She must’ve fallen into an elaborate medieval reenactment. Somewhere in this open cave she’d find ball gowns and knights clashing swords. She needed to. It was the only explanation for such a place existing.
With her leg twinging in pain, she escaped the mud hut and ran for the tunnel where she’d fallen from.
Four miners blocked her path. They had types of cigarettes in their mouths and were covered in dirt. They wore mining helmets and lanterns attached to their belts. When Avery tried to pass them, they whispered secrets about her behind their hands.
She scrambled backwards and ran down the length of the river. She just needed to follow its current to find her way home. When the boy had led her down that tunnel, she’d tried to call her parents to save her, but the calls hadn’t gone through, and her walkie was somewhere in her bag. Down here, she had no contact with the outside world.
In the shantytown of shacks, shopkeeps came out and asked her questions she couldn’t understand. One even grabbed her arm and pointed to her knee. The aroma of spices along with the cacophony of metal noises made her shriek, “I don’t know!” and barrel through the crowd.
There must’ve been another person here who spoke English, right? That boy covered in bugs spoke it. “Why the hell you here?” She hoped to never see him again. He sounded like Bridget and every other bully who hated her for no reason.
She followed the cave’s natural curves down a wide staircase. She couldn’t stop her feet. Lanterns and torches were lit down here, but they didn’t do much. It must’ve been enough for this society.
Hidden within these dark levels grew an entire village of people. The floors spiraled down into a dark pit. Creaky bridges and ladders connected everything together. People were hanging their laundry out to dry over the abysses, where children dangled from railings and called out to their friends below.
And these people, who were chatting with their neighbors and living peacefully, they were bandaged like that girl upstairs—Mayard, Maywood? Most of them were scarred and using canes like her mother. What was this place? A homeless camp? A prison?
She slid down a rotting ladder and continued running. She passed by mothers toting around children and men hauling buckets of water on their heads. Sometimes she passed a curtained hole in the wall, but when she darted through it, she was in somebody’s home. They were cramped caves decorated with tapestry and gemstones. Each cave person looked more surprised to see her than the next.
Running out of places to hide, Avery jumped through a doorless doorway and froze. Nobody had lit a lantern this way. She reached out in front of her: left or right, each way just as dark.
The two boys from before had caught up with her. They darted around other cave people in order to grab her. What had she done wrong? It hadn’t been her choice to come down here. Was she in trouble?
She sucked in the musty air and chose to go right. While she sensed that the scarred boy was nice, she couldn’t tell with the other one, and she didn’t want to ask what she’d done to make him so angry.
As the boys’ yelling faded, a pinpoint of light came into focus.
A moss-covered door blocked her way. Etched into the wood were drawings of elegant women cloaked in blankets. Two lanterns lit each side, but they were lit by rocks, not bugs. Some type of blue gem emitted a cool light within the glass.
Avery checked around it. Like she guessed, no outlets, no power cords. This society somehow thrived on nothing but dirt and glowing rocks.
The two boys had found her. The scarred boy wheezed and coughed from running so hard, the angry one looked ready to fight.
“Don’t go in there!” he warned in English. “Not allowed!”
Ignoring him, Avery wrestled with the wooden door and thrust it open.
The scarred boy fell back on his butt and shielded his eyes with both arms. The angry boy cursed and turned away just as Avery shut the door behind her.
It felt like she locked herself in a meat freezer. As the heavy door slammed shut, she checked if she could see her breath.
Gemstones as tall as people glowed around the room. In puddles, in the stream cutting through the floor, some even held up the ceiling as support beams. There were no lanterns here, not even a skylight for the Sun to peek through. Just crystallized magic, and a group of cloaked people.
Six elderly women gawked at her from the wall. They sat comfortably in furs and blankets and wore shawls decorated with animal bones and gem fragments. A few young children took care of them, but something more than the presence of a crowd froze Avery to the ground.
The serene, sickly-looking grandmothers carried more power in their eyes than her principal when he patrolled the halls. They glared at her without speaking, but she somehow knew how each of them felt about her. Catching her breath, she stepped back from what felt like disturbed Goddesses.
A grandmother with bright blue eyes smiled at her. “Finally, she came down.”
Another grandmother pointed a judgmental finger at Avery. “Who gave you permission to enter? Why’re you here?”
The power these women had slammed Avery against the wall. She couldn’t stand it when adults got upset with her, but a grandparent’s anger equated to getting whacked across the cheek.
Avery stuttered, “I-I’m sorry!” and flew through the room. She kept her head down out of respect and out of shame. Hopping over the blue stream, she ran for the only other door in the room and pushed it open.
She began panting. She didn’t know where else to go. Ever since she’d fallen down here, she hadn’t found any stairs leading up. Just down, down, deeper into the Earth’s core.
Her boots sunk into wet sand. She’d come across a pond, a slate of grey that stretched out like a baseball field. Waterfalls sparkled down the rocks as droplets of water dripped off the ceiling. Not a lot of vegetation grew here, but with the help of three skylights a hundred feet above, grass and lilies had formed in the pond. Fish swam in place as they stared at Avery through the weeds.
The misty air cooled her down and splashed her face with clarity. She needed to calm down before she broke down. If she fell apart here, she’d never get home.
She spotted a small hill overlooking the pond and struggled her way to it. Her boots, while designed for hiking, had trouble gripping the dunes. When she reached the top, she took out her phone and searched for a signal.
Her call didn’t even last a ring. Even this close to the surface, her parents were still too far away.
She dropped to her knees. They’d been right. They had every right to worry. She thought she was so much stronger than this, but now she felt more lost than ever. She’d lost her walkie, lost her way. She’d lost her mind, clearly, being that she was underground talking to cave dwellers.
Quiet sniffling burned her eyes. She wanted to go home. At least there she could cry in her bathroom and her parents knew not to call her down for dinner until the bathroom fan turned off.
As she cleaned her face on her sweater, wet footsteps echoed across the pond.
She startled. The boy with the scarred face was at the pond, holding onto a crystallized rock as he coughed.
Avery hid her eyes with her beanie. She knew she ugly-cried. Nobody, especially a boy her age, needed to see the worst side of her.
The boy climbed up to her cliff.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m okay, I swear.”
The boy sat beside her. He stared out across the pond, taking in the stillness of the water. This was probably the only place in this world where you could sit down and hear yourself breathe, or wheeze in his case.
He took something out of his poncho. Hidden underneath was a necklace entangled with gems. Its cord was made of rope or twine and looked strong enough to withstand the weight of each gem. The gems themselves varied in color, but most of them shared the same hue of aqua blue, her favorite color.
After inspecting one of the stones, the boy sat up and placed the necklace around her neck.
She raised the largest gem to her eye. Each one was twisted in pointed metal. If they hit the light right, they reflected a rainbow. “Pretty.”
The boy said something back.
“What language are you speaking?”
He pursed his lips and waited for a better explanation.
She asked, “Do you have a name?”
“Name—Naam?” he clarified. “Cameron.”
“Cameron?” She’d heard the boy in the mud hut say that, but she hadn’t been sure. “I’m Avery. Avery Marlow.”
“Avery?” He poked her arm. “Avery!”
“Jah?” She giggled, though it hurt too much. She cradled her injured side.
Cameron lost his playful smile and touched her leg, making her jump. Then he said something to her and took her hand.
“Where’re we going?” she asked, and she wasn’t sure, but under his breath, she thought she heard him say, “My mother.”