James Bates – Fiction

Heliophobia

“And, so, it is proven that too much sun causes skin cancer,” the anchor on the evening news said, looking past the camera, and, Lorrie felt, right into her soul. “Without a doubt,” he emphasized.

She picked up the remote and turned the set off, the anchor’s words, “Without a doubt,” ringing in her ears. Well, you didn’t have to tell her because she was a firm believer. Sunlight was bad, and Lorrie was done with it forever.

It had all started with a simple getaway with her boyfriend, Ron, to Florida that past February. The Minnesota winter was dragging on and on with endless cloudy days, freezing temperatures and an unrelenting, brutal north wind.

“Let’s go someplace warm,” Lorrie had suggested. “Get away for a while.”

Ron, ever the jokester, grinned and said, “I thought you’d never ask.”

Two weeks later they were lying on the beach in Fort Lauderdale, soaking up the rays, sipping cold drinks and, in Lorrie’s case, not being too diligent with the PSF 50 sunscreen. One day later she was writhing in agony in their hotel room, suffering from a second-degree sunburn that covered her body with a blistering rash. Her skin felt like it was on fire, like sharp needles pricking into her every time she breathed.

“I’ve never burned like this before,” she complained to Ron after they’d made an emergency stop at a clinic before returning to their room. “I’ve always just gotten a really nice tan.” She grimaced as sat up when Ron held a cup of ice water to her blistered lips.

As she drank thirstily, he took one look at the oozing pustules on her blistered skin and fought back a gag reflex. “Well, there’s always a first time,” he managed to comment, an observation she didn’t think was very sympathetic.

He set the ice water down and stood up briskly, obviously in a hurry get out of sight of his par-broiled girlfriend. “You take care. I’ll be back later. I’m going to the beach.” He quickly stuffed sunscreen, a floppy hat and a beach towel into a canvas bag while doing his best to avoid looking at her.

No, not sympathetic at all. “Thanks for nothing,” she yelled, but didn’t think he heard her due to the slamming of the door as he left her to her misery.

A week later she was back in her apartment in southwest Minneapolis. She worked writing technical manuals for an electronics control manufacturing company. The doctor at the clinic in Florida said that she’d probably experience heat sickness for a while and she definitely was, feeling nauseous and generally out of sorts twenty-four seven. She was also still sore from her burns. Fortunately, her boss understood her situation and told her she could work from home.

“Take your time,” Fran told her over the phone. “Just get that project done and we’ll take it from there.”

“Sounds good, Fran. Thanks. I’ll do my best.”

Lorrie settled into her ergonomic chair, flipped open her laptop on her desk and began working on her new project, writing detailed specifications for a new energy saving thermostat. A week went by, her burns were on their way to healing, and she was pleasantly surprised at how much she was enjoying the peace and quiet of working at home. She could focus on her project much better without all the extraneous office racket, and there were no interruptions to break her concentration. It was quite nice.

Mostly.

The problem was sunlight. She was having a troubling issue with the light coming in through the four windows in her apartment. It was giving her a queasy, nauseous feeling that wasn’t pleasant at all. She remedied the problem by taping layer upon layer of newspaper on the windows. Then she shut the curtains tight and drew the blinds. There, she thought to herself, closing the last curtain and with it blocking out the final ray of sunshine trying to make its way inside. That’s better. The room was now totally dark. She turned on her desk lamp to add a little light to see by, not missing the sunlight at all.

That first month Ron came by on a regular basis to chat and try to talk her into going out on a date for dinner or a movie. “Come on, Lorrie. Let’s get out of here and go do something. Anything.”

She knew he was getting frustrated, but she couldn’t help it. She pointed out her darkened apartment. “I like it like this. It’s cozy and peaceful. Besides, the sunlight bothers me.”

“You haven’t been outside since we got back from Florida. What, do you have a phobia to the sun or something? Heliophobia? I looked it up and it sounds like you do. Come on, prove to me I’m wrong,” he challenged. “What have you got to lose?”

He kept nagging until finally she decided to give it a try. Like he’d said, ‘What did she have to lose?’

“Okay,” she agreed, one cold but sunny day toward the end of March. “Let’s give it a try.” More to shut him up than anything else.

She bundled up in her winter jacket, heavy boots and a scarf, mittens and gloves, and with Ron by her side walked out the front door of her apartment building. That’s as far as she got. As soon she stepped into the sunlight, she screamed, “Oh, no! Oh, my god! Help me!” The pain she felt was unlike anything she’d ever experienced in her life. It was like the sunlight seared through her jacket and clothes right down to her skin and set her entire body on fire.

Ron put his arm around her for comfort, “What’s wrong? What’s the matter?”

