Chapter 1.3

Edward and Judith Murdock first met while attending college at Penn State and as all their friends will attest, it was love at first sight. After less than a year of dating, they both knew that they were destined to spend the rest of their lives together.

The happy couple got married in the spring of 1980 in a simple ceremony in front of their family and close friends. They would spend the next few years living in a string of small apartments in the suburbs outside of Philadelphia, working full-time and saving money for a grand trip around the world before they settled down and had children. However, their plans were derailed when Judy found out she was pregnant with their first child just after New Year’s in 1983.

Determined to give their child a sense of stability that she never had, Judy convinced Edward to take the money they had been saving for their big adventure and use it to buy a house. And not just a simple starter home, as most young couples would have done in their situation. No, this would be the home they raised their children in and stayed in until, as Judy would put it, “They had to pry my cold dead hand off the doorknob.”

Edward wasn’t thrilled about it, but what could he do? He had a child on the way and a wife he loved more than anything.

So it came to pass that a month before their daughter Elizabeth was born the Murdocks moved into 214 Home Road in Hatboro. It was a two-story, three bedroom, one and a half bath Colonial with an attached one car garage and a decent sized backyard. It had a front porch, a deck and a asking price that was way above the young couple’s budget.

However, both Edward and Judy fell in love with the house as soon as they saw it. They could picture raising their family there and then watching their grandchildren frolic in the backyard someday. With the help of a loan from his parents, they moved in as the calendar turned to autumn and began to raise their family.

Three years later they welcomed Darren Murdock to the world and made the decision that two children was enough for them. As far as Judy was concerned, her family was now complete and nothing and no one was going to take that away from her.

***

Diego looked at the house he grew up in as Liz pulled the SUV into the driveway and smiled in spite of himself. He still wasn’t looking forward to the sure to be difficult conversation he was going to have to have with his mother, but something about seeing his childhood home always gave him a warm feeling all over.

As he headed to the back of the SUV to grab his duffel bag and backpack, Diego saw that the garage door was open and his father’s red 2007 Mustang convertible was parked inside. The car had been a a fiftieth birthday present to himself, part mid-life crisis and part reward for making to the ripe old age of fifty. His father (Diego’s grandfather) had died at the age of forty-two so Edward Murdock felt that making to such a huge milestone deserved something special to commemorate it.

Diego’s mother wasn’t a fan of her husband buying the car, but over the years had enjoyed the rides out to the country during the spring and summer and seeing how happy it made Edward.

Liz noticed Diego looking at the Mustang. “I’m not sure what Mom’s going to do with it. She hasn’t said anything yet so she might end up keeping it.”

“Dad would have wanted you to have it.”

Liz shrugged her shoulders. “Even if that were true, a Mustang isn’t exactly great for a family of four.”

“C’mon. I remember you going to all those car shows with him. Every time I saw a picture of him winning some trophy you were right by his side.”

“We’ll see.”

The two of them walked up the path to the front door and Liz opened it. They were barely inside when they heard a sound coming from the kitchen, the unmistakable voice of their mother, Judith.

“Is that you Elizabeth? You’ve been gone for over an hour. I was starting to wonder what happened to you.”

“I’m fine Mom. Just had to stop and pick up some garbage on the side of the road.”

Diego looked at his sister, his eyebrow raised. “Really?”

“I told you I wasn’t going to forgive you right away. This is part of your penance.”

“Great.”

Their mother came out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on a towel as the two entered the living room. “Elizabeth, what are you talking …”

Judy stopped in her tracks, the dishtowel falling to the floor, forgotten.

“Darren? Is that really you?”

His mother was the only person on the face of the Earth who stilled called Diego by his given name. He didn’t know what to say so he simply said “Yes Mom.”

It was the first time Diego had seen his mother in over four years. He wasn’t sure what he was expecting, that she would have changed in some way or somehow transformed into a different person? He knew that was silly but that was the thought that had kept running through his head the whole trip home.

Instead, Judy Murdock looked almost exactly the same as she had the last time Diego had seen her. Barely five feet tall in heels, pale skin, green eyes, high cheekbones and still in fantastic shape for a woman who just turned sixty. The one difference Diego did notice was that his mother had let her hair go grey, no longer dying it the auburn it had been throughout his childhood.

She walked up to him, tears streaming down her cheeks as she cupped his face in her hands. “Oh Darren. It’s been so long …”

Judy embraced Diego in a fierce hug, crying into his chest. As he hugged her back Liz walked over and put her hand on her mother’s shoulder, softly telling her it was alright.

Not sure what he was supposed to do, Diego let his mother cry and hold him for a good five minutes. Given all the different receptions he could have gotten when he walked through the door, Diego had to admit this wasn’t the worst.

