The boy was 10 years old, a fair-haired moppet with a face full of freckles and a gap-toothed smile. He stood knee-deep in fresh-fallen snow, his cheeks as red as barn paint.
"There ain't nothing I like better than building snow forts and sliding down big hills," he told me. "Winter is the best thing ever. Even better than pizza and root beer, I reckon."
His father, a strapping man with broad shoulders and a lantern jaw, tousled the boy's hair. Or his hat or something. In a booming voice he said: "This little fella would play in the snow all day long and all night, too, if we didn't make him come inside once in while."
The big man grinned a moment but it faded and was soon replaced by a look of faraway horror.
"Hard to believe the boy was dead just a week ago."
At this, the lad's mother gasped. She was a rotund woman in hat, mittens and scarf she knitted herself. A matronly sort who baked apple pies for the homeless and brought canned goods to elderly shut-ins. The memory was hard for her. As she tried to stifle it, her husband's arm went around her considerable waist.
"There, there, mother. The boy is fine now. Just look at him, with cheeks like apples and a heart as big as our Thanksgiving turkey."
"Yes, dear," mom said. "I just hate to recollect it."
Just the weekend before, the boy had fallen through the ice while chasing a bunny across a frozen pond. He would surely have died if it not for the family dog, a golden retriever named Scout who jumped in after him.
"We didn't see either of them again for 15 minutes," the dad told me. "Then both boy and dog emerged from a fishing hole on the other side of the pond. They were wet and shivering like trees in a storm, but they were fine. Just fine. Isn't that right, Mother?"
Little Timmy shook it off, the drama of the previous weekend already forgotten.
"Scout looks after me," he said. "He's the best friend a boy could have. Why, he's the best dog in the world, I'm sure of it. Ain't that right, Paw? Maw?"
Paw and Maw nodded lovingly. Suddenly, a dinosaur stomped out of the woods and ate the entire family in one gulp. Somewhere in the distance, a dog barked. It wasn't Scout. Scout was eaten, too.
It was really something to see.
You may have surmised that none of this ever happened. There was no beaming boy, barrel-chested dad or portly mom. I had you going for a minute or two, though, didn't I? You wanted to believe. You wanted to believe that there are still families out there who say things like "I reckon" and "golly gee." And maybe there are such people, but I never run into them. When I try to interview a child, at a parade or at the bottom of a sledding hill, by and large I get responses that consist of little more than, "Yup," "Nope" or "Whatever."
Stupid kids. Which is why that reporter lady in Cape Cod made up her sources instead of relying on the banal chatter of the real world.
I have a measure of sympathy for her, you know. She had been removed from the crime beat and forced to write — gag me — features. And since she didn't enjoy trying to siphon meaningful words out of real people, she just made them up. It saved her from painful exchanges like this one.
"How are you enjoying the parade, little 8-year-old boy who I am not making up?"
"What's your favorite part?"
"That's nice. Can you say more than one word at a time?"
So, you can see why she did it. Instead of grunts and pointless one-word quotes, she delivered rich dialogue to her readers. And really, who was harmed by this foray into fictional news?
Me, that's who. And anybody who writes news for a living. Because every time a story like this emerges, the average newspaper reader looks at his wife across the breakfast table (she makes a really nice omelet) and says: "I KNEW it!"
Somewhere deep down, in the cynical caverns of that thing you call a soul, haven't you always suspected that half the dialogue you read in news reports is made up?
Well, it's not. Not mine, anyway. I give you my word that I have never made up a source or a bit of dialogue. Because I'm a conscientious soul who couldn't live with his or herself if he or she were to betray the readers and his or her own journalistic integrity in such a way. It would keep him or her up at night.
But there's also the matter of the questionnaires, simple forms the wise Sun Journal leaders send out to people who have been quoted in stories. Was your name spelled right? Were the facts reported correctly? Did the reporter smell at all like a bong?
That kind of thing. Which means the Sun Journal leaders are not just getting feedback on the skills of the journalist, they are also verifying that the people quoted exist in the real world. They have real families, real jobs, real pants and everything. It's brilliant, frankly. It guarantees that no reporter can get away with tomfoolery when it comes to on-the-street interviews. The reporter has to be at the actual parade and has to get words from actual people, dull though they may be.
So, you can rest your weary head and enjoy your omelet. Other than the nice family above, who are now being passed through the tyrannosaurus' digestive system, I have never betrayed you with fake information. I have betrayed you with boring information and occasional whining, but it's real, every bit of it.
But here. Don't take my word for it. I brought along my great friend and mentor, Jebediah Sneed, to provide verification. Jebediah?
"I have known Mark LaFlamme all of my life and I can say with no ambiguity that not only is he the most honest and upright individual I have ever met, he also smells fantastic."
Thank you, Jebediah, and thank you, readers. NOTE TO QUESTIONNAIRE PEOPLE: No need to send one of your forms to Jebediah. He's out of town this week. And he has a flu. Not to mention an ailing mother to care for. You understand.
Mark LaFlamme is a Sun Journal staff writer. He or she cares deeply about journalistic ethics and stuff. Email him or her at firstname.lastname@example.org.