The Axel Higgenbottom Files Volume One: The Arson Incident This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

January 13, 2014
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It was an average day at the Lakeside Mall, if anything could be average in a mall called “Lakeside” when we’re in the middle of the Colorado Desert and there’s not a lake for 40 miles in any direction. But if I know Wanton, Colorado, the average day won’t be average for the average length of time a day is average. And trust me, I know Wanton, Colorado. I’ve lived here all fifteen years of my life.

It’s a medium-sized town, not as big as Paris or London, but not as small as Spring Hill, Tennessee. It’s neither big nor small, but I hate every inch of it. Something in the sun beating down day after day, or the sweaty days spent in classes, or maybe just the dusty air I breathe when I’m here disgusts me. Every minute spent here is another minute I could by flying high above the Earth…Life as a child genius is so torturous. I have my pilot’s license, the ability to go anywhere in the world is sitting right there in my wallet…and I’m stuck in the middle of nowhere with my parents.

But then She walks in through the front door to the mall. I don’t see Her at first, the fountain blocks my view. She prances around the corner and I see Her viciously high ponytail bobbing above the plastic shrubs. Her red and gold cheer uniform stands out next to the green plants. My awful day of self-pity and moping is just about to get worse.

“What are you doing here?” She growls when She spots me sitting in the corner. “Aren’t you supposed to be in prison or something?”

“Last time I checked, it was you who had the criminal record.” I say smoothly.

“Because you framed me, you jerk!” She explodes, pom poms flying.

“No one ever proved that.” I say coolly, casually wiping some of Her stray spit off my cheek.

“Die slowly, Axel Higgenbottom.” She says laconically as She storms off in the direction of a big pretzel store. Only a death wish. I think She’s starting to forgive me.

I turn back to the dictionary in my lap, I’m trying to memorize more prodigious P-words, but now I can’t focus. I keep thinking about Her.
I don’t see why She’s only just starting to forgive me, though; I only got Her one measly month in juvenile hall, not a death sentence. The press has long ago forgotten about what we locals refer to as the Super Glue Incident, why can’t She forget about it too?

She must enjoy hating me. Maybe I should just give Her a new reason to…I’ve been working up a new scheme; all I need is someone to frame…

* * *
I sneer at myself in the mirror as I pull on my father’s leather jacket and snap one of my mother’s clip-on earrings onto my lobe. The shoe polish in my hair will take forever to get out, but there’s no way She will recognize me.

Ten minutes later I’m walking by Her house, casting sly looks at Her windows. I’ve studied blue prints of her house, and if I’m correct her room is front facing, and I should be able to see in if I stand at just the right angle behind a large gnarled tree near the side walk. And I’m always correct. The only rift in my plan is that if someone driving or walking by sees me, they might call the police. After the Super Glue Incident, Her neighbors have gotten a lot more suspicious.

Part of Her probation is that She has to be home every night by seven, and just as I thought, she’s glued to her phone, texting her friends. That will make this a little trickier. But phone records are easy to change, it’s not like multinational telephone companies have great firewalls or anything.

Note to self: Create impenetrable firewall and sell to multinational telephone companies.
Note to self2: Create a more than impenetrable firewall and keep it for yourself.
Note to self3: Since you’re out, pick up some butter for breakfast tomorrow – Mom.

* * *

One brief visit to the grocery store later, I’m back in my bathroom scrubbing the shoe polish out of my white-blond hair. My hair isn’t that long, but it still takes a good twenty minutes to get it all out.

Every once in a while, I glance up to check my progress and get a glimpse of my deep brown eyes. I catch myself wondering what a lot of people find so intimidating about them. It’s just regular old pigmented fibrovascular tissue. And yet, I find people backing away from my gaze. It’s odd and a little offensive, but it could come in handy.

After the final traces of the black polish has found its way down the drain, I head back to my room, only to find the cat comfortably sleeping on my laptop.

“Solomon,” I say in a reasonable tone. “Would you please get off my keyboard?”

He simply stares at me with his blue, feline eyes. And people find my glance disconcerting. I wish he would at least acknowledge my request, but he doesn’t even tweak his little black ears.

I sigh, “Fine. I’ll just check my important e-mails in the morning and let you get your beauty sleep.”

Solomon just closes his eyes indifferently. Cats.

* * *

It’s time for the actual “doing something” part of my scheme. I hate this part. It’s so risky. At any moment, I could be caught and my whole plan will crumble to pieces. Luckily, I’m a very skilled planner.

