He always had a strong sense of people, and it
never did him much good.
Clement lived under one of many local bars, and for
his end of the bargain kept the storerooms clean. He huddled through nights in
a corner room, his bed like a giant bird's nest comprised of the towels he used
to wipe grime from dark walls and beer kegs. A street rat's first rule was
that people had their own agendas: his two meals per day cost Mr Corgan far
less than paid cleaning staff.
On his return from school he'd shove the outside
door to make it creak. Sometimes he'd find Mr Corgan on his way back up the
stairs, get a hasty compliment like "Good work in here as always,
Clement." An awkward pause, then "Managed to save you a chicken thigh
tonight! Might even bag you eggs in the morning!"
Clement could barely sneak in "Thank you"
before the door closed. He'd find his makeshift nest and dwell on his
feelings: the comfort of fatigue and a warm meal, the cold, well polished
darkness outside his meagre circle of lamplight, the emptiness of the cellar
both comforting and lonely in its silence. He ate in silence.
And he could feel the people upstairs, as though he
sensed each individual presence, but Clement was alone.
It wasn't until puberty that he realised the
difference between himself and others. He'd gotten into a fight at school--the
second rule was to always fight back, even when being pummelled by some bully
twice your size. He was taking punches and swinging fists too, when suddenly
He felt raw emotion behind every blow, the bully's
face lit by long-swallowed hurt and present release. Clement stopped, wanted
to place a hand upon his shoulder, ask with gentle tone how his home life fared,
if his mother cuddled him right, if his father was proud--but still the blows
hurt. Worse now that the emotion seared too.
And he couldn't fight back--not while the bully's
face choked on tears, a silent scream he so clearly yearned for his parents to
hear, his teachers to know, and one that deafened Clement's insides to all
He woke in the nurse's office, dragged one leg
through the crowded streets where a hundred well-dressed strangers--Always
endless strangers!--ignored him, down the alleyway where filth rattled against
his pain-infused limb. He struggled down the outside steps to the basement,
pushed the door roughly to make it creak, did his cleaning in spite, so Mr
Corgan wouldn't know or suspect.
As he crouched within his makeshift bed, colder now
where the chill gripped bruises, he couldn't stop seeing the bully's face,
couldn't stop feeling the Mr Corgan's presence and the whole bar above him.
Almost as bad was his own sense of helplessness when he couldn't fight back.
But that was ridiculous, impossible. That made no
sense. Everyone could always fight back.
When Mr Corgan brought dinner his eyebrows raised.
Clement sensed his concern. "Get in a fight at school?"
"Yeah. Sort of."
"It happens I suppose." Mr Corgan shook
his head roughly, handed over a bowl of spaghetti. "You okay?"
Clement only nodded. Mr Corgan watched him
sidelong as he left. And there was darkness, coloured vividly by the bully's
face; and quiet deafening with his silent scream.
It must have been a dream, Clement thought, only
slightly cheered by the notion.
It must have.
But it didn't stop--only grew worse.
They called him a sissy for it--bullied him even
harder. Often he'd cry when they punched him, and not for any reason they
could ever understand. He'd just stay still and take it, wake in the nurse's
office or pick himself up from the dirty pavement playground. Mr Corgan kept
watching him when he brought meals, and Clement could feel his concern grow
steadily, deepen into something Clement couldn't name or define.
He'd shove his cellar door opened, making it creak
for attention, get some sleep or watch the ceiling, trying to be alone with his
own emotions whilst feeling so many others so acutely--countless nameless
voices constantly shouting their deepest feelings and truest selves through his
grey concrete above.
Bullying continued into High School, into teen
years even though he knew each bully's intention before the jerk lifted his
He'd take it.
Cleaning and basement life continued into teen
Mr Corgan looked after him well enough. Before
long, his makeshift nest became a cot and the towels were frequently cleaned.
