Nicole propped herself up on her elbow, brushing sand from the shoulder of her short-sleeved, baby blue polo shirt. Against the travel company’s uniform protocol, all three of her shirt buttons were undone, she’d rolled her short slacks up a good few inches higher over her knees than they should be, and she currently was not wearing the hazardous metal name tag that burned to the touch after a morning under the early June sun. A backwards cap bearing the company logo kept her tousled red hair from the sun’s rays, and her aviator sunglasses shielded deep mocha eyes from the glare on the water. The gentle crash of the Atlantic waves lulled in her ears, and she curled her toes in the golden sand, just cool enough to bear to touch. Since she’d turned eighteen, Nicole’s life had been on the sands and the sea; in the hotels, and the bars, and the restaurants; under the heat of the Floridian sun. A life that she’d loved. Nicole’s gaze fixed on the ebb and flow of the ocean waves, the soothing movement entrancing her as it always did. As the years had passed, it would be an outright lie if Nicole ever said that she never tired of the sun. It would be a lie if she said she never tired of the parties, and the alcohol, and the hours, and the girls. But the way the waves broke on the shoreline, the same wave never made twice; the way the shades of blues and greens darkened as the waters grew deeper, until they dropped off the edge of the naked eye; the way the sun bounced sparkling gems from the surface, dancing away faster than the eye could trap them; the way the sounds seemed to change depending on the way you chose to listen – the ocean would never grow old to Nicole.
Jeremy’s words hovered on the edge of Nicole’s conscious awareness as he chattered away beside her, swiping his thumb repeatedly over the dating app on his phone screen. His uniform polo was buttoned to the top, tucked into his full length navy slacks. His name badge shone proudly on his chest, and he winced as his arm brushed over the molten metal. To the outside eye, the two seemed an unlikely friendship; Jeremy’s skittish and awkward nature a stark contrast to Nicole’s air of assured confidence. Despite this, something between them worked; a friendship had sparked in the contrast, and deepened in the skeletons they shared in their respective closets. Jeremy had only been in the Keys for a year, and Nicole had seen many friendships come and go, but she couldn’t help but hope that the younger boy would be one to stick around.
Jeremy jumped, and Nicole craned her neck back as a loud crash from the beach bar behind them shattered through the peaceful reverie, the lapping of the waves drowned by the sound of shouts and the clattering of utensils to the floor.
“Por el amor de Dios!” Rosita cursed harshly, as she expertly weaved her own tray above her head and out of harm’s way, leaving the bar boy clambering on the floor amongst his mess. “How many times do I have to tell you to shout on enter? Idiota inútil.”
Nicole chuckled, grinning at Jeremy as his eyes widened slightly and his lips parted. His second summer in, and he still seemed slightly terrified of the beach-bar owner. Rosita shook her head, her lips curling into an amused smirk as she reached the edge of the veranda and stepped onto the sand, placing the tray of burgers and fries on the low table between the loungers that Nicole and Jeremy occupied.
“New bar boy?” Nicole grinned, her eyebrow quirked above the rim of her sunglasses.
“Yup. He’s pretty good actually.” Rosita returned the grin, settling herself down on the empty lounger beside Nicole, the redhead handing her a portion of fries. “But it’d do me no favors to tell him that.”
Nicole chuckled, turning her gaze back towards the ocean. She lifted her sunglasses, waving as she spotted Doc along the shore, hauling in his banana boat for what seemed like the hundredth time that morning. The sudden spike of new arrivals marked the beginning of the tenth summer that Nicole would spend tending to the needs of Florida Keys tourists. Nine full years in the sun, over fifteen hundred miles from her hometown and the people she’d left behind there. Nine years that had slowly dampened, but never managed to fully erase the feeling of unease and anxiety that filled Nicole’s chest when she thought of Toronto, and the life she’d left behind her.
“Booked to the boat party tonight, Haught?”
Rosita’s voice broke through Nicole’s train of thought, and she welcomed the distraction.
“I am! Jeremy too. We have four groups signed up. Think it’s seventeen or so in total from our books.” Nicole couldn’t hide the sigh from her voice. At 27, she was much too young to feel as old as the early summer boat parties made her feel, but she would admit that she did enjoy the buzz of the season starting to pick up again after the slower winter months.
“I’m there, I’m providing the booze.” Rosita fixed her eyes on Nicole’s, her quirked eyebrow a sure sign that she was about to broker an all-too-familiar deal. “Bring your groups back to the bar when the boat moors, and I’ll put yours on the house for the night?”
Nicole smirked, knowing that she didn’t really need to respond. This was the deal every time.
“We have to watch ourselves tonight though.” Jeremy scrabbled in his bag for his clipboard as he spoke, avoiding Rosita’s glare. “We have a welcome meeting tomorrow morning, right?”
