A PATH OF TOTALITY

 

KENNETH BROWN

:::

First Contact

“Partial eclipse begins: The Moon starts becoming visible over the Sun's disk. The Sun looks as if a bite has been taken from it.”

_

I ignored the clamoring around me in the break room.  It was to be expected, people were excited, and so was I.  I sat on the old plastic chair barely able to contain my excitement.  I was a forty-two-year-old man with the renewed vigor of a guy half my age.  My hands tightened around the small cardboard box with the name, Patrick Stein labeled across its top.  I chuckled to myself at the craftiness of having the package shipped to work instead of to the house.  The thought of my surprise bubbled up my chest.  Eager to share in the hype about the upcoming solar eclipse, I pried open the box.  My smile widened as I looked down on four pairs of eclipse-viewing glasses carefully housed within layer after layer of bubble wrap.  They were expensive, and my ass was scalped to hell and back from the online seller.  But with both my wife Joanne and son Kevin more than eager for an event that’ll only happen again in the next seventy years, I figured; why not?

My coworkers remarked on their big eclipse plans, weeks-long series of planning for a seven-minute event of watching the moon strut in full view before the sun.  I knew though, it’s not the destination but the journey.  That’s why so many of us went overboard, and that’s why I planned an excursion to a certain small-town hotel, voted by the trusty Internet as one of the top places to view all the celestial action.  Encompassed by my internal revelry, I picked up one of the black frames and brought it close to my face.  I inspected the numbers along the side and felt the pride of owning a pair of authentic eclipse shades. 

It wasn’t just for the wife and kid.  A fourth pair of glasses sat with the other three.  My old pal and neighbor Tony had endured a rough divorce and spent the last few months dealing with the ordeal of having to piece his life back together.  In the end, the eclipse would be a moment for all of us to enjoy.  As I pondered the array of possible activities we’d all partake in, I looked up. 

The clamor and commotion ended.  Every soul in the break room was mute, their minds no longer on the poor excuse to party.  All eyes were on the television.

The tiny man blessed by the ignorance and accolades of too many Americans, cheered as he approached the podium.  The speech began as the audience birthed a reverent silence.  He spoke with rage and fervor but with words clean-cut, concise, and all too simple.

“We won’t stand for it!”  The President cried in defiance. 

Supporters rallied under more phrases and buzzwords.  Clapping and cheers echoed.  He kept on, decrying some enemy overseas with a name I could barely pronounce, let alone never paid attention to, up until just a few weeks prior.  But under the man’s declaration of hate and wrongdoings, his voting pool seethed at the other leader’s name with unified malice that somehow reached to a personal level.  The President kept on with the buzzwords and short sentences.  The onlookers nodded, only halfway understanding the implication. 

I took a quick stock of my peers in the break room.  Some, maybe two or three, nodded as if they were blessed to be in that televised rally in person.  The rest imagined a future overcast by things they prayed would never transpire in their lifetime.  My attention returned to the man who accidentally fell into the office to hear his threat that shot clear across the globe. 

“They will be met with a tide of reckoning and retribution.” 

My mouth became dry.  I wanted to stop listening and focus on the upcoming trip, to lose myself in a couple minutes as my loved ones and I watched a cosmic waltz in the skies above.  But I couldn’t.  I was snatched by the jaws of worry and swallowed whole. 

:::

Second Contact

“Total eclipse begins (2nd contact): The entire disk of the Sun is covered by the Moon. Observers in the path of the Moon's umbra may be able to see Baily's beads and the diamond ring effect, just before totality.”

_

I counted the provisions again.  At this point, sitting in the dark and counting bags upon bags of freeze-dried rations, extra clothing, water filters, batteries, guns, and bullets became the only thing to calm my brain in the past four months.  A sigh escaped my lips as I cracked a smile.  The epicenter of all my hard work gleamed in the lamplight.  Two solar powered generators, nearly four hundred pounds of ion power ready and waiting for when the shit hit the fan.  This would be a world in and of itself.  Everything needed to ensure survival, was down here with me.

I checked the last two things off the list.  Satisfied, I turned off the lamp and let the cool blackness of the underground bunker overtake me.  At some point during the forthcoming maelstrom, I knew this is what the world would be.  Darkness and nothing more.  More than shadows covered me below the house, it felt like safety, an absolute, a peace.  We would make it through the mess.  No matter what played on the news or what alert prompted on my phone, the family would make it out.  Reluctantly, I retreated from the haven and bolted the door shut.  As I locked everything in place I reminded myself to make sure Joanne knew where her own key was. She refused to wear it on her person like me, the lifeline was a joke to her, we fought but I couldn’t convince her to see reason. 

