“Sit down. Close the door.” Mr. Brown gestured for Lisa to take the chair in front of him. Kenny, who was already in the room, lounged against the far wall, arms crossed. He looked nervous, and Lisa wasn’t sure if it was because of the impending ‘marriage talk,’ or because he knew Johnny was somewhere nearby. Johnny had not slept the entire weekend, as far as Lisa could tell. He seemed to pop up at the oddest times, when only either she, or Crystal or Kenny, could see him. It was as if he didn’t trust them to keep his secret from Kenny’s parents, and so was hanging around to make sure. They were all on borrowed time with the vampire. Any wrong move, and he might just kill them all.
“I was wondering if I was ever going to have this talk,” Mr. Brown commented, folding his hands on Lisa’s desk. “Four years ago, when it looked like you were putting some of the pieces together anyway, I gave permission for Ken to bring you in. I expected you to get married then. I didn’t think it would take this long.”
Kenny and Lisa glanced quickly at each other, and then away.
“Of course, your mother didn’t believe any of this when I told her, either,” he said to Kenny, whose eyes widened slightly. “She still doesn’t, not really. She tolerates my little quirks and tells herself I’m a history buff.” Mr. Brown’s eyes focused on Lisa. “But your circumstances are somewhat different. You’ve got family blood, although you shouldn’t. Let me see if I can explain all this better than my son has. You should both go into marriage with your eyes wide open.”
Kenny sat down in the chair next to Lisa so they were both facing his father. His hand reached for hers, and she let him grasp it. In this, they were together. Mr. Brown wasn’t aware of how much Lisa already knew, or how circumstances had changed since Johnny had revealed himself to Kenny. None of this was about marriage.
In the kitchen, Crystal poured herself a glass of milk to go with the three cookies she had put on her plate. Mrs. Brown had only one cookie, and coffee instead of milk. She smiled warmly at Crystal. “How’s school, honey?” she asked.
“Okay,” Crystal mumbled, quickly swallowing her mouthful of cookie so she could talk.
A knock sounded on the back door, and Crystal scrambled out of her chair to answer it. “Hi, Johnny,” she said, holding the door open wide. A teenager wearing a soft gray hooded jacket came into the kitchen, bringing a gust of cold wind with him. Crystal shut the door firmly behind him. “Mrs. Brown, this is my friend Johnny,” she introduced them. “Johnny, this is my mom’s boyfriend’s mom. Is that right?” She wrinkled her brow and looked to Mrs. Brown for confirmation.
“That’s a good way to explain it,” Mrs. Brown laughed. “Or you could just call me Grandma. Johnny, would you like a snack?”
Johnny’s eyes twinkled. “Sure,” he replied, “but I’d better not. Don’t want to spoil my dinner.”
The edges of Crystal’s lips crinkled upwards, not quite a smile.
“Are you from around here?” Mrs. Brown asked. “You’re not in Crystal’s class, are you?”
“No, I’m older than Crystal,” Johnny replied, enjoying himself immensely. “I’m not from here originally, but I’ve lived here for a long time. Just down the road, actually. I just stopped by to say Happy Thanksgiving to Lisa and Crystal.” Johnny made a show of looking around. “Where is Lisa, anyway?”
“She’s having a meeting with Kenny and Mr. Brown, uh, Grandpa?” Crystal replied. “I wasn’t invited.”
Mrs. Brown nodded. “Yes, it appears that my son finally popped the question to Crystal’s mother. This beautiful young lady really is going to be my granddaughter. Soon, I hope. They’re in the other room working out the boring details.”
“Have you met my son?”
“Oh, we’ve met,” Johnny assured her. He gazed thoughtfully at the doorway which led to the rest of the house.
“Ken told you about the family bloodlines and why certain branches are prohibited from marrying other branches. You probably didn’t believe him then, about the disease that runs in our family. We keep meticulous records; we have to, so the disease doesn’t spread. That’s why, as soon as we were certain that your father was the illegitimate child of Amelia Summerfield and Philip Summerfield, first cousins, we knew that you carried the disease in your genes.”
“Dad, she knows about the vampires,” Kenny said suddenly. “She knows it’s not a disease.”
“It is a disease,” Mr. Brown insisted. “But fine, since you know, let’s call it what it is.” He glared at his son. “Vampires, or at least creatures that subsist on blood. These vampires are not the same as the ones you hear about in stories. In some ways, they’re much worse. Would you like to hear where they came from and what they have to do with our family?”
