Burning Schoolhouse

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Young Adult  |  House: Booksie Classic
Kevin's dad never should have brought out the Burning Schoolhouse on fireworks night.

Submitted: May 03, 2019

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Submitted: May 03, 2019

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“Kebin?  Whatcha looking at?” says my new friend Raymond Perry-Newsome.  

 

I am looking up at the round, shiny red thing that hangs high on the wall but I answer him, like I have six times already this morning, “I’m ‘KE-VIN’!”.  This draws Miss Clarke’s attention our way

 

“Kevin Farmer and Raymond Perry-Newsome!  We don’t speak out when we’re in the principal’s office!”

 

My face blushes the same colour as the thing on the wall.  I hadn’t meant to make her angry. I hope this doesn’t make her not like me.  

 

“In fact, you two boys come to the front right now so you can see better.”

 

Raymond and I shuffle up through the crowd of kids.  I can feel him grab the back of my shirt in his hands as I lead.  I don't like being pointed out. This is all his fault.

 

“Now,” Miss Clarke continues, “Mr. Gale will be out in just a minute to talk with us.  But in the meantime, this is our Vice-Principal Mrs. Little. Hello!”

 

Mrs. Little stands next to Miss Clarke who is the taller one.  Her hair is short but it still bounces around when she moves her head from side to side.  She greets us cheerfully and welcomes us to kindergarten and to our new school. There are a few things she wants us to know about: announcements, standing and singing the national anthem, reciting the Lord’s Prayer, recess and lunch.  Then she tells us about the various bells that we will hear throughout the day and what they mean.

 

“Does anyone know what that red bell up there does?” she points to the shiny thing. Now all eyes are upon it. A girl named Rhonda, with long straight hair that looks like it was drawn with yellow and brown pencil crayons, raises her arm.

 

“It’s a fire bell.  My daddy has one at his work.”

 

“Ah!  I'm happy to hear that.  Do you know what it does?”

 

“If someone smells smoke they push the buddun and the bell starts to ring so everyone knows to get out of the building so they don’t get burnt up.”  

 

“Well, yes!  That’s…”

 

“It’s too loud and I had to cover my ears when it ringed.”  

 

“Yes it’s very loud but there is a reason why it’s so loud.  If there is a problem, like smoke or fire, and we’re in a far off part of the school, we need to know as soon as possible so we can leave the building until someone sorts it out.  That’s why they make the bell so loud, so that everyone can get the same message at the same time.”

 

“I don’t like it.  It scares me.” Rhonda tiny-laughs at herself like she expects it was something that happened once and will never happen again.  

 

“Did someone at your daddy’s work smell smoke?”

 

“No, it was only a test for all the people.  They made us stand outside in the rain without our coats.”

 

“BRRINNNG-A-LING-A-LING!”  

 

The secretary’s phone rings. It sounds a lot like the phone at my house but it is a whole lot louder and it makes me jump.  It makes a lot of the kids in my class jump. The secretary picks up the black handset and presses it to the side of her head.  She speaks in a low voice but I can tell that she has an accent. In the middle of her spikey white hair is a bald spot.

 

“Oh dear.”  Mrs. Little continues.  “Well I’m glad there was no fire.  And I’m glad you mentioned all those things because that’s what I’d like to talk to you about today.  We have one of those bells in our school too as you can see. And we have tests too. We call them fire drills.  We do it to give everyone practice on what to do in case there is a real...emergency. We do it from time to time, not too often, but just enough so that it stays in our memories so we know how to stay organized and get out of the school safely.  Hopefully not on a rainy day.”

 

Two older kids, girls in grade two or grade three, come into the office.  They have to wait until the secretary is off the phone. The first girl is sad and crying.  The secretary would rather talk on the phone than talk to these girls who are doing their best to be patient, especially the crying girl.  Finally, she hangs up the phone and I hear the second girl say that the crying girl is not feeling well and needs to go home. The secretary asks a few questions then promises to call the sick-crying girl’s mother.  She sends the two of them away to the nurse’s station. I feel sad for the sick-crying girl. She needed a hug but didn’t get one.

 

A large man in a dark suit opens a door and steps out.  He is holding a wooden paddle, the length of a yard stick but carved like a stretchy lizard.  The tail is the handle and the nose is the tip. It looks like it might break in three pieces if he dropped it.

 

“And here’s someone you should know.”  Mrs. Little says. “This is our principal.  Mr. Gale. He’s the boss of the whole school.”  

 

“Hello.” says Mr. Gale.  He has a tanned face and a square jaw.  He looks very serious. “What a fine bunch of young men and women.  What are they doing in my office? Are they in trouble?”

 

“Of course not.” responds Mrs. Little.  “This is the new kindergarten class. They’re here to see the office for the first time.”  Her hair bounces so much I expect that she could be leading us in a happy song.

