Gus has never been one for raucous nights. While his classmates raced out their dorm rooms to go to a party down the hall or across campus, he preferred to stay in and enjoy the company of Netflix or whatever book his MFA-bound brother recommended. When the clock ticked to bar close, he was much more likely to be found tucked beneath his comforter than under a barstool or table, waiting to be dragged home.
Until now, that is, when his sole form of entertainment is watching the bright neon blue light outside his window zap bugs into fragments of wings and exoskeleton. In a week of low points, this may very well be the lowest; but it’s also all the stimulation his brain can handle.
In the glow, he can make out the flies approaching and hovering just beyond its electric field. He likes to think they’re contemplating their next move, flipping back through their short memory to an entry in their insect bible, where such a light was their apple in the garden. Do they heed the warning of the fly God and depart as fast as they can or do they give in to the intoxicating radiance a few wingbeats away? Almost every time, the flies do the latter, and Gus isn’t surprised. He understands.
Gus has watched many a person chase something that leaves them worse than they started, and that includes himself. For the flies, the lantern is their version of Gatbsy’s green light: alluring, full of promise, but ultimately the seduction leads to their demise.
Strike that; waxing poetic about a bug zapper is his lowest point.
On the burgundy couch cushion beside him, his phone vibrates. Hesitantly, Gus flips it over, praying that it isn’t his sister’s name across the screen, and she isn’t calling with more bad news. That prayer is answered, but his stomach catapults into his throat anyways.
A week ago, he would’ve thought nothing of it—writing it off as a telemarketer or scammer trying to make a buck—and let it go to voicemail. A week ago, a call from an unknown number hadn’t upended his life or his family’s. Not yet.
Holding his breath inside him as if the caller will reach through the receiver and suck out his soul if he or she hears a wisp of air, Gus answers, and brings the phone to his ear. “Hello?”
“Hi, is this Kai Washington?” a woman asks with just enough pep that Gus guesses she doesn’t watch bug zappers for fun. The breath held hostage in his chest leaves his lips. For once this week, he’s glad not to be someone else.
“It’s not? Are you sure?” On the other end of the line, he swears he can hear papers shuffling.
“Yeah,” he says. “I think you have the wrong number.”
“Really? Dammit,” she mutters. “Dude gave me a bad number.”
Or maybe it’s the fact that most of his conversations have revolved around brain scans, EKGs, oxygen levels, and medical procedures that he wants to continue this brief venture into distraction.
“Sorry. Date gone wrong?” he offers, but the voice in his head curses at him. Why would he think it was okay to ask a complete stranger a question that was so personal? Why did he go personal when there were so many more options? “Sorry, sorry. Don’t answer that. I should—” let you go, he wants to say, but the laugh of the woman—or at least the person he assumes is a woman—interrupts him.
“It’s fine. No, thank God. He works for this news site, and I was at this writers’ mixer and pitched him a story, and he told me I could call him to follow up. Didn’t mention the number wasn’t his instead of some random person’s, but that would defeat the purpose, wouldn’t it?”
“Yeah, I think so,” Gus says, finding himself chuckling. “Can you look up whatever news site this is and get in touch with him that way?”
“Ready on it,” she replies. The noise of pushing paper becomes clattering keys, and he pictures her sitting at her desk with her computer in front of her, searching away on the internet. Her voice conjures up images of Tiffany Hendrix, a girl he attended high school with who had curly red hair and tortoiseshell glasses, and without a thought he imagines Tiffany in her place, although he knows it’s not her.
Tiffany is a bioengineer and moved across the ocean with her girlfriend, Gwendolyn, a couple years ago, leaving his guesses at the mystery caller at zero. “A-ha! There’s a ‘contact me’ section! Looks like he didn’t think that one through.”
Gus relaxes back into his couch, letting his body mold into the cushions and escape the hunched position it’s been trapped in lately. “Let’s hope he’s not an investigative reporter.”
He doesn’t know this person and yet, the sound warms him like a friend offering him a cup of coffee on the coldest of days. “He’s not. He’s an editor slash douchebag apparently, which I hope is a rarer combination than I think so I can get this story published.”
For her sake—and let’s be honest, the world’s—Gus too prays that there are fewer editor-douches than there are plain, good-mannered ones. “If you don’t mind me asking, what’s your story about?”
“Why? So you can steal it and see if he’ll take it seriously with a guy as the writer?” she asks, but before his back muscles can tie themselves into the knots they’ve come to know so well out of fear he’s crossed a line, she adds, “Just kidding, I don’t care if you know. That’s actually what it’s about.”
“Not caring if I know something?” he asks.
“Yeah, it’s oddly specific. That’s why I got the fake number,” she quips. “No, gender discrimination. There’s a woman I know, and she applied for a job at a company and didn’t get it, but she knew the guy who did, and she was more qualified than he is. Turns out, she’s not the first person it’s happened to there, and she and the others are willing to talk to me so I pitched an exposé on them. I think it needs to be brought to light, but apparently Kai did not think so.”
