The kid was a cruise, you could see it in his eyes even if you’d never seen a single film made by his diminutive action star original. Something hungry flickered there; hungry and hunted. “He’s one of those kids,” you’d say, and depending on your own particular prejudices, you’d respond with disgust, lewd intrigue, inappropriate questions.
He knew it, too. That was in the eyes as well, the weary expectation of every imaginable response, the dull rage and devastating intelligence that comes from living a life like his. His head swiveled, and he caught me staring—held my gaze from across the emptying club. His smile said come. It said I know what you want. Whatever it is, I already know. It said I will give it to you, and whatever it is it will cost you, and whatever it is it cannot hurt me.
He wasn’t Kenji. Of course I knew this. But when our eyes locked, my breath stopped.
I waved, feebly. Made my way across. Two jolies pouted as I passed them, the legendary lips of their genetic source unmistakable even in such wildly divergent bodies. Four a.m.; the house lights had come up, and I could see the scars of acne and worse. The obese one threw an ice cube at me when I politely ignored her breathy recitation of a line from one of her original’s lesser films. A kardashian cavorted in a cage overhead, all ass and dead eyes.
“Good morning,” he said, when I got to the stage. He sat at its edge, shirtless, scraping oil from modest biceps. His mother had been South Asian, I guessed, trying to separate out the standard cruise skin tone and phenotype, but I’d always been bad at that sort of thing. “Did you enjoy the show?”
“I did,” I said. “Did you?”
He snorted, dropped the filthy rag. “Let me guess. Journalist.”
“That’s right, actually,” I said, only half-lying. I wasn’t a journalist, but it was indeed the cover story I’d planned on. Behind him, a zhao and a velikovsky stared sleepily into their phones. The latter’s martial-artist original had been known to physically assault his duplicates when he encountered them. I wondered what that did to you, waiting your whole life for that particular shoe to drop.
“You’re freelance,” the cruise continued, enjoying this. “Writing on spec. No particular venue interested, you’re just . . . hoping.”
“All true,” I said.
“Hacksperm kids are still hip, you figure, so maybe this will be your big break. The gay gogo boy and sometime hustler, his sob story, his deep thoughts about his movie star spermdad and the changing nature of celebrity in America. ‘Closing Time at the Clone Kid Meat Market,’ or something fucking pretentious-but-mock-self-deprecating like that. The New Yorker will lap that shit up, you figure.”
“You’re not a kid,” I said, because he was, and if there’s one thing kids hate, it’s being called a kid.
“And you’re not gonna sell this story.” Green spotlights swept his face, then blue. “No more than the last six unemployed slobs who interviewed me did.”
“Maybe I’m a better writer than they were.”
He laughed and stood. The last of the colored lights died. “Stick a five dollar bill in my underwear, and we’ll see what happens.”
I did so, sloppily, awkwardly, embarrassed by the elastic tug of his greased waistband.
And almost passed out, from lust and sadness. Because: the smell was the same. Some intoxicating underlying pheremonic signature was identical to Kenji’s.
“Is your article really just an elaborate pickup line?” he asked, and his voice, though tough, suddenly had a fragile edge to it. “Three of those six unemployed slobs just wanted to get into my pants.”
“Your pants? Or your—” I choked on the slang term, which, like most of the slang surrounding the children born of nanoprinted celebrity DNA, was ugly “—spermdad’s pants?”
The kid shrugged. The fragile edge faded. “Whichever it was, they weren’t disappointed.”
“Everybody out,” boomed a bouncer’s voice. The kardashian came back down to earth. The jolies nocked cigarettes into the corners of their mouths and headed for the door. They moved with an eerie synchronicity, almost certainly carefully constructed to make you wonder whether it was some quirk of DNA asserting itself.
I took out my phone, started typing a message to Kife. He would have loved this place, the kind of legendary New York clonesex meat market we could only dream about in dreary Wisconsin, where the only dupe kids you saw were the ragged buskers in the shadow of the big hotels. But I stopped mid-word and put the phone away. Kife wasn’t accepting my messages anymore, and I no longer lived in Wisconsin.
“You made out all right tonight?” I asked.
“You’re not a journalist,” he said, hopping down from the stage. Shorter than me, like most cruises were, so why did I feel so witheringly diminished when he looked up into my eyes?
“What makes you say that?”
“You’d have already offered to take me out to breakfast, buy me whatever I want, I must be hungry after all that grinding, and hey do I mind if you ask me a million nosy fucking questions?”
“Maybe I just have more tact than that.”
“Now I know you’re not a journalist.”
“So?” I asked. “How about it? Breakfast?”
“Beat it, cop,” he said, eyelids tightening, shoulders braced to turn and go, and deck me if necessary.
“I’m not a cop,” I said, but that was only a half-truth too. As far as this kid was concerned, the distinction between me and a police officer would be pure semantics. “I’m writing a story, but it’s not about your sad gogo hustler life.”
He stopped, eyes still tight, lip bitten. He has his father’s charisma, I thought, and shivered at the familiarity of it. Unfortunately, his mother had bought bargain-grade genetic material, and his lower jaw sported the actor’s original teeth. Pay more and you could get all the cosmetic work preinstalled, a genome tweaked to ensure dominance of particular physical traits, an uncanny resemblance where almost none of the mother’s appearance genes would be expressed. Buy the cheap stuff, straight-up untampered-with original DNA, and you might end up getting the ears and nothing else, a child no more resembling its original than any child would look like one parent.
“I’m writing a story about underground fight rings,” I said, fishing the printout from my pocket with the subtlest flourish I could manage. “I wanted to talk to you about that.”