 

Miss Clarke speaks up.  “We’re giving them a tour of their new school.  These people will be some of the best doctors and nurses and policemen and astronauts someday.”  Her hair is really curly and her eyes are bursting with blue straight from the ocean the way I colour it with crayons.  Her assistant, Mrs. Lawson, stands nearby watching over us and smiling. She doesn’t say a whole lot but her dark red lips are so wide they almost touch the tips of her earlobes..

 

“Oh, well I’m very pleased to meet you.  That’s a lot of hands to shake.” Mr. Gale says, looking down upon our group.  His chin seems to arrive first before the rest of his head when he turns our way.  

 

“What have you got there, Mr. Gale?” asks Mrs. Little.  I think she really already knows what it is.

 

“Well, I’m glad you asked.  This is something I brought back from my summer holidays in South America.  While you were at the playground or the beach I was in going on an adventure through the jungles and the mountains.”

 

“Sounds very interesting.  How did you find it?”

 

“Well I was hiking along and I came upon a little village that made these by hand.  My first thought was ‘Gee, this would be good thing to have in case any of the students at my school decided to misbehave’.”

 

He smacks the cane across the opposite palm of his hand.  Surprisingly, it is not only very sturdy but it delivers a very loud ‘Snap!’.  We all jump again and our eyes pop open nearly as large as the fire bell. Mrs. Little speaks up quickly,

 

“You must be talking about those students in the older grades.  Not these kids though.” She puts her hands on as many shoulders as she can reach.  I’m not one of them. “These are all the nicest kids. Every one of them an angel.”

 

Mr. Gale winks at us.  “I can see that you are right. Oh well, I can always hang this up on the wall.  It will make a nice decoration. I know just the spot where I can reach it if I need it.”  

 

He seems like a funny man and I'm sure he doesn’t mean what he says about what the paddle is for.  Mostly sure.

 

“Me and my paddle have to get back to work now.  Have a good rest of your day everyone.”

 

Mr. Gale returns to his office but does not close the door. I see an empty chair facing his desk.

 

Mrs. Little says, “This is Mrs. Kortright, our school secretary.  She has some news for you too. But I have to get back to my desk.  So… welcome to kindergarten and we’ll see you soon. Okay?”

 

She goes back to her office which is the little desk next to Mr. Gale’s office.

 

Mrs. Kortright spins quickly around in her chair to look at us.  

 

“Well, now…”

 

She has a Scottish accent and seems friendly.  A loose blob of skin under her chin wobbles like a water balloon when she talks.  She tells us about attendance and late slips and says that when we are old enough, in a few more years, we will all get a turn giving the announcements.  If we get letters to take home to our mom and dad, she is the one who types them up and makes copies. If there is a problem like what we just saw with the little girl who wasn’t feeling well she will call our moms to come and get us.  The droopy skin under her chin looks like it might plop to the ground like the raw dough my mother cuts from around the pie dish.

 

It is time to move on to other parts of the school.  As we are saying polite goodbyes, Mrs. Kortright says “If you want to know a secret that no one else in the school knows, I can tell you.”  That gets our attention. “We are going to have our own fire drill this morning at ten o’clock. It will be a surprise to everyone else but not to you.  Can you keep a secret?” We assure her that we can and start to move again but Mrs. Kortright isn’t done yet.. “You promise me that you’ll listen to your teachers and get out of the school as quickly as you can.  Mr. Gale can’t leave the school until he’s checked out all the rooms to make sure there are none of you left behind. Poor Mr. Gale.”

 

“Poor me!”  Mr. Gale’s says from inside his office in a funny voice that makes us laugh. Miss Clarke and Mrs. Lawson seem in a hurry to get us out of the office.

 

Mrs. Kortright continues.  “Well, then, when you hear the bell go off, stop everything you’re doing and get yourselves out of the building.  No books or coats or boots or lunch pails. If they get burned up, you can always get another one.”

 

She is already turning around to her typewriter but I hear her say, “You can’t get another Kevin.”  I think we all hear her say my name. I know I did. But why me? Once more, I am pointed out. . Miss Clarke puts a hand on my shoulder and gently guides me away.  The rest follow. We walk like a bunch of penguins past Mrs. Kortright’s desk and out into the hallway.

 

Miss Clarke says “Just listen for my voice and it will all be fine.”  I’m not sure if she is talking to me or the whole class. Either way, she stops talking and we march along behind her listening for a voice that never comes.  I want to hold Miss Clarke’s hand but she is walking too fast.

