Me and Case met when someone slammed his head against my door, so hard I heard it with my earphones in and my Game Boy cranked up loud. Sad music from Mega Man 2 filled my head and then there was this thud like the world stopped spinning for a second. I turned the thing off and flipped it shut, felt its warmth between my hands. Slipped it under my pillow. Nice things need to stay secret at Egan House, or they’ll end up stolen or broken. Old and rickety as it was, I didn’t own anything nicer.
I opened my door. Some skinny thug had a bloody-faced kid by the shirt.
“What,” I said, and then “what,” and then “what the,” and then, finally, “hell?”
I barked the last word, tightening all my muscles at once.
“Damn, man,” the thug said, startled. He hollered down the stairs “Goddamn Goliath over here can talk!” He let go of the kid’s shirt and was gone. Thirty boys live at Egan House, foster kids awaiting placement. Little badass boys with parents in jail or parents on the street, or dead parents, or parents on drugs.
I looked at the kid he’d been messing with. A line of blood cut his face more or less down the middle, but the gash in his forehead was pretty small. His eyes were huge and clear in the middle of all that blood. He looked like something I’d seen before, in an ad or movie or dream.
“Thanks, dude,” the kid said. He ran his hand down his face and then planted it on the outside of my door.
I nodded. Mostly when I open my mouth to say something the words get all twisted on the way out, or the wrong words sneak in, which is why I tend to not open my mouth. Once he was gone I sniffed at the big bloody handprint. My cloud port hurt, from wanting him. Suddenly it didn’t fit quite right, atop the tiny hole where a fiber optic wire threaded into my brainstem though the joint where skull met spine. Desire was dangerous, something I fought hard to keep down, but the moment I met Case I knew I would lose.
Egan House was my twelfth group home. I had never seen a kid with blue eyes in any of them. I had always assumed white boys had no place in foster care, that there was some other better system set up to receive them.
• • • •
I had been at Egan House six months, the week that Case came. I was inches away from turning eighteen and aging out. Nothing was waiting for me. I spent an awful lot of energy not thinking about it. Better to sit tight for the little time I had left, in a room barely wider than its bed, relying on my size to keep people from messing with me. At night, unable to sleep, trying hard to think of anything but the future, I’d focus on the sounds of boys trying not to make noise as they cried or jerked off.
On Tuesday, the day after the bloody-faced boy left his handprint on my door, he came and knocked. I had been looking out my window. Not everyone had one. Mine faced south, showed me a wide sweep of the Bronx. Looking out, I could imagine myself as a signal sent out over the municipal wifi, beamed across the city, cut loose from this body and its need to be fed and sheltered and cared about. Its need for other bodies. I could see things, sometimes. Things I knew I shouldn’t be seeing. Hints of images beamed through the wireless node that my brain had become.
“Hey,” the kid said, knocking again. And I knew, from how I felt when I heard his voice, how doomed I was.
“Angel Quiñones,” he said, when I opened the door. “Nicknamed Sauro because you look a big ol’ Brontosaurus.”
Actually my mom called me Sauro because I liked dinosaurs, but it was close enough. “Okay . . .” I said. I stepped aside and in he came.
“Case. My name’s Case. Do you want me to continue with the dossier I’ve collected on you?” When I didn’t do anything but stare at his face he said “Silence is consent.
“Mostly Puerto Rican, with a little black and a little white in there somewhere. You’ve been here forever, but nobody knows anything about you. Just that you keep to yourself and don’t get involved in anyone’s hustles. And don’t seem to have one of your own. And you could crush someone’s skull with one hand.”
A smile forced its way across my face, terrifying me.
With the blood all cleaned up, he looked like a kid. But faces can fool you, and the look on his could only have belonged to a full-grown man. So confident it was halfway to contemptuous, sculpted out of some bright stone. A face that made you forget what you were saying mid-sentence.
Speaking slowly, I said: “Don’t—don’t get.” Breathe. “Don’t get too into the say they stuff. Stuff they say. Before you know it, you’ll be one of the brothers.”
Case laughed. “Brothers,” he said, and traced one finger up his very-white arm. “I doubt anyone would ever get me confused with a brother.”
“Not brothers like Black. Brothers—they call us. That’s what they call us. We’re brothers because we all have the same parents. Because we all have none.”
Why were the words there, then? Case smiled and out they came.
He reached out to rub the top of my head. “You’re a mystery man, Sauro. What crazy stuff have you got going on in there?”
I shrugged. Bit back the cat-urge to push my head into his hand. Ignored the cloud-port itch flaring up fast and sharp.
Case asked: “Why do you shave your head?”
Because it’s easier.