As I trudged back up to the kitchen, a noise cemented my feet halfway up the steps.  Voices.  A crack of light shined through the door and sliced across my field of vision.  The basement door had been left half-open.  I held my breath. 

“It’s all starting to be too much.”  It was from Joanne.  “Did you know he tried to buy equipment to reload bullet casings?  Christ as if all the boxes down there weren’t enough.”

“Maybe he’s just going through a phase.  Mid-life crisis, all that nonsense.”  The reassuring voice belonged to my bastard neighbor, Tony. 

How long has he been trying to get into my wife’s pants now?  I pressed myself against the basement corridor as if the light shining down on me was trying to alert them of my presence.  I kept listening, ears divided between Joanne’s lack of faith and the slime dripping out of Tony’s mouth.

All the barbecues, the soccer games where our kids would hobble around the field in spectacular failure, the football games in front of the couch, the parties, they didn’t matter anymore.  All those nights where I watched him drink himself through the grief of his wife running away, the child in tow.  It was nothing.  I knew his real intention shined passed the veil of lies.  Even as I looked back at all the get-togethers, the backyard talks, I could sense Tony’s agenda, like some sixth sense stabbing my mind’s eye.

“If only.  He’s off the deep end now.  Did you know he tried to pull Kevin out of school so they could go on a week-long seminar on survival training?  Patrick’s never even been out fishing! Those two days at the gun range were stupid enough.  I was pissed but played along.  It seemed harmless.  Now he wants to spend two grand to put Kevin through hell and back.  Kevin’s so confused, he doesn’t even want to spend time with his own father now.  He’s so worried, I’m worried.”

“It’ll blow over Jo.”  I hated when he called her that.  “Once they sort everything out at the UN, they’ll disarm the psycho and it’ll all go back to normal.  Even old Patrick.” 

There was a pause.  I imagined one of them leaning closer, torsos almost touching. The scenario continued to mentally play out.  Body heat mingled with the steam of the hot coffee I knew sat in front of them.  That mouth of his undoubtedly sparkled an artificial grin that shit-smeared across his face.  Go on, Tony.  Make your move.  I won’t waste anything down here on you so you can rest easy.  It’ll just be more space down here for Kevin and me.  No, instead Joanne kept talking, venting, releasing every ounce of pent up fumes.

“Patrick drained our second account, the one we were using to save up for Kevin’s college.  I haven’t said anything, yet.  Tony, he’s still acting like I don’t know he used our vacation money to get that bomb shelter of his going.

“Jesus.”  It was all Tony said.

Jesus.  She knew.  Everything was out, brought into the light for everyone to cast judgment.  It was all revealed.  They didn’t say anything else.  I imagined hands clasped together, then eyes meeting.  A mutual sadness coupled with unspoken attraction.  Tony kept on.

“Look, if you need anything.  I’m here for you.  I’ll keep an eye out.  Don’t you worry Jo.”  Goddamn, just knock the coffee off the table already and take her right there, you bastard.

I sighed.  At least she didn’t check out our retirement funds.  Not wanting to have the show play out any further, I stamped my feet louder than normal to signal my unwanted arrival.

“Honey,” I called.  “We got some coffee on the pot?”

“Yeah, babe,”  Joanne answered.  “Tony’s up here too.” 

I smiled and allowed the subterfuge to continue. 

:::

Totality

“Totality and maximum eclipse.  The Moon completely covers the disk of the Sun. Only the Sun's corona is visible. This is the most dramatic stage.  The sky goes dark.”   

_

It was too nice outside, brisk wind flowed under a bright blue sky around and happy sun.  It was a fucking mockery of everything happening inside the Walmart we found ourselves in.  Everything housed between the shabby steel frames of the mega-store comprised of ever-moving chaos.  My son and I were stranded in a sea of maddened bodies that rushed in every direction with no destination in sight. Hands wrestled with shopping carts or struggled to hold onto barely thought about necessities while feet trudged on in frantic yet contained strides.  Any premise of peace would drift away soon.  I knew it.

“C’ mon dad do we really need to do this?”  Kevin moaned.

“I don’t want to hear it.”