 

We are shown where the washrooms are, where the gym is, where the doors to the playground are.  We pass by the nurse’s station but we can’t go in. The door is open but the lights are off. I see the sick-crying girl, all alone in the darkness, lying down on her side on a short bench.  She has a towel to her mouth. I think she might have thrown up. I can’t tell whether her eyes are open or closed but her head, which was facing the open door, turns away. I would have wanted the door closed.

 

We visit the school library.  The head librarian is a lady named Miss Smythe who looks about the same age as my youngest aunt.  She has sharp pointed glasses that look like they could poke a hole in a kid’s face if she leaned in too close.  Even her nose and the long pin in her hair look dangerous to be around. She walks us among the shelves and shows us where to find the books that will be more interesting to us.  Then she sits us down on a yellow carpet with giant red mushrooms. We form a semicircle around her as she sits on a small wood stool, her knees bent up higher than her waist.

 

She reads from a book that she has picked out especially for us.  Cecily G and the 9 Monkeys. She chose this book for our first visit to the library because this was the very first Curious George’s book ever written.  We all know who Curious George is. It is a a good book about a sad giraffe with no family or friends who runs into a family of monkeys with no home and together they live a happy life.  I like the story and the pictures that Miss Smythe points out to us but my eyes wander up the wall behind her head. There is another big shiny red bell waiting for someone to push the button at ten o’clock.  What does ten o’clock look like? There is a loud ticking clock, about the same size as the bell on a different wall that sounds like my dad chiseling wood. I don’t know what time it is because I can’t tell time yet.  

 

Suddenly, there is a change in Miss Smythe’s reading voice.  Something has happened in the story. She holds up the book, page side towards us, and asks us what is happening.  Curious George is running wildly from left to right away from a tall building with flames bursting out of the upper windows.  There is a fire in Cecily’s house and all of her stuff is in danger of getting burnt up.

 

“All her food?” asks Rhonda without first raising her arm.  

 

“Yes.” Miss Smythe says.

 

“Her toys?” Rhonda once again.

 

“Yes.”  Miss Smythe says again but she searches our group for someone else to answer.

 

“Her clothes?” asks a mischievous boy and that gets a round of giggles from the rest of my class.  

 

“Yes.  Everything.  Poor Cecily.”  

 

Miss Smythe does this thing with her eyes where she closes them on purpose just before she turns her head to the side then opens them again when her head stops moving.  Like one of my sister’s dolls whose eyes close then open depending on how you tilt it.

 

“Her family?”  

 

Rhonda’s arm is waving furiously in the air but by now other kids have joined in the conversation.  

 

“Lucky in this case, her family doesn’t live with her anymore.”

 

Rhonda puts her arm down and picks herself as the next questioner.  

 

“Why can’t she run in really quickly and get them?”

 

“When there’s a fire you have to get away as far as possible.  Let the fire burn up all the food and toys and clothes. You can always get more.  If you get too close it will burn you up too and we can’t let that happen.”

 

Miss Smythe continues with the story.  The fire is put out and everyone is safe and fine.  But hanging above us, looking down like a burning red sun, is our fire bell.  Ready to go off. When? Any minute? Any second? I don’t feel safe and fine.  Not yet. Mrs. Kortright, the secretary, is in charge of the button. What if she decides to make a real fire?  Just to test us? Everyone seems to have forgotten about the fire drill that is coming. There is Miss Clarke sitting in her own tiny chair.  Her legs are crossed and she pulls back on the knees so tightly with her hands that her chair tips back a little. I like the way the sun makes her curly hair all glowy.  There is Mrs. Lawson standing by the window still smiling. Her mouth is so wide you could use her head for a mailbox. We are on the second floor, just like in Cecily’s house.  We’re a long way from our kindergarten class.

 

Hurry up Miss Smythe.  Finish the story. We have to go.  Back to our class. This is no good.  

 

I get up on my knees.  My feet are curled up under me ready to push me up in case we need to start running.  Miss Smythe continues to read aloud but I don’t hear the words she is saying.

 

Mrs. Lawson steps over to me and leans down.  She whispers into my ear, “Kevin! On your bum.  On your bum.” Then with both hands on my shoulders, she wrangles me back down.  I follow her lead but I am so wound up that I can’t relax my muscles. I wiggle and fidget until I am replanted on the carpet.

Tears well up in my eye.  

 

I am next to Raymond and of course he notices.

 

“What’s wrong Kebin?”

 

The sick-crying girl is all alone in the dark.  I think of her as a Lisa. Poor Lisa.

 

This is when the fire bell goes off.

 

“DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG!”  

 

“DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG!”  

 

“DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG!”

 

Miss Smythe jerks back with a start and stops reading.  All motion, all life in the library comes to a stop. My body, my brain, everything about me goes cold.  My heart is instantly pounding against the insides of my chest, wanting to break free of me, wanting to flee.  

