We begin on November 1st, 1974. I was little over month shy of my twelfth birthday, though if you were simply to look at me, you certainly would be forgiven for assuming I was younger. I stood in my room, arms folded, looking down at the mountain pile of clothes in utter disdain.
One by one I picked up dress after dress, skirt after skirt, only to discard them into what I so lovingly referred to as the ''no way in hell am I wearing this'' pile. It seemed each item of clothing I owned would serve to make me look an utter fool. Floral patterns, petticoats and ribbons. It was enough to make me gag.
''Can't wear this... Or this... This looks like a two-year-old would wear it... Son of a bitch!''
I groaned and flung myself faced down onto the bed, biting the pillow to keep from screaming in total and utter frustration. The swear words - taught to me by my older brother - poured forth from my lips as easy as ABC.
Yes, I know, it may be a shock to the system that an eleven-year-old child would use such ''naughty language" but I did and have always done. Especially in situations that greatly irritated me - which this certainly was.
Looking at the clock, I came to the saddening realisation that I had little under twenty minutes to get ready before my family would be going to the Quadiri's for dinner.
The Quadiri's were friends of my parents. Javid Quadiri worked with my father as an airline pilot and they had invited us all over for dinner. This would be my first time meeting them, however, as I usually managed to feign some illness or something whenever my parents had guests round.
To make matters worse, I knew there was an underlying reason as to why my mother and father were forcing me to attend this event. They wanted me to get out and make more friends my own age and were attempting to force me into such a faux friendship with Adia, the Quadiri's daughter.
She was a year younger than me and although we were in the same class at school, I had never once spoken to her before. Part of this was due to the fact that she always seemed to either be missing from class or working way too hard to catch up and the other part, of course, was that I liked to do my level-best to avoid other people.
There was something about spending time in the company of others that made me feel really uncomfortable, with the exception of my older brother. Still, I couldn't exactly let my parents know how miserable I felt about tonight.
After all, that would be rude - and their darling, sweet little girl was anything but. No, there was little option but for me to suck it up and hope tonight would be over as soon as humanly possible.
Eventually, I settled for a white dress with rosebud patterns on it. A four-year-old may have been happy to wear it. I, however, wanted nothing more than to use it for kindling on the bonfire. I must have looked completely ridiculous. Just like a toddler. Why could I not have something age-appropriate to wear for a change?
When I was suitably dressed and had secured the pretty blue bow at the side of my hair, I slowly trekked downstairs to where my mother, father and brother were waiting for me by the door.
My mother, Tanya, immediately grabbed my arm as I descended the last step, scrutinising every last inch of me. She always had to make sure I looked absolutely perfect - her curly-haired, blue-eyed little porcelain doll. Her bony fingers poked and prodded every crevice of skin as she inspected my face for even the slightest hint of dirt.
Honestly, it was embarrassing to be scrubbed at like a common animal. Did the woman have no sense whatsoever of personal fucking space?
Oh, before I forget... I should make clear that I am going to refer to my parents by their given names throughout the entirety of my story - with the obvious exception of when I address them.
Because, to me, they aren't parents. Not in the true sense of the word. They are not people I can rely on, they are not people I can trust, they are not people who love me unconditionally, with my flaws and all. They never were, and they never will be.
All they are, really, are two people with whom I just so happen to share some DNA. They are people who have let me down, have let my brother down, and who try to make up for their mistakes with gifts and money.
They are not a mom and dad. And they do not deserve to be addressed as such.
When she was completely satisfied with my appearance, Tanya ran a hand through her hair and straightened up. It was only then that I got to take in her outfit. She was dressed to the nines as usual - flowing blue dress, hair pinned into a neat bun, her lips painted with the slightest hint of rogue.
Despite my feelings towards her, I had to admit she was a decent-looking woman.
''Are you looking forward to this evening, Saria?'' she asked, giving me a pointed look. "Won't it be nice for you and little Adia to spend some proper quality time together, to really get to know each other?''
I shifted awkwardly from one foot to another. Out of the corner of my eye I could see my father watching me, a perpetually stern look on his hardened features.
''I guess tonight will be fun..." I said after a few seconds pause. ''I'm really looking forward to meeting Adia. I hope she and I will be fast friends.''
I was lying through my teeth, of course, but what else could I do? Tell them both I was miserable? Tell them how nervous the thought of spending time with these people made me? Scream, cry and beg to be left home? Barricade myself in my room like a hermit?
No. None of those were good options. There were no good options. The only option was to just suck it up and hope for the best.
