That night in the hospital was long. Leila struggled staying awake the next morning as she and John opened The Coffee Shop. Ellen had been admitted, and she’d stay in the hospital a couple days until they could settle on the medication she’d have to take. They asked to talk to a family member, but nobody knew where Ellen’s father was. After talking to the hospital staff, Kayla convinced them to let Ellen go home with her when she was released, and she would make sure Ellen got the help she needed. Living alone was not an option for her.
Even after Leila had gotten home that night, she had a hard time falling asleep. The night’s events swirled in her brain, and the image of her hitting the pills out of Ellen’s hand haunted her. Was that the right thing to do? Did the girl even have a reason to live? Ellen was living in a terrible situation. What would happen to her now? What did she have to live for? Leila rolled over in her bed. Had she done the wrong thing? Not preventing Ellen committing suicide had been unthinkable. Why was that? Didn’t everyone have a right to decide what to do with his or her own life?
She knew Kayla would probably have an answer to these questions, even though she didn’t want to hear the answers. She put it off. She had too much work to do; the semester was coming to an end, and she had papers to get done. She did keep in touch with Trysten, though, and made sure everything was okay with Ellen.
A week after the incident, Leila got a text from Trysten. Ellen was being released, and she was moving in temporarily with Kayla. Leila decided she should go check on her, and maybe she could talk to Kayla about some of her questions. Sunday was the only day Kayla didn’t work, so after her shift on Sunday, Leila drove toward her house. They hadn’t talked much since that night. Leila felt almost awkward around her colleague, not knowing how to make small talk after what they had been through together. She didn’t know Kayla that well, but after Kayla had told her her life story in the car, it was hard to act like mere acquaintances. Leila ran her fingers through her short hair and gripped the wheel a little tighter as she contemplated what she would say to Ellen. The girl didn’t even know her, and she may not even remember Leila being the one who’d hit the pills out of her hands in the apartment. And if she did remember, would she hold that against Leila? Somewhere in the distance, a siren sounded.
Leila started seriously doubting whether she wanted to see Ellen. Deep down, she wanted reassurance that she’d done the right thing, stopping Ellen from taking her life. She turned onto the narrow street where Kayla lived, and her heartbeat sped up, this time not from the thought of the upcoming conversation. The sound of sirens was getting louder. The billowing smoke was visible before Kayla’s house was.
“Oh, no,” Leila whispered.
She came to a stop next to the skeleton house, taking in everything within seconds. Kayla’s house was burning. Flames licked the walls, coming out of the windows on the right side of the house. A small crowd had gathered, people pointing and covering their mouths, yelling and whispering fervently to each other. Kayla’s aunt walked toward Leila’s car, speaking on the phone while gesturing wildly. Leila caught a glimpse of Ellen curled up on the front lawn with Kayla beside her, holding her tightly. She jumped out of the car and rushed toward the two girls.
“What happened?” she asked, putting a hand on Kayla’s back. She then realized that probably wasn’t the right thing to say.
Kayla’s tearstained eyes met hers. “Where’s auntie?”
“I saw her over there.” Leila pointed.
“Can you stay with Ellen? I need to make sure she’s okay.” Kayla got up slowly, and Leila once again put her arms
around the girl who still didn’t know her. Ellen was shaking uncontrollably.
Leila didn’t try to press about what happened, just sat and watched the flames dance, letting her vision blur. Within minutes, a fire truck screeched to a halt behind them, causing the crowd to press farther back. Kayla and her aunt joined the two girls on the ground, and they stood watching as the firemen tried to save their little home. It didn’t take long to put the fire out, but much of the house was damaged pretty badly. When the fire was taken care of and the paramedics had checked and made sure Kayla and her family were alright, the questioning began.
“Can you tell us what happened?” an older police officer asked, pulling out a pen and notepad.
Kayla hesitated and glanced at Ellen. The girl had stopped shaking and stared into space.
“We were in the living room,” Kayla’s aunt started, “the doorbell rang, and I went to see who it was.”
“We can’t prove that it was him, auntie,” Kayla cut in.
“Keep going,” the policeman said.
“Ellen’s father was at the door, demanding we return her to live with him.” Kayla’s aunt went on to give a brief explanation of why Ellen was with them while the policeman’s pencil flew across his notepad. Leila examined Kayla’s face. She seemed nervous, going from making sure her aunt was okay to rubbing Ellen’s back, trying to soothe the girl. She hardly even glanced at the ruined house.
“So what did he do when you refused?” the police officer asked, rubbing his jaw.
“He cursed and threatened, and I finally just closed the door in his face,” Kayla’s aunt said. Maybe I should’ve been nicer, but he was intoxicated, and I was starting to worry for our safety.”
“Did he leave?”
“Not at first. He stood outside, yelling for a while, but when we didn’t come to the door, he eventually left.”
“Are you saying you believe he started the fire?” another member of the police force spoke up, this one a woman.
Kayla and her aunt exchanged worried glances. “We have no proof,” Kayla started.
“Do you see that house?” the older woman asked calmly, pointing to the neighbor’s skeleton of a home. “He and his daughter lived there. Two months ago, he got in a rage after coming home drunk and threatened Ellen, telling her he was going to burn her alive. Ellen ran to our house, and we let her stay with us for the night. Less than an hour later, the fire started. He also threatened me that we would burn if we didn’t return his daughter. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.”
“Nobody could prove that either—” Kayla protested.
“He did it.”
This was the first time Ellen had spoken. Her voice was husky from tears, and they could barely hear her over all the background noise.
“What was that?” the older police officer asked, pausing his writing.
“I know he did it,” Ellen said, louder this time. “He always talked about burning things when he was drunk. I saw him messing with a lighter when I ran out of our house. I didn’t want to say anything, because I didn’t want to get him in trouble.” Her words came faster and faster, and she shrugged Leila’s arms off her. “I never thought he’d hurt my friends. He didn’t used to be like this. I would’ve said something sooner if I knew this would happen. I’m so sorry.” She burst into tears again.
Kayla and her aunt both bent down to hug the girl, and the police officers backed away to discuss things.
Leila stood, watching the scene before her; the smoking house, firemen packing up their gear, policemen talking by their flashing cars, and the dwindling crowd that was losing interest now that the fire was out. The smell of smoke was still strong in the air, and Leila hadn’t noticed how hard it was to breathe until now. Kayla looked up at her, and their eyes met.
“I’m sorry that you had to be here for this,” Kayla whispered. Her face was smudged with tears, mascara, and ashes, but she looked calm.
“No, it’s fine. I mean, it’s not like you planned this.” Leila stumbled over her words, unsure of what to say. “I’m really sorry. Like, this is awful. Is there anything I can do to help?”
“Thank you, honey,” Kayla’s aunt said with a tired smile. “I really don’t think there is. You should probably get away from all this smoke.”
“Oh, uh, yeah. Let me know if you need anything. You have my number.” Leila said, and Kayla nodded. She walked away feeling utterly and entirely useless.