The Man Upstairs
by Todd Outcalt
Diddle, diddle, dumpling, my son John,
Went to bed with his breeches on,
One stocking off, and one stocking on,
Diddle, diddle, dumpling, my son John.
“Better get ready for bed, sport,” Mr. Hampton told his son, Johnny. “It’s getting late.”
“Yes, sir,” Johnny answered obediently. “But will you tell me a story later?”
“We’ll see,” his father said, which is what he always said when the boy began to stall. “Your mother will be up in a few minutes.”
Mr. Hampton smiled as his six-year-old son—who was well beyond his years intellectually and creatively—bounded up the grand, sweeping staircase that was the centerpiece of their twenty million dollar home. As soon as the boy disappeared beyond the landing and, far down the hallway, slammed the door behind, Mr. Hampton retired to the den—a spacious office with a magnificent fireplace and lead glass display cases that contained a cornucopia of back-lit marble busts, Grecian urns and a fair number of Picassos that formed the centerpiece of his collection. Sliding aside one of the Roman busts of a long forgotten Caesar, Hampton eased open a paneled door and jimmied with the dial to his safe where, moments later, he deposited a healthy stack of large checks that comprised the bulk of his week’s labor.
After completing the transaction, he idled across the room and sat down at a spacious mahogany desk that he had imported from Pakistan, then swiveled in his chair and pressed a small intercom button that was unobtrusively inlaid in the deep, rich bookshelves that lined the back wall of the den. “Bennington,” he said, “I think I’ll have some hot tea.”
“Yes, sir,” a voice answered.
“Oh, and Bennington,” Mr. Hampton added, “tell Mrs. Hampton that I’d like to see her as soon as she comes in from the tennis court.”
Hampton opened a drawer and removed a fine pair of reading glasses, then checked his Rolex. It was going on nine p.m., and his wife, Judy, was probably completing her final match of the evening—a routine that, three nights a week, helped to assure that she would continue to preserve her 38-26-34 figure well into her forties.
Leaning back into his office chair, Hampton studied the first of the important briefings he would need in court the following day, then lit a spot of cherry tobacco that he kept inside the bowl of a curved pipe that rested, always, in a silver tray in the top right corner of his desk. Although he rarely smoked, the scent of a fine tobacco calmed his nerves and helped him to focus on the important matters before him. Other than that, however, he just liked the scent, for it brought back pleasant memories of his father, with whom he had shared a law practice for nearly twenty years before the old man’s death.
Momentarily there was a rap at the door and a tall, elegant servant in black tie entered the room carrying a sterling tray. “Your tea, sir,” the butler said. “And I have taken the liberty of bringing along some crackers and caviar.”
“Thank you, Bennington,” Hampton said, as the butler placed the tray on a side bar at his employer’s side.
The butler stepped back and stood at the crest of the desk for a few moments before bowing. “Will that be all, sir?” he asked.
“Oh, yes. Thank you, Bennington,” Mr. Hampton said without looking up from his mound of paperwork.
“Good evening to you then, sir,” Bennington said.
“Good evening,” Hampton echoed. “Oh, and Bennington,” he added. “Perhaps you could check on Johnny before you knock off for the evening.”
“I shall be happy to, sir,” the butler intoned with a dry air of formality.
As soon as the butler had exited the room, Hampton found himself smiling rather demurely at his own success. It had taken him the better part of two decades to work himself out of the suburbs and into his sprawling two thousand acre estate. At first, he had been somewhat awed by his fortune, but after his father had died and left him the firm, his accumulation had become staggering, and he felt it only necessary to mark the passage from rich, to super rich, by building an estate that was the envy of all the major players—including the CEOs of giant corporations and the widows who occupied the historic downtown manses and donated portions of their inheritances in an attempt to influence the state and national political machinery. But by Hampton’s assessment, most of the rich he knew were old money. And old money always ran out.
