The fire on the 57 bus in Oakland

Dashka Slater:

It was close to 5 o’clock on the afternoon of Nov. 4, 2013, and Sasha Fleischman was riding the 57 bus home from school. An 18-year-old senior at a small private high school, Sasha wore a T-shirt, a black fleece jacket, a gray newsboy cap and a gauzy white skirt. For much of the long bus ride through Oakland, Calif., Sasha — who identifies as agender, neither male nor female — had been reading a paperback copy of “Anna Karenina,” but eventually the teenager drifted into sleep, skirt draped over the edge of the bus seat.

As Sasha slept, three teenage boys laughed and joked nearby. Then one surreptitiously flicked a lighter. The skirt went up in a ball of flame. Sasha leapt up, screaming, “I’m on fire!” Two other passengers threw Sasha to the ground and extinguished the flames, but Sasha’s legs were left charred and peeling. Taken by ambulance to a San Francisco burn unit, Sasha would spend the next three and a half weeks undergoing multiple operations to treat the second- and third-degree burns that ran from thigh to calf.

Then, later in the story, you get to hear about the boy who flicked the lighter, Richard Thomas:

“Can I be in your program?” Richard asked.

Wilson was taken aback. Students didn’t usually volunteer for her program; they were assigned to it. She wasn’t exactly trying to fill slots either — she already had a caseload of some 800 chronically truant students, and her program was meant for freshmen and sophomores, who are easier to get back on track than juniors and seniors. But when she looked up Richard’s file, she saw that his grades were poor and his attendance spotty.

“I want you to help me like you help them,” Wilson remembered him saying. “Because I’ve been to a lot of schools, and I’ve been in trouble, but I’m really not a bad kid.”

A ‘Scumbag’ Story

Justin Heckert: Kyle Kinane is everywhere like farty Jesus. He is in the shower with a six-pack of beer. He is drunk at a Wendy’s drive-through ordering chicken nuggets out of the sliding door of a taxi van. He is the guy at Red Lobster getting into a fistfight with the night manager over whether the moon landing was faked. He is accidentally childproofing himself out of a microwave while trying to nuke Totino’s Pizza Rolls. Then he is berating the microwave, shouting at the microwave to unlock, finally unplugging the microwave and eating the pizza rolls raw, while in his underwear. The next day he is crapping his only pair of pants.

In his first hour-long Comedy Central special Whiskey Icarus, Kinane is talking about the state of his life, and he admits that he realized what the definition of lonely is the time he forgot he was in the process of jerking off in a hotel room in Green Bay, Wisconsin, the nuisance of finishing like taking a broom and shooing raccoons off his porch: “Hyah … get outta here … hyah, hyah.”

He is the guy on Drunk History who knocks back an entire bottle of tequila and pukes into a trash bag. He is on Conan in a wool hat pulled over his eyes, sighing: “You ever see an abandoned TV dinner in the beer aisle? Yeah, that’s me. I did that. That’s my street art.” He is the title character in a reality-show pilot about the experiences of his life called Kyle Kinane’s Going Nowhere, in which he is smoking weed and hunting Bigfoot in a Back to the Future vest and watching a lizard wearing plastic dragon wings shit on the robe of a wizard. He is paunchy, prickly, grumbly; when his beard is at its woolliest, it presents him as a little knight in a visor of hair. He has a tattoo on his arm of a skull eating a slice of pizza.

Onstage, somewhere out there, pretty much every night of the week, in big, famous places with theater seating and tiny, leaky places with buzzing lights and fake brick as a backdrop, with a beer in his hand and the stage lights on his face, Kinane is confessing to an audience, telling stories that go on and on without obvious punch lines and build to often startling introspection; he’s in front of middle-aged Midwesterners and in front of college students and in front of other comedians, in front of hipsters who follow him on Twitter and grow similar beards and with whom he gets into occasional fights; with empty beer bottles next to him and empty pint glasses on a stool beside him, the hairs of his beard brushing the microphone, he is harrumphing about failure and the stasis of unrealized dreams.

Searching for Answers in the 1961 Death of an Ayn Rand Follower

Alex Vadukul (thanks, Klink): Joanne O’Connor keeps a three-ring binder as thick as a cinder block to contain the story that echoes through her head. It is stuffed with her research about a young woman she never met who died more than 50 years ago. She has trouble explaining why obsession gripped her so, but she does know: “I had to find out what happened.”

