The School's on Fire! Gordon J. Stirling
The TV announcers were droning during a dull Sunday afternoon ballgame. After lunch, in the recliner, my eyes were closing. I was surrendering to a well-deserved nap. I’d settled a tough insurance case Friday that dragged on too long. My law practice in the small town where I grew up, across the bay from San Francisco, was doing well, but some cases wore me out.
I’m not sure how long I’d dozed when I was roused awake by kids’ voices clamoring up and down the block outside and a jumble of pounding footsteps. I shook my head to clear it and scrambled from the chair to open the front door. I yelled, “What’s going on?” to a boy racing down the street. Still running, he didn’t even look at me. “The school’s on fire! The school’s on fire!” he shouted.
I looked in the direction of the grade school a few blocks away. There was a brownish-gray plume of smoke over that way, a bruise against the blue June sky. I smelled the smoke on the bay breeze. From my doorway, I watched waves of kids rushing toward the school, red-faced as they sprinted, giddy and laughing at the idea of the school burning down.
I’m human. We like to watch fires. I put on shoes and a jacket and went to see this one. On a Sunday, no students or staff were in danger, but I hoped damage would be light.
The school is a little gem. Spacious, with open-air hallways and terraced buildings facing the bay, it was perfectly designed for its coastal hills setting. I broke into a trot to get to the school faster. People were converging on the fire from three directions, walking, or crowding their cars half up on sidewalks on both sides of our narrow, hilly streets.
The traffic circle outside the school’s main office building swarmed with parents, kids and police cars. Fire trucks crushed against the traffic circle curb. Fire fighters ran to find good hose angles to spray toward the school office. It was ablaze.
Kids were running and weaving around the grown-ups and the fire trucks, inside and outside the rope line the cops set up, whooping, cheering with uncontainable energy. Their one glorious hope was that school days would be canceled. Neither parents nor cops were succeeding, or even trying very hard, to control them.
But amidst the glee of the kids, there was a tenor of disquiet. An undercurrent of rumor with a name attached. “Robbie Elkins,” a boy told another. Robbie’s name kept snaking through the crowd. Someone thought they’d seen him near the school before the fire.
I knew Robbie a little. Quiet, not an athlete, kind of a peripheral kid. His dad was said to be pretty strict with Robbie and his sister Mags. The past couple of months, his last at the grade school, I’d thought Robbie might be rebelling a little against his parents. His hair had gotten longer. I’d seen him wearing some rock band t-shirts. I couldn’t imagine him, though, an 11-year-old arsonist.
It was bad to have a kid’s name attached to a serious crime. It would be hung around his neck for a long time. If he’d done it; but I didn’t know if he’d done it. I didn’t see any of the Elkins family at the school.
The fire got put out, limited to the school office. Both fire and water damage looked extensive. I guessed school admin would be run out of a trailer for a while. Old Man Clark, the principal, had a hard time keeping back of the rope line. He wanted to see what he’d lost. File cabinets, payroll, maintenance records, it all agitated him.
The school kids, and the young parents who’d also had him as principal, enjoyed the sight. Payback for anxiety induced in two generations. He was not an easy guy. He’d put on weight the past couple of years, drinking some. I’d heard the assistant principal had to sober him up with coffee before PTA meetings.
It got dark and near dinner time, and the fire department was done, so the crowd dispersed. Police officers spoke to some of those who’d said Robbie’s name. If the fire wasn’t an accident, I hoped the cops could speak to Robbie that night and put the rumors about his involvement to rest.
I was up early on Monday; I had to be at the courthouse downtown to ask for a continuance on a case. The corridor talk in the building troubled me. The cops had found the source of the fire – a gasoline trail leading from a window on the backside of the school office to the files with student records. The fire was deliberate.
Worse, Robbie Elkins hadn’t come home. His folks hadn’t seen him since Sunday afternoon when he said he was going to the playground to see if anyone was playing ball. Robbie was wanted on suspicion for the fire and he was on the run.
I didn’t want to think of Robbie scared, desperate, in hiding. If he’d set the fire and thought he’d be caught, he’d be thinking the worst – really angry parents and juvie - fears that make kids run away. I didn’t know the family well, but I wanted to help if I could. There had to be a back story that led to this.
I was at a fast food place around the corner from my office getting lunch when I saw Mags come in with a group of girls. It looked like she was sort of floating in the middle of them like they were buoying her in a time of trouble.