I wish I could just go to the store to buy what I need, it would be a lot faster, but I don’t want anyone to see me, and paying someone to purchase the things for me would just mean one more person who could turn me in. Sadly, I’m going to have to hack into someone’s Amazon account and buy them over the Internet, quickly replace the funds after getting at their bank account and then wait 5-7 days for what I need to actually arrive. It’s time consuming, but I wish it were more of a challenge. It’s not like highly secure banks have great firewalls or anything.
Everything I need will cost about 40 dollars, including shipping. If I choose my victim carefully, he or she won’t even notice the missing dollars. I can’t take the risk of not replacing the money though. I’ll have to be very careful with this; I need to choose a wealthy person who won’t notice any money missing. But a non-paranoid wealthy person who doesn’t have the bank notify them whenever a purchase is made is much harder to come by.
Luckily, I’ve rubbed elbows with a lot of wealthy men and women during my fly-alongs, and I know just who I’m going to pick.
Violet Dunhart.
* * *
5-7 days later, I’m finally in possession of everything that I need. Tonight will be the night. The most risky part of the whole scheme will occur at 1100 hours. T-minus 10 hours and counting.
I have the whole day to prepare, but I really don’t need to. I’ve done everything I can. I’ve planned to the smallest detail, prepared for the wildest of circumstances, and geared up mentally for what’s ahead. The only thing left to do is wait.
And wait.
And wait.
And wait.
I really hate waiting.
* * *
I tell my parents I’m spending the night with a friend when the endless waiting finally ends. They don’t ask questions, they’re just so excited I have a friend. When I walk through the front door at 0100 hours, I’ll just tell them we had a fight and are no longer friends. It’s happened thousands of times before, so they won’t question that either.
I recheck my backpack, and head out.
The building is cloaked in shadow, and from this distance looks like a hulking beast ready to pounce. It’s a little intimidating, but I know fear is just a chemical reaction in the brain. I just have to keep my epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol away from my amygdala.
As I unlock the front door of the dark building, my heart rate creeps up. I’ve never been in this building alone before, it’s always been bright and full of people scuttling around, going about their business. It’s spooky at night.
I quietly scope out the building, making sure no one is here. I don’t see anyone, but I’m starting to get this weird feeling on the back of my neck, like I’m being watched or followed. I keep looking over my shoulder instinctually, but I don't see anything in the blackness. Now I just want to get this done, and do it quickly.
I make my way to the bathroom in the middle of the building; I automatically reach for the men’s door, before I remember who I’m impersonating. I readjust my path, and step into the ladies’ room. It’s surprisingly not pink, and after checking behind all the doors, and finding nothing special, I just shrug and wonder why girls spend so much of their time in here. I dump out my pack on the counter, spreading hair products everywhere. A can of hairspray falls to the floor, breaking the palpable silence with a clank. I wince, even though I know that nobody heard me.
I prop the door open with a roll of toilet paper, make sure the path out of here is clear, and then get to work. I pour the anti-frizz and purple nail polish remover all over the room, even spreading some into the hall. But carefully, so that the path to the door remains open. After all the stuff is gone, I pick up the fallen hairspray from the floor, and pull a lighter from my pocket. Time for the main event.
I take a deep breath and flick the lighter on. The little flame dances in the draft of my breath. It’s actually kind of beautiful, the way it sways and bends, but doesn’t go out. After about three seconds of watching the hypnotic light, I raise the hair spray bottle level with the flame.
One more deep breath and I push down on the nozzle.
The flame immediately flares up into a giant wave, like a tiny flame thrower. The walls ignite, and I drop the bottle and run. There’s a blazing inferno around me, and I cover my mouth and nose with my sleeve. I’m already choking, but I’m almost to the door. I burst out into the cold night and swing around to watch the building burn.
I’ve read that the only reason most arsonists are caught is because they stick around to watch the fire. I don’t intend to get caught, but the bright light is so enthralling, it’s hard to pull yourself away. My pupils are probably the size of needles, and the smoke is stinging them, but the light is so enchanting that I can’t move my feet.
And then I hear a scream. It’s high pitched and shrill, and I can barely make out the words “Help me!” somewhere inside. I’m running back towards the building before I even know what’s happening.
No one was supposed to be in there. I checked every room. How could someone be in there?
I recognize the voice now. It’s Her. What is She doing here? She’s on probation! I’m framing Her, She doesn’t have to actually be here! How did She even find out I was coming here?
I reverse burst through the door, and look around frantically. Her scream came from the left, and I dart in that direction. She screams again, but this time She doesn’t just sound afraid. She sounds like She’s in pain. I’ve got to find Her. I’ve got to find Candace.
“Candace!” I scream. “Where are you?” I think this is the first time I’ve ever yelled.
“In here!” her voice is weak, and I can hear her coughing.
The smoke is in my eyes, I can’t see anything, but I follow the sound of her voice. Something pops and explodes right in front of my eyes. My vision clouds with blue spots, couple that with the smoke and her voice is all I have to follow. I rip open a door, and see Candace cowering against the far wall. There’s a wall of flame between us.
I take a deep breath and plow through.
My sleeve catches on fire, and I slam it out with my other hand, burning my fingertips in the process. I look at Candace. She’s sitting on the floor with her hands around her head. Her eyes are panicked.
“Stay calm.” My voice is hoarse from yelling earlier, I only screamed four words, but when you rarely raise your voice, four words is a lot.
I rip my jacket off and wrap it around my hand. “Cover your eyes.” I say. Then I punch out the window. Glass scatters everywhere. “Owww,” I cradle my hand to chest. I’ve never punched anything before in my life. I didn’t think it would hurt so badly. I extend my un-jacket-covered hand to her, and she takes it. The burns around my fingers scream in protest, but I barely notice. I have to get Candace out of here before she gets hurt. I may be an arsonist, but I’m not a murderer.

