1. Samee

Samee ran, even though he knew One-Eyed Man would get him. He ran, even though it was the hottest day of the year when the red sun met the blue sun in the sky. He ran, because today he turned twelve.

He heard a screech and smelled burning rubber. A cloud of dust coughed up in his face. He looked up at a huge tank. The driver shouted down at him: “Hey! I’ll squash you, insect!”

Samee scurried back and hid behind a tent by the road. The man’s black eyes squinted against the noon-day suns, looking for the boy. “Hey! Burnin’ insect!”

Samee peeked from behind the tent and blinked his eyes to clear the sweat. He held his breath.

Another man appeared from within the tank. The dust was too thick to see his face, but Samee could see he was wearing a helmet. He breathed a sigh of relief. Not One-Eyed Man.

“Why this delay? You have your orders. Proceed, servant,” said the helmeted man.

“Yes, master.” Quickly, the driver dropped back down into his machine.

Samee ducked into the tent to get out of the way of the noise and dust.

The tank rumbled into the desert and was gone.

Samee longed for a piece of watermelon. Juicy, wet, red watermelon. He licked his lips, but all he tasted was the dirt from the desert that had crept into every pore of his body. He wiped the dust from his tongue onto the back of his hand, but that only made it worse. He looked around the tent. It was a storage place for a merchant’s goods. Broken tank parts, old tires, fuel cans, weapons—oh, there was an old junk thing—

A big, black boot kicked Samee in the back. His breath left him with a spurt of dust and he dropped the thing.

“Hey, insect! What you doin’ in my—”

But the boy was out from under the tent flap before he heard anymore. He pelted down the lane of tents, straight into the bazaar.

Men shouting. Shoving. Pointing. Bartering. Samee was small and thin and could easily hide under the tables. Long ago, he had learned what happened to anyone who was different and he had learned to hide—and hide well. He had learned how to watch and listen and how to know what was going to happen before it happened. He had learned how to run away and be hard to catch. Just like an insect. Maybe that’s what they meant when they called young ones “insects.” He didn’t know, but he knew it wasn’t a good word.

Men pounded on the tables and bartered their metal wares. Crash! Clang! Bang! Yell!

Samee could never understand why the stuff was so important. He wanted to find out more, but One-Eyed Man only let him sweep the floor and take care of the garbage. Never let him do anything else. Never let him go anywhere.

“Just an insect. All you’re good for,” One-Eyed Man would say. “Til you’re twelve.”

“When will that be? What will I do then?” Samee asked, worried he would not be able to hide anymore when that twelve happened.

But One-Eyed Man never answered the boy’s questions. No one answered Samee’s questions.

In his small tent, there was an old junk thing—a Buhk—that Samee had found under his cot, holding up a leg. Whenever One-Eyed Man was away, Samee looked at the Buhk, its pictures and its numbers and its markings. Beautiful pictures of strange creatures eating watermelon and other foods he had never seen or tasted. He couldn’t understand the markings, but he had learned the numbers from another boy who knew how to count to ten to help his own master keep track of their tanks. But then his friend had his twelve happen and Samee never saw him again.

On his own, Samee taught himself to count to twenty. He decided he could only run away twenty times. After that, he had to run away for good and find the end of the desert. Sometimes at dusk, if he squinted when the light was just right, he could see it, far away, on the horizon, colors shimmering, red yellow orange green blue purple.

Today, Samee was running away for the twentieth time, because today One-Eyed Man had told him he was twelve. And Samee knew that wasn’t a good number.

He slipped from under the last table in the market and ran around the corner to the open square. Each time he ran away, Samee went to check whose heads were stuck on the sticks at the top of each corner of the square. Maybe, just maybe, one of the heads would belong to One-Eyed Man.

Today, though, something was different.

A stage was set up at one end of the open square. A line of boys was waiting by the stage. Samee stared. He had never seen so many like him in one place. When another tribe passed through, he’d catch a glimpse, but the masters always kept them in their own camps.

These boys had collars around their necks, with leashes attached to the collars. Are they different, too? Samee wondered.

Several men were gathered by the stage, arguing with one man who growled back. He turned his head. It was One-Eyed Man.

Samee was already around the corner, when he heard One-Eyed Man yell, “There it is!”

A growl and a whoop, and Samee could hear them coming after him. He ran back into the bazaar. Someone yelled: “Insect! Twelve! Get it!”

Samee was small and thin, but wiry and strong. Every day, he lifted and carried and walked, but mostly he was good at running. Today, he was very good at running. He ran and ran, under tables, around tents, over metal drums, and past tanks rolling into the desert.

He stopped and hid. He looked around. No sight or sound of the men chasing him. Only the tanks, slowly moving into the distance, followed by a caravan of trucks. And behind them, two lines of men marching in rhythm. “We are brave. We are strong. Across the sands, where we belong.”

From the shade of his hiding place, Samee looked across the desert. He smiled. He loved the wide-open sky. He loved the sight of the gleaming metals under the red and blue noon. He loved the sound of the men singing their walking song. He inhaled the smell he loved most of all. The smell of freedom. Where were they going, these tanks and trucks and men? One day, he vowed to himself, he would find out.

Samee glanced behind him and spotted a different bazaar. Something red caught Samee’s eye. Keeping low, he moved closer. He was right. It was watermelon. A few pieces were left on a table. Some flies buzzed around the pieces, feasting.

Samee licked his lips. He had eaten a piece of watermelon before, sometime, a long time ago. Nothing had tasted so good. Like Rayn. He remembered Rayn, too, from a long time ago—wet and cold, like clear drops of watermelon falling from the sky. He had eaten his piece of watermelon too fast, wanted another, wanted to know where it came from.

“It’s called watermelon,” was all One-Eyed Man would say. “So shaddup.”

Watermelon. Samee had said the word over and over. To memorize it. So he could at least eat the word. Wat-er-mel-on. It sounded wet just saying it.

A merchant came out from his tent. He swatted the flies away and saw the boy across the road. “Hey, insect! What you starin’ at?”

The boy could only look at the watermelon, dazed.

“Where’s your master?” The man took a juicy bite. “Oh. You wanna piece?”

Samee stared at the man and then at the piece of watermelon in his grimy hand.

“Sure. Take it. Almost rotten anyway.”

The man smiled. Samee approached and smiled back shyly. He reached for the piece of water—

“Lousy burnin’ insect!”

A huge hand gripped Samee’s neck from behind. The piece of watermelon dropped to the ground. Samee struggled and yelled as he was lifted up by the back of his neck. Another hand clamped over his mouth.

Samee looked up at One-Eyed Man.

Chapter 2: Twenty