Carla’s trying to decide Payday or Milky Way when a stranger comes up and asks if she’s found the Lord.
“Why,” says Carla. “Is he missing?”
She’s hungry. Not in the mood for dealing with religious fanatics in the Kentucky Welcome Center’s vending area.
“This is a day of reckoning,” says the man with long gray hair pulled into a ponytail.
He hands her a What Would Jesus Do? sticker and walks away.
Laughing aloud, Carla peels the backing off and slaps it lopsided on her halter top before shoving four quarters into a vending machine. A Payday releases, then hangs motionless. “For Christ’s sake,” she says under her breath, punching several buttons at once.
She levels a solid kick. Nothing.
She moves on and feeds bills to another machine – a can of Coke drops into the compartment. Then she buys a Mountain Dew for William, who’s holding down one of the picnic tables over on the grassy hill.
They drove six long hours to view this solar eclipse – the Welcome Center’s within the path of totality. The sun is barely up. They haven’t slept and are in desperate need of caffeine. Carla stands on the cement plaza feeling punch-drunk, watching the flying traffic on I-65. This trip is William’s idea. He’s been on “Countdown to Totality” for the past two weeks. She could care less. After the eclipse, she plans to break the news to him on the way back to Indiana: she’s found an apartment on Sussex Avenue, has already signed the lease, is moving out of their duplex next week.
He’ll ask why.
She’ll tell him she needs to find herself.
He’d better not come back with, “Why, are you lost?” Hahaha.
She won’t mention Aaron Davidson. Last month they reconnected online. She had a crush on him all throughout high school. Good-looking as ever. His beautiful brown hair is now long, in dreadlocks, and he’s got a silver stud in his left earlobe. Those flinty-gray eyes gorgeous. Since moving back to Glennwood last month, he’s been playing acoustic guitar on weekends and busking Saturday mornings at the farmer’s market.
This past Saturday she finally met Aaron at the market. He looked just like his photos on Facebook, and was tender and kind. He sang Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl,” looked right into her brown eyes, and followed it up with Lucinda Williams’ “East Side of Town,” which he knew she loved and made sure to dedicate to “a dear friend in the audience.”
Rest-stop attendants wave white flags at incoming drivers like Indy 500 pit crews, shouting, “Use the facilities and move on!”
No one is listening. They park, drag coolers and lawn chairs across the grassy area. A few kids play Frisbee. Some older folks in loungers read books and magazines under tall elms. One man with a beer belly sprinkles lighter fluid on a grill, and steps back as it flares.
Only semis, hell-bent to avoid gridlock, rush by on I-65.
Carla fluffs her light-brown hair before snapping a selfie and texting it to Aaron. They’ve been emailing and texting for over a month. William is shockingly obtuse about social media. He’s on Facebook and Twitter, but rarely checks in. All he worries about is passing his engineering classes. Carla’s connection with Aaron feels more real than the one she has with William, her live-in boyfriend. She finds herself living for Aaron’s texts.
As for the eclipse, she doesn’t really know what to expect.
She’s read a few things. But William has become an “eclipse geek.”
She knows the moon passes between the sun and the earth blocking out all but a pearly-white halo of the sun’s blistering surface. She also knows she might get lucky and see the Diamond Ring. William explained how the shrouded sun will turn the day eerily into night, confusing insects, birds, and animals.
Years ago, in grade school, she saw a partial eclipse. Their teacher Mrs. Stefonski took them out on the playground where they used cardboard boxes with pinholes to watch. The eclipse was an excuse to get out of class for a while, and Carla shared a viewing box with Aaron. At the time, he seemed different from the other boys, aloof. She remembers his long, delicate fingers.
Mrs. Stefonski warned them, “Look up and you’ll go blind!” Of course, it was because of her tone that most of the students stole glimpses of the sun when the teacher wasn’t looking.
Aaron still hasn’t texted. William’s waiting for her – and his Mountain Dew. She’ll tell him about the Jesus freak. If he gets annoyed, she’ll remind him how she doesn’t really want to be here in the first place.
“Okay, all right,” she finally said the other day. “I’ll go.”
“I guess so.”
“You don’t have to if you don’t want to.”
