Story art by Frances Brundage.
From the author: Baby 2021 finds out what it's going to have to deal with -- a very quickly written fable for 2020.
Guess what, children! It’s New Year’s Eve!
You may have seen some pictures of the old man with a scythe together with a little baby who wears a sash with the name of the new year on it. Grownups will tell you that they are symbolic, which means that they don’t really exist, but just represent the old year and the upcoming year.
The grownups are wrong.
Deep within the center of the earth, where no human can go, there is a city full of beings that determine things like the rotation of the earth and the explosions of volcanoes and how to keep the Moon from leaving the Earth for a less confusing planet. Within that city there is a large room -- as large as the inside of Doctor Who’s Tardis -- where the Old Year and the New Year meet so that the Old Year can retire and hand over the controls to the New Year.
The Old Year and the New Year are both strange looking beings, so strange that neither you, I, nor even the wizards that deal in human wishes, can see them as they really are. So to our eyes, they look like an old man with a white beard, and a baby wearing a sash.
This is something how their meeting went at the end of the year 2020 CE.
“Hey, boomer,” called the baby, “how are things?”
“Not funny,” the old man said, leaning on his scythe.
The room where the hand-off was due to take place was full of the usual paraphernalia, the result of an Earthly year. The baby had been told, in the several (and often disturbing) workshops that it had sat through in preparation for this moment, that there might be a good deal of detritus pushed into corners of the room, most of which it would have to deal with: armaments, lost causes, fierce hate creatures gnawing at their cages… But what the baby did not expect was the pile of discarded gloves, masks, empty hand sanitizer bottles, and protective gear that was piled nearly to the ceiling in one corner.
“What the hell is that?” asked the baby, walking forward. The old man stepped in front of it, smiling way too widely.
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” he said. “That’s just a minor problem, not any worse than the flu. It’s going away. You won’t have to worry too much about it. But,” he added, “I’d avoid that corner if I were you. Maybe even wear a mask, although I’m sure it’s not necessary. Here,” and he shoved a surgical mask at the baby.
The baby took the mask. “Death told me that they were busy this year,” it said. “But I assumed it was a war or something like that.”
“Oh, there are plenty of wars. But there’s also this. It’s mostly people who were going to die anyways,” said the old man, but he couldn’t meet the baby’s eyes.
“Do you really believe that?” the baby asked, incredulously.
The old man shrugged. “It’s not what I believe. It’s what people are saying.”
He led the baby away from the pile. “Here,” he said. “There’s plenty of other stuff here, some of which you’ll want to keep. Look at all these great movies and TV shows. Lots of great entertainment here.”
He turned to a 75-inch LED screen with two stereo speakers attached. “Hello, TV,” he said.
“Hello,” the screen said. “What would you like to watch today?”
“Isn’t that cool?” the old man said. “It’s called a Smart TV. It answers your questions and you can do all sorts of stuff. It will turn your lights on and off if you ask it to.”
“What the hell is this?” asked the baby, ignoring the 75-inch LED screen and looking at a small toy with two little robots, a red one and a blue one. The two robots jabbed fiercely at each other, while they yelled imprecations and various interesting curse words.
“Oh, that’s been here for years,” said the old man. “That’s politics.”
“Who’s winning?” asked the baby.
“Not sure,” said the old man, staring at the battling robots. “But they’re fun to watch.”
For you maybe, thought the baby, but didn’t say anything. Instead, it wandered to another pile, where signs and banners were piled by a smaller screen showing crowds of people marching, yelling, and being arrested.
“I was told about this,” said the baby. “Humans trying to be recognized as human, and others angry because of it. It sounded weird to me, but I’m told it’s been going on for a while.”
The old man nodded, and sat down on the chair. He was starting to look very old indeed. “I was told the same thing when I started out,” he said. “It got pretty noisy during my year. Humans were getting pretty insistent about their status as humans.”
“Isn’t that a good thing?” asked the baby.
“Of course,” the old man said. “And I did my best to help. But sometimes…”
He pointed to the last corner of the room, where a small creature crouched, clutching the carpet with both its fists. “Socialists!” the creature screamed. “Fake news! Voter fraud! Rigged election! China virus! Communists!”
“What the hell is that?” asked the baby, aghast.
“It’s your problem now,” said the old man. He reached wearily for his scythe and used it to pull himself up from his chair. “I inherited it from 2019. I tried to get rid of it, but couldn’t manage it. You may be more successful.”
He limped to the door. “Are you leaving me with all this?” the baby cried, aghast at the mess.
“This,” answered the old man, “along with some of the stuff that 2019 left me with. That’s the way it is, I’m afraid. The New Year always has to deal with the mess the Old Year leaves behind. The trash bags are behind the sink in the bathroom; collection is on Thursday mornings. Do your best, but don’t expect to be able to get rid of it all. Some of the worst stuff can be almost impossible to clean up.”
He sighed. “Good luck. You’ll need it.” He waved, opened the door and closed it firmly behind him.
The baby stared at the closed door for a moment, then down at the mask in its hand. It put the mask on, carefully fitting the nosepiece to the bridge of its nose and adjusting the elastic loops around its ears.
Finally, it looked around the room -- at the booming TV set, at the screaming creature, at the battling robots, and finally at the piles of death. “Okay,” it said, taking a deep breath. “Time to start redecorating.”