He gave it one quick glance, then laughed. Handed it back. “If you are a cop, you know I won’t help you find the guys who organize it. I can’t. Even if I knew how to find them, they’d—”
“I know,” I said. “And I’m still not a cop. And I want to talk to the guys who fight, not the ones who profit.” My throat hurt. It had hurt since I typed the first three letters of Kife’s name, and then remembered that he hated me. It hurt harder, now, catching sight of the two men in the printout. A screen grab, from an illegal movie. Available for purchase online. Heavily pirated. Cruise Fight, it was called. The kind of thing we keep track of, at work. Two clone kids in the ring, very very similar and very very different, beating the bloody hell out of each other. My new friend was one of the boys. “Let’s get a drink,” I whispered, and somehow he heard me.
“Rye whiskey,” I said. “A double.”
His eyebrow rose. “Manly drink, that. Apple martini, Ive.”
Apple. The word tasted cool and free and menacing. Sweet like late October weather, with a rough winter ahead. My throat hurt worse. “Apple martinis always been your drink?”
“Only lately,” he said. “And you? Always rye?”
“I’m Gage,” he said.
“Thatch,” I said. We shook. His hands were still oily. He smirked at my mild recoil. I downed my whiskey in one fast hard swallow, and my throat hurt less.
“Let me guess,” Gage said. “You used to know someone. One of me.”
I nodded, then tilted my head to equivocate. “There’s only one of you. I just used to know someone else who shared your demigenotype.”
“You’re so politically correct about it,” he said. “I bet you’re one of those people who hate to say the word hacksperm.”
I nodded. I needed more rye. I needed all the rye.
“Whoever he is, or was, I’m not him.”
“I know that.”
He sipped his drink, and I saw something, a quick skitter across his face, swiftly erased. Something sad and angry. Something that had spent its whole life knowing that everyone around him expected him to be someone he wasn’t.
Something I’d seen in Kenji’s face. Was it genetic, or a conditioned response to societal oppression?
I wanted to hug this kid, this stranger. I wanted to cry.
“How’d you get involved in the fights?” I asked.
“Let’s walk,” he said and asked the bartender to assemble two tall, plastic take-out cups for us to leave well-stocked with our chosen beverages.
I followed Gage out. He started six months back, arriving in the city with nothing but the bla bla bla. I stared at the flyer photo until my throat hurt again, then gulped whiskey. Kife would be disappointed in me, I thought, and so gulped more. Kife was an actual journalist. Kife would know how to get what he wanted out of this kid.
In the flyer, Gage was facing the camera, in focus. His opponent was in the foreground, blurry with motion, showing little more than one bare shoulder with a blurry tattoo that could have been anything, including the whale that I thought it was, the thing that had started me on this stupid quest.
“Y’know?” Gage asked, and I said I did, although I hadn’t been listening. Gage’s story mattered to no one but him, and anyway it wasn’t Gage I was after.
• • • •
Shrinks always start with my first memory. I know it’s what they’re programmed to do, and probably mine holds some key to some central aspect of my self. But if you want to really get to the heart of the matter, of who I am and why I’ve made the choices I’ve made, the memory to start with is this one.
Ten-year-old Thatch has just failed, spectacularly, at some Little League task he barely understood and now cannot remember. A pop fly that any infant could have caught, perhaps, or a lapse in focus that let another boy steal a base. Ten-year-old Thatch is roundly insulted by coach and teammates and members of the opposing team alike. Weeping, ten-year-old Thatch retreats to the chain link fence at the edge of the field, as close as he can come to fleeing into the woods and forsaking human society forever.
“They’re stupid,” said a boy who had suddenly appeared across the fence, on a bike made more of rust than metal. “Baseball is stupid.”
Baseball is stupid. He might as well have said the Moon is square, or Jesus is a bitch. A bizarre statement, incomprehensible and forbidden, revealing its utterer as some strange feral creature foreign to all notions of manly decency.
Except, of course, it was true. And I’d always known it was true, and I’d never dared say it out loud, because such things aren’t said, because to say it would break my father’s heart and cost me all my friends. I’d remember that statement years later, drinking beer at a party and thinking to myself wow beer tastes disgusting and drinking more of it, because that’s what we were supposed to do: keep from saying the thing we all knew was true.
This boy said it. This boy who would become my world, my best friend, my idol—with all the problematic freight that final word implies. My first, unrequitable, love. This boy was Kenji.
Well, he wasn’t Kenji then. His name was Rick, but he despised Rick. It never fit him, and when he announced at thirteen that he was hereafter to be known as Kenji, I knew that he would never waver from that decision. Kenji never wavered from anything. His beliefs and opinions were unorthodox and absolute, his singular way of seeing the world compelling and bewildering to everyone else.
Everyone, I think, has a friend like Kenji. The person you bond with so tightly that friendship ceases to be a helpful word. Even a sibling is an inadequate comparison, because siblings shape each other in antagonistic ways, sprouting opposing character traits as divergent strategies for parental attention. No, I mean the friend with whom you make so many of your formative mistakes; the sounding board for your fledgling philosophies and passions. The person with whom you tiptoe from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, who shapes who you are in ways too varied and fundamental to ever be properly cataloged.
The first stories started circulating before we were born, back around 2021. Children made from nanoprinted sperm, containing stolen DNA. Infants on the news with uncanny resemblances to celebrities. Lawsuits, arrests, complicated legal cases that climbed to ever-higher courts. By the time we were fifteen, it was a given, part of our world, subject of jokes on cartoons and urban legends and cruel schoolyard gossip. One night after one of our forbidden full-darkness bike rides, I said goodbye to Kenji and walked through the front door, my whole body burning with the joy of being in this body, poised at the brink of this wonderful terrifying world, my head spinning with the happiness of having Kenji to lead me into the darkness.
