The town of Flatsboro was at full bustle, with fresh paint splashed on the lifeguard stand at Lake Secession and three new road signs installed to mark the places that mattered. Before anyone heard of the eclipse, Welcome, Bye Now and Diner hadn’t required spelling out. Sadie Jane Keane knew exactly where city limits started and stopped, and she’d been working at the Chix ‘n’ Bix since the summer she turned fourteen.
She pulled at the strings of her yellow apron, watching the empty two-lane highway unroll out the big front window. It was hard to picture a line of cars pointed straight at her, but Don, the owner, said before the breakfast shift that he expected every employee at Flatsboro Chicken and Biscuits on the clock the day the eclipse arrived.
Sadie Jane traced a hairline crack in the windowpane with her finger.
“Come on, now. Stop it.” Annie’s face was flushed, but she always looked like that, a little pink and shiny, like she’d just finished sprinting up the drive to tell Sadie Jane a secret.
“Oh, please. I know what you’re thinking.” Annie leaned forward to scrub maple syrup off the table.
“And what’s that?” Sadie Jane tried to sound sour, but something about Annie made her go soft. Her best friend’s cheeks hadn’t lost their plump since kindergarten, even as her mess of curls cycled through every color of the rainbow. Sadie Jane dyed her hair, too, but always the same color, Harvest Chestnut. She only wanted to be a better version of herself. Annie wanted to be somebody else.
“You’re thinking about running, like you always do, every time someone tries to tell you what to do.”
Sadie Jane held the town record for most runaway attempts by a single child, at least according to the sheriff, who offered to make her mother a certificate.
“You’re crazy if you think I’m working a double shift for you.” Annie focused on the practical as her method of persuasion, having long since given up on the philosophical. “I want to be out there watching when it comes. Don’t you? It’s the most exciting thing that’s ever happened in this town.”
“Pastor Jake says it’s a sign of Satan.” Sadie Jane lowered a voice to a rumble and Annie broke down in giggles. Both their mothers were devoted members of Flatsboro Baptist, and had already picked up supplies to make the cardboard signs they would carry in the hours before the eclipse. Sadie Jane wasn’t sure what they planned to do when it got too dark to see.
“What if the eclipse is a portal to hell? Do you want to spend your last hours on a bus to Greenville?”
“Sounds like a terrible place to die,” Sadie Jane laughed.
“Even worse than here,” Annie agreed, throwing down her rag. “And besides, Sadie Jane, you promised. Not before graduation. We walk, together. It’s not even a month. What’s the point of leaving now?”
“Same point as always.”
“Well, you’ll go with a diploma. That’s our deal. Then you’ll get a fancy job and send me half your money and I’ll live a life of luxury.”
Sadie Jane smiled. “Keep dreaming.”
“You know I will. You clock out yet? We’re going to be late. I haven’t let Old Creep-Eyes Streeter stare at my boobs for four years to fail math because of an absence.”
On the way to school, they cut through the football field, covered in bare pine bleachers. The mayor put half the senior boys on the town payroll and told them to build something for the 10,000 people the state tourism board expected to pour into Flatsboro on eclipse day.
Sadie Jane tolerated Math and History, and then walked the gravel path that separated the science classroom from the main school building. Principal Peters claimed it was for ventilation and fire safety, what with all those experiments going on, but Sadie Jane figured he was also trying to send a message to Mr. Nester, that exile was easy and belonging was hard. Mr. Nester had a ponytail, and rumor was, he’d sued the school board over in Nadene County so he could keep teaching evolution. If Peters had to take him, Sadie Jane reasoned, he could at least put him out by the parking lot.
Mr. Nester didn’t really mind if people were late, but Sadie Jane rarely was. She liked hearing him talk about other worlds, about bacteria colonies inside the body and teeming reefs under the sea. It was better than TV, really, where half the shows were set in places like Flatsboro, where the characters got themselves into and out of minor-league scrapes and nothing real ever changed.
