For the next few days, my encounter with Amir and Hassan was all I could think of.
I played that day over and over in my head, constantly going through it scene by scene, word by word, like a record stuck on a loop. Scrutinising every inch, every detail of that memory, hoping that doing so would provide answers to the constant stream of questions that wormed their way into my brain.
Like why had Amir spoken so harshly of Hassan, not caring that the boy - who he supposedly cared for - was in perfect earshot? Was this my doing, my serpent's sweet lies that had caused him to rethink his whole social standing, to realise that, as we all knew, Hassan was not worthy of being his friend? Or perhaps he'd thought this all along and I had only served to further cement these opinions?
I didn't know the answer to that. To this day, I still don't.
Whatever the case, though, I was determined one way or another to make an impact in that boy's life. His outburst had proved that, while he mightn't hate Hazaras with the same burning passion my brother and I did, the seeds of hatred were there. With a bit of nurturing, he could harbour that same exact detestation for that filthy race as we did. I may not have planted those seeds, but I was determined to help them grow.
We were left, as usual, to a parentless house. Mahmood was at a business meeting and Tanya was visiting her sister in Pakistan.. Assef was put in charge, as always, and had rather harshly given Hamilra the task of cleaning the entire house - despite the fact she'd already done that three days ago and was inflicted with a cold.
It was a Thursday. November 27th, to be precise. It's hard for me to remember exact dates from my past, though I doubt it really matters. You aren't reading this to be given a history lesson, are you? Anyway, there are still some instances that are so significant to me, I can remember every detail of them. Right down to the date.
I guess there's some things your mind won't let you forget.
"Penny for your thoughts, sister?"
Assef and I were sitting by the pool, feet dangling over the edge. I picked pebbles out of the snow and flicked them in, watching as they hit the bottom with a dull thud. The pool was drained every winter, see, to stop it freezing over. Winters here were deadly when it came to snow and ice - so bad, in fact, that they closed the schools then instead of in summer.
One by one, pebble by pebble, they all fell into the dark. I stared down at them, legs kicking back and forth, my mind clouded, thinking of everything, but thinking of nothing all at the same time. And I stayed like that, lost in my own little world, until I felt a sharp prodding in my back.
"Kiddo? Kiddo, I'm talking to you."
"What?" I turned to face my brother, who raised an eyebrow and poked me on the nose.
"Penny for your thoughts?" he asked again, putting an arm around me. "You seem to have a lot, if the way you're staring off into space is anything to go by."
"Oh.. nothing.. it's nothing.." I tried to lie, but my mind betrayed me by thinking of Amir again - with his poetic brown eyes and nervous smile - and my cheeks began to heat up, caught in the moment of my first "crush."
Assef poked me in the ribs. "That's not nothing," he teased, his breath hot against my skin as he leaned down to whisper in my ear.
I sighed, thinking it best to relent before the teasing got any worse. "Okay, okay.." I threw my hands up in defeat. "I was thinking about Amir.."
"What about him?"
"Well... I.. How I could.. mould him, y'know? How he could be changed. I.. I kinda.. like him, see, so I was thinking, maybe he could be on our side? With a bit of luck, I mean.."
Fuck. I sound like a complete moron. This is why girl's don't talk about these things with their brothers, it's embarrassing. And yet, who else do I have? He understands me better than anyone, no need to feel shame, right? Right?
Assef pinched the bridge of his nose, running his hand down the length of his face, then brought it back up again to rub his temples. He tilted his head back, as though admiring the sky, and then exhaled deeply. He looked.. frustrated, if that's the right word. Frustrated and dismayed - as if he couldn't quite believe the words that had come from his darling sister's mouth.
"You're.. you're not being serious right now, are you?" He raised an eyebrow, trying to hold back laughter.
"Yeah," I retorted, somewhat offended. "I am."
"Seriously, kiddo? Amir? Really? When did your standards get so goddamn low?"
"I don't see what your problem is with him, anyway. It's just a little crush, not like it's gonna lead to anything."
"You're -" Assef started, but I cut him off before he could finish. I always, always get carried away in the heat of the moment. Temper and Saria are not a good combination.
"I'm what, Assef? Too young? Bullshit. You know I'm better and more mature than other girls my age. And I'm not asking to fucking marry him, all I want is to help improve him. You're always saying we should get more people on our side, and now that I want to do just that you have a fucking problem with it?!"
"I don't have a problem with it and if you let me speak for two fucking seconds you might understand that. I have a problem, Saria, because - and I'm going to speak slowly now so you get this - Amir. Isn't. Good. Enough. For. You."
Now I was getting mad. How dare he think to tell me who was good for me or not? I thought my brother was supposed to respect my decisions, not turn against me for them. He had no right to talk to me like that, no right at all.
