Cameron crept to the tunnle wall and leaned their ear against the rock. As always, they heard a hum. A magical hum. An “I’m here, just find me” that all gemmes whispered when Cameron neared. Taking out their small pick axe, they chipped away at the softer dirt to gain access to the harder rock. They chipped away pebbles, spat out dirt that flew into their mouth. They dug a bit left towards the voice, then there: a twinkle of a gemme.
A blue twinkle. Yet another aqua. This marked the fourth one that day.
They held the gemme like a newborn baby. What did this color mean? Water, the ocean? Their eyes were blue, the left a little paler than the right. Avery had been wearing a blue shirt when they met. Maybe her favorite color?
They kissed it, waiting to hear what it wanted to say.
They felt a cough coming on, a typical occurrence in their body, but when clumps of dirt fell from the hole they’d just created, they held their breath. An earthquake? A collapse? Rare as they were, most of them resulted from Cameron’s doing. Had they caused yet another?
They hadn’t, and the world settled down with the gemme voices.
Securing the gemme in their pocket, Cameron ran out of the cave as quickly as their legs could carry them.
That night, they snuck back into the Main Exit Tunnle with an extra lantern. They wouldn’t need it, but Avery would. Maybe, if she wanted to hang out in their den, they could light a candle for her, make her feel more at home. They heard Autreans still knew how to use candles.
Two days passed and the firebugs slowly flickered out.
After the second lonely night came and went, Cameron sulked back home. Why did they feel so disappointed? They’d never waited for somebody like this before, so anxious to meet someone new. They knew their Fader’s absence and Moeder’s distance left them a little awkward, not knowing the right words to say. Had Avery finally caught on? Had she realized that they were perhaps the least interesting Arkeh:nen down here? What if she started hanging out with other boys and girls their age and forgot about them entirely? She probably had loads of friends to pick from on the surface.
In the ville, yawning shoppekeeps were putting away their wares and kissing their neighbors goodnight. The Centrum was clearing out and the artisans had doused out their stoves. Claire was just boarding up her honey shoppe when Cameron passed by. They’d been keeping her honey jar on them in case Avery came back, but it’d been two days now. Others needed this delicacy more than they did.
Claire waved them over. “You’re still up?”
“I’ve been restless.” They handed her the bottle. “Here.”
“You don’t want it?”
Of course they did. How rare was it to indulge in honey purified by the psychics? Arkeh:nen food came in as either forest meat or berries. Sometimes scavengers borrowed Autrean food, but not many people ate it. The Grandmoeders didn’t approve of tasting Autrean sweets.
Instead of being selfish, Cameron said, “Someone else can have it. Do you need help packing up?”
“Cameron, I’m fine, and take it. You were the one who introduced an Autrean to the Grandmoeders. I’ve heard they’re quite interested in her. You’re making them very happy.”
Pride clouded their head. “I’ve heard.”
“I’ve never seen your Grandmoeder so energized. You must be quite proud.”
Cameron touched their face, hiding their bursting ego. Arkeh:nen dreamed of being minor influences to the matriarchy. To know the Grandmoeders were thinking of them in a positive light and not as a jinx made their heart beat faster than usual.
A clatter erupted near the Centrum pavilion, snatching Cameron out of thought. Someone yelled. Another shrieked. Shoppekeeps jumped with their wares in hand, wondering who’d just been attacked.
Cameron frowned. They recognized the yell, and they recognized the second voice just as sadly.
Basil had a boy named Patchway face down in a pile of pillows meant for lounging. Maywood was on her knees trying to pull her brother back, but Basil had a fight to win.
Storing the honey back in their pocket, Cameron ran down the Centrum steps and yelled, “Basil, knock it off.”
At the sound of their voice, Basil yielded and let Patchway go. The little boy gasped for air and dashed down the steps to the underground layers.
“What’s been the matter with you?” Maywood asked. “He didn’t do anything to me.”
“He pushed you!”
“I knocked into him. It was an accident.”