When Judy had regained her composure enough to speak, she said she had to go check on something she had been cooking. Both Diego and Liz followed her into the kitchen, each taking a seat at the island that stood just in front of the stove, the one they had spent countless hours sitting at while growing up.

Judy Murdock was an remarkable cook and spent most of her time while at home in her beloved kitchen, the one she had remodeled not once, but twice since they had moved in all those years ago. The countertops were polished marble, the appliances all stainless steel, everything immaculate. That said, the kitchen never felt sterile or like everything was there just for show. There was the constant faint aroma of fresh baked bread and it always seemed like something was in the oven cooking away.

Any time Liz or Diego had needed their mother while growing up, it seemed like she was in the kitchen, cooking or sorting recipes or even just sitting at the island, reading a book. Her kitchen was where she felt most comfortable and in control, so it made perfect sense that she would be there cooking at a time like this.

With her back to her children, she stirred the simmering contents of the small pot that was on the stovetop. “It’s so good to see you again Darren. I just wish you could have visited under better circumstances.”

Well that didn’t take long. Diego thought to himself.

“Me too Mom. How are you doing?”

Judy hesitated for a second, looking down at the pot in front of her and taking a deep breath. “If I’m being honest with you, it’s been awful. Some days I feel okay and can get things done but others, others I can’t even get out of bed and just cry all day.”

“Mom, that’s to be expected. Dad hasn’t even been gone a week.” The words felt wrong coming out of Diego’s mouth. He still couldn’t quite grasp that his father was gone.

“Yes but there is so much to do. I still have to call the insurance company and the bank and then there are all the funeral arrangements to deal with.”

Diego had seen his mother deal with grief like this before. When his grandmother had died, Judy had thrown herself into the minute details of her mother’s funeral and tying up all the loose ends while her two sisters had been overcome dealing with their own sorrow. It wasn’t until almost a year later that she had finally dealt with her grief and emotions. It had sent her into a depression no one was sure Judy would be able to come back from.

Diego was terrified to see what losing his father would do to her.

But that was something to deal with when the time came. Right now Diego had questions he needed answers to, some of which he wasn’t sure he wanted to hear.

“Mom, I wanted to know. Were you with Dad when he died? Was he in any pain or anything?”

Judy stiffened, her back to her son as she stood at the stove. He knew she probably didn’t want to talk about this, but there was really no good time to have this discussion.

“No Darren. Your father died peacefully. He didn’t even wake up when the second heart attack happened. He was simply there one minute and then he was gone.”

“Did he ask about me while he was in the hospital? Want to know where I was?”

“He is …” Judy paused for a second, closing her eyes. “Was your father. Of course he asked. I offered to call you and let you know what was happening but he told me not to. He said to let you be.”

Liz looked questioningly at her mother. “You offered to call Diego? When?”

Judy turned around. “The day after he first went into the hospital. I thought his son should know what was going on but like I said, your father said not to.”

“You didn’t tell me that. You just told me there was too much going on and we should let it go for now. You never mentioned that Dad was the one who said not to.”

Diego looked from his mother to his sister, sensing that there was more going on here than he was aware of. Having been gone for four years, he wasn’t one hundred percent sure what the relationship was currently like between Liz and their mother. At the time he had left, it was better than it had been but was still fairly fragile.

Given the tone of Judy’s voice and Liz’s surprised reaction, it appeared things were going downhill again or it could just be the circumstances. Diego figured now wasn’t the time to deal with all of this so he quickly changed the subject.

“It doesn’t matter right now. So when is the funeral?”

Turning back around to the stove, Judy resumed stirring the contents of the pot. “It’s going to be Friday morning at St. John Bosco Church. There is also going to be a viewing on Thursday night at Schneider Funeral Home. We could have had it earlier but we wanted to wait until family had time to make arrangements to attend.”

“Is Dad going to be cremated?”

“Yes. That’s what your father wanted.”

“What are we going to do with the ashes? Spread them somewhere?”

Judy slammed the spoon she had been using on the counter, red drops of tomato soup spraying on the tile backsplash. The sudden noise made both Liz and Diego jump out of their seats.

Still not turning around to look at her son, Judy balled her hands into fists at her sides. “Darren, do we really need to have this conversation right this moment? I’ve been dealing with this for days upon days and I’m just not in the mood. Maybe if you had been here more you would know what your father’s last wishes were instead of having to ask me question after question.”

Diego just looked at his mother’s back, trying his best not to let his temper get the better of him. He knew dealing with his mother was not going to be easy and that there were a lot of hurt feelings. However, Diego thought maybe she would put it on the back burner for a bit before using the fact he had left as a weapon to hurt him.

