Dark Side of the Light




I am happy to offer readers my short story, "Dark Side of the Light," found in the 2017 anthology, Day of the Dark: Stories of Eclipse, edited by Kaye George.

Dark Side of the Light 

 Carol L. Wright


When Joanne woke up, it was still dark. She rolled over. Sure enough, Eric still wasn’t home. She would have been madder about him ruining her big announcement the evening before if she didn’t have to rush to the bathroom with an urgent need to pee.

Before she got back under the covers, the nausea hit. The nurse said to keep some crackers on the nightstand to nibble first thing in the morning. She should get some at the store today. Only another month or so of this. That was something, at least.

She closed her eyes for what she thought was just a moment or two, then awoke with a start when she realized Eric was there, sitting on the side of the bed in the gathering dawn with a weird smile on his face.

“Hey,” she said, lifting herself up on her elbows. “You made it home.”

“And I brought you something,” Eric said, whipping a huge bundle of flowers from behind his back.

Guilt flowers, Joanne thought.

As if he could read her mind, Eric said, “They’re an apology for all the hours I’ve been putting in at work lately.”

She took the flowers and pressed them to her face. “Where did you get them at this hour? What time is it, anyway?”

“About quarter to six. I got them at the all-night grocer. Three bouquets. I spared no expense.”

“I’d say you shouldn’t have, but considering all the evenings you’ve left me alone, I’ll accept them.”

“Sorry, babe. Just a lot going on at work.”

“Such as?” she asked, knowing that he couldn’t and wouldn’t say. Eric’s work at NASA was classified, and he took its secrecy very seriously. “I mean,” she continued, “it’s not like you’re about to send up a space shuttle or anything.”

Eric worked with CNEOS at the JPL. She hated that the government used acronyms for everything. How was anyone supposed to know what they were doing? Maybe, she thought, that’s the point.

“Oh, you know—with the eclipse and all. Hey—I saw the table still set for last night’s dinner,” he said, changing the subject. “It looks like you went to a lot of trouble. Really sorry, babe.”

Joanne went from pleased to pissed. She had gone to a lot of trouble. Candles, champagne, her grandmother’s good china, and Eric’s favorite recipe—all for the big reveal. She had big news, and she wanted to tell him in just the right way.

At least Eric looked really sorry.

“I’ve decided to take the day off,” he said.

“Not to sleep, I hope. If you sleep all day, you’ll be jet-lagged for the rest of the week.”

“Nah. I caught a cat nap in the lounge. I’m okay. I want to spend the whole day with you.” He hesitated. “We can watch the eclipse together.”

That will work out well, Joanne reasoned. Now I’ll have the whole day to figure out the best way to make my big announcement. Let me see . . .

As he leaned in for a kiss, his phone chirped. He gave her a quick peck, checked his text, frowned, and stuffed the phone back in his pocket.

She thought about popping the champagne cork to make him a mimosa, and maybe Eggs Benedict. Ugh. The thought of eggs sent her stomach roiling.

“C’mon,” Eric said. “The sun is rising, and it’s going to be another perfect day in Southern California out there.” He coughed. “Let’s make the most of it. We can do anything you want to do. Maybe something we’ve put off doing for a long time, and now have the perfect day to do it.”

Yeah, Joanne thought. I have just that kind of thing that I’m busy doing right now. She grinned at her own cleverness.

“Okay—what’s the joke?” Eric said, looking at her sideways.

“Aren’t you tired?” she said, hoping to distract him from her grin.

“Sure, a little, but I’ve been neglecting you. Today, I’m all yours. I don’t want to waste a minute of it.”

“Well, I was going to do a little online shopping today,” Joanne said, drawing out the words. Maybe he would browse with her, and once he saw what she was shopping for, she’d have a perfect way to break the news.

“Online shopping?” His shoulders slumped and he shook his head. Then he glanced up with a look of resolve. “Okay. If that’s what will make you happy, feel free. And the sky’s the limit. Spend anything you want—a one-day-only offer. Anything you want to order is fine with me.”

