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 3, 4, and 5. I highly encourage you to read from these new chapters instead!
Chapter Two – Potentially Invasive Questions
The walk back to May’s home wasn’t a long one, but with the awkward air hanging between her and Em, it felt like an eternity.
May struggled for a way to break the silence when Em laughed softly.
“I can’t believe this is happening,” she muttered, more to herself than to May.
May nodded, agreeing the situation was indeed pretty incredulous.“It’s probably pretty scary, not knowing how you got here.”
“I meant the whole ‘going home with a stranger I just met on the beach’ thing. A stranger who pointed a knife at me, no less. I must be fucking crazy.”
May felt stung. “Hey, I’m just trying to help,” she grumbled, crossing her arms and locking her gaze straight ahead. “I’m taking a risk here, too.”
From the corner of her eye she saw Em press the heel of her palm into her forehead.
“Okay,” she sighed, turning to look at May for the first time since they set out. “So we’re both crazy. Just promise not to murder me in my sleep, okay?”
May scoffed. “Only if you promise me the same.”
Em raised one hand and covered her heart with the other. “I solemnly swear.”
Silence fell between them again. May watched as Em absentmindedly gathered her hair in a messy bundle at the top of her head only to let it fall back down around her shoulders.
Em held out a lock and regarded it critically. “When did it get so long…” Frowning, she quickly glanced down at her disheveled appearance. “Ugh,” she groaned, looking sheepishly back at May. “Listen, if I smell, I’m sorry. It’s clearly been a while since I’ve enjoyed the comforts of civilization.”
May hadn’t given Em’s grimy aesthetic much thought – backpackers weren’t exactly known for their hygiene – but now she was curious.
“Why?” she asked. “What were you doing before you mysteriously washed up on our shores?”
“That’s a long story.” Em grinned, casually linking her fingers and stretching her arms above her head. “The short version is, I was backpacking through the mountains trying to get to the coast. The long version is -”
She stopped short, gaping at the space above May’s head. Confused, May turned and followed her gaze.
“What is that?” Em cried.
“That’s where I live!” she replied proudly.
“You live in a treehouse?” Em was flabbergasted. “How? That is so cool!”
From the leafy branches of a massive old tree protruded the deck of what appeared to be a house. Above its edges, Em could just make out sliding glass doors and a slanted roof disappearing into the darkness of the boughs.
“Well, it used to really be a treehouse.” May smiled fondly up at the house. “When I was little, a storm tore out a bunch of branches in the middle so I built myself a treehouse in the gap. It was really just a couple of platforms, but it was my favourite place. When it was time for me to move out, my papa helped me turn it into an actual place to live. Pretty cool, huh?”
Em was too enthralled to acknowledge May’s question.
“I’ve always wanted to live in a treehouse,” she whispered.
May laughed. Making her way over to the metal spiral staircase that lead to the door, she motioned for Em to follow. “Come on, let me show you around.”
Once inside, Em’s backpack hit the floor with a thud. “This is fucking wild!” She exclaimed. “You built this yourself?”
“With my papa, yes,” May corrected. “He’s been building houses in town forever. I mean, it was my idea, but he helped me figure out how to make it work.”
Em was no less impressed. Her eyes swept the room; it was small but airy, with a high ceiling resting over top of an open space containing the living room. That room opened on one end out to the deck, and to the kitchen behind it on a raised level. The whole home seemed to be built up in steps, following the natural shape of the tree that cradled it. A short hallway ran back from the left of the kitchen, and branching off from it was a small, exposed staircase that lead to what Em assumed was a loft-like bedroom.
“The bathroom is back that way, down the hall,” May explained, as if that was somehow the most important detail of this remarkable home.
“You get running water up here?” Em marvelled. “Electricity?”
“Yep,” May replied, flipping on a lamp to prove it.
“Amazing.” Em let out a whistle, turning on the spot. “I am legitimately impressed.”
May beamed. This was the first time she had ever been able to show off her home to anyone other than family.
She watched as Em made to take a step forward before stopping mid-stride.
“Y’know,” said Em, looking down at herself. “Maybe I should get cleaned up first. Do you mind if I take a shower?”
“Oh! Sure, I’ll go find you a towel.” May hustled off.
When she returned, Em was rummaging through her pack.
“You’ll have to do for now,” she murmured to a wadded ball of clothing she held up in her hand.
May snickered quietly to herself. Whoever this woman was, she was nothing like anyone May had ever met on the island.
