Total Eclipse of the Sun

Total eclipse. Aurora, Oregon - August 21, 2017

Mama always told me not to look into the sights of the sun
Whoa, but mama that’s where the fun is
-Bruce Springsteen

The day of the eclipse has arrived: August 21, 2017. You’ve planned all year for this rare celestial event, organizing an entire two-week trip to the American Northwest around it. Your bus, which was originally scheduled to leave Portland, Oregon for the Willamette Valley at seven in the morning is now leaving at 5:30 to account for the massive influx of eclipse traffic in the area, so you awake in your Portland hotel room around 3:45 and walk through the city in the cold, dark morning to the pickup location.

Once on the highway you quickly discover that the organizers’ fears were well founded as you find yourself stuck in gridlocked traffic, and you’re thankful that the tour operator chose to alter the itinerary from Salem to Aurora, half the distance from Portland. The trade-off is that you’ll only see 30 seconds of eclipse totality rather than 90 seconds, but you figure that 30 seconds is better than completely missing it while stuck inside a bus on the road.

It takes the bus 90 minutes to drive 22 miles but you finally reach your destination: Aurora Colony Vineyards, a quiet, idyllic place for viewing an eclipse. You have a couple of hours to kill before it begins. In the meantime, your tour operator offers your group a chance to hop back on the bus and drive further south to a school, where you would be able to see 60 seconds of totality instead of 30. Most of the group chooses this option, but you and a few others elect to eschew further time on the road in favor of remaining behind to relax and view the eclipse in the peace and tranquility of the vineyard.

So you grab a blanket and hike up into the vines, scoping out a nice private location to sit and watch.

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The eclipse begins and you don your viewing glasses.

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For a while not much has changed. You can see the moon beginning to cover the sun through the glasses, but when you remove the glasses the sky appears as bright as usual–and will remain so for roughly an hour. The moon’s path across the sun is slow, so you alternate between removing your glasses to take some photos and putting the glasses back on to check the status of the eclipse.

You watch in wonder as a hot air balloon circles the sun, partially jealous of the prime location of its passengers, but also thinking, “They better not block my view.” You’re reminded of the myth of Icarus.

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You take some time to call your wife back home in New Jersey while you wait for the ultimate show. Even with the sun half covered there’s not a noticeable difference in the level of daylight.

Then it starts to get cooler. The farm animals know something is up. They hang out at the barn door, not sure what to make of this, afraid to venture too far from safety. Dogs in the area start barking like crazy.

The air grows even colder and you throw on your jacket as the wind kicks up. The sky begins to darken as if the day is retiring to an early dusk. Mount Hood in the distance has become much more visible in the amber hue of the diminishing light.

Still the air grows colder and it’s suddenly quiet, eerily so. The dogs have stopped barking, the birds no longer chirp. You keep alternating between ‘glasses on’ and ‘glasses off’ as the eclipse approaches totality.

Then it happens.

The others nearby start oohing and ahhing. At first you’re afraid to remove your glasses because of the horror stories you’ve been told about eye damage, despite knowing that it’s safe to remove them during totality. So you glance at other people to make sure their glasses are off and then you throw yours to the ground as you rise to your feet.

You stare awestruck at something out of a science fiction film: a dark circle surrounded by a ring of purple fire, a glowing white diamond at its edge, all cast against a black sky. You are witnessing a total solar eclipse.

Total eclipse. Aurora, Oregon - August 21, 2017

You zoom in with your camera and snap a few quick photos that you know will never do justice to what your eyes are seeing. You let the camera drop to your side, your eyes unable to peel themselves away from the majesty of totality. It’s not until you hear others mention the stars that you finally turn away from the sun and view the rest of the sky, now sprinkled with glowing balls of light at 10:18 in the morning. The hilly rows of vines stretch into the distance under a starry sky.

Then it’s over. All of this has happened in less than 30 seconds.

