The wind rustled the leaves of the juniper trees above my head and I closed my eyes, enjoying the damp air. A few crows hopped from branch to branch, above me cocking their heads at each other and occasionally cawing. The smell of freshly fried chips wafted from the canteen, tempting anyone passing by.
“Mind if I join you?”
I opened my eyes and grinned, recognizing the voice. Dawud stood before me with his hands in his pockets, sandy hair ruffled by the wind.
“Do I have a choice?”
“Not really.” He chuckled, plopping down on the bench next to mine. “Enjoying the weather?”
I nodded smiling and he leaned back against the trunk of the juniper tree, gazing at the clouds broodingly. I glanced at him worried. His shoulders were tense and jaw taut. He glanced my way and I raised an eyebrow. He shrugged, and resumed his fascination with the sky.
I pursed my lip and wondered what was bothering him. Dawud was a pretty rational guy; it took something pretty problematic to bug him. His thick eyebrows were set in an annoyed line. The wind picked up its pace and an empty Milo carton rolled across the grass near our feet. Dawud kicked it away with unnecessary force making it skid a fair distance before slowing to a stop at the foot of the basketball hoop.
He shoved his hands into his pockets and looked thoughtfully at the green carton.
“Any luck with those writing competitions?” he asked absent-mindedly, making small talk, his eyes on the carton.
“Not really.” I answered with a crooked smile. If you thought about it, it was pretty funny how I took part in so many competitions but never won. What were the odds? I must really suck. “The point is to try.” I laughed, trying to coax him out of his mood.
“At this rate I’ll be a writer in no time.”
He relented with a smile and I rejoiced in the little victory. His eyes had warmed somewhat and he was about to say something when we noticed Jannat, Amira, Arooj, Zaid, Ali and Sundas eyeing us.
“Those idiots always move in packs,” Dawud said. “Take one of them alone and they’re helpless.”
I was quiet, watching them casually saunter their way towards us, talking animatedly all the while and occasionally casting jeering grins our way.
“They’re coming here.” I noted drily.
The wind picked up momentum and the overgrown grass thrashed wildly. A few leaves blew off the branches of the overhead trees, swirling in the air. The air was damp and the clouds were now an ominous shade of grey. I breathed in the smell of rain and my spirits soared. I felt fresh and invigorated; like I had the power to do anything.
Jannat’s hair was tied up in a high pony, her pink sandals complementing her shirt which read ‘MY attitude depends on how YOU treat me’. Her skin tight jeans were a bright neon blue which only she could pull off. She led the group as they took their time reaching us. Amira was tagging along in the rear with Ali; trying without success to engage him in a conversation. Sundas and Arooj trailed behind Jannat more or less silently, giggling every now and then when Jannat spoke. I pitied their weak souls. They were only with Jannat so that they could get a good story, to be in the thick of all the drama and to try and get into her inner circle. Meanwhile Jannat was using them as a platform, a base on which she climbed and then looked down on everyone else. Their desperateness to be with her, to please her and to be acknowledged stoked the fiery blaze that was Jannat’s ego. And as if her mindless minions weren’t enough, she also had the class joker, Zaid, under her thumb.
Dawud had decided to return his gaze back to the clouds so I decided to bide my time with a book.
“Well, well what do we have here?” Jannat smirked at us, stopping near my bench. She ran a well-manicured hand through her hair, trying without success to tame her flicks which were being tousled by the wind.
“Isn’t it obvious? I’m reading.” I told her curtly.
She narrowed her eyes and her tone turned scathing.
“As if you’re that innocent.”
“Innocence had nothing to do with it.”
“You always look down on us, you wear a scarf but you’re just as bad. No you’re worse. You’re a hypocrite.” Jannat accused.
“What the hell are you going on about woman?”
I was confused, what had I done? I couldn’t recall anything recent that could have elicited such a queer response. I looked at Dawud and found him watching me, his black eyes unreadable. He was being really quiet for someone who had a temper problem.
“You know damn well what I’m going on about.”
“No! I don’t.” This was getting annoying.
“You’re that stupid?” Amira jeered, folding her arms across her chest.