”Okaaay,” Joanne said, wondering what happened to her penny-pinching husband. “It really is what I want to do. Let’s browse together.”

“You go ahead. While you’re shopping, I’ll give my mom a call. It’s later back East. Then after we’re both done, we can do something together.”

No, no. That’s not the way this is supposed to work at all. But Eric had already pulled out his cell and pressed his mother’s speed dial number. He walked away with his phone to his ear.

“But . . .” she called after him. He was gone. There was no use.

Joanne got dressed and looked in the mirror. Was she imagining it, or were her boobs a little rounder? There ought to be some compensation for the soreness. Except for the morning sickness with which she currently had a love/hate relationship, there was no obvious sign of pregnancy. Nothing to indicate that, after seven years of marriage, she and Eric were at last expecting the child they both prayed for but, for unknown reasons, had been unable to conceive.

When her cycle was late, she hadn’t wanted to get his hopes up—especially with the long hours he’d been working. Even after the home test, she didn’t dare tell him. But yesterday she had finally seen a doctor. She was eight weeks along, and she’d seen the tiny heartbeat on the ultrasound. She knew Eric would be over the moon when she told him. Everything had to be perfect.

She went to the kitchen to put the flowers in a vase. When Eric found her there, she looked up at him as brightly as she could.

“How’s your mom?”

“Okay. I guess I woke her. I forget she sleeps in now that she’s retired.”

“You didn’t talk long.”

“No,” he said. “I just told her that I loved her, and she said the same. Sends love to you as well.”

Joanne rolled her eyes. “Sure she did.” She knew she’d caught him in a lie. His mother had never taken a shine to her, and the long years without producing grandchildren only cemented her dislike. But that didn’t matter. Eric had chosen her. Enough said.

Eric took her in his arms. “Well, she would have sent her love if she had any idea how wonderful you are.”

“Wow. Flowers and flattery. You ought to pull all-nighters more often if you come home all romantic.”

She got the kiss she had been waiting for, and it gave her tingles from her lips to her bare feet.

“So what shall we do this morning?” she asked, pushing her sore breasts slightly away from his chest.

“I thought maybe we could go to the lake. Maybe rent a boat and do a little fishing, and watch the eclipse without a lot of trees in the way.

Fishing. That’s his idea of a perfect day, not mine. She tried to imagine being out on the lake, in the hot sun, with the boat rocking. Nausea threatened again.

“It’s what we did on our first date, remember?” he said.

“No,” she said, punching him in the arm. “We went on a party boat at sunset with half the graduating class.”

“Well, a bunch of us were fishing off the stern, and I remember a brown-eyed girl, who looked a lot like you, flirting with me.”

She laughed. She was flirting. No reason to pretend otherwise. He was a hunk then, and had only improved with age—if your definition of hunk was a nerdy, bespectacled brainiac with a ready smile and a good sense of humor. Yeah. Definitely a hunk. His kid is going to be as handsome as he is.

His phone chirped again. He checked the text and frowned.

“Something wrong?”

“Nothing you need to worry about,” Eric said, pocketing his cell and pasting on a smile. He stared at the wall for a moment. He seemed so intent on doing something memorable today.

He has no idea how memorable it’s going to be, she thought, if I can just figure out how to tell him. I hate keeping him in the dark.

“Well, how about I take you out to an early breakfast, and we can figure it out from there,” he said.

Her stomach felt a bit better. “Sure. Why not?”

#

On the way to their favorite diner, Eric kept looking at the sky. Joanne stared up through the tinted windshield, but couldn’t guess what had captured his attention. So far, it was just a summer sky. The few clouds were high and thin, and the bright morning sun promised another hot day. The earth was parched from a summer dry spell, and the fire danger was high according to the sign outside the firehouse.

“The eclipse hasn’t started, has it?”

“No, it won’t . . . uh . . . start until about nine a.m. It will look almost full here around ten-fifteen.”

Joanne remembered seeing a nearly total eclipse years before. Street lights came on and the birds chirped their evening songs. “But you keep looking at the sky. Expecting aliens to invade or something?”

Eric’s reaction wasn’t what she expected. “Why would you say that?”

