Aladdin looked down at the man with his large belly and face pressed against the bed. He reminded Aladdin of a shaved camel. More than that, the man was snoring. He knew this snore. This was a drunk-off-his-ass, passed out snore. Aladdin had seen him playing Sic bo at the casino that night. He was drinking a lot and winning a lot. If fact, that was why Aladdin was in his room now.
When a person grows up on the streets without parents or anyone to care about them, they didn’t have many options in life. So when Aladdin got in good with the owner of the local casino, and the owner offered him a job, he took it. The casino owner employed him to collect back the winnings from anyone who had too big of a night.
Aladdin knew that this was unfair. But, to Aladdin, life wasn’t about being fair. It was about survival. He left fairness for the Sultan and everyone else who didn’t have to worry about finding their next meal.
“If I were visiting this city for a week, where would I hide my winnings?” Aladdin asked himself.
Aladdin knew this room. He had been in it before. This was an inn where a lot of people stayed when they had money and came to the city. He had been employed to collect back the winnings of its residents before. Most of the people who stayed there hid their money at the bottom of their travel trunk. This guy hadn’t done that, however. So, where could he have hidden it?
Although the room still looked like no one had searched it, Aladdin had gone through everything. He had even searched the man himself. The money was nowhere. Aladdin was about to resign himself to the idea that the man had given it to someone before he had entered the room, when he spotted somewhere he hadn’t searched.
Every room in the fancier hotels came with a bathroom bucket. It was nowhere that even a thief would go near. After all, what type of person would put something they valued in there? It was the dirtiest of dirty places… which, of course, would make it the perfect hiding spot.
Aladdin’s young face twisted just thinking about what he was going to do next. The bathroom bucket had a heavy lid on it to seal off the smell of whatever was inside. The purpose of the bucket was to be a quick place to pee. But considering one of the jobs he had as a child was to clean them out, he knew what sometimes ended up in there.
With all of those awful memories coming racing back, Aladdin stared the bucket down and gathered his will. There was no way he was going to be able to return to his boss empty-handed, at least without there being dangerous consequences. So, he had to at least check it just so he could say that he did.
Leading with his shoulder as if he was about to run away, Aladdin eased up to it. He had had so many bad memories. But crouching down and slowly lifting the lid, he got a whiff of what came out. Apparently, this man had used the bucket for what it was intended. It wasn’t going to be so back. So, removing the lid and looking down, he saw the liquid which had been expected as well as something large and dark laying within it.
Aladdin was about to return the lit thinking it was something else. But, he paused. Remembering that there was no additional scent, he leaned down and took a closer look. The large brown thing was a pouch. Back at the casino, Aladdin had seen the man put his winnings into a pouch. This was it. He had found it. Now he just needed to reach into the bucket and collect it.
When Aladdin hesitated to stick his hand into it, he realized just how clever of a hiding spot this was. He was going to have to remember this if he could ever afford to stay in a fancy inn, and owned something valuable enough to hide.
Aladdin admired the man for being the only one to think of this. He didn’t admire the man enough to leave his winnings where they were. After all, stealing it back was all a part of the game. But he would make it up to him in another way if he could. He was definitely not going to pick his pocket later if he saw him at the market.
“Good move,” Aladdin said looking at the sleeping camel again. “Well played.”
Collecting the pouch, he held it over the bucket trying to shake off the liquid. Dipping it up and down, he allowed his attention to turn to the window. It was very early in the morning. It was the quiet time after the bars had closed and the morning hustle hadn’t yet begun. This was when the city was at its most peaceful. Aladdin liked this time. This was when he could forget about all of his troubles and just take a second to breathe.
It was for that reason that the sound of someone breathlessly running disturbed him. Scanning the streets below, it took a while for Aladdin to spot him. When he did, it was as the guy turned onto the narrow passageway in front of the inn.
Intrigued, Aladdin quickly shook off the pouch’s remaining remanence and approached the window. Tucking the pouch in his pants, he focused on what was happening outside. In the moonlight, the runner looked about his age, though physically a little smaller than Aladdin. And the boy looked terrified.
