This was the first board meeting where Hamilton didn’t sit next to his father. His father wasn’t there. He was dead.
When he lived, his father used these meetings to train Hamilton and teach him how to lead the company. He had always ensured his successor could see all the important mouths, but the new CEO didn’t even give him a seat at the table. His change in status as the chief executive step-son earned him a chair in the corner of the room staring at the dandruff-dusted shoulders of Mr. Paulard’s ill-fitted blazer. Hamilton’s fingers itched to spell out one last secret message to his father about Old Man Paulard.
At the head of the table, Klaus, the new leader of Dane Enterprises, leaned on his elbows listening to the noise coming from the star-shaped phone in the middle of the table. Beside Klaus sat Hamilton’s mother. They held hands. No decency. This was a board meeting, not a honeymoon. Hamilton’s fists tightened. Klaus’s thumb caressed the glittering diamond on his mother’s finger.
He forced himself to look at Klaus’s lips instead of his offending hands. “So if you — — message to your guys in Norway, Valdez, tha — — great.” Klaus’s stare was firm and cold to offset the seeming gentleness of his hand.
The speakerphone garbled a reply, but Hamilton didn’t understand any of it. It probably went something like “Yes Mr. Danes. We will, Mr. Danes. Your boots are delicious, Mr. Danes.”
When he was alive, the true Mr. Danes had an imposing shape and stature. He was over six feet tall with broad shoulders and bulky arms like a pit bull. Though his build could incite fear, his eyes only reflected loyalty and love. This villainous imposter inhabited a similar body but had deep-set deathly eyes that tried to instill fear in everyone they glared at. Hamilton wasn’t afraid. He saw the bug-eyed chihuahua that yapped and trembled within the hulking body.
The chihuahua yipped again. “Laurence, did you have something to — —?”
Laurence Paulard. Old Man Paulard’s son. His purple silk vest shimmered as he stood up beside his snow-capped father. Hamilton ground his teeth and craned his neck to see Laurence’s lips.
“Yes, Mr. Danes.”
« Mr. Danes? Not here. » Hamilton signed with a flat expression. Klaus scowled. He didn’t know a word of sign language, so Hamilton had grown accustomed to his confusion.
Laurence continued. “I’d like to be in charge of the Paris project.”
Hamilton didn’t look to Klaus to read his reply. He just waited for Laurence to respond.
“Well as you well know, I’ve spent a significant amount of time in Paris—.”
« Well as you well know… » Hamilton mocked in sign language before switching off his hearing aid and melting into his seat.
In blissful silence, he fidgeted with the band of father’s old golden watch. It had belonged to his great grandfather, Hamilton Danes I. He pictured his forefathers. Black and white. Glaring into the flash of an ancient camera bulb. The second hand ticked with the rhythm of his bouncing leg. After a minute, he fell still, becoming one with the chair. Senseless furniture blessed with the ignorance of non-existence.
The floor vibrated under his feet.
Hamilton looked up to see his mother and Klaus staring at him from the head of the table. The meeting had ended, and the three of them sat in a nearly vacant boardroom.
Klaus’s mouth gaped open and closed in silent shouts, “Hamilton, I asked you—.” Klaus took in a breath. “Why you’re still acting like this.”
« That doesn’t help. You know that, right? » Hamilton arched an eyebrow. « Still deaf as hell. »
“Gertrude, darling, what is he saying?”
She didn’t interpret. Hamilton wasn’t sure she could.
“Ham, sweetheart,” she spoke slowly and clearly. “You really should try to be happier.” Her hands brushed her chest to sign « happy » without rhythm or confidence. “These black clothes, gloomy attitude all the time. I don’t think I’ve seen you eat since you came home.” She signed « eat » and « no ».
She was right. He hadn’t had a full meal since his father’s death. It wasn’t because he hadn’t tried, but his stomach felt like it was made entirely of knives. Every time he sat down to eat proper food, they stabbed him until he took a sleeping pill and went to bed.