I called out to her. Mags broke off from her group and came over. I asked how she and her family were doing. “We’re afraid,” she said. “We don’t know where my brother is.” It’d been 24 hours since the fire. “My mom is crying, I’ve never seen her cry,” Mags continued, tears welling up. “Do you know what happened?” I asked. “I know what people are saying about him and the fire,” she replied, “but we don’t know anything about that. He was upset about something that happened at school but he wouldn’t say what.”
“Please tell your mom and dad you saw me and I said I’d help if I could,” I asked. “To find him, or to help him with the police, or anything.” A tearful smile from Mags. “Ok,” she answered, “I will. They’ll like that.” She went to sit with her friends.
I pondered what Mags said. Maybe there was a connection between whatever problem Robbie had at school, and the fire and Robbie running away. All that could be sorted out, but first, we had to find him. A kid that age on the road wasn’t safe.
* * * *
By mid-week, three days after the fire, and with still no word on Robbie’s whereabouts, I became increasingly worried. I hoped he hadn’t hurt himself or gotten in a car with the wrong guy.
The cops were looking for him because of the fire but that he was gone from home was not widely known. Nothing in the papers or on TV, no missing kid postings. Just some word of mouth, mostly in the Elkins’ neighborhood. Robbie’s parents had kept quiet. They had to be frantic, though. I’d just finished drafting a motion for a client on a drug possession case, when from nowhere, like a thunder boom, the words came to me, Wildcat Canyon.
Wildcat Canyon runs from Berkeley to the El Sobrante line. It’s the nearest thing to a forest we have. Edged by blue collar neighborhoods on the bayside and rolling hills to the east, the creek meandering through the canyon feeds a thick canopy of willow, dogwood and bay laurel.
The canyon was the dread place kids talked about in low voices at sleep-overs after lights out – so dark and still, poison oak-ridden; the name itself a warning – a dangerous, biting animal could end you. Coyote, bobcat or wildcat, take your pick. Wildcat Canyon grew nightmares. No kid went in alone.
If you wanted to hide from everyone, though, including the cops, it might be an answer Robbie’d come to. There was good cover in the foliage, the water in the creek was clean and there were berry bushes for food. But even in June, temperatures would drop after the sun went down. With the bay winds rushing the leaves and the night noises of animals – growls and scampering footfalls – the canyon would seem filled with menace. If Robbie was in there, I prayed he was warm and had shelter.
As soon as I could get away from the office, I went home and changed into woods clothes. I was going into the canyon to look for Robbie. I drove to the canyon entrance nearest my place. The city had made a little park there, with picnic tables and an adobe BBQ pit. It was an hour before sundown when I started along the main trail. I picked up a thick, gnarled branch on the ground for a weapon.
I was alert to any movement or sound as I descended the trail into the canyon. Sunlight wavered as the overhead canopy grew thick. I tried to avoid the poison oak. As I got nearer the creek, the buzz of insects pitched higher.
The absence of city sounds and the dimming daylight spooked me. After a half mile, the main trail diverged into tributary paths. I took each to its end, usually a quarter mile or so, then retraced my steps and took another. I kept looking for signs of a human.
Dusk fell. I froze every time I heard rustling in the brush. Civilization felt far away. I was about to turn back, discouraged my hunch hadn’t turned out, when, at the end of a narrowing track that choked off into a thicket, I heard what could’ve been a cough. I peered ahead and about twenty paces to the left.
In the gloaming, I saw what looked like a cardboard lean-to against a tree trunk. The piece of cardboard was good-sized, with a vertical seam down the middle. It looked like a thrown-away appliance box. Folded at the seam against the tree, with some sturdy branches arrowed into the dirt and pressed upright along the cardboard, it was a fort. I squinted at it, trying to make sure the evening shadows were not deceiving me. I walked closer. “Robbie,” I whispered once, then a little louder.
I approached very slowly, to not cause flight or alarm. A haggard, pale boy’s face leaned from the hem of the make-shift den. Robbie. I toned it soft. “Hi, son. I’ve been looking for you.”
I kneeled a yard or two from him so he could more easily make me out. He recognized me. “I’m not feeling very good. I’ve been scared,” he trembled out.
“I bet,” I said. “Let’s get out of here. I saw Mags a couple of days ago. She’s been upset and your mom and dad are, too. Can you walk?”
“Yeah, but go slow; I haven’t eaten much,” he said.
I put my arm around Robbie’s back and under his elbow to give him support as we walked to the car. The trail was hard to see as night came. With my free hand I banged my stick against trees to make enough noise to keep animals away. We panic stopped at a coyote’s howl not far off. Robbie was weak, but we had to keep moving.
My mind went in circles as I planned for what came next. Robbie needed food and water, his mom and dad needed to know he was safe, and the police were looking for him. We got to the car and I gave him a bottled water. It was gone in a long swallow.
