Previously 1

Thanksgiving, 2014

Edward Murdock opened the sliding glass door to his deck and stepped out into the chill November air. After such a hot summer, the cold seemed ready to make up for lost time and winter had arrived earlier than usual. Not for the first time he thought how smart it had been to refinish the deck this year and not wait.

It was well after five in the evening and the sunlight was quickly being replaced by the darkness of night. As he walked over to the steps that led down to the yard, he heard laughter coming from inside and smiled.

It had been a wonderful Thanksgiving, the first really good one they had had in quite some time. Judy’s two sisters had been able to come in with their respective husbands while Edward’s own sister Carol had made the trip up from North Carolina with her husband Robert. Unfortunately most of the assorted nieces and nephews had made other plans, but a Thanksgiving made up of almost all older adults wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Liz hadn’t been able to come but both he and Judy understood. The twins had just turned four and Eric had promised his parents that they would spend the holiday with them on the West Coast. It did bother Judy a little bit, but as grandparents you learn quickly you have to appreciate the time you get when you get it.

At least Diego had been able to make it, even if he was uncharacteristically quiet all night.

Edward sat down on the top step and looked out, taking the scene in. The grass was covered in leaves that had fallen from the massive oak that was on the neighbor’s property as well as needles from the pine trees that stood guard at the back of the yard. He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, enjoying the smells and sensations of fall.

Once again he thought about how perfect a pool would fit and how great it would be for the summer. He had always intended to put one in but it never seemed like the time was right. Maybe in a few years after he retired.

Edward fished in his pocket and pulled out a crumpled pack of Camel cigarettes as well as his Zippo. Judy had long ago laid down the law that if he wasn’t able to quit that disgusting habit, he would smoke outside, no exceptions. It never really bothered him all that much. If he was being honest, he enjoyed the time alone and being able to have a moment to himself, away from his wife and the constant drama.

It wasn’t that he didn’t love spending time with his wife. Quite to opposite was true actually. It was just that with her, every issue or problem ranked a ten on the importance meter.

“My boss quit today and I have to run the department!” Ten. “We’re out of milk!” Ten. “We need to reorganize the garage!” Ten. When they had first gotten married it could be incredibly draining.

However, Edward had gotten used to it over the years and even found it endearing most of the time, considering it one of Judy’s charming quirks. And when he couldn’t deal with it anymore, he would go outside, smoke a cigarette and everything would be right with the world once again.

With so much company invading for Thanksgiving, it was only natural that Judy was on overload, trying to make the perfect meal. Edward tried to help when and where he could, but his wife would invariably throw him out of the kitchen, calling him “useless” as she did so.

That said, all the work and stress had been worth it. The dinner turned out better than anyone could have expected. Everyone, including her incredibly picky sister Donna, had said more than once how Judy had outdone herself.

Edward smiled again. Beautiful, smart and one of the best cooks he had ever met. How did he get so damn lucky?

He pulled a cigarette out of the pack and lit it with his Zippo. Once he closed the lighter he looked down at it in his hand, running his thumb over the words “Wish You Were Here” for what was probably the millionth time.

People constantly asked him about the lighter, what the engraving meant and where he got it. Edward usually just told them he bought it down on South Street in Philadelphia when he was a teenager and that usually placated them. Which was fortunate because whenever he thought about the real story it always left him with an ache in his heart.

Edward was all of 18 years old and getting ready to graduate high school with his best friend Jan. They had known each other since the first grade and were practically inseparable. The two friends had planned to go to Penn State together where Edward could study computers while Jan majored in journalism. They would get an off-campus apartment and live it up like they had always talked about growing up.

That was until Jan was awarded a partial scholarship to UC Berkley. There was no way he could say no to the offer so Edward would have to go to Penn State alone. It was devastating for both of them, but more for Edward who felt like he was losing a brother.

The night of their graduation, Jan gave Edward the lighter as a gift. He said that every time Edward lit a cigarette in the future, he would know Jan was thinking of him, wishing he was there.