Ms. O’Connor is a 61-year-old wedding and events planner who lives with her cat and dog in a small, elegant Kips Bay apartment. Six years ago, she found herself pondering her building’s history, but no one living there remembered much. Nor did her landlord. So she called the Buildings Department while at work one day.

She will never forget the operator’s first words, she says, which set off the investigative odyssey that has consumed her life since.

“Well, she didn’t die there,” the man said, “if that’s what you wanted to know.”

“Who died where?” she asked.

“The lady,” he replied. “She died of a botched abortion. Her name was Vivian Grant.”

All That Land

Meant to post this a while back. Michael Kruse: FORT PIERCE — Bud Adams, slim and dressed in blue jeans and a blue button-down shirt and cowboy boots and a cowboy hat, drove his Ford Explorer around his ranch in western St. Lucie County, looking at his land and his cattle. His truck, with manure caked in the tires, jounced in the ruts of rough paths. He’s been the president of the Florida Cattlemen’s Association. He’s been named landowner of the year by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conversation Commission. He’s a member of the Florida Agricultural Hall of Fame. Now he showed his guests his bounty, pointing to heifers and calves, herons and hawks, egrets and turkeys, baby gators and boxes of bees, centuries-old hammocks of cypress, pine and palm. He stopped the truck. A hot breeze blew through Spanish moss. He plucked a fat grapefruit and knifed off its top and sucked on a juicy wedge.

This land, unpolluted and pristine, was here before he was here. All he has done, he explained, is keep it intact.

“So far,” he said.

What Adams wants, here near the end, coming up on 89 years old, is for the ranch land that bears his name, some 40,000 acres spread over four Florida counties, to remain the way it is — for his children, for their children, for the children’s children.

Distress Signal

Mike Hixenbough: Wes Van Dorn slipped out of bed around 4 a.m., pulled a green flight suit on over his boxers, then brushed his teeth and kissed his wife before driving to work. Both of his young boys had woken up crying the night before, and although he needed to be up hours before sunrise, he had been the one to sing and cuddle them back to sleep.

Later, once she had strength to process the events of this day, Nicole Van Dorn would count that as a blessing.

Wes hated to leave her and the kids each day for a job that frustrated him. After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in 2007, the former rugby star had taken a run at becoming a SEAL. But after surviving the infamous Hell Week at basic SEAL training, he was cut by the instructors, who found that he was unwilling to sacrifice an individual for the survival of the group. The Navy instead sent him to Milton, Fla., for flight training.

Wes never wanted to be a pilot; he had always been scared of heights. So when it was time to choose a career path, he picked a little-known helicopter program that had a reputation for a slower work environment and less frequent deployments. A friend had told him flying MH-53E Sea Dragons was the most family-friendly job in naval aviation – and Wes was a family man.

Not long after joining his Norfolk-based squadron in 2010, he began to question the decision. Something wasn’t right. Months later, after he took over as the division officer in charge of maintenance, he began to realize the depth of the problems. The aging helicopters weren’t getting the care they needed. Maintenance protocols were being skipped. Replacement parts were scarce, and when they were available, it was usually because they had been plucked from another Sea Dragon. At any given time, only a few of the squadron’s helicopters were ready to fly.

Whenever Wes tried to correct the problems, he felt as if he was bucking a chain of command that had grown accustomed to business as usual. He learned that a 20-something-year-old lieutenant has only so much power. Finally, a little more than a year ago, Wes told Nicole he was ready to get out. Maybe he could fly for the Coast Guard, he suggested.

“Wes, obviously there’s a problem,” Nicole remembers saying. “Maybe you’ve been put in this position because you’re the one who needs to fix it.”

How the Colombian army sent a hidden message to hostages… using a pop song

Jeff Maysh: Colonel Jose Espejo was a man with a problem. As the Colombian army’s communications expert watched the grainy video again, he saw kidnapped soldiers chained up inside barbed-wire pens in a hostage camp deep in the jungle, guarded by armed FARC guerillas. Some had been hostages for more than 10 years, and many suffered from a grim, flesh-eating disease caused by insect bites.

It was 2010, and the straight-talking Espejo was close to retirement after 22 years of military service. But he couldn’t stand the thought of quitting with men left behind enemy lines. He needed an idea, and when he needed an idea, he always went to one man.

Juan Carlos Ortiz was dunking his kids in the pool at his home in Coconut Grove, Miami, when he got the call from Colonel Espejo. With his easy charm and seemingly natural talent for creating clever commercials, the 42-year-old advertising executive had earned himself a Don Draper-like reputation in Colombia.