He devoted the final unit of their senior year to the eclipse, talking about the geography that put Flatsboro in the path of totality, the economics that led to a lack of light pollution and the astrophysics of moving bodies passing each other in space. He promised them night would come from nowhere.
Today, Mr. Nester wore his sleeves rolled up, revealing dark patches of hair and tattoos, and explained the options for viewing an eclipse safely. The Greater Greenville Astrological Society had generously donated special glasses so all students in Flatsboro could look at the eclipse. But, he explained, volunteers had to sit with the elementary school kids and make sure they didn’t burn their eyeballs out.
“Our retinas were not designed to feel pain,” he said.
“Oh, I could make your retina feel pain,” Jimmie Broadus hollered.
Jimmie was a varsity wrestler and weapons-grade asshole. He was also the spark that started Sadie Jane running. In fifth grade, their teacher, Mrs. Reed, overheard her call Jimmie a dick licker.
“Do you even know what that means?” she’d asked.
“I like the sound of it,” was all Sadie Jane had allowed. She had no idea what it meant.
“Words are sharp things,” Mrs. Reed told her. “They must be wielded carefully.”
Immediately desirous of possessing sharp things, Sadie Jane imagined herself as a fierce warrior, wild with words, bearing a sword and a shield and soft boots that changed color based on her mood. Living in Flatsboro meant getting along above all. It meant mild politeness, “how ya doin’” and a friendly nod. It meant “just fine, ma’am,” even when you weren’t. There was a range of acceptable complaints, of course, at least among adults. The weather. Bosses, jobs, taxes, anything to do with the rising cost of everything. Immutable forces, innately understood as beyond anyone’s ability to alter. Wailing at the wind was one thing, but picking at a ball of string, chipping at a wall, making any sign of gunning for something that could actually come undone, that was swiftly shut up. “No sense in complaining about what you can’t change,” her mother liked to say, but that’s all anyone ever did. Sadie Jane couldn’t wait to raise her voice.
First, she tried to buy a backpack, because everyone on TV who ran away had a backpack. She took a fistful of nickels to the hardware store, but Mr. Higgins only gave her a lollipop and made a point to tell her mother at the church picnic that weekend to keep a closer eye on her. By sixth grade, she made it as far as the bus station, her pile of nickels a little bigger from scavenging where she knew her mother left things, like the ashtray by the window and in the top kitchen drawer on the left. She handed her payment to the driver, but he actually laughed at her. Sadie Jane could still hear his cackle, sharp and hollow.
She kept trying all through middle school, but the town conspired to catch her. Flatsboro snagged her like a net, a fine mesh that stretched across the city limits, its threads just strong enough to keep her in. By high school, she could feel her mother’s guilt wrapping around her ankles, Annie’s grasp around her wrist, her teacher’s hopes for her future; and her attempts grew weaker, more pathetic, until they stopped entirely. But now, there was an eclipse coming, and Sadie Jane knew with ferocious certainty that it was a sign. Not from Satan, or even from God. It was a whisper from the town that their defenses would be unmanned. That the net would lift just long enough for her to slip out. If it closed again, she knew in the part of her heart that flapped and fluttered, she’d be stuck, lying about how she was doing every time anybody asked her, for the rest of her life.
Sadie Jane looked at Annie, her face serious and determined as she listened to Mr. Nester. That girl was going to graduate, and Sadie Jane felt the pull of her friend’s insistence on dragging her along. She wished she cared more about the diploma, but she couldn’t see how a piece of paper was going to change one thing about Flatsboro. It felt like something that narrowed down options, rather than expanded them, a milestone that pointed straight towards a life within spitting distance of her mother’s house.
Even Mr. Nester, who had a big piece of land on the edge of town, had to put up with kids like Jimmie Broadus starting rumors that he ran experiments on the deer that wandered onto his property. He skirted the limits of the acceptable, was extended a certain wary deference as a potentially litigious outsider. Somewhere along the line, Flatsboro decided it was safer to stay on his good side and let him live as he chose. The sheriff never did go looking for any kind of deer experiments, but it didn’t stop people from talking.
