December 5, 1974.
The day I turned twelve is also the day the cracks in my orderly little world began to crumble. The day when the rope of lies I had twisted and warped into my own reality began to fray and I was left dangling into a gaping chasm of what the truth could bring.
I went downstairs that morning to be met by Tanya, Mahmood and Assef sitting around the breakfast table. My parents were grinning ear to ear - fake smiles, I could tell - and I noticed my breakfast had already been laid out.
"Happy birthday, Saria," Tanya said as I hopped up on the tall stool - a difficult endeavour for someone of my short stature. "I made breakfast for you."
I looked at the plate laid out in front of me. Toast, still warm, with the butter melted in, and a glass of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice. It was everything I despised in a breakfast and more. I hated when butter melted into my toast and pomegranate juice made me gag. Tanya should have known this. Still, pointing that out would be rude and God fucking forbid that. So, I just smiled and thanked her.
Then, because parenting etiquette 101 dictates you have to get your child a present on their birthday, Mahmood slid a brightly wrapped package across the table towards me. It was soft to the touch and had a ribbon hastily stuck to the corner. Covering it was a card with my name scribbled in Tanya's unmistakable joined-up handwriting.
"This is from all of us," Mahmood said as I began to tear into the paper. After much effort (seriously, did Tanya think she was packaging nuclear weapons or what?) I finally managed to rip it off. Out fell a small rag doll, with button eyes, red dress and a sewn on smile. Not at all unlike the one I had plastered across my face.
"She... She's beautiful, thank you." I hugged the doll to my chest, pretending to be completely enamored with it. And my little display must have been working, if the pathetically simpering grin Tanya bestowed upon me was anything to go by.
Mahmood ruffled my hair. "You're welcome, sweetheart." He stood, brushing crumbs from the front of his freshly ironed shirt. For a moment, we all grinned like retards at each other, looking like the perfect greeting-card family.
Then, Tanya spoke. "Your father and I are going to an important meeting, so we won't be back until later this evening. We've arranged with the Quadiri's for Adia to come over and -" She gave my brother a pointed stare, "Assef, you're in charge. There's money on the dresser if you want to take the girls out for dinner later. Our treat for Saria's birthday."
And there it was, their way to make it up to me. Money. Throw some cash at the situation and everything will be okay. Never mind that, as my parents, my birthday was a far greater occasion for them than a dumb "business meeting."
Never mind that they shouldn't be leaving me alone with just Assef and Adia for company. Never mind that they should care enough to spend one measly day with their children. Never mind that they don't know a damn thing about me, not even how I like my fucking breakfast.
Never mind any of that, because they had money. And money, as everyone knows, makes everything better.
"What are you looking for?" I asked, half-an- hour later, sitting on Assef's bed. He was on his knees, routing for something in his wardrobe.
"Your birthday present," he said, then chuckled when I made a confused noise under my breath. "Come on, kiddo, you didn't think I'd just leave you with a stupid doll as a gift, did you?"
He grinned, and chucked a small black box at me. I barely managed to catch it, giving my brother a confused look as he sat on the bed beside me.
"You'll need to keep it away from Mahmood and Tanya," he said, leaning back on his elbows.
I lifted the lid and, with a shriek of delight, saw exactly why. Inside was a black lighter, the kind only very prestigious, rich people have. It was decorated with a silver chain, and he'd carved an S on the bottom for me.
This was the most thoughtful gift I'd ever received, and I wasted no time in expressing my gratitude, flinging myself onto Assef's lap and kissing his cheek, squealing out my "thank yous" and "I love yous." He laughed in response, ruffling my hair and tickling my sides as he made me promise to take good care of it and never, ever, ever let our parents see.
And for a moment, everything was bliss. I was happy, floating on cloud nine, in fact, and nothing could bring me down.
But just for a moment.
Adia was quiet that day. Quieter than normal, I mean. She always seemed more somber and pensive around me now, but today... It was slightly unnerving.
