Liam Breyer stood at the pool’s edge and wiped his sweaty brow with the ratty hem of his blue t-shirt. The Florida sun was potent, even for early October, and the heat made his head throb. Liam dipped the skimmer into the murky water, and scooped out a soggy palm frond. He swung the net over to the top of the white fence and tapped it on the splintering wood. The giant leaf disappeared into the neighbor’s yard. Somewhere a chicken clucked. He sighed, brought the skimmer back to the surface of the water, and did it again. This was what he had become. A pool boy for a decrepit old hotel.
Palm fronds and dead flies littered the pool’s surface. Not to mention beetles that floated belly up like blackened candles. It would take awhile to clean out the gunk and he hadn’t even gotten to vacuuming the pool floor yet. Then he would have to shock the water with chlorine. He carefully leaned over and peered into the cloudy water. Green algae clung to the bottom of the stepladder. He nodded. Yup, a ton of chlorine.
Not that any of this mattered. The rusty patio furniture sat untouched, and a film of dirt and grime had settled on its surface. He even left his cell phone on the table, fearful it would fall out of his pocket and into the gross water and he’d had to dive in to retrieve it.
Despite the heat, there wasn’t one tourist who claimed a spot by the pool. Liam hadn’t seen a guest all morning, although he swore he could hear a baby crying or maybe that was just his hangover making him hallucinate. Nope, the Cayo Hueso Dead and Breakfast didn’t have many guests, or at least none that Liam had seen, and no one that seemed in the mood to swim. Who’d want to relax here?
Liam flicked a mosquito from his bicep. His grandfather used to talk about this place like it was a palace. Back in its heyday, whatever that meant. What difference did it make to him? He was paid no matter what, albeit it poorly and not very often. Evelyn Abernathy made it clear that she was doing Liam a favor by employing him, although as he peered around and saw empty beer bottles peeking out from behind neglected shrubs and large cracks in the patio concrete, he knew that wasn’t the case at all. Granted, this was the only job he could get. In Key West, where college grads competed for jobs waiting tables, Liam Breyer was lucky to be working at all.
Evelyn had pursed her lips when Liam told her he only recently acquired his GED. All she had said to him was, “The hotel needs to be in tiptop shape for Fantasy Fest. You’ll have to do.”
Gee, thanks lady.
Liam hung up the skimmer along two hooks on the white fence. Flecks of white paint rained down on his knuckles. He opened the door to the patio shed, the door squeaking on rusty hinges, and stepped inside. The air outside was humid and sticky, but inside the shed a surge of cool air swirled around Liam. He was suddenly overtaken by a strong earthy smell. He grabbed the pool vacuum and hose, and hightailed it out of there.
Liam had heard the rumors about the Cayo Hueso. Haunted, they said. Half of Key West was supposedly haunted. Hell, even the ladies’ room at the goddamn Hard Rock Cafe on Duval Street was haunted. What made this place so unique? Of course, Liam didn’t believe in ghosts. He’d never seen one and the kooks who claimed they had were just that — kooks. People would believe almost anything if they wanted to, but he had to admit, this place made his skin itchy.
Liam slipped his hand into his pocket and fingered the diamond ring he’d slid in there for safekeeping. Pops told him he could take anything he wanted from the little wooden box. “It’s all your abuela’s costume jewelry, I imagine,” Pops had said. “I’m not one to hold onto the past.” Liam didn’t think this ring classified as costume jewelry, but what did he know. Liam would pawn it and pay back Pops for the scooter.
Liam crouched by the filter and connected the vacuum hose. He stood up and submerged the vacuum into the pool, as bubbles flittered to the top. Liam grumbled under his breath. He was finally old enough to be his own man, only to return home to Key West bankrupt. Liam planned to make something of his life. The vacuum sucked up a dead beetle. This was not it.
As he pushed the vacuum along the cement floor, something metallic caught his eye. Liam squinted into the water. Whatever it was glinted. A necklace maybe. His pulse quickened. Maybe he’d come into more money than he thought.
Liam rose and retrieved the skimmer from the fence. The skimmer pole wouldn’t be long enough to reach the pool’s eight-foot depth so he crouched by the water’s edge. He plunged the net into the water and scooted the metal object along the cement floor. His heart sank. It was a necklace, but there wasn’t a diamond or even gold. This was silver and rectangular, like one of Pops’ old dog tags from the Navy, similar to the one Liam wore around his neck.