Cameron helped Maywood back to her feet, then handed her her fallen cane.
“You can’t let people walk all over you,” Basil said. “You need to fight back.”
“Fight back the Community? Are you mad? I don’t like this side of you. You’ve been acting so off recently.”
“What do you mean?”
“You snapped at Avery,” Cameron said.
“And you’ve been unfixed. I feel like you’re floating away from us.”
“I’m right here,” he said, opening up his arms. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“She’s your sister, Cameron reminded him. “She knows you better than you know yourself.”
Whatever they said struck a nerve, for Basil sputtered on a comeback and took off towards the silkworm huts. After fighting between what to say, he landed on what sounded like an Autrean swear and stuck his tongue at them.
Frustrated, Cameron copied the rude gesture and sat on the Centrum steps with Maywood.
“He won’t do any better cleaning up,” she said. “He’s been so fired up lately. If he doesn’t watch it, they’ll fire him again.”
“Did he get into another fight with your Moeder?”
“No. I think it’s because of that Autrean girl.”
“Yes. He was bad-mouthing her all day. I think it’s because she’s being seen as someone new and interesting even though she’s Autrean. He…isn’t thought of like that.”
Basil’s reputation in the tunnles stemmed all the way back to his Grandmoeder, Grandmoeder Nai. She’d persuaded their Moeder to live with a good, hard-working man, or someone she thought as good and hard-working. After their relationship stalled, bruises began appearing on their Moeder’s face. She’d blamed it on her work in the tunnles, and no one argued against her. How could they? She’d been coupled by a Grandmoeder’s wish. It couldn’t be broken.
But then, one night, she ran away to the surface world. People didn’t fault her for breaking such an important law. Knowing she’d never return, the Community silently wished her good luck.
But to everyone’s surprise, the next afternoon, she was found sleeping in the Centrum. She said she couldn’t leave her daughter, and that she wouldn’t take her away from her homeland.
After a day-long discussion, the Grandmoeders overruled Grandmoeder Nai’s wish, and Moeder Exia ended her relationship.
That next autumn, Basil had been born, a little brown boy with dark brown hair.
When Cameron had first met him, they didn’t care that he looked different. He had a little tan, so what? Maybe he just played in the dirt too much. Up until his sixth birthday, they’d been the best of friends. Then he found out why people treated him differently than his sister. He followed the roots to people’s whispers. He couldn’t wash off the dirt. Then he iced over and cut up everyone who got close to him.
“I feel bad for him,” Maywood said, “and our mother, but I’m sure you don’t want to hear such stories.”
She smiled. It was forced. “I hardly see her anymore. She’s been booking hour-long readings with your Moeder, and she’s stopped sleeping in our den. I think she sleeps here most nights.”
“I think she’s planning on kicking Basil out.”
Cameron’s jaw dropped. “What?”
“She says his recent behavior reminds her of my Fader.”
“But she wouldn’t. She can’t. You still live there, and you’re sixteen. My own Moeder still lives in her birth den and, unless a cave-in forces me out, I’ll be staying there forever, too.”
Maywood smirked. “A cave-in that you’ll create?”
She chuckled and stood up with her cane. “I should make sure he doesn’t punch a hole in a wall and cause that cave-in.”
“Do you need help? Do you want this?” They offered her the honey.
“I’m okay. Back when Basil was still a scavenger, he brought me bottles and bottles of honey. Now it tastes too sweet for me. Ask that Avery girl to bring us new food. The scavengers always tell us about how nice their food smells. I think it’s time we try it.”
Knowing she could get out of the Centrum by herself, Cameron went back to their den with their spirit a little heavier.
Technically, their Moeder still lived in their den, but Cameron’s path hardly ever crossed hers. Catching her out of work was more of a miracle than having an Autrean land feet away from you.
Still, whenever they entered their tunnle, they slowed their steps, hoping to hear their Moeder cleaning their gemme cases or snoring in bed.
Aside from Nuvu, their den was empty.
