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She started composing An Ember in the Ashes while pulling all nighters as a paper supervisor. She enjoys loud independent stone, ostentatious socks, and everything geek.
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Neither created nor scanned. We will take the immediate action to take down the url. Save my name, email, and website in this browser for the next time I comment. Me shoving her away, telling her I didn t feel the same. Spewing every hurtful thing I could think of, because her kiss was a blade tearing open something inside. Noor staring at me like I d transformed into an angry kraken.
I kept waiting for her to peg me with it. The door slams behind her and I grab the handle to follow her. Then I stop. The bell rings. The hall clock behind me plods on, each tick a dumbbell slamming to the floor.
A minute passes. I read and reread a sign on the door for a writing contest that Mrs. Michaels has been bugging me to enter. But even though I ve walked into AP English every day for five months, today I can t make myself do it. I can t sit across the room from Noor, knowing she ll never tease me about my llama socks again, or kick my ass in Night Ops 4, or come over on Saturday mornings and eat paratha with me and Ama.
I try to remember Ama s smile when she was well and would pick me up after class. The way she lit up and asked me about my life, like I had climbed Everest instead of merely survived another day at school. Mera putar, undar ja, she d tell me now. My son, go inside. I sigh and as I reach for the door, a bony hand grabs my arm. Malik The handle slips from my grip. Ernst s pale green eyes bore into me, daring me to snap, or wanting me to.
What did I say earlier? Don t, I jerk away from him. Shut up, Salahudin. Don t touch me. I wait for him to paw at me again. Suspend me. Call Darth Derek. Instead he lets me go and shakes his head, a man sternly disappointed in a rebellious dog, giving the leash a little yank.
Incorrect, Ernst says. I said first and only warning. My office. Three o clock. He loves explaining them to other people. But the audience for his genius is limited. It s either me; his wife, Brooke; or the drunks who come into the liquor shop.
He likes the drunks best because they always think he s brilliant. Under the cash register next to his bat, he keeps a stack of graph paper and a mechanical pencil. He refills both every Sunday. The door jangles and Mr. Collins walks in. He s an engineer on the military base just outside town, and he likes a little Jack in his coffee.
Cold air follows him in. The sky outside is dark. I can t even see the mountains that ring Juniper. There s still time to do Fajr the dawn prayer.
But I don t. Chachu wouldn t like it. God, he likes to rant, is a construct for the weak- minded. My head aches as I restock the candy aisle. According to the Pakistani passport and the US green card I keep in my backpack at all times, it s my eighteenth birthday. My phone dings. I look up at Chachu, but his skinny form is turned away. His brown hair falls in his face as he scribbles on the graph paper spread across the counter between lighters and lotto tickets.
I peek at my screen. The message is from Misbah Auntie. She s not actually my aunt. Misbah Auntie: Happy 18th birthday, my dear Noor. You bring such light into my life. I hope you will come to see me. I made your favorite. Above that message is a string of others. From January. Misbah Auntie: Are you angry at me too? Misbah Auntie: I miss you, my Dhi. I ll make paratha on Saturday for you.
Please visit. Misbah Auntie: Noor, it is raining! I am thinking of how you love the rain. I miss you. Misbah Auntie: Noor, talk to me. Misbah Auntie: Noor, please. I know you are mad at Salahudin. But can t you talk to him? I ve read that last message a dozen times. It still makes me mad. Salahudin is Misbah Auntie s son. He s also my former best friend. My first love. My first heartbreak. Misbah Auntie came into the store a couple of Sundays ago. I wanted to hug her. Tell her Sal had broken my heart and that I was lost.
Talk to her the way I used to before the Fight, even if I was afraid that she d reject me. I haven t seen her since. Chachu s voice makes me jump. I shove my phone back in my pocket, but he s not looking at me. Finish stocking. Sorry, Chachu. My uncle frowns. He hates that I call him Chachu. It s the Urdu title for father s brother. After a second, he turns back to Mr.
Collins, with whom he s discussing Fermat s Last Theorem. Collins nods as Chachu wraps up. The strains of Handel s Hallelujah Chorus fill my head as Mr. Collins s face lights up. A caveman discovering fire. I shouldn t be surprised. No matter how obscure the theorem, Chachu can explain it. It s his gift. You could be doing my job, Mr. Collins says. Hell, you don t even have an accent like some of the guys working at the base.
Why are you here selling liquor and groceries? The vagaries of fate, Chachu says. My spine tingles. His voice has that edge. Collins looks to where I m restocking. Noor, is it? Sometimes, Mr. Collins comes in Sunday mornings when I open the store.
