A Father's Love
It was a Sunday. Sundays were special for the two of them and always had been. The rest of the week was taken up by school, by work, by meetings and playdates and things that were just for them. But Sunday was special. Sunday was their day.
Mr. Jackson took his son by the hand and carefully steered him out of the way of a horde of bustling tourists. Sunday was always busy in Neopia Central, full of pets trying to eke the last few hours out of a weekend getaway to the big city. People ran from landmark to landmark, ooh’ing and aah’ing and trying to be the first one to shout out about just how big that building was or just how delicious a burger smelled. People gawked in front of store windows, ogling merchandise they couldn’t hope to buy even if they worked the rest of their lives. People laughed, cried, ran, sat, and generally made a furor of Neopia Central on Sundays. But not Mr. Jackson and his son. They just liked to walk.
Mr. Jackson looked down at his son and smiled slightly. “What is it, Bobby?”
Bobby bit his lips and tightened his grip on his father’s hand almost imperceptibly. He waited a few seconds before speaking again. “Can we..um…can we…”
Mr. Jackson thought he might know what was on the boy’s mind. After all, it had been the topic of much dinnertime conversation for the past week. But he wouldn’t let him get away with it that easily. “Can we what?”
Bobby’s face reddened, no mean feat for as bushy a Lupe as he. “Can we maybe go to the toy store today? I know we just went to the Chocolate Factory, but please, Dad! All the kids at school say that they just got a whole bunch of new action figures and I wanna see them!” This whole plea was delivered in a single breath, and it was all Bobby could do to not start panting at the end of it.
Mr. Jackson pretended to think, wrinkling his brow and bringing his free hand up to his mouth in a gesture of deep contemplation. “Hmmm,” he muttered. “Hmmmmmm…”
“Please, Dad! I’ll be good for a whole week and I’ll help Mom with the chores every day! We don’t even have to buy anything, I just wanna look!”
It took all his willpower to not crack a smile. “Well…alright, then. But I don’t want to see one toe out of line for a whole week after this!”***
The toy store was a veritable paradise of brightly-colored plastic, whirring and whizzing around wherever the eye looked. Here were balls of every shape and size, perfect for playing around with during recess or else bouncing inside the house and breaking your mother’s favorite lamp. On a nearby shelf, dozens and dozens of plushies beckoned the buyer with oversized eyes and huggable paws. Stretching off into the distance among all this were shelves upon shelves of bath toys, puzzles, mind games, jump ropes, bracelet-making sets, family games, and any other type of entertainment imaginable. And to top it all off, across the roof of the entire massive store hung an array of balloons not to be matched anywhere else in the world. It was truly a sight to see.
As Bobby ripped his little paw away, Mr. Jackson simply stared around. He might have looked odd, just standing in the doorway and looking around, if he hadn’t been joined by several other parents who were engaged in the same activity. There’s something about being dragged into a children’s wonderland that has a simultaneously sobering and exhilarating effect on a parent’s mind. A strange combination of joy and sorrow and, certainly, nostalgia doesn’t so much waft as surge through the body and mind. To be a child again, to have that wealth of fun sprawl before the eyes… Mr. Jackson was paralyzed by pure, unadulterated whimsy.
The trance was soon broken. “Dad, Dad, over here! Come look!” Bobby’s happy screech was enough to break any spell.
Mr. Jackson shook his head and trotted off down one of the many aisles. Before too long, he found his son, looking halfway up the shelf next to him with a look that could only be described as love.
“A real Judge Hog action figure…” he whispered. “Fully-jointed limbs for real martial arts action, ten unique catchphrases, and a real, working utility belt…”
“Sounds like the toy store has a new spokesman,” joked Mr. Jackson. “Had your eye on this one, then?”
“Dad, it’s so cool, look at it. If I brought Judge Hog to school, everyone else would be so jealous! Can we please buy it, Dad? Pleeeeeeease?”
Mr. Jackson was about to give the tried-and-true “I’ll think about it” response when his eye suddenly caught the price tag below the figure’s box. “Seven hundred and fifty neopoints?!?! Seven hundred and fifty actual neopoints. I could buy my own boat for that much!”
“It’s not that much, Dad.”
