The walk back to May’s home wasn’t a long one, but with the awkward air hanging between her and Em, it felt like an eternity.
May struggled for a way to break the silence when Em laughed softly.
“I can’t believe this is happening,” she muttered, more to herself than to May.
May nodded, agreeing the situation was indeed pretty incredulous.”It’s probably pretty scary, not knowing how you got here.”
“I meant the whole ‘going home with a stranger I just met on the beach’ thing. A stranger who pointed a knife at me, no less. I must be fucking crazy.”
May felt stung. “Hey, I’m just trying to help,” she grumbled, crossing her arms and locking her gaze straight ahead. “I’m taking a risk here, too.”
From the corner of her eye she saw Em press the heel of her palm into her forehead.
“Okay,” she sighed, turning to look at May for the first time since they set out. “So we’re both crazy. Just promise not to murder me in my sleep, okay?”
May scoffed. “Only if you promise me the same.”
Em raised one hand and covered her heart with the other. “I solemnly swear.”
Silence fell between them again. May watched as Em absentmindedly gathered her hair in a messy bundle at the top of her head only to let it fall back down around her shoulders.
Em held out a lock and regarded it critically. “When did it get so long…” Frowning, she quickly glanced down at her disheveled appearance. “Ugh,” she groaned, looking sheepishly back at May. “Listen, if I smell, I’m sorry. It’s clearly been a while since I’ve enjoyed the comforts of civilization.”
May hadn’t given Em’s grimy aesthetic much thought – backpackers weren’t exactly known for their hygiene – but now she was curious.
“Why?” she asked. “What were you doing before you mysteriously washed up on our shores?”
“That’s a long story.” Em grinned, casually linking her fingers and stretching her arms above her head. “The short version is, I was backpacking through the mountains trying to get to the coast. The long version is -“
She stopped short, gaping at the space above May’s head. Confused, May turned and followed her gaze.
“What is that?” Em cried.
“That’s where I live!” she replied proudly.
“You live in a treehouse?” Em was flabbergasted. “How? That is so cool!”
From the leafy branches of a massive old tree protruded the deck of what appeared to be a house. Above its edges, Em could just make out sliding glass doors and a slanted roof disappearing into the darkness of the boughs.
“Well, it used to really be a treehouse.” May smiled fondly up at her home. “When I was little, a storm tore out a bunch of branches in the middle so I built myself a treehouse in the gap. It was really just a couple of platforms, but it was my favourite place. When it was time for me to move out, my papa helped me turn it into an actual place to live. Pretty cool, huh?”
Em was too enthralled to acknowledge May’s question.
“I’ve always wanted to live in a treehouse,” she whispered.
May laughed. Making her way over to the metal spiral staircase that lead to the door, she motioned for Em to follow. “Come on, let me show you around.”
Once inside, Em’s backpack hit the floor with a thud. “This is fucking wild!” She exclaimed. “You built this yourself?”
“With my papa, yes,” May corrected. “He’s been building houses in town forever. I mean, it was my idea, but he helped me figure out how to make it work.”
Em was no less impressed. Her eyes swept the room; it was small but airy, with a high ceiling resting over top of an open space containing the living room. That room opened on one end out to the deck, and to the kitchen behind it on a raised level. The whole home seemed to be built up in steps, following the natural shape of the tree that cradled it. A short hallway ran back from the left of the kitchen, and branching off from it was a small, exposed staircase that lead to what Em assumed was a loft-like bedroom.
“The bathroom is back that way, down the hall,” May explained, as if that was somehow the most important detail of this remarkable home.
“You get running water up here?” Em marvelled. “Electricity?”
“Yep,” May replied, flipping on a lamp to prove it.
“Amazing.” Em let out a whistle, turning on the spot. “I am legitimately impressed.”
May beamed. This was the first time she had ever been able to show off her home to anyone other than family.
She watched as Em made to take a step forward before stopping mid-stride.
“Y’know,” said Em, looking down at herself. “Maybe I should get cleaned up first. Do you mind if I take a shower?”
“Oh! Sure, I’ll go find you a towel.” May hustled off.
When she returned, Em was rummaging through her pack.
“You’ll have to do for now,” she murmured to a wadded ball of clothing she held up in her hand.
May snickered quietly to herself. Whoever this woman was, she was nothing like anyone May had ever met on the island.
