The following week, Avery went to school like she hadn’t a secret to keep. She paid attention in class and greeted teachers who greeted her first. She acted perfectly normal, the average eighth grader.
She wanted to cry the entire time.
To fight through it, she managed to skip her last period. She’d pleaded with her gym teacher to let her sit out in the gym hallway. She’d blamed it on period pains, and she told her mother that, because of school-related stress, she wanted to be picked up and forgo using the bus. She couldn’t stand being in school and not Arkeh:na, she’d never last the thirty-minute bus ride home. Since her mother usually worked from home, she reluctantly agreed to be her ride.
Around her, students K–12 filled the halls with scuffling chatter. Sport teams and afterschool clubs divvied up into their cliques. Classmates she’d grown up with got close to her and gushed about their plans they had for the weekend. Scared of seeing Bridget, Avery kept her face glued to the hallway window. She’d yet to spot her mother’s car between the yellow buses.
To calm down, she opened up her notebook. She’d printed out dozens of pictures to show Cameron, but she hadn’t expected them to see her drawings. Drawings of them. She’d caught herself doodling them in class, but they were doodles, not finished illustrations. She had to do better next time. They must’ve thought her a terrible drawer.
Still, she smiled at Cameron’s doodles. The shaky lines and messy handwriting told her that they didn’t often hold a pencil. She even chipped off some dirt smudging the page. She’d secretly hoped they would’ve drawn her, but no. Just gemmes and smiling faces.
She’d never tell anyone about Arkeh:na. Who’d believe her, and who did she want to? Her parents didn’t even know she caved as deeply as she did. If they found out and actually believed her, then what? She’d be whisked away onto television shows and interviewed for her school newspaper. While boasting did come to mind, she’d decided to keep this, like most parts of herself, a secret.
After all the buses left and the hall became less sporadic, Avery looked up to see her mother’s car waiting impatiently near the curb. She had her phone to her ear, likely about to call Avery to tell her to turn around. As she guessed, her phone rang a second later.
“I’m coming out now,” she said, and hung up.
Her mother’s car interior contradicted her messy computer workspace. She vacuumed it every weekend, keeping the floor mats free of crumbs. Whenever Avery entered into the backseat, her mother would watch her to make sure she didn’t track in any dirt.
“How was school?” she asked in an automatic manner. “Why do you keep asking me to pick you up?”
“I’ve just been overwhelmed.”
Knowing she wouldn’t get much more from her daughter, she turned out of the parking lot into the town of Foxfield.
Foxfield’s Main Street was comprised of two gas stations, a supermarket, a post office, Town Hall, and a church built in the 1780s. Town Hall reminded Avery of a place pilgrims would flock to to discuss the Constitution. The houses even more so, with their white pillars and brick fireplaces. Her family lived about thirty minutes away from it all, outcasts of their own volition.
“Right after you texted me, I got a call from your grandmother,” her mother said. “Grandpa collapsed again while trying to clean the stairs. He’s in bed now, resting, but your grandmother’s trying to take care of the store by herself.”
“Grandma usually can take care of the store by herself,” Avery said, recalling every triumphant speech her grandmother had given her about running her own store.
“Not at her age, not anymore. I wanted your father to go check on them, but he’s out working in the field, and then you called. I’m planning on staying there for a few hours. Do you have any homework to do?”
“Not a lot. Can you drop me off—?”
“No. No more hiking. You’ve never hiked this much before. Your grandmother needs us.”
Thinking about how Cameron would’ve wanted to help their Grandmoeder, Avery conceded and planned on visiting Arkeh:na another day. Not that she didn’t care about her grandfather. It was just that, whenever they came to help, they always told them to go back home. They sometimes got into fights about it. She didn’t want to stress them out with unwanted worry.
Her mother drove through Foxfield’s farmlands with lax movements. The forest towered above them on the left while cows and horses grazed on the right. Avery had always wanted to try their fresh produce, but her mother didn’t trust the farm owners. Unless she went to her grandparents’ store, she couldn’t try what Foxfield had to offer.
Her mother slammed on the brakes so hard that Avery’s head flung forwards, her back jumping off the seat. Someone had taken the turn quicker than she had and sped away just as fast. Panting, she cursed them out and went to grab her cane, which’d fallen to the floor.
“The light’s green,” Avery warned her.
“I know,” she said, and made the turn.
Avery studied the tip of her mother’s cane. Maywood needed one of these to walk around. Some Arkeh:nen had bandages over certain parts of their body that caused them to limp. Most of them looked her age.