''I'm glad to see you've got such a positive attitude." Tanya pressed a kiss to the side of my head. "Mahmood -'' she addressed my father now, ''help me carry the bouquet of flowers and box of chocolates to the car.''
''Yeah, yeah, wait a minute.'' Mahmood waved a dismissive hand, rolling his eyes behind Tanya's back. He didn't look at all pleased to be at her beck and call like a servant, but what other choice did he have?
Tanya would only rant and moan if he didn't. "Women, eh?'' he said teasingly, addressing my brother and I now. Then he bustled off into the kitchen, humming a strange, pitchy song under his breath.
As soon as he'd left, my brother, Assef, turned to face me. Judging by the look on his face, he wasn't too happy to be attending this dinner party either. He made his way towards me, bending down so we were level, placing gentle hands on my shoulders.
''So,'' he said, after a moment's pause. ''What are your thoughts on this whole thing? Looking forward to spending time with Adia?''
It was the same question Tanya had asked only minutes earlier, but while her tone was condescending and insincere, Assef's was one filled only with concern and understanding for my plight. He'd always been more of a parent than Mahmood or Tanya ever were.
Assef sat down on the bottom step, pulling me into his warm and inviting embrace. I fit snugly into his arms, my short legs curled up beneath me - almost as if I belonged there. He cuddled me against his chest, stroking his hands through the length of my ringlets. Eden itself could not have provided a better place to seek comfort.
''Why do I have to make friends anyway?'' I sighed. ''I mean, is the world going to end if I don't? Are we all going to die? Is -"
Assef laughed, cutting me off before I could finish my train of thought. "Don't be so downtrodden, kiddo. At least we won't be alone, at least we'll have each other."
Kiddo. That was his special nickname for me, and has been ever since I was a mere infant. It warmed my heart each time he used it.
"And..." he smirked, "if things get too bad, I'll be bringing the knuckles... Just in case."
He winked and patted his left jacket pocket, which hid his most prized - but also most dangerous- possession. Brass knuckles. An old torture device that struck fear into the hearts of millions, and had assisted my brother in so many fights. I remembered how utterly elated he would be every time he'd used them to bring pain or suffering on someone.
I hesitated. How would it look if we were to use them tonight? It would look bad, really bad - and especially to use them on people my parents knew and a fairly good rapport with. That would not go over well. Not at all. Assef, being sixteen, had more experience with the whole "violence" thing than me, though, so I reasoned I could trust him to know what he was doing.
"Okay, Assef. Just... make sure no-one else sees them."
Assef nodded and, upon hearing our parents footsteps approaching, we stood back up. My brother drew his arm around my shoulder, pulling me in close.
"Are you two ready?" Mahmood asked.
We both nodded. I just wanted to get this over with and I could tell from the look on Assef's face that he felt the same way.
"Alright, then. Let's go.''
With that, Mahmood put a hand on Tanya's back and, without another word, slowly led the way out to the car. It was silver in colour, and often the shitting ground for a tonne of birds. Right before I opened the door to get in, Mahmood spoke up again. ''This night is very, very important to your mother and I, so best behaviour from the both of you. Is that clear?''
''Yes, Papa,'' I muttered, fighting the urge to roll my eyes. God. Would he ever just leave us the hell alone? Always chastising, always lecturing... it was enough to drive even the sanest of persons to the brink.
''Good girl. In you get, sweetheart." He opened the door for me - as if I couldn't fucking manage myself - and I slid into the back seat of the car. Assef climbed in beside me, taking my hand and giving it a reassuring squeeze.
Mahmood slowly began to reverse the car out of the driveway. As we drove along the narrow, winding road, the topic of conversation turned, inevitably, to Adia and the supposed ''friendship'' I was supposed to have with her. A friendship that, back then, I never would have thought possible.
''Adia is such a sweet girl, such a darling,'' Tanya simpered. ''I'm sure you'll both get on great, Saria.'' She turned around to flash me one of her stupid, condescending smiles, much like you'd do to a baby or toddler. "She's in your class at school too, isn't she?''
''Well..." I began, unsure of how to respond to that. ''She is... but... we don't talk much. I doubt she'd even want to be my friend; she probably has lots already.''
I made my voice quieter, my tone becoming almost saddened by this fact. Playing the sympathy card for all it was worth. It was one of my many talents.
''You can never have too many friends, kiddo,'' Mahmood pointed out.
He then went off on another tangent about how maybe Adia's friends would become my friends, too, but I was past listening to him. My mind was too clouded with fury at how he'd dared to use Assef's precious nickname for me, how he dared besmirch it with his unworthy lips.
