So Give Us Light, but Take it First

Second Place winner in the 2020 Wintermute Spec-Fic Awards

The lights flickered out a week after the storms started, just before the gloom of Sunday night tipped itself over into dawn. Lightbulbs, cloaked in dust and the occasional dead gnat, sizzled at the filaments before giving way to the beeping that disconnection has gifted modern day darkness. The noise echoed through the city, gunshot cracks in miniature snuffing out electricity, followed by the wails of microwaves, digital clocks, and internet routers seeking a lifeline. But the rain didn’t stop shaking the window panes, so it was easier to just follow suit in mourning. 

We didn’t notice that the moon was gone until the final scavenged batteries had died. In the newfound silence, the weeping skies gave us pause, then vacancy. 


It took two weeks to find the exact problem, a frayed-out power line, or maybe two, or maybe thirty because of the lightning. Headlines of “HISTORIC POWER OUTAGE SWEEPS NORTHEAST” and “EMERGENCY RESPONSE UNDERWAY” and “SELLING 6V BATTERIES FOR $5” dribbled through our front door. Our neighbors’ daughter was paid by the bundle to deliver newspapers to the elderly who were afraid of slipping further into the dark. It took three more days after that for city council to send out the newsletters listing repair dates and approved accommodations for the increasingly unrelenting cloud cover. My mother lamented the inefficiency of it all and postmarked her protests daily because even if politicians aren’t gods, they were the closest ones we had to worship. 

“Thank you Laurie, of course, you too, wait just a moment, would you mind taking this letter to the post office for me on your way back?” she used to say, tucking the newspapers underneath one arm, back when the wound of living without her toaster oven was still fresh. By the end of week one, she had taken to marching down the rain-slicked streets herself, with every notion that soaking her socks through would thrust guilt into men who would never see her face. 

The first time I opened the door to Laurie, she only had one paper to hand me. “IT’S NOT JUST CLOUDY: THE MOON IS GONE, SCIENTISTS SAY.” We watched each other, but I couldn’t crack a smile. In between our hands, the rain-soaked letters began to bleed. 

The rain stopped the day after, and construction continued. My mother relented with her daily ventures  to the post office. It’s brighter now, even if the sky is empty. 


During the last week of darkness, Laurie and I let ourselves dare. The mayor’s curfew was nine, when sunset should have ended, but summer was setting in, so the light made time for leniency. 7-Eleven now opened its doors like every other second-rate pharmacy did, twelve hours a day and seven days a week, and Laurie christened it Twelve-7 for the downgrade. After nine, with no one on the streets but cats and lumps of men who found their beds on the drying park benches, she and I linked arms to pilfer. 

At twelve, we clambered back into our own windows with equal portions of stolen pears, deodorant sticks, and a pack of cigarettes. For lack of working cell phone chargers, we strung up telephones with yarn and Dixie cups and connected ourselves across the junction between two houses. With time lost to the moment, we leaned into each other’s voices, daring to let the numbers fall away until dawn brought hours back into perspective.


Swaddled in night, we are blind to even ourselves. For a moment, we are only the rise and fall of footsteps and eyelids, blinking out the personality we rub into our eyes each morning. When we retrace our steps forward, the muscle memory of concrete reforms our limbs enough to keep us steady. 

After each summertime looting, Laurie would always stop underneath the highway bridge halfway to home and press her back against the brick. I would always will myself to pretend that the dark held nothing to fear, so I held onto her, my palm curled around four of her fingers, until she grasped my wrist. Together, we became a body. 


After the lights came back on, complete with towering new fixtures meant to replicate moonlight, leaving became harder. With one guiding light missing, parents remembered where darkness fit into reality again. So they clutched their children tight against their chests, even when the new lights made the streets brighter than before. Three bulbs per post and posts every five steps made nighttime strolls stark. Underneath the glare, I imagined Laurie, with her syllables fast and bitter, scoffing at it all. 

I avoided her, at least until school days fell back into routine. It was hard to find a corner with a shadow. If I didn’t hear what she had to say, I could still try to pretend nothing had changed. But at nighttime, I wondered if she was looking at the same pocket of sky as I was. Or if she wasn’t looking at all. There wasn’t much to see anymore. Against the windowsill, my hands were cold and yellow-tinted. 


According to the temperament of human nature, the translation of “determined the most probable cause of the power loss” was that the city council hadn’t dug deep enough. The storms restarted three weeks later, and, although the lights stayed on, I let myself listen to the sound of rain and Laurie’s voice through a Dixie cup again. 


If the moon were to disappear, the tilt of the Earth would shift in accordance to a system without its gravitational pull. 

If the moon were to disappear, ocean tides would fall to a third of their magnitude. 

If the moon were to disappear, extreme precipitation would be commonplace. 

If the moon were to disappear, ecosystems would fall into disarray. 

If the moon were to disappear, life as we know it would cease to exist.  

If the moon were to disappear, we would not know where to look first. 


“Do you ever wonder why it didn’t kill us all?” I once asked Laurie over our biology textbooks, when the wind rattling the cafeteria windows became hard to ignore. 