Turns out Diego was wrong.

He shoved his hands into his pockets and looked angrily at the floor. “You’re right Mom. Now isn’t the time. I’m exhausted anyway. I think I’ll just head upstairs and try to get some sleep if that’s okay with you guys. We’ll talk more later.”

Liz put her hand on his arm. “Diego wait …”

“Nah, it’s okay Liz. I just want to get some sleep, okay?”

With that, he turned around, grabbed his bags and headed for the stairway, hoping his room wasn’t now a yoga studio or something.

***

When Diego had made his decision to disappear, most of what he owned he sold or gave away, telling his friends he simply wanted to downsize and maybe move into a smaller apartment. It hadn’t been easy parting ways with so much of who he was, especially his extensive comic book collection which was his pride and joy, but he truly felt it was something he had to do.

What was left once he was finished wasn’t much. A few boxes of comics, a handful of books and assorted collectibles as well as his computer with all his graphic design work. There was also a handful of things he felt he couldn’t bear to part with, things that truly meant something to him.

It was his father who gave him the idea of storing it all in his old room. Once Diego had told him about his plans, Edward tried to help where and how he could. He said that if his mother asked, Diego should just tell her he was thinking of moving home again for a bit to try and save some money. Judy would never say no to anything that would get her children under her roof again.

When Diego opened the door to his bedroom, he saw that it was pretty much unchanged from the last time he had seen it four years earlier. The bed was made, the desk spotless with his old computer sitting on top of it and his boxes neatly stacked in the corner, including one labeled “Roxanne” that he did his best to avoid looking at.

The room smelled of fresh linen and glass cleaner. If he didn’t know better he would think his mother came in here at least once a week to clean, like she was expecting him back any minute. Which just made her comments from a few moments ago sting all the more.

Diego put his bags down in front of the dresser and sat on his bed, putting his head in his hands. He is 33 years old for the love of God. He has traveled from one end of the country to the other more times than he could count. He had seen and done things other people can only dream about. So how was it possible his mother could still make him feel like a helpless little kid who didn’t know anything?

“She didn’t mean it you know.”

Liz was standing in the doorway of his room, leaning against the frame with her arms folded, a sympathetic look on her face.

Diego exhaled a breath he didn’t know he was holding. “I know.”

“Not that you didn’t have that coming. But this wasn’t the time for Mom to be weaponizing your guilt.”

“I know.”

“You going to be alright?”

Diego sighed. “Yeah. This is a rough on everyone. I’ll just have to suck it up that me being here is going to provoke some feelings from people that I may not be ready to accept.”

“That’s very mature of you.”

Diego smiled. “I know.”

“You are still such a dweeb. Get some sleep and we’ll talk more with Mom tomorrow.”

Liz closed the door behind her, leaving Diego alone. After a moment he realized that he hadn’t bathed or changed his clothes since he left Portland days ago. He dug around in his duffel bag, found a clean t-shirt and sweat pants and headed down the hall to take a shower.

Twenty minutes later he walked back into his room, feeling much better and hopeful that everything might be able to work itself out. The sun was going down and it was quickly getting dark, so he turned on the lamp next to his bed and plugged in his cell phone.

Diego thought he would watch some television and try to relax. He crawled under the quilt that was on his bed to get comfortable and was asleep before his head hit the pillow.

Chapter 1.2

The full name of the diner was actually the Horsham Palace Diner and Bakery, but everyone who lived in the area simply called it The Palace. It first opened back in the 1960s off Route 611 in Horsham and has been a fixture of the community ever since.

One of the reasons The Palace was so popular with locals was that it was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, no exceptions. If you had a craving for an omelet at four in the morning on Easter or wanted a cup of coffee and a burger at noon on Christmas Day, The Palace was the place you wanted to be.

Most of the waitresses had been there since the diner opened and their terse interactions with the customers was considered part of the “charm” of the place. That and the fact you could sit in a booth at two in the morning just drinking coffee and they would be more than happy to leave you alone.

Diego hadn’t seen The Palace in years but nothing about it had changed in the least. For some reason he couldn’t really explain, he found that comforting.

Diego and his sister had been coming to The Palace for almost as long as they could remember. Their parents used to bring them here every Sunday when their father’s computer club would meet for breakfast. The group, which could include as many as 15 people on a good Sunday, honestly wouldn’t talk about computers all that much. Instead it was a chance to catch up, have a conversation with other adults and get out of the house for breakfast on the weekend.

Diego and Liz would eat their breakfast and then be given a roll of quarters to go play whatever video game machine happened to be in the vestibule that week. These were older arcade machines that had seen better days, but it was more interesting than listening to the adults talk. Ms. Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, even an ancient Space Invaders game had kept the two of them busy and entertained over the years.