He even got a desk for homework. Just a surface with a lamp, but fancy for a
teen who'd never held a bank note. He still cleaned the basement. Mr Corgan
always gave a compliment on his way up the stairs, would sometimes add
"Man needs a job," then close the door leaving only lamplight and
He was a kind of family--a surrogate father even,
perhaps, though he did nothing to improve Clement's life that was not paid for
in kind, Clement felt. Again, everyone had their own agenda; everyone except
Clement, it seemed.
But he remembered a street rat's rule number two.
He was supposed to always fight back.
One typical day, he pulled himself from the
dust-choked grime underneath the football court bleachers, stumbled home,
pressed against his rusted metal doorway and stopped.
Half a shout escaped Clement before the gun pressed
against his forehead, and the stranger's forefinger pressed against his pursed
lips. He was bulky, pale and short-haired. His eyes glowed with severity, and
his voice oozed with deep cold focus, almost beneath the range of hearing.
"I'll do whatever needs doing, boy. Even
paint a Pollock with the insides of a teen-aged punk's head. Understood?"
Clement could tell the stranger didn't want to pull
the trigger, but that he would if necessary.
"I need a place like this, tonight," the
stranger said. "Put me up you might even get a present, just for
Again Clement could tell not to argue. He merely
nodded, gestured, and tip-toed to his room.
"Keep it dark," Clement whispered. He
felt his throat quiver with fear.
Soon light seared from the upstairs door's open
slit. Clement sensed his guest's tension from the room--his readiness and
willingness to do whatever necessary. Clement met Mr Corgan at the base of the
"I heard a noise," Mr Corgan said.
Clement shook his head, apologised.
"I can't have you disturb the bar." Mr
Corgan shook his head roughly. "That's why you can't have friends over.
You understand that, right?"
Clement sensed what would make Mr Corgan leave, so
he said it. "Don't worry Mr Corgan. I just stubbed my toe."
Mr Corgan gave a sad half-smile, looked Clement up
and down. "Alright. You okay?"
"Just surprised me. Sorry."
Mr Corgan shook his head roughly, meaning Don't
apologise. "So long as your okay." He radiated concern, even
perhaps affection, or seemed to anyway. "When do you want supper?"
"Now would be perfect."
Mr Corgan returned with a big plate from the
kitchen, said goodnight and closed the door, and darkness once again swallowed
Clement's basement home. He found the stranger lying on his back with his legs
crossed, on the bed.
"That the owner?" the stranger asked low,
He reached out for the plate so Clement handed it
over and whispered, "He sells food and drink to locals, and he feeds me to
keep the basement clean."
With full mouth the stranger looked about, smiling
with grim humour, said, "Wonder who gets the better end of that
deal." Clement sensed his next words coming. "I've got something to
unload." And Clement remembered rule number one. The man's eyes glowed
and radiated selfish purpose. "You could make use of this, kid like you,
so long as you don't try anything stupid."
He meant the gun. Clement whispered anyway,
"Make use of what?"
"I'll show you in the morning. Right now,
Clement ate what little scraps remained. He woke
early to the powerful sense that the stranger was awake too. As soon as
Clement stirred, the stranger said, "What do you use to clean this
place?" Clement could sense the man felt clever; could sense he was being
played. "You must have handy wipes. And I want every one."
Rule number one, he kept reminding himself: every
jerk has his own agenda. Yet it hardly mattered. The stranger would simply
take the cloths and kill him if necessary. So he nodded, reached for his
disinfectant cloths and felt the man's triumph as he emptied the gun of
bullets, wiped down everything thoroughly and handed it over grip first, gave
Clement a hard look. Clement merely took the grip.
The stranger said, "Now, you might have
trouble taking that to the police."
A sharp exhale with humour and a grim smile, and
the stranger said, "I've got to leave soon. Meet the off-to-work crowd,
mix in and make the next flight home." He laughed quietly. "And
you've got to think what to do with that." He nodded at the gun.
"With no bullets and my prints," Clement
said. "Any advice?"
