Night-time in Chicago was fucking cold.
Ryan sucked on the cigarette between his lips and said, "Are you using?" The boy shook his head, staring at the ground. There were snowflakes on his eyelashes.
Ryan stared up at the sky and wondered what the fuck he thought he was doing. This was stupid. Dangerous. People died this way, their throats cut for nothing more than a couple of bucks and a mattress.
Then he said, "Keep up. If you get lost, I'm not coming back to find you."
Ryan walked off without looking to see if he was following. The footsteps behind him kept pace with his own, and just before they walked into the abandoned factory, the guy said, "I'm Brendon."
"That's nice," Ryan said. He didn't really care.
Ryan had staked out a spot for himself on the third floor, hidden his mattress behind a makeshift barricade of abandoned furniture that no one had bothered to clean up. It was drafty in the winter, but less crowded than the first two floors, and so far no one had stolen his shit. Ryan made his money by looking young, pretty, and vulnerable; no one wanted to fuck a whore who was pushing around a cart filled with all of his worldly possessions.
They stopped just inside the door, when Ryan turned to Brendon and said flatly, "I have a knife."
"Uh," Brendon said, clutching the strap of his backpack. "What?"
Ryan rolled his eyes. This kid was never going to last a day. "I meant, don't try to steal my shit, because I'll knife you," Ryan muttered.
"Okay," Brendon said faintly. He shivered a little, and Ryan couldn't tell if it was from his words or the cold.
Ryan led the way across the long factory floor, climbing over his barricade when they got to the far corner. He ran through a quick inventory, and nodded in satisfaction. Everything was still there, even the ratty pillow he'd managed to scavenge from the dumpster.
"Why are you doing this?" Brendon said, from behind him. Ryan turned, raising an eyebrow.
"What is this, your first day on the streets?" Ryan said. "You don't ask questions, fuckface."
"Sorry," Brendon said, swallowing. "I just meant—"
Ryan stared at him for a moment, and then shrugged. "Body heat," he said, evading the question.
Brendon nodded. He was silent for a moment and then he said, "I have a blanket."
"Congratulations," Ryan muttered, but he accepted Brendon's blanket when he pulled it out, laying it on top of the nest he'd scrounged for himself. It was thick and soft, and smelled faintly like laundry detergent.
Ryan pulled on an extra sweatshirt and slipped under the covers, pushing his dirty hair back from his face and tucking it under the hood. Brendon followed suit, laying down a careful six inches away until Ryan shoved the pillow in the middle of the mattress so they could share. Brendon was warm next to him. His hair smelled clean.
"So what do I owe you?" Brendon said quietly, as Ryan was starting to fall asleep. Ryan blinked, a tiny thread of surprise winding its way through his tired brain.
"Tomorrow," Ryan mumbled, ignoring that part of him that wanted to say, nothing. "Ask me again tomorrow."
[this is a flashback. it takes place the summer when Ryan turned 18]
The lines on the form were tiny, and Ryan could barely squeeze his handwriting into the spaces. He balanced the stack of papers on his knee, and took a long sip of the coffee. It was hot, and free, and even if he couldn't vouch for the quality it was still worth the trip.
Full Name: Ryan Ross
Aliases: wouldn't you like to know
Hometown: Las Vegas
Birthdate: [insert, when is ryan's birthday?]
Will you be needing medical care for your visit today? yes
Ryan rolled his eyes at the form, and shoved his hair out of his eyes. He considered just dropping it on the chair and leaving; this whole thing was stupid, and possibly pointless. He could work without ASNP's licensing, even if it was a little more dangerous.
Well. A lot more dangerous.
Ryan tipped his head back against the cheap pasteboard of the trailer walls, and sighed. When he swallowed, his throat felt rough and scratchy; the grating of skin-on-skin told him that it wasn't just a work-related injury. He didn't want to deal with this bullshit, with sympathetic counselors and government licensing. Beyond the obvious, which was that Ryan was fine on his own, there was something inherently absurd about being granted a government license to suck dick.
Ryan drained the rest of his coffee, and set the cup down on the floor next to his shoes. It was cool in the air-conditioned trailer, a welcome respite from the August heat. Ryan closed his eyes and thought about Z, and Charlotte, and Tennessee, and then he clicked his pen decisively and wrote—with a flourish—hooker.