Fist clenched, I jumped to my feet, chest rising and falling rapidly as I breathed in and out like a rabid dog waiting to strike. "And what gives you the right to dictate what is and isn't right for me? Aren't I allowed to make my own decisions anymore, is that it?"
"Calm, kiddo. If you would just let me explai-"
"Oh shut your fucking mouth, Assef, you're acting like Mahmood."
There is crossing the line.
There is bulldozing over the line.
And then there is taking an atomic bomb and destroying not only the line but everything that stood on either side of it.
Right then and there, I did the latter.
I left the house in tears, after trying and failing to apologise to my brother for my words. He'd waved me off with a dismissive hand and a short grunt of, "Whatever. Go play with Adia or something."
Which meant, undoubtedly, that I had seriously messed up.
God, I was such a fool, such an idiot. Why did I have to be cursed with such a temper? Why must I lash out and hurt the one person who means more to me than anything and anyone on this earth? Why can't I just listen, not jump to conclusions?
He only wants the best for you, Saria.
That voice. I call it conscience. It doesn't make an appearance very often. I think it hibernates a lot. On those rare occasions it does roar to life, it's usually something to do with Assef. He was - and is - the one person who I feel remorse for if I hurt.
Conscience spoke on. He doesn't say these things to piss you off. All he wanted was to give you advice, because he loves you, because he knows what's best for you. But no, you don't want to listen, do you? Instead you lash out and say the most vile things you can think of. Great job, Saria. What a wonderful sister you are.
The thing with conscience, I've learned, is that when it comes to Assef, it will always win. Each word, each thought, only served to bring more tears to my eyes. I'd wipe one away only to be greeted by another. They were a river, an uncontrollable rapid, fast, unmoving. Unforgiving.
I considered going home. I could find my brother, beg for forgiveness, and hope everything would be okay again. Or.. I could keep walking and crying, wanting to be in his arms but too scared to face him.
Slowly, I weighed my options, considering the best one.
Walking and crying won by a landslide. Which was fine, for about twenty minutes, until I got the feeling someone was following me.
No. Not just following me. Stalking me.
It was the way their footsteps matched sync with mine, the way they would turn down each street I did. The way even our breath seemed to match. The way.. well.. I can't quite describe it, but you know what it feels like to have someone following you. The terror, the goosebumps. Wanting to run, but knowing if you do, it'll just make your stalker angry. And they'll grab you and you won't be able to scream because their hand is clamped over your mouth like a vice. So you hope and hope that the person following you will get bored and go away, or that it's all in your head and there's no-one behind you at all.
I do have an overactive imagination, after all. I hoped this would be one of those cases. But no.
I'd reached an alleyway, and was still being followed. This was seriously beginning to piss me off. How dare this person - whoever the fuck they were - think it was okay to go around trying to scare me? Especially after the shitty morning I was already having.
Fuming, I whirled round, ready to face my attacker head on. Only to come face to face, with Zainab Qualmari.
Zainab was one of my many, many enemies. A tall twelve-year-old with long dark hair always tied in a bun, and a perpetual scowl drawn upon her tanned face, she'd had it in for me for a long time. I can't quite put my finger on why, though. I was careful. I gave nobody any reason to suspect me of anything. I tried to keep to myself, not wanting to raise awareness to who I really was.
Which made her unexplained hatred towards me all the more unnerving.
Irregardless, though, I was not in the mood to be trifled with that morning. "What the fuck do you want?!"
No sugarcoating. No polite small talk. Just clear, concise and to the point. I was nothing if not blunt.
She smiled cockily, and began pacing around me. "Oh, nothing, Saria. Nothing at all. Can't two friends just talk?"
"You aren't my fucking friend, Zainab. You hate me, and I hate you. Or did you forget that?"
"You hate me?" She stopped inches from my face, her eyes narrowing. "Bitch. What have I ever done to you?"
"I could ask you that same exact question, Zainab. You and your little friends have always had it in for me. Why is that? I've done nothing to warrant it."
A snort. She had me backed against the wall now, the space between us so tiny I was having to arch my back to get away from her. Didn't this bitch ever hear of personal space?
"You know what you did," was all she said before she raised her hand, and brought it down with a stinging crack across my face.
My head lurched to the side, ears ringing, eyes blurring. I'd bit my lip and the metallic taste of my own blood still lingered in my mouth. It made me boil. The fury was palpable, untameable, unmatched. All thoughts of preserving my image went right out the window. The beast had come to life.
"You fucking bitch!" I screamed as I threw myself at her, knocking us both to the ground. I kicked, bit, clawed and scratched at every bit of her I could find. Blind fury was the only thing guiding me at that moment, the desire to punish, to hurt. To see justice done for her crime against me.
The sound of a car backfiring distracted me and I turned my head to the source of the noise. It was only a momentary lapse of judgement, but it was enough for Zainab to turn the tables, knock me onto my back with a fierce uppercut to the jaw, and throw her body weight against mine. She lifted me up by the collar and began slamming me down over and over.
