I watched Josh tie his running shoes from the safety of the couch in front of my living room window. He always did that when the weather was nice – like he couldn't wait to be outside.
The 80 degree, sunny afternoon was calling to me too, but not a loudly as the third book in Ronda Miller's Eaglewood Trilogy. Andronica, the beautiful raven-haired heroine was still locked up in the Moorish prison at the end of book two, but I was sure, Justin, her hero would not take long to rescue her.
How Josh would tease me if he knew what I was up to.
Well, the Josh I knew would, anyway. He seemed distant, somehow, this summer. Nothing had been the same since that night six months ago. But it didn't help that he was so busy answering phones, or whatever, at some insurance agency… and my family had just gotten back from a month out west on vacation.
I'd seen him for the first time since only two nights before. I'd dashed across the street as soon as I'd finished unpacking to take him his very own souvenir hat from Mount Rushmore. I had expected him to take one look at the very hideous hat, featuring the plastic representations of four very dead presidents on top of the bill, and burst out laughing.
But he'd been sitting in the dark, watching TV with his feet up. "I'm exhausted, Mel," he told me, barely looking my way.
Hiding the hideous hat behind me, I'd been glad for the darkness of the room. Maybe with only the glare from the TV he couldn't see the disappointment in my eyes. I'd expected more from my best friend after not seeing him for so long.
I ended up giving him the hat anyway, and he smiled, "I'll put it right next to that awful plastic snow globe of the Statue of Liberty you got me two years ago." Then, he shoved the bill of it into the cushion beside him and went back to watching The Simpsons.
I'd been full of stories from my trip that I'd been bursting to tell him for a month, but I felt rejected by his cold manner. "I remember that snow globe," I grinned, trying to lighten the mood, "Wasn't the Statue a weird purple color?"
Josh had smiled only politely at that. And I decided that he'd morphed into a complete stranger in only a month's time. He didn't even make an attempt to come over and talk the next day, which might have redeemed him in my eyes.
He finished warming up on the front steps of his house. I'd been surreptitiously watching him twist and turn and touch his toes, my novel completely forgotten. But as he set off down his driveway, his dark brown eyes looked straight at me.
I ducked down, out of sight of the window, feeling stupid as I did it. Of course he couldn't really see me, I rationalized. He had simply been glancing at a neighbor's house in passing.
Unless he had seen me, through my living room window, as my head appeared over the edge of the couch… What would he think if he knew just how intently I had been focused on the muscles of his hairy legs as he'd flexed them on his porch?
I felt heat emanating off my cheeks and I breathed a sigh of relief knowing my parents were at a wedding and would not soon be entering the room asking me why I was so flushed. There was, after all, a strong breeze coming into the living room through the screen door.
By the time I trusted myself to sit up on the couch and look out the window again, Josh was out of sight. I sighed and picked up my book again and tried to find where I'd left off.
I had the page marked, but as I read, nothing sounded familiar. Frustrated, I flipped back a page – to the paragraph I'd been on when I heard Josh slam his front door shut.
"Now, you wench," the Duke threatened, "You'll pay for that insult."
Andronica backed slowly away, until she felt only the cold stone wall of the tower behind her. "Never!" she shouted. "I will never marry you. Not even to escape this fortress! My lord will come quickly and then it will be you who will pay."
Duke Elsworth took no heed of her words, but kept advancing until she could smell his hot and rancid breath upon her face. "My lady," he mocked and pinned her arms to her sides with his massive forearms. His mouth inched closer to her full, red lips… and then he grunted in pain and… fell.
A tall youth with piercing dark eyes stood over his fallen body, carrying a bloody knife.
"JUSTIN!" Andronica exclaimed and threw herself in his waiting arms. "I thought you were dead," and she covered her lover's face with kisses from her pouting mouth…
Where had my reading light gone? The sun had dipped behind one of the big, puffy clouds building up on the horizon. Suddenly, it was too dark to read. I groaned and reached up to turn on a lamp before settling back down.
I finished two chapters before I noticed that a cool breeze had picked up. Justin had just been captured by pirates on the English Channel when I heard a low rumble of thunder in the distance.