“A joke,” she said, holding up both hands as if defending herself from attack.

“Sorry I snapped,” he said. “I’ve just got this headache.”

“Probably from lack of sleep,” Joanne suggested.

After that, she noticed him forcing himself to look anywhere but the sky. Science nerds can be so weird.

When they entered the diner, she nearly gagged on the strong stench. “What’s that smell? Did they burn the coffee?” she said, covering her nose.

“Smells the same as always,” Eric said.

She looked at him to be sure he wasn’t joking. Not that she planned to drink the coffee anyway, but the smell took away any appetite she had.

Eric ordered the biggest breakfast the diner offered: French toast, three eggs, hash browns, a grilled blueberry muffin, bacon and sausage. Then he added a stack of pancakes, and in addition to his black coffee, a large orange juice and a hot chocolate with whipped cream.

“I know you like a big breakfast, honey, but don’t you think you’re overdoing it a bit? You might regret all those calories.”

“Nope. From now on, I regret nothing,” he said as he poured syrup over nearly the entire mess.

Joanne looked away. She’d ordered a dry English muffin with a side of peanut butter and a decaf ginger tea. She remembered the nurse saying that protein was supposed to help, but there was no way she could face an egg today.

His cell chirped again. Eric did the same thing he’d been doing all day: checked the text, frowned, then put the phone back in his pocket.

“What’s with all the texts?”

“Oh, it’s nothing. Just work.”

He excused himself to go to the bathroom, leaving Joanne to ponder his odd behavior. He was hiding something. He didn’t want to talk about the messages, but it wasn’t the same kind of reluctance he usually had about discussing work. Something was different. If it weren’t for that kiss this morning, and the flowers, and the . . .

Wait! she thought. These could be the signs of a guilty conscience all right—but not about staying overnight at work. Exactly where was he all night?

She had heard the tales before. Suddenly a husband gets romantic, but it’s because he’s been flirting—or worse—with another woman. There were plenty of women at work. Smart women—smarter than her, Joanne knew. Maybe she wasn’t intelligent enough to keep him happy.

Could it be? Could he be attracted to someone else? Could he even be having an affair?

Then she thought about the baby. Maybe if I’d told him already, he wouldn’t have been interested in another woman. Maybe things wouldn’t have gone this far—however far that is.

Her mind raced. This was terrible. Would he ask for a divorce? Would their child grow up in a broken home? That was not the fairy tale they had dreamed of.

If she had to raise this child alone, how could she do it? She hadn’t had a full-time job since being laid off at Sears. She didn’t make enough money to support herself. And even with Eric’s government job, they barely had enough for the little luxuries. She’d never be able to make it on child support alone. Where could they live? This was terrible!

Eric returned to the table, and Joanne felt tears fill her eyes.

“What’s wrong?” Eric asked, signaling the server for a refill of his coffee.

“You tell me,” Joanne said, sticking out her chin. She would be brave. She was strong. She had to be. She was going to be a mother.

Eric looked uncomfortable. “What have you heard?”

“Heard? Nothing. But I’m not a complete idiot, no matter what you might think. I can read the signs.”

He glanced out the window. “What signs?”

“All of them,” she said, giving him her best attempt at a hairy eyeball.

The goddamn cell chirped again.

“I’m sorry,” he said after checking the text. “I have to make a call.”

He took his phone and walked away from the table and right out the door. He wanted privacy. It must be her.

She decided to follow. He stood just outside with his back to the front door. Cracking the diner door open, she listened to Eric’s side of the conversation.

“No, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” he said. A long pause followed. “It might be hard for her to accept, but it’s just too late.”

Too late for what? To repair our marriage? She felt new tears sting her eyes.           

Eric turned, and Joanne let the door close between them. She bolted back to their table in time to prevent the busboy from clearing their plates. Eric still had half of his breakfast to consume.

Her fears confirmed, Joanne rethought the romantic announcement of her pregnancy. I won’t tell him at all. That’ll serve him right. I’ll move to another state and he’ll never meet his child. I won’t let that creep anywhere near my baby. How could he do this to me?

