June 30th, 1997
The sign passed them in a brown blur on the right, so fast that Hope Fern barely made out the white-painted block letters carved into it: Holden Point Resort–Fun for the Whole Family! The rest of the text, smaller and underneath, was impossible to catch.
“Hey, this is it,” said Charlie. It was his turn in the front seat, after Sherri had fallen asleep holding the map just as they crossed the state line. “Mom, slow down. This is it.”
“I know that!” Brenda Fern’s face was red with heat and exhaustion and anger, her auburn hair falling out of carefully applied clips, a beige bra strap peeking from beneath a misaligned tank top. Two days the family had been driving, all the way from Nebraska–unseasonably cool for the time of year–straight into the haze of humidity and mosquitoes that was northern Florida in late June, but she only let the air conditioning run for five minutes at a time, in an attempt to save on the rental car’s gas.
She still almost missed the turn, yanking the wheel around at the last second as a narrow drive appeared at a bend in the road. Peach Tree Lane, said a tiny, forlorn sign, the only marker indicating there was an intersection at all. Hope was learning that everything in the southeast seemed to be called Peach Tree.
The sudden turn threw Hope–who had taken off her sweaty seat belt some miles earlier with the internal justification that according to the driver’s ed course she had just completed, seat belts weren’t technically required by law for backseat passengers–into the side of her sleeping sister. Sherri woke up crying and hitting, her mouth already forming a complaint.
“Mo-om! Hope’s on my side!”
Their mom chanced a glance backwards even as the car careened around another bend. The road was newly paved, which made a change from the pothole-pitted highway, but its curves were tight and mostly obscured by trees. “Did you take off your seat belt?” she shrieked at Hope.
“Mom!” Charlie, the only one of them actually watching the road, grabbed for the wheel, which earned him a smack and a “who here’s actually passed their driver’s test?”
But she slowed down as the main resort building came into view, a five-story white adobe structure with a peaked roof, flanked by two similar but smaller buildings. The scene was familiar; for weeks Charlie had been carrying around a battered travel guide supplement from last April, headline reading, Top Ten Unusual Florida Destinations and Getaways. Holden Point Resort listed at number three right behind Coral Castle and Gatorland.
The narrow road widened into a parking lot, sitting dark beneath the sun as the tree cover fell away, heat mirages flickering over its distant corners. The lot was about half full, a colorful cluster of cars and minivans lined up neatly in the front rows, a few pickup trucks with boat hookups closer to the back. The drive led straight to the front of the resort and around a fountain whose center featured a stone carving of a mermaid. As the Fern family pulled up to the front entrance of the main building, a middle-aged man climbed out of the maroon minivan in front of them and handed his keys to another man, this one in khaki shorts and a bright blue polo shirt, name badge clipped to the breast pocket. A second employee, dressed identically, was loading bags from the van onto a baggage cart.
“Valet parking,” Hope’s mom sighed. “So there is civilization out here.”
“It says right here there’s valet parking,” said Charlie, pointing to his travel guide. No one paid him any attention. Sherri was still making little sniffling sounds and holding her arm as if she had been horribly injured.
Hope gritted her teeth as the minivan pulled away and their little rental rolled to a stop in its place. The main building seemed to sparkle a little in the sunlight. She could just see the edge of a swimming pool behind it, deep blue water lapping invitingly, and she forced herself to relax. She wasn’t going to let her mom and her sister ruin her vacation. She wasn’t.
Another resort employee, a woman with tight blond curls pulled back into a ponytail, bounded up to the car and flashed a white-toothed grin as Hope’s mom rolled down the driver’s side window. “Welcome to Holden Point! Membership level?”
“Gold,” said Hope’s mom, her nose just slightly turned up. Hope rolled her eyes.
The woman’s grin got wider. “Great! Enrique here will help you get your luggage situated, and I’ll just take your keys–”
Hope opened her door and slid out of the car while the woman was still talking. The air outside was humid and hot, but there was a breeze that made it an enormous relief after the sweltering ride. Her damp t-shirt was plastered itchily to her back, and she pulled at it. She heard the car’s trunk popping open and went to retrieve her backpack before it could be loaded onto the baggage cart.
“Hope,” her mom snapped, stepping out of the car. “Let the staff do that. It’s their job.”
Hope said nothing, just grabbed her bag and slung it over one shoulder.
“Hello, ma’am,” said the baggage attendant, approaching Hope’s mom. “I’m Enrique. Do you have your suite number?”
“On reeeeee kay,” Sherri said in an exaggerated Mexican accent, giggling.
If Enrique heard her, he gave no sign of it. Hope shot her best glare at her sister, earning a retaliatory tongue in return.
Charlie, off by himself as usual, was staring up at the main building. “This is Palladino,” he said to no one in particular.
“What, are you glad we came now?” Hope sidled up and to the other side of him, using him as a shield against the frustrated gaze of their mom.
“Not really,” he said, not looking at her. “Glad Dad’s not here, though.”
