chance encounters

Chapter Two of Inner Demons

By Aisha Zahid & Sumayya FS

Hanan dug into his pocket for a handkerchief as the humidity caught on to him; by the time his steps halted before the tall, wrought-iron gates of the Academy, his khaki shirt was firmly stuck to his back and sweat lined his forehead. 

Passing a glance over his wristwatch, Hanan looked around for an entrance. The dim street lighting allowed for him to make out the outline of a box-like structure in the distance, which he guessed was a guard cabin, but the hope in him deflated when he could spot no signs of life. Dragging his trunk behind him, he stopped before the window of the cabin and knocked. Upon hearing no answer, he knocked again, paused, and proceeded to knock twice more. Just as he raised his hand up for the fifth knock, the cabin lit up and the window drew open. 

A burly man with narrowed eyes still lined with sleep poked his head out of the window, “Can’t you read, boy?” He pointed at a sign above his window, “Staff entrance, you read, that?”

Hanan stared blankly, his tiredness not allowing him to form clear thoughts, “I’m sorry, but—”

“Papers,” the man snapped.

Hanan wasted no time digging into his other pocket for a couple of folded parchments, as well as his letter.

“I shouldn’t let you lot through this gate,” the man sighed, flipping through the papers. With a frown, he walked over to the gate and with a large key and swung it open. “It’s late. Don’t let me find you here again. In you get.”

Hanan apologized for his mistake and thanked the man for letting him through. Rasheed, which he learned was the man’s name, told him he’d come through the staff gate which was forbidden for students to use. Despite his scolding, Rasheed left his cabin to another guard and walked Hanan over to the student dorms himself. “Don’t want you taking any more wrong turns than you already have – first night here, no less.” Rasheed told him angrily, but Hanan wondered if perhaps the older man was looking out for his obviously clueless person.

Even as Hanan walked feeling only half awake from the day’s exhaustion, his surroundings slowly registered in his mind and he realized he had severely underestimated the Academy campus. In his mind, he’d pictured the Academy to be more or less like his previous high school, perhaps with bigger buildings and better kept gardens, but the Academy was nothing like school. Even in the dark, he could make out the shapes of some of the buildings – they were no ordinary construction. 

“Am I the last one here?” Hanan questioned as he followed Rasheed through the gardens. Hours of walking from place to place due to his disgruntled bicycle were paying off, and he was able to keep up with the older man’s abnormally fast pace.

“At this hour – I hope so.”

Hanan blinked, “Yes, of course.” He opened his mouth to apologize again for being late but Rasheed cut him off. 

“I expect there’ll be more newcomers tomorrow. The houses aren’t full yet.”

They’d walked through the garden surrounded by the buildings and came upon a clearing with several smaller buildings in it. As they got closer, Hanan could make out what they were – residential homes. These were the dorms, Hanan counted six houses in total. He could make out a single-story rectangular building in the middle of the six houses but couldn’t tell what it was. Rasheed led him to one, seemingly at random, and spoke to what appeared to be another security guard. 

He introduced the other man as Tahib, the custodian of the UZ house, bade Hanan goodbye and walked away. Tahib, as though Hanan hadn’t already heard it from Rasheed, let Hanan know that it was well past curfew and that late comers were not tolerated at the Academy. 

“The gates close half past seven, but you’re free to go about the premises as you please. Library, masjid, school, all yours.” Tahib took a few steps back. “However, sleep should be practiced latest by ten.”

“I have to sleep by ten?”

Tahib shrugged. “Unless you have an alarm to wake you up before the birds do.”

They walked up a set of stairs to the second floor and Tahib flipped a switch to light up the hallway which was lined with rooms on either side. “Find yourself an empty room and settle in, names are on the doors. Try not to disturb the others. Two bathrooms at each end of the hall. Kitchen on ground floor. Don’t bother me unless you’re dying. Good night.”

He said all this very fast and monotonously and left before Hanan could reply as though he’d repeated the same process a hundred times already, which, Hanan guessed, he might very well have done.  Hanan’s gaze travelled down the hallway, grazing over the rooms on either side. There were eight rooms in total and small chalkboards hung over each door. He walked over to the doors one after the other.