Still, I couldn't say anything about it. No matter how much I may have wanted to scream and rant at him.
''The Quadiri's have a son, too,'' Tanya spoke up. ''His name's Masood. Do you know him, Assef?''
''Hmn,'' Assef grunted.
''No, I don't suppose you would. He's only thirteen so he's probably in a different class to you.''
Another grunt. Tanya looked as though she wanted to say something about that, but decided against it. It would be best for her to keep quiet, rather than start an argument. You didn't need to be a genius to know that my brother, with his fierce, unforgiving temper, unnerved my parents somewhat.
He would have intimidated anyone, with the exception of me. Despite how violent and cruel Assef could be, we both loved each other far too much to ever hurt one another in any way, physical or otherwise. Maybe it was a sibling bond, maybe it was going through what we have, maybe we were just kindred spirits... who knows? It is a bond that still holds a place in my heart even all these years later.
A bond that, no matter how much it hurts to admit, I still yearn for and miss desperately.
Assef leaned his head back against the seat and nobody else spoke after that.
''Well, here we are,'' Mahmood said about twenty minutes later. He parked the car in the driveway of a large house with wrought iron gates. As I craned my neck to look up, I noticed that, while it was by no means tiny, my home was substantially bigger than it. Clearly this family weren't as well off as mine.
And that thought made me feel good. It made me feel very, very good indeed.
I hopped out of the car, tucking a stray blonde curl behind my ear as my father once again led the way for us. Despite my hardened, uncaring attitude, I have to admit I did feel somewhat nervous as we approached the front door. Maybe it was the thought of spending time with people I didn't know, or maybe I was just too tired of having to make a constant impression with people, tired of being perfect.
Mahmood rapped on the door with his knuckles, then stood back. When two minutes passed with no answer, he tried again. It was clear these people were taking their sweet fucking time answering us. But, on the third knock, the door did open.
A tall, dark-haired man in suit and tie stood before us, grinning at my father. ''Mahmood jan,'' he exclaimed in a booming voice that almost defeaned me. ''So nice of you and Tanya to come, and you brought the family too. Wonderful.''
''Full house tonight, Javid." Mahmood laughed, clapped the other man's shoulder, and turned back to face us. ''You already know Tanya, of course. And these are our children, Saria and Assef.''
Javid nodded a quick hello at Tanya and Assef, then focused his attention on me. Just my luck.
"You're in the same class as my little girl, aren't you?'' he asked. I nodded and he continued. ''You look younger than her, though. How old are you again, dear? Eight?''
Eight?! Son of a fucking bitch, I'll rip your throat out for that! I thought, struggling not to scream the words aloud. Yes, I looked young. Yes, at best I could be mistaken for an eight-year-old, but did he need to rub it in? And wouldn't Mahmood have told him how old I really was, anyway? Either he was stupid and forgot, or he was patronising me. Both aspects of a person that I cannot stand.
I could tell this was getting off to a great start.
In a sugary sweet voice that cleverly masked my ire, I replied, ''I'm eleven, sir. Twelve next month, actually.''
Javid opened his mouth to respond, probably with some condescending remark, no doubt, but he was cut off when a small, brown-eyed girl with dark pigtails bounded up to the front door, a big smile stretching across her face. She looked back and forth between us all, clapping her hands joyfully.
''Hi!'' she chirped. ''It's so nice to have you tonight. Thank you for coming.'' They were words I suspect her parents had instructed her to say. No child could be that much of a kiss ass, could they? Fuck, I had only spent two seconds with the girl and already I found her annoying as all hell. How was I meant to cope spending an entire evening with her?
She pushed past everyone, and grabbed my hand. ''You must be Saria,'' she beamed. ''I'm Adia. I see you in class all the time, but I've never said hi before. It's nice to finally meet you properly.''
I barely had time to respond before she practically dragged me inside, pleading with Javid to let me come play in her room. Inwardly, I begged any deity out there that he would say no. That dinner was nearly ready. Anything. Anything to get me away from her. But no.
Instead, Javid gave his permission and soon I found myself being reluctantly led up the stairs, as my mother handed over chocolate and flowers, and the adults all laughed and disappeared into the living room.
''The boy with you, is he your brother?'' Adia asked, as we sat on the edge of her bed. I'd kicked off my shoes and was stretching my lace-socked feet out in front of me.
I turned and nodded once. ''Yes.''
