Right Now had erected a full-sized stage in the backyard. Madison seized the spotlight, writhing and grinding on various members of her entourage. “Oooh yeah…oh,” she panted.
“God, this bitch is nauseating,” someone said. “What a narcissist.”
“Ugh, there’s Connor Kardeza,” Carson said, shielding her face with her hand to avoid eye contact. “Let’s move before he hits on me again.”
Another party guest whipped around and started screeching at Connor. “Hey, get out of here, you has-been!” she shouted.
“Honey, you mean never-been,” the girl beside her sneered. “He’s mad because Madison’s popular and he’s a loser cashing in on the family name.”
“Keep telling yourselves that, you spoiled sluts,” Connor yelled back. “I’m leaving. This whole thing is stupid.”
“What did you say?”
“It’s fucking stupid,” Connor repeated, waving his hand at the animal costumes and men in loincloths. His face conveyed nothing but pure disgust as he pushed his way to the door.
“I second that,” a dark-skinned girl said. “For a show called Socialites, this party is appallingly tacky.”
Elise looked at her. She was black, or biracial maybe, and gorgeous. She struck Elise with her green eyes, curly hair, and cinnamon-colored skin.
Chandler, the producer, came bounding up to Carson. “Hey girl!” she said, ignoring Elise. “Did the fat kid humiliate himself again?”
“His sisters must be so embarrassed,” Carson said, gawking at the scene. “And who’s that angry black bitch?”
“Oh, just our latest affirmative action hire,” Chandler spat.
“Excuse me?” the girl with the cinnamon complexion said. “I graduated summa cum laude from USC.”
“Yep, Sienna’s getting uppity again,” Chandler sneered under her breath.
“Uppity, nice. Way to drop a racially loaded word to prove my point,” Sienna said, and followed Connor Kardeza to the door. “Since I have an ounce of class, I’m outta here.”
“Hey, you’re on the clock!” a producer shouted after her.
“Go ahead and dock my pay,” Sienna said.
“Bye, honey,” Chandler called after her. “God, what a bitch. I hope she gets an attitude with the Kardezas and loses her ‘token black girl’ slot at Right Now.”
Elise took a step away from Chandler and Carson. Her subconscious mind was telling her to distance herself from their conversation. They kept chatting as if Elise wasn’t there.
“Speaking of the Kardezas, did you hear they’re coming to the island?” Chandler said to Carson. “They’re planning to film an episode of Kardeza Family Values here. Nobody’s supposed to know.”
“You told me,” Carson replied. “I’m so pumped.”
Chandler glanced sideways at Elise. “And speaking of pumped, should we let your friend in on our little secret from last night?” she asked.
“Oh, yes,” Carson said. “Elise, do you want to know where we get our party stamina?”
Elise didn’t really want or need to know, but she tagged along as they locked themselves in the bathroom. It was bigger than Elise’s bedroom in Frankenmuth.
“Don’t tell anyone about this,” Carson said. “We don’t like to share.”
She put her Louis Vuitton purse on the counter and pulled out a bag of white powder and her Land Rover keys. She dipped the key into the bag, then sucked the powder up her nostril.
“Want a hit?” she asked Elise as she passed the key to Chandler.
“Nah, I’m good. Maybe later,” Elise said. She didn’t tell them that she’d never done cocaine and was too scared to try it. She remembered what Carson said yesterday in the hotel room: You’re such a goody two-shoes.
“Suit yourself. You don’t know what you’re missing,” Carson replied.
Elise looked away as they snorted more of the white powder. As soon as the high hit them, Carson and Chandler tousled their hair and stomped back into the foyer.
Outside, a crowd gathered around two girls ripping at each other’s hair again, shrieking obscenities.
“Hey!” a burly guy yelled, forcing himself between them. “Not this shit again!”
“Watch it!” a Right Now cameraman shouted. “I had the perfect camera angle for this scene.”
Elise felt a hand on her shoulder.
“Do you want to get out of here?” Paul asked her.
Elise looked at Carson, who was watching the drama unfold for the cameras. “I have to stay,” Elise said, her shoulders slumping.
“Why? So you can listen to more shitty music?” Paul said.
He poured a glass of jungle juice onto the grass. “These drinks suck.”
Elise’s eyes flitted back and forth between the out-of-control crowd in Madison’s backyard and the beach beyond—calm, quiet, and mostly empty.
“Let’s leave before my friend catches me,” Elise said, and they stole away toward the beach.
“Where are we going?” Elise asked as they cut through swaying sea oats that reached her waist.
“Wherever you want,” Paul said, as the two of them began an aimless walk down the beach. “There’s a lot to see on this island that isn’t part of the resort.”
“How do you know?” Elise asked. “Have you been here before?”
“I live here,” Paul replied. “Temporarily, at least. I took the job with Right Now, I rented a house in town, on the beach.”
He held up the tourist pamphlet for the Spanish fort. “You dropped this.”
“Oh,” Elise said, stuffing it back in her purse and feeling like a massive dork again.
“Do you want to see it?” he asked. “It’s open for another hour.”
