It Came Upon A Midnight Clear — Complete short story
It Came Upon A Midnight Clear
The pounding on the doors, the words, “Open up in the name of the law.”
Juan Johnson who had been lying in the dark, in his little bed at the back of the house, half asleep, retained only a sense of explosions, a smell of something burning, papa up front saying he didn’t know anything of these Usaians and besides, he was a honest carpenter and what could they—
And mama! Mama, who had never left dad alone in any difficulty, Mama who rarely left the house without him and never at night, had gotten Juan and Angelita out of their beds, in the dark, wrapping the baby and putting her in a sling, and dressing Juan, fast, so fast that she’d put a sock of each different color on his feet.
This still bothered him, as they ran down the alley in the night, and then up another alley, all staying away from the police.
Juan could hear other pounding and “Open up—”
And fragments of other sentences, too, “Forbidden,” and “Dangerous elements” and “Seditious ideology.”
Juan knew what “dangerous elements” were. He was only ten, but Mama and Papa had taught him at home and he’d been allowed to read a lot of dad’s old books, the sort of thing they no longer taught in the school. Dangerous elements were things like Uranium and other things that gave off radiation that could kill you. Why the police would be looking for it, he didn’t know.
He did not however have any idea what Seditious ideology meant.
He repeated the words to himself as mama stopped in a dark alley, by a flyer. It wasn’t their flyer, but then Mama rarely drove their flyer, and she certainly never burned its genlock clean off, reaching in before it could do more than emit a bzzzt and burning something else, murmuring to herself as though to remember a list, “Alarm off,” Then went in, leaving Juan alone at the entrance for a moment. She came back and threw something to the floor. Juan didn’t know what it was – pieces of something electronic. “Tracker,” Mama said.
She pulled Juan in with one hand, and closed the door, then sat him in a seat, and – strangely – put the sling with Angelita around him. The baby was only three months old, but Juan was a slim boy and the sling – and the baby – very big and very heavy. He thought of protesting, but Mama looked as though she would start to cry, so he said nothing. He let Mama put the harness over both of them, and saw her consult a paper in Papa’s handwriting as she set the coordinates.
Moments later they were in the air, and Juan might have dozed, but he woke with the flare of explosions, and the shaking as Mama sent the flyer careening side to side.
“Mama!” he said.
“Say it, Juan, say it, my little Juanito.”
“I pledge allegian—”
Mama made a sound. It wasn’t quite laugh and not quite a cry. “Not that one. The other one. The human events one.”
Juan blinked. He’d learned all these from as soon as he could speak. The only time dad was really strict was in making sure he remembered everything, every single word. And the meaning. All the meaning. “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God—”
An explosion came very close, making them shake and showing Mama’s face, very pale and marked with trails as if she’d cried a lot. He hadn’t heard her cry. How could she cry so silently.
“Nature’s God?” Mama prompted.
“Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness—”
Mama sobbed then, but didn’t say anything but “Go on,” so Juan did, as explosions rocked the small flyer, and Mama, finally, just took them really low, and did something, and pulled Juan out after her, but never took the baby sling of him, and she pushed him against a wall and put her hand over his mouth, while the flyer lifted off again and flew a programmed course.
“It was only a second,” Mama said. “Only a second. Maybe they won’t notice.”
But then she was pulling Juan, and running down an alley, and then another.
Juan heard heavy boots after them, and was surprised when Mama pulled out a burner and shot a man down. Juan didn’t have a very clear idea of what happened then, save the man fell, and mama pulled Juan after her again.
Up, up and up, they were climbing narrow stairs in the dark. Mama was talking to herself in Spanish, something she only did when she was really worried. Juan didn’t know Spanish, but he knew a few of the words. He knew “must do something” because mama used to say it at Papa when she was really mad or worried.
“Mama,” Juan said. “My legs hurt. And Angelita is heavy.”
“Yes,” Mama said, which seemed not to be an answer at all. From somewhere to their right came an explosion and then someone screamed, and screamed and screamed, the voice getting weaker as it went. Mama, who normally went to help all the neighbors, didn’t even slow down.
“Juan, you know what we’ve taught you? Papa and I?”
They’d taught him so many things. To read and to write, and to brush his teeth, and– “To mind and be a good boy?”
Again, Mama made that sound that wasn’t quite laughter or a sob, and her hand came down and touched his hair briefly. “That too, my love, but not that. About the Usa. About how it existed and was blessed by God as long as it kept to the precepts of liberty and equality before the law. And how it fell and gave its power to supposedly enlightened rulers and then—”
“It was reduced in size,” Juan said, puffing a little as it was hard to keep up with Mama as she ran down one alley, then another. “And punished.”
