Chapter 2.4

Diego woke the next morning to find that his head was throbbing and his mouth felt like someone had filled it with sandpaper. He didn’t think he had drank that much at Harrigan’s the night before so the hangover that was attacking his brain came as a surprise.

He grabbed his phone off the nightstand to see that it was already after nine in the morning. From the sounds coming from downstairs it seemed like everyone was getting ready to head to Edward’s funeral mass at the church. Deciding he really didn’t feel like dealing with any of that right now, Diego laid back down in his bed and pulled the quilt over his head.

His reprieve was short lived as a few minutes later her heard someone knocking at his bedroom door. Without emerging from the warmth of the quilt, he simply said “Yes?”

Diego heard the door open and his mother’s voice from the doorway. “We’re getting ready to leave. Are you sure you don’t want to join us?”

“No Mom. I’m good. I said my goodbyes to Dad yesterday. I really don’t think I can do that all over again.”

“Okay. But you will be at the luncheon at Bernie’s this afternoon, correct?”

“Yep. You said it’s at eleven-thirty, right?”

“Yes. And wear something nice. Most of the family hasn’t seen you in years. I don’t want them thinking you’re some kind of hobo or something.”

Diego threw the covers off of his head. “Hobo? Seriously?”

“Just be presentable. We’ll see you there.”

“Yes Mom.” Diego said and then burrowed himself back under the quilt.

Unfortunately going back to sleep quickly proved impossible. After twenty minutes of starring at the ceiling Diego dragged himself out of bed and figured he might as well get his day started. One long hot shower, a cheese omelet and two aspirin later Diego almost felt human again.

He headed back upstairs to find the other set of clothes he had purchased earlier in the week. The ones for the luncheon his mother insisted he go to despite Diego not really having any desire to have to deal with his extended family.

It wasn’t that he didn’t like them or had any specific issue with any of them. It was simply that Diego didn’t feel like he really knew any of them anymore and that none of them had a clue about him. It would make for hours of awkward conversations and having to tiptoe around the reason he had disappeared four years ago. Which, thanks to his Aunt Donna telling anyone who would listen, had become quite the family scandal. It was inevitable that it would come up over and over again.

Thankfully, the real reason he had vanished was only known to a small handful of people. His parents, Liz, possibly Eric as well as Trevor and Nikki.

And of course Roxanne.

Just the thought of her name made Diego’s breathing become more rapid and an ache to suddenly manifest itself in his stomach. Ever since their breakup he hadn’t been able to even think about her without feeling overwhelmed with guilt and a sense of loss. Even after five years it still hurt just as much as it did the day she had told him she never wanted to see him again. He could swear sometimes he still felt the sting on his cheek from where she had slapped him.

Diego’s eyes wandered over to the stack of boxes on top of his desk and fixed on the one labeled “Roxanne.” He knew this was a bad idea, that he was going through enough right now and that he didn’t need to reopen these old wounds. However, that didn’t stop him from walking over, picking it up and placing the box on his bed.

He carefully opened it and the first thing that hit him was the faint scent of her favorite perfume. He closed his eyes for a moment and let the smell of honeysuckle wash over him, memories coming unbidden into his mind. That smell was the first thing Diego noticed about her when they met all those years ago. How it seemed to permeate everything he owned after they had been dating a few months. How much it hurt the first time he smelled it after they had split up.

He opened his eyes and looked down into the box. There wasn’t really much in it, but it dawned on Diego that what was there meant more to him than he remembered.

There was the napkin that Roxanne had written her phone number on the night they met. She was working at a big chain bookstore at the time and had grabbed the napkin from the cafe when Diego asked for her number. There was the lanyard from the first anime convention they had gone to together in Philadelphia. An umbrella they had huddled underneath and kissed when they were caught in a storm while on South Street. A handful of Valentine’s Day and birthday cards as well as a copy of Love, Actually, their favorite movie to watch together.

The last item Diego removed was a small blue ring box. He had completely forgotten it was even in there until he had seen in, hiding underneath a handful of papers. He opened it and saw that the ring was still there, the small diamond gleaming as it caught the sunlight coming in through the window. He had bought it shortly after the fourth anniversary of their first date. Diego had had no plans to propose right away but had seen the ring and knew it was perfect for Roxanne. He knew he was going ask her to marry him someday so it had made perfect sense to him to buy the ring and put it someplace safe.

A little over a year later it would all be over.

Diego sat on the edge of the bed and looked down at the ring. The same questions he had been asking himself for the past five years ran through his mind once again. Why had he done it? Why had he cheated on Roxanne? And not just some random one-night stand but for months. For months he had carried on with another woman despite being in love with Roxanne. It just didn’t make any sense.

He didn’t have an answer while it was happening and he couldn’t answer Roxanne when she asked him the night it all came out and she broke it off. Diego could still see the look on her face when he couldn’t give her a reason for why he had done it. The hurt and anger and disappointment making him feel so small and worthless.

He knew not being able to answer those questions is a huge part of why he wanted to just disappear. To start over again and not have to confront what he had done. Sure, it was a coward’s way out but Diego had never professed to be the courageous type. So that’s exactly what he did six months after they broke up.

The only problem was that is didn’t work out they way Diego wanted. The questions and feelings followed him no matter where he went. He could put it on the back burner for a while and focus on other things, but it was always there, not far from the front of his mind. He found he was unable to have any kind of relationship, that as soon as things started to get serious he would pack his things and be on the first bus out of town, afraid that he would screw things up again.

Diego suddenly realized running away wasn’t going to work. That even if he left again and went to Vegas the emotional wreckage of his relationship with Roxanne would follow him.

Diego knew what he had to do. He had to fix this. Somehow, someway, he had to fix this.

He had to fix himself.

Diego quickly got dressed and ordered an Uber to go to the luncheon. He had to talk to his mother and it couldn’t wait.

***

Bernie’s Restaurant and Bar, located in the middle of Hatboro’s downtown, had only been open a few years but had already become a favorite of the locals and folks who were looking for a more upscale place to have a drink. Diego’s mother loved the place and had eaten there with Edward numerous times since it opened in the spring of 2017.

Diego got there about ten minutes before the luncheon was supposed to begin. The hostess, a young Black girl who offered her condolences for his loss, showed him to the large room that Judy had reserved for the luncheon. All the tables were perfectly set and each had a centerpiece of flowers that also included a picture of his father. The large windows to the street allowed the sun to shine in and filled the room with a nice sense of warmth.

Diego sat but didn’t have to wait long for people to start to arrive. Within minutes family members he hadn’t seen in years walked into the large room and were invariably surprised to see him. He was greeted with enthusiastic hugs and handshakes as he did his best to try and remember who was who.

All the while he kept an eye out for his mother. After what felt like an eternity Judy finally walked into the room flanked by Liz and Eric with their boys each holding one of their grandmother’s hands. As she began to make her way around the room she noticed Diego and gave him a small smile as she mouthed the words “Thank you.”

It had been forever since this much of Diego’s family was in the same room together so it was a good half hour before anyone began to sit and the wait staff could start bringing food and drinks out. Even as that was going on the conversations continued, with aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews and assorted spouses all talking over one another, trying to catch up on the latest family drama. Which, for most of them, was Diego.

It seemed to Diego that every person in the room was bound and determined to ask him what he had been doing for the past few years and why he had vanished like he did. The first question was easy enough to answer and he quickly discovered that “I needed to find myself.” was a satisfactory response to the second question that avoided having to go into any real detail.

Diego made his way to his table, which included all of his family as well as his father’s sister Carol and her husband Robert. Their two children sat with the rest of the cousins and nephews at a separate table that was proving to be the noisiest in the room.