Elaf

I usually answer by the first knock

Hanan’s fingers began to ache from carrying his luggage for so long. He was itching to scrawl his name on any board and crash into bed. He left his trunk in a corner of the hallway as he paced the length of it, his feet padding on the carpeted floor. 

Saraab, Amir, Mustafi, Hamid…

Hanan sighed in relief as he spotted a blank board. He sprinted back to his luggage and within seconds, was back before the room. Hanan had just begun scrawling the H of his name when he wiped the sleeve of his shirt over the board and wrote Khashayar.

That would be his name for now, unless of course, he wanted the next day’s news to be the arrival of a girl.

*

Loud rapping on his door stirred Hanan out of bed. His watch read 5:30 a.m., it was time for Fajar. He dressed quickly and rushed out of the house hoping the guys ahead of him were heading to the masjid too. It was still dark outside, the path dimly lit by the elegant lamp posts that lined along the path. They trudged through the cobblestone path in complete silence – Hanan was unsure whether it was the slumber that rested heavy on the boys or if it was another rule of the campus. Is this a military academy? 

When they reached the masjid, Hanan paused outside for a moment – this was the campus masjid? It was a massive structure with one large dome and two towering minarets. It could fit his local masjid back in Alibad along with its outer ground and parking lot and still have space to spare. 

Hanan sat rooted to his spot after the congregation, his mind a fuzz. On a normal day, he’d have walked to the masjid with Abba and Farid. Waiting for Abba after the congregation to wind up his long and unexciting conversation about work with his friends, Farid sighing and bouncing his frustrations, and occasionally ideas, off Hanan, Maman waiting for Hanan to fetch the milk, Avalie brewing away Alibad’s finest tea – it seemed surreal that he miss it today and the next three-sixty-five days or so. He felt an anxious pit form in his stomach. Was this what homesickness felt like? Or the nervousness of the first day of school? It’s not even the first day.

“Man, I’m so sleepy.”

Hanan looked up from his tasbih at the two guys in the row before him. He felt the same.

The speaker was furiously rubbing his eyes with the palm of his hand so much so that Hanan worried for his eyesight, while his comrade was calmly flipping over pages of the Qur’an in what appeared to be a very fast revision. At length, he closed his mushaf and looked up at his friend.

“We can’t go back to bed.”

His friend narrowed his already drooping eyes. “It’s a free country.”

“The paper on Safavid architecture? It won’t write itself.”

How was the guy in front of him writing a paper on Safavid architecture? He looked even younger than Hanan. And his friend looked like a hafidh. Hanan suddenly felt supremely inadequate, how did he even get accepted to Ibn Rushd? Hanan snapped out of his reverie as he felt a pang of hunger in his stomach. So that was where the pit feeling in his stomach had come from. Just as he got to his feet, aiming to ask around for the mess hall of the campus, a face appeared before him.

Glasses, closely cropped brown hair, and an astonishingly white smile, “Salam, bud.” The boy held out a hand. “The name’s Mustafi.”

“Waalaikumsalam warahmatullahi wabarakatuh.” Hanan returned the handshake with a small smile.

Mustafi rubbed a hand over the nape of his neck. “Right. Sorry.”

Hanan noticed an unfamiliar twinge in his accent. “Khashayar.”

“Khashayar? Like Xerxes?”

Hanan blinked, “How do you know that?” he felt himself grin. Xerxes was the Greek form of his name and far more frequented in literature for whatever reason.

Mustafi let out a laugh, “I may look like this but I am super smart, believe you me. Come on, I’ll take you to meet my guys. Unless you’ve got somewhere to be?”

Hanan shook his head and followed Mustafi through the now almost empty masjid. He led him all the way to the back of the masjid where a lot of boys his age had gathered; a few leaned against walls with hands covering their yawns while others headed outside and sat on the lawn, books already scattered about the groups. Hanan recalled Abba’s advice.

