Staring at the Sun

Don’t look up. Keep Calm and Carry On, said the Government. Some mastermind at the Home Office had decided it was time to use the posters that had become so popular during the Recession. What people saw in the sky was even worse than a financial recession.

Don’t look up they said. So of course everyone looked up. Amy kept the curtains closed when he got ready in the morning though, resisting the itch to see if it was still was there. The thing was, everyone in the world saw something different. It was always different, always apocalyptic.

“Why don’t you open the curtains?” Jacob said. Amy stood in the middle of the room, her face sad, as ever. “It’s a bright, fresh morning,” Jacob persisted. They lived together, so far apart. She was a ghost of the wife she had once been. Her presence still here was a haunting. “You know. There’s no sense in being in denial.”

Amy said nothing, just shook her head.

Jacob’s mouth twisted in a smile. “It’ll be there, whether you open the curtains or not. We might as well get some daylight.”

“Do you have to go? Stay with me.” Her tone said she knew he wouldn’t. Jacob was a counselor, he could tell. He chewed it over for a moment.

“I have to see a patient. I would consider her psychologically vulnerable.”

“That’s more important than us?” Amy looked down, considered, but got out the words, with a little difficulty, “I’m afraid. They keep looking at me.”

“It’s work. I’ve got to carry on. Of course it’s not more important than you. But I have to work. I have to pay the mortgage.”

“The world’s ending! Fuck the mortgage.”

“Amy, the world is not ending. Stay indoors if you need to. I’ll not be late home. You’re rational enough to know that it’s mass hysteria. A reaction to an atmospheric effect people‘s minds can’t properly process. No one has yet had any physical contact with what they see in the sky.”

“That we know of yet. If anyone’s been killed we wouldn’t know.”

“All I know is that I think we should carry on as normal until we find out what’s going on.”

Amy looked away at the dormant TV set, as if watching something intently, in avoidance.

Jacob grasped Amy’s hands gently and looked in her eyes. “Tell me you’ll be okay.” He had decided to stay if she needed it enough to ask. He let her take the responsibility.

“You know I will be,” but she did not meet his eyes. “Do you really have to work today? It was nice when you only worked three days a week.” Jacob had reduced his hours to spend more time with Amy and her shattered nerves. Three days a week just about paid enough, but it was hard.

“I’ve got a responsibility to my patients. Even working flat out there’s no way to see everyone who needs it. Two of me working every hour couldn’t. This has tipped so many people off the edge. And there is nothing up there, no monsters, no alien armada and certainly no god watching over us, there is just us.” He stopped, and looking at Amy’s face realised he had started to rant. He stroked her face gently and spoke quietly, “We’re going to have to look out for each other.”

Jacob knew very well his words sounded hollow; he wasn’t even convincing himself. He looked away as Amy’s eyes finally locked on his.

Jacob left, and as he looked back, saw Amy opening the curtains. He couldn’t help but see that the sky still burned, great billowing red and orange flames, clouds of black smoke, he had even started to smell the ash, feel the heat. He knew it could not be real; it was not what Amy saw.

Amy had told him she saw eyes, watching, watching all the time.

* * *

As Jacob drove to work, he listened to Radio 4 for reassurance. Terrible idea: it was not reassuring. The presenter John Humphrys was interviewing the Home Secretary, his tone was incredulity mixed with cynicism.

“Is that the best you can do?” Humphrys said. “Keep Calm and Carry On: really?”

“We’ve been monitoring the situation. Our scientists have been working with other nations very closely, and all are agreed that nothing has physically changed up there. There is nothing in the sky. It is an optical illusion. There is nothing to fear except fear itself.”

“Seriously, it looks pretty terrifying to me. So tell me what do you see?” Jacob laughed at this deflection.

“I’m not here to talk about what I see,” the Home Secretary said. “It’s been scientifically proven there is nothing up there.”

“So you do see something! What is it?”

“That’s not relevant here, it’s personal.”

“The public deserve to know your state of mind.”

“My state of mind is focussed on being Home Secretary, John.”

“Really? You don’t fear what you see? Well, I see a host of angels with flaming swords. And I’m a born again atheist! What do you think is really there?”

“It’s a mass hallucination.”

Typical lay people trying to make psychiatric diagnoses, thought Jacob. Pop psychology, everyone thought they were an expert.

“A mass hallucination that is different to everyone? Come on. You haven’t got a clue what’s going on have you?”

“That’s rather an unhelpful way of putting it. Our emergency planners and analysts are on top of this and have determined there is no clear and present danger, except from panic. My message is that people need to keep working, keep paying the bills, keep buying. Carry on with normal life and this will work out.”

“But how will it work out? And what are you doing about the thing in the sky? Most councils even have contingency plans for zombies for god’s sake. You say it’s been scientifically proven there is nothing up there. But you haven’t shown us any convincing proof!”

And so they argued.

As Jacob drove on, the streets were filthy, so many people had given up. Rubbish was piling up, rats and dogs ran freely. The smell of the city was a bouquet of rotting vegetable matter. At least there were fewer cars on the roads, as more people stayed at home. People felt like they were on notice. Analyzing himself, Jacob was throwing himself into his work, he was avoiding the situation before him, he was in denial, even as he was helping his patients to live with these dramatically changed circumstances, this esoteric new normal. It was too hot in the car, he was sweating. Of course the flames weren’t real, he told himself despite the evidence of his senses. It couldn’t be the flames he felt.