While Em showered, May fussed about the kitchen. Now that she was alone, the reality of having a visitor – especially one she didn’t really know – started setting in. She nervously set to work, rummaging through her cupboards and refrigerator, attempting to put together something for the two of them to eat. The meager spread she came up with made her realize just how unprepared she was to entertain another person.
May had just moved on to digging out a spare blanket out of the hall closet when Em emerged from the bathroom.
“Holy shit, that feels better.”
Her wet hair was piled into a hasty bun atop her head and she wore a badly wrinkled t-shirt and running shorts. She was a mess, but she did looked refreshed.
“Glad to hear it.” May smiled. “It’s not much but there’s some food on the counter if you’re hungry. Do you want some tea or something?”
Em hummed, tapping her chin thoughtfully.
“Do you have anything stronger?”
May stepped back from the closet, blanket in hand. She was about to ask Em what she meant when the answer came to her.
“Oh!” She blinked. “Um, I think I have a bottle of wine. Let me check.”
Soon the pair had settled on the couch, a respectful distance between them. Draped in the blanket, Em watched May pour their glasses before pulling her feet up to sit cross-legged.
“Cheers!” Em grinned, clinking her glass against May’s.
They smiled politely before falling into a wordless holding pattern once again.
After a moment or two of sipping in silence, Em spoke.
“Hey, are you even old enough to be drinking?” she raised an eyebrow.
May spluttered through the sip she had been taking and shot a glare at Em.
“Excuse me?” Her voice came out a bit more high pitched than she would have liked.
“Sorry,” Em laughed. “You just look really young.”
May shifted awkwardly, tucking her elbows close to her sides and holding her glass up to her mouth in an attempt to obscure her body. Her thin frame and wide eyes had never really helped her look her age, but it was her woefully underdeveloped physique – hips, chest and the rest – that embarrassed her most. She had a hard enough time being taken seriously without people taking one look at her and assuming she was still just a girl, and compared to how Em was built… Well, to call her a bit insecure didn’t quite cover it.
“I’m twenty-eighty,” she muttered defensively, looking away as a blush crept across her face.
If Em had caught on to what May was being a sheepish about, she thankfully kept it to herself.
“Okay, okay,” she grinned. “I just wanted to make sure I wasn’t being a bad influence.”
Em raised her glass at May before helping herself to a generous taste.
“What about you?” May asked, watching her guest throw back her wine as if it were whisky.
“Oh, who knows anymore,” was Em’s vague response.
Puzzled, May opened her mouth to ask what Em meant but she was cut off.
“Is that you?” Em pointed at a framed picture on the wall, a family photo taken at Ora’s wedding six years previous.
May hated that photo but it was the only recent one of everyone together. She nodded curtly.
“You look so different with long hair.” Em studied the photo for a moment. “Whose wedding?”
“My sister’s,” May answered, smiling slightly. “The whole family is there. Except for Omi, of course. He wasn’t born yet. He’s my nephew.”
She watched as Em did a double-take.
May spared her from having to ask the obvious but awkward question. “I’m adopted,” she laughed.
A wave of comprehension washed over Em’s face. The figures surrounding May in the photo all shared a similar palette of rich, glowing brown skin and glossy black hair. May’s pale limbs and deep blue eyes, framed by curtains of rose gold waves of hair, stood out starkly – she could not have looked more out of place.
Em shifted under her blanket. That she wanted to ask something was clear, but she didn’t seem to know how. May sipped at her wine before saying anything.
“I was born on the island but my parents were mainlanders, like you,” she explained.
It had been years since she told this story – living her whole life in the same small community meant by the time she was a teenager, everyone knew how some pale and lanky child wound up calling their fairly traditional and isolated island town her home. She’d had no one to share her story with for so long that she struggled to find the words to tell it succinctly.
“They didn’t live here long – I don’t think they had ever planned on staying. But they made friends while they were passing through, including the couple who wound up taking me in when they had to leave.”
Even with so few details, Em was completely enthralled.
“So, why were they here in the first place? And why did they have to leave?” She asked the questions like a child during a bedtime story.
“I don’t know all of the details, to be honest. All I know is they apparently got themselves into some kind of trouble and had to leave. The way mama tells it, they wanted me to have a better life than they could give. Didn’t want to drag me into whatever it was they had gotten themselves into or something. So, after I was born, they asked my mama and papa if they would take me in. Then they left.”
Em waited, but when May didn’t continue she frowned.
“Wait.” She shook her head. “That’s it? What did they do that was so bad that it made them leave their kid behind? Have you ever tried to find them?”
May sighed. “I already told you, I don’t know. And no, I haven’t tried to find them.”