“The a.m.  is the treasure you have to be looking for, son. There’s a lot of barakah in your day when you start it off seeking Allah’s blessings in your work.”

Abba would’ve loved these guys. Mustafi nudged Hanan who, surprised, whirled around to find two pairs of eyes on him. Flustered, he took a step back. 

“This is Khashayar,” Mustafi introduced him. “Also known as Xerxes, we’ll be calling him Zerk.”

Hanan shook hands and exchanged salaams with the two boys who introduced themselves as Mehrab and Idris. The two couldn’t be more different from one another. Mehrab was tall, athletic and dark skinned with a crown of defined curls, and seemed to sport a permanent smile. He spoke with a southern accent which Hanan recognized from a school trip to the south many years ago. His easy going demeanour made him instantly likeable. Idris was skinny and pale, his slightly long hair touched his shoulders and he seemed to barely smile at all. His accent was northern, perhaps Kurdish, and was telling of a privileged upbringing. They were a strange assortment, if ever Hanan had seen one.

“Food?” Suggested Mehrab, “I’m starving.” 

Mustafi took the lead, he’d arrived two days ago and was familiar with the campus. Now that the dark hues of the sky had begun to blend into lighter ones of grey and yellow, Hanan was able to assess as much of Ibn Rushd as he could see.

The masjid, cream-colored in all its glory with a golden dome, was a sight to behold. Surrounding it were shrubs of pink and white flowers of breeds Hanan had never seen, and lush green grass that crunched under his feet as he walked. 

His gaze wandered over to a couple of guys with water hoses standing over the shrubs and bushes. They were moving the mouths of their hoses away from the greens and towards each other, and within seconds, were all drenched.

Mustafi stepped closer, lowering his voice. “That’s what happens when you’re out past curfew. You get to have a pool party with your lads.”

“If you’re lucky,” Mehrab cut in. “You could be on cleaning duty too. Nasty stuff.”

“Can’t be that bad with the four of us,” Mustafi nodded, looking at the other three turn by turn. “Hmm?”

Mehrab only silently shook his head, but Idris was the one who spoke. “It is extremely plausible our first impression on the staff and administration won’t be a pleasing one.”

Hanan was quick to catch the bags under Idris’ eyes. He had pretty obvious ones himself, but the ones under Idris’ eyes were shades darker.

“School is only as uncompromising as you make it,” Mustafi answered. 

“Alright, first, we eat.” Mehrab spoke up, “Then we head to the marketplace and kill time till Asr. Pray in any nearby masjid and be back before sunset. Tomorrow’s orientation day, we don’t want to be late.” From the looks of it, Mehrab was the sanest of the three of them, and Hanan immediately nodded in agreement.

“Sounds about right,” Hanan said.

Mustafi led them to the mess hall which turned out to be the rectangular building in the courtyard of the dorms Hanan had spotted the night before. The hall was filled with students and they were lucky to find seats together. Breakfast consisted of two kinds of bread – barbari and lavash – cheese, different kinds of jams, nuts, fruits, eggs and halim; Hanan silently thanked Allah he wouldn’t have to worry about any bills and then turned to the real issue of not knowing where to start. Mustafi and Mehrab seemed to have no qualms about starting – or even finishing for that matter – and piled their plates with enough food to feed two people each. Idris seemed to be content with lavash, egg, cheese and quince jam and commented that he hoped there would be tea.

When they finally finished breakfast, Hanan asked Mustafi if he’d give them a tour of the campus, which Mustafi declined for the moment saying they’d have plenty of time for that once they returned from the market. Idris and Mustafi walked ahead while Mehrab and Hanan were a few steps behind. Hanan watched Idris read something out of a thick book for Mustafi, who just shook his head and swung an arm around Idris’ shoulders. Idris turned rigid for a second but relaxed.

“Let me guess, Alibad?”

Hanan turned back to Mehrab. “How could you tell?”

“Like I said, it was a guess.”

“How long have you been here?”

“I prayed Maghrib here yesterday and so did Idris. Mustafi’s old man dropped him off at Zuhr the day before.” 