We sat on my bed, playing chess. She had her beady little brown eyes fixed on her pawn, her lips stretched into a thin line. Every so often, she would pick the pieces up and tap them against the board, as if it was a musical instrument, playing a song only she knew. Clearly something was up, but I didn't much care as to what. I had a much more important thing on my mind - a fatal faux pas on Adia's part.
She had yet to acknowledge my birthday.
Which, in my eyes, was a big, big mistake. She was meant to be my friend, right? I was being good to her, teaching her how to be strong and face the world - hell, I'd even taken a whipping because of her. I was being a good, kind friend by indulging her with my time and effort. So, was it really that much to ask that she acknowledge such an important day in my life?
A sharp nudge in my side brought me back to reality. "Saria?" Adia was looking at me, her head tilted in confusion.
"What?!" I snapped, perhaps with a bit more force than necessary.
"... It, uh... It's your turn."
"Oh?" I looked at the chess board. "Hm. Pawn to king four."
We played on for an hour, each of us winning a game each. Okay, I may have let her win, but I'll let her have it.
And I waited for her to wish me a happy birthday. I waited while we played, I waited when we talked about school and the new teacher we'd be getting, I waited when she told me Masood was sick and spending lots of time in bed, I waited during lunch when Assef cooked us up lentil soup and we all sat around the table together. I waited, and waited, and waited.
Nothing. Not a goddamn thing.
Stupid bitch, I thought, I'm not asking for much, just a simple fucking acknowledgement. How dare she forget after all I've done for her?!
How dare she?!
Up and down, back and forth. I paced in my room, hands behind my back, teeth gritting. Adia sat on the bed, her legs curled underneath herself, watching me with a mixture of anxiety and confusion.
Finally, I decided I would just have to ask her. A firm hand; that's what she needed.
"Adia..." I sat on the bed, gently taking her hand in mine. "Can I ask you a question?"
"You do know what... day it is today, right?"
She nodded, giggling. "Course I do, silly. It's a Tuesday."
Maybe it was being called "silly." Maybe it was the goofy, stupid smile she gave when she answered. Maybe it was the confirmation that yes, she did in fact forget my birthday and no, she didn't care about it. Maybe it was all these things combined. I don't know. But it pushed me over the edge.
"You little bitch!"
With a feral snarl, I raised my hand and - much like I'd done the first time we met - backhanded her across the face. Caught off guard, she gave a terrified squeak and fell off the side of the bed, landing with a thud on the carpet. A noise so loud, in fact, that it brought Assef running.
"What the hell?! What's going on here?!"
The look on his face was a mixture of confusion and worry. He must have thought something had happened to me, because the minute he saw Adia on the floor, his expression changed. It was no longer concern for me being hurt. Instead, the look had changed to one of anger. Anger that the little bitch on the floor had done something to upset his precious sister.
I turned, snarling, teeth gnashing. "She forgot my birthday!"
Adia's eyes widened. "T-Today's your b-birthday? I... I... Completely forgot... I was just.. I mean..." She smiled weakly, hoping to get back on my good side. "I'm sorry, Saria, really. H-Happy b-birthday."
I cracked her across the face again. "Too little, too late, bitch."
She has to be punished. She deserves it. A simple beating isn't going to be enough now, this has to be a lesson that'll really impact. You have the weapon, Saria. Burn her, burn the bitch. Burn her!
He crossed to my side, placing a hand on my shoulder. No doubt he knew how angry I was, how much I wanted the girl crying on the floor beneath us to suffer.
"Get me my lighter."
It was all I need to say. Assef, the perfect brother that he is, grabbed the lighter from my vanity desk, holding it out to me. I kept one hand pressed on Adia's chest, stopping her from moving, while the other snatched the lighter from my brother.
"Thanks. Lift up her top for me?"
Assef nodded, kneeling by my side and grabbing a fistful of Adia's t-shirt. He lifted it about half-way, exposing her bare midriff for punishment.
With a grin, I clicked the lighter.