She squeaked as they entered. She was hanging from her metal mesh, glaring at them upside down.
“It’s alright,” Cameron said. “She’s not coming today.”
She tried biting them, then stretched out her wings and turned around.
Cameron understood. They’d found her as a starving pup abandoned on a tunnle floor. Distrustful of humans, she slowly familiarized herself with just a handful of faces. To have someone new enter her home must’ve damaged whatever trust she had with them.
Before heading off to sleep, they paused to reconnect. They fed their firebugs honey and stripped to their skin-tight clothes. Then they knelt before their gemme collection.
Each gemme attracted different types of people. For instance, Cameron responded best to orange and yellow gemmes. They didn’t discriminate and picked up any stone that called out to them, but these ones, they held a magic in their cut, a spark Cameron had been searching for for years.
They lay down in bed and positioned the gemmes on their chest.
The gemmes’ energies slowly replenished them with positivity. Their coolness mixed with their warmth as they shared their stories through their skin. Their births, from specks in the rocks to their crystallization process, became years of magic destined to help Cameron right now in this moment.
They spoke, but gently, in a whisper. “Don’t worry so much about what’s happening above or below the surface.”
“But I want to,” Cameron whispered. “I want back control. It feels like the world’s spinning.”
“That’s because it’s becoming more difficult for you to breathe. You must tell your Moeder about your breathing problems.”
Cameron coughed. “I can’t. I don’t want to worry her. I just want things to be calm again. Basil’s upset, which’s upsetting his family, but he’s not opening up to us, and the Community’s so high-strung—”
Energy pulsed into their arms, glueing them to their blankets.
The gemmes said, “Earth was not made to be calm. It’s why the wind dances and why waterfalls sing. It’s why humans never stop growing, because they’re restless. They want to live.”
“But Arkeh:nen don’t grow. We stay small.”
All the concentration Cameron was putting into their gemmes’ conversation died when Basil walked in. He excused himself and knelt beside their bed, expecting them to drop everything and listen to him.
Doing just that, Cameron asked, “What’s wrong?”
“Don’t meet with the Autrean again.”
“Why? They’re not bad people.”
“Yes, they are. You haven’t met one before. You don’t know how they act.”
“You don’t have to look out for me,” they told him for the 1,001st time. “Did Avery seem dangerous to you?”
His fingernails dug into his rabbit-fur shoes. “Yes.”
Cameron dropped their gemmes. They had to ask. Even if it came out awkward, they had to show him their support. “Basil, what’s been going on?”
“Come on. Maywood’s worried. I’m worried. Maybe you should get your fortune read to clear your head.”
“No psychic can understand what I’m going through. They all hate me, anyway.”
Cameron took it like a slap to the face. “My Moeder doesn’t hate you. She’s only thought positive things about you.”
“Then maybe you should get your fortune read. I never see you get one.”
They tossed their head back with a groan, then threw it forwards just as quickly. “Hey, are you still wondering about your Fader?”
Basil’s eyes widened. “How did you know about that?”
“Know about what? I’m talking about your birth Fader, the Autrean. If you’re still curious, I was thinking Avery could help look for him. That’s all. What did you think I was talking about?”
“Oh. Nothing.” Fear clawed down Basil’s neck. Realizing his mistake, he pinched off a piece of fur from his boot and twisted it until it disappeared in the air.
Cameron knew that look. They’d worn the same guilty expression the day they brought Avery down. “Basil?”
He turned away.
A guilty expression. The mention of his Fader. His lost job as a scavenger.
Cameron gasped. “Basil, have you been leaving Arkeh:na to find your Fader?”
Caught, he leaned out of the den to listen for anyone eavesdropping.
“Basil,” they whispered. They still felt guilty thinking about going to the surface. The thought of breaking one of Arkeh:na’s strictest laws had scared them into staying honorable.
“Don’t tell anyone,” he begged. “I’ll stop. I won’t do it anymore.”
“But you’re not a scavenger anymore. It’s not allowed. How long have you been doing this?”
