The Edward R. and Frances Schreiber Collins Literary Prize Winner for Prose
CW: infanticide, death
Midnight is such a tantalizing hour, the birth of a new day, the next twenty-four hours blank pages intended to be filled. An hour associated with hope; it’s crazy how easily that same hope can come crashing down in a single minute.
At midnight on January 1, 1999, ten Americans who called themselves “The Newfounders” set a bomb that flipped America on its axis. Nobody knows why they did it. The only message that they left behind was destroyed with the exception of one line: “We did this for America.” Everything was destroyed. The country’s leaders were all dead and for what felt like months people leaned on each other, aimlessly trying to rebuild what once was but failing terribly. Desperate to escape, thousands of surviving Americans with nothing but the clothes on their backs fled to neighboring countries.
On June 1, five months after the bombing, an uprising began. Out of the ashes where New York City once stood, they built their empire. They called themselves “The Timekeepers.” There was no vote, no picking and choosing. One day they weren’t there and the next they were, guiding us back toward some semblance of normalcy.
Nobody knows if they were in on the bombings, but everyone was too afraid to question their authority. What they said was set in stone. So when they drew up new laws of the land nobody questioned them. The Timekeepers built what they deemed a perfect society. Everything was done in order to avoid the hour of midnight. “The devil’s hour” they called it. Every hour of every day was allotted a specific task all the way until everyone’s head hit the pillow at night. With guards on watch 24/7, anybody seen out past curfew was brought in for questioning. The Timekeepers were all men and although there were five men and women who set the bombs they made sure that the women were demonized. A woman’s body was strictly controlled. Even the hour that women gave birth was under strict observation. So much so that no children were born at midnight until John Doe. The papers were flooded with the news of this child’s birth. “The Newfounders sent him” the papers’ stories all proclaimed. A rebuilt America held its breath as they watched him grow into a seemingly normal child. It wasn’t until he got older that he began questioning the world around him, questioning the Timekeepers’ authority, and their laws. Then one day he disappeared. No longer a threat. After his “disappearance” the Timekeepers sent out a message that any child born at midnight was to be taken away, to grow up outside of the new American society. No one was to threaten the perfection that they had worked so hard to create. Such a silly thing, this notion of perfection. Something that we try so hard to attain, but that always manages to point out our biggest flaws.
January 1, 2001
As soon as the clock struck midnight, the cries of an infant filled the hospital room. A healthy baby girl was born but not a single person in the room was smiling. Instead, they all stared morbidly at the clock which blinked over to 12:01 a.m., further cementing their fate. The nurse spoke up first.
“We need to take the baby,” she whispered, whisking the baby away to be cleaned up. The new parents looked at each other apprehensively.
“Can we hold her?” The baby’s mother, Estella, craned her neck every which way to get a better view. The nurse clutched the newly bundled baby to her chest.
“Please? Just for a second.” Estella’s eyes bounced back and forth between the nurse and the doctor. He gave a nod of approval. As soon as the baby girl came into contact with her mother’s skin, her crying stopped. The clock ticked loudly amidst the silence.
“Hi there little one,” the mother cooed. Her dark blue eyes were wide open and staring up at her parents. The father, Harrison, reached forward, the pad of his thumb delicately brushing the baby’s cheek. The baby caught hold of his thumb in her tiny grasp.
“She’s strong like her mama.” His voice cracked and with his free hand he swiped tears from his eyes. “Absolutely perfect,” he whispered.
“Our little Midnight.” Estella smiled up at him as he leaned down to kiss her.
“You can’t keep her,” the nurse said blandly, as if taking a child was some normal occurrence.
“Please let us raise her,” the mother begged, her hold on the baby tightening as the nurse approached to take the infant.
“That can’t be done.”
“She’s our last hope. Our only chance at being parents.” Estella desperately clutched onto her baby, who she already harbored an unfathomable amount of love for.
“There’s always dogs,” the nurse had the audacity to snidely remark.
“Miranda,” the doctor barked, “Could you go get the proper papers for me please?”
When she left the room Harrison turned towards the doctor. “Doctor, please. We can’t let her go,” Harrison pleaded.
The doctor ran his hand through his graying hair and looked down at the family before him. Had she been born just a minute earlier they wouldn’t even be having this conversation. The sound of the clock ticking was deafening. Miranda re-entered the room and handed the papers to the doctor. He looked down at the birth certificate, the spaces where the name and time needed to be filled in were glaringly empty.