Em was dumb-founded. “But… don’t you want to?” she asked. “Giving up your kid is kind of a huge deal. Doesn’t it bother you not knowing?”
It had been a very long time since May felt insecure about where she had come from, and now that feeling manifested itself into a bristling sensation running up her back. Her eyes narrowed over the rim of her wine glass.
“Does asking insensitive questions bother you?” The words spilled out before she could even think about what she was saying.
It was clear Em was both taken-aback and embarrassed. She gaped wordlessly for a moment before dropping her gaze into her glass and taking a long, hard swallow.
“You’re right, I’m sorry,” she murmured.
But, in a way that was so typical of her, May was already starting to feel guilty for snapping. She sighed and took a couple more sips in the silence that hung between them, taking the time to choose her words carefully.
“When I was little, it did bother me,” she admitted finally. “A lot, actually.”
She gestured back to the wedding photo on the wall.
“I mean, clearly I’ve never exactly blended in around here. It was hard growing up and always knowing I was different from everyone else in a way I couldn’t change.”
Em nodded slowly, her eyes somewhat unfocused as if she had started thinking about something else.
May swapped her glass into her left hand and held out her right so that Em could see the ring on her middle finger. A roughly cut yet truly stunning stone was set into a band of ornately engraved gold. With its almost gritty, salt and pepper-like quality, the gem was unlike anything Em had ever seen and she leaned in to get a closer look.
“Oh, wow,” she breathed.
“Apparently it was my mother’s wedding ring. She asked mama to give it to me when I was old enough. I guess it was her way of leaving me with a piece of them both.”
Smokey as the stone was, it seemed to catch the light in just such a way that made it sparkle brilliantly. Even the reflection of the dull evening light seemed bright enough to get caught in Em’s eyes, because for a moment May thought they looked like they were glowing.
But then Em blinked and the light was gone. She sat back and looked softly at May in a way that almost made her blush.
“That’s a nice gesture,” Em said. “It’s a beautiful ring.”
May smiled gently and gave a shrug.
“By then I was old enough to appreciate it was all for the best. This is all I’ve ever known. It might not perfect, but it could definitely be worse. And, I mean, it’s not like they ever came back for me, y’know?”
“Hmm…” Em hummed in non-committal response.
Now May really was blushing.
She couldn’t really remember having been that honest about what it had been like growing up as an outsider before, and it had been years since she had spoken about her birth parents. Normally she never would have dared hint she was hurt by them abandoning her. On the island, people didn’t ask if she was curious about where she had come from; the implication had always been she was lucky to have been taken in at all – to have grown up in such a beautiful place, generally shut off to irresponsible mainlanders like her parents.
She accepted this all as fact from a very early age. Who was she to be anything but grateful?
“What about you?” she asked finally, hoping that Em couldn’t tell how exposed she felt. “Where’s your family?”
Em considered the question over another long drink of wine, draining her glass.
“Well, it’s just, uh, dad and I these days.” The way she seemed to struggle with the word ‘dad’ caught May’s attention. She cocked her head questioningly but Em powered on as if she hadn’t noticed.
“Mom and I were tight when I was a kid, but she had always been sick. She died when I was thirteen. Then I was kind of a drifter for a while.”
“Oh!” The confession took May by surprise. Em came across as such a laid back person that May found it hard to imagine she had experienced such devastating loss. “I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be. It was a long time ago.” Catching the mildly scandalized look on May’s face, she clarified. “I mean, it sucked and it was hard but that’s life.”
May reached for the bottle and refilled both of their glasses.
“So, where’s your dad then? Do you think you should get in touch with him?”
“Why?” Em seemed genuinely confused. “Oh, because of the whole mystery island business. No, honestly he’s a bit, uh, hard to track down.” She paused. “Although in his defense I guess I haven’t made staying in touch easy either.”
May abandoned the sip she had been about to take. It was her turn to ask potentially invasive questions.
Em shook the blanket off her shoulders and relaxed into the back of the couch. “As I was saying before I was interrupted by your super cool treehouse, I’ve been backpacking through the mountains for the last month or so. I have a phone but it’s been dead for a while, what with there being no electricity in the wilderness and all.”
May was intrigued. She couldn’t fathom the idea of spending that much time living with only the things on her back out in the middle of nowhere. But at the same time, it did sound kind of exciting and she wondered if she was the type of person with the gumption to pull it off.
“Why were you out there?”
“Trying to get to the coast.”
“What was on the coast?”
