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Episode One


Mom and Dad Disapprove

Danny lay face-down on his old bed in his parents' house for the first time in years. He had a musty pillow stuffed into his mouth as far as it would go, and another clamped over his head. He was breathing through his nose, and it made a whistling sound. He wasn't getting much air. He felt dizzy and sick, and the whistling sound wove through the thunk-thunk, thunk-thunk of the pulse in his skull.

But even through the pillows, the whistling, and the thunk-thunk, even through the closed door, he could hear his father and the TV out in the living room.

"Good God," his father was saying. "God almighty. What in God's name? God in Heaven." As far back as Danny could remember, his father had called on God like this, no matter what the situation. When Danny had fouled out in Little League. When his mother had miscarried what would have been Danny's little sister. When the refrigerator had leaked all its Freon, and the cottage cheese had gone bad. It was as if Dad thought God had an equal interest in everything.

The words from the TV were less distinct. But that was just as well, because Danny knew what would happen if he heard them. It was all he could do to control himself as it was. He couldn't decide whether the pillow jammed into his mouth was helping, or whether it was tickling his uvula and making things worse.

"For the love of God," his father said. "Louise, they're calling him 'Laughin' Boy.' God have mercy." This was said as if Dad knew that God would do no such thing.

It wasn't funny. It wasn't funny at all, so Danny couldn't stop himself. The pillow blew out of his mouth as he roared, and he scrambled to stuff it back in.

"God help us," his father said.

The pillow blew out again. Danny slapped the mattress, howled, and rolled off onto the floor. The walls shook as he landed. Then the door opened and whacked him in the head. It hurt like hell, so Danny laughed even harder.

"Oh honey, I'm sorry," his mother said as she came into the room. "What are you doing on the floor?"

Danny flopped onto his back and clamped a hand over his mouth as he looked up at Mom. She was wearing her church clothes and peering at him upside-down. Her face was framed by the star chart he had thumbtacked to the ceiling twenty years ago, and her octagonal-lensed eyeglasses had slid so far down her nose that she looked as if she had little Stop signs on her cheeks.

Now the laughter subsided, so Danny sat up and gulped air. His head was ringing, but he couldn't tell how much of that was from laughing and how much was from being whacked by the door.

"Thanks, Mom," he said. "That was a bad one." He tried to stand up, but he was still dizzy, so he sat on the edge of the bed instead.

Mom pushed her glasses up from the end of her nose. They slid right back down again.

"You have to see a doctor, dear," she said. Her voice had the same strained tone as when he'd wrecked the family Dodge on his eighteenth birthday. "It's obvious that something has gone off kilter in your noodle. One of your cannons is rolling around on your poopdeck." She hesitated. "It probably has something to do with how badly that Karen has treated you. You do have health insurance, don't you? Or don't they do that at community colleges? I still think you should have applied for that job at Wichita State."

Danny's dizziness began to fade. "Karen hasn't treated me badly," he said. It was mostly true. She had kept their house and insisted on custody of their five-year-old daughter, but she had also taken over the mortgage payments and hadn't asked Danny for anything except child support. And she let him see Lindy almost any time he wanted. "Besides, we split up over a year ago. Whatever's wrong with me now doesn't have anything to do with her."

His voice was hoarse, his throat hurt, and he was exhausted. He hadn't slept more than an hour in the past twenty-four.

"I don't understand why you always stick up for her," Mom said. "Unless that's a symptom of whatever illness she's inflicted on you."

Danny knew that arguing was pointless. His mother had the gift of looking past the obvious in order to focus on the irrelevant, and that ability overwhelmed any argument. It was also what had gotten her through Dad's layoffs, her miscarriages, and her parents' deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning. Among other things.

But skirting the reality of the current situation might not work out so well. "Mom, I think my 'illness' is more likely the result of what happened yesterday. Don't you?"

He had to suppress a chuckle as he spoke. Just mentioning yesterday's events made him visualize them all over again, and that in turn provoked the urge to laugh.

Mom frowned. "Daniel, the Lord saw fit to spare you, so you should thank Him and let Him take the burden in your stead." She put her hand on the doorknob. "Now you'd better get cleaned up if you're coming to church. Just because your father's decided to lie around instead of giving an hour to Jesus is no reason for you to do the same. Especially if you're staying in my house. I'm leaving in fifteen minutes, so hurry up."

Danny stared at her. She was amazing. Her dark blue dress had a flower pinned to its left shoulder. Her graying hair was shellacked and gleaming. Her face was powdered to luminescence, and her lips were as red as a Jolly Rancher cinnamon square. She was ready to go out and face God and everybody. She was ready to sing "Bringing in the Sheaves," chant the Lord's Prayer, and recite a Psalm or two. Either she was incredibly strong in her faith, or she didn't have a clue. But she had always been like this, and Danny had never been able to figure out which it was. Or whether there was a difference.

He started giggling again.

"Stop it, Daniel," Mom said. She sounded peeved now. "If you can't, maybe you shouldn't come to church after all."