He tried to scoop up the dog tag, but he kept pushing it away from the net. Someone must’ve lost it swimming. Liam cringed. Who would swim in this pool? The algae alone made him nauseous.
Something else beneath the water’s surface caught Liam’s eye. He leaned further over the pool and waited for the ripples in the water to steady. When they did, the face of a young woman stared back at him. He whipped his head around, but no one stood behind him. No person to cause a reflection, other than himself. When he turned back to the water, the woman’s mouth had twisted up in amusement. She climbed out of the water and clawed his face.
Liam screamed as the woman dragged him below the water’s surface.
Autumn Abernathy was Windexing the mirror when the music box slid across the nightstand, pushed by an invisible hand.
Autumn shook her head, as if exasperated by a petulant child. “No, Katie.”
The olive wood music box suddenly popped open, and the tinkling of a sweet lullaby filled the room. Autumn sighed and ran the dust rag over the dresser and along the mirror’s ornate wooden frame. She didn’t pay much attention to her own reflection, which looked unfamiliar if she wanted to be honest with herself. After six months in Florida, her normal pale skin was tanned and freckled. A bit of sunburn streaked her nose and cheeks. Her dark hair had frizzed from the humidity and a lovely line of sweat ran down her cleavage. Autumn felt perpetually uncomfortable in her own skin. That’s what happened when you took a Jersey girl and plunked her into hotter-than-Hades Key West.
Sometimes, Autumn imagined waking up from a dream and finding herself back in New Jersey. Her parents were still together. Her father hadn’t cheated and gotten remarried. Oh, and he and Jennifer didn’t have a baby on the way. Gross. And Autumn would be hanging out with her best friend and going to the movies just like they used to. Instead, Autumn spent most Friday nights watching old films with her mom and Aunt Glenda.
Autumn glanced past her disheveled appearance and instead focused on the music box. Katie was up to something, she just wasn’t sure what. The music box snapped closed.
Autumn whipped around, her ponytail smacking her cheek. She rubbed her arm across her sweaty forehead, leaving a smudge of dust on her skin. “Seriously, Katie. Don’t mess with Aunt Glenda’s music box. It was a gift from Uncle Duncan.” Darn, she shouldn’t have mentioned that. Katie loved to screw with Aunt Glenda. After all, it was Katie’s ghostly presence that drew in the guests who worshipped the occult.
Autumn waited a beat. “Fine. Don’t talk to me.” She went to the closet and rustled out a set of threadbare cream bed sheets. “Why don’t you haunt Mrs. Paulson in the January Room? She’s been bitching all week that she hasn’t seen a ghost. And she paid to see a ghost.” She mimicked Mrs. Paulson’s heavy Southern accent.
Autumn yanked the floral coverlet off the four-poster bed. Changing the bed linens of total strangers used to skeeve her out, but she had gotten accustomed to it. The Florida heat, however, she would never appreciate. In New Jersey right now, she’d be unpacking her sweaters and heading to Starbucks for warm pumpkin spice lattes. In Key West, the only thing she ever ordered were iced coffees, extra ice.
“Mrs. Paulson,” Katie said, materializing, “is a fat, old cow and I have no intention of entertaining her. I don’t care what she paid for. It’s not like Aunt Glenda pays me.” Katie glided over to the window. A sly smile crept along her pale pink lips. “Now, that boy outside over there, he’s someone I’d like to know better. He’s groovy, don’t you think?”
Autumn slid a case onto a pillow. “His name is Liam and don’t mess with him.” Autumn purposefully evaded her last question. He was handsome if you liked boys with dark hair and tanned skin. She didn’t know if she did. In New Jersey, she’d only dated Ryan Jacobs, and he was blond. And kinda pasty.
Katie pouted. “Why not? You don’t think he’d find me pretty?”
Tall with long straight blonde hair parted in the middle, Katie wore bell-bottoms and a tight striped sweater that showed off her large breasts. She wasn’t just pretty, she was a knockout. A dead knockout.
Autumn sighed. “You’re pretty.”
Katie examined Autumn’s green tank top and cotton shorts. “You could be pretty too, if you did something with your hair.”
