“Did you love him too?” I asked Amelia.
“That’s the question, isn’t it?!” she answered conspiratorially, then laughing a little, as her eyes began to fill with tears once again. “I did love him, I knew that I loved him…but did I love him like he loved me? Was it a romantic love…could it even be?!…I think I had sensed his feelings developing for me over that summer; I probably noticed them right from the start, when we first met at school. But I hoped to avoid this question, because it was too complicated. It’s still too complicated, even now!” Amelia let out a burst of laughter, as she tried to ease the tension that she felt within herself.
“Well, after Josh dropped that bomb on me, I had to deal with it somehow. And to my credit, I dealt with it pretty well, in some ways, for a while…but then after that, I dealt with it very poorly.” Amelia stopped talking and looked down at her lap shamefully, her hands fidgeting with a spoon that she twirled absentmindedly between her fingers.
She looked up at me again, and with resolve, continued, “Richard was sad because he didn’t have anything special to make his place a home. He slept in a kind of nest that he made under some trees, and Josh found out from Richard, that he was especially sad about the lack of a special thing to make his nest a home. I didn’t realize that it was so important to him…like I said, it seemed to me more like a nice sentiment, rather than a necessity. But as Josh explained it to me further, I understood the importance Richard placed on it, and how desperately he needed the feeling of a real home. I remember lying awake in bed one night thinking about this, and it suddenly dawned on me that Josh and I were Richard’s family. I thought about my own family, and the photographs of us that were displayed downstairs in our living room, and I came up with the idea to give Richard a photo of myself that he could keep as something special—to make his house a home. I was so excited about this idea, because I knew he would like it, and it would make him happy. My senior photos had just arrived, so I took a wallet-sized photo and gave it to him one afternoon after school.”
Amelia stopped briefly and sighed, “…it made my heart so joyful, his reaction. It was more than I could have expected. That little photo—it was as if he won the lottery or something! You couldn’t imagine how happy he was…it made me feel embarrassed actually, but it was worth it! Thankfully, he ran off after that, I don’t think my emotions could take much more right then…and I’ll never forget it, but he actually skipped once or twice, just like a little child. It was shocking…well, of course, you wouldn’t know…he had a bad foot, it pointed inward, and he usually shuffled around everywhere, rather than walking properly…so skipping was not in his repertoire…he could barely run without tripping…anyway, maybe he didn’t actually skip, but I’m certain that he did.”
“That was a good moment. Oh, everything was so good then. Don’t you wish sometimes that you could freeze time?”
“That would be nice,” I agreed.
“A few months later I made a big mistake,” Amelia continued after nodding her assent to my response. “I was uncomfortable with my feelings towards Richard, and confused about us…I don’t think I was attracted to him…but I loved him deeply…yes, I did…there was nobody like him…so fresh and unique…the world sometimes leaves me feeling hopeless, but Richard always gave me hope. So, it was awful what I did to him…but I was a child, foolish, though I didn’t do it on purpose to hurt him…although I knew it would. There was a guy at school; he was good-looking. We had a few classes together…and he made me laugh. We kind of started seeing each other, and he asked me to the prom. This devastated Richard. The night of the prom…oh, this gets so messed up…so much happened that night. I don’t know if I can tell it all…I’m certain I’ll leave out many details, but I’ll give you the basic idea.” Amelia stopped and began to tear up once again. “Oh, I wish I could go back and change everything…I’m really not sure what to tell you first.”
“That’s okay, you don’t have to tell me,” I offered with concern. “If you don’t want to talk about it.”
“No, I really do. It helps, in a way,” Amelia answered and then continued with her story, “So, Josh worked at the café, and the owners were the parents of Mark, the guy I went to prom with. Oh, you actually know Mark, you met him at my store…when he was complaining about my brother giving that homeless guy his shoes. Remember that? So that’s Mark, who I went to prom with, and we stayed out late that night, after prom…messing around…in his car…you know. So Richard came by, I don’t know why he was out so late, he’s never up or out of his home that late at night…it was early morning by then…and he saw us through the window. We looked at each other, I stared at him in shock for a moment, and uncertain what to do, and then I got angry that he was there…I got angry at him and wanted to hurt him…we looked at each other and I could see how hurt he was, and then I turned away and continued to kiss Mark, knowing that Richard was watching. I saw him run away but I didn’t know what he would do, and I tried to put him out of my mind.”
“It turned out he went and got my brother’s keys to the café somehow…and he went there in a rage. He knew that Mark’s parents owned the café…actually Mark’s parents had been cruel to Richard on more than one occasion as well…they humiliated him several times…and I don’t know, it was never like him to hold a grudge…far from it…but something snapped that night and he wasn’t himself…He went in through the back door, from the alley, using my brother’s keys, which he left in the lock, and he lit a fire…he lit the laundry on fire, and it caught the whole café…and it all burned to the ground within an hour or two.”
“I’m so sorry, that’s tragic!” I exclaimed while shaking my head in horror.
“It gets worse….another boy also worked in the café, and he sometimes spent the night there…apparently. Nobody realized this until later…but his home life was…difficult, and when he needed a place to get away, he would let himself into the café. He had made himself a little bedroom up in the attic, and he was able to pull the attic stairs up behind him, after he went up, so that nobody would know he was there. Unfortunately, he was there that night…and they discovered his remains the next morning…when they investigated the burnt building.”
“That is very sad! I’m so sorry,” I said comfortingly.
“Yes, well it gets even worse,” she replied bitterly. “Josh came to the café for his shift as the fire was being put out, and he realized immediately what Richard had done. They may have even spoken about it together earlier, I don’t remember exactly…in any case, he knew Richard had started the fire, but Josh confessed to having done it himself, in order to protect Richard. His set of keys, which were found later in the back door, provided material support to his confession….Josh was arrested and charged with arson that morning, and later that afternoon—after the boy’s body was discovered—the charge of involuntary manslaughter was added.”
“Oh, no! But he didn’t know the boy was in the attic!” I protested.
“Exactly, nobody did. But I’m not sure it would have made any difference to Josh. Frankly, I think he would have confessed anyway…even if he had known…in order to protect Richard. He told me later that there was no way Richard would survive in a jail, or a prison; so in his mind, there was no other option. Richard had made a big mistake, but Josh couldn’t stand to see Richard’s life being completely destroyed because of that; and Josh felt that he was better equipped to pay the price, in Richard’s place.”
* * *