Hope didn’t respond to that; for a day and a half of their drive to the Panhandle, before the heat and general misery had shut her up, they’d all had to listen to their mom bitch about their dad. And she knew Charlie’s relationship with their dad was only slightly less frosty than hers with their mom, but Hope had always found him a useful buffer against the more hostile members of her family. He wasn’t there, though, called away on an unexpected business trip to New Jersey, and hadn’t Hope’s mom had plenty of things to say about that.
Cancel the trip, Charlie had suggested, barely restrained hope in his voice. It was an all expenses paid trip, won in some kind of sweepstakes that no one quite remembered entering into, so who could blame them for writing the whole thing off as a scam? But their dad had insisted on the need for a family vacation, and he had checked and double-checked and confirmed that yes, Holden Point Resort was real. So now here they all were. Without him.
Hope’s mom snapped her fingers at her two eldest offspring. “Come on, I’m not standing in this heat all day.”
Enrique had their luggage loaded and was pushing the cart toward the entrance. Sherri slipped her hand into their mom’s–a gesture Hope found disgustingly childish for an eleven-year-old, but Sherri was the baby and had always been their mom’s favorite–and followed him in. Hope trailed behind, Charlie reluctantly taking up the rear of their little procession.
Their mom nodded approvingly at the lobby as they passed through the glass double doors and were assaulted by a blast of frigid air. Parquet flooring inside the door gave way to plush, ocean-blue carpet further in, where there was a sitting area and several large TVs, most of them currently playing some kind of sports channel. The check-in desk was set back into a little alcove, its surfaces marble-speckled silver and black. The ceiling was three stories up, sunlight streaming in through the front windows that ran all the way back down. The center of the lobby sported an oasis of palm trees surrounding a waterfall fountain that bubbled over smooth dark stones. A Starbucks and a convenience store opposite the check-in desk completed the space.
“Don’t go in there,” Hope’s mom said, catching Hope looking at the Starbucks. “Overpriced garbage.”
“I was just looking,” said Hope, but her mom turned back toward the check-in desk.
Hope took a few steps toward the Starbucks. She didn’t even like coffee, but the thought of such a small thing making her mom crazy was irresistible. She stopped to take a closer look at the waterfall, and as she did she was nearly knocked over by a woman striding from behind one of the potted palms, her steps short and irritated, her hands planted on her hips, and her face twisted into a sour expression. She gave no indication that she even noticed Hope.
Someone having even less fun than me, Hope thought. The woman was way overdressed for a holiday resort, sporting a short dark blazer over a white button-up shirt, and black slacks with low-heeled leather pumps. But as the woman stopped and raised one arm to scratch the back of her head, Hope saw something that made her breath hitch. There, clearly visible on the woman’s hip as her blazer rode up, was a gun holster.
Hope backed up, visions filling her head of holdups and robberies, most of the imagery supplied by the kinds of movies her mom disapproved of her watching. She kept going until she nearly ran into Charlie.
“What?” he said, most of his attention fixed firmly on the TV screens at the back of the lobby. He was still holding the travel guide. “Watch where you’re going.”
“That woman has a gun,” she hissed. “Charlie, look!”
“Who?” He was turning, looking, his eyes wide but more full of curiosity than fear.
“Right there,” said Hope, trying to point without pointing, in case the woman was looking their way and figured out she’d been made.
“Right there–” But Hope chanced a peek over her shoulder, and the woman was gone. “Well, she was right there.”
Charlie gave her his best skeptical eyebrow. “Okay, sure.”
“Really, she was there, and she had a gun.” Hope shook her head. “I know what I saw, Charlie.”
“So what if you saw someone with a gun?” he said. “She was probably like a security guard or something.”
“Why would the security guards need guns at a resort?”
But Charlie was ignoring her again. Their mom had received the key cards for their suite, and now Enrique led her to a bank of elevators hidden on the other side of the waterfall. Hope sighed and followed, glancing around once more for the woman with the gun, but she had disappeared.
Sherri begged, and got to push the button for the second floor. Hope dug into her bag and pulled out her CD player, but her mom smacked her hand and told her to put it away.
Their suite was the second one past the elevators, at the beginning of a long corridor carpeted in the same blue as downstairs. At the white-paneled door Brenda took her time testing each key card, then handed them out. Sherri got the first one, and Charlie grudgingly took the second, but when it came to Hope her mom just pursed her lips and said, “I only got three.”
Hope discovered, even after two whole days in a car with her mother, that her heart could sink even lower. “So I just don’t get one?”
“Don’t sass me,” said her mom. “They only gave me three at the front desk.”
“You can request additional keys, no charge,” Enrique put in.
“I suppose,” said Hope’s mom.
“Okay,” said Hope, turning back toward the elevators. There was no way she was spending two weeks in that suite without the freedom to come and go as she pleased.
“Not right now,” said her mom. “It’ll be a hassle and I’m exhausted. Let’s unpack first and then we’ll talk about it.”
“What’s there to talk about?” But under her breath, so her mom wouldn’t hear.
Sherri gave her a toothy grin as their mom opened the door and led them inside.