Then she thought about her baby growing up without a father. She knew that wasn’t ideal either. But to grow up with a cheating father—and maybe a floozy step-mother? No. Intolerable.

It was a few minutes before Eric returned to the table. His breakfast looked soggy and congealed. It was all Joanne could do to keep from sweeping it off the table and into his lap.

“So, what was that all about?” she said, hoping her voice dripped with venom.

“Something at work.”

That’s all the explanation I get? Oh—I guess he’s waiting for just the right moment to dump me like a sack of garbage. And to think that I was waiting for the right moment to give him the best news of his life. Well, you can forget that, buster.

“I don’t think I want to go out today,” Joanne said, folding her napkin. “I have things I need to do at home.” Like find a good lawyer.

Eric looked up. His eyes betrayed disappointment. “Well, if you’d really rather. I guess we can see the eclipse from there, but it would be better without so many trees around.”

“Well, that’s what I want.”

She refused to look at him, let alone speak to him, on the ride home.

#

“It’s still a couple of hours before the eclipse begins. I’m going to call Roger. He probably hasn’t left for work yet,” Eric said as they entered the house.

Joanne couldn’t believe her ears. “Your brother, Roger?” Couldn’t you come up with a better excuse than that? You haven’t spoken to your brother in six years, and now you expect me to believe you’re going to call him for no reason?

“Yeah. I just think it’s time, you know?”

“Whatever.”

Joanne went to their room, and pulled out her own cell. Who did she know who would know a good divorce lawyer? Gloria, of course. She’d been divorced twice and was living comfortably on her former husbands’ money. And, fortunately for Joanne, she was an early riser.

“Oh no, honey,” Gloria said when she heard why Joanne called.

“No—you don’t know a good lawyer?” Joanne asked.

“Oh, of course I do. I know more than one, but I’m just sorry that’s something you need. I never would have guessed it of Eric. How long have you two been married?”

“Seven years.”

“Oh—well, that’s one of the dangerous years.”

Gloria gave her three lawyers’ names and their phone numbers. “They’re the best in town. Make sure you meet with them all so Eric can’t get any of them to represent him. Conflict of interest, you know. But make sure you hire the first name. She’s the one I use.”

“I would never have thought of that. Anything else I need to know?”

“It would be great if you could get proof of infidelity. I hired a PI, but sometimes you can find things on your own, like motel charges on the credit card—that kind of thing.”

“Okay. Thanks, Gloria. It sounds like it’s going to be expensive.”

“Maybe, but I’m living proof that it’s worth it in the long run.”

After hanging up, Joanne knew where she had to start. She had to get a look at that cell phone and find out who the bimbo was.

Eric joined her in the bedroom looking ashen. “Well, that was tough,” he said. “At first, Steph couldn’t get Roger to come to the phone. Then when he did, he wouldn’t talk. He just said, ‘You called. Just tell me what you have to say.’”

“So you really called Roger?”

“Yeah. I said I was.” He rubbed his temples. “Got any aspirin?”

“In the medicine cabinet. And what did you expect, calling out of the blue like that?” she snapped, annoyed that he had made her feel sorry for him.

Eric shook his head. “Yeah well, it’s done.” He looked at his phone and put it in his pocket.

How can I get a look at that phone? Joanne thought about it. There was only one thing that came to mind.

“I’ve changed my mind. Let’s go to the lake.”

Eric’s face brightened. “Really? Great. I’ll pack a cooler.”

“Don’t forget your bathing suit,” Joanne called after him.

“Oh right,” he said, returning to the bedroom and pulling it out of a drawer. “I’ll be ready in ten minutes. I have special glasses for us to use.” He gave her a serious look. “This is going to be fun.”

Oh yeah. Tons of fun.

#

The trip took more than half an hour, but Eric didn’t waste any time. Moments after arriving, he had stripped down to his swim trunks and t-shirt, locking his clothes in the car. As he spread a blanket on the sand of the nearly deserted beach, Joanne told him she was going to the bath house to change, but instead she went to the parking lot.

