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.
“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.
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.
“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.
“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.”
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.