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 5, 6, and 7. I highly encourage you to read from these new chapters instead!
Chapter Three – I’d really like it if you stayed
Sweet dreams, May.
At this rate, any kind of dream was a long way off, but it was a nice thought.
May wasn’t sure how long she laid in bed staring at the ceiling. It was at least long enough for her buzz to wear off, the heavy sensation of reality settling into the void the wine left behind.
Only a handful of hours ago she had found a stranger on the beach, waved a knife at her like a lunatic – every time she thought about that part her whole body flushed with humiliation – and then invited said woman to spend the night in her hammock. And, if all of that wasn’t surreal enough, this strange and wonderful woman had said yes.
A thrill rushed her stomach every time she thought about how much fun it had been to spend her evening talking with Em instead of doing her regular nothing alone. May relived every moment of their conversation; from each truth revealed, to the looks and smiles insinuating parts left out. There was so much May hadn’t told her, but she had a feeling there was just as much Em kept to herself too.
Now that she was alone, May could think of question after question she wanted to ask her enigmatic house guest. Glancing at the clock at her bedside, she groaned; at this rate she may as well have just stayed up talking. She wondered if Em was laying awake too.
Closing her eyes, May tried to clear her mind. It didn’t matter if Em was awake or not; she had to be up early. But instead of blank nothingness, May’s mind wandered back to Em; her face swimming vividly in front of her mind’s eye. The way those unbelievably icy blue eyes crinkled in the corners when she flashed a mischievous smile. Her long shimmering silver hair cascading like a flowing stream around her ghostly face and over bare pale shoulders.
Except May had never seen Em’s bare shoulders.
Her eyes snapped open as the embarrassing truth hit her: she had been completely willing to offer up her home and risk her safety because of a beautiful woman. Em’s was an eerie sort of beauty, but it was beauty nonetheless. May was smitten with her.
She smothered her burning face into a pillow. “Oh, noooo… No, I’m a terrible person!” she wailed, trying to be as quiet as possible.
What had she been thinking? Had Em caught her staring? Was it obvious? May’s stomach twisted at the thought. It had been so long since she had been around a woman she felt attracted to. She couldn’t tell if she had been coming across too strong. Could Em tell? And if she could, had it made her uncomfortable? The very idea made May feel sick.
She hadn’t seemed uncomfortable, though.
May pulled the covers over her head and rolled onto her side, feeling a new swell of dedication towards falling asleep and blissfully forgetting how foolishly she may or may not have acted that night.
But she was too still and too quiet. She was so frustratingly conscious and, as if on cue, in crept the thoughts she worked so hard to keep at bay during the day.
The darker corners of May’s mind imagined Em hearing the rumors people still whispered about her all these years later – truth mixed in with lies. She imagined that mischievous grin twisting into a frown of disgust, an accusatory glare flashing in brilliant eyes. Whatever good Em might have seen in May right now wouldn’t possibly survive knowing what everyone else already held as truth and, just like that, it didn’t matter whether or not she had noticed May’s dreamy stares or awkward, albeit unintentional, excuse for flirting.
She tossed again, clenching her eyes tightly.
“Stop it,” she hissed. She took a few deep breaths, trying to focus on the rhythmic crash of the surf until her heartbeat slowed.
Eventually, unable to handle being alone with her thoughts any longer, May crawled out of bed to her small window and pushed open the shutters. She searched through the tree’s gently swaying boughs, spotting the brightest star in the sky.
This was what she did sometimes on nights when she felt most alone; staring up at a glittering night sky helped calm her and reminded her that, in this whole great universe, her problems were really quite small.
“Please.” She whispered up at the star she’d chosen. “Just… don’t let her think I’m weird or anything.”
She breathed deeply until calm gradually crept into her veins.
Back in bed, she listened to the ebb and flow of the ocean until, at last, she fell asleep.
The next time she opened her eyes, May stood alone on the shore.
The night was at its darkest, lit only by a glittering dome of brilliant stars overhead. A warm breeze swept gently off the ocean and the familiar sound of rolling waves surrounded her. It all should have been comforting but, for some reason, May sensed something wasn’t right.
Little was visible in the dim light of the stars, but when her eyes dropped to the water she saw the waves coursing backwards, away from the sandy shore.
Something on the horizon drew her gaze up and away from the tide. Somewhere out on the ocean hovered a light, dim at first but glowing steadily brighter without getting bigger.
Her stomach fluttered. In the back of her mind, she thought she ought to be afraid. Yet, despite the sense of dread, she knew what she had to do. Em’s pack rested abandoned at her feet. Without a second thought she hauled it from the sand, pulled the straps over her shoulders and walked out across the water, toward the light.
It could have been hours, it could have been days, but May walked across the ocean until quite suddenly the light was very close. It was so bright and she was squinting through the rays when a voice called out, crystalline and clear.
She blinked. The light dimmed, allowing her to see the source.
Em stood in the center of the light, serene, her pale features glowing brightly. She smiled wide and embraced May like an old friend.
“I knew you could do it,” Em whispered, holding May back enough to look her in the eyes.
All at once warmth filled May’s chest, any sense of fear or foreboding vanished. Slowly, Em’s light intensified again until they both disappeared into a blinding whiteness.
May shielded her eyes, blinking through the morning light pouring in through her window. She had forgotten to close the shutters before she went back to bed and now her room was bathed in the light of day in a way she simply wasn’t used to.