My mother was waiting for me. I thought we were busted for the bike ride; I readied my excuses and steadied myself for her punishing disappointment. Instead she showed me photos on her phone, switching back and forth between images of Kenji and images of his movie star spermdad. Explaining to me what he was. What was obvious to everyone but me, because everyone else could be objective about Kenji. “It’s not a bad thing,” she said, “but you need to know.”
I told her to shut up. I ran to my room.
I knew she was right. And in a way it helped. Because it might explain the thing I noticed a dozen times a day, the cold knowledge I could no longer ignore: that something was very, very wrong with Kenji.
• • • •
“Here’s where I have to blindfold you,” Gage said, stopping at a DON’ T WALK sign. A highway buzzed and honked in front of us, choked with traffic. Past that, lights rippled on the surface of a river. I scanned his face, realized I did not trust him, realized he was my only option.
“Okay,” I said.
“Wait, for real?” Gage cackled. It was a pleasant, youthful sound. “Nah, son. It’s a joke. I’m not taking you anywhere. I just need to walk, you know?”
“Of course,” I said. And I was drunk enough to say, “Did you ever ask your mom why?”
“It was a present,” he said. His patience for the inappropriate intimate questions of strangers was infinite. “Her friends knew she was crazy about that guy. They pooled their money, bought her a tube of prime-grade cruise from a Thai website. She only used it as a joke, really. Didn’t think it would work. And when it did—and when she got the amnio DNA sequence to prove it was genuine—she couldn’t very well get rid of it.”
I made eye contact with a boy in a taxi, staring out the open window while two friends talked animatedly beside him. He smiled, faintly, probably not at me, but the hurt of it still made my throat close up enough to require liberal application of medicinal whiskey.
“You’re still drinking that?” Gage asked. “You trying to get arrested for open container? Although I guess they’d just give you a ticket.” He saw my confusion, rolled his eyes. Added: “Because you’re white.”
We weaved between the stopped cars, some of whom honked at us just because. Gage gave them all the finger, both fingers, arms up and wide and spinning in a circle to tell the whole fucking city to fuck off.
I opened my mouth, then shut it. Every sentence could be the one that shut this down. Every question ran the risk of burning the only bridge I had.
What would I want, if I was him? What bribery, what flattery, what promise would get him to help me? And yet every time I thought of something—he’s hungry for money, for spiritual answers, for the blood of his enemies—I realized it was someone else I was imagining.
“You’re not worried about getting hurt? In those fights?”
“No,” he said, smiling slightly. “I don’t fight just anyone. Some of those guys are out to kill. There’s a brisk market in hacksperm snuff flicks, in case you’re not aware. Maybe that’s the story you should write, instead. If you care so much about the plight of us poor benighted clone kids. Do something about that.”
“Do you know him?” I asked, my voice so fragile a strong breeze could break it. “The boy you fought?”
“Yeah,” Gage said, arriving at the railing, looking out at the river. “I know him.”
His opponent was a cruise like Gage, his skin only slightly lighter. I’d watched the whole fight only half-convinced. The resemblance was certainly uncanny, but with demigenotypical duplicates it was so hard to be sure.
And then the credits rolled, and I saw that Derrick Neptune was the name he fought under.
Neptune was the name of the street I grew up on. Derrick was the twisty dead-end road three streets over, where Kenji lived.
• • • •
Here’s why I’m a cop, as far as Gage was concerned, even though I’m not. Here, also, as a slight detour, which hopefully won’t turn out to be a detour at all but rather a better way of getting where I’m going, is how I met Kife.
I think I knew what I wanted to do for a living, even before I knew it was a thing. By nineteen, my need to understand the phenomenon had evolved into the resolve to do something about it. In college I’d studied technological forensics, a double major with molecular biology and a minor in nanomedical science. I got the job before I even graduated and started five days after collecting my diploma. The joint task force between the FBI and the Department of Health and Human Services had only recently evolved into its own federal agency and was hungry for staff. My job started out focused on finding and shutting down facilities engaged in the production or distribution of unlicensed DNA material but quickly expanded to include all the new ways people were making money at this game. The graverobbers who dug up the DNA of dead celebrities; the femmes/hommes fatales who seduced movie stars for a spoonful of highly profitable ejaculate; the software engineers who sold hacks to the nanoprinters to control for X or Y chromosome expression (lest you end up with female versions of male stars . . . though the reverse was not a risk, since women had no troublesome Y chromosomes to express).
I was one of five dozen inspectors for the whole country, and we were not enough. We tracked the sale and movement of every nanocapable 3D printing device, every vendor who sold transdermal testicular patches. We hacked their logs and showed up unscheduled to inspect them in person. We scoured the internet’s darkest corners for people selling or soliciting stolen sperm. Our software scanned the details of every single same-day shipment of biomedical material, burrowed into the email accounts of buyer and seller, alerted a human of any red flags. We ran stings. We sent in moles. We did not make any arrests ourselves, but we got a lot of people arrested.
So I’m a government flunky. A technocrat. I’m not a cop. But I might as well be.
A television journalist approached my boss, looking to interview one of us. The Supreme Court had just agreed to hear the case that challenged the legislative package Congress concocted to combat illegal genoduplication. If the court ruled the law unconstitutional, we’d lose more than half the tools in our tool kit and almost all of our funding. It was a measure of governmental panic that my boss agreed to let the journalist interview one of the myth-draped “hacksperm hunters.”
The hunter was me. The journalist was Kife.
Long after, on an anniversary, Kife told me he believed my boss had done a deep Homeland Security invasion of his privacy to look at photos of the last five men he’d dated, and deduced Kife’s type, and set up an interview for him with the one who came closest. Meaning, me.
“I wouldn’t put it past her,” I had said. “Thank god it worked.”
