"I Want You There With Me"

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Dave Eggers grew up in Illinois, and Valentino Achak Deng grew up in southern Sudan, but they have something in common: they both, in different ways, lost their parents. Eggers wrote about his parents' death from cancer in his celebrated memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Deng was separated from his father and mother during the civil war that overtook Sudan when he was a child. He became one of Sudan's Lost Boys, a group of refugee children who trekked hundreds of miles overland in search of safety. He did not see his parents again for 17 years.

Deng eventually made his way to the United States, where he and Eggers met and became friends. Their conversations together are the basis for Eggers' remarkable new novel What Is the What (McSweeney's Books; available Oct. 25), which takes the form of a fictionalized version of Deng's life story. In this exclusive excerpt, Deng silently addresses a young boy who is helping to burglarize his apartment. How do you make another human understand that you were a child of war? "Picture your neighborhood," Deng thinks, "and now see the women screaming, the babies tossed into wells. Watch your brothers explode. I want you there with me." Our excerpt follows:

Michael's phone is ringing again.

The boy slowly rouses himself and jogs over to the kitchen to answer it. I can't hear much of the conversation, but I do hear him say, "You said ten," followed by a series of similar protestations.

The call is over in less than a minute and now I must try again to reason with the boy. Perhaps he is comfortable enough with me now, with my unmoving presence, that he will not fear my voice. And it's evident that he is upset with his accomplices. Perhaps I can forge an alliance, for I still harbor hope that he'll see that he and I are more alike than are he and those who have placed him here.

"Young man," I say.

He is standing between the kitchen and the living room; he had been deciding whether to return to the couch to sleep, or to turn the TV on again. I have his attention for a moment. He looks at me briefly and then away.

"I don't want to scare you. I know this is not your idea to be here with me."

He looks at the phone book now, but it seems that because it's resting against my temple, to retrieve it he would have to get too close to me. He walks past me and disappears down the hall, headed for the bedrooms. My throat goes dry with the thought that he very well might return with the unabridged dictionary after all.

"Young man!" I say, projecting my voice down the hall. "Please don't drop anything on me! I will be quiet if that's what you want."

Now he is above me, and for the first time, he is looking into my eyes. He is hold-ing my geometry textbook in one hand and a towel in the other. I'm not immediately sure which poses the greater threat. The towel — would he suffocate me?

"Do you want me to be quiet? I will stay quiet if you'll stop dropping things on me."

He nods to me, then takes his foot and gently steps on my mouth, pushing the tape back into place. To have this boy pushing my mouth closed with his foot — it is too much to accept.

He disappears from my view but is not finished. When he returns, he begins a construction project in my living room.

He first pushes the coffee table closer to the entertainment center, reducing the space between the three objects: me, the table, and the shelving. Now he drags a chair from the kitchen. He places this near my head. From the couch he brings one of the three large cushions that sit upright. He stands the cushion up against the seat of the chair. Bringing another chair from the kitchen, he places it, with a couch cushion soon resting against it, at my feet. He has effectively eliminated me from his view. My view is now limited to the ceiling above me, and the little I can see between the windows of the coffee table. I lie, finding myself impressed with his architectural vision, until he surprises me with the blanket. The bedspread from my room is carefully spread over the couch cushions until it forms a tent over me, and this is too much. Michael, I have little patience left for you. I am finished with you, and wish you could have seen what I saw. Be grateful, TV Boy. Have respect. Have you seen the beginning of a war? Picture your neighborhood, and now see the women screaming, the babies tossed into wells. Watch your brothers explode. I want you there with me.

I was sitting with my mother, helping her boil water. I had found kindling and was feeding the fire, and she was approving of the help I was providing. It was unusual for a boy of any age to be as helpful as I was. There is an intimacy between mother and son, a son of six or seven. At that age a boy can still be a boy, can be weak and melt into his mother's arms. For me, though, this is the last time, for tomorrow I will not be a boy. I will be something else — an animal desperate only to survive. I know I cannot turn back and so I savor these days, these moments when I can be small, can do small favors, can crawl beneath my mother and blow on the dinner fire. I like to think I was luxuriating in the final moment of childhood when the sound came.

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