 

Almost immediately, there is a second wave.

 

“DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG!”  

 

“DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG!”  

 

“DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG!”

 

A musical phrase in a minor key.  Striking my ears with pain. Like the sudden crashing down of notes on steel pipe.  A warning to beware of approaching danger and violence.

 

I hear Miss Smythe say with a nervous laugh, to no one but herself, “That gets me every time!” Is that meant to reassure us?

 

She closes the book, stands up, and puts the book back down on the stool she was just occupying.  Miss Clarke stands up too.

 

“DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG!”  

 

“DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG!”  

 

“DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG!”

 

The bell seems to be getting louder.  Some kids put their hands to their ears.  Some kids think it’s funny. Not me.

 

“Everyone stand and form a straight line behind me.”  Miss Clarke commands us, walking around us and stopping by the doors to the library.  

 

“DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG!”  

 

“DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG!”  

 

“DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG!”

 

It is exactly as bad as I expected it to be.  Maybe even worse. Three sets of three. A pause.  Another set of three. Another pause. A final set of three then back to the beginning.  A terrifying rhythm was beginnings to build. For the rest of my life, I will hear the echo of that grouping and shiver from the memories of the fear that was brought down on me that day.  

 

“Quickly!  Quickly now!” Miss Clarke exclaims rapidly, between the clangs of the bell.  

 

We line up as we are told.  Mrs. Lawson bravely takes the last place in line.  Miss Smythe walks to the library doors and holds them open for us.  

 

“DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG!”  

 

“DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG!”  

 

“DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG!”

 

We begin to march.  I hear voices. Grown-up voices.  I’m not yet familiar with which voice belongs to which grown-up.  It is hard to tell who is leading us. I just follow the kid in front of me.  

 

“My coat!” a kid yells out.

 

“My hat!” another kid.

 

“They’ll be safe.  This is just a…”

 

“DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG!”  

 

“DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG!”  

 

“DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG!”

 

“...a drill.”

 

I can see down the long hallway.  Every classroom is emptying out. Kids and teachers fill the hallway.  I have never seen this many people in one place before. Little kids. Big kids.  Grown-up men. Grown-up women. All following the same instructions. Out! Out! Are those flames I see?  The shadows of flames?

 

My classroom is at the other end of the hallway.  My coat. My hat. My backpack. I will never get to them now.

 

“DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG!”  

 

“DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG!”  

 

“DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG!”

 

“Close the door behind you!” a teacher yells out.  

 

“One line!  Against the wall!”

 

So now they’re all yelling.  This is not a good sign.

 

The kids swarming the hallway are laughing.  But they don’t realize that behind every wall, behind every coat hanging on a hook, there are deadly flames.  

 

You should have listened to your teachers!

 

“DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG!”  

 

“DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG!”  

 

“DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG!”

 

We walk down the stairwell in single file to the main floor.  Most of us still take two steps for every stair. Who’s going to go back and get Lisa?

 

“Hold on to the railing!  I don’t want anyone tripping.” Miss Clarke says from somewhere nearby.  

 

Listen for my voice, she said.  So far, it’s working.  

 

Raymond says from behind me, “Kebin, stay with me.  I’m scared.”

 

Shuffling, scraping feet.  Older students are moving rapidly past us in their own single file.  It worries me that they will be out of the building a lot soon than we.  None of them offers to help.

 

“DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG!”  

 

“DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG!”  

 

“DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG!”

 

My head pounds with every beat of my heart.  My vision is blurry. I know what the bell means by now.  If only it would stop or skip a cycle so I could relax and think.  I see Curious George running from the building. The flames licking the sky through the windows, reaching out towards him but falling short.  His arms flail about his head. He is really scared but he is doing the right thing. Behind us, at the top of the stairs, just out of sight, are the flames and the smoke.  And they are reaching for us now.

 

I think I might cry.  I might already be crying.  

 

“DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG!”  

 

“DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG!”  

 

“DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG!”

 

We approach the lobby of the school.  Several lines of kids are converging as one.  There is a lot of noise. A lot of voices. Mrs. Little stands at the top of the staircase just outside the office, observing. She holds up a stopwatch in her left hand. She is not smiling but she doesn’t seem to be worried for her own safety. I don’t see Mr. Gale.  He must be checking all the rooms already. I don’t see Mrs. Kortright.

 

She started it!  She’s gone because she had a head start!.  

 

Lisa in the nurse’s station.  She might be forgotten about and left behind.  That would be terrible. Just terrible.

 

Please, Mr. Gale.  Go to her first!

 

“DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG!”  

 

“DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG!”  

 

“DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG!”

 

As we shuffle towards the front doors, the pushing begins.  I am pushed from behind so I must push the kid in front of me to keep from falling older.  It is an older girl in front of me now. Her shirt has no sleeves. Her skin is covered in freckles.

