pIt happens fast, before the boy can quite comprehend what's happening. A few angry words from his father, a sharp sting on his cheek as his little Flying Man is thrown at his face, and suddenly dear old Dad the Prison Mogul is gone, just like that./p

pJarrell, his father's faithful assistant, tells him he is now the youngest Warden in the free world, whatever ithat/i means, and after a stunned silence the boy begins to cry — warm, fat tears pooling in his eyes and slipping down his cheeks, too fast to wipe away, and he doesn't bother trying. He has witnessed death before he could even spell the word, has harbored a horror-turned-morbid fascination with it ever since the first time he had taken part in an execution, coerced by his father — but this is different. This isn't the inexplicable joy that makes his heart swell after pulling apart a rabbit with his bare hands just to see what the insides look like, or the pride he feels after thinking up all sorts of clever contraptions that can kill, maim, or torture a man in seventeen different ways and knowing that nobody else will iever/i be as intelligent as he (and at such a young age!) — no, this is something that makes his heart sink, like a stone too heavy to skip descending into the murky darkness of a river. It ihurts,/i too — a sharp pain every time he breathes in, like he's being stabbed in the chest with every inhale, only his unseen assailant seems to be twisting the blade./p

pLogically, it doesn't make sense. His father was never too kind to him, never even bothering to give his son the attention he so desperately craved. Even when there were exceptions, his time would be doled out like parcels — a few minutes here or there, and it was never so much having his undivided attention, more like receiving a passing glance (or most commonly being berated for his 'foolish hijinks', because his father was all about iseriousness,/i as he so abundantly made clear.) Father did not love him, however much he had refused and would continue to refuse to accept it, but the loss he feels now makes it clear that ihe/i certainly had looked up to the Prison Mogul, or at least something of that nature./p

pLater, after his tears have dried and Jarrell has made the funeral preparations, the assistant tells the boy he must learn how to run this prison himself if he is to be a Warden./p

p"That brings into concern the matter of your schooling," he drawls, and the boy realizes that, now that he isn't constantly vying for the attention of the Prison Mogul against this man, he finds the assistant's voice somewhat comforting./p

p"School?"/p

pIt's the first word the boy has spoken in hours; a sharp contrast to his usual frenetic demeanor. There are none of his signature gap-toothed smiles, no bouncing or pacing as he concocts plans to improve various things about his father's prison. He hasn't even touched his own little jail since It happened (It with a capital I; of no relation to the franchise starring everyone's favorite sewer-dwelling clown, but of every relation to the shared underlying subject matter: death itself. Had he been old enough to understand this odd and frankly half-baked comparison, he would've laughed; not flatly or with bitterness, but a genuine laugh.) and his beloved Flying Man is still lying on the floor where he had left it./p

p"School, indeed — public school, where you can run around with other boys your age." /p

pIt's an exciting prospect, public school, and the mere thought of it makes the young Warden perk up, eyes widening behind yellow-tinted glasses. The beginning of a smile curls his lips, and he rises from his cross-legged position on the floor of the Prison Mogul's office. It's a hint of his old self; something that would've inspired alarm in any number of adults within the jail, for the boy was rather infamous in more ways than just being the Prison Mogul's son — but for Jarrell, it's a sign to continue./p

p"You're old enough to go now, my boy, and it isn't healthy for you to be stuck in this here prison night and day."/p

pThe boy nods eagerly; though he doesn't fully register what Jarrell is telling him, he's only been outside Father's jail a handful of times, and it certainly had been a change from the drab monochrome colors; the boring iorderliness/i and monotony he's been living with his entire life. But what makes him iparticularly/i excited is that schoolhouses are places of learning — and he's already read each and every book in his father's study, devouring each word like a starving man being presented with a fine sandwich comprised of the finer points of the legal system and criminal justice; a quest of knowledge begun with no end in sight — at least not yet. /p

pIf going to school means going someplace different, someplace iinteresting,/i then he knows he is more than ready to go./p

pBesides that, he somehow knows without really knowing that Jarrell is just trying to get rid of him — it's what every adult does, has always done; and he's far too used to the constant mantra of igo on, now, and play with your toys like a good little boy/i when they don't want to deal with him. They smile down at him and pat his head, but he can see that underneath their feigned politeness is something else — nervousness and fear; and it's all directed at him. Though he's just a little thing clad in purple overalls, eyes large and almost owlish behind large yellow specs and a sly gap-toothed grin that looks ipositively charming/i on a boy his age, as one lady had claimed (she had pinched his cheeks until they were red, which was a minor annoyance, but her smile froze in place once he told her about the games he played with the rabbits in the woods), his mind, warped thanks to the way he had grown up, was far too twisted for their liking, and they always go away muttering about how it was just plain wrong that a boy his age had such a fascination with such "gruesome matters."/p

p/pdiv align="center"

p—/p/divLater that night, when he's as snug as a rug in a bug (or maybe it's ibug in a rug,/i he always confuses the two, however amusing a rug in a bug might be) in his bed, tucked underneath a blanket and curled up with his thumb in his mouth — a habit the Prison Mogul had always hated, deeming it too childish — he thinks about everything he's going to do in his father's place.