“Hey, Mom? What’s it like being hurt all the time?”
“I mean with your cane, and how you’re not going to get better.”
“You mean being disabled.”
She tightened her grip on the steering wheel. “Do you think your Lyme disease is getting worse?”
“No. I’m still taking my medicine every day with breakfast.” She patted her bag, feeling for both her antibiotics and her regular headache medication. When Cameron had ruptured into that coughing fit, she’d almost given the former to them. She probably shouldn’t have offered it to them, now that she thought about it. Who knew what Autrean medicine would do to their body. “I’m just curious about how it feels. I’ve…been talking to someone at school who might’ve been born sick.”
“So you’re talking about a chronic illness. It’s a sickness that lasts for months, like cancer or asthma. It can sometimes be cured or lessened with treatment and self-care, but it normally stays with you. A terminal illness typically results in death.”
Avery slid into the backseat, intimidated by her mother’s knowledge. “I think they have a chronic illness.”
“Well, it’s difficult, to say the least.”
“Does it always hurt?”
“More or less. You just have to deal with it. Some people can’t afford to. I was lucky. If I hadn’t been wearing my seatbelt when I got into that car accident, I would’ve gone straight through the window and lost more than just my leg strength. That bear or deer—whatever I hit—sent me straight through the guardrail and down a ditch.”
Avery watched the blur of green and brown fly by. “How should I go about talking about my friend’s sickness?”
“Well, what sickness does she have?”
She. Even though she didn’t understand it herself, Avery respected how Cameron chose to identify, but she didn’t have the courage to correct her mother. Not wanting to upset her, she said, “I’m not sure yet. They…She coughs a lot, but she says it’s normal. She’s also really frail and pale, the same with the rest of her family.”
“Does she take medication for anything?”
“I don’t think so. They’re really religious, I think. They’re like a Wiccan.”
“Wiccan? Like a witch? Avery, don’t hang out with Wiccans, especially if they’re sick. You know how easily you catch colds.”
“But what if they’re getting sick because of the environment they’re living in, like their house is moldy or the air taste bad? How could I convince them to get help?”
“Avery, you can only do so much for this girl. Not everyone can pick up their house and move to someplace better.”
“You and Dad did when Grandma and Grandpa opened up their shop.”
Her mother caught her eye in the rearview mirror. “If you’re so worried about her, convince her parents to do something about it. You can only do so much for someone who doesn’t want to change.”
Avery smiled bleakly at the thought of her trying to convince the matriarchy to move out of a place they’d been living in for more than 300 years. Hopefully Cameron would understand her before the worst happened. Spending so much time in those tunnels couldn’t have been healthy.
“Here we are,” her mother announced, pulling into the rocky parking lot.
Her grandmother’s and grandfather’s ma-and-pa shop was trapped in a snow globe of autumn decor from the 80s. Everything smelled so much of artificial cinnamon that she fully believed the floorboards were just flattened cinnamon sticks.
Cardboard cutouts of hand-drawn apples welcomed them at the front door. Real apples, pumpkins, and pears sat next to apple, pumpkin, and pear candles. Cartoon milk jugs chilled above the refrigerators, and cheesy knick-knacks of bears and bald eagles collected dust on the tables.
Her grandmother, Sun, swiveled on her stool behind the front counter. Her crochet needles poked out of whatever scarf or blanket she was currently knitting.
“Where’s Ash?” her mother asked. “Is he in bed?”
“He’s fine,” her grandmother said, “though he called down saying he walked into our closet and didn’t like what he saw. Said he was going to rearrange the summer and winter clothes before dinner.”
“He should be resting. Didn’t you say he fell?”
Ignoring her, her grandmother beckoned Avery over and kissed her cheek. “How’re you doing, baby?”
“Grandpa’s okay, right?”
“Of course he is, but since you’re all here, let’s go up and see him. I told you, Juniper, there’s nothing to worry about. Old people fall all the time.”
“You have to worry when old people fall. I’m telling you, I found this nice retirement home that’s affordable—”
“Marlows don’t go into retirement. We work until we die, and then our granddaughters take up the family business.”
“I’m not good at talking to people,” Avery reminded her.
“You haven’t learned anything from your mother. Juniper, baby, come up with us. I wanted to talk to you. Ash’s worried about this mountain your husband’s demolishing.”