 

“Don’t push.  Stop pushing!” she yells over her speckled shoulder.  Her face is dotted too like she got splashed with a lot of brown paint.  I don’t know how she came to be there. Rhonda was in front of me but I don’t see her now.  As we squeeze together, my lips brush against the crook of the freckled girl’s armpit. It tastes like corned beef.  I didn’t mean to do it but she turns to look me in the eye and says “you little animal!”

 

I don’t have an answer for that. I just look ahead, looking through her as if I either didn’t hear or see her.  I only see the door that I intend to go through.

 

“DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG!”  

 

“DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG!”  

 

“DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG-DINNNGGG!”

 

There are two older boys holding the front doors open, allowing us to exit quickly. One of the boys is large and round with a rumpled, juice-stained white T-shirt. His dark hair is short but uncombed.  He grins as the student body stumbles past him.

 

“Little kid.  You’ll be crying if ya catch on fire.” he says to one of the other kids in my class.  I can’t tell who.

 

He reaches out with his left arm and swipes at the shoulders of the younger kids in the line.

 

“Don’t wanna get burnt alive do ya?  Come on. Running out of time.”

 

He looks like he really enjoys ushering us along like dumb cows.  

 

“What are you waiting for?  Christmas? Come on! Get! Get!”

 

I don’t think he’s talking at me on purpose but it is my turn to get a push on my shoulders.  It turns out to be a pretty weak flick of the wrist. He doesn’t do that to any of the teachers that walk past.  

 

“Ding-ding-ding. Ding-ding-ding.  Ding-ding-ding”

 

We are outside the building now and the alarm bell doesn’t sound as loud anymore.  But I don’t feel any safer because we are still in reach of the flames and the fire.  We are in the shadow of the school and can feel a shivery coolness in the air because our coats are not with us.  Will they ever be? There, down at the end of the laneway, is the edge of the school property where the city sidewalk runs across in the warm sunlight.  That is where we need to be if we are going to be safe.

 

A swarm of seagulls circles overhead looking for food that we might throw away.  Like the seagulls, many of the kids gathered outside don’t care about the fire drill.  Girls are skipping and twirling. Boys are swinging their legs, taking aim at imaginary soccer balls.  It is like the cold shadows have cast a spell on them.

 

Not everyone is smiling. I see tears. I hear sobs. I am not alone in my feelings.  The teachers are among us but they don’t give any help those of us who are not happy.  They are really just following the same instructions that we were given. Stand with your class and wait for the sign to go back in.  But I don’t think we’re going back in.  The alarm bells can be heard through several open windows on the second floor, echoing, bouncing around through the empty building like it was a giant castle.  Inside, all the books are on fire. The coats and boots and backpacks. I sure hope Mr. Gale found Lisa in the nurse’s station and he’s carrying her in his arms, stepping over flaming desks and chairs?  

 

Our line inches down the lane, making way for more classes exiting the building, drawing closer to the sidewalk, the street.  The fire alarm is now well behind us, no longer around us, but that does not comfort me. I can’t bring myself to turn and look at the school building.  I am afraid of what I might see. Curious George is already running down the laneway. Eyes wide, hands waving in the air, calling for help or maybe just waving because that’s how frightened little monkeys run. I desperately want to follow him. I step out of line to look. Curious George is not there anymore. He is already gone. Long gone.

 

Good for you George!  

 

I feel a familiar tug at the back of my shirt, tighter than before.

 

“Kebin.  Wait for me.”

 

Then I hear a scream.  A sudden, sharp, shrill scream.  Lisa! It’s her, leaning out a window.  Forgotten and abandoned. Oh how cruel! That is all I need.  I am off. Running away. I feel Raymond’s fingers pried loose from my shirt which becomes untucked in the process.  Like Curious George, I am now running madly away from the school.

 

I hear the voice of Miss Clarke yelling after me, pleading with me “Kevin!  Kevin! Where are you going? Kevin, come back!”

 

I’m sorry Miss Clarke.  I’m sorry.

 

I run to the bottom of the lane and take a sharp right then run to the corner.  The sound of the alarm bell is gone. I can only hear the sound of my own grunting breath and the throbbing of my heart between my ears, behind my eyes.  My watery eyes are running over with terror and fear. I don’t even remember telling my legs to move. I am somehow just propelled forward. Pushed from behind, pulled from ahead.  The rest of my body follows, trusting fully. I am free.

 

This is easy!

 

I run as fast as I can with no way of knowing how long I can keep this up.  I believe in my young heart I can run as long as I need to until the danger is passed.  I don’t know when that will be. I may have to look back at where I came but I am not ready to do that just yet.  So I keep running.

