Avery never thought people would remember her name. They never could at school, and if they did, they called her Aida or Amber, never recalling her true name. It’d taken her a few years to come to terms with her lacking charm, and by senior year of high school, if things hadn’t changed, she told herself not to take it personally.
Seeing her face on national TV the next day destroyed that horrible self-image of hers.
In that short week, everyone in America knew about Avery Marlow, the thirteen-year-old middle schooler from Upstate New York who’d discovered one of the world’s largest underground communities. They knew about her school, her interests in hiking, and her relationship with the Arkeh:nen Cameron Quinn, all of which made for “interesting topics” during interviews.
People from all around the world wanted her interview. News trucks drove cross country to speak with her, only her. Not her parents, not her grandparents. Her mother tried to coach her on answering interview questions in a professional manner, but with Cameron still in the hospital and all the Arkeh:nen separated in different hospitals across New England, Avery had no attention span. She’d tried to look up ways of dealing with interview anxiety, but she concluded that nobody got over it and it was terrifying every time.
She did, however, memorize the types of questions she’d receive. About a dozen times she’d told the camera the estimate size of Arkeh:na, her friendship with Cameron that’d developed into something more, and the surprising taste of dandelions and wild mushrooms. Amongst all the questions, the dandelion answer attracted the most attention.
One month after the extraction and the interviews calmed down. They almost ceased to exist, and Avery slowly felt herself falling back into routine. She had final exams coming up, Bridget’s birthday was next week, and Cameron was now just a few blocks away.
One day after class, Avery sat on her laptop with the webcam on, video chatting with a news station down in Manhattan. The familiar logo she always saw on TV made her nervous, but she’d talked with this host twice already. It untethered her from her nerves.
“I’ve been told they’re all doing well,” Avery said. “There’re still a few in critical condition and some are still waiting to get surgeries, but many of the children have been reunited with their families in group homes and homeless shelters.”
“And where are all of these ‘Arkeh:nen’ in relation to New York?” the news reporter asked.
Avery smirked; she hadn’t heard that pronunciation before. A linguist had translated a funky spelling of the word, but to Avery, she just repeated the Arkeh:nen way of saying ‘Arkeh:nen.’ “About seventy percent of them are still close to Foxfield. Some have been stationed in downtown New York, but officials have been working hard on coupling everyone back together into their Community.”
“Well, we hope everything turns out well for the future,” the news reporter said. “One more question for you, Avery: What’ve you been up to now? How’re you planning the new year now that you’re about to enter high school?”
“Well, after this interview’s over, I’m going to pack up a lunch and bike to Cameron’s place. We have a date together.”
The reporter laughed. “Well, let’s not hold you up. Thank you for speaking with us today.”
After saying goodbye and doing some wrap up with the host, Avery turned off her video chat and sighed. She’d hidden her shaky hands better than last week’s interview.
“That was really good,” her father said from behind the TV. He had a pot on the stove for dinner. Her mother, who stood right in front of her at the kitchen counter, was juggling emails on both her laptop and her phone.
“New York Morning News just sent another email asking you for an interview,” she said, “and they want you to write a blurb about…something. I don’t know. I can’t keep track of all these emails.”
“I thought you said you liked all of this publicity,” Avery said, gathering her lunch from out of the fridge. For today’s date, she’d packed two sandwiches, one apple, and two cracker packages. After some back and forth with Cameron, she found that this was the healthiest and most favorite snack for them.
“Not all of this!” her mother said. “I’m losing it with all these—I got another one! Another one, from some news agency in Connecticut. I’m going to lose my mind. I did not sign up for this when I decided to have a child.”
“I’m leaving, then,” Avery said. “Love you.”
“Bye. Love you. Be safe.”
“Bye, my lovely, chaotic fledgling.”
