Whatever mood Avery had created with Cameron and his friends died when the woman walked in. She looked like a mom, so nothing like her own mother: wide hips, shoulder-length hair, and a somewhat wrinkled face. She wore a poncho similar to Cameron’s, but around her waist like a skirt, and she wore more gemstones than he did. The rings on her fingers looked like they cost a grand each.
With a wave of her hand, both Basil and Maywood jumped out of the way and stood alert at the edge of the room. Cameron scampered out of his bed/hole to give her a place to sit. She took it graciously and sat in front of Avery, and a sense of drowning filled up the hole. Not even Avery’s own mother commanded so much from her, with those stern eyes and unblinking stare. If this woman told her to run out of this hole and never come back, she’d be trekking through the forest before she finished her demand.
Cameron and Basil squatted at the edge of the bed like gargoyles, waiting for the woman to speak. Maywood took worried glances out of the room to see if she could escape without being noticed.
The woman spoke. Once she finished, Basil said in English, “Uh, this is…mother of Cameron, Moeder Ellinor. She is great psychic. She will help.”
“Are you translating for her?” Avery asked.
“I have to. I shouldn’t, although. You cannot be here.”
Moeder Ellinor reached out for Avery’s arm and pushed up her sweater to examine the bruises. While she spoke, she took out an old container of paste and spread it over the wounds. Avery couldn’t tell her to stop, mostly because she trusted this “Moeder’s” actions.
Her skin prickled like a thousand ants were crawling up her arm. She shrieked in alarm, but Cameron’s mother kept a firm hand on her wrist, keeping her still.
“It always feels weird,” Basil interpreted. “Mushroom medicine, it’s fine.”
“But mushrooms are poisonous.”
Basil smirked. “You think we know not about mushrooms? We’re more smarter than you Autreans act.”
Cameron asked his Moeder a question in a mousy voice.
She shook her head, then checked Avery’s forehead temperature with her hand. She too had an intricate scar on her forearm, although hers was more faded than everyone else’s.
“She…wants you to see that…you’re mysterious,” Basil explained, then muttered something under his breath that made Cameron hit him. He continued, “However…you are welcome here, in Arkeh:na.”
“This, our home, us people. You should…not stay long, although. Most—All— Arkeh:nen hate Autreans, you people from the surface. We help…everyone, although we shouldn’t.”
Moeder Ellinor said something that made Basil cover his mouth in politeness. Then she spoke to Avery.
“She asks if you hurt in more places,” Basil said through his fingers.
“No,” Avery lied, “but thank you for helping me.”
Moeder Ellinor rubbed the top of Avery’s hand, addressed something to Cameron, and began to stand.
A soft chime dinged throughout the room. It came from a golden bell attached above the curtained entrance. The string connected to it was being yanked by someone impatient.
All four cave people bolted upright and stared at the bell until it stopped. They waited as if to hear dire news from a primitive air raid siren.
“Crap,” Basil whispered.
Moeder Ellinor jumped out of the hole and jogged out of the den.
Cameron, shaken, helped Avery up. Maywood asked a flurry of questions. Basil kept cursing as he paced across the room.
“What does the bell mean?” Avery asked.
“The Grandmoeders call us,” Basil said. “This is trouble. We shouldn’t be doing this. Bad—” He complained more to Maywood in their language.
Cameron ignored him. He kept massaging Avery’s hand, assuring her that everything would be alright. It didn’t calm her down.
She tried her best to keep up with Cameron’s Moeder. Cameron took small, nervous steps down the ladders and through the halls. Maywood had her cane. Basil stayed behind them with his head down.
Families peeked out of their homes to watch them go. With more time to take in this world, Avery saw multiple lengths of string secured to the top of the ceiling. The only one moving was the one connected to Cameron’s house. The rest were dutifully quiet.
She tried to hide her face underneath her beanie, but Cameron took her hand. Following his Moeder, they entered into the tunnel she’d accidentally run into, the one leading to the “Grandmoeders.”
An attendant who’d been catering to the elderly women hid behind the moss-covered door. They whispered secrets to Moeder Ellinor, then glared at Avery as they brightened their lantern. Then they cracked open the door and escorted them inside.
The eldest Grandmoeder, the one who’d first talked to Avery when she’d stormed in, raised her bony hand. “Come in.”
Cameron helped push Avery in. Her feet stuck to the floor, begging her to run back. She’d caused such a scene a half-hour ago. What could she say to them now?
When she, Cameron, and Cameron’s Moeder walked in, the attendant shut the door on Maywood and Basil. They didn’t argue, but they did cast apprehensive looks through the closing space. Before the door shut, Basil shouted a warning to Cameron.
“Why can’t they come in with us?” Avery whispered.
Cameron didn’t say. His eyes were spellbound on the smiling grandmother.
Somehow, entering the Grandmoeders’ Den with purpose made Avery more nervous. Now all of them were sitting up in their beds of furs. One of them needed the wall to rest on. Bandages covered her face like a mummy. She looked asleep, or dead.
Cameron and his mother knelt before the Grandmoeders, Moeder Ellinor with grace, Cameron with some difficulty. His knees kept cracking.
Avery copied them with little instruction. The stream in the room encircled them like a prison cell and kept them from moving around too much.
“Raise your heads.”
The Grandmoeder spoke in Cameron’s language, but it sounded similar to English, enough for Avery to follow.
The kind Grandmoeder smiled down at them. The others cast down scowls. The one who’d yelled at Avery to get out had a bulging vein in her forehead.
“Welcome to our home,” the nice Grandmoeder said in English. “My name is Grandmoeder Geneva. I see you’ve met my daughter Ellinor and her child Cameron.”
