Chapter 7

This time there was no denying what had transpired between them. They couldn't pretend things were the same when they woke up naked together in the morning on the small bed.

Sophie acted unusually shy as she covered herself to use the bathroom and Leon was overcome by a wave of remorse, guilt, horror, fear, paranoia and regret, half expecting the Police to burst through the door at any moment and haul him away for statutory rape. How could he have been so foolish, weak, and perverted?

Leon heard the shower running so he dressed and trotted down to the lake to take a morning dip and wash the sex off of him just as Sophie was doing in the shower. It was a lovely night but now that a new day was upon them Leon feared that Sophie would be full of second thoughts and repentance. He also had to figure out how he was going to deal with this, a boss who had slept with an employee, a twenty two year old man who had taken advantage of a vulnerable fifteen year old girl just because he couldn't control his lust and temptations. There was a special place in hell for people like him.

Sophie was already at work by the time Leon returned to the apartment and changed. She greeted him with a smile when he strolled into the store and, strangely, nothing seemed to be different between them even though everything had changed. If Sophie was having regrets, she wasn't displaying them as she greeted the customers with her usual cheer and smiles and she interacted with Leon in the same way as before he had fucked her. In fact, as far as Leon could tell, Sophie was happy but that didn't excuse his unforgivable weakness.

Sophie went home after work that evening which was a relief to Leon who was still trying to figure out how to proceed now that he had violated every ethical rule in the morals book. What was he supposed to do the next time she showed up at the apartment seeking safety from her father when she wasn't safe from him!?

The sirens awoke Leon from a deep sleep. Fire engines roared down the road and Leon went to the window to see the orange glow in the night and he knew immediately that it was Sophie's place ablaze. He stood in the window for a long time watching the flames knowing there was nothing he could do and that he would have to wait to find out what had happened. He remembered how Sophie has said she was afraid something awful might happen and Leon knew it had. He went into the bathroom and threw up.

It was strange to grieve before the fact but Leon knew his premonition was fact in his mind - Sophie was dead. Otherwise, she would have shown up to tell him what had happened and when the flashes of the emergency lights remained even after the fire was out Leon knew that there were investigators and cops and coroners at the site. He dozed off and on through the night, dreaming of Sophie and her smile and her laugh and her innocence.

When Sophie didn't show up at her usual time in the morning Leon knew the worse was indeed true. He was behind the counter of the store when the Sheriff came in to confirm Leon's worse fears, notifying him that his employee had perished in a fire along with her father. It would later be determined that careless smoking led to the blaze that burned the cottage to the ground. Sophie was probably overcome by smoke inhalation and both she and her father were burned beyond recognition. Dental records were used to positively identify the bodies.

Leon attended the wake and the funeral knowing his secret had died with Sophie and that his total lapse of judgement and succumbing to temptation would never be known by anybody, except perhaps by Jenn but he hadn't been back to the tavern since they slept together and she hadn't been in the store since dumping him.

Randy was a basket case at the services and Leon actually felt sorry for the poor kid, offering him words of encouragement and thanking him for being a friend to Sophie. Pappy was broken hearted to learn of Sophie's passing and he sent a beautiful bouquet of flowers to her funeral.

Mrs. Patterson worked some extra shifts but Leon was in no hurry to hire Sophie's replacement. He missed her too much and on quiet days he heard her laugh echoing through the store. He was too numb to be depressed, too sad to be hopeful.

Pappy moved in with Leon's parents and Leon was offered the store if he was interested. He agreed to his mother's proposal and the lawyer drew up papers to sign over the business to Leon who finally felt like he had settled in and found his calling even though the store was full of a sad emptiness without Sophie present. How ironic it was that Leon had finally gotten his life together and found a calling that made him happy yet he was haunted by the ghost of Sophie. Her life (and death) had been a tragedy but Leon took solace in knowing that maybe he had brought some happiness into her sad life. He knew she was the reason that he found peace at the lake.

Several weeks passed and Leon finally hung up a help wanted sign knowing that Mrs. Patterson was getting burned out covering some of the shifts. The door to the store opened one morning and Leon did a double take when he saw that it was Jenn who looked rosier and even healthier than the last time he had seen her.

"I didn't know Sophie's father was that bastard who showed up at the tavern sometimes," Jenn said. "He was a psychopath."

Leon stared at Jenn without saying anything.

"How's your grandfather?" Jenn wondered as she stepped up to the counter.

"Not coming back," Leon replied.

"Are you staying?" She asked.

"I guess," Leon said.

"So, I quit my job," Jenn announced.

"Why?" Leon asked.

"I don't like it," she said. She gave him a long look. "I've been clean and sober since the night of the fire. I don't go to the Tavern anymore."

Leon kept staring at her, not sure what to say.

"You were right, you know. I was just like you before you came here, wasting away my life not doing anything except get drunk at the Tavern every night. I don't want to be that person anymore."

She stared at him for a long moment.

"So, anyway, I could use a job," Jenn said.

"Here?" Leon asked with surprise.

"Andrew has a new boyfriend who moved in," she said. "I feel like a third wheel. Maybe I could stay in the extra room upstairs."

"Do you still think I'm pathetic?" Leon challenged.

"I think you're tragic," Jenn replied. "But then again I am too."

"You want to live and work with me?"

"What better way to date?" She smiled.

Leon stared at her trying to figure out which one of them was crazier.

"I won't ask you if you slept with her," Jenn said softly but she knew from the look on his face that he had. "You really are tragic," Jenn sighed as she walked around to his side of the counter. "Will you help me out the way you and Pappy helped the girl out?" She wanted to know. "I'll try to help you out the way she did too."

Leon kept looking at her wondering if he was pathetic or tragic or both. "I'd like to try," he answered.