By now you must have all heard of the story of the boy who was thought to be flying thousands of feet above the ground in a fly-away balloon. Alone, cold, scared and in mortal danger. As an entire nation (and probably a good portion of the rest of the world) followed every twist and turn in this improbable tale, we were sick with fear for the boy, we felt sorry for the parents and, finally and happily, we were relieved when we were told that the young boy was safe and sound and on solid ground.
Little did we know that the tale had yet another incredible twist left in it - turns out, if what the police say is true, the entire story is a hoax. We were set up, we were suckered in, and our emotions played on, just so the parents, allegedly, could attain their ultimate goal of appearing on a television reality show. The Larry King Interview where the six-year-old Falcon Heene suggested that he was told to hide in the attic of their home (fully stocked with snacks) "for the show", more television interviews where the boy threw up on camera, the subsequent police investigations, and now news that the parents had hired lawyers to defend them and were ready to surrender to the police - each one of them leading to stratospheric levels of disbelief and leaving a bad taste in the mouth.
The daily news and the internet are chock full of reactions to this story, all, as you can imagine, expressing shock, disgust and anger, even a feeling of being betrayed.
It also left in me a sense of wonder. The act of crying "wolf!" had undergone a seismic shift in tone. No longer was a lone boy yelling from the top of a mountain to the people in the village below. If the story does turn out to be a hoax, what we saw was grown people - a mother and father to boot - calling news stations directly with desperate appeals for news helicopters to chase the errant balloon, calling the police, imploring them for emergency help, giving hysterical television interviews over the telephone, and appearing on camera to perpetuate sympathy for an ordeal they had not suffered.
How we - the villagers in the ancient fable but in the twenty-first century a nation punk'd - behave the next time around may not be apparent right now but might become all too clear when we turn on the television and come upon another father crying inconsolably on camera at the disappearance of his child, begging for help.
What will we do then? Will we watch, riveted to our seats, and pray for the safe return of the child? Or did Aesop already give us the answer all those centuries ago? Will we roll our eyes, click the remote and move on to the next channel?
Updated to add a link to Wikipedia's page on Aesop's The Boy Who Cried Wolf and to the latest development in the story.