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Home Before Dark

The house was only half painted. Coming down the path, Mae and Stella saw the painted half first, and Mae's heart thumped. Suddenly, without thinking, she took Stella's swinging hand. Stella was no more accustomed to being touched than her mother was to touching, and her impulse was to pull away and explore a kind of bursting freedom she felt in her own body.

She can't hold me back anymore, Stella thought, feeling the pressure of Mae's hand on hers. This is the last time she'll tell me to be still or quiet or patient. There won't be any more stuffy old car to sit in half the day, while houses go by and I'm wondering what it's like to be living somewhere, anywhere, where I can get to know people who aren't leaving tomorrow.

The house was before them, a shotgun house with a kitchen attached to the back of the side porch and a narrow, low porch on the front. This is where I'm going to live, Stella thought, and let her hand rest in her mother's.

Mae walked slowly and Stella stayed back with her, although she wanted to run and jump on the porch, look into the window, push open the door, and step inside. It's her house, too, Stella thought. It's the best house I can remember, probably the best house she's ever had.

Mae tightened her hand around Stella's thin fingers. "I know it's a handout," she said softly, "but it's all right, ain't it, Stella?"

"Sure it is," Stella said. "We can do lots of things to it. Anne's got magazines about what to do in houses to make them nice. I saw some of them. Pretty rooms with books and statues and wallpaper, like Anne has."

"We can't have none of that," Mae snapped.

I can, Stella thought angrily. I can do anything now and your saying no doesn't matter at all.

They reached the porch and stood in front of it looking at the one side still gleaming in its coat of paint and the other side, defeated, weather-beaten brown. It looked like a half-made-up face.

"We can get some more paint. I bet I can paint it right by myself," Stella said, hardly surprised at the house's double nature.

"We can't do nothing like that. Newton'll have to get it done if it gets done. It's his house. You remember that, Stella. Everything you can see belongs to your daddy's brother." Looking at the house had taken the life out of Mae, and she released Stella's hand slowly as if she'd died standing there.

"You coming in?" Stella wiped her damp hand on her shorts. She felt clammy with excitement and couldn't help hoping that her mother would let her explore the house alone, free from the doubts that always seemed to color Mae's thinking.

"You go ahead." Mae sat on the porch with her face and shoulders out of the sun. "Well, go on," she said when Stella hesitated. "Go on."

The door swung open without a creak and Stella stepped inside. Because the room was bare, it seemed very large to her. In her mind, it was an empty, dusty world of filtered light waiting for her to clean it up and fill it with her whole life. She walked slowly into the next room and then the next, through shades of brown and gray and sun-bright white, down the narrow side porch into the kitchen and tiny bathroom. Then she turned and, looking back at where she'd been, saw how good living there could be.

She had been born a squalling knot of tight, unexplainable longings that screamed "I will be" to a world that seemed to ignore her, that gave her no safety but the battered shell of an automobile and an armrest on which to pound her silent anger. Now she had a place to store the secret Stella and draw her longings out slowly, carefully, one by one, and keep them safe. She would never desert this place, never let it slip away as her daddy had. They could all vanish, and she would stay, because already what counted for her was here, inside walls that didn't move in the dark or carry her somewhere as strange and unwelcoming as the last place she'd been.