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 8 and 9. I highly encourage you to read from these new chapters instead!
Chapter Four – Are you sure you want to get to know me better?
“Are you sure you don’t want to come?”
It took May a moment to realize the question had been directed at her. She had been crouched over her bag, fully involved in unceremoniously flinging her things inside. She snapped her head up when it dawned on her, wide-eyed and a little embarrassed. May hesitated before answering.
Bodies pushed around her as she awkwardly took up space right in the middle of the crowded changing floor. They were like a pack of dogs pressing to a gate, ready to run. May could tell they were eager to get moving, some even to the point of casting thinly veiled looks of impatience her way, knowing that Lenaia – their unassuming alpha – wouldn’t give the command until May gave her an answer.
She looked up at Lenaia, and at the genuinely welcoming smile on her peachy round face. She also looked at the small contingent of performers Lenaia managed to gather in what had been no time at all. She was magnetic that way. It was a wonder she wasn’t a performer herself. She had an infectious kind of energy about her May quietly envied in others. She may have been the one on stage, but she would never be the one to spontaneously whip up the rest of the show’s cast into a random night of drinking, dancing and who knew what else.
An invitation like this was a rare one. It flustered her. The part of her desperate to re-assimilate, to do whatever it took to slip quietly back into the social fold, screamed at her to say yes.
Against all logic, she screwed up what she hoped was a convincing look of regret.
“I’m sorry. It’s just that I already made plans tonight.” She wondered if anyone believed her. “Next time for sure though. I promise!”
A low murmur made its way through the growing group gathered by the door, but May opted to focus on Lenaia’s effortless acceptance of her excuse and friendly wave goodbye.
Whatever the others thought May wasn’t saying – oh, who was she kidding? She had a pretty good idea of what they were whispering about – they couldn’t be more wrong.
Slinging her bag over her shoulder and pulling her hood down over her rosy curls, May gave a distracted wave as she slid past her castmates and out into the night.
Setting a brisk pace, and she quickly made her way to the outskirts of town. Eventually the steady roll of waves replaced the white noise of civilization. While this would normally be the part of her commute when she started to relax, tonight she was too lost in thought to let go.
What was she honestly expecting to find when she got home? Her stomach tightened regardless of what outcome she imagined. May took a second to remind herself to breathe.
Soon she was standing on the beach staring up at her house. Even from down by the surf it was hard to see onto the deck. There was definitely a light on inside – probably the lamp by the couch. Had she left it on before leaving that morning? Or was she just getting her hopes up?
She climbed the stairs but stopped short of opening the door. Fumbling awkwardly, she pressed her ear up to the door and listened for a moment.
The waves were still the only sound.
What are you doing? May berated herself. Open the door. It’s your house!
Taking one last deep breath, she pushed the door open quietly.
The quiet was short lived. Her bag got caught up on the door handle and she stumbled gracelessly inside.
“Oh, shit! Are you okay?”
Relief mixed with mortification. She willed herself to look to the deck. A pair of icy blue eyes stared back, full of concern.
Those eyes, pale and striking. May wasn’t sure she’d ever get used to them. Then again, she still wasn’t sure if she’d get the chance to.
“Em,” she breathed. “You’re still here.”
Em frowned in confusion. “… What?”
Straightening herself out, May cleared her throat and tried to shake it off. “I wasn’t sure you would still be here.”
Sitting upright in the hammock, Em laughed. “I told you I wouldn’t leave without saying goodbye, didn’t I?”
May smiled down at the floor in an attempt to hide her relief. “Yeah, I guess you did.”
But when Em started to pull herself to her feet, May scrambled.
“You don’t have get up!” She rushed to the deck as Em hovered uncertainly with one leg on the ground.
Em raised an eyebrow and May laughed in spite of herself.
“I, uh… Can I get you some tea?”
A few minutes later the kettle came to a boil while May dropped a couple of freshly made tea bags into mismatched mugs. An evening breeze wafted in off the ocean through the open sliding deck door, unseasonably cool. She shivered as a trail of goosebumps snaked down her arms. May glanced over her shoulder and out to the deck where Em had settled back into the hammock, long silvery hair trailing over the side. It caught the moonlight just right and shimmered like the gentle waves that rolled into the surf.
May made her way carefully down the split levels, a mug in each hand, and leaned out the door.
“Do you take anything in yours? I’ve got some cream, lemon… Maybe a bit of sugar but I’d have to look.”
Em smiled at her and took the mug May held out. “No, I’m good. Thanks. You’re such a considerate hostess.”
“Ha!” May laughed, dragging an ancient folding chair across the deck with the tip of her foot. “How sweet of you to say so.”
They shared a couple peaceful moments, allowing the tide to fill in the silence. Em blew on the surface of her tea absentmindedly, staring intently across the dark ocean. May took small sips and watched her guest surreptitiously out of the corner of her eye. All day she’d gone over the things she wanted to say to Em since the previous night but suddenly she couldn’t remember any of it.
“So,” Em spoke first without looking away from the water. “How’s showbiz treating you?”
May smiled into her mug.
“Oh, y’know,” she shrugged. “Just pretending to be a star.”
“Remind me to snag your autograph.” Em grinned, finally looking to May and giving her a wink. “And before I forget, thanks again for everything. The hammock, the tea, all of it.”
“It seems like the least I could do after rifling through your stuff.”
“And lest we forget: accosting me with that kitchen knife.”
