“Follow me,” said the young woman. She spoke to a middle aged man who stood beside her. He held a small potted plant that looked out of place in the drab colorless house he had just entered. The woman took up a light and led the way down a dim passageway.
“It’s been nearly a decade since I saw your Father, Kate,” the man said a trifle awkwardly. He felt strangely unsettled. The whole atmosphere felt eerie and unnatural. “How have you all been?” He asked.
“For the most part we’ve been well, Mr. Goodray,” the woman answered in a strained voice, “But a few years ago my father suffered from an illness that has left him only a shadow of the man he once was. You will find him much changed.” Before her companion could express his condolences, the young woman opened the door at the end of the passage and ushered him.
Mr. Goodray heard the door close behind him. He assumed he had been left alone with his old friend. He blinked his eyes. The room was very dark. At first he could see nothing.
“Frank? I can’t see. Frank Edwin, are you here?” There was a moment of empty silence. Mr Goodray’s eyes began to adjust. He saw a dim light from a lamp. “Rodney! Is that really you? I haven’t heard that voice in years.” Mr. Goodray’s eyes had become accustomed to the dark room now, and he made his way to the form he recognized as his old comrade. They grasped each others hands in an enthusiastic embrace. For a minute or so they exchanged the usual greeting of two friends who have been long apart. Rodney Goodray was struggling to distinguish his companions features in the dark room. “You must have developed some eccentric habits and hobbies over the years, Frank," he jested. "Why do you keep the room so dark?” At this moment he spotted the faint outline of a couple of windows near at hand. He stepped quickly to them and drew up the thick dark blinds. A second before he did so he heard a frightened, strangled gasp from behind him. The next instant everything went from almost complete darkness to blinding brightness. The shadows fled and the whole room was flooded with light.
Mr. Goodray turned from the window in satisfaction, saying, “Now then! That’s much-” But was cut off by an awful shriek. For a frail old man Mr. Edwin had a shockingly piercing scream, and he echoed it as he scurried like a frightened old rat under a heap of dirty looking quilts. Rodney Goodray stood blinking rapidly with his mouth open. At once he recalled Kate’s words. Was his friend so much changed? Had his strong mind left him? He walked cautiously over to the mound of blankets covering the old man. All he heard was hard labored breathing.
“Frank? Are you sick?” he asked in low tones, “Shall I call Kate?” He glanced around the room looking for something that might explain this bizarre behavior. At once he noticed that it was a much larger room than he had thought upon entering it. It was rather cluttered and dirty, but he didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. Out of the corner of his eye he detected a slight movement toward the back of the room. He turned and looked more closely. But it appeared that whatever it was had scurried under a large four poster bed in the corner. He grimaced in disgust. He supposed it was a rat. This was just the sort of environment that such creatures thrived in. The sounds of heavy breathing was interrupted by a hoarse voice from the depths of the quilts saying, “Shut them!” Rodney bent down to his friend, his anxiety growing. “Close the blinds!” came the muffled voice again. Rodney frowned in confusion. “But why in the world, Frank? Tell me what's wrong!”
“For the love- of me, as your friend! Shut up those windows before I suffocate under here!” Mr. Edwin almost screamed. At this moment the door to the hall swung open and Kate rushed in. In a matter of seconds, she had closed and secured the blinds and was helping her father from his unusual hiding place. Once again darkness reigned supreme. Only the light from a small lamp was permitted to struggle on alone, which hardly did more than accent the darkness. Mr. Goodray rubbed his eyes. He felt like he had experienced visual whiplash. Kate was kneeling on the ground pulling quilts off her prostrated father. “There Daddy, you’re alright," She said soothingly, as she patted his frail hand. "Sit down. I will bring you something good to eat. Just rest here for a minute.”
She gave Mr. Goodray a significant glance and motioned for him to follow her. He vaguely felt that he had committed some great wrong. He followed Kate in bewilderment, hoping he had done no damage. She led the way out of the room, down the dim hall and into the kitchen. To his relief, the room was filled with light from a large open window.
He sat down heavily and mopped his forehead with his sleeve. “Kate, what happened in there? Of all the strange things! All I did was pull up the blinds. Has Frank lost his mind?” Kate sighed wearily, and Mr. Goodray noticed for the first time how worn out and sad she looked.
