Nina and Michelle are missing from the morning meeting. They’re usually in the back corner, angling their lips toward a window cracked just enough for the smoke from their cigarettes to get out. No one else is allowed to smoke inside, but our boss lets them do it because one time Nina found a hole in his office that goes straight through to our bathroom. She told some of us girls anyway, so now we make sure it’s taped up before we get changed. The tape’s almost always gone the next time you go in.
Nina and Michelle never miss the morning meeting, unless it’s a Tuesday or a Thursday when they both work the afternoon shift. If you miss the meeting then Craig makes you clean the clubhouse. The bathrooms there are always plugged up from people by the pool and front desk staff who go down there to shit in peace. The new guys always have clubhouse duty because Craig is all about hierarchies. One of the new kids has noticed Nina and Michelle are missing, and thinks this means a break from all the plunging. He leans back in his chair and grins at me. I roll my eyes. Even if they’re late, I bet Craig will give them the Chateaus.
Neither of them materializes for the entire fifteen minutes. They’re nowhere to be seen as we all fill our plastic caddies with supplies and load up the golf carts. At the last second, Craig switches Kaity and me off of our regular assignment, Waterfront, and onto the Chateaus. As we drive off, one of the managers pulls up to the housekeeping building and Craig jumps into his cart. They head in the direction of the main office.
I turn to Kaity. “Did you see them this morning?”
“Nah. They went into town last night, though,” she says. “I think Nina’s boyfriend picked them up.”
It’s a forty-minute drive into the city from the resort along Cliffside Road; a highway staffers like to brag was once deemed the most dangerous in the province. It’s the width of a single lane on the Trans Canada but divided in two by a badly drawn line. It wouldn’t be so bad, except it’s always bustling with semis and smug locals who take it at 90 when a sane person tops out at 65. One side is all steep dirt and rock and mountain goats. The other is a thousand-foot cartwheel into the water. Half the staff lives in the shitty employee housing just to avoid it. Which means that going out anywhere involves either finding a place to crash in town and hightailing it back for work in the morning or securing a designated driver to get you back in one piece. Nina is not known for dating trustworthy guys. “Have you met him?”
“Yeah, couple times.” Kaity gives me that look, the look you give someone when you know they’ll know what it means. In this case it means he’s a shithead. She turns left off the main road, up the hill toward the Chateaus. “They’re always blasting music.” This means they’re always fucking.
We stop in front of 101, the first of eight stand-alone condos that line the ridge above the resort. We both lean forward and scan the door for the green slip that means they want service. Nothing but a child sized boogie board and a pair of discarded flip-flops.
Kaity puts the cart in park, kills the whiny engine, and pulls out a pack of Rothmans. We both climb out from the covered cab and reposition ourselves on the rear seats. The heat is bearable still, the sun not up to full strength yet. Kaity lights a cigarette for each of us and we stretch out. This is the deal with the Chateaus—they’re huge, and annoying to clean, but most of the time the guests only ask for service once a week. It’s accepted that it takes your full workday to do them—a plum loophole Craig established back when we had half as many cleaners and he still had to pitch in. The rest of us are lucky to get assigned to the Chateaus once or twice a month. This is Nina and Michelle’s territory.
A small plane drones overhead. It’s flying low, probably pregnant with water and headed for the fire down the lake. The smoke was strong in the city when I left this morning but the haze hasn’t fully reached us yet. I let my head drop back on my shoulders and blow a steady stream of smoke up in the direction of the mountain that curves away from us. The summer has toasted the hills. All I see is brown between the skinny pines that leak sharp-smelling pitch. There’s something else in the air as well, beneath the fire and our cigarettes. Hot dirt and brittle yellow grass and sun roasted pine needles—dryness. Kindling. The radio crackles from the front seat.
“Owen... Owen... Owen—” Craig’s voice.
“Yeah, hey, I’m here.” Owen, Craig’s number two, somehow always sounds stoned and annoyed at the same time.
“Yeah, hey. What’s up?”
“What are you doing?”
“I’m at Waterfront—”
“What channel are we on?”
“Fuck it—just call my cell.”