“Okay, here’s what we’re going to do. As far as anyone in this room is concerned this baby girl was born at 11:55 p.m. on December 31, 2000.” The mother broke out into tears of joy, clutching her baby even tighter to her chest.
“But Doctor, we could get arrested for letting this child go,” the nurse interrupted, placing a hand over the birth certificate to keep the doctor from writing anything.
“Miranda, I don’t have time for this. If you want to go and tell the Timekeepers this baby was born at midnight be my guest, but by the time you report to them, this baby will be long gone.” The Doctor snatched the birth certificate from underneath her hand and began filling in the date and time.
“What is her name?” He looked toward the parents who couldn’t stop beaming. Their eyes met over the baby’s head as they came to some sort of silent agreement.
“Luna Midnight Dawson,” Harrison stated proudly. The doctor quickly scribbled the name down before approaching the family. He sat on the edge of the bed and slowly unraveled the left arm of the baby. With permanent ink, he gently stamped the time 11:55 p.m. on the inside of Luna’s wrist.
“You can’t tell anyone about this,” he warned as he slowly pulled the stamp away. “No one can know who she really is, not even family. Keep her as far away from society as possible. Raise her in a secluded place where people won’t ask questions.” The parents nodded, their eyes like a deer in headlights. The doctor rose, besides the parents he was the only one left in the room.
“Get out of here before someone finds out. I won’t say anything but I can’t guarantee the others won’t. You have a healthy baby girl, and I hope she is able to grow into an equally healthy young woman.” He gave them a stiff nod before turning to leave.
“Doctor!” Estella called out right before he crossed the threshold. He turned his head. “Thank you. I can’t begin to explain how much this means to us.” She placed a hand over her heart as a sign of her gratitude.
“May time be ever on your side.” He says before disappearing from their lives forever.
Estella and Harrison sprang into action, grabbing their stuff and tossing it into the overnight bag. They are packed and checked out of the hospital in under five minutes. It wasn’t until they were within the safety of their car that either of them breathed a sigh of relief.
“What do we do now?” Harrison peered at Estella in the rearview mirror.
“We hide and hope that time is on our side.” The clock on the dashboard clicked over to 1:11 a.m. Although neither of them said anything, they both wondered if time would ever be in their favor again.
21 Years Later
Luna hated birthdays. She hated the fact that her wrist was stamped with the stupid hour of her birth and that it somehow determined what she would be like for the rest of her life. She hated being reminded that the time on her wrist wasn’t true. Her parents had told the same story every year since she was 15. How, had it not been for a kind doctor, she wouldn’t be here today. As if her parents telling that story wasn’t enough of a reminder, her dreams never failed to make her question everything. For as long as Luna could remember she’d had these strange, elusive dreams, but it wasn’t until last night that all of the pieces finally had fallen into place. It felt strangely prophetic that she had finally seen the full picture on the eve of her 21st birthday. As she rubbed sleep from her eyes, she pulled out her dream journal. Ever since she was 13 she had written down what she dreamed about, hoping that one day all the fragmented pieces would finally make sense.
Today was a special day, but she knew exactly how it was going to go. Probably because every day was the exact same. There was only one thing out of everything happening today that would be different. The test. She stared at the same daily schedule that glowed in front of her everyday because consistency was key:
7:00 am morning alarm (wake up)
7:20 am breakfast and dress
8:00 am drive to work (or school)
9:00 am everyone expected at work/school
The schedule continued all the way until 10:00 pm when everyone was expected to be in bed. The schedule on Luna’s mirror glitched. As she traced her finger over the glowing numbers, she couldn’t help but think that this glitch was a symbol for society. Despite all of this control there was one fatal flaw with time: it didn’t account for any violent acts that occurred within those hours. Yet the Timekeepers lead everybody to believe it was for the greater good; blind eyes were turned to it because violence kept society in order. Sometimes Luna felt like the only one willing to see how wrong that reasoning was:; to see the glitch in the mirror. How could everyone else not see that the Timekeepers had them brainwashed? The Timekeepers proclaimed citizens were equal when there were children robbed of a normal life because of the hour that they were born. Nobody knew where they went or if they even lived. Perhaps this was accepted because they had everybody so hyper-focused on avoiding midnight, making it to another day, that there was a failure to see what blatantly happened. Or perhaps it was seen and everyone just chose to turn a blind eye. But if that were the case, then at least there would be enough decency to have some sort of court system. At least, one would think.