“Not reduced in size,” she said. “What remains calls itself United States, but it’s not.”
“But you said, if it returned to faithfulness and the…” He struggled for the words Papa had said so many times, “the inspired vision of the founders it would be forgiven and be great again.”
Sob-laugh and mama said, “It’s not the same place. It can’t return. We’ll have to remember and make it true again. Those of us who keep the faith.”
“Daddy said,” and now he was having true trouble catching his breath. “Daddy said that as long as the belief in the principles of the declaration of independence and the constitution-” deep breath. “As long as those remained in one human heart, the Usa wouldn’t be dead.”
“And so it won’t.” Mama stopped abruptly. Juan could hear the noise of people running after them, voices saying “They went this way. The Flyer was a ruse.”
There were flyers above too, with low-pointing floodlights. As one passed overhead, Mama pressed Juan against the wall. She spoke quickly, in a low voice, “That’s why they made us illegal. That’s why they’re trying to exterminate us. As long as liberty remains in one human heart, the bio-lords won’t have full sway. And they want full sway. They want to dictate our every thought. Listen, Juan, my son. Do you know where the Peace Tower is? From here?”
Juan thought. He wasn’t sure where he was, but he knew the neighborhood, and they hadn’t gone very far. Their flight had been too short. The Peace Tower, built to commemorate peace in the Americas, even if Papa said it wasn’t peace at all, just surrender, was big and lit up and right in the center of the city.
He shook his head a little, because if the peace tower were anywhere nearby, he would see its light. They lit it up in white and green every night.
“If you take that alley to the left, and keep going, mind, Juan, as fast as you can, you will come to the plaza where it is. Don’t go to the plaza. I don’t know if your description is out, but it might be. Instead, the alley that leads to the peace tower plaza, just before you leave it, it has a branch that turns left. Take that. It runs behind a lot of restaurants. Keep on that until you come to the back of a restaurant called Silver Palate – remember that. The name is on big red dumpsters in the back. Turn right there. Follow that alley till it ends, and climb over the wall to the right. It will be difficult, but mind, Juanito, keep Angelita from falling as you climb.
“You’ll be in the backyard of an apartment house. It’s what used to be a large house, long ago, but it’s now apartments. Go in through the back door, run up the stairs to the left, all the way to the top. There’s a door there, marked 4 B. Knock on it. Say Paul sent you. Say treason. They’ll know what to do. The man in the house, his name is James Remy. Do what he tells you. Can you remember?”
He nodded. One of the great advantages of the long stretches of memorizing Papa had made him do was that he could remember things much more easily than any other kid his age in school. But a worry remained, “Why Mama?”
“Never mind that. Just remember, you must do that, or thousands of people will die.” The light had passed overhead. It was dark in the alley, but the sounds of steps and the voices drew closer.
She reached in her pocket and pulled out something. It was a burner. Not a burner like they showed on tv, all glossy and pretty, but a short, battered thing, with a rounded butt, that looked as if it had been assembled together from spare parts. “Papa showed you how to fire these, right? You remember?”
Juan remembered. It was hard to forget as it had been only this week. Papa had taken him to the basement, set a burner on lowest, and had him fire at figures painted on the wall.
Mama said, “If someone tries to stop you, shoot them. Don’t stop to see if you hurt them or killed them. Burn center mass, and run on.”
“Papa said never to point it at a person.”
“No, dear,” she spoke very fast. “Never to point it at a person you don’t mean to kill. But everyone is allowed to kill, if the other person would kill them.”
“How do I know—”
“Trust me, Juan. If they try to stop you, if they catch you, they’ll kill you and Angelita. Or worse.” She pushed something into his pocket. He didn’t know what it was, but she said, “There are two scraps of flag there, Papa’s and mine. Papa’s is the one with the stain on the corner. Keep it when you grow up. Give mine to Angelita, when you’re sure she understands. Now go.”
“What about you?”
“Never mind me.” Mama leaned over and kissed him, a brief touch of lips on his hair, and then she pushed him, hard, down the alley.
He ran to keep from falling, and then he kept running, down the alley, at full speed. He was aware of burners firing and of cries. Was Mama shooting people or had she—
He couldn’t imagine Mama hurt, Mama dead, anymore than he could imagine the end of the world. And that’s what it would be if Mama died.
Instead, he held on to the idea that she would escape, she would join him.
He ran as fast as he could, the route she said.
He met no opposition, until, running so fast he almost couldn’t see, and sweat trickling into his eyes, making them sting, he almost ran into the Plaza of Peace. There a uniformed soldier turned around and said “You, Kid!”
