Suburban Palladium

Every night at 6 PM, the Richardson family gathered in the dining room for dinner. Mrs. Richardson always prepared the meal herself, making the latest recipes she had acquired, carefully preparing them exactly according to the directions, never deviating from what was written down. She was always trying new recipes, because she wanted to make sure never to prepare exactly the same meal twice, ever, lest Mr. Richardson disapprove as had the neighbor Mr. O'Connell's wife, who had once made some disparaging remarks about her repetition of meals.

She would always prepare the meal immediately after returning home from picking the kids up at school. Edwin was a senior on the football and baseball teams; in the spring he would be the starting second baseman, though he was often called on to pitch an inning or two when the other pitchers were near their league-mandated innings limit, but here in the autumn he was a starting safety who had led the conference in interceptions two years running and was leading again this year. Tina, two years younger, was a violinist in the school band, and was very dedicated, taking extra time to practice for the upcoming concert. The youngest child, Derek, was in seventh grade and had a major supporting role in the drama club's upcoming play. It was a busy autumn, but Mrs. Richardson didn't mind at all. Her children were active and participating in extra-curricular activities and were doing quite well at them, and it was because of this that she felt great pride in them.

Once the children were all home, she would have anywhere from thirty to forty-five minutes to finish dinner so that it would be ready at six o'clock sharp when Mr. Richardson arrived home from his office job in the city. When the meal was ready, the food would be moved from the kitchen to the dining room, because eating a meal in the actual kitchen was not proper, plus it was frowned upon by others, especially Mr. Richardson's boss, who had commented negatively on it in passing one day at work several months earlier.

It was a routine, just as all families have, and they were quite set in it. It served them well, and they never saw any reason to change it.

Then, one day, it all came unglued, when one minor detail disrupted the routine.

"Dear, where did the dining room table go?"

Mrs. Richardson, putting the finishing touches on the citrus salsa potatoes, wasn't sure she had heard her husband correctly. "Excuse me, dear?" she asked.

Mr. Richardson wandered into the kitchen, looking baffled and somewhat lost. "The table in the dining room," he repeated. "It isn't there."

Mrs. Richardson looked up at him. "It has to be there," she insisted.

"It isn't."

"It was there this morning," Mrs. Richardson pointed out.

"Well, it's not there now," countered her husband.

Mrs. Richardson took a moment to stir the strawberry-pineapple mix into the lima beans, finishing the meal, and then followed her husband into the dining room, where Edwin and Tina were both staring at the conspicuously empty space at the center of the room. There were still indentations in the carpet from the table's legs.

"The table's not there," Mrs. Richardson pointed out.

Mr. Richardson nodded. "I know."

Mrs. Richardson scratched her head. "Well, where did you see it last?"

"It was right here," said Mr. Richardson, briefly sounding just a touch frustrated over the situation. "We ate breakfast at it."

"Dad," Tina said, alarm in her voice. "Where's the dining room table?"

"We're working on figuring that out, honey," he said, remaining calm in this crisis situation. "Kids, neither of you wandered off with the table and forgot to return it, did you?"

"No," Tina answered, still worried.

Edwin suggested uncertainly, "Maybe we could put its picture on a milk carton."

"We don't have any pictures of it," his mother pointed out.

"Besides," added Mr. Richardson, "if we did that, everyone would know we lost a table." It was a frightening thought, something like that getting out.

Derek entered the room. "Is dinner ready?" he asked.

"We can't eat," Edwin said.

"The table's missing," added Mrs. Richardson.

"'Missing'?" echoed Derek. "It's not missing. It's at school."

Everyone looked at him.

"Son," said Mr. Richardson patiently, "why is the table at school?"

"We needed it for the play," Derek explained. "It was perfect. No one else had a table like it. Mrs. Prescott brought her van over earlier when mom was shopping for groceries and the Drama Club took it right out the patio door and back to school in the van."

"Son," said Mr. Richardson, staying calm, maintaining his composure and leadership, "why did you borrow the dining room table without asking for permission first?"

"You would have said no."

Mr. Richardson hesitated. He hadn't expected that response, and because the response was absolutely correct he saw no way to dispute it, so he shifted gears. "Well, where are we supposed to eat?"

"When I visited Michael we ate in the living room while watching television."

There was a very long silence.

"Son," said Mr. Richardson, "we can't eat in the living room."

"Why not?" challenged Derek.

"Because that's what the dining room is for. We eat dinner at the dining room table."

Tina wondered, "Does that mean we have to eat at the school?"

"That would probably be best," suggested Mrs. Richardson.

"But then everyone would know," Mr. Richardson pointed out.

"We'd have to put all the food in the car," realized Edwin.

There was another long silence.

"Son," said Mr. Richardson, "why are you rolling your eyes like that?"

"Can we just eat dinner now?" Derek blurted out, exasperated.

Faced with the alternatives of carting the meal to the school or skipping it entirely, Mr. Richardson agreed.

Moments later the family was situated determinedly if somewhat awkwardly in the living room. Mr. Richardson and Mrs. Richardson each had large desks next to their chairs that they could put their plates on. Edwin had created space on a small end table by placing the lamp normally situated atop it on the floor, which bothered him because he knew it didn't belong there, but he convinced himself that this was an emergency situation and it was going to be an adventure for all of them so he shouldn't let it bother him. Tina had rejected placing her plate on the floor, considering that the purview of pets, opting instead to eat standing up with her plate on a bookcase. Derek was sitting Indian-style on the floor with his plate in his lap, a bold and daring maneuver the others considered a bit too flashy for their tastes. To Derek's left was the remote control, which he had used to put the evening news on.

"Son," said Mr. Richardson, trying to understand this abnormal new situation, "why are we watching the evening news when we could be watching the Weather Channel?"

"Everyone watches the news when they eat," Derek said, unconcerned.

"Dad," Tina said, alarm in her voice, "why are we watching the news? The Weather Channel is on and we're watching the news."

"We're in the process of determining that now, honey," said Mr. Richardson. "Son, we never watch the news when we eat."

Derek shrugged. "We do now."

Mr. Richardson hesitated, decided that this was incontrovertible, and dropped the topic. The family watched the news in silence, amazed.

As the lead story ran, Mrs. Richardson, stunned, asked nervously, "Is this fiction?"

"No, ma," said Derek. "It's all real."

"But they said that someone got murdered just three miles from here," complained Mrs. Richardson.

"Maybe they're embellishing a bit," Edwin suggested. "Like, maybe he only got partially decapitated."

"If it's on the news, it actually happened. They have to fact check these things so they don't get sued," said Derek, who tended to be something of an optimist.

They continued to watch, as the lead story led into the second story. Then:

"Son," said Mr. Richardson, concerned, "do kids your age really overdose on drugs?"

"Not usually," said Derek, which didn't really allay Mr. Richardson's fears at all. They watched some more. Then:

"Dad," Tina cowered, "there's not really any such thing as Michael Jackson, is there?"

And later:

"There's violence in Israel?" demanded Mr. Richardson. "When did THAT start?!"

Mr. Richardson didn't sleep at all well that night, and he decided to talk to a friend at work about his newfound fear of the world beyond his doorstep.

His friend knew just what to do.

