-1507 A.D. –
"It is over, Excellency. No one would dare oppose you now." The soldier waited for his dismissal, dreaming of ale and the camaraderie of his fellows. The campaign had been mercifully short but nevertheless intensely bloody. Now, it was finally over.
"Nonsense," the baron said with a wave. "Of course they would dare. Perhaps not today, but tomorrow and tomorrow, and if not them, then perhaps their children."
The baron's smile cut through the soldier's courage like a poisoned blade. He quickly looked away, nodding faintly.
"I am glad you agree," said the baron. "If they were my children, I would . . ." The baron froze mid-step then began laughing. "If they were my children," he said again. He walked to the small window and looked down from his castle to the blood-stained land below and contemplated the ephemeral nature of his victory.
"Gather up the children. The boys. Bring them to me."
Promises of an early night and visions of revelry fell away like a rock dropped from a cliff. Instead, his mind filled with images of endless nights watching over a compound of children. He sighed mentally. Then, with a quick bow, he said, "Yes, Excellency," and turned to carry out his orders.
"Just their heads."
# # #
– 1977 A.D. –
"I won't sleep, y'know!"
Claire paused at the top of the stairs. She glanced into Jeremy's darkened room. Good. At least the little runt hadn't gotten back up, she thought.
"Since I won't let you get up, Jeremy, you might as well just close your eyes and stop fighting me," she shouted.
She waited for a retort but there was only some rustling of covers. About time. For a six-year-old, she thought, he sure was a lot of trouble. Luckily, she was thirteen and armed with her babysitter training certificate. He was tough. However, she was tougher and if she could handle this brat, then the dollars would soon start rolling in when Mom and Dad's friends started calling on her to babysit their brats. She smiled and tiptoed down the stairs, her mind already busy going over an ever-growing shopping list.
Ten-thirty. Claire looked up from her watch and frowned. Just over half an hour of quiet. The runt should be asleep by now, she thought. She put her book down and turned on the TV to put the battle between her brother and herself out of her mind. A bad old science fiction film, The Green Slime, had just started so she put the TV Guide down and settled in.
While she watched absently, something clawed at the edges of her subconscious. She shivered and grabbed for a cushion to snuggle into.
What was wrong? The movie wasn't that scary. It wasn't scary at all. From her stretched out position she could see just short of the top of the stairs. Her eyes kept returning to a spot just beyond her line of sight. She thought about watching something else but made no motion to change the channel. A moment later she rose and headed for the stairs. Halfway up she stopped.
What hit her first was the smell. Acrid barbs pierced her nostrils mixed with the smell of something unpleasant smouldering as if carried on a breeze.
Next was the presence. She looked to the top of the stairs and saw nothing yet she knew it was there. Her heart beating madly, Claire ran down the stairs and into the living room toward the comforting light of the television. A second later she was heading back up the stairs.
As she ran past the invisible monstrosity, Claire felt resistance as though she had run through mud or water. Ignoring the sensation, she headed into the small bedroom, gathered up Jeremy into her arms and ran back down the stairs.
With Jeremy clutched to her chest, she looked up. Standing there at the top of the stairs was a wisp. It was more of a feeling though. She felt she was seeing a wisp, large and vaguely human in shape. The confusion it felt, its hesitation; those too were just feelings but Claire knew they were real. She also understood what the thing wanted.
Claire held Jeremy even closer. "No. You can't have him."
The wisp shimmered, faded, then returned. Dispassionately, a voice like the dust of centuries echoed in her mind. "Then you owe me one." A pause, and then, rising to a shriek, the voice added, "Your family owes me!"
The mental assault sent her reeling. Claire took another step back, knowing at once that the presence was gone.
In her arms, Jeremy stirred and asked, "What is it?"
No sense frightening him, Claire thought. "Nothing. I just thought you'd like to watch some TV."
My family? Claire cast a quick glance at her lower middle class surroundings. What could my family owe anybody?
Jeremy snuggled against his sister. They watched the movie in silence, tentacled monsters screeching madly from beyond space. Then, some time later as plans for evacuating the space station unfolded, Jeremy looked toward Claire with a smile. "You know, you're not such a bad sister after all."
