The sad thing was, the whole affair came about by chance. Malcolm had no reason to be in the Second Round Bookstore on that Thursday afternoon.
But he had taken a chance that his boss would not miss him and had walked back from Prinsep Street to his office. He needed to work off the dull feeling lunch had left in him. The path led through the Bas Brasah Complex, a place he hadn’t been since hunting for used books in his student years. He wandered into one of those crammed bookstores.
The owner of Second Round Bookstore was devoutly Buddhist, to the extent of defying city ordinances and keeping an altar to Guan Yin, with burning incense, behind his cashier’s desk. It was in that row–the row with the desk and the altar–that Malcolm came across Vistas of Upper Sekiei with its beautiful frontispiece of the Indigo Glacier. Enchanted by the picture, and wondering why he found the name familiar, Malcolm thumbed through the book, only to discover, wedged between pages 348 and 349, the gleaming edge of a Pokémon card.
Not just any Pokémon card–a Pokémon Plus card.
Manufacturers are constantly claiming to have invented the ultimate playing/collecting card. But every boy knows the truth: only the cards of his childhood are the real ones. For Malcolm the cards were Pokémon Plus. The sight of the card: the distinct curve at the corner; the silver laminate that was rumored to be the real thing; the heft of it; even the smell of new packaging that clung to it like fairy dust–together opened a gate of sinsemilla in Malcolm’s brain.
The sense of joy and deep, soul-vibrating anticipation only increased as he began to collate the perceptions of his senses with the memories of his brain. The card was in perfect shape, lacking even a single crease mark in the laminate. And it was, wasn’t it–yes, it was! that elusive Articuno Lampansé, the legendary icy blue bird, the holy grail of his childhood, the card that was discussed in hushed whispers on the schoolyard. No one had ever seen it in any 7-11 in Singapore, although a classmate of Malcolm’s had claimed his cousin had seen it once in the mama shop on Tampines Avenue 3. But the cousin’s story went no further than that: his mother had refused to allow him to buy the card even though he had thrown a tantrum to end all tantrums.
And now, many years after he stopped realizing how much he longed for it, Malcolm had, purely by chance, found the card, perfectly preserved in a hardcover travel book. Chance had dealt it to him, and chance was something with which Malcolm had had little experience. Until now.
“Can’t play today, Arif. My mom’s waiting. I’ll play you for those cards tomorrow.” Malcolm’s voice, as loud as his ten-year-old frame was small, rang across the schoolyard. He dashed out of the school gates to where his mom was waiting, stony and silent.
“What are you wasting your time and money at now?” Although Malcolm’s mother had a petit frame like her son, her voice was quiet and fierce, hardened by years of adversity.
“Just a game, Ma,” Malcolm replied in Chinese. “Arif and I play it. It’s with cards–see?”
“I didn’t leave my country to bring you to Singapore and give you a nice English name and work all day and night so you could play games of chance and waste your money on silly cards. You do your schoolwork first. When you’re grown up and have a good job and your children all have good education and I’m dead in the grave, then you can play these silly games.”
“Yes, mother,” Malcolm replied, in English.
“You know I do all these things because I love you, so don’t you be ungrateful for it.”
“No, Mother. I’ll study very hard and get good grades for you.”
Malcolm kept his promise. He packed his Pokémon cards away into a small box and, to prove his worthiness of his mother’s love, he crammed every answer he could into his young brain, practiced every old exam paper he get his hands on, and accepted every tongue lashing she gave him. He presented her with a distinguished Public School Leaving Exam score of 271 (along with a Distinction for Higher Chinese) and a scholarship to the prestigious Hwa Chong Institute. He never looked back.
He had no chance to do so. Until now.
“Pei Ling, dear, where did we keep that box of my… stuff?” Malcolm called from the civil defense shelter they had converted into a storage closet.
“What box?” his wife answered distractedly. She was in the middle of updating her Facebook page with pictures of their Pekinese’s latest salon treatment.
Malcolm took a chance. “You know the little box you wanted to throw out but we made an agreement we could keep if you could keep your Girl Singapore back issues?”
“Don’t know. I haven’t seen those issues since we renovated. Look! Su Yi just posted a video of a cat meowing ‘I love you!’–so cute! You have to come see.”