"Suppose I have a minute." The smile
remained. "You know the local markets, right?" Clement nodded.
"Get there before sun-up and you might just sell that thing. With or
He turned down the alley--the sky had barely
brightened to an azure glow and the shadows were still nearly black--and he saw
instantly what the criminal meant. This was a wide alley crammed with noise
and shoving shoulders, with dust and crates and pawn brokers behind wooden
tables. Each side oozed desperation as the sun gently rose.
He opened himself to the market's power, the
vibrant surge of humanity all vying for the same goal. He felt every crooked
leaning or selfish triumph, sensed every defeat or inept confusion.
And he knew his own power for the first time.
He sensed those who would try to play him from
those who simply wanted to make an honest deal and get home. He slipped down
the street, human beings drumming against his insides, personalities and
feelings radiating at him, playing along the fringes of his own spirit. He
even sensed the lawful from the criminals--those who would actually buy a gun.
And it took long to find a criminal who he felt would make an honest deal.
He approached the counter timidly.
"Is there any limit on what I can sell
The broker eyed him sidelong. Clement sensed the
answer but kept his severe face stiff. "If you've got the goods, I've got
He released his smile. "Really
He lifted the pistol slowly from his jacket pocket,
holding its muzzle, and placed it on the table far from the broker's reach.
"How much for one of these? And I know I can get an honest deal from
somebody around here, and I sense you're an honest man." And he sensed
the man would take those words well, and knew instantly that he was right.
He left the broker, his inside pocket stuffed with
more money than he'd ever seen, got home just after sunrise--could sense he
wasn't followed--cleaned up the bullets and the usual dust, and sat in his
chair, crossed legs propped on his desk. He loved these early morning moments,
everything silent, no feelings screaming from upstairs--this was his thinking
chair whenever the bar was closed, Clement thought with a silent laugh.
The quiet, his own and upstairs, brought to mind
how Mr Corgan reminded him not to disturb the bar only last night.
Yeah, he thought, that's why he lived in silence in
his own deafening world of people's deepest selves screaming through bully's
fists and a basement's hard ceiling.
But that was before the gun, before the wad of bank
notes stuffed in his pocket. He knew his life had changed in one morning, all
because of some criminal willing to shoot him, letting him live merely to ditch
some evidence. People fought for their own agendas--rules number one and two
combined. And everyone's inner voice screamed their agendas whether they liked
it or not.
There must be some means... he thought; some way to
exploit those who never listened or even tried to understand him. And
considering the voices gave Clement an idea.
He could play poker.
He always felt what another person felt, often knew
their intention--when some bully wanted to lift his fists, or a girl was about
to snicker. He always knew what Mr Corgan felt--even when he couldn't
understand he could always feel it.
Poker was a simple game. Not complex like a
human's emotions. If his power worked at school and in a market, why not the
poker table? And if everyone fought for their own agenda then life wasn't a
quest to find one's place or to be loved the way the school jerks needed. Life
was a contest and thus a game, and poker was a game that Clement would win.
And like every street rat, he knew every bad street
in the city.
He hid the money, was given breakfast. Mr Corgan
watched him sidelong, and he felt a mixture between gladness and concern, and
Clement thought he must seem somewhat happy, and thus different, and the
thought made him smile with dark humour as he awaited night.
Gambling wasn't illegal, but it was frowned upon,
so the real dens were crammed down the worst streets. The bouncers eyed him
threateningly, but he could sense they would let him in. They didn't care who
you were or what age around here so long as you had cash. He could also sense
the ones who felt proud, felt he wouldn't get robbed--not in their bar--from
the apathy of those who thought he would and didn't care. Inside, people
either spoke in grave voices, felt cold, or they laughed and jostled and felt
almost completely fallacious. The place reeked of tobacco smoke. Barmen
looked tough and inscrutable, didn't talk with patrons or feel friendly the way
Mr Corgan did.
Clement found a table easily and quickly got a feel
for the game. The rules were simple, and even simpler was each player's mood.
