Mai was used to the stares. Between her height of five feet eleven inches by the time she was thirteen years old, and hair that rare color of copper that blinded people if she stood in full sun, she was striking. She did not however stand in full sun too often because without sunglasses, her eyes would hurt so much that her eyelids instantly closed to just slits. Her eyes, more than her height or hair color, were the biggest cause of gawping! Mai had been born with a genetic disorder called coloboma of the iris. Part of the colored tissue that made up her iris was missing, so her pupils looked like upside-down raindrops instead of having a round shape. Strangers could not help themselves! Oh, yes, most strangers had been taught that staring was rude, but they could not seem to help themselves. There would be that double-take, then their mouth would hang open in gaping wonder, and then the questions would start. Was she born that way? Had her eyes gotten injured?
Even to her family, she was a curiosity. No one else had this disorder, though her mom had been found to be the carrier through her genetic line. Mai had a maternal great grandmother whose journals indicated that she too had cat’s eyes and was so sensitive to light that she had ended up moving from her native New Mexico to Forks, Washington. Mai had read through Granny Adeline’s journals. People had been unkind to her, calling her Snake-eyes in school without any intervention from the one room schoolteacher against what today, would be called bullying. Boys will be boys, Adeline’s parents would say. Like Adeline, Mai had been the unwilling “show and tell” person in her family. If a stranger came to their house, having heard of her condition, they often asked if they could see the “wonder”. And let’s not even get started on the way their siblings’ friends stared whenever “Let me show you my sister’s eyes!” erupted from their lips and either Adeline’s or Mai’s got dragged into a sibling’s room for a staring session.
Mai had grown up in Sundance Ski Resort in Utah. She knew about sun in the summer, and how impossible it was to play outside without granny glasses that fully enclosed her eyes but made her look like she was recovering from eye surgery. She knew about the ski season winters and how harsh the reflection of the sun was on the snow-covered hills. At least in winter, everyone else on the slopes was wearing goggles and she fit right in with the skiers… until she went indoors and removed her goggles… and the starers stared!
Mai sat on the window seat at her parents’ B&B. She was wearing a sun cap and sunglasses even though she was indoors. She was once again reading through Adeline’s journals. She chuckled, as usual, as she read entry after entry and they each started with, “Today, it is cloudy!” That sounded like Heaven to Mai! Mai had memories of visiting Granny Adeline’s grave at Fork’s cemetery. She had insisted on buying a gravesite under one of the biggest evergreen trees so that even in Forks, one of the most overcast and rainy towns in all of Washington State, her grave would always be in the shade. Mai smiled and thought, “I totally can relate, Granny!” Granny had sent her each iteration of the Twilight book series when they came out. They had put Forks on the map. The locals had remodeled their town into a movie set, capitalizing on the sudden fame derived from the books’ instant success. Adeline had sunk away from all that! More tourists meant more stares at the local Thriftway grocery store…
Mai shut the diary with one decisive snap. She ran down the stairs to the kitchen, where her mom was baking brownies for the guest who were soon to arrive back at the lodge from a day on the slopes. Mai snatched one of the brownies cooling on a rack on the counter. “Mom, I think I want to go to Forks for Spring Break! Do you think Grandpa would be open to having me stay with him for a week?” Melanie stopped stirring the next batch of brownie batter, wiped her hands on her apron and handed Mai the cordless phone from the kitchen wall. “Why don’t you call my Dad and find out?” Mai pulled her cell phone out of her pocket and waved it under her Mom’s nose, chuckling. Why her parents still had a land line was a mystery to her!
Grandpa Lou and Grandma Alice’s house was 4 miles South of town, nestled in the woods near Bogachiel State Park. The modest cabin they had bought when their kids had moved out and they wanted to downsize away from the bigger house in town always smelled of cedar wood and lemon pledge. It was homey and best of all, dark! Mai had insisted on driving the 1055 miles from Sundance to Forks instead of flying into SeaTac. She needed the thinking space of a solo long car trip. She was only two and a half months away from her high school graduation and still had no idea what she wanted to study. She had applied at LDS Business College and at two of the three BYUs. The thought of Hawaii and its sunny shores had kept her from giving even a second’s thought to applying to BYU Hawaii! As she pulled into the gravel driveway at her grandparents’ home, the crunch under her wheels made her feel like she was home! Grandma Alice ran out the door to engulf her in a hug. Grandpa came out next. Since when had he started using a cane? He insisted on carrying her small carry-on suitcase into the house.