 

I arrive at the first road crossing.  The crossing guard has gone home for the morning.  A cranky grandmother. She’d be very cross with me right now.  I am naughty. I am out of school. She would have sent me back.  This is an unusual moment. I remember clearly the instruction to look both ways. It makes perfect sense to me now. I surge forward. A clean white car brakes violently to a halt.  Where did it come from so suddenly? It wasn’t possible. The woman in the car looks at me like I really was Curious George, an escaped monkey running loose.  I return her stare, expecting her to get out of the car and march me either back to the school or straight to my house and present me to my mother. The inside of her car is dark.  I can see the white skin of her face but not the rest of her head. She has big dark sunglasses with yellow frames. I think I might actually know her but she turns her head away to face front.  Her car accelerates away. Amid the stink of singed rubber, I cross the quiet once more street. The tears that I have been holding in are near ready to fall.

 

I feel better now but I am not going back.  There’s nothing I can do for a burning school.  I feel bad for Miss Clarke and for the other kids in my class.  Even annoying Raymond Perry-Newsome and for Rhonda with all the questions.  Especially for Lisa, the poorest one of them all. And maybe even funny Mr. Gale with his strange paddle.  But whatever happens to them won’t happen to me now.

 

My house is at the top of a rising street.  The climbing run burns up the last of my resources.  I must get there though. I must. It is the only one safe place anymore.  But it is still too far. The labour of running, the exhaustion that it brings on, smothers the panic that spurred me minutes ago.  All I can focus on now is where and when this little adventure will end.

 

When I arrive home, I whip open the screen door at the the side of our house and pitch myself inside.  My little sister Darlene is sitting on the steps that lead up to the kitchen playing with the stuffed brown horse that she named Pete but can’t pronounce properly so it comes out as ‘Beep’.  Her glee at seeing me so suddenly changes to confusion. She jumps up on her little feet and climbs up the stairs the rest of the way calling out, “Kevin’s home, mommy!”

 

My mother steps out from another room to check on her then spots me and approaches quickly.  

 

“Kevin?  Why are you home already?  Was there a problem?”

 

I run into her arms, holding tight.  The tears that I have been holding back burst out of me now.  I try to explain what happened but all I can really say for certain is “There was a scream!  I heard a sick girl screaming for help and it really scared me!”

 

“What?”

 

The kitchen phone rings.  My mother picks it up and it isn’t long before she knows the details that I am too upset about to explain.  

 

“Yes.  He’s just arrived.”

 

The conversation is brief.  My mother reacts as if she has just watched a nice TV show.  Something has touched her deeply. She hangs up the phone

 

“That was the school that just called.  Everything is all right now. They didn’t mean for you to get scared but there’s really nothing wrong and they want you to come back.

 

“But there was a fire!  And a sick girl got left behind and was leaning out the window screaming and nobody could get to her!”

 

“Well, the school didn’t say anything about that so I guess it’s okay now.  Or maybe what you saw, or heard, was only something else. A little mistake.  That doesn’t matter.”

 

My mother makes me put on my raincoat even though it is a sunny day.  My normal, regular coat is still at school. My sister Darlene is wrapped in her pink and white winter coat. She puts a kerchief over her brown hair then we are out the door.

 

As we walk back to my school, my mother holds my hand and I hold Darlene’s hand.  I am nervous and I am shaking but I go along at the pace I need to keep up. My mother tries her very best to reassure me that everything is fine and there is no reason to be afraid.  She points out the lack of fire trucks and sirens. The lack of smoke in the sky. The quiet of the neighbourhood. It is true what she is telling me. There are no signs of danger or disaster anywhere.  The streets are as empty as a Sunday afternoon with only the usual hum of downtown traffic in background.

 

My school comes into view.  Sitting silent and still up on top of its piece of land as it had the day my dad drove us here to have a look in late August before I started kindergarten.  The building is untouched. No scorch marks or broken glass. No hoses or puddles of water or bodies lying everywhere. I was surprised by this because Lisa,  the sick-crying girl was leaning out a window screaming for help. She must have had a good reason. When I looked at the upper story windows, I couldn’t tell which window it was.  My memory of that moment began to haze over. Through those same windows I could see the heads of students sat down at their desks while a teacher paced back and forth at the chalkboard.  It seemed so normal that it made me feel like I was not where I was supposed to be. I was quickly coming around to the notion that I had made a terrible mistake. In fact, I was aware for the first time in my young life that I might have made a terrible fool of myself in front of a lot of people and soon I would have to face those people.  It did not feel good.

 

There are still feathery crowds of seagulls creeping around on the grass in front of the school which was now in bright warm sunlight.  They watch us approach then take flight as we cross through to the front doors. There is a lot of screeching and squawking as they leave.  