What had made him so scared? Aladdin wondered. It didn’t take long for him to figure it out.
At first, Aladdin thought he was seeing dust kicking up from where the boy had run. But quickly he realized that that wasn’t it. Whatever it was wasn’t settling. In fact, the further behind the runner Aladdin looked, the thicker the cloud became.
Looking closer, Aladdin realized that this wasn’t dust, or a cloud at all. It was smoke. The smoke was pouring off of what could only be described as some sort of monster.
Terror flooded Aladdin’s heart. What was this? Aladdin had never seen anything like it. It was after the runner, and the boy was fleeing for his life.
It was in an instant that Aladdin decided what to do. Without thinking, Aladdin through himself onto the window sill and launched himself onto the roof one story below. Landing, Aladdin rolled. He was used to this. Aladdin could cross the entire city without once touching the ground. That was what made him so good at what he did. And that was what he was going to do to save the boy’s life tonight.
Running along the roofs, he caught up to the boy. The boy below wasn’t fast. Perhaps he was tired. Perhaps it was something else. But whatever it was, Aladdin came up with a plan to save him.
When the boy turned onto a street in front of Aladdin, Aladdin knew this was his opening. The runner was approaching a building with an awning. Speeding ahead, Aladdin launched himself off of the roof, across the street and onto it. It held his weight. But continuing in one motion, he used the spring from his jump to bounce off of the wall and backflip from the wall to the street below. The move was magnificent.
“Ahhh!” the runner yelled in a boyish tone.
Looking into the boy’s eyes, Aladdin, crouched on one knee, paused. Startled, the boy slowed unsure if he should be afraid.
“It’s you!” the boy proclaimed before Aladdin put a finger on his lips and silenced him.
After the boy did what he was told, Aladdin ran to him and grabbed his arm. Without a word, Aladdin led the boy through a nearby alley before quickly turning up another one. In the second one, the space was narrow. If Aladdin or the boy had had any weight on them at all, they wouldn’t have been able to get through.
Getting out the other side. Aladdin found another alley and led the boy in. Finding a small wall that lined the entrance to a building, Aladdin pulled the boy behind it so both boys could hide.
The smaller boy was out of breath. Aladdin was not. Peeking out at where they had come from, Aladdin didn’t see anything. For now, they were safe. But, when Aladdin looked back at the boy he had just rescued, he found the panting boy staring at him as if he had seen a ghost.
“You’ll be alright. You’re safe here,” Aladdin reassured him.
The boy didn’t reply.
“Are you okay? Are you hurt?”
It took a moment, but the boy regained his voice.
“I’m fine,” the boy said. “I’m just tired.”
“Well, rest up because we might have to run again. What was that thing chasing you?”
“It’s a sorcerer. He’s kept me locked up in his dungeon for a long time. But, tonight I escaped.”
“He’s very powerful. We can’t let the smoke touch us. If it does, we won’t be able to run away. Please, keep me safe. I don’t want to go back there. It’s so horrible!” the boy said with his soft brow furrowing.
“Don’t worry, I’ll keep you safe. You’ll be alright. You hear me. You’ll be alright.”
Aladdin looked back down the alleyway. As he did, he saw the smoke enter the street far ahead. He pulled himself back pressing the still panting boy against the wall. Keeping his hand on the boy’s chest, Aladdin peeked out again.
The smoke enveloped the street like soupy dough. Rolling across every inch of it, a part of it poured into their alley. Aladdin was about to get up and run off when he decided to wait. Although more of the smoke crawled towards them, a few feet in front of them, the tentacles stopped.
As Aladdin watched, the smoke in the street grew until it was the height of a man. That had to have been where the sorcerer was. Standing outside the alleyway, the sorcerer stopped. The way the smoke moved, it was clear that the man within it was looking around. When it turned towards them, Aladdin whipped himself back.