His phone was in his pants pocket. She turned it on and was glad, despite his penchant for secrets, that he didn’t use the thumbprint recognition lock that came with the phone. She easily guessed his swipe pattern on the number pad—a lower-case “e”. She was in.

She scrolled through the texts. The most recent ones were from “Driscoll.” She tried to remember if Eric had ever mentioned her. She opened the conversation.

Text from Driscoll at 5:46 am: “Procedure failure confirmed. Sorry.”

That doesn’t sound too sexy

Text from Driscoll 6:14 am: “No other options available. Time now very short.”

Options for what? Sounds kind of dire.

Text from Driscoll at 6:58 am: “Dr. Steinmetz agrees our assessment. Wants to discuss possible last ditch approach.”

Text from Driscoll at 7:10 am: “Please call me.”

This was while we were at the diner. It must have been this Driscoll person that he called. What did he say again? Something about it being too late. Too late for what?

Then it hit her. These texts weren’t from some girlfriend, nor were they about some illicit attraction. They were talking about something medical. Driscoll must be a nurse or a PA or something who works for this doctor Steinmetz. Since when has Eric been going to a Doctor Steinmetz?

She used the phone’s browser to check on a doctor by that name in the area. ­She found several with a variety of specialties, but the only one that seemed to fit the texts was a neurosurgeon.

Oh no! Eric has a brain aneurysm. They tried some procedure, but it didn’t work. He’s going to die.

Just moments before she was imagining the satisfaction of murdering him, but now, discovering he was dying left her sobbing and gasping for breath.

It all made sense now. Wanting to spend a whole day with her. Calling his mother—and his estranged brother. Wanting to spend time at the lake while he could still enjoy it. The headache. Even eating like there was literally no tomorrow.

And what had she done but make it hard on him to spend one of his last days the way he wanted to.

Why hadn’t he told her? They could have gone through this together. She could have helped him. He didn’t have to keep her in the dark. But she would act as if she didn’t know, since that was how he wanted it.

He didn’t even know yet that he was going to be a father. Forget the romantic scene. She had to tell him now.

She locked the car and raced back to the beach, hoping to find Eric on the shore and not somewhere in the lake. He was standing near the water, staring at the sky through some strange dark glasses.

She came up behind him, focusing on where he was looking, straining to figure out what fascinated him so. It looked like the moon was up during the day—only brighter than usual. Almost like a second sun. Must be some kind of Supermoon or something. No wonder a science nerd would be interested.

She put her hand on his shoulder. “Darling, come with me. There’s something I need to tell you.”

Eric took off his glasses and gave her a quizzical look, but followed her to a picnic table in the shade. He blinked several times while his eyes adjusted to the light. They sat opposite each other, and Joanne took his hands in hers.

“I’ve been trying to find the perfect time to tell you this,” she began. “I’m two months pregnant. You’re going to be a father.”

Eric gasped. “You’re . . . you’re pregnant?” He burst into tears. “After all this time you’re pregnant now?”

Joanne hadn’t seen him cry since before they were married when his father died. “I know. It’s a miracle.”

And for the first time, she realized that it was more than the fulfillment of their mutual dream. This child was a way for her to hold onto the husband she loved, even after he was gone. She would be sure that the baby learned everything about its father so that it never felt it didn’t have a dad.

As soon as Eric gained control of his emotions, he lost it again. It took several tries for him to stop his tears. Joanne waited, wondering whether he would share his sad news with her.

“Do you know if it’s a boy or a girl?” he asked.

“No. It’s too early to know,” she said. “But I hope it’s a boy who will grow up to be like you.”

Eric struggled to maintain his control. The sun on the beach had grown brighter, and the sand look electrified. Even in the shade, it was hot. Eric looked up at the sky, but Joanne held her gaze on him. He looked healthy—well a bit pale from not getting much sun this summer, but still, no one would guess he had an aneurysm.

“Tell me what you’re thinking,” Joanne prompted, hoping he’d let her in on his dark secret.

“That’s classified,” he said with a smirk.

“Does that really matter now?”

Eric looked at her and sighed. “Perhaps not,” he admitted. “You seem to have an inkling anyway.”