Because unlike most of these kids, I’m not trying to hide my cloud port.
Because a boy I knew, five homes ago, kept his head shaved, and when I looked at him I felt some kind of way inside. The same way I feel when I look at you. Case.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“It looks good though.”
“Maybe that’s why,” I said. “What’s your . . . thing. Dossier.”
“Nothing you haven’t heard before. Small town gay boy, got beat up a lot. Came to the big city. But the city government doesn’t believe a minor can make decisions for himself. So here I am. Getting fed and kept out of the rain while I plan my next move.”
Gay boy. Unthinkable even to think it about myself, let alone ever utter it.
“How old? You.”
“Seventeen.” He turned his head, smoothed back sun-colored hair to reveal his port. “Well, they let you make your own decisions if they’ll make money for someone else.”
Again, I was shocked. White kids were hardly ever so poor they needed the chump change you can get from cloudporting. Not even the ones who wanted real bad to be down. Too much potential for horrific problems. Bump it too hard against a headboard or doorframe and you might end up brain-damaged.
But that wasn’t why I stared at him, dumbfounded. It was what he said, about making money for someone else. Like he could smell the anger on me. Like he had his own. I wanted to tell him about what I had learned, online. How many hundreds of millions of dollars the city spent every year to keep tens of thousands of us stuck in homes like Egan House. How many people had jobs because of kids like us. How if they had given my mom a quarter of what they’ve spent on me being in the system, she never would have lost her place. She never would have lost me. How we were all of us, ported or not, just batteries to be sucked dry by huge faraway machines I could not even imagine. But it was all I could do just to keep a huge and idiotic grin off my face when I looked at him.
The telecoms had paid for New York’s municipal wireless grid, installing thousands of routers across all five boroughs. Rich people loved having free wireless everywhere, but it wasn’t a public service. Companies did it because the technology had finally come around to where you could use the human brain for data processing, so they could wave money in the faces of hard-up people and say, let us put this tiny little wire into your brain and plug that into the wireless signal and exploit a portion of your brain’s underutilized capacity, turning you into one node in a massively-distributed data processing center. It worked, of course. Any business model based around poor people making bad decisions out of ignorance and desperation always works. Just ask McDonald’s, or the heroin dealer who used to sell to my mom.
The sun, at some point, had gotten lost behind a ragged row of tenements. Case said: “Something else they said. You’re going to age out, any minute now.”
“That must be scary.”
“They say most guys leaving foster care end up on the street.”
The street, the words like knives driven under all my toenails at once. The stories I had heard. Men frozen to death under expressways, men set on fire by frat boys, men raped to death by cops.
“You got a plan?”
“Well, stick with me, kid,” Case said, in fluent fake movie gangster. “I got a plan big enough for both of us. Do you smoke?” he asked, flicking out two. I didn’t, but I took the cigarette. His fingers touched mine. I wanted to say It isn’t allowed in here, but Case’s smile was a higher law.
“Where’s a decent port shop around here? I heard the Bronx ones were all unhygienic as hell.”
“Riverdale,” I said. “That’s the one I go to. Nice office. No one waiting outside to jump you.”
“I need to establish a new primary,” he said. “We’ll go tomorrow.” He smiled so I could see it wasn’t a command so much as a decision he was making for both of us.
• • • •
My mother sat on the downtown platform at Burnside, looking across the elevated tracks to a line of windows, trying to see something she wasn’t supposed to see. She was so into her voyeurism that she didn’t notice me standing right beside her, uncomfortably close even though the platform was bare. She didn’t look up until I said mother in Spanish, maybe a little too loud.
“Oh my god,” she said, fanning herself with a damp New York Post. “Here I am getting here late, fifteen minutes, thinking oh my god he’s gonna kill me, and come to find out that you’re even later than me!”
“Hi,” I said, squatting to kiss her forehead.
“Let it never be said that you got that from me. I’m late all the time, but I tried to raise you better.”
“You know. To not make all the mistakes I did.”
“Yeah, but how so? What did you do, to raise me better?”
“It’s stupid hot out,” she said. “They got air conditioning in that home?”
“In the office. Where we’re not allowed.”
We meet up once a month, even though she’s not approved for unsupervised visits. I won’t visit her at home because her man is always there, always drunk, always able, in the course of an hour, to remind me how miserable and stupid I am. How horrible my life will become, just as soon as I age out. How my options are the streets or jail or overclocking; what they’ll do to me in each of those places. So now we meet up on the subway, and ride to Brooklyn Bridge and then back to Burnside.