The kid was gone when Ryan woke up. Ryan rolled over and squinted at the empty space in the bed next to him, and then he shrugged. It was probably better that he had left; Ryan still didn't quite understand what sort of temporary insanity had led him to offer up his bed in the first place.
The light filtering in through the cracks in the boarded up windows suggested it was somewhere around late afternoon. Ryan stood up and stretched, fumbling in his backpack for the remains of last night's dinner. The bread had gone stale around the edges and the lettuce was wilting, but he'd had worse. At least it had been wrapped in plastic when he'd fished it out of the dumpster. Below him, Ryan could hear the sounds of muted voices, with an occasional shout drifting up through the floorboards. He decided to take the back stairway on his way out, just in case.
The walk to the corner of Jefferson and the Boulevard was cold, but not unbearable. Ryan had slipped on his fingerless gloves before he'd left; his scarf was starting to unravel at the edges, but it still provided enough warmth to be useful. One of the case workers greeted him as he walked into the building. Ryan thought her name was Marisa, but he wasn't sure. She had long hair knitted up in intricate braids, and she always wore tiny gold earrings in both of her ears.
It was a Friday night, so the wait was longer than usual to sign in. Fridays were tough; there were plenty of kids working on the weekends, looking to make a little extra cash to scrape by. Ryan knew he should have gotten here earlier, but the residual heat from Brendon's body had warmed the covers, making him sleep longer than usual.
Marisa greeted him by name when he stepped up to the counter, and Ryan nodded at her as he signed himself in. She pushed a full vial of Prilox at him through the window and said, "Chocolate or Strawberry tonight, kid?"
"Strawberry," Ryan said, after thinking about it for a moment.
"Mmm, living dangerously," she said, and placed the protein shake on the counter. Ryan reached out for both the vial and the shake and said, "You know me," as he tucked both into his jacket pocket.
"I do," Marisa said. "And that's why I'm giving you 15th and Market tonight, even though you're late."
Ryan blinked at her, a little surprised. "No, thank you," he said quickly, well aware that whatever Marisa wanted in return, it was probably more than he could afford. "I'll take whatever you have left, really."
"What I have left is 15th and Market," she said. Her nails clacked on the keys as she entered him into the system. "Take it or don't work tonight, it's your call."
"I—okay," Ryan said, after a pause. "Thank you," he said quietly. 15th and Market was a nice district, close to the residential suburbs that were filled with wealthy clients who tended to tip generously. Ryan had been expecting something in his own neighborhood, or worse, the docks.
Marisa ignored him, pushing the clipboard back through the window for the next person in line behind him. "Have a good night," she said, and Ryan repeated the fair-well back to her. It still stung a little, even after all these years; they both knew full well that whatever else happened, Ryan wouldn't be having a "good night."
Ryan lit a cigarette as he stepped outside, cupping his hands around the small flame. He pulled the Prilox out and tipped his head back to take his first dose, and then quickly sucked down a drag to blunt the taste as the familiar nausea rose up in his gut. The first one was always the worst; it would get better as the night wore on, until Ryan could barely even taste the bitter liquid.
Ryan smoked until his cigarette was nothing more than ash and filter, and then flicked it aside. He started walking, two lefts and a right, and then the long ten-block stretch down Market until the intersection. He hummed a little to himself as he walked, a tuneless melody that often came into his head when he was working.
Tonight was going to be a good night, maybe; easy clients, some extra cash, maybe even a cup of coffee if he managed to look pitiful enough. The ploy worked best on the women; but then, Ryan doubted he'd be getting any female clients tonight. Higher-class districts tended towards bored husbands and sons, not cuckolded wives.
If Ryan was really lucky, he might even get a government official; they tended to hide ration stamps inside folded-up bills. Ryan paused on a street corner, waiting for the light to turn green, and though about the day Charlotte had scored the youngest son of one of the Patricians. She'd torn through the door with the widest smile Ryan had ever seen, and whooped in victory as she'd laid them out on the table, end to end like Dominos. That week had been a good one. They'd bought strawberries, and chocolate, and a new set of paints for Z.
