“YOU POOR stupid idiot.”
El—short for Elijah, but hardly anybody knew that, and he wanted to keep it that way—Martin stared down at his sleeping father. His sleeping, drunk father, still passed out at 9:00 a.m. As fucking usual, man. This is what you call one of those love/hate relationships.
Shaking his head, he walked into the bathroom and glanced at himself, then looked away fast. No reminders needed. In the closet he shared with his father, he grabbed a long-sleeved shirt and pulled it over his wifebeater. At least it covered some of the tats.
Okay, let’s go see if there’s a way out of this shit.
The sound of the apartment door opening made him clench his fists. He took a breath and let it out slowly like his dad always said he should do when he got stressed. Of course, his father never did that. He chugged vodka instead.
Sighing, El clenched his jaw and walked into the living room. M2, short for Mean Motherfucker, and there was never a truer word, slouched on the couch with his booted feet on the table. He thrust his chin forward—make that more forward, since M2 looked like a cross between a bulldog and a… bulldog. His shaved head and thick neck added up to one scary dude. “What up?”
El shrugged. Don’t look like you care. “Goin’ to try ta get a bettah job. Make us some guap.”
“Where you goin’?” His narrow, pale eyes glittered. Money always did the job for M2. Money and… well, the way M2 looked at him gave El the creeps.
“Your computer shit?”
“Don’ go lookin’ thirsty, man. Dey got no respect for thirsty.”
“Ya. Jes want da cheese, man.”
“How much we talkin’?”
He shrugged. “More den serving friggin’ tacos, man. Gotta go.”
M2 nodded once, and El escaped toward the door. In the hall of the apartment building, he finally took a full breath, ignoring the smell of onions and garbage. A few months ago, the apartment, piece of shit that it was, had been his and his dad’s. Then his father gave away the little bit of money El had saved to M2 for drugs and booze and, when that wasn’t enough, finally gave him half the apartment. Now El had a twenty-four-hour spy, which was fucking dangerous for a guy with one helluva lot to hide.
Shaking his head to get rid of the picture of M2 on the couch that had once been where El sat with his mom, he hurried down the steps and headed for the train.
An hour later, he was sitting in the waiting room of some bigass company that had advertised for an IT support tech. A few straightover dudes and one pretty female that guys would probably call hot filled out applications around him, but he could feel their eyes creeping all over him. He hunched forward and let his blond braids fall in front of his face.
An older woman in a fancy suit called, “Mr. Martin, come in please.”
El stood and, trying to ignore the stares, walked through the door the woman held open. She glanced over her shoulder and smiled as she led him down a hall lined with offices on both sides. At one of the identical doors, she stopped. “In here, please,” she said, pushing it open.
She walked him to a computer set up in the middle of the small room. “This is your skills test. When you’re done, come back to the reception room, okay?”
He nodded, sat in the desk chair, and flexed his fingers.
“Just click on start whenever you’re ready. Scoring will be based upon accuracy and time.”
She walked to the door. “Any questions?”
He shook his head.
“Well, good luck, Mr. Martin.” She smiled.
He tried to smile back, wishing she’d just leave.
She hung around another moment, looking at him like she couldn’t figure him out. Take a picture, lady. Finally she stepped out and closed the door behind her.
Shit. Get to work. After a big inhale, he hit Start.
When he walked back toward the lobby a few minutes later, the woman looked up from her desk like she was startled. “Are you done?”
She raised her eyebrows. She figures I trashed it. Fuck you, Suit Lady.
He hunkered down on a waiting-room chair. Only one of the other dudes was still there, looking buttoned-up in his suit. He glanced at El, then glanced away real fast. Whatsa matter, asshole? You never seen an escaping gangbanger before?
Suit Lady came out and motioned the other dude over. “Mr. McInerny.”
The buttoned-up guy walked to her.
She spoke quietly, but El could hear her easy. She said, “I wanted to let you know that the position has been filled. We appreciate your application and will keep it on file for future openings.” They shook hands, and the dude left.
El wiped a hand over his head. Shit on that. He stood.
The woman said, “Mr. Martin, will you come with me?”
His heart slammed. Holy shit, did I get the job? He swallowed hard and tried to keep his brain from plotting how the fuck to get his father out of that apartment and away from M2. But his belly clenched with some sick stew of fear and hope.
