It was early. The warm rays of sunrise were only just starting to seep through the wooden slats of the window shutters.
May had already been lying awake for quite some time. She had awoken suddenly in the morning twilight, wrestling herself from a vague and formless dream. Not a nightmare per se, and there was nothing specific about it she could recall now. A dark mood had been waiting for her when she opened her eyes.
Taking a deep breath, May tried to focus on something happy.
You get to spend another day with Omi, she tried hopefully, evoking a mental image of her beloved nephew’s smiling face.
It didn’t help.
In fact, thinking of Omi only succeeded in making her feel worse about herself. At times it felt like her young nephew was the only person in the whole town who didn’t look at her with disdain. A small part of her wondered if that was ever going to change.
Sometimes when May found herself in a mood like this – unable to focus on anything except everything that was wrong – she’d listen to the crash of the surf and imagine packing up and leaving it all behind. The whispered stories of a dangerous and unruly mainland be damned – it couldn’t possibly be worse than living life as a pariah.
Not that she could ever do it. For starters, she wasn’t nearly that brave. For another, the island-born, even one of such questionable heritage as herself, didn’t just leave Hoku. Besides, she chose to believe that she was done disappointing her family. She owed them at least that much.
With a heavy sigh, May figured she might as well get on with her day. If nothing else, the early start gave her more time to stretch and practice her dance routines before getting washed up and heading to her sister’s place in town.
Before stepping out the door, she paused in front of the mirror to scrutinize her clothing one last time. Even though she had worn the skirt plenty of times, she tugged at its scalloped hemline compulsively. It still hung a couple of inches above her knees, just like it always had. It was appropriate. There wasn’t much else she could do with the pressed collar of her sleeveless blouse but she fidgeted with that too.
Eventually she let herself accept that she looked respectable; she had to stop worrying.
You’re fine, she thought to herself. It was the mantra she repeated every day before she made the trek into town. You’re going to be just fine.
She always walked the same route, and it was all so familiar – so much of the same thing day in and day out – that anything out of the ordinary should have stood out right away.
Still, today she was so deep in a daydream she almost missed it; a mound of colour off to her right beneath the shade of a cluster of palms.
“Who the heck are you?” She muttered to herself, craning her neck to get a better look at what appeared to be a dozing body.
At least she hoped it was dozing. She waited a moment until she caught a glimpse of the rise and fall of breathing before she released a sigh of relief herself. Just another North Shore drifter backpacking the coast. It was rare that they veered this far off the main road – in fact, May couldn’t remember the last time it had happened. She pretended she wasn’t jealous of the stranger’s freedom and gutsy pursuit of nothing, but who was she kidding?
Consumed with a new daydream, she continued her walk into town.
It wasn’t until the sixth sighting of the North Shore napper – still very much in the same place they had been all along – on what was then the third evening that May thought something must be wrong. She paced about her kitchen, wondering what to do.
Should I call someone?
No, what if it was honestly just someone who had found a nice spot they enjoyed and she ruined it for them by calling on authorities? She was embarrassed just thinking about it.
Oh, no… She fretted, clutching her hands to her chest out of rising panic. What if they’re hurt and I’ve just left them there for the last three days?
Maybe she would just go back and check. Then she could call for help if it was necessary.
But what if they’re some dangerous, drugged-out… Criminal or something?
She was starting to get worked up.
But no, she couldn’t just do nothing. She’d never be able to live with the guilt if something bad had happened to this person and she had done nothing to help.
Still, she was nervous. As a precaution, she grabbed a small paring knife from her kitchen drawer before throwing a sweater over her shoulders and stepping out into the final throes of the day. She had no idea what she’d do with the knife if she actually needed to use it, but she figured having it was better than nothing.
Faster than she liked, May found herself standing only a few paces from the stranger. They were, as expected, still sleeping.
They were also, May was surprised to find as she leaned a little bit closer, apparently a woman not much older than herself. Dressed in lightly coloured, dirty jeans and a hooded sweatshirt, May wondered how this woman could have possibly spent the last few days sleeping through the island heat. It may have been spring, but it was always hot.
May moved around the stranger, trying to keep quiet and at a safe distance. Long, silver hair flowed from beneath the hood drawn tightly around her face, the colour starkly at odds with the youthfulness of her features. It was the almost complete lack of colour to her skin that stood out the most, as if someone had sketched out her edges but forgotten to colour her in.
“Oh, no,” May felt her heart sink. “No, no, no… Hello? Hey, are you okay?”
She rushed forward, legs shaking. She had waited too long. She should have checked sooner. How was she going to explain a dead body on her end of the beach? What were people going to think?
She reached out, willing herself to roll the body and check for a pulse, when the dead woman inhaled sharply. She stretched long and flailed her feet outwards as she rolled onto her other side. She would have kicked May in the ankles had she not already stumbled back out of fright.
“Are you freaking kidding me?” May cried, grasping at her racing heart. Suddenly she didn’t really care whether or not this stranger was asleep or dangerous or anything else for that matter.
But the woman kept sleeping.
May glanced around for clues. For a camp site of at least three days, the space around them certainly didn’t look occupied. There was no evidence of a fire or shelter, just a backpack that had been cast off to the woman’s side.
“Alright, lady. Let’s find out who you are.” May muttered, pulling the pack toward her and taking a seat.
Placing her kitchen knife at her side, May gave the stranger one last wary look before she began. Pulling open the flap and opening the bag wide, it was still difficult to make out many of the contents in the dwindling light. Strapped to the outside was what May assumed to be a tent, and inside the pack was a small bundle of clothes, a few packages of dehydrated food and what looked to be an ornate compass mounted in a leather sleeve. May raised it high to get a better look and caught what seemed to be words engraved into the back of the leather. She squinted through the hazy rays of the setting sun trying to read what it said.
An unfamiliar voice rang out, startling her.
“Who the fuck are you?”
Banner art by @beverlylove