At least that was until Liz lost interest and started to bring a book with her to read. She stopped going altogether by the time she was old enough to be left home alone, and Diego would have the game (and the quarters) all to himself.

Diego looked over to where the arcade cabinet used to sit, between two massive windows that looked out at the highway. Instead a ATM now sat there with an Auto Trader magazine rack next to it.

As Diego got older, The Palace was where he and his friends would go to hang out. One of the only places in town you could go if you weren’t 21 and able to get into a bar, it was a popular spot with the kids who called the Hatboro-Horsham area home. They would sit and drink coffee for hours, talking about comic books, role-playing games and movies.

Liz even waitressed there for a summer before realizing after a couple “incidents” that she was not cut out to work in the food service industry.

They walked through the vestibule and Diego pulled open the door to let Liz go in ahead of him. The hostess held two fingers up as she grabbed a pair of menus from a large stack and showed them to their booth.

The moment they walked in Diego’s senses were overrun by smells and sounds that brought back a tidal wave of memories. The sound of the coffee machine going, a fresh pot being brewed. The aroma of fresh baked rolls and pies, the hustle and bustle of the wait staff moving swiftly from table to table. The near constant drone of conversations going on as people talked over their early dinner.

It was almost like Diego never left.

Liz and Diego sat opposite each other in the booth, the blinds pulled shut due to the bright late day sun. They both leafed through their menus, even though they knew them almost by heart after all the time they had spent here.

A short, dark-haired woman who had to be in her forties walked over with her notepad in hand and pen at the ready to see if she could get them anything to drink. Liz ordered a cola while Diego got a coffee.

“You want cream with that?” the waitress asked before walking away.

“Yes please.” Diego answered.

After a moment Liz closed her menu and folded her hands in front of her, looking down at them like she was trying desperately to avoid eye contact with her brother. The waitress brought their drinks and they ordered, a turkey club for Liz and a bacon and cheese omelet for Diego.

Once she was gone, Liz finally looked Diego in the eye and said “So I guess you have some questions about what happened.” It was a statement, not a question.

Diego exhaled and tried to gather his thoughts. “Of course I do. Like why the hell didn’t you call me when Dad first went into the hospital?”

“It was a crazy time Diego. Mom was a mess and Dad was in rough shape. No one was really sure where you were and after a few days it seemed like everything was under control.”

“But that’s why I gave Mom and Dad my cell number. So they could call me if something happened.”

“So what, Dad having a heart attack rates high enough on your importance scale that we should have reached out and called you?”

Diego just looked at his sister, trying to blink back the shock and hurt that suddenly enveloped him. It was like someone had just punched him in the stomach.

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“Exactly what I said. You say you’re upset you didn’t get to come to my wedding and that nobody called you when Dad went into the hospital but you sure as hell wouldn’t know it by the way you’ve been acting.”

Diego closed his eyes and shook his head like he was trying to understand what Liz was saying.

“What are you talking about?”

Liz looked Diego right in the eye, her voice rising ever so slightly. “You left Diego! Four years ago you ghosted everyone and everything in your life! It was six months before anyone even heard from you. We had no clue if you were dead or what. Do you know how crazy that made Mom? The phone calls from your friends, from your graphic design clients, wondering where you were? I had to take a leave from work to move home just to try and keep Mom from losing her shit.”

“I can explain…”

“No, I’ve been thinking about this for years. You’re going to hear this.” Liz took a deep breath and was about to continue when the waitress brought their food to the table. When Diego looked at Liz he could see that tears were forming in the corners of her eyes and her cheeks were flushed.

Liz took another deep breath and looked down at her sandwich. She steepled her fingers in front of her and rested her forehead on her thumbs.

“You disappeared Diego. No note, no warning, no nothing. Four years ago you up and vanished without a trace. All that was left was an empty apartment and a ton of questions with no answers. No one had any clue where you were or what happened.

“Finally after six long months Mom and Dad get a letter from you with a cell number and some half-baked explanation why you vanished. That you wanted to explore for a bit and see things. That your life was too much to deal with and you needed time to think. We won’t mention that most of that was your own damn fault.”

Diego opened his mouth to say something but the words caught in his throat when he saw the look in his sister’s eyes.

“Then we find out that Dad knew about you and your little trip. That you told him what you were planning. Did he ever tell you that him and Mom almost divorced because of that? That she felt if he could keep a secret like that from her for half a year Lord only knows what else he was hiding from her?”

Diego just looked down at him omelet, his hand playing with the fork on the table next to the plate. “No. I didn’t know that.”

“And why should you? It’s not like you could get a ton of information about our family in the five minute phone conversations you and Mom were having every few months.”

