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 12 and 13 . I highly encourage you to read from these new chapters instead!
Chapter Six – I felt like you might understand
It took a moment for May to realize Em was absolutely serious.
“Em,” she said, voice stern. “This isn’t funny.”
“I’m not trying to be funny,” Em was exasperated. “You wanted to know what I am, right? I’m trying to tell you.”
“A Star, Em?” The octave of May’s voice was growing steadily higher. “I thought you were going to say your were a witch or possessed or something!”
Em gaped. “And that would have been easier to believe?”
“I don’t know!” May was mentally hovering somewhere between panicked and furious.
Rubbing her hands down her face, Em groaned loudly. “I know it sounds crazy but I wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t true.”
Against all logic, there was something inside of May that believed her.
“May, I’m trying really hard to be honest with you. Please, just hear me out.”
Anxiously, May chewed at the edge of her thumbnail as she considered her options.
“Fine.” She huffed at last, dropping to take a seat in the sand.
Em pursed her lips and considered her next steps carefully. She glanced at the pile of wood she had been collecting and got an idea.
“I’m going to tell you a story.” She crouched next to the fire pit. “But first, let me set the mood a little.”
Under May’s skeptical watch, Em hovered her hands over the wood pile. She concentrated silently, slowly bringing her hands closer together.
May wondered if she was imagining the heat emanating from the small space between Em’s palms when a spark flashed, taking to the dry driftwood hungrily. May let out a small yelp and quickly pulled her legs up to her chest.
“Sorry,” Em laughed. “I wasn’t trying to scare you. That trick’s a bit harder to control but, shit, it sure comes in handy when you’re backpacking.”
In stunned silence, May watched Em settle down on the other side of the fire. After a moment or two, a comforting warmth bathed her limbs and face. Despite her fear and confusion, May couldn’t help but relax a little.
“How did you do that?” she asked quietly.
“That might be easier to explain if I start at the beginning,” Em replied gently, not wanting to disrupt the waters now that May had calmed.
May shifted, gradually letting herself get comfortable. When she was ready, she nodded. Em began.
“Once upon a time there was a little girl.”
“Really?” May interrupted, her brow furrowed. “‘Once upon a time’? That’s what you’re going with?”
Em’s eyes narrowed. “I thought you wanted to hear this.”
May threw her hands up in mock surrender. “I’m sorry, please continue.”
“Right,” Em grumbled. “This little girl. She was a sweet kid but she had a bad heart. Since the day she was born, she had been sick. People weren’t sure if she would get to grow up, that’s how bad it was.”
May frowned. “Didn’t you say your mom had been sick?”
“Are you going to let me tell the story or what?” Em asked.
May winced. “Sorry, I’ll stop.”
“Transposition of the great arteries.” Em barrelled onward, ignoring the apology. “It’s when the arteries that bring blood to and from the heart are backwards. She had to have surgery right after she was born. Usually kids with this condition have a pretty decent chance of living a long life but things are never really normal for them.”
She paused to give May a chance to add in a quip, but there was only silence so she continued.
“Being sick meant she couldn’t do most things kids get to do growing up. She was always meeting with doctors and had to take it easy because her heart was so weak. She spent a lot of time alone.”
Em paused for a moment to stare up at the sky. May wanted her to continue but was afraid to interrupt again. She could relate to a childhood spent mostly alone. She wanted to say so without making this about her.
“That’s a hard way to grow up,” she offered gently.
Em nodded, distracted. She brought her eyes back down to meet May’s, blinking to regain focus.
“Her grandmother liked to tell stories to keep her mind off things. When the girl was really young, her grandmother told her the legend of the Stars. It made the little girl think if the Stars could hear when people made wishes on them, then maybe they could hear her if she just talked to them instead. After that she would talk to them every single night before bed. It made her feel less lonely.”
“Is that true?” May asked. “About the wishes?”
“It’s true they can hear you,” Em said with a shrug. “But the part about granting wishes is just a human fantasy. I mean, they can, they just generally choose not to.”
May squirmed, remembering her own wish, cast to the stars the night before. “Why not?”
“Because they have everything planned out.” Em said this as if it was perfectly common knowledge.
“As it turns out, she was right: someone was listening,” she said, words spilling out faster, as if she was just as enthralled with the twist in her own story. “One Star in particular had become fascinated with the girl. They listened to her stories every single night.”
“After years of listening to the girl talk and watching her grow up, the Star decided they had to meet. It was risky and the Star knew they shouldn’t, but they had made up their mind. After meeting, the two became close friends. The girl – at this point a young woman – would whisper her stories at night and, when the Star could get down to Earth, the two would spend time together. They were as inseparable as two beings living on two different planes of existence could be.”
At this, Em paused again, rubbing her hands together slowly and staring aimlessly at the fire for a moment before swallowing hard.
“Eventually, the woman was grown,” she continued without looking away from the fire. “To celebrate her coming of age, the Star gave her a gift. Even though they weren’t supposed to, the Star offered her a wish – anything she wanted, as long as it was just for her.”
May frowned. “But what about the plan?”
Em shook her head.
“That’s how much the Star cared for her; they kind of went rogue. I think they were probably hoping that she’d wish for health – or that she might at least be able to live a long life without fear.”
