The little thief boy began to stir from his troubled dreams, slowly opening his eyes a bit at a time and waiting for the world to come into focus. The first thing he saw was a hand lying just in front of his face, a small greasy hand not unlike his own. He began to flex his fingers a bit, and the fingers of the hand in front of him moved too. It was still there! He bolted up to a sitting position and looked down at his two little hands, so happy he wanted to cry. He could feel them and move them as he always could.
His cheek began to sting, so he placed one of his hands against it, only to reel it back again and cry out in pain.
"Hey! He's awake!" someone nearby exclaimed.
The thief looked over with a start to find a boy sitting across from him with a smile. "Are you okay?" the boy asked.
He did not respond at first, instead taking inventory of his surroundings. He found himself in the back of a cart with a bright cloth canopy shading him from the sun. In the front, past the boy, was a man in a wide-brimmed hat who directed a pair of horses that pulled the cart. The thief closed his eyes and began to piece together vague recollections of someone carrying him away on their back.
"You had me worried," the strange boy continued. "My dad said you'd probably die, and then we'd have to bury you."
The thief opened his eyes again and stared at the boy a moment, unmoving. Then, in the next instant, he threw himself over the side of the cart. He gave a cry as he hit the ground, rolled over, and pushed himself up to take off running as fast as his feet could carry him.
"Hey, wait!" he heard the other boy call after him. "Dad, stop the cart!"
"Chinji! Stop!" he could hear the man shout in reply. "Get back here!"
But the thief didn't stop. He didn't even bother to look back. He wouldn't let himself be caught again. He would run and run until his feet were shredded apart beneath him if he had to. But the other boy was even faster than he was, and he could hear the dull thud of the boy's boots slapping against the dirt behind him. He tried to run faster, but it was no use. Soon enough the strange boy caught him by the arm.
"No! Let me go!" he shouted, yanking his arm violently in an attempt to free it. "I won't steal anything ever again! I promise! I promise! Just let me go!" He fell to his knees and broke into tears. "I promise! I promise! I promise! I didn't take anything this time! Just don't cut my hands off! Don't cut my hands off!" He felt a warm hand on his shoulder and looked up to see the boy crouched across from him, a smile on his face.
"It's okay now," the boy assured him. "I know you won't steal anymore." The boy reached into the satchel at his side and produced a golden-ripe apple. The thief's mouth began to water and his stomach gurgled loudly in desire. And then, to his surprise, the strange boy pushed the apple into his hands. He looked down at it a moment, rolling it over in his palms. But even though it looked like the single most delicious thing he had ever seen with his own eyes, he simply tossed it away into the bushes that lined the road and scampered to his feet. "No! You won't trick me! I won't steal it from you!"
The strange boy looked at him with bright amber eyes, his teeth biting into his bottom lip. "But you didn't steal it," the boy said. "I gave it to you." He walked calmly over to the bushes to dig the apple out and promptly returned it to the thief's grip. "Go ahead; eat it. It's yours." The thief didn't argue this time. Instead he held his arms close, ripping into the apple's crisp skin with his teeth again and again, never waiting for one sweet bite to be finished before starting on the next.
"Hey, slow down!" the strange boy told him. "You'll make yourself sick."
The man with the wide-brimmed hat finally caught up with the two of them, doubled over and gasping from breath. "Chinji, don't you ever run away like that again!" He took the strange boy's hand and began to lead him away. "Now let's get back to the cart before the horses start to wander off."
The boy pulled his hand free. "No, dad! We have to wait for him."
The man peered over at the thief boy with a disapproving glare. The thief tossed the unfinished apple aside, hiding his hands behind him and beginning to step back. "H-he gave it to me! I didn't steal it!"
The man shook his head. "Just take it and go, kid. We've got nothing against you."
"No, dad!" the boy exclaimed, pulling away. "He'll starve! Or the soldiers will find him again! He has to come with us."
The man sighed. "Chinji, you know we can't do that. You're old enough to read and understand my account books. With another mouth to feed, there's no way we could make enough back to be able to buy next year's spices."
The thief turned to leave, eager to find a new village to move on to now that his stomach had something in it, but the strange boy ran forward and caught him by the hand again. "I won't let that happen!" the boy declared. "We don't have to buy any extra food. I'll share my food with him! He can have my old clothes!"
"Chinji!" his father objected. "You can't just take strange people in like that. And he's a thief! How do you know he won't steal from us during the night and run away?"
"I won't steal anything!" the thief shouted, tugging at his arm. "Just let me go!"
"He didn't steal anything from us or run away last night!" the merchant's son insisted.
"That's because he was passed out until just now," said the man. He sighed and crouched down to the thief's eye level. "Look kid, where's your parents? Your family?"
The thief shook his head. "I don't have any."
"Everyone has a mother and father," said the strange boy. "What happened to them?"
The thief had to think hard about it before answering. "I don't remember. It's been too long."
The boy let the thief's hand go free and turned to his father. "See! He has nowhere else to go! We have to take him with us."
The man stood and furrowed his brow, stroking the stubble on his chin with eyes closed. "Fine," he said at last, "the boy can ride with us. But only until the next big town! We can find some family to take him in, or leave him at the cathedral; it doesn't matter. But we cannot possibly take him any further than that!"