For a moment she floundered, the residue of the dream still clinging to the edges of her mind. Hadn’t she just been standing in the middle of the ocean? No, of course not, that didn’t make sense… But Em had been there, and…
May shot straight up, suddenly very awake. Scrambling out from beneath the covers she threw the sliding door of her room wide and scampered down the stairs.
“Em?” she called out, rushing across the house to the deck.
The glass door was closed. The hammock was empty, aside from the blanket folded neatly in the centre. May hurried to the bathroom, but it was empty too.
There was nothing, not even so much as a note.
Em was gone.
Numb, May wandered aimlessly back into the living room, slowly letting disappointment wash over her. She’d had no reason to expect Em to be there when she woke up, but she had at least hoped for a chance to say goodbye.
Back to being alone, I guess… she thought. Emotion welled in her chest but she pressed it down.
May pushed herself to at least try and sneak in some practice before she had to get ready to head to Ora’s house. Half-heartedly, she shoved the coffee table tight against the couch and moved through the paces of her morning stretches. A swan-dive forward, hinging at the waist. Hugging her calves, May pressed her thin torso tightly against her legs and let her head hang loosely, stretching her neck long.
She held the position for a few breaths, letting the deep pull in her muscles distract from everything else. It felt good in a way that moving and pushing her body always had. She focused on the moment.
When she felt ready, she struck a pose. Lifting her arms gracefully and rising to her toes, she gave a smooth and steady twirl.
But it was the same move she had shown Em the night before, just as the wine had warmed her up and she had started to feel bold.
With her concentration shattered, May let out a groan of frustration.
“Forget it.” She huffed and stomped off to the bathroom to get ready for her day.
She took a longer shower than usual, letting the hot water trace rivulets down her body until her skin glowed pink. Combing her fingers through her wet hair, May remembered the way Em had called it cute. She buried her face in her hands, burning with embarrassment.
“I’m such a disaster,” she moaned.
It was only a short while later, as May packed her dance bag for the night ahead, when she heard a bang from downstairs.
She froze. Was that the door? No one ever came by on a weekday.
She all but fell through her bedroom door.
There, out of breath and flushed, stood Em, her skin slick with sweat, giving it the appearance of being dusted with glitter.
“What, uh… What happened to the living room?”
“I was practicing.” May replied, distracted. “Where did you go?” The question came out more demanding than she intended.
“I was out for a run,” she replied, only slightly taken aback at May’s tone. “I woke up early and I’ve always wanted to run on a beach, so I went for it. Is everything okay? You look a little out of it.”
“I thought you left,” May said quietly. She crept down the stairs without taking her eyes off Em, as if she might disappear if May looked away for even a second.
Em looked down and May followed her gaze down to where the backpack still sat by the door.
“Ugh,” she groaned. “Of course. I’m sorry, I’m not used to having house guests and I guess I just… I don’t know.”
“I figured,” Em grinned playfully. “You don’t strike me as the kind of person who brings someone home on the first date.”
A furious shade of crimson swept over May’s face and Em laughed.
“I’m just giving you a hard time,” Em said with a wink. “Listen. If it’ll make you feel better, I won’t bail without saying goodbye first. Fair?”
Thoroughly embarassed, May could only laugh and nod to reply.
“So, this town you mentioned last night,” Em began, deftly diffusing the awkwardness, “Either it’s really far away or I was running in the wrong direction.”
May’s stomach dropped.
“Why?” she asked, hoping the slight panic in her voice wasn’t as obvious as she felt it was. “Do you need something?”
“Not really,” Em replied nonchalantly. “I was just curious. I figured I’d come to it eventually. Except I didn’t.”
“It’s that way, the direction we came from last night,” May explained, motioning to the east. “It’s about a fifteen minute walk.”
“Wow.” Em looked genuinely surprised. “And you’re out here all alone? Why do you live so far away from town?”
May shifted uncomfortably while her mind scrambled for an answer that sounded plausible.
“This is where the treehouse was,” she offered, hoping it would stick.
“Huh…” it didn’t look like Em was sold, but she didn’t push it either. “So you walk to and from town every day just to look after your nephew?”
The color drained from May’s face.
“Oh, no!” she gasped, scrambling back up the stairs without so much as an explanation.
Em didn’t have time to move from where she stood before May flew back down, leaping over the last few steps altogether.
“Holy shit!” Em cried, reaching out to catch May if she stumbled. “Be careful!”
“I’m sorry!” May panted, not acknowledging Em’s concern. “But if I don’t leave right now I’m going to be late! I’m so sorry to have to take off like this, I-”
Em jumped out of the way to give May a clear path to the door. “No, I get it! I’ll just, uh…”
They looked at each other in silent surprise. Even May couldn’t believe she had said it, but after spending the morning moping in disappointment she knew now wasn’t the time to be shy about what she wanted.
“I mean, you can do what you want,” she forced herself to be bold. “But I’d really like it if you stayed.”
She fumbled with her shoes while Em gaped for something to say.
Throwing the door open, May gave Em one last look and tried not to think that this could be the last time they’d see each other.
“I’m so sorry I have to run like this.”
But Em just smiled.
“It’s cool. Go!”
And with that, May darted out the door and down the spiral staircase.
At least Em hadn’t said goodbye.