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And After That, the Dark
By Hughes, Charlotte
Avon BooksISBN: 038078453X
I hadn't been asleep long that night when I heard it: someone moving stealthily about the house, causing the ancient wood floors to creak and groan like an old shrimp boat on choppy water. I tensed. I didn't like noises in the night. Even though I was now an adult, I hated dark hallways and shadowy corners because some childish part of me feared lurking figures, awful things that might reach out and hurt me. Shadow people, I called them. I'd always had an active imagination.
Suddenly I thought of Molly and wondered if the sounds might be coming from her room. My niece had threatened to split on more than one occasion.
I kicked off the covers and climbed out of the bed, moving swiftly but silently to the hall where a single night-light cast a soft glow to guide Molly, should she make a bathroom run during the night. I listened. Silence. It was eerie. Finally, I couldn't stand it anymore. "Molly?" I whispered. "Is that you?" No answer, only the steady beating of my heart and the rumble of my stomach. I'd been too upset at dinner to eat. Molly and I had argued again, this time because I refused to let her ride with a group of high school kids to a rock concert in Charleston, two hours away.
I wanted to get along with the girl, but after eight months of living under the same roof, we were still butting heads like two billygoats tangled up in a clothesline. These were the times I mostresented my sister for committing suicide. And I blamed myself.
I crossed the hall to the girl's door and peeked in. Thankfully, she was asleep in her bed, her face illuminated by the small lamp on her night table. People said we looked alike: same light brown hair, green eyes and slender build. Those who didn't know us mistook us for mother and daughter.
I remembered the first time I'd seen her, a bony three-year-old with stringy hair and a runny nose. I'd just completed my junior year in college and was home for the summer. After a four year absence, Lurlene had blown into town like a bad wind and claimed she was divorcing Molly's father. We hadn't even heard she'd married.
At three, the child was still in diapers and taking a night bottle. My mother and I would clean her up for bed, then watch in mixed fascination and disbelief as Molly rinsed her bottle and filled it with cold milk from the refrigerator. So while Lurlene, busy as a one-armed paperhanger, was trying to find a new man, my mother and I were trying to convince Molly to use the new musical potty-chair and take milk from a Bugs Bunny cup. We'd just about succeeded when Lurlene met a trucker from Tennessee. Quick as a flash, they were gone, without so much as a fare-thee-well. I had often wondered if I'd ever see my niece again.
The next time I saw Molly, she was ten years old and still scrawny. Lurlene reminded me of a crumpled and faded prom corsage; she claimed that her truck driver had beaten her regularly. She and Molly moved into my parents' house, and I was thankful I had my own place. Lurlene worked as a cocktail waitress at a place called the Thirsty Gullet until she met and married DeWayne Tompkins, an ambitious medical supplies salesman who drove a Town Car. We were thrilled with the match. DeWayne obviously thought Lurlene was the best thing since indoor plumbing, and he was the closest thing Molly'd ever had to a father.
They bought an old house, a turn-of-the-century low-country home with verandahs and six fireplaces and a large attic that smelled like mothballs and rat turds. They set about fixing it up, and we were confident it would work out. But Lurlene had a hard time sitting home nights while her husband traveled. It wasn't long before DeWayne caught her with another manHarvey Freeman, who owned Budget Cars, a used-car dealership across the street from the Piggly Wiggly. Next thing we knew, DeWayne had packed his bags and moved out, and Lurlene, hard as she tried, couldn't convince him to forgive her and come back home.
Lurlene then went on a partying spree that took her as far as Charleston and Savannah. My niece was left to fend for herself, and no matter how hard I tried to convince my sister that she was ruining their lives, she ignored me. That's when I filed a report with the Department of Social Services. In the meantime, DeWayne hired a lawyer and had Lurlene served with divorce papers. I suppose it was too much. Several days later, my sister hanged herself in that smelly attic. Unfortunately, Molly had found her.
As I gazed down at my niece now, I remembered the three-year-old who'd captured my heart all those years ago. I had so many dreams for her, but right now the two of us didn't seem to agree on much of anything. Despite our differences, though, we did have one thing in common: our fear of the dark, which explained the night-lights in every room and the lamp beside Molly's bed which was left to burn all night.
The child was indeed a contradiction to herself. While she could debate with the best of them the nonexistence of God, she never failed to leave the house without tucking the small crucifix my mother had given her into her pocket. Whether she believed or not was a mystery to us all, but I suppose after the life she'd had she wasn't taking any chances. Sometimes I ached for Molly, for the fact that she'd never had much of a childhood. I specifically remembered the night my own childhood had come to a screeching halt ... Continues...
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