“A few weeks.”
“Weeks? You got fired a month ago!”
“I know,” he said, and rubbed his upper arms, no doubt feeling the Community’s worriment creeping up on him. Whatever you did, be it something good or something bad, it always seeped back into the Community. It affected you, your Moeder, Grandmoeders both here and not. His Moeder had left, but for justifiable reasons. Could this be justified? If caught, would the Grandmoeders forgive him?
Cameron settled down the harshness in their heart. Of course speaking about Faders would get them like this. “What would you say if you found him?” they asked in a softer tone.
He shrugged. “What would you say to yours?”
“Yours is missing.”
What was the difference? Unlike Basil’s Moeder, Cameron’s Fader had announced his departure a day beforehand. He’d wanted to leave and was banished because of it. They should’ve felt grateful that they had no memories of such a man, only blurs of a face and the smell of river water. And his laugh. Soft and light, the exact opposite of their mother’s.
“If I could,” Cameron said, “I’d ask why he left, and why me and my Moeder weren’t good enough for him to stay.”
Despite not making a joke, Basil chuckled. “That’s what I’d like to ask the Grandmoeders.”
“What do you mean?”
“They love that Autrean girl. They want to know everything about her. Everyone is suddenly charmed by the idea of meeting an Autrean, yet here I am, and they hate me.”
“They don’t…” They corrected themselves. “Everyone’s just confused right now.”
“No, they aren’t. She’s a shiny new toy for them to play with, while I’m the second-rate thing they can’t stand to look at.”
Cameron gripped their heart. Is that how he truly felt? Second-rate? A thing? How could someone think so badly of themselves?
They collected their fallen gemmes and piled them around him. They even lined some on his leg, which he shockingly allowed. “I know they don’t have much magic in them, but if they can help…”
Basil picked up an orange gemme. His energy remained stagnant.
They fought with themselves. What did he need to hear right now? What could help him out of this horrid state, if just for a moment? They said, “You’re not second-rate. Not to me, and not to those who love you.”
He lifted his head. A small ounce of color returned to his cheeks.
“Friends don’t see friends like that.”
A stab of pain, then a smile, a forced one like Maywood had taught herself to do. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome. Do you feel any better? Please talk to someone about this, someone better than me. Talk to Maywood, okay?”
“I’ll try,” he said, then wiped a hand down his face. “I do love Arkeh:na. I love the people and their ways. I just keep thinking that, if I left, everyone would be happier.”
“No, they wouldn’t. You belong here. Just because a few older Arkeh:nen are prejudice doesn’t mean you have to abandon the friends you have. When Avery comes back, I’ll ask if she can track down your Fader for you, I promise.”
“The Autre world isn’t like Arkeh:na, Cameron. She won’t know every single person up there. And don’t bother. I don’t like her. She’s not good enough for you.” He dusted off his knees and got up. “Don’t tell your Moeder about what I’ve been doing.”
“I have to tell her if she asks me, Basil. You know that.”
A sickly look overcame him.
“I’m sorry. Maybe you can ask your Moeder for guidance, or mine. You can book a duel reading.”
Basil scoffed at such a notion and waved them off. “See you.”
They returned his wave until he left, then took out the aqua gemmes they’d excavated that week. If their Moeder asked, they wouldn’t really tell her everything. Still, thinking that Basil was leaving his home to find another troubled them. If caught, he could be excommunicated from Arkeh:na, forced to live in the woods hunting for a nameless Fader.
They snuggled into their bear pelt. They didn’t mind being the harbor for Basil’s pain. They didn’t mind acting as a counsellor for Maywood. If it kept everyone together, what harm did it cause? Best their energy be used on their friends rather than themselves.
The gemme in their hand twitched, causing them to lose it somewhere in their blanket.
“Liar,” it whispered.
Hiding it away, Cameron instead took out their honey jar. They watched the gold drip down the glass. Right before it reached the end, they popped open the lid and took a sip.