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 16 and 17. I highly encourage you to read from these new chapters instead!
Chapter Eight – I don’t think she deserved it
May did her best to prepare Em for the staring.
“We don’t get many visitors, let alone mainlanders,” she explained as the two of them made their way to Omaea,. “They’re going to stare.”
People did stare. Some even glowered – and whisper and pointed when they thought the girls weren’t looking. Em watched them with a knot in her stomach.
“How can they tell I’m from the mainland?” she whispered to May without looking away from streets and people around them.
May motioned to the milk-white skin of Em’s bare arm. “Something tells me you stand out wherever you go. And even if you didn’t, this is a small community. When there aren’t many people coming or going, it’s easy to spot a new face.”
“But the people here look like they come from all over the place.”
The way May spoke about the town of Omea, with its small population, conservative traditions, and resistance to outside influence, Em envisioned the locals as a homogeneous group. She hadn’t expected the diversity in skin tone and accents milling around her.
May gave a small wave to a merchant she knew as he tended to some sidewalk produce stands. “I already told you; things used to be different here.”
May had spent plenty of time telling Em about the island of Hoku and her hometown of Omaea. Hoku was populated by different groups of people that had landed there seeking respite and refuge over the course of many centuries. For a long time it had been a safe haven of sorts, and its international reputation was one of peace and order.
Despite never being big enough or interested in hosting a tourist economy like some other island towns, Omaea had always been receptive to visitors. That is, until a group of aggressive mainlanders terrorized their way across the island. What they had been looking for differed depending on who told the story, but there was one consistent detail: Those people relentlessly harassed local families and looted businesses while they hunted for treasure unknown.
For reasons no one understood, the group focused much of its violence on Omea. In its wake, the town collectively closed itself off for years until it eventually gained a reputation for being inhospitable to strangers.
“We’re more bark than bite,” May admitted with a shrug. “It’s not like anyone has ever been particularly awful to the backpackers, not even when they’re mainlanders. Most people my age and younger don’t even remember what happened, so we’re more curious than anything. If you can handle the gawking, I’m sure you’ll be fine.”
Em kept this in mind as she homed in on a single seat in the far back of the theater when they arrived.
May smiled as she watched Em settle in.
“I guess I should go get ready,” she said. “I’ll see you after-”
“Wait!” Em lurched forward as May turned to leave, grabbing her by the wrist. “You haven’t told anyone, right?”
May frowned, a little hurt she felt the need to ask. After confiding in her, Em begged May not to tell a soul about her secret. May had joked, saying no one believe her if she did, but Em insisted. This was serious – this was important – but she wouldn’t say why.
“Of course I haven’t,” May replied, placing a reassuring hand over Em’s and giving it a squeeze. “You said you felt like you can trust me, and you can. Your secret’s safe with me, I promise.”
May disappeared to get ready for the show. Em sank low into her seat. She hadn’t expected this first trip into town to stir up so much anxiety, but the staring and whispering made her jumpy.
They’re looking at you because they don’t know you, she reminded herself. No one knows who you are. You’re safe here.
The theater was unlike any Em had ever seen. Strings of lights and long, sheltering sheets of canvas draped between pillars lining either side of the outdoor venue. The stage was a large and elaborately decorated bandshell with a hodgepodge of small tables, lounges, and chairs packed onto the audience floor.
This was the place to be, it seemed; by the time the show started there was hardly an empty seat to be found.
The show itself was something of a variety showcase: single and group acts took turns bringing the stage to life with song, dance, and music. May had told Em she would perform three times, the first of which was a group performance she was filling in for (“The fourth girl broke her foot a week before the run,” May had explained. “I usually dance alone.”) Each member of the group wore a similar costume in bright, vibrant colors and the dance was lively.
Em enjoyed the swirling colors and quickly came to appreciate the unfamiliar but festive music. Pulled in by the audience’s enthusiastic participation, she clapped along with the song everyone else seemed to know by heart.
But it was May’s second time on stage that truly captured Em’s attention. A solo act, May had choreographed the performance herself. Dressed in flowing, gauzy skirts, her lithe limbs moved gracefully, translating the mournful instrumentals into a language anyone could understand. Em couldn’t venture a guess as to the style. She just knew it was beautiful. May was a dream in motion.
Enthralled as she was, Em couldn’t help be distracted by hushed murmuring. From her shady spot in the back she saw different pockets of men bend their heads in close to whisper. They grinned salaciously, trading remarks with their friends as they nodded toward the stage. It turned her stomach. Em saw the way their eyes feasted shamelessly on May’s long, bare legs, her thin frame shielded only by the shimmering fabric of her costume.
Em’s protective instincts flared up, coursing from somewhere deep inside her. The surface of her skin prickled as if receiving round after round of static shocks. She forced herself to stay seated, willing the fury, and the lack of control that came with it, to pass.
While she managed to avoid making a scene, Em was still seething many acts later. Fixated on glaring at one group of half-drunk young men, she didn’t see someone trying to get her attention until they stepped into her line of view.