The diamond at the edge of the eclipsed sun grows brighter and you know it’s time to put your glasses back on. Light returns to the sky almost instantly–but it’s not daylight–instead you’re faced with a strange twilight. You remove the glasses and turn your sights away from the sun and toward the countryside, which now seems to be bathed in a neon glow.

You snap some more photos then sit back and take it all in. You still can’t believe what you just saw and you find yourself wishing for more, somewhat regretting not traveling further south to experience more totality, but also grateful for being among the privileged few humans on Earth to have witnessed a total eclipse of the sun. You wonder what the ancients must have thought when they saw such an event. Did they think the world was ending? That a deity was coming down to strike vengeance upon the wicked?

Gradually, full daylight returns to the valley. You pack up your picnic spread and head back to the winery. The moon will continue to eclipse the sun for another hour or so before it moves away and resumes its eternal dance with the Earth, but the show is essentially over. The phase of totality now feels as if it happened in another life to another version of yourself. Nevertheless, you are hooked. You know that you’ll be chasing the next total eclipse to hit North America in 2024, and perhaps others around the world in the years beyond, just to get that feeling again, that indescribable sensation of existing among the cosmos, if only for a moment.

Quotes from My Novel

To help spread the word about my novel, I’ve decided to begin sharing selected quotes on a weekly basis. Most of these will be in the form of small snippets on my social media feeds, but from time to time I will share graphical passages like the one below, especially for longer quotes that won’t fit in a Twitter post. When I do create a visual passage, I will also share it here, but the smaller snippets will only be posted to my Twitter feed and Facebook page so that I can keep my book-related posts on this blog to a minimum. So, while there will be an uptick in posts about my book, I won’t be neglecting my travel stories and photos. In fact, I am currently working on a post about my visit to the Scottish Highlands.

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The Eyes of Mictlan

The following is an excerpt from my upcoming novel, The Eyes of Mictlan, available now for pre-order at Amazon, releasing on June 8th, 2015.

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Chapter 1: Threshold

Now

The summer sky of southern Mississippi glowed orange, purple, and gold as the sun continued its descent below the western horizon.  Sam Cristo stepped off the only bus leading into or out of the fringe town of Edgewood and wiped a bead of sweat from his brow.  According to the local weather broadcast, which had been blaring through the crackling speakers of the bus driver’s aging radio, the temperature had reached 103 degrees at its peak on this Saturday, though to Sam it felt like twice that.

As the bus made its departure he inhaled a cloud of dust kicked up by the bus tires spinning against the loose dirt road.  Examining his surroundings, Sam realized that no one else had stepped off the bus at this stop.  According to rumor, Edgewood was not the sort of town that people visited, nor were the native citizens likely to ever leave.  At first Sam had wondered why the locals would remain in a place where such terrible things allegedly happened, but he decided that they belonged to the same club as those who remained in homes repeatedly battered by natural disasters like hurricanes.

The bus had dropped him off beside a bench in front of a mini-mart called Ed’s, which apparently doubled as the town bus station.  Sam found it surprising that a bus would even bother to stop in a town so diminutive that it did not appear on any map—he had expected to wind up in a larger town where he would have to ask for directions.  Then again, if the local stories were to be believed, Edgewood frequently defied common convention.  He thought back to the sign he had seen from the bus as it entered the city limits:

Edgewood – Population: 795

Although most of the sign consisted of permanent lettering, the last two digits were the same type of removable numbers one might find at a gas station, as if they were changed on a regular basis.

Sam looked past Ed’s mini-mart toward a saloon called Last Stop, which sat on the mini-mart’s right.  To the left of Ed’s stood a small combination post office/police station with a single patrol car parked in front.  There was no mail truck in sight.  In a town this small, he guessed, the mailman likely walked.  Behind the three buildings Sam saw the green foliage of tall trees bordering an extensive forest.  Small, rancher-style homes lined the rest of the street on either side.  Next to the bench was a road sign with the name Main Street on it.

How original, he thought.