Layla and Fatima joined the crowd standing opposite me, trying to make sense of the commotion. Layla’s eyes spotted me and darted to Jannat. Her eyes narrowed minutely and she angled her body to face Jannat, still in the crowd, but slightly turned.
“Dawud likes you.” Jannat stated bluntly.
I laughed nervously, hoping beyond all hope that she didn’t mean what I thought she meant.
“Of course he likes me, he’s my friend.”
Sundas rolled her hazel eyes. My cheeks were getting hot and my palms grew sweaty. I didn’t want to discuss this. It couldn’t be true, it just couldn’t. I was too weird and not even pretty. It made no sense, but my brain was in overdrive. I was grateful for the cool breeze; my face was too warm for comfort.
“You know what I mean, don’t act dumb.”
I looked at Dawud, willing him to negate it, to say something. But he sat just as before, hands in pockets, eyeing me broodingly with a slight frown.
“You know he likes you and you lead him on.”
I glared at Dawud, my heart hammering and my cheeks aflame.
“He doesn’t like me!”
Amira snorted. “Then why isn’t he denying it?”
“How the hell am I supposed to know?!”
“She didn’t know.” Dawud said calmly, looking directly at Jannat, his eyebrows set in an irritated line.
I was appalled. I looked at him in shock but I was more upset than angry. We’d been friends for years. He would tell me about everyone he was ever even slightly interested in which usually quelled my fears. Now here he was claiming he had feelings for me. It pained me to consider it. I felt like I was going to be sick. It couldn’t be true, Dawud was just bugged by the stupid gossip. He often did that, played along with the story because he didn’t give a damn what other people thought.
“As if she didn’t know.” Sundas sneered, her lip curling.
“You can tell from her face.” Layla said quietly, looking down, her voice quivering. My heart went out to her. Everyone turned and stared, quiet for a moment.
“Let it go.” Dawud went on calmly.
“Sure we would, if that little slut wasn’t such a hypocrite.” Jannat retorted, reluctantly glancing away from Layla.
“Look at her, turning red. You’d think she was actually embarrassed.” Amira laughed.
“I never thought Maria would be into things like that.” Ali said shaking his head.
“It was all an act, a good one at that.” Jannat said sardonically.
“When has she ever said anything to you?”
The new voice startled everyone and even Layla looked up.
Talha and few other guys from the football team stood at the perimeter of the crowd. Talha’s thick black hair was sticking up in spikes at odd angles and my heart skipped a beat. They were all panting slightly with a sheen of sweat covering their faces.
“Well not directly but…….”
“Well maybe you’re just paranoid.”
Jannat was taken aback and looked at Zaid for support. But Zaid looked uncomfortable; he hadn’t said a word since the others had ganged up on me. He looked like he just wanted to get away from the scene. He looked at the football team and saw a means of escape.
“Is it time for the game?”
“Not quite but if we hurry we can get some time in for some practice.” Amir told him.
Jannat was holding back her anger. But she was smart, she knew there was no point in going on but she wasn’t going to go without a final word. She looked at me haughtily.
“Let’s go Zaid, there’s no point in talking to this idiot anyway.”
Amir and Talha rolled their eyes. Zaid and Jannat left with the football team but Talha stayed behind looking at me with worry plain on his face. The rest of the bystanders trickled away slowly leaving me with Layla, Talha and Dawud. Layla came and sat next to me. I turned to Dawud, still hot in the face.
“What was that?”
“Nothing.” He sighed.
“Why didn’t you back me up, why did you just sit there?” My heart throbbed.
“I did tell them to leave you alone.”
“Why didn’t you tell them it wasn’t true?” I asked exasperated.
Dawud was quiet. The silence dragged on, pierced occasionally by the sound of thunder in the distance.
“It’s because it is true.” Talha said before turning around to leave.
I looked after him, as his silhouette walked in the distance. I turned around and saw Dawud staring at me again, this time with eyes full of sadness and guilt.