Dinner the next night was, to the surprise of everyone involved, a bit less complicated. No one was worried about the table, and the family members readily if not yet comfortably took their peanut butter cheesesteaks and mocha Colby goulash to the living room and ate while watching the news.

The odd thing was, Mr. Richardson wasn't home yet.

The thing about it was, Mr. Richardson was never late. It was a matter of pride to him, plus he didn't like to wonder what the neighbors would think of him if he wasn't responsible enough to get home on time. His family certainly noticed his absence, but over the past day or so the routine hadn't been, and they were learning to take oddities in stride, more or less.

Mr. Richardson didn't get home until after eight o'clock, by which time Mrs. Richardson was getting a good old-fashioned panic on, and when her husband finally arrived home she raced right up to him before he could even close the front door.

"I was so worried!" she told him. "The news said some people had been killed in a car crash up on Route 14."

Mr. Richardson looked at her and spoke in reassuring tones. "Dear, you don't understand. People we know don't die in car crashes. Other people do."

"Well, where were you, then?" wondered Mrs. Richardson. Behind her, the kids wandered up to find out where their father had been.

Mr. Richardson smiled at all of them. "Solving our problems. You all saw those scary stories on the news yesterday. We all did. Fortunately a friend at work knew just how to fix it."

"'A friend at work'?" echoed Tina.

Edwin frowned. "It wasn't Earl, was it?"

"As a matter of fact, it was."

Derek grew worried. "Dad, the last time you took advice from him you set fire to Mr. O'Connell's car."

"And his garage," added Edwin.

"And his house," added Tina.

"And his wife," added Mrs. Richardson.

"That was coincidence," Mr. Richardson stated firmly, "and we shall never speak of it again." He paused to make sure his family understood and wouldn't press the matter, then continued. "Earl and I went out after work, and I bought something. Here, I'll show you." He led them away from the door and across the living room into the dining room, where he reached over to set his briefcase on the table and then let go, causing it to fall to the floor, because he had forgotten there was no table. He frowned, picked the briefcase up, carried it to the kitchen, and placed it on a counter. It opened soundlessly, and Mr. Richardson pulled out a small object.

"A water gun!" Tina blurted out. "Dad bought a water gun!"

"It's not a water gun," he corrected. "It's a real gun."

There was a very loud silence.

"Oh, no, no, no," said Mrs. Richardson. "Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no no no no no no no no."

"Don't worry, dear," said her husband. "This will keep us safe."

"No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no..."

"Is that thing loaded?" Edwin asked nervously.

"Of course it's loaded. How could a gun possibly keep us safe if it wasn't loaded? I've got more ammo right here." He pulled a box out of his briefcase. One end of the box came open, and the bullets flew across the kitchen, bouncing off cabinets and tile countertops, clattering to the floor. One bullet hit the refrigerator and bounced back toward Mr. Richardson, who stomped it before it could roll underneath the stove.

"Son," said Mr. Richardson, looking at Edwin, "be a sport and gather those up for me, will you?" He turned toward the others. "We need this gun. You saw what was on the news. Violence, mayhem, death, carnage, the Golden Globes..." He shuddered. "If something happens, we need to be prepared. We need to be able to protect ourselves."

"Nothing ever happened before," Tina pointed out, "so do we really need the gun?"

"We've never had a fire before, so by that logic we should get rid of the fire extinguishers," countered Mr. Richardson. "Do you think that's a good idea? Do you think we'd be safer without fire extinguishers?"

"Fire extinguishers didn't help Mr. O'Connell," Derek pointed out.

"Son," said Mr. Richardson, "hush up. We need this gun. Right, dear?"

"No no no no no no no no no no no no..."

"Dear? Do you need a glass of water or something?"

"Dad!" interrupted Derek. "That gun is dangerous! Someone could get shot!"

"Well, yes, er, that's rather the point, isn't it?"

"Someone who you don't mean to shoot!"

"Oh, nonsense," said Mr. Richardson. "I'm very responsible. Right, Edwin?"

"Right, dad," said Edwin, from the floor. "Could you move to the side? There's some bullets behind you I can't reach."

"Oh, sorry." He moved to his left.

Derek closed his eyes and sighed.

"Look, Earl explained it all to me. The Founding Fathers by the grace of god created a free nation where people are free to exercise their freedoms here in the land of the free. They were afraid of powerful rulers who would take away their freedoms, like they had in Europe at that time and today. One of the fundaments was that people would be free to own and bear arms in order to protect themselves in times of war and against invasive criminal government actions."

"Yes, I see," said Derek innocently. "So, dad, who do you expect you'll need to shoot first, Mr. O'Connell or the postman?"

"Dad," Tina whimpered, "you're not going to shoot the postman, are you?"

"No, I'm not going to shoot the postman," Mr. Richardson reassured his daughter. "There's nothing to fear."

"Then why exactly did you buy a gun?" demanded Derek.

"Son," said Mr. Richardson, "go to your room. Everything will be fine. Right, dear?"

"No no no no no no no no no no no..."

As he headed off to his room, Derek muttered, "I think I'm going to hide under my bed until all this blows over."

Because Derek went to bed much earlier than usual, he woke up just after dawn, which is why he was the first person in the family to discover Mr. Richardson was already awake.

Derek found his father pacing the downstairs, holding his gun, keeping an eye on everything. At the moment, he was looking suspiciously at the coat rack near the front door, as though expecting it to make a sudden move and leap at him. He gave the coat rack one last intimidating glare, then turned his head and noticed Derek.

"Son," said Mr. Richardson, surprised. "What are you doing up so early?"

Derek shrugged and turned the question back on his father. "I'm surprised to see you awake already."

Mr. Richardson nodded. "I have to stay up. You never know when someone might try to break in."

"You mean you haven't even been to sleep yet?" blurted Derek. He looked a little closer at his father, and saw the vaguely unfocused look in his eyes. "You know, dad, sleep is good. People like sleep."

"Sleep is for the weak," countered his father. "You go to sleep, thinking you're safe, and the next thing you know some lowlife thug is in your house rifling through your portfolio of investment prospecti, and then it's already too late. You have to stay up, because someone can break in at any time, and as great as a gun is, it won't fire itself."

"You could spring for a home alarm system," suggested Derek. "The alarm would scare off the burglar."

"Son," said Mr. Richardson, reminding himself that Derek was too young to truly understand how things worked in the real world, "do you have any idea what that would do to property values? Everyone would know this is a neighborhood with burglars. I might as well put a sign out on the front lawn saying 'For sale by Ghastly Death Trap Realty. Live here and die.'"

Derek considered this.

"Dad," he said, "you really need to get some sleep."

They were interrupted by a sound from the front porch. Mr. Richardson spun and raced to the front door. He fiddled with the lock, nearly dropping the gun in the process, then triumphantly opened the door and stepped through the screen door.

"Thief!" he shouted, and then there was a loud bang as the gun fired.

Horrified, Derek sprinted through the door and came to a stop half a step behind his father. On the porch, a man in a light jacket and jeans was on his back, twitching slightly. A dark red stain was spreading across his chest.

"Son," said Mr. Richardson proudly, "I know you thought I was being obsessive and overprotective, but if I hadn't been awake and armed, no one would have been around to catch this guy in the act, and he'd have stolen right off our front porch. What do you think now?"