Lorrie threw him off. “I don’t know! Oh my god, what’s happening to me?” She beat on her legs and chest as if trying to put out flames. Finally, she yelled, “I can’t do this! Get out of the way!”

She ran back to her apartment and peeled off every stitch of clothing she had on. Even though her skin looked fine to Ron it didn’t feel fine to her. She jumped in the shower and turned the cold water on full blast and let it run all over her naked body until she finally felt some relief.

When she was feeling better, Ron came into the bathroom and asked if he could join her in the shower. “How about it, Lorrie? We could maybe fool around a little.”

She wasn’t amused. “Get away and leave me alone,” she yelled. “I just want to be by myself.”

Ron got the message. He not only left the bathroom but also the apartment. For good, it turned out.

Sure, he called a few times afterwards but Lorrie had nothing to say. “Ron, I’m just not in the mood to talk, let alone go outside. Maybe we should just quit seeing each other.”

Message delivered and received. He quit calling and coming over after that. Lorrie was pleasantly surprised she didn’t miss him at all.

On the other hand, her best friend, Emma, was a different story. Lorrie liked talking to her and seeing her. Emma was agreeable and not pushy about wanting to go outside. She also seemed to have no problem understanding that Lorrie’s horrible sunburn was a perfectly good reason for her to like not being in the sun.

“I don’t blame you at all for staying inside. I totally get it. It’s fine with me,” Emma told her early on. “Who needs to be messing around outdoors in the winter anyway?” She pointed to the unseen city beyond the curtained window and shivered. “Plus, it’s nice and warm in here.”

It was nice and warm, but it was more than that, and it got Lorrie thinking that maybe she did have that Heliophobia thing that Ron had mentioned. Well, if I do it’s too bad, she reasoned with herself. There’s nothing I can do about it. Plus, she had to honest, she kind of liked staying indoors.

Lorrie tried to explain it to Emma this way: “It’s like the sunlight isn’t blocked by my clothes at all. I tried going out a few times after Ron left but it just hurts too much. It feels like my skin is on fire.”

“Don’t you miss it? You know, being outside?”

“Actually, not at all. I can order groceries delivered and do my work on line.”

“Nothing wrong with that.”

“Nope. All in all, I’m good.”

“Great,” Emma said, reaching for the remote and clicking on the television. “What do you want to watch?”

But Lorrie wasn’t really all that good. Although she tried vitamin D supplements, there was no replacing the benefits of sunlight. She started to eat less and began losing weight, getting thinner and paler as the weeks progressed.

By the time May rolled around Emma began to notice the change in her friend and she tried to help. “Here you go, kiddo,” she said, showing up one night for an evening of watching Netflix. “I brought you a nice yummy cheeseburger and fries from Juicy Lucy’s. You’ve always loved their food.”

Lorrie just barely made to the bathroom into before throwing up. Food had lost all its appeal. In fact, she was living on next to nothing. Emma helped her from the bathroom to the couch. “Just rest here,” she, said, setting her down and tucking a blanket round her legs. “But you need to eat. Can I fix you anything?”

Lorrie perked up, smiling, “Yeah. Tea and saltines. That’d be great.”

So, they watched Netflix, Lorrie sipping Earl Grey and munching on saltines, while Emma watched her out of the corner of her eye getting more and more concerned. Her friend was pale and emaciated, her skin almost translucent and her shoulder bones were sticking out. She wanted to help, but didn’t know what to do.

Lorrie had no clue that Emma was worried. As far as she was concerned, she was fine;

she just didn’t want to go outside. Plus, she was getting her work done for Fran, having finished the first project, then a second and was starting on a third. She did her shopping online, getting groceries delivered including her beloved tea and saltines, along with paper products, cleaning supplies and toiletries. Bills were getting paid. Yeah, she was doing great.

Except…

Except, every now and then she just didn’t feel like getting up. Sometimes she stayed in bed all day, not answering her phone or emails, closing out all contact with the outside world. She found that she liked the silence of her bedroom with the covers pulled over her head, all light shut out, not a sound to be heard. It was blissfully wonderful, a state of being that was hard to ignore and easy to get used to.

She started staying in bed for longer and longer periods of time until Emma’s concern finally gave way to frustration. Something had to be done. One Saturday afternoon in early July she pounded on the door to Lorrie’s apartment until she finally answered.

What Emma saw when her friend opened the door was beyond troubling. Lorrie stood before her wearing a thread bare night gown, her hair lank and oily, her face ghostlike. She let Emma in but hardly had the strength to get to the couch were she collapsed and lay staring at a blank television screen.

Emma sat down next to her and tried to be compassionate. “Look, Lorrie, I’ve got something to tell you and you need to listen. I’m really worried about you. You can’t go on like this.”

Unexpectedly, Lorrie turned angry and sat up. She spat back, “Who says? It’s my life. I can do what I want.”

