The darkness had stolen away her dogs as well as the Sun. She’d totally forgotten about them. And the time. Was it still even Friday? Ever since the fall, her thoughts and emotions had gotten scrambled, like she’d been walking through a haze until she resurfaced to the surface world.
She pushed the boulder back into place and took in the empty, strikingly uninteresting cave. The dull smell, the quietness, nothing gave away the society living a mere hundred feet beneath her feet.
A loud barking echoed throughout the cave, and before she could make sure it wasn’t a police dog searching for her missing body, Oreo barreled into her. He got so excited that he nipped off her hat.
Avery used her remaining strength to push him off. “Where’s Pumpkin? Did she make it home?”
He jumped up and kept nuzzling her. His fur was slick with rain. She knew that he would’ve stayed with her until he knew she was safe. Pumpkin, while lovably silly, would’ve run as soon as she smelled trouble.
Her walkie-talkie, once struggling to work, sparked back to life. She fiddled with its buttons for reception. “Mom?”
She waited about three seconds before she heard a crash. “Avery? Avery, is that you?”
“Where’ve you been?” her mother almost shouted. “I’ve been trying to get a hold of you for hours! Are you okay? What happened?”
She kicked at the boulder holding back all of Arkeh:na. “I got sidetracked.”
“Well, come home! It’s supposed to rain any second—I’m watching the weather channel right now. Come home!”
Avery stared at her walkie-talkie as droplets of rain dripped off the cave entrance. After about a minute of processing, she made sure she had everything in her backpack before jogging back home. Oreo trotted faithfully behind her.
She started at a slow pace, but soon found herself running, her fingers wound up in Cameron’s necklace. Puddles dared to be jumped in. Fallen trees became hurdles to hop over. A confusing laugh spilled out of her, joyous and light, and kept her from crying over life’s uncertainties.
She had the chance, to make a friend, who wouldn’t know a thing about her past. They accepted outcasts. They hated the outside world. She was, apart from Basil’s thinking, liked and wanted, something she never thought she deserved to be.
She squealed into her hands with glee. Oreo barked with her until the tips of their cabin came into view.
Pumpkin spun in circles as she waited for them inside the garage. Oreo reunited with her in a pounce that tripped up the garage spotlight. If their barking hadn’t given her away, the spotlight lighting up the entire driveway sure did.
Her mother and father were in their usual spots: mom at the dinner table, dad in the kitchen. But neither of them were working. They had their phones clutched in their hands as they paced in the dark. When Avery opened the door, her mother slammed down her phone and strode towards her.
“Sorry,” Avery said immediately.
“Why was Pumpkin here before you? Where were you? Why didn’t you pick up?”
She dared to look down at her phone, but she couldn’t break eye contact with her mother. “I…found this pond. It had koi in it. I was wondering who they belonged to, so I went door to door. I was so busy talking to this one woman, I forgot to call in. My walkie was…in my bag.”
Her mother checked her torn leggings. “You’re hurt.”
“I, uh, tried to get a closer look at the koi, but tripped and fell into the water. I think that’s why my walkie-talkie wasn’t picking up any signals.”
“Let me see it,” her father said. “I can fix it.”
“Why were there koi fish in the forest?” her mother asked. “Who did they belong to?”
“I’m not sure. I think they’ve lived there all their life.”
“Well, koi fish live an awfully long time in the wild,” her father noted.
“When have koi fish ever been able to live outside of a tank?” Her mother walked back to her table, back to work now that her daughter had flown back to the nest. “Avery, get washed up and clean out your socks. We’ll do your laundry tonight. God, don’t ever stay out that late again. You scared us.”
“We already ate,” her father said. “I sectioned up the leftovers and put them in the fridge. Top one is yours.”
The fresh taste of Arkeh:nen honey still lingered on Avery’s tongue, but she couldn’t go to bed without eating something. After washing her hands of cave dirt, she made herself a plate of cheesy potatoes and lamb. To avoid any more questions about her totally unbelievable story, she ascended up the stairs without a word.
She gripped her plate hard. “Yeah?”
Her father hooked around the stairs. “What’s that around your neck?”
“Oh.” The Arkeh:nen jewelry felt commonplace in the tunnels, but outside, it did seem to stand out. The gems were uneven, the rope frayed. She hid the largest gem in her fist, the metal digging into her palm. “I made it. I found some stones and rope in the woods.”