Sitting in his plush office, Hampton realized that he had them talking; and they were talking because his money was still rolling in. Tides of it. Great swells of cash, like tsunamis, rolling into his coffers every time he sneezed. After two decades of work, he found himself, at last, unaffected by the economy, beyond the rise and fall and whims of the market or by the passage of any tax legislation that might cut into his standard of living—which was a standard beyond a standard, as it could not be measured by any means, as every second of every day his fortune swayed and drifted by the millions with every tick of the stock exchange tape and every real estate venture that his associates closed.
No, Hampton could not argue with his own success—with the servants, the pool, the indoor sports complex, the massive real estate holdings that employed dozens of caretakers and developers and accountants. And through it all, he had been faithful to his wife, his clients, his ethics. There was not a single phase of his life where, in retrospect, he might entertain the slightest hint of regret. Jack Hampton had it all.
Suddenly, cutting into this dream like a knife, there was a faint knock on the office door.
Hampton shook himself into reality, removed his reading glasses, and yelped a faint “enter” as he bolted a sip of tea. A moment later, his son, Johnny, poked his little head inside the door and waited for the invitation to enter.
“Come in, son,” Mr. Hampton smiled. “You ready for bed?”
Johnny had prepared himself well, and sported a silky pair of bright orange pajamas that reminded his father of a pumpkin. “I’m ready for a story now,” Johnny said.
Hampton checked his Rolex and riffled the stack of papers on his lap. “Got lots to do, sport,” he said. “I sent Bennington up. How about letting him tell you a story tonight?”
“He tells boring stories,” Johnny said. “Stories about cleaning woodwork and pruning rose bushes.”
“Oh, well, that wouldn’t do then,” his father said. He didn’t move, however.
“Where’s mommy?” Johnny asked.
“On the tennis court. Be in very soon.” Then Hampton opened his eyes wide in mock excitement, trying hard to create an alternative that the boy might accept. All Hampton wanted, really, was to be left alone. “Hey, sport, why don’t I have mommy meet you upstairs in your room. As soon as she gets in from the tennis court, she can tell you a story.”
Johnny didn’t seem interested in his mother, either. “Mommy’s too busy,” he said. “She always has to go take care of something in the greenhouse, or she says she’s too tired to tell me a story.”
“How about Samantha, then?” Mr. Hampton suggested, hoping that Johnny’s favorite nanny—the best of the three—might still be in her private room at the far end of the sprawling manse. “I can page her.”
The lad shook his head and offered a sour face. “I want Joshua to tell me a story,” he said.
Mr. Hampton peered over the rims of his reading spectacles. “Joshua? Who’s Joshua?”
“The man in my room,” Johnny said matter-of-factly.
“What man in your room?”
“My new friend.”
Mr. Hampton studied his son’s face carefully. Then he smiled and chuckled. “You’ve got quite an imagination,” he said. “Why don’t you write a paper about Joshua? Tell me about him.”
“Can I?” Johnny beamed.
“Write me five hundred words,” he said, “and then go to sleep.” It was Hampton’s way—the writing and reading of papers—and his son had taken to the task wonderfully in his early years.
“But you always make me write five hundred words,” Johnny said.
“It’s a good round number. The best length for a paper. I’ll read it in the morning if you put it in my file holder.”
“Yes, sir,” Johnny said, quite satisfied with his assignment as he bounded out of the room.
Mrs. Hampton was still beautiful at the crest of menopause, and as she stood by her husband’s side and wiped the sweat from her blonde bangs with a perfectly white towel, she leaned over to give him a kiss—grateful for all that he provided, but especially the space he offered for her to pursue her own interests without the burden of jealousy or resentment. The Prozac helped, too, as did the New York shopping sprees and the beach homes in Cancun and Maui. And love—yes, she thought that love was a wonderful addition as well—if love could be broadly defined as strong attachment or appreciation for the hand that fed her. And she did have Johnny to keep her company when she was at home and feeling well enough to play for a few minutes before the next appointment.