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Quantum Physics. This should be interesting I thought, walking into the classroom shouldering my bag and hoping to finally understand the YouTube videos I often watched out of curiosity. Quantum physics was twisted from what I had gathered off the internet. I once read an article saying that an electron could jump from its shell to wherever it wanted at the slightest whim. No need for energy, its ok if you don’t have the energy needed to rationally do it. I mean be cool, do what you want brother electron. We humans will cover for you and call that discipline Quantum Physics. I didn’t understand the electron scenario at first but reading on, I came to the conclusion that it was similar to an eight month old baby, sitting in the middle of a football field and suddenly standing up and leaping outside to where his parents parked the car. That’s what the electrons could apparently do, when they felt like it of course. Who’s got time to crawl right? Crawling was overrated. I looked at the board, from my seat in the second row, eagerly.
“Quantum physics is a branch of science that deals with discrete, indivisible units of energy called quanta as described by the Quantum Theory.”
My hand shot up, Sir Iqbal smiled at me.
“What’s the quantum theory?”
“That’s a very good question. It’s not in our syllabus but………”
“Sir if it’s not in our syllabus then forget it.” Zaid yelled from the back.
“We’re already behind on sir.” Zahra said adjusting her glasses.
Sir looked at me apologetically, they had a point.
“Ask me after the lesson then Maria. I don’t want the rest of the class to get confused.”
I nodded, though I knew I wouldn’t go to him afterwards. Sir went on, telling us about wave-particle duality. Jannat and Fatima were whispering loudly to each other at the back and giggling. Layla doodled on her notebook.
The class of forty sat on wooden chairs facing the whiteboard with an arm’s length of spacing. Well it was supposed to be arm’s length, most of the seats were closer together in order to facilitate speech during the lesson, our own handiwork. The a.c was on as well as the fans so that the heat wouldn’t bother us. From the three windows, spaced equally apart, on the left wall there was a clear view of the junior branch of Sarbaland High, between our two buildings stretched a large stretch of lawn that was well tended to. Trees dotted the landscape, providing some respite from the hot sun that shone almost three hundred days a year.
A high pitched squeal from behind made the class turn around, Amira looked sheepishly at Sir while Ali was grinned as he scribbled in his notebook not looking up. Sir let it slide and as I turned around to face the board, Talha’s brown eyes met my mine. I looked a away quickly, my cheeks getting hot.
After class, still embarrassed I waited until most of the class had filed out before I left, not wanting to run into Talha. Talha was way decent; he never looked at a girl if he could help it, which was why it embarrassed me when I sometimes saw him looking my way. With an easy charm and an air of confidence about him he was easily admirable. As if that wasn’t enough, he was pretty smart. I kept Physics and Biology for fun, and he kept Sociology. That was how he caught my attention. Most people didn’t understand the intrigue of the unknown; they saw knowledge as something that was compulsory, not something to seek for the sake of seeking. Overhearing a conversation with him and the sociology teacher I had felt a feeling of camaraderie.
Talha was medium heighted, average looking with a round nose, curious eyes and a tan. He walked with purpose, had a brisk stride and a ready smile for anyone passing by. I walked through the sunlit corridor, one side had a wall totally made of glass, and outside to the canteen. The canteen owners knew me well, greeting me with smiles.
“Pepsi or Coke?” Nadia baji asked.
I looked around recognizing the deep voice and found myself standing right next to Talha. I shifted to the side to increase the distance between us, but even so, I was unnerved by our proximity.
“I’ll have a coke too.”
I tried saying the words as confidently as I could but my voice came out a little too high pitched for my liking. I adjusted my headscarf awkwardly as I waited for my order. Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw him half turn towards me, think better of it, and then turn back. Taking my coke gratefully, I made a beeline for my favourite spot in the school grounds, a sheltered bench under the shade of two trees. The two drooping juniper trees made the area feel safe, and sheltered. From the bench you could see the whole school. It was a nice view of both the sky and the grounds which was why I often found myself sitting there, looking at the clouds or reading a book under the shade.
When the bell rang for the next period I was reluctant to leave. I had been brainstorming for an essay that was due for an online competition tonight. Hopping off the bench I strolled casually across the lawn. Other A2 kids were making their way towards the door too, while some sat where they were, obstinately ignoring the sound. I didn’t glance at them; that would only encourage them. They just wanted the attention I thought cynically. Jannat often came into class late so that everyone would notice her arrival. Well that was my assumption but judging from her regularity, and the way she strutted into the room as conspicuously as she could manage, I was pretty sure I was right.
