The street was full of people, all hurrying to get somewhere. No one noticed a young man leaning against a wall minding his own business, but he saw everyone who walked by. He gauged and judged each one in turn, trying to find the perfect target. The younger ones rarely used cash anymore, and the very old ones were too stingy, still living in a time when a nickel could buy a cup of coffee. His ideal mark was a young man out to impress his date. They needed the least amount of pushing to convince them to hand over cash. But Devlin’s stomach was growling, and he still had to find a place to sleep to tonight, so he was quickly becoming less picky.
Finally, a spoiled woman with over-priced shoes and a matching handbag came around the corner. She led two tiny dogs on long leashes and let them wander wherever they liked. Her balding, middle-aged husband trailed behind as if he had a leash as well, albeit a considerably shorter one. He would have to do.
Devlin let them pass before coming up behind them. He gripped the man’s arm and asked, “Excuse me. Could you spare a few dollars?”
The man stared and blinked before reaching for his wallet. He started to pull out a twenty-dollar bill, but then he reconsidered and grabbed all the bills. “Of course, of course. I’m just sorry I don’t have any more cash on me.”
“Thank you,” said Devlin. “You’re too kind.” He released the man’s elbow and quickly faded into the crowd. If thought about it too much about it, the man might have second thoughts. Instead, he would just shake his head and go on trailing after his trophy wife with a satisfied glow for the generosity he had shown in helping a stranger in need.
In the months since he had run away from home, Devlin had learned to control his gift with great accuracy. If he wanted, he could put almost any thought in a person’s head from great joy to crushing pain. Yet despite all this power, he was at a loss for what to do with his gift. He couldn’t be too obvious or his father would find him and send the Air Force to pick him up, but he couldn’t spend the rest of his life panhandling either.
He found an alley and ducked inside to count his haul. Two-hundred-forty-five dollars. It was his best score in weeks. It would certainly be enough to keep him alive for a while.
A pair of strong hands pushed him up against the wall. There were two guys, each barely older than Devlin. While the bigger of the two held him, the other one shouted, “Give me that money!”
Devlin grasped each of the punks by the forearm and imagined that they were on fire. Instantly they started screaming and patting out the flames that only existed in their minds. He smiled grimly as one of them began rolling around on the ground and the other ran down the street in a futile attempt to get help. While he knew he shouldn’t take so much pleasure at another’s suffering, even two lowlifes like these, he couldn’t help himself. It would only last a few minutes and then they would be fine.
The sound of a falling garbage can lid made Devlin turn around just in time to see another figure running off down the lane. He hadn’t seen the third one hiding back there. While he had made the other two forget what he looked like, this one could identify him, and even more importantly, tell others about what he could do. Running as fast as he could, he set off after him.
After ten minutes of twisting and turning back lanes and a few near hits by cars as they ran through traffic, Devlin was starting to get winded. He turned a corner and nearly ran straight into an old woman with a cart full of groceries. As she yelled at him to be more careful, he looked around to see that boy he had been chasing was gone. He cursed his bad luck and apologized to the woman. There was nothing more he could do for the moment.
He got something to eat at a nearby diner and considered his options. If he couldn’t find that kid soon and wipe his memory, he might have to move on to a new city. He didn’t want to do that yet. There was something about this place. He felt almost as if he had been drawn here. And yet, Devlin knew he couldn’t afford to get caught. He would keep enough money set aside for a bus ticket if he had to leave town in a hurry.
It was starting to get late, and Devlin realized that he would have to get in line at the shelter soon if he wanted to get a bed tonight. He left the diner and made his way down the strip to where the mission house stood. He was still a block away when he saw that something was wrong. The usual line of homeless were nowhere to be seen. There were only two guys standing out front when there should have been more than fifty.
“What’s going on?” Devlin asked the men.
“Shelter’s closed,” said one of the men. “Ran out of money from what I hear.”
“Dammit,” said Devlin, ” is there another one nearby?”
“Not that you’ll get to in time,” the man answered. “They’ll all be full by now with the overflow. Looks like you’ll have to find some place else to squat tonight.”
“Do you know a good place?” asked Devlin.
“If I did,” he answered, “I wouldn’t tell you. No offence, kid, but I don’t know you.”
