[ CW: Strong language ]
May wasn’t sure what she was expecting when she stepped off the boat and onto Hoku’s northern shore. Perhaps she had anticipated the stress and anxiety of her past to crash into her all at once, like a wave in a storm. She stood in the middle of the dock, forcing the few passengers who actually came to the island – mostly locals who traveled to Topaia for business – to swerve around her, and waited for something to happen.
But aside from the obstruction she caused, no one spared her so much as a second glance. Life went on around her, and whatever catastrophe May was waiting for never came.
When she at last convinced herself to move on, May gave herself permission to enjoy the sunshine and the wet, humid air of the coast. Island heat was unlike anything else she had encountered out in the world; it had been so long since she felt its embrace, she had forgotten how much she missed it.
With nowhere else to be, May wandered down to the shoreline. She kicked off her shoes, peeled off her socks, and rolled the cuff of her jeans so she could walk through the rolling surf. Her toes sank into the hot sand and, when the whispering tide chased its way around her ankles, she sighed peacefully.
You could take the girl from the island, but you couldn’t take the saltwater from her veins.
May walked until she came to familiar stretch of sand. Dropping her pack on the beach, she waded into the water and let the sound of the waves take her back to the night she decided she would follow Em anywhere.
That was the night May realized how deeply in love she had fallen. The thought that she had lost Em was all she needed to help her understand just how much she wanted – how badly she needed – to be with her.
Now she was back again in the exact same spot, and she was completely alone.
She hadn’t followed Em, no matter what her heart wanted.
And she was back in a place she honestly never thought she’d see again.
May turned her gaze from the horizon to the island town at her back. In truth, she was only halfway back to the place she had fled from. Omea, her birthplace and the only home she had ever known for twenty-four long years, lay on the opposite side of the island. She wondered if it had changed much in the last year, and what people would say when she returned.
If she returned.
While she hadn’t been able to stay in Topaia, perhaps simply being on Hoku would be compromise enough. The idea of going back home, especially alone, tied her stomach up in knots. As much as she missed her family, she did not miss the gossip or the insinuation. Even being on the run for a year hadn’t been as dehumanizing as living her life of the periphery of a community that refused to forgive her for imagined sins.
She rolled the idea of staying on the north shore around in her mind. Save for a handful of day trips with her family when she was young, May hadn’t spent much time on this part of the island. It was more populated than Omea, that much she knew; more open to visitors too. But not by much. Pulling her shoes back on, May hauled her pack over a shoulder and made her way into town.
Seaside cafes, trade offices, and market stalls dotted the streets closest to the harbor, reaching away from this central hub of activity like fingers from a palm. May’s eyes drifted over the colors of wares for sale and the tanned and sweat-slicked bodies of the people around her without really seeing any of it. Again, she trailed to a stop.
She should have been looking for a place to stay, even if just for the night. She needed to figure out what she was going to do next.
But her brain couldn’t do it; the very idea of planning anything that looked like a future without Em by her side didn’t feel right.
Suddenly the idea of returning to Omea didn’t seem like the worst thing in the world after all. May felt as numb to it as she did every other prospect she tried to churn up.
Her mind wandered. She had no idea how long she stood there on the corner of a street that led out of the shipyards, staring into nothing, when a loud flatbed truck shrieked to a stop beside her. Even with the cringeworthy sound right next to her ear, followed by the heavy slamming of a door, May didn’t so much as flinch.
A woman darted around the front of the truck, stopping in front of May and staring at her with incredulous, unblinking eyes.
“Holy shit,” the woman said with a gasp. “May, is that really you?”
The sound of her name pulled May back to the moment. She blinked and gave her head a shake.
Standing there, with her long black hair pulled away from her peachy round face in a tight high ponytail, was the first familiar person May had seen in almost a week.
“Lenaia?” she asked, feeling like she must have been dreaming.
She was answered with a high pitched shriek as Lenaia leapt forward and wrapped her arms around May’s neck.
“I didn’t think I’d ever see you again!” Lenaia cried. “What are you doing here? Where’s Em? You’ve got to tell me everything!”
Her questions hit May like a blow to the gut. It must have shown because Lenaia’s enthusiasm drained from her face when she saw May’s heartbroken expression.
But before she could say anything else, a truck stuck behind her laid on the horn.
“Just hang on for like, one minute,” Lenaia shouted at the driver, who gestured impatiently back at her. She looked back to May. “Fuck, okay, where are you going?”
“I…” May trailed off. She had no idea what to say.
“Dammit,” Lenaia pulled open her passenger side door. “Get in. We’ve got to move.”
Without thinking, May did as she was told. Back in the driver’s seat, Lenaia shifted and turned onto the main drag running along the shoreline.
“Did you just get back?” Lenaia asked, shooting a quick glance at May. “Do you have a place to stay?”
“I don’t know,” May answered in a small, hushed voice.
Lenaia chewed her bottom lip and signaled to turn into a beach-side parking lot. There wasn’t much room for her big truck, but Lenaia wasn’t the sort of person to let that kind of thing stop her. She pulled horizontally across multiple parking stalls and threw on her hazard lights before turning in her seat to face May. Her features were drawn tight with concern.
“Are you okay?”
May opened her mouth to answer, but the sound caught in her throat. She swallowed the lump of tears she felt rising and shook her head instead.
“Are you alone?”
May hesitated, then nodded once.
At that, Lenaia twisted back to the steering wheel and threw the truck back into drive.
“There’s room behind your seat for your bag,” she said, maneuvering the truck out of the lot with a renewed sense of purpose.
“I’m taking you home.”
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