Evan is nearly though the door when he tells Heather he won’t be home for the solar eclipse. He has been asked, last minute, to do a piece for one of his regular magazines. They want him in London, he says. With a photographer. There may not be time for a call.
All of this is, technically, true.
‘Let David know,’ he says. David, their son, born prematurely, so small Evan cupped him entirely in one hand. That David.
Heather waits until a sliver of doorway is left open, then says, ‘Leave it. Let the morning in.’
It’s an odd thing to say and Evan fears the vast darkness of discovery. He comes back in the house, ready for that fight, clenched, hot to deliver the killer line about how she’s thrown a beach towel over the moral high ground, even though it’s his right to spend some time warming in the sun.
But Heather’s face is just her face – older than he cares for, calm. He realises she just wants to let in the warm morning light and so pretends he’s leapt back for a kiss. Her lips taste comfortable, of jam and butter.
Later, he meets up with Brooke on Hampstead Heath, among a crowd gathering to watch the sky. There is anonymity here, safety in numbers. Brooke leans into him, breasts mashing against his chest. And he forgives her for being so very gee whiz American when she says, ‘Hell, this is the place to be!’
Brooke is one of those rich girls who lives in apartment buildings with obsequious, uniformed attendants to open the doors. She slicks these credentials with a wardrobe of faux vintage dresses, an ever-present camera, a reasonable following on Pinterest.
She has brought a wicker hamper stuffed with two bottles of red, various jars of pickles and an enormous pork pie. She thinks this is very English, and Evan knows not to disagree, pleasing himself with the thought that he can still seduce a woman with such even, white teeth.
He has told his therapist that Heather’s teeth have changed since they met. They show wear, a recession of gums. It makes him feel old, he confides. More than that, old and vulnerable, her teeth and her slow-burn smile. And then, of course, David, who shakes and drools and has what they called a reluctant brain. Evan has used the word ‘deserve’ in more than one session.
They work through one bottle, him mostly, then start on the other. The afternoon grows slow and fat as a bluebottle, there’s a dark pinkness to the light. Word goes round, the eclipse will come soon. There is a flex in the mood, an expectancy.
Brooke tells him a story. How she went to Cape Canaveral with her father to see a rocket launch: ‘But I was at that age, you know, and got way too excited. Began to think that it would be awful, that I wouldn’t be able to see, or it would be too bright or the ground shaking might scare me.
‘So when they started the countdown and the engines lit, I took off back to the car and hid behind it with my hands over my ears and my eyes closed. I still heard the roar, felt the ground shake. But I still didn’t look – I needed to pretend I hadn’t got it all wrong, after all.’
Evan listens, thinking he would give anything to take David, who loves spaceships and the moon and the luminescent stars Evan painted above his bed, to see a rocket launch. He would not worry about disappointment, not David. His wandering eyes would fix on the rocket fire, he would shriek with pleasure at the decadent, thunderous noise. David would watch, neck craning, until there was nothing left to see.
The moon begins its sidle across the sun. Light dips and the air grows cold. Among the crowd appear pinhole projects, eclipse glasses, even a welder’s mask or two. Everyone knows that looking straight at the sun destroys your eyes. It is only at this point that Evan remembers he has brought nothing with him to watch the spectacle. He has that familiar feeling of being alone, of somehow missing the point.
Instead he watches Brooke as the world darkens, thinking of the first time they had sex. He got her to sit on him, facing away. As she groaned and moaned, he saw a mole between the cleft of her buttocks, with a thick, black hair growing out. It had sickened him, that suddenness of imperfection, but he had closed his eyes and carried on anyway.
With Heather, all those years ago in that cold, damp-walled student house, they had lain awake afterwards, silent and amazed. He willed himself not to fall asleep that night, feeling her steady heartbeat ticking against the palm of his hand.
On Hampstead Heath the crowd hushes itself. At the very darkest point, Evan can’t resist the urge any longer and looks up to the moment of eclipse, squinting at the halo of sun-fire ringing a black moon. People begin to clap and he joins in, slowly, appreciating the sting it makes in his hands.
He wonders then if Heather has taken David outside and let him watch the event through the special glasses Evan ordered from the internet. Three pairs. He can almost feel the shiver of David’s body as the sun hides, then his cry when it appears again.
That evening, after he has left Brooke in bed (but still carrying the taste of her in his mouth) he writes in his magazine article that, from what he has observed, the world looks better in the shadows of an eclipse – even if it is in a sad, somehow sterile, way.
KM ELKES is an author and journalist from Bristol, UK. Since starting to write fiction seriously in 2011 he has won the 2013 Fish Publishing flash prize, been shortlisted twice for the Bridport Prize and won the Aesthetica Creative Writing Award 2014. He has also won the 2014 Prolitzer Prize and wrote a winning entry for the Labello Press International Prize 2015. His work has been published in various anthologies and won prizes at Words with JAM, Momaya Review, Lightship Publishing and Accenti in Canada. He is working on his first short fiction collection.
You can find him on Twitter @mysmalltales