Liz took a bit of her club sandwich in an obvious attempt to calm down. Her face was still flushed with anger and hurt as she chewed and then took a sip of her soda before she spoke again.

“And what really got me, what really pissed me off was that you never once reached out to me. You never tried to explain what was going through your head when you did it. Mom I can understand, she is who she is and I get why you told Dad what you were going to do. But why didn’t you try talking to me? Why didn’t you at least give me a head’s up? Or stop in Pittsburgh once all those times you crossed the country?”

A tear was rolling down Liz’s cheek as she caught her breath and closed her eyes.

“I thought we were closer than that Diego. We’re brother and sister. Sure, we hit some rough patches but what pair of sibling doesn’t? I always thought no matter what you had my back and I had yours. No questions asked. After you disappeared, I realized that wasn’t the case and that really hurt.”

Liz took a deep breath, held it for a second and then exhaled slowly. Diego noticed that her shoulders visibly slumped and she seemed to relax. Almost like she had been carrying this around for a long time and now that she had finally said it and it was out there, she could decompress and just let it go.

Diego still hadn’t touched his food, his mind racing. He was aware that he had upset a lot of people when he left and he knew that there were going to be ramifications, but he had no clue the hurt had cut this deep.

“Can I talk now?”

Liz was digging into her burger, her appetite apparently back with a vengeance. “Sure. The floor is yours.”

“Okay. First of all, yes I fully realize what I did was a crappy way to deal with what was going on in my life. Looking back there are a ton of other routes I could have taken, ones that wouldn’t have hurt anyone. But I was way too cowardly to try any of them. I admit it, I was scared. The whole bottom had fallen out of my life and I didn’t know what to do. So I left. I took the easy way out.

“Am I proud of that? No. But would I do it again? Hell yes. It turned out to be the right decision for me and I’m sorry if your and Mom thoughts on it didn’t get factored into the decision making process. You didn’t give my feelings a lot of thought when you moved to Pittsburgh so we’ll call it even and move on.”

Liz looked up at that last statement, seemed as if she was about to say something and thought better of it.

“As for Dad. Yes I told him what I was going to do and I swore him to secrecy because he and I both knew Mom would stop me from going if she found out. Dad understood why I was leaving, more than anyone else so he kept my secret. If I would have known it was going to cause that much friction between him and Mom I probably wouldn’t have told him and I feel terrible about it.”

Diego turned and looked out the window, his voice quivering as he spoke.

“And the worst part is that now I can never say I’m sorry for the pain I may have caused him and thank him for doing what he did. And that’s something I’ll have to live with.”

Liz had put her burger down and focused all her attention on her brother. She felt like she should reach out and hold his hand, try to comfort him but couldn’t bring herself to do it.

After a moment Diego continued. “Look, I know you pretty well, or at least I used to and I realize you may never forgive me. And if that’s part of the price I have to pay for what I did, so be it. The last four years have given me a whole new perspective and I wouldn’t trade them for anything.”

Liz picked up her burger again but paused before she took another bite. “I didn’t say I would never forgive you.”

Diego could feel the beginnings of a smile forming on his face.

“It won’t happen overnight and I’m still pretty pissed. And it’s going to take a while for me to trust anything that comes out of your mouth again. But …”

“We’re going to be okay?”

Liz sighed heavily. “Yeah.”

“Good. You know, I was in Pittsburgh once. About a year after I left.”

Liz had a french fry halfway to her mouth as she stopped and looked at her brother. “Seriously?”

“Yep.”

“Why didn’t you stop by the house and say hello?”

“I almost did. I actually stood in your driveway for a good five minutes before I turned around and left.”

“Are you kidding me?”

“Nope. I just couldn’t bring myself to knock on the door.”

“Why not?”

“I was scared. Of how you’d react. Of what you’d say to me. Of how disappointed you were in me. Before I left I had made some pretty bad decisions. Things I’m not really proud of that hurt people I care about. I wasn’t ready to hear your opinions on all of that just yet.”

Liz looked her brother square in the eye. “Are you ready now? Because I have some thoughts I could share with you.”

Diego rolled his eyes. “Maybe later. Once we get through the funeral and I deal with Mom.”

“Oh right. The funeral.”

For the briefest of moments the two had forgotten the reason for Diego’s return home. The weight of it came crashing back down on both of them with a suddenness neither was expecting.

“Did Dad ever talk about me to you?”

Liz seemed surprised by Diego’s question. “Of course he did. Whenever I would come home to visit and Mom and I would start talking crap about you Dad would always come to your defense. Say how you needed some time away, that you deserved a chance to ‘find yourself’ as he always put it.”