Nicole rolled her eyes, fishing her own clipboard from her bag with no difficulties and looking pointedly at Jeremy, a subtle smirk pulling at the corners of her lips.
“9am at the Casa Marina. Three new groups arriving today, two from inland states around about now and one in from Vancouver later tonight.”
“Please let there be a cute guy. Just once I want there to be a cute guy.” Jeremy held his hands together as if in prayer, his head tilted back to the sky.
“Chetri, there is always a cute guy.” Nicole threw her hands in the air in mock exasperation, her playful tone apparent beneath the faux frustration.
“An abundance of cute guys.” Rosita confirmed, her grin wide as she leaned back against the sun lounger.
“But you never...” Nicole started, her grin audible in her voice.
“Have the cojones...” Rosita laughed as she continued.
“To do anything about it!” Nicole flicked a fry in Jeremy’s direction, laughing as her friend’s eyes widened and his jaw dropped in defensive shock.
“There is nothing wrong with my cojones! I just don’t have a very good gaydar!” Jeremy scoffed, his pitch getting higher as he fought off his friends’ teasing.
Nicole chuckled, shaking her head as she watched a blush spread across Jeremy’s cheeks.
“Okay!” Jeremy grinned, his shoulders dropping as he succumbed to the light banter. “We can’t all have our prospects quite literally throw themselves over us, Nicole.”
“Ah, but we don’t all have winning smiles and fucking dimples like Haught does, do we Chetri?” Rosita winked, laughing as Jeremy visibly relaxed.
“Well okay, maybe you’re not as naturally charming as I am...” Nicole laughed as Rosita’s hand swatted her shoulder, and Jeremy scowled. “But dude you need to believe in yourself more. You’re cute, as guys go, and you’ve got that whole endearingly awkward thing going on.” She grinned. “Use it!”
Nicole turned to Rosita, wriggling her eyebrows over the rim of her sunglasses, unable to hide the amusement from her voice as she continued.
“And you can shut up. Doc’s tripped over the tether lines to that banana boat about six times in the past ten minutes, staring at you.”
Nicole grinned, taking an excessive bite of her burger, mumbling her response through her mouthful of food.
“You only wish.”
Waverly crossed her legs as best she could in the cramped space on the packed aircraft, an unread magazine spread across her lap. Chrissy had shoved it in her direction over an hour ago, and try as she might, she just couldn’t find any interest in the celebrity gossip that filled the pages. The Captain’s voice rang through the passenger announcements, telling her that the plane would land in Key West in just under three hours.
She reached into her bag, pulling out the small handheld book she had bought on the local history of Florida’s natives. She would admit that perhaps Florida Keys would not have been her first choice of vacation, and she would have preferred to explore the Amazonian magic of Brazil, or the historical wonders of Egypt, or the rich cultures of Mediterranean Europe; but she couldn’t deny that the excitement of her first vacation still pulsed strong in her veins, and the prospect of spending three months in the glorious sunshine wasn’t one she could ever complain about. After 24 years she would finally get to see the ocean.
“Tell me you are not studying history again?” Wynonna’s incredulous voice interrupted Waverly’s reading and she chose to ignore the disdain she heard in her sister’s tone.
“It interests me! Did you know that the Florida Keys were originally inhabited by the Calusa and the Tequesta tribes? The Calusa people believed that people had three souls.” Waverly’s animated excitement carried in her voice, and her hands waved enthusiastically as she spoke. “The pupil of a person's eye, their shadow, and their reflection. And after they die, the souls migrate to animals. Huh.” Waverly trailed off, the wonderment in her expression softening her sister’s eyes.
“Babygirl, you will never understand how proud I am of you for how hard you work, and for being the only Earp in history to graduate with anything at all, let alone a master’s degree.” Wynonna’s expression was soft, her tone gentle and her piercing blue eyes fixed on Waverly’s hazel-green. Then she grinned, and shook her head, her tone more animated as she continued. “But Wave, for your entire life you have had your head buried in history, and languages, and pressure, and expectation. It. Is. Time. To let loose! We’re celebrating!”
“She’s right Waves!” Robin chimed in, leaning forward to make eye contact with Waverly from his seat beside Wynonna. “You need to gain some worldly experience. You need to see the world outside of Purgatory. As it is now!” He grinned as Waverly rolled her eyes.
“You gotta taste the delicacies, Waves. Find the girls.” Chrissy wriggled her eyebrows and shimmied her shoulders, nudging Waverly deliberately as she did so.
Waverly couldn’t help but laugh, a slight blush spreading across her cheeks as she shook her head.
“Okay look, I’m not so sure that present day Florida Keys is quite the cultural exploration experience that you’re making it out to be...” Waverly deadpanned, supressing the smirk that threatened to spread across her face. She laughed as all three of her friends rolled their eyes and groaned. “But yes, it does feel pretty good to know that we can just kick back and enjoy the sun on our faces and the sand at our feet.”
