AUTHOR’S NOTE: The Star and the Ocean underwent structural revisions in September 2016. This particular chapter can now be found as the new chapters 1 and 2. It has also been heavily updated since this first publication. If you are new to TSATO, I encourage you to start with these new chapters!
Chapter One – I thought you needed help
For the last four years May’s life had pretty much stayed the same.
It wasn’t so much that she kept a strict routine or avoided change, but she could always expect a day to unfold in much the same way as the one before it. She woke up every morning and did what was expected of her, and then she would fall asleep alone. She behaved herself, helping when she could and staying out of the way when she couldn’t.
This, in some variation or another, was all that May had come to expect. So when she woke up on Tuesday she figured it would be like any other Tuesday before it, and in almost every way, it was.
She woke before her alarm the way she always did. She often wondered why she bothered setting it at all; it was more of a “time to get out of bed now” alarm than an actual wake-up call. She usually stirred to warm rays of light poking their way through the wooden slats of her window shutters and the sound of the morning birds in the branches of her tree. And like most mornings she laid there, breathing deeply, thinking about what steps she would practice that morning and what games she would play with Omi later.
She preferred these simple musings over the more intrusive thoughts that would sneak in if ever she let her guard down. Like when she wondered if this – playing nanny to her nephew and obediently waiting for people to decide she had spent enough time quietly earning back the right to be part of the community – was the best she had to look forward to.
Sometimes, when she was feeling especially lonely, she’d listen to the crash of the surf and imagine packing up and leaving it all behind. The whispered stories of a dangerous and unruly mainland be damned – it couldn’t possibly be worse than living life as a pariah.
Not that she would ever do it. For starters, she wasn’t nearly that brave. For another, the island-born, even one of such questionable heritage such as herself, didn’t just leave Hoku. Besides, she chose to believe that she was done disappointing her family. She owed them at least that much.
And hadn’t she come such a long way in those last four years? She was dancing for an audience again, invited back by the director of the Omaea Performing Arts Group himself. That had to count for something.
On this particular Tuesday morning, May was in good spirits. She stretched happily when her alarm eventually went off and wrestled her way out from beneath the covers. Thinking back to the previous weekend, the first in a month-long run for the spring concert series, she smiled at the memory of how well it had gone. There may have been some whispering when people heard her name announced but, oh, it was such a rush to be back on a stage and dancing in front of people instead of just a mirror! And after that first show was over May felt as if, even just for a little while, the rumours and the lies were all just a bad memory.
As far as she was concerned, she was well on her way to a fresh start and it felt wonderful. Lonesome, perhaps, but wonderful compared to where she had been.
Starting her day with some stretching and dance practice, May ran through one of her favourite routines. After an hour or so she dragged the living room furniture back into place and washed up. She liked to give herself a little more time than needed to get to into town; Ora was back to work now and May didn’t want her to feel pressed for time.
Before stepping out the door, she paused in front of the mirror to scrutinize her clothing one last time. Even though she had worn the skirt plenty of times, she tugged at its scalloped hemline compulsively. It still hung a couple of inches above her knees, just like it always had. It was appropriate. There wasn’t much else she could do with the conservatively high neckline of her sleeveless top but she fidgeted with that too.
Eventually she let herself accept that she looked respectable; she had to stop worrying.
You’re good and the day will be too, she thought to herself. It was the mantra she repeated every day before she made the trek into town. You’re going to be just fine.
She always walked the same route, and it was all so familiar – so much of the same thing day in and day out – that anything out of the ordinary should have stood out right away. Still, today she was so deep in a daydream she almost missed it; a mound of colour off to her right beneath the shade of a cluster of palms.
“Who the heck are you?” She muttered to herself, craning her neck to get a better look at what appeared to be a dozing body.