Arm flab jiggled as she fanned herself. Mom is happy in her fat. Heroin kept her skinny; crack gave her lots of exercise. For her, obesity is a brightly colored sign that says NOT ADDICTED ANYMORE. Her man keeps her fed; this is what makes someone a Good Man. Brakes screamed as a downtown train pulled into the station.
“Oooh, stop, wait,” she said, grabbing at my pantleg with one puffy hand. “Let’s catch the next one. I wanna finish my cigarette.”
I got on the train. She came, too, finally, hustling, flustered, barely making it.
“What’s gotten into you today?” she said, when she wrestled her pocketbook free from the doors. “You upset about something? You’re never this,” and she snapped her fingers in the air while she looked for the word assertive. I had it in my head. I would not give it to her. Finally she just waved her hand and sat down. “Oh, that air conditioning feels good.”
“José? How’s he?”
“Fine, fine,” she said, still fanning from force of habit. Fifty-degree air pumped directly down on us from the ceiling ducts.
“Mom—I wanted to ask you something.”
“Anything, my love,” she said, fanning faster.
“You said one time that all the bad decisions you made—none of it would have happened if you could just keep yourself from falling in love.”
When I’m with my mom my words never come out wrong. I think it’s because I kind of hate her.
“I said that?”
“What did you mean?”
“Christ, honey, I don’t know.” The Post slowed, stopped, settled into her lap. “It’s stupid, but there’s nothing I won’t do for a man I love. A woman who’s looking for a man to plug a hole she’s got inside? She’s in trouble.”
“Yeah,” I said.
Below us, the Bronx scrolled by. Sights I’d been seeing all my life. The same sooty sides of buildings; the same cop cars on every block looking for boys like me. I thought of Case, then, and clean sharp joy pushed out all my fear. My eyes shut, from the pleasure of remembering him, and saw a glorious rush of ported imagery. Movie stills; fashion spreads; unspeakable obscenity. Not blurry this time; requiring no extra effort. I wondered what was different. I knew my mouth was open in an idiot grin, somewhere in a southbound subway car, but I didn’t care, and I stood knee-deep in a river of images until the elevated train went underground after 161st Street.
• • • •
WE ARE THE CLOUD, said the sign on the door, atop a sea of multicolored dots with stylized wireless signals bouncing between them.
Walking in with Case, I saw that maybe I had oversold the place by saying it was “nice.” Nicer than the ones by Lincoln Hospital, maybe, where people come covered in blood and puke, having left against medical advice after spasming out in a public housing stairwell. But still. It wasn’t actually nice.
Older people nodded off on benches, smelling of shit and hunger. Gross as it was, I liked those offices. All those ports started a pleasant buzzing in my head. Like we added up to something.
“Look at that guy,” Case said, sitting down on the bench beside me. He pointed to a man whose head was tilted back, gurgling up a steady stream of phlegm that had soaked his shirt and was dripping onto the floor.
“Overclocked,” I said, and stopped. His shoulder felt good against my bicep. “Some people. Sell more than they should. Of their brain.”
Sell enough of it, and they’d put you up in one of their Node Care Facilities, grim nursing homes for thirty-something vegetables and doddering senior citizens in their twenties, but once you were in you were never coming out, because people ported that hard could barely walk a block or speak a sentence, let alone obtain and hold meaningful employment.
And if I didn’t want to end up on the street, that was my only real option. I’d been to job interviews. Some I walked into on my own; some the system set up for me. Nothing was out there for anyone, let alone a frowning, stammering tower of man who more than one authority figure had referred to as a “fucking imbecile.”
“What about him?” Case asked, pointing to another guy whose hands and legs twitched too rhythmically and regularly for it to be a dream.
“Clouddiving,” I said.
He laughed. “I thought only retards could do that.”
“That’s,” I said. “Not.”
“Okay,” he said, when he saw I wouldn’t be saying anything else on the subject.
I wanted very badly to cry. Only retards. A part of me had thought maybe I could share it with Case, tell him what I could do. But of course I couldn’t. I fast-blinked, each brief shutting of my eyes showing a flurry of cloud-snatched photographs.
Ten minutes later I caught him smiling at me, maybe realizing he had said something wrong. I wanted so badly for Case to see inside my head. What I was. How I wasn’t an imbecile, or a retard.
Our eyes locked. I leaned forward. Hungry for him to see me, the way no one else ever had. I wanted to tell him what I could do. How I could access data. How sometimes I thought I could maybe control data. How I dreamed of using it to burn everything down. But I wasn’t strong enough to think those things, let alone say them. Some secrets you can’t share, no matter how badly you want to.
• • • •
I went back alone. Case had somewhere to be. It hurt, realizing he had things in his life I knew nothing about. I climbed the steps and a voice called from the front-porch darkness.