Sam’s hypersensitive skin began to burn under the still potent rays of the falling sun so he decided it was a good time to get inside.  He walked toward the Last Stop, determined to throw back a few cold beers.  Sam wasn’t much of a drinker anymore but tonight was a special occasion.  After all, he had come a long way to track down the murderer of his beloved Jeanette.

 II

 A bevy of clichés riddled the inside of the smoky saloon.  Pictures of the bartender posing with various patrons surrounded a neon Bud sign to the right of the door.  The right wall featured several pictures of youth sports teams dating back five years, while the left wall sported three posters of bikini-clad models.  An oak-finished bar lined the far wall, with a door behind the bar leading to a rear room that Sam guessed was a kitchen, based on the smell of frying meat that permeated the air.  A heavy-set man tended bar, pouring beers for the three people sitting to his right.  He scratched the chin of his unshaven face and turned toward Sam as a beam of light from the open door pierced the darkness of the black-lit saloon.

“Hey buddy, you wanna close that thing?” the bartender said to Sam, pointing toward the door.

“Sorry,” Sam replied as he reached back to close the door while searching for a place to sit.  He found an empty stool between a blonde-haired woman and a scrawny, middle-aged man.  He felt the eyes of everyone in the bar staring him down as he took his seat.

The bartender tugged on his undersized Confederate flag t-shirt in a vain attempt to cover his bulging potbelly.  “What’ll it be?”

“Bud bottle,” Sam replied, choking on smoke emanating from the blonde woman’s Virginia Slim.

“Can I interest you in our hot wings?  House special.”

“No thanks.”

The bartender reached beneath the bar and produced a bottle of Budweiser, which he promptly opened and placed on a cardboard coaster before Sam.  “Two bucks.”

Sam reached into his pocket, pulled out a five-dollar bill, and handed it to the bartender.  The scrawny man to Sam’s left stood up from his stool and walked over to the jukebox, which occupied the wall in front of the restroom.  Moments later, a country song that Sam could not identify began blaring out of the jukebox’s speaker as the man returned to his stool.  Sam hated country music, but in this neck of the woods he was well advised to keep that opinion to himself.  The bartender returned with three single bills and dropped them on the bar in front of Sam.

“Where’s my burger, Phil?” the scrawny man shouted at the bartender.

“Keep your shirt on, Ed, I’m going back to get it now,” Phil answered as he disappeared behind the revolving door into the kitchen.

Sam studied the scrawny man, wondering if he was the same Ed from the Mini-mart next door.

“What’re you lookin’ at?” the man suddenly snapped at Sam.

“Nothing,” he replied, turning away.

Ed slammed down his drink and rose to his feet.  “You callin’ me nothing?”

“Sit down, Ed, he didn’t mean anything by it,” the blonde woman interrupted as she crushed her cigarette into an ashtray.

“I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean anything by it,” Sam echoed.

“You just better watch yourself,” Ed warned as he sat back down.

“I will,” Sam replied, wishing to avoid a physical confrontation.  Ed obviously suffered from a Napoleon complex—the man barely reached Sam’s chest standing up.

“Ed’s always lookin’ for someone to scrap with,” the woman said.

“That’s right!” Ed interjected.  “You just keep your friend away from me, Paula, and I won’t have to hurt ‘im!”

“Thanks,” Sam said to Paula, who was already sucking on a new cigarette.  She was even skinnier than Ed.  Sam thought she might well be anorexic.

Paula leaned over to Sam’s ear.  “No offense, friend, but it was Ed I was really lookin’ out for.  He has a habit of getting his ass kicked when he’s had too much to drink.”

“Well thank you nonetheless.  I don’t want any trouble.”

“So what’s your story?  You don’t look like you’re from around these parts.”

“My name’s Sam.  I’m just passing through.”

“Passing through to where?  This town ain’t exactly the Mecca of civilization.  What brings you to Edgewood?”

“I’m looking for a place.”

“Well that shouldn’t be too hard.  There ain’t exactly a lot of ground to cover in this town.  Maybe I can help.  You lookin’ for someone’s house or something?”

“Not exactly.”

“Well stop beating around the bush, honey.  I can’t help you if you don’t tell me what you’re looking for.”

