Chris was our second child, so I wasn’t surprised when he started having a strange diet. My wife, Becky, wasn’t really concerned either for the first week or so. He would only eat peanut butter sandwiches and, only two a day. It seemed like a perfectly normal phase for him to go through, especially since he was just starting kindergarten, and so we didn’t worry. It wasn’t until three weeks after he began his diet that I thought something was wrong.
Sometimes I have trouble sleeping, but it’s not often enough to see a doctor about. I usually just read or play video games in my study until I crash, but on that particular night I heard Chris when I walked past his room. He was lying in bed, crying. I opened his door slowly, and he stopped making noise. His nightlight was on, but he was turned away from me. I called his name so that he would know it was me. He didn’t budge. I didn’t want him to feel like I was encroaching on his space, so I decided to leave it alone that night. If he wanted to hide his crying from me, then maybe it was personal, something he wanted to solve for himself. When I closed the door on my way out, I heard him start to cry again.
From that night on, I made it a point to listen outside his bedroom to see if whatever was bothering him was an ongoing occurrence. He didn’t cry every night, but it was probably two out of every three nights that he was having trouble sleeping. I talked to Becky about it, and we decided to wait in the chair on the landing between his bedroom and the bathroom in shifts, reading. If he went to the bathroom at night, we could see his tears and talk to him about it without invading his personal space. The plan seemed logical to us, and that was the basis of our parenting. We both had less than stellar upbringings, so our main goal with our kids was to do as little harm as possible. If only we knew what had been going on, we would have known there were bigger concerns than his privacy.
Becky was the one that actually saw Chris first during our vigils. She said that she talked to him about the crying, that he said he was fine, but she noticed that he froze when he saw someone sitting in the chair on the landing when he came out of his room. I said it was normal for his eyes to have to adjust in the lighting, and she thought I could have been right, but something about the situation didn’t sit well with her. She asked him if he wanted to go downstairs and have some ice cream, thinking maybe he was crying because he was hungry, and he started to hum like he does when he gets upset. He always did that when he was trying to hold back tears at that age, because he was starting to get the idea that he shouldn’t cry from the movies and TV shows that he watched. She was really worried and thought that it might be worth seeing his pediatrician about.
Chris’s pediatrician recommended seeing a counselor to make sure that nothing was going awry with his development, so we set up an appointment. At the start of the appointment, Chris was outgoing like he usually was with people, at least when we were around. He talked about the toys that he liked the most and family life without skipping a beat. However, when the counselor asked him about his diet, Chris’s attitude changed. He became reserved, started looking away from everyone, and refused to answer any questions.
The counselor continued to talk to him about other things, slowly coaxing answers out of Chris, until Chris finally began to reluctantly talk about his sandwich diet. He said that he got hungry sometimes at night, but he didn’t want to break his diet. “I don’t want him to get angry with me,” he said. The counselor tried for fifteen minutes to get Chris to say who the "him" that Chris referred to was, but Chris wouldn’t say. The counselor asked if she could speak to Chris alone, and we agreed to wait in the waiting room.
Five minutes later, the counselor came out to speak with us. She said she had asked us to leave because Chris had been exhibiting signs of abuse, and Chris had been casting sideways glances at us as if he had been coached not to talk about certain things in the appointment. We were taken aback, but the counselor said that her fears had been unfounded. Chris had indeed been told not to talk, but he said he had been told not to talk to us. Chris had told the counselor that his dietary restrictions had come from an imaginary friend named Mr. Top Hat.
Chris said that Mr. Top Hat wanted Chris to look healthier, to gain some weight, and the peanut butter would help with that. The counselor asked if the imaginary friend could be more than imaginary. We didn’t understand what she meant at first, but she asked if there were any adults in Chris’s life that fit the description of Mr. Top Hat. Chris had said that Mr. Top Hat was a man with a long, hairless face and a tall hat on his head.
We said that Mr. Top Hat had to be from Chris’s imagination, because that description didn’t fit anyone that he would have come into contact with. The counselor said that it was probably a phase, but we should supplement his diet with vitamins in order to make sure he didn’t have deficiencies. She said that his pediatrician would be able to recommend the right ones. We took the counselor’s advice and tried to be understanding of Chris’s dietary eccentricities. The fact that she said it would likely be over soon was comforting. We didn’t know it was possible for her to be so right and so wrong at the same time.
The next thing we heard about Mr. Top Hat was from Chris’s kindergarten teacher. His teacher said that Chris started crying hysterically one afternoon while the kids were reading to themselves. When she asked Chris what was wrong, he said that Mr. Top Hat was angry with him. She asked if one of us could pick him up, and I said that I would. Luckily, I worked from home, so it wasn’t a big deal. Chris seemed okay once he got home, and he even asked me if I would make him mac n’ cheese, his favorite from before the sandwich era. I said yes, and he sat in the kitchen drawing while I made it for him. As I poured the bowl for him, I asked him what he was drawing without looking at the paper. “It’s Mr. Top Hat,” Chris said.
I looked down at the paper, stunned. The picture was of a person with no hair on their face, including no eyelashes or eyebrows, and a sinister-looking top hat with lines all over it. Chris had colored in the face an ashen gray, and the man in the picture looked dead. Chris ate his meal while I stared at the picture. Becky and I had hoped to cause as little damage as possible to our kids. How had we screwed up so badly that this was what Chris thought of as an imaginary friend?
Chris seemed better after eating, and he asked me if I would read a story to him. I said yes, planning to talk to Becky when she got home. He was fast asleep before I was finished, but I stayed there with him while he slept. I wasn’t going to leave him. Becky got off work at her usual time, and she rushed home. We talked it over and decided that we’d schedule another appointment with the counselor. It seemed like the best course of action. There was no reason to act like anything was wrong with Chris before then, so we sent him to school.
The next day our call came from the principal, asking me to come in quickly. I asked what was wrong, and he said it would be better to discuss in person.
When I got to the school, there were several police officers running around the parking lot. At least six police cars were parked there, and they appeared to be getting ready to go into the forest behind the school. The principal was in his office with his secretary and Chris. Chris was visibly shaken, and he ran to me crying when I came inside. The principal asked his secretary to keep an eye on Chris once he was calmed down so that he could talk to me.
The principal told me that there had been an incident in Chris’s class that day. When the class split up for individual projects, Chris’s teacher saw a hand reaching for him out of the industrial vent in the classroom. She screamed, and the hand went away. By the time police were called, they thought that the man had escaped. On searching the premises, they found that the duct led to a small maintenance area in the old section of the building that had been abandoned. There were signs that someone had been living there for a long time. In the center of that room, there was a stool. On the stool, there was a top hat that looked to be made of leather that had been stitched together. Mr. Top Hat had not been apprehended.
At that point, I was just glad that Chris was safe. If you’re a parent, you’ll understand, and I hope you kiss your child goodnight tonight, thankful that they are not in the hands of someone like that man. I don’t know what I’m trying to tell you by relaying this story, but maybe it’s just about how precious children are. It’s a lesson that can come too late for many, and it almost did for us.
Chris was as safe as he could be, but I heard the worst part of the story later. I heard it from a friend of mine on the police force a couple months later after he had too much to drink. I still wish I didn’t know what he told me that night. The top hat had been analyzed by an F.B.I. crime lab, and it contained DNA from at least five open cases. Not only that, but the leather had been made from human skin.