Not with the court case—the Supremes struck down several key pieces of the law, though not enough to put us out of business all the way. It worked in the sense that Kife and I dated for four years. Four happy years, I’d thought, though evidently the happiness was not symmetrical.
“What was it?” I asked, that anniversary dinner, which I didn’t know then would be our last one. “Why’d you ask me out, when the interviews were over? Couldn’t just have been my belonging to the chubby, bearded-dude category you so clearly love.”
“No,” he said, suddenly unsmiling. “You remember the last question I asked you, at our first interview?”
“No,” I said, remembering it perfectly.
“I asked you why you cared. Why hacksperm kids? Why pick that field over all others? You did this thing, where you bit your bottom lip and smiled slightly. I found it adorable. You told me you didn’t know, it was just something that had always fascinated you.”
I didn’t say a word. I took a sip of my drink, maybe many.
“The thing is, back then? I thought the bottom-lip-bite smile was the tell for when there was a longer story, something you wanted to save for later, something for off the record. Now I know it’s what you do before you tell a lie.”
• • • •
Gage took his shirt off, twirled it over his head. Flung it into the Hudson.
“Don’t look so shocked,” he told me. “That shirt wasn’t mine. Nothing is mine.”
The river breeze wafted his body odor over to me. I wanted to grab him, hug him, never let him go. Because there he was, Kenji, the smell of him unmistakable under the odors of edible glitter and apple martini and the saliva of strangers who licked him as he danced.
“I used to do porn,” he said. “Fighting doesn’t pay as well, and obviously it’s way less healthy. But my boyfriend didn’t want me screwing strangers anymore.”
“Only fighting them?”
Gage laughed. “Stupid, I know. But love means making the dumb choice, when it’s what the other person wants.”
The journalist cover story had been stupid. I should have gone with my backup plan, of stalking Gage from a distance, following him around in the hopes he might lead me to the fighting ring that would lead me to Kenji. Now I was at the mercy of this unbalanced, underslept soul. I followed him east, back into the city.
“At least you get to choose your fighting opponent,” I said. “Why’d you choose that one . . . Derrick something?”
“Because I knew I could beat him. I could see right away that he didn’t have much fight in him.”
For several blocks, we didn’t say a word. Forty-second Street grew up around us. By then the rye had settled into my bones. My limbs felt whiskey-heavy and fearless.
“I’d like to interview some other fighters,” I said, surprising myself, alcohol and eagerness making me play the last card without meaning to. “Do you know how to get in touch with that guy you fought?”
Something snapped in Gage, but there was no way of knowing what. He stopped walking, stared at me for a minute, took out his cell phone. Typed.
I didn’t say anything. I barely breathed. Was he checking his social media notifications, calling in the armed assassins? Had I pushed it too far, burned the only bridge that might take me to Kenji?
“Sure,” Gage said, eventually. “Yeah, maybe. Give me your cell phone number. I might see him later this week. Party some people we both know are throwing. If I see him, or anybody else involved in the fights, I’ll have him call you. That cool? You’ll be in New York for a while?”
“Yeah.” I said. It was good news, but not the best news. Maybe Gage meant to walk away and forget the whole conversation, or maybe he’d never see Derrick Neptune again. Maybe my only chance would slip through my fingers. I opened my mouth to tell him everything, to beg, Please, I really need to get in touch with him, okay, I’m not a journalist, you were right, he’s my friend, my soul mate, and I’ve been looking for him for years, my whole life pretty much, I—
Panic was the easy answer. Usually I went with the easy answer. How much of my life had I spent on autopilot? I always told myself that my job depended on trusting my gut, that the emotional well-being of thousands of poor, unfortunate clone kid souls hinged on whether or not I acted swiftly to capture evildoers. But acting swiftly was its own form of cowardice, its own way of abdicating agency. This time I didn’t. Instead I shut my mouth, gave Gage my number, thanked him, turned to go.
• • • •
In the beginning, you needed blood.
My voice, over archival footage. I sound smart and intense, which isn’t what I am. It’s what Kife drew out of me.
Or flesh or hair or actual sperm. Back then “DNA printing” was really just DNA sorting, affixing DNA strands to a glass plate and growing them base pair by base pair, making many thousands of copies, most of them flawed, then scanning every sequence and zapping away the worthless ones.
Loving lingering shots of technology in action; computer animations illustrating what I said. Kife’s cable news program had the very best of budgets.
But DNA sequencing costs vanished down the long tail of Moore’s Law’s exponential curve, and DNA synthesis costs followed soon enough. Five years in and hacksperm paparazzi were scraping the rims of wine glasses left behind at Melisse, finding miniscule shreds of lip skin to bring to lab partners who could scan and synthesize the whole genome in six hours of supercomputer time, handing over a test tube full of pluripotent stem cells.
Reenactments; artful black-and-white slowmo showing step by step how to make a vial of black market celebrity DNA.
Transdermal patches, placed on the scrotum, released a viral vector to carry the DNA into the seminal vesicles, infect the host sperm, denature their own DNA, inject the hacksperm DNA. Thirty-six hours later, and for the next five months, the host’s sperm would carry none of his own genetic material.
Kife, now. On screen, all business. Dressed like a war photographer from World War Two, and somehow all the more beautiful for it. Deep brown skin and bald head. In Bulgaria, outside a famous medical facility that manufactured thirty percent of the illegal genetic material shipped to the USA. Look at him on the screen and you’d think he was uncrackable, unfailingly ferocious. You could never imagine how giggly-happy he could get over video games, or how emotional during an argument over the plot points of reality LARP shows.
