It's September again.

My birthday went well, which for me means nobody remembered the first was my birthday at all. I found some unguarded sidewalk chalk and stole some nail polish off a girl at school. It doesn't matter that I can't use either of them. The important thing is that I'm not empty handed. Last time one of the older boys wanted something from me I was and he nearly got into my duffel bag. I had to clutch my knee, drop to the floor and scream to keep what little I have that I actually like to myself. It worked like a charm, though. That means I'll probably pay for it in some not so subtle way later. But if I worried about the future I'd shoot myself before breakfast.

Ran into Nicole again. I hate that. She's so much brighter and better than the rest of us. If I were going to adopt someone I'd go for her. Of all the people I've tried to make friends with, she's the only one who's never screwed me over. She makes me feel bad, though. For not fighting back. She says I'm losing myself, I'm not who I used to be. I tried to say it wasn't that bad, but I could see it in her eyes she didn't believe me. She asked me when the last time I drew was. I don't remember.

She's in some place across the city. We see each other for school, and that's it. I tried to keep other people from knowing I knew her, but of course Jake found out. For the price of suffering through heckling every lunch period, getting mocked at the house and occasionally thrown around when there's no better targets, I can have a friend for a bit.

She'll go. They always do. Another transfer, a new place, and then things return to normal for me. Her place feeds her for breakfast. Mine gives us a couple of bucks and sends us off to school. Mine will always be gone; it's just a question of who corners me first, Jake or Justin. Watching one tear the other apart over two dollars is fun, but usually they just give up and sulk off in the other direction. I'm saving up my money for a Mongolian phrasebook. How much money will it take to get to Mongolia? I'm not sure. I just want to be able to speak well enough they'll let me stay. I could go out of the city, into the countryside steppe there. I would work for a place to sleep. I'd be content with having my own horse and plot of land some day. Peace, quiet, a safe place to set my head down, nobody telling me how to live every minute of my life – that's the life for me.

Greenland is closer, but I can't find any books on the language. Would they let me work fishing or hunting or doing whatever needed to be done as I picked the words up? I could do that. I already do work I hate here, cleaning up the latest house only to have either Jake, Justin or the littler kids make a mess. I don't mind cleaning. Work time is time away from all of them. That means more time where I can think about my escape. All I have to do is make it through high school, and then I'll be free.

It'll be alright.

The writing was small enough to be praiseworthy, and Vlad read it over with a sort of choked feeling in his chest.

If Andrew was alive, a trip to Mongolia wouldn't cost that much for the billionaire, would it? He could hire him his own private Mongolian tutor, go with him to Greenland, anything. Vlad could buy him libraries worth of books on the subjects, they could go to Ulanbataar and Nuuk and eat bozhl and drink Greenlandic coffee. He could use all his legal power to make the lives of this Jake and his cohort Justin a living nightmare. He could find this Nicole; get her a better situation, maybe an adoption somehow, if Andrew was still alive. He had that kind of money. He spent it on an opulent mansion, but, as he was realizing rapidly, he could have been using it to change people's lives, pull them back from the brink of hopelessness, give them the world. He would give Andrew the world if…

If. If he wasn't already dead in some ravine somewhere, passed out on some city street, abducted by degenerates, then Vlad could make everything right. If he was dead, all this was worth was a wish on a star. He had to reread the paragraph on money again twice for it to sink in. So that was why his son had chosen two random countries all the way across the world from each other. They were remote and barely populated, places where he would have to work hard but where he could eventually live alone, without any of the people who'd made his life so hard. He wanted to get away from humanity itself, at all costs. People were the enemy. Peace equaled an escape from people.

He put the piece of paper aside and picked up a drawing. Nothing but a boy shot through the head, the black from the burst forming what appeared to be writing of some kind, although not in a language Vlad knew. The peaceful smile on the boy's face was disturbing enough, as was the scribbling on the back: can't keep sleeping in closets anymore, they know. Need new hiding place here. Under the porch might be viable. Vlad imagined his son curled up in what little space a closet provided, suffocating on the smell of shoes and coats, trying desperately not to have to deal with anyone else again. Then he pictured his son laying in the dirt under a porch, sweltering in the West Virginia heat but knowing worse things would come if he came out from his hiding place.

Vlad didn't want to focus on that, so he picked up another paper. This one was torn in half.

-days now. I haven't been able to sleep properly all week. When I do it's with the book tucked under my shirt, right next to my chest. They all know I saved up money and those that don't think I stole it. So naturally I'm either fodder for gang recruitment or just another jerk that needs to be taught his place. Either way, I just try to memorize as much as I can before it's taken from me and I have to give it up. If I commit everything to memory and keep it fresh then when I get to Mongolia I won't be totally lost. I'll just have to work my way up the ladder. Then these days will all be behind me.

