Some Stay in the Dark,
Others Walk to the Light
Edited by Myrea Schmidt
by Leah Mueller
Melody Hansen was the mayor’s daughter. She grew up on the north side of town, with the Gearharts and the Colmans and the Kearnsleys. They played together in immense yards filled with chestnut trees. Melody was blonde and athletic, with tight pigtails and a mean, piercing glare. Everyone was careful around her because she swiftly punished social mistakes. The students deferred to her shamelessly, flocking around her like puppies, eager to please at every opportunity. Only the most privileged students were allowed to remain in her presence.
Miss Taylor was the sophomore English teacher. She was a plump, bespectacled woman in her mid-forties. Her huge, unruly breasts were always spilling out of the top of her dress. Miss Taylor often seemed depressed and exhausted, as if she hadn’t slept for many days. Perhaps she spent all of her time grading papers.
A student once spotted her sitting at her desk with all the lights off. Confused, she asked,“Miss Taylor? Are you sitting in the DARK?” Miss Taylor looked up from her mountain of assignments, and replied, “Yes.” She stared at the questioner impassively, eyes shining in the darkness like a raccoon’s, until the student finally backed out of the room.
One afternoon, shortly after class, Melody and Miss Taylor stood together in the middle of the room. Melody was agitated about one of her shoes. The laces flopped open uselessly. Melody needed to head to her physical education class. Her arms overflowed with heavy textbooks, and it would be way too much trouble to set them down.
The students hovered uncertainly in the doorway, waiting to see what their queen might do. Melody sighed with exasperation.Why was nobody assisting her? She had to think fast.
“Tie my shoelace,” Melody commanded. Still clutching the books, she pushed the toe of her shoe imperiously in Miss Taylor’s direction. The teacher hesitated for a second, then began to lower her enormous body to the floor. She heaved and wobbled from side to side, and finally sank to her hands and knees in front of her student. Melody shifted her weight to her other foot, and gazed down at her teacher with satisfaction.
Miss Taylor’s chubby fingers moved painstakingly on the laces. She formed the wide pink threads into two floppy loops, twisted them together, and squinted at her handiwork. Finally, she completed her task, and looked up at Melody to make certain the girl was satisfied. Melody stole a quick glance at her shoe, nodded curtly, and sprinted from the classroom without another word.
Miss Taylor rose carefully. Limping slightly, she returned to her desk. The surface overflowed with homework. Melody’s paper lay on top of the stack. Undoubtedly, her essay would be filled with misspellings and sentence fragments, like all the others. Without so much as a glance, Miss Taylor wrote a red “A” on the cover page. Then she reached over to the light switch, flipped it to the “off” position, and resumed her task of grading the assignments.
Tucked in the Folds of Our Eyes
by Allison Thai
Do you know why it burns when we cry, con? Here’s a tissue. Come sit by me—dab, don’t drag. You’ll ruin your eyes that way. There, there…Now, I should have told you earlier, back when you were a little girl. It’s harder now, I suppose, when you don’t believe in fairies and dragons anymore. Do you remember the story of how we came to be? No, I don’t mean how I came here, far from home, on strange land but safe from the war we lost. I don’t mean the birth of Vietnamese presence in America, born from the salt of our blood and tears and the stretch of sea between here and our homeland.
Think of a time long before foreign invaders touched Vietnam’s soil…yes, even before China’s thousand year rule. The birth of a people, our people. Do you remember Lạc Long Quân, the dragon lord of the sea? Âu Cơ, fairy queen of earth? From their union we emerged, from a clutch of a hundred eggs, and to this day we call ourselves Con Rồng, cháu Tiên—children of the dragon, grandchildren of gods. Doesn’t seem that way now, does it? Time is a chisel chipping away at the magic, wearing it down with each turn of a century. Our dragon scales ripped away. Our wings withered. We are shadows, shells of glory past, beaten and broken. I may have made it to America in one piece, but the sea tore my family apart. Sickness took my two brothers and Thai pirates took my mother. I refused to cry because I had to be strong. Save my energy for living. By the grace of God, Buddha, my ancestors—whoever answered my prayers—a foreign ship rescued me along with thirty others crammed in a river skiff with no business sailing out on open sea. Why couldn’t we have been thirty-four? Could I have fought harder to save my brothers, held on tighter to my mother? Only then did the dam break and I cried. Tears burned my eyes and seared trails, and—believe me, now—I heard my family through those tears, heard them amid the waves. Their bodies borne on fairy dust. Their voices burning like dragon fire. You’ll be all right, they whispered. Get on the ship. We’ll never leave you. The magic never died…it lives on, through me, through you.
It’s all right to cry, con, but never be ashamed of the shape of our eyes. They were forged in fairy dust and dragon fire. Keep our legacy safe and keep it close. Magic is tucked in the folds of our eyes.
The Chicken Mutiny
by Leah Mueller
My mother and I didn’t talk much the summer before my senior year of high school. Most mornings, she sat at the kitchen table in her bathrobe, chain-smoking and reading the same Mike Royko columns over and over. Mom hated downstate Illinois, and never wanted to move there in the first place. She’d always identified with Eva Gabor in Green Acres, and fervently desired a luxury high-rise apartment. Then she met my stepfather, and here she was, neck-deep in chicken shit.