“Is Johnny in bed?” she asked, hoping that the answer would free her up for an evening of gardening in the greenhouse or, perhaps, a movie in their state-of-the-art theatre.
“Certainly is,” Mr. Hampton said. “I’ve got him working on a paper.”
“He’s writing five hundred words about an imaginary friend.”
“Who is it this time?” she asked.
“Someone named Joshua,” Mr. Hampton said.
Judy Hampton, overjoyed at the gift of another free evening, wanted to thank her husband. “You’re such a good father,” she said, sitting in her husband’s lap and removing his spectacles.
“Hon, listen,” Mr. Hampton said, sensing her desire. “I’ve got a mountain of work to get done before court tomorrow. I’ve got a huge case.”
Rubbing her hands over her husband’s lap, she kissed him on the neck and whispered, “I know you’ve got a huge case. That’s why I’m here.”
“Well,” he said, “when you put it that way.”
The following morning, Johnny presented his paper at the breakfast table long after his father had risen and departed. His mother, sitting at the far end of the table, was placing her order with one of the cooks. “I’ll have two poached eggs,” she said. “A glass of grapefruit juice, white toast and a plum.”
“Yes, Mrs. Hampton,” the cook said.
“I’ll have pancakes,” Johnny mumbled.
His mother, refusing to look at her son until she had made up her face, received the paper from the boy with a removed expression.
“Daddy told me to write it,” Johnny explained. “When can he read it?”
“Tonight,” she told him. “But he’ll be home very late. You can’t wait up for him.” She yawned, although it was nearly noon.
The little boy sat quietly at the breakfast table as he always did, then ventured a hopeful question. “Will you swim with me today?” Johnny asked. “You promised.”
“Mommy’s tired,” she said. “But I’ll page Samantha and have her spend some time with you today.”
“Never mind,” the boy said. “She’s no fun.”
“You can play in the arcade then,” his mother said pointedly. “Or watch a movie.”
“I’ll just stay in my room and play with Joshua,” he said excitedly.
She finally looked at her son. “Who’s Joshua?”
“He’s the man upstairs,” Johnny reminded her, pointing again to the paper. “Would you like me to read the paper I wrote about him?”
His mother nodded approvingly, then pulled a newspaper to her face while she popped a handful of pills behind the paper curtain. She sloughed off into a zone while her son picked up his paper and read:
My friend Joshua comes to visit me in my room. He is nice. We play games. And most nights he tells me a story before I go to sleep. Sometimes he makes me laugh. And sometimes he shines a flashlight in my eyes when I am asleep and tells me that he loves me. When I am sad, he tells me that he will take me away someday to a place that is happy and free. Joshua knows a lot of magic, and he can disappear whenever he wants to. But most nights he stays with me in my room. He is my best friend. And I like being with Joshua more than anyone I know . . . .
Hampton couldn’t explain the phenomenon, but whenever he won a case—no matter how draining or lengthy the exposure to the courtroom—he was wired. He bounded into the house at a quarter past midnight, excited by his victory, and found that Judy was still awake, as he would have expected. She was sitting by the fireplace in the great room drinking a spot of brandy, and she had taken the liberty of pouring him a shot as well. “How did it go?” she asked, hoping for a verdict that would supply her with a few other necessities (including a new red BMW that she needed so desperately in order to fill out the collection of automobiles that she stored in the cavernous south garage).
“I won the case!” he exclaimed, raising his arms over his head, as if signaling a field goal.
“Good for you,” she said, raising the glass toward his waiting hand. She kissed him on the lips just to seal the bargain. As she turned to face the glowing fire again, she asked, “How much?”
“Let’s see,” he began, doing some mental calculations. “Forty percent of twenty million . . . that would be eight million before taxes.”
She seemed disappointed. “Oh, I would have thought it to be a lot more, the way you’ve been carrying on the past few days.”
He didn’t answer. Sometimes her demands drained him of satisfaction in a heartbeat. The settlement was not the largest he had orchestrated, but certainly not the smallest, either. All in all, he considered himself lucky.