“What, the moon thing?”


She’d been scribbling half-heartedly, with half her notebook covered in notes on the innate behavior of foraging shore crabs, the other half in smiley faces with the eyes crossed out.

“Does it matter if no one else even cares?” she huffed. “What’s a dorsal nerve?” 

I tapped my nails against the skin of a pear burrowed into a corner of my lunch box. “In the last chapter, I think,” I told her. 

So the power went out and everyone cared because it was loud, and what world did we live in if we didn’t turn to the first thing that bothered us and shout and shout and shout? But even then, there was such thing as repeated stimulation or adaptational immunity or habitual adaptation or biology was too much terminology and not enough life. 

I took a bite of the pear, sucked my tongue against my teeth, and stared at the wound I created. The term was habituation. To habituate, self-preservation was evolutionarily advantageous, but somehow altruism was too.


We should grow out of our fear of the dark by age seven, scientists say, but don’t we all fall back in? Vagabonds and criminals and the thrill of a high billowing in alleyways and kids eloping for the sake of one night—there is so much we want to leave behind. 


“Do you believe it? When they tell us about addiction?” Laurie had asked me once. Underneath the highway bridge, the city lights looked farther and dimmer, so she smoked a cigarette.

“Yeah? I thought you said we were just trying those once,” I said. 

She shrugged and blew smoke into my eyes. “Also, I thought you said you hated all the extra light,” I added, coughing and waving at the smoldering end of the cigarette that cast an orange glow on our faces. 

“No, I didn’t. I mean. I don’t know. I do, but not when it’s small like this, or when it’s mine. Do you know what I mean?” 

I could taste the smoke in the distance between our lips. I believed in addiction. But somehow, with her, I could pretend that I didn’t.  

“Not really, I don’t.” 


Laurie used to lie in my backyard during the summer weekends, when she was six and I was seven. My mother kept up the flowerbeds but never locked the fence, so she would slip in when the sun was fading and spread herself across the grass, face up to the sky. 

She didn’t tell me her name the first time I saw her outside my window, only “Your lawn is nice.” Sometimes I’d let myself sneak out the backdoor to join her in feeling sleek grass against my shoulder blades. She wasn’t afraid of anything except drowning, but whenever she stared at the night sky hard enough, she’d try to explain how those tiny specks of light made her feel safe, steady, balanced—so I think she feared something more than water. 

She’d list her favorite constellations and map the shifting of the stars with splayed fingers, and I’d watch the crescent grin of the moon wax wider. We’d usually pad home in an hour, but the first full moon swayed me to stay long after Laurie said her good-nights. 

The moon was brightest when night was at its darkest, and, in those hours, I wasn’t afraid of anything. 


“We’re going to go see what the sea’s like now, later tonight,” Laurie said as we got off the afternoon bus. “You coming?”

“I have to ask my mom,” I mumbled. “Wait, who’s we?” 

“You know, just me, Brett, and Madeline. And you, if you want.” 

“Isn’t it supposed to be awful out there? Seriously. Fine. I’ll ask, okay?” 

The ocean currents were volatile, and although the tides were low, the cause for fear lay in their potential to hold. Each new hurricane claimed record speeds, and stray lightning forks had recently become a permanent accessory that adorned them like hairline fractures. 

“You know she’s going to say no—just come! If it’s about Brett and Madeline, it was my idea, not theirs,” she shot back. 

“It’s not that I don’t like them, I just don’t like being around when you guys smoke. Are you guys going up there to do that?”

“No, it’s not for that this time.”

“Then why’d you even ask them?”

“It’s not like that’s all we do, they’re still my friends? Are you jealous or something?” 

“I’m not, I probably won’t go, it’s dangerous, the weather app says there’s a thunderstorm coming, there’s probably a city lockdown, so it’s dangerous, so I don’t want you to go,” I heaved out before starting to walk faster. 

“Are you really scared of all that like everyone else is? God,” Laurie yelled after me. 


We should grow out of our fear of the dark by age seven, they say, and don’t we all pretend that we do?

So I let myself watch Laurie step out of a window ledge, following two taller figures toward the roads, and leave through my backdoor after them. Overhead, the prospect of thunder and nightfall makes the trees shiver, but the lamp posts erect themselves no differently, so distinguishing their silhouettes is still simple. I follow Laurie from half a block away, my hands trembling around a string bag stuffed with an umbrella and two of the cigarettes that were supposed to be my half of our stolen pack.

My phone buzzes “DANGER: SEVERE WEATHER AREA” when we near the coast by a five mile radius, but the taste of salt in the whipping wind makes everything feel closer. I see the three figures stop. For a moment, they’re the only fixtures of stillness before me. 

I follow them near the edge of the waters, and then Brett and Madeleine start to fall away. It’s slow at first, mere straggling, then straying, and then they blur from sight as the bright gaze of the city dims. I keep walking and refuse to feed my fear anything past the sound of my quickening footsteps. With the winds growing violent, I shield my eyes, even if I can barely see regardless. The first time I yell her name, there is no answer. 


This second time, her voice reverberates back to me. “What are you—why are you here?”