Derek was clutching his head with both hands. "Jesus Tap Dancing Christ, dad! You shot the paperboy!"

Mr. Richardson turned and looked at his son, then at the man on the porch, and then back at his son. "No," he said carefully, "this man was stealing our newspaper."

"No," Derek said firmly, trying desperately not to panic, "he was delivering the paper."

"We have no way of knowing that. Look the newspaper is right in his hand. He could very easily have been a few steps away from absconding with our paper, removing it from our lives forever."

"Dad," said Derek, slowly losing the battle against hysteria, "you SHOT THE PAPERBOY!"

"Son," said Mr. Richardson, "I don't understand how you can be so sure of that. He looks like a thief to me."

Derek looked at the man. To him, the man looked like a rather ordinary guy except for the look of abject terror in his eyes and the huge red stain on his chest that he was grabbing at ineffectually, the newspaper still clutched forgotten in one hand, helpless to do anything to save himself.

"Dad, he's got a company car," Derek pointed out, rather patiently he felt. "It's parked down at the corner."

Mr. Richardson looked in the direction his son was indicating. There was a car at the corner, running, four-ways on, with a large sign mounted on top with the name of the newspaper and the phone number to call to subscribe.

The man on the porch whimpered softly to himself.

"Shh!" snapped Mr. Richardson in annoyance, not wanting anything to disrupt his train of thought. "Maybe," he suggested slowly, gaining speed as he became more confident in the idea, "this man just took the job because he wants an excuse to go door to door casing the neighborhood to figure out which houses he should rob!"

"He's been our paperboy for nearly two years. You pay him every other week. Don't you even recognize him?"

Mr. Richardson considered this carefully.

"Evil twin?"

The man on the porch gurgled one last time and died.

"No, dad," sighed Derek, who had passed panic, blasted through anger, skipped past bargaining entirely, and already reached resignation and acceptance. "You shot and killed the paperboy."

Father and son stared at the body on the porch for some time, each lost in their own thoughts.

"Well, shit," said Mr. Richardson.

Derek nodded. That summed it up quite nicely.

Mr. Richardson thought frantically, and an idea came to him. He flipped the gun over his shoulder and ran to the body.

"Son," said Mr. Richardson, "help me out here. Grab his legs."

Derek blinked in confusion but did as he was told. Mr. Richardson grabbed the paperboy by the shoulders of the jacket and, with his son's help, lifted him up. He led his son down the porch stairs, across the lawn, around the property-line hedges, across the next lawn over, up the porch steps, and dumped the paperboy on Mr. O'Connell's porch. The duo then quickly retreated to their own house, with Mr. Richardson pausing only to retrieve his gun.

"There," said Mr. Richardson. "Problem solved."

"'Problem solved,'" echoed his son. "I see. And you don't think they'll trace this back to us?"

"Of course not," he assured Derek. "The body's on the neighbor's porch, not ours. Case closed."

"But they'll trace the bullet back to that gun."

"Not a chance. The gun was acquired through what Earl referred to as 'alternate sources.' It was much quicker that way. Five day waiting period my ass! They will never trace this gun."

"Oh sweet Jesus," muttered Derek, burying his face in his hands.

"Son," said Mr. Richardson sternly, "stop taking the Lord's name in vain. It's not right."

"Sure, dad," sighed Derek. "I'll try to remember that."

Mrs. Richardson was so badly shaken by the news of the murder that all she made for dinner was spaghetti served in a sauce of marshmallow cream and grapefruit juice. They ate watching the news, where the lead story was about the paperboy's death and the subsequent arrest.

"Look, everyone!" said Tina, pointing excitedly. "You can see our house on the TV!"

"It's terrible," Mrs. Richardson commented, "Mr. O'Connell snapping like that." Mr. Richardson agreed that it was indeed tragic, but at least he wasn't planning to sell the house anytime soon, because it would be some time before the property values rebounded. "And to think it happened in this neighborhood," Mrs. Richardson added. "You know, I admit I was wrong. Thank goodness you have that gun, to keep something terrible like that from happening to our family." At that point, Derek broke into a furious coughing fit and had to retreat to the kitchen for a glass of water.

Later that night Derek noticed his father reading the business and financial news, the only section of the paper he ever read. Remembering that neither of them had thought to pry their paper from the paperboy's cold dead hands, he asked if his father had bought a paper from a machine at work.

"Nah," Mr. Richardson said. "I just swiped this section from Earl's paper when he wasn't looking."

"Oh," said Derek.

Having been up for more than thirty-six hours, Mr. Richardson crashed out not long after that, and started sleeping normally going forward, though he did take to pacing the yard each night before bed, gun held prominently in one hand, just to make it clear to any would-be burglars who might have happened to be watching that they were dealing with a major bad ass.

Derek actually came to hope that things were going to settle down and be okay, though his friends at school didn't really understand why he became hysterical to the point where he had to be sent home early when a teacher suggested that he contribute an article to the school paper. Practice for the play was continuing, and it looked like it would be a huge success. Edwin led the school's football team to an 11-1 record that was good for first place in the conference, and Tina was already being approached with scholarship offers. Mrs. Richardson continued to cook bold, innovative, and daring (not to mention peculiar and bizarre) meals. Things were getting back to normal.

Deep down, Derek knew better.

"Son," said Mr. Richardson quietly but urgently, "wake up. Son?"

Derek groaned and rolled over in bed, pulling the covers tighter around himself.

"Wake up," ordered Mr. Richardson, jabbing Derek in the side.

Derek woke up with a start. "Whoa... Wha..." Derek shook his head. "Dad? Dad, what is it?"

"Wake up," Mr. Richardson repeated. He sounded worried. "I need your help."

Derek tried to make out his father in the darkness. "What's going on? What time is it?"

"It's about 2:30. Be quiet. I don't want to wake your mother."


"Sh. Just get dressed and come downstairs. I'll be in the kitchen." Mr. Richardson turned and left the room.

Derek stared after him. "Ooooooh, this can't be good..."

The fluorescent bulb over the sink was the single light on in the kitchen. Derek was glad, because he had dressed in the dark and his eyes weren't adjusted to the light yet. Even with just the one dim light, he had to squint and shield his eyes as he entered the room. He saw his father, looking worried, crouched over...

Derek paled. There was a body on the floor.

"Dad," managed Derek. "There's... You shot an intruder. I don't believe it!" He edged slightly closer. "I didn't think it would happen, but someone actually broke in, and you shot him. You... You saved us, dad! How did it happen? What was he after?"

Derek paused, something occurring to him.

"Why is he in boxer shorts?"

Mr. Richardson looked distinctly uncomfortable. "This isn't an intruder. It's Edwin."

Derek had to run that one through his mind a few times before it truly registered. Once it did, he fell back against a wall and slid down it, all the strength draining out of his body in horror.

"Son," said Mr. Richardson, snapping his fingers urgently in Derek's face, "stay with me. Focus. Focus, Derek! I need you to stay with me on this one."

"Dad, you shot... You... You..."

"Don't worry. I think I've got this worked out. But I need your help."

Derek looked up hollowly at his father. "What, are we going to throw him on Mr. O'Connell's porch, too?"

"Try to stay serious. I'll take care of this. In the meantime, here's what I need you to do..."