Hanan wondered if he’d missed anything. Was it a thing that intellectuals did, be at a place way earlier than needed?

“Were you in the hallway on the second floor last night, by any chance?” Mehrab questioned, raising an eyebrow.

“Depends on what time you’re referring to.”

“Ten.”

Hanan had an answer ready at the tip of his tongue. Just as he was about to launch into a dialogue about how severely he had resisted the idea of the Academy and so arrived later than the rest, he held himself back. He didn’t need to share any of that.

“I heard you guys sleep by nine?” 

“Probably should, but I have a hard time sleeping in new places without dozens of toddlers screaming in my ears. I have nephews. And nieces” Mehrab grinned. “Anyway, you won’t be any good, your footfalls are too loud.”

“What?”

“I’ve been working on a plan to smuggle food into the rooms, which is, well, not allowed, but you can’t be six feet two without a constant supply, you know?”

Hanan glanced up at Mehrab – he really was tall. Behind him, a group of loud boys passed by them. They all suddenly cracked up at something.

“Those boys back there—was it really a punishment?”

Mehrab shook his head. “Can’t drill them too hard the first day there, can you? I reckon we’ll find out today what a real late penalty is.”

“And it won’t be us, though? We’ll be back before half past seven, surely.” Privately, Hanan thought he didn’t have the emotional capacity to tolerate a marketplace for longer than a few hours at a time.

Mehrab laughed and in a similar fashion to Mustafi, swung an arm around Hanan’s neck. “Zerk, your first impressions are safe.”

*

“That one,” Mustafi pointed out.

“No, that one,” Mehrab disagreed.

“You can tell by one glance – the fesenjan on that stall looks better.” Mustafi insisted

“Appearances,” remarked Mehrab, “can be deceiving.”

“As are yours?” Mustafi snorted.

“Pretty sure I’m as – as I look, if not more.”

“I beg to differ.” Mustafi spouted in exaggerated anger.

“Go on then.” Mehrab mused.

“What?”

“Beg.”

Hanan cracked up as Mustafi and Mehrab argued about the best place to stop for lunch. He wondered why the free lunch at the Academy didn’t cross the minds of the others. The free comedy show he had in Mustafi and Mehrab made up for it for now as the four of them moved through the crowd in a busy marketplace of Faravand.

They had aimlessly wandered around the city Hanan was a complete foreigner to—in a few glances Hanan could make a list out of the stark contrasts between Faravand and Alibad. Hanan came from the less prosperous part of Alibad and hadn’t seen much luxury in his life. Maman and Abba were simple and modest people, and Hanan found what they had was enough to get by.

Faravand, however, made him rethink it all. In layman’s terms, the city was a metropolis. Away from the immediate, quiet neighbourhood of the Academy, the city was busy and bustling with yellow cabs that zoomed past and people in long coats and tall telephone booths on street corners. 

The boys had wandered the city as tourists, getting into cabs and getting off at destinations they had no clue of. Eventually, they found their way to a less crowded and more traditional part of the city, the Kalasar marketplace.

The growing crowd, the stalls lined and sporting the most appetizing food, the zealous vibe heavy in the air, it all served as a reminder of the free days when they all, as a family would go around town and eat their meals in tiny cramped restaurants or fun little picnics in parks. He could only be nostalgic for so long before Mustafi grabbed his arm and dragged him to an antique souvenir shop.

A bell hanging over the door rang as the four friends entered, and the chatter and noise of the street was immediately drowned out as the door swung closed, and there, before Hanan, was a no less than a magnificent display of gold and silver plated decoration pieces, hanging wall clocks with pendulums, three-foot-tall vases and shiny cutlery that gleamed under the dull overhanging light bulbs. Hanan walked past each aisle, eyes going over the antique pieces with fervor.

When he’d accompany Maman to her grocery trips to the bazaar, he’d watch her hesitantly enter into these shops and take a look at everything it hoarded, ask a few questions about the prices and leave quietly. Hanan moved past the cutlery and to the wall hangings. Gold-framed paintings depicting several famous painters and artists of their time, and Hanan wasn’t the only one in complete awe of them. He hadn’t even realized when Idris had come to stand next to him.

