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Lights Out

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Pete Downey, the press secretary at the governor’s mansion, came into the kitchen with the morning newspaper.

“Hey, Benson,” he said, “did you hear about that big storm they’re expecting this afternoon?”

“It’d be hard not to,” Benson DuBois, the budget director, replied. “It was all over the news.”

“Yeah. I hope we can make it home today before it starts pouring,” Pete said, sitting by him at the table.

“I’m not too worried about the rain,” Benson said, “but those gale-force winds always cause problems.” He turned to look as Clayton Endicott III, the chief of staff, entered the room. “You’re late.”

“Now tell me something I don’t know,” Clayton retorted, taking off his coat.

“Okay—the governor wants to see you in his office.”

“Did he say why?” Clayton asked, wondering if he should be worried.

“No.” Benson smiled. “But it was fun to imagine.”

Pete looked up from his newspaper. “Wow, you must’ve had a rough night,” he commented. “You look terrible.”

“Thank you, Peter,” Clayton said sarcastically. “I’m glad you noticed.”

He headed for the governor’s office, stopping at the secretary’s desk outside his door. Denise Stevens was talking to someone on the phone, and he waited for her to acknowledge him.

“Really? And what did she say?” Denise looked shocked. “No way! Are you kidding?”

“Excuse me, Denise, is the—”

She put her hand over the receiver. “Just a minute!” she told him, then went back to her conversation.

“I need to—” Clayton began again, annoyed, as Governor Gene Gatling opened the door. “Oh, sir, I was trying to ask if you were in.”

Denise hung up the phone. “Yes, Clayton, he is,” she said innocently.

“Well, now that that’s settled, come on in,” the governor told him. Clayton gave Denise a nasty look as he followed him into his office.

“I’m sorry I’m late, sir,” he said. “I slept through the alarm this morning.”

“Oh, that’s all right,” the governor replied. “Luckily, there’s not too much going on today. But I wanted to let you know I’m going to be gone for a couple of hours. There’s this parent function at Katie’s school, and she really wants me to be there.”

“Oh, yes, that was today, wasn’t it?” Clayton recalled. He yawned.

The governor glanced at him. “Is something wrong? You look beat.”

“Insomnia, sir. I’ve been awake the past three nights.”

“Have you tried sleeping pills?”

“No, I was saving that as a last resort,” Clayton admitted.

The governor opened a drawer in his desk. “Well, I think I have some left from the last time I couldn’t sleep,” he said. He pulled out a bottle and looked inside. “There’s a couple left, if you’d like to try them. They always put me right out.”

“Yes, thank you, sir. I think I’ve reached the desperation point.”

“Why don’t you go ahead and take them now?” the governor suggested. “Then you can lie down and take a nap while I’m gone.”

“Are you sure it’s all right?” Clayton asked, taking the bottle.

“I think the others can manage without us for a few hours.” The governor grabbed his coat. “I’ve got to get over to the school. Guess I’d better take my umbrella, too. It looks like it’s going to rain.”

“Have a good time, sir,” Clayton said. After he’d left, he got a cup of water and swallowed the last two pills in the bottle, then went into the living room. He’d seen Benson lying on the couch in here before, which meant it must be a good place to rest. He read the label on the bottle while he waited for the pills to take effect; then, as drowsiness finally overtook him, he put it on the table beside him and closed his eyes.

****

An hour later, Benson noticed that it was getting darker outside. Tree branches were blowing in the wind, tapping against the window.

Pete came into his office. “The weather guy on the radio said the storm’s coming through sooner than they thought.”

“How soon?” Benson asked. There was a loud crash of thunder.

“Oh, like, right now.”

“Great. And the governor’s still at Katie’s school.”

“What should we do?” Pete asked.

“I guess we’d better round up some flashlights and candles, in case the power goes out,” Benson said.

“And we should probably all hang out in the kitchen.”

“Why?”

“Well, that's where the food is,” Pete explained. “And if the power goes out, we might have to eat all the ice cream and whatever else is melting in the freezer.”

“Good thinking,” Benson admitted. “I suppose we should ask our second-in-command if there’s anything else.”

“You mean Miss Kraus?” Pete asked.

Benson stared at him in disbelief. “Clayton.”

“Oh, yeah. Where is he?”

“What am I, the information desk?” Benson said, exasperated. “Go look for him.”

Denise rushed in as another roll of thunder rumbled overhead. “Ooh, I hate thunder,” she complained. “And lightning. And darkness.”

“Well, don’t worry,” Pete told her. “We’re going to get some flashlights and candles. And Clayton.”