Waverly grinned as Wynonna whooped, taking a swig from yet another glass of whiskey.
“Although, I am definitely not on the hunt for the girls...” Waverly trailed off, her teasing tone and knowing grin leaving a hint of suggestion in her words.
“But...?” Chrissy sang, nudging Waverly with her elbow.
“Hmmm, I wouldn’t rule anything out.” Waverly laughed, relaxing back as she took a sip of her gin and tonic.
“Well I am most definitely on the lookout for a guy.” Robin stated, raising his wine glass to punctuate his point.
“Please Robin.” Chrissy teased, her tone playful. “You don’t notice the guys flirting with you when they’re practically shoving it in your face.”
Waverly laughed along, nestling back into her seat as she closed her eyes. This vacation was exactly what she needed right now; a celebration and a reward for the hard work she’d put in over the past two years of her master’s degree. Still, she couldn’t help her mind wandering, anxiety lacing her thoughts as she contemplated what was next for her. She’d worked tirelessly all her life to achieve the degrees that now hung proudly on the wall of her lifelong home. The world she lived in had felt, for some time now, stale and stifling, and her education always felt like her ticket out. She couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling that now that she finally held the ticket in her hands, she wasn’t exactly sure what she wanted the destination to be. The sound of her friends’ laughter kept her mind from wandering too far down the fearful path, and she shook her head in an effort to rid herself of her train of thought. She had a lot to figure out and she knew that, but for the next few months at least, she was happy to bury her head in the sand. So to speak.
Nicole winced as she threw back her shot, the taste of Sambuca burning on her tongue. She chased the liquid quickly with her half full beer bottle, expertly spitting the aniseed liquid into the glass. She’d learned to play the game well over the years; lessons well learned from previous experiences of sickened nights and thumping hangover mornings. The buzz of alcohol had felt old and tired for some time now, and Nicole had taken to disguising water as vodka and tequila when she ordered her own drinks, or spitting the liquid into chaser bottles when the alcohol was thrust upon her. Rosita and Jeremy understood her, but the guests and the younger reps never did. It was easier to play the game. There had been a time when the boat parties had excited her. They’d been a chance to let loose, and an opportunity to seduce a pretty girl; lowered inhibitions and reduced memories always an excuse to slip out early the next morning. Nicole loved her life, but she couldn’t help but feel she was getting a little too old for this now; her fun no longer lying in the bottom of a shot glass, and her interest in the girls around her quickly waning. The cocky sense of pride still held something in Nicole, power in the way that she could bend a girl around her little finger in the same old practiced way she always had. These days though, it seemed always to be followed by shame. Regret. She was bored, and the age old routine didn’t fit anymore.
The buzz of the party in full swing around her could still lift Nicole’s spirits for a while, and she loved to watch her guests in the first few days of their arrival. Years of new arrivals had taught Nicole to watch for the signs of every day burdens softening, and inhibitions lifting. She loved to watch the gradual drop of tense shoulders, and the glow of relaxation start to shine in sparkling eyes and on sun-kissed skin. She loved to watch the groups merge, looser reserves leading to looser lips, and new friendships and romances forming. Nicole loved to watch the joy of her guests throwing themselves into their vacation, but she’d started to find that she herself was closing off. The magic wearing thin.
As the night turned to 1am, Doc pulled the boat in to moor. With a reassuring wink to the expectant bar owner, Nicole ushered her groups towards Rosita’s beach bar; the night still young in the Keys. The bar was busy, bustling as it always did in the summer months. Rosita’s new bar boy, Perry, was now fully showing his worth, shaking cocktails in the small additional tiki bar to the edge of the veranda. Nicole found a seat at the bar, still nursing the same bottle of beer she’d carried for two hours. Doc sat beside her, Rosita sliding him a whiskey along the bar top. They sat for a while, content in idle chat as they watched the party in full swing around them.
“It seems to me as though your friend is in need of some assistance.” Doc’s lips curled up in an amused smirk, and he tilted his hat in the direction of the tiki bar.
Nicole’s gaze followed Doc’s direction, and she laughed and shook her head. Jeremy hovered awkwardly to the side of a small group that Nicole didn’t recognize as being their own guests; two young women – a blonde and a brunette - and a chiseled man gathered around Perry as he spun his cocktails. Jeremy drifted around the outside of the circle of friends, laughing along as they chatted amongst themselves, clearly trying to muster the courage to break into the group.
“Rosita?” Nicole turned to the bar just as the owner slid a tray in her direction.
Nicole grinned, thanking Rosita as she stood, balancing the tray of blue kamikaze shots. Their routine was well-rehearsed after years of playing wingman to useless reps. Nicole watched the grateful relief flood Jeremy’s face as she approached him, shoving the tray of shots into his hands. She wrapped her arm around the smaller man’s shoulders, dragging him into the group, her words effortlessly parting the way for them to join as she spoke.