His first case today, Elise Ridley was a young woman who had at one point been on suicide watch, and before that self-harming. Divorced parents, who both loved their careers more than each other, who just found family life too difficult. Like so many, including his own parents.

Elise walked in haltingly, Jacob welcomed her and tried to make her comfortable, offering her a seat. As she put her coat on the back of the chair, she wore a t-shirt, and Jacob was glad to see there were no signs of scarring, or drug use on her arms. Not that she looked well, her nail varnish was deteriorating, she even picked at it when they talked. Her hair hadn’t been washed for several days either, and the rings under her eyes spoke of missed sleep.

Jacob went through his process. Pleasantries to make the patient feel at ease, questions to draw her out, probing questions to clarify, open questions to help the girl come to her own conclusions. Last time she had opened up about her family background that left her needing to find meaning through her work, but her work was so difficult. Elise lived with depression, the pressure she was under fed it, but as a teacher she had to be alert which precluded a lot of potential drug treatments. Her boyfriend lived through computer games. Jacob could not count on her boyfriend giving her adequate support, he was living in his own fantasies.

“He sees an armada of spaceships,” Elise said. “Star Destroyers, Tie Fighters, from Star Wars. Poor Glyn, he’s afraid to go up his crane now. He’s taken two weeks off work in the hope all this will blow over. I wish I could share his optimism.”

“And what do you see?” This was the crux. Despite his questions, she had not explained what she had seen, but it had triggered a new episode of depression. She hadn’t been able to face work or leave the house, apart from this appointment for two weeks.

She shook her head.

“Elise, if you don’t tell me, then I can’t help you.”

The girl twisted her necklace around her fingers and looked around, and at the window. The blinds were closed.

“I mean I don’t know. I haven’t looked.”

“How could you avoid it?” Jacob had been unable to avoid his own hallucinations. He could smell the smoke, feel the warmth of the flames even now.

“I’m afraid to look.”

“You can’t face something if you don’t look at it.”

How could the girl not look, did she have no natural curiosity? The session ended without any agreement. They arranged another appointment for a week’s time.

Jacob opened the blind an inch and peeked out. The sky was still on fire, even though the online weather report showed it was a cold fresh morning. He went back to the positive anchors: his desk, his framed qualifications, his orderly stationery. Limited comfort when the sky was burning. Jacob picked up the phone. He had fifteen minutes until his next appointment.

With just five minutes until the next appointment, Jacob called Amy. The next appointment would have to wait. On the other end of the phone Amy sounded obviously frightened. She was still at home.

“It’s the eyes,” Amy said. “They’ve got closer.”

“You think the world’s ending.”

“Jacob for god’s sake, open your office blinds. Look out the window.”

Jacob looked outside, and to his horror, the flames were closer. He had even started to feel the heat through the window.

“Amy. I’m coming home.”

As he left the office, he spoke to the receptionist. “Katie,” he said. “Tell the egomaniac he’ll have to reschedule. It’ll do him good.”

Jacob kept his eyes on the rubbish-strewn pavement, then on the road when he drove, but the flames were low enough now that everything had an orange tinge, and he felt the heat rising in the car. The way was diverted because of the rioting, then the traffic just stopped. The route was blocked by abandoned cars, scattered like discarded toys. Jacob could smell ashes now, the heat was so close he was sweating uncontrollably and he wondered how long it would be until his exposed skin started to blister. He got out of the car and walked purposefully, avoiding eye contact with any of the increasingly desperate people in their own private hells, looking skyward or looking at the floor. Some stumbled around with eyes closed, or even blindfolded. One poor wretch lying in a shop doorway had blinded himself, pencils gruesomely sticking out of his eyes.

Jacob’s mobile rang. No, not now. He had to get back to Amy and could not get involved with a call. He clicked to cut the call off, without seeing who it was.

Walking on, he gritted his teeth. He was only a few miles from home. He felt the heat on his skin now, saw it started to blister. He could smell his own flesh cooking. He had to get home.

Jacob found the curtains drawn when he got home. Amy was visibly shaken, as she poured him a whisky. He looked down at his blistered, shaking hands. Amy did not seem to notice the state of his hands.

“What happened?” Jacob said.

“There are mouths now, as well as the eyes. They won’t stop talking. They say terrible things. Obscene things. And the smell… What is it all about?” Amy said. “Why do we all see something different. If we at least saw the same thing, the same fears maybe we could all face them together. But this. We’re all so alone.”

Jacob nodded, and necked his whisky, then checked his voicemail. It was a young woman’s voice, distant as if she was speaking from another world.

“I’m sitting here by the river,” she said. God. It was Elise Ridley. That lost young woman. How did she get his number? “Everyone is acting like it’s the end of the world. They’re so afraid. They’re just running into the river, jumping off the bridge. But I don’t see anything. The sky is just the sky. I can see the sun in a break in white clouds. There’s nothing to fear. And I think I’m the most alone person in the world.”

Jacob’s face crumbled with despair and Amy grasped his hand.

“You can’t fix it all Jacob. You never could. Not even us. But bless you for trying.”

Jacob switched the phone off and poured himself another whisky, as he felt himself burning, saw the smoke, smelled his flesh cooking. He was resigned now, as he burned he accepted it was too late to save anyone else as he could not even save himself. He would go gentle into that good night. He closed his eyes, the noise in the background did not matter any more.

M.M. Lewis has been widely published in the independent press, including the British Fantasy Society Journal, Kind of a Hurricane Press anthologies and recently won the Theaker’s Quarterly short fiction contest. M.M. Lewis lives by the sea in South West England.


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Photo by Michael Held