“Dad, mom said everything’s going to be ok, it’ll pass.” 

“Shut the hell up with that.”  I snapped. 

Normally, I was never one to be so pissed to curse at my boy, today was a special occasion.  The days spent preparing were flushed down the drain, literally, thanks in no small part to my gangly preteen.  I could still see him siding with his mother.  An expert at making my life a living hell, it was her that caused me to wind up in this madhouse. Everything was gone, the bugout bags, the rations, even the bullets.  Damn it to hell, the bullets were gone.  That’s what gnawed at my brain worst, the one thing destined to be valued more than gold.  The goddamn bullets.  I could still make out the mask of worry covering the true intent on Joanne’s face, and my son standing next to her, not remotely aware of the situation.  Kevin should have stood by his old man.  That hurt most. 

My eyes flickered side to side as I watched people tear whatever they could off the aisles and from of each other’s shopping carts.  Things were moving faster than I anticipated.  Something must have popped up on the newsfeeds or status updates.  A tiny desire to know made me regret trading away my phone for that solar grill. Whatever it was, it fueled sanity’s departure. People screamed, cursed, idiots who brought kids were calming sobs and wiping away tears.  The fistfights hadn’t begun, but they were coming.  I could see people with their eyes glued on their smartphones or staring with bloodless faces to their loved ones.  News began to spread fear like a virus into each and every human being around my vicinity. 

I was the only person left unaffected by thoughts of destruction.  Or maybe the fear just gestated inside me longer than anyone else?  I outstretched my hand towards the closest, unattended, shopping cart.

“Here,” I said pulling the handle into Kevin’s clammy paws.  “Get down there and grab whatever water you can, big bottles, little, I don’t care.  If you have to grab some buckets and take ‘em to those fucking machines back there and fill ‘em up.  Do it.  Then I want you to go and grab anything canned if you don’t, it’ll be dog food for us.  Then the dog.  Medicine in the pharmacy too.  Got to pick up your damn feet for this.  Got it?” 

Kevin moved his mouth wordlessly, confused at anything else that came from my general direction. 

“I…I don’t.  Dad let’s just go home and be with mom.  Please.”

“Oh, I almost forgot.  Now, this is important.  You listening to me?  Kevin!”  I grabbed his shoulders and tightened until I knew it hurt enough for him to register what I was saying. 

All around us the crowd was getting worse.  I heard someone shout, then the unmistakable commotion of a scuffle.  The noises grew louder, closer.  Kevin’s face angled towards something happening behind us.   Kevin looked back at me and nodded.

“If you can,” I began slowly.  “If you see anyone, anyone I don’t care who, not paying attention to their carts, pull what you can out.  Just don’t get caught.” 

“What?”  My son gasped. I loosened my grip and started to move away, deeper into the mess.  “Wait, where the hell are you going?”

“I got to take care of something important.”  I cried before I headed towards the sporting goods section and prayed it wasn’t picked clean.

:::

 Third Contact

“The Moon moves away; the Sun reappears amidst the shadows.”

_

I never thought I’d be in a scenario like this.  Kevin and I stood around in some neglected house in one of the worst neighborhoods imaginable.  Lines of weapons were displayed in front of me on a dirty table while Armageddon itself progressed ever forward in high definition.  My son and I stared blankly at the television.  The newscaster did her best to keep a steady tone while narrating the impending madness happening across the country and undoubtedly, spreading this way.  Even my fourteen-year-old, Kevin, couldn’t look away.  His attention was completely torn from the smartphone held loosely in his hand.  I wouldn’t know until later that our service provider was knocked out of commission, indefinitely, by “unknown circumstances.”  We stood in silence in the house ripped out of a crime drama, the only noise reminding me we were still alive resonated from the flat screen.

“Looks like it’s finally hitting the fan.”  The bearded stranger simply known as Wayne muttered to me.  He was smiling. 

He was as stout fucker, almost a foot taller and twice as wide.  But he wasn’t loaded with fatty tissue or flab blessed on him by countless hours working in a cushy office.  Wayne was everything I wasn’t; lean, muscled, ruthless, ready for what was coming.  Even his toothy grin shook me as something more akin to an animal ready for the attack. 

I wiped the sweat amassing on my face and pointed to the guns on the table. 

“You said, three, right?”  I mumbled, shaken as if I was closer to the missile blast.  “Three thousand?”