He followed Suit Lady through a long hall into a big bunch of cubicles and then to a small room with a glass wall. Shit, in there everyone could see him sweat.
The woman opened the door and said, “Mr. Oorderman, this is Mr. Martin. You have his form.” She pointed at the table, then stood back, giving him a small smile. El crossed in front of her, and she closed the door as she left.
The man looked up from staring at some papers and his eyes widened a little.
Not much scared El, but he stood half-frozen. What do you say to a dude who might give you a way out of hell? He wouldn’t be enough of an asshole to pray. Since he knew a long time ago he was going to hell no matter what, asking for shit took real balls. But he sure as hell needed a way out. Pushing bad food in a shithole restaurant and cringing against the day somebody wised up their ass and called him a fag in front of M2 didn’t exactly spell future. More like death for him and his dad. He needed a break.
“Please sit down, Mr. Martin.”
El sat in the chair the man pointed at and tried to make his face at least look like he wasn’t there to rob the place.
Oorderman sat back. “I wanted to meet you.” He cleared his throat. “I first have to tell you that the job has been filled.”
El told himself he wasn’t counting on good news, but the slam of disappointment made him feel sick.
A crease crept between his eyebrows. “That’s whacked, man. You give it to that hot female?”
The man cleared his throat. “Actually, the job went to an internal candidate.” El must have looked confused because the guy said, “A person who already worked for our company. We always give internal candidates preference.”
El wanted to scream, “So why the fuck did you advertise?” but he clamped his lips shut. “Okay, well, thanks.” He stood.
The man held up a hand. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to talk to you for a minute.”
El shrugged. “I’m here.” He sat and clutched his hands together. He still wanted to ralph all over the fucking room.
“You did exceptionally well on your test.”
El nodded. “Yeah, well I’m dumb good at IT, man.”
Oorderman gave a small smile. “I might call it smart good, but I get the message. Anyway, Mrs. Haines told me a bit about you, and I decided to take a chance.” He looked at El with narrowed eyes. “Since I don’t have the job to offer, I feel like I can tell you that if the job hadn’t been filled, you very likely wouldn’t have gotten it.”
“Well, shit, that’s grimy, man.” He already felt so crappy, the dude’s dis landed like a punch in the stomach. “I don’t need this, man.”
“Yes, you do. Please listen for another minute. One thing companies consider heavily when they hire people is what we call culture.”
“So what culture do you think I’m from, man, fucking Denmark?” He held out one of his blond braids.
“I’m not talking about your origin, El. I’m talking about business culture. I mean, we hire people who appear to fit in and share the company values.”
“You think I ain’t got values?” He knew he shouldn’t be saying this, but fuck….
“Please, bear with me.”
El wanted to punch the asshole out, but that’d get him arrested for sure.
“The important word is appear. Appear to fit in. Appear to share the company values. Do you understand what I mean?”
It was sad as fuck, but he did understand. All he had to do was look around. He wiped a hand over his face. “Look, man, I want a job. I need a job. I worked fucking hard to get ready for one. Where I live, people stare at me ’cause I finished high school, then learned IT. I come here and you think I’ve got a gun in my pants. There ain’t no way to win, man. No way to win.”
“Look, I don’t think it’s that bad. All you need is to get past all the ways you don’t fit in and make a good enough first impression that a prospective employer won’t automatically dismiss you. It’s not overt prejudice, El, but if a boss thinks you’re going to make other employees uncomfortable, they’re just not going to hire you. It’s too much work.”
Okay, I give. El nodded. “Look, man, I know you didn’t need to do this. Nobody pays you to help me, and I ’preciate it.”
Oorderman leaned forward and handed El a card. “I don’t know this man personally, but I’ve been told he can help with your type of situation.”
El took the card and looked at it.
Dr. Henry Fairhaven
Linguistics and Speech Transformation
There was a phone number, address, email, and website.
El’s fingers twitched to rip the card into ten million fucking pieces. “Ya, well, this ain’t no fucking option for me, man. Unless this here Fair-whatever dude is big into charity.” He stood and dropped the card on the table. “Thanks, man.” He stuck out his hand.
