Living on the streets of New York might not have been the safest decision he’d ever made, but it was definitely the wisest. Nobody would bat an eye seeing another kid on the street, and CPS would never find him in the city with eight million people.
According to the police’s official report, his mom had left him. According to them, she’d grown tired of raising a child on her own, and in a moment of weakness, had left one day while he’d been at school. However, they couldn’t give him a satisfying explanation to why she hadn’t taken anything with her, or why she hadn’t touched her bank account even once. ‘Look, kid, your mom probably has a secret account in the Cayman Islands that we know nothing about’ was just one possible explanation to some of the facts — a pretty sloppy explanation if anyone asked him — but since none of them had known his mom like he had, and since nobody liked to listen to a kid, it had been an open-and-shut case.
And since they’d shown him how untrustworthy law enforcement, and adults in general, could be, there was no way in hell he’d trust them to take care of him. So he’d run away, when he’d was fourteen, from his home, from the small town he’d spent his whole life in, and from everything he’d ever known. He’d run away before they could even tell him what they’d do with him. He wasn’t stupid. He knew where a kid with no family would end up when his mom disappeared, and he wouldn’t submit to the police’s decision, because if he did, it would be the same as accepting their explanation.
It had taken him quite some time, but he’d managed to reach the concrete jungle where dreams were made of after several months on the road. He hadn’t expected it, but turned out he had quite nimble fingers when it came to pickpocketing. He would’ve gotten here a lot faster if his conscience hadn’t kicked in, making him steal strictly from those who wouldn’t even notice if they misplaced a hundred bucks or something. Of course, he’d stolen from the less wealthy groups as well, but he always felt incredibly bad about it, and he’d only done that if he hadn’t eaten for a couple of days.
For a kid like him, The Big City was full of danger as well as exciting challenges. He didn’t have to choose his target from a single pool anymore, since he’d soon learned that it felt a lot more rewarding if he could steal from other pickpockets — like his own version of competing. Furthermore, New York City was full of criminals, and the more dangerous they felt, the better he felt stealing from them, since those criminals were losing to a sixteen-year-old boy.
That was another thing about him: somehow, he had a sixth sense about that kind of stuff. He could tell if someone was too wealthy for their own good, or if someone reeked of danger. Good thing this lifestyle didn’t come with a lot of opportunities to talk to other people, since he had no idea if ‘he reeks of money’ or ‘I can smell their kindness’ was an acceptable explanation. Logically, he knew there was no way he could actually smell those things, just like there was no way he could smell that someone was behind him — unless they had really, really bad body odor — but that was just how his sixth sense worked. That was also how he’d managed to not get into any kind of trouble, since no one could take him by surprise or corner him in any way.
As he slowly walked down the street, his eyes landed on a tall guy in a suit in his late 40s walking towards him. The guy made him felt uneasy, simply for the fact that he couldn’t tell a single thing about the guy, and not in the way most people appeared to him. Usually, he could tell that someone was nobody — they did nothing significant in their life, neither good nor bad — but with this guy, it was like seeing a baby. That uneasy feeling made him pick the old guy as his next target.
A quick walk-by and he was holding the guy’s wallet in his hand. It had always been that simple for him, and his target never noticed. Sometimes, he used his ability to stop bad things from happening as well. Bad people, gang members, and people with a weapon and bad intent in general, walked around the streets more often than anyone cared to notice. He tried his best to steal as many of those knives and guns as possible. He kept some of the knives he found pretty, but most of them ended up at the bottom of either the East or the Hudson. The guns usually ended up being thrown into a precinct or a police car, since he figured they would be able to do some kind of CSI shit and maybe solve a murder or two with them.
With a smirk, he hurriedly returned to the alley he’d been using as his lair for the past couple of months. During winter, he’d had to move around quite often, breaking into places after closing time to keep him warm. But as the weather turned warmer, the need to stay warm subsided, and he could have a more regular place to return to. It was already sometime in September, so he knew he’d need to move again soon, but for now, it was still the closest thing to home for him. After all, no matter where he went, he’d always need a place for him to store his trophies, or the cute things he’d managed to collect from time to time, like lucky charms, knives, bullets, or even wallets.