Between acts, a small contingent of smartly dressed hosts and hostesses roamed the floor, taking orders and dropping off drinks to people in the audience. Em watched them work, wishing she had cash on hand to order something. A strong drink seemed like just the thing to soothe her nerves. When the hostess offered her a glass full to its brim, Em resisted the urge to snatch it up.
“Sorry, I think that’s for someone else.”
“Nope,” the hostess replied with a grin. “May asked me to make sure you were being taken care of.”
Em was surprised but didn’t argue. Taking the glass tentatively, she gave the colorless drink a sniff – whatever it was, it smelled strong. “If the lady insists.”
“She does,” the hostess grinned. “I’m Lenaia, by the way. Let’s get you a better seat.”
Em opened her mouth to protest but Lenaia had already turned on her heel, sashaying toward the stage. Em tossed back an ample swig of her drink before hurrying to catch up.
“Are you performing tonight too?” Em asked, trying to friendly.
“Me?” Lenaia laughed. “Not a chance. My uncle runs the theatre company. I’m a server at a restaurant in town, so when he’s running a show I like to help him out on the floor. It’s really just an excuse to hang out with some friends from one of the bands backstage between acts but it makes him happy.”
Em raised an eyebrow. “You hang out with them when you’re working?”
“Hey, I earn my breaks,” she replied, feigning offense, but offsetting it with a wink.
Lenaia’s idea of a “better seat” turned out to be stage left. From the shadows of the velvet curtains, Em had a perfect view of the stage without the distraction of an audience.
Hovering at Em’s shoulder, Lenaia lingered. “So, you’re a friend of May’s?”
Em hadn’t given much thought to the nature of her relationship with May before now. They just… were.
“Sure,” she replied casually, keeping her gaze locked across the stage. She didn’t need to look at Lenaia to know she was staring intently.
“Good,” Lenaia broke at last, joining Em in gazing beyond the curtains. “She’s a nice girl. People still say awful things but I don’t think she deserves it.”
Em glanced at her quickly, a shadow blending in with the darkness backstage. “What do you mean?”
Lenaia hesitated before answering.
“You’ll probably hear some rumours if you stick around long enough. But they’re not true.”
As if on cue, May stepped out onto stage and struck a pose. The spotlight was lit. Em beheld her in a single breathless moment: all black lace and skin, glitter and red lips. Rose gold waves were pinned up and an ornate mask framed dark blue eyes. Moments before the music started, May turned a heavy-lidded gaze in Em’s direction and smiled.
It was May as Em had never seen her before. She was electric.
Em wasn’t blind; she had always known May was cute. But this – this was something else altogether. As May drew her eyes away, the memory of every fleeting touch and lingering gaze came rushing back to Em in an overwhelming instant.
Blind she was not, but oblivious?
Lenaia, watched Em gape while she grinned knowingly. “Most of the rumors aren’t, anyway.”
After the show, Em loitered backstage near a large cork board plastered with layers of photos. The collection seemed to be a long-standing tradition; an instant film camera hung by its wrist strap from a tack on the board, ready to capture spontaneous memories of life behind the theater’s velvet curtain.
Em hunted until she found one of May. Between the faded colors and May’s long hair, Em figured the photo was fairly dated. In it, May beamed at the camera, grinning cheek-to-cheek with another equally happy girl with dark features and a brilliant smile. Both were dressed in similar sparkling dance costumes.
Em leaned in to take a better look and was startled by a tap on the shoulder. May smiled at her when she turned, almost as widely as she had in her photo.
“Well? What did you think?”
For a split second, Em found the disconnect between the alluring character May played on stage and the sweet, unassuming person standing before her to be jarring. Gone were the shimmering costumes and dark make-up; May was herself again, skin covered by leggings and long loose sleeves. Her smile was anxious as she waited to hear Em’s verdict.
She was the same and yet, all at once, somehow different. It hadn’t just been the form-fitting outfits or the seductive glance – Em had glimpsed another side of May through the passion she poured into her craft. Em was intrigued. She wondered if she had ever really seen May before this moment.
The unflinching confidence she had shown onstage was like a secret May kept hidden beneath layers of quiet and awkwardness. Now that Em had seen it, all she wanted to do was drag it out into the daylight. Even in the afterglow of her performance, May shone with infectious happiness and excitement. Em wanted to find a way to bask in that light a little longer – to see May smile like she had on that stage again. She wanted May to smile at her that way.
“You were wonderful!” Em exclaimed. Without thinking, she reached out as if to… What? Embrace her? She paused awkwardly before pulling her arms back to her sides and cramming her hands into her pockets.
May flushed and bobbed a tiny curtsey. “Thank you!”
“She was wonderful, wasn’t she?” Lenaia materialized unexpectedly beside them both, placing a firm hand on each of their shoulders. “Now hurry up or you’re going to miss the rest of the crew.”
Em and May exchanged a bewildered look.
“Where are we hurrying to?” Em asked.
“We’re going dancing, my pale friend.” Lenaia patted her on the cheek. She pointed to May, “You promised you’d come out next time. Well, welcome to next time. I don’t want to hear any excuses!”
Before either one could say a word, she whirled away to rally more party-goers,
“I vaguely remember making that promise,” May cringed apologetically.
Em lit up. “Then we’d better hurry!”
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