Once the main course was served, which was either a chicken marsala or salmon vera cruz, and everyone started to eat, Diego leaned over to his mother. He said “I need to talk to you. Can we go outside for a few minutes?” Judy gave him a concerned look and said “Right this minute?” Diego nodded his head yes and she wiped her mouth with her napkin and got up, telling Liz she would be back as soon as she could.

The two made their way to the large bar that took up most of the main area of the restaurant. At this time of the day there were only a few people there, drinking and watching sports on the many televisions that hung above the bar. Once there Judy ordered a Manhattan and asked if Diego wanted anything.

“A Manhattan? This early on a Friday?”

“I just said goodbye to my husband of almost 40 years Darren. Allow me this one indulgence.” Judy replied tensely.

Diego looked down at the bar. “No problem Mom. Sorry.”

Judy sighed. “No, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to snap at you. It’s just been a difficult week and if I could I would have a drink in my hand from the moment I wake up until I put my head on my pillow at night.”

“It’s fine Mom. Difficult doesn’t begin to explain what this week has been like.”

Once Judy had her Manhattan and Diego a Coors Light, Judy raised her glass and said “To your father.”

“To Dad.”

The two drank, Judy finishing half her drink in one gulp. She ordered another and looked at her son. “So Darren. What did you want to talk about that couldn’t wait until we finished lunch?”

Diego took another drink from his beer. “I wanted to know if you would mind if I stuck around for a while. Lived at home.”

Judy looked at her son, his face full of questions. “I would have thought you would want to get back on the road as soon as possible. Your sister said something about Las Vegas and living in a van?”

Diego couldn’t help but laugh. Of course Liz would say something to their mother about his original van life plans. Why wouldn’t she?

“Yeah, well that was before Dad died. Before I came home and had to confront a lot of the reasons I left in the first place and how I still don’t quite understand how it got to that point.”

“It got to that point Darren because you had an affair and hurt your girlfriend. Then she told you she didn’t want to see you ever again. That should be obvious even to you.”

“Yeah but why did I do it Mom? Why did I hurt Roxanne? I still don’t have a good answer for that and before I move on with my life I need to figure it out. And the best place to do that is here. At home.

“I don’t regret leaving. Not a bit. The last four years opened my eyes to a lot of things. It showed me a much bigger world and that there are a lot of different people in it. But it also showed me that running away from your problems won’t make them magically disappear. You need to confront them head on. So before I move to Vegas or Alaska or anywhere else, I need to find answers. And I wanted to know if you had a problem with me living at home for a bit while I try to find them.

“Maybe Dad dying was his way of telling me to finally get my shit together. So that I could realize that I need to fix myself before I can move on. And he brought me home so I can do just that.”

Judy took a sip from her drink, starring out the window at the traffic speeding by the restaurant. She didn’t speak for a few minutes and Diego was afraid that she was going to say no.

Without looking at her son, Judy said “If you’re going to be living at home again, there are going to be a few conditions. You are going to get a job of some kind and pay rent. I don’t run a rooming house for vagrants.”

“Vagrants?”

“Second,” she said, ignoring him. “I do not want you bringing any overnight guests to the house. I won’t have you doing … that under my roof.”

“Okay. And eww.”

“And finally, you and I will sit and have dinner together every Sunday. No exceptions.”

“Seriously?”

Judy looked at Diego. “I know what you and Elizabeth think of me. I’m not stupid. Your father was the fun and carefree parent while I was the disciplinarian. The cold, heartless killjoy that you and your sister were afraid to open up to and share your lives with because you were scared of being judged. That always hurt but I understood. It was how I was raised and I figured as long as your father was there, it would be all right.

“But your father is gone now. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to watch you disappear again and not tell me. Not feel like you can come to me and talk about what’s going on and what you’re feeling. So you and I will have dinner once a week and talk. And who knows. Maybe I can help you with some of those questions you need answers to.”

Diego took a drink. “Okay, but I get to move into the basement. If you and I are going to be opening up to each other,” Diego paused and rolled his eyes, “then I’m going to need some kind of privacy.”

Judy smiled. “Fine.”

“Fine.”

They both looked down at the bar. Diego grabbed his mother’s hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. “Thanks Mom.” he said quietly.

“You’re most welcome.”

As if on cue, Liz came walking up to the bar, an exasperated look on her face. “What the hell are you two doing? Everyone is asking where you are and Aunt Donna is already half drunk. She wants to start doing karaoke.”

“Did you explain to my sister that they don’t do karaoke here?”

Liz threw her hands in the air. “Yes! She said she’d just use her phone for the music.”

“Oh dear. I guess we’d better get back.”

As Judy walked back toward the luncheon, Liz grabbed her brother’s arm and held him back for a second. “What was that all about?”

“I’m going to be sticking around for a bit. Moving back home while I try to figure some things out.”

“And that couldn’t wait until later?”

“You sound just like Mom.”

“Take that back you son of a bitch!”

Chapter 2.3

A few minutes later Liz pulled the Mustang into the driveway and then the garage. It was almost 9:30 and while Diego was exhausted, he knew that he wasn’t going to be able to relax, to say nothing of actually getting some sleep. Too much was racing through his mind after seeing Trevor again and all the emotions that it had stirred up within him.

Liz and Judy had both gotten out of the car and were waiting for Diego, who was still sitting in the backseat, idly flipping the Zippo open and closed.

Finally Liz looked at her brother and pointed toward the house, saying “Are you coming? Or do you plan to sleep in the garage?”

Without looking at them, Diego said “Do you guys mind if I go out for a while?”

Judy stepped toward the Mustang. “Out where?”

“Just out. Maybe to grab a beer or something. I need to clear my head and I won’t be able to do it in the house.”

Diego watched as his mother narrowed her eyes and looked at him, obviously worried about his state of mind after the viewing.

“You’re an adult Darren. You can do whatever you choose. All I ask is that you be careful.”

Diego climbed out of the back of the Mustang and gave his mother a kiss on the cheek. “Thanks Mom. I won’t be late. I’ll just wait out here for an Uber.”

“Don’t bother. I’ll go with you.”

Judy and Diego looked at Liz, surprised expressions on both their faces.

“I need to get out too. That viewing took a lot out of me. Seeing Dad like that, knowing he wasn’t going to be getting up. Knowing tomorrow will be the last time I’ll ever get to see him. I could use a drink too. You mind if I tag along?”

Diego smiled and spread his hands. “Sure thing. The more the merrier.”

“Thanks. Let me just go inside and check on the boys. Maybe I’ll see if Eric wants to come too.”

As Liz went into the house, Judy hugged Diego and told him once again to be careful. When he was alone, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes, lighting one as he waited for his sister. He was still trying to wrap his head around the fact the Zippo was his now. It felt … right. Like it belonged in his hand. He rubbed his thumb on the inscription and thanked his father.

After about twenty minutes Liz walked out of the house, the keys jangling from her hand. She had changed into a pair of jeans and a Philadelphia Flyers sweatshirt and threw Diego a t-shirt as she got into the Mustang. “Eric was still exhausted from the trip here. The kids were asleep and he was engrossed in some show with guys in tights so I don’t even know if he realized I left.”

Diego laughed as he changed into the t-shirt. “So where do you want to go?”

“I don’t care. I just need a drink.”

“Harrigan’s is right around the corner. That work for you?”

“Sure. I haven’t been there in years.”

Diego jumped into the passenger seat and smiled as Liz revved the engine and once again pulled out of the driveway, making a right on Home Road.

***

Harrigan’s Pub was located on County Line Road at the end of a small strip mall, less than a ten minute drive from where Liz and Diego grew up. Among the people that frequented it, Harrigan’s was known as a dive bar that was always trying really hard not to be considered a dive bar. First it attempted to be a sports bar, then it became a traditional Irish pub and currently it was trying to bum a ride on the wave of popularity that small microbreweries were enjoying.