“Oh, Mr. Goodray, its been this way for the last 5 years. You know how Daddy used to be. He loved the outdoors and working in his garden. I know you remember how close he and I were, we did everything together. Life was good then. It was normal. But one day he spent much too long outside, he was planting a whole bed full flowers. He labored for hours under the burning sun. And it left him badly burned. Although it was painful, he didn’t seem bothered by it.” Kate gathered up her tray of refreshments. Rodney thought absently that it looked like altogether too much food for one man.
"Then late that night he became very ill. He got worse and worse. The doctors were afraid we would lose him. His fever was so very high, and we couldn’t get it to come down. For days he was delirious, out of his mind with the fever. The worst of it came about five days after he fell sick. His fever was at its highest, and the entire day he raved on and on in delirium. He would scream that the sun was killing him. And he insisted that the windows be kept shut at all times.
Our doctor didn’t think he would make it through the day. Father slipped into a coma toward the evening, and we all thought he was gone. I spent the entire night on my knees. When my Father woke up the next morning and began to recover, I thought it was a direct answer to my prayers.” Kate paused and looked up at Mr. Goodray with eyes full of misery. “Sometimes I wish he hadn’t lived. Oh I know that sounds dreadful! You must think me horribly wicked, but if you knew what it's been like-.” She started sobbing. Mr. Goodray didn’t know what to say or do. He just quietly patted her shoulder until she was able to go on. “Months later, after he had regained his strength, I told him that it would do him good to go outside and get some fresh air and sunshine. But Daddy utterly refused. He insisted that if he was exposed to sunlight again it would surely kill him. Over the years his phobia has developed into a mania. I sometimes think he fears the sun more than death.
“So for the last five years he has kept himself shut up in that room without a trace of natural light. I expect him to live the rest of his life this way. He is immovable on the subject.” Kate finished sadly. By this time she had finished preparing a nice tray of food, and was leading the way back down the hall to the place Mr. Edwin called home.
“But this isn’t the worst of it Mr. Goodray.” She said as she opened the door. Rodney’s heart sank. He couldn’t think of anything that would make this situation much worse. Once more they entered the dark room.
Mr. Goodray closed his eyes, trying to get them to adjust. When he opened them again he was able to make out shapes and large objects around the room. Then he heard Kate say, “Come here Henry, I brought you a snack too.”
Mr. Goodray turned to Kate to see who she was talking to. From right beside him a child slunk out of the shadows. Rodney muffled a yell of surprise. “Kate! Who is this?” He squinted his eyes trying to distinguish the little form more clearly.
“This is my son, Mr. Rodney. He has lived here, in this room with his grandfather for the last four years. He doesn’t even remember the outdoors or what a bird or flower looks like.”
Mr. Goodray felt stunned and grieved. He couldn’t imagine a child living their young lives in a dark room, shut up away from the outside world. “But why? Why on earth do you allow it?” He said in a harsh whisper.
“My father has Henry convinced that he suffers from the same “allergy” as his grandfather. He has succeeded in making him terrified of the sun. Henry is trapped in his grandfather’s unreasonable fear and fantasy, and I cant get him out! I’m tired of fighting it all. I’ve just given up. To be honest Mr. Goodray, Father gets in my head sometimes and I half believe what he says. All I want is for Henry to be safe and to avoid conflict with my father. I’m just so sick of it all. I’ve lost all my old friends. And my family is all gone except for these two. I just want to make them happy.”
Mr. Goodray shook his head in disbelief. “Come here Henry.” he said. The little boy was nibbling on some food in a dark corner. It reminded Rodney disagreeably of the rodents whose lifestyle was virtually the same as this wretched boy’s. Henry approached him timidly. Mr. Goodray took his hand kindly and drew near the lonely lamp. He examined the boy closely, speaking to Kate as he did so.
“Look here, see how thin and small he is? His cheeks are unnaturally pale, and his skin is almost translucent. He looks very weak and unwell. He needs to get out of here, Kate. He needs exercise and good old fashioned fun in the sun!”
