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.