A few days later, Grandpa and Grandma insisted on making a special trip into Seattle to visit the Space Needle and eat at its restaurant. Mai was looking at her menu, trying to decide what to eat that would not break her grandparents’ retirement bank when the waitress arrived to take their order. Mai looked up and found herself staring into a pair of hazel eyes with a slit pupil. The waitress stared at her and her jaw dropped, then both of them started laughing and exclaimed that it was their first time ever staring at someone else with the same genetic condition. It was quite a change for once to stare instead of being stared at! On the way back to Forks, Mai felt uncomfortable. Many of the passengers on the ferry stared at her eyes, so instead of staying up on deck with her grandparents, she asked for Grandpa Lou’s car key and huddled inside the car on the car deck. Would she ever fit in anywhere she went?
Upon arrival in Forks, Grandma Alice said she needed to stop at the Thriftway to pick up a few fresh items. She insisted on having Mai come inside with her. “You cannot spend your entire life hiding from people! Let them stare!” Mai was reluctant, but Grandma was right: this would allow her to pick out her favorite foods and veggies without having to give Grandma a list. She still put on a pair of dark sunglasses, which made Grandpa Lou chuckle and say, “There’s a first for everything! Sunglasses! In Forks! Hahahaha! Mai rolled her eyes and left him to visit with a couple of his old friends outside the store. They too grinned and made sarcastic comments about tourists and their sunglasses. Mai angrily pushed her glasses up onto her forehead and glared at the two men. They stared! Of course, they stared! But then, one of them smiled and said, “You are the spitting image of your granny Adeline! Same eye color and hair color!” “And same slit eyes!” she thought as she followed her grandma into the store.
As she moved through the store, she chuckled at the amount of merchandise there that had to do with the Twilight Saga, from water bottles with Wolf Pack prints to fake vampire teeth. She helped her grandmother shop for groceries. As they lined up to pay, a noisy group of teenagers who looked like they were about Sophomore age walked in. Speaking of packs… Mai braced herself for the stares, but the teens did not seem to take notice at all as they greeted her grandmother, then turned to her. “You must be Adeline’s great grandkid!”, one of them exclaimed. “Your great granny Adeline was a great lady! She tutored me a lot with schoolwork when I was struggling and my grades were tanking! What’s your name?” Mai introduced herself and Matt, the teen who had spoken, introduced the rest of the group. One of the girls in the pack told Mai how much they all missed her great grandma Adeline and invited her to a barbecue her parents were holding at their house the next evening. Mai hesitated, but the friendliness won her over. Matt asked Christopher, his big brother apparently, if they could swing by her grandparents home to pick her up on the way to the barbecue. Parking was limited at Lila’s house, they explained, so carpooling made sense. Mai nodded and they settled on a time. She was beginning to like Forks!
The next day, after arriving at the barbecue, she met Lila’s parents who HAD to have noticed her slit eyes, but barely gave them a glance. It was disorienting not to get stared at! Mai had the time of her life at the party. The only teen who, for an instant, stared at her, was like her, an outsider to Forks. The rest of the teens at the barbecue were all Spartans from Forks High School. “Don’t pay attention to his staring!” Matt said, startling the youth out of his staring spell. “He’s a Wolf from Sequim High! Not very bright!” Mai’s mouth dropped open, but Eric, as it turned out to be his name, burst out laughing and punched Matt’s shoulder. He apologized to Mai for staring and explained that the Wolves and the Spartans were big rivals when it came to high school sports. Mai smiled and said, “I get that a lot!” “Ugh?” Eric asked. “The staring! You’re not the first one to stare and probably not the last one either!” Eric nodded and apologized again. “It must be frustrating to have that be the first reaction people have when they meet you!” Mai nodded and the group moved to the buffet table laden with freshly grilled food.