 

“Maybe it was the seagulls you heard.” my mother says.  “Sometimes they’re so noisy, it sounds like a scream.”

 

I nod my head quickly in agreement although the seagulls sound nothing like what I know I heard.

 

My mother opens the front door for me and for Darlene.  This is the same door that the mean, pushy kid held when we were sent outside just moments ago.  I think he is a Lenny. Like everyone else, he is back in class. Back where he is supposed to be.  I look across the lobby and see the stairs. At the top of the stairs is the office. I remember Mrs. Little and her stopwatch and her frown.  I remember Mr. Gale and his lizard stick.

 

“SNAP!”

 

That was only the sound of it hitting the palm of his hand.  Am I going to be the first kid to get smacked with it? I get a terrible flutter in my belly.  

 

I hear another scream.  The real scream. This time it is louder.  It’s right behind me! I let out a little scream of my own and whip around.  There is nothing there. Just the front door closing slowly.

 

“Kevin!  For goodness sake!”

 

I stare harder but there is just the glass door landing with a soft thump back in it’s frame.  

 

“That was just the door, honey.” my mother tells me.  “It’s squeaky so someone has to give it some oil. That’s all.”

 

Darlene gives me a hug.  “It’s okay Kevin.” She says into the scarf that my mother has wrapped around her face.  

 

“See.  Darlene isn’t scared.  Come on. Let’s get you back in your room.”  

 

I look at the door.  The screaming has stopped.  There is no one in sight. I’m confused.

 

My mother leads us up the staircase.  We we climb at the speed of Darlene, one step at a time.  It takes a long time. I am okay with that.

 

We enter the office and step up to the counter.  There is no one ahead of us but Lisa is there off to the side sitting on a bench.  She has her coat on and her backpack at her side. Her head is bowed. When she hears us come in, she looks up quickly.  But we are not her people so she bows her head again. Mrs. Kortright is listening to a teacher’s voice which is coming through a speaker.  She pushes a clicky button and says something back to the teacher. The conversation ends without any goodbyes and she turns to see us.

 

“Hello.  Signing in?”  

 

“Yes.  This is Kevin Farmer.”

 

“Oh, that Kevin Farmer.  Of Miss Clarke’s kindergarten class?  Had a wee adventure this morning?”

 

“That’s him.”

 

Her big black phone rings.

 

“Okay I’ll be right with you in a second.”  

 

She answers a phone.  While she is listening to the caller, she indicates to my mother where to sign in a big book.  Mrs. Little, the vice principal with the bouncy short hair, walks past in the background. She doesn’t look my way.  I was hoping for an encouraging remark from but she has work to do that doesn’t have anything to do with putting on a show for little people anymore.  

The fire drill is all but forgotten about.  I am the only leftover. I feel very ashamed.

 

My mother looks down at me.  

 

“Nothing to worry about.”  

 

She’s right.  

 

A loud booming voice comes out of Mr. Gale’s office.  His door is closed but I can see in through the glass.  Lenny, the boy with the messy hair and the stained white T-shirt, is sitting in the chair facing Mr. Gale’s desk but I can’t see the desk or Mr. Gale.  Lenny’s feet swing nervously under his chair and he is slumped forward as Mr. Gale’s angry voice crashes down on him. He shouldn’t have pushed all those kids but I didn’t tell on him.  The lizard cane is still up on the wall.

 

“Why is the man yelling?  Is Kevin in trouble?”

 

“No, Kevin isn’t in trouble.  That’s a bad kid in there getting a talking to.  Kevin just needs to go back to his class. He’ll be fine.”  

 

My mother holds me tight.  My sister doesn’t understand.  

 

Behind us, Lisa sighs loudly.  She isn’t crying anymore but she is not happy.  I think she might be like this all the time. She still looks like she needs a hug but someone else is going to have to give it to her.  I need one too.

 

I hear clicky clacky shoes.  A tall, tall lady steps up to the counter beside us.  I recognize her as my mother’s hair dresser. I’ve watched them talk and talk at the salon while I sat in a chair reading comic books.  Today, they just barely acknowledge each other. She has on a long coat that is made of layers that hang in odd shapes and colours. You can almost smell the brightness of the reds and blues and blacks that swish around when she moves her arms.  She lands a pack of cigarettes and a ring of keys down on the secretary’s counter with a jangly clunk then picks up a pen and, with a loud sigh, starts to write in the book that my mother has just written in. She has done this before. She doesn’t even need help from Mrs. Kortright who is still on the phone.  I smell cigarette smoke. It’s the only real smell of smoke I’ve noticed today. As the tall lady scribbles her name in the book, all the other sounds in the busy office seem to back away. I look at the interesting sunglasses she wears tight against her face. Big and dark with yellow frames.

