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A Father Transformed by Anguish

Where, then, is Arredondo in this, whose son is dead, whose other son won't talk to him, whose ex-wife is furious at him, whose wife is begging for money for him, and who spends most of his day in a room he has converted into a shrine? How far has he come? How far does he have to go?

"I really love my son," he says, at the cemetery one day, stamping his foot three times on Alex's grave.

The worst of Arredondo's injuries were on his legs, to which he applies antibiotic cream. Twenty-six percent of his body was burned. (David Finkel -- The Washington Post)

He visits the grave every other day. He has decorated it with roses, carnations, Alex's pictures, Alex's letters, a temporary headstone that he made from two discarded pieces of wood and 13 American flags.

"If he were to come right now, he would kiss me on the mouth, he would kiss me on the cheeks, he would kiss me on the mouth again," Arredondo says. "That's how we said hello."

He stamps his foot again, hard enough for the ground to vibrate.

"Hello," he calls.

The Day His Life Changed

He was, until Aug. 25 of last year, a healthy, normal man. He worked. He played soccer. He loved, rather than obsessed.

Alex was his firstborn, and the photos that Arredondo is constantly looking at show how close they were, at least in the first years of Alex's life. There they are at home, asleep next to each other, in a part of Boston called Jamaica Plain. There they are at Boston's swan boats. There they are in New York, on a playground near the World Trade Center. There they are in Costa Rica, visiting where Carlos was born.

He sneaked into the United States when he was 19. He married Victoria in 1983. In 1984 they had Alex, in 1987 they had Brian, and then came a divorce punctuated by accusations and a long-running custody battle, which still defines their relationship, even as they grieve. During Alex's teenage years, Arredondo was living in Florida with Melida, prohibited by court order from direct contact. He returned to Boston in 2000, resumed contact with his sons, moved back to Florida early last year to start a construction business, and, on Aug. 25, his birthday, just after lunch, was in the front yard of the house he and Melida bought, waiting for Alex to call, when here came the Marine van.

"We're looking for the family of Alexander Arredondo," he remembers one of the Marines saying. "I am the family," he said, and then "it was like my heart went all the way to the ground."

From the time of notification to the time of the fire took, he imagines, 20 minutes. He remembers running into the back yard, sitting in the grass, phoning Melida, phoning Brian, standing up, sitting back down and standing up again. He remembers going into the front yard and asking the Marines to leave. He remembers picking up a hammer. He remembers picking up a gasoline can and a propane torch. He remembers a Marine saying, "Sir, don't do that," and then he was in the van, first smashing windows, then splashing gasoline, and then igniting the torch, perhaps accidentally, perhaps intentionally, perhaps suicidally, perhaps, perhaps. "I just feel this explosion," he says, describing what happened next. "It threw me out of the van, and immediately I feel the flames all over me. I feel the sensation of burning. The sensation I was on fire.

"I remember that they grabbed me and held me down while I was screaming, and my mother was trying to take off my shirt, and I keep telling my mother, 'My feet are burning.'

"I remember somebody else grabbing me by the back of my pants and picking me up, and they were dragging me, my feet were dragging, and then the person was on top of me, and he was holding me down on the ground.

"I remember suddenly Melida was there, and she said, 'Carlos, can you see?' And I kept saying, 'Oh, Alex,' and Melida, she said, 'Don't fight it, don't fight it anymore, don't fight it, don't fight it.'

"And then, when I started getting a little more tranquil, because Melida was there, I think I passed out."

The bill for the hospital with the burn unit was $43,710.46. The bill for the ambulance was $487.50. The bill for an initial psychological evaluation was $250. The bill for another hospital, whose emergency room he was taken to initially, was $9,952, the latest reminder of which has shown up in the day's mail. Melida, a nursing home administrator who has been out of work since Aug. 25, puts it in a stack of letters, including one from a hospital informing them that a lien has been placed on their house.

"Carlos," she says, "are we going to see Alex?"

"Yes," he says.

In the bedroom, he coats himself with antibiotic cream and sunblock, and grabs a handful of Alex's letters to pass out to whomever he sees. In the living room, Melida says, not joking, exhausted, "I need to know -- is this normal behavior?"

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