There it was – the word that had been dancing in the periphery of Em’s mind and threatening to throw itself over the edge of her tongue the moment she let her guard down. It was such an easy thing to say, like filler for pauses in conversations. She didn’t want to say it – to even entertain the idea – unless she was absolutely sure. She didn’t want to waste it or say something she couldn’t take back just because it was what people had a tendency to do when they got close to each other.
Em thought about May, she thought about the word. She thought of the two together and felt her stomach flutter and heart pound.
Who was she kidding?
“Well?” Kai asked, leaning in closer.
“Well what?” Lenaia swept back over to their section of the bar. “What did I miss?”
“I asked Em if she loves my sister,” Kai told her. His words sounded one part jovial and another part threatening; what are your intentions with my sister, overprotective sibling style.
“Ooh, excellent question!” Lenaia chirped, planting her elbows on the bar and cradling her chin on the backs of her laced fingers. “What’s the verdict?”
Em groaned and buried her head in her arms. “This is not a conversation I want to be having with either of you.”
She peeked up to find them both watching her expectantly. Nerves flared, heat racing up her neck like a volcano threatening to erupt. Before she could think better of it, she did exactly that.
“Oh, for fucks sake!” She cried in defeat. “Yes, okay? Yes, I’m crazy about her. Are you happy?”
Lenaia let out a squeal.
“I knew it! I fucking knew it!” She leaned over the bar and gave a smiling Kai a high-five.
“I knew it too,” he said. “But you know who really deserves to hear it?”
“Stop,” Em snapped.
“Drinks are on me if you go tell her right now,” Lenaia was all but trembling with excitement. Em balked at her and Kai laughed.
“Seriously, you two,” Em frowned. “This isn’t a game, stop making it weird.”
“You’re right,” Kai agreed, slapping her hard on the back. She fumbled to keep a grip on the bottle in her hand. “It’s not a game. So if that’s how you feel, you should really tell her. Especially after everything that’s happened lately.”
He slid off his stool and palmed some bills onto the bar with a “thanks anyway” to Lenaia and made for the door. Grumbling, Em shot a disgruntled look at Lenaia, who grinned and flashed her a pair of thumbs-up in reply. It was only as she was about to push out the door after Kai that Em paused and looked back. She glanced past the bar to the table in the back and found it empty. Kane and his friend had left.
Even without his venomous glare, Em still shuddered.
“Do you want a ride back?” Kai asked, hitching his thumb over his shoulder in the direction of his parents’ house. “Your bag is still in my van.”
Em shook her head. “I think I’ll walk. It’ll give me some time to get my thoughts in order.”
“Fair enough,” Kai conceded. “I’ll give you a head start and drop off the bag in a little bit.”
With a wave, Em made her way to the beach and followed the shore back toward May’s treehouse. Night had fallen now but Em still waited until town had faded behind her before taking flight. Yes, she needed to think but she also needed to burn off the tension of the day.
She never tired of the exhilarating rush that came from being airborne. With a little concentration she was able to push back on the atmosphere around her as if it were water, bobbing into the air like an untethered balloon. She took a deep breath and let the energies of the world around her wash over her skin and ricochet in and out of her lungs. With a kick she launched herself forward like the exaggerated leap of an astronaut in space; gravity nothing more than a cautious suggestion.
The sheer effort it took to hover and move through the air was almost enough to clear Em’s mind, but it would take much more than that to drown out the thoughts screaming for her attention.
Of course she loved May. It was stupid and proud of her to pretend otherwise.
But if she loved her, was it really fair to ask her to come away with her? To leave her family and everything she had ever known behind?
Em dipped low and skimmed along the surface of the ocean, letting her fingers drag across the water. She played with the things Kai had told her, with the excitement in May’s eyes when she had defended the mainland to her parents, and the way it had felt when they had decided to be an ‘us’.
Her hand tweaked at a weird angle, sending ocean spray straight into her face. The sensation reminded her of that night at the beach, she and May drunkenly splashing around until at last they had given into the strain of staying apart.
Even then she had known.
Em laughed, a quiet chuckle at first that built into a roaring, happy sound from deep in her gut.
She loved May. She didn’t want to deny it. With a pounding heart and a wide grin she pushed off again, jettisoning herself fast in the direction of home. Her mind was made up: she was going to tell May. As for whatever happened next, Em felt certain they could figure it out together.
The treehouse came into view. Yellow lamplight spilled from the windows of the sliding door and out across the sand. Em squinted; she was certain she could make out a large shadow on the ground beneath the deck.
It was a car. Not one she recognized either.
Quietly she lowered herself to the ground far enough into the foliage that her natural glow would be obscured and crept through the shadows until she could peer around the base of the tree. There was someone in the driver’s seat, the silhouette of a broad-shouldered man anxiously tapping on the steering wheel. Every few seconds he’d glance up at the house or out the back window as if he were waiting for something.
As if he was keeping watch.
He leaned over the passenger seat to get a better view and the light lit his features just enough for Em to recognize him as Kane’s friend from the bar.
She gasped just as May’s scream cut through the night.
Banner art by @flowerveil