“So how was your day?” he asked, eager to move past the pleasantries and have some time alone with his wife.
“Wonderful,” she said. “I finally plotted those orchids in the greenhouse, and Sadie came over for a game of tennis after dinner.”
“The boy in bed?”
She thought for a moment. “I guess,” she said vacantly. “I haven’t seen him since breakfast.”
Mr. Hampton yawned and took a sip of his brandy. He studied the cold irises of his wife’s green eyes. “You know, Judy,” he said slowly, “you could try being a mother once in awhile.”
She turned and shot him an angry glance. “I work too, you know,” she glowered. “I can’t be expected to keep up this house single-handedly. You’re not the only one who wants a better life.”
He sat his brandy on the edge of the marble table and hung his head. “I didn’t mean it like that,” he said. “I know I’m not around much. It’s just that, I think Johnny needs a little more attention. I think he’s lonely.”
“I’m lonely,” she said, staring down into the fire. “I’m lonely and you’re busy.”
Picking up his briefcase, Hampton wanted nothing more than to retreat into his den. Tomorrow was another big day—another important case that might provide the kind of money that would, at long last, impress his wife. It was late, but there was still work to be done. “I’ll put my things away, then I’m going up to check on the boy.”
Judy Hampton rolled her head to one side and pointed toward the den. “Oh, I nearly forgot,” she said. “Johnny wanted you to read his paper. I put it in the usual place.”
“What paper?” he asked.
“The one you asked him to write last night,” she huffed. “He said you asked him to write another paper. I taped it to your office door.”
“Oh, that,” Hampton said. As he stepped toward the den he turned and asked, with just a spark of interest, “What did he write about?”
“I don’t remember,” she said. “Something about a man upstairs. I just left it in the usual spot so you could read it when you had the time.”
At the crest of the stairs, Mr. Hampton paused in the darkened hallway to note the strange light glowing along the base of Johnny’s bedroom door. It shone, then disappeared, like a star sparkling in the winter night—the light coming and going in varied tones of strength and directness—like the beam of a flashlight darting about the room. “Johnny?” he said loudly. “Are you still awake? You reading in bed again?”
There was no answer. Suddenly, the light disappeared.
Mr. Hampton slipped over to the bedroom door and opened it slowly. He peeked inside, angling his face to the left so that he might get a good look at Johnny’s bed. The room was darkened, save for a small patch of a nightlight that illuminated a dot of baby blue wallpaper near the window.
“Johnny?” Mr. Hampton whispered. “You awake, son?”
There was a stirring underneath the covers of the bed. A little bump rose from the pile of sheets and blankets and then he heard the almost silent whimper of a sleeping child below the fleece.
Hampton slipped to the side of the bed and knelt down. He placed his hands on the covers and eased them back until he met resistance. Then, ever so slowly, he brought the covers up and over the head of his son, who appeared to be sleeping soundly.
“Johnny?” he whispered.
The little boy fluttered his eyelids until they opened, and then he sat up in the bed and stared at his father. “Daddy?” he asked.
“Hey, sport,” Hampton said. “What did you do today?”
“I played,” the boy said simply, his small breath tart with the scent of apple juice.
“You’ve been in your room all day? Why?”
“Mommy wouldn’t swim with me,” he said. “You were gone.”
“I know,” Hampton said, “But this weekend, we can go to the beach house.”
“That’s boring,” the boy said.
“Because you’ll have to work,” he said correctly. “And mommy always has Samantha take me to the beach.”
“Yes, I know, but this time—”
“You won’t stay with me. And you always have me write papers to tell you about my day.”
“That’s true, but this time—”
“I’m tired of writing papers. I’m tired of playing in my room.”
“I know, sport. So I’ll tell you what, this weekend—”
“I’m not going,” Johnny said firmly. “I’m staying with Joshua.”
“What? Here in your room?” Hampton asked incredulously.
“I’m going with Joshua.”
