The Longest Night
Ben was afraid.
That was perfectly normal and natural, according to his Uncle Frank. Of course, his mother, Frank’s only surviving sister, called him ‘your crazy Uncle Frank’. But she said it with love. He thought.
He lay in the top bunk, one of the few perks of being the oldest. Sam and Will, his younger brothers, had the beds below him. Sam was nine, and was only starting to be aware of the danger of this time of year. Will was just six, and so had become old enough to be part of the night for the first time. He didn’t really know anything, Ben thought bitterly.
Ben was twelve. He would turn thirteen in the middle of February, less than two months away, and he’d be able to sleep in safety from then on.
He’d done all the traditional things. He’d tucked himself tight under the sheets, covering even his head, so that he wasn’t visible. He’d said his prayers, too, though being a cynical near-teen he wasn’t sure what good it actually did. Before he’d gone to bed, his mother had told him how proud she was of him.
“You’ve been so well-behaved this whole month,” she said. “Not a single pout, even when your father told you you couldn’t go out with your friends, not a complaint. No matter what happens, I wanted you to know how much I appreciate that.” She’d smiled up at him over his baby sister, still nursing. “Now, off to bed with you. Can’t stay up late, not tonight!”
A noise in the dark startled him from his reverie. He strained his ears, listening. Long minutes passed. Nothing.
It was rooted in old traditions, he’d learned in school, adapted for the twenty-fourth century. Too many people, dwindling resources, there simply wasn’t room for everyone.
“Why not get rid of the old people?” he finally asked last year. It made sense to him. “They were old and useless, they’d had their lives,” he continued. “It wasn’t fair to take kids away!”
His teacher, who knew that Ben’s best friend Cyndi had gone the previous year, answered gently. “The laws don’t allow that, Ben. In the early twenty-first century, there was a powerful group called the Aarp, and they got rules passed that prevent what they called ‘euthanasia’ without the patient’s consent. And even though the country that the Aarp controlled is long gone, their laws, like those of the other countries that became part of the One World, continue.”
“But why kids?” Ben insisted.
“Because you don’t vote. If you want to talk about this more, I can give you a pass to see the counselor.”
Nothing else came of that, officially. Ben got much quieter as the year ticked down to its inevitable end, and he did his own digging, looking for ways to get around this final selection.
Now he silently reviewed his efforts.
Socks, hanging over the back of his chair. Check.
Prayers. Yeah, right, like that’ll work. Still, couldn’t hurt. Check.
Head covered. Check.
He just had to wait. This was going to be the longest night of his life. As long as he didn’t hear any bells. That was one thing the old songs all agreed on, that when it was your turn, you would hear bells jingling.
Time passed. He could hear the snores of his brothers below him, blissfully unaware. He could remember a time where he didn’t believe, like them. Now, he believed. Just this final night, he thought. Last time. No kids for me! I won’t do this to them!
He must’ve fallen asleep, because he awoke with a start. What was that?
Bells. Definitely bells.
He had two brothers. One of them could be taken. He’d miss Sam, or Will, but he’d get over it, he thought. There were four sisters. Take one of them!
Was that closer? He couldn’t tell. Maybe it was the Singhs’; they lived just on the other side of the wall, and they had even more kids than his folks! That had to be it.
Oh, that was so coming through the wall. No way it was in their home, it was too muted.
He couldn’t hear anything. Shouldn’t there be screaming, or something?
After a long while, he began to relax.
Suddenly: “Here comes Santa Claus!”