Diego smiled. “When I told Dad about my plans, he didn’t judge or give me a hard time. He asked me why and if I was sure I wanted to do it this way and when I said yes, he just nodded his head in that way he always did and said ‘Okay then.’ It’s why when I realized I needed to tell someone I was leaving, I chose him.”

Liz looked down at her empty plate, using her fork to push around the handful of fries that were left.

“I’m really going to miss him.”

“Me too.”

A few moments later the waitress came with their check and asked if they needed anything else. When they both said no, she gathered up their empty plates and walked away.

As Liz reached over and grabbed the check, she said “So I’m assuming you don’t have any money on you and our late lunch is on me?”

Diego gave her a hurt expression as he reached into his back pocket for his wallet. “How dare you. I always pay my own way. I’ve been doing it for four years now and I’m perfectly capable of …”

He looked down at his open wallet, then up at his sister. “Actually, I spent all my cash on the train ticket to get here and I haven’t had a chance to hit an ATM yet. So yeah, lunch is on you. Consider it my welcome back gift.”

“Typical.”

The two got up from their booth and headed towards the front of the diner. Liz paid the bill and they walked outside into the cool afternoon air. The leaves were already beginning to change and a handful crunched under their feet as they walked through the parking lot toward the SUV.

“You ready to have a very difficult conversation with Mom?”

“As ready as I’ll ever be. I might as well get it over with.”

Chapter 1.1

Darren “Diego” Murdock leaned his head against the cool glass of the window of the Septa Regional Rail train as it left Temple University Station. It was just after two in the afternoon on a Tuesday and the train was almost empty except for a handful of people. There was a young couple up towards the front of the car Diego was sitting in, laughing at pictures on their phones while a trio of teenagers, all with earbuds in, sat a few seats behind him, listening to music.

Diego got on the train at 30th Street Station after having ridden on Amtrak all the way from Portland, Oregon. He had his few possessions crammed into a duffel bag that sat on the overhead rack and a small grey Eastsport backpack on the seat next to him. His phone was almost dead and with no way to charge it, Diego decided that just staring out the window was probably the best use of his time.

The late day sun streamed in through the dirty windows and the sound the rail cars made as they passed over the tracks was almost hypnotic. Diego always found that sound comforting. It was one of his favorite parts of going into Philadelphia when he was a teenager, heading down to South Street or to a comic book convention. Even all these years later he still found the sound of the train riding on the tracks relaxing and welcomed it.

Diego was average height at just under six feet and while he used to be considered heavy (or “beefy” as a old friend used to called him) the extra pounds had come off when he began traveling back and forth across the country. Trying to save money while on the road meant living cheap, and food was considered a luxury sometimes. As a result he was lean and muscular, but would still be thought of as stocky.

His hair, which used to be as red as Ron Weasley’s from the Harry Potter movies, was cut short and has a lot more grey in it than Diego would care to admit. His beard, which was full and unkept, was a mixture of the two, like the red and grey were fighting for supremacy. The red was still winning for now, but who knew how long that would last?

He used his index finger to push his glasses up on his face, a habit Diego had developed shortly after he started wearing them in the seventh grade. Contacts always freaked him out so he never bothered with them and he wasn’t considered a good candidate for laser eye surgery, so his glasses had quickly become an extension of himself. Without them he would have been lost, like he was missing an arm.

“Wayne Junction. Wayne Junction coming up.” the voice of the train conductor said over the speakers. Diego knew from past experience he had a while to go before they arrived at the station in Hatboro, which was his destination, so he leaned into his seat and tried to get comfortable.

Hatboro. God, had it really been almost four years since he had last laid eyes on the town where he grew up? It didn’t feel that long ago that he was hanging out with his childhood friend John at the local mall or riding his bike up and down York Road, Hatboro’s version of Main Street, USA. How many hours had he spent in that McDonald’s in the middle of town? Or Burdick’s, the small news stand where he bought his first comic books?

As Diego got older, it always seemed like he had the best of both worlds. If he wanted to head into the city, Philadelphia was a hour or so train ride away. Or he could hang out in his very own small town and not have to worry about all the issues that came with being in a big city.

When Diego first started attending classes at the Art Institute in Philadelphia after graduating high school, commuting back and forth seemed exciting and new. That lasted all of a month before the constant sitting at the station waiting on trains, the expense of rail passes and the big crowds just got to be too much. His parents weren’t happy when he announced he was going to move into the city, but they understood the logic of Diego’s decision.

Once he had moved, it seemed like Diego went back to Hatboro less and less as time went on. Before he knew it, it was just holidays and birthdays that brought him back to his parent’s house. After a few years, he didn’t even consider it “home” anymore. Philadelphia was.