She wasn't going to get any more than one word answers from me. Though that didn't stop her from asking.
''Are you close?''
''Very. He means more to me than anyone in the world.''
A strange expression passed across Adia's face for a fleeting moment, almost as though she was saddened by how close my brother and I were. No... saddened wasn't the right word.
Jealous, perhaps? I remembered Tanya saying that Adia had an older brother, too. Were they not as close as she'd have liked?
I was curious to find out. "What about you and your brother? Are you two close?"
Judging by the sad, almost forlorn look Adia gave to my question, perhaps in retrospect it wasn't the best thing to ask. Tact has never been my strong point, though, and she'd brought up the topic of big brothers first.
She hesitated, not looking at me in the eye as she spoke. "Yeah. We are. I love him a whole lot. He's... got a bit of a cold, though, so he's staying in his room and not coming down for dinner. It's a pity, he was really looking forward to meeting you."
"So was I." Yeah. Looking forward to it like a hole in the fucking head.
Adia smiled at me and gave my hand a soft, friendly pat. I pulled back from her, clenching my jaw. I tried to avoid human contacting unless a) it was from Assef or b) I instigated it. She seemed to notice my hesitance to engage, her shoulders sagging, kicking her feet against the white carpet.
I leaned my head back, closing my eyes. Adia continued talking, droning on and on about school, and the mullahs, and how she wanted to spend more time with me, how I would have to come play after school now. Despite how much I tried to ignore it, her voice still grated in my ears, making it increasingly difficult for me to keep my temper in check. I could feel the anger bubbling under the surface, and I knew I could only hold it in for so long before it blew.
Luckily, I was saved from that happening as we were called down to dinner. We went downstairs and into the dining room. A slim, dark-haired woman in a green dress approached us, putting a hand on Adia's shoulder.
"Go and sit down, darling," she ordered. Then, smiling, she turned to me. "It's nice to meet you, Saria jan. I'm Faraya, Adia's mother. Sit down, please... make yourself comfortable. Here, take a seat next to Adia."
I grit my teeth. I didn't want to sit next to Adia. Couldn't I just sit next to my brother? What would be wrong with that? God, tonight was becoming even more irritating with each passing second.
Assef looked sympathetically at me. Still, he couldn't do a thing to help. I remained in utter silence as we ate, listening in on the conversation between my mother and Faraya. It was about tennis - a sport Tanya told me she often played with her cousins growing up in Berlin.
I didn't pay much attention after that, absently picking at the food on my plate. Adia was excitedly talking about how, just last week, she'd gone to the zoo and seen the new lion cubs. Woop de fucking do.
Then, just as she flung her hands out to emphasise how big the cubs were, it happened. Her hand smacked into my glass of juice, knocking it into my lap. It saturated my dress, turning the once pristine white an almost piss yellow in colour. She covered her mouth with her hands, staring wide-eyed at me.
''Oh my, Saria! I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorr-''
I froze. My heart started thudding in my chest. I could feel the shocked stares of everyone at the table. The soaked fabric of my skirts clung to my legs like wilted lettuce, soaking into my skin. I could feel my cheeks flame with embarrassment. Slowly, I pushed my chair back, scraping it along the tiled floor. I stood up, dripping juice, and raised my hand.
Smack. Adia's head jerked to the side as my hand connected with her flesh. The stunned, horrified girl let out a scared whimper, touching her now reddening cheek. Javid and Faraya looked horrified and my parents seemed to have frozen into place.
And, just as I'd predicted I would, I completely lost it.
''You dumb bitch!'' I screamed, spit flying from my mouth. ''Look what you've fucking done, can't you keep your damn hands to yourself?! You're so fucking STUPID, such a retard! Such a dumb little CUNT!''
With that tirade of verbal assault over, I picked up my plate, still laden with food and hurled it across the room, screaming until I was red in the face. It smashed off the wall, raining bits of peas, meat and potato down onto the freshly washed tiles. I stood there, chest heaving, glaring around the table at the stunned, horrified faces of the other diners.
Mahmood stood, looking positively livid, and grabbed my arm. ''Young lady, you are in for a world of trouble. What on earth possessed you to behave in such a deplorable manner? Hm? Is this the way we behave in another's home? Is it?!"
He was screaming now, much like I had been, his grip on my upper arm so tight it was painful. I tried to explain, to plead for some amount of mercy, for him to understand my reasons for lashing out, but he was having none of it.
Instead, he directed the conversation to both my mother and the Quadiri's. ''I'm dreadfully sorry for this. It seems Saria here needs a sharp lesson in respect for others. A lesson which, if you'll permit, I'd like to teach right here and now.'