"This is never going to work," muttered Derek.

"Son," said Mr. Richardson wearily, "think positive."

"I'm positive this is never going to work," amended Derek.

"It had better," offered Mr. Richardson.

Derek didn't respond. He was suffering from a lack of sleep countered only by the urgency of the situation, and once the adrenaline wore off, he was sure he was going to crash. Fortunately it wasn't a school day, so at least he didn't have to worry about passing out in class, though it did occur to him that that should be the least of his worries.

Mrs. Richardson called out from the kitchen, "Breakfast's ready!" This was a new development, too. In the past, the family sat patiently around the dining room table until breakfast was served. However, with there being no dining room table, everyone tended to loiter around the general vicinity of the kitchen until Mrs. Richardson announced the meal was ready. Mr. Richardson was glad it was deep into autumn, because the windows were all closed and no one would overhear her and think badly of him for having such a disorganized family.

He and Derek wandered into the kitchen and each took some sardine waffles and a glass of cranberry pork juice. The trio took their food to their customary places in the living room to eat and watch television.

"So, where's Tina?" asked Mrs. Richardson.

Derek said, "She's still in bed." Mr. Richardson was thrilled about this. It would make the next step much easier.

"And where's Edwin?" Mrs. Richardson wondered.

Mr. Richardson played his trump card.

"Who's Edwin?" he asked.

There was a very long silence as his wife gave him a completely baffled look.

"What?" she managed.

"I don't know who you mean by Edwin," Mr. Richardson clarified.

Mrs. Richardson stared at him as if he'd gone insane. She probably wasn't that far off the mark. Her voice carefully neutral, not quite sure how to handle this extremely unexpected development, she said, "Our son."

Mr. Richardson looked politely confused. "Derek is our son."

"It's true. I am," agreed Derek, who felt that this was a good chance to play the role without actually having to lie.

"Our other son," Mrs. Richardson said sternly.

Mr. Richardson frowned. "We only have the one."

There was another long silence. Husband and wife stared at each other. Derek's gaze wandered desperately along the ceiling.

Sternly, somewhere between anger and fear, Mrs. Richardson stated, "Our youngest son is Derek. Our middle child is our daughter, Tina. Our oldest son is Edwin, and he was born not long after our mar—" she glanced over at Derek "—our first anniversary."

Derek rolled his eyes.

Mr. Richardson didn't even blink. "Tina is our oldest child. The first child miscarried."

"No," she answered firmly, "he didn't. Labor isn't something you forget."

"We only have the two children," Mr. Richardson countered, sounding perfectly calm and reasonable.

Mrs. Richardson stood up abruptly. "This is ridiculous. I don't know what this is all about, but I don't think it's funny."

He remained seated, looking up at her. "Are you okay, dear?"

"That's it," fumed Mrs. Richardson, losing her patience. "I'll prove it. Let's go up to Edwin's room, shall we?" There was an uncharacteristic fire in her voice and intensity in her movements, and Mr. Richardson actually found himself briefly intimidated by them. He quickly buried that feeling and kept his calm composure.

"After you, dear," he said magnanimously.

Mrs. Richardson strode confidently to the staircase and started up it. Her husband followed, a few steps behind. Derek kind of tagged along after them, though when he thought about it later he couldn't for the life of him figure out why.

Mrs. Richardson talked as she walked. "Edwin may still be asleep, but if I have to wake him, I will. Here, you say you don't know who Edwin is? Well then, explain this." And she led them into the bedroom, looked around, and stopped dead.

Derek and his father had been busy the night before.

Mr. Richardson had taken the body somewhere—Derek tried not to think about where, because he was positive that if he knew the answer he wouldn't like it—while Derek got a head start on moving everything from his father's hobby room in the basement up to Edwin's room. As he moved stuff upstairs, his father took everything from Edwin's room and put it in a hidden space behind the furnace. After the bedroom was clear, a process that took a bit longer than either of them was happy with, they had put the hobby room back together in Edwin's room.

So when Mrs. Richardson entered the room, expecting to triumphantly prove the existence of her eldest son, she was instead confronted by a room full of baseball memorabilia (including baseballs, gloves, bats, and cards), model trains, a stamp collection, and several dozen boxes of comics, all of which Mr. Richardson believed to carry excellent investment potential, especially the baseball bat he understood had been used by Julius Irving in the Super Bowl.

Mr. Richardson put a sympathetic hand on his wife's shoulder as she groped helplessly for words. He decided to turn it up a notch. Softly, lovingly, he reminisced, "I remember when we first found out you were pregnant. We had such dreams about the future. We discussed the names we'd give him or her and chose Tina for a girl or Edwin for a boy. We'd care for him, love him, raise him right...

"When he turned five, he'd go off to his first day of school, and we'd worry, because parents, all of them, everywhere, worry. But Edwin, he would fit right in, get along with everyone fine, and we'd know we'd never actually have to worry about him again. We would, naturally, but deep down we'd know he'd be okay.

"At the age of seven, he would host his first birthday party. You'd make a cake with coconut frosting and he would insist on slicing the cake for everyone, taking the large knife in hand, doing the best he could, and he'd end up making an ungodly mess of the cake and himself and much of the kitchen, but we'd love him all the same. And it would show us the beginning of his leadership, his ability to inspire others, his knack for commanding a situation and solving it.

"Late in elementary school, we'd end up getting called in to meet with the principal, because he would be in trouble for talking back to the teacher. The principal would explain the situation, and Edwin would get an encyclopedia from the library and prove himself right and the teacher wrong, and we'd see that he understood what he was talking about and wouldn't back down when we knew he was in the right.

"By the time he was in high school, he'd be involved with sports, first basketball, then leaving that behind for baseball and football, excelling at both, putting his school on the state map, leading the team on the field, to state tournaments. By the time he'd be ready to graduate, the scholarships would be rolling in, athletic and academic, and from there, the sky would be the limit..."

Lowing his voice, he continued softly, sadly, "But it never happened. And it took time to adjust, to accept our loss and get on with life. But we did, and we went on to have two wonderful children, and that's really all we can ask for."

Mrs. Richardson looked shell-shocked, trying desperately to maintain her composure. Softly, she whispered, "Edwin... My son..."

"I'm sorry," said Mr. Richardson, holding his wife close. "You took it hard. Never really reached closure with it. This happens occasionally. It's okay, dear, it's okay."

Mrs. Richardson had tears in her eyes. Derek could relate. He was trying not to cry, too. He found it amazing how his father could sum up some of the high points of Edwin's life and then so convincingly pass them off as a dream. Frightening, too.

Mr. Richardson hugged his wife, then looked her in the eye. "Now dear, you go right downstairs, and have yourself a good breakfast, and I'll be right down to join you in a moment."

Mrs. Richardson turned slowly, haltingly, and started for the stairs, moving as if sleepwalking, confused, genuinely uncertain if Edwin had ever actually existed or was just a figment of her imagination. Dazed, she wandered from the room.

There was a brief silence after her departure.

"Son," said Mr. Richardson smugly, "never forget what you just saw. That is what we call 'solving the problem.' Pretty good, hunh?"

"I think I'm going to be sick," said Derek.

Mr. Richardson's face became very stern. "Don't you dare throw up in my hobby room."

