Prologue and Chapter One
The day Ritchie moved me into Egret’s Loft, I thought that was it, I was done for. In for life, with no possibility of parole. Extradition to a luxurious kind of prison where I, and all my new neighbors, were just waiting to die.
That might sound a touch melodramatic, but there’s a pretty compelling reason people joke about Florida being God’s waiting room.
Not the parts of the state furthest south, like the Florida Keys or Miami, where it’s all surf, sun, and another three-letter “s” word that people of my generation don’t like to use in mixed company.
No, I’m talking about the parts of the state where every restaurant has an early bird special and there are no cars on the road after eight o’clock in the evening. The kinds of places where the only children you see around town are the ones visiting their grandparents and the obituaries take up more space than the sports pages in the local newspaper.
A kind of place like Calusa, Florida—a small Gulf Coast town nestled comfortably between Fort Myers and Naples.
Average Age: 75.
And Calusa was going to be my new home.
It was for the best.
At least, that’s what Ritchie and Eliza had agreed before even bothering to broach the subject with me—their own mother. By the time I was brought into the conversation, they’d already picked out a high-end, low-crime community with guarded gates, loads of golf, and more activities than anyone over sixty-five could possibly have the energy for. But best of all, they said, I’d be around lots of people my own age.
I remember telling the kids, when they were little, that they should go play outside to be around people their own age. It didn’t matter so much to me whom they socialized with, I just wanted to get them out from underfoot. This phrase has now, decades later, come back to bite me.
My outlook and attitude were grim as I packed my bags and prepared for the move to Cypress Point Avenue.
Little did I know then, the day I moved into Egret’s Loft was the beginning of the most exciting chapter of my life…and the most dangerous.
Egret’s Loft. A silly name for a retirement community, if you ask me. I mean, egrets are primarily wading birds. They nest in shrubs, close to the ground. And none of the houses here even have second floors, let alone lofts. A design choice probably made by wise architects who realized that stairs and dodgy hips can be a deadly combination.
Not that anyone who lives here would dare to call Egret’s Loft a “retirement community.” Ritchie warned me that the sales team had strongly encouraged him to never use the “r” word around the new neighbors.
You can’t say “seniors,” either. Or “old.” The acceptable terms, I’ve been told, are “people with advanced life experience” or “active elders.” That last one can be tricky, though, because slipping and saying “elderly” is the quickest way, I hear, to get kicked off the pickleball team.
As cynical as I am about the whole thing, I do have to admit that the people here seem really happy. Everyone we passed on the drive in was smiling and laughing. It felt a little like stumbling onto the set of a new Netflix series—Stepford Seniors.
I said as much to Ritchie as he stopped every few hundred feet for another golf cart crossing. He said it wasn’t a good sign that I had violated the no “seniors” rule on my very first day.
Ritchie is leaving now. I’m waving to him as he drives away in the rented SUV that will take him back to the airport in Tampa.
“Mind your speed and try not to run over any golf carts on your way out,” I call to him, trying to stem the tide of tears that are turning my eyes into overfilled water balloons.
He laughs and revs the engine. “The local rush hour doesn’t stand a chance against this beast.”
“Text me that you made it back safely,” I say, using my most authoritative tone.
“I will. Eliza will be over this weekend, but if you need anything before then, give one of us a shout. Love you, lady!”
“Love you, too, Ritchie.”
I’m not sure if he hears me. He’s already reversing out of the driveway.
I wish Ritchie could stay a little longer.
He could only come down for the day to help me move in. If you could even call it that.
The house came fully furnished and decorated. “Curated distinctly to your taste” the brochure had said. The only things I had to fill were the closet—which reminds me, I need more warm-weather clothes—and the medicine cabinet.
My personal pharmacy of prescriptions filled that one easily enough.
I stand in the driveway long after Ritchie’s car is out of sight. Until I remember I’m not wearing a hat. My dermatologist told me I always need to wear a hat. The sun is different down in Florida, she’d said.
Drink a lot of water too. That from my general doctor.
Ritchie had put some coconut water in the refrigerator for me. It seems like the appropriate thing to drink in the tropical November heat. My taste buds activate as I cross the foyer, past the study, a guest bedroom, and the dining room, and into the kitchen, where I find myself confronted by some kind of touch-panel screen on the sleek metal panel doors of the refrigerator.
Not a problem. Ritchie showed me how to use an iPad. I can handle this.
