May awoke slowly; a measured and drawn-out exhale.
As her mind slid from a pool of sleep to the shore of wakefulness, she became aware of someone was watching her. There was a soft depression in the mattress beside her, indicating her watcher was sitting close.
It wouldn’t be the first time May had awakened to find Em watching her sleep, a soft smile on her lips and love shining in her diamond blue eyes.
Reaching out, May fumbled for Em with a blind hand. She wasn’t quite ready to commit to waking up yet, and she kept her eyes closed in protest.
Her hand landed on a small head covered in course, closely cropped hair. May frowned. It felt nothing like the silver wisps of Em’s.
A giggle startled her.
Her eyes snapped open to find a cherubic face grinning back at her.
“Omi!” May gasped, jolting upright. She was completely awake now.
“Hi, auntie!” her nephew chirped, excitement sparkling in his obsidian eyes. He scampered across the mattress and into his aunt’s waiting arms.
May clutched the boy close and blinked away tears of surprise and happiness. She had forgotten everything – WIND, what had transpired between her and Em, the fact that she was back in Omea after so long away – and had been certain she was waking up to just another day with the woman she loved. Half of her heart was already in mourning over the fleeting dream, but she was too overcome by the delight of being reunited with her nephew to grieve too deeply.
“Look at you!” she exclaimed, peppering kisses all over the boy’s face and hair. “You’re all grown up! I almost didn’t recognize you!”
How could a single year change so much? When May had last seen Omi, she saw a tentative, wobbling toddler. But the boy in her arms was a child of stretched limbs, with a sure grasp and defined features protruding through the receding baby fat of his cheeks. He had even lost his first tooth.
“You grew up too, May,” Omi said, cradling her face between his two small hands. His eyes searched her face with youthful curiosity.
May laughed. She hadn’t considered how much she had changed until she reflected on the version of herself Omi was seeing now. He had never known her to have long hair; she had shorn it off when he was still an infant. Now her strawberry curls – tighter now that they had been reintroduced to the island’s humidity – fell past her shoulders. May combed a lock through her fingers; she had always looked older with long hair. And then there was her body. When May lived in Omea, she had only ever been lean and lanky. Any muscle gained through dance hadn’t been enough to counteract the long, doe-like slenderness of her limbs or lack of womanly curves. But a year of travel and experience had given May a new kind of definition. Now she wasn’t just in good shape: she was strong. Omi’s fingers gripped into his aunt’s toned arms and she cradled him with calloused hands.
Yes, it was no wonder Omi looked at May as though she had been gone for a lifetime.
The sound of the door creaking stole both of their attention. Tiio Alana, May’s mother, peered into the room and sighed.
“Omi, what did I tell you about waking your auntie?” she admonished with a softness that said she didn’t really mean it. “She needs her rest.”
“She’s been asleep for two days,” Omi complained, crawling higher onto May and wrapping his arms with a childlike protectiveness around her neck.
May tried to laugh, coughing instead through her nephew’s tight grip.
“It’s okay,” she choked, gently prying Omi’s arms loose. “I was ready to get up anyway.”
With Omi still in her arms, May followed her mother out into the kitchen. She recognized the hazy angle of the sun as it cut through the wide windows – the day was already old.
“Everyone will be here soon,” her mother said as if reading her mind. “Will you help me with dinner?”
May set Omi in a chair at the table with a kiss on his forehead and joined her mother at the counter. She fell into the routine of preparing fresh white fish like she hadn’t missed a single day of doing it, while her mother cut vegetables and fried mounds of steamed rice.
They worked in silence – the only sounds came from their cooking and from Omi, who hummed a meandering tune as he flipped through a copy of the Omea community newspaper; looking at the pages without comprehending the words. It was just like Tiio to try and act as though nothing had changed, but as the minutes ticked by and the hour of everyones’ arrival home after their long days at work grew closer, a tension filled the kitchen. May’s stomach twisted, anxious at the thought of finally facing her family since her return; the day her mother led her past them and tucked her, still weeping, into the bed in the spare room without a single word.
When the air between them had grown so thick that it was hard to breathe, Tiio took May by the elbow and spun her to face her. With a damp cloth, she cleaned May’s hands like she had when she was a child, and kept her eyes fixated on the work until it was done. When she at last met May’s gaze, Tiio’s eyes were glassy.
“Sweetheart, where is she?” she asked in a whisper. Her words weren’t harsh and accusatory – she was simply asking the question on everyone’s mind, colored with a pitying air assumption. “Where is Em?”
May pressed her lips into a tight line. She took a deep breath and looked away.
“She’s gone, mama.”
Tiio squeezed her daughter’s hands. “Did she hurt you?”
A sob rose in May’s throat, but she swallowed it down. She was so tired of crying. So she shook her head instead.
“We just…” May hesitated. She was supposed to tell everyone that she and Em were over – that Em had abandoned her like some mere mortal who couldn’t possibly keep up with a Star like her. But the lie was too close to what May, despite Em’s assurances, feared to be the truth. She worried that, if she said the words out loud, she might actually will them into being like a spell – or a curse.
Her mother caressed her cheek gently. “It’s going to be okay, baby. We’re going to take care of you. Properly, this time. I promise.”
May squeezed her eyes against another threat of tears. She took a couple deep breaths and nodded.
“How about you go get cleaned up?” her mother suggested. “I can finish out here.”
Grateful for an excuse to be alone, May nodded and hurried to the bathroom. Locking the door behind her, she gave her head a shake – she was determined not to cry. May peeled off her dirty clothes with a shudder and twisted the shower taps so the water ran hot. Showers on the freighter had to be short, so May took her time and savored the heat and the luxurious feeling of perfumed soaps in her hair and on her skin. She scrubbed harder than she needed to, but in a way that felt necessary. As the water washed over her raw skin, May imagined the past going with it.
When she stepped out of the tub some time later, May could hear muffled voices on the other side of the door. Her nerves jangled and shame crept up from the pit of her stomach. She should have been excited to see everyone again.
A light knock sounded at the door, making May jump.
“Auntie?” Omi’s voice sounded as though he had his face pressed right up to the door. “Gran asked me to bring you some clothes.”
Oh, right. May glanced down at the ripe pile of her previous outfit and cringed. Opening the door a crack, she caught her nephew trying to stuff a shirt underneath it.
“Oh, hi,” Omi grinned. He lifted the balled clothes in his fists. “These are for you.”
Laughing, May accepted his offering and retreated back into the bathroom to change. Even if the rest of the evening wound up being awkward and uncomfortable, at least she could always count on Omi to make her smile.
Dressing in a hurry, May tried not to think about the fact that the shirt Omi had retrieved from her pack had once belonged to Em, and wiped her palms on her shorts.
“Okay,” she whispered.
Taking a deep breath, she turned the door handle.
“Here we go.”
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