“In a sec, dear.” Malcolm had just caught a glimpse of small, slightly deformed cardboard box. He shifted the old computer packaging, shoeboxes, and unused gifts that were crushing it. Each time another portion of the box–a former Follow Me shampoo box he had taken from his mother’s cupboard–appeared, Malcolm was flooded with musty but still fresh memories.
“Michael Jackson!” Arif exclaimed when Malcolm opened the Follow Me box with a shyness boys exhibit when sharing their prized possessions. The two of them crouched in a corner of the schoolyard. Arif let out a slow whistle that was mostly breath. “That’s the best Pikachu. Play you for it!”
“No.” Malcolm grinned. Actually, he didn’t realize until many years later–when he was in the storage closet, in fact–that he had never taken chances with his cards. Pokémon Plus had not been envisioned by its inventors as a game of skill. There were only three ways to stay ahead: by chance; by spending your money carefully; or (in the card manufacturers’ wildest dreams) by spending with abandon. As a child, Malcolm had always veered between the later two.
He had only been friendly with Arif a short time when they started sharing cards. Arif was the “with abandon” type–he bounced between playing with abandon and buying with abandon. He was shorter than Malcolm, but not slightly built, which came in handy when Malcolm needed defense from schoolyard bullies. He still bullied Malcolm, but he didn’t do it unkindly, except when he was about to lose.
They were boys, not girls, so they never professed undying friendship. Arif wasn’t a good enough student to go anywhere like Hwa Chong, and Malcolm, sitting in his civil defense shelter, could not remember where he might have ended up.
“I’ll take a chance on this,” Malcolm announced to his colleagues. It had become his mantra in the few months since he had found the card and his original box.
“You sure, now?” Malcolm’s co-workers were proud–in an apologetic way–of their cautious nature, and his growing thirst for uncertainty terrified them. “This company so small one. How they supply us like Mitsubishi?”
“They grow. Especially when we give them orders. With this M.O.U. we lock them in now, while their product is still cheap. All play safe, nobody win.”
His colleagues sighed but didn’t sabotage him. Yes, Malcolm took chances, but he wasn’t yet drunk on them. A surprisingly large number of his chances paid off.
Malcolm kept the Pokémon card in his desk drawer, as a kind of talisman. In truth, he longed to play Pokémon Plus one more time, with the abandon he had never used as a child. There just didn’t seem to be a way to do so. For adults his age, it was a child’s game, and for children these days it wasn’t a game at all.
But everyone’s best friend is on Facebook, and, after some exploration of dark and strange alleyways, Malcolm was able to find a Facebook page for Pokémon card collectors. That lead him into the seedier districts of blogs, forums and even that most ancient of communication paths, the bulletin board system.
The internet forums also led Malcolm on an increasingly esoteric route, as he separated himself from those who thought Pokémon Plus were a manufacturing ploy to corrupt the true orthodoxy of Pokémon (Original), from those who ranted that Pokémon Gold were the age in which the true quality (i.e. the double-layer lithography) of the card was first manifest, and finally from those who thought Articuno a closet homosexual who would never have been included in the parthenon if he hadn’t allowed the main characters to “f***k him in the ass”, about which there was a surprising amount of fan fiction.
He fended off collectors who tried to downplay the value of his card, or who tried to persuade him to trade it for the equivalent of magic beans. He argued–until he realized arguing was useless–with the purists. But he never found anyone that actually wanted to play Pokémon with the cards.
In his daily life, meanwhile, Malcolm was descending from test-tasting chance through tipsiness and outright drunkenness to binge-drinking, where in one day, he closed three thirty-million-dollar procurement orders with three competing companies, negotiations which would have failed the moment any knew what he was saying to the others.
It was in the late afternoon of that day, in fact, that Malcolm came across the Playright Social Club. He found it on Page 34 of his Google search for Pokémon+Card+Players, at the point just before which Google descends irretrievably into pornographic and virus-infected links. He took a chance on the link, even though it showed no mention of “Pokémon” or “Players” or “Card” and gave no indication the social club was even on the same continent. But the moment the screen came up, with its Web 0.5 style of plain blue background and big yellow text, he knew he had crossed the lost horizon.
Playright Social Club was actually located in Singapore, somewhere in the northwest, which Malcolm didn’t know any better than he knew the Hangzhou of his infancy. But a phone call to the listed number yielded a working answering machine.