“I don’t know.” Em grinned over her glass. “That’s why I was going.”
At this point, the wine was warming May’s face. She could feel herself loosening up and Em’s coy responses made her laugh loudly.
“Are you going to keep making me ask questions or are you just going to tell me your story?”
Em laughed back.
“My story, huh?” She paused and seemed to consider her words carefully before continuing, “Well, for the last couple of years I was actually living in a mountain town called Tenna. Have you ever been?”
May shook her head. “I’ve never left the island.”
Em raised her eyebrows in surprise.
“We’ll come back to that,” she said and May giggled. “Anyway, I worked for the region’s emergency response team. It was a great gig – cool teammates, got to help people.Tough but worth it… Gotta question?”
The fascination was written so plainly on May’s face that Em couldn’t help but grin.
A question? May had so many that she wasn’t sure where to start.
“What does an emergency response team do?”
“Everything,” Em replied. “We find lost hikers, do avalanche control in the winter, manage forest fires in the summer – all that good stuff. Tenna is one of the only towns in that part of the mountain range, so a bit of a junction for travellers trying to get from one side to the other. Someone’s gotta look out for them.”
It all sounded so adventurous to May. She regarded Em in a new light, trying to see her as a life-saving hero instead of the wandering vagabond she had originally written her off to be.
The questions kept spilling out.
“How do you even get involved in something like that? And why did you leave? Did something happen?”
Em stretched and smiled. “No, nothing happened. It was just time. As far as how I got into it, that’s a much longer story but it’ll have to wait. It’s your turn again.”
May opened her mouth to protest but Em cut her off.
“What do you do with your life, May?”
Had it not been for the placating effects of the wine, May might have insisted on hearing the whole story right then and there. But Em’s question made her think of something Ora said earlier in the week and her normal polite demeanor was waning.
She downed what was left in her glass and and sat up prim and proper, shaking her short hair back from her face.
“I happen to be a nanny!” She proclaimed with saccharine sweetness, emphasizing the word ‘nanny’ with air quotes.
“Yikes!” Em laughed. “You sound so, uh, proud?”
“It’s actually not that bad,” May sighed, feeling a little guilt poking its way through the haze of wine. “I help my sister take care of Omi.”
“Huh,” was Em’s uncertain response.
May continued, trying a bit harder to be diplomatic. “I know it’s nothing glamorous but it’s actually kind of fun in a way. I love spending time with him. But I also dance!”
“Oh?” Em’s grin was full of mischief. “What kind of dancing do you do?”
Feeling bold, May leaned forward and gave Em’s knee a playful slap.
“Nothing like that,” she huffed, not so intoxicated that she couldn’t pick up on the insinuation. “Dancing like, in a theatre. Here, I’ll show you!”
She moved swiftly around the coffee table and pulled herself skillfully up onto her toes. Despite the warm buzz coursing through her, the transformation was effortless. She raise her arms and gave a graceful twirl.
Em knew nothing about dance, but even she could tell May was talented.
“Very nice. But can you do it without the wine?” She joked before having to lean back to dodge another swat from May. “Where’d you learn to do that?”
“We studied a bit of dance in school,” May replied airily, dancing her way back around the table to her place on the couch. “It wasn’t much but I really enjoyed it so I just kind of kept at it. I watch a lot of old movies. Actors used to dance in movies all the time back then, so I like to practice their routines and stuff.”
Em blinked. “Wait, so are you saying you pretty much taught yourself?”
“Well, I’m just getting back into it,” May answered, and Em wasn’t sure if she hadn’t heard the question properly or if she was just ignoring it. “I actually just started dancing in a spring showcase with the performing arts group in town and -”
She stopped. Eyes suddenly wide, she turned quickly to the clock on one of her shelves.
“Ah!” She gasped. “When did it get so late?”
“Probably after the second glass,” Em replied. “Why? What’s wrong?”
“Tomorrow’s Friday!” May groaned, rubbing her temples. “I have to dance a show after looking after Omi all day.”
Tipping back what was left in her glass, Em stood.
“I guess that means it’s bed time, huh?”
May looked up at her and frowned. While she wouldn’t have admitted it out loud, she was disappointed at having to call it a night. She was really enjoying having company for a change. But, never one to neglect her responsibilities, she stood too.
“Yeah, I guess so,” she sighed. “Do you need anything else?”
“No.” Em smiled, gathering up the blanket from the couch. “I think the hammock and I will be very comfortable. Thanks again for letting me spend the night.”
May blushed. “No problem. Sleep tight, Em.”
“Sweet dreams, May.”