Men downloaded the digital instructions for celebrity stem cells, sent them to bio-synth labs in countries with less restrictive laws, got a patch in the mail. One week later they were producing seminal fluid to sell for big bucks to black market sperm banks. Would-be single moms and lesbian couples and infertile heterosexual partners could buy the most beautiful babies imaginable. The proxy semen of Oscar winners and presidents and Olympic medalists sold on the internet for a couple hundred bucks a wad plus next-day shipping.
A photo flashed on-screen. A five-year-old, smiling devilishly, not at all different from any other five-year-old.
“Gary Bradshaw,” Kife said. “Clone kid Patient Zero. A scam, and a smart one. Made from the DNA of a notorious Hollywood A-list scoundrel, someone well-known for sleeping around. When Gary Bradshaw’s mother sued the actor for child support, and a court-ordered DNA test confirmed that they were related, no one dug any deeper than that. The fact that the actor swore he’d never met the woman was not taken seriously by too many people, and the woman got millions in ongoing child support.”
Another photo. Another kid. This one wasn’t smiling.
“After Gary Bradshaw, there were several other similar cases. But Tripp Burch was where the whole sordid story came to light. Because Tripp’s biological original was a born-again Christian, his indignation matched the resources he had to fight back against the strange woman who claimed she’d had a son by him. He hired a team of private detectives, hacked her email, tracked down the people who’d been involved in stealing and synthesizing his DNA, paid a whole lot of them very well to agree to tell their stories to the world. And from there . . .”
We were obsessed, Kife and I. Fascinated, full of trivia, tracking down every clone kid reality show and indie documentary and pathetic interview that saw the light of day.
• • • •
Kenji’s madness was why I loved him. But back then I didn’t know it was madness. I only knew Kenji was unique, Kenji was magnificent, Kenji’s mind worked in ways mere mortals could never match.
At twelve, he told our principal to “fuck off.” Also he bought cocaine and used it. He tracked down every horror movie ever made, no matter the nightmares they never failed to give him. At thirteen, he got a crude tattoo: a whale, on his shoulder. He did not grow out of temper tantrums, and they grew more epic and violent as his mind became more formidable, more terrifying.
His clothes, garishly oversized and mismatched and all wrong for whatever the weather was, announced his madness to the world—but to me it was merely one more symptom of his chaotic ungovernable creativity.
At fourteen, Kenji broke every window in the home of a girl we went to school with. She was away, on vacation, and when we set out on our bikes that day, he hadn’t told me where we were going or why.
I’d cried, that night, at home, long after, feeling so bad about what we’d done, how scared she’d be when she got home, how they’d never feel quite so safe in their home again, always wondering who had done it and why and whether or when they’d come back.
For a week, I hid from Kenji. That’s how long it took me to rationalize the act, without even thinking about it, to reconstruct the story in my mind until his fit of childish anger became something more, something beautiful, something emblematic of his fierce and righteous anger at the world.
I wanted so badly for Kenji not to be responsible for his actions.
His mother tried, god bless her heart. Like a lot of clone kids, he’d been put up for adoption, and the couple that took him in split up soon after. Kenji was fifteen the first time a doctor said schizophrenia, and in the following year, three more would echo that verdict.
I watched Kenji struggle. I watched him hurt himself. I watched him hurt others, including me. But I never lost my initial awe over him. Or my lust. My love. Or my conviction that he was somehow different, somehow better than me or anyone else I knew. I never truly got mad at Kenji, not even when he got drunk and stole my shitty car and crashed it.
Because, I told myself, it wasn’t his fault. He was a victim. Bad people had made him. Which is how I dedicated my life to stopping people from damning more children to Kenji’s special brand of hell.
I’d been making myth of Kenji for as long as I had known him.
• • • •
I gave Gage a half-a-block head start. I stared into my phone so the three times he turned to look behind him, he’d know he wasn’t being followed. Then I followed him.
Drunken Times Square pedestrians weaved laughing around me. It was idiotic, this act, this doomed pursuit that could never take me where I wanted to go. And yet its very lack of logic was what propelled me, made me smile to myself, made me dodge panhandlers as adeptly as any New York City native, like this way might lie escape, like this was how I’d get out from under the weight of . . . what? Logic had governed all my decisions, and logic had gotten me nowhere.
• • • •
“I think the so-called ‘death of celebrity’ has been grossly exaggerated,” said the unemployed former host of a tabloid talk show. “If there’s a declining audience for gossip blogs and magazines, it’s for a lot of reasons. New technologies, changes to online media consumption since the Multifurcation and the Cybernuke strikes, film and TV production shifts in response to coastal depopulation . . . and anyway, we’ve seen these fluctuations in the past. It’s how the business goes. We need celebrities. And we’re already finding new ones! Cyberwar veterans. The ‘celebrity ambassador’ trend. People who say the clone kids have ‘forever tarnished our idea of celebrity’ don’t know what they’re talking about. “
Kife let the quote run longer than he should have, because he found the guy so marvelously infuriating, because the desperate edge to his cheery blather proved he was lying far more effectively than any expert counterpoint ever could.
“He’s let himself go,” I said, sitting down beside him while he edited the segment. His sixth story on the subject; by then I had long since ceased to be a source, and we were living together.
I hadn’t had a drink in six months.
“His mouth says he’ll have his job back,” Kife said, “but his waistline knows that’s never going to happen.”
I giggled, got down off the couch, and curled up on the floor beside him. He slid a hand between my legs for warmth. The physicality of our relationship felt frightening at times, our sex so extravagant I worried there wasn’t enough underneath it.
“That’s why I got into this,” he said. His eyes were on the screen, but I could tell his full attention was on me. On what he needed to tell me. “My mother was obsessed with celebrity culture. Obsessed. Bought all the tabloids, subscribed to all the blogs.”