"Dad," Tina said from the doorway, having paused on her way downstairs for breakfast, "how is this your hobby room? What happened to Edwin's stuff?"

"Who's Edwin?" he asked.

Tina gave a completely baffled look. "What?" she managed.

Derek didn't sleep well that night.

For the life of him he couldn't figure out how, but his father had managed to convince the rest of the family that Edwin was just a figment of their imaginations. It didn't make any sense at all that people could fall for something like that, but they did. His father had offered his own explanation after a highly confused and uncertain Tina had wandered downstairs for breakfast. He had given Derek a big thumbs up and a smug "Women."

Derek wondered, not for the first time, if maybe he was adopted.

He stared at the ceiling for a while, wondering what would come next. Surely Edwin's classmates would eventually notice he wasn't around anymore. Was his father planning on using the "Who's Edwin?" defense on everyone? Somehow, Derek suspected that that particular defense was not going to bat a thousand. He wondered if his father was going to shoot everyone who didn't fall for it.

He wondered if he had enough money to move to Canada.

Somewhere around 3:30, sleep finally claimed him.

"Son? Son! Wake up!"

Derek blinked, struggled back to wakefulness, and looked around. It was still dark, with just the barest hints of dawn coming through the curtains. He looked up at his father.

"Oh, god, dad," he whined, "who'd you shoot now?"

"Son," said Mr. Richardson firmly, "that's not funny. And I didn't shoot anyone this time. It's time to get ready for our trip."

Derek frowned, puzzled. "What trip?"

"Our hunting trip."

Derek stared at his father.

"You have got to be kidding me!" Derek shouted.

"Shh! Sh sh sh! Not so loud! You'll wake the whole house."

Derek lowered his voice to a whisper, but he was still shouting. "Why do you need to go hunting? Haven't you shot enough already?"

Mr. Richardson twitched. Derek didn't like the look of that.

"Son," said Mr. Richardson, "your mother is planning to make French-fried ziti and limburger chitlins for dinner."

Derek nodded. "When do we leave?"

He didn't regret the decision at all during breakfast. He didn't regret the decision at all when he met the other guys, Ricky, Frank, and Matt. He did regret the decision a bit when the group made their only stop on their way to the woods, at a beer distributor with a large sign out front that read "Welcome, hunters," which struck him as creepy on several levels.

It was shortly after they got out of the van and started their preparations that Derek truly regretted making the decision to come on the trip less than thirty seconds out of just two hours sleep.

First of all, Frank was already drunk, having downed six beers between the distributor and the woods. Derek was pretty sure having open beers in a moving van was illegal, especially considering Frank was driving, but he didn't think commenting on this would get him anywhere, so he kept his mouth shut.

Then came the hunting gear. They all had bright orange vests, though Ricky quickly got cold and put a jacket on over his, and Matt refused to wear his, claiming the deer would notice. Mr. Richardson offered that he had heard that deer couldn't see in color, but Matt just scoffed. "That's just what they want us to think. They're wily creatures, and most people underestimate them. Think smart, man!" What worried Derek most of all about that, even more than the way his father seemed to accept it as perfectly reasonable, was that Matt hadn't even had any beer yet. Also he wore a baseball cap sideways. Maybe he didn't want the sun getting in his ear.

Then came the weaponry. Derek had expected that to be bad news, but he still wasn't prepared for the reality of it. He saw his father's weapon, and he stared at it with the detached resignation of one who sees the car he is a passenger in is about to crash head-on into an eighteen-wheeler and has realized that nothing matters anymore.

"That's an AK-47, isn't it," Derek said. It wasn't a question.

"Sure is!" Mr. Richardson said proudly, basking in the awed stares of the other three. They thought the world of him. "Earl got it for me when he heard I was going hunting."

"Did he."

"Got me some kick ass bullets, too. Armor piercing. One of these babies could take out six deer easily, if they were all lined up neatly." He paused. "Do deer line up neatly?"

"No, dad. You're thinking of the British, back during the Revolutionary War."

"Or pygmies," added Frank.

There was a brief silence.

"Or pygmies," sighed Derek, who just wasn't up to debating that one.

"Oh." Mr. Richardson considered this. "Well, maybe we'll encounter some of them, too."

Off they went into the woods, seeking the elusive wily British pygmy deer.

Derek, now alone with Frank since the group split up, was no expert on the hunt, but he was fairly confident that the way they were going about it wasn't very sporting. For example, he was pretty sure that the infrared gear that could be used to track deer by the heat they left behind was a bit over the top. Also he thought the way they communicated with each other by cell phone after they split up lacked a certain class. And he was positive that their use of the Global Positioning System was completely uncalled for. They were hunting deer, after all, not the FBI's most wanted. But then, what did he know? After all, he was just a kid. And he wasn't drunk. Two strikes, as far as the others were concerned, though Frank was doing what he could.

"Come on!" said Frank, trying quite unsuccessfully to stay quiet so as not to scare the deer. "Just one beer!"

"I'm twelve!" Derek protested.

"My point exactly," said Frank, who didn't really have a point. He simply found that getting wasted made him feel better, and he wanted everyone else to feel better too, the same way he did, and he wouldn't take no for an answer. In an odd sort of way, he was a lot like a born-again Christian, only with worse bladder control.

Frank's cell phone rang, startling him so badly that he dropped his rifle, damaging the laser scope. He fumbled with his phone for a moment before answering it.

"Yeah? ... Hey, Ricky... A deer? Heading this way? ... Just a moment." Frank turned to Derek. "There's a deer, heading this way!"

"Really," said Derek.

"Really!" said Frank eagerly, returning to his phone conversation. "Yeah, the kid's excited, too. He's as giddy as an, um, er..." He looked at Derek, who was staring at him, poker-faced. "He's damn giddy. Hey, hey, put his father on." There was a pause. "Hey! ... Yeah, your son's fine. But will you please tell him to drink a beer?"

"Give me that!" shouted Derek, grabbing the phone from Frank's hand. "Dad? ... Dad, I... What? ... No, I don't have the keys for the van. I'm twelve!"

"That's your excuse for everything," muttered Frank.

Derek ignored him and continued, "That's got everything to do with it! Are you saying you lost your keys? ... Hey, Frank was driving, remember? ... Okay." Derek looked at Frank. "Dad wants to talk to you again."

Frank took the phone back. "So is he going to drink a beer or not—oh, wait, there's the deer! I'll call you back!" He hung up the phone and turned his full attention back to the deer.

"Oh, isn't she a beauty," he whispered. "Look closely at it, Derek. That's Mother Nature right there, in all her splendor. It's glorious. Truly glorious." He paused reverently, gazing at the deer, then hefted his rifle up onto his shoulder. "Let's shoot that sumbitch."

He stood up, tried to edge out smoothly from behind the bushes, tripped over some beer cans he'd piled up, and fell heavily to the ground. The deer froze in place, staring in his direction. He struggled roughly to his feet, using his rifle as a crutch, not noticing Derek behind, gesturing frantically to try to scare the deer away. Frank raised his gun and tried to aim at the deer, though being drunk his aim wavered twenty or thirty degrees in either direction. When he judged it to be fairly close to the general direction of the deer, Frank fired off a shot. The recoil startled him and sent the gun pointing up into the air, where he accidentally fired off another shot, not killing anything in particular but putting a real good scare into the sky. The second shot caused Frank to lose his balance and fall over backward, where he somehow managed to fire off a third shot, putting a bullet into a mound of dirt behind him. The deer, not being intelligent enough to realize how hysterical Frank's earnest efforts had become, bolted (though Derek did get a good smirk out of the whole thing).