Autumn combed her fingers through her brown ponytail. “It’s too hot to do something with it.”
Katie shook her head. “You have no imagination.” She peeked out the window. “Do you think I should say hello?”
“Absolutely not. You’ll freak him out. Besides, he won’t be here long. Mom hired him to help get the Cayo ready for Fantasy Fest. After November First, she plans to let him go.” Autumn wondered if Liam knew of her mom’s intentions. “So, don’t get attached. Why don’t you bother Mrs. Paulson before she complains to my mom for the billionth time?”
“Humph. Is that all you think I’m good for?” Katie nudged the music box closer to the edge of the dresser.
Autumn’s hand shot out. “Aunt Glenda will be crushed if you break it.”
Katie smiled mischievously. “Duncan died forever ago. She needs to let go and stop living in the past.” Autumn watched as the box teetered on the edge.
“Katie,” Autumn warned, but before she could leap over the bed to save it, Katie had knocked the music box off the nightstand, smashing it to pieces. Then she disappeared.
Autumn cursed and gathered up the wooden fragments. She’d have to tell Aunt Glenda what Katie had done, but not within earshot of her mother. Evelyn bristled anytime Glenda or Autumn spoke of ghosts.
Autumn’s phone buzzed in her pocket. She set the broken wooden pieces on the dresser to check the screen. Her breath caught. Her father! Last night, she had sent him a pathetic email begging him to let her come back home. Despite the fact that her father had cheated with a woman barely out of college, Autumn felt like she was the one being punished for her father’s infidelity. After all, she wasn’t allowed to stay in her childhood home.
Her dad texted a response.
I know I said we could re-examine you moving in with us, but it’s not a good idea right now. Jennifer is struggling a bit with the pregnancy. Besides, she is thinking of starting her own online business, making kids’ clothes, and we can’t guarantee we can convert the attic back into your bedroom. Your mother also wouldn’t approve. I miss you tons, sweetheart, and we’ll definitely talk about setting up a visit soon. Once the price of airfare comes down.
Enjoy the Florida weather. It’s getting cold here. Sweater weather. Brrr.
Autumn’s stomach rolled.
Autumn saw there was another text from Natasha and she brightened. Tasha was her hail Mary. If anyone could come through for her, it was her best friend.
What up, chiquita?
My parents said ixnay on moving in with us for senior year. Can’t you move back in with your dad?
Autumn slumped onto the bed. Okay, so begging for a place to stay in New Jersey wasn’t working. She was all out of options until she went to college in the Northeast next fall. Autumn would have to suck it up until then.
Autumn finished cleaning the room, retrieved the smashed music box, and closed the door. The March room would stay vacant for at least another two weeks, until the partygoers arrived for Fantasy Fest.
Autumn bustled down the stairs and into the hotel lobby. Aunt Glenda stood at the reception desk, holding a blue feather duster. Her fingers adorned with gold rings, she brushed a small elephant figurine.
Timothy watched Aunt Glenda from his perch behind the desk. He smoothed down his lavender tie, a bold fashion choice for a teenager, but Timothy never acted like any teen Autumn knew.
He put his hand on the figurine and picked it up in one swift motion. “Miss Glenda, why don’t you let me do that?”
“I’m just trying to be useful.” Glenda pouted. “Between you, Evelyn, and Autumn, I feel like I have nothing to do anymore.”
Autumn approached her aunt and presented the broken pieces of the music box. “I’m terribly sorry. Katie’s in a mood.”
Aunt Glenda’s eyes misted. “Is that Duncan’s music box?”
“Yeah,” said Autumn.
Glenda clutched the pieces to her chest. “I’d be more upset at her, but I feel for the poor dear. I think it’s all that sexual frustration.”
Timothy nearly choked on his gum.
Glenda clucked her tongue. “Well, she was only sixteen when she overdosed. Supposedly as boy crazy as they come.”
Evelyn Abernathy poked her head out of the back office and whispered, “Is Mrs. Paulson gone?”
Timothy waved her out. “At least for the day. She signed up for a booze cruise.”
“Lovely,” Evelyn said dryly. She brushed her auburn hair off her forehead. Unlike the guest rooms, the lobby lacked air-conditioning and offered no relief from the relentless humidity. Only a weak breeze flowed through the sliders’ screen door. “Autumn, is the March room finished?”