A big red box in the upper left-hand corner reads, “Life Alert: In Case of Emergency Press Here.”
Another box in the center of the screen asks me if I want to “continue setup.” Setup?
I hit “yes,” mostly out of curiosity. The refrigerator then asks me if my doctor has me on a diet and would I like to set up an alarm to prevent overeating.
My finger finds the “no” option, smiling at how well I’m settling in.
But the fridge is just getting warmed up. Am I storing refrigerated medicine? Would I like menu options based on my insulin or cholesterol levels? Do I want to scan grocery items to get alerts about impending expirations? Would I like to upload recipes and sync them to my grocery list?
I start hitting buttons to make it stop, but that only makes things worse. The fridge starts talking to me instead, asking all of its questions with a computerized British accent.
I want to call Ritchie or Eliza for help but know I can’t.
I told them I was perfectly capable of taking care of myself. If I called them, five minutes after moving in, to tell them I couldn’t figure out the refrigerator, I’d never live it down.
I wish Clint was here. He would know what to do, he always knew what to do.
In my frustration, my hand slips, and I hit the “Life Alert” button.
Phones I didn’t even know were in the house start ringing from every room, and speakers built into the walls come to life.
“Please remain calm. Help is on the way.”
“No! I’m fine. I don’t need help,” I say loudly. Maybe the speakers can hear me too.
The phones keep ringing, and the walls won’t stop talking. I can feel my blood pressure skyrocketing.
I run outside, into the fresh air, forgetting my hat.
My dermatologist is going to be so upset with me.
Just then, a golf cart with a tinny-sounding siren and a red cross stenciled above the rear tires pulls up. A red-faced young man jumps out, medical bag in hand.
“Everything is going to be fine. Help is here,” he assures me.
“It was an accident, I’m so sorry,” I try to explain.
“You were in accident? Are you hurt? Can you remember your name?”
“My name? Of course, I remember my name—”
“Are you experiencing any hip pain?”
“No, no! I wasn’t in an accident. The appliances were asking me questions, and I hit a button by accident. I didn’t know how to make it stop.”
“You’re sure you’re not hurt?” He doesn’t seem convinced.
“Tranquilo, Jimmy. She just moved in,” a sultry female voice says from off to my left.
I turn and see an impeccably dressed woman with shoulder-length, dyed brown hair, heavy eyeliner, and gorgeous olive skin.
“Let me guess.” She winks. “The refrigerator?”
“How did you know?” I ask, wondering if I fell asleep and this is all a dream.
“I know everything that happens in this place.” She smiles before turning to address the medic. “Jimmy, cariño, I told you we need to have someone explain the appliances when new residents move in.”
“Don’t look at me! I told the board that smart refrigerators were a dumb idea.” Jimmy shakes his head.
“I know, I know.” The mystery woman waves her hand as if she’s already bored with the conversation. “I’ll talk to Victor about this. I know he just wants to help Stan, but this has really gone too far. Stan’s little project must be stopped. This poor dear could have been killed by her ice box!”
“My name is Madeline. Madeline Delarouse. And it really wasn’t that bad—”
“Nonsense, Madeline. Those things are a menace. Something needs to be done. In the meantime, Jimmy, can you be a darling and shut off all the alarms inside? I’m going to take our new friend here on a tour of the property. Have you had a tour yet?”
“Not yet, I was only just getting settled in. A tour would be lovely. Can I grab my hat?”
The mystery woman grabs my elbow and starts walking me across the gravel garden that separates my house from the neighboring property.
“No need. I have spares in my garage. It’s only just next door. Come, come.”
“Thank you for your help. I didn’t catch your name.”
She stops abruptly. “Dios mio, where are my manners? But then I just assumed your handsome son would have filled you in. He is such a lovely boy, your Ritchie. We had many conversations before you moved in. I am Carlota Morena Hernandez. I’m President of the Board of Directors for Egret’s Loft.”
“Oh, yes, Ritchie did mention you.” He didn’t, but I don’t want to appear rude or, worse, uninformed. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. How long have you lived here?”
“Since the day the property opened. I helped build this place. In fact, the name, Egret’s Loft? It was my idea. It’s a very powerful name, no?”
I keep my smile fixed. “It’s definitely something, yes.”
“Here we are. Jump in. There is so much to see. I’m very excited you are here! We’re going to be the best of friends; I can feel it already!”