Kaity laughs. The radios are a disaster most of the time. No one seems to know how to work them. Sometimes we purposely tune them wrong so we can’t be reached. Craig fucking hates that. I hop off the seat and crouch to the pavement, carefully grinding out my cigarette. Kaity hands me hers, a little damp around the filter. Once they’re cold I shove them both into the pocket of my shorts. We’re extra careful up here. Some days I wouldn’t mind burning the place down but it’s been so dry this year I doubt I’d make it out before the whole mountain went up in flames.
We head down for lunch early, finished with two of the four Chateaus that need cleaning. Only the laundry ladies are around, sitting in a line against the shady side of the building. One of them nods at me and blows smoke out of the side of her mouth.
“Craig’s lookin’ for ya,” she says, words mushy around her missing teeth. She jerks her head toward the building at her back. Kaity gives me a look like what the hell? but I don’t know what the hell, so I just follow her up the stairs.
The housekeeping building is always a bit too chilly because the AC is cranked to compensate for the heat from the laundry room. It feels like taking a drink when you first walk in from outside. The hairs stand up at the base of my ponytail and I shiver a little. It makes me think of the time Nina told me that her favorite part of sex is when the guy rolls off you and you get to lie there, totally naked, just breathing, and watch the sweat dry and the goose bumps rise all over your body. Craig heard her say that and called across the room, “if that’s your favorite part, you’re fucking the wrong guys.” I blushed, but Nina just laughed at him. “I bet you wish you were one of those wrong guys.”
The door to Craig’s office is closed and the break room is empty, so Kaity and I grab our lunches from our lockers and sit side by side on Nina and Michelle’s couch by the window. “Where do you think they are?” I ask, just as Kaity takes a bite of her sandwich. She chews quickly and swallows but then stares at me, nothing to say. Summer staff disappear all the time, but Nina and Michelle are part of the tiny all-season team. Just Craig, Owen, Nina, Michelle, five other housekeepers, and two of the laundry ladies. The rest of us go off to do other things—some of us bail at the end of August to go back to school, others wait out the dwindling hours until November and then try to find temporary winter gigs. Everybody’s always back by May long, and Nina and Michelle spend the first few days killing us with stories about the weird off-season guests. Even though Craig’s a creep and the job kind of sucks, they’ve both been here for almost five years. Nina practically runs this place, in her way.
I pick a peanut out of my granola bar and flick it across the room. It doesn’t make sense. I can’t stop picturing Nina in a totaled car somewhere along the shoreline, invisible from the highway. The door to Craig’s office swings open with a bang. Kaity chokes a little and starts coughing. Craig steps out and leans against the doorframe, face cloudy. “Have either of you heard from her today?” he asks, meaning Nina and not Michelle. We both shake our heads. “Alright.” He turns back into the office.
“You wanted to see us?” I blurt. “Is that it?”
Craig stares at his desk and reaches up one arm to close the door behind him. “Yeah, that’s it.”
I don’t have to look at Kaity to know what face she’s making now. What the fuck is going on?
I spend the rest of my lunch break with my eyes closed and my head back, focusing on the hum of the AC box next to my ear. It’s low and constant enough to trick my brain into thinking it’s relaxing. I don’t want to go back into the heat. After lunch it’s always so much worse. Hopefully Kaity and I can get through the last two Chateaus quickly and find a shady spot to smoke until five.
The door bangs open and suddenly everybody shuts up. I open my eyes. It’s Michelle.
Nobody says anything as she weaves through the tables to get to her locker. We’re all staring at the door, waiting for Nina. But she doesn’t come. Michelle clicks her lock shut and turns to face us. She’s still wearing her huge knock-off sunglasses, and her hair is held up at odd angles by last night’s hairspray. She walks toward Kaity and me and stands over us, hand on her hip. “I think you’re in my seat.”
Kaity stands up immediately and escapes out the door. Michelle flops down next to me and lights a cigarette. She doesn’t bother to aim it out the window. Her eyes are locked on the closed office door. Craig still hasn’t resurfaced.
“Where’s Nina?” I ask, even though I’m afraid to. The stink of Michelle’s menthol wraps tight around me.
Michelle leans forward to tap her ash into a Sprite can on the table. “Fuck if I know. That cunt left me in town last night and my boyfriend was working so I had to sit in Denny’s until he got off.”
