There are people who walk in darkness, people who sit in darkness, and people who hide in darkness -- Melanie Blake was not one of those people. There was only one time in her life that she saw any value in darkness whatsoever -- but it didn’t last long.
"Come on," she muttered to herself, but then saw the white smoke of her breath dance against the night around her and she clamped her lips together. One more glance over her shoulder, one more long look toward the neighbor’s house and she was ready for it to work this time. She shoved again and the window moved upward slowly, the same way she used to fall into a deep slumber after working all night.
She was unprepared for the sadness that struck her when she flung her leg over the window sill and into the house. It threatened to stall her mission. However, with her leg dangling in the balance between a tarnished past and a colorless future, the glimmer of the hallway nightlight reflected off of her white sock.
Can I ever, just once in my life, think of everything? She thought to herself as she slipped into what seemed to be a child’s bedroom and tucked her body against the wall. She took a deep breath, focusing all thoughts outside of herself. From the side, and with one hand, she slid the window down into place as if she had had no trouble getting it raised.
"Now, focus. Think." She whispered at herself rather harshly. Gently the sounds of the outside night faded, allowing the indoor noises to confront her. The furnace was running; she welcomed the warmth, but shook her head willing it to shut off and stop masking the noises she really needed to hear.
Doesn’t matter, I don’t have time to wait. She headed toward the light in the hallway. One peek out the door and she saw the kitchen at the end of the hall.
"It can’t be this easy," she stepped out into the hallway and shut the nightlight off along the way. Somehow the dullness of the darkened house was comforting. As she neared the kitchen, the smell of bleach caused the blood to drain from her face. She swallowed and cleared her throat, regretting it as soon as she did.
Like a useless athlete who runs to show off his new shoes, a fuzzy, growling mutt on short legs came at her quickly. At first she was surprised that she could hear it’s bark over her pounding heart, but his gray, wagging tail was so inviting she automatically knelt down and let him smell her. At least the barking stopped, she thought. "Again, Melanie, can you try to think of every detail next time?" She signed to herself and patted the mutt on the head. "I gotta get outta here, little fella. Go on, now. Go lay down," she told him.
He followed her to the refrigerator, and wagged his tail happily, as if inviting her to help herself to whatever she needed. She paused. She couldn’t help but smile down at him.
It was as if her whole life had been a series of small chances and unknown quantities that would have caused the most enlightened people in the world to cower and run for cover, and, the truth was, she knew it. One somber choice after another had led her to this dim moment, the most shaded decision she had ever made in her life.
She knelt down again and touched his drab head. "You understand, don’t you?" She asked him. "You really get it." She was about to let herself laugh, when she saw some car lights cross the inkiness of the room. Without another thought, she opened the refrigerator and squinting at the glaring light that poured over her, she clutched a brand new gallon of milk and a carton of eggs. Shutting it fast, she searched the countertop for her final item . . . there. She lunged toward the bread box. There it was, just as she had suspected, a fresh loaf of whole wheat.
With large steps, she sprinted toward the child’s room and raised the window. A quick look outside and she saw the door of the detached garage closing as the noise of life and family replaced the sound of the furnace running. Dropping the items into the grass, she jumped out the window. The eggs, she thought, what are you doing?
Grabbing the food, she found cover once again along the smoky-colored side of the garage and melted into the darkness, wishing her skin had more melanin than ever before in her life. She heard voices then, as if heads were looking out that window she had left open.
She held her breath in order to gain control of her racing heart and took the final steps toward the ally. She stepped into the ally, heading toward the bright lights of her apartment complex. She really wished she had brought a plastic grocery bag with her. Next time I will think of everything, she thought.
Racing up three flights of steps to apartment 3C, she stepped through her backdoor into her kitchen.
"Hey, Sunshine!" She smiled at her daughter, coloring at the tiny table with only three plastic-covered chairs. Melanie set the food on the stove top and took off her gloves.
The nine-year-old answered her mother without looking up. "I’m hungry."
"Good," Melanie said, "How do scrambled eggs and toast sound?"
"Sure," the girl shrugged and chose a new color.
"Where’s your dad?" Melanie asked.
"Still sleeping. Do you have to work tonight?"
"Yeah, I gotta hurry." Melanie looked at the clock on the wall.
"But you didn’t sleep today."
"I laid down for a while, I’ll be fine."
"Hey, what’s that?" The girl got up from the table and peered out the backdoor to the gray house across the ally. "There’s police cars over there. Look, mom."
"Yeah," Melanie put her arm around her daughter and watched the people across the ally move back and forth from the garage to the house, looking around, searching.
"It’s probably nothing." Melanie said. "I’m sure no one’s hurt."
"How do you know?"