Diluted by wind, her shout almost sounds gentle. I run to the place on the road where I’ve pinpointed the remaining edges of her shadow and clasp her arm. 

“Can we just go back, please? There’s going to be a downpour any minute,” I shout back.

She tries to tug herself away, but I hold on. “Laurie!” I repeat, staring into the space where her eyes should be. She only pulls the both of us toward that taste of salt until we are standing on sand. I can hear the water lapping along the coast, rushing and slowing, manifesting then fading, and suddenly I feel wet seep into my shoes. My grip on Laurie’s wrist loosens, and I look up on instinct. With a precursory crack of thunder, rain cuts through the air in sheets. I feel the sea around my ankles.

I wish I had a plan, but don’t they say that it’s better to pretend that you do than to admit that you don’t? They, they, they. I’ve heard it so many times. Don’t they say they know the most probable cause of catastrophe through selective determination, but really, do they know any more than the rest of us? I wish they did. I wish they could tell me how. 

Laurie is yelling again, and I wish she would turn to me again, only me, but she’s also looking for a path, underneath all that suave bitterness. Everything tastes like salt and mint deodorant and cigarette smoke and stolen pears, and I want to hold her. Is it too late. I want to be selfish. 

The water climbs, up to our knees now, and when I don’t move, Laurie tries to pry open my fingers. “Didn’t you still want to leave,” she says, sounding smaller. I shake my head, and although she can barely see it, her demands shed all pretense of being questions. “Let go,” she yells. “Let’s go back.” 

“You wanted to see the sea though.” 

Feeling the waves curl against me is somehow desolating. Everyone knows the tides are lower, but no one really believes in death until they see a body. 

I want to be selfish and pretend it’s generosity, but I’ve never been able to pretend, not really. And it’s hard not to be afraid, so I let Laurie turn us around and lead us running into the darkness, just in another direction, just as she always has. My eyes fall to the glimmer of the city, flickering in the downpour. Raindrops seal my eyelashes to my cheeks, and I struggle to blink off the weight until I can only let my eyelids lie shut. I still grip Laurie’s arm, but it’s as if she’s always slipping, so I dig my nails in deeper. 

I only open my eyes when she stops. The city lights are gone, and the tide roars. When we topple, I can’t tell if we are swimming in rain or ocean. 


Laurie met Brett and Madeline three intersections down from the supermarket that sold cigarettes at discount value. They taught her how to walk at the edge of sidewalks to avoid casting shadows and which lighters would fetch the most isobutane at the cheapest price. She was two years younger and a head shorter, which taught Brett and Madeline that shoplifting would be easier if their duo became a trio. 

Time taught me that Brett liked ice hockey, that Madeline liked clementines, and that stealing was justified if said stolen goods were the only things keeping you from running your first through the nearest glass window. After the first time Laurie dragged them along to loiter underneath the highway bridge, I stopped coming with her. 


I finger the switch of a lighter once I grow numb to the water. It had slipped from Laurie’s pockets when the storm had thrown our bodies together, but I can’t help but feel as if I’d smuggled it. I hadn’t let go, but she’s silent beyond her slow exhales in time with the ocean.

I fumble through my bag for the two cigarettes. Picking the one that’s dryer to the touch, I click the lighter until enough flame bursts to catch. Without bringing the cigarette to my lips, I watch it burn. 

The rain douses out tendrils of smoke immediately, but the red-orange glow still creeps toward my fingers. The light is feeble, yet I want to shield it from the night. Cupping it closer, I try to understand. The light is mine. Water pools at my waist, I’m kneeling on sand, and it’s the closest thing I could find to solace. The light is mine, and I want to imagine what forever looks like. I want to imagine a world where light kept everyone from drowning. I can’t, but my light is warm, so I try to stop wanting. 

The cigarette smothers itself in one minute, and only then do I realize that I hadn’t turned to look at Laurie. Against my fingertips, I feel her pulse, but now her hand is cold as she tries to pull away. I’m afraid of letting go. I wonder if she’s still afraid of drowning. Our palms are so cold together, but I want to keep holding her. I don’t want to be alone. 

Looking back to where light once shrouded the city, I know I can wait. I can wait and wait, waiting for those bulbs to flicker again, to scream that our safe havens are eternal. Instead, I close my eyes. Slowly cupping both hands to my face, I set the other cigarette aflame.

Judges Comments' Excerpt: "I love the poetic narrative voice, the different uses of darkness as a theme, and the fabulism of a world where the moon vanishes and everyone just muddles on with their lives."

Helen Qian is an artist and writer from Maryland. She is the editor-in-chief of Farside Review, and her work can be found in The Adroit Journal, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Aerie International, L’Éphémère Review, Poetry Quarterly, and more. A National Scholastic Art & Writing Awards Gold Medalist, Helen has also been recognized by One Teen Story, the F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference, and Hollins University, among others. In her spare time, she enjoys dreaming up universes and tracking down words she’s lost on the tip of her tongue. She studies at Vanderbilt University as a recipient of the Cornelius Vanderbilt Scholarship.