# # #
– 1987 A.D. –
The courier held out a red pen. Claire took it, signed her name on the indicated line and took her package. While the courier headed back to his truck, Claire stood in the doorway, running her fingers across the UK return address. Barnes & Oxbury, Ancestral Research Group.
Back inside, she ran to her bedroom chanting "It's finally here, it's finally here" as she went. In the corner, an old metal office desk sat covered in stacks of papers and opened books. Claire pushed a few papers aside, increased the size of a couple of piles, then set out the contents of her package.
Claire checked her watch. She was meeting David for dinner in another two hours. Studying the contents, (file folders, papers, and letters) she subtracted an hour to get ready and the fifteen minutes to get to the restaurant, compared that against the formidable stack and whispered a growl. Maybe, she thought, I could get ready in half an hour.
The corkboard on the wall directly in front of her held several pages of Claire's family tree fastened with thumbtacks. The impressive body of work spanned both sides of her family, not an easy task. Her parents had come to Canada from Europe shortly after the second world war. Having never met her grandparents, any family history she was able to extract had ended with her own parents and their recollection of events. Neither her mother nor father understood her obsession with tracking down this information, but both felt a certain pride that their daughter was taking such an interest in the family tree – both sides no less.
If either had shared Claire's nightmares, the reasoning behind this pride might have shocked them. For years, the events of Claire's first babysitting assignment haunted her. "You owe me one. Your family owes me," the creature had said (she still thought of it as a creature rather than some sort of ghost). Why should she or her family be indebted to this creature?
Her casual questions to her parents generated only new questions. Afraid that they might prod further, she began looking for things her parents might have done, or her grandparents. She felt guilty investigating her parents and grandparents like this, but they had all suffered through a terrible war, she reasoned. In terrible times, people sometimes did terrible things.
Over the last couple of years, she had managed to sketch a fairly accurate trace of the family line. Sadly, it had proven generally uninteresting save one thing that so far, still only worried her. Her mother had lost a brother when he was a baby. So had her mother's father. Her mother's only brother had also lost their first-born son at six months. Other than that, what she uncovered were stories of kids growing up, getting married, living uneventful lives then having more kids. Not a thief, criminal, or killer in the lot. What could her family possibly owe anybody?
Having gone as far as she could on her own, Claire had hired a British genealogical research firm to continue for her. The papers that so engrossed her at this time were from this firm. They had managed to extend her own work another four centuries.
She scanned every document, making notes as she went. Every branch in the line confirmed her fears. With only a few exceptions, each generation lost the first born male in childhood. What she had hoped was an aberration of her own research continued in this new bundle of information.
Moments later, she found her first real criminal. Deep into her mother's line was royalty of a sort – a wealthy and powerful baron. She read on, digesting the details of her infamous ancestor's life.
When she finished, Claire hugged herself, rubbing her goose-pimpled flesh to fight the growing chill.
# # #
– 1507 A.D. –
"Any final words from the prisoner?"
The young woman studied the Baron, ignoring those gathered to witness her execution. She rested on bloodied knees, the pain she felt pushing aside the madness that threatened to envelop her. Inches away, the headman's axe waited. It and her pain were a focus upon which she now fed.
Again, the Baron spoke. "Last chance, woman."
"I've done nothing wrong," she said dispassionately.
The Baron smiled. "You killed one of my guards. While I admire your spirit, such crimes cannot go unpunished."
"He killed my son."
"By decree." He paused, looking over the gathering. "By law."
"I was protecting my children."
"That is questionable."
The Baron stood as they wheeled a small cart in. Upon it was a small cage and within a girl child, dirty and crying as she held on to the bars of her prison. "You still had a daughter. Without a mother, she too, will die. By your actions, you have killed her as well. It is unfortunate because I only wanted the boys."
The headsman's hand came down hard across the woman's shoulder blades as she struggled to her feet. She started crying as she sought out her daughter's face. "Damn you," she muttered. "You want my final words, Baron. Here they are. I curse you and all your descendants. I pledge my soul to the dark forces here and now. In exchange, each generation spanning from your name will pay a debt of one child's life."
A murmur floated through the crowd. The words 'devil' and 'witch' wove through the fabric of fear.
"Quiet!" the Baron shouted. He looked to the headsman and nodded. "Do it."