At least she hoped it was dozing. She waited a moment until she caught a glimpse of the rise and fall of breathing before she released a sigh of relief herself. Just another North Shore drifter backpacking the coast. It was rare that they veered this far off the main road – in fact, May couldn’t remember the last time it had happened. She pretended she wasn’t jealous of the stranger’s freedom and gutsy pursuit of nothing, but who was she kidding?
Consumed with a new daydream, she continued her walk into town.
A short while later, May gave a few customary raps at her sister’s door before kicking off her shoes and pushing her way inside. Ora’s face poked around the corner at the sound of the door closing. She was on the phone with one hand and running a comb through her long black tresses with the other. She smiled brightly at May and smothered the receiver against her shoulder.
“Hey, Maybe!” She strode forward confidently and planted a kiss on May’s cheek. “Grey just left and Omi’s washing up. He is so excited to see you. Hasn’t stopped talking about whatever new game of pretend you two started yesterday!”
“Pirates.” May responded just as Ora turned back to her call. The story she had been telling her nephew the previous day had morphed into a lively, day-long game of make-believe. Omi had been so devastated when it was time for her to leave she had promised they could pick up where they had left off when she returned the next morning. She was secretly pleased he was still looking forward to it.
“Sorry, the nanny just got here.” Ora said into the phone as she made a beeline to her bedroom to get changed. May felt her heart constrict; just “the nanny”. But before she could really start feeling sorry for herself, out tore her little nephew, still pajamaed and bed-headed and grinning madly at the sight of her.
“Maybe!” He squealed as she caught him up in her arms and lifted him high into the air. “Are you ready to play pirates?”
“Aye aye, captain!” May saluted him before peppering a couple of quick kisses on his forehead.
“Eew!” He cried, swiping a small pudgy hand down his face.
She laughed. “Shall we get started?”
That evening, as May was making her way home in the fading light, she saw the North Shore napper again, still huddled in the same place but in a slightly different position.
“Tough life.” She scoffed, wondering why anyone would choose such a random place to make camp.
She didn’t think much of it until the next morning when she spotted the same mound of person sleeping on the beach as she made she way back to Ora’s house. Honestly, if not for the fact that they were at least shifting between sightings she might have wondered if they were dead.
It wasn’t until the sixth sighting on what was then the third evening that May thought something must be wrong. She paced about her kitchen, wondering what to do.
Should I call someone?
No, what if it was honestly just someone who had found a nice spot they enjoyed and she ruined it for them by calling on authorities? She was embarrassed just thinking about it.
Oh, no… She fretted, clutching her hands to her chest out of rising panic. What if they’re hurt and I’ve just left them there for the last three days?
Maybe she would just go back and check. Then she could call for help if it was necessary.
But what if they’re some dangerous, drugged-out… Criminal or something?
She was starting to get worked up.
But no, she couldn’t just do nothing. She’d never be able to live with the guilt if something bad had happened to this person and she had done nothing to help.
Still, she was nervous. As a precaution, she grabbed a small paring knife from her kitchen drawer before throwing a sweater over her shoulders and stepping out into the final throes of the day. She had no idea what she’d do with the knife if she actually needed to use it, but she figured having it was better than nothing.
Faster than she liked, May found herself standing only a few paces from the stranger. They were, as expected, still sleeping.
They were also, May was surprised to find as she leaned a little bit closer, apparently a woman not much older than herself. Dressed in lightly coloured, dirty jeans and a hooded sweatshirt, May wondered how this woman could have possibly spent the last few days sleeping through the island heat. It may have been spring, but it was always hot.
May moved around the stranger, trying to keep quiet and at a safe distance. Long, silver hair flowed from beneath the hood drawn tightly around her face, the colour starkly at odds with the youthfulness of her features. It was the almost complete lack of colour to her skin that stood out the most, as if someone had sketched out her edges but forgotten to colour her in.
“Oh, no,” May felt her heart sink. “No, no, no… Hello? Hey, are you okay?”
She rushed forward, legs shaking. She had waited too long. She should have checked sooner. How was she going to explain a dead body on her end of the beach? What were people going to think?