Lisa nodded warily. Four years ago, when Kenny had told her some of the family history as promised, he had also told her vampirism was a disease that their family carried. But he told her more, because she pushed him on it, and he had admitted that the young kid who had babysat for Crystal was actually a vampire. Lisa had decided to stay with Kenny because he had admitted the truth to her, although she had never told him why she believed him so readily back then. Of course, now he knew the reason she had believed him about vampires is because she had known Johnny was a vampire all along. Johnny had been a secret between them since the beginning. For as much as Lisa hadn’t told Kenny that she knew Johnny was a vampire and that he was still alive, Kenny had never told Lisa that he had killed her babysitter, or at least thought he did. Kenny had also, apparently, never told his father that he had told Lisa about actual vampires, either.
Mr. Brown leaned back in his chair. “Thousands of years ago, when Scotland was wild and unformed, there was a race of people who lived there. We refer to them loosely today as the Picts. No one is really sure where they came from, not even us, who are descended from them. They were close to nature, as you might imagine, and fiercely independent. They lived in small family groups around many lakes in the region. They were uncivilized and savage, and when they fought, they drank the blood of their enemies to make themselves stronger. Perhaps that’s where the disease first manifested. Legend has it that they appealed to their gods to give them power over their enemies, and that’s when the first vampire arose. In any case, the disease spread, from family to family among them, until the Picts themselves had no choice but to control its spread.”
“How?” asked Kenny, as fascinated at Lisa. This was the first time he had ever heard the story of the origins of their family ‘problem.’
“Intermarriage,” Mr. Brown explained succinctly. “The Picts brought in new blood from among other tribes in the area. There was always war of some sort or other going on between the different groups. The new blood thinned out the diseased blood, and the rest was strictly monitored. Each settlement had someone with the old blood who would watch to make sure no vampire was born without approval.”
“Wait, you mean some vampires were allowed to be born?” asked Lisa in amazement.
“To our shame, yes,” admitted Mr. Brown, leaning forward again and resting his elbows on the desk so he could lock eyes with Lisa. “They were a great fighting weapon, you see. The Picts used them against their enemies and were nearly invincible. Even the Romans were afraid of the viciousness of the Picts.”
“Time, progress. Scotland didn’t stay wild forever. Wave after wave of new people arrived, and the Picts couldn’t conquer them all, even with the vampires. The truth is, after a while, the vampires became a liability. Those of us who were responsible for the ones we kept as weapons had to hide the fact of their existence from the ever-widening world. The old blood was slowly disappearing as the families intermarried with outsiders more and more often. We keepers had a harder and harder time trying to keep track of the old family bloodlines.”
“Didn’t you just say you ‘keepers’ also had the old blood, like the vampires?” asked Lisa, trying to make a point.
Kenny squeezed her hand once in warning. Let it go, his eyes said.
“We did. We do,” agreed Kenny’s father. “We carry the potential for the disease in our blood also. Who better to watch over the vampires and keep the rest of the family safe? That’s why our branch of the family passes down the tradition of watching to this day. That’s why we still keep track of the family, even after all these centuries. The rest of the family may have forgotten, but we never will. That’s why, even though you and my son love each other and want to get married, you cannot have children together, in case your strains of the old blood together make another vampire child.”
“I wonder what they’re talking about for so long,” Johnny commented, watching Crystal eat the last cookie and wash it down with a big gulp of milk.
“Vampires,” Crystal replied.
Mrs. Brown drew in a sharp breath. Had Crystal overheard something she shouldn’t have? “Vampires? Whatever gave you such a silly idea as that?” she asked with a light laugh.
“You think it’s silly?” The boy, Johnny, fixed her with a bright gaze.
“Let’s talk about something else,” Mrs. Brown suggested, uncomfortable with the topic. “Crystal, how is your art work coming along? I remember you used to love to draw.”
“I still draw,” Crystal said. “Sometimes I draw things I never saw before. Like the picture of the big city I made. I wish I knew where it was. Then we could go there.”
“Sounds like you have a vivid imagination,” Mrs. Brown said, smiling as Johnny frowned.
“Maybe,” Crystal agreed.
“So it’s not one hundred percent certain we would have a vampire child?” Lisa asked. “We could, if the right genes combine, but it’s not positive?”