Juan didn’t think this counted as trying to stop him, and he didn’t want to shoot the man, who was young and looked a lot like the brother of his friend Klaus, back at school. So instead he ignored him, and turned left, into the alley with the dumpsters. Mama hadn’t said it would be this long.
He ran down it as fast as he could, but it wasn’t very hard, because his legs felt as though they were made of water, and his breath was coming in short puffs. He felt like he would collapse, but he remembered what mama said. Could he live with knowing he’d caused the death of thousands of people? Or failed to save them? He tried to picture thousands of people, but he couldn’t. That would be like everyone he knew.
“Hey, Kid, stop,” came from behind him. And as he ignored it, another voice told the first, “It’s just a kid, why are we chasing him.”
“It’s not just a kid. His description and that he’s carrying a baby is on the bulletins. He’s going to alert the other rebels. Those damned Usaians.”
Juan didn’t want to turn. Juan didn’t want to shoot these young men. But Mama’s words rang in his mind, and he could not doubt these people wanted to stop him. And they’d said damned Usaians. These men wanted to kill them. People like him and Mama. Mama had said–
He pulled the safety on the burner, as dad had taught him to do it, by touch. And he set it on high. Papa said it was just like the games, point and click.
Juan wanted to close his eyes, but he knew that if he did he’d miss, so he turned and fired, center mass, only he kept the beam on and cut straight across. He had the impression of cutting two bodies in half, but he didn’t stop to look.
Angelita had started crying and squirming. Papa used to joke she slept through everything, but judging by the smell, she must be dirt. He murmured soothing words he knew wouldn’t help, as he ran and hoped no one looked out the windows to see where the crying baby was.
He came to the dumpster and turned, in the almost blind dark, and ran. This alley was shorter, and it ended in a brick wall. There was ivy growing along the wall, and, fortunately, Juan was light. Fortunately, too, he’d always liked climbing.
Even so, Mama was right, and it was difficult. It was very difficult to hold on and not to squish Angelita against the wall. Particularly, since she was crying.
At the top of the wall, he hesitated. There was a man with the dog in the enclosure. He was old, about Papa’s age, and he had a pipe, and a little yellow puppy playing at his feet.
He looked up, as Juan sat there, and Juan didn’t want to kill him, because he didn’t think he was the authorities, but he had to go up and give the message… He had to.
The man blinked at him, in confusion. “Hello, there. What is wrong?”
The last was said in a tone of concern, as he looked from Juan to the baby.
“I must see my uncle,” Juan said. The idea just came to him. Anyway, at the great fall festival, when people gathered in some secret place to eat and trade stories, the kids called every older man uncle and every older woman aunt, so, it must fit. “James Remy.”
The man’s face froze. There was a long silence. He opened his mouth, closed it, opened it again. He looked kindly, with pale hair streaked with white, and grey eyes, and he said, “I see, you must be my nephew, Jimmy.”
“No. Juan,” he said. “Juan Johnson.”
“Of course Juan. Sorry, I got confused with your brother. Here, let me help you down from the wall.”
There was a bad moment, as the man reached up and took Jimmy’s hands, and helped him, till he was holding him and Angelita in his arms, together, and Juan thought he would hold him and not let him go, and then Juan would have to kill him. But the man must have sensed Juan’s discomfort, and put him down. “We can’t talk here,” he said. “We’ll go on up to aunt Mary, shall we.” He whistled for the puppy, “Come on Pie.”
“Pie?” Juan asked, as he noted they were going in through the back door and trotting up the stairs Mama had described.
“Pumpkin pie. My daughter Jane named him. She’s very silly.”
The puppy followed at their heels, as they got to the top of the stairs.
The shock when the door opened was almost too much for Juan. He’d been living a bad dream for the last hour? Eternity? But here was normal life, just like it had been at home before that knock on the door. They had a Winter Holidays tree set up, all decorated and lit with lights, and presents under it, and there was a smell of food, and there were two kids, just older than him, and a baby, and a large blond woman, with a kind face, who looked at the man he’d come in with, and then at Juan, with Angelita, and said, “Now, Jim, what?”
But the man was walking past her, and telling the two children, “I think this is bugout. You know what to do. Go.”
The woman said, “Oh, no. Can’t be. They’ve eased the restrictions on religions. We can even have trees if we don’t call them—”
But the man turned to Juan and said, “Son, what is your message?”
“Paul sent me,” Juan said, feeling like he would cry, and he wasn’t sure why, repeating Mama’s words. “Treason.”