However, despite all the effort Harrigan’s was, and always will be, simply a neighborhood tavern where you could get a shot, a beer and a decent meal. And the patrons wouldn’t have it any other way. It was the place that Diego and Liz would go whenever they were home and needed a break from their parents. It was where they went on Thanksgiving Eve and St. Patrick’s Day and even occasionally Christmas Day to hang out with old friends.

Over the years their father had become something of a regular, going there to watch Flyers games or just to get out of the house for a few hours. It was one of the only bars that still allowed people to smoke inside and while Judy had gone with him numerous times, she never quite understood the allure of the place. She was quite happy to let Edward go there, smoke his foul cigarettes and watch hockey.

Diego noticed that the parking lot was mostly empty, which wasn’t that surprising on a Thursday night. Most people had to work the next day and it was close to ten by the time they parked the car and walked inside.

The bar itself sat in the middle of the roughly rectangular room with stools on all four sides. The one wall included a handful of booths while the other had a shuffleboard table and an old ice machine that had honestly seen better days. The rear had a small stage and dance area as well as a pair of pool tables. Diego noticed that the old jukebox had been replaced with one of those new digital ones where you could play songs from your phone. The smell of stale cigarette smoke and spilled beer seemed to be a permanent feature.

“God. Other than the jukebox and the fancy new beers, this place is the same as the last time I was here.” Liz said as they grabbed a couple of stools near the end of the bar.

“I wouldn’t know. Last time I was in here they were going through their Irish phase.”

“It’s been that long?”

“I think I was in here with Dad a couple months before I left. He knew we could come here and talk about my plans and not have to worry about Mom.”

“Yeah. Mom was never a real fan of this place. She never understood why Dad came here.”

“Which suited Dad fine.”

They were both still laughing as the bartender, a skinny blonde with a tank top and jeans, came over to see what they wanted. Liz got a Blue Moon and after some thought Diego ordered a Coors Light. Once they had their drinks the bartender went back to the other end of the bar, where she was busily working through a large stack of scratch off lottery tickets.

“So I see you and Mom have patched things up.”

Diego took a drink from his beer. “Yeah, kind of. She’s still upset about what happened but I think she’s willing to try and understand why I went and did what I did.”

“Well at least that’s a start.”

“Yeah.”

“I also saw that Mom gave you Dad’s Zippo.”

Diego fished the lighter out of the pocket of his pants and held it out for Liz. She took it, opening and closing it several times.

“I was pretty shocked. I would have thought she would want to hold on to it, considering how much it meant to Dad.”

Liz handed the lighter back to Diego. “Mom was never the sentimental type. She’ll probably go through all of Dad’s clothes by the end of the weekend, have them all bagged up for charity.”

An awkward silence then fell as they sipped their drinks and listened to the music playing on the jukebox, which for some reason was a steady stream of Led Zepplin. Finally Liz turned to Diego, her expression resolute.

“Okay. I have like a thousand questions about your trip and what you’ve been doing the last four years. I’m not sure when the right time will be but I figure there’s no time like the present. That cool with you?”

Diego smiled. “Sure. Fire away.”

“First of all, where did you live? In a car or something?”

“Of course not. I reached out to people I had met online and so forth, friends who lived around the country. I couchsurfed a lot. I stayed in hostels, that kind of thing.”

“So what did you do for money?”

“While I was planning everything out I worked as much as I could and tried to save as much money as possible. Plus I sold a ton of my stuff and put all of it in the bank. By the time I left I had a pretty good sized nest egg. But when it started to run out, I worked.”

“What, like random jobs?”

“Yeah. Fast food places, supermarkets, that kind of thing.”

“Did you make any friends?”

Diego laughed. “Wow. You really do have a lot of questions.”

Liz smiled. “I’ve been thinking about this for years. You know, when I wasn’t pissed off and wanting to kick your ass for leaving.”

“Fair enough.”

Diego ordered another beer and lit a cigarette before answering Liz’s question. “I made a bunch of friends. Some really good friends as a matter of fact. There was this couple of van lifers I got to know in Arizona …”

Liz waved her hands in the air. “Wait. Wait. What the hell is a van lifer?”

“It’s just what it sounds like. It’s people who decide to live in a converted van instead of a regular home.”

“Why would anyone want to do that?”

“Think about it. You can go where ever you want. Because of the small space you don’t collect material things and instead collect experiences. Your expenses are minimal. It’s a great way to live.”

“Would you do it?”

“In a second. As I was saying, I met this couple in Arizona who were teaching me the basics of van life. What you need, how to convert a van, that kind of stuff. I was putting things in motion to set up somewhere for a while and save money to get started working on my own van when I got your call about Dad.”

“Where were you going to go?”

“Vegas.”

“As in Las Vegas?”

“Yep.”

Liz finished her Blue Moon and ordered another. “Why Vegas?”

“It was my favorite city I lived in. I stayed there for almost ten months living with a group of people I met in California. I got a job at Caesars busting tables at one of the restaurants. I was making decent money and could have even moved up if I wanted to. The best part is that the city never really shuts down. It’s just … on, twenty-four hours a day. There’s always something to do or somewhere to go. It’s an amazing place to live.”

“So are you going to go back there?”

Diego looked at his sister with a perplexed expression. “What do you mean?”

“I mean the funeral is tomorrow. Once that’s done there’s no reason for you to have to stick around. I’m going to stay for a few more days to help Mom go through Dad’s stuff and get organized but you, you can get back on the road if you want.”

“You trying to get rid of me?”

“No. I just mean you can get back to your life if you want to. That is what you want, isn’t it?”

“I … I don’t know.”

Diego began unconsciously peeling the label off his beer bottle as he looked down at the bar. “I thought that’s what I would want. But seeing Mom again, you, Trevor, it got me thinking a lot about what it cost me emotionally to travel like I have the last four years. How much I missed all of you and how much hurt I caused. Maybe I need to put some old ghosts to rest before I leave again.”

“It was good seeing Trevor again.”

Diego hesitated before he said almost under his breath “Yeah.”

“You realize if you stick around and reconnect with Trevor you’re going to be opening a can of worms the likes of which you may not be ready for, right?”

“You’re talking about Roxanne?”

“Of course I’m talking about Roxanne.”

Diego sighed heavily, lighting another cigarette and looking at the poster on the wall opposite from him instead of Liz. “I know. But she might not even live here anymore. I might be worried about nothing.”

“She still lives here.”

Diego looked at his sister, his stomach suddenly feeling like someone had punched him. “How do you know?”

“We’re friends on Facebook. I can tell you all about what she’s been doing since you broke her heart.”

Before he left, Diego had made the decision to delete all of his social media accounts. In the wake of his breakup with Roxanne he had deactivated most of them anyway because he didn’t want to have to see the ramifications from what he had done. Deleting them altogether when he left was a way to ensure he could leave the past in the rearview mirror and not be tempted to take a look.

“She still lives in Philly?”

“Uh-huh. In Fishtown. She’s a full-time writer now. Works for a couple different websites and has a pretty large following for her fan fiction.”

“Roxanne writes fan fiction?”

“Yep. Mostly anime stuff which does nothing for me personally. But her Harry Potter stories are amazing.”

“Does she … I mean is she …”

“Is she married?”

Diego swallowed, not sure which answer he wanted. “Yeah.”

“Divorced. Got married in 2017 but it only lasted a year. Since then I couldn’t tell you. It looks like she gave up on Facebook after that, hasn’t posted anything other than links to her work in a long while.”

Liz took a drink from her beer and glared at her brother. “You’re not thinking of getting in touch with her, are you?”

Diego shook his head after a moment. “No. No way. I’m the last person she would want to talk to.”

“Damn right. I mean, you cheated on her. For months. With that skank. You’re lucky she didn’t beat the shit out of you or something.”

“She wasn’t a skank.”