Hampton licked his lips and sighed. “Listen, Johnny boy,” he said. “Joshua . . . Joshua is just make-believe. He’s not real. Your mother and I are real. Joshua is not. He’s just—well . . . imagination.”
“I know what imagination is,” Johnny stressed. “It means something that doesn’t exist.”
“That’s right,” Hampton said. “That’s right.”
“But you and mommy don’t exist,” Johnny said.
Hampton stared at the nightlight next to the bed. He leaned over his son and rubbed his little head. “Yes . . . yes,” he stuttered. “Yes, we do exist. You just don’t see us as much as you’d like.”
“But I see Joshua!” he said. “He’s always here when I need him. I never get to see you and mommy.”
Hampton was tired. And the little boy was offering him a healthy dose of shame on top of a long day in the court. Hampton slicked back his thinning hair and yawned. “Listen, sport,” he said. “It’s late. We’ll talk about this in the morning.”
“I won’t see you in the morning,” Johnny said rightly.
“Well, yes, I suppose that’s so,” his father said. “I do have an early day. That’s true.”
“I won’t see you when I eat lunch either. I only see Bennington and Samantha.”
“I know,” Hampton said, hanging his head. “But this weekend we’ll go away—”
“I want to go away with Joshua,” Johnny said.
“Okay, okay,” his father said. “It’s late. We’ll take this up another time.”
The little boy brought his knees up to his chest and placed his chin on the crest of his legs. “Will you tell me a story? Will you tell me something to make me happy?”
“Tomorrow,” his father yawned. “This weekend!”
The little boy glanced toward the closet. The door was closed. “Can I talk to Joshua, then?” he asked.
“Go to sleep,” Hampton insisted. “It’s late. You need your rest.”
“I’m awake now,” Johnny said. “You woke me up.”
“You were awake when I came in,” his father chuckled.
“No. I was asleep,” Johnny insisted.
“You were awake!” his father said jovially, reaching under the covers and pulling out a small clandestine flashlight. “I saw your light, sport. You’ve been reading at night again!”
“I was asleep,” the boy said.
“But I saw your light, sport!”
“That was Joshua,” Johnny said.
“Now listen, son—”
“Goodnight, daddy.” The little boy sank beneath the covers in an instant, as if hiding his face from a hideous monster that had crept into his room.
“Could you check on Johnny?” Mrs. Hampton asked Bennington at the breakfast table the following morning. “It’s not like him to sleep so late.”
Bennington, already decked out in his black tie and tails, bowed swiftly at the waist and clicked his heels for effect. “Right away,” he said.
While he was gone, Mrs. Hampton ate slowly—trying to muster up enough courage to swallow the oatmeal and grapefruit she had ordered from the cook. She would much rather have had a chocolate donut or a cinnamon bagel smeared with cream cheese—but then, where would that leave her charming figure and her ability to return a backhand volley? She bucked herself up with the thought of working in the greenhouse, or perhaps spending a hundred thousand dollars on the new BMW. But she had not yet applied her makeup, and the thought of a plain face always made her depressed. She swallowed her daily allowance of pills.
As she was completing her final spoonful of oatmeal, Bennington returned with his report. “The child is not in his room,” he said offhandedly. “But I believe he is in the bathroom. I heard the water running in the sink.”
“Oh, well, then I guess a mother can’t argue with a clean six-year-old,” she said, smiling at the butler for having thought of such a clever response.
“Shall I check on him later?” he asked.
“No. No!” she stressed, already pressed for time. “Just have Samantha fix him the usual breakfast. Or, if you like, you can leave it on a tray in his room. He’ll likely be spending the day there. Such an introverted child.”
The butler made no reply, but as he turned away, he offered himself a glance of repulsion in the polished surface of a crystal vase—a fleeting impression of his own boredom and the utter disdain he harbored for his employers. And yet, he continued month after month—always bowing and genuflecting and saying “yes sir” and “yes, ma’am”—to the tune of fifty grand a year.