“Just stay out of the parks,” said the other man. “They always send an extra patrol out to the parks when a shelter closes. Rookie mistake.”
“Thanks,” he said and started to walk away, looking for a cheap hotel where they wouldn’t ask a lot of questions. He hadn’t gotten more than a block before he saw that same kid walking down the street towards him. Certain he hadn’t made him, he ducked into an entranceway and waited for the boy to pass by. One minute passed and then another, and he started to think that he had turned around or gone into one of the buildings. He was just about to risk sticking his head out to look when the kid walked by. He reached out and grabbed the boy’s wrist. He struggled to pull away but Devlin was too strong. As he pushed the boy up against the doorway, he got his first surprise. This boy he had been chasing was really a girl.
“Don’t move,” said Devlin. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
She had her hair cut short, and she wore a dirty baseball cap and baggy clothes. It was no wonder that he had mistaken her for a boy. While Devlin was thin and not particularly muscled, he had no trouble holding the girl in place. She was a year or two younger than he was, and from the look of her, she hadn’t eaten a good meal in a while.
He felt bad erasing her memory, but he had to keep his secret safe. Devlin slipped into her memories, but instead of guiding them, he was drawn into her past as though he were caught in an overflowing river. The intensity of emotion overwhelmed him as he found himself standing in an unfamiliar kitchen where man and a woman were fighting. He knew from his connection with the girl that these were her parents, and that the fighting was an almost daily occurrence. The scene changed to the girl’s bedroom, where he found himself in her body lying awake, praying that the fighting would stop. When her father finally stormed out in a rage, the house became quiet again, except for the faint sound of sobbing from her parents bedroom.
Feeling that it was finally safe, she snuck out her room and down the hall towards the bathroom. When she was only halfway there a deafening bang sounded and her heart nearly leapt out of her chest. The bedroom door was open a crack, so she pushed it until he could see inside. There was blood everywhere on the walls and ceiling. She looked down to see her bare feet soaked in her mother’s blood and she screamed. The sickly, metallic smell of it overwhelmed her and she ran outside and collapsed retching and crying on the front lawn.
Time jumped forward a week, and she was curled up on her bed, crying. She had refused to speak since her mother’s suicide and had barely left her room since the funeral. Her father, reeking of alcohol, burst in. He berated her and demanded her respect. When she didn’t answer him, the bastard actually blamed her for her mother’s death and slapped her face with the back of his hand. She ran out of the house and kept going.
Another jump and now she was hiding in an abandoned industrial building with most of its windows shattered and missing. She would sleep on a discarded mattress that smelled of piss and had holes where the rats had picked at the stuffing to make their nests. Some hobos moved into the building and she had to run again, driven out of even that meagre shelter. She wandered the streets begging for change from strangers. She was digging for scraps of food from the garbage when Devlin recognized himself driving away the two muggers.
He could sense that she was becoming exhausted by reliving the worst parts of her life, and he took the opportunity to regain control. For the first time in months, the girl relaxed as feelings of serenity and peace washed through her. If he pushed harder he knew he could drive all the pain from her mind, or even erase the memories all together. But even at sixteen, he knew that was as much a violation as what her father had done to their family. Those memories were a part of her now, but what he could do was soften the edges and help her come to terms with her past.
So deep and powerful were the girl’s fears that when he finally pulled away from her mind, he found that he had been crying. She stared blankly at him, unsure of what had just happened. Devlin let her go, but instead of running away she lurched forward and hugged him.
In the few seconds that had passed in the real world, a bond of trust had formed between them. He had just wanted to ease her mind, but he had gone too far. Lost and alone, she would look to him for help and guidance as the only person in her life that had ever made her feel good about herself. Devlin sighed. Like it or not she was his responsibility now.
He looked over the girl and noticed she was wearing the same clothes she’d had on when she had run away. They were noticeably filthier than when she had left and were starting to show signs of wear after living on the street for so long. That was something he could help with at least, Devlin realized.
“My name’s Devlin,” he said. “What are we going to call you?”
She didn’t answer, but instead fingered a chain that hung around her neck. It was a pendant with what was presumably her name – Skye. She quickly tucked the necklace away under her shirt as if it were a terrible secret. It was likely the only thing of value she had on her.