I smelled rain – and then heard it come down. It pattered on the roof and dripped off the eaves. I peered out the window at the downpour and saw a car slish down the street - going probably faster than it should have been going in that weather - with its headlights on and windshield wipers working furiously.
I drank it all in. A summer storm fitted my mood just then. I inhaled as much of the wet-smelling breeze as I could and listened to the rolling of the clouds.
Mom always used to tell me thunder was the angels up in Heaven, bowling. And lightening was what happened when they bowled strikes. I laughed to remember that. I knew perfectly well from the meteorology unit of freshman science what caused thunder, but it was much more fun to think of a bowling alley up in the sky somewhere.
My childhood seemed very nearby as I saw Josh jogging back home through the rain. He looked as if he'd jumped into a lake fully dressed.
He ran up the steps and jiggled the doorknob. I saw a look of horror come over his face when it wouldn't budge. He reached down for keys, but discovered his running shorts had no pockets. Dashing off the steps, he ran around the house, presumably to check the lock on the back door. But when he quickly ran back out front, I knew that door must have been locked too.
He was locked out in the rain, his family gone too. And I knew as well as he did that Mrs. Richardson didn't believe in keeping a spare key tucked under the welcome mat or in one of those little holders that looks like a rock that you stick in the garden, like my mom did.
I saw him look over at my house again and notice the open door. I only took him a few seconds to jog across the street and pound on the screen.
He looked so pathetic, standing there with wet strands of hair hanging in his eyes. I felt my heart soften and I opened the door.
"Don't even ask," he said as he entered, before I could open my mouth. But there was humor in his tone. Perhaps the best friend I knew and loved still existed after all.
Suddenly, I was aware that his white t-shirt was plastered to his arms and chest, leaving nothing of his muscle tone to the imagination. The ability to speak left me, anyway, for a moment. And then the only thing I could think to say was, "You look completely soaked."
"I am completely soaked."
"I – I'll grab you some towels and a blanket or something to sit on," I said, grateful to have an excuse to get out of the room for even a second. My face was flushing furiously and I needed the coolness of the back hall as much as he needed the towels from the hall closet.
"I went for a run before all of this started and then I got home and realized I was locked out," Josh called out to me as I rummaged through the closet. "My parents are up north, taking Chris to camp. They won't be back until tonight, so I was awfully glad to see you here."
What to say to that? I didn't know how to respond. "My parents are up north too, at a wedding," I said, handing him a big beach towel. I set up an old stadium blanket from Dad's alma mater over one edge of the couch, so Josh would be able to sit.
Josh gratefully took the towel and rubbed down his hair with it, leaving it standing up in spikes. I couldn't help but laugh at the sight of him.
"What?" he grinned. "Don't you like this look?" When I did my hair like this in second grade it was just too cool."
I laughed again.
Josh's grin turned wicked. "Maybe you wouldn't think it was so funny if your hair looked like this!" He raised his wet towel over my head, threatingly.
"No, Josh… no, please don't" I tried to squirm away, but he grabbed my arm and started to give me a noogie. In the struggle, we both fell on the covered end of the couch, laughing.
I expected his clothes to feel cold and clammy when they brushed against mine, but they emanated with Josh's body heat. If such a thing is possible, I felt comforted and frightened all at once. But as he looked into my eyes, I knew my Josh was back.
At the same time, I had not forgotten that last time he'd had his arms around me, looking into my eyes. That kiss had felt like such a mistake after we'd done it, but until this moment, I'd hadn't remembered how good it had felt when we were in the middle of it.
Josh still had a hold on my arm, but it was now a gentle one. With a damp index finger he was playing with the edge of my short sleeve.
"Didn't you watch the weather forecast?" I said, desperately, to push away this sudden atmosphere.
He smiled. "Like they ever get it right anyway." A drop of water was slowly making its way from his hair down the back of his cheek. My hand was halfway up to brush it away before I even realized it. I stopped suddenly, but wondered what it would be like to surrender to the impulse.
That last kiss had happened six months ago. If only my brain could focus on something other than that.
"Mel," he said huskily.
I looked up at him again. As soon as our eyes locked, he leaned in, and before I could think about what was going on, he was kissing me… and I was kissing him back.
For the next few minutes, all there was in the universe was him, the wet warmth of him, and the sound of the rain outside.
And all was right in my world.