“I shall see to it at once,” he told Mrs. Hampton over his shoulder. “Will there by anything else?”
“Yes, Bennington,” she said. “If you would be so kind as to lay out my green . . . no—make it my black riding outfit? I feel like going to the stable today. Perhaps a nice ride would do me a world of good after all. I need a bit of nature, I think. The sun feeds my spirit. I’ve had far too much of people lately.”
“I understand entirely, ma’am,” he said. “There is, I think, a certain healing property to be found in the light. Like you, I much prefer it to the darkness.”
The day passed effortlessly, and by the time Mr. Hampton returned home on a Friday evening, he had made another ten million dollars on a case that had cost him far less in time and trouble than was proper—even for a high class lawyer. He didn’t have the gumption to tell his wife, however. Tonight, he didn’t want to take a chance of having his ego destroyed.
She was waiting for him in the bedroom, though, wide awake and eager to plan another remarkable weekend.
“Oh, honey,” she said, glancing over the top of a slick travel brochure. “I was thinking . . . if we fly out early tomorrow morning, we could be in the Cancun house by mid afternoon and take in an early dinner, perhaps. Nothing fancy, lobster or something. And then I could look for some new jewelry—maybe a necklace, or pearls—while you work on that insurance case you’ve been telling me about.”
“The insurance case was today,” he said, betraying himself once again.
“Oh, really,” she said, raising her eyebrows. “Well, how did you do with this one?”
“Ten million,” he said, as he unknotted his tie and kicked his tasseled loafers into the vacuous expanse of the walk-in closet. “And that’s plenty.”
“That’s one of your best, isn’t it?”
“Bottom line, perhaps,” he said. “But it came too easy. No challenge.”
“That’s a good thing,” she said. “Easy is best.”
“It should be difficult,” he growled—more at himself than his wife. “Life should be difficult. There should be struggle in this existence, don’t you think?”
She offered him sad, puppy dog eyes. “You frighten me when you talk like that.”
Hampton hung his three-thousand-dollar suit beside a dozen others just like it—all tailor made of the finest fabrics—and slipped into a pair of silk pajamas. “I think we should stay home this weekend,” he said from the rear of the closet. “Johnny doesn’t want to go to the beach house.”
He could hear her sigh and kick at the bed in disgust. “Really, the way you cater to that child,” she hissed. “You’re the adult. Act like it!”
“What did he do today?” he asked eventually, not wanting to irritate her any further.
“Johnny boy. What did he do today?” He came around the corner of the closet and buttoned the silks against tired torso, yearning for sleep.
Judy Hampton scarcely looked up from her brochure, but managed to offer some semblance of motherhood in her response. “I think he’s not feeling well,” she said. “He’s been in his room all day. And this morning, Bennington said he heard the water running in the bathroom sink.”
“Did you check on him?”
“I, well—this morning was not a good time. You know, the horses have to stretch their legs, they have to be pushed hard from time to time with a good run or they lose their agility. And the fellow from the Kentucky stable is coming next week to look at the Philly.”
“Did you check on him?” Hampton asked disgustedly. “Did you check on Johnny?”
“You don’t need to raise your voice,” she said. “He’s sleeping, you know. If you want to find out about the boy, why don’t you go ask Bennington? He’s always been a good friend to the little tyke.”
“But it’s late,” he pointed out. “Even later than last night.”
“Then wait until morning,” she said. And then, with just a touch of accusation, she added: “What in the world could possibly happen to him? I’ve been here all day!”
Hampton awakened with a start in the middle of the night, although, it would not be correct to say that he had yet descended into a deep sleep. His heart ached—not for any burden he was carrying or any hardship he was being forced to endure—but for lack of being able to provide anything other than money to the people he was attempting to love.
As he rolled out of bed—groggy from his bout of sleeplessness and the boiling emotions that had caused tears to gather in the corners of his half-awakened eyes—he noted that the house was eerily silent.