After school, Sadie Jane returned to her own stack of sagging shingles. Her mother was inside, sitting in the living room with the lights off because it was cooler. Figurines of bloated babies cluttered every available surface, so Sadie Jane put her bag down on the floor.
“How was school?” Her mother rocked in a ripped blue recliner, her sharp nose the same as the one on Sadie Jane’s face. Set beneath cropped grey hair, it made her mother look haughty, even cruel, but she wore it without shame or apology.
“It was fine.” Sadie Jane immediately thought of a reason to leave again and hoisted her bag onto her shoulder. “I’m working on a group project with Annie, so I need to do my homework over there.”
“Ron is cooking supper for us. I’m sure Anne Elizabeth can wait until you’re fed.”
Her mother was the only person in Flatsboro who called Annie by her given name. Her rigid formality was maddening, but it gave her a certain dignity. It’s what made Sadie Jane think her mother would be okay, even if she left. There would be no sobbing, no hysterics. But it also made part of her want to stay, to learn how to accept whatever came with ice-cold grace. Her mother was eternally unruffled, unbothered by the questions that dogged Sadie Jane most deeply.
“Hey there.” Ron emerged from the kitchen, his shoulders stooped under the low ceiling. He wore a red “Kiss the Cook” apron over his heavy belly, like it was something worth protecting.
Her mother only dated men from church, brought them home to audition as replacement husbands, to see them, as she said, “in their natural habitat.” Annie never stopped calling it the Stepdad of the Month Club, even though Sadie Jane punched her in the shoulder every time she did.
“Hey,” Sadie Jane said. “Thanks for dinner, sorry I can’t stay.”
“You can,” her mother rocked harder in her chair. “You just won’t.”
“Momma, it’s for school.”
“Let her go, she’s almost 18,” Ron said. “Soon enough, she’ll be on her own.”
Sadie Jane wondered why Ron would take her side.
“Well.” Her mother planted her feet, bringing the chair to a stop. “We were going to tell you over dinner, but since you’re in such an awful rush…”
“Now?” Ron interrupted. “We can wait, Jeannie.”
“Good a time as any,” her mother said. “Sadie Jane, Ron has asked for my hand in marriage. And I’ve said yes.”
Sadie Jane blinked hard. “Congratulations,” she said.
She let the screen door slam, but regretted not taking the time to close it gently, like her mother always asked her to. There were times she wanted to be a different kind of daughter, more like Annie. Annie slept in her own sheets without fail, and when Sadie Jane snuck out and pried open the window that let her slip in bed beside her friend, she knew that Annie would be there, sure as the sun sets in the west.
Annie scrunched her curls when Sadie Jane told her there was a wedding coming.
“You’re gonna be here for that, right?” She sat on the concrete steps that led up to her house, just wide enough for the two of them to use as a porch.
Sadie Jane shook her head. “I want no part of that.”
“Well, then don’t go,” Annie said.
“Exactly.” Sadie Jane grinned and Annie clopped her across the back.
“Graduation, girl. You promised. I can’t get more than that, I know, but I will get that, so help me.”
“So help you who?” Sadie Jane teased.
“Sweet Baby Jesus,” the girls sang together, straight out of their mothers’ hymnals.
By mid-week, eclipse hunters were streaming into Flatsboro, just as Don had predicted. He had them working after-school shifts in addition to breakfast and the lunch hour.
“We’re out of cherry pie,” Sadie Jane told a pair of German graduate students from Greenville State. Their faces dropped until Annie called out from the next table.
“Apple is more American anyway!” She winked at Sadie Jane’s customers and went back to the counter to pick up three plates of fries.
Don paced near the front entrance, greeting guests and promising them the wait wouldn’t be long. His hair was slicked back like he had poured bacon grease from his forehead to his ears.
“Just a few minutes, folks,” Sadie Jane heard him say while she wiped down the booth closest to the front window. “Now, right this way.”