He’s in a lawn chair fiddling with his digital camera when she returns. Her phone’s on vibrate.
“I lost money and my Payday.” She hands him his Mountain Dew and then plops down in her chair. It’s 90 degrees in the shade. Not a cloud in the sky. She pulls her hair off her sweaty neck. Even in cut-off jeans, she’s miserable.
“Thought you got lost.” He points at her halter top. “What’s that?”
“Oh, that. Some Jesus freak gave it to me at the vending machines.”
“Probably thinks the world’s coming to an end,” says William, changing the lens out on his camera. “They all do.”
“He called it ‘a day of reckoning.’ You planning to take photos of the eclipse?” She puts on her sunglasses, expects to soak in a few rays before things get started.
“Probably not. It might ruin the sensor.” He points the telephoto lens at her. “Smile for Jesus!”
“Put that thing away?” Her eyes are rings of fire.
“I mean it, William.”
“Just checking the aperture. You look great, by the way.”
“You and that goddamn camera.” She gets up and walks around on the other side of the picnic table. “Please, point that at the sky, not at me, got it?”
He slips the Minolta into its bag and stands up. He slouches off across the park. She doesn’t bother calling him back. He knows she doesn’t enjoy getting random pictures taken of her. Selfies are different. She can delete snaps until she finds a decent photo. Key word: decent. She doesn’t know why she hates the way she looks. Her parents always told her she was pretty. She never believed them. William’s compliments have the same airy feeling.
Yes, he’s mad. Yes, he stalked off. But he’ll be back. That’s one thing about William – he never stays mad for long.
Finding Aaron in cyberspace was pure coincidence. Of course, she thinks of it as a “spiritual” and therefore “cosmically innocent” mistake, which lessens her guilt.
She was on Angela Glessing’s Facebook page, a high school acquaintance. Besides Angela’s photos, Carla surprisingly saw a post by Aaron. Even though it’d been over ten years – he left high school after ninth grade, his parents’ move prompting his transfer to Glennwood North – she recognized his gentle face, flinty eyes. She was surprised by his dreads, but on him they look stunning and sexy.
William thinks she’s playing Candy Crush and chatting up old high school friends. But once she’d gotten up the nerve to send a friend request to Aaron, and he’d promptly friended her back, they’ve done nothing but chat online. They have so much in common. In high school, they’d been in orchestra and drama club together, and now it turns out they both love Americana music, nineteenth century literature, black and white movies, and the artists Edvard Munch and Kathë Kolwitz.
From her lawn chair, Carla looks at her phone, willing a text to appear. Across the verdant field is a large pond surrounded by cattails, its black water still as glass. Further still is a white building and a track enclosed by a fancy white railing. Out the corner of her eye, she sees William sulking back. He plops down in a lawn chair and begins pouring over his engineering textbook.
“What is that over there?” she asks him, attempting to break the silence.
He looks up, squints, mumbles it’s Kentucky Downs, a thoroughbred horse racing track. Horses. Of course. This is Kentucky. Cars pour into the racing track’s lot, sun-drenched windshields blinding eyes on this side of the field.
William wanted to be over here, at the Kentucky Welcome Center, so they can quickly jump on I-65 and beat traffic heading north. He has an early class tomorrow and needs to get back. His Ford F-150 is parked a stone’s throw away, behind a semi.
“Heard they might ticket cars,” he says, concerned. “They’re trying to keep this rest-stop open to traffic, but look – every space is taken. Give me a fucking ticket, see if I care. The eclipse will be worth every penny.”
He stands up and does a few stretches, his shadow casting over her shoulder. His back, he says, is stiff from driving.
“I think I’m going to check out the vending machines,” he says. “I’m still hungry. Want something?”
Carla shakes her head. She’s reading a magazine she picked up in a gas station in southern Indiana. It’s not at all interesting. She’s pretending to read while daydreaming of Aaron. Last Saturday she told William she was going to the farmer’s market to buy some vegetables, and when he offered to come along she told him she was meeting a girlfriend. She bought a sack of Gala guilt apples. William loves apples. That Saturday morning she sat under a maple tree listening to Aaron play and sing with his beautiful voice. He sang only to her. She wonders why he hasn’t texted her yet.