Joanne nodded. “Go on.”

“Well my work at the Jet Propulsion Lab is in the Center for Near Earth Object Studies. In a nutshell, we look for things flying around in space in Earth’s neighborhood.”

Joanne had no idea where he was going with this.

“Most of these objects, comets, asteroids, and the like, are harmless to the Earth, but they can offer us information on the formation of the universe.” Eric became more animated as he spoke.

Joanne smiled. He really loves his work.

“The gravitational pull of other bodies in space affect orbits of these Near Earth Objects, and if something happens to one of them that changes its gravitational pull, it affects the others as well. Am I going too fast?”

“No. I get it. But I wanted to know about your . . . headache.”

“I’m getting to that.” Eric said. “Our solar system is pretty stable. Our sun is too small to be at risk of ever going nova, and our planets are too far apart to affect each other’s orbits.”

“So . . . ?”

“But these ‘NEOs’ as we call them, we theorize that some don’t just stay within our solar system. They travel to other parts of the universe where other forces can affect their trajectories in ways we can’t predict. Okay so far?”

“Yes, but what does that have to do . . .”

“So, there are lots of comets and asteroids flying around. Some we know about and can predict. Others we can’t. When that happens, if it looks like an Earth impact is imminent, we do what we can to avoid a collision, but our science isn’t there yet. We can’t change physics no matter how many late nights we spend trying to.” He looked into Joanne’s eyes as if asking, “Do you understand?”

Joanne was flummoxed. She had to take control of this conversation. “What does this have to do with you seeing a doctor?”

“What doctor?”

“Doctor Steinmetz. I saw the name on your phone in a message from somebody named Driscoll.”

Eric rolled his eyes. “Larry Driscoll is a colleague. Doctor Steinmetz is in another division at JPL. We consult with her from time to time on these things.”

“No, no. This Driscoll performed a procedure and told you there wasn’t anything left to do. Then Doctor Steinmetz wanted to talk to you about another possible treatment. You don’t have to hide it from me anymore. I saw the texts.”

“Okay, but what you don’t know . . . here, put these on.” Eric handed her the glasses. “Now look.” Eric pointed at the sky.

Joanne looked up. The moon had doubled in size and brightness. “What’s happening to the moon? Is it falling out of the sky?”

“It’s not the moon,” Eric said. “It’s bigger.”

Joanne looked from Eric to the object, and back to Eric. “Is it going to hit us?”

Eric looked at his hands.

She stood, not wanting to believe what she now knew to be true. “Is it going to destroy us?” She so wanted to hear that everything was going to be okay, but Eric said nothing. She felt dizzy and sat down. “Why don’t people know about this?”

“What’s the point? Let people enjoy their day. Go to their eclipse parties. There’s nothing they can do to get away from it. Nothing to be gained by sending the public into a panic.” He swallowed hard. “Do you really want the last hours of humanity on Earth to be consumed with killing, looting, and suicides?”

“Or maybe prayer,” Joanne said.

The heat from the approaching object intensified. It looked larger than the sun.

“It’s coming fast, isn’t it? We won’t be here to see the eclipse.” She felt nauseated and knew it wasn’t morning sickness.

Eric shrugged. “It doesn’t matter anymore.”

“But the baby . . .” Joanne choked on the words and covered her belly with both hands.

“Will go with us,” Eric said. “We’ll all go together.”

“It’s not fair. Just when we were about to have a family, everything ends? It’s not right.”

“It doesn’t matter anymore,” he repeated.

“What will it be like?” she asked, her head throbbing.

“The heat will become more intense. We’ll all pass out long before impact.”

Joanne felt goosebumps despite the rising temperature. “Is this what it means to go into the light?”

Eric thought about his answer. “For us it is. It’s what I came here to see.”

Leaning on each other, they returned to the beach, staggering across the searing sand to their blanket. It was getting hotter by the second, and too bright to keep their eyes open even with the dark glasses.

They lay beside each other on the blanket, and she felt Eric kiss her. She reached for him, and they embraced as the fireball filled the sky.

 

 

 

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