Tanya snatched the plate of half-eaten buttered toast away from me, tossing it in the sink with such force it almost cracked.
''I wasn't fi-'' I began, but a sharp glare in my direction told me it would be best to keep quiet. I was, after all, still in my parents bad books after my little stunt last week. Neither of them could even talk to me without bringing it up, or making some subtle reference to my ''obscene, derogatory remarks,'' or ''unladylike behaviour.''
It was pathetic, really. And it irked me to no end that they would only pin blame upon me for what had happened. What about Adia? What about her spilling that drink on me, ruining my dress? Why had she gotten off scot-free? She should have been the one who got the belt. She should have been the one to be punished. I had done nothing wrong. My only crime was reacting in the way most people would have done in that situation.
Tanya reached out a long-nailed hand and roughly grabbed my chin, jerking my head forward. I bit back a feral hiss, and meekly looked up at her. Time to become the dutiful, perfect daughter again. Time to play the part.
I'd referred to her as 'ma'am', as was expected of me when I was in disgrace. Tanya relaxed her grip slightly, nodding her approval. Good. Anything to get her to stop giving me that irritating, pretentious look. Who did she think she was? Was she so damn perfect she'd never lost her temper, never reacted on impulse as I had?
''Your father and I are going to a business meeting. While we're gone I expect you to clean the dishes and put away the laundry. Then, you are to write your apology letter to the Quadiri family. They're coming for dinner at four o'clock, a dinner I fully expect you to assist your brother in making."
I nodded as though her words were the most interesting I'd ever heard in all my life, fighting the urge to roll my eyes. "Yes, Mama."
She pointed a stern finger in my face, right between my eyes. How I longed to break off the offending appendage and stab her in the throat with her own perfectly manicured nail.
My fingers involuntarily twitched as these rancid thoughts made their way into my brain. I kept my gaze focused on the wall behind her, not daring to look in her eyes for fear that doing so would make me completely lose it.
"Listen to me, Saria Adelah Ahmed, because this is your first and only warning: if I see a repeat of your behaviour last Wednesday, the punishment you got from your father will seem insignificant in comparison to what will happen. We're very, very fortunate that Javid and Faraya still even want anything to do with us after your despicable behaviour, young lady. If I see anything less than impeccable, ladylike manners tonight then your bottom and my hairbrush will be meeting again. Do you understand?"
Her hairbrush - a large, wooden, oval monstrosity - was rarely used for its intended purpose and had often been fashioned into a deadly weapon to blister both myself and Assef as children. Though, if you ask me, it seemed she used that brush just for the sheer joy of causing us pain than any form of "punishment."
In fact, my worst ever punishment had come at the unforgiving touch of that brush. A seven-year-old Saria, frightened by the growling of next door's German shepard, had darted out into a busy road and wound up facing nightly hairbrush spankings for a week. After that, I vowed I'd do everything in my power to avoid the dreaded implement and I wasn't about to stop now.
"I understand, khanom. I'll be sure to behave as expected."
"Good. I'm still very disappointed in you, Saria. You brought such shame to this family. Sometimes I wish -"
Her expression changed for a moment. It was no longer stern, no longer full of parental anger. Instead, she almost looked... disappointed, and in a much deeper sense than that of a parent being disappointed in their misbehaved child.
Then, she blinked, and the look was gone.
"Behave," she ordered again, relinquishing her grip on me. I watched her turn and leave the kitchen. The door slammed shut in her wake, leaving me alone once more. I sighed, reluctantly getting up and making my way to the sink.
It was filled almost to the brim with piles upon piles of dirty dishes, some of which had been left there overnight. Even looking at it was enough to make me gag. How was I supposed to clean the damn thing up? I'd sooner shove my hand in rancid piss. But what choice did I have?
As I stood there, trying to work up the courage to place my hands into the murky brown water, the door opened again. I immediately tensed, fearing it to be a watchful, stalking parent but, luckily for me, it turned out to be my brother. He crossed to my side, giving me a sympathetic smile.
