Like most of humanity that morning, I wasn’t thinking at all about aliens from outer space.
I was thinking about garbage.
To be exact, I was confronting the piles of trash that the Williamses had left scattered around the courtyard and pool areas of the Mercury Inn and Suites the night before.
My parents owned the motel, and because any bit of food left out overnight attracted roaches the size of Volkswagens, sanitation was my life. That morning, my life was not so good.
Plastic wineglasses from the Williamses’ anniversary party were strewn across the grass next to the koi pond. Paper plates and napkins lay beside the azaleas and underneath the coconut palms. Near the cocktail tables, a seagull pecked at an overflowing garbage can, knocking the remains of serving trays and chocolate layer cake to the ground beside it.
Staring at the job in front of me, I didn’t really pay any attention to the telltale flip-flop of slippers behind me. I jumped when I felt a finger tap my shoulder.
“Did you hear what I said?”
It was Mrs. Fleance. She was decked out in what she called her “fancy” swim garb: a pink robe over a flowered swimsuit, fuzzy slippers that made slapping noises when she walked, and a swim cap with white plastic daisies. A blue-and-yellow beach towel and mirrored goggles were clutched in one hand, and a pair of flippers dangled from the other.
“Sorry,” I said, shaking my head. “I must’ve spaced out.”
Mrs. Fleance’s eyes narrowed in that creepy way she had, and she pointed with the goggles. “Are you aware that there are a table and chairs at the bottom of the pool?”
“Yes, ma’am.” I grabbed a garbage bag and shook it open. “But it’s the deep end. They shouldn’t really be in your way—”
“You know,” Mrs. Fleance interrupted, “they don’t have problems like this at the Ritz-Carlton.” She crossed her arms and tapped her foot. Once.
“No, ma’am,” I said again, and heroically didn’t point out that we charged a lot less for an ocean view than the Ritz-Carlton. Also, they had a virtual army of all-night staff, and we had only José at the front desk and, occasionally, his grandsons, Jaime and Eduardo.
“Well?” Mrs. Fleance prompted.
I sighed. “I’ll get them.” I stepped around her and strode across the wooden bridge over the koi pond, past the new building, to the pool.
The “new building” wasn’t really any newer than half the buildings at the motel, constructed when my parents did the big renovation just after I was born.
The Mercury Inn included an original lobby building with a diner off to the side and four two-story guest room buildings flanking the courtyard and koi pond (where the swimming pool used to be). The new building, with its ocean-view guest rooms and suites, sat opposite the lobby to enclose the courtyard on its fourth side. There was also a new pool, cabanas, and four cottages that each held two suites with their own ocean views.
When I reached the pool, Mrs. Fleance was right behind me. She took a step back as I pulled off my white Mercury Inn polo and tossed it onto a chaise. Then I kicked off my flip-flops, took a breath, and dived in.
The water felt cool and comfortable, a nice break from the morning humidity. I made a mental note to check the chlorine level later, after Mrs. Fleance had her swim and before I had to help get things ready for tonight’s launch-viewing party.
I grabbed a chair and kicked my way to the surface, figuring I’d slide it up onto the deck and pick it up later. To my surprise, Mrs. Fleance took it from me and made a shooing motion. I dived back down, and we did the same with the rest of the furniture.
When I finally climbed out of the water, Mrs. Fleance reached into the pocket of her robe and handed me a quarter. “For now, don’t worry about skimming the leaves.”
“Thank you,” I said as I stood there dripping.
With that, she dropped her robe onto a chaise, put on her goggles and flippers, jumped into the deep end, and began her laps.
“No lifeguard on duty,” I muttered. I pressed water out of my hair and headed back to the garden area to finish cleaning.
The Mercury had been in the family since the late 1950s, when my grandparents built it as a motor inn during the first heyday of the space program. My mom and dad converted it into a quirky-but-upscale boutique motel a few years after they took it over.