pFirst, the jail imust/i be bigger — how are they iever/i going to fit the constant influx of inmates they're getting in ithese/i conditions? It simply won't do, he thinks, a sleepy smile forming on his face as he nods to himself. Yes, and the place needs more color, and games, and better security — a menagerie of ideas and improvements run through his head, and he knows he can do it. He will make his father proud, make him smile by bringing his very own jail to life. /p

pNot just any jail, either — a iSuperjail!/i/p

pWhen the boy does fall asleep, his breathing slowing and eyelids fluttering, a faint smile on his face and his thumb still in his mouth, hair sticking up in tufts that he'll most definitely have to smooth down in the morning because iby God, boy, straighten yourself up, I'll not have any of your unruliness and tomfoolery,/i he dreams of rainbows, and colorful buildings that tower so high they reach beyond the clouds, and all sorts of fantastical and bizarre creatures that range from relatively tame to will-tear-you-limb-from-limb-and-have-you-for-lunch hostile. He dreams that he oversees it all from the highest tower, that all of his little jail is under his command and anything can change at his every whim (even the weather, how cool is ithat!/i); he dreams that his Flying Man is there to help him and take care of him and be his ivery/i best friend, and guard his jail and punish inmates who are bad boys just like he made him to do, and everything is just iperfect./i/p

pWhen he wakes up the next morning, still sleepy-eyed and caught up in his wonderful dream, Jarrell informs him he is now officially enrolled as a fourth-grade student in the local elementary school, and so his life is once again turned upside down./p

p/pdiv align="center"

p—/p/divFor the most part, the boy seems to be handling his education quite well.

pHis grades are excellent, and he seems to surprise his teachers so greatly with his competence that soon he skips a grade level, and then another, and in a little less than a year he's a sixth-grade student at the age of nine, a budding genius by all standards. The other children, however, do not treat him as kindly as the teachers do — they call him names like iloser/i and inerd,/i and the ideas he'll spout to anyone who will listen are so off-putting that in mere weeks every child either avoids him like the plague or mercilessly teases him from a distance — except for one particular day in early Autumn, that is./p

pThe trees are just starting to turn into brilliant bursts of red and gold, some of their leaves falling onto the ground that create a crunchy, earth-smelling carpet that the boy kicks and scuffs at with his shiny new shoes as he walks home — or as much of a home as his father's jail could ever be. He is, however, unaware that two boys are following him, and just as he rounds the corner (the jailhouse is just down the street; not far at all, and his pace quickens as he begins the last stretch of his walk) they pounce on him./p

pOne boy is short and stocky, beet-red and freckly underneath a greasy mop of red hair. He's got the face of a snarling bulldog i(there's his father, the puppy, the axe, the strangled scream it makes when the axe connects, and blood, so much blood)/i, his features pinched and mean, and it is he who attacks first, pushing the unsuspecting boy to the ground./p

pThe boy gasps as the concrete rushes up to meet him, a sharp sting resonating through his palms and elbows at the contact, and the other boy, laughing at the younger boy's misfortune, kicks him in the ribs while he's down. /p

p"Take that, freak," the second boy sneers, and the red-head laughs, crowing, "Light 'im up, Jimmy!"/p

pThe first boy, the red-head, forces him to stand by pulling him up and, instead of pinning his arms ibehind/i his back, he forces the boy to hold his wrists out. The reason behind this doesn't become all too clear until Jimmy steps in front of him./p

pHe's brandishing a lighter./p

pThe young Warden twists and struggles in not-Jimmy's grip, but he's far too small and the flame is coming closer and closer, inches away from making contact with his skin and the laughing of his tormentors echoes in his ears, mixed with his own screams and the acrid smell of burning flesh assaults his senses and then —/p

pThen everything is black./p

p/pdiv align="center"

p—/p/divWhen he comes to, he is alone, sprawled on the cold concrete, his glasses cracked and dried blood and tears on his face and —

pHis hands./p

pThe skin is white in some areas, the flesh melted and bubbling together like the most unnatural overflowing spring he's ever seen, his fingers completely charred and blistered at the ends. He's almost fascinated by the way he doesn't feel anything, hell, it doesn't even ihurt,/i but then he remembers the two that did this to him and suddenly all he can see is red./p

pGritting his teeth, he stands shakily, his hands gingerly held out like a bird about to take flight, staring sightlessly into the gloom surrounding the little corner of asphalt he inhabits by the side of a building. He's cold, hungry, and every part of his body that iisn't/i his hands is throbbing, screaming at him to lie down and curl up on the ground, but he ignores it because he's furious and the flame of his anger is enough to keep the chill of the night air away for now. /p

pThose stupid boys, they ruined his hands, they ihurt/i him, and he'll be damned if he'll just sit back and do nothing about it; he's inot/i a freak, not a loser or a nerd or any other of the nasty things the other kids call him when they think he isn't listening, or what they say in the notes they pass to each other, giggling and whispering and thinking they're so much ibetter/i than him./p

p

iMommy says his daddy was a sick man./i

/p

p

iI heard he lives in that jail because nobody else would take him./i

/p

p

iWhat a weirdo./i

/p

pHe'll prove them all wrong, he thinks, and smiles as he walks into the darkness, reaching into his pocket and clutching his little Flying Man, his only friend./p

pA small figure, the boy's very first creation, covered with what seems to be blood and other unidentifiable fluids, smiles too with its' sharp-toothed grin as it shadows the boy's steps./p

pBeing the youngest Warden in the free world comes with a price, after all, and it was settled as soon as Father slipped on his building blocks./p