No response.  He looked like a great ape trying to mull over some great and new idea that would lead to the next stage of its evolution.  Then the beast answered.

“Fuck that.  Make it six.”

“Six thousand dollars?”  Kevin shrieked. 

“I don’t have that much.”  I fired back before my son could tack on to our desperation.

“Bullshit,” Wayne spat.  “You said price was 'no thing' when I saw you by the ammo counter.”

“I didn’t think you’d bend me over in front of my kid and take for a ride either.”

Wayne bellowed out in laughter.  “Hah, and that was before them bastards up and decided to draw first blood.  And besides, you were the one bitchin’ about your old lady trashing your stash.  Boy, you don’t got a leg to stand on.”

“Make it four.” I countered.

Wayne paused, his baseball mitt hand scratched at the fur coat plaster on his face.  A deep note hummed, buzzed in the man’s chest as he mulled over my predicament.  The man departed, and the beast in deep contemplation returned.  Whatever decision it wrestled with was decided by realizing which was the easier choice.

“Alright, how about this,” Wayne said.  “You got shit out of the store, right? Doubt you paid, probably just hauled ass before the fighting started.  How about that.  And what kind of ride is it you got again, that old SUV?  No fancy fucking electronics?  That’ll work too.” 

I chuckled, smiled and tried to alleviate the rattling feeling in my nerves.  I slapped my son on the shoulder and answered.

“Come on, I can’t sell my ride.  I can’t make the kid here haul it all back to the house.  He’s not even thirty pounds soaking wet.’ 

“Nah brother, I ain’t talking about trading or selling.  Cash won’t be worth shit here soon.  Now, how about you get walking before you and your kid get neck deep in something you don’t want.”

I didn’t answer out loud and opted to just shake my head in silence.  We were too far from home for me to even think about giving up the vehicle.  From the look on Wayne’s face, any ideas about compromise were long gone, forgotten to the days of prewar peace.

For someone so huge, Wayne was on top of me in the blink of an eye.  I gasped as I felt those monster hands wrapping around my neck.  Air rushed back into my lungs for only a second when one hand moved away from my throat.  Unfortunately, Wayne’s free hand balled into a fist and crashed against my cheekbone then back around my neck. 

I flailed and slapped against Wayne’s face.  I thought I could hear him chuckle at my counterattack.  Blurriness and a shaken brain made it hard to think, but my crawling fingers moved where they needed too.  Not wasting a second, my thumb fish-hooked, nail against the mushy matter that was undoubtedly his eye.  There was a growl, then a curse concluded by a scream.  I felt the valve in my throat locking, the air leaving my body, and both lungs burning into deflated sacks.  I sunk my thumb deeper into his eye socket. 

“Goddamn!”  Wayne howled.  He released both hands from my neck but kept the entirety of his weight on my person.  “My eye!”

I could barely make out what was happening.  All I knew was oxygen drifted back into my brain and a warm, sticky, ooze covered one hand.  From my blurred sight, I looked up at Wayne, scrambling for something in his back pocket.  There was something shining in his grasp. 

He started to lunge downward but stopped.  A hive buzzed in my ears, a type of tinnitus that muted everything and scraped at what little left remained of my sanity.  A smoky scent entered my nostrils.  I rolled over and saw Kevin, a gun from the table now held in both hands, hands that barely held a baseball bat and preferred the slender feel of a guitar neck.   The barrel smoked like a piece of hot iron just plunged into blacksmith’s slack tub.  From the returning clarity, I saw my son’s eyes.  The boy didn’t stare at me or the man he just killed.  He only possessed a gaze, thousands of miles away, to a time and place that didn’t resemble the present.

:::

Fourth Contact

“Clarity, light, sanity from shadows.”

_

The fire was everywhere, screams matched the shrieks of the dueling fire engines and ambulances. No one knew what happened, it felt like a bomb went off just miles from where we stood. I tugged at my son’s arm with both my own, his body-weight at the sight of everything he ever knew and known crumbled before his very eyes.  Kevin muttered something, but it failed to register. 

“Come on Kev, we got to get out of here.”  I pulled my son away from our stalled S.U.V, blocked by an unending line of stuttered vehicles housing ghost-white, shell-shocked, motorists. 

The noises grew louder, like everything inside my brain the past six months finally exploded out into the air.  I pulled Kevin’s arm, yanking hard enough to force his head to shake like some bobblehead doll.  He got out of the vehicle, eyes off into the distance at the smoke, and the orange hue I couldn’t bear to identify, the fugue over him broke.  He looked back to me and after what felt like years, said something to his old man.