"So," he said, looking down at the sink with a raised brow. "You're on dish duty, huh, kiddo?"
I nodded, wrinkling my nose in contempt. "Unfortunately." I ran my finger along the edge of a plate, almost retching at the grime it left behind. "Disgusting. Wasn't Hamilra supposed to clean up last night?"
Assef laughed, ruffling my hair. "Come on, Sar, do you really think that filthy Hazara could do anything right?"
"Mhm," I mused. "You're right, brother. She probably forgot all about it. Typical Hazara; a dog would do a better job of cleaning up."
"Well, the dog would be smarter, kiddo."
I sniggered. I loved my brother's quick wit and sharp tongue. He could make even the most offensive of insults sound hilarious, especially ones directed towards the filthy, worthless Hazara race.
Assef hopped up on a nearby stool, grabbing an apple from the fruit bowl and biting into it.
"The bitch and her family coming for tea?" he asked, the words coming out somewhat distorted from the food in his mouth.
The bitch was our ever so "loving" nickname for Adia. Assef's voice instantly went from caring and warm, to cold and unforgiving at the mere mention of our newest enemy.
"Yes. Joy a-fucking-bove," I spat through gritted teeth. "You and I are making dinner."
"We are. A pity we can't drop a few tablets in Adia's portion."
Assef shook his head fondly. "You have a lot to learn, kiddo. Come here." He patted his lap, and I went to sit on his knees.
"Mahmood and Tanya expect you to befriend the girl, don't they?" he asked.
"They do. Believe me I'd rather put a bullet through my skull than ever -"
My brother cut me off with a finger pressed to my lips. I tilted my head to look up at him. "Friendship means control, Saria. At least, for you and I. Think of how skilled we are, how brilliant, how much better than the common people. It'll be easy for you to have little Adia twisted under your finger, just as I have Wali and Kamal."
Wali and Kamal were two boys living in the Wazir Akbhar Khan neighbourhood. They'd known Assef since they were five-years-old, and for years my brother had maintained a tight control over both of them. He was master, and they the pitiful, grovelling slaves.
I felt a tingle in my body at the thought of doing the same to Adia. Control was a big, big thing for me. I needed it. I needed to have people fear me, have them willing to do whatever I said. Tearing others down was the only way that I could be strong.
Apology letters are notoriously hard to write, especially if you aren't at all sorry.
I sat at my desk, pen in hand, a generous helping of paper spread out before me. I'd been up here for the past two hours, trying and failing to write an adequate apology. Each time I put pen to paper, I'd end up at a blank wall. How do you say sorry to a person whose neck you'd rather snap than show remorse to? What do you say? I swear, I'd have been better off watching paint dry or the grass grow. At least then I'd be doing something worthwhile and constructive.
Even getting a single word down was a chore. How on earth was I meant to write three fucking pages? I gripped the pen with such force my knuckles turned white. My top and bottom teeth noisily scraped against each other.
'If anyone deserves an apology, it's me,' I inwardly griped. 'I'm the one who was wronged here, not her. She got off lucky, she really fucking did.'
And she'd gotten to watch my punishment, to watch my humiliation and hear my pleas, my screams for mercy as Mahmood had lay into me with that belt. She, who had held the balance of power in her hands. She could have stopped it, could have stepped in.
If she had just told Mahmood it was okay, that she didn't want me to be whipped, maybe things would have turned out differently. But she hadn't, and I'd wound up with bruises that still hadn't faded, and the inability to sleep on my back for over five days.
So, I ask you how the hell I was supposed to conjure up the words to apologise to the girl? Yes, yes, I probably should have considered this sooner, rather than waiting until the last minute. Procrastination never did anyone any good. But I ask you, was there not more fulfilling things I could have occupied my time with than the writing of this stupid letter?
For a moment, I considered calling Assef up here to ask his advice, but decided against it. My brother may have been able to help me in other matters but apologising was not one of them. The only person he'd ever shown genuine remorse towards was me, and in spite of how devastating the thought of hurting one another was, we couldn't feel that guilt towards anyone else.