The light turned green.
Ryan shook his head against the memories, and tucked his face deeper into his scarf. Three more blocks to go; with luck, he'd be able to quell the gnawing, aching feeling in his gut by the time he arrived. Because some days, when he closed his eyes, he could still smell the scent of her hair—and.
Not tonight, Ryan thought. Please, not tonight.
Ryan crossed the street. He kept his eyes open.
Ryan counted up his weekend take on Monday morning, sitting on his bed in the pre-dawn darkness. 280 euros; a solid 40 euros of that was tips from working 15th and Market on Friday night. Saturday and Sunday he hadn't been so lucky; a downtown gig, where he'd almost been taken in by the Polizia, and then a long, lonely Sunday night in the industrial district. Ryan had avoided a visit to the station by paying his way, three cops and a back alley and sore knees when he was finished. It was all a scam—no one worked downtown without a card, but the Polizia could definitely make your night miserable if they chose to. Ryan had been questioned once, and he had no desire to do it again.
Ryan did the math as he drank the rest of his protein shake. 28 euros—ten percent—for his ASNP dues, which he stuffed into his front pocket. 50 euros for food, which mean he had almost exactly 100 euros for Z, and 100 that he could stash away. Ryan fumbled in his backpack for his screwdriver, and then pulled the broken piano stool towards him. The hollow legs had been a lucky find; Ryan unscrewed the left leg carefully, and then rolled the bills up into a tiny cylinder. If the building ever went up in flames, he'd be fucked, but it was safer than carrying all of his money around with him on the streets. The two times he'd been robbed, no one had even thought to check the broken furniture.
He screwed the leg back on, and then fumbled in the pocket of his hoodie for his cigarettes. He made a face when he pulled them out; the john he'd pickpocketed obviously didn't like to pay any more than he had to for his addictions. They were cheap domestics, smelling vaguely of chemicals. Ryan lit one anyway, sucking in the acrid smoke with a pleased sigh.
He thought it was about 4 am, maybe a little later. He had two hours to kill before he could hit up the Union, and then go see Z. Ryan kicked his shoes off, and pillowed his arms behind his head. His latest stolen book was underneath his pillow. Ryan could wait for the sunrise.
Ryan always went to the Union in the early morning, when traders were sleepily dosing on their piles of goods. It was safer that way. The Polizia never busted them in the morning, and the drunks were usually passed out in some corner, uninterested in taunting teenaged whores. It took a while to find a decent supplier, and more than once a large thumping reverberated through the crumbling walls, causing everyone, Ryan included, to duck and cover.
He finally found what he needed from a pinched-looking woman with short, dirty hair. She had an array of cheap plastic goods spread out on her blanket. Ryan walked over to her and pretended to admire a broken child's tea set, and when she leaned over to hand it to him, quietly whispered what he was really looking for. She gave him a long look and then nodded. Ryan handed the tea set back, with the money folded up in the center of the pot; she wrapped it for him in a selection of brightly colored plastic bags, and when Ryan checked a few streets over, there was a tiny paper packet tucked into the middle.
The morning was clear and cold. Early morning sunlight gleamed on the fresh coating of snow on the sidewalks, and Ryan walked slowly, savoring the warmth.
Ward 36 was in the north end of town, in a converted brownstone that had miraculously survived the bombings. At some point the government had pulled down all the interior walls, and now it stretched the whole block, a large cavern stacked full with government-issued cots.
Ryan turned the corner and slipped in through the service entrance, bypassing the Polizia stationed at the entrance. He followed a delivery in, and then skulked around the operation rooms, looking for one of the nurses he knew.
He found Greta in the kitchens, ladling out soup for the more active patients. She jumped when he tapped her on the shoulder, and then rolled her eyes. "Should have figured it was you," she said, hiding a smile as she turned back to her work.
"Probably," Ryan agreed. "How much for some soup?"
"Oh, you mean this government-issued, high-carbohydrate, specially prepared soup?" Greta said. "This soup that's illegal to serve to anyone who isn't a government Ward?"
"Please," Ryan said, rolling his eyes and grabbing the next tray of bowls from the side of the kitchen. "You eat it all the time."