“And you’re picking at your nails again.” She pretended to groom her pink plastic claws with lowered eyebrows and pursed lips.
He wiped a spot of blood off his index finger and went back to playing with his watch band.
“— — worried about you, sweetheart.” She leaned in, eyes glistening like she was an actress on Absent in the Spring.
“You’re a dutiful son.” Klaus put his hand on his wife’s shoulder. “— — honoured by your dedication — — to my dear brother’s memory — —.”
Hamilton fought back a snarl. His dear brother hadn’t even been in the ground for two months, and he had already married his widow.
As for his mother? Hamilton was incredulous.
A memory burst to the forefront of his mind. Hamilton watched his parents lean against the railing of an observation platform as Verona Falls surged below them. Wind gusted. Hair and water whipped at his mother’s face. With a gentle touch, his father tucked a rogue strand behind her ear. Their eyes crinkled and their lips curled. He pulled her into an embrace and kissed the top of her head.
There had been so much love there. It was the kind of love that grew and strengthened every day. How could she have fallen for this poor replica of his father?
He rubbed his eyes, desperate to stop violent grief from clouding his vision as Klaus continued to shout.
“— — when your grandfather died. I — — sad. I don’t think I left the house for a week afterwards. And when his father died — —”
This man didn’t love her. Not like she was used to. Not like she deserved.
“It’s time — — normal life, lad.”
She floated to her feet and over to Hamilton. “You should stay with us, sweetheart. At least while you’re not feeling well.” She signed « sick ».
Sick? Is that what this was? A cold virus?
Kneeling in front of him, she placed her silky hand on his. “Maybe take a semester off.” « Please ». Her eyebrows rose and the corners of her mouth tucked in.
A whiff of spiced rum assaulted Hamilton’s nose. Klaus’s lunchtime drink of choice. Hamilton pulled his hand away.
He watched his mother’s heart break. Her eyes grew wide as she reached after his hand.
Hamilton’s heart cracked, too.
He sighed. « If it will make you happy, I will consider it. » He nodded and mouthed the words for her as he signed them.
A tear fell down her cheek as her eyes squinted with the hint of a smile.
As angry as Hamilton was with her, he loved to see that smile. If his staying would make her happy, maybe it would be worth the extra time spent in close proximity to his uncle.
Klaus came over and offered his hand to Hamilton’s mother. She took it and stood.
“I’m glad you’re home. I hope you’ll decide to stay.”
She leaned in and kissed Hamilton’s forehead.
Without another word his mother and her new husband walked away hand in hand, leaving Hamilton alone in the meeting room.
He closed his eyes and saw a bolt of lightning burning through the skylight above him. Molten glass rained down as a jolt of electric power buzzed through his body, burning his life away. Hunger, fatigue, sorrow, anger, and hatred gone with a single well-aimed lightning strike. Was that too much to ask?
Thunder, like an answered prayer rumbled through the floor.
His eyes popped open to see a dashing gentleman in a three piece suit stomping in the corridor. Not god’s divine mercy. Hamilton’s closest friend.
Horatio stepped through the doorway with a flourish and a bow.
« My most noble Lord Hamilton Harold Wilhelm Danes IV! » Horatio’s hands moved like a gentle breeze on a shadeless summer day.
Hamilton smiled. « Please. Call me Hamilton. »
« Of course. Ham it is then. » Instead of Hamilton’s proper name, Horatio used the sign for pig.
Hamilton groaned. He hated that nickname. Thankfully, only his mother and Horatio were brave enough to use it in his presence.
« Always I am your humble servant. » Horatio bowed again, smirking.
« You don’t know how good you have it. »
Horatio cocked his head and furrowed his brow.
« It’s good to see you, Rato. » Hamilton retaliated with Horatio’s own hated nickname. « Real. I haven’t had a real conversation since I got here. »
They embraced, and a wave of reassuring calm trickled down from his head to his toes as he shared a breath with his friend.
