Never look directly at an eclipse. It might damage more than just your eyes…
Since we’re celebrating an eclipse today, I decided to post a short story that has been floating around in my head for a few years. I think I channeled M. Night Shymalan on this one. Feel free to read, enjoy, and share!
M. B. Weston
Never look directly at an eclipse. It might damage more than just your eyes. This thought and sickening regret that accompanied it always swirled around my head each time I entered the Mabry Psychiatric Hospital to visit my younger sister. Selena looked directly into a total eclipse eight years ago. It destroyed her and nearly broke me.
The sharp tapping of my heels against the dated terrazzo floors echoed down the sterile white asylum hall in steady rhythm. The muscles in my right hip started to ache, and jabbing pain gnawed at my right temple. The accident that caused them occurred five years ago today. My body remembered it more than I wanted to. The day after the accident, they locked Selena away in this awful place. I never argued with their decision. Something, either Selena’s mind or her body, already imprisoned her. Moving her here simply changed her living quarters.
My husband, Mark, noticed me favoring my right side and stepped closer to me. He and I both suspected something psychosomatic caused at least part of my pain. Too often, it occurred when something triggered thoughts about her. I grasped his hand, letting him bear some of my weight, as we approached the door to her room. I forced my emotions into an imaginary box in a hidden part of my mind. Without that silly box, I would have cracked long ago the same way my mom did. Unfortunately, since the eclipse I had forced my feelings into that box so often that they sometimes stayed there.
We reached her door. I took a deep breath, gathering my strength, as Mark opened it. The door’s creak rippled from my heart to my stomach. Just once, I wanted to have a normal conversation with my only living blood relative.
Mark’s protective hand led me inside. Selena sat in a reclining chair next to the window, involved in an intense conversation. The little girl who used to insist on keeping her appearance immaculate now sat disheveled with her messy, raven-colored hair and misaligned bathrobe. Lack of sun turned her face ashen, almost translucent, making her childhood freckles disappear.
Selena continued her conversation, immune to our presence. “Thank you, Nurse Snyder,” she said. She flashed a lopsided smile—the one I often remembered her giving me when she wanted to get out of doing something.
If Nurse Snyder was actually in the room, I would have giggled at Selena’s cute manipulative tactic. The room was empty, however, except for me and Mark—and Selena, of course, but I suspected she wasn’t actually here today.
After the eclipse, Selena consistently held conversations with unseen people. She even insisted that a little boy had moved into the house with us. “He likes the swing out back,” she often said. Her visions stretched beyond just people. Three months before we put her at Mabry’s, she claimed “the ground swallowed up” a house a few blocks away from us. The convincing detail and intensity Selena poured into her one-sided conversations and stories would frighten most people. Mark grew used to it. I usually kept myself in android-mode: calm, unaffected, emotionless.
Selena’s grey-blue eyes, once bright like cobalt, gazed at the wall next to her bed. I hated the wall. She had drawn a few pictures on it, usually of our old house with tree and the swing. She also written the word eclips, without the e, across it. The little girl who once placed first in the statewide spelling bee couldn’t even spell eclipse, even though I had corrected her several times.
Eclipse. I hate the word. My hometown of Seffner, FL fell directly in the United States’ last total eclipse’s path of totality. I was seventeen at the time. Selena was eight. We huddled next to Mom in the county park along with the hundreds of others waiting to experience the rare phenomena. We somehow kept little Selena corralled for two hours as we watched the moon pass in front of the sun.
“Honey, don’t look directly at it,” my mom kept saying. “You’ll burn your eyes. Use your glasses.”
“I can’t use them, Mommy,” she said. “They aggravate the cut on my nose.”
Selena used to be so bright. What eight-year-old used the term aggravate? She was also stubborn and refused to heed Mom’s pleas.
The noisy crowd around us quieted as the moon closed in on the sun. The sky darkened, much as it does at twilight. Selena ignored it and instead ran around the two of us, chasing a bee.
“Selena, stop!” I snapped. “I don’t want to use my pen.” I was, and still am, deathly allergic to bee stings, and I carried my EpiPen everywhere. I had no desire to miss the eclipse because my sister angered one of the little buzzers.
My mom nudged my arm. “Jan, it’s happening.” The sky continued to darken into night. The confused crickets even began their evening chirps. The vibrant reds and purples of sunset that usually stick to the west surrounded the horizon.
We took off our eclipse glasses just as the black moon cloaked the sun. The sun’s pulsing orange glow surrounded it. Darkness enveloped us, and I saw actual stars in the night-like sky.
A nearby buzz like a jolt of electricity took me by surprise. I looked down and saw my normally wiggly sister standing motionless, her arms straight, stuck to her sides. “Selena,” I said.
She remained rigid. Her usually vivacious, expressive blue eyes stayed locked on the moon and sun in a dead gaze. I nudged her shoulder. It felt like I was trying to push a statue. No one else noticed. Even after the moon started to pass away from the sun, my sister’s body remained stiff.