“We got to get back to mom.” 

“I know.” 

With two duffle bags in hand and a third comprised with whatever I managed to stuff into a faded sports bag, we hoofed ourselves off the roadways and through the tightening confines of the city streets.  It was when the brick flew across my face did I notice other people.  Others who were fed up with waiting for mess after mess along the roads to clear, or maybe the opportunistic and desperate combined forces to take advantage of the chaos, it was all out in the open.  I stopped just in time to avoid my face getting smashed into a paste and for the intended target, an unsuspecting window, to be struck with full force.  We didn’t waste time to see what happened, but it was easy to make an educated guess. 

I didn’t have to tell Kevin to keep going.  I only had to turn back just for a second to see my son doing his best to keep pace.  Our eyes only met once during our flight out of the main street back to the suburbs.  There was a glint of something there.  It was my son’s realization that I was right.  After all this time, the notion made me sick to my stomach.  Those fleeting instantaneous bouts of gratification at knowing the world would soon be over disappeared in the midst of that cold, dark, revelation.  I would trade anything to be wrong.

We reached the house, a solemn and sad structure of things soon to be lamented.  It was quiet out in the neighborhood, so much more than it was out in town.  It was like the bombs had already struck and I was standing the desolation left in the wake of angry leaders and power-hungry oligarchs.  The only thing I could hear was the well-earned huffing and panting coming from Kevin.  We stood at the front step.  The door opened softly, creaking, a broken remnant of the locked barricaded I secured after the fight with Joanne.  I stepped forward into a void, absent light, sound, and life.  I motioned for Kevin to follow.  Between the unknown of what happened inside, and some vulture noticing my son with a stuffed bag standing out in the open, I chose the lesser of two evils

Kevin limped to his room to pack what he could. I was alone when I found her.  Jo in the corner of the kitchen, her face away from the window and a knife blade pointed into the air while a trail of blood ended at her bare feet and began at Tony’s crumpled body.

His arm was outstretched towards my wife, head half-cocked and staring into the ceiling.  That smile of his morphed into an open, bloody, gap carved out of shock, pain, and rage.  All the happy times, the joking, the jabs, the lonely discussions about divorce and child support in the backyard now congealed on the tiles.

I looked back to Joanne, her hand holding the knife trembled like it belonged to an addict on detox. 

“Jo?”  I whispered to my wife. 

“He-he came in.  Wanted to see how I was doing with you blowing up and leaving right at the beginning of World War fucking III.”

“Are you ok?”  I stepped closer.  Her hand shot back up reflexively.  I saw her eyes, they were back in the moments before I stepped back into the house. 

Joanne blinked then dropped the knife.  She was back.   

 “Tony asked about everything you piled up in the cellar.  I, I didn’t mention what I did to most of it.”  There was a crack in her voice.  “He started joking around like always.  Then he wanted to know more.  He got mad, wanted the key, the key around my neck, wanted inside the cellar.  Wanted everything.” 

“Goddamn.”

She shook her head, the word “no” on her breath but never spoken.  Tears lined along the contours of her cheeks. 

“I, I didn’t let him have it.  After he tried being nice, he changed…” It was all sobs from there on out.

I couldn’t remember myself, dropping my bags, and walking over Tony’s body to her, but there I was next to my wife with my shaking arms wrapped around her.  I tried to speak, let her know it was my fault, the fighting, leaving, all of it.  All the fucking time spent trying to save them and I still almost lost them in the process.  But the words couldn’t escape my mouth.  A rumble in the distance muted everything.

Kevin made it downstairs to us, now with a garbage bag of everything he could salvage from his room.  We hugged and as the rumbling grew louder we huddled closer, all of us, moving towards the cellar. 

:::

 

 

 


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ORIGINAL FICTION

2019 APRIL LOGO PATH OF TOTALITY.jpg

A PATH OF TOTALITY

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kenneth Curtis Brown is a graduating senior at Western Kentucky University.  He is an English student focusing on a major in creative writing and a minor in literature.  Kenneth loves writing speculative fiction and has a series of short stories published along with a novella.  When not writing or trying to figure out how to be a better writer, he is failing at wrangling in his two young, and very independent daughters.

CREDITS
Editor: L. Naisula
Cover Design: Shompole, N.L.