You as smart as your uncle? I shrug. Please shut up. Collins does not shut up. Well, don t waste it, he says. If you re anything like him, you ll get into any college you want. Chachu bags Mr. Collins s bottle and catches my eye. Has Noor been talking about college? I m glad I didn t eat breakfast.
I feel sick and breathless. No, Mr. I breathe again. But she should be. You re a senior, right? Collins shakes his head. My son was like you. Now he s a human billboard for an apartment building in Palmview. Collins looks at me like I ll be joining his son any second. I want to throw a Snickers bar at him.
Hit him right between the eyes. But that would be a waste of good candy. When he s gone, Chachu crumples up the graph paper. Turn on the radio. Our love for nineties music is the only thing we have in common, other than blood.
We don t even look alike my hair and skin are darker, my features smaller. Turn it on. Distract yourself. Instead, he nods to the other end of the shop. There s something for you out back, he says. I m so surprised I stare at him until he waves me away. A birthday present?
Chachu hasn t remembered my birthday in five years. The last gift he gave me was the dented laptop he left in my room a year and a half ago without explanation. I pick my way through the storage room. Outside, the wind rips the back door s handle from me and I struggle to close it. The desert beyond the alley is a flat blue shadow and it takes me a second to see my gift leaning against the store s stucco wall.
A battered silver bike. As I run my hands along the steel frame, I hear the snick of Chachu s lighter and jump. After you graduate, he says between drags on his cigarette, you ll be able to take over the day shift here while I m in class. It ll make all our lives easier. People love talking about the greatness of the human heart. Et cetera. But the human heart is also stupid. At least mine is.
No matter how many times I tell it not to hope that Chachu cares about me, it hopes anyway. Back inside, Chachu flips on the classic rock station and turns it up when Nirvana s Heart- Shaped Box comes on. My head is splitting, and as I grab my backpack, I think about asking for a mini bottle of aspirin. Don t push your luck. The thought makes me angry. Why can t I ask my own uncle for some aspirin? Why when Stop, Noor.
I can t be angry at Chachu. He is the only reason I m standing here. I was six when an earthquake hit my village in Pakistan. Chachu drove for two days from Karachi because the flights to northern Punjab were down. When he reached the village, he crawled over the rubble to my grandparents house, where my parents lived, too.
He tore at the rocks with his bare hands. The emergency workers told him it was useless. His palms bled. His nails were ripped out. Everyone was dead. But Chachu kept digging. He heard me crying, trapped in a closet. He pulled me out. Got me to a hospital and didn t leave my side.
Chachu brought me to America, where he d been in college. Left his engineering internship at the military base and put a down payment on a failing liquor store with the little cash he d saved up. And that s where he s stayed for the past eleven years, just so we could afford to live.
He gave up everything for me. Now it s my turn. You look like a FOB with those braids. I don t respond. I had the braids in my passport picture, too. I like them. They remind me of who I was. Of the people who loved me. Your shift starts at three fifteen, Chachu says. I have to be somewhere. Don t be late. To Chachu, tardiness is illogical, and if there s one thing Chachu hates, it s the illogical.
It s the idea that any logic system in existence is either inconsistent or incomplete. Which I hope is true. Because Chachu has a theorem about me, too. Chachu s Theorem of the Future, I call it. My face is frozen by the time I lock my bike to the school rack and head to English. But I don t mind. The ride to school let me think. About Auntie Misbah and the hospital where I volunteer.
About Salahudin and school. Right now, I m thinking about numbers. Seven applications sent. One rejection. Six schools left. I applied because they have a good bio program, and because I thought I d get in. The rejection arrived yesterday.
My face gets hot with anger. I force it away. I d have needed a scholarship to attend anyway. And it s one school. One out of seven is no big deal. Michaels clears her throat at the front of the class. I don t remember opening the door.
I want to disappear, but I m frozen at the threshold. Jamie Jensen turns to stare, ponytail swinging. Her blue eyes fix on me, so everyone else s do, too. The lights, Noor. Michaels positions her wheelchair next to her laptop. I flip them off, and mouth thank you to her as everyone shifts their attention to the poem illuminated on the white board.
I sink into my seat in the back row, next to Jamie. Who is still watching me. Ten bucks says that one day Jamie makes a band perform it at her wedding. What d you get? She leans over. Nods to the downturned paper on my desk. Last week s essay. Michaels must have handed them out before I got in. I gave it my best shot. But I know it was a crap essay. Jamie stares. When she realizes I m not going to answer her, she settles back.
Smiles her tight, fake smile. Michaels is saying. You ll need to pick a work by an American poet I glance at a seat across the classroom. It s next to the red fire alarm. And it s empty. But it shouldn t be. Salahudin was behind me. I thought he followed me in. Malik, a voice says in the hall. Principal Ernst, nailing Salahudin for being tardy again. Ernst says Malik like Mlk because vowels are beyond him. I pull out my notebook. Salahudin is not my problem. I have bigger ones. Like the rejection from UVA.