“Yes, Mom. All done.” Often, Autumn felt like her mother’s employee, rather than her daughter.
“All right, honey. Why don’t you go upstairs and do your homework?”
But before Autumn could reply, a scream sliced through the lobby. Followed by the sound of a body thrashing in the pool.
Liam struggled against the weight gripping his ankle. He felt fingers curl around his skin and drag him down, but there was no one else in the water with him. He clawed at the surface as he struggled for breath.
Suddenly, without warning, the weight disappeared and Liam swam up. He broke through the surface and gulped in air. His eyes flew open and locked onto the face of a girl with light skin and dark hair. He cried out and fell back into the enveloping water. Liam popped up again and flung the pool water from his hair.
Evelyn’s daughter extended her hand to him. “You okay?”
Liam swam to the pool’s edge and hoisted himself out without taking her hand. Greenish water ran down his clothes in rivulets. His body trembled. The old lady, Glenda, hurried over to him with a towel and draped it over his shoulders. The girl’s mother was there too. Her face a mask of suspicion. And Timothy, his hand covering his full lips, desperately trying not to laugh, and failing.
Liam’s cheeks burned. Only the girl, what was her name? Summer? No, Autumn. She didn’t look so much concerned as curious.
“Were you attacked by an animal?” Autumn tilted her chin at Liam’s face.
Liam touched his cheek and winced. His fingertips grazed a scratch. To tell them what really happened would require a lengthy explanation and a psych evaluation. “Yeah. A cat, I think.”
“You think?” Evelyn’s brows rose.
“I mean, it was a cat.”
“Autumn, dear,” Glenda said. “There’s a first-aid kit in the shed. Grab it and see to William’s cheek, won’t you?”
Evelyn sighed loudly, as if this whole scene was a nuisance to her. She waved Glenda inside. Liam heard her whisper to Autumn as she passed her, something about rabies. He wanted to hide under the stained rug in the lobby. Timothy stayed and observed him with an expression of pure amusement.
Liam flopped down onto a nearby patio chair, his thigh bumping up against a rusty screw that scratched his skin. He was a mess. His sneakers were soaked, never mind his t-shirt and shorts. Good thing he left his cell phone on the table.
Liam stripped off his shirt and threw it to the concrete below. It made a loud smacking sound, the way wet cotton did when it connected with cement. Autumn returned and halted at the sight of Liam’s bare chest. Liam watched her cheeks color before setting the first-aid kit on the table. She opened it up and drew out peroxide and gauze. She stood directly in front of him, but averted her gaze from Liam’s muscular torso, and tilted up his chin. In doing so, Liam was able to appreciate Autumn’s warm brown eyes and long lashes.
“Hold still.” She dabbed the peroxide on his cheek and he winced. “So, a cat, huh?”
Liam didn’t meet her gaze. “That’s what I said.”
Autumn squirted ointment onto a cotton ball and pressed it onto his cheek. “Was this cat also pretty? About five-foot-six? See-through? Perpetually stuck in the 70s?”
“Girl.” Timothy’s voice dragged out the letter ‘r’. “You think Katie did that?”
Autumn appraised Liam, her hand hovering over his cheek. “I know it wasn’t a cat.”
Liam pushed Autumn’s hand away from his face. He held her hand for a moment before saying, “I don’t know what you’re playing at here, but you’re freaking me out.”
Autumn straightened. “You know the Cayo is haunted, don’t you?”
He stared at the cracked concrete. “Everyone says that.”
“Well then, why don’t you admit that it was Katie who hurt you and not some cat?” she asked.
Liam squinted at her. Was this girl for real? Did she really believe this crap? “I don’t believe in ghosts if that’s what you’re asking. I’m not a freak.”
Autumn blanched. She turned away and closed the first-aid kit. “Course not. I was kidding anyway.” Her voice trailed off. “I’ll just go put this back.” She opened up the shed door and slipped inside.
“Damn, boy,” Timothy said. “Way to make a girl feel special.”
“I don’t believe in ghosts,” Liam said again, this time more forcefully.
“No one said you had to,” Timothy said. “But we both know it wasn’t a cat that hurt you. So, if pretty Miss Katie attacked you, then let us know. She can be downright aggressive when she wants to be.”