She reached out, willing herself to roll the body and check for a pulse, when the dead woman inhaled sharply. She stretched long and flailed her feet outwards as she rolled onto her other side. She would have kicked May in the ankles had she not already stumbled back out of fright.
“Are you freaking kidding me?” May cried, grasping at her racing heart. Suddenly she didn’t really care whether or not this stranger was asleep or dangerous or anything else for that matter.
But the woman kept sleeping.
May glanced around for clues. For a camp site of at least three days, the space around them certainly didn’t look occupied. There was no evidence of a fire or shelter, just a backpack that had been cast off to the woman’s side.
“Alright, lady. Let’s find out who you are.” May muttered, pulling the pack toward her and taking a seat.
Placing her kitchen knife at her side, May gave the stranger one last wary look before she began. Pulling open the flap and opening the bag wide, it was still difficult to make out many of the contents in the dwindling light. Strapped to the outside was what May assumed to be a tent, and inside the pack was a small bundle of clothes, a few packages of dehydrated food and what looked to be an ornate compass mounted in a leather sleeve. May raised it high to get a better look and caught what seemed to be words engraved into the back of the leather. She squinted through the hazy rays of the setting sun trying to read what it said.
“Who the fuck are you?”
May jumped, blood running cold at the sound of an unfamiliar voice. The strange woman was now very awake and she sat half-raised, staring wide-eyed right at May.
There was no time to think, only react. May dropped the compass on top of the pack and scrambled to her feet, snatching up the knife as she went and holding it out in a way that she desperately hoped made it look like she knew what she was doing.
“Woah!” The stranger raised her hands and shuffed back as best she could from her place on the ground. Her eyes were a light, crystalline blue, unlike anything May had ever seen. They flicked nervously between the knife and the eyes of the woman holding it. “Holy shit, take it easy!”
May blinked. This woman didn’t look like the kind of person who use such colourful language. It threw May off.
She shook her head and tried to regain her composure.
“Who are you and what are you doing on my beach?” May demanded, sounding a whole lot braver than she felt. She had no claim to this beach, it just felt like the right thing to say.
“Your beach?” The woman asked, casting a quick glance around. The look on her face melted from incredulous disbelief to concern.
“Holy fuck, what is going on…”
Again, May was surprised.
She has no idea where she is.
“Are you drunk right now? High?” May balked. To her it seemed like the only thing that could explain how a person could fall asleep for days without knowing where they were.
“Stand up.” May demanded.
“Okay, I’m standing.” The woman grumbled, getting carefully to her feet. She gave May a critical once-over.
May felt panic leaden in her stomach.
Oh, no. What am I doing? Her mind reeled. If she comes at me I am so screwed. And she knows it too. What am I supposed to do?
“Listen,” the stranger said, taking a cautious step forward. “I think we’re both just a little freaked out right now. Can we start over? Maybe we could start by putting the knife down?”
“No!” May shrieked, unexpectedly loud enough to make them both jump. “Don’t you come over here! Stay where you are!”
This was a disaster. May had just been trying to help, not take a prisoner. But she was mortified at having been caught rummaging through this woman’s things and now she wasn’t completely convinced that said woman hadn’t just been sleeping off a bad trip. May wanted to get as far away from this person as she could before anything else went wrong.
“Okay,” the woman spoke low and slowly, trying to keep her voice even. It was a dreamy sort of sound and it made May shiver. “Take whatever you want. Seriously, take it all. I don’t want any trouble here. I’ll leave right now.”
“Wait, what?” She shook her head. “I don’t want your stuff!”
“Then…” The stranger looked confused. “Why the hell are you going though my pack?”
“You’ve been asleep on this beach for three days!” May threw her hands up, making her hostage jump again. The woman’s eyes stayed fixed on the knife that was being so carelessly flailed around.
May began to feel exasperated. “I was trying to find out who you are because I thought you needed help.”
