The Sins of the Father
Ever since he was small, Henry dreaded each birthday. He had just passed his twenty-fourth year . . . only four more years and three months before he was scheduled to receive the death penalty. His older brother had been executed at that exact age, as had his father and his grandfather.
"Why did Grandpa have to kill that lawman?" Henry had asked his mother ever since he was old enough to realize his fate. "And why must we endure the punishments for crimes that our ancestors committed?"
His mother smiled sadly and squeezed his hand as he asked these questions once more over a birthday cake that left a bitter taint on his tongue. "Your grandfather had been caught stealing and fired his gun at the lawman that had tried to arrest him. Unfortunately, killing a lawman is an offense punishable by death. If only he had given more thought to the matter, realized the tragedy that awaited not only him but his young son and eventually . . ." Her voice choked, her eyes flooded. "His grandson . . . you . . ."
Henry embraced her and swallowed the stubborn lump that was swelling in his own throat. Why did he have to bring this topic up on his birthday, a day that, in spite of the implications, was supposed to be a happy occasion?
His guilt deepened as he looked over at his younger, half-sister Melanie and his fiancée Paige who was sitting at the table across from them. He was fleetingly grateful that his grandfather's crime had only affected the males in the bloodline, not his mother or sister. Melanie had a different father so, even had she been a boy, she would never have received the same sentence as Henry.
"I'm sorry," he said to the small group. "I shouldn't bring this up. It's just that I can't help it sometimes."
"I understand." Something stirred in Henry as Paige fixed her exotic dark eyes on him. At twenty-three, she faced a fifteen-year jail sentence in ten years for a crime of passion her great-grandmother had committed. Henry smiled at her and forced back his secret resentment. True, that wasn't a pleasant fate either but at least she wasn't scheduled to die. She could resume her life after that period. But he loved her for the sacrifice she knew she was making when she agreed to marry him, knowing that she would be widowed in a few short years. "This has been difficult for a lot of people. But our leaders feel that punishing the offspring of criminals will keep our world free of crime and it has worked. They believe these are the sacrifices we must make in order to keep peace. At least that is what my classes are teaching me. Once I graduate, I'm going to work to change all that. Hopefully I can accomplish that before the start of my sentence."
Paige was in graduate school, working on a law degree. Henry, against his mother's wishes, opted not to attend college. "What is the point?" he had argued. "I'm going to die early anyway."
He and Paige were married in early spring, in a small ceremony. They honeymooned on a distant, tropical island where they made love on a secluded beach and almost forgot about their pending sentences.
"Let's forget everything and just continue this honeymoon, travel around the world," Henry said as he stroked Paige's sleek hair. So soft, so dark, I could just wrap myself in its fragrant warmth and escape from the world. They won't have to kill me . . .
Paige rolled over and stared at him with her steady eyes. "It's tempting but I can't. Not just yet. I need to finish school and get my career started."
"But you have plenty of time before your sentence starts." Henry's face burned as he sensed the faint immature whine in his voice. "Over a decade. And even if you don't finish your degree now, you can do so in jail."
Paige's eyes grew moist and Henry regretted his words. Was I too harsh? "It's not the same. Besides, I need to have financial security before and a bank account that can collect interest over the years I'm not working. And, even though I didn't commit the initial crime, there is still a stigma against ex-convicts, especially in my line of work."
Her tears released themselves, trickling down her olive cheeks in slender rivulets. "I'm sorry." Her voice trembled. She reached toward Henry and embraced him. He held her close, enjoying the feel of her soft breasts, her even softer hair. She smelled of salt and suntan lotion. "I know your sentence is worse than mine . . . I'd trade you if I could. I promise . . . my main goal in school is to find a way to end this insanity."
Her words created a faint stirring within Henry that grated against the political and religious doctrines that supported this law. Not only had it been proven scientifically that the children of criminals tended to commit similar crimes as their parents but it was taught in the churches that that was what God had intended: it was mankind's lot to pay for the first sin committed in the Garden of Eden so therefore it was only natural that the progeny suffer the same punishments for their ancestors' crimes.
Still, it is so unfair! Whether it was in church as a young child listening to the minister lecture on this or a politician giving a speech on TV expressing his views of ever-stricter punishments, a part of Henry ached to fight against this system.
During this first year of their marriage, Henry and Paige lived in a small apartment in the middle of the city. Henry supported Paige's schooling by working odd jobs. He awoke each morning with a feeling of dread crawling through his stomach with the knowledge that he was a day closer to his impending death. The noise and traffic of the city did little to distract him. He resented having to work knowing that death was eminent and drank too much and often stayed out late with his friends. He sensed Paige's quiet irritation with him but her deep eyes revealed the sympathy she felt. They seemed to say, "Let him have his fun while he can, especially since I might not be able to change anything. Our culture is too enmeshed in this belief system."
His worry dug deeper when Paige began to complain of dizziness and nausea.
"I saw the doctor today," she said one evening as they were preparing dinner. White sparks flashed before Henry's eyes. He already guessed the weighted words before Paige released them. "I'm pregnant."
He sank into the nearest chair, too overwhelmed. This wasn't supposed to happen. They had been taking the proper precautions. "This does complicate things, I know," Paige continued, touching his arm. "Hopefully it will be a girl." Her voice broke. "But even so. . .perhaps it would be best, for us and the child, to get rid of it."
Henry looked up. Her beautiful face was twisted with anguish. "We shouldn't have to do that."
"I-I don't want to." She buried her face in her hands. Henry pulled her close. "But I don't know what else to do."
Conflicting emotions raged within Henry. Although his death was pending, a part of him was relieved that he would still carry on . . . even if having a son meant that that child would be slated for death in a little more than twenty-eight years after his birth. Guilt tore at him for even feeling this. It wasn't fair to the child who would grow up fatherless and then become a ward of the state in ten years when Paige's sentence began.
Perhaps getting rid of the baby was the best option.
Unless . . .
"We can always return to the island where we honeymooned," Henry suggested. "No one was watching us then."
Paige sighed. "But for how long? They'd notice us missing after a while. You work, I go to school . . . people know us and could snitch. We can't just disappear. No matter where we went, we'd be found. Besides, we couldn't last long anywhere without a steady income. What happens when our funds run out? And we'd only make things worse if we started to steal and were caught."
Henry lowered his head as anger gnawed his insides. He was angry with Paige for being so practical but angrier at the system and his grandfather for starting this mess.
His mother and Melanie were so fortunate . . .
A flicker of hope tingled through him. "Melanie!"
"What?" Paige blinked as if momentarily startled by his sudden change of heart. "Your younger sister?"
"She's only a couple of years younger than me and she's engaged to be married. Neither she nor her fiancé have any major sentences hanging over them. And she had a different father. They could—"
"Raise the child as their own," Paige finished. Her voice was tinged with a combination of sadness and relief. "Would they be willing?"
"They expressed an interest in having children. We'd be giving them a head start. But we'll have to be discreet and hide your pregnancy. Our family physician would keep our secret but we mustn't go to any hospital, is that understood?" Paige nodded, her face set.
The guards led Henry to a small room with a window looking out into the viewing area. He felt oddly calm as he was instructed to lie down on the table. His arms and legs were strapped.
His gaze slipped through the window. Paige was pale but elegant in a simple dark suit and his mother was weeping. He focused on the toddler boy seated on Melanie's lap. He had Henry's curly hair and Paige's exotic eyes but he looked as if he could belong to Melanie and her husband. At least he will be free from the sentences imposed on the male side of my family, he thought as the needle was inserted into his skin.
There was a brief stinging pain before everything faded.