My head bounced against the ground. I tried to fight back, but each time I did, she would only hit or kick me harder. I tried to get up and she pushed me back down, standing on my chest and kicking me over and over in the ribs. It was the most pain I'd ever felt in my life.
Let it end, I thought, curled in a ball as Zainab continued to rain punch after punch, scratch after scratch and kick down upon me. Let it end. Let it end.
Let. It. End.
I woke, after what seemed like an eternity of blackness, to find myself in a hospital bed. Which meant that (a) I was still alive and (b) Zainab had hurt me quite badly. Well, very, very badly, actually, if the searing pain in my chest was anything to go by.
My parents were standing over me, matching looks of concern on their faces, tears welling in the corner of my mother's eyes. They spilled down her cheeks, one after the other, and she didn't even seem to have the heart to wipe them away.
Whether or not those tears were genuine is another story..
Assef was sitting at my bedside, just staring at me. Not saying a word, just staring. It was quite unnerving, almost like he'd turned to stone.
He's still mad at you, Conscience piped up. He hates you. He wishes you had died. He hates you, Saria, he hates you, he hates you, he hates you.
"Good to see you're awake, Miss Ahmed," someone said. I didn't recognize the voice. It was unmistakably male, somewhat gruff, and had pronounced my last name as "Ach-med" instead of the proper "Ah-med".
"Yeah, I am." I figured it was a doctor and turned my head to face him.
Only to realise it wasn't a doctor.
It was a police officer.
"Good." He sat beside me, on the chair opposite the one Assef was in. He was a tall man, probably about six foot or thereabouts, with greying hair and crow's feet. Not someone who commanded the type of respect a police officer should. "I am Officer Basir. I'd like to ask you a few questions, if that's okay. I know that's probably the last thing you want to do right now, but it's imperative we find out who did this to you. Do you understand?"
"Saria, sweetie... Do you remember anything - anything at all - about the person who attacked you?"
"Think really hard about this, sweetheart. You're the only eye-witness we have to this attack. They fled the scene before police could apprehend them. It's really important we catch this person so they can be brought to justice before they hurt anyone else."
I nodded again.
Truth be told, part of me did want to rat Zainab out. But what good would it do? When they found out she was a child, all she'd get was a slap on the wrist. Maybe her parents would have to pay some sort of compensation, but that was it. And is that justice? Is that in any way a proper, deserved punishment for what she'd just done to me?
No. No, it wasn't.
So I lied, as I am prone to doing. I told him I didn't know who attacked me, that I couldn't remember. I said I'd shut my eyes before the first blow came, but that I could remember them having a male voice. I cried and said it was the most terrifying thing I'd ever experienced. I spun web after web of lie through my expert fingertips, pleading, begging for the "mean man" to be caught.
And they believed me. Such gullible fools.
It was about half an hour of non-stop questions before Basir finally left.
My parents went to get food from the hospital cafeteria, and now, finally, Assef and I were alone. I could finally apologise for the horrible way I'd acted, and the unforgivable words I'd spoken.
"Assef?" My voice came out little more than a whisper. "B-Brother.."
"Yeah?" He turned to face me, and I broke down.
"I'm sorry.. I'm so, so, so sorry. I didn't mean what I said, I was just mad, you know and I couldn't control myself and sometimes I just blurt things out. I mean, you know how I get, right? But please, you have to believe me, I never meant to hurt you. I would never, ever, ever do that.. I.."
"Shh, kiddo. Calm. I forgive you. I know you didn't mean it, hell, I've said things in the heat of the moment too. It was just a mistake, sister, I don't love you any less for making them."
He pulled me into his arms, taking care not to hurt my already throbbing body. We sat like that for a long time, him cradling me like a baby and me sniffling out apologies that he merely shrugged off and whispered gentle words of forgiveness with a loving hand caressing my hair.
Then, he pulled away, took me by the shoulders, and said in German, "So, who really attacked you, kiddo?"
"I know you lied to that police officer, Saria. I know you better than anyone, remember? So tell me, who was it?"
"Zainab Qualmari," I said, without a moment's hesitation. I knew I could trust my brother to keep whatever secrets I divulged with him. "Bitch came right the fuck out of nowhere and just beat me up. No reason, no logic. Just.. punch after punch after kick after kick."
Assef clenched his fists, tilting his head back. "She's dead," he grit through his teeth. "So fucking dead. I'll kill her."
His words struck a chord in the darkness of my heart. Kill her, I thought, yeah, that's what we'll do. She deserves it. If anyone should die, it's her. She needs to be punished. She needs to suffer. Kill her, kill her, kill her!
I leaned forward to whisper in his ear. "I want her dead, Assef. And I'm not joking around when I say that. I want her to die.. And I want to be the one who delivers that fatal blow."