Frank tried to scramble to his feet, ready his rifle for another shot, shout to Derek to join the chase, and call Ricky, Matt, and Mr. Richardson to let them know the deer was headed their way, all at the same time. He dropped the cell phone somewhere in the middle of all of this, but Derek caught it in midair and followed after Frank, enjoying himself immensely. Frank was deep into Elmer Fudd territory now.

Derek speed-dialed Ricky's cell phone. Matt answered.

"I heard shots!" Matt said. There were some muffled voices in the background, and then Matt amended, "We heard shots. What's going on? Did Frank get the deer?"

"No, not exactly," Derek stated. "More accurately, he actually kind of rather failed to get the deer. But I think the sky learned its lesson and won't have the nerve to do whatever it was that it did again."

Matt considered this for a moment, then asked, "Does the deer know you're after it?"

"Of course. It heard the shots, too. It's on the run. We're after it."

"Dammit!" shouted Matt. "Be very, very careful. Dear are wily! Keep an eye open for punji stick pits."

"Yeah, we'll be caref—Keep an eye open for what?!"

"That deer could be leading you into an ambush! It's much smarter than most of us."

Derek nodded. "I agree wholeheartedly."

"How close are you now?" Matt asked.

"What are you asking me for? You've got the Global Positioning System equipment. I think we're running the deer back toward you."

"Great," said Matt. "Quick quiz, kid: What should we do next?"

"If I were you? I'd duck."

As if on cue, Frank let loose with a few shots from the rifle. Derek wasn't sure why; the deer was completely out of sight. They ran a little further, and then there was a flash of movement as the deer crossed in front of them. As the deer passed, Matt leaped out from behind a tree and started shooting at it with, for some reason, a handgun. The deer cut away from Matt, passing by some rocks. To Derek's utter surprise, Ricky leaped out from the branches of a nearby tree and tried to land on the deer, missing by nearly thirty feet. The deer disappeared into the brush as the others caught up with Ricky.

"What the hell was THAT supposed to be?!" Frank demanded of Ricky. "What do you think are you, a chimp?"

"I saw it in a Western!" Ricky said defensively.

Frank looked at him. "You saw it in a freakin' Western?"

"I was trying to land on its back and ride it back to the van," explained Ricky.

Derek shook his head in disbelief. "Can't you tell the difference between a deer and a horse?"

"Hush up, kid," snapped Ricky.

"Have a beer," added Frank.

"It made sense when he explained it earlier," Matt offered.

Frank turned on him. "It's a good thing he didn't see West Side Story. He would have gone twirling after the deer singing and snapping his fingers!"

Ricky looked at him. "Hunh?"

Frank sighed, then belched. "Never mind."

"Look," said Ricky, "the plan didn't work out so well, but the truly important thing is, I got to climb a tree. Okay?"

Matt nodded. "And he only fell out three times, not counting the one you saw where he missed the deer by four time zones."

"Hey," wondered Ricky, "where'd the deer go?"

"Deer go wherever they want to!" cackled Frank. Derek wasn't sure what that meant, but he didn't ask, because he had a sneaking suspicion it was some sort of urination joke.

Matt gestured in the general direction in which the deer had disappeared. "C'mon, guys. The deer couldn't have gotten far, and Derek's pop is out that way, too."

Ricky realized, "Then we've got it trapped." They started after the deer again.

"Not necessarily," cautioned Matt. "We're on his territory now. Deer can be vicious. Ever see that footage of the deer kicking the living crap out of that hunter?"

"Heh," said Frank. "Yeah. That's funny."

"Why is that funny?" asked Derek.

"Dude, the deer kicked that guy's ASS!"

Ricky sighed. "Is it going to get any warmer? It's so damned cold out here I'm going to—"


The shout came from Mr. Richardson, and even as Derek heard it he was already diving for cover, because he could see clear as day where this one was headed.

Mr. Richardson, having seen the motion and knowing the deer was approaching from that direction, put two and two together and started shooting at the source of that motion, expecting to kill a deer. He let loose with calm, controlled, 45-second bursts from his AK-47, punctuated by multiple primal screams, which enhanced the atmosphere of the moment quite nicely.

After what seemed like forever, there was silence.

After even longer, Derek slowly, carefully crept to his feet and peered out from behind the tree he had used for cover, hoping he'd see everyone was fine, but knowing he wouldn't.

Ricky, Frank, and Matt were all lying sprawled out in the dirt and brown leaves, riddled with bullets that had gone through them as if they hadn't even been there. Mr. Richardson was staring at the scene, looking faintly embarrassed.

"Whoopsie," he said.

Derek stared, speechless again.

"Damn good bullets, though," added Mr. Richardson.

Another moment passed in silence.

"Son," said Mr. Richardson, "help me get them back to the van."

Derek gave his father a hollow look. "'Back to the van'?" he echoed.

Mr. Richardson explained reasonably, "If we leave them here, bears will poop on them."

After yet another moment, Derek shrugged. "I certainly can't argue with logic like that."

It seemed like days had passed, but when Mr. Richardson pulled the van back into his driveway, son in the passenger seat and three corpses in the back, less than ninety minutes had passed since the failed but nonetheless destined to become legendary Leaping Out Of The Tree gambit.

"Son," said Mr. Richardson reassuringly, "you go inside and say hi to the family, and I'll take care of the cargo."

Derek nodded and exited the van, muttering, "We're calling them 'cargo' now..."

He trudged up to the door and entered the house. The warm air was a welcome change from the cold of outdoors and the unheated van. He made a beeline for the tissue box.

"Hello, dear," said Mrs. Richardson, joining him in the living room. She had a pleasant but vacant expression on her face, presumably because she hadn't yet dealt with Edwin turning out to be a figment of her imagination. "How'd it go? Did your father shoot anything?"

Derek twitched. "Yes. Yes, he did."

"Well, good!" beamed Mrs. Richardson. "I'm glad things went so well."


"So where's your father now?"

Derek gestured vaguely toward the door. "He had to take care of something. He'll be in in a few minutes." He turned to head upstairs.

A thought occurred to his mother. "He didn't go hunting with the handgun, did he?"

"No," Derek admitted. "He used an AK-47."

"Oh," said his mother. "Well, I guess that makes sense."

Derek managed another "Mm" and went up the stairs.

"Mom?" asked Tina, who had been listening from the next room. "Isn't that a machine gun? Why would dad use a machine gun to go deer hunting?"

Mrs. Richardson put a comforting hand on her daughter's shoulder. "Because he has a small penis, dear."

The front door opened and Mr. Richardson came in, an urgency in his stride and a worried look on his face. He noticed his wife and quickly masked it. "Good afternoon, dear. Good afternoon, Tina. What'cha talkin' 'bout?"

Tina covered her mouth. "Excuse me. I think I'm going to be sick." She turned and sprinted from the room.