Oorderman stood and shook it. He looked like he wanted to say more, but El shut him down.
With a nod, El walked out the door of the glass room. Somewhere like halfway down the hall, the whole buggin’ mess landed on his head, and heat shoved behind his eyes. What the fucking hell?
Suit Lady stuck her head out of her cube.
“Thanks for applying, Mr. Martin. We’ll keep it on—”
El pushed by her. She was probably the one who’d told Oorderman El might be good at IT, but he was a fucking loser in every other way, and maybe the dude could give El some lessons in how to be a fucking sellout. Fuck her and all of them.
He made it to the reception room and out the door of the office, down the escalator, and all the way to the sidewalk before he blinked.
What the shit did I think? Why’d I spend all that time learning IT when I could have been acing up my fucking fast-food service skills? If he could have slammed his hand into the side of the building and not broken it, he would have.
People rushed by on the busy city street and stared at him. Yeah, wondering what the fuck the Bronx gangbanger was doing there. He wondered that too. Staring at the fucking sunshine, he gave serious thought to hitting the nearest bar, but he only had to look at his father to know it was craptastic to protest the fucking universe that didn’t give a shit about you by barfing up your guts every morning.
Instead he walked across the street to Starbucks. Although come to think of it, spending $4.95 for tea on his income might be bigger punishment than booze. He stalked through the store to the order line and told the girl at the cash register he wanted a chai latte. How was that for a fucking girlie drink? But he liked that sweetness and spice. Did that make him gay? Fuck yeah, it did.
When he got the cup, he spied an open chair at a table in the corner of the room. He headed toward it and got there at the same time as a big all-American dude in a T-shirt too small for his muscles. El started to back off, but the guy looked at El, swallowed hard, turned fast, and walked away.
El opened his mouth to say something, then closed his lips and sat. Fuck, might as well take a load off. The little table in the corner he scooted into put him opposite the wall mirror. He glanced up. Shee-it, no wonder the big dude walked away. The soul patch, the tats showing at his neck, the pierced nose and ears, and the thin scar across his cheek. Fuck, he looked tired and mean. The first was way true. The second one wasn’t as actual as it ought to be for his own survival. Then there was the hair. The fucking hair. Blond and silky, like some fucking guy from Norway. The world loved it. Yeah, people dig shit that’s rare. He hated it. It made him stand out, and that was dangerous. His mom had medium brown hair before it all fell out from the cancer. Too bad he didn’t take after her. His father was, like, dark blond, and El must have gotten it from him, but El’s was much lighter. For a few years as a teenager, he’d shaved his head so it didn’t show so much, but it left a light shadow on his head that looked weird. Then he’d dyed it, but that was crap to keep up. Light roots. Strange. Now he did cornrows, which he liked, but it was so odd, people stared, and that he hated. Fuck.
He sipped the tea and sucked oxygen. I wasn’t counting on that job. I wasn’t. There are other jobs. Lots in IT. They told me. He pinched the bridge of his nose. And what’re my fucking chances of getting any fucking job? Like that Oorderman dude said, I don’t fit in. Even if they put me way back in the office. They’d hafta be desperate,
He downed the final big mouthful of chai and tried to enjoy the fuck out of it since it was the last time he’d be paying five bucks for tea, at least until he got a job and got his father the fuck out of there. He exhaled.
Out to where?
EL STOOD and tossed his cup in the trash. Model citizen 101. Clenching his jaw, he stepped out of the store into that fucking sun again.
Where could El afford to live that was far enough from their neighborhood, from the gangs and the drugs, and mostly from M2? M2 wouldn’t give up his hold on Artie Martin because he didn’t want to lose El. What was that word? Leverage. El wouldn’t help with robberies or drug running willingly, but his computer skills had gotten way too valuable for M2 to let him go. In addition to being an IT guy, El’d become a pretty badass hacker. Don’t run a fucking gang without one.
He walked toward the train.
Like always, the sway of the subway made him sleepy, and his eyelids drooped even though he was hanging on to a pole. He was tired. Tired of dirt and ugliness. Tired of bullets and fear. Tired of no job—not a good one anyway—no hope, no future. He could run, but not without Artie. When his mama was dying, she said take care of him. Of Artie.
