Mrs. Read stood glued to the second-floor window of the library, staring through at something outside her domain that had got even her attention. At her uncharacteristic outburst, and probably looking for something remotely interesting, Wingy almost knocked over his chair in his effort to join her. He, too, then gaped as he peered through the glass.
Finally, Simon’s curiosity overcame his reluctance, and walked across to see for himself.
"Look! The Art block is on fire!" Wingford pressed his sweaty hands against the pane. The as if it wasn't obvious enough, he pointed. Turning, he bolted for the door, anxious for a closer look.
Leaving Mrs. Read to guard her books, Simon quickly followed the older teen down the stairs and outside. He picked up the acrid smell of smoke almost as soon as he got out the door. It looked like they weren't the only ones who'd spotted the crisis. From all directions, bodies streamed towards the direction of the rising plume of smoke.
Simon pushed into the throng too and was carried along in its stream. He came up short too far away to get a proper view. Pushing down behind the thick shrubbery that lined the side of the Science Labs, he joined a scattering of quick-thinking Academy guys and drove through to get nearer, popping out into a heavy crowd just a dozen steps from where those at the front were edging nearer to the smoking building. He heard his name being shouted and, following the sound, spotted Luke over the far side of the crowd. He waved and then elbowed his way across until they met up. At that side, further from the Science Labs, the gathering mass was a little thinner and they had space to move.
Luke lifted his voice above the noise. "Si—THANK GOD! For a minute I thought you were in there!" He seemed beside himself and Simon was surprised by the grip of the hug.
Simon shook his head. "I was in the library." He coughed as the thickening smoke caught in his throat.
"GET BACK! ALL OF YOU GET BACK" Not far from them, Dickhead, the school administrator, had appeared and was shouting and pushing. More staff joined him in trying to drive back the teeming mass of rubbernecking teens. Simon and Luke stood their ground to the side, as others passed by them, grumbling. Soon they were near the front of the heaving crowd.
From right behind them, Principal Benton pushed his way through, knocking kids over in the process. He entered the scene, took his place at the head of the massed crowd, and started bellowing. Behind him, smoke poured rich and thick out of several open windows of the old Art Block.
"YOU BOYS!" Benton was sharp and pointed at the front of the group. "ALL OF YOU—MOVE BACK!"
They started to step backwards, but not much.
At the familiar voice of Marcus Daniels, Simon halted, waiting for him to push through to them.
"What a nightmare!" shouted Daniels above the noise. Still wearing his tracksuit, he shot a glance at the building that was slowly giving in to the fire. "At least you and Toby are safe. You had me worried."
Simon's eyes flicked around, searching. "Sir, I don't know where Toby is."
Daniels' eyes widened, and his head flicked from side to side. "He's not with you?"
"MARCUS!" Benton hollered, interrupting as they were bumped and jostled. "Move those boys back!"
"The last time I saw him was after lunch, sir," Simon said when he next got a chance. "When we were with you. I went to the library. I thought he was ..." His eyes swung to the burning building. Where was Toby? Where would he go?
Simon could come to no other conclusion. "I thought he was in there." Ahead of them, the first flames appeared.
Daniels didn't hesitate. He turned and pushed through to Benton, and shouted above the noise, "John, there may be a boy in there. We need to go in and check!"
Benton shook his head rapidly. "You're out of your mind! It's not safe. We have to wait for the fire crews." Both their voices carried across the crowd.
Just then, Coach Milton came crashing through. His presence, and that of Creek's Coach Dodds who was right on his heels, was massive. Between the two of them, they made more of an impact than all the rest of the arm-waving teaching staff put together. Obediently, students began to back off.
Milton's voice could carry miles, and it rose above the hubbub as he hurried over. "You think there's a boy in there, Marcus?" It sounded like he'd overheard the previous exchange.
"Maybe, Ken..." Daniels looked really spooked as he stared at the smoking building. "The last time I saw Toby Skerrit, he was going in to do some work...just after lunch. Nobody has seen him since!"
"Toby?" Milton’s eyes widened, and even at a distance, Simon could read that Milton knew at least something about the personal connections between Daniels and the Skerrit family.
"I have to check, Ken!" Despite being tense, Daniels looked completely determined.
"You're not listening to me!" Benton dove into the exchange. "NOBODY is going in there! Not when there's no hard evidence anyone is inside. I won't risk it. We wait for the fire crews!"
Daniels shook his head angrily. "No—it may be too late by then!"
"Marcus, what do you want to do?" Milton asked, ignoring Benton.
"I need to go check while we still can."
“Then let’s go.” Milton’s calm response belied the fact they were about to go into a burning building.
"NO! Absolutely NOT!" Benton squealed. "I will NOT allow it!"
Nobody listened to him.