The light’s changing. Objects have sharper outlines. When she glances over at Kentucky Downs she notices the trees, which now seem etched against a metallic background.
“The sky looks bizarre,” she says, flipping a page.
“We’re in the partial phase now. I’ll be back before totality starts.”
“Totality? Is that when I can or can’t look?”
He pulls out two pairs of protective solar eclipse viewing glasses. Typical engineer, he was particular about buying the safest-grade lenses, making sure they were ISO- and CE-certified. He hands her a pair.
“Don’t look up without these. When the moon completely covers the sun, then you can look with the naked eye.”
She feels like a child. “Okay.”
She sends Aaron another text. She doesn’t want to sound desperate. They haven’t slept together (in her dreams they have many times). She keeps her message purposefully bland: “Thinking of you from Kentucky.” She’d told him she was going to watch the eclipse with William as a “last together thing” before moving into her own apartment. She’d sent him an Instant Message. He’d written back: “Cool!” She hasn’t heard from him since.
She looks up, sees William heading back across the park, tucks her phone next to her bare thigh.
He hands her a Milky Way – a sweet truce.
“It’s starting!” he says excitedly, and drags a lawn chair out beyond the overhanging trees. Crickets chirp. Birds stop singing. The sky dims. “C’mon! Don’t forget your glasses!”
He cranes his neck back, holding the viewing glasses up to his eyes.
“Look! Look!” someone shouts. “It’s almost time!” And someone else shrieks, “It’s like you’re going blind.” Carla wonders what that means.
It is eerily quiet. Crickets stop chirping. The sky deepens to a purplish-gray, the horizon’s rimmed in pink. A gloaming, Carla thinks, between day and night. Silver backs of road signs turn burnished gold. White contrails fade. The air feels cool on her skin. On the highway, semis and cars power on their lights. All around, shutters release – click, click, click, click.
The sky goes black. Stars come out.
People cheer. There is clapping all around.
Carla hears someone say, “Hey, check it out! Check it out!”
She looks up, sees the Diamond Ring. Is she supposed to look? Where’s her glasses? On the picnic table. She forgot them. Again, she looks up. Not for long. But she looks. Now the sun is completely obscured, is black with only a thin white halo. It’s like looking into a deep and dark pupil in the sky. God’s eye? The holy-roller would probably say so.
She gazes over at William, who is smiling at the sky with a grin that reminds her of how he sometimes smiles when she’s naked. She looks up again. The tiny moon is having its moment, she thinks, or rather two minutes and twenty-six seconds. The sun is a black hole in a sea of black.
“See it?” William gasps with childlike delight. “Wow!” He points at the sky. “Over there, that’s Venus. Oh my God, this is unreal.”
It is creepy, she thinks. Everything seems wrong. The sun extinguished with a flick of a switch. People like William saying, “Oh my God,” as if they’ve actually seen God there in the sky.
And then someone flips a switch again – the light’s back on.
People are still standing or sitting in lawn chairs – a frozen tableau. The eclipse is over. The heat returns, a muggy breeze hangs over the park. Someone presses an action button and people start packing up lawn chairs and coolers and race for their cars.
On I-65, William concentrates on the traffic. They don’t speak. They’re both tired and hungry for real food. William doesn’t bother turning on the radio.
Carla holds her phone between her moist palms. It feels warm. Her heart feels cold.
When they’d first gotten back on the highway, William was still buzzing from the eclipse and chattered about how cool it was, how it was even better than he’d thought it would be. Carla, thinking about Aaron, had answered, “Uh-huh,” “I guess,” and “That’s true.”
She rips the WWJD sticker off her halter-top. While the eclipse was surreal, she’s glad it’s over. She feels like a fraud. Instead of sharing the historic moment with William, she’d thought about Aaron the entire time. She gazes out the window at passing trees, signs, traffic poles, and winds her hair around her index finger.
Maybe she expected an out-of-body experience. The solar eclipse had, after all, been hyped to the hilt.
DS Levy’s work has previously been published in Little Fiction, the Alaska Quarterly Review, Columbia, South Dakota Review, Brevity, The Pinch, and others. Her collection of flash fiction, A Binary Heart, was published in 2017 by Finishing Line Press. Learn more about her on her website and follow her on Twitter @122cats.