“Awful late,” Guerra said. The stubby man who ran the place: Most of his body weight was gristle and mustache. He stole our stuff and ate our food and took bribes from dealer residents to get rivals logged out. In the dark I knew he couldn’t even see who I was.
“Nine,” I said. “It’s not. O’clock.”
He sucked the last of his Coke through a straw, in the noisiest manner imaginable. “Whatever.”
Salvation Army landscapes clotted the walls. Distant mountains and daybreak forests, smelling like cigarette smoke, carpet cleaner, thruway exhaust. There was a sadness to the place I hadn’t noticed before, not even when I was hating it. In the living room, a boy knelt before the television. Another slept on the couch. In the poor light, I couldn’t tell if one of them was the one who had hurt Case.
There were so many of us in the system. We could add up to an army. Why did we all hate and fear each other so much? Friendships formed from time to time, but they were weird and tinged with what-can-I-get-from-you, liable to shatter at any moment as allegiances shifted or kids got transferred. If all the violence we visited on ourselves could be turned outwards, maybe we could—
But only danger was in that direction. I thought of my mom’s man, crippled in a prison riot, living fat off the settlement, saying, drunk, once, Only thing the Man fears more than one of us is a lot of us.
I went back to my room, and got down on the floor, under the window. And shut my eyes. And dove.
Into spreadsheets and songs and grainy CCTV feeds and old films and pages scanned from books that no longer existed anywhere in the world. Whatever the telecom happens to be porting through you at that precise moment.
Only damaged people can dive. Something to do with how the brain processes speech. Every time I did it, I was terrified. Convinced they’d see me, and come for me. But that night I wanted something badly enough to balance out the being afraid.
Eyes shut, I let myself melt into data. Shuffled faster and faster, pulled back far enough to see Manhattan looming huge and epic with mountains of data at Wall Street and Midtown. Saw the Bronx, a flat spread of tiny data heaps here and there. I held my breath, seeing it, feeling certain no one had ever seen it like this before, money and megabytes in massive spiraling loops, unspeakably gorgeous and fragile. I could see how much money would be lost if the flow was broken for even a single second, and I could see where all the fault lines lay. But I wasn’t looking for that. I was looking for Case.
• • • •
And then: Case came knocking. Like I had summoned him up from the datastream. Like what I wanted actually mattered outside of my head.
“Hey there, mister,” he said, when I opened my door.
I took a few steps backwards.
He shut the door and sat down on my bed. “You’ve got a Game Boy, right? I saw the headphones.” I didn’t respond, and he said, “Damn, dude, I’m not trying to steal your stuff, okay? I have one of my own. Wondered if you wanted to play together.” Case flashed his, bright red to my blue one.
“The thing,” I said. “I don’t have. The cable.”
He patted his pants pocket. “That’s okay, I do.”
We sat on the bed, shoulders touching, backs against the wall, and played Mega Man 2. Evil robots came at us by the dozen to die.
I touched the cord with one finger. Such a primitive thing, to need a physical connection. Case smelled like soap, but not the Ivory they give you in the system. Like cream, I thought, but that wasn’t right. To really describe it I’d need a whole new world of words no one ever taught me.
“That T-shirt looks good on you,” he said. “Makes you look like a gym boy.”
“I’m not. It’s just . . . what there was. What was there. In the donation bin. Once Guerra picked out all the good stuff. Hard to find clothes that fit when you’re six six.”
“It does fit, though.”
Midway through Skull Man’s level, Case said: “You talk funny sometimes. What’s up with that?” and I was shocked to see no anger surge through me.
“It’s a thing. A speech thing. What you call it when people have trouble talking.”
“A speech impediment.”
I nodded. “But a weird one. Where the words don’t come out right. Or don’t come out at all. Or come out as the wrong word. Clouding makes it worse.”
“I like it,” he said, looking at me now instead of Mega Man. “It’s part of what makes you unique.”
We played without talking, tinny music echoing in the little room.
“I don’t want to go back to my room. I might get jacked in the hallway.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Can I stay here? I’ll sleep on the floor.”
“You’re the best, Sauro.” And there were his hands again, rubbing the top of my head. He took off his shirt and began to make a bed on my floor. Fine black hair covers almost all of me, but Case’s body was mostly bare. My throat hurt with how bad I wanted to put my hands on him. I got into bed with my boxers on, embarrassed by what was happening down there.
• • • •
“Sauro,” he whispered, suddenly beside me in the bed.
I grunted; stumbled coming from dreams to reality.
His body was spooned in front of mine. “Is this okay?”
