It was not on purpose that Sahar arrived three minutes late to her class, ice cubes trembling in her latte. It was also not on purpose that her entrance was made dramatic when her hands slipped and dropped the cup. The lid popped open upon hitting the ground and several ice cubes tumbled down the stairs. Plenty of faces turned to stare at either her or the ice cubes. “Sorry,” she muttered to no one in particular and stooped to gather up what was left. When she finished assembling her plastic cup, she awkwardly looked up to scan for remaining seats, finding two in total: one in front and the other in the second to the last row.
“Excuse me,” she said, shuffling past several people to reach the far left corner of the lecture hall. When she managed to settle down, cup and textbook on the desk, she looked to her right and smiled in relief when she saw it was someone she knew. She met him last week when he had an empty seat next to him then. He always had an empty seat next to him. Sahar had no idea how he managed that. Some people were magnets, she supposed, in a world full of magnets.
“Hi,” she said.
“Hi,” was his response. Neither of them knew what to say for a while.
“What are you reading?”
It was a feeble attempt at a conversation, but at least it wasn’t about the weather.
“Oh,” he said, turning to the front of the book like it was new to him. “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves,” he said.
“Is it any good?”
“Yeah. Do you want to borrow it?”
Now that was unexpected. “Sure,” she said anyway, because what harm would there be in adding one more book to her ever-growing list? He closed the book and handed it to her. Sahar couldn’t put it in her bag: there were all sorts of things in there. She knew too well what would happen to the book if she did. So she gingerly placed the book as far away from the coffee-stained cup as she could, on top of the crack where the two desks met.
“Just make sure to return it tonight,” he said, writing something down on a piece of paper. Tonight? Then she read the address and understood.
“My parents told me that unless I came here, they weren’t going to pay for my housing or education,” he said. “I mean, it’s reasonable.”
Sahar laughed. The professor stopped talking. People turned around, not sure who to look for, too. Sahar wouldn’t worry too much. It was a big room, after all. He resumed his speech, and the two listened to him for the rest of the class without exchanging another word, their eyes fixed on the board as if they have been from the very beginning.
For the rest of the day, Sahar carried the book in her arms like a baby in a bundle, but couldn’t find time to read through it. Rather suffer through a day than go to lectures all week, was what was on her mind when she signed up for classes. But today was not the day she wanted to suffer. He seemed so nice, and not many people were. So when she walked towards his house, his address in her hand and book in the other, her chest felt heavier than usual. She wished she had something to say to him, but she didn’t even know the name of the main character or anyone really, and she hated herself for it.
She knocked on his door. No response. She tried again.
Maybe he’s still at a lecture. Maybe he forgot about his book and—
The door opened.
“Hi,” he said.
“Hi,” Sahar said back.
He held the door open. She stepped inside, not sure what to think because she hadn’t been inside someone else’s house since middle school. When she reached the living room, the only place that had its lights turned on, she stopped in her tracks because she thought she heard something: a scream. He started to say something, but she stopped him. It was a child screaming. She was sure of it. It was distant, but loud enough that chills ran up her spine.
He stepped in front of her. He gestured for her to follow him up the stairs and to his room. He slammed the door behind him, the sound echoing around the house and softening the screams for a while. Sahar kept her hand on the door handle and the other inside her pocket.
“What on Earth is that?”
“My sister,” he said.
“And that’s perfectly normal to you?”
“Listen.” He took a step back and sat on the floor. “He’s hitting her because she didn’t do her homework. She never does. It happened to me, too.” He pulled back his sleeves and showed her old cuts and bruises, signs of violence. Sahar flinched. He looked up, his eyes devoid of any kind of emotion. “I don’t like it either. But at one point…” he hesitated. “At one point, you stop trying. You get used to it. And you become a part of it.”
He rummaged through his bag and pulled out a laptop. “Want to see a movie?”
Sahar was stunned but she didn’t know what else to think. “Yeah.”
For the next hour or so, they sat together in front of the laptop. She liked it enough: there was blood everywhere. She felt the laptop glow brighter as dead bodies started to pile up on each other. She looked outside the window: the sun has been replaced by a full moon. Argh! Ahh! Then she heard a door open and close. She reached over and pressed pause.
“It’s probably my parents leaving,” he explained.
She pushed past him and ran down the stairs. There she was: a girl sitting alone on the couch, hunched over so she couldn’t see her face. Sahar approached her as slowly as she could, trying not to scare her, but the girl noticed: she looked up. Even though Sahar was a stranger to her, she didn’t seem shocked or surprised. She looked… relieved.
“I’m your brother’s friend,” Sahar said.
The girl nodded. Her eyes were so red that Sahar was scared for her. Do you want to talk about what happened? Sahar couldn’t get herself to say the words out loud. She sat next to her instead. For a while, both of them were as silent as the rest of the house. Then, out of nowhere, the girl started to sob, her cries growing louder and louder until Sahar couldn’t stand it anymore. She reached for a box of Kleenex on the coffee table. The girl muttered a quick thank you and dabbed at her face, but it barely worked as she continued to cry through it. Are you okay? Do you need help? It was a therapy session that neither of them had the courage to start.
She stood up and turned around to see him coming down from the stairs. She dug out the book from her bag and gave it to him: somehow, in the back of her head, she knew that he knew she didn’t read a single page.
“I’m so sorry,” Sahar whispered.
She reached the front door and closed it behind her. The city surrounding her with desperate honks, she turned on her phone: an article was on. She mindlessly scrolled through it until her fingers rested on an advertisement.
Donate now to help change and save children’s lives.
She clicked on it.
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