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STONERS.

The art girls were in the art room, setting up the display for the St. Xavier's Feast Day celebrations. The chief guest--this year it was a famous one--was on his way to the school, and the girls had rearranged the tables and chairs, hidden the hardened paintbrushes and dried-up paint tubes in the steel closet, and pinned up on the boards their comfortably mediocre paintings. Sana and Marvi worked together. Once, a long time ago, Marvi had been Sana's chief tormentor in the playgrounds of the primary school; now they were the closest of friends.

For some reason, it came to be that whenever they had to move a table, it was Sana, spindly and prone to stumbling, who had to walk backwards, while Marvi provided directions. Marvi's voice, calm, adultlike, pierced through the chatter of the other girls. A little mynah swept in through an open window and alighted on one of the dusty beams high up on the ceiling. The mynah watched the huddle of girls near the steel closet in one corner of the room and, on the other side, the two girls lifting a thin folding table. The mynah, a restless bird, gazed at them for a few moments and then swooped down and out a window, cutting through the school's front garden, where the teachers were assembled, waiting for their special guest to arrive.

"Did you? Did you see that?" Sana asked, turning toward the window near which she had seen a black thing flutter by.

"Your elbow, Sana. Sana-yah, your elbow. The jar."

Marvi watched the empty jam jar on a nearby table fall to its side and swerve across the table's surface. It circled and circled and, slowing down, circled a little more, before stopping inches from the edge.

"Would it kill you if you didn't daydream every day?" Marvi said, picking up the jar.

"But did you see that?" Sana asked.

"Seriously, Sana. You keep on moving this. I'll do the flowers."

Sana wanted to say that she wanted to help with the flowers, but there wasn't time for discussion or disagreement, with the famous guest arriving at any moment. Mrs. Jan, their art teacher, had left a bouquet of lavender on her desk that morning, and Marvi went to work, splitting the bouquet into smaller bunches, which she then placed in the jam jars all around the room. Sana dragged the last folding table in all by herself, its sticklike legs scratching the already scratched-up checkerboard tiles.

"Do you need help?" Sana asked, walking up to Marvi.

"They're on their way," a girl's voice rang down the narrow hallway.

"Get in line. Now."

Marvi thrust the last handful of lavender stems through the neck of a jam jar and said, "No. I'm all done."

The girls used the windowpanes as mirrors and hurriedly pinned back loose strands of hair, smoothed down their uniform kameezes, and buttoned up their navy cardigans. When they heard steps coming from outside the art room, they split into two rows on opposite sides of the door. First a few teachers strolled in and smiled distantly at the girls. Miss Jan was one of them, and she held another bouquet in her hands--pink roses this time, wrapped in cellophane and tied up in a neat bow with pink ribbon. Then the girls heard Sister's squawky voice, followed by the deep, clipped voice of a man. Now that Sana was finally standing still after an hour of manual labor, she felt something stir inside her stomach. Marvi leaned forward to catch a glimpse of the guest. She fell back into position once Sister and Pasha Salahuddin appeared at the door.

Sister, clumsy around men and unfamiliar with continental etiquette, gestured at Pasha Salahuddin to enter first.

"Oh, no, Sister Marjorie," he said. When he smiled, deep wrinkles appeared on his face, which made Sana think of the illustrations of furrows in the agriculture chapter of their Pakistan studies textbook.

"Ladies first, Sister. Always ladies first."

Sister smiled, the teachers smiled. Marvi was convinced that they would have burst into giggles if their adult bodies still remembered how to giggle.

Pasha Salahuddin's ash-colored hair was parted in a one-to-three ratio, but since he didn't have a lot of it on his head, crescents of dark skin were exposed between the strands. He wore a tan suit with brown-gray elbow patches. His pocket square was the same shade of brown-gray. Marvi and Sana had seen him many times on television. Only seeing him in person did they notice the small things the camera couldn't capture. Sana noticed the tufts of dark hair inside his ears. Marvi noticed the small hole at the ankle of his trousers. Only the voice, his signature voice, was exactly the same as they had heard in dramas and on talk shows: orotund, measured, and very British.

Miss Jan handed him the roses. Miss Q took a few photographs with a dinky point-and-shoot. Miss Haider pursed her lips. Pasha Salahuddin walked around the room, the teachers trailing behind him. The girls remained at the door.

Pasha Salahuddin said something about a student painting--from where they were standing, the girls couldn't tell which one. Miss Jan laughed heartily, and Sister's mouth stretched into a wide smile. Miss Haider unpursed her lips and smiled as well, revealing lipstick on her lower incisors. Even from near the doorway, Marvi could see the maroon smear on her teeth. Sana felt something happen inside her stomach again. Whether it was nervousness or simply gas, she wasn't sure.

"This world is but a canvas to our imagination," Pasha Salahuddin said, switching to his acting voice, which resonated in the airy room. "That's Thoreau."

The teachers smiled and nodded.

"Salahuddin sahib, since you've come to St. Xavier's as our guest, we would so appreciate it if you would say a few words to the girls about art," Miss Jan said.

"I'm not a painter myself, I never really had the--" He paused for a moment. "Well, neither the interest nor the talent for it. But as a dramatist and an actor, yes. As a dramatist and as a man of the performance arts, I'm certain I can"--another timed pause--"I can muster a few words that might be enlightening for your girls."