“Yes she was. You were just too dense to realize it.”

Diego let the comment go. All these years later and he was still just as confused and uncertain about why he had done what he did as he had been then.

“Anyway,” Liz continued. “if you start hanging out with Trevor again there’s a good chance at some point you’ll run into Roxanne. You prepared for that? Because it’s not going to be easy.”

“You think I should just run away again? Avoid the situation and go back to living on the road?”

Liz put her hand on Diego’s shoulder. “It sounds like you had a plan and some goals before Dad died and brought you back here. I just think it seems silly to throw all that away so you could possibly get hurt all over again. I understand you feel some weird need to make things right, but sometimes the best thing you can do is leave the situation alone.

“Look, I’d be thrilled if you decided to stay for a while. You and I don’t get a chance to hang out that much and since the kids are staying here with me after Eric goes home you can get to know your nephews again. But you need to do what is best for you. You always have in the past so why change now?”

Diego narrowed his eyes and stared at his sister. “That’s cold sis.”

“Truth hurts. Deal with it.”

Diego smiled as he ordered another round for the two of them. Once their beers arrived he hoisted his into the air. “A toast. To Edward Murdock. One hell of a father who will be greatly missed.”

“To Dad.”

The clinked their bottles together and drank deeply. Once they finished Diego paid the bill and the siblings walked out into the October air, which had grown chill since the viewing hours earlier.

“Thanks Liz. I needed that.”

“You’re welcome. Me too. I wish we could do that more often.”

They got into the Mustang and Liz started the engine, shattering the silence of the night.

“You realize Mom will be awake, waiting for us to walk in the door, right?”

“Um, yeah. This is Mom we’re talking about. Some things never change.”

“Thank God for that.”

Chapter 2.2

Later in the day Judy made dinner for everyone, but no one was really hungry except for the boys who scarfed down macaroni and cheese with gusto. Once the dishes were washed and put away, everyone started to get ready to go to Edward Murdock’s viewing.

Liz had told everyone over dinner that the twins would be staying home with Eric while the rest of the family went to the viewing. She and Eric had decided it was hard enough trying to explain all this to them so they could understand it and there was no reason for them to have to go to both the viewing and the funeral the next day.

Diego headed upstairs to get changed. He went down the hall, grabbed a quick shower and then put on the new clothes he had bought a few days earlier. Once he was dressed, he sat on the edge of the bed, unconsciously flipping his father’s Zippo open and closed, over and over.

“You okay?” His mother stood in the doorway of his room, wearing a black skirt and grey blouse, her hair pulled up into a bun.

“Yeah, I guess. I’m just not looking forward to this.”

“Believe me. No one is.”

“How about you? You holding up alright?”

Judy sighed heavily. “No Darren. No I’m not.”

Diego got up and went over to his mother, giving her a hug and then walked with her down the stairs to a waiting Liz.

“Are Aunt Donna and Aunt Catherine going to meet us there?”

“Yes. Your Aunt Carol will be there too. Liz, do you want to drive?”

“Sure Mom.”

The three of them headed into the garage to get into Liz’s SUV when Diego noticed Edward’s red Mustang sitting there, looking like it was eager to make an escape and hit the open road.

“Why don’t we take the Mustang to the viewing?” Diego heard the words come out of his mouth before he could stop himself.

“Excuse me?”

“C’mon Mom. Dad loved that car. It’s a beautiful fall night, why don’t we take her out and let her say goodbye to Dad too.”

Liz looked like she was about to tell Diego to shut his mouth when Judy surprised them both. “You’re right. Your father adored driving that car and used to tell me how much more he enjoyed it when I went with him. I remember how the smile would never leave his face when he was behind the wheel. I’ll go get the keys.”

A few minutes later Judy returned, the keys dangling from the chrome keychain Edward had purchased specifically for the keys to the car. She quietly handed them to a surprised Liz, patting her cheek as she did so.

“I know you love this car as much as your father did. If anyone should be driving it, it’s you.”

Once they had all climbed in, Liz turned the key and started the engine. It came to life with a deafening roar as she gave it some gas and the entire car rumbled with barely suppressed energy. Diego couldn’t help but notice the smile on Liz’s face as she pulled out of the driveway and made a left.

***

Ten minutes later they pulled into Schneider Funeral Home off York Road. There were no other cars in the parking lot so Diego assumed they were the first ones there. He had only been to a funeral home once before when the grandmother of a family friend had passed away when he was a teenager. When his father’s parents had died they simply had a funeral in a church and since his mother hadn’t spoken to her parents in decades the family didn’t go to either of their funerals.

As the three of them walked over to a side entrance, a tall man with a medium build and a black suit opened the door to greet them. He shook Judy’s hand as he said “Mrs. Murdock. Good to see you again. If you’ll follow me we can make sure everything is the way it should be before people start to arrive.”

He patted Liz on the shoulder and stuck out his hand at Diego. “You must be Darren.”

Diego noticed that his arm was covered in tattoos that ended just above the wrist as he shook his hand. “That’s me.”

“My name is Mr. Grayson. So sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you.” With that he closed the door behind Diego and followed him into the funeral home.

They were standing in a small lobby area with large bay windows that looked out at York Road beyond. Traffic streamed past, people on their way to where they needed to be with no idea that a family was getting ready to say goodbye to someone they dearly loved.

Mr. Grayson cleared his throat to get everyone’s attention and then walked through a large set of double doors into the reception room. To the right of the doors was a pair of large boards perched on easels that were covered with pictures of Diego’s father. Images from when he was a child growing up in New York to ones of him and Judy when they were dating. They chronicled Edward’s entire life including pictures of him an Liz at car shows and a group shot of the old Computer Club that must have been taken at The Palace.

Diego’s eye caught one picture in particular. It was a smaller one, tucked into the corner of one of the boards. He was sitting with his father, both of them with a cigarette dangling from their fingers on the steps of the deck in the back yard, deeply engrossed in conversation. Diego remembered when his mother had taken that picture. It was the day he had told his parents he was going to attend The Art Institute and become a graphic designer.

The sound of a soft sob broke Diego’s reverie as he turned and then saw his father.

When Diego first saw Edward Murdock, he could have sworn he was just sleeping. His father looked so peaceful, lying in the casket, his hands resting on his chest. To Diego’s eyes, he could have jumped up at any moment, screaming “Gotcha!” and they all would have had a great laugh over the whole thing.

Liz and his mother were standing next to the casket, tears in their eyes and Judy with her hand resting gently on Edward’s cheek. Liz looked over at Diego and motioned for him to come over, saying that he shouldn’t be scared or uncomfortable.

Diego hadn’t seen his father in four years but other than more grey hair at his temples Edward looked the same as the last time he had seen him. Short, with olive skin and a stocky build and a face that always seemed ready to break into a smile. His mother had dressed him in a grey suit and white shirt, which Diego had expected. What he wasn’t expecting was that Edward was wearing his favorite tie, one with little Starship Enterprises from Star Trek all over it.

Edward had been a huge fan of Star Trek in all its various incarnations. He would go and see all the movies, usually dragging Judy along despite her insistent protests. He and Diego used to sit and watch The Next Generation together and have long discussions about which season of Deep Space Nine was the best. Later the show had been a refuge when Diego’s life began to fall apart. He would come home and know he could just watch Star Trek with his father, not needing to explain why and escape reality for a few hours.

When Diego looked at the tie and then his mother, she shrugged her shoulders and said “He was such a fan of that stupid show. I didn’t get it but I thought he would appreciate the gesture.”

Diego smiled and said “I know he would Mom.”

Mr. Grayson them appeared and announced that people were starting to arrive if we were ready. Judy sighed and said that was fine. The three of them then moved just to the right of the casket and prepared themselves for what was to come.