Aladdin looked into the boy’s eyes ushering him to be particularly quiet. Staring at Aladdin the boy held his breath. Staring at the boy, Aladdin took a moment to examine who he had saved.
The boy had a light brown complexion like himself. That meant that he had to be Arab. That wasn’t rare for this part of China. In fact, the city’s Sultan was Arab. But they were certainly in the minority. And, whereas Aladdin spoke without an accent, the boy had spoken like a foreigner. Aladdin wondered why.
Beyond that, what Aladdin noticed most was the boy’s soft features. They made him look younger than he was. He almost had a feminine quality to him. Aladdin couldn’t help but think of him as attractive, although Aladdin wished he wouldn’t have such thoughts and resented anyone who made him think such things.
After a moment had passed, Aladdin turned his attention back towards the street. It was in time to see the smoke creature walk away. The smoke tentacles, which had reached towards them, receded as the creature did. When the last of the smoke had exited his view, Aladdin relaxed against the wall.
“It’s gone,” Aladdin explained regaining his calm.
“Are you sure? He could still be out there waiting for me,” the boy said still afraid.
“You’re safe. I’m sure of it. You’ll be okay,” Aladdin said before getting up.
“Where are you going?”
“Away from here,” Aladdin said mustering a smile.
“Can I come with you?”
“Come with me? Why would you want to do that?”
“I don’t have anywhere to go. The sorcerer had kept me locked up for a long time. I don’t know how long. It could have been years. I don’t even know what city I’m in. Where am I?”
“Where are you from?” Aladdin asked the boy intrigued by his accent.
“I’m from Baghdad. Have you heard of it? Is it close?”
“I’ve heard of it. But it isn’t close at all. How did you get here?”
“The sorcerer. He took me from my parents when I was 10 years old. I remember us going on a long journey. I was hoping that the journey wasn’t as long as I remember,” the boy said sadly.
“When you were 10?”
Aladdin stared at the boy again. He had to be at least 18 in spite of how young and small he looked. That meant that the boy had to have been a prisoner for 8 years or more.
“I’m sorry,” Aladdin said feeling his heartbreak for the boy.
“Please, tell me where I am,” the boy asked again.
“You are in the city of Ürümqi. It is in the Xinjiang region of… China.”
“China?” the boy repeated before falling back. “That’s so far.”
Aladdin stared at the sad boy not sure what to do. His instinct was to comfort him. He dared not, however. Anything he did might have been interpreted as something more than it was.
“What are you gonna do?” Aladdin asked him sympathetically.
“I don’t know. I don’t know anyone here. I don’t even know where I am,” he said looking like he was going to cry.
“I’m sorry about that. But, at least you’re free,” Aladdin said before turning to walk away.
“Can I come with you?”
Aladdin stopped, looked down, and then looked back. “You don’t want to come with me. You’re safer if you’re on your own.”
“Please. I have nowhere to go.”
“I rescued you. Isn’t that enough?”
“Please,” the boy requested humbly.
Aladdin didn’t want to want to help this boy. But he did. His heart broke for him. He could remember how many times he had wished someone would have helped him when he was a scared kid on the streets. And, although much older, he now saw the same fear in this boy’s eyes.
Aladdin lowered his head in resignation.
“What’s your name?” Aladdin asked.
“My name’s Rami,” he said with building joy.
“Well, Rami, come with me. I can give you somewhere to stay tonight. But, tomorrow you’re on your own. You got me?”
“Thank you,” Rami said elated.
Watching this, Aladdin couldn’t help but feel good. Rami had a nice smile. It made Aladdin feel warm looking at it.
“I still have a few things I need to do tonight. You can join me, but you’re going to have to keep your mouth shut. Do you understand?”
Rami shook his head in agreement.
“Good,” Aladdin said before leading him back towards the street.
To be safe, Aladdin peeked his head out before entering. The sorcerer really had gone. So crossing it into a series of alleyways, Aladdin made his way back to the casino.
“What’s your name? You didn’t tell me your name,” Rami said breaking the silence.