At hearing their names, the two family members bowed their heads. Cameron’s head hit the ground with honor.
“Yes,” Avery said. “Thank you for taking me in.”
“Company keeps the soul less lonely. As you might’ve guessed by our reactions, we don’t see many surface people come through our doors. Let me ask you this: How did you happen across our settlement?”
“I tripped. I was resting my back against the wall and it caved in. That’s when Cameron found me. He helped me.”
The Grandmoeder next to Grandmoeder Geneva grumbled something.
“Grandmoeder Nai wishes to address,” said Grandmoeder Geneva, “that the pronoun you use for my grandchild is wrong.”
“Cameron Quinn is neither a girl nor a boy, neither man nor woman. They have chosen to call themselves by the Community’s pronoun of ‘they’. Be sure to keep that in mind when addressing them from now on.”
Avery, baffled, looked to Cameron, who must’ve heard his name and was now waiting for a translation.
She’d never known anyone to go by anything other than the pronoun they looked like. He looked like a boy. He sounded like a boy.
Delayed embarrassment welled up inside of her. Why was this part of life so difficult to get right? Why did people put so much emphasis on the most embarrassing part of themselves? He—they?—didn’t seem embarrassed by it, so why was she?
“Anywho,” Grandmoeder Geneva continued, “we’re happy you’re here. Interaction between us and Autreans is limited, so any new encounter is recognized.”
“But it’s not welcomed,” Grandmoeder Nai said.
“But it can be,” another chimed in.
“But should it?” asked another.
Avery closed her eyes from dizziness. What could she say that they’d understand? Should she talk about Cameron’s kindness and save them from being reprimanded? Should she apologize for being alive? Should she run?
“Do you have any questions for us, child?” Grandmoeder Geneva asked.
Avery licked her lips. “I…think I’d like to know how you all got here. How long have you been living here?”
“We’ve been here for generations, ever since the pilgrims voyaged across the ocean in search of land. Our ancestors hid themselves within the Earth to avoid persecution for one reason or the next. Witches afraid of being burned, families who could no longer afford the land they’d stolen. As time grew, they chose this world instead of the one above, and we keep their spirits alive by keeping underground.”
“Do the surface people—us Autreans—know about you?”
“You’re the first of your generation to visit us.”
“Best to keep this secret to yourself,” Grandmoeder Nai said. “You shan’t be telling others about us, do you understand?”
“I-I would never. I don’t have any friends, so I have no one to tell.”
“Is that true?” Grandmoeder Geneva said. “Do you really have no friends?”
“Yeah, and my parents don’t care about what I do, so they won’t care where I’ve been.”
Grandmoeder Geneva took that in, then beckoned for one of her attendants. They brought her a bag.
“My bag,” Avery said.
They took out an object crackling with energy.
“Such a curious machine,” Grandmoeder Geneva said, playing with the antenna. She handed it back to the servant who then rushed it and the backpack to Avery. “However separate you are from your parents, I’m sure they must be waiting for you.”
Avery checked her phone. It was nearly seven. “I think you’re right.”
“But before you leave, I must tell you something: Your presence here has affected our Community in a way we haven’t felt in a long time. Some of us”—she nodded to Grandmoeder Nai—“still hold prejudices against Autreans, but I believe you can help us see a light we haven’t basked in for several centuries. May I ask, if you wish, that you come by once more?”
Avery lifted her head. “I can come back?”
“If you wish to learn more,” she said, then smiled just as widely as Avery did.
“O-okay,” she said almost as a question. “I’d love to. This place is incredible. You’re all incredible.”
“You’re very kind,” Grandmoeder Geneva said. “Now, I think it’s time you leave us. It’s getting late for you.” She turned to Cameron and Moeder Ellinor and spoke to them in their language, something Avery now wanted to learn more than ever. They both nodded with everything she said, then stood up at the same time when she finished. Cameron’s Moeder went to their bedsides so they could whisper more discreetly. Cameron took the lantern from the attendant before taking Avery’s hand. He was a very physical person.
They were a very physical person.
Back on the first level of Arkeh:na, the village shops were still buzzing like a beehive. Because of this, instead of cutting through it, Cameron snuck around the shacks back to the tunnel where they first met. She’d noticed that when they’d left the pond, they’d defended her from the crowds, swatting their hands away from her. She needed to learn how to say “thank you” in their language. They were too kind to her.
The boulder she’d dislodged from her fall was now back in place. Now only Cameron’s lantern provided them light.
The two of them stood there at the end of the tunnel, waiting for either Avery to start climbing or Cameron to leave.
“I’m sorry if I got you and your mom in trouble,” Avery said. “Were those your elders or something, like a counsel? The Grandmoeders?”
“I wish I knew your language. I could teach you English and you can teach me…Arkeh:nen.”
At that special name drop, Cameron smiled.
“Well.” She bit her inner cheek. “Bye.”
They pointed at her chest, and only when she looked down did she realize they were pointing at her necklace and not something else.
“Oh.” She went to give it back, but Cameron let her keep it with hesitant hands. It looked as if they didn’t actually want to let it go.
“Are you sure?”
They nodded, but if they understood her, she didn’t know.
Neither of them moved. In the dim light, they stood knowing this might’ve been the last time either of them saw their kind again.
But that wasn’t true. She’d promised to return. Her parents would question her extended trips into the woods, but she’d think of an excuse later. Like she’d tell them a word about what she just unearthed.
Her cell phone vibrated in her hands. A slow string of texts were beginning to channel through.
Being the catalyst she needed, Avery gave Cameron one last look before she climbed up the ladder.