The flame shone in my hand, bright, orange and deadly. Adia let out a frightened squeak at the sight of it, twisting under my firm grip like a fish caught on a hook. "N-No! Noooo... Please... Pl-"
Her whimpers turned to screams of agony at the touch of the flame. I moved it over her stomach, slowly burning her. Her flesh turned red, the colour of pain, and her screams reached a deafening pitch.
Then, her eyes met mine, and I froze.
They were shining with tears of hurt, pain and betrayal. And reflected in them, I saw the face of true evil.
Wild blonde hair, blue eyes that hid the devil behind them. Face contorted into a merciless sneer.
That was me.
Look at you, a voice in my head piped up. Look what you're doing. Look at how scared she is. You hurt her, and for what? All because she forgot your birthday? All because you're so desperate for gratification, to be worshipped? All because you can't bear the thought that people have lives outside of you? You're a monster, Saria, a monster!
I clicked the lighter off, letting it fall with a thud to the ground. I struggled to my feet, tripping over myself as I staggered backwards. I'm not a monster. I'm not. It's her fault, everything's her fault.
Conscience kept on at me. Or are you just saying that?
It was the first time I'd ever come close to feeling any sense of guilt or compassion for someone who wasn't Assef. That alone terrified me. I had tried so hard to keep people out, to push everyone else away. And now, now I was faced with the prospect that the terrified child quivering beneath me could be breaking down the walls of hatred I had taken so long to build.
I couldn't handle that.
So I ran.
Out the door, down the stairs, out into the front garden. I ran down the drive and through the gate, not knowing where I was going, and not caring.
Assef was chasing me now. I could hear him screaming my name, screaming at me to stop.
"Saria, wait! Kiddo, what's wrong? Come back, please!"
Keep running, Saria. He's going to lie again. To tell you that you aren't a monster, but you are.
The voice of Conscience was getting louder now, daring to turn me against my own brother. It made me feel sick, and, as I reached the barracks, I could take it no longer.
My knees gave way and I collapsed to the ground, retching and screaming and crying. Everything was a mess, my perfect world and perfect image coming undone. Conscience was louder than ever, calling me a monster, demon, soulless, evil. Telling me that I was a horrible person, that I deserved the worse pain for what I'd just done. Telling me that Adia was the victim and I should feel ashamed for burning her.
NO! I fought against my own thoughts. It is her fault, all her fucking fault. She deserved to be hurt. I've done nothing wrong here. Anybody with self-respect would have done the same thing. What was I supposed to do, just let her get away with it? I only punished her to help her learn a lesson. She has to learn not to neglect her friends. The pain is a necessary part of that. I'm not evil. I'm not. I'm not. I'm not.
Assef fell to his knees beside me, pulling me into his arms. I screamed and struggled and fought against his grip, wanting his comfort but at the same time being too afraid to accept it. He pressed my head to his chest, rocking and cooing.
"Shh... Shh, kiddo, it's okay. It's okay. I'm here."
"A-Adia..." It was the only thing I could say.
"I sent her home, kiddo. With a warning to never speak of this to anyone," my brother said, obviously misinterpreting my worry. I nodded weakly, and he pulled back to look in my eyes. "Now, Saria, what's got you so upset?"
Could I tell him? Normally I would - Assef and I shared everything together. But right now, I wondered what he could do to help me. All he'd do was reassure me that everything was okay, that it was all Adia's fault and that I shouldn't worry about it. He'd pretend that I wasn't a monster and that I'd done the right thing.
It might have worked before. But now, I didn't know what, or who, to believe.
So I just whimpered, croaking out that I'd just over-reacted because of what Adia had done. I blamed her again. Blamed her for what, deep down, I knew was my fault.
And I pushed Conscience away, pushed the little voice that called out my own wrongdoings to the back of my mind. Was I a monster, or was I the victim? Could I be blamed for standing up for myself, albeit in a rather cruel way? Was my conscience the liar, or was I?
I didn't know. I still don't. Maybe I never will.
But I would fight to build my walls up again, and do whatever it took to stop Adia, or anyone else, from breaking them down.
My walls were the only things keeping me from facing the reality of who I was.
And behind them, I could be in control. Perfect.