I don’t. It just feels right to leave now.”
When no one stood up or grabbed their bags to journey with them, Cameron lowered their head. They shouldn’t have said anything. They needed to come up with a clearer and safer plan, as a group.
Their Moeder stood up. “Let’s go, then.”
The crowd reacted in the way Cameron wished they’d done in the first place.
“Are you sure?”
“Ellinor, your hip.”
“My child is right,” she said, “and if no one wants to believe them, fine. I, however, am going.”
“I go…where my children go,” Grandmoeder Geneva whispered, and startled those taking care of her.
A murmur passed through the crowd. It sounded like they didn’t want to go, but they’d rather disagree with Cameron than with their Moeder or Grandmoeder.
“Fine,” one of the older men said. “I’ll go. We’ll search the tunnles and see if there’s a path to the surface.”
Cameron went to follow him, but they all waited for Cameron, they who hadn’t once looked at their kaart to find a new way home. They trusted them. They relied on them.
They’d never felt such a feeling before.
Cameron bowed in appreciation and let them gather what few possessions they still had before moving out.
As they led them to the tunnle, Basil limped over and patted their back. “I was waiting for you to say that,” he whispered. “You know these tunnles better than our own ancestors. If anyone can do this, it’s you.”
They waited for him to sprinkle in more compliments about how he favored them, but he left it at that, smiling at a truth he truly believed in.
Keeping that close to their heart, Cameron leaned down and crept into the tunnle.
They fell to their knees. They hadn’t expected it, as their coughing hadn’t been an issue for much of the collapse. Their legs just gave out. Their vision blotted in colors and stayed blurry even when they blinked them several times. When they came to, Maywood was crouched by their side, a blur of brown and white.
“Are you alright?” she asked.
“…Yeah,” they lied, and continued on. After all, they could’ve found their way through these tunnles blindfolded.