I boost her up towards the window, and she crawls through easily. I hear a thump and a whimper as she hits the ground on the other side.
Now how am I going to get through? The window is so high I had to reach up to punch it. I’m surprised I even got enough leverage to break it. But that’s what adrenaline does for you. The fire is growing behind me, and the smoke is filling the room. I cough. And cough again.
There are no sturdy chairs in here, and Candace won’t be able to reach in and pull me out. I’m trapped here. I turn around and face the flames as they steadily creep closer. I hack again, trying to get enough oxygen through the smoke. It’s not working, I’m suffocating. My eyes are stinging, my skin is crisping. I’m not going to be able to get out. I’m going to be burned to death.

The fire is just starting to singe my hair when suddenly the wall next to me moves. The wood warps inward, little wall chips fly everywhere. A person in a yellow suit suddenly becomes visible through the giant hole in the wall. He’s wielding a vicious looking ax. A fireman! I’m saved! The man charges into the room, lifts me over his shoulder in an entirely undignified way, and dashes out again. Seriously, I could have walked.

The rest of the team is busy trying to hose down the fire, and Candace is sitting on the grass a safe distance away wrapped in a blanket and being bandaged by a paramedic. The fireman releases me next to her, and another paramedic appears out of nowhere with rolls and rolls of gauze. I don’t watch him to make sure he’s doing it right; I just stare at the blazing building.

After the medics leave us to go prepare the ambulance, Candace turns to me. “Why on earth would you set fire to a building?” she hisses. “Do you know how many people are going to lose their jobs? Who’s going to pay to have the building rebuilt? You’ve ruined lives, Axel, how could you?”
“No one lost their job.” I say, still dazedly watching the furnace. I’m displaying signs of shock, and I know I should lie down with my feet up, but I can’t take my eyes off the flames I created.
“They still have jobs; they’re just going to be transferred. I own this building; I bought it last year under my father’s name, and have been renting it out to this company. I set the fire because I get more money from the insurance agency if it was arson. I’m not going to rebuild, I’m going to sell the land to make even more money.”
“But why do all this just for money? You’re fifteen and you’re a genius, why would you possibly need money?” I finally look at her. There must be a bunch of smoke in the air because she looks a little fuzzy. I blink several times, but if anything, the smoke gets thicker. Oh well, it will dissipate soon enough.
“I just want to leave Wanton and never need to come back. And when I do leave there’s no way I’m going to live in a rat-infested decrepit old building. I need money if I’m going to live in a nice place in the city and start my career as a pilot.”
“Okay, but why not just honestly earn the money?”
“That takes too long.”
I just catch a glimpse of her rolling her eyes before the smoke turns her into a lumpy blob.
“By the way, I used the same hair products that you use to set the fire, there’s a pair of fire proof gloves in your size behind a bush over there, and your cell phone records show you texting your friends mysterious messages about the power of fire. Your previous police record also incriminates you, but don’t worry, I might visit you in prison.”

“In case you haven’t realized, Axel, in those previous police records is my testimony that you framed me for the Super Glue Incident. And you’re here too.”

* * *

After the ambulance arrived and whisked us away to the hospital in a hail of flashing lights and deafening sirens, we were all bandaged up and getting a final once over.

