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 that went unreturned by 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.”
Banner art by @beverlylove