Following Amelia’s amazing string of revelations about her brother, Richard, and herself, she sat silently for some time, sipping her coffee, and staring into the distance, looking at nothing in particular.
I ate my breakfast and contemplated what she had revealed; it was certainly noble of her brother to take the fall for Richard, but I wondered if it was wise, and was it the best decision? Josh was young, with a bright future; it was a lot to sacrifice, for a friendship. And from what I knew about Richard, it seemed possible, even likely, that he could have ended up being institutionalized anyway; so what practically was being gained by Josh’s sacrifice? Yet, from what I knew of Josh—of Father Davidson—he wouldn’t have considered it in this way at all; he wouldn’t have weighed the costs against the benefits as I was.
“His decision must have been very difficult for you, for your whole family,” I put forward cautiously, unsure whether or not Amelia wanted to continue talking about it.
She sighed deeply and replied, “…our parents never fully understood it, and Meg, she was in medical school and too busy, she only heard bits and pieces about it…that’s our older sister…but it was hard, yes…for everyone. You can’t do what’s right, not for everyone, can you? Somebody’s always going to be left out…but he did what he thought was best. In the end, maybe it was…who knows?…I think it probably was. Best, I mean…for him and for Richard too…and even for me, as well.”
“Why is that? If you don’t mind my asking?”
“I felt so ashamed, as you can imagine, for what I did to poor Richard. It was my fault…and it was so confusing. I didn’t know how to apologize to him…couldn’t…I was angry at him for doing something so stupid, and for watching me with Mark, for being there…I felt guilty about that…and I was angry at Josh as well for taking the blame, but grateful to him. As it was, I felt very depressed, but if Richard had gone to prison I don’t know how I would have survived that. I was responsible for that…and, at least with my brother…we could talk about it. We talked all about it…at least I talked, and he listened…and he made it okay, or…tolerable at least,” she laughed uneasily.
“Your brother made it tolerable?”
“He saved me!” Amelia answered with conviction. “I would have sunk without him. I’m sure of that. Shame and guilt would have crushed me…and anger. He understood though…Josh understood…me…and that’s what I needed….that saved me.”
“Josh fought the charges; saying the fire was accidental. But evidence pointed to it being deliberate…and some of his statements contradicted; he was afraid. He didn’t want to go to jail. But he never told anyone that…except me…and there was the death of the boy, Ryan was his name…that was an unexpected burden Josh hadn’t planned for, when he first confessed to having started the fire. Ryan’s mother was distraught, as you can imagine…and she made it very, very tough on my brother. He wanted to tell her the truth—that he wasn’t responsible for her son’s death, but he couldn’t; he couldn’t explain to her what really happened, he couldn’t tell anyone the truth, for Richard’s sake. So he kept silent.”
“Amazing,” I muttered. “I don’t think I could have done that. Everyone thought he was guilty then? Of arson…and for the death of her son…for burning down the café?”
“Not everyone…but most people did. He confessed, after all! Whether it was intentional or not, that was the only question…essentially…but it also turned out that someone saw Richard leave the café, out into the alley behind the café…I suppose after he had lit the fire…very early that morning; so in the end he also became a suspect.”
“No!” I exclaimed. “So it was a complete waste of time, what your brother tried to do? He wasn’t able to protect Richard, even after confessing for him? He ruined his own life for nothing?!”
“That’s what I was afraid of,” Amelia conceded. “That was the low point. Josh was miserable when they threatened to charge Richard; that might have been the lowest I’ve ever seen him. And they took advantage of that, the prosecutors did…somehow they found out that my brother would do whatever he could to protect Richard. So they offered him a deal: if he admitted to setting the fire intentionally, they wouldn’t charge Richard, and since Josh himself was only barely an adult—just nineteen with no prior record—they would recommend a lenient sentence…So, Josh took the deal, of course, in an instant…I doubt he even thought about it, or consulted his lawyer…and that was it.”
“What did he get?…how long?! And what about Richard, what happened to him after that?!” I asked impatiently and perhaps a little too enthusiastically, being thoroughly engrossed in these events, and hoping to learn more of the details. “I mean, I’m sorry about your brother, any amount of time would be unfair,” I said sincerely, in hopes of ameliorating my previous thoughtless exuberance at her family’s misfortune.
“Oh, Josh went to prison…for three years. Well, he was sentenced to five…but he got parole after three,” Amelia shook her head, and rolled her eyes, sighing, and then shrugged. “Well, it’s over now, thankfully…although I suppose it isn’t really…things like that are never really over, are they?! Everyone has an opinion, and then the hurt feelings…desires for vengeance…making life hell for one another…and no kind of forgiveness, just keeping the wounds open…”
“Yes, I know what you mean.” I answered, thinking back to my times at the coffee shop, and the attitude of Mark’s parents, Lilian and Apollo, and of Dian towards Father Davidson. Now, all that made more sense to me, knowing that he had confessed those many years ago, to burning down their café. They had clearly never forgiven him for that.
Amelia continued, “And Richard—believe it or not, this is finally the entire point of my telling you this whole thing—social services finally got involved with that mess of Richard and his biological family. They found out he hadn’t been living at home for several years, so they took and placed him in some kind of group home. They meant well…I think…but it was done horribly, they didn’t give him any warning and they just took him…against his will really…he had no chance to get anything from his home in the woods, couldn’t say goodbye to Josh…or me. No more school…they just took him away, right then and there, all of a sudden. He went berserk, it was horrible…they didn’t know what they were doing to him. I was so angry! I still want to wring their necks…well, it doesn’t matter now. He’s in a better place now.”
Amelia stopped for a moment, and offered to fill my cup again. The clouds were rolling in from across the water upon a slight breeze, bringing a sudden chill to the morning air that had been warming gradually throughout the telling of her story.
“So! The grand finale!” She exclaimed as she wrapped up her story, “you had asked about the portrait of me in the store, and you guessed correctly that Richard is the artist. After he was taken to the group home, he lost the photo of me that I had given him…he couldn’t go back and get it…I assume it was still in his home, in the woods…in any case, he didn’t have it anymore…so he drew that portrait to have with him in his new home. He did it entirely from memory, and he kept it for many years. Eventually, it was given to me…a true treasure…it seems vain to have a portrait of myself on the wall…but really, it is more about him, than about me…at least that’s how I see it.”
* * *