After graduation they had done their best to keep in touch, but as happens when you grow up, childhood friendships are eventually replaced by adult concerns. Weekly phone conversations became more sporadic and in time the two best friends were lucky to talk to each other once or twice a year.

Then Edward learned that Jan had died in a motorcycle accident at the age of 36.

He rubbed his thumb over the engraved words on the lighter again, thinking of his childhood friend. He thought to himself that sometimes, life could be so incredibly unfair.

Edward inhaled the smoke, enjoying the sensation that came with it as he listened to the laughter coming from inside the house. Thinking he had better finish his smoke and get back inside before Judy started to make a fuss, he heard the sliding glass door open. He turned to see his son Diego standing there, pulling on a hoodie as he walked onto the deck.

“Hey champ. What’s up?”

He grinned as he saw Diego visibly grimace at being called “champ.” Edward had decided a long time ago that if he ever had a son, he would call him by some silly nickname just because he could. What was the point of having children if you couldn’t make their lives unbearable from time to time?

It had bothered Diego so much that when he was about to turn 15, he had sat his father down and had a long discussion with him about the nickname. That he had never liked it and that he really felt it was time for Edward to call him either Diego like everyone else or Darren like his mother. It had even included graphs, a pie chart and a worksheet.

Edward was so impressed that he starting throwing in the occasional “sport” as well as continuing to call Diego “champ.”

Diego walked over toward his father, shoving his hands deep into the pockets of his jeans. “I was wondering if we could talk for a few minutes.”

“Sure thing. Is everything all right? You’ve been pretty quiet all day and I was starting to wonder if something was wrong.”

Diego sat down on the wooden steps next to his father, looking out at the yard. “Everything’s fine. Better than fine actually. I’ve made a pretty big decision and I wanted to tell you about it.”

Edward was surprised and pleased by the tone of his son’s voice. Diego had been a pretty lighthearted person before everything that happened over the last year. His son had been through a lot, most of it caused by his own poor decisions and it had taken a toll. However, for the first time in a long while, he sounded confident and sure of himself, like the Diego of old.

“Okay so spill it. What’s the huge announcement?”

Diego blew out his breath as if he was gathering his courage and then said “I’m leaving.”

“Before dessert? That’s not like you.”

Diego continued, ignoring the joke. “No. I mean I’m leaving Philadelphia.”

“To go where?”

“I’m not sure yet.”

Edward took a drag off his cigarette and looked at his son, trying to understand what he was saying.

“What are you getting at son? Because I’m not following.”

Diego turned to look his father in the eye, and Edward saw a resolve there he had couldn’t remember seeing before. “I’ve decided that I need some time away. Away from home, away from people, away from all the memories and heartache and crap I’ve been dealing with. It feels like I’m drowning in quicksand and I can’t escape.

“I just can’t get my head right anymore. I can’t deal with the looks I get from my friends, like I’ve disappointed them. I can’t concentrate on work. I can’t go anywhere without being reminded of what happened and the shitstorm that resulted. I feel like I need to figure out who I am again, that I need a fresh start somewhere where no one knows me. To try and make sense of everything and learn from it so I don’t make the same dumb decisions again and hurt someone else.”

Edward saw that Diego was close to tears, his voice filled with raw emotion. He knew his son had been having a rough time but he had no clue it had gotten this bad for him.

“When were you planning to tell your mother about this?”

“I’m not going to. I’m not going to tell anyone what I have planned.”

Edward was a bit surprised by this. It wasn’t like Diego. “So what, you’re going to disappear into the night, never to be heard from again?”

Diego looked down at his feet, unable to meet his father’s gaze. “Something like that.”

“So why did you tell me?”

“Because I felt like I had to tell someone and for some reason I don’t understand, I knew you’d get it. That you’d hear me out and respect my decision.”