“That sounds great. You should definitely blow something like that wide open. You’d have a lot of people reading it and getting angry, including my mom.” Gus’ mom had many roles in her life other than rearing children: philosophy professor, avid cyclist, frequent volunteer, and activist, particularly when it came to women’s rights.
“Yeah? Why’s that?”
“If someone’s being wronged, my mom is right there protesting it. Like when one of her colleagues got a raise and another didn’t for the same level of work, my mom was pushing them to fight it, and would go into meetings and stand up for them and everything. She’s always been a fighter,” Gus says, and with each word, he can hear his voice getting quieter and quieter until it peters out into near nothingness.
“Yeah, she’s awesome,” he says, and tries to blink away the tears forcing themselves out of the edges of his eyes. It doesn’t work. Nor is he able to stop the sniffle that comes with them.
The line goes silent for a few moments. “Are you okay?”
“What?” he asks. He knows exactly what she’s asked, but it surprises him nonetheless. This week hasn’t been about him or if he’s okay. Their focus had been on one person, not on each other. But he’s far from being unaffected by it all.
“Are you okay?” she repeats, and he considers how to answer. The right way to answer a stranger would be “yes, I’m fine.” Why unload on someone you don’t even know? But it’s the idea of telling this someone he doesn’t know that appeals to him—the ease of their conversation, the comfort of it in a week that has been lacking.
“Uh, not quite,” he starts, rolling the cuff of his sweatshirt between his fingers. “My mom actually had a heart attack a few days ago, so, yeah, not really.”
“Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry. Is she okay?”
“She’s in the hospital, but the doctors think she’ll make it. We weren’t sure for a while,” he says. It was massive, her heart blotched with black and clogged with plaque even though she had been active from the time she could walk. She spent her first night in a coma, and the next drifting in and out of consciousness. Dr. Ramierz had said that Gus and his sister, Hillary, should expect their mom to be in the hospital for at least another week, and they’d promised they’d be with her every day and every night. Per the hospital’s one visitor a night policy, this is Hillary’s evening to hold up her end of the bargain.
“That’s terrible, but I’m glad to hear she’ll be okay. Seeing a parent go through that, it’s never easy. Makes you feel a helpless kid again,” she says.
“You sound like you know,” he says.
“I do. My dad had cancer.”
Had can imply two things, Gus knows, and only one is good. “I’m sorry.”
“He’s in remission now, but man, when he wasn’t, it was hell.”
The conversation takes off from there, going from discussion on the good, the bad, and the ugly of hospital food and the chill of hospital rooms, to a commentary on the evolving menu items at Gregorio’s Pizza on Main Street, the Law & Order marathon she’s watching that night, and the bug zapper he’s watching. It’s deep, and yet breezy and freeing and fun and more than Gus could’ve hoped for when he collapsed on the couch that night.
It only comes to an end when Gus’s sister texts him and asks if she can call him because she’s bored and the hospital only offers 10 channels, none of which are good. Reluctantly and regretfully, Gus apologizes to his mystery caller as says he has to go.
“You apologize a lot for someone who hasn’t done anything wrong,” she says, getting one final laugh from him. “Although having to end this talk so soon—or an hour in, I guess—does feel wrong, so I’ll accept it for this one.”
“Thank you,” he replies. “This has been really nice.”
“It has.” He hears that clicking of a keyboard. It’s even, staccato, like she’s typing out a pattern instead of a word. He wonders if she’s trying to draw out this call like he wants to, too. “Hey, can I keep this number?”
The grin stretches across Gus’s face, and he’d bet it’s nearly as bright as the bug’s light outside his window. “Yeah. Can I get your name?”
“Right. How have we not covered that?” They’ve talked about things important and unimportant but skipped over the most basic fact of themselves. “It’s Alexandra.”
“Alexandra,” he says, liking the way it sounds as it leaves his mouth, and feels as it rolls off his tongue. “I’m Gus.”
“Nice to meet you, Gus, and good luck with your mom.”
“Thanks. Good luck with your story. I’m sure Kai will regret giving you the wrong number.”
“I hope so. I won’t, though.”
He pauses, the response stealing his breath, and cradling his heart in one. “Really?”
“Yeah, he was a bit pretentious so I probably would’ve hated working with him. I’ll find someone better.”
“Silver linings,” Gus replies, and she chuckles.
They exchange goodbyes and although no promises are made to speak again, Gus can sense that it won’t be too long before they do, if only based on his own efforts.
He would’ve never thought that he’d be doing this after picking up an unknown number, but maybe now, he decides, he’ll create a habit of it, taking chances for the possibility of gleaning joy and connection from it.
As Gus dials his sister, his eye catches again on the zapper, and he makes one more decision: Humans and bugs alike need to stop chasing the blue and green glows, and instead go for the silver ones.