Alone in Mr. Lloyd's living room, I watched silent lightning flash across the sky. There was a television set looming on the far end of the room, but I wouldn't think of turning it on. I laid on the couch and stared through the sliding glass doors that led to the porch, taking note of the wooden railings, the trees behind them, the sky beyond. The lightshow fascinated me. Where one would expect the boom-crash of a raging thunderstorm, there were only fluttering flashes from a cosmic swarm of fireflies. I had been living in Mr. Lloyd's house for two months now. In a few more weeks, I would be driving back to school. Thoughts of fate and eternity breezed over and around the surface of my imagination, but they were fleeting. I felt numb, stuck between breaths, as if one sock hit the floor with a thud and I was still waiting to hear the other.
I remembered my state of mind when the school year ended. I knew that I wanted to stay with my girlfriend all summer, my checking account balance left me no choice. I packed everything I owned into my sub-compact, kissed her goodbye, and started the long trip home. The trip takes about four hours, and I drove straight through. It's so easy to fall in love, but so hard to find a good summer job.
My mother found me a place to work at Mr. Lloyd's house. I had been home for a few weeks, putting up with her threats to make me pay rent, and then she saw an interesting item in the want ads. She circled it for me -- full-time caregiver for elderly man, weekly paycheck, room and board included. I jumped at the chance to move out. My mother and I could never stand each other. I don't think she'd even talk to me if we weren't related. So I packed my car again and drove across the river to Mr. Lloyd's house.
Telephone! The clanging sound shocked me to attention, and I scrambled to answer it between the first and second ring. Who would be calling at this hour? A short list popped into my head, with my girlfriend right at the top. What a relief that would be! I yanked the receiver from its cradle like I was saving a toddler from oncoming traffic, and my voice cracked halfway through hello.
Mr. Lloyd picked up the phone in his room a moment later, sounding sleepy and grumpy, and I wondered why he bothered. No one would dare to call the old man after ten o'clock for fear of disturbing him. Besides, the phone stopped ringing five seconds before he answered; it was obvious that the call had been taken. Perhaps he had been overcome by a premonition that this phone call might foretell an emergency.
I recognized the voice as an old high school friend named Tim. He went to college in another state, and I hadn't talked to him since I met my girlfriend last fall. Mr. Lloyd let out a grunt of displeasure and hung up.
"It's been a long time," I said. "What's up? Hey...how'd you get this number?"
"Your mom gave it to me," Tim said. "I just spent fifteen minutes talking to her. The way she tells it, you're over there in the hills living the high life."
"It's a nice house," I said.
"This Lloyd guy has a swimming pool, huh?"
"Yes. I haven't been out there for a few weeks."
"Maybe me and Jamie should come up for a visit and take a dip."
"Uh...Mr. Lloyd doesn't let me have guests here."
"Really?" Tim sounded surprised. "How come?"
"He's real concerned about getting peace and quiet. His blood pressure is unpredictable, and he doesn't like to get excited."
"That sucks. Jamie loves to swim."
"Yeah, I'm not thrilled about it either." A big flash of lightning lit up the sky. I stood up and carried the phone over to the couch.
"I've got an announcement."
"What's that?" I asked.
"I know it's no big surprise, but Jamie and I got engaged. It's official now."
I blinked a few times. "Really? Wow...that's amazing. Congratulations. None of my friends has ever been engaged. I don't know what to say."
"We want you to be in the wedding, Goofytooth."
"I'd be honored. Sure, I'll do it. When's the date?"
"May fifteenth, next year. That's the weekend after Jamie gets her degree. We figure we can get two parties for the price of one."
"Sounds like a good plan." I knew that I was speaking absently, but I couldn't help it. I had just gotten off the phone with my girlfriend, and it had ended badly. I stared at a blinking red light above the patio door, one of the sensors for Mr. Lloyd's security system. He paid a company to install the system earlier in the summer, a few days after finding a dead squirrel in the swimming pool. I did my best to allay his fears, but he couldn't stop worrying about Satanist cults breaking in and swiping works of art. It did no good to argue. Mr. Lloyd was set in his ways, just like my mother.
"You still there, Goofytooth?"
"I don't know why you keep calling me that."