Aladdin gave Rami a side-eye. “Aladdin,” he replied curtly.
“Aladdin,” he repeated. “I didn’t know your name. That’s why I asked it.”
Aladdin turned away from him encouraging Rami to stop talking.
“Did you grow up in, what did you call it? Ürümqi?”
“Yes, what? Yes, you grew up here? Or, yes, that is what the city is called?”
“What about your parents? Did they grow up here?”
“Didn’t I say that you were going to have to keep your mouth quiet?”
Rami stopped walking. When Aladdin noticed, he stopped and stared at him.
“You’re mad at me,” Rami said vulnerably. “I didn’t mean to make you mad.”
Aladdin looked at the boy in front of him. He reminded Aladdin of an injured bird. He was unlike any of the street-hardened boys he knew from the street. Not even the girls he had met were so vulnerable.
“I’m not mad,” Aladdin said, in a calm voice.
“It’s just that for so long, the only person I had to talk to was the sorcerer. He was the only other person I’ve seen since arriving here.”
“He’s the only other person you’ve talked to since you were 10?” Aladdin asked stunned.
“He is the only person I’ve seen. I mean, the other times when I tried to escape, I saw people. But, I couldn’t talk to them because I was too busy running.”
Aladdin’s heart hurt listening to the boy. His life had been hard and he had had to do a lot of horrible things to survive. But he couldn’t imagine living the life Rami described.
“I’m sorry,” Aladdin said again.
“That’s okay. I didn’t have people when I was awake, but I had people in my dreams. Sometimes they felt so real to me that I was sure that they were. Do you ever have dreams like that?”
“You know, dreams that feel so real that you are sure that they are?”
“I can’t say that I do,” Aladdin said turning and continuing their walk.
“I do. Sometimes my dreams are so real that they even come true.”
“Is that right?” Aladdin asked simply allowing the boy to speak.
“It is. In fact, I saw you in a dream.”
“Yeah. I didn’t know that you would end up being real. Sometimes they get a little confusing and I can’t tell which things are real and which are just dreams,” Rami admitted.
“Well, just so you know, what’s going on right now, is real. And, where we are about to go, it’s real too. Say the wrong thing there and you’re gonna be real dead, real fast. Do you get me?”
“You’re telling me to be quiet, again,” Rami acknowledged.
“You got it!” Aladdin said with a brilliant smile.
“You have a nice smile.”
Aladdin was taken by surprise by the comment, but recovered quickly enough to cover his surprise with a stern look.
“I’ll be quiet now,” the boy said before putting his finger of his lips.
Aladdin knew he should feel annoyed by the boy, but he didn’t. He kind of liked him. Rami was different than any boy he had ever met. It was refreshing. There was also something about him that made Aladdin feel lighter. He couldn’t quite put his finger on what that was, but it was definitely there.
Approaching the only building that still had light shining through the window, Aladdin turned to Rami and put his finger over his lips again. Rami understood the reminder. With that, Aladdin crossed to the back entrance and knocked. A large man opened the door and stared down at Aladdin.
“I have something for the boss,” Aladdin told him.
The man relaxed but shifted his eyes to Rami.
“Don’t worry, he’s cool,” Aladdin reassured him.
The large man didn’t move.
“I promise. He’s cool.”
With that, the large man stepped aside and let the two boys in. They were in a kitchen. As late as it was, there were still a few cleaners washing pots and pans. That was also a job Aladdin had had, and he was glad to be rid of it.
Heading past the kitchen into a back room, Aladdin gestured for Rami to remain behind. The boy did as instructed but never allowed Aladdin to leave his sight.
“Did you get it?” the dangerous-looking Chinese man asked.
“You know it,” Aladdin said withdrawing the pouch from his pants. Tossing it onto the table, Aladdin added, “And you’re probably not gonna want to touch it,” he said with a smirk.
Noticing the smell, the man leaned down and sniffed the pouch. Recognizing the odor, he looked back at Aladdin for an explanation.