On-screen Kife, seated opposite the fattening former host, dressed like a journalist shark, terrifying when he wanted to be, as he did, going in for the kill:
“This quote is from Keziah Ambhore,” he said. “‘The clone kids phenomenon represents the final, poisoned bloom of celebrity culture, the straw that broke the back of the industry built on obsessing over strangers, the Rock Bottom of our addiction. Our collective hangover. The moment we woke up and looked in the mirror and saw in our newfound vomit-flecked pallor that Something Had To Change.’ What do you say to that?”
The poor sap’s mouth opened and closed, several times. “I’d say she missed her calling, as she’s clearly a better fiction writer than a fashion magazine editor.”
Real-life Kife shut his screen, turned to me. “When I was nine, my mom got drunk and told me about how before I was born she bought hacksperm off the internet. A rock star, some guy with big lips and a weird face who everyone thought was hot for some reason. Paid five hundred dollars for it, and the shipment never showed up. They said they’d been shut down by the government, but I think she just got ripped off. Anyway, that’s how I found out that her normal son was my mother giving up on her dreams.”
“Oh, baby,” I said and kissed his forehead. Precisely as he’d planned. Both hands shot up, grabbed hold of my ears.
“So I ask you, yet again. Why this? Why dedicate your life to this subject?”
I almost bit my lip and smiled, which might have forced him to slaughter me then and there.
“What, I can’t just be interested in it? It’s fascinating—”
“Lots of people are. But you’re not. There’s a personal stake in this for you, and the fact that you won’t tell me what it is makes me think you’re hiding something. Like, to the point where I’m not sure what I can trust about you.”
I nodded. I wanted to say he was being ridiculous, but I knew he wasn’t. It was a small thing, but it was the biggest thing.
My mouth was full of Kenji. I had only to open it and out he would come, all sour frowns and rare brilliant smiles. But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t let him out. I couldn’t give Kife even a little, the trimmed-down story, “oh, I had a friend once,” etc. Not without some fundamental dishonesty somewhere. How could I tell him truthfully what he was to me, how many life decisions I’d made because of him, when I wasn’t even sure myself?
And now, looking Kife in the eye, I saw the shadow Kenji had cast across my life, the thousand ways I’d spent my life trying to honor the boy I’d lost at seventeen. And I was ashamed. To be so weak; to see how much of me was not my own.
So all I could do was smile at Kife and say, “I give you your secrets. Please let me have mine.”
And when, six months later, he broke up with me, I was neither angry nor surprised. The rage I flew into came from somewhere else; the expensive things I broke and the cheap things I said belonged to someone other than me.
• • • •
I wasn’t worried, when Gage descended to the subway. Of course I’d risk exposure, waiting on the platform with him. But what was the worst that could happen, even if he caught me? Gage couldn’t hurt me. And since I was pretty convinced this pursuit couldn’t actually get me anywhere, if it was foiled, I’d be fine.
Was this freedom? Progress? Belated maturity? Or just the alcohol?
The platform was nowhere near as empty as I’d feared. Gage barely looked up, rarely looked around. I got on a downtown-bound A train in the next car from his, watched him from the little window between cars. At Fourteenth Street, he transferred, along with a scraggly crew of late-night partiers returning to their Brooklyn nests, a flock I fit right in on the fringe of, one more drunk, bearded, red-eyed idiot whose life was rapidly losing all meaning.
• • • •
Lots of people fight who they are, and Kenji had more to fight than most. There was the fact that he was adopted, with all the abandonment anxiety and Who-Am-I-Really doubt that can accompany that. There was his status as an abomination, an emblem of vanity and hubris and soulless scientific immorality and shallow greedy American emptiness.
To say nothing of his madness.
Any one of these things would be enough to break a normal man, but added up, they broke Kenji many times over.
It hurt, watching him through our final years together. The lengths he went to, to deny these essential facts of his identity, ranged from embarrassing to infuriating. But I loved him. And one day we’d be together. Our stories were inseparable, I thought.
The apple orchard was where I saw how wildly Kenji’s life path would diverge from mine.
Midnight; October; age eighteen. One of our forbidden late-night bike rides that would never really come to an end, it’s just that I had limits, and he did not. I’d turn around at eleven p.m., and he’d keep biking, some nights all the way to where the commuter rail waited to take him into the city. In the morning I’d be well rested, and he’d be washing the gutter out of his mouth at an open fire hydrant while cops and celebrity organ pirates and hate crime committers watched from the shadows.
“Thatch!” he hollers, from the darkness behind me, and I stop, dreading that shout, which only comes when he wants to explore an abandoned house or steal something from someone’s porch.
“Apple orchard!” he says, so excited I can hear the ten-year-old Kenji in there.
We wiggle between taut lengths of barbed wire. We stand beneath a tree, her limbs heavy with fruit. We laugh. We are children.
We steal fruit. We stuff our jacket pockets with the stuff. How have we never done this before? How are there any adventures left to have, in this small, shitty wisp of a town?
We climb to the top of the hill, we look at the stars, we look at the lights of distant homes. The world is cold and dark, but I can feel his heat beside me. We talk, though this time Kenji’s rambling cavalcade of Crazy Ideas and Flashes of Genius and Utter Gibberish is strangely shortened.
Maybe he feels it too, I thought, then. Maybe this is the moment when he’ll finally turn to me and see how I really feel about him, and we kiss, and everything is perfect forever.
I remember every word of what I said. I spent weeks weighing them, holding each one up to the light to look for malice or ignorance or anything that could have justified what happened.
The most innocuous of comments. It is dark and his eyes are made of stars, and I say, “You could be in pictures.”
“What did you say?” he asks.
“What? I just—”
Kenji punches me. In the side of the head. Hard. So hard, and so unexpectedly, that I fall to the ground.
