“Wake up, Pike! Wake up!”

A sharp kick to his ribs roused him. “What’s the matter?” he grumbled, rubbing his eyes and yawning. It was time for work. “Oh,” he sighed and stretched, then rolled up his bamboo mat and took his place at the beading table.

“What happened while I slept?” he asked Goff, a nine-year-old, just like him, but new to the position of Beading Boy.

“Nothing much. Rafi and Anik were after Rohan again. They nearly got him whipped by that guard, Abu.”

“Abu is a very bad man, beating us for no reason at all. He doesn’t smile his toothless grin unless he’s taking a whack at one of us.”

“Look out, he’s headed our way,” Goff whispered, shifting his attention to a pile of crystal beads.

“Less talking. More working,” he grunted, smacking Pike with a thick wooden club.

Rubbing his side from the reprimand, Pike got down to work. Another 20-hour shift underway. He didn’t mind so much, knowing his wages were helping his parents back in their village. A year ago, they sent him to work in the garment factory hundreds of miles away. His mother was pregnant and his father was stricken with a chronic back injury that left him unable to work. With no money to pay for living expenses, they put their faith in little Pike.

This was a common practice in rural areas of India and Bangladesh. Nearly all of the workers in the three-story building were children. The youngest ones, 8 and 9-year-olds like Pike, hand-stitched embroidery and beading on heavy silken fabrics. They were on the third floor. 10 to 12-year-olds ran the large sewing machines on the second floor. And the warehouse made up the ground floor, where the oldest kids boxed the finished garments for shipment. They worked long hours, slept very little, and were allotted two ten minute breaks per shift for the bathroom OR eating. Their factory was a Sweatshop. That’s what the foreigners called it, with its crumbling walls, and dank air. But to its employees, it was a way to help their families survive the harsh realities of poverty.

Straining to see his work in the dim light, he pricked his finger with his sewing needle. As he sucked on it to stem any blood, the windowless room went dark. Load-shedding. Pike’s country didn’t produce enough power to meet the demands of its people. To compensate, the government redistributed it, causing blackouts for hours at a time. Some were fortunate enough to have backup generators but because they required expensive fuel to operate, the factory owners used automobile batteries to power the building during such times instead. The trouble was, someone had to manually switch the circuits over to the batteries on each floor, leaving this dangerous task to small, inexperienced hands.

Pike heard giggling and turned towards the sound. Flashes of light sparked from the circuit box as Rafi and Anik, the most troublesome boys Pike had ever met, played around with the batteries.

“Stop that! You’ll start a fire! There is so much cloth around here!”

“Shut up! This is our job. We get paid extra for it.”

“Because it’s unsafe, you idiots. Now hook the wires up and be done with it.”

“Or what?” Rafi threatened, waving one of the main circuit wires in the air as Anik touched the other to the battery contact. A magnificent spark arced in the air. Startled, the boys jumped and dropped the live wires, which touched each other as they landed on the wood planked floor. Sparks showered in every direction.

“Smoke! Smoke!” a small boy cried.

“Fire! Fire!” Another shrieked.

Before anyone could deny their calls, flames rose out of piles of fabric, like a demon unleashed from its fiery cage in hell.

Terror ensued as the boys rushed around trying to find the exit in the dark. Tables were overturned, beads scattered, and bodies trampled as everyone scampered to escape.

But it was no use. The stairwell doors were locked. Abu, the guard, often did this when he went on his break to prevent anyone from trying to sneak out with the expensive materials.

The boys pounded on the doors, panic-stricken, as the flames spread like wildfire all around them. Fear crawled up Pike’s spine as he envisioned all the boys succumbing to a painful, fiery death. Even more distressing: the idea that his family might all starve, or worse if he were to perish. They depended on him!

Then he got an idea. Focusing on a particularly large crack in the exterior wall closest to him, he threw himself into it. He heard a crack. Determined to not die and leave his family without a source of income, he did it again and again until it gave free, enough for each of the small boys to escape. With help from Goff and Rohan, quick-thinking Pike created a chain of fabric that dropped the trapped boys through the hole to the ground three stories below.

When Rafi and Anik appeared in front of him, he hesitated. If it wasn’t for those two, this wouldn’t have happened. Yet he couldn’t bear to see anyone suffer such a terrible fate. With mixed emotions, he took both of their hands and the three jumped to safety.

Days later, Pike was announced a hero as word spread of his bravery. Unfortunately, the factory burned to ash, leaving all the employees without work. With some extra money in his pocket, given to him by the community for their gratitude, he headed back to his village to give his parents the disappointing news that he no longer held a job.

Except they weren’t there. They had moved on to another town, leaving word with a neighbor should Pike return and find them gone. His mother, pregnant with yet another sibling, and father still unable to work, had no choice but to arrange for Fike, Pike’s 8-year-old brother, to take a job at another factory miles away. Not knowing any other way of life, without rest, Pike took off in search of his family.