And now, after four years away, he didn’t think of Philly as home either. If he was being honest with himself, Diego really didn’t have any clue where “home” was anymore. While some people would find that disquieting or even scary, Diego found it … exhilarating.

A few people got on the trail at Wayne Junction, one sitting a few rows in front of Diego. She was an older woman, blonde and heavy set, carrying a couple shopping bags and and what looked like a late lunch from Burger King. She smiled at Diego as she got settled in her seat, put her Bluetooth earbuds in and began eating.

Diego smiled to himself. One of his favorite parts of traveling was making up stories to fit the people he would run into on trains and buses. Had this woman been in the city shopping all day, spending the money of her hedge fund managing ex-husband? Or maybe she was birthday shopping for one of her children, the only place she could find the right gift on Walnut Street in Center City? Or maybe she was one of those social media influencers and she had to go into the city to pick up her free swag to splash all over her Instagram page?

The possibilities were endless, which was what made the game so much fun.

Diego closed his eyes and tried to relax. He did his best to let the motion of the train and the sounds of the wheels underneath the car calm and center his psyche. He really wasn’t looking forward to what was coming over the next few days, but it was unfortunately unavoidable.

***

“Hatboro. Hatboro station next.”

The announcement jolted Diego out of his state of semi-sleep. It didn’t surprise him that he had almost fallen asleep since he had gotten no real sleep since he left Portland. Usually he had no issue sleeping on trains but his mind kept drifting back to the call he had received from his sister. It had shaken him deeply and was the reason for his sudden and unplanned trip back to Pennsylvania.

That moment played back in his mind with a clarity like he was watching it on YouTube. Diego had just gotten back to the apartment he was living in with a couple of friends when his phone went off. He looked down and was shocked to see it was his older sister Liz who was calling. They hadn’t spoken in years and Diego couldn’t think of a reason she would be calling now.

He nervously hit accept and answered. “Hello?”

There was a slight pause before he heard the distinct, deep voice of his sister on the other end.

“Hi Diego.”

“Liz? Is that you?”

Another slight pause followed by a sigh. “Yeah, it’s me.”

“Jesus it’s been so long. How are you?”

“Not great. Diego, I need to tell you something.”

“Um, okay. What’s up?”

Liz sounded as if she was chocking back a sob before she spoke.

“Dad died Diego.”

Diego stopped and stared straight ahead, not really sure he understood what Liz was saying.

“What do you mean he died?”

“What the fuck do you think I mean Diego? He’s gone.”

Diego took a deep shuddering breath and exhaled. This couldn’t really be happening.

“What happened?”

Another pause. “Dad had a massive heart attack last week. He’s been in the hospital since Wednesday and the doctors thought they had things under control. But then he had another one this morning and … and he didn’t make it.”

Hundreds of thoughts raced through Diego’s mind all at once. Why the hell hadn’t Liz called him last week? Did his Dad suffer? Did he think of Diego before he died? Did his father know that he loved him? How was Mom?

Diego felt tears begin to fall down his cheeks and he suddenly couldn’t catch his breath as the news of what had happened began to sink in and feel painfully real.

His father was gone and Diego didn’t get a chance to say goodbye.

“Um … okay. I’ll be on the first train heading east I can find. Tell Mom I love her and I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

Diego’s sister Liz was never what most people would consider a warm person, but her response was filled with more ice than he had heard from her in a long time.

“Right. I guess I’ll see you soon.”

Liz ended the call before Diego could say anything more.

After that Diego quickly packed his things with trembling hands, went straight to the Amtrak station and got a ticket heading toward Philadelphia. Luckily he was able to find one that went straight through without having to change trains and with minimal stops.

All this played through Diego’s mind for the umpteenth time as he reached up and got his red duffel bag from the overhead rack. The bag had a lot of miles on it and had been back and forth across the country more times than he could count. It was as much a part of him anymore as his glasses.

It was now almost three and the parking lot at the Hatboro Septa station was overflowing with cars. Diego had forgotten just how many people commuted into the city for work during the week. In an hour of so the trains would be packed to bursting with workers heading home for the day, only for them to do it all over again tomorrow and the day after that.

Diego shuddered at the thought of living that life.

He didn’t see his sister anywhere, so Diego sent her a quick text letting her know he was at the station. Liz had said she would pick him up but the exact time of his arrival had been nebulous at best so he fully expected to have to wait. Fortunately their parent’s house wasn’t that far. In fact, Diego could have probably walked there if he had to.

His phone buzzed and he looked at it. The text simply read “On my way.”

So Diego pulled up a piece of curb and waited, his backpack and duffel bag on the asphalt in front of him.

About 15 minutes later a dark blue SUV pulled up. It stopped a few feet away from Diego and as he got up off the curb he heard the driver side door open and close on the other side of the car. A second later, Diego’s sister Liz was standing in front of him, arms folded as she walked toward him.