Forty-five Arkeh:nen had been placed in a nearby medical and rehabilitation center in downtown Foxfield. After scrounging up spare cots and money donations, the facility opened their arms to a portion of Arkeh:na without much hassle. Many people didn’t believe that these cave people should’ve been given so much free care. A lot of protests in the streets wanted Avery’s family to pay for everything. But with a lot of extra protests, funding, and general human empathy, the Arkeh:nen people got the care they deserved, including Cameron and their friends.
Avery rode up to St. Agatha’s Home of Healing and parked in her usual spot. Aside from hospital care and living provisions, St. Agatha’s offered educational programs, too. Teachers and volunteers came in every other weekday to teach classes about the Autre world. Soon, it became a give and take; while the Arkeh:nen learned about Autrean life, the Autreans learned bits about Arkeh:na that hadn’t been disclosed on the news. How the Community understood gemmes and how many languages it took to form Arkeh:nen became subjects of interest for international scholars. Suddenly more and more people wanted to speak Arkeh:nen with the Arkeh:nen people, wanting to learn as much as they could.
St. Agatha’s also helped the Community learn through a more idealized lens. Its backyard had gardens and walkways and a fence to keep out news reporters. The Sun rose and set over the mountains and gave the Arkeh:nen needed doses of vitamins. It took time for some of them to leave, but with the help of encouraging nurses, the Arkeh:nen walked out sheepishly in their donated coats and scarves. Cameron liked sitting underneath the tree near the pond, listening to the sounds of their new world.
When Avery entered the building, the receptionist, Mrs. Way, greeted her. “Hi, Avery. How was school today?”
“Good, thank you. Is Cameron doing okay?”
“I heard they were upset about a failed English quiz, but they’ve been talking a lot about you,” she added with a smile. “They say that since you go to school so close, you should come visit more often.”
“I visit four times a week!” she said, and walked through the revolving doors with her ID card.
Down the hall, she passed by Maywood and one of her aides. She had math homework in her hands and was playfully arguing out one of her answers. After a few x-rays, her doctors had placed her in a wheelchair until her limbs gained back their needed strength. With how hard she was gripping her pencil, she was either growing stronger, or her homework was overtaxing her.
“Hi,” Avery said in English. “How are you?”
“I am…good, thank you,” Maywood said. “How was…How do you say ‘school’?” she asked in Arkeh:nen, and Avery gave her a hint.
“School?” she asked in English. “School? It’s weird. A weird word. ‘Weird’ is weird. Our word is gooder.”
“Better,” her teacher corrected, and tapped Maywood’s paper.
“I try,” she said.
“It’s okay. Try again.”
“How’re your legs and arms?” Avery asked.
“Good…Better,” she said. “Physical therapy is hard, but it works.”
“That’s good. I’m glad.”
“You want Cameron,” she said, noting the jump in Avery’s knees. “They’re in the trees, the park.”
“Thanks,” she said, and ran through the patio doors to find them.
She stopped halfway through the doorway, finding someone much more surprising waiting for her.
Outside in the patio garden was Bridget, her father, Basil, and his mother, all talking around a bed of flowers.
Bridget looked up when the glass door closed. “Oh. Hi.”
“Hi?” Avery said in a question. “I didn’t know you two knew each other. At all. What’s going on?”
Basil looked to his mother before blushing and standing up. “I told my doctors about my father and, after taking some of my blood, they found him.” He gestured to Bridget’s father. “Meet my dad, and my new sister.”
Moeder Exia played with her bangs to hide her own blushing face. Bridget’s father took to fidgeting with one of the flowers nearest his cheek.
Taking in Bridget’s father, a tall Spanish man with a thick beard, and Bridget, who always look like a supermodel in her eyes, she did see the resemblance, but she couldn’t have imagined how close an Autrean could look like an Arkeh:nen and vice versa.
“Yeah,” Basil said, reading her face. “She said you and her are friends from school. Is this the girl you mentioned before?”
“Y-yeah, she is, and we are,” she said, still stunned.