Edward put out the cigarette on the wooden step, thinking to himself he’ll have to remember to throw it in the wash basin in the corner later. He rested one hand on his knee while he opened and closed his Zippo with the other as he looked at his son. A son who was hurting and he had no clue how to help.

Except maybe to let him go.

“You know, there was a time I was pretty confused about who I was and my place in the world.”

Diego looked at his father. “Really?”

“Yep. I had always wanted to travel the globe, see and do a lot of things before I settled down and started a family. Then I met your mother and suddenly my plans became our plans. Then those plans changed again when we found out she was pregnant with Liz. I really wasn’t sure I was ready to give up all my dreams to become a father. There was a moment or two when I seriously considered running.”

Diego looked at his father with an incredulous look. “You’re kidding.”

“Nope. Even looked at a couple different Greyhound bus routes. But then Liz was born and I discovered that being a father was what I was supposed to do. Being your father was what I was supposed to do. I got lucky. I found my calling and I didn’t even have to leave the house.”

Edward put his arm around Diego’s shoulder and pulled him close. “Not everyone is that fortunate. Maybe you need to get out there to rediscover who you are and learn from your mistakes.”

Diego gave his father a relived look, like the weight of the world had just been lifted from his shoulders. “Thanks Dad. For some reason I knew you’d understand.”

“But you really should tell your mother about this.”

Diego shook his head. “No way. You know Mom. She’ll try to talk me out of it and when that doesn’t work she’ll try to use guilt to get me to stay. I can’t deal with that.”

“As much as I love your mother, I have to admit that you’re probably right.”

Edward nodded his head resolutely, making a decision he knew was in all likelihood going to cause him some grief in the future but this was for his son. He was worth dealing with any consequences that were to come.

“Okay then. When were you planning to leave?”

“I still need some time to make plans, get rid of most of my stuff and save some more money. But I was thinking sometime after the New Year.”

“That soon?”

“I know if I wait I’ll overthink the whole thing and get cold feet. The sooner I get out of here the better.”

“How long do you think you’ll be gone?”

Diego hesitated. “I really don’t know.”

Edward nodded his head again. “I see. I just have one more question then. Are you ready for the repercussions of your decision?”

“What do you mean?”

“Diego, you’re talking about leaving without saying a word to anyone. Walking away from your life without any warning to the people who care about you. You can be sure most of them are going to be none too pleased and I can almost guarantee some of them won’t be able to forgive you if you go through with this. Have you given that any thought?”

“Actually yeah, I have. I decided that I need to do this for my own sake and that it’s more important than other peoples’ feelings. That may make me seem selfish but honestly, I don’t care.”

“It doesn’t make you selfish son. It just means you need some time to help yourself. Your real friends will hopefully understand and respect that.”

The two were looking out at the yard when they heard the sliding glass door open behind them. They both turned to see Judith walking out onto the deck, arms folded to try and keep warm against the chill in the air.

“Are you two going to spend all night out here? We have guests and the ice cream for the apple pie is starting to melt.”

Edward smiled at his wife. “We’ll be there in a minute sweetie. Promise.”

Judy let out an exaggerated sigh. “Fine. Just make it quick.”

Edward gave his son a sidelong look once Judy was back inside. “So.”

“Yeah. So.”

“Keep me in the loop okay? Let me know when you actually leave. And it goes without saying that I’m going to miss you.”

“I haven’t left yet Dad.”

“I know, I know. Consider this preemptive missing.”

Diego laughed as they both stood up. “Thanks Dad.”

“No problem champ. You know I always got your back.”

Diego hugged his father then and Edward was pleasantly surprised at how tightly his son embraced him. He hugged him back, enjoying the moment while his son was still here.

As they both walked toward the sliding door to head inside, Edward looked down at the lighter still gripped in his hand. He had often thought about giving it to his son but once he quit smoking that seemed like a bad idea. Maybe when Diego when came back from his trip the time would be right to give it to him.

There should be plenty of time then.

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.