People were such attention seekers. I didn’t believe in blind conformity. You should think before you believe in something, instead of blindly accepting things as facts merely because the majority believe they were. We had brains so that we can use them. Yet it was ironic how few of us did. I often saw people leap at chances for acknowledgement, popularity and social standing. No matter what they had to forego along the way.
Strolling into the biology lab, I found myself an empty seat at the back, near the open double paned window. Unfortunately that meant I was sitting right behind Layla, Jannat and Arooj. I fiddled with my pen and allowed myself to listen to their heated discussion on which guys in class were hot and which had made a move on Jannat. They were laughing at Jannat’s dramatized exaggerations of how Bilal had tried to approach her.
“I knew there was something ages ago. He always used to stare at me and come up to me and start talking for no reason.” She said, acting nonchalant. “Somehow he was always online when I logged into Facebook. He tried talking to me almost every day.”
“Has he ever looked in a mirror?” Arooj sniggered and they all erupted in laughter.
“It got really creepy after a while though. One day I got a message from him saying that he wanted us to be more than friends, that he had been watching me for months and he thought I was perfect, the whole deal. I told him to fuck off but he wouldn’t leave me alone. He started posting weird statuses and pictures. I freaked out.”
“Talk about obsessed.”
“Yeah, so I told Zaid and he flipped. I don’t know exactly what he did but Bilal never bothered me after that, he doesn’t even glance my way.”
“Wow.” Layla muttered.
Jannat twirled a strand of her hair imperiously, while Arooj looked at her in admiration and glanced at her own boyfriend, Junaid, across the room. My mouth twisted into an amused smirk. They were so naïve. Attracting boys was all they thought about, it was what gave them confidence. Such weak foundations I thought, shaking my head and frowning as I wondered what would happen to them if the boys actually got some sense and stopped paying attention. These girls would break, lose their sense of importance and delve into a state of such desperateness that they’d lose all sense of self-respect. If only I could talk some sense into them. You didn’t need a boy’s attention in order to be worth something, you had to believe in yourself. But I was at loss for words.
It was against our religion to attract the opposite gender, hence the need for hijab. Once you got into this sticky mess, you’d spend your life trying to find happiness instead of concentrating on important things like family and you’re future. If you liked someone, by all means, get married, but playing these sick games where people mostly exploited the other person, it was pathetic. I wanted someone too though, I realized guiltily. Someone to stand up for me and tell me I wasn’t weird. Someone smart. Someone like Darcy, or heck, even Edward. What did that mean? Was I just as bad as everyone else? Just as desperate?
Maam Razia walked into the room and apologized for her tardiness.
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“Hamza got a PS3! His dad just came back from America and he bought it for him!” Ahmed gushed as we rolled into the garage.
“The graphics and games are so cool! I wish papa would get us one.”
Zahra rolled her dark eyes at him.
“Do you ever think before you speak? Papa didn’t even get you the PS2 you have, mamu Raza did.”
“But still, maybe if I begged him enough……….”
“Be serious loser, there’s no way in hell papas gonna buy it. You get addicted too much.”
I opened the car door and slouched towards the door.
“What do you think Maria? Do you think I have a chance?”
I looked at my younger brother glumly. Ahmed was twelve and had brown tousled hair that grew long, with a fringe over his forehead. He had black eyes and a small pointed noise. He was pouting slightly, miffed by Zahra’s words. I forced a smile.
“I say there’s no harm in asking is there kid?”
Ahmed’s face burst into a smile.
“Yeah! I’ll call him tonight.”
He ran inside, sticking his tongue out to Zahra as he passed by. The door slammed shut behind him. Zahra looked at me disapprovingly.
“You shouldn’t give him false hope like that.”
“And you shouldn’t discourage him so much. He’s just a kid, let him hope. Who knows, papa might even get it for him.”
“Fat chance. You know how he is.”
Our dad worked usually worked late at his factories. He said he was needed there, and that everything went wrong when he was away. We knew better than to buy that. Zahra and I had realized early on that our father spent most of his days going out with his friends. He had a capable manager running the factories and his presence was rarely required.