"I'm with you too," Dodds said immediately. "But if we're going in, it has to be now!"
Daniels, Milton and Dodds, turned towards the Art Block, but Benton threw himself in front of them and opened his arms to bar their progress. Afterwards, many said it had to have been one of the greatest shows they'd ever seen! At the best of times, everyone knew that Benton and Coach Milton hardly got on—and now Benton was acting like a red rag to a bull!
"Just because you're a damn coward who doesn't really give a shit for the boys," Milton shouted, "doesn't mean the rest of us are!" He shoved Benton out of the way and the principal almost fell over. As Benton staggered away, the three men grabbed whatever they could find to cover their faces, and plunged into the building.
With every eye glued to the doorway, it quickly became quiet outside, and Simon stuck close to his brother. Ahead of them, Benton looked disheveled and furious. Many from Creek and Alpharetta were openly grinning at his discomfort. Naturally, Academy guys were a lot more discreet.
The grinning slipped away as the minutes began to tick by and smoke belched from a dozen openings.
The heavy crowd of school kids and adults remained bunched up a safe distance away from the burning twenty-year-old structure and waited. Few words were spoken, and even Benton had stopped shouting and trying to push students away. Every eye was fixed on the door through which the three teachers had passed, and there were murmurs of disquiet as the building began to spew fresh plumes of smoke. In the distance, the first sounds of sirens carried towards on with the breeze, and still the silent mass waited. Luke wondered if he was the only one beginning to feel panicky, and his eyes flicked to his brother.
Suddenly, and without warning, the three teachers burst out of the building, smoke following in their wake. All three were coughing, and in his arms Milton was carrying what appeared to be a lifeless, rag doll. It was only the sight of the inert form that kept them all from cheering.
"Oh my God!" A gruff Creek voice swore from nearby. "Look at that—there really was a kid in there!"
Shock waves rippled and Benton gaped wordlessly as many pushed by him to get a closer look. Around Luke, murmurs punctuated the otherwise deathly-silent crowd, and he could see immediately that the rag doll was Toby. Unconscious...or worse…
"It's Toby!" To the left of them, Luke heard the voice of Gabe Larsson. Gabe must have seen Luke and Simon through the agitated crowd, because he shouted and pointed in the direction of the rescue party, "Si, its Toby!"
Simon didn't respond and his eyes remained glued to the body in Milton's arms, though Luke could sense his brother already knew exactly who it was!
"Okay, stand back!" ordered Milton, coughing as he lay Toby on the ground. "Give us room!"
Prone, Toby suddenly wretched and rolled onto his side, coughing.
Thank God! Luke caught his brother’s eye. Simon’s expression was difficult to understand and he quickly dropped his head and looked away from Luke's probing stare.
On the ground, Toby appeared to be holding something which fell by his side. Then, more staff crowded around the prostrate form, and for a while, Luke lost sight of what was happening. The sirens reached the school parking lot and within minutes there were firefighters all over the place. Flames were beginning to pour out of the windows of the Art block as panes shattered under the heat. It didn't take much encouragement now to get people to move further away as long thick hoses began to crisscross the pathways. Those seeing to Toby picked him up and moved him a lot further away, too.
In the mixed up confusion of the next ten minutes, medics appeared. Somebody said there were ambulances out front, and Luke lost sight of what they were doing with Toby. It sounded like he was being transferred to hospital.
More quickly than Luke expected, the hoses did their job and the fire was doused, leaving a dank, unsightly mess. The outside of the building was charred in places where fire had broken through the windows—he could only guess what it was like inside. Firefighters continued to move in and out of the building as lingering watchers were unceremoniously pushed back, and the whole area was firmly cordoned off. Police cars began to arrive and there seemed little point in hanging around there any longer.
As he and Simon began to walk away, they ran into Elliott, who still had the Creek flag draped across his shoulders. Estela was by his side.
"What the hell happened?" Elliott asked at once, looking past them towards the badly singed building. "Does anyone know?"
Luke assumed Elliott was being rhetorical, but still stated the obvious and said, “There was a fire.”
“No shit!" Elliott chuckled. "You guys certainly like to put on a show!”
"Some show!" Luke studied the building again. Now doubt it was insured, but what a fucking mess!
Elliott seemed to notice Simon where he was standing just behind Luke, and grinned wider. "Hello Simon—we wondered earlier where you were. Estela this is Simon, Luke's brother."
Estela's eyes flicked between the two brothers, and she said, "They are very alike, no?"
At first, Luke feared they were going to get into the irritating 'don't you two look the same' conversation, and had no energy for that just then. He was relieved when Elliott’s gaze returned to the building.
"What a mess," Elliott said. "Was anyone hurt?"