“Marvelous, aren’t they?” Idris spoke.

“Yeah.” Hanan answered, trying to mask his uncertainty. Paintings were probably the sort of thing that could be described as marvelous, he supposed. 

Hanan’s interaction with Idris, in the few hours they’d spent together, had been limited, to say the least. The other boy was quiet and a slightly reclusive, but even he couldn’t help but smile at Mustafi’s banter. Other than that, he mostly stuck to his book, which Hanan managed to catch the name of al-Hatt ala al-Mantiq in Arabic, below it the translation, The Insistence upon Logic

“They always have some hidden message behind a painting. Maybe they do it to tip someone off, to express an emotion they can’t put into words, or simply because they have nothing better to do. Art can’t be interpreted in any one way.”

Hanan had nothing to say in reply and remained silent.

“Making a single interpretation,” Idris continued. “It’s like picking a single strand of hay out of the entire stack. You have a long way to go.”

“At least it’s not limitless.”

Idris smiled. “It’s not. But I’m willing to foresee you wouldn’t have the time to pick apart an entire haystack, so you stick to the single strand you do manage to pluck out. And no matter how hard you try, you’ll always hold the first strand dear no matter how many other strands you gather.” Idris dug his free hand into his pocket. “It’s the one that makes the most sense to you.”

Hanan shuffled on his feet, moving his gaze to a painting of a woman seated on the ground with her fingers up in the air.

“What do you think she’s doing?” Idris questioned, pointing to the painting Hanan was gazing at.

Hanan took a minute to assess it. “Counting something.”

“That’s actually a copy of a really famous piece by Reza Abbasi, and the woman is waiting for her significant other, or counting down the days until she can see him. There’s a pendant to this painting called A Seated Youth. If you put the two paintings side by side, you’ll see the man and woman represent longing for the other. Phenomenal, if you ask me.”

Hanan raised his eyebrows, “I never would’ve guessed it.” Nor would I care to, he thought in repressed amusement but did not say out loud.

“Me neither, until I studied it. There’s always more than the eye can see.”

Hanan turned to Idris. “You like books. And art.”

Idris sighed, “I hold a very keen interest towards the finer, more meticulous parts of life. All abstract, just fabrications of the human mind. It’s fascinating.” 

Hanan finished off his hibiscus tea down to the very last sip and then cleaned off his plate, leaving no fesenjan behind. Mustafi had been right all along, the fesenjan on that stall really did taste as appetizing as it looked. And with the way Idris and Hanan admitted it to Mehrab, Mustafi spared no expense rubbing salt on Mehrab’s wounds. 

Quick movement in Hanan’s peripheral vision made him instinctively whip his head in the same direction. He caught sight of a little girl who appeared to be dressed in a similar fashion to the odd group he’d noticed at the train station. Upon narrowing his eyes even further, Hanan realized he’d seen the exact girl at the station the day before and presently, she was hiding herself away behind a stack of mango cartons. 

Hanan shook his head and turned back to his table, sure, he was curious, but he was a busy young man. At six, he would have to … only, he didn’t have to do anything. He was at Ibn Rushd, in Faravand – he had nothing to do at all. Hanan immediately stood up from his chair, breaking off a debate between Mehrab and Mustafi, and causing Idris to look up from his book. “I’ll be back.”

“Back where?” Mustafi questioned. “We’re heading back to the campus, bud. Enough tourism for one day.”

“And I assume you weren’t suggesting us staying out past curfew?” Mehrab questioned Mustafi.

Mustafi sighed heavily at Mehrab before he turned back to Hanan. “Zerk.”

Hanan tore his gaze away from the little girl and reluctantly towards Mustafi. “Yeah?”

“We only have an hour and a half before the gates close, and who knows how long it’ll take us to get back. We need to get going.”

“I won’t be long,” Hanan said and took off without waiting for a reply.

