The kitchen was already alive with the sticky sweet scent of jam and eggs when Phil came down the stairs and saw Laura at the stove, spatula in one hand, firm grip on a skillet with the other.
“Morning, honey,” she cheerfully called out.
Phil smiled, still fussing with his tie. “Good morning, my sweet cupcake.”
From underneath the table, Phil’s bull terrier Ramsey lazily swaggered over to him, eager for an approaching breakfast handout; Phil playfully scratched behind the dog’s ear before sitting down. Carefully arranged around him at the table were eight plates and eight glasses, coupled with eight sets of utensils.
“Kids aren’t up yet?” He asked, unfurling the rolled-up newspaper placed beside his own plate. Laura gestured to the bathroom just beyond the kitchen while she poured Phil’s coffee.
“Brandy’s taking a shower. I heard Sarah doing something upstairs.”
Phil took a sip from his mug. It was a novelty cup, old and stained around the rim from years of repeated use, the phrase NUMBER ONE DAD! stamped along the front in bold red letters. Phil smiled wider, remembering when Brandy had given it to him for his birthday years before. She’d only been seven then, and sometimes it bewildered him that his eldest was now prospecting universities instead of hawking Girl Scout cookies.
Sipping some more coffee, Phil spied the front page headline and groaned, loud enough for Laura to hear above the crackle of the eggs.
“What is it?”
“A body was found in Mero Park yesterday,” Phil read aloud. “Louise Proppet, 23, was discovered by some joggers. Police say there was evidence of extensive torture and a rudimentary attempt to sever the head. Sexual assault was the probable motive.”
Pangs of tension streaked across Phil’s temples and unconsciously he began massaging them. Laura brought the pan over then, heaping eggs onto Phil’s plate before snatching the newspaper and folding it so he couldn’t see the headline. “Phil, you know this stuff upsets you, so don’t even spoil your day reading it. Just leave it alone and eat your breakfast.”
Phil sighed, peppering his eggs. “I know, I know. You’re right. I’m a born masochist. What else can I say?”
Before he could take a bite, Brandy walked in, and for a second Phil thought she was a waking phantom of Laura, twenty-five years before, they looked so similar; Laura’s thumbs, though, wouldn’t have been a blur of furious texting. Phil swore he didn’t know how Brandy could help from running into things, but somehow she managed to navigate the kitchen to the refrigerator and pour herself a glass of orange juice, all without looking up from her phone.
“No cell at breakfast, Brandy. How many times do I have to say it?” Laura carped from the stove, clearly not as impressed with her daughter’s delicate balancing act as Phil was. With a grumble Brandy pocketed the phone and sat down.
Phil said nothing, but couldn’t help picturing Brandy as that little girl who’d so proudly given him the mug he drank from. It was those cherished memories that made everything else worthwhile. Just with Brandy alone he remembered so many tiny instances of joy: her first steps, trips to amusement parks, birthday parties, bake sales and school plays.
He also happened to recall that Brandy was named after the first person he had ever murdered.
That Brandy he’d known in college, a sweet girl from Iowa who helped run the campus radio station. He remembered her close-cropped red hair and blue eyes, and the way her apartment was always messy, like a thief had freshly ransacked the place.
It had been a snowy night in January when he met her outside the broadcasting booth. The flakes fell hypnotically as they went back to her place; untidy or not, tonight was the night. The whole drive they couldn’t keep their hands off each other, but once in the bedroom, Phil, for the life of him, couldn’t keep things going. From somewhere deep within, a dark, roiling rage slithered to the surface as he glanced back and forth at the naked, squirming girl beneath him and the limp noodle of flesh dangling between his legs that refused to answer lust’s clarion call. The black miasma spread throughout his being, and before he knew it he’d smashed in Brandy’s skull with the bedside lamp, smashed it so bloody you couldn’t even recognize the face amid the pulp. Patiently he’d pulled the teeth from the wreckage of the head with pliers and sheared off fingertips with sewing scissors before dumping the body in the river.
Brandy. His first. Now his daughter.
“Dad? Hello?” Brandy waved a hand in front of Phil’s face, snapping him back to the present. “Are you in there?”
“Just thinking.” Phil said. Brandy laughed.
“You were seriously zoned out. Like, gone-to-Mars zoned out. What were you thinking about?”
“How you got your name,” he replied. Before Brandy could query any further, Sarah came in.
Sarah was fifteen, and like most girls her age, an animated atomic storm that could chatter a mile a minute, even if sometimes to Phil she seemed to be speaking some foreign language he could barely translate; everything was LOL, TMI and OMG!
“How is everyone today?” Sarah asked, upbeat as ever. As Laura was about to heave some eggs on her plate, Sarah pointed a neon-pink polished finger at the pan, her cute features curdling.
“Mom, I don’t do eggs.”
Laura’s hand froze mid-scoop. “Since when?”
“Since I became a vegan,” Sarah said, perkiness gone. A bemused smile spread across Laura’s face.
“Yeah. No more meat or dairy or eggs or leather for me. It’s inhumane.”
Laura’s smile grew. “This from the same girl who ate a bacon cheeseburger and declared it part of the best meal she’d ever had?”
“I’ve changed a bit since then, Mom.”
“It was only last night.”
“Don’t we have any organic muffins or anything?”
“Not that I know of.” Frustration slid into Laura’s voice. “Settle for a regular old artificially sweetened cinnamon bagel?”