Speaking of wallets, the guy’s wallet didn’t have anything personal whatsoever, which only intensified the uneasy feeling he’d been having. Sure, there were a couple of hundred bucks in there, but other than cash, there was only a business card that belonged to a John Smith in there. The wallet felt new, as if the guy had just bought it recently.
Maybe it was because he was too preoccupied with his thoughts, or perhaps he was too distracted by the wallet, but the curly-haired teen didn’t feel anything amiss until a hand was placed on his shoulder and a voice came from behind.
Wentworth Tozier didn’t usually do this. If he was being completely honest, he’d stopped doing it 30 years ago. Looking for missing members of the community was the responsibility of the young pups trying to have their first big win, or the old dogs who just wanted to take the easy jobs. Never in his life had he imagined he’d spend his time tracking someone from the middle of nowhere to New York. However, Claudia Henderson had been a dear friend back in the days, and as soon as he’d heard the news, he’d taken the first flight to Indiana to look for her kid.
What he’d thought to be a two-day job had dragged on for almost two years, since the kid was more gifted than he’d anticipated, especially in such a big city. However, as he spotted the young boy from afar, the man couldn’t help but let out a relieved sigh. That had been the easy part. After all, the kid had been the only rogue one in a two-mile radius, so it was pretty difficult to spot once he’d narrowed down the search area. He still needed to talk to the boy somewhere private, persuade the kid to come with him, and tell him that everything he’d ever known had been a huge lie. The steps were only getting more and more challenging.
From what his informants had told him, and from what he’d observed, the second step was achieved as he intentionally let himself be chosen as a target by the boy. It had gone a little different from what he’d anticipated. According to his plan, the boy would pick him because he’d stuffed the most dollars in his newly acquired wallet. However, he could sense the young teen’s confusion, then determination, as he was zeroed in. The act itself, if he was being completely honest, wasn’t that good, but it was understandable, since the kid was completely untrained and didn’t know the extent of his abilities, while he’d been a professional for a really long time. He let the boy get away with it, lowering the target’s guard, before secretly following him back to his nest. As the kid rummaged through his fake wallet, he carefully approached the boy from behind, effectively blocking the only exit, before putting his hand on the boy’s shoulder and cleared his throat.
“Dustin Henderson?” He asked, and got the expected reaction. The kid immediately turned around, jerking away from his hold, and looked up like a cornered animal.
“Social services?” The young boy asked, his voice breaking a little. It was clear that he wasn’t used to using it. “How did you find me?”
“I’m not from wherever you think I’m from,” Wentworth said calmly, putting a little warmth and authority in his voice, hoping to soothe the boy a little. “I was a colleague of your mother’s.”
“Who I just happened to pickpocket in a city with eight million people?” The teen huffed. “Fat chance. Leave or I will scream.”
The Henderson kid was checking out all his possible exits as he said it, so it was apparent that he was still looking forward to a fight. It would be the easier way, but the kid would never trust him if he did that. Wentworth sighed and tried again, putting more effort on the calming aura and the authoritative voice.
“Both of us knows screaming isn’t gonna do you anything in New York,” he said. “You’re not gonna get help by a Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man. But I’m not going to hurt you or force you to come with me. I do want you to come with me, though, and if you do, I can tell you what happened to Claudia.”
That had gotten the attention of the young boy. He tried to hide it, but there was a sliver of hope in his eyes. “What do you know about my mother?”
“I’m not going to tell you here,” Wentworth shook his head. “You’re not physically or mentally ready for that. If you come with me, I will provide you with a roof over your head, and we can talk when you’re well-rested and nourished.” Seeing that the boy was still eyeing him skeptically, he sighed. “You can tell I’m not lying.”
“How did you do that?” Dustin asked. “I couldn’t read you back then, but I can read you now. Or at least I can read something now.”
“I underestimated you,” the older man shrugged. “But it’s a long conversation.” He started to turn around and walk away. “My car is parked at the end of the street. If you decide to come, gather your stuff. I’ll be waiting for half an hour.” He had no intention of leaving the boy alone, but he knew if Dustin wasn’t going to come with him now, he’d need to think of another plan, maybe bringing in reinforcement. However, he hoped that the promised conversation about Claudia would be enough to get the boy to safety.
