Carlos Arredondo did the unthinkable with gasoline, a Marine van, and a propane torch. Two years later, he still burns.

Joy and opportunity occur to him in simple things. Upon being told one evening that there was virtually nothing in his fridge but bottled water and loaves of bread, he said, "That's all we need. We can make toast — we can do a lot with that." Before bed, he sometimes tells his wife that he's excited to sleep just so he can wake at 5:30 a.m. to drink coffee.

His recovery has been a long one; after he cooked himself alive, all was chaos. Second-degree burns covered 26 percent of his body. When he stirred, he cried that he wanted to see Alex. His mother, alarmed, told hospital personnel, who, thinking he might be suicidal, placed the bleary, dehydrated Carlos in four-point restraints. In the blurry, disposable-camera snapshots that the family took of Carlos in the hospital, he looks like a man rescued from a desert — parched, too dark, cracked — then mummified in white bandages. "The right ear," Melida recalls, "looked like a pork rind." His hospital bill for three hours at Hollywood's Memorial Regional Hospital came to a tidy $10,000. The week he spent at Jackson Memorial in Miami rang up another $42,000. After some drama, the hospitals settled for much less; a deluge of supportive e-mails, calls, and letters may have helped the police department decide likewise not to charge Carlos with any crime. Political timing might not have hurt either, as the Republican Party held its convention in New York City four days later.

He traveled back to Boston for Alex's funeral in heavy bandages and spent the duration under heavy dope. Through the back of an ambulance behind the hearse, he watched his son's funeral procession. Five hundred people, including Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, signed the guest book that day. Carlos' soccer team arrived, in uniform, and presented Melida with a thousand dollars in an envelope. Carlos remembers it through a morphine fog. Only later, when he saw pictures of his son lying in state, did Carlos remember standing over Alex, his tears falling and smudging the funerary makeup.

Melida Arredondo stands by a memorial to her stepson Alex in the yard of her Hollywood home.
Colby Katz
Melida Arredondo stands by a memorial to her stepson Alex in the yard of her Hollywood home.
Carlos walks in a parade with a coffin representing his dead son.
Sam Eifling
Carlos walks in a parade with a coffin representing his dead son.

Within days, letters began arriving, and they didn't let up for weeks. People from all over the country sent cards, blessings, and cash that they said were to help him heal. One man from New Jersey sent a check for $1,000; when Carlos and Melida called to thank him later, he sent another check for $1,000. A high school classmate of Melida's sent $5,000. Most were in denominations much smaller — $100, $30, as little as $7. A family from California sent $10 with a letter that the two children asked to have their allowance sent to Mr. Carlos Arredondo rather than spend it as they had planned, at McDonald's.

He received the balance of his treatments at a Boston hospital. As soon as he was well enough to travel, Carlos fled to Costa Rica. The din of the media had become too great. When a Japanese news crew found him, he relented to speak with them — after all, they had come so far, going first to Miami before tracking him to Central America.

After Hurricane Wilma romped through South Florida, Carlos was back in Hollywood, repairing his fence with the scraps of fence that others were discarding. Cold weather renews the pain of his burns, so he spent much of the holiday season in his home in Hollywood, much of it in solitude. For New Year's Eve, he got drunk on beer at home alone.

But, at least to hear his wife tell it, that was around the period that he transitioned out of his darkest grief.

Now he finds it easy to talk about that terrible day in Hollywood. "How ignorant I was!" Carlos cries out at one point. "When I saw them, I thought Alex was here. It was a happy moment. It was my birthday. I was being selfish. I wasn't prepared for that.

"Experience with him gave me so moments unbelievable. But this moment was going to be the worst of my ever life. Do you understand? The worst, the worst, worst, worst!"

Alex was the 968th U.S. soldier killed in the war. It took the family nine months to get any details about his death; about a year ago, they received an e-mail from a Marine sergeant explaining that the young lance corporal's battalion had come under fire in Najaf. After a three-hour gunbattle, as Alex prowled through a four-story hotel, a bullet caught his temple. He was 20 years and 20 days old.

Carlos is reminded of Alex every time another soldier is killed (more than 1,600 have died since). Which is how he came to have a coffin in his garage. In October of last year, the 2,000th soldier of the war died, from injuries he sustained in a bombing. Hearing the name of that dead soldier, George T. Alexander, sent Carlos into despair. He began toting around a box made up to look like a military coffin. Then one day, he met a man in nearby Cambridge who offered him a free coffin from what was apparently a funeral home showroom, complete with flag. On days when it feels necessary, Carlos parks it somewhere visible and offers to passersby a copy of a letter Alex wrote. The father says, "My son wrote this letter on the way to war. It was his first letter home. It would be an honor if you read it."

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