Denise looked confused. “What does Clayton have to do with darkness?”

“Ask me that again later,” Benson said, “when I have time for your straight lines.” He went off in search of Gretchen Kraus, the head of household staff, and Denise followed him, not wanting to be left alone. They ran into Pete again a few minutes later.

“He’s not in his office, or the governor’s office,” he reported. “But I did find a couple of flashlights. I’m going to take them to the kitchen.”

“Benson, he’s in here,” Denise called from the living room doorway. He followed her inside.

“Well, would you look at this?” he exclaimed. “First he comes in late, and now he’s sleeping on the job!” He leaned over the couch and shook Clayton’s shoulder. “Clayton, wake up!”

Clayton mumbled something unintelligible, turning away from him.

“Benson,” Denise said, sounding concerned. “Look.” She was holding a pill bottle.

He read the label, confused. “Sleeping pills? Aren’t you supposed to take those at night?”

“There were twenty-four pills in here,” she told him, “but now it’s empty.”

“What? You don’t think that he….” Benson looked at him, then shook him again, harder. “C’mon, Clayton, wake up!”

Clayton opened his eyes, annoyed. “What?”

Denise held up the bottle. “Did you take these pills?”

“Yes,” he replied groggily. “Now leave me alone….”

"We can't let him do this," Denise told Benson.

"Not here, on this couch, anyway," he agreed. “Clayton, you have to get up.”

“Why?”

“Because there’s a big storm outside, and everyone’s gathering in the kitchen, in case something happens. So come on.”

“I can’t,” he protested.

“We’ll help you,” Denise said.

They pulled him up onto his feet, then let him lean on their shoulders as they walked to the kitchen.

“What happened?” Pete asked, surprised.

“Is he sick?” Miss Kraus added.

“Worse,” Denise said, as they settled him onto a chair at the table. “We think he swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills.”

“What?” Miss Kraus exclaimed.

“He was asleep on the couch, with an empty pill bottle beside him. And Benson had trouble waking him up.”

“I can’t believe it,” Pete said. “What did the governor say to him? Was he mad at him for being late?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t hear any yelling,” Denise told him. “I’m going to call the doctor.” She picked up the phone, listened for a moment, then sighed. “The line’s dead.”

“Well, we’ll just have to keep him awake until the storm’s over,” Benson said. “Kraus, can you get him some coffee?”

“Ja.” She hurried to the coffeepot.

“Don’t we need to make him throw up or something?” Pete asked.

“I’m not doing that,” Benson said. “That’s Kraus’s department. Got any of that salmon casserole left from last night?”

“I was saving it for you,” she retorted, handing Clayton a coffee mug. “Here, drink this.”

Clayton groaned. “No coffee…it’ll keep me awake.”

“That’s the idea,” Benson told him.

“Come on,” Miss Kraus said. “Down the hatch.”

He turned his head away.

“We could all sing,” Pete suggested. “That’ll keep you awake.”

With a look of weary resignation, Clayton grabbed the mug and took a big gulp.

“Nice threat, Pete,” Benson said, impressed.

“I was serious,” he explained.

“I know.”

Miss Kraus looked at the windows as the rain began to pour. “Clayton, why did you take those pills?” she demanded, topping off his mug.

“I was desperate,” he mumbled. “I just couldn’t take it anymore.”

“I had no idea things were that bad,” Pete said. “Why didn’t you just tell us?”

“Nobody wants to hear about my problems.”

“That’s not true,” Denise told him. “Is it, guys?” She looked at Pete and Benson. “Guys?”

“No…of course not,” Pete replied. Benson shook his head.

A loud gust of wind rattled the windows, and the lights flickered.

“We’d better light those candles,” Miss Kraus remembered, “before the power—”

The room was plunged into sudden darkness.

“Goes out,” she continued.

“Where’s the flashlight?” Benson asked, getting up.

“Pete, hold me,” Denise said fearfully.

“I am.”

“No, you’re not,” Denise and Benson said at the same time.

“Oh. Sorry, Benson,” Pete told him. He found a flashlight and turned it on. Miss Kraus lit a large candle, and several smaller ones.

“There,” she said. “That’s better.”

Denise gasped. “Clayton!”

He looked up, startled. “What?”

“You have to stay awake,” she ordered.

He put his head in his hands. “Why?”

“Because….” She paused, searching for the right words.

“Because while the governor’s away, you’re in charge,” Benson said. Denise nodded gratefully.

“But you can get along fine without me,” Clayton protested. “The governor said so.”

“He did?” Denise exclaimed.