“What are you going after anyway?” Mehrab called out in a loud voice.

“I think I saw someone I recognize!” Hanan shouted back.

Mehrab shouted something in return which Hanan didn’t quite catch. He caught the words ‘Tabriz crossroad’ and the ‘sun’.

Hanan wasted no time running towards the mango cartons, where the girl still sat hunched over, eyes darting around suspiciously. Fear and concentration lined her face, and Hanan already had questions darting round in his mind: where are they coming from? What is she doing here in a busy marketplace all alone, and why is she hiding?

Hanan was two steps away when the girl caught sight of him—eyes widening a fraction at the horror of perhaps being caught. Before Hanan had time to realize, she had leapt up from her hiding spot and had seamlessly blended into the moving crowd.

Curiosity piqued, and Hanan followed, careful that he stuck to the sidelines. As he moved forward, angry shouting became audible. Someone was pushing through the crowd and people were growing increasingly furious. Someone was disrupting the flow.

Hanan, careful not to push anyone around more than they already had been, weaved himself through the body of people.

“Come back here, you little thief!”

There was more angry shouting and Hanan spotted a blur of dark brown – the colour the girl had been dressed in – and turned a corner on the path he had caught her moving towards.

Hanan ran bodyfirst into a table, causing it to tumble to the ground and went down with it.  The only thing on his mind was the running child and he shot up to his feet and looked up ahead standing on his tip-toes. With a dismayed feeling, he realized he’d lost her. All there was before him was the mess he’d created in his haste. A toppled over table, an overturned chair, and a bottle of ketchup, some spoons, and napkins decorated the floor. Oops.

Hanan apologized profusely as a waiter rushed over, and helped him set the furniture back up again. After he left, Hanan lowered himself in a chair, still out of breath and a little disgruntled. Once Hanan had caught his breath, he made to leave but couldn’t help but eavesdrop on the passionate monologue he could hear from the table next.

“And get this, all those years I spent in that god-forsaken country, quietly working on the research, putting up with everyone’s crap, not minding, always guiding and we finally published the paper – and they put one guy’s name at the start and I’m just et. al!”

Hanan stifled a laugh. He wasn’t absolutely certain that this was the whole story, but he’d already developed a kind of sympathy for the man.

The man continued his monologue, with his temper and pitch rising by the minute. “I was leading the research, I did all the—”

“You alright there? Seemed to me you were in quite a hurry.”

That’s when Hanan noticed the man’s comrade—a white-bearded, well-groomed man dressed impeccably well in a tailored suit.

Hanan smiled sheepishly, “Of course, perfectly well.”

“Why the hurry?”

The old man’s younger accomplice was now quiet, eyes on Hanan as well.

“I was uh…” Hanan racked his brain for a valid reason, but came up with none. “Looking for something.” He paused, realizing more questions would come. “But it’s gone now, so it’s ok,” he added quickly and made to leave once more.

A glint shone in the old man’s eyes. “I’ll take a wild guess here. Ibn Rushd? New intake?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’ve seen enough of you boys prancing around the city to tell you apart from the others,” the old man sighed. “How do you like it here?”

“It’s a nice place,” Hanan nodded.

“Do you own a pager?” the young man questioned.

“… Yes,” Taken aback, Hanan answered slowly. “Yes, I do.”

Having calmed down from his previous debacle, relief washed over the man’s face. “Give me your number. I’ll need someone to run errands for me, and you seem like a perfect fit.”

Hanan had already begun mentally calculating the possibility of running into the two gentlemen a second time in his life, and it all amounted to negligible. How is number-exchanging with strangers you just met considered normal? Or is it just a Faravand thing?

The older man sighed loud enough for the younger man to look up at him with nonchalance. “What?”

“Way to scare him off, Habib,” the man scolded. “Creep.”

The man named Habib looked offended. “I’m not—“

The older man turned to Hanan, once again cutting off the other man. “He’s a researcher and a lawyer. He’ll be showing up at the Academy this year to give a talk. Needs some work done there, you look like a good kid, will you work?” Looking at Habib with pointed eyes, he added, “He’ll pay you, of course.”