“Wow. That’s impressive. Juniper, did you see this?”
Avery pulled down on the necklace. She couldn’t stand their praise, even if it was genuine. One time she’d shown them a drawing of hers that’d taken hours to make. Her mother gave it a once-over, then proceeded to point out all the flaws she saw in it. That’s when she stopped drawing downstairs. She couldn’t stand their eyes on her heart.
“I saw,” her mother said. “Did you wash the stones before you touched them, Avery? I don’t want you getting sick from them.”
“I did,” Avery said, and deflated a bit. Was she expecting praise? She hadn’t even made it.
“Well, it’s neat,” her father said, and left her to eat upstairs alone.
She hid the necklace from view, tiptoed upstairs, and kept the lights off to keep inconspicuous.
She bit her knuckle. A thousand questions and hypotheses ran through her head. Abandoning her food on her bedside table, she kicked off her clothes and jumped into the shower to rinse off.
How did showers work in Arkeh:na? The caves smelled a bit like smelly armpits, but all caves had their own special tang. Maybe they showered in that lake. Did they repurpose the water? Did they shower outside? Did they even shower at all?
Were there more communities like Arkeh:na in America?
Were they safe?
Were they okay?
With her hair still damp, she faceplanted into bed. The Grandmoeders had said that not many surface people stumbled across Arkeh:na. If that was true, how many other people knew about this Community?
She pulled out her laptop. Searching for ‘CAVE PEOPLE’ felt too wide of a net to cast, but typing in ‘CAVE PEOPLE HISTORY IN UPSTATE NEW YORK’ worried her. What if the government was tracking her now that she made contact?
Rolling her fingers over the trackpad, she typed in the question she wanted to know most: ‘IS THE PRONOUN ‘THEY’ A VALID PRONOUN FOR A SINGULAR PERSON TO USE?’
Then she asked: ‘HOW DO YOU COMMUNICATE WITH SOMEONE WHO SPEAKS A DIFFERENT LANGUAGE THAN YOU DO?’
A wealth of information popped up, and Avery took out her sketchbook and wrote down everything she saw. Within ten minutes, she’d written out complex notes that rivaled the ones in her English notebook. She found famous hermits living in caves, but they were nothing compared to Arkeh:na. She found Amish towns and African tribes that reminded her so much of the Community, but different. Little bits of cultures from all around the world had seemingly been mashed together to create what Arkeh:na had made for itself.
Just as she started her third page of notes, a screen popped up around her browser. Thinking it a virus, she went to close it. Then she saw the username.
That username, that profile picture of a wilted rose, Avery had nightmares about them. They’d once been a godsend to her. Late at night, fighting her feelings, she’d see her come online and get all giddy underneath the covers. As an oblivious eleven-year-old, she didn’t realize why she made her heart flutter. Now she did, and it poisoned her veins whenever she thought about it.
But even so, she couldn’t help but check up on Bridget. It was the reason her pictures by the fireplace had yet to be burned. They were all of her, posing with Avery like good friends did.
A conversation dinged underneath Avery’s username, wondering_wanderlust101.
Was what you said to me this summer true?
Avery made sure not to start typing so Bridget didn’t know she’d seen her text. Because of Arkeh:na and Cameron, she’d mentally pushed aside the pain she hadn’t yet confronted. She planned on never confronting it. What was Bridget doing, messaging her first? She never did that.
You can forget about what I said.
I was being stupid.
We can be friends again if you want.
Bridget already started typing before Avery hit SEND.
I can’t forget.
It’s been messing me up.
She tried to type up a response to dissuade her, but Bridget typed faster.
Are you really gay?
She stared at those four simple words, words she’d been too scared to think about since last summer. She’d tried to keep it a secret from everyone until her, her best friend, had asked if she liked anyone. Avery’s answer was simple: her. Her laugh, her interests in writing for the school newspaper. She loved everything about her.
When she told her that, Bridget asked her father to come pick her up. That was the last time they ever spoke.
As Bridget began typing another question, Avery shut her laptop and buried herself in her blankets. To keep herself from crying, she prayed that when she awoke, she’d be back in Arkeh:na, deep underground where she could finally bury away these problems for good.