Like making sure I pass this class even though I suck at English without Salahudin to give me notes on my essays. Like Chachu s Theorem of the Future and what it means to defy it. Jamie corners me in PE. She waits for Grace and Sophie, her eerily identical posse, to leave the little dirt patch outside the locker room before approaching. Hey Noor!
My name rhymes with lure. Not too difficult. I don t even expect people to roll the r at the end, like Auntie Misbah does. But Jamie s always pronounced it Nore like bore.
I ve known her since I moved to Juniper in first grade, and in all that time, she s refused to say my name right, even though I ve asked.
For the first five or six years of my life here, Jamie mostly ignored my existence. Then, in seventh grade I got Student of the Month. I won a I took advanced classes.
She didn t befriend me. Never that. But she did start keeping an eye on me. You look tired. Her eyes linger on my face. The Calc problem set last night was brutal, huh? Jamie is innocent enough on the surface. Class president. Straight A s. Big smile. A pleasantness that got her on homecoming court even if it didn t get her the crown. And yet. Have you heard from any colleges? She doesn t want to ask, but her competitive streak gnaws at her I know it s only February, but you did early action, right?
My sister said I should have heard from Princeton by now I don t remember telling Jamie I did early action. I haven t told anyone at school about applying to college. There s no one to tell. Until six months ago, Salahudin was the only friend I ever needed. There s an awkward pause. After Jamie realizes I m not going to say anything, she steps back. Her face goes hard. I get it. She sounds a little like a seal barking.
Once the image is in my head, I can t get it out. Which means I smile. Which makes her madder, because she thinks I m laughing at her.
A crowd of seniors passes, Grace and Sophie among them. They look at us curiously they know we re not friends. Jamie jogs to them, her thousand- kilowatt smile pasted on. She d make a great politician. Or serial killer. As she disappears to the field, Salahudin comes out of the locker I catch a flash of rigid brown stomach muscle. What did that psycho want? The casual way he talks. Like we haven t be avoiding each other for the last six months, two weeks, and five days.
My brain refuses to formulate a response. After the Fight, I d lay awake thinking of all the things I should have shot back at him when he told me he could never fall in love with me.
When he said I d ruined our friendship. Now I can t remember a single one. I should ignore him. But the way he looks at me careful and hopeful it s a punch. And I fold. Re remember when she told you to dress up as a terrorist for Halloween? Sixth grade. Never trusted her again. We glare at Jamie s retreating back. For a moment we re kids again. Unified against an invisible evil. He lifts his arm, rubbing the back of his head, and I catch a flash of bicep.
Look away, Noor. God, I wish she had a weakness. I glance accusingly at the sky, though God probably doesn t live there. Jerk parents. Bad hair. Bad gas. She s got heinous taste in shoes. Look at those He nods to Jamie s neon Nikes. Like her feet got eaten by traffic cones. Salahudin usually has dad humor, but that wasn t bad. I almost say so. He glances at my face. I want to hide. Or run away. He steps closer.
He sees too much. I wish he didn t see so much. Ashlee watches us from the field. Your girlfriend s waiting. That word still makes me want to kick him in the teeth. I d glare at him, but I d have to crane my neck. Last time I was this close to him, he was two inches shorter. With worse skin.
If the universe were just, he d have shrunk. Grown questionable facial hair. A wart would be good. Maybe a personality transplant, too. A potbelly instead of a six- pack. But the universe is not just. Right, Salahudin says. Yeah I wanted to ask you a favor. I cross my arms. A short conversation is one thing. But we both know he shouldn t be asking for favors.
Could you text my mom? Tell her to push her doctor s appointment? Ernst gave me detention for being late and He lifts up his phone. It s not working. I have a charger. No, it s He fidgets, which is weird because Salahudin isn t a fidgeter. There s a problem with our account. Ama s on a separate plan, though, so her phone s fine. Never mind. Forget I asked. He turns away. The bunched cords of his neck tell me he s upset. As soon as I think it, I m angry.
I know him so well. I wish I didn t. Hey I reach for his arm, then quickly let him go when he jumps. I shouldn t have grabbed him. He hates being touched. Though as soon as I do touch him I want to do it again. Because touching him makes him real. And that makes me remember how I used to feel about him. How I still feel. About the food she made me. She loves me. I know that in my bones. Salahudin being an idiot isn t her fault. And I ll stop by after I m done at the hospital.
How is she doing? A long pause. He could say a hundred things. But his shoulders harden. His brown eyes drift away. Not great. What do you mean? I ask. What happened?
