Be Careful What You Wish For

 

Dennis and Felicity had everything anyone could hope for, except the one thing that would have made their lives complete.

For years they had tried for a baby. When that failed they resorted to in vitro fertilisation, and even considered surrogacy but had reservations about using another woman to carry Dennis’s child. For all their business acumen which had made them wealthy, the aspiration that mattered most to them remained out of reach.

The 16th century merchant’s house in the country was yet another compensation for the one thing they most craved. It was also a place where Felicity, now in her mid-40s, could face the lack of a period being due to an early menopause despite hoping - against all the odds - that it was actually a pregnancy.

The ancestral lineages of both husband and wife carried some odd genealogical factors. The peculiarity of the anomalies made them wonder if they were distantly related. Felicity’s aunt could apparently see in the dark, and a great uncle on Dennis’s side had two livers... the list went on. When you couldn’t blame yourself, you could always lay misfortune the door of your peculiar genes and accept that there was bound to be at least one problem that couldn’t be solved by throwing money at it.

Their 16th century residence had been refurbished with all the mod cons that its listed status allowed. Double glazing was out, but the combination of low ceilings and wood-burning stove in the centre of the main living area threw out enough heat to border on stifling. The place was far too large for one couple of course, but it was their way of inviting fortune to give them a family to inhabit it.

It had not occurred to Dennis that the old merchant’s house could be haunted despite, over the centuries, thousands of feet treading its narrow oak stairs, though Felicity wasn’t so sure.

Despite the country air, Felicity found it difficult to sleep. The doctor had stopped prescribing her sleeping pills because they were doing more harm than good, so each night she lay awake, gazing through the small latticed windows at the star-studded sky. The creaking of the ancient attic floorboards where servants had slept under the smoke impregnated timbers and other odd movements no longer bothered her. Security had been a priority and when the rooms had been fumigated before refurbishment no rats or mice would have stood a chance. It was oddly comforting to wonder if the sounds were created by the shades of the previous occupants, harmless and without malicious thoughts, going about their ghostly business.

One night Felicity managed to doze off for a few hours, only to wake craving a cup of tea. Dennis was fast asleep, so she slipped out of bed and down the narrow stairs into the kitchen. In the light of the full moon flooding through the window she boiled the kettle and dropped a tea bag into a mug.

Sitting in an armchair, watching the dying embers in the stove, she sensed the presence of someone else. It should have been terrifying, but this was no burglar. Felicity focussed on the faintly glowing shape that had appeared on the other side of the chimney breast and could just make out the translucent shade of a handsome man. She had always wondered if the old building was haunted; now actually seeing a ghost was more disconcerting than alarming.

She gazed over the rim of her mug at the indistinct figure.

But this was not a phantom from the past. His clothes were white, collarless and without buttons, as though he had just stepped from some futuristic laboratory.

Felicity resisted the temptation to dash back up the stairs and wake Dennis. By the time she returned the visitation was bound to have gone and he assume that she had been hallucinating through lack of sleep. Her husband was the hard-headed one, which was fortunate because his business know-how was the main reason they had a fortune, less than her ability to select designer clothes for the privileged. Felicity was an expert photographer, creating many of the images for fashion magazines and promotional videos, so she instinctively reached for the camera on a nearby table. Then commonsense told her that there were not enough photons for the lens to detect the visitor. He was only visible because it was dark. Whatever setting she used, the lens would see the glowing embers of the stove before it registered the man - which was a shame. He was exceptionally good-looking with an amiable smile and strong chin.

Then he faded.

Felicity sat back and drank her tea. By the time it was finished she managed to persuade herself that the man was no more than the wish for a secret lover who could sire the child she so desperately wanted. There was no conclusive proof that Dennis’s sperm was at fault despite both of them suspecting it, and there had been little point in assigning blame over the matter. As much as they craved a child, they didn’t want a divorce.

The next night the same thing happened.

Felicity came down for a mug of tea, sat by the dwindling embers of the stove and in the darkness watched the handsome man in the white suit materialise.

This time he appeared to be talking to her. That convinced Felicity he was not a ghost.

There was only one way to find out.

‘Who are you?’

After the apparition reached down as though adjusting a control panel he appeared to be illuminated by a faint blue light inside a cylindrical cubicle.

Felicity was not unduly worried by the thought of ghosts, but this visitor from another dimension filled her with dread.

His distant voice did not reassure her. ‘There is little time to explain, so it is important that you believe what I have to say.’

Although faint, the tone was ominous.

Felicity put the mug aside for fear of spilling the tea in her lap. ‘Who are you?’

‘This channel cannot be maintained for long. Please listen.’

If the man had not been so handsome Felicity might have put his presence down to a bad dream from which she would wake at any moment.

‘Go on then.’

‘During the next century the human race will be virtually eliminated by a contagion that is impossible to contain. It originates from human DNA creating a pathogen that can only be treated by destroying the host. Its like has never been known to medical science before. Despite the best laboratories working on it, we still do not know how to treat the infection.’

‘What’s that got to do with me?’

The phantom from the future ignored the question. ‘The other species that were once on the cusp of extinction through human activity are now claiming back their habitats, pushing us out. Our survivors have had to isolate themselves from each other to avoid contamination from infected groups. The human species will soon disappear. There will be no help from friendly aliens - contacting them has been tried. I have been looking for a miracle cure most of my adult life and know that this will never be found, not until it’s too late anyway.’

‘I’m very sorry to hear that,’ Felicity empathised, ‘but really, what has it got to do with me?’

‘You are pregnant.’

Felicity gasped in amazement.

If only that could be true.

But this man was no Archangel Gabriel announcing a miraculous birth. His tone was doom laden and not one of celebration.

‘You’re wrong,’ she insisted. ‘We tried everything, and now I’m probably too old.’

The man’s tone was adamant. ‘In eight and a half months you will give birth to a child that carries the lethal pathogen which will destroy the human species.’

Felicity wanted to scream, “No! No! No!”, but was afraid of waking Dennis who would hurtle down the stairs to see her talking to the stove.

‘Only you can decide on the consequences of allowing it to survive.’

‘And if I do abort my child, what will happen to the planet then?’ she asked.

The expression on the handsome features hardened for a moment. That was not a question he wanted to answer honestly.

But Felicity already knew. Before meeting Dennis she had spent long enough as a photojournalist reporting on world events. ‘The planet’s ecosystem will be destroyed, won’t it? Human activity will not be reined back and the population continue to grow. The conflicts resulting from lack of arable land, water and other resources will commit millions to horrible, lingering deaths.’

‘We cannot be sure that will happen.’

‘It’s happening now!’ she nearly shouted. ‘Tell me, what sort of death does this pathogen my child is due to spread inflict on the person infected?’

It was obvious that the visitor’s well thought out argument had not taken the question into account. ‘A peaceful one,’ he admitted. ‘The body’s system quietly shuts down and the patient drifts away.’

Felicity picked up her mug of tea.

The phantom visitor began to fade. He knew her decision and, during the short time left to him and the rest of the human race, he would blame himself for not being more persuasive.

He would not return.

Felicity at first believed that he had been an emanation from the back of her mind created by the hormonal imbalance of pregnancy. Pregnant after all these years? If she was, then the visitation had been real enough and the future of the human race depended on her decision. Though it would be much easier to persuade herself she had been dreaming and would wake up in cold sweat at any moment.

Then why should she?

She just hoped it was a girl, though twins would be even better.