Clement could sense every worry, every confidence, every bluff. He sensed when
they believed him, when they feared him and when they didn't.
Everyone played their best, fought their hardest.
So Clement would smile and enjoy his own feeling of triumph, fight for his own
emotions. Using his own abilities wasn't wrong. It was justified, and that made
It was the same with the bullies at school. He'd
let them beat him to the ground all because he felt their pain, couldn't help
Clement prowled those grim streets, changed dens or
bars every few nights, giving each group a chance, or so they thought, to win
their money back. Soon his basement home held more cash than it could hide,
and he could easily afford something more.
Yet he stayed. He kept gambling, but would only
after cleaning the cellar, and after dinner. Often Mr Corgan would simply eye
Clement, as though he wanted to say something but couldn't. Clement could feel
the bright gleam in Mr Corgan's eyes, could sense the emotion upon accepting
the dinner plate as Mr Corgan looked about the clean basement walls. Mr Corgan
didn't care about the walls. All his concern--something deeper than concern;
more integral--was aimed at Clement.
It wasn't long before Mr Corgan met him after
school, a plate full of chicken thighs in his hands. Clement would never
decline a his favourite meal, but before he could even say thanks Mr Corgan
"You play people like you play poker, lad.
Too well for your own good." He spoke with genuine affection, even care.
Perhaps even worry, to such an extent that Clement wondered if this bordered on
"I haven't done anything dishonest,"
"No, but you haven't done anything
particularly honest either." He meant work. Clement knew, smiled. Then
Mr Corgan said, "I can't stop you from gambling, Clement, but--"
"What do you mean gambling?" Clement
said, instantly defensive.
Mr Corgan laughed affectionately. "You think
I don't hear things?" He spread his hands. "I do run a bar, you know."
Clement felt from Mr Corgan a soft mixture of
affection and resignation, overall melancholy although the man smiled. Clement
wondered why. Mr Corgan seemed tired as though he'd wrestled with something
for a long time, and Clement wondered what.
"Look. Hungry fights are desperate ones,
right? And poorer people don't take well...," Mr Corgan shook his head
roughly, "...you need out of that hole you walk down each night. Off the
unpredictable streets and out of those bars."
"What bars?" Clement persisted.
Mr Corgan's expression didn't shift. "You
think I don't hear things?" His smiled drooped. "You play in bad
circles. You need to stop beating those kinds of people, start being
discreet." He shook his head roughly. "I can show you something
better. But you'll need better clothes." He shook his head again.
"There are high crime rates and poor areas, boy, but there aren't poor
cities. Just bigger and smaller divides."
Within an hour he knew what Mr Corgan meant. He
was surprised they let him enter the tailor's, even after the haircut, but he
flashed some poker money and received only smiles. Within an hour he was no
longer a street rat. He was a well dressed young man.
And it didn't stop there. They walked for another
hour, Clement's new shoes more comfortable than any he'd felt.
He thought he'd known each bad street of every
kind, but he'd also thought gambling was frowned upon--almost illegal the way
people talked--and these were the cleanest streets he'd ever seen. Bright
lights flashed and gleamed, varicoloured, from tall dark buildings of polished
stone and crystalline windows.
They were like modern age castles. And
guards--armed, he sensed, and larger than any people he'd seen--watched each
person stroll down the sidewalks, every polished black taxi or bright sports
car rumble down the street.
"Different, isn't it?" Mr Corgan said.
Clement could only whisper, "I had no
Mr Corgan laughed. "You know the bad streets
too well, boy. But you look like one of these now," he said, gesturing at
finely dressed men who smiled at tall doormen as they walked through elegant
and gleaming gates. Clement could sense which would let him enter.