***

The next few hours were a blur for Diego. It was an almost endless stream of people, each one of them wanting to hug or shake his hand and offering their condolences. He saw his aunts and uncles as well as some assorted cousins that had flown in. There were numerous people his father had worked with, few of which he recognized, in addition to people from the old Computer Club, some of whom Diego hadn’t seen in decades. The number of people who came to pay their respects truly surprised Diego and made him realize just how loved his father was.

He was listening to his sister have a discussion with a middle-aged man from their neighborhood when he heard someone say “Hey.” next to him.

He turned to see a man a couple years older than he was, with Hispanic features, short black hair, a hawkish nose and large green eyes. He stood about a half an inch shorter than Diego and had his hands folded in front of him, a small smile on his face.

“Oh my God. Trevor …”

Trevor Nazario had been Diego’s best friend since they had met at a comic shop in Philadelphia while Diego was in college. The two had discovered a mutual love of all things involving the X-Men and quickly became inseparable. The friends would attend comic book conventions together, stay up playing Call of Duty online until the sun rose and be first in line for every superhero movie that came out.

It had been almost five years since he had spoken to Trevor. They didn’t communicate at all the four years Diego was on the road and the year before that their relationship had been incredibly strained due to the situation Diego had put himself in. Seeing him now, at his father’s viewing, was almost too much.

Diego wordlessly embraced Trevor, tears streaming down his face.

The two men finally separated after what felt like forever and Diego just looked at him. “What are you doing here?”

“Your Mom called me when your father passed away. We still spoke every now and then even though you weren’t around. He always treated me like I was his own son so I wanted to come and pay my respects. I had no clue you were going to be here.”

“Yeah. I got into town on Tuesday. I’m staying with my Mom. Is Nikki with you? I mean, are you and Nikki still together?”

Nikki Genovese was Trevor’s longtime girlfriend and someone who relished making Diego’s life as difficult as possible. She was his own personal nemesis and Trevor loved nothing more than watching the two most important people in his life playfully tease and torment each other.

However, when things between Diego and Trevor became tense over that last year, what was once friendly joking became something more hurtful. It all came to a head just before Diego had left when he and Nikki had gotten into a heated argument where things were said that couldn’t be taken back easily. Diego had just assumed his friendship with Trevor was over since he would never ask his best friend to chose him over the woman he loved.

“Yeah, we’re still together. She decided to stay home since she didn’t really know your father all that well and has never been a huge fan of funerals.”

“Is she still mad at me?”

“I don’t think I would really call it anger anymore. Sure, she was thrilled when you up and disappeared but that didn’t last once she saw how upset it made me. Honestly we both just thought you were gone, that we’d never see you again and that was it. She’s moved on.”

Diego pushed his glasses up with his index finger. “What about you? Have you moved on?”

Trevor smiled. “Nah. You’re my best friend. I always hoped to see you again. For me, seeing you is probably the only good thing to come out of your father passing away.”

Diego gathered his friend in another embrace, saying into his ear “Yeah. My Dad always had a way of looking out for me even when I wasn’t expecting it.”

Trevor then walked over to Liz and Judy, hugging both and telling them how sorry he was for their loss and how much Edward meant to him. Once he had walked over to the casket and paid his respects, he headed over to Diego again.

“I can’t stay. I’ve got some things I need to take care of but we need to get together and talk. Soon.”

Diego nodded his head. “Definitely. And do me and favor and don’t tell Nikki I’m back in town? I’m not ready to deal with all of that just yet.”

Trevor said sure and told Diego to text him this weekend, maybe they could hang out like old times. Which sounded like just what the doctor ordered for Diego.

***

The viewing went on for another hour or so, with people getting up to speak about Edward and how much they would miss him. Some told funny stories and others lamented the fact he was gone, fighting back tears as they did.

Finally it was just Judy, Liz and Diego. Judy went up and gave Edward a light kiss on his forehead while Liz placed a picture of the two of them and the Mustang in the breast pocket of her father’s jacket, tears falling from her cheeks. When they looked at Diego he simply said “Could I be alone with Dad for a few minutes?”

Judy’s mouth formed a sad smile and she said “Of course. We’ll wait outside. Take all the time you need.”

Once they were gone, Diego stood next to his father’s casket, a hand on the sleeve of his jacket.

“Well Dad, I guess this is it. I’m sorry I didn’t get here in time to say a proper goodbye but you of all people probably understand why. Just so you know, Mom gave me your Zippo. I’ll take really good care of it, I promise.”

Diego felt a tear running down his cheek. “I’m really going to miss you Dad. Of all the people in my life, you were always there for me. You never questioned or asked why, you just offered to help any way you could. I really appreciated that and I wish I had told you that before now.

“I promise I’m going to try to make things right. No more dumb decisions or hurting people I care about. I don’t know what my future holds, but I’ll always take a part of you with me. And hopefully you can live out the dreams you put on hold for your family through me.

“Goodbye Dad. I love you.”

Diego turned and headed for the lobby, his hands in his pockets as he let the tears fall down his face. He stopped by the two large boards that had the pictures of his father’s life pinned to them and once again his eyes were drawn to the image of the two of them, sitting on on the steps of the deck.

He reached out and unpinned the picture from the board and placed it in the pocket of his shirt. Then he walked out of the funeral home to his waiting sister and mother and headed home.

Chapter 2.1

Diego gave up any pretense of being able to fall asleep at around five Thursday morning. He had been tossing and turning all night, filled with dread at the thought of what the dawn would bring. The day he would have to say a final goodbye to his father.

He got out of bed, put on his glasses and began to head downstairs. If he still knew his mother after all the time away, she would be in her kitchen. Wide awake and no doubt already making breakfast for Diego and his sister. On his way down the hall he peeked into the guest room, which used to be Liz’s bedroom, only to discover that it was empty, the bed not even slept in.

When he arrived downstairs he heard the sound of crying coming from the living room and saw Judy, face in her hands, sobbing uncontrollably. Liz was sitting next to her, her own face streaked with tears, arms wrapped around their mother.

Diego felt tears beginning to well up in his own eyes as he realized just how much his father’s death was affecting all of them.

Deciding it was best to leave the two of them alone, he went into the kitchen and figured he might as well make some breakfast for everyone. He looked in the freezer, found some hash browns and then grabbed the eggs and an onion from the refrigerator. He heaved his mother’s cast iron skillet onto the stove, added some oil and got the hash browns frying while he made a pot of coffee.

He had just finished whisking the eggs in a bowl and was adding some spices when he looked up and saw both his mother and sister standing by the island, eyes puffy and red. Their mouths were hanging open and a look of utter disbelief was on both their faces.

“What …” Judy stammered. “What are you doing?”

“Making some breakfast for everyone. I thought that would be obvious.”

“But when the hell did you learn how to cook?” Liz asked

“C’mon. You don’t think I lived on the road for all those years and ate fast food the whole time, did you? I had to teach myself how to cook. It was way too expensive otherwise.”

“Who taught you?”

“I taught myself. I watched a ton of Rachael Ray videos on YouTube and just kinda figured out the rest. It wasn’t that hard really.”

He walked over to the stove, flipped the hash browns and then poured in the eggs. “If you guys want toast with this you can put it in the toaster. This will be ready in a few minutes. I made coffee too.”

As his sister and mother looked at each other in stunned silence, Diego blanketed the hash browns and eggs with cheese and covered the skillet with a lid, letting the cheese melt. He then walked over to the coffee pot, poured himself a cup and began to put plates and silverware on the island.

After they had sat down, Diego grabbed a potholder, lifted the skillet and loaded up the three plates with breakfast. When he was done he sat down and began to eat, checking his email on his phone as he did. He was on his third forkful when he realized neither Judy nor Liz had taken a bite yet.

“What are you two waiting for, an engraved invitation?”