May was captivated. The flickering of the firelight and the soothing sound of Em’s voice lured her in, wrapping her in a blanket of comfort so that she had all but forgotten to be afraid. The Star, the woman – May wanted to know everything.
“What did she wish for instead?” she whispered softly, holding the sight of Em through the dancing flames until the other finally looked up and their eyes locked.
“She wished for a baby,” Em replied.
She let the answer hang between them, waiting for May to catch on.
It only took a heartbeat for what Em was implying to settle in.
“It was you!” she gasped. “You were the baby, weren’t you?”
Em just smiled in reply, a hint of sadness behind her eyes.
“Oh my gosh,” May babbled. “What happened to your mother?”
“The woman and her daughter had thirteen awesome years together. She made a great mom and raised her little girl to be feisty and independent.”
At this May couldn’t help but smile.
“But she was still sick. One of the complications of her condition were arrhythmias. Her heart wasn’t beating right. She died of a heart attack when she was thirty-two.”
Even though she had gone into it knowing that the story wasn’t going to end well, May was still shaken by the truth. “I’m so, so sorry.”
“Don’t be.” Em shrugged. “They both knew that it was a possibility. The woman made sure her daughter was as prepared as she could be.”
May knit her brows. “Why are you talking about yourself in the third person like that? You are talking about you and your mother, aren’t you?”
Again, Em shrugged, dropping her gaze to her hands which she was nervously twisting into knots.
“It’s in the past.” A vague answer.
May wanted to push her on it – Em had said she would tell her anything she wanted to know – but seeing Em so downtrodden made her lose her edge. She opted to drop it for now.
“What about the Star?” she tried instead. “Is this the ‘dad’ you were talking about last night?”
“Ah, the ol’ celestial baby-daddy.” Em laughed, her spirits improving slightly. “I said ‘dad’ because I wasn’t sure what else to call them, but that’s probably not the best way to describe our relationship.” She tapped at her lips thoughtfully. “They’re still around, sort of.”
May wasn’t quite sure how to talk about Em’s heavenly parent. “Do you think they know how you wound up here?”
“Oh, probably,” Em huffed, leaning back on her elbows and staring up into space. “But they’ve been conveniently difficult to get in touch with lately.” She yelled the last part skyward, as if hoping to get their attention.
“You’ve tried?” May wasn’t sure why this surprised her, but it did.
“Last night after you went to bed, again when I was out running and once more after you left for the day. Haven’t heard a damn thing.”
“Oh…” May wondered what trying to get in touch with a Star entailed.
The two were quiet then, minutes stretching out before them with only the crackling of the fire and the rushing of the waves to fill the silence. May absentmindedly patted at her cheeks, warm and rosy from the flames, as she mulled over everything Em had told her.
Did she believe her? It was all so fantastic and unreal – how could she possibly? But still, Em was right – how else was she supposed to explain what she had seen?
May glanced quickly toward Em and was surprised to see her staring back. A weak smile tugged at the corners of Em’s mouth.
“You must think I’m fucking crazy, don’t you?” There was a melancholy in Em’s voice that May hadn’t noticed before.
May didn’t answer right away. She tugged gently at one of her curls, staring off into nothing and trying to think of the right thing to say.
“No,” she answered at last. “I don’t think you’re crazy, I just…” She hesitated, forcing herself to look Em in the eyes. “Why did you decide to tell me all of this?”
“Because you asked?” Em offered. May shook her head.
“No, I’m serious,” she demanded as gently as she could.
“I don’t know, May.” Em threw her hands up in defeat. “I guess I just felt like I could trust you. Having to pretend to be normal is…” She paused, “It’s lonely when nobody really knows you.”
“Normal?” May was confused. “Why would you want to pretend to be normal when you’re…” She grasped for something to say, gesturing vaguely at Em, “When you’re so special.”
Em laughed bitterly.
“Special is just another way of saying different, and being different isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”
“What do you mean?”
Em rubbed her forehead. She looked so tired.
“I don’t know,” she muttered. “I just thought – I thought after what you said last night about not being able to fit in because of something you can’t change… I felt like you might understand.”
The flush in May’s cheeks deepened, but this time it had nothing to do with the fire’s heat.
Never in her life had what made her different – what made her most insecure about herself – been something anyone tried to bond with her over. She was completely out of her element, and yet…
For the first time since Em stepped off the deck and turned everything upside down, May felt like things were going to be okay.
Still, she struggled to find the words. Nothing felt like the right thing to say and so instead she stood, shuffled over, and brought herself back down to the sand beside Em.
May couldn’t quite bring herself to look at Em yet, but even from the corner of her eye she could tell Em was surprised by the move.
They let the moments slip by, May watching the fire burn down and Em sitting stock still as if even the slightest movement might shatter the peaceful calm they seemed to have found.
May eventually spoke first.
“I’m not going to pretend I completely understand what’s going on. There’s a part of me that feels like I’m going to wake up tomorrow and this will have all been a dream.”
Beside her, Em chuckled softly.
“But,” May turned to face her finally. “I just wanted you to know that the offer still stands.”
Em blinked. “What offer?”
May let out a long breath, steeling her courage. Here I go again…
“To stay. With me.”
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