"Goofytooth. I know I used to have a wicked overbite, but my braces came off last year. My teeth aren't goofy anymore."
"Old habit, I guess. Sorry about that. I don't think I've seen you since you got your braces off. When I think of you, I see that overbite."
"Fair enough," he said, and was quiet for a moment. "Are you okay, buddy?"
"Not really. I met this girl at school..."
"Say no more," Tim said, and laughed.
"We're trying to do a long-distance thing right now, and it's been a nightmare. I called her tonight, just to say hello, you know, and to let her know about a touring Broadway show that's coming to town. I had this big plan to offer bus fare so she could come and see it with me next week, but I never got that far. She said I was smothering her, which makes no sense. I haven't called her for a week."
"I thought she was the one. Now I don't know what to think."
"Wait a minute," Tim said, "did you sleep with this girl?"
I wasn't sure if I should answer him or not. "Why do you ask?"
Tim was snickering. "You always said you would wait until you were married."
"And you always called me a wimp."
"Did you prove me wrong? You did, didn't you?" Now he was laughing out loud. "I can't believe it! You lost your virginity, and you never told me!"
"I didn't tell anyone," I said. Blood was rushing to my face. "It's private. It's just between me and her."
"What changed your mind?" Tim wondered aloud.
"I already told you. I thought she was the one."
"I'm starting to think that I blew it."
"Don't say that."
"I don't know. I wanted her to come here with me this summer, but she had a job back at school. Anyway, Mr. Lloyd wouldn't let her stay here. He's old-fashioned that way. She's there and I'm here. It's all falling apart." I stepped to the patio door and unlocked it. Outside, trees swayed in the summer breeze. "I feel like killing myself." I slid the door open.
High-pitched sirens whined to life and pierced my ears with short bursts of pain. The security system! The phone line went dead. I slammed the patio door shut, dropped the phone, and bolted to the code-box in the next room. With frantic stabbing motions, I punched the secret code into the box and pressed the enter button. The siren fell silent.
I returned to the living room and took a deep breath. I placed the phone receiver back on the cradle, and was startled again when the phone rang. The security company had told me that the system would automatically cut off the phone in order to send a signal to them in the event of a break-in. The company, in turn, would call back and demand to hear the secret password. As I answered the phone, I was prepared to confirm Mr. Lloyd's password.
It was Tim calling back. "What happened...?"
"I have to get off the phone. The alarm went off and the line needs to be kept open..."
Mr. Lloyd picked up his extension and started yelling. "Get off the phone, dammit. Get off the PHONE!"
"I gotta go, Tim."
"Yeah...okay...yeah." He hung up before I did.
No more than ten seconds passed before the phone rang again. Mr. Lloyd and I both answered. Mr. Lloyd gave the password himself and explained the situation. The security company operator didn't seem to care a whole lot. He suggested that we wait until both of us had turned in for the night before activating the system. After the operator disconnected, Mr. Lloyd gave me a lecture about my responsibilities and stressed how I took advantage of him. I would have liked to argue but he was my employer. I had no bargaining power, so I gave up.
"I'll see you in the morning," I said. "Orange juice or coffee?"
He grumbled, and I didn't know what he was trying to say. He slammed the phone down. I lay in the dark for a while, listening to the blank dial tone while staring at the silent TV set. I imagined echoes, but the tone remained constant.
I watched lightning sprint across the sky in bundles of brightness. I couldn't predict the flashes; it was beyond my control. A burst of electricity stabbed through the sky and I started to count the seconds. I waited for the thunder but it never came.
I kept a list of phone numbers in my wallet, but I didn't have a college number for Tim. The hour had grown so late that I couldn't consider calling his parents, and I got a disconnected message when I tried a mutual friend's number. Did Tim know why I was forced to hang up the phone? Was he worried about me, holding Jamie close, torturing himself because he wanted to check on me but couldn't risk angering Mr. Lloyd? Maybe he and Jamie would worry all night. They might take some time to discuss wedding details and life plans. Maybe they would dream about baby names.
Without a sound, the lightning cracked the sky wide open. I sat on the couch and watched. I paid close attention to the sound of my own breathing. I listened to my heart beating, just one heartbeat, long into the night.