The woman rested her head upon the block and looked toward the Baron with a smile. "Do not fear, Baron. I only want the boys."
When her head rolled to a stop upon the ground, the eyes were facing the Baron. She was still smiling.
# # #
– 1987 A. D. –
Claire checked her watch as she got to the restaurant. Captivated by her findings, she had lost track of time. By skipping the shower and putting on the barest of make-up, she had managed to arrive only 30 minutes late. Once inside, she scanned the tables and saw David waiting at their usual table near the back of the restaurant. Dark. Isolated. Romantic.
"Sorry I'm late, David." She put her arms around him and quickly kissed him. "You haven't been waiting long, have you?"
David shrugged. "Eight, maybe ten hours. Who can tell?" He smiled.
"Liar," she said, returning his smile. Claire took her seat and picked up the menu.
"That's okay though. I suspect this is just the sort of little thing I'm going to have to learn to live with when we get married."
"It's just that I got caught up in this research I'm doing. Some of the stuff I found was . . . " She blinked once, dropped the menu and shook her head. "What did you say?"
"It was meant to come out more like a question, actually." David sighed and dropped to one knee. He took Claire's hand in his and said, "Will you marry me?"
"Oh, David!" Tears flowed toward the joyful smile. "Yes, yes, I'd love to marry . . . you." By the time Claire had reached the word you, the smile was gone but the tears remained.
David swallowed. "Claire? What's wrong?"
"Sit down, David."
"What is it?"
"David, I can't have children."
Reaching to take her hand, David noticed it was trembling. "How do you know?" He smiled weakly. "Have you checked with a doctor?"
Claire shook her head. "It's not like that, David. I just don't want to have children." She thought briefly about telling him why, then locked the thought away. "I love you and I will marry you, but don't ever ask me to have children."
David looked into her eyes and saw her fear. He nodded. "It's you I want, Claire. Children aren't important to me," he reassured her, "just you."
"Then you'll still have me?"
"To have and to hold, til death do us part."
# # #
– 1996 A.D. –
"Claire, you're being silly."
"And you're being a jerk! When you married me, you said children weren't important, that we were enough. Have I grown that boring? Or are you suddenly scared that there will be no one to carry on your name?"
David sighed. "Claire, you know that's not it. I love you and I just feel that it might be nice if a small part of us could continue after we're gone." David reached out to her and took her hand. "You love kids. I know you do."
Looking into his eyes, she could tell he was speaking the truth. Scared as she was by the idea, she wanted the same thing.
"Other people's kids. It's easy to love them. You get to send them home at night." She managed a nervous smile.
"True. But you don't get to tuck them in, and they're always somebody else's." He smiled. "Besides, we've got more than enough love to share with another person."
"It's not a question of love, David."
Claire pointed to the love seat. "Sit down, David."
She began where it all started, taking care to describe her feelings that night. Her feelings, after all, were all she really had — despite their reality. When she had finished telling her story, Claire waited while David looked back at her sadly.
"Why did you never tell me about this?"
Claire laughed bitterly. "What for? So you would think your wife was a mental case?"
He reached out to her and took her hand. "Because you had a nightmare? You were a little girl."
Pulling her hand back, Claire snapped. "It was no nightmare. I was wide awake. Didn't you hear a word I said?"
"Every word. The evidence you've found of infant deaths is certainly a bit chilling but they aren't necessarily related to your infamous ancestor. It's only in the last couple of generations that significant infant mortality has decreased. My Grandmother lost three children. She also had another eleven that lived."
"What about the monster – the ghost?"
David took her hand once more. "Late at night when you're all alone, the mind plays tricks. I babysat too when I was younger. One of my jobs was for a family that lived across from a graveyard. One night, during a thunderstorm, I happened to look out their window. They lived out in the country and the television reception sucked. Well, a flash of lightning lit up the graveyard across the street and suddenly I saw things coming toward the house. I closed the curtains, turned on every light in the house, and started singing to scare the monsters away."
Despite her anger, Claire laughed. "Singing?"
"Bill Cosby," David explained. "I remembered a skit where he said that music scares away monsters. So I sang."
"It is kind of silly, isn't it?"
"Kind of." David pulled her close.
"What about the baron?"
"He was an evil man. He wasn't the first and he won't be the last."
"And what if somebody had put a curse on him?"