Homeless and Hoarding

Leah Sottile: Fear meets Sarah Wolff in the elevator.

It’s standing beside her as she rides to her third-floor apartment. Taunting her. Tapping her shoulder and whispering in her ear.

“When I get off the elevator up here, I panic,” she says. She can’t see her apartment door from the elevator. “Is there a note saying ‘You’re evicted, you can’t live here anymore?’ I have that panic every time I leave the apartment … I’m like, ‘Oh please don’t let there be anything on the door. Dear God. Please.’”

Wolff, a 29-year-old formerly homeless mother, is haunted by that fear. She thinks about loss constantly. Losing her apartment. Losing her things. Losing Aiden, her 9-year-old son, again.

Sometimes those fears are so great, she doesn’t leave her apartment at all. Safe in her home, she surrounds herself with the things she loves: balls of yarn for knitting blankets and scarves, books, movies. There are toys and books for Aiden, too.

“I’ve always been one to hold onto stuff,” she says. She thinks that’s because she lost so many people in her life when she was young. Now she holds everyone, and everything, close.

She wonders if all that loss is why she has so much “crap.” That’s what she calls it. Wolff literally surrounds herself with possessions. Before visitors come over, there’s a skinny path she and her son walk to navigate the apartment—a path that carves through piles of dirty clothes, shopping bags overflowing with balls of yarn and knitting needles, through books, shoes, DVD cases, and empty soda cans. Tidying up means she crams piles of dirty clothes into a closet and hopes the door stays shut. She shoves some things into a plastic garbage bag, but leaves the bag in the middle of the living-room floor. Dishes are piled on every surface in the kitchen. Jumbo packs of toilet paper are crammed under a desk.

A Good Thing Turns Bloody. What Next?

Michael Brick: It was our ball when the fight started, game point. Oscar was giving some unsolicited advice to Curtis, who was on his team. Curtis was describing the adequacy of his own basketball knowledge.

We were standing on an asphalt court near Interstate 35 in East Austin, not the only place where I play pickup but the one that matters most. For three years, in temperatures ranging from 30 degrees to 100, we’ve been running half court threes and fours. We start early in the morning. We pass the ball. We pick and roll. We call few fouls, usually on ourselves. I’ve been knocked down hard but I’ve always been helped up, or at least handed the ball.

The guy who started the game, Chris, grew up in the Woodlands, made some money in corporate law and dropped out to, I don’t know, follow his muse. Among his priorities, curating the purity of this weekly ball game seems to rank somewhere below raising his son, but not far.

Most of the middle-class white dudes he invited have dropped out, other than me and his brother-in-law and a real estate agent named Steve. For the last year or so, the game has been us and some guys from the neighborhood, which is called Blackland.

In Muck City, Football Serves As A Way Out

Lane DeGregory: PAHOKEE — On the day he thought would change everything, Fred left home early while his siblings, nieces and nephews slept. He skipped breakfast, not even a Pop-Tart. His stomach was tight with excitement.

As he waited outside for his ride to school, a slate sky blanketed the black muck behind him. Ahead, the sun climbed above the clouds, casting a golden glow across the projects.

Dontrell “Fred” Johnson, 19, pulled the flip phone from his shorts: 7:28 a.m. Then he shouldered his flowered backpack, which was stuffed with hope.

All year, college football coaches had been sending him letters telling him how much they wanted him. Wake Forest, Youngstown State and Mars Hill. Schools he had never heard of, in states he had never seen.

Like most of his teammates in Pahokee, a tiny, impoverished town on Lake Okeechobee, Fred had never flown in a plane, had barely been out of Florida. He had spent his life between two water towers, in 5 square miles surrounded by sugar cane — and shadows of players who had come before him. Guys from Pahokee High whom he watched on TV, playing for the Detroit Lions, Baltimore Ravens, Atlanta Falcons.

Football is the story Pahokee loves to tell about itself. The team won five state championships in six years, from 2003-08, and in the past half-century has produced 25 professional players. This year five former Blue Devils are in the NFL, the second most from any high school in the country.

Fred was one of five Pahokee seniors being scouted in 2013; all the guys had played together since elementary school. On the square of grass in Fred’s subsidized-housing circle, they had learned to pass, hit and run plays. And every winter, when workers burned the cane fields, the boys chased rabbits that dashed from the flames. Catch a cottontail, the old men said, and you can cut it at an NFL draft combine.

But first, the boys had to play in college.