I picked up my pace, as much as I could after a night of walking along this dark, windy road. I would have broken into a run if I had thought it would actually do anything for me, but I realized that no matter how much I twisted the maths in my head, that I was not going to make it to the crossroads I was heading for in time. And I still stumbled forward, at a rate that was getting me nowhere at the same time it sent jolts through my ankles and knees, that were annoyed at a night of having to dodge into the crumbly gravel and ditches off the shoulder of the road whenever farm equipment or a car full of probably inebriated teens went past. Not that I could blame them too much, travellers weren't expected on these roads late at night. And that is why I had selected this area. It was an actual rural, out of the way farming region, and one of the few that I could reach via public transit. A narrow road full of pre-dawn farming equipment movement was what I was looking for, and had seemed charming at first. But the fact that I was so far from home, and that the road wasn't easy to negotiate at all, was what had gotten me into my current predicament.
My current predicament was that the sun was going to rise soon. I kept tables of this type of thing, along with a digital watch that I nervously checked every three minutes. The fact that the eastern sky was now a bright grey and that the birds chirping was getting as loud as the dense coastal foliage they nested in were pretty good signs too. And this was a large danger for me, because I could not be out in the sun. I could already feel the pulling and burning in the sensitive skin around my eyes, although I knew it was probably still psychosomatic at this point. I also felt my eyes water up, although whether that was sensitivity to the beginning of sunlight, or merely me starting to break down in tears, I didn't know. The stretch of straight road I was walking down came to an end, and looked to be going into another round of turns and climbs, beyond which I might find the small crossroads town where my little rural bus would stop in its early morning run to the county seat, where I would then find a bus going into the big city. And at the very least, the foliage would protect my skin for a few more moments. But as much I was getting my hopes up, I knew that I was at least four miles away from where I wanted to be.
But as I did turn the corner, I saw something that eased my mind, at least a little. Next to a rutted gravel driveway with a gate covered over by blackberry bushes, there was a little shelter, of the kind that children used to wait for the school bus in. It looked uncomfortable enough, and I didn't exactly relish waiting huddled up in a drafty, damp perhaps rotten and centipede infested structure throughout the day while waiting for the sun to go back down, but it beat the alternative of what would happen to me when the sun fully crested the hill. So I hurried across the road and pulled open the door to the shed. And found myself staring directly into the eyes of a man sitting on the shed's bench.
"Hello." I said, and before thinking, "I really need to get in here, can I please?" and then it occurred to me to be surprised.
The man must have been just as surprised, and perhaps as scared, as myself.
"This isn't mine anyway, so I can't say no.", and he scooted over a bit. We could just barely avoid touching, but I wasn't as scared of being in a confined space with a strange man as I was afraid of the sun. I noticed that the small windows of the shed were well covered by thick growths of blackberry. I still pulled up my hoodie as I sat down next to him.
I usually avoid going into detail about my condition to strangers. The details were quite boring to me by this point, and I didn't like hitting people over the head with my woes. But I think this man, whoever he was, perhaps deserved a bit of explanation. "I have a condition where even normal sunlight can give me a severe sunburn in ten minutes. So I have to hide here. I didn't know this walk would take so long."
He looked at me levelly, and replied. "I just, um, needed to get off the roads. I've been hiking around here."
"Oh...I was trying to find my way back to the crossroads. I can get a bus there. But I guess I am going to have to make the evening bus. I don't even rightly know where I am now.
"Well...you aren't really anywhere, besides a few miles down from the crossroads. I was actually heading the other way from there, I've been staying by the river. And this isn't a hobby thing or something, I don't have somewhere else to stay."
I looked at him again, he could be homeless, but in this state, everyone dressed in the same baggy, worn corduroys and drab baggy hoodies whether their outdoor life was a hobby or a neccesity.
"Sorry to hear it..." I said, letting my body rest against the wooden walls, which were not quite as uncomfortable as they could be.
"Well, I am not in the shape you are. That must kinda suck, being allergic to the sun." he also slumped down. He must have been just as tired as I was.
"It is, but I am also used to it...I usually don't even have to think about it...I am usually very careful. I just planned a little bit wrong this time." My eyes started drifting downwards. I was looking at the hinges of the door, seeing how deeply rusted they were. I wondered briefly how long this structure had been abandoned. In 120 inches of rain and constant humidity, things rotted quickly near here.
"My life is the same...although lots of people wouldn't know it...but don't worry, we will find some way out of here"
I nodded, and with that, my head nodded downwards.
I woke up in the hot buzzing middle of the day, although the shelter was protecting me from the worst of it. It took me a while to realize and remember where I was, with some self-recrimination about being in such a dangerous situation, lost in the sun and falling asleep next to a total stranger. But I seemed to be still alive, and also alone. I stretched out a bit more, and rested for a moment before realizing that I was very thirsty. I reached for my water bottle and drank much of what was left. Then I thought about what to do next. I was kind of stuck in one place, and that one place was a bench in a shed. I took out my bus schedule with the well creased edges and checked it yet again, to reassure myself that I could walk out this evening. I could, this far into autumn the end of rush hour was more or less after dark. I might have to walk in a bit of sunlight, and hope that it would only give me a sunburn, and not any of the secondary effects. The details of the biochemistry weren't important, but the cascade effect could cause many bad things to happen to me. It was unseasonably warm, but that also meant that it was strangely enough not actually raining out. No rain was good, I imagined it meant that the centipedes wouldn't swarm out. But it was getting pretty hot in here, and I didn't really have anyway to pass the time except to hide from the sun and make guesses about weather and walking speeds over and over again. I hoped that I would get some cloud cover before I headed out, although the doctors said that clouds didn't have that much of an effect on UV, my encounters with overcast days always ended up slightly better for me. After some time fruitlessly wondering about these things, a knock came on the door of the shed.