Elizabeth “Liz” Murdock was three years older than Diego but most people couldn’t tell. The two were practically mirror images of each other. Same height, same features, same mannerisms. Both wore glasses and both had red hair, though Liz wore hers long and straight and had no grey thanks to the wonders of modern hair coloring. She was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, which was her normal attire almost every time Diego saw his sister, though he did notice that she had put on a few pounds and her eyes seemed tired, which was odd for Liz.

Growing up they had been close, but once Liz moved away to college and then to Pittsburgh for a job that closeness seemed to fade. Even the birth of the twins Maxwell and David couldn’t bridge the gap that had seemed to grow between them.

It suddenly dawned on Diego that he hadn’t seen his nephews in four years. They had to be what, six by now? It was hard for him to picture his sister as a mother of twin six-year old boys. He wondered if they were at their mother’s house and if they would even remember their Uncle?

“Hi.” Diego said as he walked up to his sister.

“Hey.” Liz replied as the two embraced in a brief hug.

“How’s Mom?”

“She’s doing about as good as can be expected. She was asking about you and I told her you were on your way, that you’d be here soon.”

“Where’s Eric and the kids?” Eric, Liz’s husband, was a loud, gregarious guy who loved his wife and children and tolerated the rest of the world. The two had been together for years though they had never officially married, even when the twins were born.

“They’re home in Pittsburgh. I figured there was no sense dragging them all out here until the funeral this weekend. The boys still have school and Eric has clients he needs to take care of.”

Eric was a partner in a highly respected architecture firm and made enough money so that his family wanted for nothing. He worked long hours but it enabled Liz to be a stay-at-home mom and take care of her family, which is what she wanted.

“Oh.” Diego wasn’t exactly sure what to say.

Liz walked over to where Diego’s bags were still sitting on the ground and picked up his backpack. Diego grabbed the duffel and they threw them into the back of the SUV. Liz walked around to the driver side and got in while Diego climbed into the passenger seat.

The SUV was practically new and had every bell and whistle imaginable. Diego was looking around as he asked his sister “This yours? Or a rental?”

“It’s mine. I drove in as soon as I heard about Dad. Flying would have taken too long and would have been ridiculously expensive.”

Diego chucked at hearing that.

“What’s so funny?”

“Still cheap as hell I see.”

Liz gave him a disapproving look and started the truck. “I don’t consider it being cheap. I consider it trying to be smart with my money. I have two boys to put through college someday.”

“You realize your … “ Diego was trying to think of what to call Eric since they weren’t married.

“Husband?”

“But Eric’s not really your husband in the legal sense and boyfriend seems silly at this point. Father of your children? Your main squeeze? What do you put down on legal forms?”

“Actually Eric and I made it legal last year.”

Diego’s jaw just about hit the floor of the SUV as Liz pulled out of the train station.

“You two got married? All official like?”

Liz smiled. “Yeah. We figured it was long overdue. Plus Eric had to fill out some life insurance forms for work and we realized it would make things a hell of a lot easier if we just pulled the trigger and got married for real.”

“Wow. Was Mom and Dad there?”

“Yeah. We just did a small thing with a Justice of the Peace. A few friends, Eric’s parents and brother. Kept it simple. After all this time a big wedding seemed like a waste of time and money.”

“So that means your name is Elizabeth Bowman now.”

“Murdock-Bowman. I decided to hyphenate.”

“Why?”

“Why not?”

Diego thought about it a moment. “Good point.”

After a moment of trying to wrap his head around this new piece of information, Diego said “I wish I would have known. I would have liked to be there to see my big sis tie the knot.”

“I would have liked that too.”

Diego looked over at Liz and briefly saw the hurt in her eyes before it disappeared just as quickly. He knew coming home after all this time was going to be tough, but this was already proving to be more than he bargained for.

“Look, Liz …”

“Hey, you hungry?” Liz said as she obviously tried to change the subject. “I just got Mom down for a nap and I really don’t want to wake her up until she’s gotten some rest. I haven’t had anything to eat all day and I’m famished.”

Diego looked down at the floor and said “Yeah, I could eat. Where do you want to go? I haven’t been here in so long I don’t even know what’s still open anymore.”

“The Palace is still around.”

“Holy shit. Your’e kidding.”

“Nope. I took the kids for breakfast last time we came east to visit Mom and Dad and they seemed less than impressed. They didn’t find it nearly as charming or exciting as you and I did. I think some of the same waitresses still work there from when we were little.”

“Okay. The Palace it is.”

Liz had a smile on her face as she pulled out of the Hatboro Septa station and made a right.