No, I knew I would have to just suck it up and do what I did best: bullshit my way through.
With a hearty sigh, I placed pen to paper and began to write.
"They're here, kiddo," Assef said, poking his head 'round the door.
I moaned, groggily untangling my chin from my palm and sitting up straighter. The finished letter sat in a pristine white envelope, Adia's name written on it in my best cursive. I wiped sleep from my eyes, wanting nothing more than curl up in bed and hibernate for the foreseeable future.
"Already?" I looked at him, confused. "But it's still early.."
"It's four o'clock, kiddo."
"What?!" I felt my jaw drop as I stared incredulously at him. "How... it was only one last time I checked. How the heck did time go so fast?"
I stared down at the envelope. 'Did I seriously spend over three hours writing this?' I wondered, unable to believe it. 'The little bitch better damn well be grateful.'
Assef stroked my hair. "I must say, Saria, I'm impressed. You've shown more fortitude and strength than I ever would have in your position. I'd have refused outright to write that letter.''
''Yeah, but I'd have gotten the belt again for that, wouldn't I?''
''Probably. Though if he ever gives you as many as he did last week, I will throttle the bastard. I swear to fucking God."
We were interrupted, unfortunately, by the whining shout of my mother. "Assef! Saria! The Quadiri's are waiting downstairs... please get down here right now."
"Coming, Mother," said Assef, taking my hand and beginning to lead me down the stairs. I became almost resistant as I dragged my heels, not wanting to greet my so-called "guests". My mood was becoming fouler with each passing step. I could barely move without wanting to scream out in frustration.
Finally, we reached the living room. Assef kept my hand tightly wrapped in his, fingers squeezing with just the tiniest amount of pressure, a silent warning to keep calm. I clutched the letter in one hand, and clung to Assef with the other, feeling more and more like a scared, vulnerable child.
I looked around the room at the people sitting on the couch before me. All the usual suspects were there, but this time there was a new face I hadn't yet seen. It was a boy of about thirteen, dressed in a green cashmere sweater and light beige trousers.
There were dark circles under his eyes, and his skin was pale, as if he were sick or something. By process of elimination I deducted that this was Masood, Adia's brother who had been missing the first time I met her.
Joy. Another person to have to impress. Could this day get any worse?
It seemed every eye in the room was on me. Even my own mother and father were glaring at me like I'd just murdered someone. I didn't think I'd be able to do this. I just wanted to turn tail and run back up those stairs as fast as my legs could carry me.
But, as everyone who has gone through hardship will tell you, sometimes you just have to hold your head high and get on with it.
I stepped forward, letter in hand, and extended it out to Adia. ''This is for you,'' I said, ''you and your family. I really am sorry for how I acted last week, and I hope this somehow makes up for it. I regret it immensely.''
Bullshit, bullshit, and more bullshit. Each word dripping like honey from my mouth was no more than a lie, though I would allow them the false pretence of thinking I meant it. Adia took the letter from me, then to my utter disdain gave me a bone-crunching hug.
She was squeezing me so tight I felt my ribs would undoubtedly crack. I just stood there, frozen like a statue, and a bored one at that.
''Thank you, Saria,'' she said. ''Thank you for writing this, and thank you for saying sorry and thank you for wanting to be my friend.''
She pulled back, grinning ear to ear. Her parents nodded at me, and I could tell by the relaxed atmosphere that I had indeed been forgiven. Good. Those who like me are much more suceptible to my charms, after all. It's just a fact of life.
The pale-looking boy stood, then, and reached out a hand to me. ''Well.. now that that's over with,'' he said, his voice strained as though each word were a struggle, ''I should probably introduce myself. I'm Masood, Adia's older brother. Nice to meet you, sweetheart.''
"Nice to meet you too," I said, shaking his hand.
Mahmood, being the annoying shit that he is, crossed to my side and clapped me once on the shoulder. ''Eloquent as always, my dear.'' His eyes were shining with pride, and I knew I'd wormed my way back into ''daddy's'' good books again.