We went inside and I headed for my room, annoyed. I hated Zahra’s know-it-all attitude. She was so dark, I didn’t understand it. I hadn’t met them, but I chalked it up to her friends. I mean me and Ahmed were hardly ever that negative. Or maybe I was.
I threw my bag on my study table, turned the fan on and sighed. My bed was strewn with books and the floor was cluttered with shoes. The wardrobe door hung open and various clothes jutted out at odd angles. I made my way over to the bed and shoving some books aside, lay down, staring at the plain white ceiling.
“Maria! Zahra! Ahmed! Come eat!”
“I’m not hungry!”
I just felt tired and empty. I took a white sheet and snuggled into the bed. Might as well sleep I thought sullenly, closing my eyes. A good nap made most problems better. They were much more distant, not as scary…….more manageable…………….
“Maria. Maria! Wake up! Do you know what time it is?”
My mother’s words barely registered in my head and I instinctively pulled the covers over my head.
“I’m really sleepy…..”
“You’ve been sleeping for the past four hours. It’s almost 6’o clock. If you don’t wake up now, you won’t be able to sleep at night.”
My eyelids drooped as I tried to open them half-heartedly. My mother was standing over me, picking up books from the bed. Her straight black hair was in a hurried bun, and her perfect lips were set in an angry line.
“How can you sleep in such a mess? Even a dog cleans the place he’s going to sleep on. You’re worse than an animal.”
I groaned. Here we go.
“What would people say if they knew you slept all day? Girls have to do so much work, you’re mother-in-law will skin you alive if you did this at your in-laws. Get up and clean this room immediately.”
“I’m not even married yet.” I complained.
“Well lots of girls your age are and they’ve done all the house work by the time you get out of bed. You shouldn’t be so lazy. Starting tomorrow I’m going to make you clean Ahmed’s room too so that you get the hang of working.”
I closed my eyes and wished I could go back to sleep.
“I don’t even want to get married.”
“Don’t say that.” My mum was horrified.
“Well that’s not for you to decide.”
I raised an eyebrow at her and she laughed. That was one of the things I loved about my mother. She could be angry one second, and be laughing with me the next. I grinned up at her and she hauled me off the bed.
“I want this room clean.” She ordered as sternly as she could manage before leaving the room.
I’d clean it, eventually. My smile faded as I thought of my prospects. My parents would definitely marry me off in a couple of years. I wasn’t studying to become a doctor. My passion was writing and here in Pakistan, that wasn’t even considered a profession. I loathed this weird backward society with its restrictive norms and narrow minds.
Yes, I accepted the fact that becoming a lawyer was somewhat difficult for a girl since a majority of the population drooled at the slightest sight of a one. It was like they had no control over their eyes; they just stared and stared and stared. Heck even if you noticed them staring it wouldn’t bother them. Nope, not at all. There’s no shame in being a oggler here. It was almost a tradition passed on from man to son over generations. Men have such sick minds, then they blamed us for tempting them. What boggled me was how even a girl clad in an ubayya and scarf wasn’t safe from the perverted looks. These people conveniently overlooked the order for men to turn their gaze down when a women walks by.
Even so, I believed there was some good in everyone, with exceptions of course. We mustn’t forget Jannat exists. I smiled but I knew she had to have some redeeming quality, I was just too biased to see.
I turned my laptop on and as I waited for it to start up, began picking up some of the shoes off the floor. I put them in the rack and opened my Facebook account. I didn’t have many notifications. Most were from my neighbour, Noor. I didn’t feel up to going through my news feed. Everyone’s happy go lucky statuses with their friends would just distract me. I had a writing competition lined up for tonight. I loved participating in competitions, I lived for them. I never really won, unless you count this one time last month when I tied as a runner-up with a guy from Japan. That feeling of accomplishment lasted a couple of days.
I flexed my fingers and waited in anticipation for the one word prompt. The word limit for the story was 5000 words, and you had to finish it within six hours. It started at 7:30pm. The world receded into the shadows; it was just me, my imagination and my laptop.
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