Sarah rolled her eyes. “If I must.”
Phil watched the standoff between mother and daughter, watched and remembered.
Sarah he had met a few years after college when he was a delivery boy in the city. She was a paralegal assistant who later admitted she checked his ass out first in the elevator. Phil recalled how she loved movies and would talk about Audrey Hepburn’s greatness until she was blue in the face. She’d been tall and blonde and perfect.
It had been Phil’s suggestion for a campout in the desert, to which Sarah, ever the ardent nature lover, readily agreed. She was still basking in the glorious landscapes when he strangled her with the piano wire he’d brought with him. Later he skinned and dismembered her, scattering the parts for coyote food before driving back to the city alone. Years later, when Laura gave birth to their second, Phil couldn’t think of a better name.
“Uh-oh, he’s got that thousand-yard stare again,” Brandy said to Sarah, giggling out loud.
“What’s so funny?” A husky voice called out from the hall. Moments later Tobey strode into the kitchen, pulling a Bruins jersey over his head. At thirteen, he was caught in that age between being interested in hockey and Hustler. Close on Tobey’s heels was Marissa; she was twelve, awkward with freckles and glasses, but absolutely insistent she was headed to Harvard to cure every ailment known to man.
“Dad’s just acting like a dork again,” Sarah said, spreading jam on a bagel. Tobey sat, nodding a cute agreement that garnered a wounded look from Phil.
“E tu, Tobey? Have you turned against me?” Phil dramatically clenched his chest, theatrical anguish on his face; around the table, all the children laughed.
“There, there, Mr. De Niro. We still love you.” Marissa patted Phil on the back.
“Dad’s way funnier than De Niro,” Tobey said, pouring some juice. “He’s, like, Sandler or someone like that.”
Marissa scowled. “No way.”
“He is too.”
Bickering, Phil thought. Tobey and Marissa were always bickering. So was the pair of high-maintenance yuppies he’d encountered back in the eighties. Greed was God then, and everywhere people were prepared to sacrifice anything on the Altar of Avarice. Tobey had been some Wall Street investor whose main pastime was snorting half of Manhattan’s mutual funds up his nose; Marissa was a rich-bitch slut who’d fuck anything that moved if it looked like it would improve her status. Phil had met them with Laura at a cocktail party and afterwards stalked them back to their condo, where the eternal fire within blazed to the surface once again. He shot them each in the head, the brains they never utilized splattering across thousand-dollar wallpaper. Tobey he dissected and burned bits of in the fireplace. Most of Marissa he ate.
Tobey. Marissa. Proof that good names could be wasted on the wrong people.
“You’re picking me up after hockey practice tonight, right Dad?” Tobey asked. Phil turned to Laura.
“I thought you--” He didn’t get any further before his wife pointed to the red circle over the current day’s date on the wall calendar. Red was Phil’s pick up day. Sheepishly he glanced at his son.
“I guess I am.” He answered. Tobey grinned enormously.
“Awesome. Can we get pizza on the way home?”
Phil shrugged. “We’ll see.”
Just then a stampede of tiny feet echoed down the hall before two identical girls scampered into the kitchen so quickly they almost collided with the table.
“I win! I was here first!” One cried. A pout wove across the face of the other.
“Cheater! You started before me!”
The argument between the pair raged until Laura placed a box of cereal between them, each girl abandoning their disagreement in favor of Count Chocula.
Mandy and Jessica. The twins. They were eight, and had been a complete surprise to both Laura and Phil when the pregnancy was discovered. Of the pair, Jessica was eldest by five and a half minutes. More than any of the other children, the girls were a constant whirlwind of madcap momentum, so much so that in his mind, Phil sometimes referred to them as the Fireball Twins.
He had met Mandy on a business trip. He’d made it to regional manager by then, and though he was truly in love with Laura, Phil couldn’t resist the charm and wit and curves of the young brunette lawyer. When Mandy laughed, the world was exultant. When they were together that evening, Phil calmly reached for the gas can he'd strategically placed by the bed. In a matter of seconds she went up like a Roman candle, her screams making him drunk with pleasure.
A few weeks later Phil tried it again, the Fireball Stunt, on Jessica, a woman he met at an office party. Her whole condominium caught fire with her, which pleased Phil all the more. Jessica’s yappy dog went up in flames with it. She’d called it Ramsey, just like his dog.
All around Phil, the kitchen, filled with the serene scents of fresh coffee and eggs moments before, had transformed into a daft, chaotic din: the twins argued over who should rightfully claim the cereal-box toy while Tobey ranted about hockey and Marissa tried to conduct a science experiment on her food, the whole time Brandy and Sarah rapturously gushed about some hot boy they knew. Next to Phil, Laura finally sat down to her own breakfast and for the briefest of moments their eyes locked, an exasperated smile passing between them.
After a few minutes, the heavy hiss of school bus brakes filled the air, and the older children rushed out the door after it. Not much later Phil told the twins it was time for their own ride, and before Phil went out to the minivan with them he hugged Laura.
“Another crazy morning, huh?”
Laura sighed. “Sometimes I swear the kids are going to drive me nuts,” she paused, smiling. “But you know, there are times I actually think I want to have another baby.”
Phil squeezed her tighter and gazed at the folded newspaper on the kitchen table, a gleam coming to him that she couldn’t see.
“That’s wonderful, honey,” he said. “I’ve got the perfect name.”