(When eight-year old Zahid’s father dies in the throes of the Sudanese civil war, Zahid must save his best friend, ten-year old Maleek, from the rebel Red Army who kidnaps children and trains them to fight and die for the army’s cause.)
The day that my father died was also the day that I met my best friend Maleek. I wasn’t there at the place where they killed him. I was too busy getting into trouble, even when my father specifically told me to stay inside. I didn’t obey him. He wouldn’t have known and so I sneaked out of the apartment we shared and ran down to the market to buy some sweets. That was where I met Maleek. He was two years older than me, ten, and he had skin so black I thought it hurt to touch him. We had been running around for most of the day, two dirty kids laughing and playing in the middle of the market, as happy as we could’ve been. There wasn’t much to be happy about it those days. I didn’t like the place my father and I had come to or the people here. I didn’t remember being happy much after we arrived here.
My father, General Hamad Assain, divorced my mother when I was still a child. I remembered nothing of her, but I found a picture of a beautiful woman hidden in some of my mother’s belongings. She had dark hair and very pale skin. Her eyes were a soft green and she smiled. I have her eyes, the same shade of summer leaves on the sparse trees that grew around the apartment complex where we used to live. Years later, I heard rumors that told me a different story. The rumors said that my father didn’t really divorce my mother. My mother was said to have been having an affair with another man and when my father found out, he killed both her and the unborn baby brother or sister I could’ve had which was in her belly at the time. I didn’t believe the stories told about my father. I didn’t know my mother, but I was sure she was a good woman. My father was always so king and so nice to me. He couldn’t have murdered my mother and the baby. He was a devout Muslim man who believed in doing good and in treating others with love and respect.
We lived in the small apartment complex, which was a series of white boxes stacked one on top of the other, for the first few years of my life. We moved shortly before my seventh birthday because my father had a job that took him from place to place, and this time, he was to be gone for a very, very long period of time so he took me with him. He explained this new place to me before we left. It was a place filled with new things and new people–people so dark that at night, the only part of them that could be seen was the white of their eyes. I didn’t believe him. No person was ever that dark. But this was to be a world different from the one I knew while living in the tiny apartment complex. This was no longer Saudi Arabia, but Africa, and that was where we were going.
“Zahid,” Maleek whispered as his invisible fingers shook me gently. “It’s your turn to keep watch.”
“Leave me alone,” I mumbled quietly, pushing his hand away. “I just fallen asleep.”
Maleek pressed the button on his watch, covering the soft light of the indiglo with his whole hand cupped around the face of the watch. “It’s four-twenty and my turn to sleep,” he insisted. “You slept for four hours.”
I groaned and swatted behind me, not hitting Maleek, but wishing that it was as easy to ignore him as crushing a pesky mosquito and not having to deal with the persistent buzzing in my ear. “Fine, fine,” I said as I forced myself to sit up. It was so dark that the only part of Maleek I saw was the white of his eyes. We stared at each other for a moment. “Go on then,” I said to him. “Sleep, sleep, so it will quickly be my turn again.”
“In time,” Maleek said as he settled down beside me. He dug himself into the dry dirt and bent some tall grass to use as a pillow. He took off his watch and gave it to me. “Don’t lose it,” he warned me sternly. He did this every time he had to part with the watch. “My father gave it to me. If you lose it, I will kill you.” The threat was an idle one. Maleek didn’t have a father. He grew up on the streets of Umptin, a small poor city in Sudan. He found the watch one day while digging through the trash bins, searching for something to eat. The wrist band was the only part that was broken so Maleek found some string and tied two ends to the face, creating a new band.
“I hear you too loudly,” I said, hushing him with the last two words. “It’s safe, I promise.” I tied the watch tightly on to my wrist, making sure that it wouldn’t fal off, and then I turned to see Maleek staring at me. “What?” I asked. “Didn’t you want to sleep?”
“Don’t fall asleep, Zahid,” Maleek warned me. “I have a bad feeling about tonight.”
“Tonight, tonight,” I said to him. “Night’s almost over now. You always have bad feelings.”
He nodded at me. “Yes, and you fell asleep twice.”