Mr. Richardson watched her go, concerned. "There seems to be a lot of that going around." He considered for a moment, then asked, "Derek came in, right?"

"Yes, he just went upstairs."

"Thanks." He turned and followed his son up the stairs. After a quick search, he found Derek in his room, stretched out face down across his bed.

"Son," said Mr. Richardson, "could you come back outside with me for a moment?"

Derek groaned into his pillow, then turned so he could speak clearly. "What do you need my help for?"

Mr. Richardson shuffled his feet, uncomfortable, then finally admitted, "They won't fit."

Derek considered this a minute longer, blinked as that registered, then rolled over and sat up. "'They won't fit'?" he echoed.

Behind the house, along the property line, was a long row of hedges, about seven feet tall, which ran from midway down one side of the house to the back corner of the property, straight along to the other back corner, and then halfway down the other side. The tool shed was hidden in one of the back corners, tucked away in a small section of yard almost completely surrounded by more hedges, out of sight of anyone or anything except the birds. Mr. Richardson sometimes called it his yard cubicle, though in truth he felt the tool shed was an eyesore and would reflect badly on him should the neighbors ever see it.

At the moment, the lawnmower, the rakes, and everything else normally in the shed was tossed off haphazardly to one side. Instead, to Derek's horrified amazement, the tool shed was completely packed with dead bodies.

Mr. Richardson ignored the look on his son's face and walked right up to the shed, stepping over Frank in the process. He reached into the shed and started pulling bodies out and lining them up on one side.

"I started putting them out here until I could figure out what to do with them," he explained. "I figured people would notice if I just rented a dumpster and threw them all in. Mr. O'Connell's in jail awaiting trial so I can't just keep dumping them on his porch. I don't have an incinerator and this many bodies would jam up our garbage disposal. I thought they'd keep out here until I came up with some way to get rid of them, but, well, the bodies started piling up faster than I expected."

Derek stared, speechless.

"It's really not as bad as it looks," consoled Mr. Richardson.

Derek blinked and looked closer. It looked worse.

"Edwin," he muttered, quickly identifying his brother among the pile of corpses. He tore his eyes away from his brother and looked at the others.

"That's Edwin's best friend, Jeff," Derek muttered, identifying each body in turn as he went. "There's Mr. Snyder, the school's truant officer... There's our neighbor, Mrs. Collins... And that's—um, jeez, who in the world is that?"

Mr. Richardson looked over his son's shoulder. "You know, I'm really not sure," he admitted. "I think she may have been here to read the water meter."

Derek nodded, then looked at the next one. He followed the leash, then asked, "You shot that guy's dog, too?"

"I went outside one day and saw the dog crapping on our lawn."

"Ew," muttered Derek.

Mr. Richardson pointed at the next one. "Dunno who this one is, but he was wearing a Yankees cap."

Derek nodded. "Okay, that one makes sense." He looked at the next one. "I don't recognize him, either."

"That's my boss at work."

"Really? Kind of a dream come true, hunh?'

"Son," said Mr. Richardson passionately, "you will never know." He sighed. "I don't know how to get them all into the tool shed. It's not large enough." He considered. "Maybe I should shoot the bodies again."

Derek looked at him. "How exactly will shooting the bodies again help?"

"Have you got any better ideas?" his father countered.

"Well, you could, um..." Derek faltered, considered, tried again. "You could always try, er, that is to say..." He trailed off. "There's always the option of... Hm."

Mr. Richardson waited, then prompted, "So?"

Derek shrugged. "So you might as well shoot them again."

Mr. Richardson nodded, pulled out his handgun, and put several more shots into his boss. Derek noted that somewhere along the away his father had acquired a silencer. After shooting his boss, Mr. Richardson put a couple more shots into the Yankees fan. Then he stood and stared at the bodies for a while longer.

"Did that help?" asked Derek.

His father considered. "Not directly. But it did make me feel a bit better."

Derek nodded. "Well, there you go, then."

They were interrupted by a loud gasp from behind them. They turned to see Mrs. Richardson staring in utter horror at the scene before her. It looked like her brain was still refusing to accept what her eyes were telling it. Her mouth moved, trying to form words, finally pushing one out in a strangled whisper.


Mr. Richardson frowned, tried to sound reassuring. "Now, dear, there's a perfectly reasonable..."

A little louder: "Police..."

"Dear, there's no reason to..."

A normal tone, fury and hysteria underneath it: "Police..."


Mrs. Richardson opened her mouth again, and this time it was going to be a scream from the very bottom of her soul. Knowing what would quickly follow the attention that would bring, her husband, thinking quickly, aimed his handgun at her and fired. Mrs. Richardson went down as if poleaxed.

"Mom?" came Tina's voice from across the yard. Mr. Richardson listened as she approached, and then stepped out and shot her as well. After Tina crumpled, Mr. Richardson calmly dragged the two women back into the yard cubicle, out of sight.

"Dad!" shouted Derek, borderline apoplectic. "What the hell did you do that for?!"

"Do you want the police to find out about this?" countered Mr. Richardson.

"I don't want you shooting family members!" sidestepped Derek. "How do I know you won't shoot me next?"

"I would never shoot my own son."

"You shot Edwin," Derek countered.

"Who's Edwin?" he asked.

"Don't try pulling that crap with me!"

"Okay, okay," conceded Mr. Richardson. "Look, let's just wander casually back to the house and figure out our next move. Remember, casually."

With that, Mr. Richardson put his arms casually behind his back, startled whistling off-tune to himself, looked up toward the darkening evening sky, and wandered slowly toward the house. The overall effect was one of extreme guilt.

Derek followed him, walking normally, and entered the house just behind his father. He followed him through the dining room, across the kitchen, into the foyer, and over to the living room before it occurred to him that his father might just wander around the house forever.

Before Derek could say something to get his attention, Mr. Richardson spun suddenly toward him. His gun was in his hand, but it was aimed at the floor. He bolted to Derek and handed the gun to him.

"Son," said Mr. Richardson urgently, "I'm going to go get some help. If anyone comes looking for your sister or mother, shoot them. I'll be right back."

"But... Bu... WHAT?!" screeched Derek, but his father was already out the door.

It was pitch black when Mr. Richardson returned home. He entered the house and found Derek sitting at the foot of the stairs, head lowered, lost in thought. A single bulb shining out from the kitchen provided the only light.

Mr. Richardson grabbed his son by one arm and led him into the kitchen. "Good news!" he said.

Derek looked at him, lifelessly. "That would be a switch."

"Our problems are solved," crowed Mr. Richardson. "Everything is going to be okay."

Derek was completely baffled. He said, "Okay, I'm completely baffled. How are our problems solved?"

"Like this!" said Mr. Richardson, smiling brightly, handing Derek an envelope. Not seeing any better alternative, he opened it and checked out the contents.

There were several pieces of paper inside, including a birth certificate and a social security card. The one that leaped out at Derek was the driver's license. It had his most recent school picture on it, only a cartoon sombrero was rather badly superimposed on top of his head, and someone had used a pen to add a thick handlebar mustache. The license was made out to Habib Sanchez and listed his age as forty-six.