A sustainable lifestyle meant raising chickens. Thirty of them lived behind our house, in an enclosed coop. The dwelling smelled especially horrible on stifling afternoons, when the sun hit the windows and heated the fecal feather mixture on the floor. The penned birds were terrifyingly stupid, prone to flying in my face whenever I opened the henhouse door to let them out into their fenced yard. Their only objective was escape, but outside wasn’t much better.
The coop’s two windows were usually propped open slightly, to allow for airflow. One morning, however, my mother left one of the windows open too wide, and the chickens escaped into the unfenced portion of the backyard.
I heard a cacophony of squawking, and rose from my chair. As I peered through the door glass, I saw the errant chickens. “I think you’d better take a look at this,” I said.
Mom put down her smoldering cigarette and scowled at the backyard. “Those goddamned stupid birds,” she fumed. “We’re gonna have to go out and catch them.”
The chickens were reacting to their freedom in various ways. Some stood in clusters, clucking and twitching. Others scurried about frantically, wings flapping, as they tried to figure a way back into the security of their prison.
Mom raced into the yard, swooped down on the brood like an avenging falcon. The birds scattered in all directions. Some of them sought refuge under the coop. Others remained immobile, trembling. I lunged forward, hugged a chicken with both arms, hurled it into its smelly home. It fled to the corner and stared at me with a terrified expression. Then it casually began to peck at some seeds in its food dish, like nothing unusual had occurred.
Rounding up the chickens proved to be much easier than I’d anticipated. I scooped up one after another, tossed them unceremoniously into their enclosure. They wanted desperately to return to a familiar environment, no matter how squalid and restrictive. Finally, only one chicken remained, stubbornly wedged underneath the coop. It peered at me with beady, taunting eyes. The little bastard was smarter than we were. I longed to see it on a plate with a nice green salad and a baked potato.
I ran inside and found a broom behind the refrigerator. Kneeling before the coop, I jabbed the chicken with the broomstick—gently, but firmly. It squawked and raced into my mother’s outstretched hands. She pitched it into the coop, slammed the door shut. “Done,” she said with satisfaction. We strolled inside, arm in arm, victorious. Fortunately, there was still time to catch our morning Beverly Hillbillies rerun.
by Stewart C. Baker
Sarah hasn’t set foot outside the university’s library for years–not since the world ended.
She spends her days amongst debris-littered shelves, pulling dusty monographs, reading about the Internet and language change, geopolitical boundaries and sudden cultural collapse.
Evenings, she eats canned fruit from the library café’s dwindling supply and refines her dissertation.
It was communication that went first, Sarah’s certain. If she could have made people understand that, things might have been different.
She dreams about finishing, about using the library’s solar supply to make copy after copy of her work and distributing it to the survivors. She fantasizes about what it will be like, after everyone has learned to talk again. To communicate.
She doesn’t think about Kat. About everything she’s given up.
Sarah’s resting outside Archives when the sound of shattering glass echoes up the central stairway from the entrance hall, followed by voices.
“u 4 real”
“ya nevr gtfo n got fud afaics”
“all her base are belong to us”
“lol i no rite”
Two of the voices are self-sure; the other—exasperated, higher in pitch—reminds Sarah of Kat in the days before she left. In the days right after the end of the world.
What they’ve said is beyond her, but Sarah expects that—it’s what she’s been researching: the doge coefficient, that exponentially-increasing corruption of language which the world quickly followed.
Besides, she doesn’t need to understand the raiders’ words to know they’re trouble. She steps into Archives and closes the door.
The archives are cold, keeping their secrets safe in case some future generation scrabbles up from illiteracy and wants to know what happened. Sarah shivers in the dimness, hoping nobody will find her.
After what feels like hours, she starts to wonder: what’s the point of what she’s doing here? Who is she doing it for? Everyone she cared about is gone. She’s been lying to herself, she realizes. About the world. What went wrong and what will fix it.
Once the raiders leave, she decides, she’ll go downstairs. She’ll cross the broken glass of the library’s doors and go out into the remnants of the world and see if she can find—
Just then, the door cracks open, and one of the raiders enters, flashlight in hand. Sarah flinches, tries to make herself invisible, but the beam picks her up with no problem.
“o hai” It’s the exasperated voice from the stairwell. “u ok”
“What?” Sarah asks. “I don’t understand.”
But even as she says it she knows it for a lie.
The woman clears her voice and starts again, more slowly. “o… H… Hi. You okay?”
Sarah’s eyes tear up. “Yes,” she stammers. “Yes.”
It’s not a lie—not entirely. Kat is still gone, but the world? That’s waiting for her, even if it’s changed. It’s been waiting all along.
The woman grins and holds out a hand, and together they walk out of the darkness.
This collection features characters who either choose to exist unhappily in the comfort of familiar darkness or venture out into the uncertainty of the light.
These stories bring to mind a person walking alone in a very long, very dark tunnel. When we are going through our darkest difficulties, there is no light and no end. We are afraid we will never make it out. We have no choice but to keep moving forward. And if we walk long enough, if we push past fear and hardship, we eventually make it through our darkest hours.
I appreciate every single submission and would like to thank the authors who so graciously worked with me to publish their writing. I look forward to seeing more of their stories brought to light.
About the Editor
“Midwestern Royalty” © 2017 Leah Mueller
“Tucked in the Folds of Our Eyes” © 2017 Allison Thai
“Chicken Mutiny” © 2017 Leah Mueller
“Doge Coeffecient” © 2017 Stewart C. Baker