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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I had never been able to understand people. People are not simple, they’re dynamic and multifaceted. I sat in the A level common room and observed the groups surrounding me. They chattered amongst themselves engrossed in the trivial gossip that seems so interesting with ones friends.
The common room was small, barely larger than a broom cupboard. Little over twenty girls could fit at any given time and most of them would have to sit on the carpeted floor. Velvety, soft and a calm sea green, the carpet was by far the best aspect of the room. Just gazing at the carpet gave me a feeling of tranquility, and brushing it with my bare feet was something I never got bored of. The room, however, had been built as an afterthought, with peeling paint and a outdated TV. The white walls gave it an unreal air. I didn’t like white walls; they got dirty too quickly.
“Sir Kamran is so annoying, he always gets angry on the smallest things and he doesn’t even listen when he starts yelling.”
Hearing the Chemistry teachers name, I snapped out of my reverie and located the source. I’d known who it was even without looking up. Jannat, as usual. The girl pounced on any opportunity to complain and give her own cynical opinion. She loved to hear herself talk and it often astounded me that she had any friends. Then again, she was pretty, with long curly, lusciously thick hair that often fell freely down her back. You could tell she took great pride in her appearance.
“Today I came five minutes late to class and he wouldn’t let me come in.” she was going on lifting her chin indignantly, telling anyone who would listen. “Fatima and I had to sit outside. Everyone passing by stared, and we ended up getting in trouble when Maam Maleeha caught us.”
“Why did you come in late Jannat?” Layla asked innocently.
“Oh you know, I can’t sit in class all day. I need to go out and you know, stretch. The school treats us like we’re robots. They’re mad if they expect us to sit through forty minute long lessons. We’re humans, we get tired too.” Jannat stated matter of factly. Her best friend Fatima nodded vigorously at everything, with an occasional ‘yeah’ for emphasis. I was amused, and wondered if Fatima would ever disagree with Jannat on anything. I knew for a fact that she liked Sir Kamran and often went to him after class with questions on the lesson. She was the only person I knew who remotely liked chemistry.
“The chairs are so hard. My back starts hurting.”
I grinned. True the chairs were hard, but what did these prissy girls want? Cushioned sofas and maybe a leg rest?
“I heard the kids at Foundation get special seats that are meant to help improve posture. They’re really comfortable.” Zahra closed her book and informed the rest of us. “My cousin goes there and she was telling me.”
“Our school heads are such cheap skates, they leech so much out of us and spend hardly do anything.”
“Yeah. You know the students at Foundation have so many activities, and for free too!”
That was Amira joining in the conversation, by now almost everyone had. Jannat was visibly glowing.
“Football, cricket, art, music, literature and debating clubs so far…… didn’t Foundation open three years ago?”
Layla was new to the school and the city. She was from Lahore and had moved here when her father’s network of departmental stores had extended to Faisalabad. That was barely two months ago, at the start of the school year, in September. No one had shown particular interest in her, being too pre-occupied with their own gangs to take time out and show the plain new girl around. The teacher’s acknowledgement had lasted a total of two days. She was not very bright.
She was shy, I was shy. It took a while for me to introduce myself. I felt bad for her, with her wide eyes and confused expressions she looked so helpless. I walked her through the ways of the kids and the teachers. I’m not going to say we clicked right away; we each had qualities that annoyed the other. But she accepted me for them and didn’t try to change me. I liked her. We settled into a routine, and I was grateful for her company. She was the closest thing I had had to a friend for a long time. The school year looked somewhat bearable.
Disaster struck a few weeks later when Amira, in a fit of boredom, decided to get to know Layla. It was more of an interrogation. I was there too, between them, being ignored as I usually was by the majority of the student population. I was only spoken to when needed. I silently prayed for Amira to lose interest, I was the class loner. If Amira took a liking to Layla, she was hers. I didn’t have anything that could keep Layla with me, Amira had friends, Amira was somewhat popular. Sitting between them and being invisible hurt, but Layla ditching me would be worse.
The inevitable happened, though it wasn’t Amira who got Layla, it was Jannat. The questions uncovered many things, the most interesting for my classmates being Layla’s fortune. It didn’t take a minute for Jannat to pounce. She sank her claws into Layla and all I could do was watch. I wanted to say something, to protest. She was my friend, I liked her for her, not her money. Surely Layla could see through such an absurdly obvious charade. However as Jannat dragged her away I stayed silent….. I didn’t deserve a friend anyway. Layla would be happier with Jannat. Besides if she wanted to stay friends with me she could, I wouldn’t stop her. But if she didn’t that was her choice, not mine.
.Layla, poor sweet innocent Layla thought she could be friends with both me and Jannat. She tried including me in conversations, calling me to eat with them and everything. Her efforts were futile, and I was merely an awkward unwanted onlooker. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that she had to choose between us, the girl was trying so hard, and that I dreaded being called to ‘join in’. It just highlighted my isolation.
“Yeah, they did.” Fatima answered.
“You’d think Sarbaland High School would be better, it’s had over thirty years to improve.” Amir observed.