“Would you be willing to take that risk? To bring a monster into this world? A creature who lives off the blood of innocent people? Lisa, this is not up for debate. You and my son must never have a child. Do you understand how serious this is?”
Lisa shook her head. “I’m not sure I do. It’s a lot to accept, even if I do believe the part about vampires. Kenny explained it all before, about not having children, and quite honestly, that’s the reason I refused to marry him. I could still have children with somebody else, right? Somebody without the family blood.”
“Yes, that’s right,” Mr. Brown said, ignoring Kenny’s sudden stillness. “But I would have to ask you never to repeat any of what I just told you to anyone outside of this room. Agreed?”
“Who would believe me?” Lisa replied softly. “Anyway, that’s not what I’m saying. I love Kenny.”
“Dad, you used the word ‘keepers’ instead of ‘hunters.’” Kenny slowly extricated his hand from Lisa’s and stood up. His face was clouded. “When did that change?”
“Did I?” Mr. Brown asked. “Maybe in the old days, we used that term, but we’ve been ‘hunters’ for centuries, ever since we escaped the vampires to come to this country. Sit down, let me tell Lisa the rest of the story.” He waited while Kenny re-seated himself next to Lisa. “Vampires are dangerous. Our ancestors had a tiger by the tail when they tried to use vampires to fight their battles. Inevitably, the vampires turned on their allies and it became a matter of us or them. The hunters were forced to destroy them for the safety of the rest of us.”
“Destroy them? Were there a lot of vampires then? I thought you said you regulated their births.”
“Back when the families rose up against the vampires in their villages, there were only a handful of true vampires. It was a concerted effort, and they got most of them. They also got the ones in the family who carried the old blood, so there would never be another chance of a vampire birth.” Mr. Brown sighed dramatically. “Unfortunately, the keepers, or hunters, if you will, were the only ones who kept track of who had the old blood, so the blame for the human deaths falls squarely on their shoulders. They did what they had to do at the time. Except for our blood, most of the family who came to the New World with us had very small amounts of pure Pict blood.”
“The hunters killed humans, not just vampires?” Kenny asked, appalled.
“What happened to the others? The ones who were left behind?” Lisa asked.
“I truly do not know,” admitted Mr. Brown quietly. “When we came to this country, we made a conscious decision to start over again, cleansed of our tainted blood. We hunters kept records just as a formality, but we thought we had eradicated the danger. You can imagine how shocked our ancestors were to find out that vampires had followed them over here. It became exceedingly important after that to be vigilant. We killed one of them, but the other had eluded us for centuries, until you came. Maybe it was your blood which drew him out. If that is so, then we owe you a huge debt, Lisa. As far as we can tell, there are no other vampires left in this country.”
“And in the old country?”
“We will never know,” Mr. Brown murmured. “That’s one thing that we are forbidden, as hunters, to find out.”
“So that’s it? There are such things as vampires, Kenny and I could conceivably have a vampire child because of our bloodlines, you hunters are put on this earth to make sure things like that can never happen. Have I got it right?” Lisa’s chest heaved, and Kenny placed a warning hand on her arm. She shrugged it off. “What happens now? If Kenny can’t have any kids with me, who will carry on the hunter tradition when he dies? I can’t believe you’ll let it die out with Kenny if the two of us get married.”
Kenny stared at Lisa. She had a point. He glanced at his father, who shrugged.
Lisa stood up. “Thank you, Mr. Brown, for sharing your family history with me. It’s a lot to think about. Kenny and I both need to talk about this by ourselves before we come to any final decision. We have to consider Crystal as well.”
Kenny stood too. “Dad, I’m not having a child with someone else just so I can preserve the bloodline.”
Mr. Brown shook his head sadly. “I’m not asking you to,” he replied. “You are not the last of us. I passed on what I knew to you because you are my son, but there are others. My brother knows the family history as well as I do. By now, he probably has sons of his own.”
“Uncle Robert?” Kenny asked. He knew his father had had a falling out with his brother years ago, before he was born. Uncle Robert lived somewhere in the Boston area. His name was on the list of relatives his father kept in his study at home. “I thought he was sort of the black sheep of the family or something.”
“Oh, he is,” his father agreed. “But black sheep or no, family is family.” In a lilting voice, he recited their motto in its original language. “Blood of my blood, blood of my enemies.”
For Kenny, the familiar phrase was fraught with new meaning.