“Well Skye, what do you say we get you something to eat,” he said, “and then maybe find you some new clothes.” When they had eaten, the two of them paid a visit to a thrift store for some clothes and a backpack for her. Afterward they made a quick stop at a drugstore for essentials like a toothbrush and deodorant. Just because she had to live outdoors, he thought, didn’t have to mean she had to smell like a garbage pail in a locker room.
After the day she’d had and with nowhere else to go, he decided to splurge and use up most of the rest of his money and rent a hotel room. There was place not far from here where they didn’t ask questions if you could pay up front in cash. It was a dump by any standards, but it was dry and warm, and most importantly it had a shower and beds. The sun was already setting when he checked them in, so by the time Skye had cleaned herself up and rinsed out her old clothes it was already dark outside. She came out of the bathroom and modelled her new clothes as if they were her prom dress.
In the few hours that they had been together, she had not said a single word. He knew better than anyone the horrors she had seen, so he didn’t press the point. Their shared experience gave them an unspoken understanding.
When Devlin had taken his turn in the bathroom, he came out to find her fast asleep. He turned off the television and sat down on the bed beside her. As he counted the remains of their money, he quickly grew dismayed. There was enough for a meagre breakfast, but after that they would need more. He knew he couldn’t keep guilting strangers into giving him pocket change, especially now there were two mouths to feed.
Devlin lay down on the bed beside Skye and stared up at the water stained ceiling. He was determined to find a better way to live than this. As he listened to the sounds of the street below, the beginning of a plan was starting to come together in his mind.
It was early morning when he woke with Skye still sleeping beside him. Devlin managed to get out of bed without waking her and made his way as quietly as he could to the bathroom. He had begun folding up and packing away the clothes that they had rinsed out the night before when there was a light tapping at the door. He opened the door to find the sleepy-eyed girl standing there. She pushed her way inside, so Devlin took the hint and left her alone.
He had to admit it was nice to have company for a change, even if she never spoke. Living on the streets and hiding meant he didn’t have a lot of opportunities to socialize. Devlin was an only child who had been bounced around from city to city every time his father had been reassigned. He was used to being independent, but that was not the same as being alone. Still, it was too dangerous for the girl to stay with him. If he were caught, he would hate to think what might happen to her.
While he was waiting for Skye, he turned on the television. There was nothing on at this hour except morning talk shows, so he went through the channels until he found one that was recapping the local news. As he finished packing, he watched as they showed footage of a garage fire that had consumed the entire building and killed two people including a local celebrity car dealer. They talked briefly about an asteroid that was going to make a close pass by the Earth in the next few days. Then they switched to a story about how a local councilor was holding up the city budget debate in an attempt to force drastic cuts. Devlin realized now why the shelter had closed. Without a budget, all sorts of non-essential programs were shutting down as they ran out of money. It sickened him that one man should have that kind of power.
The bathroom door opened and Skye wandered back into the room. He turned off the television and smiled at her. A little soap and some fresh clothes had transformed her back into a presentable young woman. She saw him smiling and turned away, embarrassed.
“Come on,” he said. “Let’s get out of this dump and find you a place to call home.”
Devlin knew of a woman’s shelter that took in teens who came from abusive families. He hoped that they would have room for Skye there. He knew if the government got involved, they would send her back to her father, and she would just wind up on the street again or worse. The shelter offered counselling services and would help get her into decent foster home. It wasn’t strictly legal, but it helped keep girls off the street and from falling into prostitution. As long as they kept a low profile, the legal system was willing to turn a blind eye to their activities. Devlin felt that it was their best option under the circumstances.
It took almost an hour to walk there from the hotel, and when they arrived they found the doors locked. A hand-written sign in the window merely said they were closed due to lack of funding. Devlin swore and pounded his fist on the door.
Skye stood with her hands in her pockets staring down at the ground. Although it was only an illusion created by his ability to connect and influence minds, their shared experience made him feel responsible for her. Now he felt like he had failed Skye, and all the other girls in this city like her who needed help. When she looked up at him again, her eyes seemed to say that he had done his best. Still he blamed himself. He had the power to make real changes in people’s lives, but he had spent his time hustling for pocket change. That was going to end here and now.