"Toby was in there." Luke raised his eyes again to the smoking building. Elliott was right—what a mess! A dozen firefighters were walking in and out and dragging bits of furniture, hosing them down to ensure were totally safe. It could have been worse—a lot worse. He added, "Toby Skerrit. He's a close friend of Simon’s."
Estela's English was quite sufficient. Putting her hand to her mouth, she looked horrified. Perhaps her choice of words could have been better when she muttered, "Qué coño...was he burned?"
“Shit!!” Next to her, Elliott swore. He paled as he then muttered something in Spanish.
"Simon—I am so very sorry to hear this," Estela said. In a very un-American fashion, she gathered Simon into a hug, after which he looked more flustered than he'd appeared watching them carry Toby off! However, Luke was keeping a weather eye on Elliott, who was staring at the floor and looked tense. The earlier, easy banter had disappeared.
"They managed to get him out in time," Luke said quickly, still watching Elliott out of the corner of his eye. "He was sitting up from what we could see. They took him to the hospital—probably just to check him over."
"Thank God," Elliott hissed. He seemed to be breathing harder. Luke hadn’t known the guy that long, but he’d never seen him look so shaken.
Elliott and Estela started talking back and forth in soft, fast Spanish, and she seemed to be trying to reason with him. Over the public address system, it was announced that, in the circumstances, the official prize-giving ceremony was being canned. Creek and Alpharetta students were to go straight to their buses.
“I have to go,” Elliott said, breaking back into English and hoisting his backpack onto his shoulder. He appeared distracted, twitchy, and began walking away without even waiting to say goodbye. “Please, Es. Now. I mean it!”
"Yes." Estela studied him and nodded.
"Another times," she said to Luke and Simon as she turned to go, too. A few paces away, Elliott's face was tight, and he didn't even correct her English. Frowning, Luke watched them leave. It was odd behavior.
Todd and Ryan ran up, pushing past groups who were either milling or already pressing in the direction of the parking lot. A worried frown creased Todd's forehead. "They're saying Toby was in there. Is he okay, Si? They got him out, right?"
Luke answered for his brother who remained staring at the ground and hadn't replied. "Yes, they got him out. But we don't really know much more. They took him to hospital."
"Do you think they told Grace?" Ryan asked.
Luke chewed his lip. Now that was a good question, and one maybe he should have thought about it before now. He said, "I don't know. I would think the school office would have done that."
He dug out his mobile and his finger poised over her speed dial, doubting anyone would care he was using it at school—though school was actually over now. "Maybe I should call Mum, though. She's bound to want to go down there, for Grace."
"Does anyone know which hospital?" Ryan asked. Again, Luke had to shake his head.
Ryan looked past him towards the buildings. "Coach!" He waved his arm and shouted.
Not far away, Milton looked up, and glowered. He didn't look in the best of moods, and his face was smeared with grimy smoke. Luke still would have bet Milton would have given short shrift to anyone who tried to push him into an ambulance!
"What is it, Alexis?" Milton snapped as he hurried over. "Make it quick!"
"Coach...we're trying to find out which hospital they took Toby to," Ryan said. When he didn’t get a reaction, he quickly added. "So people can go to be there for Mrs. Skerrit. Luke’s mum is a friend.”
Milton's face softened. "Good idea, son, though Marcus…” As he turned to leave, he corrected himself, “Mr. Daniels went with him."
"Yes sir—it's just that Luke's mum is quite close to Grace Skerrit. We thought she'd want her to know." Ryan had some balls pressing Milton like this.
Milton stopped and nodded. "Fair enough. They’ve gone over to North Fulton." He checked his watch. "Now I really must go—it's turned into real clusterfuck around here!"
"Coach?" It was Simon this time.
"Yes, son," Milton' eyes glinted again, clearly working hard to hold down his frustration as Simon kept him.
"Thanks for getting him out." The expression on Simon's face was complicated and hard to read. "You were incredible!"
Milton softened again. "All in a day's work, son." He tousled Simon's hair and hurried off.
Quickly, Luke thumbed the speed dial.
It took a few moments to get the message clear to their mum that, despite there being a fire, he and Simon were fine. Then, when she heard that Toby had been rushed off to North Fulton, she kicked into gear as he knew she would. She was brilliant for times like this. As he disconnected the call, Kieran turned up at Todd's shoulder.
"They're saying we can go home," Kieran said. He looked totally delighted. “Looks like the fat lady sang as well as torched the Art block!”
He smirked at his own humor until he spotted Simon, made the connection, and looked more concerned. “Does anyone know how Toby is?” As he waited for Simon to answer, Luke saw the subtle signs of his brother’s blood beginning to boil at being asked the same question over and over, and decided it was time to go.
“We don’t know, Kier. They took him to North Fulton. Daniels went with him.” He paused, then added. “Si, why don’t you go get your stuff and we’ll get out of here.”