As her Spring Break week continued, everywhere she went, Mai felt normal. Very few people stared at her. Many people mentioned Adeline the minute they met Mai. Mai found out what a town legend she was descended from. Her aunt Adeline had mentioned her day-to-day activities in her journal. She had described how hard it was to grow a veggie garden in Forks and how short the growing season was. She had mentioned genealogy research, one of her passions. She talked often of knitting and sewing but failed to mention that the items she created ended up in the NICU at the nearest hospital. They were preemie quilts or preemie layettes for the preemie who survived. Crocheted sets of two stars went to Moms whose preemie babies had not survived. One star went with the baby in the coffin, and the bereaved got to keep the other one as a memento of their angel babies. Great Granny Adeline also knit burial “sleeping” sacks in pristine white for those babies who did not make it. These young parents whose hopes for a healthy baby had been shattered would stop Mai on the street and ask if she was related to Adeline. They would share how much the handmade items had meant to her. Some of the FHS teens she hung out with had been born premature and they explained their first quilts had come from her great granny.
Adeline’s cabin still existed. Grandpa Lou had the key. He had not been able to bring himself to sell his mom’s cabin. And really, who would want to buy it! It had fallen into bad disrepair since her death. Now that she knew the way, anytime she was in Forks, she walked to Adeline’s cabin, feeling a profound kinship with this woman she had met only once, when she was just a toddler. She was loath to leave and return to Montana. Forks felt like home. In just one week, she had made more friends in Forks than she had in her entire school days in Montana. No one here stared at her anymore! It was not tourist season yet, and she knew that with the influx of summer tourists, she might be right back into “freak” mode, her strange eyes preventing strangers from seeing Mai, the person instead of Mai the snake eyed freak.
Two days before she was due to set back out on the long drive to Utah, Mai called her mom and dad. She wanted to stay in Forks. She had already made inquiries and had found a potential job at the ranger station… if her parents allowed her to stay. Her most winning argument was that here in Forks, her eyes never had pain from too much sun. Well, that was not entirely true. There had been a super sunny day at one of the beaches in La Push where the reflection on the ocean wave had driven spikes of pain in her eyes! But Grandma had said those days were rare and had allowed her to use her cataract surgery glasses. How Mai had laughed when Grandma had handed her those glasses. Her classmates in Utah were right! The sunglasses she had left back home really did look like post-surgery glasses.
Because Adeline’s cabin was in town, Mai managed to convince her grandparents to let her have the key. She started making repairs, with help from Christopher and Matt, who had a knack for woodwork and just about any type of renovation work. And when they did not know how to fix something, there was always YouTube tutorials, trial and error fixes and a whole lot of laughter. Mai registered at FHS after receiving her school transfer and paperwork from her. How refreshing it was to be in a place where everyone treated her normally. She became one of the pack, learned to poke fun of the Sequim Wolves at football games, even when the Wolves crushed the Spartans, which was often!
Best of all, at the cabin, Mai found a set of thank you letters sent to Adeline by thankful citizens of Forks. She called her parents once a week and texted her mom on a daily basis, just to chat. She asked if Mom could send her Adeline’s journals. She found a journal she had never seen, hidden inside a trunk in the cabin’s loft. In it, a much younger Adeline expressed her teenage frustrations at all the bullying she was enduring at her high school in California, and how her parents’ move to Forks, which at first, she had dreaded, had turned out to be nothing short of miraculous! She told of how she felt accepted and finally had friends who did not gawk at her or tease her. Those journal pages brought comfort to Mai. Adeline had been a young girl everyone stared at, just like Mai. And just like Mai, she had come to Forks as a stranger, but had ended up finding home, acceptance, and a refreshing lack of staring!
A year after her arrival in Forks, Mai sent a manuscript to an editor in Seattle. She had compiled a biography of her great-grandma Adeline, which included ancient photos of Forks, sepia colored family photos of Adeline and her family, and which included journal excepts and copies of letters of thanks. She often visited the Forks Cemetery and even had picnic under the giant evergreen at Adeline’s tomb. On the rare occasion when she drove into Seattle, she was reminded of why her decision to find her home in Forks had been the best of her entire life. The cabin’s roof no longer leaked. Matt had seen to that with Christopher. She had started growing a garden, using tips from Great-Grandma Adeline for the short growing season. During tourist season, she worked fulltime at the Ranger Station and guided tours along the Bogachiel River. Her sunglasses were firmly planted on top of her forehead: let the tourists stare! She was Mai Adeline Westover, mighty and powerful forest ranger!