“Yes. Yes, it is.” I tightened my arms around him. His warmth and smell stiffened me. And then his head had turned, his mouth was moving down my belly, his body pinning me to the bed, which was good, because God had turned off gravity and the slightest breeze would have had me floating right out the window and into space.
• • • •
“You ever do this before? With a guy?”
“Not out loud—I mean, not in real life.”
“You’ve thought about it.”
“You’ve thought about it a lot.”
“Why didn’t you ever do it?
“I don’t know.”
“You were afraid of what people might think?”
“Then what were you afraid of?”
Losing control was what I wanted to say, or giving someone power over me, or making a mess.
Or: The boys that make me feel like you make me feel turn me into something stupid, brutish, clumsy, worthless.
Or: I knew a gay kid, once, in a group home upstairs from a McDonald’s, watched twelve guys hold him down in a locked room until the morning guy came at eight, saw him when they wheeled him towards the ambulance.
I shrugged. The motion of my shoulders shook his little body.
• • • •
I fought sleep as hard and long as I could. I didn’t want to not be there. And when I knew I couldn’t fight it anymore I let myself sink into data—easy as blinking this time—felt myself ebb out of my cloud port, but instead of following the random data beamed into me by the nearest router, I reached—felt my way across the endless black gulf of six inches that separated his cloud port from mine, and found him there, a jagged wobbly galaxy of data, ugly and incongruous, but beautiful, because it was him, and because, even if it was only for a moment, he was mine.
Case, I said.
He twitched in his sleep. Said his own name.
I love you, I said.
Asleep, Case said it, too.
• • • •
Kentucky Fried Chicken. Thursday morning. For the first time, I didn’t feel like life was a fight about to break out, or like everyone wanted to mess with me. Everywhere I went, someone wanted to throw me out—but now the only person who even noticed me was a crazy lady rooting through a McDonald’s soda cup of change.
Case asked, “Anyone ever tell you you’re a sexy beast?” On my baldness his hands no longer seemed so tiny. My big thick skull was an eggshell.
“Also? Dude? You’re huge.” He nudged my crotch with his knee. “You know that? Like off the charts.”
I laughed. His glee was contagious and his hands were moving down my arm and we were sitting in public talking about gay sex and he didn’t care and neither did I.
“When I first came to the city, I did some porn,” Case said. “I got like five hundred dollars for it.”
I chewed slow. Stared at the bones and tendons of the drumstick in my hand. Didn’t look up. I thought about what I had done, while clouddiving. How I said his name, and he echoed me. I dreamed of taking him up to the roof at night, snapping my fingers and making the whole Bronx go dark except for Case’s name, spelled out in blazing tenement window lights. It would be easy. I could do anything. Because: Case.
“Would you be interested in doing something like that?”
“Not even for like a million dollars?”
“Maybe a million. But probably not.”
“You’re funny. You know that? How you follow the rules. All they ever do is get you hurt.”
“Getting in trouble means something different for you than it does for me.”
Here’s what I realized: It wasn’t hate that made it easy to talk to my mom. It was love. Love let the words out.
“Why?” he asked.
“Because. What you are.”
“Because I’m a sexy mother?”
I didn’t grin back.
“Because I’m white.”
“Okay,” he said. “Right. You see? The rules are not your friend. Racists made the rules. Racists enforce them.”
I put the picked-clean drumstick down.
Case said “Whatever” and the word was hot and long, a question, an accusation. “The world put you where you are, Sauro, but fear keeps you there. You want to never make any decisions. Drift along and hope everything turns out for the best. You know where that’ll put you.”
The lady with the change cup walked by our table. Snatched a thigh off of Case’s plate. “Put that down right this minute, asshole,” he said, loud as hell, standing up. For a second the country-bumpkin Case was gone, replaced by someone I’d never seen before. The lady scurried off. Case caught me staring and smiled, aw-shucks style.
• • • •
“Stand up,” I said. “Go by the window.”
He went. Evening sun turned him into something golden.
Men used to paralyze me. My whole life I’d been seeing confident charismatic guys, and thought I could never get to that place. Never have what they had. Now I saw it wasn’t what they had that I wanted, it was what they were. I felt lust, not inferiority, and the two are way too close. Like hate and love.
“You make me feel like food,” he said, and then lay himself face down on the floor. “Why don’t you come over here?” Scissored his legs open. Turned his head and smiled like all the smiles I ever wanted but did not get.
• • • •
Pushing in, I heard myself make a noise that can only be called a bellow.
“Shh,” he said, “everyone will hear us.”
My hips took on a life of their own. My hands pushed hard, all up and down his body. Case was tiny underneath me. A twig I could break.
