Page 9 of Hot Mess

“Offense taken,” Agnes said with a sniff. “You don’t like us because we’re different.”

“I love you all,” I replied, pushing my cart into the drop-off shelter. “I just don’t trust you won’t open a portal or summon aliens or the devil on my property unless you’re appropriately supervised.”

She sighed, tugging at the collar of her sleeveless turtleneck. “I’d love to say you’re misguided, but it’s hard to argue with the truth. I should know. I fight for it.”

“And you do so valiantly. I’ll wait for Aunt Elsie’s call.” I saluted her as I bid her goodbye and darted into my truck before she could waylay me any further.

The last thing I needed was the Creek Keys’ Conspiracy Krew on my case today. I’d love to say that name was a loving nickname, but it was their actual weekly meeting name. There were only the three of them, but they were passionate in their pursuit of what they thought was the truth.

They had a questionable website run by Maude who didn’t really know her way around the internet, so it was more a glorified PDF on a website that was set up by a broke yet enterprising college student.

Thank God none of them could really use the internet.

I hoped to keep it that way.

Questionable websites and all.

With Agnes safely out of the way, I backed out of the parking spot and left the store.

Thank God. Or whatever entity she believed was in control of us today. It could have been God, the President, the Queen, or the reptilian people who apparently controlled our underworld.

I know. I didn’t get it.

I made it across town and back to the beach before I was stopped by either my aunt or Maude. If Agnes was out and about, there was every chance they were on patrol for me, too.

I parked outside of my house, and after taking everything inside, I unloaded all the groceries. I still had a little time before I had to go and see Elle, so I boiled my electric kettle for a cup of tea.

I didn’t know how Americans coped without an electric kettle. Absolutely nobody I knew in town had one, and even my family still side-eyed me when I flicked the switch to turn it on.

I put one spoonful of sugar plus an imported PG tips teabag into a faded Union Jack mug and waited for the kettle to boil. Yes—I made my family in the UK send me teabags.

They just weren’t the same here.

When the kettle boiled, I finished making my tea, drained the teabag, and tossed it into the small bin we kept inside for the compost bin Ari insisted we get for the vegetables we have yet to grow.

I didn’t have the heart to tell the kid I killed a cactus last year. The chance of us growing any vegetables was next to none, but here we were.

With two terracotta pots, a five-liter bag of compost, and no seeds to speak of.

Her plan had some holes.

I sipped my tea and stared out of the window at the beach. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else, nor could I imagine this slice of peace being disrupted by my new, temporary tenant.

Before I knew it, it was ten-thirty.

I finished my tea, left the mug in the sink, and paused only to get the internet router for her house. I would have to set it up for her so she could get online—I’d removed most of the electrics when I’d had the upstairs rewired and put new plug sockets everywhere, and this was one of the few things I’d forgotten to take back.

I tucked it under my arm and headed over to the house next door. I raised my hand to knock, but a loud clatter and a scream of “Oh, fuck it!” from inside had me trying the door instead. It was unlocked and swung open at my push, and I was greeted by the sight of one very disheveled-looking Elle jumping back and forth while holding her right foot.

“Are you okay?”

She jolted at the sound of my voice, screamed, and almost fell backward. “How did you get in here?”

“You left the door unlocked and I heard you scream.” I cocked my thumb over my shoulder back toward the door. “Should I not have tried to rescue you?”

“No, I just forgot I unlocked it. That was all.” She rubbed her foot and set it down gingerly, wincing a little when she put her full weight on it.

“What happened?” I closed the door behind me.

“I was a little too vigorous with the frying pan and the big pot decided to attack my foot,” she replied, bending down to pick up the big pot so she could brandish it like a weapon. “Not my finest hour.”

She hadn’t had many of those recently.