“Let’s go,” he said. “We’re going to make this right.”
After a quick stop at a hotdog stand for lunch, they walked into the centre of downtown until they were standing in front of city hall. A small group of protesters picketed the street outside. From the signs and chants, they seemed mostly to be protesting the drastic cuts proposed in the budget. Devlin led Skye past them and up the steps to the main building. Once inside, the shouts of the protesters all but vanished.
He looked around, uncertain of where to go next. Against one wall, a uniformed guard sat at a desk and eyed the two of them suspiciously. When Devlin saw him, he marched directly toward the guard and said, “I’m looking for Councillor Moore. Can you tell me where his office is?”
The guard stood up and leaned forward, pressing his knuckles against the desk. “Do you have an appointment?”
Unfazed, Devlin gripped the man’s fist and said, “I don’t need an appointment. We’re old friends.”
The guard leaned back and smiled. Oh, it’s you. I didn’t recognize you. Just take the elevator to the tenth floor, turn left, and go down to the end of the hall. You can’t miss it.”
The office was exactly where the guard had promised. Devlin turned the knob and walked in. A young blonde woman looked up from her computer and smiled placidly. “Hello there,” she said. “Can I help you?”
“I need to see the Councillor right away,” said Devlin. He looked at the clock on the wall and saw it was almost two o’clock. “I have an appointment for two.”
“That can’t be right. He’s supposed to be on a conference call until two and then he has a late lunch with the mayor.”
“I’m sure he can squeeze me in,” he said. “Could you just check and make sure?”
She ran her finger down the page of her calendar checking the appointments. Devlin laid his hand on her shoulder for a moment and said, “I’m sure that I had an appointment today at two o’clock.”
“Yes, you’re right,” she agreed. “Go right in.”
The man was even bigger in life that he had been on television. He looked as though he had been stuffed into a cheap suit a size too small. A sheen of sweat was visible on his face despite the air conditioning, as though barking into a phone was hard labour.
“I don’t care how you do it,” he said into the receiver. “Just get it done. It’s an election year and every dollar counts. I don’t want any excuses.” Moore abruptly slammed the receiver into its cradle and stood up to meet the two teenagers who had just wandered into his office. “I don’t believe we’ve met. What can I do for you kids?”
“Hello, councillor. I’m Devlin and this is my friend Skye. We represent Teens for Right Choices, and we’ve seen what you’ve done in the city budget debates. We just wanted to congratulate you on all your hard work, and we were wondering if we could get a picture with you.”
Moore smiled broadly and puffed out his chest. “Well, why didn’t you say so? I have a lunch with the mayor, but I can give you a minute or two. I’m always glad to help the youth of our fine city.” He strode around the desk and held out his hand for Devlin to shake.
Devlin took the man’s hand and the two of them were instantly launched into the homeless shelter where Devlin had spent many nights over the past few weeks. The councillor was dressed in torn jeans and a dirty t-shirt that looked like he had worn them for weeks. “I want you to feel what it’s like to be homeless,” said Devlin. “The loneliness, the misery, the hunger.”
“Where am I?” asked Moore. “What’s going on? How did I get here?”
Devlin was puzzled. Whenever he had influenced someone, even when he had gone deep like he had here, the person had never been aware. It was always more like a dream or a memory, but Moore seemed fully conscious. He would have to push harder. “This is what it’s like to be without a home, and now you want to take even this meagre shelter away. And for what? To score a few political points? To make a few rich people a bit richer? You should be ashamed of yourself. How can you call yourself a servant of the people?”
“Look kid,” said Moore. “I don’t know how you’re doing this, but your little show isn’t going to make me change my mind. If these people really wanted to, they could get a job and take care of themselves. There’s no excuse for laziness.”
Devlin shifted the scene to Skye’s bedroom. It was the night her mother died and the argument could be heard in the next room. He pointed to the girl curled up on the bed trying to shut out the noise. “And what about her? Is she supposed to get a job and take care of herself?”
The councillor was sweating even more than before. “Everyone has a hard luck story. So she came from a broken home. That doesn’t mean she can’t tough it out. My father used to beat me all the time and look at me! I’m going to be the next mayor of this crummy town.”