Liam leaned back against the chair’s worn plastic. He knew that whatever it was that scratched him was not a ghost. That was total bullshit. But, it was also not a cat. He traced his fingers back over his face and counted five long scratches. He must’ve hurt himself in his panic. He was tired and had drank too much punch at the beach party. Plus, he had arrived home only days ago. He hadn’t adjusted to the time difference and all that traveling on the bus. He felt slightly relieved. He was exhausted and hung-over. Of course, I thought I saw a woman in the water. I’m not crazy. Just still drunk.
Timothy sighed loudly and started back toward the lobby. Liam cleared his throat and Timothy paused. “This Katie,” Liam said. “I’m just curious, is she a brunette with a dark mole below her eye?”
Timothy’s eyes widened ever so slightly. “That’s awfully specific. And no, Katie’s a blonde. Unmistakably blonde.”
Liam gave a slight nod. Timothy didn’t say anything after that. He waited for Autumn to join him and together they went inside the Cayo, leaving Liam alone to puzzle out his thoughts.
Autumn entered the lobby and slumped into a wicker chair near the window. She shouldn’t have been so bothered by Liam’s freak comment. After all, what did the opinion of a high-school dropout mean to her and yet, it stung. So what if she bought into the notion of ghosts? They spoke to her! Well, Katie did at least. If the Cayo had other ghosts, they sort of kept to themselves.
Autumn wasn’t exactly sure why she could see spirits. Timothy said it was because she was a believer and the ghosts respected that. He also said there had to be someone in her family tree who could also communicate with the dead. Aunt Glenda, who claimed to see spirits too, was her great aunt only through marriage.
In her old home in New Jersey, Autumn was sensitive to the odd noises in the house. When she was little, she’d often see a young girl in braids and a white smock dress playing outside. A little girl that had lived in the house over a century ago. Autumn knew spirits existed, but her mother never believed. In New Jersey, the strange noises in the house were made by the wind. Or a squirrel in the attic. The little girl in braids was just a dream. Her mother never took her seriously.
Timothy went to reception and retrieved a sketchbook and a set of colored pencils from a black attaché case. Even in the heat, Timothy appeared polished. His charcoal vest was perfectly tailored to his thin frame and his tie lay flat, only a small silver pin to adorn it. His dress shirt held no hint of perspiration, nor was there a line of moisture along his brow. His black hair shone of pomade, not sweat. Must be that young Bahamian blood. Autumn plucked her damp tank top from her sweaty chest.
Timothy’s head bent over his paper, his pencil scratching furiously. Autumn stood, went over to the desk, and rang the brass bell to be annoying. Timothy didn’t even glance up.
“Whatcha doin?” she asked.
He swiped the bell before Autumn could ring it again. “Sweet child, leave me alone. I’m drawing some ideas for the D&B website.”
Autumn rolled her eyes. She hated it when he called her “sweet child.” Timothy was 19, only two years older than her. “My mom wants you to redesign the website?”
“Uh-huh,” he said. “She’s paying me to revamp it. It’s called rebranding.” He smiled and held up his sketch. “This should be a nice addition to my portfolio.”
It was a new logo. A picture of a pristine Key West Victorian with white paint and teal shutters. In reality, those teal shutters would be hanging on for dear life by a lone rusty screw and that white paint would be peeling off in ribbons. More interesting though, was what was written inside the logo. Cayo Hueso Bed and Breakfast. Not Dead and Breakfast as Aunt Glenda had named it.
“She wants to change the name? Aunt Glenda can’t be too happy about that. It’s a haunted hotel. Not some cottage retreat in Vermont.”
Timothy shook his head. “I just do what I’m told.”
“Well, someone should tell my mom the ghosts aren’t going anywhere just because she wants them to,” said Autumn.
“Go tell her yourself, she’s in her office.” He nodded toward the back room.
Autumn thought about doing that, but decided against it. What did she care if her mother wanted to reinvent this place? Autumn wasn’t planning on staying here long enough to see that plan through. Or at least, that’s what she told herself.
Thumps came down the stairs and the large silhouette of Mrs. Paulson emerged in a tight, floral dress. Apparently, Mrs. Paulson hadn’t left for her booze cruise yet.
