Jason Cassidy is sitting on a couch in his father's home, looking mostly comfortable. He winces slightly as he leans back and puts a foot on the table. The "compression suit" he wears is tight and meant to help his skin heal. He can't wait to take it off.
"When I woke up in the hospital, I didn't even know I'd been in a fire," the 25-year-old Villa Park man said. "There was a mirror, and I saw my arms and legs were burned, but not my face. Now I'm just trying to get back to my old self."
Cassidy remembers little about the circumstances that brought him here. He went to a friend's birthday party in Lombard, drank too much and fell asleep. When he awoke days later, severe burns covered nearly 40 percent of his body and his friend, Paula Morgan, was dead.
Cassidy fought off pneumonia and life-threatening smoke inhalation; he received a battery of surgeries and skin grafts to repair third-degree burns to his arms, legs and chest.
Doctors initially predicted he'd be hospitalized for six months to a year -- but he stunned even his own family when he made quick progress and returned home in early September, less than two months after the July 22 fire. He's since completed occupational therapy.
"It left me a little surprised, and it left therapists and doctors surprised," said Bob Cassidy, who helps care for his son at his home in Schaumburg. "He wants to move forward, and he's really taken that to heart."
For Jason Cassidy, coming to terms with the fire has been a series of ups and downs.
Prosecutors say Morgan's former boyfriend, Todd Mandoline of Villa Park, torched her car in a fit of jealousy. The flames spread through a garage and engulfed her home as Cassidy slept in an upstairs bedroom. Firefighters cut through the roof to get him out.
Cassidy said he and Morgan became friends over the summer, and she often brought her 6-year-old son to his place to go swimming. He said he didn't know Mandoline and doesn't recall seeing him or speaking to him at Morgan's birthday party. It was the first time Cassidy had even been to Morgan's home.
"I guess the worst part of it is hearing from other people how it happened and how it went down," Cassidy said. "I was basically given two choices -- you can either live your life as a burn victim forever or you can go back and live your life (as it was) before the incident even happened. Obviously, I chose the second choice."
Cassidy's recovery involves regular stretching, walking on treadmills and riding stationary bikes as his skin softens and heals. The scarring will dissipate over time, but he expects the injuries to be permanent.
For an emotional outlet, he jots down his thoughts and writes poetry he keeps to himself and eventually destroys.
"That's my therapy," he said.
He described Morgan as a "good mom" who was outgoing and adored her 6-year-old son, who escaped the fire unscathed. "She liked to have fun, but she took care of her stuff," Cassidy said.
Morgan's family has declined to be interviewed.
Cassidy is openly bitter that the fire interrupted his life. Just three months ago, he was "having a ball" living with friends in a house in Villa Park, working a landscaping job and "playing hard," as he puts it.
Now he's temporarily relegated to his father's home and is learning all over again how to do what once came naturally.
"I'm 25, and I feel like a newborn," he said. "I want to press the fast-forward button. I'm really impatient with this stuff, trying to heal. I just want to move on."
Doctors tell Cassidy it could be years before his skin fully recovers. In the meantime, he wears the two-piece compression suit -- "It's like a second skin," he said -- that fits snugly around his arms, legs and chest to protect them. Because of the tightness of his skin, Cassidy said he still struggles to reach top shelves in the kitchen but, for the most part, he's regained many of his regular abilities.
Cassidy hopes to return home to Villa Park by early November and, if possible, find a way to start working again. He said he's been surprised by the number of people from across the country who have reached out to him, sending words of encouragement and even anonymous donations to help with his medical bills because he was uninsured. A local benefit for Cassidy is planned for Monday evening at the Westin Hotel in Lombard.
"I heard about people all over the country finding some sort of inspiration in me. I never thought I'd be an inspiration to anybody," he said. "I don't feel like a superhero or anything like that. If I can deal with this, you can. I don't expect parades, balloons and confetti."
As for Mandoline, Cassidy said he plans to go to Wheaton in December for the suspect's next court date. More than anything, he just wants to get a look at the guy.
"I hope this haunts him until the day he dies," Cassidy said. "I hope he lives with this as a nightmare, a constant reminder, as I will for the rest of my life."