“I- I’m Malcolm and I’d like to know if someone there might be interested in playing Pokémon cards with me,” Malcolm said, the nervousness making his voice sound like that of a little boy. He left his handphone number and terminated the call.
About two days later he received an SMS: will play pk plus w u anykime malcom call me–and a number. Malcolm couldn’t remember if he had said Pokémon Plus or had used his real name. Even at that point he had a suspicion who Playright Social Club really was. He took a chance.
“Alamak! Mister Malcolm Chen! It’s been a long long long long time.” Arif’s gleeful voice floated over the line. “You still playing Pokémon Gold, jialat!” He sounded the same, just a little more gravel in his voice. “Hey, you still owe three cards I won over you.”
“I’ll play you for them.” Malcolm said. He felt the thrill of a gamble rising up his spine. “Just tell me when and where.”
“You still have the cards?”
“Not only them–I… I picked up some special one.”
So it happened that, on a Tuesday night, Malcolm SMS’d Pei Ling to tell her he had a late meeting at work. It bothered him to lie to her like that. Not only had he been taking chances with work, he had been taking chances in his romantic life. As a result, Pei Ling was five months’ pregnant.
From his office, Malcolm took the train line west by northwest, something he hadn’t done since his student days. After each station, the reflection of his face in the train window appeared to be growing younger, and the glimpses of Singapore behind it–for the train had emerged from the earth and was riding a viaduct–appeared more foreboding. Even the golden statue of Guan Yin at Clementi Station looked vaguely malevolent.
Malcolm alighted the train in the midst of a derelict field with abandoned construction on one side and ongoing destruction on the other. He threaded his way cross a muddy field to catch the bus Arif had set out for him. He carried his box of cards in his backpack, tucked safely under his arm, and wondered if he should send an apologetic message to Pei Ling.
Before finding the card, Malcolm would have said his meeting Pei Ling was “by chance”; now he realized that was not what chance was all about. His mother had chosen the tuition center near Coronation Road, and it was not by chance Pei Ling needed as much help in Chinese as Malcolm needed in Science.
Tan Pei Ling was from a more established Singaporean family whose family dialect was Oxford English, so she naturally found her scholastic requirements for Mandarin onerous. Unlike Malcolm’s mother, who believed in the triumph of hard work over chance, she had abiding faith in Destiny’s ability to keep her safe. She knew when her parents signed her up for tuition that she would destined to receive the smartest, cutest boy as her tutor.
Thus it was not chance that Malcolm, who had no natural learning skills, would be assigned to teach her Chinese. In return, Pei Ling, who had no natural teaching skills, took over the task of getting Malcolm his needed distinctions in Math and Science. Through their early battles, they came to understand they each needed the other, and, like many young people, confused mutual dependence with love.
They dated each other through to the end of university, if you consider “dating” to include common study sessions. After graduation, they felt secure enough in their beliefs not to be adventurous, and pledged their troth to each other.
Comfortability is only one kind of love, and it was not until Malcolm had started taking chances that either of them knew there were other kinds. Just as they had at the beginning of their relationship, they fought regularly, until the passion took hold. And now Pei Ling was pregnant.
Malcolm gripped his backpack with the cards more tightly as the bus wended its way into the night. Each turn awakened new memories in him, vague childhood memories as the blocks around him were still the old style he remembered from his childhood, and yet different in an intangible way.
Those vague memories seemed to draw him back into the fears of his childhood. Malcolm started to feel his heart beating faster, the rapid heartbeat of a small child. But, just as a sip of the bottle gives a drunkard courage to take a chance, Malcolm’s taking a chance gave him courage to uncover his fears.
Once, when Malcolm had been in Singapore only a few months, he had boarded the wrong bus and had promptly fallen asleep. The driver hadn’t noticed the small boy curled up in the back, and, when Malcolm awoke, the bus was already parked in a remote depot.
The bus drivers had probably thought themselves kind as they hung on to the boy and teased him until his mother could be contacted and someone could ferry him to a connecting point. However it was for Malcolm a searing moment of trauma, which left him evermore reluctant to take strange bus routes or to breathe the odor of kretek cigarettes.
Yet here he was, on a strange bus, heading into the night, with only a vague idea where he was going, and no one who knew he was going there. But he didn’t worry. He tapped his ragged box of cards once, for luck.
All the streetlights seemed to be out at the bus stop where Malcolm alighted. The entire area was under construction. Both the bus stop and the lighting were temporary and provided only the minimum effectiveness.