“A little gift from the owner, and a welcome to Florida Keys. Were you guys on the boat? I don’t remember seeing you.” Nicole grinned, her gaze fixing on each guest individually as she spoke. “And I think we’d remember if we did. Right, Jer?”
Jeremy nodded mutely, grinning as the guests happily took the shots from the tray. Nicole declined, passing her glass to Perry. She smirked as she traced the brunette girl’s gaze to the bar boy, recognizing the slightly glazed look of hopeful lust behind her green eyes. She turned her eyes instead to the blonde. She was pretty, in a fairly obvious kind of way. She was all bleached hair, and make up, and bronzed cleavage, in an image that had kind of rendered itself unremarkable to Nicole. Aesthetically attractive but forgettable, in that she almost felt as though she’d seen the same face time and time again before. The blonde’s eyes lingered on her own, and Nicole smirked as she watched them darken, not missing the way the girl’s tongue ran quickly over her lips. She grinned, popping her dimples in full force.
Nicole effortlessly held the blonde’s attention for a while, her practiced routine coming naturally. She watched, her cocky esteem building as the girl’s resolve folded into her every move. Putty. Like clockwork. In her peripheral vision, she was aware of Jeremy hovering awkwardly again, and turned her eyes to the situation around her. The brunette was leaning across the tiki bar, her lip caught between her teeth as she watched Perry work. The chiseled object of Jeremy’s affections was currently chatting aimlessly in the brunette’s ear. Nicole sighed, spotting the mark of jealousy instantly; the way the man’s eyes flickered between the brunette and the bar boy as she spoke; and the way he stood with his front twisted towards the girl, leaving minimal space between them, his arm on the bar imposing on her space. An effort to stake a claim. She noted the way the brunette stood side on, blocking his advances. She’d been watching these scenes unfold for long enough to spot the body language anywhere. She caught Jeremy’s eye, shaking her head sympathetically.
“I think I’m just gonna go find Doc!” The dejection in Jeremy’s voice was clear, and he kept his eyes to the ground in embarrassment as he hurried off.
Nicole couldn’t help but feel bad for him as she watched him go. She wished he could meet someone who would give him a chance, and she was all too aware that this kind of scene did not play into his strengths.
“So... do you wanna get out of here?”
Nicole’s attention was brought back to the blonde, the subtle low rasp in her voice rendering all too familiar in Nicole’s veins. She bit down on her lower lip, grinning as the girl ran her hands up the spread of her shirt.
“Sure. Let me just settle up at the bar.”
The girl nodded, making no moves to step away. Nicole gently pushed her back, her dimpled grin softening the blow as she extracted herself from the blonde’s grip.
“I’m going to head to the bathroom. Meet me on the veranda?” The hopeful tone rang clear in Nicole’s ears, despite the slight slur of alcohol to the blonde’s words. She wasn’t even sure she’d asked for a name.
Nicole breathed a heavy sigh, shaking her head as she watched the blonde stumble towards the bathroom. Knowing full well that she was being watched, she grinned as she turned back towards the bar. She quirked an eyebrow, smirking at Rosita and pointedly ignoring Doc and Jeremy’s whistles and smug grins.
“I’m er... I’m gonna head off, dude.” Nicole threw a cheeky grin and a wink in Rosita’s direction as she spoke. She pointed at Jeremy, acknowledging him for the first time as he stopped whistling. “I’ll see you at the welcome meeting. 8:45am sharp.”
“Have a good night, Hoyuelas.” Rosita’s tone of voice feigned indifference, though she teased the redhead with the playful nickname, her cocked eyebrow, and her knowing smirk.
With a final gentle punch to Jeremy’s shoulder, Nicole headed to the veranda. She scanned her eyes across the deck, in search of the blonde. She spotted her stood in the queue for the bathroom, and hovered for a moment. Nicole exhaled a heavy breath and ran her hand through her hair. With a final quick scan across the bar, checking for the eyes of her friends or the blonde, she slipped hastily from the veranda, and around the corner before the girl could return.
Locking her apartment door behind her, Nicole breathed a sigh of relief. 3am. She’d have to be up in five hours, but she’d worked with less. She hung a clean short-sleeved button down on a hanger on the back of her bedroom door, the short slacks draped over the wire beneath it. She set her alarm, her clipboard propped on the dresser where she’d not be able to forget it in her expected rush out the door to her 9am meeting. She sighed, running her hands through her hair as she spotted the application forms spread across her bed. Southwest Florida Public Service Academy, Ontario Police College, Toronto Police College. She swallowed hard, gathering the pages up and slotting them away in the drawer of her bedside table. The prickle of tears still burned in her eyes every time she scanned the pages, but they didn’t fall. Not anymore. She’d fill the forms in, someday.