Afterwards I heard snoring from down the hall. Someone sobbed. I’d spent so long focused on how full the world was of horrible things. I’d been so conditioned to think that its good things were reserved for someone else that I never saw how many were already within my grasp. In my head, for one thing, where my thoughts were my own and no one could punish me for them, and in the cloud, where I was coming to see that I could do astonishing things. And in bed. And wherever Case was. My eyes filled up and ran over and I pushed my face into the cool nape of his sleeping neck.
• • • •
My one and only time in court: I am ten. Mom bought drugs at a bodega. It’s her tenth or hundredth time passing through those tall tarnished-bronze doors. Her court date came on one of my rare stints out of the system, when she cleaned up her act convincingly enough that they gave me briefly back to her.
The courtroom is too crowded; the guard tells me to wait outside. “But he’s my son,” my mother says, pointing out smaller children sitting by their parents.
I am very big for ten.
“He’s gotta stay out here,” the guard says.
I sit on the floor and count green flecks in the floor. Dark-skinned men surround me, angry but resigned, defiant but hopeless. The floor’s sparkle mocks us: our poverty, our mortality, the human needs that brought us here.
• • • •
“Where I’m from,” Case said, “you could put a down payment on a house with two thousand dollars.”
“You ever dream about escaping New York?”
“Kind of. In my head.”
Case laughed. “What about you and me getting out of town? Moving away?”
My head hurt with how badly I wanted that. “You hated that place. You don’t want to go back.”
“I hated it because I was alone. If we went back together, I would have you.”
His fingers drummed up and down my chest. Ran circles around my nipples. “I called that guy I know. The porn producer. Told him about you. He said he’d give us each five hundred, and another two-fifty for me as a finder’s fee.”
“You called him? About me?”
“This could be it, Sauro. A new start. For both of us.”
“I don’t know,” I said, but I did know. I knew I was lost, that I couldn’t say no, that his mouth, now circling my belly button, had only to speak and I would act.
“Are you really such a proper little gentleman?” he asked. His hands, cold as winter, hooked behind my knees. “You never got into trouble before?”
• • • •
My one time in trouble.
I am five. It’s three in the morning. I’m riding my tricycle down the block. A policeman stops me. Where’s your mother/ She’s home/ Why aren’t you home?/ I was hungry and there’s no food. Mom is on a heroin holiday, lying on the couch while she’s somewhere else. For a week I’ve been stealing food from corner stores. So much cigarette smoke fills the cop car that I can’t breathe. At the precinct he leaves me there, windows all rolled up. Later he takes me home, talks to my mom, fills out a report, takes her away. Someone else takes me. Everything ends. All of this is punishment for some crime I committed without realizing it. I resolve right then and there to never again steal food, ride tricycles, talk to cops, think bad thoughts, step outside to get something I need.
• • • •
Friday afternoon we rode the train to Manhattan. Case took us to a big building, no different on the outside from any other one. A directory on the wall listed a couple dozen tenants. ARABY STUDIOS was where we were going.
“I have an appointment with Mr. Goellnitz,” Case told a woman at a desk upstairs. The place smelled like paint over black mold. We sat in a waiting room like a doctor’s, except with different posters on the walls.
In one, a naked boy squatted on some rocks. A beautiful boy. Fine black hair all over his body. Eyes like lighthouses. Something about his chin and cheekbones turned my knees to hot jelly. Stayed with me when I shut my eyes.
“Who’s that?” I asked.
“Just some boy,” Case said.
“Does he work here?”
“No one works here.”
Filming was about to start when I figured out why that boy on the rocks bothered me so much. I had thought only Case could get into my head so hard, make me feel so powerless, so willing to do absolutely anything.
• • • •
A cinderblock room, dressed up like how Hollywood imagines the projects. Low ceilings and Snoop Dogg posters. Overflowing ashtrays. A pit bull dozing in a corner. A scared little white boy sitting on the couch.
“I’m sorry, Rico, you know I am. You gotta give me another chance.”
The dark scary drug dealer towers over him. Wearing a wife beater and a bicycle chain around his neck. A hard-on bobs inside his sweatpants. “That’s the last time I lose money on you, punk.”
The drug dealer grabs him by the neck, rubs his thumb along the boy’s lips, pushes his thumb into the warm wet mouth.
• • • •
“Do it,” Goellnitz barked.
“I can’t,” I said.
“Say the fucking line.”
“Or I’ll throw your ass out of here and neither one of you will get a dime.”
Case said “Come on, dude! Just say it.”
—and how could I disobey? How could I not do every little thing he asked me to do?
Porn was like cloudporting, like foster care. One more way they used you up.
One more weapon you could use against them.