Artie’d been like some kind of dream to her—an educated guy all full of philosophy and shit. Most of the crap Artie spewed meant nothing to El’s mother, who was a street-smart survivor who could make a dime out of paper towels and spit, but somehow she’d wanted to take care of Artie. Weird as shit, it’d been her who died. The survivor who didn’t survive. When his mom had been alive, Artie’d drunk up a lot of what they made, but at least he’d held down a job, and they’d had enough for food and even put away a little money for El to use for college. But then when El was twelve and just beginning to realize he was different in a way that’d get him dead in the gangs of the Bronx, his mom had died—after running up an assload of medical bills that they couldn’t pay—and Artie took to drinking full-time. End of story. No college. No escape. No hope.
I’ve got to do something.
The second the doors parted, El shoved off the train and landed on the platform, already walking fast. You never knew what asshole was waiting to bash you. He made it to the escalator and ran up, swung himself off at the top, then broke into a run until he got to his neighborhood and slowed.
Two blocks from the apartment, he scooted behind the youth-center building. Eddie Foster ran the center. When El was little, his mom took him there while she was working. Man, he’d loved that fucking place. All the crayons and an old beat-up computer. Heaven. But as soon as his mom died and El got old enough to be useful to the gang, they’d put him to work and made sure he never went to the youth center again.
He crept to the back entrance of the falling-down building and opened the squeaky screen, then the door. Inside he heard the yells and squeals of kids having fun. For a second his chest hurt.
El tiptoed across the kitchen that never had enough food, then looked into the big room. Mr. Foster leaned against the wall while the little kids worked on art projects on the tables. Later, the few big kids who’d managed to escape the gangs—either because they had meanass scary parents who stood up for them or they seemed too weak to be able to handle any useful jobs—would come in after school.
Kids smeared finger paint across paper and laughed as they wiped some on each other. Shit. Made him kind of jealous. He blinked, and suddenly he saw every kid there covered in tats, cigarettes hanging from their lips and guns in their belts. He shuddered. So few years away—and most of them would never get a choice.
El waved toward Mr. Foster. It took a few arm gestures, but he got the man to look up. Foster saw El and started to smile, then got this real suspicious look, but he still walked over slowly. When he stepped into the kitchen, El said, “Yo.”
“Why you here, El?”
“Nothin’ bad, honest.” He propped himself on the corner of a table.
Foster crossed his arms. “Okay, talk.”
“Ya know how I went ta tech school to learn IT?”
“Yeah. I never believed M2 didn’t fuck that up.”
El shrugged. “He figures I’m his meal ticket for life.”
“Makes sense.” Foster stared at the kids.
“So I went to get dis job I coulda done easy.”
“Yeh, IT. I didn’t get it.”
Foster glanced over El’s body. “So?”
“The guy told me the job was already taken, but he said he wouldn’t have hired me anyway ’cause I don’t fit in.”
El scowled. “Fuck that. I can show up on time and make shit happen.”
Foster sighed. “Sure you can, El, probably better than most, but who’s gonna believe that?”
“Because I look like a fucking banger.” It wasn’t a question.
“Yep. And talk like one. How many times did ya say fuck in the interview?” He chuckled.
“Not fucking funny.” That made El laugh too. When they quit, El said, “So what the fuck should I do?”
“Come on, man, I’m twenty-fucking-two. I need a good job. Help me da fuck out.”
“Look, El, I can’t help, man. If you wanted to be a teacher or work wid kids, maybe. But IT for some big-city company?” He snorted. “You need charm school, man.”
El looked up. “Whaddya mean?”
“No, I mean, the dude who wouldn’t fucking hire me, he said I should go see some guy who teaches….” He tried to picture the card and shook his head. “Something about speech.”
He shrugged. “Yeah, a speech teacher could be good, I guess. Can’t hurt.”
“Yeh, but who’s got cheese for that kind of stupid?”
“Teacher’s don’ get paid much. Trust me.”
“But this dude ain’t no teacher like you. He’s got a fancy card and shit.” He slid off the table edge. “I’m just dreamin’. Thanks, man. You done a lot for me.” He nodded at Foster and walked out the door, pointed toward home. Home. As if.