I beamed up at him, listening intently as he continued to talk. ''Now, since dinner won't be ready for another half-hour, why don't you take Adia up to your room for a bit?''
''Yes, Papa.'' I nodded, and, much like she had done with me, took Adia's hand and practically dragged her up the stairs.
It was time for my fun to begin.
We sat on the edge of my bed, neither of us saying a word, the awkwardness almost palpable. I had my knees drawn up to my chest and was staring at the ground with my best hangdog expression, hoping the smiley, bubbly little shit sat next to me would get the picture and ask what was wrong. Which, after a few agonisingly slow minutes, she did.
''Hm?'' I didn't look at her.
''Are you...'' She hesitated for a moment, as though trying to conjure up the right words. Again, I refused to meet her gaze. ''Are you alright, Saria?''
She sounded so concerned, so empathic, so genuinely worried for my sake. It was in that moment that I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that I could expertly manipulate this little girl. I knew that, like a marionette, her strings would bend and bow to my will. I knew she was in my power now. And I liked it. I liked it more than words could possibly say.
Adia reached over and took my hand. ''Please talk to me, Saria. Please? Friends don't keep secrets. And... we are friends, aren't we?''
''I don't know, Adia,'' I said, making my voice crack. Time for the crocodile tears. ''I don't know if you really are my friend, or if you care about me at all. I mean, you let me get beaten at your house, and you didn't even step in. I was in so much pain because of you, I could barely even walk for days. I still have bruises all over my back and legs and it hurts, Adia.
It hurts so, so much. And not once did you bother to check up on me or ask if I was okay or even say sorry for not helping me. You just kept making me feel like the bad guy and I'm not, Adia. I'm not. So no, I don't know if we're friends. It doesn't look like it to me.''
By the end of my little rant, we were both crying heavily, tears streaming like faucets down our cheeks. I'd taken a few liberties with my tale, of course; my beating hadn't left me unable to walk, although doing so had been painful.
''I'm sorry,'' Adia sniffled, wiping her nose with the back of her hand. ''I shoulda stepped in and I know I'm an awful, horrible, dreadful friend for letting you get hurt, Saria. I feel terrible. I really do want to be your friend, I wanna make it up to you. Please.''
In a twisted, manipulative show of compassion, I reached out and put my arms around the girl. I let her cry on my shoulder, her legs curled up underneath her, stroking her hair and rubbing soft circles into her back. All while marvelling at the extent of her empathy towards me.
It was amazing how much my pain, my tears, and my suffering all had such an impact on her. Empathy baffled me, being something I always struggled with. How could you feel so bad for someone you barely knew?
"Please," Adia whispered again, "please b-be my friend, Saria. I really do like you..."
"We can be friends,'' I said after a while, ''if you make me a promise.''
''Anything, Saria, anything.''
''You have to promise you'll be on my side from now on. That you'll do as I say and you won't ever abandon me or hurt me. Friendship only works with loyalty, Adia jan. You have to promise to stay friends no matter what. And in exchange, I'll be there for you, too. I'll be the friend you always wanted, and I'll protect you from anyone who may want to hurt you.''
I felt her nod against my shoulder, but it was not enough. I needed verbal agreement. With one hand still clutching Adia's, I used the other to prop her up and hold her chin steady so she would have to look into my eyes.
''So what do you say? Is that a yes?''
A strange, unfamiliar feeling bubbled in the pit of my stomach, and I suddenly felt a little uncomfortable. But I quickly brushed the feeling aside, locking it away in the darkest corners of mind where nobody would ever see it.
"Good... Good girl, Adia."
I hugged her again and we sat like that until Tanya called us for dinner, me holding my new prize close and she naively clinging to who she thought was going to be her new best friend. But, as it so often was with me, this new friendship was nothing more than a sham: a twisted game of give and take.
She gave me loyalty and I took control.
She gave me obedience and I took her freedom.
She gave me her friendship and I took everything she had.