Stepping lightly over the thick carpet so as not to awaken his wife, he crept down the lengthy hallway through a series of security doors that were intended—in the event of emergency or forced entry—to protect his family from fire or intruder. He entered a series of numbers into the alarm system and shut it down. Then he padded further across the hallway, past rooms that he had never before entered, rooms that were filled, he assumed, with artifacts and antiques and paintings that he had yet to see. He eased slowly toward his son’s solitary room at the opposite end of the hallway, weary with accumulation, as if all that he had obtained was somehow pressing down upon his life.
Pausing in the darkness of the vast and impenetrable manse, Hampton squinted through his slits at a strange light that was, once again, emanating from the bottom crack of the little boy’s bedroom door. The light blossomed and waned in intensity and, at times, seemed to all but disappear before burning again with renewed strength.
“Johnny?” Hampton whispered.
The light grew.
“Johnny boy?” He came closer and pressed his ear to the door, studying the light pooling at his feet. Cautiously, Hampton reached for the doorknob and turned it—but the little boy had, somehow, locked himself in.
“Hey, sport,” Hampton said, more loudly this time. “I know you’re upset. But we’re not going to the beach house this weekend. You hear me, Johnny? We’re not going. I’m putting the work away. Okay, sport? I’m not going to worry about a thing except spending time with you. You hear me? We can swim, Johnny. Ride horses. Shoot baskets. We can talk. You want to talk, Johnny? You want me to tell you a story?”
As Hampton’s voice grew stronger and louder, the light waned.
“Johnny, open the door please. I see your light. I know you’re in there. Are you feeling okay?”
The light was flickering.
“Hey, sport . . . listen to me! Listen! This is not funny. You open up. Open the door, Johnny. Open it! I’m not going to punish you. I just want to talk. You want to talk now, Johnny?”
He knocked on the door, first softly, and then with increasing heaviness until his fist was pounding at the expensive wood.
Suddenly the light was gone—just a faint flickering, like some long extinguished star dying out in the vast vacuum of an impenetrable space—a final gasp before burning out forever.
The door opened by itself. Gently.
Hampton drew in a breath and stepped into the room. The nightlight cast its familiar dot of white on the baby blue wallpaper. There was a mound of blankets in the center of the little bed.
Hampton knelt by the headboard as if readying himself to say an evening prayer. He reached for the covers, drew them back, one after the other, as if peeling an onion. “You in there, Johnny?” he sighed. “Come out, come out, wherever you are!” he said playfully.
The covers, still warm and scented with his son’s sweat, continued to fall away onto the floor. First one. Then another. And with each blanket that Hampton removed, it was as if a piece of his life—almost his very existence—were slipping away as well.
“Hey, sport,” Hampton said. “Listen to me. We’re not going to the beach house. We’re not going anywhere. No more papers, Johnny. No more of that. Just you and me. Just the two of us. We’ll have the entire weekend together right here. I’m not doing any more work, Johnny. You hear me? No more work!”
Another five blankets fell to the floor.
Hampton began to weep.
“There’s so much I need to tell you, Johnny. There just doesn’t seem to be enough time. You know . . . I’ve worked so hard to give you all the nice things. All your books. The toys. The swimming pool. All the fine horses, Johnny. The beautiful sleek horses. But I’m so empty. So empty inside. Sport? Sport, you awake? You in there, sport?”
The final two blankets fell away.
“Johnny boy listen to me. Listen to me! This is not the way it should be. You shouldn’t do this to me, sport. I was going to change, Johnny. Honest. I was going to change. This weekend, sport. Just the two of us.”
Hampton tugged at the sheet, although it was lying flat on the mattress. He pulled it back and stared down, through his tears, at the tuft of artifacts his son had left behind: bright orange pajamas and a pair of white socks.
They were still warm.
Far below, darting across the pristine lawn, through the rows of exotic flowers and the neatly pruned roses, a final light lifted toward the heavens, flashed brilliantly for a second, and then faded into the silent arms of an eternal night.