“Not that much? Not that much?? Do you have any idea how much money I’m actually able to save from work each week? Maybe five neopoints goes into the bank after bills, groceries, and whatever other nonsense happens on a weekly basis! It would take years to save up this kind of money!”
“But I really want it, Dad!” Bobby’s voice had gone from asking to pleading, a mistake he realized too late.
“No.” Mr. Jackson’s voice was final. This time, there would be no debate. “No, it’s just too much. Seven hundred and fifty neopoints…By Fyora, I remember when we played with sticks as a kid. And we were happy about it!”***
But the action figure stuck with Mr. Jackson the rest of that day. Perhaps it was not so much the action figure itself as the idea of it. The idea of a toy in a toy store that was so desired. He had been a kid once, it was true. He had pressed his snotty face up against glass windows and asked for new bicycles. They hadn’t cost seven hundred and fifty neopoint, yes, but still…he had wanted to have fun once. He had wanted to brag and show off just how cool his dad was for buying him a new toy.
It was decided before he even knew what he was deciding. One minute, he was tucking his son into bed, the next he was figuring out exactly how he needed to change the family budget in order to afford the Judge Hog action figure in time for the Day of Giving. If asked, he wouldn’t have been able to say what had prompted his decision. He only knew that what he wanted above all else was to give his son that toy. He wanted to show his son just how much he loved him.
The week began and carried on as the weeks always had up to that point. Mr. Jackson went to work before his wife and son were awake in the morning and returned just as dinner was being served. He only saw his family for a few more hours after that, but it worked for them. They laughed and loved enough in those few hours to make up for a whole day of not seeing each other. This carried on, as it always had.
But at the end of the first week, Mr. Jackson realized that chipping bits and pieces off the budget would not be enough. Instead of saving only five neopoints, his week-long total was now six. Six measly points. With the month of Celebrating only a few months away, he’d need to make drastic changes in order to afford his son’s gift! This thought gnawed at him as he himself gnawed away at dinner Saturday evening. He had been silent almost the entire time.
“Is something wrong, dear?” asked Mrs. Jackson after she’d given Bobby his dessert and scooted him off to his room. She’d been married to Mr. Jackson for many years and was able to tell when he had something on his mind.
“I…I think I’m going to need to take extra hours at the office,” he finally said after a long silence. “Our finances aren’t quite what I want them to be.” He didn’t know why he was lying. Maybe he wanted to surprise her as much as his son. Maybe he didn’t want to run the risk of her shooting down the idea. Or maybe he just wasn’t thinking. “I promise I won’t let it get too bad. I just think we could use the extra money.”
Mrs. Jackson looked at him for a minute before smiling and putting another slice of ham on his plate. “Whatever you think is best, dear. Just do make sure it doesn’t get too bad. I don’t want to forget what you look like!” She giggled and was soon joined by Mr. Jackson’s hearty guffaw. As much as he wanted to get that action figure, he was sure he wouldn’t be spending more time at the office than at home.***
Weeks turned into months as Mr. Jackson put his new plan into effect. At first, he only arrived home a few hours later each day, just a little before Mrs. Jackson and Bobby were getting ready to go to bed. He still read a goodnight story to his son and still talked with his wife before they all went to sleep. Things were okay. Mr. Jackson’s boss was compensating him well, and the action figure goal got steadily closer.
But it did not get close enough. Mr. Jackson soon took to working on Sundays as well. This decision was not well-received at all.
“But Dad!” Bobby protested upon hearing the news. “Sunday’s our day! We always do something fun on Sunday!”
“I know, son, but work is a little crazy right now, and I need to spend more time there than I thought. I promise you, this won’t be forever. Soon, things will be back to normal and we’ll have Sundays again! Maybe even Saturdays too sometimes.” Mr. Jackson smiled convincingly at Bobby and hoped he wouldn’t ask just how soon “soon” was.
But Bobby didn’t ask. He just wiped his nose with the back of a paw, muttered an okay, and disappeared into his room. Mrs. Jackson appeared from the kitchen door just in time to see this last. She gave Mr. Jackson a quite indiscernible look before bustling back into the kitchen without a word. Mr. Jackson, too, wiped his nose with the back of his paw.***
The Day of Giving was a month out, and Mr. Jackson still had fifty neopoints left to save. Often, over the last few months, he’d gone down to the toy store just to double-check that the price hadn’t changed or that the action figure had not been sold out. It hadn’t. The gleaming plastic was still there in its cardboard cage just as it had been many months ago. Mr. Jackson couldn’t wait until he saw it in his son’s hands.