I shut my eyes and made my face a snarl. Hissed out each word, one at a time, to make sure I’d only have to say it once
“That’s.” “Right.” “Bitch.” I spat on his back, hit him hard in the head. “Tell.” “Me.” “You.” “Like it.” Off camera, in the mirror, Case winked.
Where did it come from, the strength to say all that? To say all that, and do all the other things I never knew I could do? Case gave it to me. Case, and the cloud, which I could feel and see now even with my eyes open, even without thinking about it, sweet and clear as the smell of rain.
• • • •
“Damn, dude,” Case said, while they switched to the next camera set-up. “You’re actually kind of a good actor with how you deliver those lines.” He was naked; he was fearless. I cowered on the couch, a towel covering as much of me as I could manage. What was it in Case that made him so certain nothing bad would happen to him? At first I chalked it up to white skin, but now I wasn’t sure it was so simple. His eyes were on the window. His mind was already elsewhere.
• • • •
The showers were echoey, like TV high school locker rooms. We stood there, naked, side by side. I slapped Case’s ass, and when he didn’t respond I did it again, and when he didn’t respond I stood behind him and kissed the back of his neck. He didn’t say or do a thing. So I left the shower to go get dressed.
“Did I hurt you?” I hollered, when ten minutes had gone by and he was still standing under the water.
He wasn’t moving. Wasn’t soaping or lathering or rinsing.
“Is everything okay?” Making my voice warm, to hide how cold I suddenly felt.
“Yeah. It was just . . . intense. Sex usually isn’t. For me.”
His voice was weird and sad and not exactly nice. I sat on a bench and watched him get harder and harder to see as the steam built up.
• • • •
“Would you mind heading up to the House ahead of me?” he said, finally. “I need some time to get my head together. I’ll square up things with the director and be there soon.”
“Waiting is cool.”
“No. It’s not. I need some alone time.”
“Alone time,” I smirked. “You’re a—”
“You need to get the hell back, Angel. Okay?”
Hearing the hardness in his voice, I wondered if there was a way to spontaneously stop being alive.
• • • •
“I got your cash right here,” the director said, flapping an envelope at me.
“He’ll get it,” I said, knowing it was stupid. “My boyfriend.”
“Here’s my business card. I hoped you might think about being in something of mine again sometime. Your friend’s only got a few more flicks in him. Twinks burn out fast. You, on the other hand—you’ve got something special. You could have a long career.”
“Thanks,” I said, nodding, furious, too tall, too retarded, too sensitive, hating myself the whole way down the elevator, and the whole walk to the subway, and the whole ride back to what passed for home.
When the train came above ground after 149th Street, I felt the old shudder as my cloud port clicked back into the municipal grid. Shame and anger made me brave, and I dove. I could see the car as data, saw transmissions to and from a couple dozen cell phones and tablets and biodevices, saw how the train’s forward momentum warped the information flowing in and out. Saw ten jagged blobs inside, my fellow cloudbounds. Reached out again, like I had with Case. Felt myself slip through one after another like a thread through ten needles. Tugged that thread the tiniest bit, and watched all ten bow their heads as one.
• • • •
Friday night I stayed up ’til three in the morning, waiting for Case to come knocking. I played the Skull Man level on Mega Man 2 until I could beat it without getting hit by a single enemy. I dove into the cloud, hunted down maps, opened up whole secret worlds. I fell asleep like that, and woke up wet from fevered dreams of Case.
Saturday—still no sign of him.
Sunday morning I called Guerra’s cell phone, a strict no-no on the weekends.
“This better be an emergency, Sauro,” he said.
“Did you log Case out?”
“The white boy.”
“You call me up to bother me with your business deals? No, jackass, I didn’t log him out. I haven’t seen him. Thanks for reminding me, though. I’ll phone him in as missing on Monday morning.”
But Guerra had gone.
• • • •
First thing Monday, I rode the subway into Manhattan and walked into that office like I had as much right as anyone else to occupy any square meter of space in this universe. I worried I wouldn’t be able to, without Case. I didn’t know what this new thing coming awake inside me was, but I knew it made me strong. Enough.
The porn man gave me a hundred dollars, no strings attached. Said to keep him in mind, said he had some scripts that I could “transform from low-budget bullshit into something really special.”
He was afraid of me. He was right to be afraid, but not for the reason he thought. I could clouddive and wipe Araby Studios out of existence in the time it took him to blink his eyes. I could see his fear, and I could see how he wanted me anyway for the money he could make off me. There was so much to see, once you’re ready to look for it.
Maybe I was right the first time: It had been hate that made it easy to talk to my mom. Love can make us become what we need to be, but so can hate. Case was gone, but the words kept coming. Life is nothing but acting.