"It's how I keep my girlish figure," Greta agreed, knocking him in the hip companionably. "And I suppose that depends on what you've brought me, hmm?"
"Fifty doses," Ryan said softly, lowering his voice so no one else would overhear them. "Government sealed. They're real."
Greta turned to him raising an eyebrow. "Good weekend?"
"You could say that," Ryan said.
"Mmm," Greta said, non-committal. "I can give you two hours today, for that. And something to eat. Sound fair?"
"Totally," Ryan said. He was well aware he'd gotten very lucky in his relationship with the nurses at Ward 36; he'd managed to fake an identification card, at first, listing him as Z's younger brother. Greta had seen through it in the first week, and had been about to hand him over to the Polizia for violating the visitation rules when Ryan had desperately mumbled out that he could help supply them.
It could have gotten him arrested; instead, Greta had put down the phone and looked at him carefully.
"What are you, sixteen?"
"Eighteen," Ryan had said, schooling his features to look older.
"That's dangerous," Greta said quietly. "Are you sure you want to offer that to me?"
"I can handle it," Ryan said flippantly. "It's no worse than what I do every night to make a buck—"
Greta had looked over at Z, still sleeping peacefully, and then back at Ryan. "I think we can work something out," she said finally. "Come back with twenty doses of Amarax, and I'll think about it."
Ryan came back with thirty; Greta had checked them, nodded in satisfaction and then introduced him to five of the other nurses and orderlies. Ryan liked Ashlee, and Bob, and Frank, and Vicky, and Ray, but Greta was by far his favorite.
Greta handed him a large bowl of soup, startling Ryan out of his reverie. "You okay?" Greta said, giving him a critical once-over. "You know I can't let you in the Ward if you're sick."
"No," Ryan said, shaking his head. "Just—you know. Haven't eaten much."
"Right," Greta said. Ryan turned away to go grab a spoon, and Greta added another ladle-full of soup when his back was turned.
Some notes that I left myself at the end for the next scene -
[A few days later, still—Ryan gets assigned to an unfamiliar neighborhood for the night, a seedier place than even where he lives. He's minding his own business when he sees Brendon from across the street, making a deal that obviously includes an extra fee for the fact that he's uncarded. Ryan freaks, and runs across the street, shoving himself in between them. Brendon is furious, but it's too close to all the things Ryan's seen, all of his friends who have died. He taunts the john a little bit, and then offers to blow him for half of his fee if he'll stay away from Brendon. During this, we get to see—as through brendon's eyes, although not from his pov—the way Ryan works. He tends to zone out when he's working as a coping mechanism, and we see him counting up his earnings for the night as this dude is face-fucking him. We find out that Ryan prefers it that way, because it means he has to do less work.
When the guy is close, Ryan tries to pull away. He's only halfway sucessful, and when the guy tries to drag him back in Ryan digs his fingernails into the back of his hand. The guy swears, and calls him a pushy fucking whore, and Ryan just shrugs and croaks out, "pay up, or you don't get to finish." The guy presses 15 euros into his hand, and after Ryan's rubbed the corners and satisfied himself that they're valid, they go back to business.
later—much later, back at ryan's place—brendon manages to get the story of Z/Char/Tenn out of Ryan. They took Ryan in when he was new, at the tender age of 15; Licensing was just starting up, and Z was too proud and too determined to sign up. She could take care of all of them; they looked out for each other. I want the story of them to be a sort of vaguely francesca-lia-block thing; miserable, yes, but happy, too, when Z would paint the walls and they'd dance to the sounds of the radio from the upstairs apartment.
When Ryan is 17, he comes back to find they were attacked by a "Leecher," re: uncarded/carded set up. As Ryan will explain to Brendon, a Leecher is "someone who fucks and kills uncarded whores." The low penalties make it a terrifyingly common reality. He left them all for dead; Ryan found them. Z woke up, for a few minutes; Char and Tenn never did. She's at Ward 36 now—as we saw before—in a semi-permanent coma. No one knows what she'll be like when she wakes up.
Brendon is horrified. Ryan convinces him/railroads him into going the next morning to register. ]