“Why would they? They just want to make a profit offa us.”
“The only reason they’re still running is because of the name. Everyone thinks they’re better because they’ve been here longer.” Zahra said pushing her glasses up.
“Our grades only slightly better than theirs, and that’s all parents care about.” Jannat sighed dramatically.
“Well it’s our school, if you want it to be better, do something.”
Everyone turned, annoyed. I flushed, and regretted opening my mouth. It just bugged me how they all complained, all the time and never actually even did anything. I mean what was the point of even talking about how bad the school is if you aren’t even intending to do something about it. The whole conversation was pointless. But as my classmates glared at me with varying degrees of hatred I wished I had let them continue their banter.
“Who asked you?” Amira sneered.
“Why don’t you do something?”
“Oh please, when was the last time you did anything for your school?”
“Here’s an idea, shut up.”
It was free for all. I flinched at the avalanche of abuses and sarcastic comments. I kept my face as apathetic as I could. A reaction would only fuel their blood lust. They would get tired eventually. I glanced at Layla and saw her pitying eyes. She was frowning at the other kids and looked like she was struggling to say something. I shook my head. She shouldn’t get into this.
Gradually they calmed down and settled back into isolated groups of conversations, though some still graced me with a hateful glance now and then. Shouldering my backpack, I left. I didn’t have any more classes today so I headed down to the library, intending to avoid any further contact with my classmates and finish reading Pride and Prejudice while I waited for my driver to come pick me and my siblings up.
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I sigh loudly as I watch the old woman, jogging past in her track suit. Her smile, her passion and her love for life usually make me all warm and fuzzy inside. Today, I feel nothing. If she can’t lift my mood, no one can. Hoisting my backpack on my shoulders I begin the twenty minute walk to my school, eyes down, mouth slack. The cracks in the concrete don’t entice me, I no longer care what magical world could possibly be lurking inside or what wild species of bugs might have mutated to survive such drab conditions. It does not matter.
My feet move mechanically. I know the path like I know my house, who cares about the back of my hand. The colours in the world aren’t as bright. Is it just me, or is life pointless? My thoughts are wandering. If I don’t control them, they could wreak havoc. I submit, they can do what they want, I feel masochistic as they slowly unfold. One after the other the pictures, the memories rise from behind the withering shield. My granddads smile, his warm hugs and his love……a flashback of me holding his hand, walking home from school. Another flashback, him favouring me over my brother….my eyes start to water. He’s taking me with him to Queens market now, we’re on a bus and he’s gazing out the window, he pats my back. My breathing gets heavier. He looks at me, with his big blue eyes, disoriented from the medication, so weak, so helpless, but still he pulls me closer and tells me he’s proud of me. I try breathing slowly and deeply……. It was a mistake to let it come out, I’m a few streets away from the school. I don’t want anyone to see me like this, I don’t want anyone’s sympathy. I wipe away the tears that apparently spilt without my consent. There’s not point in crying, I should pray for him.
As I round the corner, my name being yelled out breaks me out of my reverie. I look up, confused as a shape hurtles towards me and yanks me into a choke hold. I gasp and register the familiar scent of lotion. I laugh and untangle myself from my best friend’s arms. I grin at the group of teens before me. With them, I can forget for the time being. All is right. I am safe.
‘The fox sprinted across the field, too quick to be struck by the arrow which landed a meter away.
“Guess we’ll have to do without dinner tonight, little one.” sighed Ellie’s father. “It’s getting late and the animals have the advantage.”
Ellie’s eyes begin to water but she looks down so that her father can’t see. She hadn’t had a decent meal in days and the famine was getting worse. They had sold their land and poaching animals for their fur was their only source of income. But her father was trying his best and the least she could do was support him, after all it wasn’t his fault he had to……………’
I jerk back to reality on hearing my name. My surprise and shock quickly turn to irritation, what now? Sighing, I close the book and lazily get off the sofa. Might as well get this over with. Slipping on my hideous yellow flip flops I make a mental note to tell my dad again, how much I hate them and trudge towards the kitchen, where I think I heard my mum calling me from. I hope she’s calling me for milk or something….. but then again would I prefer milk over chores? I hate milk, no hate is a strong word and you shouldn’t hate food……well then I dislike milk. Maybe chores would be better, I decide just as I reach the doorway, I mean how much work could she possibly need me to do at this hour? It’s almost 10.
The kitchen however, is empty but I groan when I see the mess inside. Bilal has obviously been experimenting again, leaving everything for me to clean up. As I redirect myself to my mum’s room I already know the verdict. The injustice makes my blood boil. What the hell? Why should I clean up after him? He’s fifteen for God’s sake. He’s old enough to be held responsible and accountable for his actions. But that’s not how it works in my house. No sirree it’s my job to pick up after my brother and sister because I’m the oldest and I’m a girl. I don’t mind doing work around the house, what I do mind is doing their work. I mean, they should do it themselves; I’m not the only one with hands. Not this time though, I vow to myself.
Feel free to take out mistakes……. 🙂 still working on the rest. This is NOT the full chapter.