Utterly confused, Derek turned to his father. "Dad, what on Earth is—" He was cut off as his father briefly reached out to him and put a hand over his mouth. At first Derek thought he was being silenced, but he quickly realized that something was stuck to his face. He reached up and discovered that his father had applied, somewhat crookedly, a large fake handlebar mustache.

His father smiled at him. "You were saying, Habib?"

Derek stared. "This is a joke, right?"

"I have no idea whatsoever to whatever it is to which you currently are referring, Habib," said Mr. Richardson in a bad Spanish accent. "We must hurry. I have plane tickets for this evening's aerial transportation flight with which we shall henceforth currently be returning to the motherland forthwith."

It took Derek a moment to puzzle out the meaning of the statement through all the stilted speech patterns. Just as he figured it out, his father handed him another piece of paper. Derek took it and read it. It was a plane ticket to...

"Spain!? We're going to SPAIN!?"

"Ah, yes," waxed Mr. Richardson, looking wistful. "For how long I have longed to once again see upon my gaze the fertile lands of my home, the people, the architecture, the, uh, the mud huts, the squalor... um, the munificent peasantry... Don Quixote... Er... Help me out here, Habib."

"DAD!" shouted Derek, reaching up and tearing off the fake mustache. "OW! Dammit..." He rubbed his upper lip and winced slightly. "Dad, I am not Habib, and we are not going to Spain."

"Son," said Mr. Richardson plaintively, "we have to. We can't hide the bodies forever, and besides, this plan is foolproof."

"This plan was Earl's idea, wasn't it?"

Mr. Richardson blinked. "How did you know?"

Derek covered his face with both hands and groaned softly.

"What else can we do?" his father asked him wearily.

And a thought occurred to Derek.

"Dad," he said slowly, "I think you had the right idea before... You just chose the wrong place."

"Of course!" said Mr. Richardson, filled with new hope and energy. "What was I thinking, running off to Spain? I'm an idiot!" He stood taller, prouder. "Mongolia, here we come!"

"No no no, that's not what I meant at all. I meant Mr. O'Connell's porch, not Spain. Here, sit down and I'll explain..."

They only took five bodies with them, because that's how many people Mr. Richardson had shot since the last time the bodies had all fit in the tool shed, where they had all been placed again. The five bodies Derek and his father had decided on were the guy in the Yankees cap, Mr. Snyder, Mr. Richardson's boss, the mailman, and the jerk who always drove around at 6 AM with his car's bass cannon blasting at maximum volume waking up everyone in the neighborhood until Mr. Richardson had finally had enough and went out one morning and waved the guy down and then shot the bastard twice in the head and no one cared what had happened because they were just glad the guy was finally gone, especially the guy's wife.

Mr. Richardson pulled the van to a stop on the side of a wooded stretch of road that ran behind an upscale housing development. Some years earlier, playing outside a family friend's home, Derek had discovered a neat hollow at the base of an old tree. The way the tree roots ran and the way the ground wore around it, there was enough space for several people. The five bodies didn't quite fit in it, but Derek and Mr. Richardson covered them up with some leaves. Then they got the hell out of there, and placed a call...

PALMERTON (AP)—A string of unexplained disappearances that baffled local law enforcement officials was solved when an anonymous phone call led authorities to the bodies.

Earl Grant, 41, was charged with 116 counts of homicide committed over a nine week period, after five bodies were found hidden in the woods behind his house and another hundred ten bodies were discovered jammed into the back yard tool shed of a coworker.

The coworker's identity has not yet been released because his wife and two of his children are among the victims. Victim lists are being withheld until all the bodies are identified and their families notified.

The discovery led to the release of Ken O'Connell, who had been in custody for the murder of a newspaper delivery man over two months ago. O'Connell has been cleared of all charges.

"I have never, in all my years in law enforcement, seen anything as horrible as this," Police Chief Eddie Peters, a lifelong Palmerton resident, said of the murders. "It's absolutely monstrous."

Peters added that there would be charges of abuse of corpse filed as well, as some of the bodies had been shot again long after they were dead.

Grant's house is still be carefully searched after officers serving the arrest warrant discovered over thirty illegal firearms and at least one handheld missile launcher.

"It's a tragic, tragic situation," stated David Williams, president of the local chapter of the NRA. "But we must be careful not to let anyone exploit this unfortunate circumstance to deny decent god-fearing law-abiding citizens their Constitutional right to possess handheld missile launchers."

Williams added that he hopes and prays Grant receives a fair trial "despite the overwhelming evidence against him."

No motive has yet been determined for the serial killings. Though Grant's boss and several coworkers number among the victims, they seem overall to have been chosen randomly.

In a fiery statement released to the press through his attorney, Grant claimed that he was innocent of all counts of homicide and vowed to fight


It had taken nearly three weeks, but the police had finally completed their efforts to gather evidence at the Richardson household, and their home was once again their own. Derek was glad of it; the condolences and sympathy at school followed by the presence of about fourteen different law enforcement agencies scouring the yard left little refuge from recent events.

It didn't help that all of Edwin's belongings were back in his room. They'd switched the room back to normal before making the anonymous call, because they had felt it easier than trying to plausibly explain why Edwin didn't have a bedroom in his own home. Derek expected that once things settled down again, Edwin's things would once again end up back in the basement behind the furnace, or else find their way straight to the trash.

In the meantime, Derek was getting used to being a latchkey kid and having the house to himself for a while. He found he rather liked it, though it tended to get lonely at times. For the first time in his life, he realized that he wasn't looking forward to Christmas, now only a few weeks away.

It was dark and a gentle snow was falling when Mr. Richardson arrived home from work, as usual, at 5:45 sharp. Derek met him in the kitchen, where Mr. Richardson had pulled out an unwieldy pile of recipes and was leafing through them, looking less than enthused.

"There's got to be something in here that humans can actually eat," he muttered. "I don't know what was thinking, making this crap for all those years. Where did she even FIND these things?" Separating part of the stack, he said to Derek, "Here, help me look."

Father and son looked through the piles of recipes for a few minutes in silence.

"Hey, dad?" offered Derek.


"I've got an idea." With that, he took his pile of recipes, and the pile his father was looking through, and he dumped them both in the trash. Then he went to the refrigerator, opened it, and pulled out two jars. "How does peanut butter and jelly sound?"

Mr. Richardson frowned. "Do those go together?"

Derek smiled. "Trust me."

"We'd better hurry, then," Mr. Richardson said. "The news will be on soon." Together the two of them made some sandwiches, then started for the living room, only to have Mr. Richardson slam to a halt the moment he stepped into the dining room.

"The table's back," he said.

Derek stepped around him and nodded. "Yeah, the play was Friday night, so after school today we brought it back home."

His father considered for a moment, then slowly, as if unsure of his movements, he walked around the dining room, circling the table. Then he carefully pulled out a chair and sat in his customary seat. Derek sat down in the seat next to his father, which had been Edwin's customary seat.

After a moment, Mr. Richardson commented, "This is much better."

"Yes it is," agreed Derek.

They ate in silence for a time.

"I didn't like the news at all," Mr. Richardson commented. "It scared me."

"I'd gotten that impression," agreed Derek.

They ate in silence for a while longer.

"Derek," said Mr. Richardson, "you're a good son. I just wanted you to know that."

A smile spread slowly across his son's face.

"Thanks, dad," he said.

Return to the writings page.