"Did you hear that?" the merchant's son cheered. "You can stay with us!" He took the thief by the hand and began pulling him along to the cart.
"Only for a little while, Chinji!" his father shouted after them.
They all returned to the cart, and Chinji helped the thief boy up into the back while his father took his place in front. "Are we all ready now?" the merchant asked. "No more stops until tonight, understand? If he jumps again, Chinji, you let him go. We can't force him to stay if he doesn't want to."
The merchant flicked the reigns and the horses started forward. The thief boy gave a shout and nearly toppled over as the cart jerked into motion.
"Are you okay?" Chinji laughed, helping the boy to sit back up. The thief rubbed his head to dull the bump on his crown. His cheek began to burn again and he reached his hand up to rub the pain away.
"Hey! Don't touch it!" Chinji shouted, catching the boy's hand. "It hasn't healed yet."
The thief pulled his hand free and glared back at Chinji with an obstinate frown. Ignoring the other boy's warning, he jammed his palm into his cheek, eager to comfort his sore. As soon as he did he was sorry for it, rolling over and screaming in pain.
"I told you not to do it!" said Chinji. He helped the boy to sit up again.
"Chinji, what's going on back there?" the merchant called from the front.
"What's wrong with me?" the thief sobbed. "Am I going to die?"
Chinji dug around the cart and produced a hand mirror. He held it up so that the thief could see his face. Besides the black eyes and countless yellow-green bruises was a dark red and blue pattern covered in tiny blisters and pus-filled boils on his left cheek. "I-is my face going to fall off?"
Chinji shook his head. "No, my dad says you'll be okay. We put some ointment on it while you were asleep, but he says it has to heal on it own."
The thief hunched his shoulders, casting his eyes down and saying nothing.
"Oh, hey! I haven't introduced myself yet!" Chinji realized. He gave a sincere bow, leaning forward with his whole body. "My name is Dhir Chinji Sen. It is an honor to meet you." He glanced up to find the thief's eyes darting back and forth, as if unsure how to respond. "What's wrong? You're supposed to give me your name now."
The little thief shrugged. "I don't have a name."
"What!" Chinji exclaimed, sitting up. "Everyone has a name!"
"I don't," said the thief boy. "There wasn't anyone to give me one."
Chinji tapped his finger to his lips. "Well, you can't go on forever without a name." He nodded his head. "Its decided then. Your name will be Arjun."
"You can't just give people names, Chinji," his father called from the front. "That's for his family to decide."
"But we should be his family!" said Chinji.
"Chinji, we already went over this. He needs someone who can really take care of him, not us."
The thief boy tilted his head. "Arjun?" he repeated to himself. He furrowed his brow and stuck out his tongue. "That's a stupid name. I hate it. I don't need a name anyway."
"You don't get to choose your own name!" Chinji objected. "Arjun is your name now."
"But you can't give me a name!" the thief continued to protest. "A worthless, meaningless thing like me can't have one like you can. The world would be better off without me, because I'm just"
"Don't ever say that!" Chinji shouted. "You are someone special, who has value!"
The thief's eyes grew wide and glossy. "Someone who has value?" he asked. "But that's not true at all."
Chinji shook his head. "It is true! I wouldn't have run up there to save you if you were worthless. You are Arjun, my friend! A valuable person who was worth saving."
"ButBut..." The thief broke out in tears. "Thank you, Chinji! Thank you so much! I'll never forget what you did for me! Not ever, as long as I live!"
The cart came up over the crest of a hill, clearing their line of vision to a sizable village in the distance. "Ah, here we are," Chinji's father called back to the two boys, pointing to the village. "That's where we're staying tonight, Chinji. Now get some things together for that kid. We have to say goodbye to him in the morning, understand."
"Yes sir," said Chinji. He leaned over the side of the cart and began digging through the bags slung along its outer frame. When he pulled himself back up, he had a wad of clothing in his hand: a plain white shirt with short sleeves, clean underwear, and a pair of long gray pants fashioned of heavy cloth now kept together with countless patches lovingly sewn in to it. He tossed them to Arjun.
"What are these?" Arjun asked, looking down at them.
"They're yours," said Chinji. "They don't fit me anymore, so I'm giving them to you. Get dressed! After we get our room for the night, we'll have the biggest meal you've ever seen!"
"And just how are we going to pay for that?" asked Chinji's father in a stern voice.
"We'll use my spending money!" said Chinji. "All of it! I won't buy another thing until the end of the year if I have to."
"T-thank you!" Arjun sobbed. "Thank you so much." It was all he could think to say. He kept expecting Chinji or his father to turn on him, to reveal it was all just a cruel joke. Every time he was offered something he would stare back at Chinji, waiting for the other boy to snatch it back and laugh at him. But he never did.
That nightafter he'd eaten so much hot food that he'd made himself sickhe lay groaning in bed, tucked under warm sheets and dressed in clean clothes with Chinji at his side. He was sure, even then, that his bellyache was a small price to pay for the wonderful things he'd heard and felt that day.