Night disappeared. Light returned. The awed crowd turned rambunctious once again. I looked down. Selena blinked a few times, as though she had come out of a trance. She looked around the park.
“Where did they go?” she whispered.
At the time, I thought the question odd. No one had left the park.
Panic transformed her little voice. “Mommy!” she screamed. “Jan!”
“We’re here,” we both said.
I took her hand in mine. She wriggled out of my grip and raced down the sidewalk crying out for both of us.
We chased her down, and it took us ten minutes to convince her we were standing right next to her.
For the next three years, she drifted in and out of reality. Sometimes the episodes lasted only minutes. Other times, we waited days. The helplessness of hearing my baby sister screaming my name in panic, refusing to believe I stood next to her wrenched out a part of me with each instance. I chose to turn it off. I stopped crying a year after she entered Mabry’s.
Selena, now sixteen, should have been in high school. Instead she remained locked inside an institution staring at her wall art. She touched an undecorated part of the wall. She seemed to trace unseen letters with her finger. I already knew what they would spell. E-C-L-I-P-S. No E. “Splice,” she said. I never knew why, but every so often, she would point to one of the misspelled eclips’s on her wall and say that word instead.
She continued to stare at the wall with no knowledge of our presence.
I sat next to her and touched her arm. I spoke with a soft, smooth voice. “Selena?” Frightening her out of a trance created horrible consequences.
Selena blinked a few times and turned to me. Her eyes focused on mine. “You keep changing your hair.”
“What do you mean I changed my hair?” I asked, glad she finally noticed us. For years, I kept my chestnut-colored hair long and usually wore it in a ponytail.
“It was short when you visited yesterday.” She moved her hands across her lower neckline to illustrate my hair length.
I spent all of yesterday at work but kept that to myself. When I contradicted her, she would launch into such horrendous detail about my clothing and what I said when I supposedly visited that I often doubted my own memories. Even Mark didn’t know that I more than once wondered if I was actually the crazy one.
“Keep it long,” Selena said. “Doesn’t look good short.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said. “How’s it going?”
Selena grabbed my hand and told me a story about a beautiful hawk that landed on a tree outside her window earlier in the morning. This was the little girl I remembered. This was my sister. The engaging, outgoing child who loved every part of life and lived to share it. Moments like these eclipsed the darker times, I told myself. They were rare—like an eclipse—but they helped block out my sister’s glaring illness.
Selena finished her story and squeezed my hand. Her grin faded. “Jan, why can’t you see me?”
The words stabbed me and threatened to break through my protective walls. They were the last words she screamed before the accident. I took her face in my hands. “I do see you, honey. I see you as often as I can.”
She shook her head. “Not yet.” She turned away from me and stared at the wall with catatonic eyes. “Not yet. Please see me, Jan.”
My hand pressed into my hip out of instinct. Her sweet, eleven-year-old voice yelling those words five years ago to the day still echoed in my mind. Memories of the accident took hold.
Back then, I studied nursing at USF. Mom and I took turns watching Selena between her work and my classes. I played caregiver that day, washing dishes in the house when I heard Selena shriek outside with the same, panicked yell she made when she couldn’t find us after the eclipse. “Jan! Jan!”
I raced outside, half-hoping to find her truly hurt instead of having an episode. “What is it?” I snapped.
She bolted past me toward the mailbox, waving her arms. “Jan!” She pointed to the swings. “The boy! The boy on the swings! He needs your pen!”
I remember huffing and rolling my eyes, tired of her episodes. I desperately wanted to let her deal with it on her own, except she headed toward the street. We lived at the bottom of one of the few hills in Seffner. Anyone driving over the hill wouldn’t see her until it was too late to stop.
I took off after her. “Selena get out of the road!”
Selena stood in the middle of the street waving her arms. “Jan! Please see me, please!”
I picked her up and tried to drag her out of harm’s way.
“I’m right… here!” I gasped between her struggles free herself. When she was eight, I could control her. At eleven, she overpowered me and wrenched out of my grip.
A car horn blared. I pushed Selena out of the road and tried to escape the oncoming Toyota and the deafening screech of tires. It clipped my right side.
My right hip exploded. My head slammed against the car’s hood. I rolled on the ground. Each heartbeat sent shards of agony through my skull.
In my final consciousness moments, I watched Selena scramble off the ground.
“Jan!” She looked above me. Not at me. “The boy needs your pen! He’s by the swing!”
My vision blurred as Selena reached the swing. She stood in front of the tree, crying. She reached her hand out, touching an invisible person. “You can see me,” she whispered.
Selena faded from view as I blacked out.
A week later, I woke up in a hospital from a medically-induced coma. My mom informed me that she placed Selena at Mabry’s. I remember feeling relieved. The accident left me with a shattered hip and head trauma. I spent a year in rehab learning to walk again. We sold the house in Seffner and moved into a condo in Tampa to be closer to my sister. I tried to rid myself of all emotions after the accident. I might have completely turned robotic in attempt to shut out the pain, if I hadn’t met Mark my last year in college. He brought balance into my life and gave me a stable, neutral pillar to lean on. Mom never found solace. Two years after the accident, the strain broke her, and she died of a heart attack.