Avery scampered up the stairs before her mother and grandmother. She never minded waiting behind them, but her mother would yell at her to go up first, and her grandmother always shimmied a little quicker whenever she was making someone wait. That Marlow stubbornness had never reached Avery’s branch of the family tree.
Her grandfather sat upright in bed so he could watch the TV better. They had a heating pad warming up whatever part of him ached the most. He had it on the lowest setting.
To combat the television’s volume, he shouted, “Hey, Avery, girl. I didn’t know you were coming down to say hello.”
“Hi, Grandpa.” She bent down and withstood one of his surprisingly strong hugs.
“How’re you doing? How’s that girlfriend of yours? Is she still giving you trouble?”
Avery blew out her cheeks. She’d told him several times not to call Bridget that. “She’s doing fine. She became president of the newspaper club.”
“Ash, Sun said you fell,” Avery’s mother said, pulling up a chair. “You shouldn’t be working when you’re like this. You should be settling down.”
Avery’s grandmother handed her husband his medicine along with a glass of water. “He’s fine.”
“He’s not fine. You need to relocate to a retirement home. You can’t keep taking these stairs.”
“I don’t want to talk about this right now,” her grandfather said in a harrumph. “Avery, tell me about school. You’re almost a high schooler now. Do you like your classes?”
“I don’t have a lot of classes with Bridget, so we’ve drifted apart,” she half-truthed, “but I did meet someone new.”
“You met someone?”
“They’re just a friend,” she corrected. “Their name’s Cameron. They’re, uh, a foreign exchange student from…” She couldn’t think of a country off the top of her head, so she blurted out, “England.”
“A Brit?” her grandmother asked. “I bet she has a cool accent.”
Avery wanted so badly to correct them, but she held back. She hardly understood it herself; the older generations would just make fun of her. “They’re into rocks and gemstones, stuff like that. We draw together.”
“I heard she’s Wiccan,” her mother said. “Magic and witches and the like.”
“Well, that just makes her more interesting, doesn’t it?” her grandmother said. “Does she cast spells on you?”
Avery chuckled, then seriously considered Cameron owning a wand. They’d be into healing magic, for sure, magic that came from holding your hand or resting their forehead against yours.
“Oh, Avery, I found some more sweaters for you to try on,” her grandfather said.
“No more sweaters, she already has too many,” her mother said. “Half of her closet is sweaters, and most of them are from you.”
“I don’t mind,” Avery said, and went to hunt them down. When her grandparents weren’t busy running the shop, they somehow produced their own brands of clothes. New outfits and socks would suddenly appear in their closet, then magically find their way to Avery. The thick material kept ticks from eating her alive.
“They’re on the stool,” her grandfather shouted.
“I got them,” she called back, and flipped through the designs. They felt as soft as the bear pelt in Cameron’s den.
She paused. She hadn’t seen any closets in the Arkeh:nen dens.
Coming out with a mountain of sweaters, Avery ran around the corner and said, “Do you have any more you don’t want?”
“I want to donate them.”
Escaping the house was easy with only one parent on watch. Sometimes she’d run into the forest, hang out in the trees for an hour, then come back without them even noticing. Sometimes she’d get a scolding, but it amazed her how invested her mother got with her work.
When they got home and her mother went to her working space, Avery took one of her boxes of clothes up to her room. When she came back down, she had her school backpack stuffed not with school supplies, but with as many sweaters as the zippers could handle. Adjusting the weight on her back, she casually climbed back down to the first floor and headed for the garage. “I’m gonna walk Oreo and Pumpkin for a bit. They looked antsy when we pulled up.”
Her mother checked the time on her computer. “Be back in a half hour, okay? Your father’s coming home late.”
“Okay. See you.”
Even though she was in the clear, she shut the garage door quietly so it wouldn’t creak and settled her dogs so they didn’t bark.
After leashing them up, she opened her mother’s trunk and heaved out the remaining box of clothes.
Getting to Arkeh:na with a full backpack, a heavy box, and Oreo and Pumpkin tested her coordination skills. Maybe next time she’d bring a wheelbarrow. They had so much junk in their attic, junk that could help a whole lot of people. Boxes, old mattresses—how would she smuggle a mattress up these hills? Maybe she could ask some of those “scavengers” for help, the hunters allowed to leave the caves. She felt so bad, just now thinking about being charitable. She’d make up for it now.
When she got to the Main Exit Tunnle, she tied Pumpkin and Oreo to a nearby tree. Neither of them trusted the cave anymore after they watched it swallow their owner whole. To them, the cave must’ve looked like the mouth of a giant beast.