I’d rather be anywhere than that awful party, Elise thought to herself. After the ugliness of the afternoon, Elise was eager to roam the grounds of something beautiful.
“Alright, let’s go there,” Elise said.
The ruins of the old Spanish fort were on the outer edge of Esmeralda Island, and it was known among locals as El Castillo. Its highest peaks jutted over the ocean. Elise took in the beauty of the grassy courtyard and the moss-covered stone walls. She shut her eyes and envisioned Esmeralda Island back when the biggest threat was pirate attacks, instead of marauding bands of Spring Breakers.
“It dates from the 1600s,” Elise said, reading the pamphlet. “This fort was built shortly after the Spanish first arrived in Florida. They were searching for the Fountain of Youth.”
Paul helped her climb atop the fort’s outer stone wall, where they could look at the ocean.
“So you like history?” he asked her.
“Yeah, enough that I almost majored in it,” Elise replied. “Is that weird?”
“Not at all,” Paul said. “I’m just glad we left that party before Chase Rinehart showed up.”
There was an awkward silence until Elise said, “I’m sorry about last night.”
“You don’t owe me an apology,” Paul replied. “But I just have to ask: did you want to kiss him?”
“No. God, no,” Elise said, shuddering at the memory. “He sprung it on me out of nowhere. I think it was the producers’ idea.”
“Everything they show on the network is the producers’ idea,” Paul replied. “If Right Now aired a reality show that they didn’t stage, that would be a story.”
He pulled a camera out of his pocket. “But if it makes you feel any better, I have a highlight reel of Chase’s classy night,” he said.
Elise laughed out loud as she scrolled through the pictures: there was Chase, fighting with the bartender. Chase drinking vodka straight from the bottle. Chase giving someone the finger with his eyes half-open.
“These are priceless!” she laughed. “So you took paparazzi shots the whole night? Why?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe just for proof that money can’t buy class.”
He turned to Elise and looked into her eyes.
“I was hoping you didn’t really want him,” he said.
They both stayed quiet for a second, sprawled in the sun outside the fort’s walls. Paul leaned back on the grass and watched the waves far below them.
“Besides, you didn’t seem like that kind of girl when I picked you up yesterday,” he added.
“What kind of girl am I?” she asked.
Paul shrugged. “Not a girl easily won over by some classless idiot because he was on TV once and sits in a VIP booth,” he said. “I can’t say the same for your friend, though. Who is she? Childhood friend?”
“No. Carson and I go to school together at Michigan University,” Elise replied. “But I’m from Frankenmuth, and Carson is from Birmingham.”
Birmingham was one of the wealthiest suburbs in the state, a place where girls like Carson Vana got Lexuses and trips to Europe for their sixteenth birthdays.
“Wait a second. Frankenmuth, Michigan?” Paul repeated. “That’s where you’re from?”
“Don’t tell me you know where Frankenmuth is,” she said. Out-of-staters never did. Tourists who flocked to German cheese shops and antique stores tended to be retirees and families of six.
“Yeah, I’ve been to Frankenmuth,” Paul said. “It’s one of the most beautiful little towns I’ve ever seen.”
“You’re the first person I’ve met in a while who doesn’t think it’s dorky and weird,” Elise replied.
She looked Paul in his eyes, and for the first time, she noticed their color. She’d thought they were dark, the same as his hair. But now, in the dim lights of the casino, she could see they were bluish-grey. The exact color of a Michigan sky in March.
“Where are you from?” she asked.
Paul stared at his shoes, picking at a few blades of grass. For a moment, Elise wondered if he’d heard the question.
“Florida,” he finally said, avoiding Elise’s gaze.
“You grew up here?”
“…I’ve moved around,” he said, looking away from her.
“Oh,” she said. It didn’t answer her question, but she decided not to press him. For all she knew, he was an army brat, or the child of a painful divorce.
“I have to warn you though, I went to college in Ohio,” he said. “So we’re star-crossed.”
“Nice, a Romeo and Juliet reference. You must have been an English major,” Elise replied. “Where did you go to school?”
He responded with an unfamiliar name, something that sounded like “Hawking.”
“I’ve never heard of it,” she said.
“It’s down south in the Appalachian foothills,” he replied. “I drove a truck for a while to pay for school. That’s how I ended up in Frankenmuth.”
Elise gritted her teeth. Carson had a problem with Paul already, but knowing “truck driver” was on his resume would make matters worse.
“Do you want to see the town?” he asked her, hopping up from the stone wall.
“I’d love to,” Elise said, and meant it.
She paused, wondering how long it would be before Carson noticed her absence. She turned her ringer off, hoping her limited time with Paul wouldn’t get cut short by a hissy phone call or text.
They wandered into the old blue-collar town as dinnertime approached. High fences and trees draped in Spanish moss shielded the charming old cottages uptown. Elise watched the wooden docks where fishing boats swayed in the rolling waves.
This was the kind of place where she’d always wanted to go for Spring Break.