Today, the guests were a mix of tourists, locals who wanted a quiet weekend getaway, and the occasional long-term resident, like Mrs. Fleance. A couple years ago, she sold her house and moved into the Skylab Suite because she “didn’t want to mess with a condo” and liked getting free satellite TV. This never really made much sense to me, but she paid her rent on time and didn’t make a lot of noise. She was a lousy tipper, though.
The Inn had a choice location right on the beach, within an easy walk of the Cocoa Beach Pier, not far from the flagship AP Sporting Goods and Surf Shop Extraordinaire (a division of AesProCorp, Inc.: “Do it like you mean it!”). As one of the only non-high-rises left on the Space Coast, and with features like the landscaped lap pool, luau pit, and classic ’50s diner and ice-cream parlor, the place was something of an attraction in its own right.
But the motel’s biggest draws were the shindigs my parents threw for the manned space launches. Sure, you could get a close-up view at Jetty Park and, yes, you could see the shuttles on the pad from one of the parks up in Titusville. But ten seconds after liftoff, you got just as good a view from the beach in front of the motel.
And the launch parties out on the pool deck of the Mercury Inn and Suites were legendary.
With all that, you’d think that living in a motel would be fun. And it used to be. I used to really love being here all the time. I mean, it was a great place to be a kid—with the pool, the beach, the best ice cream on the Space Coast—but for the past year or two, it just hadn’t felt like home. Probably because I spent most days on call 24/7 along with my parents, waiting on other people and cleaning up after them.
By the time I finished changing the garbage bags and picking up the trash, the sun had climbed all the way above the horizon. Marcia, who had started working at the diner sometime during Project Apollo, waved as she headed up the stairs to deliver bento box breakfasts to the Gemini Suite.
As I pitched a goblet into the garbage bag I’d hung from the maintenance cart, I noticed, on the other side of the pond, a cute and intense-looking girl with long black hair. She was sitting cross-legged between a pair of palmettos, in front of a bamboo bench, next to where the stepping-stones began at the water’s edge. Every now and then, she tossed something from a white paper bag into the pond. A group of koi had schooled together in front of her, splashing and lunging for whatever she was throwing in.
It was Dru Tanaka. She had arrived at the motel with her parents the day before. Her father apparently worked for one of the contractors at the Cape. I wasn’t sure about the details (neither were my parents), but the family was here for an indefinite stay, being paid for by Mr. Tanaka’s employer. We didn’t usually delve into the personal lives of our guests, but (a) the company had paid six months in advance, which was a huge deal, and (b) my mother had discovered they had “a child my age.” Which, of course, she’d had to tell me like she’d done every time that had happened since I was three, and I wished she would stop.
I crossed over the stones to pick up a couple of goblets that had floated with the current. As I reached the last of them, Dru stared at me.
“You,” she said in a flat monotone, “are dripping.”
“Um, yeah,” I replied, feeling suddenly awkward.
She was silent while I picked up the cup. Then, in a seamless motion, she stood, brushed off her black camouflage cargo pants, and straightened her black SeaWorld T-shirt. She crumpled the paper bag and held it out to me. As I took it, she spoke again. “Have you been here long?”
Which was an odd thing to ask. “Um, yes,” I said. “I guess. I mean, I got here now for the cups, but I’ve lived at the motel all my life. My name’s Aidan, by the way.”
And the lines were so smoothly delivered, I felt my face turn red.
Dru stared at me with unblinking eyes. “Good.” She brushed past and walked back out along the boardwalk to exit the courtyard.
When I looked down, I noticed small piles of white shell fragments Dru had placed around her. Five of them, each about the size of an ant mound; they were stark white against the black soil. I considered smoothing them into the dirt, but then caught sight of a green gecko sitting next to one. The lizard glanced up, then turned and dashed away under the nearest of the palmettos.
“Huh,” I said aloud to nobody.
Text copyright © 2014 by Greg Leitich Smith
Illustrations copyright © 2014 by Andrew Arnold