“Did you get the special light bulbs
Four-year-old Chloe sits across from me
in the candlelight, watching me closely as
I scatter the contents of her Happy Meal
onto a paper plate on the floor.
“No, honey. I forgot.”
I’ve been lying to her about the lights in
our house for weeks now. First I said
they were broken, and someone needed
to fix them. Then I needed a hard-to-find
part to keep them from breaking again.
And after that—well, the saga of excuses
has just kept growing.
They’re stupid lies. Not one of them
explains why the TV doesn’t work, or why
we must spend our Saturday mornings at
the laundromat, or why we can’t keep
our food in the fridge. But my little girl
has never questioned the bigger picture.
Our power was cut off six weeks ago.
I owe about $1,100. Plus, they want
another couple hundred for a deposit,
just to turn it back on. I haven’t paid a
cent since September. I’ve been waiting
on a miracle, and heaven knows I had a
good run: the electric company wasn’t
allowed to shut the power off in the
wintertime because our state legislators
consider that cruel and Scrooge-like.
So, thanks to merciful regulators, poor
folk like me can go half the year without
paying a single penny on an electric bill.
The problem, of course, is that the bill
only gets bigger, snowballing as spring
approaches. If I couldn’t afford $150 in
October, I certainly didn't have $600 in
January. Now it's June.
I didn't mean for things to get so out of
hand. But Chloe needed food, new shoes,
a lunchbox. She needed a safe place to
go when I was at work. She kept
growing, and there were clothes that had
to be replaced. Mind you, I never bought
anything fancy, and restricted my
shopping to the dollar store and Wal-Mart
clearance racks. Even then, my job at the
shoe store didn’t pay enough to make
ends meet. I fell behind.
I went to college—a good college—and I
got a degree. Education, I was told, was
the key to success. Education, I believed,
would solve everything. Yet my diploma
sits in a dusty envelope in my closet,
waiting for a frame, waiting for an office,
waiting for a purpose. All that piece of
paper means is that I have yet another
bill collector harassing me: the manager
of my student loans.
Once or twice I tried asking my ex to pay
his child support on time. Regular
payments may have prevented utility
shut-offs, maybe not. But money has
always made him nervous, and when I
raised the subject he growled and spat
and stomped his feet. Then he called me
a drug addict. If I hadn’t been so
depressed I would have laughed: I’ve
never used an illegal substance in my
life. In fact, I left him years ago because
he refused to attend rehab.
So I had to make do without him. This
meant I received past-due notices of
every color of the rainbow, and threw
them promptly into the trash without
opening a single one. I ignored the phone
calls, too, until the phone line went dead,
and then the annoying bill collectors and
their endless demands to “please call for
an important message” became moot
Meanwhile, I kept trying to make things
better: I applied for more jobs than I
could count. I went through three boxes
of resume paper. I sent interest letters to
corporations in Boston, New York, New
Jersey, and Richmond. I mailed writing
samples to Washington and Chicago. I
ordered a stack of certified transcripts
from my college. I even had a few phone
interviews with firms in Dallas and St.
It was April when things finally fell apart.
I came home from work one evening,
unlocked the door and let Chloe run
inside. As always, she stood patiently in
the foyer waiting for me to turn on the
light because she was afraid to dash up
the stairwell in the darkness. But when
my hand touched the switch, nothing
happened. My time had run out.
How much longer can this last?
When we finish our food, I take our
candle up the dark stairs. I hold it while
Chloe fishes a nightgown out of a
suitcase. Summer’s coming, but it’s not
too hot tonight, so we’ll sleep here.
Last week was awful: it felt like August.
For three nights our dark house was
simply unbearable, even with the
windows wide open. I was forced to
splurge on a dingy motel room near the
highway; $50 a night was still cheaper
than what the electric company wanted
me to pay.
“Why are we going to a motel Mommy?”
“I thought it would be something fun to
do, like a vacation!”
“Are the men fixing our lights while we’re
“They’re trying, honey.”
I did my best to turn our motel stay into
an adventure. Each night we got a
different type of pizza and a different
candy from 7-11. We dined at the little
table in our room, every light ablaze,
chatting merrily over the roar of the air
conditioner. We took extra-long
showers and blow-dried our hair. I even
curled mine with electric rollers. Then we
slipped between cool sheets and watched
Nickelodeon until Chloe fell asleep. But I
was always restless, and lay awake for
some time watching a centipede race
back and forth across the ceiling.
I’m happy we’re home tonight, even if it's
a little stuffy and I can’t see a thing.
Chloe grabs her book and follows me to
my bed; she’s scared of her own. The
power outage has made me bold: I’ve
found I can balance the candle on my
stomach while I lie in bed and read to
her. It’s cozy. I’m almost glad the TV
doesn’t work. We read every night,
curled up together—chapter after
chapter—until my voice runs dry or the
flame gets too low.
If anyone finds out, I'll lose her. She
needs more than love alone can give.
C. Anneli Oliver was born
into a family of refugees
and grew up to become a
criminal defense attorney.
She lives with her husband
and three children near
Washington, D.C., and is
currently working on her
first novel. This is her first