“You there.” The woman pointed at Autumn. “That darn ghost will not make herself known to me, but she sure as hell has no problem playing jokes. She stole my broach and set it on the chair with the pin sticking up.” She rubbed her buttocks and Autumn bit her lip to stop from laughing.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Paulson.” Autumn couldn’t help but stare at Mrs. Paulson’s sausage toes, her nails painted bright orange. “Katie can be very, uh, temperamental.”
Mrs. Paulson puffed out her chest. “I don’t care. I paid to be haunted, not annoyed. And there’s something going on with my water. One minute it’s cold, the next minute, it’s boiling like a Georgia summer.”
Autumn’s mother popped her head out of her office and appeared behind the reception desk. Timothy slunk lower behind the reception desk.
“Mrs. Abernathy, I expect better accommodations or I’ll be posting a negative review on Vacation Raters.” Before she could wait for a response, Mrs. Paulson adjusted her straw hat on her bloated head and stormed out the front door.
“Another satisfied customer,” Autumn joked.
Evelyn Abernathy glared at her daughter. “You think this is funny? It’s women like that who can destroy our business. Another negative review and this place is going to go bankrupt.”
“What are you worried about?” Autumn asked. “We have a full house for Fantasy Fest.” The Cayo Hueso had twelve guest rooms, each named after a month. And last time Autumn checked, all the rooms had a booking for Fantasy Fest, Key West’s ten-day bacchanalian party. Granted, it would be a few weeks before they’d be occupied, but it was something.
Evelyn sighed. “If we make it to Fantasy Fest. Anyway, ten days a year is not enough to keep us afloat. This place needs to be booked all the time.” She softened her eyes. “And please stop encouraging your Aunt Glenda.”
Autumn balked. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, telling her the things ‘Katie’ did.” Evelyn used air quotes when she said Katie’s name. “I overheard you before. Your aunt believes so strongly in these spirits, she won’t consider turning this into a proper guesthouse. She’s afraid she’ll upset the ghosts, not to mention Uncle Duncan. The poor man’s been dead ten years, let him rest in peace.” She pinched the bridge of her nose. “No more of this haunted nonsense. It brings in the nuts.” She tilted her chin at the door Mrs. Paulson had sauntered out moments earlier. “It’s you who broke the music box while you were dusting, just admit it.”
Autumn wondered if her own mother thought she, too, was a nut like Mrs. Paulson and Aunt Glenda. She now knew Liam thought so. “I didn’t break the music box.”
Evelyn gave another exasperated sigh. “If we don’t get decent, paying customers in through that door all year round, then we’ll all be out of a job.” She frowned at Timothy and then to Autumn. “And a place to live.”
Autumn brightened. “Then it’s back to Jersey?”
Her mother shook her head. “Nope. El Paso.”
“With Grandma?” Autumn groaned, her smile gone. “You’re joking.”
Evelyn lightly patted Autumn’s cheek. “Like most things in this place, I’m dead serious. Now why don’t you go upstairs and study? You have school tomorrow.”
The heat of frustration crawled up Autumn’s body like mercury in a thermometer. Why did her mom always have to treat her like a child? “I know.”
Autumn started to head upstairs to her bedroom, but instead, she smacked right into Liam’s wet torso.
Liam didn’t see Autumn or he would’ve prepared for the impact. She slammed into his chest and he instinctively embraced her, wrapping his arms around her while still holding onto his wet t-shirt.
“Oof.” Autumn pulled away. Liam glanced at her flushed cheeks and he wondered if he looked equally embarrassed.
Even after Liam had spent several minutes putting back the pool supplies, his shorts dripped water on Autumn’s shoes. Liam glanced down at the puddle on the old wood floor. “Sorry about that.”
“No, I’m sorry. I should be more careful where I walk.”
Well, he couldn’t argue with that. There was an awkward silence before Evelyn cleared her throat.
Liam suddenly felt the need to cover up himself. “Can I borrow a dry shirt?” He wasn’t sure who would offer to help. Timothy was so lean, Liam imagined ripping one of his shirts Incredible Hulk-style.
Luckily, Aunt Glenda barreled around the corner. A navy polo shirt with thin white stripes on the collar and sleeves lay draped over her arm. She held the shirt out to Liam. “It belonged to Duncan. You kids would call it vintage now.”