"I just know. Mom’s have a way of knowing some things. You know that." Melanie gave her a squeeze and a quick kiss on the head. "Go wake up your dad and tell him it’s almost time to eat."
The youngster rolled her eyes, "Go wake up dad. That‘s always my job. A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest . . ."
"What did you say?" Melanie stopped her daughter. "Where’d you hear that?"
"Grandma reads to me."
"What does she read to you?"
"The Bible. Grandma says I need to know what‘s in that book."
"Really? How does it go again?" Melanie could feel the dingy weight of sadness covering her again. She reached for the countertop to steady herself.
The child spoke in perfect rhythm as she repeated her words, "A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest -- and poverty will come on you like a bandit."
"Poverty . . . a bandit?" Melanie could hardly choke out the words.
"Mom, what’s wrong?"
"I need to sit down." She reached for one of the plastic-covered chairs. "I feel a little dizzy, my stomach . . . " With that Melanie turned to the sink and wretched.
"What is going on out here?" Her husband’s thundering voice filled the tiny room. "Those stupid lights from the cop cars across the ally woke me up. What are you doing?"
"Mom’s sick again," the child stayed close by her mother, her hand on her back.
"Not again. Com’on, Melanie, can’t you just fix supper and go to work? Why all the theatrics everyday?"
Melanie took a towel, wet it and pressed it against her face. She turned slowly and looked at his frame filling the doorway between the kitchen and the living room. "I’m not going to work tonight." She scowled at him.
"What?" He yelled. "How we gonna pay the rent if you keep calling in ‘cause you can’t sleep and you can’t eat? Poor, little Melanie. This is getting stupid. It’s just stupid! You’re going to work!"
Melanie felt his words hit her flesh like bricks. She had been here before many times. She clutched her stomach and stared at the milk, the eggs and the bread.
"Great, you got groceries." He said, turning to go lay down. "Call me when it’s ready."
Melanie pressed her hands onto her daughter’s shoulders and brought her face to face with herself. She could see her little Sunshine was pale and exhausted.
"Quickly and without a sound, go get your favorite blanket and teddy bear. Then go wait for me by the backdoor."
The girl nodded, "Should I get my shoes on, too?"
"Yes, and your coat."
Melanie shut off the light in the kitchen, welcoming the invisibility it gave her. She heard the sound of the TV come on from the bedroom. Seems louder than usual, she thought. Without wasting another minute she reached to the back of the bottom cabinet and pulled out a can of mixed nuts. From the bottom of it, she retrieved a $20 dollar bill and shoved it in her pocket. As she put her gloves back on, her daughter returned and stood by the door, fear darkening her eyes.
"Mom loves you so much," she whispered. She picked up the milk, the eggs and the bread and opened the door. They moved quickly down the stairs and slid into the darkness, crossing the ally just as the police cars left the gray house. Melanie led her daughter to the shadows of the dark garage and warned her to stay still and quiet. The girl breathed a fearful, "OK."
"Stay here." Melanie snuck to the backdoor where the family had entered from the garage and laid the food on the step. She rang the bell and ran for the other side of the garage.
Without waiting around for an answer, she took her daughter’s hand and returned to the ally. But instead of crossing it, she took bold steps right down the middle of it. She pulled the girl close to herself to block out the pitch-colored cold that burned their cheeks.
"Why did you give them our food?" The girl asked. "I’m hungry."
"It’s their food. It’s not far now, Sunshine. The bus stop is just a few blocks, then I‘ll get you something to eat."
"Where we going?"
"To find some place warm and safe and full of brightness and color and . . ." Melanie’s voice rang out in the blotchy nighttime sky.
"Grandma‘s?" Excitement quickened the girl’s steps.
They walked on for several blocks and came to the bus stop. Right as they saw the bus coming their way they heard a shout, "Melanie, you stupid idiot! You get on that bus and you’re never coming back."
The bus pulled up as the man ran several yards to catch them. Melanie put her daughter on the bus first and took one last look at he sprinted his out-of-shape body in their direction. I’ve never seen him run before, she thought.
She paid the fare and sat down, pulling the warmth of her daughter close to her.
"What will we do at grandma’s?"
"I’m not sure what all we‘ll be doing now. But one thing I do know for sure . . . I’m gonna think out every detail before doing anything and I’m never going to sneak around in the dark ever again."
With her eyes closed and her head back, the lights from the bus beamed down on Melanie’s face and pressed itself through her eyelids. In that moment, the soot of sadness that had been the somber mask of her existence, began to fade. A blurry outline of something grand and sparkling grew from her hazy imagination -- strangely, it looked like something she had missed for a long time -- a sweet kind of balmy rest, the kind that helps you think through the details of life.