"I'd like to go there," he said, and
nodded towards a big hotel gleaming up to its spire that radiated blue light
over the city. Two doormen stood outside a revolving door of clear glass and
"Go on then," Mr Corgan said. "Just
come home afterwards, win or lose." He smiled. "I'll see if I can
fix you up a late snack," and he gave Clement a light push. He smiled
back at Mr Corgan while he walked towards the revolving door, and the same
melancholy resignation sneaked through Mr Corgan's bright face. The doormen
gave Clement a brief look and let him pass. Clement could sense how much his
They didn't seem to care that his face looked
Here, he swiftly found, they didn't even care who
won or lost--only that you had money, so long as no one cheated. At least, so
long as no one cheated in a manner they'd comprehend. Here they were discreet,
and Clement was allowed to be a genius at his favoured game, allowed to fight
his hardest for personal gain, combine his two street rat rules and fight back
with his own agenda just like everyone else.
All because he had money.
He went home and pushed the door to make it creak
as usual. Instantly Clement could smell roast chicken on his desk. Mr Corgan
was visible by lamplight and he radiated that deep, implicit concern, which
swiftly became a bright smile once he could see Clement's own grin.
"So you won, I'm guessing?"
"I even created an account." The grin
didn't shift. They played for serious money at the new casino. Clement sensed
Mr Corgan's relief, his humour, even. "But it was no problem." He
reached into his inside pocket. "Look. My first identity card."
Mr Corgan laughed.
Clement continued, "I'll even buy a real wallet
tomorrow on my way home." Mr Corgan's smile remained fixed as he went
upstairs and closed the door. Clement said to the grey door and ignored the
grey ceiling, where he felt so many people, "They even made me rent a
He woke with dawn. Mr Corgan eggs from the
kitchen. At school no one bullied him. No one bothered him or got in his way,
and Clement noticed his own sense of confidence from before the first morning
bell. He even wondered if anyone recognised him, given his haircut and demeanour--he
wore the suit jacket over his street clothes. Girls even treated him
differently, and he could sense their flirtatious enjoyment.
At home Clement cleaned the basement before dinner.
"Nice job," Mr Corgan said. "Though
you could probably hire someone else to do it by now." He chuckled, but
Clement felt something more beyond the voice. "Man should have a
job," Mr Corgan said as the door closed.
Clement ate alone at his simple desk, then lay on
his cot, tried to imagine his new rented rooms. He shook his head and
half-smiled. Through his dark ceiling he felt every presence above him radiate
their emotions. Each individual was subtly unique; each agenda.
So a man needs a job, Clement thought. His was to
play poker, to fight people where sensing their emotions helped instead of
hindered, and he was good at it.
No. He was great.
He left cash upon his pillow--a kind of note to say
he'd get his own breakfast, and a little joke by leaving enough money to hire
cleaning staff for a year or so. He'd return home soon, but this night he'd
experience something new. He closed the basement door slowly behind him,
careful not to let it creak. He visited the casino and played, won, and he
slept that night in rooms more extravagant than any he'd known. The desk was
deep stained wood, the bed vast and perfectly soft yet firm. The bathroom was
larger than his whole room back home--as was his new bed.
Clement slept well.
Clement woke to the invigorating press of the early
morning sun and gentle breeze from his balcony--he'd left the door opened for
the warm spring day forecast.
He went to school after an extravagant breakfast of
scrambled eggs and bacon, played poker, won and returned. Clement ordered his
favourite, and ate the best chicken thighs he'd ever tasted. A pretty
housemaid cleaned his rooms and left with a gracious curtsey and silent smile.
Clement ate in silence, gazed from his high window out over the city below.
From this height the alleyways were invisible. Even the smaller streets were
like trying to spot a horizontal straw amidst tall grass. He wondered if he
could spot Mr Corgan's bar by the late evening sunlight, then placed both feet
upon his desk, a chicken thigh held with both hands.
He took another delicious bite, feeling every
presence below his floor of polished brown wood and varicoloured Persian
rugs--every person subtly unique, each emotion different, personal, like a
myriad voices speaking only their truest selves through his beautiful floor.
And Clement was alone.