She stood up, dishrag still in hand, and found herself face to face with Mr. Nester. Teachers came in to eat from time to time, and she’d once served Principal Peters buttered biscuits, but there was something strange about seeing her science teacher outside his classroom.
“Ms. Keane, nice to see you.”
“You too, Mr. Nester. Can I start y’all off with coffee?”
“Please and thank you.” The man with Mr. Nester breathed loudly through his nose. He wore a tie-dyed shirt with purple swirls and a silver crescent moon on a cord around his neck. His frizzy globe of dark curls spread out wide beyond a few greying streaks at the roots, shooting stars against the night sky. “I’m just about wiped out from the road. But I made it, didn’t I, John?” He clapped a bear paw on Mr. Nester’s shoulder.
“With three days to spare,” Mr. Nester said, looking at Sadie Jane like he had something to apologize for.
“I’ve got to scope out the town, find the best spot for viewing.”
“I told you, I took care of that already.”
“Come on, John, what’s the point of chasing an eclipse if not to see everything with your own eyes? I didn’t drive from Chicago to have you stick me behind a tree.” The man chortled, a thick laugh, and Sadie Jane left to bring the coffee.
She set down the mugs, embarrassed by the scratches and chips. They had been through one too many cycles in the industrial dishwasher to be safely called white, or even tan, and were now a stale-coffee kind of beige.
“Anything to eat?” she asked without making eye contact.
“What’s good here?” the stranger asked.
“Chicken and biscuits.” She spoke the words just as Mr. Nester said them, too, and looked up to see him smiling broadly.
“Well, then, that’s what I’ll have.” The man slapped the table with too much enthusiasm, and coffee splashed over the rim of his mug, deepening the stain.
“Easy, Frank. Sorry, Ms. Keane.”
“It’s okay,” Sadie Jane said, mopping up the spill. “You in town for the eclipse?” she asked Frank.
“Wouldn’t miss it,” he said. “I’ve been chasing astrological phenomenon for years now.” He gestured out the window to the parking lot, where, among the pickup trucks and rusty sedans was a deep purple van with the words Lunar Movers in silver paint. “It’s what I do. And this one, well, this is the sight of the century. Once in a lifetime. Everything we need for perfect viewing,” he said, gesturing around.
“Is it really going to be that great?” As soon as the words came out, she registered that once again, she’d said what she meant, not what she was supposed to.
Frank leaned forward, forearms on the table. “It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen, nothing I could describe to you. Seeing the universe present itself, put on its Sunday best for a real show? It’s transcendent.”
“Frank, don’t scare the girl,” Mr. Nester said.
“It’s okay,” Sadie Jane said. Outside, the sky was still an unbroken blue. She thought about Lot’s wife, a sinner so grave the Bible didn’t bother to give her a name, even though all she did was look back when she should have been running.
When she dropped off their plates, she lingered a beat before leaving. “So, you’re from Chicago? How is it there?”
“Full of life,” Frank said, tearing into his chicken. “John hasn’t told you all about it?”
Sadie Jane looked at Mr. Nester. She stayed after class sometimes to ask him about biology, about the ways cells came together and apart, but she had never asked about his life before Flatsboro.
“Frank and I were roommates out of college,” he said. “But I didn’t last long in the city, wasn’t for me.”
“Really?” Sadie Jane was overwhelmed by the stupidity of leaving a place like Chicago for anywhere, let alone here.
“Really. I like things quiet, peaceful. I do my best thinking out here.”
“There must be quiet places in Chicago.”
Frank guffawed chicken bits all over his plate. “Smart girl,” he said.
“Ms. Keane is very bright indeed. She’ll be near the top of her class when she graduates next month.” Mr. Nester raised his eyebrows at her.
“I’ll bring the check.” Sadie said, dodging his gaze.
She paused over the register, wondering if he might be right. She could stay through graduation and go up to Greenville over the summer. Ron might even convince her mother to let her, as long as she promised to come back for the wedding. Maybe she could go along a little longer, act like the kind of person they wanted her to be.
