This story is by IJ Guertin and was a runner-up in our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
IJ Guertin is a native Floridian now living in Virginia with her husband, two kids, and many pets. She loves reading, exploring outdoors, and landscape design. IJ has done some outdoor writing and looks forward to learning and practicing the craft of writing both short and long fiction.
David Livingston Parker was finally attempting to read his novel out on the balcony. But it was Friday night, which meant another Sol Vista at Bayside pool party with free tacos, Dos Equis beer, and steel drum music worming its way out of tinny speakers right into his ears. He fumbled for his AirPods to muffle the noise.
Today’s theme was “Welcome Summer,” but in Florida, there are only two seasons, rainy and dry, so how can you really tell? A nagging voice in his head urged him to go mingle. But it had been a long week and he was not keen on trying to juggle a mask, taco, and beer while making small talk at six paces. Or get into another discussion on mask etiquette. He’d spend another night alone, which was just . . . easier.
Six months since the divorce and move, yet Dave still didn’t feel at home. He’d already soured on Florida, which was starting to remind him of LA—expensive, crowded as hell and impossible to get anywhere. Especially in the winter, when the crowds swelled even more.
He missed Helena but that door had shut, with barely time to figure out what happened. She came back from some New Age retreat sure that another life was waiting, one with a more patient, exciting, desirable partner, and never gave Dave a chance to redeem himself. Helena was also convinced, through some guru she was now dating, that all true love ends badly.
“Relationships end. Either you break up or one of you dies. It doesn’t mean you weren’t once happy or never believed in happily ever after,” she coolly explained, “but you can’t depend on the future.” A future without him in it, apparently.
So David L. Parker joined the Great Resignation, from marriage, his job, and gloomy Northeast winters. Quarantine and the divorce were a one-two punch. Dave feared he would soon go feral without human interaction, so he headed for the active adult community of Sol Vista at Bayside. Better than an inactive adult community, he supposed, hoping it wasn’t code for an over-55 place—he wasn’t ready.
The website oozed Southern charm and hospitality, with breezeways, an impossibly blue pool, tennis courts, and swaying palms. Lucky residents hung out together in a pre-Covid paradise, their only care being having too many fun things to do. Of course, it was too good to be true, especially with humans involved. In reality, Sol Vista housed a thriving, constantly shifting Who’s Who of weirdness under its carefully curated, whitewashed exterior. Neighbors, he thought, were overrated.
Take Lexy, across the hall, for example. Former Army sergeant who claimed PTSD from a stint in Afghanistan and kept a pair of lunging, rumbling German shepherds that let out their grievances with constant barking. Always coming over and begging Dave to light her pilot light, kill a spider, change a lightbulb that required a ladder, you name it. Who did he look like, the maintenance guy? Or was the neediness a cry for help? Dave could barely help himself, much less play therapist to someone else.
Lexy and the hounds were replaced by a shadowy tenant who kept the blinds drawn and never emerged into daylight. The only signs of life were an eerie purple glow and mysterious bumping noises. One night a SWAT team raided the place, which turned out to be a marijuana grow house. The apartment seemed cursed; would a nice, normal person ever move in? Someone who minds their own business, borrows sugar, and drops off cookies now and then?
Jan, who lived downstairs, was a flight attendant and gone most of the time but made up for it with chandelier-shaking parties when home. Dave wasn’t invited, although she sometimes asked him to feed her fish while she was away. Jan’s refrigerator held tiny bottles of cheap champagne, a case of light beer, half a jar of olives, and old takeout; her decorating style could best be described as Unmade Bed, and kind of sad to even a divorced guy who didn’t wear matching socks. Dave was a little intimidated by Jan but still thought it would be fun to sit down and chat, hear her crazy passenger stories someday.
Peter, one door down from Jan, often spoke excitedly to people who weren’t there, sometimes in a Russian accent, out on his patio. Peter tended a small forest of white orchids and a miniature dachshund named Slinky. Peter walked Slinky at exactly 7 am, 4 pm, and 10 pm every day, the dog’s stubby legs working in a hilarious, centipede-like fury to match his master’s stride. Dave concluded Peter was either a high-functioning schizophrenic with a touch of OCD or an actor rehearsing lines.
A much younger woman, who came and went dressed as a princess, lived across the breezeway. Must’ve worked at one of the theme parks or something. She introduced herself in a singsongy voice, the kind adults use with small children, as Kortney with a K. “I must be on my way to the palace,” she explained, then waved her sparkly wand and wished Dave “Happily Ever After, Sir.” He pondered why Kortney called him Sir. Was she in character, or did he seem old? My God, I’m only 42, he thought. And the happily ever after business? Did she know some secret he didn’t? Could she cast a spell to put him out of his misery?
The party ended around 10 and the die-hards straggled back home. Dave went to grab a drink, slid the balcony door behind him, and heard a click; he’d locked himself out. Huh. His options were either settling in to ponder his forced exile or climbing down the chain ladder provided for fire escapes. But he wondered if strolling around late at night, barefoot and clad only in boxer shorts and towel, was such a good idea? And besides, who would let him in? Nobody had a key, Jan was working again, and Peter had gone silent. Would they even let him crash at their places if they were home? Dave was starting to care about his neighbors, if only in a needy sense, but it was a start.
Dave heard his phone ringing—out of reach on the kitchen counter—and wondered who would be calling now. His mom, a telemarketer, the fishing guide calling to lock in or cancel plans for tomorrow? He decided to sleep it off and figure out his rescue in the morning. This little campout was the most adventurous thing he’d done in a while, which wasn’t saying much.
He finally curled up and fell asleep on the chaise, only to be awakened by yet another pool gathering. It was Kortney with a K—who traded the princess costume for a white slip dress, updo, and veil; a young man in a tuxedo; and a small entourage coming from . . . a wedding? Or was it another theme park gig? He couldn’t tell. Dave wrapped the towel around his waist and stood up to get a better look. Kortney waved, raised a toast, and invited Dave to join them.
“Hey Dave. I’m a married woman now. I guess I found my Happily Ever After! Woo hoo!” she shouted, turning to introduce Tim, who waved shyly. “We’re only here for a while; we don’t want to get kicked out for disturbing the peace or anything.”
“Congratulations!” said Dave, waving with one hand while hanging onto his towel with the other. “I, ah, I’ll catch up with you later if that’s alright?” He didn’t want to draw attention to his predicament or skimpy attire. He made a mental note to pick up a little wedding gift.
“Sure thing! Bye!” Dave pretended to get back to his book, and the revelers were soon off into the night.
Dave felt his cynical façade crumble just a little as he silently wished a Happily Ever After back to the kids. He slept well, for once, and awoke ready to seize the day instead of sneaking up on it. He soon flagged down someone to let him in. There were several messages from Jan.
“Hey Dave, this is so last minute, but I’m getting back to town early and wondered if you’d like to join me for a drink and comparing notes from the awful week that at least I’ve had? And please don’t tell me you killed Mr. Bubbles.”
“Uh Dave, where are you? I thought I’d hear back by now . . . you there?”
And finally, “OK, I get it, you don’t want to meet up. But don’t ghost me, man, it’s not neighborly!”
It’s not neighborly. Dave had been promoted from fish feeder; he liked that. He figured she was asleep so texted he was heading out for a while and would catch up later. I’m going to drop “ever after” and just enjoy the “now,” he thought. He also asked if anybody had seen Pete. Was he away? Was everything ok? And was somebody taking care of Slinky? Dave wanted to know.