The two of them picked up their forks and began to eat, hesitantly at first but with increasing enthusiasm the more they ate, especially Liz who all but devoured the meal.

“Holy crap Diego. This is really good. I can’t believe you made this.”

“Believe it. I think there’s some more in the skillet if you want it.”

Liz looked at Judy, who motioned for Liz to help herself and then got up to refill her plate.

Judy glanced at her son as she said “This is really very good Darren. Better than good. I’m so glad to see that at least one of my children picked up the cooking gene from me.”

“Hey!” Liz said with a mouthful of eggs. “I can cook.”

“Yes dear. Just not well.”

“Wow Mom. That hurts.”

“Need I remind you of the Christmas Fiasco of 2016?”

“Mom, I swear to you the directions I got online said to cook the bird at 450 degrees for six hours.”

Judy visibly shuddered. “Thank goodness the market was still open. Pastrami sandwiches might not have been the most traditional holiday meal, but it was better than nothing.”

Diego was laughing out loud as he watched the exchange between the two of them. “I’m sorry I missed it.”

“If you had been there to see that turkey you wouldn’t be saying that. It was like the scene from that movie you two used to watch, Christmas Vacation.”

“Okay Mom, enough. We get it. I can’t cook.”

“I swear there was smoke billowing out of that poor bird when you took it out of the oven.”

“MOM!”

Judy smiled at her daughter as she patted her on the shoulder. “Thank you for making breakfast Darren.”

“No problem Mom. So, um, how are you holding up?”

Judy put down her fork and reached for her mug of coffee. “I take each moment as they come. This, right now, is a good moment. I’m with my children enjoying a pleasant meal. A few minutes from now, who can say?”

Diego nodded as he took a sip from his own mug, the one with the large Batman Symbol on the side. It was the one he had used constantly when he lived at home and had been surprised to find it still in the cabinet all these years later.

“If you don’t mind me asking Mom, but why are you having both a viewing and a funeral for Dad? We were never that religious so it seemed a bit odd.”

“The viewing is for the people who worked with your father and his friends, the ones who might not be able to come to a funeral on a Friday morning. This way everyone who wants to can pay their respects to your father.”

“Well, if it’s okay with you I’m going to skip the funeral tomorrow.”

Liz looked at her brother like he had just spit in her food and insulted her children. “What are you saying Diego? That going to Dad’s funeral would be too much for you? That you can’t be bothered?”

Diego glared at Liz, trying to keep himself from saying something hurtful. “No. It’s going to be hard enough for me to say goodbye to Dad tonight. At least you and Mom got some kind of closure with him, a chance to tell him how you feel. I didn’t get that opportunity. And that will eat at me for the rest of my life.

“I don’t want to have to feel like that twice. I don’t want to have to sit there and look at him and think about how much I’m going to miss him and never be able to tell him I love him ever again. I can’t do that two days in a row. It might kill me.”

Diego felt tears beginning to roll down his face and he grabbed a napkin to wipe them away. Liz was opening her mouth to say something when their mother stopped her.

“Liz, stop. It’s okay. Darren doesn’t have to go to the funeral if he isn’t up for it. It will be mostly family anyway and Dad would understand. Lord knows he wasn’t a religious man. He would probably think the fact we’re even having a funeral mass said for him was ironic to the extreme.”

“Are you sure it’s okay Mom? If you really want me there, I’ll go.”

Judy held Diego’s hand firmly and gave it a squeeze. “It’s fine. All I ask is that you come for the lunch we’re having afterward at Bernie’s Restaurant. I know all the family will want to see you.”

Diego smiled “Sure thing Mom. Thanks.”

Liz frowned at Diego while she took the plates and silverware and put them all in the sink. “Whatever. I have to take a shower and get the basement ready. Eric and the kids will be here this afternoon.”

Diego watched as his sister walked off and started to realize just how far they still had to go before things returned to some kind of normal between them.

***

One of the best parts of the house, other than the backyard, was the huge basement. Their father had it finished while Diego was still a baby and had a bathroom put in, drywall and insulation as well as carpeting.

When it was too cold to have a sleepover outside, Diego and his friends would take over the basement, covering the floor with sleeping bags and playing video games until the sun rose. They would use it to have Star Wars movie marathons or just hang out and talk about comics and gaming.

Once Diego moved into Philadelphia, his father had always intended to turn it into a man cave of his very own. Somewhere he could watch Flyers hockey games and have the occasional beer in peace. That all changed when Liz had the twins in October of 2013. Judy really wanted them to take the space and turn it into a kind of apartment for Liz, Eric and their family. Her thinking was that it might mean her daughter would visit more and Judy could see her beloved grandchildren more than twice a year.

And it had worked like a charm. Once it was remodeled to include a bed and even a small refrigerator, Liz would bring Max and David to visit at least once every couple months. As they got older the twins would stay in the guest room upstairs while Liz would enjoy the solitude and quiet of the basement.

Diego walked down the steps to the basement to find Liz replacing the sheets on the bed. The room hadn’t changed much in the time he was gone. A new lamp, an antique desk against the one wall but overall, still the same. It always amazed him how a basement could be so warm and inviting every time he came down here.

“Hey sis.” he said to Liz’s back as she pulled the fresh sheet tight against the mattress.

“Hey.”

“How come you’re staying upstairs instead of down here? I would have thought you would have loved the chance to be down here by yourself.”

Liz still didn’t turn around as she spoke. “I wanted to be closer to Mom. Plus sleeping in my old room felt kind of, I don’t know, comforting.”

“Yeah. I can understand that.”

“Did you know growing up Dad used to come into my room every night to say good night to me and kiss my forehead? Didn’t matter how late it was when he got home. Every night without fail I could count on that.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“I do the same thing now with the twins.”

“That’s sweet.”

Liz finally turned around to look at her brother. “I’m sorry I snapped at you okay? I’m just really tense and not looking forward to tonight. I get why you don’t want to go to the funeral, really I do.”

“Thanks Liz.” Diego then outstretched his arms, giving his sister a playful expression.

“C’mon.”

Liz looked at him. “What?”

“C’mon. Time for a hug.”

“I’m not hugging you.”

“I’ve got all day. You need a hug.”

Liz let out a sigh and hung her head in defeat. “Fine.”

Diego was surprised by just how long and how tightly his sister held onto him before letting go and heading upstairs.

***

Eric and the twins arrived at the house a little after one later that afternoon. He had texted when he got off the Pennsylvania Turnpike that he was on his way so both Judy and Liz were waiting for them in the driveway when he pulled up.

Diego watched from the window as his mother squealed in delight as her grandchildren got out of the minivan Eric was driving. Both Max and David ran toward their grandmother, huge smiles on both their faces. Judy Murdock may have been difficult to deal with as a mother sometimes, but she adored being a grandmother and was shockingly good at it.

While Judy showered the twins with attention, Liz walked around to the other side to greet her husband with a kiss and a brief hug. Eric Bowman was a monster of a man, six-and-a-half feet tall, broad chested with a shaved head and arms the size of most people’s thighs. He was a star athlete in college until an injury shredded his knee beyond repair, causing him to walk with a slight limp. Luckily he was in school on an academic scholarship on his way to an architecture degree when it happened, so it didn’t derail his plans in the least.

The fact Eric was African American was the cause of much conversation when he was first introduced to the rest of the family. While Edward was fine with it and didn’t see what all the fuss was about, Judy was less than thrilled. When the subject would come up, she always said that she wasn’t prejudiced but that she worried about what they would have to deal with as a couple. The result was a subtle awkwardness every time Liz and Eric came to visit.

Liz finally had to sit her mother down and explain that yes, they were in love and no, they didn’t care what anyone else thought. She told Judy in no uncertain terms that if she wanted to have Liz in her life, Eric was part of the deal. After that things quickly improved and then once Liz announced she was pregnant with twins, Judy thought he could do no wrong.