“You fuck,” he says-screams. And then Kenji is crying.
“Hey, no,” I say, looking up at him. He is a man-shaped patch of darkness, interrupting the stars. I grab his leg. It’s not me he’s mad at, I tell myself. “It’s okay. No hard—”
“I feel,” he says, and then convulses.
I wait. I stand up.
“I feel so . . .”
I never learn how Kenji feels. I put a hand on his shoulder, and he flinches, says, “Leave me the fuck alone, Thatch.”
I say nothing. I stand there, eating stolen fruit. Until, eventually: “We should go.”
“You can go if you want to,” he says. “I’m going to spend the night here. Maybe a couple of nights.”
Kenji drops out of high school two weeks later and runs away within the month.
• • • •
Following Gage took me to the saddest tenement I’d ever seen. Windows were uncurtained, or draped in dirty sheets. Garbage bags had been piled up behind a gate, their bottoms gnawed open by rats. Broken glass sparkled. Brick walls seemed to sag, though surely that wasn’t possible. I remembered Kenji’s house, growing up, how small and sad and unclean it was, how much it had unsettled me to think of people living like that. The tenement unsettled me in much the same way.
It had been a long walk from the subway, enough blocks for me to start to come to my senses, see how stupid what I was doing was. Once Gage had gone inside, I climbed two steps and sat down on the stoop.
“Ever wanted to be with a marilyn?” asked a voice from a window.
“Never,” I said, to the voluptuous woman leaning out in my direction, who might fool someone with that line about being a marilyn but wasn’t fooling me.
She sniffed, slid back inside. Across the street, a bum threw bottles against the metal grate of a shutdown storefront.
• • • •
“He was my best friend,” I told Kife, after the long silence, after he told me everything. Once I knew it was over, saw it in his eyes, the emptiness there, the fact that he no longer loved me. Once saying it wouldn’t matter. “He was my best friend, and I was in love with him, and I couldn’t help him. He was fractured in so many places I didn’t know which one to fix first. And in the end I let him go, because holding on hurt too much. And everything else has been a coward’s way of fighting the easier fight, because, I thought, maybe I can’t help him, but maybe I can help others, save some clone kids from being made, minimize the misery . . .”
I trailed off. I stared into his eyes.
I wanted wisdom, insight, devastating journalistic analysis. I wanted him to pierce through the rest of the way, connect the dots I couldn’t connect, dig up the skeletons I didn’t even remember burying. I wanted Kife to solve my problems for me, but I wasn’t Kife’s problem anymore.
• • • •
How dumb I was. I should have called it in as soon as I saw Gage strutting on a go-go platform. The fight had been illegal, making it for the camera made the crime worse. My colleagues in actual law enforcement could totally have taken him in for questioning, threatened him with arrest, gotten Kenji’s whereabouts out of him a hell of a lot more efficiently than I ever could.
I got up off the freezing stoop.
I owed Gage nothing. As a rule, I tried not to get the cops called on clone kids, knowing their biases; knowing, better than most, the monthly stats on dupes who’d been beaten or worse by law enforcement, the fact that for every one hundred incidents of violence by a police officer against demigenotypically identical individuals, only two were ever even charged with a crime. But Gage had taken money to beat the shit out of my best friend, and it would not be the first time my knee-jerk belief that all clone kids are blameless victims ended up costing me a case.
He’d been easy to find. Desperation makes you take dumb chances, because not taking them is slightly dumber. “Derrick Neptune” was a dead end, a one-off nom-de-guerre, but “Gage Wilde” was also the name Gage had shot porn under, the same name he danced and did private parties with. “Gage Wilde” had a website and a list of current bookings. A link to a profile on an escort site, where his services could be engaged.
I took out my phone. I called it in. And afterward I felt even less capable of doing anything that could make a difference to anything ever. And by then I was out of rye.
• • • •
The bottle-smashing bum was crossing the street now, coming in my direction, breaking bottles all the way. I started moving in the opposite direction, slowly so it wouldn’t look like I was trying to get away from him. Crazy people can get awful touchy if they think you think they’re crazy. I’d talked to more than my fair share of them when I took Psychology of Demigenotypically Identical Individuals, which involved a whole lot of interviewing institutionalized subjects.
There were a lot of institutionalized subjects.
People think the internet has made it easier to track someone down when you need to, but that’s a false sense of security. Someone who doesn’t want to be found can still stay hidden, social media be damned. I tried, for a while, to stay in touch with Kenji. I’d write long emails, remind him of my phone number, visit his online identities. His posts stayed unpopulated, his statuses unupdated.
My phone rang: the cops, following up on the Gage lead I’d given them.
“That’s right,” I said, again and again, drearily affirming every individual aspect of the report I’d filed.
“Gage Wilde,” I said. “I don’t remember the name of the club. It’s in my report. Some clone kid meat market. YOU HAVE AN APP FOR THIS.” I looked up at the tenement. “You got the address I sent?”
The rhythm of the bottle-breaking broke. I looked up, saw the bum with arm raised, frozen in the instant before hurling it to the ground.
He was so close he could hear me. So close I could make eye contact; see, first, what he was, and then, instants later, past the grime of what was now clearly a well-contrived costume, who he was.
“Kenji,” I whispered.
He hurled the bottle at me. Maybe I could have side-stepped it, ducked, something, but I didn’t want to, and anyway I was obviously half-dreaming already when it struck me in the head and knocked me out of what little was left of consciousness.
Eventually my eyes opened. I was sprawled on the stoop. Kenji sat beside me, head in his hands.
“What have you done,” he said, when he heard me groan, his voice shaking, the temper-tantrum undertone unchanged in all the time we’d been apart.