When the day of the eclipse finally arrived, she left before dawn for her breakfast shift at the Chix ‘n’ Bix. She closed the screen door quietly behind her and was startled to see Ron leaning against his white pickup on the curb.
“Why don’t you honk?” she asked. “I don’t think she’s ready.”
“Well, then, I’ll wait,” Ron said. “We’re not meeting Pastor Jake and the others for a while yet. I just like to make a day with her last as long as possible.”
Sadie Jane let that soak in and considered giving Ron a hug. Instead, she stuck out her hand, which he shook, clearly amused at her gesture of adulthood. She never could pull off formality with the elegance her mother managed.
She hiked up the road and hit Main Street at first light, where she found a crowd big enough to burst Flatsboro at the seams. People were everywhere, swarming the Quik Stop for snacks and setting up fancy cameras on the side of the road. The line outside the Chix was already ten deep, so she slipped in from the side, where she knew Don propped emergency exit to try and get some fresh air. She emerged from behind the counter to see Annie, whose cheeks were nearly neon.
“You’re here,” she said, breathless.
“Well, yeah,” Sadie Jane said. “Someone refused to work a double for me.”
“Good,” Annie said, popping her with a dishrag. “You’ll go when it’s time.”
Sadie Jane looked at the floor. “I will.”
Don shooed them out as soon as the last customer paid his check. “They’ll be another rush after,” he said. “Come on back then.”
Sadie Jane followed as Annie bounced down Main toward the football field. Her nerves pricked at her, raising goose bumps. She saw Annie looking at her, first sneaking glances, then outright staring. Her friend’s curls frizzed in the heat, more yellow than corn silk white. Pretty soon Annie would be dunking her head in the bathroom sink, trying another look on for size.
They stopped as soon as the field came into view. Hundreds of people milled around to the wet squelching sound of the marching band’s trombones. Kids climbed on the fresh built viewing platform and adults claimed sections of the bleachers, spreading out blankets and picnics below red, white and blue bunting. Sadie Jane watched the crowd, but Annie’s eyes were squarely on her. After a long moment, she reached into the pocket of her jean shorts.
“Here,” she said, pressing a thick wad of bills into Sadie Jane’s hand.
“What?” Sadie Jane instinctively took a step back, but she knew the extra space would buy her no distance at all. “No. I can’t. That’s yours, you earned it.”
Annie nodded. “I did. So, take it. Take it with you.”
“You don’t even want me to go.”
“I don’t,” Annie said. “But if you’re gonna go, I want you to make it this time.”
Sadie Jane felt something crumple, the flat sheet of paper that made up her insides collapsing into a ball.
“What are you going to do?” she asked.
Annie shrugged. “Help put those glasses on the little ones.”
Sadie Jane squeezed her friend’s hand harder and harder, hoping it might pop off so she could take it with her.
“Go on now,” Annie said. “It’s already getting dark.” She turned her head so all Sadie Jane could see was her curls, but she heard the sniffle anyway.
“Call. You better.”
Sadie Jane opened her mouth to promise, but closed it again, understanding the worthless value of her word. She nodded, even though her friend couldn’t see her.
As she skirted past the edge of the field, she noticed Mr. Nester and Frank, separated from the festive crowd. They stood in front of the Lunar Movers van, fiddling with a huge telescope on a tripod. Mr. Nester was looking down, but Frank caught her eye and waved an enthusiastic, two-fingered peace sign. She ducked her head and turned away, cutting across the baseball field to pick up the wooded path out to County Road 401. As she walked, the heat of the day leaked away with the light, leaving what could almost be mistaken for a chill in the air. The trees and dirt grew silent as birds and bugs settled in for the show. Sadie Jane put the poisonous light behind her, trying to remember not to look back. The last she saw of it, the sun was being devoured, with larger and larger chunks going missing. By the time she made it to the bus station on the farthest edge of town, out past the lake, the sun was just a hole in the sky.