He opened the door to the apartment real slow. Never knew who the fuck would be there with M2. Whoa. Miracle. Nobody. Including Artie.
He walked straight to the bedroom he shared with his dad. Artie lay snoring on the double bed. The place smelled like booze, but that was normal.
El pulled off the long-sleeved shirt, stuck it on a wire hanger, and hung it from the hook he’d hammered into the side of his old wardrobe.
Only Artie ever called him that. Well, only Artie since his mom died. She’d liked that name. Said it was a good Bible name and real distinguished. Now it just made El sad. “Hey, Dad.” El turned to see his father struggling to sit up. He looked bleary-eyed and years older than forty-fucking-five, but still handsome.
“Where ya been?” He looked at El like he was interested, but then his eyelids started drooping.
“I went looking for a job.”
“Really? Oh how nii-sh.” His eyes closed completely, and he fell back onto the mattress again.
What the fuck? El sat on the edge of the bed and leaned over Artie. Yeah, he smelled like the inside of a vodka bottle, but that didn’t explain this shit.
Swallowing hard, El pulled up Artie’s left sleeve. He released a breath. Clean. Then he tried the right. Not so fucking lucky. He clenched his fists. Goddamn fucking M2.
El barged out of the room and down the hall to the living room, where M2 sat on the couch staring at the TV. Glaring, El stepped in front of it.
“Eh, move your ass.”
“You told me after that first time you wouldn’t give Artie no more fucking drugs!”
“He begged me, man. I just give ’im a sample. Big fucking deal.”
“You gotta quit, man. You promised. Quit!”
M2’s eyes narrowed like a big snake about to strike. “You’re wildin’, man. Your old man’s addicted to everything except angel food cake.” He snorted and laughed at his own joke, then got real straight-faced. “I got nothing to do with it.” He picked his teeth with his fingernail. “You get a job?”
El’s jaw muscle jumped, but he tried to look casual. “Nah. Way too fucking fancy to hire a loser like me. Said I wouldn’t fit in.”
“No worries, man.” M2 stood, his stocky body a few inches shorter than El’s six-one, but El knew from experience how hard he could hit. He came up real close to El and ran his fingers up the front of El’s tank. It took major cojones to not shiver. M2 stretched up closer to El’s ear. “Dere’s lots of ways for you to earn your guap, na mean?” He blew against El’s ear in a way that might have been an accident. “You and me can work out all kinds of arrangements, feel me?”
“Thanks, M2, but I got a job now, and I’ll get a better one.”
“Ya, well, I’ll be watchin’, man.” He crossed his arms. “But adjust yer OD attitude on Artie or you can catch these hands, ya woke? Without me, you’d both be sleepin’ on da street.”
El would trade a lot for a chance to smash M2’s face, but the sad fact was, in a fight, he’d lose. M2 was meaner than hell and didn’t care who he hurt.
Clenching his fists, jaw, and ass at the soft laugh he heard from M2, El turned and walked back to the bedroom.
Artie still lay passed out on the bed. Only his snores proved the fucker was alive.
I gotta do something. I gotta get out of here. He walked to the wall, stalked back to the door, then returned. M2 and the gang poured hate on gays and totally snuffed any dude they thought was homo, but every nerve in El’s body told him M2 had plans for El’s ass, a thought that made El want to puke. So if he didn’t get out of there soon, he was gonna end up in a battle with M2, and El was fucking gonna lose in a big way.
El looked at Artie. What would M2 do if El left Artie there and disappeared? Would he hurt him? Probably not. He wouldn’t want to lose the apartment. But he might threaten to hurt him for sure to get El back. Only what if M2 couldn’t find him? El had a cell phone M2 didn’t know about. He had used a false name and got the bills online. So M2 wouldn’t even have a way to call and threaten him. But where could he go?
Fuck, don’t get ahead of yourself.
He slid into the folding chair he’d set up at a card table shoved in the corner of the room and stared at his old laptop. Not that the POS could actually sit on a lap since it was a fucking brick and wouldn’t hold a charge for more than an hour. El never told M2 he’d be a better hacker if he had better equipment. Didn’t want him to know.
El ran a hand across his cornrows. What was that dude’s name? Fair. Fair. Something.
He typed Fair and Language and New York City into the search bar.