An old-fashioned bar and grill that smelled of shellfish and grease was playing music on the patio. “I love this song!” Elise said, singing along with Stevie Nicks. “Because when the loving starts and the lights go down, and there’s not another living soul around, then you woo me until the sun comes up, and you say that you love me.”
“That’s what I like about you,” Paul said. “You have good taste in music.”
He pointed to a little outdoor bar with plastic patio furniture. “Want another Leinie’s, Miss Apple?”
“Sure,” she said. “By the way, you weren’t kidding about those overpriced Bacardi shots.”
They sat down and ordered drinks. “There’s something called a Lingerie or Less party tonight,” Elise told him.
“So I get to break up fights between people in their underwear tonight?” Paul replied. “Nice. Glad I’m off early.”
“Do you like working for Right Now?” Elise asked.
“The security staff is cool,” Paul said. “We’re all friends. It’s hard not to bond when you have to team up to toss belligerent drunks out of parties. But the producers…they’re assholes. Even some of their own co-workers can’t stand them.”
“Like Jay Mack?” Elise asked.
Paul’s eyes widened a little. “You met Jay?” he asked.
“He’s the one who invited us last night,” she said.
“Jay’s alright,” he said with a shrug, as if he was avoiding the topic. “But be careful around them. Some of them love nothing more than preying on drunk girls, especially if they’re in their underwear.”
His phone started ringing.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” he said, fishing it from of his pocket. “Who the hell is calling me right now?”
Elise shrugged. “Maybe the socialites are out of control again and you have to go break it up,” she said, just guessing.
She heard a woman’s voice. “Paul?” the voice said. “Paul, is this your phone number?”
“Who is this?” he asked.
The voice sounded frantic, yet far away. A wave of static crackled as she said his name again. Elise shivered in the afternoon sun.
“You have the wrong number,” Paul said as the connection cut in and out.
He stared at his phone with a dark look in his eyes, and Elise’s instincts told her it wasn’t the bad reception.
“Who was that?” Elise asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Someone with the wrong number, I think.”
But that didn’t explain how the woman on the other line knew his name.
Elise arrived back at The Palace feeling queasy. She let herself into the suite, eyes downcast to avoid talking to anyone in the hallway. Grace walked into the room wearing her bathing suit.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“My eyeliner is running,” Elise said, wiping away black from under her eyes.
“Are you sure?” Grace pressed her. “Why didn’t you stay with Carson? Did something happen today?”
“Well, yes,” Elise admitted. “Before I even got here, I met this guy, and…”
Suddenly they heard Carson’s voice in the hallway, jabbering loudly on her phone. She opened the door with one swift, rough motion.
“Who were you with today?” Carson demanded as she stomped into the room. “You disappeared with some guy.”
Elise jumped. “Me?” she stammered, trying to play innocent.
“Yes, you,” Carson replied. “I’m looking at you.”
“I wasn’t with some guy,” Elise fibbed.
“Liar,” Carson said. “Someone—and I won’t say who—saw you walking out of Madison’s yard with a random guy. As random as that bouncer.”
“I forgot the directions to the hotel,” Elise said.
“That’s not the point,” Carson said. “It was that bouncer, wasn’t it? You left a once-in-a-lifetime party with a bouncer.”
“Why does it matter? I don’t think I’ll be talking to him again,” Elise said. “He got this weird phone call from this girl. I don’t know why, but it creeped me out. She knew his name, and it sounded like she was calling from somewhere with terrible cell phone service. He said it was a stranger with a wrong number, but it sure didn’t sound like it.”
“What’s his name again? I’ll stalk him on Facebook and see if he has a secret girlfriend,” Carson said, pulling out her phone.
“He refuses to tell me his last name,” Elise replied. “All he’ll tell me is that it’s the same last name as a 90’s pop star.”
Carson laughed. “What a creep,” she said. “Who listens to 90’s pop?”
“Maybe he’s famous,” Grace said from the room she shared with Elise.
Carson glared at her. “How would you know?” she snapped. “You weren’t invited last night.”
“That’s the thing,” Grace replied, immune to Carson’s insults. “He was at the VIP party, right?”
“Let’s recap: he’s a bouncer,” Carson scoffed. “I don’t consider that ‘invited.’ It’s basically getting paid minimum wage to be a buzzkill. How much do bouncers make, twelve dollars an hour?”
“But he has the same name as a famous person,” Grace persisted. “Maybe he’s got loads of money. He could be one of those rich people who likes to fly under the radar. Maybe he’s not even a bouncer.”
Carson mulled it over for a minute.
“You know, he has that incognito celebrity look going on, with the facial hair and everything,” she said. “It’s an intriguing possibility.”
Elise’s spirits lifted. “So am I allowed to talk to him now?” she asked.
“No. Not until we do a little intelligence gathering,” Carson said. She fiddled with the browser on her phone. “Until then, you better not blow your chance with Chase.”
Around sunset, they primped for the Lingerie or Less party. Elise curled her hair and slicked on shimmery black eyeliner. Then, sucking in her stomach first, she shimmied into the black nightie.
“I’m not drunk enough for this,” she said as she looked in the mirror.