More confirmation of what he already knew, that this system was plagued with bullies and Andrew was hanging on to his fantasy of Mongolia at that point. But in his letter, he'd said he'd given up, that nowhere in Greenland or Mongolia was far enough away to wipe out memories. He had a horrible, stomach churning feeling he knew what his son was referring to, the way it was worded leaving the implications hanging without going into details. What he needed now were names, people who had done it. More specifically, he needed to know who, exactly, had made Andrew drop even this little thread of hope. He had to have some reason to give up his escapist fantasy, the dream he'd been nursing for what appeared to be some time.

Somewhere in the binders of papers there was an answer, just waiting for him to pick it up and put it together. He found a piece of heavily decorated paper and began to read it, noting the corner work and Celtic knot frame was similar to the work done on the letter Vlad had received. Every scrap so far had used different writing implements of varying colors. This one was a violent red, but what was on it was not what Vlad expected at all.

One of the little ones has gotten attached to me.

Her name is Tondra. She's small and black, darker skinned than Nicole, with eyes that are navy blue. Apparently the people at the last place she was at threw her back into the system for raising too much of a stink after – well, after what always happens to unguarded girls happened to her. She didn't want anything to do with anyone here, so she hid in a closet. I was there, too when she entered. We talked. About what had happened to both of us, about getting out of here one day, and about a little bit of everything. Eventually I emerged for dinner. She was scared of me since I was both male and bigger than her, but that faded when I came back to her closet with dinner.

She lets me put her hair into puffball pigtails and read to her about Mongolia. When we're stuck with chores, she takes up cleaning with me, and sings. She's always singing. One day she wants to be a star. She promises to come to Mongolia some day and see me. Alex cornered me, asked me why I'm filling her head with nonsense. He says it's not healthy to cling to dreams like that and ignore the real world. I told him she's six, she can believe whatever she wants. He asked me what my excuse was.

Tondra doesn't like Alex much. I had to explain that Alex has had what's happened to us happen to him so many times he's a very broken boy. After that many homes and relocations and that adoption that fell through when the people who wanted him found a nice baby instead, he's broken inside. He believes everyone is evil and trying to hurt one another, that all humans are programmed to attack each other on sight. He even told me the only reason I didn't 'go after' Tondra was that I was gay. That made me laugh, which resulted in a punch to the stomach. But the truth is, I could never be romantic or even physical with anyone. I hate being touched. I hate feeling someone else's hands on me. Even if Tondra were my age, I could never treat her the way Alex treats every girl he meets. I just can't picture ever wanting to do something like that.

He hurts people. I don't want to hurt people. Not with words, not with punches, not with romance that begins and ends in the same week. It would take too much from me. And I've got nothing left to give.

What I want is to be alone. For long enough I can forget what it feels like to be hit or kicked or pushed. Maybe, if I spent a long time away from people, I could want them near me again. Even Tondra scares me a little. She could lie to people, say I was bullying her, turn at any moment and destroy me. The only thing that stays the same is Mongolia. Even Greenland is changing. I saw it on the news. It's becoming more and more heavily populated, a center of trade, they've found oil there and stuff. At least Mongolia is big enough they'll never ruin all of it. There will always be somewhere I can go there where no one can find me.

It's a big country. I know it'll stay that way no matter what pops up there.

Vlad placed the paper down and pinched the bridge of his nose.

He wasn't sure why he did that; nervous habit, maybe. Tired habit, more accurately, but that was getting technical and he didn't have time for that right now. He needed to find clues on where his son would be right now. The words 'his son' slammed into him again and again, like an ocean wave, relentless and fierce. He had a son, this human being who was practically afraid of his own shadow and dreamed of a better life and was trying to teach himself a language. And without ever having met him, Vlad was so proud, so incredibly proud of his resilient, rebellious son who just wanted peace and quiet. At that age Vlad had been dreaming of a Nobel Prize.

Then again, at that age he hadn't had to hide books under his shirt to ensure they weren't stolen at night. As overbearing and absolutely brutal as his father Ezekiel Masters had been, his obsessions had stopped at grades, appearance and manners. He had been a nightmare to grow up under and Vlad had felt a strange void when his father had died of a heart attack brought on by stress, but he had still provided a better living environment than this… though the true nurturer in his life had always been his mother. She would've known how to instinctively right this situation, read between the lines, get out of this what he wasn't. Lillian Masters was a blue eyed wisp of a woman, a waif that had been taken out by a car accident years ago. Her death was the spark of Vlad's hatred for all authority.

Now here he was, with no family left except one possible member, whose whereabouts could only be ascertained by reading some of the most scattered, unorganized, stomach churning fantasy-driven writing he'd ever seen. This was a pitiful pile of clues by any definition. He had better odds of finding a needle in a haystack.

So, then, he thought as he grabbed another piece of paper, best begin looking for that needle.