"Who is it?" I asked in a weak voice.
"It's me again.", which seemed to mean the man who had been here earlier today. We somehow managed to get the door open, and he came in, holding some bags. "Fried eggs and hash browns"
I opened up my bag and started eating "very kind of you", shovelling food in with a plastic fork. He handed me a used soda bottle filled with water, which I drank more of. I decided not to worry about the fact that I would have to go the bathroom, and decided instead to shovel greasy food into my mouth, and gulp water. I was hungrier and thirstier than I realized. It had been years since I had let myself get into a situation like this.
"Thank you for coming back." I said.
"I didn't really have anything else to do, I will head out tonight at the same time as you...I was thinking for calling for help for you, but didn't know if you wanted that."
"I didn't really...not for any specific reason. Um...and you...you aren't, um,..."
"Oh, don't worry, I don't have any criminal record for anything besides getting picked up for sleeping in ditches. But I get nervous sometime, when I seem to be the only non-white person in town."
I looked at him closer. I hadn't noticed him being other than white before.
"Ah, you are giving me that look. I forgot. Uh, the technical term is Mulungeon. I don't suppose you know what that is...?"
I didn't, anymore than he probably knew what free radical damage from a UV-split ester linkage was.
"That is one term for it...although the history is um, unknown. My ancestors were native, black and white"
I looked at him closer and some of his features, such as is cheekbones and broadnose, jumped out at me as not of European descent. I wondered how I had missed this before.
"It causes problems for me, sometimes. Also, I am not living the life I am supposed to. What about you...you don't seem to be so used to sleeping in sheds."
Much as with my health condition, I didn't usually go into detail about my financial condition. It was boring to me, mostly.
"well, there aren't a lot of jobs that I can hold down...so somehow I ended up translating German. I can do it at night. I am not German, I just got good enough at the language that I can make money translating simple things. It pays my bills, mostly. I don't really get out and do things very often. "
"German, hmmm?" he smiled, and dug around in his pack and pulled out a very well used copy of The Glass Bead Game. An odd enough coincidence, and one that would make for a pleasant surprise if I wasn't already stuck in an odd situation.
"Do you like it?" I asked, because that is what you asked.
"Oh, it tends to drag a bit. I found it in a free pile, and decided that I would be the first hippie to read something by Hesse that wasn't Siddhartha or Steppenwolfe.
We both laughed a little at that. And then we finally started really talking. I won't say that our conversation flowed amazingly and we clicked instinctively. I won't even say that I could always follow what we were talking about, since I still had a hard edge of fatigue and occasionally the tickling feeling that my brain instantly translated into centipedes running over me. But still we talked for a long while the different places we had been. He had many more chances to travel than I had, so I was interested to hear about how crowded and crazy Houston was, where he had been a janitor at the Astrodome, and of what was life like in Browning, Montana, where he found out that his ambition in a teepee was less than appreciated. He seemed interested in my life as well, although I of course didn't find it particularly interesting. I talked about the different ways I had arranged to live without going out in the sun. Like most people, he was surprised that I didn't find a nighttime life scary. People are scared by what they are not used to, and I was very used to the night and the dark.
And at last the sky started to darken. It wasn't totally safe for me to go outside, but I was impatient enough that I picked up my pack and announced my intention to find the crossroads. He volunteered to go with me, as I knew he would. I pulled the hoodie over my eyes and started walking, with him by my side. Seeing things in the daylight, even the fading daylight, was a novelty for me, and the crisp autumn air invigorated me after spending so much time in the closed, hot shed. My muscles were sore, but they quickly relaxed as I picked up my pace. And I didn't notice any reaction to the sunlight, yet. The walk was very short: although the miles had been a matter of incredible length this morning, this evening it was only a matter of a brisk half hour walk. The crossroads town was exactly that: a gas station on one corner, a grocery/convenience store on another corner, and a post office on a third. I found the sign for the bus, and my companion waited with me silently until it pulled up. I was checking and rechecking my schedule, ready to run after the bus if it didn't stop. But it did, right on schedule, and I climbed aboard. There were two other people on the bus, both looking asleep. The bus driver was an old man with a thick white beard, and he was listening to Robert Johnson. Which worked for me, nothing would reassure me more of someone's intent to stop for someone then if they were listening to Robert Johnson.
In the days of social networking and the like, I might have become lifelong pseudo-friends with the man I met in that shed. I sometimes wonder what that would be like, but I content myself with memories of that one afternoon of improbable cheerfulness in what could have been one of my most miserable times ever.