 

“Come on Tammy!” the tall yells out.  She slaps the pen back down and slides the keys and cigarette pack along the counter like they were a pile of candy until they are back in her fist.  Lisa - now Tammy - but really Lisa - stands up as if she were next in line for a needle and slips away. The two mothers say goodbye to each other but I can tell they aren’t as comfortable seeing each other now as they are at the hairdressers.  

 

Mrs. Kortright hangs up the big black handset.  She calls out to Mrs. Little who is standing at a filing cabinet with it’s top drawer out.

 

“Maureen, do you have time to take young Kevin to his kindergarten class?”

 

Without expecting an answer, she picks up her phone and starts dialling a number.  She gives a look to my mother that says “It’s going to be all right now. You can leave.”

 

My mother says goodbye to me and leads Darlene away.  I am alone now in the office. Mr. Gale’s voice has calmed down.  I don’t want to be here when Lenny comes out. I didn’t think he deserved that much yelling.  What I did was worse and I don’t want to be next. Any anger I had for Lenny was gone now. I had even forgotten all about him.  

 

Miss Little does not look up from her filing cabinet.  Did she just ignore Mrs. Kortright on purpose?. Then she looks up and sees me standing there.  She looks at me for a long while as if she were not sure why I was there, like a mop left in the wrong place.  How did that get there? She shoves the filing cabinet drawer shut then crosses towards me. I get the signal “let’s go” to  turn me around and follow her out of the office.

 

Mrs. Little says nothing as she ushers me down the hall.  She moves quickly, impatiently and I nearly break into a run to keep up with her.  I can tell she is mad. Is she mad at me? I guess she has a good reason to be. She’s not Mr. Gale-mad.  Yelling questions so that the whole school can hear. In her hand is a blue folder with little yellow tabs sticking out of it.  Are those notes about me?

 

We arrive at my classroom.  She knocks on the closed wooden door then looks through the papers in the blue folder while we wait for an answer. I expect that she is going to instruct Miss Clarke on appropriate punishment and I am going to be in big trouble. Does Miss Clarke have a cane too?  Would she really do that? I promise, promise, promise not to do this ever again even though I am shaking and want to run away again.

 

Mrs. Lawson opens the door.  Her wide, wide mouth grows even wider.  

 

“Hello Kevin!  We’re so glad you’re back.  We missed you!”

 

Mrs. Little and her blue folder full of notes turns and walks away.  No words exchanged. No report on me. I am amazed.

 

“Let’s hang your coat up and then join everyone else for carpet time.” she whispers as if the rest of the class were asleep.  When I’m not looking at mouth, she actually sounds like a really nice person.

 

My class is gathered in another semicircle on a faded green carpet.  Miss Clarke sits on a proper grown-up chair beside an easel on which is pinned a large pad of paper.  She is drawing a picture using a thick black magic marker almost as big around as a flashlight. I hear it squeak as she pushes it across the newsprint.  A wet chemical odour fills the room. We walk around them quietly.

 

Mrs. Lawson leads me to the back of the class.  Behind a partition is the cloak room. There is my coat and there is my backpack just I had left them.  Safe and untouched. I can hear Miss Clarke’s voice talking to the rest of the class and I realize that I would rather be a part them than back here all alone.  I hang my raincoat over the same hook and walk away quickly.

 

I find Raymond and sit down next to him.  I’ve known him since daycare. He is the only kid who knows me.  Most of the other kids have turned back to face the easel.

 

“Welcome back Kevin.” Miss Clarke says as if I had just gone to use the washroom.  She returns to the business of the picture on the easel and the story that goes with it.  I knew I could count on her not to point me out, even if she just did a little.

 

Raymond whispers in my ear “Where you go?  Kebin? Where you go?”

 

I’m not ready to describe what I just went through.  I don’t even have words for it yet. I am starting to feel embarrassed just like I knew I would be.  I chose to say nothing as if I didn’t know Raymond was talking even though I can hear him repeating his question over and over again.  I stare straight ahead. Just like I did with the freckled girl. Just like everyone else seems to do when I’m around.

 

“Raymond Perry Newsome, don’t bother Kevin!  Please come sit up here.”

 

Raymond obediently gets up and does as he is ordered.  For once, it wasn’t me that was pointed out. That wasn’t so hard.  Thank you, Miss Clarke. I knew I could count on you. I’ve had enough for one day.

 

I am happy that he is gone from my side.  I still want to be his friend and I hope he still wants to be mine but I like the aloneness and the space better right now.  I have no idea what Miss Clarke is telling the rest of the class but the black magic marker picture she has drawn on the easel, filled in with blue marker, is a boat on the water.  She draws beautifully. I can hear the waves and the seagulls.


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