Sam braced himself.  “Have you ever heard the name Aceldama?”

Paula jumped out of her seat and threw her cigarette down.  “I don’t know what the hell you’re gettin’ yourself into, but I don’t want no part of it!  You stay the hell away from me!”  By the time she finished her sentence she was halfway to the front door.

“I guess she heard of it,” Sam said to no one in particular.

As the door slammed behind Paula, Phil re-emerged from the kitchen carrying a plate containing one cheeseburger and a side of fries.  “Where did Paula run off to?” he asked, setting the plate down in front of Ed.

“Ask our new friend,” Ed replied.

Phil glared at Sam.  “Did you say something to her?”

“I was just asking her if she could help me find this place I’m looking for.”

“And what place would that be?”

“Forget about it,” Sam said.

“Look, buddy, you said something to upset one of my loyal patrons, and I want to know what.”

“Fine.”  Sam knew what was coming next.  It was the sort of reaction to which he had grown accustomed since setting foot in this county.  “Aceldama.”

Phil retrieved a shotgun from under the bar and trained it on Sam’s head.  “You get the hell out of my bar!  And take whatever trouble you’re bringing with you!”

Sam held up his hands.  “Okay, okay.  Sorry to have bothered you.”  He pointed to the three dollars still sitting on the bar.  “Why don’t you keep the change?”

“Now!” Phil demanded, motioning toward the door with his gun.  “And if I were you, I’d leave town.  We don’t take kindly to strangers around here.”

“And the clichés just keep on rolling,” Sam muttered.

Phil pumped the shotgun.  “What did you say?”

The threatening voice masked an inherent fear that Sam saw in the man’s eyes.  He stood up and backed away.  “Nothing.  I’m leaving.”

“Damn right you are!” the burly bartender replied.

Sam briskly walked to the door and opened it.  As he exited the bar he heard the fading sound of Ed’s drunken voice issuing more idle threats.  He closed the door and found himself back out in the summer heat, which, to Sam’s disappointment, had not vanished with the setting sun.  He had hoped to leave the bar a little later when it would have been darker and cooler.  He leaned against the stone exterior of the saloon, contemplating his next move.  There had to be somebody in this shadow of a town who could help him.

 III

 The saloon door suddenly swung open, momentarily spewing the sound of country music into the silence of the bar’s exterior.  Sam whirled around, preparing to defend himself against Ed, Phil, or some other attacker.  Instead he found himself face to face with a smallish old man.  The man jumped back, startled by Sam’s defensive posture.  Sam immediately dropped his guard.

“Jeez, son, you scared the hell out of me!  You could give an old man a heart attack!” the man shouted.

“Sorry.  I thought you were someone else.”

The old man looked Sam over thoughtfully.  “I hear you’re lookin’ for a certain place.”

“That’s right.”

“I sort of overheard your conversation in there,” the man offered.

“That doesn’t seem possible.  I don’t recall seeing you anywhere in the bar.”

“Trust me, son, I was there.  Now do you want my help or not?”

“You’ve heard of Aceldama?”

“Sure have.  Been there myself on occasion.”

“You know, you’re the first person in this area not to bite my head off at the mere mention of the word.”

“I suppose people think if they ignore that which frightens them, it will cease to exist.  In any event, you’re not going to find too many friendly faces around here.  In the past, the appearance of a stranger has often been accompanied by unpleasant events.”

“Then I’ll be sure not to stick around too long.  If you’ll just tell me where I can find Aceldama, I’ll be on my way.”

“Are you sure you really want to find this place?  It’s not something most people go out of their way to seek.  I myself have no desire to ever return.”

“But I’ve come a long way.  Can you help me or not?”

“Well, I don’t know exactly where it is—”

Sam was growing agitated, a combination of the heat and the vitriol he had encountered in the bar.  “What the hell are you playing at?  You just said you’ve been there!”

“What I meant was, I don’t know the exact location—no one does.  I can get you to the general area.  But I wonder if you’re aware of what you’re getting yourself into.”