"If every curse put on every evil man's descendants had any real power, there would be no one left in the world."
He was right. She knew that and told him so. Her only wish was that she felt as sure as he did. "God damn you," she said softly. She wiped away the first tear then pressed her head into his chest.
David gently stroked her hair. "I love you, Claire."
"Yeah, well I love you too, damn it."
# # #
They named the baby Charlie. The choice had been David's – after his grandfather.
Claire had only picked out names for girls.
When Charlie was born, she had peacefully accepted the infant. There were no tears and no joyous laughter but she held the infant with a gentle fierceness. While Charlie suckled at her breast, she watched.
# # #
– 1998 A.D. –
Beyond the window, the rain fell soundlessly and invisibly in the hidden darkness, lost behind the reflected image of the family room light on the window. Somewhere above that storm, David flew, a business meeting in Boston.
Through the glass barrier, Claire thought she felt a breeze enter the room. It passed unchallenged — no blood smeared on the doors to protect those within. The breath of air that brushed her nostrils had a faint, distant smell of rotting earth.
She nodded. So, it's tonight while I'm alone.
Taking her son into her arms, Claire rose, trembling, terrified, and angry.
"You're not taking my child," she said. Her eyes stared fiercely at the reflected lamplight. "Never."
In her mind, she heard the voice from long ago. "I can wait. You will have to sleep sometime."
Claire turned away, and clutching the child, headed for the kitchen. Charlie slept peacefully, unaware of the battle that raged around him.
Slowly, gently, she laid the infant down upon the counter then opened her top drawer. From its cluttered cutlery tray, she selected a serrated edge carving knife. Then, she removed the child's diaper, exposing his immature genitalia.
She could sense the monster in the kitchen with her. She could almost see the ghostly outline watching her every move.
"What are you doing?"
Claire looked up for a moment. She smiled sickly. Was there fear in the voice? Hesitation? She had to press on.
"You can have my son," she said, "but you can't have my child."
With one hand, she took hold of the tiny penis, brought the blade to rest against the base, and . . .
A sharp "No!" erupted into her mind followed by the screams of her baby.
Startled, Claire dropped the blade. A tiny red drop appeared where she had cut the surface of the skin. A scratch.
"No." Softer now. "What are you doing?"
"I'm protecting my child."
"That is questionable."
Echoing her son, Claire also started to cry. She picked up Charlie, held him tight against her chest.
"Why!? You need them whole? Is that it? You cowardly piece of slime. You listen to me. I wasn't there when the baron was running havoc across the countryside. Whatever happened in the past is past, do you hear? I'm not responsible for what my great-grand-whatever may have done. This whole sins of the fathers thing is idiotic. You want my boy. Then you have to take him on my terms."
To make her point, Claire picked up the knife and waved it at the presence which felt increasingly less threatening. Then, from the space it inhabited, she sensed something new. Something almost human was taking shape even as it faded away.
"Questionable," the voice went on. "I was only protecting my children. My boy. Now they are lost. I am lost."
Claire listened as the voice faded with the faint image of an emaciated young woman standing where the monster stood seconds earlier. She felt she should say something, but there were too many questions.
"The debt has been paid. You will see me no longer."
A moment later, Claire knew she was alone. Looking at the knife in her hand, she started crying again and tossed it into the sink. It rattled briefly before coming to rest.
She began kissing Charlie's face, trying to stop his tears. "Come on Charlie. Let's go take care of that cut.
About the Author
Marcel's just this guy, you know? He's also a multi-award-winning columnist, journalist, book author, public speaker, radio and television personality, YouTube creator, gamer, and a well known voice in the Linux and open source universe. Marcel is responsible for creating the famous (perhaps infamous) "Cooking With Linux" series which ran for ten years in the Linux Journal. He's also a science fiction and fantasy author, a former Editor In Chief, senior editor, contributing editor, and plain old editor/reader. He has keynoted at tech conferences, spoken at universities, user group meetings, and science fiction conventions.
Marcel is a private pilot, was once a Top 40 disc jockey, and he folds a mean origami T-Rex. Coolest of all, he's a seriously lucky husband to his wife, Sally, and a seriously lucky Dad to his boys, Sebastian and Tristan.
Visit his Website at http://marcelgagne.com