While Em showered, May fussed about the kitchen. Now that she was alone, the reality of having a visitor – especially one she didn’t really know – started setting in. She nervously set to work, rummaging through her cupboards and refrigerator, attempting to put together something for the two of them to eat. The meager spread she came up with made her realize just how unprepared she was to entertain another person.
May had just moved on to digging out a spare blanket out of the hall closet when Em emerged from the bathroom.
“Holy shit, that feels better.”
Her wet hair was piled into a hasty bun atop her head and she wore a badly wrinkled t-shirt and running shorts. She was a mess, but she did looked refreshed.
“Glad to hear it.” May smiled. “It’s not much but there’s some food on the counter if you’re hungry. Do you want some tea or something?”
Em hummed, tapping her chin thoughtfully.
“Do you have anything stronger?”
May stepped back from the closet, blanket in hand. She was about to ask Em what she meant when the answer came to her.
“Oh!” She blinked. “Um, I think I have a bottle of wine. Let me check.”
Soon the pair had settled on the couch, a respectful distance between them. Draped in the blanket, Em watched May pour their glasses before pulling her feet up to sit cross-legged.
“Cheers!” Em grinned, clinking her glass against May’s.
They smiled politely before falling into a wordless holding pattern once again.
After a moment or two of sipping in silence, Em spoke.
“Hey, are you even old enough to be drinking?” she raised an eyebrow.
May spluttered through the sip she had been taking and shot a glare at Em.
“Excuse me?” Her voice came out a bit more high pitched than she would have liked.
“Sorry,” Em laughed. “You just look really young.”
May shifted awkwardly, tucking her elbows close to her sides and holding her glass up to her mouth in an attempt to obscure her body. Her thin frame and wide eyes had never really helped her look her age, but it was her woefully underdeveloped physique – hips, chest and the rest – that embarassed her most. She had a hard enough time being taken seriously without people taking one look at her and assuming she was still just a girl, and compared to how Em was built… Well, to call her a bit insecure didn’t quite cover it.
“I’m twenty-four,” she muttered defensively, looking away as a blush crept across her face.
If Em had caught onto what May was being a sheepish about, she thankfully kept it to herself.
“Okay, okay,” she grinned. “I just wanted to make sure I wasn’t being a bad influence.”
Em raised her glass at May before helping herself to a generous taste.
“What about you?” May asked, watching her guest throw back her wine as if it were whisky.
“Oh, who knows anymore,” was Em’s vague response.
Puzzled, May opened her mouth to ask what Em meant but she was cut off.
“Is that you?” Em pointed at a framed picture on the wall, a family photo taken at Ora’s wedding six years previous.
May hated that photo but it was the only recent one of everyone together. She nodded curtly.
“You look so different with long hair.” Em studied the photo for a moment. “Whose wedding?”
“My sister’s,” May answered, smiling slightly. “The whole family is there. Except for Omi, of course. He wasn’t born yet. He’s my nephew.”
She watched as Em did a double-take.
May spared her from having to ask the obvious but awkward question. “I’m adopted,” she laughed.
A wave of comprehension washed over Em’s face. The figures surrounding May in the photo all shared a similar palette of rich, glowing brown skin and glossy black hair. May’s pale limbs and deep blue eyes, framed by curtains of rose gold waves of hair, stood out starkly – she could not have looked more out of place.
Em shifted under her blanket. That she wanted to ask something was clear, but she didn’t seem to know how. May sipped at her wine before saying anything.
“I was born on the island but my parents were mainlanders, like you,” she explained.
It had been years since she told this story – living her whole life in the same small community meant by the time she was a teenager, everyone knew how some pale and lanky child wound up calling their fairly traditional and isolated island town her home. She’d had no one to share her story with for so long that she struggled to find the words to tell it succinctly.
“They didn’t live here long – I don’t think they had ever planned on staying. But they made friends while they were passing through, including the couple who wound up taking me in when they had to leave.”
Even with so few details, Em was completely enthralled.
“So, why were they here in the first place? And why did they have to leave?” She asked the questions like a child during a bedtime story.
“I don’t know all of the details, to be honest. All I know is they apparently got themselves into some kind of trouble and had to leave. The way mama tells it, they wanted me to have a better life than they could give. Didn’t want to drag me into whatever it was they had gotten themselves into or something. So, after I was born, they asked my mama and papa if they would take me in. Then they left.”
Em waited, but when May didn’t continue she frowned. She hesitated before asking her next question.
“What did they do that was so bad that it made them leave their kid behind?”
Banner art by @beverlylove