“Let’s get you something to eat and talk a minute before we do anything,” I suggested. “You need to get home and then deal with the cops. I can be your lawyer if you want, no charge, so what you say is between us.” I don’t usually work for free, but I go pro bono when kids are in a jam.
“Ok,” he exhaled, “Ok.” I started the car for the drive toward town and he leaned back against the head rest. My heart broke that a boy had so much on his mind he’d run away to escape it. Robbie seemed relieved to be in the car, safe, on our way to eat and to go home, that a thing too big for him was over.
He started to talk. “I had my jacket but it got so cold at night and I was hungry all the time. I was really afraid about the animals. I heard their noises. I was worried they’d get through the cardboard at me. I heard their claws on it. I knew I was in trouble, but I didn’t know what to do.”
“We’ll get it straightened out,” I replied, trying to comfort him. If he knew he was in trouble, then I knew he’d set the fire and an arrest was coming. I’d have work to do.
I turned into a drive-through and got burgers, fries and cokes. After three days on a meager diet of berries, Robbie gasped at the cooked smell of the burgers when the girl gave me the bags of food and the drinks. I passed Robbie a burger and I hadn’t gotten out of the drive-through lane before it disappeared.
I parked facing the Avenue, away from lights in the lot. We ate in silence for a bit, just looking out the windshield into the night, at the storefronts and the cars going by. As we started on a second round of burgers, I said, as I always do with clients, “Why don’t you just start at the beginning and tell me what happened. I came looking for you because I thought you might be in a fix, but I didn’t think you would do something without a reason I could work with.”
Robbie took a deep breath. This was hard. “There was some stuff in a file at school.”
“What stuff?” I asked.
“I talked in a class too much,” he replied. “I got sent down to Clark’s office. He had a file in front of him. I guessed it was my school file. I could see some of it upside down. There was a paper stapled to the inside cover with my birthdate and address and things. At the bottom, it said adopted.”
He turned his face away to look out the side window. He didn’t want me to see the water in his eyes.
“Mr. Clark told me I had to calm down in class or he’d send me to stand in the bike yard during recess, but all I could think of was that word. What did it have to do with me? I got a rushing in my ears. It felt like a rip opened up inside me that won’t go away. I’ve just been sick.”
“I got home and I was too shaken numb to say anything to mom and dad or Mags,” Robbie continued. “I couldn’t even say the word. It felt like everything would change if I said it.” Robbie struggled to put deep, frightened feelings into expression.
“If I got rid of the file the word would go away,” he went on. “I knew getting rid of the file couldn’t erase whatever happened in real life, but I wanted the word to go away.”
In a rush of telling, Robbie confessed the fire. “If I broke in the school, I couldn’t take all the files. If I just took mine and maybe a few others, they’d figure out sooner or later it was me. I couldn’t think of anything else but a fire.”
He explained how he did it. “I told mom and dad I was going to the playground, but I went to the garage and got the gas can for the lawnmower. I took it with some matches to the school and pried open a window to the office. I got in, splashed gas around the floor where the files are and back to the window and climbed out. I threw a match on the gas and it surprised me, it whooshed up right away. I just ran, blind crazy. I got rid of the gas can in a dumpster. The only place I could think of to hide was in the canyon. I knew I couldn’t stay there forever, but it was all I could think of to do.” His voice had started to quiver. Robbie stopped speaking.
I tried to process all Robbie’d said. I couldn’t imagine his confusion and anguish. It was a kid’s brain thing to do, to burn the school to get rid of a file. But for Robbie, burning the school paled next to the adoption bomb. Its crater inside him left him suffering. Three nights in Wildcat Canyon, a reckoning coming with the police and, more importantly, he was about to learn close-to-the-bone truths from his parents that would change who he’d always thought he was.
I tried to ratchet down the tension. “What you’ve done is serious but not grave,” I said. “You’ve damaged property but not people. You may have to go to juvie for a bit, but I’ll work on that. Right now, you have to see your folks and Mags. They’re in pain, like you. You have to pull the sliver out to get better.”
“Alright,” he sighed. “Let’s go home.”
Before heading that way, I took another minute with him. I’d worked some adoption cases. The new parents always puzzled when to tell their child about being adopted. Kids like security and certainty. Adoption’s a mystery to kids. It turns things upside down.
I shifted in the car seat so I could look at Robbie face-on. I didn’t want to lawyer him, but I did want to help shape his thinking before he went home.
“Robbie,” I began, “Have you ever doubted for one second your mom and dad love you more than life itself?”
“No,” he said firmly. “I love them, too.”
