Happiness Key - By Emilie Richards Page 0,1

her landlady sitting across the lawn on Herb’s bench. For a moment she gazed around in confusion.

Tracy pushed herself to her feet and strolled across the wide expanse that separated the cottages. Alice was next on her list anyway, and since Herb was either avoiding her or out for the morning, she might as well move on. Somebody had to pay rent today or Tracy’s checking account was going to be as naked as a Paris Hilton video.

“Good morning, Alice,” she said, as she covered the distance. She smiled, although the effort seemed to bead, like perspiration, in the resulting creases. “Never a moment’s rest, huh?”

“Sand. And trees.” Alice shook her head.

“Uh-huh.” Tracy wasn’t quite sure what was up with Alice, who always seemed the slightest bit off-kilter. “Well, I just thought I’d pick up everybody’s rent checks before the sun gets higher.”

Alice nodded, her wide forehead crinkling in confusion. “Today?”

“Right. May fifteenth. Rent day. Remember, I said it would be easier if everybody paid on the same day?”

Alice nodded, but she still looked confused. She wore wire-rimmed glasses that were the silvery-gray of her hair, and little button pearl earrings with old-fashioned screws to hold them in place. Deep lines fanned out from her nose to the corners of her mouth, which always drooped and today looked sadder still. Tracy had a feeling the past years hadn’t been filled with happy moments for Alice.

Welcome to the club.

A voice rang out from the house, what sounded like a child’s, maybe a girl’s, from the high pitch. She had already noted a newish Saab in the driveway beside Alice’s ten-year-old Hyundai.

“I’m sorry,” Tracy said. “Sounds like you have company. I could come back in a little while if that’s better.”


“Somebody in your house.” Tracy pointed to Alice’s screen door. Alice’s cottage, like all the others in the little development, was a cinder-block shoebox with a shabby shingle roof. The outside of Alice’s was painted a soft yellow, the shutters and doors a bright coral, the sashes and window grills a deep sea-green. For decoration, three turquoise seahorses descended the wall at a forty-five-degree angle. Tracy thought they might be trying to escape.

Alice glanced behind her. “Granddaughter. My son-in-law. Come to live.”

Tracy was surprised. “Here? With you?”

A girl with long hair, most likely the aforementioned grandchild, came to the door and flattened her face against the screen. “Hi. Do you have any kids?” she asked hopefully, lips against the mesh.

Tracy tried to remember the terms of Alice’s lease. Could renters really invite anybody to come and share these cottages without her permission? With vast plans for the property, the paper trail had been thin when CJ rented them out. With thirty days’ notice, rentals could be terminated by either party, and all repairs were at the discretion of the owner—that being Tracy now, since good old CJ was engrossed in landlord problems all his own.

The little girl’s face was distorted by the screen, an old-fashioned affair that was rusting in places. It was hard to tell how old she was, or anything else about her, through the mesh, but Tracy guessed she wasn’t yet an adolescent. Before Tracy could answer, a man’s voice rumbled from the back of the house.


“Do you?” the girl repeated in a softer voice. “Somebody to play with?”

Tracy imagined what her life would be like now if she and CJ had added a child to their personal equation.

“Not a one,” she said with real gratitude. “Sorry. Not even a parakeet.”

“Olivia…” The man’s voice sounded friendly enough, but his reminder did the trick. Olivia backed away, becoming a three-dimensional figure. Then she disappeared into the house.

“Lee writes them,” Alice said.

Tracy turned back to her. “I’m sorry, what was that?”

“Checks. Lee writes them.”

“Your son-in-law?”

Alice looked grateful Tracy understood. “He will.”

“Great. Would you like to ask him to do it now? While I’m waiting, I’ll just try Herb again. His car’s there, but when I knocked earlier, he didn’t answer.”

“Haven’t seen him.”

Tracy filed that away. Was Herb gone, or had he moved out? Without paying.

“Lee takes care of…things,” Alice continued.

Tracy supposed Alice’s living arrangements didn’t really matter, as long as she paid her rent on time and vacated once she was asked to. For now, Tracy needed to stay on her good side, so she manufactured another smile.

“I’m glad you have family to help. That’s important.”

Alice wasn’t quite a shuffler, but she did drag her slipper-clad feet as she started back inside the house. Before she closed the door, Tracy saw