When the girl got up to go to the bathroom, they followed her. “What about kindness and mercy? Are those words not in your vocabulary?”
When the gunshot rang out, Moore grabbed his chest and cried out in pain, “…stop…my heart…pacemaker…”
Skye did not run into her mother’s room as she had before. She went up to Devlin and pulled on his arm. “You have to stop,” she said. “You’re killing him.”
Devlin let go of Moore’s hand and they were back in the councillor’s office. Skye was pulling him away and saying, “We have to help him.”
The man had turned a deathly shade of pale. He collapsed on the floor and moaned, “Please. Call an ambulance. I don’t want to die.”
Devlin felt a moment of panic as he saw the man lying there struggling to breathe. He had never considered that his ability could be lethal. He had thought that at worst he might change someone’s personality or erase their memory. But as he saw Moore slowly crawling across the carpet, the thought crossed his mind that if he only waited, his problem would be solved.
“Please,” begged Skye. “We have to do something. I don’t want another death on my hands.”
When Devlin looked into those pleading eyes, he knew she was right. He grabbed her arm and pulled her towards the door. Moore’s secretary was still there typing away at her computer. “There’s something wrong with the councillor,” he said. “I think it’s his heart. You better call an ambulance.”
She stood up and rushed into the office. “Councillor Moore! Is everything all right. The children said…oh my!”
“He’ll be fine,” he said to Skye. Devlin didn’t wait around. He walked quickly to the elevator and took it back down to the lobby. As the two of them walked out on to the sidewalk, they could already hear the siren of the approaching ambulance. They walked a few blocks to a park and sat down on the bench there. Skye was still visibly upset from their visit to the councillor. Devlin took her hand and said, “It’s not your fault your mother died. She was obviously in a lot of pain, but what she did was wrong. It hurt you and that is the last thing a mother should do to her child.”
“But I can’t help feeling that I could have done something to stop her,” she sobbed. “Maybe if I hadn’t been so much trouble…”
“No, stop blaming yourself,” said Devlin. “Remember there were good times as well.” He took her back in her own memory to a time when she was nine or ten, and she was playing in a park not so different from the one they were in now. Her mother and father were there laughing and holding hands. She had forgotten that day in the park even though it had always been one of her happiest memories. Devlin brought her back to the present and let her wipe the tears away from her eyes. “Now the only question is where are we going to get enough money to eat?”
Skye held up a man’s wallet and offered it to Devlin.
“What’s this?” he asked. He opened up the wallet and checked the ID. It belonged to councillor Moore. “You stole his wallet?”
“I can’t say I approve of that sort of behaviour, but I’m going to let it slide this one time. Due to extenuating circumstances.” He took the money and stuffed it in his pocket before wiping down the wallet and tossing it in the trash. “It seems dinner is on Mr. Moore tonight. I know a great Chinese place not far from here. Why don’t we go see a movie and then grab a bite to eat.”
Later that evening, they went back to the hotel to spend the night. There had been almost three hundred dollars in the wallet. It was enough to last them several days if they were careful. It didn’t solve the big problem of what they were going to do next, but at least they would have a few days of relative comfort.
He sat on the bed watching the television while Skye picked through the leftovers. The news came on, and he was about to change the channel, but the first story was about Moore. It seemed as though the city council had taken advantage of his absence and called an emergency session to push through the budget. They said all city services would resume normal operations by Monday.
Devlin switched the channel. It seems as though he had accomplished what he had set out to do after all. In a few days, he could drop Skye off at the woman’s shelter and she could get the help she needed. He had helped her as much as he could, but she still had a long road ahead of her.
There was nothing to watch on the television, so Devlin decided to take a shower. As he fished through his bag for his toiletries, an envelope fell out. He had never seen it before, so he held it up to show Skye. “Did you put this in my bag?”
She was engrossed in a game show on the television and the cold sweet and sour pork, but she looked up long enough to shake her head.
It was an invitation with his name on the outside. When he opened it up, his eyes went wide. He had guessed it was true, but now he had proof. There were other people like him and they wanted to meet. He would finally get some answers. All he had to do was wait a few more days.