He nodded. “When he gave me the pills.”

“The governor gave them to you?” Miss Kraus asked, surprised.

“That’s terrible,” Denise said.

“No…you don’t understand,” Clayton murmured. “He was trying to help me.”

“Some help,” Denise huffed. She looked at him. “Clayton, I’m sorry I was rude to you this morning.”

“And I’m sorry if I made you feel bad, too,” Pete added guiltily.

They glanced at Benson.

“I know I always give you a hard time,” he admitted. “But if I went too far…I’m sorry.”

Clayton stared at him. “You’re apologizing?”

“Well, I guess there’s a first time for everything,” Benson said, embarrassed.

“Drink your coffee, Clayton,” Miss Kraus reminded him. He sighed, but took another sip.

“Just hang in there,” Denise told him. “This storm won’t last forever.”

“It feels like an eternity already,” he complained.

“Hey, do you think the ice cream’s melting yet?” Pete asked.

“No,” Miss Kraus replied. “But you are going to eat it anyway, aren’t you?”

“Ice cream might make us all feel better,” he said, getting up.

“I’ll feel better when the lights come back on,” Denise remarked. “And the governor and Katie come home.”

“I hope the roads are not blocked,” Miss Kraus said.

“Why don’t you turn on the radio and find out?” Pete suggested.

“You brought your radio in here?” Benson exclaimed. “Why didn’t you tell us that sooner?”

“I forgot.” He brought over several bowls of ice cream, then went back for more.

“He remembers the ice cream, but forgets the radio,” Benson said, shaking his head. He went over to it and turned it on.

The weather reporter mentioned power outages, lots of broken tree branches, a few downed trees, and flooding in certain areas, but the governor’s route was relatively clear.

“Well, that’s good news,” Miss Kraus said.

“It sounds like the rain’s letting up a little bit, too,” Benson noticed.

“Let’s listen to some music,” Denise said, changing the station on the radio. “Something cheerful.”

“You know, this is kind of romantic,” Pete told her. “Eating by candlelight.”

“Pete, this is neither the time nor the place,” Benson warned him.

“Just trying to look on the bright side,” he commented.

A few minutes later, the lights came back on.

“Hey, it worked,” Pete joked.

They were finishing their ice cream when the governor and Katie walked in.

“Oh, boy, can I have some, too?” Katie asked, taking off her raincoat.

“I suppose so,” her father said.

“How was the drive back, sir?” Miss Kraus asked him.

“Well, we had to take a few detours, but it wasn’t too bad.” He saw Clayton. “What are you doing up? Didn’t the pills work?”

Before he could answer, Denise spoke up. “Sir, how could you give sleeping pills to someone in his condition?”

The governor looked confused. “That’s what they’re for. Someone who can’t sleep.”

Benson glanced at him. “Can’t sleep?”

“Yeah, he’s had insomnia for three days, so I thought the pills might help. I told him he could take a nap while I was gone.”

“How many pills did he take?” Miss Kraus asked.

“The last two in the bottle,” the governor replied. The others groaned. “What’s wrong?”

“We thought…I mean, I thought…,” Denise began. “The bottle was empty, so I….”

“You thought he took the whole bottle?”

“You mean, all this time, we’ve been keeping an insomniac awake?” Benson exclaimed.

“A drugged insomniac,” Miss Kraus added, shaking her head. “Who was sleeping just fine till you woke him up.”

The governor laughed. “I’m sorry. I know it’s not funny, but—”

“No, sir, it’s not,” Denise said tearfully, standing up. “I can’t believe I made such a big fool of myself.” She ran out of the room.

“Denise,” Pete called after her. He turned to the others as he followed her. “She gets a little emotional sometimes.”

“We noticed,” Benson told him.

“I’ll apologize to her later,” the governor said. “It was an honest mistake. I should’ve told you about it before I left, but I had no idea that storm would move so fast.”

“I know, sir.” Benson sighed. “Well, I guess I’d better put Clayton back where I found him.”

“That would be nice of you,” the governor replied.

“Yeah, that’s me. Mr. Nice Guy,” he muttered. “C’mon, Clayton, the storm’s over. You can go back to sleep now.”

“I already was asleep,” Clayton admitted, getting up from the table. Benson and the governor led him out of the kitchen.

“Well, this is the last time I’ll be waking you up today,” Benson promised him.

As they entered the living room, Clayton turned to the governor. “I’m glad you’re back, sir.”

“Oh? Why is that?” he asked.

“Being in charge was…exhausting.” Clayton sank onto the couch.

The governor smiled. “I’m sure it was,” he said.