As Eric got the bags out of the back of the minivan, Judy brought the boys inside, promising to make them each one of her famous grilled cheese sandwiches. When they saw Diego, they both hid behind their grandmother, not sure what to make of this new presence in the house.

Judy got down on one knee and looked at each of them in turn. “Now boys, don’t you remember your Uncle Darren? This is your mother’s little brother. The last time you saw him you were both so little. Say hi.”

Max, the braver of the two, walked over to Diego and looked up at him. “Hi.”

Diego bent over and reached out his hand. “Hello.”

Max shook it and then looked over his shoulder at his brother, telling him to come say hi. David slowly walked toward Diego, sticking his hand out and shyly saying “Hi.”

Diego shook it as he said “Hello.”

The two brothers, seemingly forgetting all about the person standing in front of them, then ran back toward their grandmother, who had taken out her cast iron skillet to get started making a pair of grilled cheese sandwiches.

“That went better than I thought it would.”

Diego turned to see Liz standing there, arms folded with Eric just behind her, putting the bags down in the hallway.

“Holy crap. It’s been forever since I last saw you Diego. How have you been?” Eric reached out and shook Diego’s hand, a bit more vigorously than he was prepared for.

“I’ve been good. Hanging in there. So I hear you and Liz finally went and got married.”

Eric smiled. “Yeah. I would have done a long time ago but Liz wasn’t having it.”

Liz elbowed her husband in the ribs. “Liar.”

“So how’s your family been?”

“Good, good. Oh, that reminds me.” Eric looked over to where Judy was standing at the stove. “My parents said to tell you they really wish they could have been here for the funeral. They send their best and said if you need anything, just call.”

“Thank you Eric. Please tell them I appreciate it the next time you talk to them.”

“I will.” Eric then turned his attention back to Diego. “We’ll need to catch up later after the funeral and all that. I’d love to hear all about your adventures out there in the world.”

“Sure thing.”

Eric put his hand on Liz’s shoulder. “Hon, when is the viewing tonight?”

“Mom?”

“Seven o’clock. The people at the funeral home said we should be there about a half hour early to make sure everything is to our satisfaction.”

“Cool. I’m bushed after all that driving so I’m going to head downstairs to get a quick nap in, if that’s okay.”

“Sounds good. Maybe I’ll join you. Mom, can you watch the boys for an hour or so?”

“Of course. Would you two like to spend some time with your grandmother?” Both boys giggled and yelled yes.

Once Eric and Liz had gone downstairs, Diego walked over to the island and sat next to David. The boy looked over at him and held half of his sandwich out, offering it to Diego.

Diego took the sandwich saying “Thank you.” while mussing David’s hair and took a bite. As he chewed he thought to himself Wow. These really are good.

Chapter 1.4

For as long as Diego could remember, he had been a night owl. There was nothing he loved more than being awake at three in the morning while the rest of the world was sound asleep. In high school and college weekends meant he could stay awake until the wee hours of the morning, doing whatever he pleased. It was a large part of the reason he had decided to become a freelance graphic designer after graduation from The Art Institute. He could make his own hours, not have to punch a clock and be left alone.

What Diego loved most though about being awake while everyone else slept was the quiet. Even living in a major city like Philadelphia, where things were always happening, there was a point where the city would quiet down and a sense of calm would envelop everything. It was the moment Diego lived for and he looked forward to it every night.

In the suburbs where his mother lived however, the quiet took on a whole new level. You could stand in the middle of the street and not see anyone. You could walk around and know for certain you were the only one enjoying the solitude and peacefulness. Diego kind of felt sorry for everyone else that they missed it.

Diego slowly stirred under the heavy quilt. Sitting up in bed and rubbing his eyes, it took him a moment to realize where he was and why. It had become something of a habit over the last few years, with all the traveling and moving around he had done. After a few seconds he remembered and a wave of sorrow and anger washed over him, remembering the fight with his mom and that his father was dead.

He sat on the edge of the bed, realizing that there was no way he was going to be able to go back to sleep. He grabbed his phone and saw that it was 4:25 in the morning, which meant he had been sleeping for over ten hours. The sun wasn’t up yet and his mother and sister must still be asleep.

Diego pulled on his shoes, grabbed a pack of cigarettes and a lighter out of his backpack and slowly made his was downstairs, trying his best to be as quiet as possible.

He walked through the living room and kitchen and went out the large glass sliding doors that led to the massive wooden deck in the backyard. It had come with the house when his parents bought it and other then refinishing and re-staining it years ago, the deck was pretty much the same as the day they had moved in.

As he carefully closed the door behind him, the scent of the pine tress hit him, the impossibly tall ones that lined the edge of the property. There was a hint of frost on the grass of the yard that would burn off as soon as the sun rose in an hour of so.

Diego had loved this backyard growing up. He and his friends would have sleepovers, cook using the fire pit and then set up tents to sleep in, though they did very little sleeping. They would wait until they were sure everyone was asleep and then head out to explore. It usually just involved a trek to the local Wawa to buy soda and candy, but for a 12-year-old boy and his friends, it was a grand adventure.

Diego sat on the wooden steps that led down from the main deck to the yard and lit a cigarette. He inhaled deeply, letting the smoke fill his lungs and then exhaled, the smoke forming a cloud in front of him. He could already feel himself calming down just a bit as he closed his eyes and enjoyed the silence of the early morning.

Lost in his own thoughts, he didn’t hear the sliding door open or the footsteps of someone approaching from behind.

“When did you start smoking again?”

Diego jumped and whirled around, scared out of his wits. He let out an exasperated breath when he saw it was just his mother standing there, bathrobe tied around her waist and slippers on her feet.

“Jesus Christ Mom. You just scared the crap out of me.”

Judy smiled a mischievous grin, the same one she would get when she would sneak up and scare her children when they were younger. “I’m sorry Darren. I heard the sliding glass door open and just wanted to check to make sure everything was okay.”

“Why aren’t you asleep?”

“Since your father died, I’ve found I haven’t been sleeping all that much. I was actually on the living room couch when I heard you go outside. I …” she hesitated. “I can’t bring myself to sleep in our bedroom. At least not yet.”

Diego looked at the ground, trying his best to understand what she was going through. “That’s perfectly normal Mom. It may take a while until you can sleep in your room again.”

Judy sighed. “Sometimes I don’t think anything is going to be normal ever again. And don’t change the subject. When did you start with the cigarettes again?”

Diego had been a heavy smoker all through high school and his first year at college. It was a habit his mother despised and had spent a considerable amount of time informing Diego of that fact. However, since his father was also a smoker who had never been able to completely quit the habit, most of Judy’s arguments fell on deaf ears.

Diego had finally quit cold turkey after his first year at the Art Institute. Having to run outside to grab a smoke all the time as well as the fact the habit was getting more and more expensive had convinced him the time was right.

He looked down at the lit cigarette in his hand, trying to remember when he had picked it up again. “Maybe a year ago or so? I was with some friends in Reno and everyone was smoking and drinking and I guess I figured what the hell, why not. I only smoke like three a day or so. Nothing like I used to.”

Judy looked at her son disapprovingly. It was a look Diego was very familiar with and he was fully expecting a lecture about how they would end up killing him someday.

Instead, Judy simply looked away, her gaze falling on the line of pines that represented the edge of the property.

“How did it feel Darren?”

“How did what feel?”

“Moving around all the time. Not knowing from one day to the next where you were going to be or what you were going to do. How did that … freedom feel?”

The question took Diego aback. His mother had never wanted to talk about his traveling in any of the brief phone conversations that they had had over the years. He would try to share some amazing experience with her and she would change the subject, just wanting to know if he was coming home any time soon.