Habib caught the older man’s eye, and wiped his mouth with a napkin before speaking again, “Of course I’ll pay, what do you take me for, a freeloader?”

Hanan blinked in confusion. Was he being offered a job? His mind went back to a wind chime he’d spotted in the antique shop. Avalie would go berserk when she’d see it.

“I’ll work for you… professor?”

Habib grinned from ear to ear, then turned to the older man. “You hear that? He called me professor! Hah! Kid, write your number down on this napkin. Good man.”

Hanan straightened out after jotting down the number. “Khashayar.”

Habib blinked. “What?”

“My name.”

“Sit down, Khashayar. Sit down.” Habib pulled out another chair. “Tell me about yourself. Are you from around here? What are your subjects?”

“Let the boy go,” the older man scolded. “He’s already plenty far away from the campus. Khashayar, you know the curfew’s at half past seven?”

Hanan could not have been more relieved to be reminded of the curfew, “I’m aware of that, sir.”

“Good,” the older man nodded. “Off you go then. And don’t forget the orientation’s tomorrow.”

Hanan placed a hand over his heart in gratitude and respect before he backed out of the cafeteria, and began making his way to the Tabriz crossroad.

By the time the four boys made it back to Bin Hamid street, they were severely out of breath and their shirts clung to their backs with all the running and over exertion it took to get to the campus on time. They had zero seconds to spare, and rushed to the Masjid before they missed the congregation.

After prayer, a couple of staff stood up from amongst the front rows and began emptying the prayer hall. Hanan glanced at Idris in confusion.

“I thought we could sit around for a while longer after prayer?”

“We can,” Idris answered. “Just not today.”

“They’re going to start sorting us into rooms,” Mustafi clarified. “Since it’s orientation tomorrow.”

“Did you find who you were looking for?” Mehrab questioned Hanan, who shook his head in reply.

“I did land an errand job, though. A small one.”

Mehrab clapped Hanan on the back. “There’s a good lad. They say you can find anything you’re looking for at the Kalasar marketplace. I didn’t think it was true.”

Hanan smiled knowingly. As the four made their way to the dormitories, Hanan felt exhaustion heavy on his limbs. He was tired and had begun to fantasize dropping down on bed. The day had turned out better than he’d anticipated. He couldn’t wait to get into his room and write back home. He already had sufficient material gathered.

Each room would be shared by two students. A complete list of rooms and occupants was hung over on a wall in the mess hall. As the four rounded up at the chart, they all had the same thought in their minds. Except for Mehrab.

“My cousin’s coming, and we’ve been planning on rooming.”

Idris and Mustafi shared a look, while Hanan turned his gaze back to the chart. He was tired, yes, but he wasn’t tired enough to step into any random room. One name on the chart held a blue circle above it, with a small note scrawled next to it.

Stay away, he’s possessed!!!

Hanan’s curiosity piqued once more. They had a possessed student in the dorms? Hanan knew it could be a joke but he wondered all the same. His grandmother had been an exorcist. How long had it been since he’d thought of her? He thought of the child he’d chased after that morning. He had nothing particular to do here anyway … his curiosity got the better of him once more. 

“You two room together,” Hanan addressed Idris and Mustafi. He then reached over and wrote his name down next to the ‘possessed’ student. “I’ve found my roommate.”

Idris stayed silent. Mehrab appeared haunted by the mere idea of living in the same quarter as a possessed student. Mustafi laughed incredulously, “He wants to die.”

As Hanan wheeled his baggage into his chosen room, he had just one thought going through his mind.

You’re only here for a year. Make it worth your while.

Copyright © 2021 Aisha Zahid & Sumayya FS

About the Authors

Aisha Zahid is a college freshman with a soft corner for handwritten letters, flowers, and art. She’s been reading since her early years and writing for 5 years now. She’s currently in the process of writing her own book, which she hopes to publish in the near future.

Sumayya is a university student who dislikes talking about herself in third person.
Links: Twitter

 

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