Malcolm threaded his way along a hoarded detour to find an unlit row of shophouses. Most were now empty or abandoned; each had a dusty orange notice foretelling their destruction, and on the notice a date which had already passed. Foreign workers in loose yellow garb were greedily eying the sidewalk to see where they could plant hoarding stumps.
But the address plaque beside the old wooden door was correct. Beside it a faded plastic signboard announced: PLAYRIGHT SOCIAL CLUB. GAMES AND MEMORABILIA BOUGHT AND SOLD. Then, in small print: STUDENTS WEARING SCHOOL UNIFORMS WILL NOT BE PERMITTED.
A single power cord came from somewhere else, passed through the transom, and spun off a single bulb, which lit the second floor corridor. The sign had been recently wiped of its coating of dust. He was expected.
Most of the old wooden doors on the second floor were as dead as petrified trees. The power cord, however, squeezed its way through one on the left. Light leaked out from the gaps in the frame. Malcolm cradled his backpack protectively, and pushed on the door.
What greeted him was not Arif but an absolute mess. Detritus from the whole history of games, from Wei Chi boards to broken X-Box consoles lay scattered about the room or stuffed in huge old display cupboards. Light was provided by a single light bulb, the old, incandescent kind, hanging by its wire from a coat hanger on one of the display cupboards. Possibly, someone lived here: Malcolm glimpsed pots and pans in small kitchen half-hidden behind a dusty curtain.
He cleared his throat to call out, but only a croak emerged. Just at that point though, he heard the sound of water behind another curtain. Moments later, Arif appeared through the curtain, shaking the moisture off his hands.
“Malcolm!” He looked Malcolm up and down. “Michael Jackson! A tie, now! Handsome dude, what!”
“Arif!” Malcolm said, but he could not think of much else. Life had not been kind to Arif. Apparently he had some hidden congenital defect that surfaced after he and Malcolm had lost touch, for he was still the same height as Malcolm had known him, but infinitely more aged and gnarly. His hair was no longer sleek and black, but flecked with grey and, in its uncut state, full of kinks. His nose, always full-fleshed, had grown bulbous. His cheeks were now cut deep with rivulets, giving his face the careworn look of an Australian aborigine mixed with the primitive wildness of a Borneo tribesman. He walked with that awkward, rolling gait that signified painful bone trouble. But his smile was just as mischievous as always.
“You brought your cards! Can I see?”
Malcolm slipped the box from his backpack. “They’re mostly just the old cards.”
“Sure, not! I heard rumors of a legendary Articuno with infinite immunity. So I sez ‘that’s got to be my old friend Malcolm!’ Lemme see!”
Malcolm placed his box on the rickety linoleum table, slipped off the rubber bands and pulled out the card. He held it up for Arif shyly and wouldn’t let him touch it.
“Michael Jackson,” Arif breathed reverently. “It’s the real thing. Almost as good as my companion card.”
“Oh yes. Someone mailed it to me. It’s a genuine Moltres Guardant. You know that Moltres is considered by many to be the consort of Articuno.”
“I think the expression is, Articuno can f**k Moltres’ ass any time of day.”
Arif giggled. “How about we play you one for the other. No immunity, we don’t let the cards get dirty. But winner gets both. Can?”
“Twenty cards. Can!”
“Haiyo! Twenty cards! Well it’s your funeral.”
Malcolm had the advantage at the start, because Arif still thought him a timid player, and Malcolm had no qualms about playing to that assumption. He let his power level dwindle down to sixteen while Arif played gleefully and revealed far more about his strategy than he should have. Then, with a whoop, Malcolm gambled a red Kameil power-up against Arif’s blue Hitokage, and won the entire deck.
“Alamak!” Arif wailed, in awe approaching terror. “I need a drink.”
“Aren’t you a Muslim?” Malcolm asked, for he had noticed the Arabic calligraphy at the appropriate places.
“Oh yes. Devout. Allah be praised, I found this great website which explained the Quran with great insight. It showed me how,” he said, as he pulled down a bottle from a high shelf, “according to the right reading of the Arabic, only beer is haram. You can get drunk on anything but beer and still go to paradise. Gauliang?”
Getting drunk on liquor clouds your mind, so it became a race to see who could make his opponent drunker, faster. Malcolm was at a disadvantage because of his lack of body weight, but he was in a zone, and all his senses went into sensing, through the haze, what was that perfect chance.