''I see no problem with that, Mahmood jan.'' Javid's voice was low and cold. ''You do what is necessary.''
''Indeed I shall, and I want you all to be a witness to this. Come, Saria Adelah.''
Oh shit. Oh shit. Oh son of a bitch! Middle name? I was in big trouble now. And 'teach me here and now?' Please don't let him mean what I think he means!
"P-Papa," I begged in a tiny, scared voice. ''Papa please... I'm sorry..."
But my words fell on deaf ears as I was dragged into the living room, everyone else following. Mahmood began to unbuckle his belt. "Lift up your skirt and lean over the couch,'' he ordered.
''What?! In front of all these people? You can't! Papa, no! Can't you just ground me or something?!''
Mahmood shook his head. ''No, young lady. Since your actions caused embarrassment to us and extreme physical pain to Adia, it's only fair that your punishment cause you embarrassment and extreme physical pain now. I'm giving you three seconds to have that dress lifted and your bottom leaned over that couch. If not, your panties are going down too.''
Terrified, I looked at the others, hoping someone would step forward and become my hero. Someone save me. Someone help.
I looked at Assef, frozen to the spot. His face had turned white, and his fists were shaken. The thought of his baby sister being whipped and humiliated like this was a devastating thing to even consider. He sank into an empty chair, covering his face with his hands.
"Oh God, oh God... Saria..."
The desperation in his voice let me know that there was no hope of release, no chance for mercy.
With tears pooling down my face, I raised my skirts and leaned over the couch as instructed. The belt whistled through the air, as with a deafening crack it made contact with its target. I screamed out in pain, my body lurching forward, feet kicking as I struggled to keep position.
Mahmood lay into me with that belt, whipping my ass, legs and the middle of my back repeatedly, until I could think of nothing else but the searing agony my poor, defenceless body was forced to endure.
He must have given me at least twenty-five or thirty lashes, I have no clue, but it felt like a hundred thousand. I screamed, pleaded and begged for him to stop, hating myself for it with each tearful word. I had more self-pride than that.
My hatred for my parents burned ever more fiercely with each lash I received. How dare Mahmood beat me, and how dare Tanya stand by and allow it. I was even furious with the Quadiri's for watching, making sport of my misery like they were watching a football game.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, my punishment was over. I collapsed, sobbing, onto the floor as my father looped the belt back through his pants. ''I hope you learned a lesson, young lady. Now, what have you to say for yourself?''
"I'm... I'm s-s-sorry,'' I lied, feeling myself flush with the shame of having been given the belt in front of witnesses. "I'm s-so s-s-sorry. It won't h-happen again.''
Truthfully? I wasn't sorry at all. The way I saw it, Adia had done something wrong and needed to be punished for it. If my father could beat me for my mistakes, why couldn't I beat Adia for hers?
''You're right it won't. And she will be giving you a written apology too,'' Mahmood informed them. ''A three-page apology letter in her best penmanship.''
Javid nodded and Faraya, who had an arm around Adia, shot me a cold glare as I stood up, legs trembling, and righted myself again.
That night, I lay face down on my bed, sobbing bitter tears as my loving brother held my hand and rubbed soft, gentle circles into my back. ''Kiddo..'' he whispered. ''I'm so, so sorry I couldn't help. I feel awful for that. That bastard really lay into you.''
''Don't I know it?'' I scoffed. ''And the fucking nerve of him to do it in front of them. I bet the little cunt got real satisfaction from watching, didn't she? Self-righteous bitch, I could gut her jaw to groin. Her fault, Assef, it's all her fault.''
Assef pulled me close, covering both of us with the blanket and lovingly kissing my forehead. ''We'll get her back, kiddo. I promise. Together, we'll find a way. Nobody gets my little sister in trouble and gets away with it. I'll help you make her suffer. But for now, though, you need some sleep.''
''A-Alright, Assef. I love you.'' Then, in a quieter voice, I added, ''from the moon to all the stars.''
''From the moon to the end of the universe.''
''More,'' I muttered drowsily, feeling my eyes start to close.
''Not possible,'' Assef chuckled, and kissed the top of my head. Childish for us to have this little ritual, I know, but my brother just brought out that side of me. And, I had to admit, I kind of liked it. It gave me the security I so desperately needed right then.
As I drifted to sleep in Assef's warm, comforting arms, I indulged myself with the satisfying knowledge that Adia would pay for what she had done to me.
Pay in blood.