It was usually Edward who would ask for details, would want to know everything Diego was feeling and experiencing at the time. He sometimes felt like his father was living through him, enjoying an adventure through his son that he always wanted but could never have.

“It felt incredible Mom. I learned so much about myself and the world. Sure, there was times when I was wasn’t sure about what was going to happen and that was scary. And it wasn’t always fun, there were times when all I could think about was why the hell I had decided to do this. But I wouldn’t give up the last four years for anything.”

“So it was worth what it cost you?”

Diego wasn’t sure what his mother was getting at. “What do you mean?”

Judy finally looked at her son, a hint of ire in her features. “You know exactly what I mean. Upsetting your sister and I. Deserting your friends. Leaving your clients in a lurch. Knowing that if you left, there were likely going to be repercussions that might leave scars that would never heal. Was it all worth it?”

Diego took a drag off the cigarette in his hand and exhaled, trying to gather his thoughts before he spoke.

“Liz and I were talking about this very thing this afternoon. I’m well aware that what I did hurt a lot of people, hurt you most of all. I knew that was going to happen when I was planning it and I didn’t really care. I’m sorry if that hurts you but it’s the truth. For me, at that time, it was the right decision.

“So yes. To answer your question it was worth it. If that sounds selfish or upsets you, I guess I’ll have to live with that. The same way I’ll have to live with not being able to say goodbye to Dad and thank him for what he did.”

This was the second time in as many days Diego had had to defend himself and his decision and he had a funny feeling it wasn’t going to be the last.

He walked over to the wash basin that stood off to the side of sliding glass doors and put out his cigarette. For years his father had simply kept an old metal coffee can on the deck, using it as an ashtray since he was forbidden from smoking in the house. One day Judy decided that she was sick of all the “trash” on her deck and bought the wash basin at a flea market, filled it with sand and instructed everyone who smoked to use that to dispose of their cigarettes.

“Why did you tell your father?”

“Because I needed to tell someone and for some reason I can’t explain I knew Dad would understand. He wouldn’t necessarily like it, but some part of me knew he would get it and wouldn’t stop me. Dad always treated me like an adult who could make his own decisions.”

“And I don’t?”

“It not that you couldn’t, but that you wouldn’t.”

Judy tightly folded her arms and walked down the wooden steps into the grass. The first indications of sunlight were just starting to brighten the night sky as Diego followed his mother into the yard.

“Look Mom. I don’t know what you want me to say. If you want me to leave, fine. If you want me to feel guilty about all this, that’s fine too because I do. But if you’re looking for some kind of apology, that’s not going to happen. I don’t think I have anything to be sorry for. It’s my life and I simply decided to stop living it by committee. Dad understood that. Why can’t you?”

Judy turned around and looked at her son. “Because I’m your mother. It’s my job to worry about you, take care of you and ensure sure you make the right decisions. That never ends no matter how old you may be. You don’t have to listen to me, but that isn’t going to stop me from giving you my opinion.

“And the reason your father understood and let you leave without saying a word to anyone is because you and he are so much alike it’s infuriating. He wanted to go on big adventures, live life one moment to the next never thinking ahead. It was all he talked about while we were dating. But he gave all that up when I got pregnant with Elizabeth. I always thought a part of him resented me for that and not saying anything about you and your trip was his way of getting back at me.”

“Mom, I’m sure that wasn’t the case. He tried to convince me to say something to you but when he saw I wouldn’t do it he gave up.”

Judy bent her head down, her eyes closed. “I know, I know. You father was many things but spiteful wasn’t one of them. Much like you.”

Abruptly she turned and headed toward the house, asking her son to wait for her to return. While he waited Diego saw the sun was rising and could hear the world slowly waking up, another day about to begin.

Five minutes later Judy returned and placed something in Diego’s hand. “Your father would have wanted you to have this. I wanted to give it to you now before I forget or it gets lost in the all the craziness of the next few days.”

Diego looked down at his hand and saw it was a silver Zippo lighter. It was well worn, obviously older than he was and had the faintest smell of lighter fluid. He then turned it over and saw that it was engraved with the words “Wish You Were Here.”

Diego knew the lighter very well. His father had carried it with him wherever he went and would flip the lid open and closed repeatedly if he was nervous or waiting for something or someone. That sound was one of the earliest things Diego remembered about his childhood. Every once in a great while Edward would let his son hold it when his hands were full or as a reward if he had done something well. Diego would just look at the shiny silver metal and think how incredibly cool it was.

If Diego was being honest, that lighter was a big part of the reason he had started smoking in the first place. So he could be more like his Dad.

“Mom … this is Dad’s Zippo. I can’t take this.”

“What else am I going to do with it? I don’t smoke and have no plans to start. If I don’t give it to you it will just end up in a drawer and get lost. And that damn thing meant so much to your father I don’t want to see that happen.

“That and, like I said. He would have wanted you to have it.”

Diego opened and closed the Zippo a few times and was suddenly overcome with the knowledge that he would never see his Dad use the lighter again. He started to sob uncontrollably, the tears streaming down his face. He balled up his hands into fists and pressed them against his forehead, trying to will the tears to stop so he could catch his breath, to no avail.

He fell to his knees in the wet grass, sobbing and shaking. At some point he felt his mother wrap her arms around him, telling him it was going to be okay between sobs of her own. He wasn’t sure how long the two of them were like that, but by the time Diego had regained some kind of composure the sun was almost up and the last of the stars were disappearing into the dawn sky.

“It’s so hard to believe I’m never going to see Dad again.”

Judy wiped the tears from Diego’s face with her thumb, holding his chin with her other hand. “Your father will always be with you. No, you won’t be able to see him, but if you talk to him I’m sure he’ll be listening.”

The two of them got up and brushed the dirt from their knees, walking slowly back to the deck as they did. Once there, Judy went to the sliding door and stopped before she opened it.

“I apologize for what I said earlier Darren. I’m still trying to deal with all this and I think I let myself take some of that out on you. I shouldn’t have. And for that I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay Mom. I understand.”

Judy nodded as she opened the sliding door. She was halfway through when she stopped and turned around to look at Diego. “Do you have something to wear to the viewing tomorrow and the funeral on Friday?”

Diego thought about it and quickly realized he didn’t. Nothing he brought with him was appropriate and all the clothes he left here four years ago no doubt no longer fit.

“Um, no. As a matter of fact I don’t. I’ll have to go out today and buy some. Is that thrift store still off Moreland Road in town?”

Judy straightened her shoulders and glared at her son. “You are not going to buy clothing for your father’s funeral at a godforsaken thrift shop. I won’t have it. You will take my Macy’s card, go to the mall and buy new clothes that haven’t been worn before by who knows what. Is that understood?”

Diego laughed to himself. According to his mother, if someone else wore you clothes before you, they weren’t really yours. No, it didn’t make a lot of sense, but this wasn’t the time to have that argument.

“Fine Mom. I’ll head to the mall later today and buy something nice.”

“Good. Now come inside and I’ll make some breakfast.”

Diego followed his mother into the house, unconsciously opening and closing the Zippo as he did.

***

Later that day Diego looked up the Septa schedule on his phone to see when he could catch a bus. The Willow Grove Mall was only a few miles away and the buses went up and down York Road all day long. He only had to wait a few minutes before one came and he was on his way.

Once there, armed with his mother’s credit card, he found a couple of dress shirts, one grey and one black, along with a pair of black Dockers and a black tie. It then dawned on him that not only did he need clothes for the funeral but he also needed shoes. The only pair he owned was on his feet and he doubted his Mom would want to see him wear his beaten up hiking boots to the church.

Once he had his new outfit, Diego went across the street and got a quick haircut. It was less about his hair and more to do with his beard, which had grown out of control the last few years. He figured his mother would appreciate the extra effort and Diego wanted to look his best when he said goodbye to his father.

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.