Cameron had never seen such alien Autreans before. They came at them like demons, wearing heavy armor and glossy masks. One tried to touch Grandmoeder Nai, but Basil stepped in front of her to protect her. Not understanding Arkeh:nen customs, they backed off and let Avery take charge.
She stayed with Cameron the entire way, translating English to Arkeh:nen and then Arkeh:nen back to English. The Autrean “officers” wanted children and elderly out first. When they wanted Cameron to leave, Cameron walked backwards deeper into the tunnle.
“It’s okay,” Avery told them. “You don’t have to be scared.”
They knew that. Truly, they did. They’d leave any minute now, they’d show her.
As night came, more Autreans gathered into the forest. Machines Basil noted as “helicopters” circled the trees and thudded the air with energy. Large “cars” and “news trucks” drove up the trails. They promised medicine and care for all. With the children crying and the adults coughing, the Community had no choice but to leave for this “better life.”
Those less adamant about leaving were given blankets to wear and warm food to eat. First the Grandmoeders were taken away, then Basil and Maywood. Cameron watched on as each family member left them.
“Let’s go,” Avery said, holding out her hand. “You’ll be okay.”
Her Moeder and Fader stood behind her, the Sun setting on them like curious angels. Others had their heads poking around the hole. Everyone was waiting.
They took a step out, then another. Then one of the frailest strings on their heart pulled them back.
Their Moeder was standing back in the shadows. Arkeh:nen dirt muddied her face and hid her almost like a ghost haunting an abandoned home.
Avery’s Moeder stepped around her daughter and held out her hand. She looked as scared as Cameron felt, her fingers trembling slightly. Their Moeder, was she scared? She hadn’t spoken once since the Autreans came.
Their Moeder’s eyes caught on the Sun. They shined a moment, just a moment, before she interlaced her fingers with Avery’s Moeder’s. Then, together, as a family, they exchanged the shadows of Arkeh:na for light.
And noise. Dozens of Autreans crowded the hole, which had been stickered with yellow ribbon and Autrean writing. They called out Cameron’s name and held out strange devices to them and Avery. They were persistent, talking over one another and getting louder and louder. What was their job in the Autre world? What were they doing with their time?
Cameron shielded their Moeder from them and helped her onto the rocks.
Before them, the forest dipped into a ravine they’d never noticed before. Harsh reds and yellows colored the sky and clouds like in Avery’s pictures, but better, richer. They smelled pine trees and wet grass. A deep purple tinted the mountainside. The snow, which had just begun to melt, twinkled at Cameron’s feet like magic.
They felt a cough trying to force its way out, but they couldn’t do it. Taking in the sunset, they stayed as quiet as possible and prayed that they saw this sight as often as Avery did.
But they’d wished for too much. The blotting blackness overtook their vision and stayed. The noise of the news reporters faded. Their legs numbed. Sense after sense failed them until they lost the will to stand. Tipping sideways, they landed face-first into snow, a bed too soft not to sleep in.
It felt like someone had drugged them. Their body was heavy and their eyes were watering uncontrollably.
Two tall Autreans stood above them wearing face masks. The ground kept shaking and equipment kept rattling, but neither of them seemed to mind. They asked Cameron questions as they fiddled with something on their floppy arm.
Too tired to answer, they fell back asleep.
The second time they opened their eyes, they felt cold and shivery even though a heavy blanket was keeping them warm. The high feeling returned and mixed up their thoughts. Brighter lights and a man’s voice, and Cameron fell back asleep with their hands numbing to a concerning level.
The final time and Cameron was more awake and aware of their surroundings. The room came into focus and they could feel the stable ground beneath them.
They were on some sort of elevated Autrean bed in a lax position. The bed had a railing on both sides and weird bumps beneath the blankets. When they uncovered themselves, they found thin tubes connected inside of them. One was blowing cold air into their nose. The other was buried in their arm. It stung when they tried to take it out.
Panic set in. The air in this room smelled too clean. What’d happened to them? Why were there tubes inside of them? What kept beeping?
When they tried to peel off the transparent tape on their arm, a woman came in wearing blue clothes. She smiled at them like they weren’t under distress, then walked to a chair Cameron hadn’t noticed was there.
Avery was asleep in it, her long legs spread out in front of her and head tossed to one side. When the woman touched her, she yawned, stretched, and spoke to her. Cameron heard the words “sick,” “breath,” “weak,” and “Cameron.”
“Avery, take these things off me,” they begged. “It’s hurting me.”
After speaking with Avery, the woman in blue took out a bottle filled with pebbles and offered it to Cameron.
“You need to take these,” Avery explained. Her voice dragged on every syllable, sleep stirring her words. “It’s medicine. It’ll make you feel better.”
Unconvinced yet unable to disagree with her, they took the pebbles and ate them.
Avery chuckled. “You were supposed to swallow them whole.”
The woman said something to both of them, smiled, then exited through a large white door.
“Avery, what’s happening to me?” they asked. “What is this?”
“You’re in a hospital a few hours outside of Foxfield. It’s filled with healers.”
“That woman didn’t look like a healer.” They held their head with their tubeless arm. “My head hurts.”
“I know. You’ve been here for a few days. I’ve been running back and forth between rooms trying to decipher everything between Arkeh:nen and English.”
“Where’s my Moeder, and Basil and Maywood? Where’re the Grandmoeders?”
“Almost every Arkeh:nen was sent to a hospital, and this hospital could only hold so many. They didn’t split up families, though. Your Moeder’s down the hall, and your Grandmoeder’s a floor beneath us. Basil and Maywood are in Utica.”
Cameron closed their eyes in pain. They didn’t get it. Arkeh:na was so much safer and better than this. There, they didn’t have to worry about separation or hospitals or eating things as opposed to swallowing them whole. They didn’t hurt this badly, only mildly so.
Avery swiveled her chair closer to Cameron’s bed. Against the fluorescent light, they saw the color underneath her eyes. Her blinks lasted seconds, each one longer than the last.
“Are you okay?” they asked.
“I’m just glad you’re here. We’ve been able to help so many people from the Community, from giving them hearing aids to braces for their legs.” As she spoke, her head bobbed. “We also found out the name of your condition. I was right. It’s asthma. You’ll need to use an inhaler from now on. And you need glasses. Your eyesight is…really crappy.” She closed her eyes. Cameron didn’t know if she needed a moment to reorganize her thoughts or if she’d truly fallen asleep, but they didn’t want to disturb her. Even they could sense how little energy she had left.
While she slept, Cameron looked out the windows overlooking “New York.” They saw what looked to be Arkeh:na’s mountain, now a mere blur of blue and green behind thousands of tall buildings. Trees, streams, roads, cars, they saw everything thriving against the skyline.
They didn’t have to squint to take it in.