I’m sitting in a darkened room with a glowing rectangle on the wall covered in black smudges. Those smudges are supposed to be letters, but I can’t make them out. I can only assume Dr. Milano is giving me a sympathetic look as she double checks her clipboard, because I can’t see her face. And that’s not just because the room is dim.

“I’m sorry, Axel,” she says. Maybe the look of concern on her face just got deeper. “I don’t think it will be correctable. Too much smoke got in your eyes. Couple that with the explosions right in front of you, and I’d say it’s a miracle you can even see at all. Try not to squint too much; it won’t do you any good. In fact, it will probably weaken your eyes further.”

She’s been talking to me like I don’t know how the eye works for the past 30 minutes, and it’s starting to get on my nerves. She’s probably read the papers I wrote on the topics of blindness and cataracts under the name C. U. Nomur. When I don’t say anything, she stands up.
“I’ll just leave you alone for a bit to process all of this.” she says as she gently closes the door behind her.

I drop my head into my hands. I can’t believe this. I rub my eyes, trying to wipe away the intolerable fogginess, but it stays there, mocking me.

The door creaks open behind me, letting in a sliver of light that reveals the blurs all around me. I turn, expecting to see my parents, but I can just barely make out that dangerous ponytail that will probably make an appearance in my nightmares soon.

“Have you come here to gloat about the police reopening your file?” I ask. She was right. Since we were found at the scene of a crime together, the police are going to reinvestigate her plea that she was framed by me. Could this get any worse?

She sits down on the cot next to me. I guess it can get worse.

“No,” says Candace. “I came here to thank you for saving my life back there. Even though you were the one who put it in danger in the first place.” I can hear her sarcastic smile.
“You’re welcome,” I say, plopping my head back into my cupped hands.

“What? No smart come back?” she asks in mock horror.

“Not today,” I say.

“Sheesh, Axel, it was a fire, not the end of the world. I get the whole ‘faced with your own mortality’ thing, but don’t be so down about it, it’s depressing.” Ever the cheerleader…

“You don’t get it, Candace!” I explode; all the anger I’ve ever had for her suddenly rising to the surface. “It is the end of the world! I’ve been grounded!”

“I’m grounded too, no biggie.” I wonder if she looks confused or annoyed. Or maybe she’s scared for her life. I’ve been told my glares can be paralyzing.
“Not like that.” My voice cracks and I can’t tell if I’m looking at her eyes or her mouth. Slightly darker smears on her face are all I have to aim for. “I’m legally blind. I can’t fly anymore.” I turn away. I don’t want to talk to her mouth anymore. Or was it her nose?
I feel a warm hand touch my shoulder, but I shrug it off immediately. I don’t want to feel anything right now. I’ll be feeling things for the rest of my life. No more looking, just touching. And barely even that. I hold up my bandaged fingers in front of my face, the scar tissue will decrease my sense of touch.
“How did you even know what I was doing?”

“You missed a spot with the shoe polish. Maybe you should stick with hacking and leave the disguises to the CIA.”

Suddenly, the door bursts open, flooding the room with unwanted light, and the unstoppable force of my mother rushes into the room and immediately scoops me up into her arms.

“It’s going to be okay, Axel, baby,” she coos. “We’re going to get you the best doctors, and we’re going to fight this. We’ll get through this, do you understand?” You would think the doctors told her I have late stage cancer.

“Mmm mmmmmm mm mmmm mm mm,” I say. My words are muffled by the shirt that’s suffocating me.

“What was that dear?” She loosens her grip by half a Newton of force so I can lift my head a little bit just in time to see Candace’s distinctive blob slipping out of the room. I doubt my mother even noticed her.

“It’s uncorrectable, Mom, doctors won’t help.”

“Oh.” She forces me back to her chest, and this time I melt into her arms. I inhale the subtle scent of roses that follows her around. Tears rush to my smoky eyes without permission. I’ll never see my mother’s face again.

And it’s all Her fault. If She hadn’t been in that building, I’d still be able to see. I’d still be able to fly. I wouldn’t be under investigation from the police. If She hadn’t been there, I would have been long gone by the time the firemen showed up, and all that would have been left behind is evidence against Her. She did this to me.

And She won’t get away with it.

Later, one in a long trail of Axel Higgenbottom’s court mandated therapists will say that he was grieving the loss of his eyes. Denial went quickly for him, as he was never the type to ignore facts, but for some reason he seemed to be stuck in anger. And that anger was directed at the last person he ever saw clearly, the person he held responsible for the loss of his sight. This is the deepest any of Axel’s therapists ever got into the inner workings of his mind, and if only this headway had been made sooner. What happened next might have been preventable.

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