“Ok,” I continued, “I hope you listen to this. I’ve worked on adoptions. It’s hard for moms and dads to know the right time to tell it and it’s a hard thing to know how to say.”
I wanted to be direct with Robbie about what he’d done and what he was looking at. “Maybe you weren’t ready. You found out and set fire to the school. Not a grown-up way to act.”
Robbie was quiet, taking in what I’d said. “I really messed up at the school,” he said. “Is everyone mad at me?”
I gave him clarity. “This story will follow you. Some punishment is coming. A lot of kids were excited to see the school on fire, but you can’t be proud of it. You have to be sorry for it.”
“I’ve got lots of questions for mom and dad, but I almost don’t want to know,” he replied. “Does that make sense?”
“Of course,” I said. “Every adopted kid feels the same. It’s like with Santa. You want to know if he’s real, but you don’t really want to know if he’s not. But, Robbie,” I asked, “when you first see your mom and dad and Mags, just love them, and keep your heart soft and open.” He looked down, tacitly acknowledging.
As we came near Robbie’s house, I could see neighbors in the yard and on the sidewalk. They’d been spontaneously assembling in the evenings since learning Robbie was missing, in concern and sympathy. Robbie’s mom and dad were sitting in porch chairs, looking bleak and distracted. A police car was parked across the street.
I let Robbie out a couple of houses down so he could gather himself as he walked. I parked and stood outside my car to see the reunion. First one neighbor saw him, then another. A murmur of voices began that got louder as Robbie came closer. His steps were a little hesitant. It was a precipice moment.
His dad saw him and jolted out of his chair, running to Robbie. He lifted Robbie off the ground, hugging, clinging tight. Robbie hugged back. There was clapping and exclaiming. Robbie’s mom was seconds behind her husband and when his dad let Robbie down, she went to her knees and wrapped him up. There were no words exchanged, just embraces.
Mags came out of the house at the commotion. She walked over to Robbie and they smiled slowly at each other, a little self-conscious, then giggled. Sibling code, I imagined.
Robbie pointed me out to his mom and dad. They waved, grateful, and I signaled putting a phone to my ear that I would call. I walked over to the squad car and told the officer I was Robbie’s lawyer. I promised I’d surrender Robbie in the morning at the station. He nodded ok. I got back in my car and drove off, Robbie and his folks and Mags still on the front lawn, reunited, a family, encircled by their neighbors.
* * * *
I called Robbie’s dad in the morning. I told him Robbie had to be booked on suspicion for the fire. He choked up a little thanking me for finding Robbie and for being willing to help on his case. “We’re all going with him to the station,” he said. “I’ll meet you there,” I replied. I was glad they were going together.
I asked if Robbie told why he’d run. “He did and it was emotional and we’re working through it,” Robbie’s dad said, probably understating the startled shock of those first few revelatory moments alone as a family after Robbie’s return.
“My wife and I hardly ever thought about Robbie’s adoption,” he explained. “He was a day old when we brought him home. We never knew anything about Robbie’s biological parents. As life went on we didn’t bring it up. He’d always been ours. We never imagined he would find out himself.”
“I’d forgotten the school even knew about it,” he continued, “but when we first registered him it came up and I guess that’s how it got in the file Robbie saw. We’re so sorry how much it hurt him and he felt like he couldn’t talk. That’s what we’re working on. We’re holding him near us, lots of touch, lots of affection.”
All families have mountains. Going through hard things together makes strong cement. From what I’d heard, it sounded like a wound was starting to heal. It felt good.
When I got to the police station, Robbie and his family were huddled on the sidewalk, looking a little apprehensive. A couple of news stringers loitered outside the station doors. One walked up to the family, but Robbie’s dad waved him away.
I parked and walked over to the family. I said hello and spoke to Robbie. “This won’t take long. You’re a minor. They’ll book you on suspicion for the fire, print you, and give you a date to see a judge at juvenile hall. Then, you can go home.” I could see the concern in his eyes, but he was being a brave boy. I squeezed his shoulder in reassurance.
“I’m taking him in,” Robbie’s dad said. They started up the entryway together. At the door, Robbie looked up at his dad. His dad gave him a smile and put his hand tenderly on the back of Robbie’s neck. They turned toward the doors and walked through.
Gordon J. Stirling is a retired U.S. diplomat, now residing in Eagle Mountain, UT. Following his retirement from the Foreign Service, he was an adjunct instructor in political science at the University of Nevada Las Vegas (2005-2009) and at Utah Valley University (2010-2011). His short stories have been published previously in Carnival, v.3, 2013 and Decades Review, v.14, 2015.