Luna stared at the mirror for so long, waiting for it to glitch again or crack beneath her gaze. She wondered if there was something wrong she couldn’t see. If, like society, buried beneath this veneer of perfection, the mirror was cracked. She gave herself one last once-over before making her way downstairs.
“Happy birthday!” her parents exclaimed as soon as she reached the last step. Her mom was carrying a giant stack of pancakes with candles for her to blow out. She had heard or maybe read somewhere that if you don’t start your day with a birthday wish then it doesn’t come true, so this was how her birthday started every year. Considering that Luna had been wishing for the same thing for the past seven years, she didn’t think there was much truth to that statement. Yet, she still found herself blowing out the candles and wishing for what she always did: to finally know the truth about the midnight babies.
“Are you excited to find out what your placement is?” her mom asked as she ate her pancakes. Luna rolled her eyes. The placement test was just another way for the Timekeepers to control everybody. As if they didn’t have enough power already, they had to use some test to determine what career everyone belonged to and would be stuck in for the rest of their lives.
“I already know what my placement is. I belong with the outcasts.” Her parents had always been raging optimists, so people that knew her family were always surprised to discover that Luna was the exact opposite.
“I think you’re going to be a writer. You’ve always had a knack for that.” Her father smiled fondly. “Always carrying around that black journal with you.” Out of all the possible careers, and there weren’t many, Luna had to admit being a writer would not be half bad.
Instead of going to school at her normally allotted time, Luna was to report to the city office for her test. The entire train ride over she thought about her dream and the strange boy who warned her that everything was going to change today. Once she arrived at the city building, she found the waiting room buzzing with other people who shared her birthday. They all chatted excitedly with one another about what the test would tell them. All Luna could think about as she stood in the waiting area was death. She couldn’t help but think that her stupid test would flag her. That the Timekeepers would somehow figure out that she was born at midnight. She watched as the crowd within the room got smaller and smaller until there was nobody but her and a tall guy with wire-rimmed glasses remaining. When his name was called he looked over his shoulder at her.
“Good luck,” he said, giving her a smile.
“You too,” she said, but he had already left the room.
“Luna Dawson please enter the preparation room,” the robotic voice echoed overhead. Two more doors stood in the way of her fate. Her heart raced as she turned the doorknob and entered the room. The room was blinding, with every available surface painted in the brightest white possible. Even the test proctor was wearing all white. Luna felt out of place in her all-black outfit. The woman, who couldn’t have been more than a few years older than her, stepped forward.
“Good morning, Ms. Dawson, today you will be embarking on your journey—“ Luna blocked out the rest of her speech. The proctor’s voice was mechanical. The words she spoke were so rehearsed, Luna wouldn’t have been surprised if she said them in her sleep.
“Ms. Dawson, I need your verbal confirmation that you accept the fate that lies ahead.” She looked at her expectantly with empty blue eyes.
“Yes, I accept my fate.” The proctor stepped toward Luna with a syringe that seemed to materialize out of nowhere but that she had apparently prepared on the table right beside her.
“What is that?” Luna stepped backward, unable to take her eyes off the strange blue liquid.
“It’s a serum; it’s part of the simulation,” she said as if that simple phrase explained everything. She took a tentative step toward Luna, who didn’t move.
“You’re going to feel a slight pinch,” she said as the cold needle pierced Luna’s skin. She immediately felt the effects of whatever she had just been injected with. Her proctor’s voice sounded far away, like she was speaking underwater.
“You may now enter the testing room,” she said, gently nudging her in the direction of the door. The metal handle leading to the testing room was cold against Luna’s palm. Once inside she saw a desk in the middle of the room with a piece of paper and pencil sitting on top. Luna slowly made her way toward it. The pencil felt strange in her hand; she was hyper-aware of the ridges digging into her palm. The blank piece of paper stared up at her, holding only a single phrase: Just write whatever comes to mind.
Luna sat in there for what felt like an eternity, and the only thing that she had managed to write by the end was “Find John Doe.” She wrote it over and over again, until the page was covered with that simple phrase. The last thing she remembered was staring at those words before the world around her turned dark.