The guy didn’t even bother to take the wallet back. It was clear to Dustin that whoever this stranger was, he was one of those people that were too wealthy to care for their goods. Personally, he’d love to believe that a fairy godfather had just appeared in front of him and given him a safe haven, but that was never how real life worked. He couldn’t detect the slightest hint of insincerity in the guy, but that hardly mattered if the guy could hide it.
However, there was one thing he couldn’t deny: if the guy knew something about his mom, he needed to find out. Dustin had been craving for that information ever since before he’d run away. He knew his mom wouldn’t leave him like that, yet none of the adults believed him. Well, none except the John Smith he’d just stolen money from, apparently. So if he truly thought about it, he didn’t really have a choice. Slowly, he picked up the small box he’d been using to store his things, and headed outside, looking for a car at the end of the street.
The car only strengthened Dustin’s impression that this guy probably burned money to keep him warm during winter. He didn’t know a single thing about cars, and he could already tell it wasn’t the kind you could just buy at any dealership. He wouldn’t be surprised if there was a button somewhere that turned it into a mini aircraft, Men In Black style. It was a surprise anyone would let a dirty homeless kid inside such thing, but this guy did.
“So, where to, John?” He asked casually once he’d put his belongings in the back and fastened his seatbelt.
“You do know that isn’t my real name, right?” The guy raised an eyebrow.
“Yet you never bothered to introduce yourself properly,” the young boy huffed. “Seems pretty unfair seeing as you know my real name.”
“Touché,” the old man chuckled. “My kids are gonna love you. I’m Wentworth Tozier, but you can call me Went. And we’re going to New Jersey.”
“New Jersey?” Dustin furrowed his eyebrows. “Why New Jersey?”
“We have a community there,” the guy — Went — said. “It’s easier to secure an area in New Jersey.”
“What community?” Dustin was reconsidering the possibility of him being kidnapped and sold to the highest bidder.
“That’s part of the long explanation,” Went said. “For now, just enjoy the ride.”
“So, I take it that the new kid is coming today?” Lucas asked as he sat down next to Mike in Biology.
“No, dad wanted us to prepare one of the guest bedrooms so you can drop in anytime without notifying anyone,” Mike snorted and immediately got hit by a ball of paper from behind.
“Ignore him,” Beverly chuckled as she looked at the black boy, “he didn’t get much sleep last night.”
“And whose fault was that?” Richie huffed from his seat next to her. “You three kept giggling all night. Next time you have a sleepover with those nocturnals, do it at one of their houses.”
“I’m not having a sleepover at Max’s,” Bev rolled her eyes, “and I’m definitely not having a sleepover at the Chief’s house.” She rolled another ball of paper and threw it at Richie, who just yawned lazily and didn’t bother to deflect it. “And last time I checked, you are also nocturnal.”
“Getting a little sidetracked here, guys,” Lucas cleared his throat. “New kid?”
“Oh, right,” Bev chuckled. “Yeah, Went said they’d be back sometime today. He might be there by the time we get home. You’re welcome to drop by and see for yourself.”
“Actually, he’s not,” Mike corrected. “Dad didn’t want to overwhelm the kid. Precisely why Will and Eddie aren’t welcomed this weekend either.”
“So that’s why you two have been acting like little shits,” Bev smirked.
“We have not!” Richie protested.
“You kind of have,” Lucas hummed.
“Anyway,” Mike glowered, “no changing, no hocus pocus, nothing exciting in the house until dad has the talk with him.”
“What’s his name?” Lucas whispered as the teacher walked into the classroom.
“Dustin,” Richie provided. “Claudia’s kid. Not that you know who she was.”
“Is there something you want to share with the whole class?” The teacher, Mrs. Ratliff, asked loudly. “Mr. Sinclair, Mr. Tozier. Mr. Wheeler, and Miss Marsh?”
They all shook their heads innocently, and Mrs. Ratliff turned back to the whole class. “As I was saying, everyone turns to page 96. Today we started learning about Spellcasters.”
“At least you guys get a new cat,” Lucas whispered as they followed the instruction.