“Please see me, Jan.” Selena’s voice brought me back to the present.
I touched her shoulder. “I see you, honey.”
Selena never noticed my touch. She kept staring at the wall. “When will Jan see me?”
Mark touched my arm and nodded at the door. “Let’s go.” He seemed to know when to leave Selena to her episodes. Maybe never knowing her as a normal child helped him stay objective.
I nodded and stood up. One eclipse. She looked at one eclipse. And it destroyed our lives.
Mark placed a tender hand on my shoulder as we walked to the car. He gave me a hug. I savored the warm safety of his embrace. For a few moments, life felt normal. “You okay?” he asked.
I opened the passenger door, trying to keep up my thin façade of composure. “I don’t think I’ll ever be okay.”
He patted my head as I sat in the car. He walked over to the driver’s side and got in. “I need to drop off some papers at the Brandon office,” he said as he bucked his seatbelt. Mark worked in homeowners’ insurance, and his Tampa office had satellites throughout the area.
“Okay,” I mumbled. Brandon, another town in the Tampa area, lay a few miles away from Seffner. I dreaded returning anywhere near my old home, but I figured Brandon was far enough away to avoid any memories.
I stayed quiet during the drive, trying to forget about my sister for the moment.
“Things have been really crazy for insurance out here since that sinkhole three months ago,” Mark said.
“Sinkhole?” I usually ignored the news, and I must have missed anything about a sinkhole.
“Yeah. It swallowed up that one house near where you lived.”
The “swallowed up,” caught my attention. My sister began swearing something swallowed up the house down the street about three months before… I felt my heart pound in my chest. Selena insisted the house had disappeared three months before my accident.
“I need to see the house.”
“The sinkhole house?” asked Mark.
“No, not there.” I already knew which house the sinkhole took. “My house.” If the sinkhole occurred three months ago, then maybe today… My hands trembled.
Without a word, Mark flipped on the blinker and turned toward my old haunting grounds.
My fingers tingled and sweat escaped down my arms with each passing moment. Mark finally pulled onto my street. My hands continued to shake.
We took a turn and I finally saw it a few blocks away: my house. I noticed the backyard swing, and someone—a boy—swung on it.
My sister’s voice rang out in my memories. “The boy likes the swings.”
I unzipped my purse. Would I need what I still kept inside?
“Slow down.” I tried to keep my eyes on the child, but a truck passed between us and the house, impeding my view. After the truck left, I looked back at the swings. The child disappeared.
My heart slowed to a normal rate. My hands stilled. I felt silly for believing I might find something here that would unlock the reason for my sister’s illness.
Mark slowed down just as we reached the house. I took another glance at the swing. It swayed back and forth. I must not have imagined the boy. “Hold on,” I said. I stepped out of the car and watched for a few minutes. No boy. He must have run inside when the truck passed.
I zipped up my purse and let out a long sigh. I returned to the car. “I’ve seen enough. Let’s go.”
Mark nodded and stepped on the accelerator. Before we headed over the hill, I turned around and gave the house one last look.
That’s when I saw it: a blinding glint in the middle of the street. It reminded me of sunlight reflecting off a mirror. I took another glance at the road, and saw… something. The air above the road, directly where I saw the sun’s reflection, moved in a different pattern, kind of like the air rising off a hot roof—except it formed a shape. The shape of a little girl.
“Stop the car!” I unzipped my purse and grabbed my EpiPen as Mark slammed on the brakes. “Do you see it?”
“See what?” said Mark.
I had no time to explain the invisible girl in the middle of the road, seeable only when the sun reflected off her outline. I jumped out even as the car still moved. Another glimmer of light flashed, this time on the grass near the gate. A voice—low, yet audible—whispered in the wind. “Jan! The boy needs your pen!”
“Where is he?” I yelled as I ran to my old home.
“By the swing! He got stung!” I remembered her screaming that five years ago. Now I heard it again.
I raced to the swing. My hip screamed at me as my heels sank into the ground. I saw the child lying on the ground, a hedge hiding his body from the street. He wheezed, trying to breath. I noticed a bee’s fresh stinger imbedded in the center of a pink welt on his neck.
I jabbed my EpiPen into his thigh and screamed “Mark! Call 911!”
Mark hadn’t needed my instruction. He was already on the phone with dispatch.
I looked to my right. Something like bits of reflective dust broke up the sunlight hovered in the exact spot my sister stood five years ago today.
I finally understood Selena’s consistent misspelling of the word eclipse on her wall, and why she constantly read it as splice.
The eclipse spliced her soul. Part of her lived five years in the future, while the rest of her lived in the present.
The protective walls I had constructed for years cracked. My emotions broke their way out of their prison. A quiver started in my fingers and worked its way up to my arms and throat. I hid the crunched up face my mouth made when I cried with my hand. Warm, fresh tears escaped down my cheeks for the first time in years. I reached my hand out toward the glistening light, letting Selena in the past take my hand.
“I see you, honey.”