“Believe me, pal, I’m well aware.  Just point me in the right direction.”

“Very well.  Behind this building is a forest that leads to the river.  Once you get to the shoreline, follow the river South.”

“That’s it?” Sam asked after an awkward pause.

“Pretty much, yeah.”

“How will I know where to find it?”

“Well, son, if you’ve got blood on your hands, Aceldama will find you.”

Sam whirled around.  “What does that mean?”

The old man was nowhere in sight but Sam nearly jumped out of his skin as the man’s voice suddenly boomed from behind: “If you do make it there, you’ll likely wish you never had.”

Sam twisted around toward the source of the voice, finding nothing but empty air.  “Hello? …  Hello?”

The only reply was silence.  After taking a last look around, Sam began to walk toward the back of the saloon and the forest beyond.

 IV

 By the time he reached the forest, the last sliver of daylight had given way to night.  A normal human would have been completely lost in the darkness, but fortunately for Sam, he was anything but normal.  He followed a path that appeared to head generally west toward the river.  The stagnant blackness of the thick forest was periodically interrupted by intermittent shards of pale moonlight.  The cricket-dominated sounds of night creatures flooded the air as Sam trudged along the path, his Nike sneakers crunching the leaves and twigs that lined the ground.  He heard the occasional rustling of foliage as various animals scurried around him, never crossing his path—the creatures kept their distance.

The density of the forest increased as the songs of its cricket population reached deafening decibels.  Loose debris, disturbed by the wind’s acceleration, swirled around, occasionally hitting Sam in the face.  He wondered how such a fierce wind could penetrate this deeply into the woods—it wasn’t natural—then again, nothing about this place was particularly natural.  Perhaps, he supposed, it meant he was closing in on Aceldama.

The night soon grew just as cold as the day had been hot, as if some weather god had just flipped a switch.  His summer clothing provided inefficient protection from the rapidly decreasing temperature, so Sam picked up his pace to a slow jog.  He ran for what seemed like an eternity, realizing in the process that he had seriously misjudged his proximity to the river.  Finally, he burst through the edge of the forest—and immediately tumbled down a steep embankment.  His right shoulder landed with a thud on a narrow beach, the rest of his body following suit, leaving him prone and staring up at the starless sky.  He lay there for a few minutes trying to recapture the air that had been knocked from his lungs.

The howling wind hammered the trees, sending giant branches flying in every direction.  Dirt and debris flew into the air, coalescing into a brown funnel cloud that moved over the water.  Enormous waves sprang from the river and beat ferociously against the shore.  Sam had never seen anything like it.  He felt as if he were on the shore of an ocean in the midst of a storm rather than an inland river in Mississippi.  He rose unsteadily to his feet, barely able to stand against the violent wind, and began walking south, the river raging to his right.  The crickets seemed to be battling the wind and river for audio supremacy.  Eventually, the clashing sounds blended into a white noise that pierced Sam’s ears to the point where he thought his eardrums would burst.

Then it all stopped.

The sudden silence caught Sam off-guard and he nearly tripped to the ground as his body continued to push against a wind that was no longer there.  The river stood as calm as if the last few minutes had never happened; not even a ripple penetrated its still surface.  The crickets had vanished. In fact, Sam could not hear a single sound coming from the forest.  He looked around and around, confounded by yet another unnatural shift in the environment, but thankful for the relief (his ears rang louder than the time he had sat near a mammoth speaker for three hours at a Bruce Springsteen concert).

The calm, however, did not last long.  A high-pitched noise soon emanated from the middle of the river.  What initially sounded to Sam like wind morphed into millions of screaming voices almost singing in a harsh dissonance that reminded him of the “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” sequence from Kubrick’s 2001.  The voices grew louder as they approached Sam’s position, washing over him in an aural tidal wave.  He covered his ears in a useless attempt to dampen the sound.  He shuddered as goose bumps broke out all over his flesh.