As the hour became large and then small again, the two young men were so absorbed in their game they paid no attention to the ominous sounds around them–sounds of rattling chains and Tamil staccato shouts. Malcolm played his last card, and a deviously tricky one, but his power level was over 90 now.
With a shout of rage, Arif threw down the Moltres card. “I claim immunity!” he yelled.
“Cannot! We agreed those cards are not in the game!”
“Play it!” Arif roared. “Fire always beats ice!”
Just then the single light bulb flickered out.
Arif swore some words that even Michael Jackson didn’t know. But that was just a cover. It is never really night in Singapore, and he knew exactly where he kept his parang. And Malcolm knew exactly where the Moltres card had fallen.
“Now! Give me my card!” Arif cried with an amok yell. The parang glinted in the floodlight of an approaching crane. He slashed at Malcolm’s startled fingers, missing them by a fraction of an inch, but cleaving the table in two. The building shook, and both men, in their drunken rage, did not question how it could be anything but the physical manifestation of that rage.
Malcolm scrambled out of Arif’s reach. There was something slimy and hot on his sleeve. It was possible the parang had not missed his fingers by a fraction of an inch. He didn’t dare look. Arif was advancing towards him again. The parang flitted in and out of the shifting light.
By now he was so used to taking chances, he didn’t even think about it. Instead of backing towards the door behind him, Malcolm splashed the remaining Gauliang at Arif’s face and made a desperate lunge for the parang.
Now this is a curious fact about old Chinese shop houses, which was discovered during the great Taiwanese earthquake of 1999. Due to the lack of structural support and to the desire to maximize commerce on the main floor, the shop houses, instead of crumbling under the force of the quake, simply collapsed, almost completely intact, one story down.
So did this shop house when hit by the ball of a wrecking crane.
When Malcolm regained consciousness, he was on the ground floor. Detritus of the Playright Social Club covered him up to his shoulders. He saw Arif’s arm protruding from a pile of rubble where a wall, and only one wall, had collapsed. His dead hand still clutched the parang, now covered in blood.
The bare light bulb that had refereed their game had smashed, and, had somehow kindled some of the old promotional literature in the cabinets. Its pale smoke hovered on the ground like incense, and caused Malcolm’s eyes to water.
Malcolm became slowly aware that the detritus on top of him included a cabinet full of Angry Birds toys. He struggled to extricate himself, but the cabinet was too heavy. The alcohol kept him from determining how much pain he was in. Stars danced in front of his eyes, but they turned out to be dust dislodged by the wrecking ball’s continuing attack.
Malcolm realized at that moment how much he loved Pei Ting. He was sad that he might never see her again, and might never get to hold their child. But he trusted in chance and in the Pokémon cards safely ensconced in his breast pocket. You see, in the Pokémon world, no one dies. They always turn out to have been safely, luckily, somewhere else at the time.
A blinding spotlight appeared above Malcolm’s head. From its light a wrecking ball lowered itself gently into the room. On it, gently grasping the tether, Malcolm perceived a tall, slender, hooded lady. Dust did not hide the whiteness of her robes.
“I know you!” Malcolm said. “You’re…”
“I am Guan Yin, Goddess of Mercy,” the woman replied, in perfectly enunciated classical Chinese. “It is I you have been following until now. For I am also the goddess of chance.”
“But,” Malcolm whispered, for the Qi was draining from his body into the velvet of the Angry Birds. “But, why?”
“I, too, love to play Pokémon,” the goddess replied. She leaned over and delicately lifted the two cards from Malcolm’s breast pocket. Their lamé sparkled in her hands. She smiled and Malcolm knew all had been set right in the universe.
In a final gesture of mercy, Guan Yin reached down with her other hand, gently, and closed Malcolm’s eyes.
D. M. Kerr is Canadian writer currently living and working in Singapore, where he teaches IT and game-design, and writes on the side. He likes to write fiction about cultural issues and anything else that strikes his fancy, including science fiction and young adult fiction. His work has been published, under various names, in 34th Parallel, Linden Avenue Literary Journal and Joyful Online. He formerly served as the secretary for the Society of Singapore Writers, and is now a member of the British Council’s Writing the City writer’s group. His work focuses on the relationship between what we believe and how we act.