“Families here are strange. I’m not used to how this world operates, but it’s been fun getting to know about my Autrean—Spanish—side. Here I thought I was doing so well learning English, now I have to learn Spanish.”
Avery chuckled. “I’m taking a Spanish class right now.”
“It’s hard,” they said in unison, and they, even their Moeder, smiled.
“Well, this’s great,” Avery said, not knowing what else to say. “What a world. I had no idea.”
Basil kicked a loose stone off the pathway. “A lot of us have had concerns about what’s been going on, but without your help, I wouldn’t have found these people. Maywood’s legs and arms are getting stronger. Cameron has their medicine.” Looking down at his new shoes, he stepped over and gave Avery a hug. “Thanks, for this.”
“A-and us, too,” Bridget said. “This’s been wild for us. I never knew.”
“I didn’t, either,” her father said shyly. “If I’d known, that night at the bar…”
Moeder Exia inhaled and wrapped her shawl over herself. She’d completely covered her face with one hand.
“N-nevertheless, I’ll take care of them,” he promised, “of Basil and Maywood.”
At that, Basil cracked into a smile.
Avery looked over to Bridget. “I’ll see you for your birthday, right?”
“I better. You and Cameron are the only ones I invited. With Maywood and Basil coming, this’s the most amount of people I’ll ever have at a birthday party. I was thinking of doing dirt cake. Get it, because dirt.”
Avery snorted and waved them off.
Cameron had a calling with the garden animals. As they sat by the pond, sticking their finger in the water, every fish and duck would swim up to them without fail. They never nipped or splashed, they just watched them as curiously as Cameron watched them. They enjoyed them so much that since being at St. Agatha’s, they must’ve gone through four bags of fish and duck food.
They were finally wearing their glasses with the thick lenses in them. They’d refused most of their nurses’ care, but when they put on the glasses, they threw themselves on the ground and cried. Apparently they had such horrible vision, they’d never seen the individual hairs on a person’s head before.
With their vision cleared, Cameron looked up to Avery. “Hey.”
“Hi.” She sat beside them on the grass. “Did you already feed them?”
“Yeah. They were starving.” They leaned against her. “Speak to me in English.”
“Are you ready for that?”
“No, but my teacher wants me to practice, and it’s easier to talk when I’m with you.”
“If it makes you feel better, I’m learning Spanish at school, and I don’t like it, either. It doesn’t come to me as naturally as Arkeh:nen.”
“Basil was telling me that. The Bridget girl is Spanish. Sometimes she speaks it with her Fader. He really does look like Basil.”
“I know.” She took Cameron’s hand. “Is this better?”
“…I think,” they said in their best English. “It’s hard to understand.”
Two of Cameron’s ducks swam up to the edge of the pond. Cameron twiddled their fingers in the water, enticing them. “But I teach…others about Arkeh:na, and they want to know. That’s what I worry about, I had worried about. I didn’t think people would like us. Now everyone wants to know it, even though we can’t go back.”
“I heard they’re going to try to salvage what’s left of the mountain and open it up to the public for research and exploration. When that’s ready, you can get back your gemmes.”
“Good. Even though they don’t work with me, I still like them.”
“Yes, but you can’t live there anymore, got it? You can’t hide back underground.”
They pouted and rolled on their butt. “I could. You never find me.”
“But then you’d never see the ducks. You wouldn’t see sunrises or planes. You wouldn’t see me—”
“Planes!” they said with a jolt. “How scary! How do they fly? My teacher says there’re people in them. She lies?”
“No, there’re usually dozens of people in planes.”
Cameron blew out their cheeks. “So why do they make the loud noise? How do they fly without flapping their wings like a duck?”
“I’m not sure. We should look it up sometime.”
“Can we do it now? I can tell Maywood and Basil. They want to know.”
“Sure.” Avery opened her phone to the first selfie she and Cameron had ever taken together and searched for the right words.