With a heavy sigh, Hamilton held Horatio at arm’s length. « You’re here in Elsinore why? What the hell? »
« Sometimes the big city is too much. You have to leave. Go to the bountiful remote lands of the wealthy elite. You know? »
« Your law degree. What about that? Are you still trying to finish? »
« What? I’m skipping classes. You know, because I’m a total hardcore badass. »
« Bullshit. » Hamilton chuckled as he hopped up onto the boardroom table and took a seat.
« You’re right. It’s fall break. » Horatio shrugged and took a breath. « Why am I really here? I came as soon as I heard about your father. Sorry I missed the funeral. »
« It’s okay. Did you make it in time for my mother’s wedding? » Hamilton rolled his eyes so hard his vision blurred.
Horatio sneered. « That did happen really fast. »
Shrugging, Hamilton proposed, « Maybe they were just being thrifty?»
« What? »
« The leftover mini-sandwiches from the funeral probably tasted great at the wedding. »
Barely holding back a smile, Horatio pursed his lips.
His friend’s smirk warmed Hamilton almost as much as the imaginary lightning bolt, but he remained silent and still. He sighed. « Sometimes I see him. »
« Who? »
« Father. »
« What? Where? » Horatio’s gaze darted around the room like he expected the walls to close in.
« Anywhere. Everywhere. He’s in my head. When I look at Klaus, I see a cheap knock-off version of him. I see him in the shadows. I see him in the mirror. I hardly recognise myself, but I see him. He’s everywhere. And at the same time, I know I’ll never see anyone like him ever again. » Rubbing his temples with his thumbs, Hamilton tried to erase his father’s image from his mind.
Horatio regained Hamilton’s attention with a wave. « I saw him last night. »
« What? »
« Mr. Danes. »
« Save your jokes for Frank and Bernie. »
Hamilton turned his attention back to his watch.
The table thumped as Horatio pounded on it with a fist.
« I’m telling you, Ham. I saw him. Last night. »
« Stop. For real. I’m not in the mood. »
Horatio grimaced. « I didn’t believe it either. Not until I saw it. »
« Ok. » An angry lump rose in Hamilton’s throat. He ground his teeth and waited for his friend to continue.
Horatio leaned in. « Last night, I went out to the gate with Frank. At first, I thought he was full of shit. But after a few minutes, there he was. »
« Bull. » Hamilton rolled his eyes, but a strange hopeful disgust germinated in the depth of his soul.
« I’m not joking! » Horatio insisted.
Sincerity glinted in Horatio’s eyes.
« He saw you? »
« Did he talk to you? »
« I tried. He didn’t talk. Stood there. Pale. Like he was made of gas.»
Hamilton tried to imagine his father’s spirit. He remembered Halloween when he was only ten. His father popped out from behind the hedge with a white sheet over his head. A terrified Hamilton stabbed him with his costume pirate sword.
« But he was different. »
« What do you mean ? » Hamilton arched an eyebrow.
« Imposing. Desperate. »
« Very interesting. I’m sorry I missed it. »
« I don’t think you missed it. » Horatio shook his head.
Hamilton raised an eyebrow.
« He’s appeared every night this week. » Horatio continued. « Frank and Bernie have both seen him. There’s a good chance you could see him tonight. »
His father. The ghost of him. He had told Hamilton once that ghosts were ungodly abominations. His jaw clenched. He rubbed his thumb on the crystal of his watch.
« Fine. Take me to him. Is Frank on duty tonight? »
Horatio nodded with a snarl.
« Damn. That guy’s a tool. »
« True business. »
Hamilton contemplated his watch’s golden second hand. He would give anything to see his father again. But the ungodly abomination of him? He looked up and arched an eyebrow at Horatio. « You will come with me? »
« Obviously. » Horatio signed while looking at his watch. « First I’m going to get some food before. Want to come ? »
Knives slashed through his rumbling stomach. « No thanks. I’ve already eaten. »
Horatio glanced at Hamilton’s midsection and raised an eyebrow. Thankfully, he didn’t press for the truth. « You will probably want a coat. »
He turned and left Hamilton alone in the boardroom.
The second hand ticked in an endless loop.