The man said a word. One of those words Papa said when he cut himself with one of his tools. And then took a deep breath. “I’ve been wondering. First the Christians, then us. Anything that might stop the state…” He looked at Juan’s uncomprehending face.
“How do we know?” his wife said. “how do we know it’s not a trap so we reveal ourselves?
The man looked at Juan and said, very softly, “In congress, July four, seventeen seventy six—”
Juan nodded and answered with the remembered words, “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires—”
“Enough, son. He’s one of ours. Mary, I’ll pack, you change that baby and give this young man something to drink, and maybe something to eat. I think he’s been through hard times, just now.”
The big blond woman took him by the hand. She felt like Mama, even though she couldn’t be because Mama was small and dark. Presently, she was giving Angelita a bottle while Juan ate a bowl of warm oatmeal with cream and brown sugar and told her what had happened. Her eyes got misty when he talked about Mama being left behind.
Juan had been thinking, he said, “She’s dead now, isn’t she, ma’am?” It seemed impossible, and yet he was sure of it, in a way. “Papa said if you died defending the Usa, you’d be born again in a land of freedom, is it true? Do people live more than once?”
The woman’s eyes misted, blue beneath a veil of tears. “Some people think so. Some of our people. But my husband and I we’re Chri– We believe in another religion, too, an older one. We just think there is a better land, and your mama and papa are already there. You should call me mom now. It will make things easier. Your name is Juan? Maybe we should call you John.”
“Juan is the name on my birth certificate,” he said, “But Papa said my real name was John Adams. And Angelita is Martha Washington. Johnson.”
“Let’s forget the Adams and the Washington. We need to be even quieter than we’ve been,” the father of this family said, as he did things around them. Juan wasn’t sure what the things were, but he was bringing small bags from inside, and checking burners, as though to make sure they were okay, then setting them atop the bags. “Your name now is John Remy, can you remember that? And Mary is your mom and I’m your dad. And Angelita is Martha. Just Martha. I think we’ll call her Marty, shall we?”
Juan was too tired to protest. The oatmeal had hit his stomach and somehow made him feel warm and really sleepy.
“You go with your brother Jimmy and mom,” the man he was to call dad said. “You know where to go,” he told his wife. “Take the baby. I’ll take Jane and go the other way after I pass on the alarm. We’re just a normal family, going to visit relatives. If you run into trouble, send me signal. I’ll try to retrieve you. That message – someone gave away our enclaves and we don’t have very long. I’ll pass on the codes, and then I’ll join you.”
“Where are we going, sir—uh—dad?” Juan said.
“Olympus Seacity. We’re not forbidden there.”
“Yet,” his wife said.
“Yet, but we’ll survive this,” her husband said, and kissed her. “You can’t erase the idea of the USa until you kill every one of us. And they can’t. We’ll move on. We’ll be secret. We’ll keep going. And someday, someday, we’ll be free to be and to believe again. The idea of freedom and equality we hold might be small and frail compared to the will to power of the tyrants, and the idea that our betters should always lead. But once it had been kindled in human breasts, it is unquenchable. We’ll go to Olympus. We’ll start again. They always need skilled people. And if we should fail and if we should fall, someone will go on, someone will believe. Maybe one of these children.” He kissed his wife again. “Go on. Jane and I will join you and take Pie with us. And you too, Johnny, go on. Your Mama and Papa and you saved a lot of people tonight. And you might have saved the hope for a future in freedom.”
Juan didn’t understand it all, but as he went out into the night again, this time held in the arms of his adopted mom, he felt somehow that he’d accomplished something big, something that would be remembered. The young man, Jimmy, was carrying Angelita, who was asleep again.
They walked down the street, in the muted street lights. Above the moon shone with a bright, clear, silvery light.
And it seemed to Juanito that up there, somewhere, Mama was watching and smiling. Perhaps he’d saved many people, but he’d only done what she wanted.
That was enough for him.
She’d believed that the words he’d been taught, the beliefs she held, would one day make the world better.
He didn’t know if she was right, but she was Mama. Dead or alive, he’d follow her beliefs.
“Life, liberty,” he whispered to himself.
“And the pursuit of happiness,” his new mom said. She kissed his forehead. “And we will pursue all three, little one. We will. However long it takes to attain them. There are dreams so big you must keep chasing them, no matter how long it takes.”
Juan only half heard her. He was falling asleep, slipping into a dream where the great summer high holiday was held in the open, in a park with green grass, and there were red blue and white streamers floating in the wind, and fireworks, like what dad had told him about in the old days.
Mama and papa were there, holding hands and looking up at the fireworks. And in their faces was the most radiant happiness he’d ever seen.
It was a terrible and beautiful sight, which he would never forget.