He hadn’t seen much of his son’s hands lately, however, nor much of his son at all. Mr. Jackson had steadily been increasing his hours week after week until he now only came home to sleep. All eating was done either at the office or en route, and downtime had all but vanished. It was the case that maybe once or twice a week, he’d be able to eat with his family, if a particularly easy day at work came up, but these were not the welcome reprieves he’d anticipated.
Dinner conversation was virtually nonexistent. Bobby would pick glumly at his vegetables, make one or two brief comments about what the other kids at school were playing with, and then ask to be excused. Mrs. Jackson ate robotically, placing one piece of food after another into her mouth, chewing, swallowing, and repeating without so much as a glance up. When Mr. Jackson tried to ask about their lives, what he’d been missing that week, shrugs and monosyllabic grunts were received. He figured this was only natural after him being away for so long, and it took all his willpower to not reveal to them the big secret before its time!
That night, though, he brought the subject up to Mrs. Jackson before bed. “Dear, I know I’ve been away more than I’d have liked, but…it’s all for us, you know that. You know that I’ve wanted to save some money, and I think you’ll really like what’s waiting at the end of all this!”
Mrs. Jackson looked up briefly from folding laundry. “And what’s waiting at the end of ‘all this,’ my dear?”
Mr. Jackson smiled in a way he thought was enigmatic before responding, “A surprise.” Again, he could not have said quite why he was keeping this from his wife. It was simply something…personal.
His wife could not have looked less excited about the impending surprise. “Right,” she said perfunctorily. “I simply can’t wait.”***
It was the 22nd of Celebrating when the goal was finally reached. Seven hundred and fifty neopoints in savings, jingling around in Mr. Jackson’s pocket, freshly withdrawn from the bank. Despite his somewhat haggard appearance, Mr. Jackson beamed with a smile that would have put the richest pet in the world to shame. After spending three consecutive days camped out at the office, walking down the street to the toy store felt like walking on air. After three days of not returning home, Mr. Jackson could think of no better gift to bring back to his family than that action figure.
When he bought it at the store not half an hour after leaving the bank, he asked the cashier to wrap it in bright orange paper and top it with a red bow, with ribbons abound! Then, using a borrowed marker, he painstakingly wrote “To Bobby – Love, Dad” on it. After a moment’s thought, he put a silly smilie face next to the inscription.
All the way home, Mr. Jackson couldn’t help but think of the gasp of delight on his son’s face, of the warm smile creeping across his wife’s face, and the feeling of total and utter love enveloping his own heart. Could he wait until the Day of Giving? No. Not now, not after so much sacrifice and toil. Not after what he’d put himself and his family through. This surprise, three days early, would be the best gift of all.
These thoughts kept him smiling all the way home. It wasn’t until he was halfway to the kitchen, however, that he noticed something was very, very off. It hadn’t registered initially when he walked in the door, so blinded was he by the scenes he was envisioning in his head. But as he slowly turned around, he noticed. The furniture was gone. Not all of it, no. But the sofa, the end table, the nice lamp. The lamp in the corner was still there, as was the bookshelf, but half the books had simply disappeared from their places.
“We’ve been robbed…” Mr. Jackson whispered. For a few seconds, he was stunned. Then, he realized two more things that he wasn’t seeing. “By Fyora…Molly! Bobby! Where are you!” Mr. Jackson dropped the package and tore through the house, yelling for the pair of them, asking if they were alright. “Bobby! Son, where are you!” When he skidded to a halt in front of his son’s door, however, a haunting sight hit him. The room was totally bare.
Mr. Jackson walked downstairs, very, very slowly. He went into the kitchen and saw, stuck to the refrigerator, a small, handwritten note. He read it. He only half-understood the words that his eyes glossed over. He let the note drop from his paws before he was finished reading it. Then, he walked back into the half-empty living room and sat down on the floor, next to the bright orange box with the red ribbon and the silly smilie face, now smudged, written next to an inscription of love.