Then a blinding flash of light materialized over the water and expanded into a long, bright-red beam rising perpendicular to the ground.  Hundreds of beams proceeded to bisect the first beam from every angle.  The entire luminescent structure began rotating faster and faster until it became a single perfect circle, glowing with every color of the visible spectrum.  Sam suddenly found himself dragged toward the center of the entity as he shielded his eyes from its brilliance.  He knew this was likely the doorway to Aceldama, but his first instinct was to resist the forces pulling on his body.  The struggle, however, proved futile as the tremendous force generated by the portal lifted him off the ground and sucked him in.

Sam ultimately surrendered, allowing the portal to take him wherever it might.  Looking around, he saw nothing but multi-colored light surrounding him on all sides, and he thought once again of the wormhole sequence from 2001.  He continued to float in mid-air, slowly rotating head over heels as he traveled through the strange formation.  Visions of his past began flashing in front of him.  Soon every image, sound, smell, and feeling that Sam had ever experienced attacked his senses at a furiously random pace.  Having no idea how long he would be in this state of transition, Sam took a deep breath and began to concentrate on the stimuli before him.  He discovered that with a little patience, he could actually bring some order to the sights and sounds weaving in and out of his consciousness.  So he embraced the images, clinging to the distant memories of his past life for perhaps the last time.

He knew that once he reached the other side his life would never be the same.  But then Sam had grown accustomed to change—his life had abandoned any sense of normality and stability a long, long time ago.

-end of excerpt-

You, Zombie

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In honor of Short Story Month and Zombie Awareness Month, I decided to try my hand at some second person, present tense prose. I whipped it up quickly so it’s raw and unpolished, but then again, it is a zombie story, so perhaps raw is appropriate . . .

You, Zombie

By Michael Rappa

The hunger. Oh god, the hunger. What is this compulsion to eat raw flesh? The taste—the foul, foul taste. You want to vomit but your body craves the blood, the sinew, the ligaments. You grow stronger with each bite of spongy muscle. You wish you could just starve yourself into oblivion but it seems the will to exist persists beyond death.

So you move on in search of your next meal—your next victim. You can’t stop. When a human enters your line of site or wanders into the radius of your supernatural sense of smell, primal instinct takes over. You’re a shark on feet . . . well, one foot and a stub (the zombie that turned you into this abomination ate most of your right foot for dinner). Last week you consumed your first child. You live every day with her screams in your head. The undead never sleep so the screams never stop.

You beg people for help but they don’t seem to understand what you’re saying. You try to let them kill you but your body fights back when they attack. You have no control. You’re a slave to the affliction. You’re terribly lonely. You can’t even communicate with your fellow zombies. They’re not kin; they’re competition.

You just want to go home, to see a familiar face, to forget this hellish existence—even if only for a moment. So you hobble down a corpse-littered street to the crimson-colored cape cod of your youth. Surely your parents won’t turn you away. You knock (bang) on the door and call (groan) their names (something unintelligible). Your father opens the door and points a shotgun at you.

“Go away!” he hollers as a tear rolls down his cheek.

You plead with him, but he only pumps the weapon in response.

“I said go! You’re not my child! You’re a monster! My child is dead!”

“Please, don’t shoot!” you hear your mother cry from inside the house. She runs out to stand between you and your father. “Please don’t shoot our baby!”

The gun shakes in your father’s hand and he breaks out into a sob as he drops it to the ground. He slumps down beside it. Your mother turns and opens her arms. You rush to embrace her. She will make everything better; she always has.

You want to ask her why she’s suddenly screaming but she always told you never to talk with your mouth full. Your father tries to pry your teeth away from her throat but you cling to her flesh like a ravenous animal. He reaches for the gun and points it at your head, but by this time the neighborhood zombies have been alerted to the commotion and he is overrun. The undead mob scratches and claws and you soon find yourself on the outside of the feeding frenzy that quickly turns your parents into mounds of meat.

So you begin to walk away. For a moment you pause and look back, overwhelmed by sadness and guilt—but only for a moment. Then you move on in search of your next meal. You can’t stop.