“I didn’t do anything,” I said. “I would never do anything to hurt you.”
Kenji laughed. “People like you always say that. I would never do anything to hurt you, I’m trying to help you, when you don’t have the slightest idea what kind of harm your help is doing.”
People like you.
“Sit up,” Kenji hissed and kicked me in the side, but it didn’t hurt half as much as the look in his eyes when he lumped me together with them. The politicians who’d passed anti-dupe-kid laws, like how in six states moms of hacksperm kids could be arrested for identity theft or invasion of privacy, and in twelve more demigenotypically identical individuals weren’t eligible for food stamps. The judges who’d thrown out cases of violence against dupes because their “status as legally distinct persons was not yet firmly established.” The people who beat and bashed them; the people who profited off their desperation.
He kicked me again.
But I love you, I wanted to say. How can I be one of them if you’re the person I care most about? In the world?
• • • •
Gage came outside, stood on the sidewalk in front of us. In the thickening sunlight, I could see how young he was, easily ten years younger than Kenji and I.
Kenji stood. They stood together, in front of me, two cruises, the similarities as unsettling as the differences. Gage was darker, shorter, his eyes more alive and open. Beaten and battered by the world, but not so badly.
“All packed,” Gage said with hollow cheer.
Kenji’s features crumpled, then, just a little, the face of a man who has lost everything, and not for the first time. Gage touched his hand to Kenji’s shoulder. Kenji’s hand moved to grasp it, and I understood everything.
They were not enemies, not the desperate dupes I’d been imagining, starving outlaws who’d beat each other up for a quick buck. They were in love, and their love was more open and honest and raw and terrifying than anything Kife and I had ever been able to muster. A love so fearless it let them punch each other in the face for money.
“Why’d you have to do that?” Kenji said to me. “Why’d you have to call the cops on us?”
“I thought you were in trouble. I thought you’d gotten in over your head, you might get hurt—”
“You people,” he said.
“Come on, Kenji,” I whispered, but he said nothing.
I looked at him. Scoured his face. Searched for hate—he’d be justified in hating me, after I had effortlessly upended his life—but there wasn’t any there. Instead I found, under a sordid slag heap of disillusionment and rage, the boy I knew. The boy I’d always known.
Poor Kenji, I thought. Poor Gage. They didn’t deserve the shitty life they got. None of them did.
And there I was again, pitying him, pitying all of them.
Gage had produced a hacky sack from one of the many pockets sewed haphazardly up and down his pants. He kicked it absentmindedly, effortlessly, grinning like a child every time he scored a satisfying shot.
You want to save them, I thought. But they don’t need saving.
A wobbly kick, and the sack went flying. Gage ran after it, laughing. Was it idiocy or brave wisdom that let someone play hacky sack while the cops were on their way?
Kenji was right. I was one of those people. For all my well-meaning concern, all my hatred of the forces of evil arrayed against Kenji and his kind, I had made the same mistake. Done the same damage. Believing someone is more than human is not so different from believing they’re less than human. Both dehumanize. You could love someone while your own beliefs and biases twist and tangle the bond between you. Still harm them, even when you’re trying to help them.
I had to tear my eyes away from his.
“I recognized you right away,” Gage said. “Kenji talks about you all the time. We totally stalk you on social media.”
“That’s how you knew I wasn’t a journalist,” I said.
Gage laughed. “Please. You look so much like an undercover it isn’t even funny.”
“I missed you, brother,” Kenji said. His anger was abating. Gage stopped hacky sacking; stood beside him. His impact on Kenji was immediate.
“I missed you, too,” I said.
I looked at Kenji. Really looked at him. Let go of the dreams I’d had, about this moment, the kiss we’d share, the falling-away of everything that had come between us. Let go of everything I knew about him, all the stories I’d been telling myself for so long.
• • • •
Kenji stared back. We didn’t blink, we didn’t look away.
Who knew what he saw, when he stared into my eyes, if he saw anything at all. If he grasped, all at once, with the superhuman insight I’d always (erroneously?) attributed to him, that in that precise instance I’d finally cut myself clear of him. That whatever twisted course my life had followed through his shadow, I was out of it now. And if he did see it, who knew whether he cared, whether that was why his face reddened and then crumpled.
Whether that was because he had cut himself clear of me, too.
I’d always interpreted his failure to respond to my messages as evidence that I meant nothing to him, but that was mostly melodrama. For Kenji, I embodied a truly miserable part of his life, and I understood why he’d want to hide from that. Maybe, now, for the first time, he could see me as a mere mortal as well. Maybe we’d both be better off in a world without the weight of the other.
“We should go,” Gage said, cutting short further reminiscence. “Cops usually take forever around here, but they could show up any time.”
“Yeah,” Kenji said.
He would keep it to himself—whatever he found when he looked in my eyes. Who knew what his life would be like, now. What would be different. What mine would be like. How our lives would be harder, with their most fundamental underpinnings swept away, and how they would be easier. I watched them walk away, hands clasped. The world had done its best to break him, but it hadn’t been able to. He’d found something for himself that I hadn’t found, maybe never would.
I sat on the stoop. Noises swelled in the street around me. The city came to life. The front door opened, and the woman who had claimed to be a marilyn came down the steps, holding the hands of two small children. She didn’t look at me, seemed to be trying hard not to, but when they reached the curb, her little girl turned to stare. She wore a brand-new backpack. She was frowning. I smiled, poorly, and waved, envying her.
I took out my phone and spent a long time staring at it. Opened apps. Went to websites. None of it could make me happy.
And then: the thing came alive in my hand.
A text message. A string of numbers, and then: KENJIS CELL—GAGE
I laughed, out loud, and that made the little girl smile.
Spread the word!