Liam hesitated to accept the shirt. Pops told him how the old lady felt about her dead husband. He would’ve preferred a simple, white cotton t-shirt so he could slink back to work with dignity or out the front door never to return. He couldn’t believe he had fallen into the pool. His headed pounded as if a coal miner had taken a pickax to his skull.
Liam turned his body away from the prying eyes and slipped the navy polo shirt, which smelled faintly of mothballs and mildew, over his head. He smoothed the shirt’s hem over his hips and then looked up to see Timothy, Autumn, Evelyn, and Glenda all watching him curiously. His skin crawled under their gaze. I bet they’re thinking I’m just another Breyer loser. Liam wondered if this job was worth the awkwardness.
Glenda gently placed her hand on Liam’s shoulder. “You probably should just go home.”
Liam wasn’t prepared to be fired. But part of him knew to expect it.
“Don’t worry,” Glenda said kindly. “I’ll still pay you for a full day. You come back tomorrow when you’ve had a good rest.”
“Oh, okay,” Liam said, surprised. So he wasn’t being fired. He still felt reluctant. He wasn’t sure he was comfortable taking the old lady’s money without finishing the work. “I’ll make up the hours tomorrow.”
Glenda smiled broadly and clapped. “Wonderful. I must say, in that shirt, you look just like —“ But before she could finish, there was a strange rattle and a loud crack.
“Watch out!” Autumn cried, just before she rammed Liam into the reception desk. His back stung from the force. A brass chandelier crashed down onto the floor, right where he had stood.
“Jesus!” cried Evelyn as she stared up at the ceiling. She whirled to Liam. “Are you all right?”
For a moment, her concern touched Liam until he realized she was probably only worried about a lawsuit. He nodded.
“How the hell did that happen?” Evelyn asked, breathless.
Everyone followed Evelyn’s gaze, except for Liam. He’d had enough of this place. He didn’t care what strings or favors Pops had called in; he wasn’t coming back here. Not ever.
Evelyn stared at the broken chandelier, which sat on the floor in a heap of brass. She clucked her tongue. “How much do you think that’s going to cost to replace?”
Glenda clutched her chest. “That chandelier’s been in the house for decades.” She frowned at Liam, grabbed a paper bag from the reception desk, and shoved it into his hands. “Here. Take some of Lulu’s cookies for your grandfather. They’re key lime. Lulu’s specialty.” Glenda’s voice trembled as she pushed him toward the door.
“Okay.” Liam tried to catch his breath. He wanted to tell the old lady that he’d return the shirt, but he knew that wasn’t likely to happen.
Glenda waved him out the door. Liam didn’t need to be told a second time. On his way out, Evelyn hissed, “That boy is bad luck. We should hire someone else.”
“Pish, Evie. His grandfather and my Duncan were close friends,” said Glenda. “Besides, the poor boy was attacked.” He didn’t wait to hear the rest.
Liam strode over to his scooter, a beat-up 1984 Honda Elite with scratched gold paint and a torn leather seat that he bought cheap. He kicked a palm leaf out of the way and unbuckled the helmet from the handlebars. He took the paper bag and his cell phone and tossed them in the small trunk space on the back of the bike. He was just about to snap on his helmet when Autumn came barreling out of the Cayo.
“Wait!” she cried.
Liam sat up straighter. What did she want now? Couldn’t he just get out of here? The humiliation seemed never ending.
Autumn halted at the bike and pushed a strand of hair from her face. She handed him a bunch of crumpled bills.
“It’s your day’s pay. Aunt Glenda thinks you won’t return. She wanted you to have what she promised.” Autumn’s face soured and Liam couldn’t help but think she looked pretty trying not to be disappointed.
Liam wasn’t used to such generosity. He was more accustomed to glares and suspicious glances. He peeked back and saw Evelyn watching from the window. Yeah, like that.
Liam returned the money to Autumn’s palm. “Tell her she can pay me weekly like we agreed.”
Autumn appeared thoughtful for a moment. “So you’ll be back?”
Liam buckled the helmet’s strap under his chin. “Yeah.”
“Okay, I’ll let Aunt Glenda know.” She hesitated before turning to leave.