• • • •
I could have:
- Given Guerra the hundred dollars to track Case down. He’d call his contacts down at the department; he’d hand me an address. Guerra would do the same job for fifty bucks, but for a hundred he’d bow and yessir like a good little lackey.
- Smiled my way into every placement house in the city, knocked on every door to every tiny room until I found him.
- Hung around outside Araby Studios, wait for him to snivel back with his latest big, dumb, dark stud. Wait in the shower until he went to wash his ass out, kick him to the floor, fuck him endlessly and extravagantly. Reach up into him, seize hold of his heart and tear it to shreds with bare bloody befouled hands.
The image of him in the shower brought me to a full and instant erection. I masturbated, hating myself, trying hard to focus on a scenario where I hurt him . . . but even in my own revenge fantasy I wanted to wrap my body around his and keep him safe.
• • • •
Afterwards I amended my revenge scenario list to include:
- Finding someone else to screw over, some googly-eyed blond boy looking to plug a hole he has inside.
- Becoming the most famous, richest, biggest gay porn star in history, traveling the world, standing naked on sharp rocks in warm oceans. Becoming what they wanted me to be, just long enough to get a paycheck. Seeing Case in the bargain bin someday; seeing him in the gutter.
- Burning down every person and institution that profited off the suffering of others.
- Becoming the kept animal of some rich, powerful queen who will parade me at fancy parties and give me anything I need as long as I do him the favor of regularly fucking him into a state of such quivering sweat-soaked helplessness that childhood trauma and white guilt and global warming all evaporate.
- Finding someone who I will never, ever, ever screw over.
Really, they were all good plans. None of it was off the table.
• • • •
Leaving the office building, I ignored all the instincts that screamed get on the subway and get the hell out of here before some cop stops you for matching a description! Standing on a street corner for no reason felt magnificent and forbidden.
I shut my eyes. Reached out into the cloud, felt myself magnified like any other signal by the wireless routers that filled the city. Found the seams of the infrastructure that kept the flow of data in place. The weak spots. The ways to snap or bend or reconstruct that flow. How to erase any and all criminal records; pay the rent for my mom and every other sad sack in the Bronx for all eternity. Divert billions in banker dividends into the debit accounts of cloudporters everywhere.
I pushed, and when nothing happened I pushed harder.
A tiny pop, and smoke trickled up from the wireless router atop the nearest lamppost. Nothing more. My whole body dripped with sweat. Some dripped into my eyes. It stung. Ten minutes had passed, and felt like five seconds. My muscles ached like after a hundred push-ups. All those things that had seemed so easy—I wasn’t strong enough to do them on my own.
Fear keeps you where you are, Case said. Finally I could see that he was right, but I could see something else that he couldn’t see. Because he thought small, and because he only thought about himself.
Fear keeps us separate.
I shut my eyes again, and reached. A ritzy part of town; hardly any cloudbounds in the immediate area. The nearest one was in a bar down the block.
“What’ll you have,” the bartender said, when I got there. He didn’t ask for ID.
“Boy on the rocks,” I said, and then kicked at the stool. “Shit. No. Scotch. Scotch on the rocks.”
“Sure,” he said.
“And for that guy,” I said, pointing down the bar to the passed-out overclocked man I had sensed from outside. “One. Thing. The same.”
I took my drink to a booth in the front, where I could see out the window. I took a sip. I reached further, eyes open this time, until I found twenty more cloudporters, some as far as fifty blocks away, and threaded us together.
The slightest additional effort, and I was everywhere. All five boroughs—thousands of cloudporters looped through me. With all of us put together I felt inches away from snapping the city in two. Again I reached out and felt for optimal fracture points. Again I pushed. Gently, this time.
An explosion, faraway but huge. Con Edison’s east side substation, I saw, in the six milliseconds before the station’s failure overloaded transmission lines and triggered a cascading failure that killed all electricity to the tri-state region.
I smiled, in the darkness, over my second sip. Within a week the power would be back on. And I—we—could get to work. Whatever that would be. Stealing money; exterminating our exploiters; leveling the playing field. Finding Case, forging a cyberterrorism manifesto, blaming the blackout on him, sending a pulse of electricity through his body precisely calibrated to paralyze him perfectly.
On my third sip I saw I still wasn’t sure I wanted to hurt him. Maybe he’d done me wrong, but so had my mom. So had lots of folks. And I wouldn’t be what I was without them.
Scotch tastes like smoke, like old men. I drank slow so I wouldn’t get too drunk. I had never walked into a bar before. I always imagined cops coming out of the corners to drag me off to jail. But that wasn’t how the world worked. Nothing was stopping me from walking into wherever I wanted to go.