Home Before Dark
When catastrophe strikes, Stella Madison is forced to jump out of her quiet life of retirement and back into the swamps of the working world. Just for a little while. Except things have changed out there. Before she can get in and out without trouble, she gets tangled up in the kind of nightmare you only see on TV. Is she the victim or the criminal? But suddenly even that doesn't matter. Because any way you look at it… it's murder.
When opportunity first knocked on Stella Madison’s door, she thought it was the devil. Had to be. That’s because an unexpected change in circumstances was the last thing a person in her situation would look for. But there it was. Glaring up at her from the letter she had just opened to read with her second cup of morning coffee. “Dear Ms. Madison, we regret to inform you that the building in which you are living…”
But why go into all that. It wasn’t the real problem, anyway. The real problem—not counting the emotional stress and strain of moving at her age (a women in her sixties!)—was the fact that she hadn’t a penny beyond her monthly expenses to do it with. She lived on a fixed income. And even though she had always kept current with her driver’s license, she didn’t own a vehicle. Hadn’t driven herself anywhere in years. It made her wonder how she would go about even looking for a new place, much less move all of her things into one.
Stella had a lot of things.
To be perfectly honest, she had accumulated about twice as many things as she originally came with, ten years ago. Any way you looked at it, she was in a pickle, and with only thirty days to get out of it. Thirty days! Could big companies really do that to people? Well, they could. So, obviously, she needed a plan.
After having lived in her own familiar world of comfort and safety for so long, the thought of taking a job was appalling. But desperate times called for desperate measures. She could endure anything for a short time, and this situation was only temporary. All right, so she had vowed never to set foot in that crazy rat-race of a working world, again. Things were upside down out there! Not to mention the natural disasters, where people like her were not only overlooked, but got trampled.
Which is why Stella had made it her priority not to depend on anyone but herself.
And, the thought of having to answer to somebody (probably half her age) after having grown so independent, was about the most distasteful thing she could think of. But she would just have to get a grip on herself and buck up. The trouble was, it had been over ten years since Stella had “worked” at anything.
What on earth could she do?
She had always been good with children…only she didn’t have the strength and energy to meet the demands of kids these days. Not to mention it was now illegal to discipline any of them. Working at the local coffee shop was out, too, as she had never been fast enough with numbers and cash machines to keep people happy. Selling something was not an option. The only things she had that would be of the slightest value to anyone else were books. Stella loved books and had spent the greater portion of her life collecting for a personal library that now numbered in the thousands.
There were not only bookcases in every room of her small, one bedroom apartment that overlooked the sea (well, it was only tiny sliver of sea, actually, that disappeared entirely when the fog was in), but also shelves that ran throughout the apartment, about a foot below the ceiling. All categorized by the Dewy Decimal System.
Which suddenly gave her an idea.
She could work at the county library. It was within walking distance, and she was as familiar with it as her own kitchen. What’s more, it was quiet… which meant a lot to her. She even knew some of the staff. Which—as it turned out—was the only reason she was able to land any kind of a job there at all. Never mind that she had once been a schoolteacher, or that she loved to read. According to Ester Fergessen, who spoke up for her, the Clerk I positions were the only ones that ever came open anymore. Unless someone above that either died or retired. A Clerk I position was a person who restocked shelves. For an extremely minimum wage.
So it was that Stella Madison, with her lively blue eyes and striking white hair that tucked neatly under, began working five and a half hours a day at the Witcomb Ritter Library. Four days a week, three days before the end of the next pay period. It wasn’t until after she had been formally hired that she found out Clerk I people were only allowed part-time. Something about benefits. To be honest, Stella would have been hard-pressed to put in a full day at any job. Considering her situation. And the fact that it was imperative that she be home before dark. (Her number one rule for staying safe was that she always got home before dark. Safety was something a woman alone had to be constantly aware of. There were desperate people who prowled around in the city after dark.)
Her love of books carried her through. Which was a good thing, because according to her calculations, it seemed hardly possible to pay off the cost of this moving thing before her hundredth birthday. A thought that made her wonder if the entire experience wasn’t making her rather cynical…an attitude that eventually led to trouble.
The truth is, Stella had problems from the very first day.
Not with any of the procedures. She knew that Dewey Decimal System like the back of her hand. Not with the computers, either: she had been using one of her own for years, now. It made her feel like something of a world traveler to exchange emails with friends on other continents. She was even rather proud of her social abilities. Which is why it came as something of a shock to discover she couldn’t “get along” very well with the rest of the staff. By the end of the first week, she was sure they were all morons. Including her friend, Ester.
Stella’s first confrontation with a staff member happened on her very first day, in what later came to be known as “the egg incident.”
“Is there a problem?” The senior librarian and supervisor of the shift looked away from her computer screen and peered over the rims of her reading glasses. She was a tall imposing woman, well dressed in a forest-colored business suit and black turtle-neck sweater. Her dark hair was twisted up neatly in one of those fashionable clips Stella admired but had never been able to get the hang of.
“Well, yes, Ms. Thatcher, there is.” Stella stepped into the office and placed a book with a green, nondescript cover on the desk. “While I was re-shelving the six hundreds—the cooking section, that is—I found this copy of The Egg And I by Betty MacDonald.”
“And where else should a book about eggs be, if not in the cooking section?”