Salahudin gives me a sad half smile. I don t recognize it. In Him we put our trust, he says. One of Auntie s religious sayings. Salahudin would argue with her about it.
What about our will? What about what we want? She d answer in her don t-make-me-smack-you-with-my-chappal voice. What you want is what you want. What you do is what God wishes for you to do. Now ask for forgiveness, Putar. I don t want the gates of heaven closed to me because my son was disrespectful.
Salahudin would grumble. Then he d ask for forgiveness. Auntie knew how to answer his questions. She knew what to say to him. He pulls away. I let him go. Her small feet tapped impatiently in cracked rubber sandals. She s younger than you, Misbah, my cousin Fozia told me, but she will ease your mind. The fortune teller beckoned me to sit across a rickety wooden table and took my hands.
The cross at her neck marked her as a Christian. You are to marry, the fortune teller said. I am not paying you one hundred rupees to tell me cows make milk. I lifted the Sahib s Bridals bag in my hand. The girl s laughter creaked out of her. Perhaps she was older than she looked. She stroked the lines on my hands and poked at the calluses. You will travel across the sea. He will not desert his parents. Nonetheless you will leave Pakistan, she said. You will have your children far from here.
A boy. A girl. And a third that is not she, nor he, nor of the third gender. You will fail them all. What do you mean I will fail them? Will will they die? Will they be sick? Hers were small and long- lashed, the crisp brown of fallen leaves.
I offered her one hundred rupees to change the fortune. Then two hundred. But no matter what I offered, she said no more. I spend the last two periods of every school day in a volunteer program at Juniper Regional Hospital.
Chachu doesn t like it, but it s during school hours so he can t do much about it. When I finish my shift, I head to the motel. On my bike, it s only ten minutes away. I should have enough time to check on Auntie, and get to the store. The motel s quiet when I roll across the cracked concrete in the carport by the main apartment, where Sal s family lives.
Auntie never locks the door, and when I enter, the warm smell of sugartoasted semolina fills my nose. I call out, but there s no one inside.
I walk behind the carport to the fenced- off pool and toolshed, but they re empty, too. Cold Moon by the Zolas plays in my earbuds. I shut it off as the chorus winds down. The east wing of the motel is quiet, the parking lot empty.
Business hasn t been great, I guess. None of the rooms on the west wing are open, either. But the bright blue door of the laundry room creaks in the wind. I push it open to find Auntie leaning against the wall inside. She has a towel clutched to her chest. She looks awful. Her brown skin is gray and sickly. She s breath- I see her pulse jumping. The knot of her pink hijab, which she usually wears pulled back and rolled into a bun at her nape, is coming undone.
I get to her side in a second. She jumps. Asalaam O Alaikum. Kithay rehndhi, meri dhi? Peace be upon you. Where have you been, my daughter?
Auntie, you need to sit down. Take my arm. Did you get my message? About Salahudin having detention? Yes, I canceled the appointment. I try to give her my arm, but she waves me off.
And don t think because I m speaking to you I ve forgiven you. After all those parathas, you couldn t come and visit your old Auntie? She smiles. But I feel her sadness. Mafi dede, Auntie, I ask for mercy hastily. Half of forgiveness is saying sorry, she once told me. I m an idiot.
Let s go in the apartment. She s so gray I m surprised she s standing. I need to get her to a doctor. But she won t go unless I ease her into the idea probably over tea.
I didn t think you d come. She squints in the bright winter sunshine. But I made you halva and puri just in case. My mouth waters just thinking about the deep- fried, puffed bread. You didn t have to It s your birthday, na?
Very very important She stops to catch her breath and I finally get her to take my arm. I could pick her up, she s so light. Once inside, a bit of color returns to her face and she lets go of me. She makes her way through the dim living room, patting the wall of the apartment like it s an old friend. She loves this place.
Even if it s sucked all the life out of her. A big window faces the east wing. Three Corning Ware dishes sit on the old butcher- block counter, next to a four- person dining table, where I ve eaten hundreds of meals. I m half reaching for the cholay Auntie s turmeric and cumin chickpeas when she turns on the stove to warm up the puri. Her hands tremble. I nudge her into a chair. Let me make you some tea. Then I m calling the doctor, Auntie. Birthday halva can wait.
I rescheduled for tomorrow, so stop worrying. We have time for tea. The UVA rejection doesn t seem like such a big deal. The failed English paper doesn t, either. Something about Auntie makes me feel like I can face those things. I want to tell her all this. This is home. You and Salahudin are home. I m sorry I was gone for so long. I crack a few cardamom pods between my teeth, planning and abandoning a dozen apologies.
It s like when I try to write. Only worse.
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