“I never knew these mountains were so icy. Avery, I don’t know how I feel about you walking up here in the winter.”
Avery rolled her eyes at her father and called for her dogs to keep up. She convinced her parents to bring them along on this family trip to Arkeh:na. She even persuaded her mother to come. To her, she needed to see it first before she made any decisions. To her father, Arkeh:na was still a myth orchestrated by his imaginative daughter. With how much they grunted to keep up, Avery’s somewhat positive mood began melting with the snow.
But still, while doubt lingered in the air, they’d agreed to come along. They hadn’t left the house together as a family in months, so it was good to hear them behind her for once instead of listening to her own footsteps fade away into the trees.
“How deep underground does this place go?” her father asked, making small talk.
“I’m not sure of the dimensions, but my ears pop whenever I go down the Main Exit Tunnle.”
“And you said they hardly see the outside world?”
“Only those who’re allowed to leave can. They’re mostly scavengers, borrowers who take supplies from our world to use in theirs.”
“And how is this world held up?”
“I’m not sure,” she said. “Rocks? Why?”
“I’m just concerned. A world like this where so few people see the light of day, I’m surprised they’re still alive.”
Avery slowed to a stop, Oreo stopping faithfully behind her, Pumpkin running up ahead. She knew something was wrong the minute she didn’t see the top of the mountain. She double-checked to see if she’d fallen off course, but she knew these hills. She’d passed the fallen log, crossed over the vernal pond. She was here. Arkeh:na was not.
The mountain no longer kissed the sky or even the tree line. It was slumped now, halved like when Mount St. Helen had erupted sideways. Rocks littered the ground. Dust coated the air.
Arkeh:na had caved in.
“My god,” her mother whispered.
Boulders tumbled from the mountain’s slanted side and crushed newly budding oak trees. Her father gripped her arm tightly, but she wouldn’t have been crushed.
She found herself sitting on a boulder, piecing reality back together. Oreo had his head in her lap while her father spoke to her. “Avery? Avery, hello? What’s wrong?”
Wrong. This was wrong. Where was Arkeh:na? She needed to do something—scream, call for help—but she couldn’t will herself to move.
Staring out into space, she locked onto the shape that used to be the Main Exit Tunnle buried underneath rubble.
She pushed herself up. One step, then another. She dug out the entrance she’d rested in so many times. With each handful of dirt, rocks came down and buried her work.
She pressed her ear against the rock. When she heard nothing but the birds outside, she hung her head. Pumpkin, having no other way to console her, licked her face.
“Avery, what’s wrong? Talk to us.”
“I don’t…” She couldn’t speak. Unable to answer, she instead ran around the mountain and checked the hole she’d escaped from after the first cave-in.
It’d collapsed into itself.
She held her head. Paramedics, the police, news crew. It would take days, maybe even weeks to dig out all 300 Arkeh:nen, if there were still 300 Arkeh:nen left to save. Had she brought her phone, her walkie? Would she have a signal out here?
Her fingers moved on their own. She was always afraid of calling 911 on accident or on purpose, but she didn’t realize she was talking to an operator until they repeated a question to her. She also didn’t realize she was sprinting down the hill with Oreo and Pumpkin until she slipped on an icy puddle and skinned her elbow.
“Hello, 911, what’s your emergency?”
Her tears got in the way, but she forced herself to calm down and retold the last few months to them as quickly and as truthfully as possible. Finding Arkeh:na, meeting Cameron, keeping all of it a secret. She confessed that she didn’t want people to think she was strange because of her underground secret.
She got that feeling from the operator, who kept repeating what she told them in questions, but she couldn’t let this fear overtake her. For Cameron’s sake, she needed to be strong, or act like it. She wondered if there was a difference.
Having two police cars ride up to her house intimidated her, but having a blaring fire truck and two ambulances come up the hill afterwards left her quaking. It felt like she’d done something wrong. She didn’t know what to say to the officers, only that Cameron, her friend, had been trapped in a cave-in, along with many others.
They brought up three side-by-side ATVs that fit four people each. Apparently the officers took her claims seriously. She didn’t know why that surprised her. At this point, she didn’t think anything could catch her so off guard.
It felt odd, guiding a group of adults up the mountain in a machine that sounded ready to fall apart every time it turned. Nobody knew where Arkeh:na was, and her directions of “turn left at the birch tree” and “see that boulder? Follow it until you see the other boulder,” undermined her confidence. Her father filled in the gaps where he could, but with his limited understanding and Avery’s stuttering voice, the officers began sighing at this fairytale.
As they reached the crumbled mountainside, the officers took off their hats to understand just what’d happened in their woods.
“You said your friend’s in there?” the firefighter asked. “In the mountain?”
“I checked the perimeter and couldn’t find a way in,” her mother said. She was on line with another 911 operator.
“And how many people are in this family again?”
“300,” Avery said. She knew it sounded ridiculous to them, but she didn’t care and started hunting for a new entrance.
“Excuse me,” said the firefighter. “You said 300? Are 300 people—?”
She dug around the exit hole hiding the fallen oak tree. At this angle, the dirt she thought was undiggable caved in. It spilled out into the niche where the dead tree lay, revealing a spacious point of entry.
Forgetting about the police and firefighters, Avery slipped through the opening and ran down the fallen oak.
“Hey, wait!” one of the paramedics warned. “It could all come down on you.”
Apart from where it’d collapsed months ago, most of the tunnel remained intact. She didn’t have to force her shoulder through many tight crevasses. Many of the offshoots had been demolished, though, masking the air with dirt and dust.
“Avery, wait,” her father said, but she couldn’t. She thought the mountain couldn’t have been excavated, but she’d found a way in. If she could find her way back to the Centrum, she was sure to find surviving Arkeh:nen there. Or maybe the Grandmoeders’ Den. If it was still intact, it’d likely be a safe haven for them.
“Avery!” Her mother struggled to fall into the cave. When a firefighter insisted that she stay behind, she said, “If you think I’m leaving my daughter in there, you’re denser than the rocks around us.”
Avery came up to a dead end. She searched for some type of landmark, but the cave-in had destroyed all the ropes and ladders needed to get through the tunnels. She needed to go back around and keep searching. She was losing time.
An officer went to ask another question when they stopped quite suddenly. They, like Avery, stopped breathing to listen to the echoes of the cave. As everyone quieted down, they lifted up a single finger, asking for silence.
Through the wall, a faint scratching was trying to dig itself free.
Avery got to it first. She banged her hands on the wall, then started digging, all the while screaming Cameron’s name. Dirt caked underneath her fingernails. Her hands froze from the wet earth. If she could save one Arkeh:nen, just one…
Hearing more and more voices begin to bloom, the firefighters took out their axes and began chopping away some of the rocks. An officer radioed for a helicopter. Avery’s mother gave up her cane as a makeshift shovel.
A noise burst through the rocks, and before anything else sealed them away, a very pale, very small and dirty hand struck out.
Avery didn’t need any confirmation on whose hand it was. She knew this hand, had held this hand, and had imagined putting a gemme ring on this hand.
Cameron, their Moeder, Basil, Maywood, and about thirty other Arkeh:nen stood baffled in the tunnel. They’d all been hurt in some way, bruised and bleeding from their escape. Cameron’s Moeder held Grandmoeder Geneva on the ground. Basil’s and Maywood’s Moeder had Grandmoeder Nai standing. It looked like she didn’t want assistance, but as help arrived, she broke out into a thankful smile.
Cameron fell to their knees, exasperated. They touched Avery as if to make sure she was really there.
To clear up any assumptions, Avery knelt beside them and hugged them, laughing herself to tears.