“I think Craig’s pretty worried.” I am aware that everyone is listening to us. “Maybe you should tell him you’re here.”
“He has a lot more to worry about than me being late for work. What’s he been saying?”
“I dunno,” I say.
Michelle rolls her eyes. “You’re useless. Yo, Craig!” she shouts, smirking. She kicks her feet up onto the table and leans back, arms outstretched, like she owns everything. This is a Nina move. It doesn’t look quite right on Michelle.
The office door bursts open, followed by a frantic Craig. He takes a second to register Michelle next to me on the couch before scanning every face in the room for Nina. “Where is she?”
“Right here, big guy,” Michelle purrs. “Come and get it.”
“I’m not kidding around, where the fuck is she?”
Everybody scatters then, including me. Sometimes it only takes a second for the weather to change in a room. All of a sudden you can tap into that animal part of you that tells you when to run. I steal a last look at Michelle as I push through the door—a nervous little half-smile is curling her lips, which is what she does when guests yell at her. It’s her tell.
Kaity’s smoking in the driver’s seat of our cart when I get outside. She doesn’t say anything when I slide in next to her.
“Something weird is going on,” I say, because I have to. “Where’s Nina?”
Kaity shrugs and starts the golf cart. Before we can get going, the door of the housekeeping building bangs open and Michelle stomps down the stairs. She holds up a hand for me—wait. Craig follows her, rubbing the patchy stubble on his chin.
“Michelle’s gonna join you guys for the rest of her shift,” he says, as he watches her defiantly drag her heels in our direction. “Take your time with it.”
Michelle flops down across the rear bench of our cart. “Let’s go,” she says.
Kaity accelerates back up the hill. We drive along the lane in silence until we reach the first condo that needs cleaning. Kaity and I jump out. Michelle kicks her feet up on the bench and closes her eyes. I hang back as Kaity grabs her caddy and heads toward the front door. “What’d Craig say to you?”
“None of your business.”
“Does he know something about Nina?”
Michelle’s eyes narrow and she gives me a look like who the fuck are you. “I don’t know why you think Nina is your friend, but she’s not. Stay out of it.” She nudges my caddy off the cart and it hits the pavement with a crack, contents springing off in various directions. I have to blink back a few embarrassed tears as I gather everything up.
Kaity’s in the kitchen, loading the dishwasher. She barely glances up at me when I walk in.
“Michelle’s a bitch,” I say. I wiggle my hands into a pair of gloves. “Why does Nina hang out with her?”
Kaity shrugs, her trademark. “Nina likes being around weak people.”
“I dunno. Me.” She drops a handful of cutlery into the basket and clicks the door into place.
“Rock paper scissors for the bathrooms?”
We make quick work of the Chateaus, finishing close to three. Michelle suggests we take the cart down to Waterfront so we can lie out on the beach. “Me and Nina do it all the time, it’s fine.”
But the rules are different for them, and Kaity and I know that. Plus the heat has risen almost ten degrees since lunch and the pits of my uniform are soaked through. We opt for a shady spot behind a storage shed. Michelle strips down to her bra and underwear and stretches out on top of her uniform a few meters away from us. I wonder if she knows she’s not as pretty as Nina. Her body bulges and dips and sags like the rest of ours. Kaity and I only go down to our tanks, and roll the legs of our pants up as far as they’ll go.
We’re two cigarettes deep before Michelle gets bored. She starts chucking clumps of grass in our direction, which we ignore, and finally she gets up and resettles herself closer to us. “So where do you two think Nina is?”
I don’t look at Kaity but I can feel her tense up. “We don’t know, obviously,” I say, which comes off brattier than I wanted.
“But you know her so well, right?” I can’t tell where she’s looking because of her sunglasses but I can picture her eyes narrowed in the ugly, predatory way she gets when she’s coming for someone.
“Clearly you know something,” snaps Kaity. “Just tell us.”
Michelle’s smirk falters a little. She’s pissed that Kaity won’t play her game. She stretches her arms above her head and lets out a little noise, like she can’t be bothered with us. I think she’s not going to say anything, and then: “I think she might be dead.”