At this Henry interjected nervously, “No sir! I can’t go outside. The sun makes me sick. You can ask my Grandpa, he knows all about it and can tell you.”
Rodney Goodray was losing all patience with the situation, and he replied rather severely, “That’s nothing but foolishness! I have never heard such ridiculous nonsense. The good Lord gave us the sun so we could enjoy it and all the wonderful things that live because of it. You shouldn’t hide from it or fear its light.” Then turning to Kate he said, “You must let me take him outside Kate. Let me take him for a walk round the park. It’s the best thing for him, you know it is.”
Henry began to cry pitifully. He clung to his Mother, protesting loudly.
Everyone began talking at once. Frank Edwin emerged from the dark and began arguing Henry’s case. Kate said she had had enough of the whole thing and didn’t care what happened. Rodney took both Kate and Henry by the arms and led them both out. Once in the hall he spoke in an undertone to the flustered Kate.
“Don’t you see that it would be neglect to let the boy stay in there any longer? He is wasting away! I love Frank. He used to be a dear friend, but I fear he will never see reason in this matter. He is extremely stubborn. At his age I say let him do what he will with the life he has left. But your little son will suffer from this, and it would be wrong to let it continue any longer.” Kate was quiet for a moment. She stared down at Henry as he continued to sniffle and sob. Then she straightened up and took the little boy into an adjoining room.
“Give us a minute Mr. Goodray. We won’t be long.” She said before she shut the door behind them. Rodney Goodray felt exhausted. This was most emphatically not how he had expected his visit to go. He sunk into a welcoming chair gratefully, and cradled his gray head in his hands. He could hear the old man in the other room continuing to rant and rave tempestuously. And it sounded as if Henry was starting a regular mutiny.
He felt guilt at his long absence. Perhaps he could prevented some of this mess. Or simply helped Kate through it. Now all her former energy and vitality had expired, and too young, she had become a worn out old woman.
After a few minutes Kate returned with Henry. Both of their faces were red and tear stained. Kate appeared to have just been through a cyclone. The little boy was clad in a jacket and hat, and he wore on his face a look of determination mixed with dread. Evidently he and his Mother had had quite the harangue, and he had finally decided resistance was useless.
“Why Henry! You look very handsome. We are going to have a wonderful time together,” Rodney said cheerfully. Kate gave the little boy a parting hug then said to Mr. Goodray,
“I don’t know why I am so nervous! Please take good care of him, and keep in mind that he hasn’t been outside since he was three years old.”
“Don’t worry. This is the best thing for him.” He replied. Then to Henry he said, “Do you like ice cream Henry? Of course you do! What child doesn’t?” Then they walked out the door and were gone. Kate laughed nervously. She went back to the kitchen to start supper.
Meanwhile in the dark room down the hall, the old man within paced up and down, worrying and muttering. In his anxious walking he bumped against a small table. It wasn’t until then that he noticed the plant his old friend had brought him. Mr. Goodray had set the gift on the table before greeting him. And it had been forgotten in the confusion that ensued. Frank Edwin picked it up and examined it thoughtfully. He felt the soft leaves and smelled the earthy fragrance. He suddenly realized how much he had missed his plants and garden. For an hour or more he sat there holding the plant and remembering.
Then his trance was broken by sounds outside. He heard childish laughter and lively voices. He listened and heard Mr. Goodray and his grandson chatting and laughing together. He went to the window and put one eye to a narrow crack in the blind. He saw Henry running and jumping in the green grass. He was looking up into the sky with joyous eyes full of life and light. He had a drippy ice cream cone in one hand and a bunch of flowers in the other.
For one moment the old man longed to join him. He ached to be out there with them, holding Henry’s hand and enjoying the sunshine. But no. All the old unreasonable fear washed over him, and he rushed from the window with a shudder. After a minute of thought he took up the plant. He held it in his wasted hands fondling the leaves and flowers. He hated to part with it. Then he pushed it out into the hall. He loved it too much to let it die in the dark with him.
“Kate!” He called. “Coming Daddy!” Came the reply. “Take these African Violets out to the garden. Make sure you plant them in a spot that gets lots of sun.” He said gruffly. Then he crept back to his bed feeling weak and lonely, to lie there for hours. A prisoner to the darkness he called home.