My cheeks reddened, but Maleek couldn’t see the color in the dark. I bit my lip and puffed out my chest. “A simple accident,” I told him. “I didn’t fall asleep after that. If I said I’m up, I’m up.” He only stared at me and it made me more nervous. “Don’t worry,” I said as I pushed his head towards the ground. “I am the brave son of a General. In my country, everyone will be glad to know that we are protecting them, us Generals. My people are not cowards. My father never ran away. I will never run away. And you will not have to fear–”
“You speak too much,” Maleek said as he closed his eyes. I instantly stopped in mid-sentence. I did speak too much when I get nervous. “Do not fall asleep, Zahid,” Maleek repeated. “I have a very bad feeling about this.”
“You can count on me,” I told him. Then I stared into the darkness where I thought he lay until I was sure that he was asleep. “Nothing to do now,” I whispered to myself. “It’s good there’s no lions around.” I shuddered at the thought of the wild beasts that could at any moment, rip to pieces two weak young boys in the middle of nowhere and no one would’ve ever known we existed. I cast the thought out of my head and focused on the task at hand. I was going to keep us both safe, like my father would’ve done if he was still here.
Africa was much like Saudi Arabia in that sand and dirt was everywhere. It was much hotter in Sudan and since being here, I gained a darker skin color than what I’ve been used to all my life. My father and I moved to a small city which wasn’t really a city at all. The roads were cracked and broken with deep gashes stretching far into the earth. Trash was piled up at every place imaginable and there was no room to step without having to step on some type of trash that was permanently stuck on the ground and could never be removed even if it was scrubbed by powerful machines. Vegetables were in short supply and most of them, wilted, nearing rotten by the time that it was carried home in plastic bags. Gangs of little kids shamelessly begged in the streets, picked pockets, and stole right from under noses and hands. I didn’t know that each dirty and raggedly dressed child was an orphan, a lone survivor who banded together with other unlucky souls to survive in their unkind world. I didn’t want to ever become like them. In fact, the city that we arrived in was a great big one with no unsupervised children running around, nice paved roads, restaurants to eat at, and beautiful homes and apartments. I thought we were going to stay there and I got very excited. Then my father took me to this dump of what was called a small city and I felt disappointed. I was unhappy to settle in such an unclean and unwell place.
“Why here?” I had asked my father.
He smiled at me. “This is where my job takes me to,” he replied very kindly.
“You want us to live here?” I couldn’t believe I had to stay in this awful place. “There’s nothing here.”
“A very important job is here,” my father said. “As long as it is here, then we shall be here too.” He patted me on the head and led me up a very blue staircase to a second story door. The white paint was chipped everywhere I looked and the door looked beaten in a few times with dents and a few splinters in the wood. Layers of yellow peeked out from behind the white paint.
“We live here now,” I said to myself, feeling a sense of overwhelming hatred rising up for this place I had to live in. I didn’t understand why we couldn’t live somewhere else, somewhere cleaner. “But this is too much. No one can really live here.”
My father opened the door with his key and turned the rattling loose knob. “Zahid, there is always hope in the midst of any bad thing.” He smiled at me and suddenly, I had to pee.
I awoke to a tightening in my belly. I quickly glanced around to see if Maleek had seen me sleeping, but I heard the soft breathing and knew he had been asleep the whole time. “Lucky!” I whispered to myself as I started to climb to my feet. Maleek would’ve killed me if he knew! The rumbling in my stomach started to ache and I pushed my stomach inward to help soothe some of the pain. “Oh, no,” I groaned. “I have to poop too.” I hurried past Maleek and farther up front, trying to count my steps so I could find my way back. I went fifty steps, and then decided to walk a little bit more to keep the smell away from Maleek who was still sleeping.
In the middle of relieving myself, I heard laughter from somewhere behind me. I strained my ears to listen as much as I also strained to pass a big one. Was Maleek up and laughing at me? Did he smell the stink? I worried and tried to finish so I could go tell him how sorry I was for waking him up. I thought I was far away enough and without wind, there shouldn’t have been any smell.
I was about done, ripping off tall grass in clumps to wipe myself when I heard a voice that didn’t sound familiar. The voice stopped me cold and my hand almost fell into the pile of mess I just made.