My heart starts to pound immediately but Kaity laughs. “What the hell are you talking about?”
Michelle rolls onto her side and dramatically takes off her sunglasses. Her eyes are dark and baggy, revealing her age and how much she had to drink last night. “I think her boyfriend killed her,” she says, with her face totally straight.
“You’re crazy,” scoffs Kaity. I’m glad she’s taking over because I feel a bit like I’m choking.
“You know the Angels, right?” asks Michelle, leaning forward. “The gang?”
“He’s one of them. He’s basically a hit man.” Michelle rolls over onto her stomach and slips her bra straps off so her shoulders are bare. “And last night he found out that she was cheating on him.”
Kaity falls silent. I stare at Michelle, willing her to say more, but she turns her head from us and rests it on her arms. There’s a tattoo of a dove at the base of her back, which she got because she had a baby when she was sixteen but it died in its crib one night. She said it was because the father had bad genes, but Nina told me that Michelle was always high when she was younger and it was probably her fault. The dove is a little lopsided, stretched at the sides where she’s gained weight. Nina told me a lot of stuff about Michelle. I wonder if she told other people, too. “How’d he find out?”
Michelle turns her head toward me, lips flickering into her half-smile. “Who knows.”
I watch every move Michelle makes for the next hour, trying to see something that’ll tell me she’s lying. Kaity and I communicate in silence through raised eyebrows and pursed lips. Kaity doesn’t believe it, and I shouldn’t either. But my chest is tight and my palms are itchy and I have never seen Nina’s boyfriend before so I can’t picture him killing her, which is somehow scarier.
At quarter to five, Michelle stands up. She brushes bits of grass off the backs of her legs where the sweat has made them stick and wriggles into her uniform. Without a word, she heads toward the golf cart. I start to follow, but Kaity grabs my arm, says wait with a quick squeeze of her hand.
“Saw him on a motorcycle once. That could mean nothing or everything. We should tell Craig, just in case.”
Kaity’s eyebrows shoot up and she shakes her head, like are you an idiot? and I start to wonder if I’m the only person at this resort who didn’t know Nina at all.
When we get to the cart, Michelle is sitting across the back bench again. She says nothing to us, just loops an arm around one of the poles as a signal that she’s ready. I get behind the wheel this time because my hands are starting to shake and I need something to hold on to.
Michelle yanks my ponytail when we reach the bottom of the hill. “Drop me off at staff.”
“Are you kidding?” says Kaity. “It’ll take us twenty minutes to get there and back.”
But I turn left anyway and ignore the eye roll I get from Kaity. I think about what she said, about Nina liking weak people. But maybe weak people are kind of like little dogs—they bite more than you think.
Almost all the other golf carts are parked outside of staff housing but there’s no one in sight. Kaity and Michelle jump off before I put the cart in park. Michelle stalks toward the building, almost jogging. I see her clench her fists once before she shoves them in her pockets. Kaity follows. She looks back over her shoulder at me like, what are you waiting for?
I don’t know, but my legs feel like they’re filled with wet sand and I’m starting to worry that I’ll throw up. The smoke from the fire down the lake has settled over the resort, finally, and it’s acidic and raw against in my nose as I try to even out the edge of my breathing.
It isn’t a dead body or a crime scene waiting for us on the other side. Just Craig, frantic, tearing apart Nina’s tiny room. I can’t see anything, trapped behind every other staff member who has crammed into the tiny hallway to watch our boss implode. Michelle tries to push to the front but no one parts for her. She starts to shrink suddenly—her teeth lose their edge and her shoulders sag back into their usual slope. She looks scared. Like what did I do? Like what was I thinking? Maybe she thought Nina was untouchable, like the rest of us do. But maybe instead of admiring her for it, she thought she’d test it.
Craig loses his momentum quickly, and the staff disperses. Kaity slips quietly into her own room and leaves me to take the cart back on my own. The smoke is heavier now, carried further by a warm breeze that lifts my hair and dries the sweat on my neck. I pull over near the front office and look down the lake, but the fire is out of sight. All I see is haze, thick and stinking. After the fire is out the smoke still will hang over the valley, obscuring the lines of the mountains and shielding the sun—the memory of something raging and unpredictable.