May spluttered halfway through her sip.
“I did not accost you! I was just… playing it safe.” When Em cocked an eyebrow, May swatted at her. “You could have been a drugged-out crazy person for all I knew!”
“Hey, I’m just glad you didn’t hurt yourself with that thing.” Another wink.
May pretended to be offended, hiding her smile behind her mug, “I totally knew what I was doing.”
Em let out a loud bark of a laugh. “Sure you did.”
May rolled her eyes.
“I’m just bugging you,” Em said. “Also, thanks for not secretly being a murderer.”
Em was still essentially a stranger and yet it was so easy for May to banter with her. It had hardly been a day since they’d met, but she already felt so comfortable; it was as if they had riffed off each other this way their entire lives.
She hadn’t realized she was staring until Em cocked her head, breaking May’s reverie.
“Where’d you go?” She laughed and May blinked.
“Oh! I’m not really sure…”
They drifted back into their easy silence, May sipping and Em staring out to sea. After a moment, May tried again. “Any luck figuring out how you wound up on the island?”
At the question a faint glow grew behind Em’s pallid cheeks. She went rigid and stole a quick glance at the stars, the way someone might look to a friend for support when they don’t have the right answer to an awkward question. The stars must not have had anything for her because she didn’t say anything, pursing her lips instead.
May shifted uncomfortably.
“I just want you to know you’re welcome to stay until you figure out what your next move is.”
Em’s turned quickly to face May. For the second time that night, those pale eyes were wide with concern.
“May.” She breathed.
“You don’t have to do that,” Em said softly. “Letting me spend a night or two is generous enough.”
“I don’t have to.” May agreed. “But I want to.”
Em gave an incredulous grin. “Sure, but why?”
May paused and considered Em’s blunt but fair question. Because you don’t have anywhere to go? You don’t even know where you are? Both were true but neither were the right answer.
Because I’m not ready for you to disappear?
She shifted awkwardly, trying to figure out the right way to say what she was feeling.
“Because…” May could feel the heat rising in her face again. “Because you’re alone right now and I – I dunno, I guess I like spending time with you? I’d like to learn more about you.”
“Learn more about me?” Em looked like she couldn’t have possibly heard correctly. “What was all that talking we did last night?”
May stared Em down. This moment felt important – as if she could screw things up very badly if she wasn’t careful with her next move. She didn’t know why she felt such a strong need to push on this. All she knew was she couldn’t let this ghostly stranger leave yet.
May spoke slowly, feeling her inhibitions slip away, feeling brave. “There’s something you’re not telling me.”
Em looked genuinely shocked and again turned her eyes quickly back to the stars. Tension rose up like a wall between them. When Em didn’t respond, May felt that bravery trickle away.
“Em, I’m sorry. That didn’t come out the way – I don’t know why I said that, it was completely out of line. I’m sor-”
Em sat up, waving May back as if she could bat her words right out of the air.
“No, May, it’s fine.” She wasn’t looking at her, but instead staring hard through her. She seemed to be at war with herself. May sat still as stone, heart caught in her throat, silently reeling over how quickly things were falling apart. What had she been thinking, saying something like that?
The moment hovered heavy between them.
Em broke the silence with a long exhale.
“I’m not upset.” Em spoke softly through a shaky smile. “I’d like to get to know you better too. And you’re right; I haven’t been completely honest with you. But I’ve been thinking about it and… I’d like to be.”
May blinked in surprise. She had hardly dared to believe she’d be right, but she certainly hadn’t considered Em might be interested in knowing her better too. Her stomach fluttered, feeling hopeful.
Em stood with a sigh and turned slightly to stare out across the ocean. Her hands clenched, released and clenched again absently at her sides. May waited.
“I want you to know the truth,” Em announced. She looked down at May, still hunched over her mug on that old folding chair, and gave her a weak smile. “If it’s too much, just say so, okay? Just say the word and I will get the hell out of your life.”
May’s mouth went dry. Suddenly she wasn’t sure what she wanted anymore.
“O-okay?” she agreed meekly.
Em nodded. She shook out her hands, taking a step toward the edge of the deck. The perimeter was fenced more for aesthetics than safety with low, solid wooden posts spaced evenly around the edge and connected by relaxed lengths of nautical rope.
Em stepped onto one of the posts, balancing precariously.
May tensed up. Her dancer’s reflexes made her instinctively aware of every muscle needed to balance on that post safely. Em was one wrong flinch away from an awful accident. It was a fifteen foot drop from the deck to the sand below.
Em glanced over her shoulder at May and smiled again. “Last chance. Are you sure you want to get to know me better?”
Breathless with curiosity and a growing sense of worry, May nodded ever so slightly. What was happening?
Em stepped forward from the post and off the deck, feet touching air.
May’s mug of tea shattered at her feet, abandoned.
But her panic for Em’s safety was soon replaced with panic of a different kind.
Em had not, in fact, plummeted to the ground beneath them.
She floated eerily in the air. A gentle pulsing emanated from where Em hovered, suspended much like one might look if they were under water. Em’s already spectral skin had a gentle glow to it now. Her long silver hair wafted effortlessly around her.
Em turned. Everything about her flowed dreamily. She locked eyes with May, those pale eyes shining bright. She grinned as if she couldn’t help but find the whole situation humorous.
She spoke, breaking the dream-like haze between them. “Here’s the thing…”