For a split second Stella’s blue eyes widened with surprise before she assumed the woman had simply been too caught up in what she was doing to hear her right. “You see that’s the point. I happen to own a copy of this book, myself, and it has nothing to do with cooking. It’s about a woman who married a chicken rancher and the miserable years they went through before their divorce. There isn’t a recipe in the whole thing.”
There were a few moments of awkward silence between them before Ms. Thatcher broke off eye-contact and busied herself thumbing through the pages a few moments. “Obviously a computer glitch,” she finally pronounced. “The computers do all the cataloguing these days, and it’s strictly by word association. But I see this was published way back in the forties… hasn’t been checked out since 1989. Still has the signature slip we used before we automated.” She closed the cover with a decisive thump, “Should have been turned over to FL years ago. Thank you, Stella. I’ll take care of it.”
“What is FL?”
“Friends of the Library. A nationwide organization that handles the sale of all our discards.”
“Discards!” Stella gasped (she couldn’t help it). “But this was a beautifully written book—a bestseller. They even made a movie out of it starring Fred MacMurry and Claudette Colbert!”
“That may be. But it’s a new age, isn’t it, and this is hopelessly out-dated. I assure you our shelves are loaded down with a more than adequate supply of information on divorce. Or even chicken ranches for that matter. With all the latest and up-to-date information from around the world.”
Around the world. Stella felt something like a balloon that was slowly losing its air, and stared for a few moments at the tips of her sensible leather slip-ons that were peeking out from under her gray wool slacks. What about all the worlds that no longer existed anymore? How did one go about traveling to them? Suppose a person wanted to “time travel” to experience a different age altogether? See what it was like back then. Maybe even pick up some useful bit of information that is no longer common knowledge these days. And how else was one supposed to become intimately acquainted with great minds if librarians could lop off the connection to the very works where they lived? Why that—Stella shuddered—was practically murder!
No wonder the young minds of today weren’t interested in such things anymore. These lovely things were no longer a part of their life experience. Not by their own choice, as some would have us believe, but by the choice of some (some senior librarian!) who had made the choice for them. Now the children of the future must evolve out of the narrow-minded channels of a single generation instead of having the freedom to tap into the wisdom of the ages, right from their own neighborhoods.
“Outrageous!” Stella’s indignation at the very thought of children being denied this ecstasy boiled over while she backed out of the office. As if Ms. Thatcher had suddenly revealed herself as a snake. “I’m going to—to formally complain to the authorities!”
Slamming the door on the way out was an accident.
The next confrontation occurred three days after that and was referred to (in the subsequent deposition) as “the coffee altercation.” If it could be said that an incident was something one did, while an altercation was something one did to someone else, Stella should have realized by the very nature of these events that things were escalating.
Only she didn’t.
Question 1: Do you relate to Stella's feelings about "all the good books" being taken out of libraries, or do you see the shift as having a natural logic for our changing world? Outside of personal book collecting, is there anything that makes up for this loss?
Answer 1: While this is a personal opinion question, I will say for the record, that I agree with Stella.
Question 2: 2. Can you see any alternative Stella might have taken as opposed to the one she chose for so many valuable books being "discarded?"
Answer 2: Another personal opinion. Mine is to possibly have books "rotating throughout the library system" so that people who would like access to them (and more importantly, children who aren't aware, yet, what they like or dislike) may have opportunity to browse through these treasures at designated times.
Question 3: Do you believe there are ever times when standing up for a cause includes going against the law to do it? What sort of times might those be?
Answer 3: Definitely, when it comes to moral, or religious reasons. At the same time, I believe one must also be prepared to suffer the consequences if they decide to do that.
Question 4: The Colonel did not necessarily agree with Stella (or even like her) until he helped her. Have there ever been any instances in your life where you didn't particularly care for someone until you later found out something about them that you admired? How did that affect you?
Answer 4: This is a "discussion stimulater" that will hopefully encourage people to share some of their personal experiences with the group.
Question 5: Do you agree, or disagree with the Colonel's philosophy that God will help you out of any situation, if you call out to Him during your time of trouble? Why? Have you ever had any of these kinds of experiences, personally?
Answer 5: I do, because the Bible tells us He will. And, yes, I have had many personal experiences with this.
Question 6: Is there anything that you can think of in your own life that -- even though there was a "logical explanation for it" -- worked itself out, or was solved, after you prayed?
Answer 6: Once, again, a question to encourage people to share their personal experiences.
Question 7: Are there any strengths (or weaknesses) that you see in Stella's life, or the Colonel's) that you wish you could have in your own?
Answer 7: Personally, I wish I had a bit more of Stella's sense of responsibility. She has something of a weakness for causes, which I don't think would hurt me, either..
Question 8: Do you think there is ever a time when a weakness could actually be a good influence on someone's life? What are some examples of this in HOME BEFORE DARK??
Answer 8: Stella had a weakness for books. Yet, it was this very weakness at work that led her to finding the ultimate solutions to her problems.
Question 9: Abraham Lincoln once said that "Evil flourishes when good men do nothing…" Do you agree, or disagree with this statement?
Answer 9 I agree.
Question 10: What did you enjoy most about HOME BEFORE DARK? Was there anything that bothered you about it?
Answer 10: Another discussion stimulator.