The woman’s face was awash with shock. “Three days? Are you sure?” Her gaze became unfocused as May nodded.
She looked around again, pushing back her hood as she ran her hands along her scalp and through her cascading silver hair. Even in the faint light it shimmered and for a moment May was captivated by everything about her: the hair, her ghostly complexion, those icy blue eyes wide with worry.
“A-are you okay?” May slowly lowered the knife to her side. Feeling somewhat foolish, she tried to shift the mood a bit. “Is there someone you need me to call?”
The strange woman rubbed her forehead and sighed, somehow managing to look tired after all that sleep.
“No,” she groaned. “No, and I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you. I’m sorry for trespassing.”
May flushed. “Y-you’re not trespassing,” she replied meekly. This isn’t my… I mean, I don’t know why I said that.”
An awkward silence hung between the two of them. The stranger looked hard at May in a way that made her feel as if she was reading her mind. May knew that the scrutiny should have made her uncomfortable but at the same time she couldn’t help but feel like someone was seeing her for the first time in ages. For some reason, it felt good having this person’s attention.
The woman smiled weakly. “I, uh, like your hair,” she said, causing May to sputter and reach instinctively for the rose gold waves of her short bob. “It’s cute.”
This hair? Mine? It was such a random thing to say at a time like this.
Nothing about this person – the way she looked, the way she spoke, the way she acted – none of it made any sense. But it was in that moment May knew she didn’t have to be afraid of her – and that she hadn’t from the very beginning.
“What’s your name?” The stranger asked.
May hesitated a moment before answering softly. “It’s May.”
And just like that, something changed. The strange woman’s face lit up, faint colour rushing to fill the apples of her cheeks and a warm smile spread across her lips.
“May,” she repeated. “That’s a sweet name. Listen, you can relax, okay? I promise I’m not going to hurt you.”
A violent flush rose up May’s neck and spilled across her face. When she didn’t respond, the woman held out her hand and tried again.
“I wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t true.”
May looked at the woman’s outstretched hand. Cautiously, she accepted, shaking it politely.
“And who are you?” She asked.
The world around them started to swim until Em was all that May could see. With her deceptively warm hand in hers, May stood transfixed. Maybe it was the unusual circumstances, or perhaps it was the way Em’s pale skin seemed to glow in the twilight, but May was convinced for a reason she couldn’t quite place that this moment was important.
Em gave May’s hand a gentle squeeze, bringing her back to the real world. There was more blushing, a mumbling of an apology.
“May, I’m sorry I scared you. But I’m going to be honest with you: I have no idea where the hell I am and I’m really not sure how I got here.” She paused.“And to answer your previous question, I’m neither drunk nor high.”
May felt like a complete idiot. Gesturing vaguely, she held the knife in her hand away from her body like some repugnant dead thing.
“I’m sorry too,” she replied. “I don’t know what I was thinking waving this thing at you.”
“Yeah, I could kind of tell.” Em laughed.
May exhaled and managed to crack a smile. It was if they were old friends patching things up after a petty fight.
With the mood lightened, May felt the overwhelming desire to be helpful. The words spilled out of her before she could even consider what she was saying.
“Y’know, you don’t have to sleep out here. My place isn’t far. You’re welcome to stay the night. On the couch or… I have a hammock, too. I promise I’ll put this thing away and everything.” She motioned to the knife.
Em didn’t answer right away, surveying May with that same intense stare. As if she could catch any hint of ill-intent just by looking at her.
She thinks I’m nuts, thought May. She thinks I’m absolutely crazy. This is crazy, isn’t it? What am I doing…
But Em only smiled.
“That sounds really nice. But are you sure?”
May couldn’t hide her surprise. She hadn’t actually thought that Em would say yes. She felt a twitch in her stomach that normally would have been the swell of anxiety. But this feeling was different; excitement, maybe? She honestly wasn’t sure.
“Yeah, definitely!” She nodded, feeling more confident than she had all day. “C’mon, follow me.”