“What have we here?” said the stranger. “A little piggy alone to be food for wolves.” There was much laughter after that and coming from more than one person.
Wolves? There are no wolves in Sudan. There were no wolves in Saudi Arabia too although I’ve seen them in textbooks and on the internet. No internet in poor places like this one either. What was the voice talking about? It was not deep enough to be a man. It sounded like a boy, just like me and Maleek. I listened more, hurridly wiping and not caring whether I got all the mess off of my skin or not. I couldn’t leave Maleek to himself.
“I am alone,” Maleek said. So he was awake! “What want you and you?”
Why did he say he was alone? He knew I was here too. Maybe he thought I had run off and left him. I told him I wouldn’t leave! I was about to shout and say something when Maleek’s words brought me to a screeching halt.
“You carry guns.” I didn’t know if he said it as an observation or as a warning to me. A gun was a dangerous weapon. My father had told me so. He said guns took many lives. I’ve seen my father’s gun, but I had never been allowed to touch it. Maleek continued on talking, almost too loudly. “I am alone and there is no one with me. I cannot run away. I will do what you want me to. You go away. You run away. I will stay here.”
His words seem to speak to me as well as to the people around him. Run away, he had said. He wanted me to run away? I stayed low and crawled away from the stinking pile, away from Maleek. Before we rested, I saw a stretch of trees to the left, but that was behind of us. I didn’t know how many people were there with him, but if I could somehow crawl around them and make it to the trees, I would be safe. But the thought of a lion hiding in that brush or a snake or any other wild animal made me worry. I didn’t know what to do.
“You go away,” Maleek said, even louder this time. “You run away. I cannot go awya. What want you and you?”
“He makes no sense,” said one of the boys to the others. “Is he damaged?”
I heard a loud thump and Maleek groaned, a fall in the tall grasses where we were sleeping. “Go away!” Maleek screamed. He was definitely talking to me. I saw falshlights in the distance, but I jumped up and ran in the opposite direction, running and running as fast as I could. I heard someone order the others to look around and see if there was someone else there. I should’ve ran away when Maleek first told me to. I looked behind to see multiple beams of light behind me. Luckily, they did not reach my small form. I have been lucky twice tonight.
I didn’t know where to go or what to do except to run. It was foolish to run in a straight line so I turned left. I had no idea where left went, but it was better than all the people coming up behind me. Maybe they thought I kept straight or maybe they thought I went right. As I ran, the fear carried my tiny legs deep into the early dawn. My chest heaved and my stomach hurt. I didn’t have to poop more, but the lack of food made me nauseous and a little dizzy. I wanted to stop, to rest, but there was nowhere to be safe. As light streamed across the sky, I saw I was on an open plain and behind me, no one was coming up over the horizon. I slowed down enough to catch my breath, wheezing as my lungs tried to draw air past the confines of my chest. My leg muscles spasm and ached, paralyzing themselves in hurtful charley horses that made me wince in pain. I fell down and repeatedly massaged my calf muscles to stop them from locking up on me.
“Maleek,” I whispered as tears threatened to squeeze out of my eyes. Where was my best friend now? Had he survived? What happened to him? I pushed the though out of my head. What was I going to do without him?
I needed water and that was the first thing that Maleek and I had always looked for. We always tried to stay near water although sometimes, the animals stayed by water too. With Maleek, there were two sets of eyes to watch the land around us. If we saw a lion, we always walked really fast in the other direction. If it was a leopard or a cheetah, the same rules applied. In fact, we tried to stay away from all the big animals, harmful or not, We ate berries and whatever else we could find. We ate dirt at times to fill up our groaning bellies.We were so hungry at times that we took handfuls of brown grass and ate it like the animals did. Grass was better than nothing.
I was eating grass now, chewing on long dried stems, trying to work the saliva in my mouth so I didn’t feel so thirsty. If i didn’t find water soon, I’d be dehydrated even more so than I now and I might die out here. I shuddered at that thought. I didn’t want to die out here where the wild animals would fight each other to tear off pieces of meat from my carcass. What would happen if I died? How would I ever know what happened to Maleek? And what if he was looking for me right now? I turned around, but no one was following me so I took my time, trying to see if there was anything in the distance ahead or anywhere.