The party broke up, and everyone went their own way. As Luke waited for his brother to return, something caught his eye. Nobody seemed to be watching, so he sneaked past the temporary barrier to reach the stretch of grass where Toby had been treated. Reaching down, he picked up the framed picture and turned it over in his hands. Scratched and torn, he still recognized the sailing boat well enough.
What the hell was that doing here? More questions! They were big ones, too, but they would have to wait. Maybe it was the wrong thing to do, but he slipped the frame, unnoticed, into his backpack.
He and Simon made it out to the parking lot to see the buses pulling away, leaving behind the smell of smoke and anticlimax. He’d no idea which one Elliott and Estela might be on. Either way, Estela's offer to cook dinner seemed a million miles away. Those from the Academy who had wheels were escaping too, and it wasn't long before he and Simon joined the line of cars waiting to get out onto the highway.
It wasn't an Ass-Fuck that anyone would forget in a hurry!
With the doors closed on his car, the acrid smell of smoke increased—being near to the fire, the smell was all over them. He sniffed his clothing and hoped to hell he’d be able to get it out of the upholstery. They got home quickly enough, though the conversation was at a minimum. As he pulled onto the drive, another car pulled alongside. He opened his door to get out.
Geoff said, "Hey there, you two. Mum's gone to the hospital to wait with Grace."
As he grabbed his backpack out of the back seat, Luke was surprised to hear that. "You already know about the fire? How come?"
“Mum called me after you called her. I was already on my way home anyway.” Geoff got his jacket and briefcase out of his car and his nose wrinkled. "You stink."
Simon got his bag out too, and pushed the passenger side door open with a clunk. He asked, "Did you hear anything about Toby? Is he okay?" It was the first time he’d said anything in a while.
"Sorry, sunshine. I don't really know." They moved towards the house and Geoff added. "What happened? Does anyone know?"
“Nope—not yet.” As Luke replied, he and Simon locked eyes. He left his questions on the back burner, and added, "Daniels went with Toby in an ambulance taking him to the hospital."
"Marcus?" Geoff raised his eyebrows in surprise as he keyed the front door.
Luke nodded. "He was the one that ran in and got Toby out of the place. Him, Milton and Dodds."
“Coach Dodds—from Creek.”
"I see." His dad was pensive before adding, "It sounds like the lad's lucky to be alive!"
* * *
The first thing Simon did was take a shower. Even though it was a relief to get the constant acrid smell out if his nose, he still felt uncomfortable. It didn't add up. Why the hell would Toby set fire to the Art block? To get back at Simon—kill himself, just to spite him?
He scrubbed his hair roughly in an effort to clear his head. Earlier, in the library, it felt like a window had opened up, showing him a way back up and out of the hole he'd dropped in. He might almost have hoped it was like some miraculous healing, and everything would be as right as rain suddenly.
Apart from it wasn't.
It wasn't his fault Toby was hospitalized...so why did he feel so guilty?
He dressed in fresh clothes and took the smoky stuff down to the garage to wash. The jacket would probably need dry-cleaning. He ran into his dad on the way back through the kitchen.
Geoff said, "I'm going to go down the hospital to be with Mum." He already had his car keys in his hand, and looked ready to leave. "Do you want to come? She says Toby seems to be up for taking visitors."
It took Simon by surprise. Did he want to go?
Yes and no. Either way, it was complicated. In the end, he decided he would—and anyway, he knew it would bring too many questions if he refused to visit. He nodded as he headed towards the stairs. "Sure. I'll be down in a minute."
Bounding up to his room, he opened the windows to let the air in to freshen it, and was about to leave when Luke came through the door from the landing. Still dressed in his school uniform, not having yet showered, he was holding his backpack in his hand.
"What?" Simon became wary. There was plenty in that piercing stare that made him feel uncomfortable.
"So what happened?" Luke demanded as he continued to watch Simon from the doorway. "The fire...tell me the truth..."
"What the hell are you talking about?" Simon retorted, flaring as all the wrong stuff tried to overwhelm him again. He tried to push past his brother. "How do I know? Get out of my way, I need to go!"
Luke continued to block the doorway. His eyes flicked to the wall the other side of Simon's bed. "Where's the picture?"
Simon flushed and went quiet. He didn't need to turn to know what Luke was referring to. Luke reached into his backpack and retrieved the damaged artwork. "Now tell me what the hell happened between you two? What did you do?"
“Me?” Anger flared like the flames in the Art block at the inference he was responsible. “I didn’t do anything. Toby’s the… leave me the fuck alone. You don’t know anything.”
Simon pushed by. Maybe he would have a lot to explain at some point, but now wasn't the time—and he wasn't even sure Luke was the person! Heading down to the front door, he was relieved that Luke didn’t follow.