“You’ll trust it soon enough,” she told them as she moved the boulder out of place. “Trust me, it’s kind of fun down here.”
Oreo whined and rested his head on Pumpkin.
Not many Arkeh:nen welcomed her as flamboyantly as they’d done a few days ago. Some turned their heads and hid behind their parents, but most of the Community had accepted her, or tolerated her.
Cameron hadn’t come for her, though. She knew what their den looked like, but she’d forgotten which level they lived on.
Taking a chance, she walked down the crowded ville shacks and stuck her nose in one of the open shoppes. Beneath the hanging blankets were boxes of iron trinkets categorized by size. She spotted soda cans and pennies and even brass bullet casings someone must’ve scavenged near the hunting grounds. The shoppe next door sold purple gems, the other nothing but fox furs.
Behind the shoppe lay another row of shacks, and in that aisle, admiring some metal scraps, stood Basil and Maywood. They spoke in Arkeh:nen as they examined a piece of metal. Basil noted the quality—something about “forest,” and “I” and “better”—and Maywood went to put it back when she saw Avery.
She beamed like the Sun bursting through storm clouds. “Avery!”
She gave the shoppekeep a piece of fur in exchange for the metal and came over. She spoke enthusiastically about something, then seemed to understand that none of it had reached Avery’s ears. Cameron talked slowly and repeated themselves for her, but she still needed time to nail down casual Arkeh:nen.
Basil sized Avery up with his usual air of disapproval.
She didn’t want to, but without the ability to speak their language fluently, she asked him, “Can you show me where Cameron’s den is? I wanted to bring these to them.”
“Well, my grandparents—my Grandmoeder and Grandfader—knitted these, but they don’t need them anymore. I wanted to know if Cameron or any other Arkeh:nen needed them.”
At the mention of her noble grandparents, Basil reexamined the contents of the box with a skeptical look, then translated for his sister.
“Oh, good,” she heard her say. “Come this way.”
As they walked, Avery mapped out the path in her head for future visits. Lavishly decorated dens became markers for when they needed to turn or cross a bridge. Some extravagant people became recognizable, like the man who wore nothing but a poncho and the woman with a monocle in her eye.
Some older teenagers mingled near the railings. When they passed a group of boys, Basil stuck out his tongue and greeted them with slaps to their behinds. One of them said something and pointed at Avery, making the rest of them, including Basil, laugh.
Avery lowered her head in unknowing shame.
Maywood said something motherly and rested her hand on Avery’s back. “Boys, boys, boys,” she kept repeating.
They came to Cameron’s tunnle in quiet footsteps. Cameron was still asleep, bundled up in their bear pelt, their gemmes emitting a soft orange hue around the room.
When Avery stepped inside, Cameron inhaled and smacked their head against the stone around them. They threw out a sleepy hand to retrieve a gemme on their shelf, a comfort gem.
“I’m sorry,” Avery said. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”
At the sound of her voice, Cameron said something in alarm and crossed their bear pelt over themselves. Once they got their bearings, they addressed her box with a question.
“My Grandmoeder and Grandfader made these for me”—she pointed at herself—“but I don’t need them, so I wanted to give them to you.” And she pointed at them.
They coughed and crawled out of bed. “Me?” they asked, holding a sweater against their torso for size comparison.
“Yeah, for you. For Cameron. And everyone else,” she added, feeling Basil’s and Maywood’s brown eyes on her. “You can share.”
“Wow.” They went to hug her, but stopped themselves short. “Thank you,” it sounded like they said.
Avery didn’t know what to say back. While she knew the Arkeh:nen words for “you’re welcome,” she felt a little spurned. Did they not like her enough to give her a hug anymore? Had she upset them by waking them up? Did they hate her?
She pushed those feelings away. She was back in Arkeh:na, with them, and that was all that mattered. “You’re welcome. I was looking at some of these and thought this one would look nice on—”
Cameron struggled to lift the box by themselves. Both Avery and Basil dove in to help them, but they succeeded on their own and left their den with the box in hand.
They disappeared into someone’s den, calling for them. Then the next den, then the next, until everyone in the tunnle had come out.
Cameron took to handing out every single scarf and sweater to one of their neighbors. Parents from across the walkway came over hesitantly and some of those older boys thought themselves too good to accept the offer, but Cameron made sure everyone—everyone but them—received a gift, until the box was empty.