“Oh, yeah?” Emma blew up, her patience, already worn thin, was suddenly gone. “Then why don’t you go outside, huh? It’s a beautiful day. It’s July. It’s warm and the birds are singing and kids are playing in the park. Come on, let’s go.”

She stood up and pulled Lorrie by the arm, immediately shocked by how thin she was. Her bones with like pencils. “My god, Lorrie. What’s happened to you?”

“Nothing’s happened to me! I’m fine,” Lorrie screamed. “Get out of here. Leave me alone.”

“No!”

Emma wouldn’t let go of her arm. She wrestled Lorrie off the couch and dragged her kicking and screaming out of her apartment and into the hallway. Lorrie fought and protested the entire way, but Emma was persistent, if not ten times stronger given Lorrie’s emaciated state.  Eventually she got her to the front door and out of the building into a warm, sunny, summer day.

Lorrie’s screams could be heard from a block away. A policeman showed up and eventually the paramedics were called. An hour later Lorrie was in the emergency room at the Hennepin County Medical Center in downtown Minneapolis.  Six hours later she was recovering in her own room on the eighth floor. The Psych Ward.

Emma had stayed with her the entire time. After being sedated and sleeping away the afternoon, Lorrie groggily came awake in the early evening. Emma was sitting in the chair next to her and took her hand. “Hi, there,” she smiled an encouraging smile. “How are you doing?” She moved over, sat on the edge of the bed and rubbed her friend’s skinny arm.

Lorrie smiled weakly in return. “I’m okay. Embarrassed.” She indicated the hospital room with a fluttering wave of her hand. “I’m sorry I put you through this.”

Emma hugged her gently. “Hey, there, don’t worry about it. I care about you and was worried about you.” She paused and then added, changing the subject, “Say, about back there in your apartment, I wanted to let you know I’m sorry about that. You know, our wrestling match? I guess I kind of lost it, dragging you outside and all.”

Lorrie tried to assuage Emma’s fears, “No, no, no. It’s good that you did.” She pointed to the IV drip. “The doctor told me that my Heliophobia was killing me. I guess I was starving myself. You saved my life.”

“Want to talk about it?”

“Do you want to hear?”

“Of course, I do. You’re my friend.”

“Well, my doctor, I mean my psychiatrist, Doctor Boyle, is a really nice lady. She told me that my sunburn started a sort of chain reaction in my body that eventually affected my mind. I had a Heliophobia for sure because of the sunburn. She said that it was only natural to be cautious of the sun after what I’d gone through in Florida. Normally, I would have worked through it in my own way.”

“What happened?”

“When I started to withdraw, well, that was bad. You saw the effects. I got weaker, quit eating. Quit doing much of anything.” She sighed. “I didn’t want to tell you this, but I was on the verge of losing my job. In fact, Doctor Boyle said that if it wasn’t for you and you keeping track of me, I might have died.” She smiled and reached out to hold Emma. “I owe you my life.”

Emma hugged Lorrie in return for the longest time, glad to be talking to her friend like normal times.

Finally, Emma sat back and asked, “Do you want some water?”

“Yeah, I’d love some.”

Emma poured some ice water from a pitcher and helped Lorrie to drink. As she did so she looked at her friend’s tangled hair and sunken eyes. Her skin was pale, translucent and blotchy. Blue veins protruded. Her breath stank. But she was alive. Thank goodness. That was the main thing.

She kissed Lorrie’s forehead gently. “I’ll help you get better. Okay?”

Lorrie’s eyes welled up with tears. “You sure? I’m kind of a mess.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’ll be here for you every step of the way. But you have to promise me one thing. Okay?”

“Sure. Anything.”

“I want us to go on a picnic together in the park across the street from your apartment at the end of the summer. Labor Day. What do you think? Will you agree to that?

Lorrie smiled and reached for her friend and they hugged again. Then she said, “I’d love to.”

Emma grinned, “I’m glad to hear that. Because that’s what I want, too.” Then she looked into her friend’s eyes and added, “More than anything.”

🍃

Jim lives in a small town twenty miles west of Minneapolis, Minnesota. His stories have appeared online in CafeLitThe Writers’ Cafe MagazineCabinet of HeedParagraph Planet, Nailpolish Stories, Ariel Chart, Potato Soup Journal, Literary Yard, Spillwords, The Drabble and World of Myth Magazine, and in print publications: A Million Ways, Mused Literary Journal, Gleam Flash Fiction Anthology #2, The Best of CafeLit 8, Nativity Anthology by Bridge House Publishing and Gold Dust Magazine. You can also check out his blog to see more: www.theviewfromlonglake.wordpress.com.

2 thoughts on “James Bates – Fiction

  1. Pingback: Bindweed Magazine – Heliophobia – theviewfromlonglake

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