Danny tried to keep it down to a giggle, and he succeeded long enough to say, "I think that would be best."

Mom made a noise in her throat, turned, and left the room. She closed the door behind her so hard that the rush of air made the star chart billow and rattle. The sound reminded Danny of his youth, and of the fact that Mom had always seemed disappointed in him. For one thing, she had always wanted him to go to church. And although he had gone, he had never been able to pretend that he'd liked it.

But the thought of attending services today, of all days, was more than merely unappealing. It was appalling.

Danny had seen fathers, mothers, brothers, daughters, and babies ripped apart like pink tissue paper yesterday, and by now every TV viewer on earth had watched him laugh about it. This was no time for him to be showing his face in public.

He already had proof of what a bad idea that would be. Yesterday evening, after the police had taken him to his car at the impound lot and then released him, he hadn't been able to get to his small rental house on Dougherty Street because of a cluster of news vans and a mob of angry citizens clogging the street. The police had told him to expect the news vans, but the mob had come as a shock. In less time than it would have taken him to drive to Topeka, he had become the most hated man in America. Maybe the world. And to top it off, his mother was annoyed with him for his reluctance to accompany her to church as if nothing had happened.

Meanwhile, a large number of Wichita families had funerals to plan.

It was tragic, so Danny laughed. He didn't know why he kept doing that, but he knew he couldn't help it. Once those people at the River Festival had started dying, laughing had been the only thing he could do.

Yesterday evening, after fleeing Dougherty Street before the news cameras and enraged citizens could spot him, he had driven to his parents' home on 53rd Street still wearing his blood-spattered clothing. He had borrowed sweatpants and a T-shirt from Dad, and then Mom had taken his shirt and jeans, shaken her head, and said that she didn't think any of it would come out in the wash. Danny had waited too long, she'd said. He should have soaked his clothes in cold water and detergent right away. But he hadn't, so the stains had set.

Danny had known Mom was only lecturing him about the stains so she wouldn't have to think about what they meant. So he hadn't replied. But what he'd wanted to say was that he had seen the top of a little girl's head fly off like a golden-curled Frisbee, and that he had sort of forgotten about the basics of stain removal after that.

In fact, he had sort of forgotten about everything except how that little girl could have been Lindy . . . if he had insisted on his usual Saturday afternoon with her instead of letting Karen take her to a Disney movie with his ex-mother-in-law instead.

Now Mom thought he should go to church and thank God for sparing him.

"Hoo boy," he said, gasping. His chest ached.

The golden-haired little girl's death wasn't recorded on the videotape the networks were showing, but her body was visible near the spot where Danny could be seen whooping it up. So he was pretty sure that if he went to church today, the Methodists would nail him to a pew, drink gallons of grape juice, and take turns pissing on him. At least, that was what he would do if he were them.

At that thought, it occurred to him that the Methodists might not treat his mother too well, either. After all, she had given birth to a man who laughed when little girls were killed. And there was no telling what the non-Methodists out there might do. They might decide to treat the mother of Laughin' Boy the way the men in camouflage fatigues had treated the people at the Festival.

Even as he guffawed, Danny managed to lurch up from the bed. He got the door open after three tries, and then he staggered down the hall to the living room.

Mom wasn't there, but Dad was sitting in the La-Z-Boy, watching the tube. A grim news anchor was announcing that the death toll from the Festival attack had reached eighty-seven.

"And that," the anchor said, his jaw tense with fury, "is no laughing matter."

Danny almost fell over.

Dad, wearing an orange jumpsuit, his cheeks aglow with razor burn and Aqua Velva, turned and glared. The old man's eyes were enormous.

"What in God's name has gotten into you, Daniel?" Dad asked. He sounded disgusted, frightened, and grouchy all at once. Disgusted and grouchy were normal, but Danny had never heard Dad sound frightened before.

Danny struggled to get himself under control enough to speak. "I guess I'm—yeeeawhawhawuh—sick."

Dad looked back at the television. "The news people seem to think you're crazy. My God, you're not crazy, are you, son?"

Danny didn't answer, because he was afraid that maybe he was.

Out in the driveway, a car engine started. Danny had assumed that Mom was in the bathroom—but no, she had decided not to wait the fifteen minutes she had promised. Danny had chosen not to thank God, so neither God nor Mom was going to cut him any slack.

Mom was going to face the wrath of the Methodists alone.

Danny turned away from his father, yanked open the front door, and ran outside. Mom's Chevy Lumina was backing out to the street as Danny's feet hit the porch—and at that moment, a blue-and-white police car began pulling in. And Mom wasn't looking backward. She was looking at Danny. So Danny tried to yell for her to stop, but she had her windows up.

The Lumina's rear bumper crunched into the police car's grille, and both cars stopped dead with a whump.

Then a black sedan pulled in and hit the police car from behind.

There was a sound like a siren and then another like an explosion, but those sounds didn't come from the police car or the black sedan. They came from the other side of the high wooden fence that separated Danny's parents' tiny plot of land from the rest of the world.

Danny fell off the porch laughing as the first firebomb came sailing into the yard.



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