Sister whispered to Miss Jan, and the girls were herded into a half-circle around her desk. Marvi and Sana stood next to each other. Pasha Salahuddin was requested to take his seat at the table. The teachers hovered behind him.

"Have any of you girls seen <i>The Man Who Would Be King?"</i> he asked.

The girls nodded. The week before, the school had arranged a screening in honor of their guest, who had played a servile brown native in the 1975 film. It was a small role, but there was one extended scene in which the young Pasha Salahuddin, his head turbaned and eyes thickly lined with kohl, is standing between Michael Caine and Sean Connery as the two debate the fate of the fictitious Kafiristan.

"Well, well, it's not every day you meet young people who are familiar with the cinema of yesteryear," Pasha Salahuddin said, and the teachers gave one another knowing looks, acknowledging their collective wisdom in arranging the screening well before the Feast Day. The aging actor talked on, admitting with a shrug that he'd had only a small role in the film, then quickly adding that it had allowed him to work with some of the greatest thespians in cinema. He spoke at length, and each sentence he uttered was grammatical and complete. Each pause he took was meaningful and measured. Each gesture was precise--rehearsed almost. When he discussed the evolution of character in a work of fiction, he turned his right hand gently as if he were changing an invisible lightbulb. When he held forth about the future of art, he twirled both his wrists as if he were unrolling a tube of toilet paper. The girls nodded every time they saw the teachers nodding. The only interruption came when Cyrus entered the art room with a tray of tea and biscuits. The half-circle of girls parted to let Cyrus through, and Marvi and Sana were pushed to the far end. Cyrus placed the tray on the table, but released it a moment too soon. The clang echoed in the room. Milky tea spilled on the saucer and the metal tray. Sister raised her eyebrows, and Miss Jan rushed to hand Pasha Salahuddin a paper napkin. Cyrus leaned over Pasha Salahuddin to wipe up the mess. Cyrus then motioned to leave, only to have Sister say: "Cyrus, please hand Salahuddin sahib some biscuits." Cyrus picked up the plate and held it a few inches in front of Pasha Salahuddin's shapely chin. Without uttering a word, the guest took a pistachio biscuit and put it on his saucer. Cyrus glanced at Sister and, seeing there were no further commands, trudged out of the room. Sana's stomach gave out a long, aching groan. Marvi snorted and then cleared her throat to cover the snort. Pasha Salahuddin delicately sipped his tea and resumed his talk.

Sana's mind was on the plate of biscuits; she didn't know what was going on in her stomach, but she knew definitively that a biscuit would settle it. Marvi heard Sana's stomach moan again and bit her lip. Pasha Salahuddin recited a couplet by Faiz. Sana tried to count the hours since she had eaten breakfast (three hours; two slices of buttered toast and a fried egg) and then tried to estimate the number of minutes left until they would be dismissed from the exhibition and she would be free to go to the canteen. Pasha Salahuddin recited a few lines from <i>The Tempest</i>. (Some of the art girls thought he was quoting Prospero, others Caliban--their attention was clearly waning.) Sana nudged Marvi with her elbow, and when Marvi glanced at her, Sana tapped her wrist. Marvi lifted her hand so that Sana could see the time on her red Swatch.

"I see that I'm keeping you from something important."

Sana and Marvi looked up. Pasha Salahuddin was leaning back in his chair, looking up at them. He was not smiling. Marvi clasped her hands behind her back. Sana shot a look at Sister, whose limp expression revealed that she had not yet caught on to what was happening.

"Well, it seems I have been talking too long," Pasha Salahuddin said. "I'll wrap up." He straightened himself in the chair, gulped his tea, and stood. The teachers bristled. Miss Jan walked up to Pasha Salahuddin.

"Salahuddin sahib, please continue," she said.

"Well, I said I'll wrap it up, didn't I?"

He concluded his thoughts on art and discipline and then made a pointed statement about discipline and respect, about respect and good manners. Particularly the increasing disregard for good manners in society. Sana felt something tighten inside her stomach, as if her intestines were being tied up into a bow. Marvi clenched her jaw. With a clipped goodbye, Pasha Salahuddin left the room, the teachers trotting behind him in their stumpy heels. The pink roses lay forgotten on the table next to the tray. The half-circle of art girls dissolved. Some of them lingered around the boards. Others went and stood near the windowsills. They wouldn't leave without seeing with their own eyes how Sana and Marvi would be upbraided by the teachers when they returned. And they all knew the teachers would return.

Sana and Marvi remained where they were. They didn't look at each other.

When Sister and Miss Jan walked into the art room a few minutes later, Sister said the two of them would be punished for their impertinence. Marvi was furious, and Sana listened as she defended herself--both of them, really. Sana said nothing, but she couldn't stop her stomach from making that groaning sound again. Miss Jan glared at her. Sister and Miss Jan took turns berating them. Then they walked out of the art room, and Sana and Marvi remained standing by the desk. The other girls watched from across the room.

Sister sent Marvi and Sana home that day with letters addressed to their parents. At the meeting the next day, Sana's parents--strict disciplinarians who in any other situation would have sided with Sister--and Marvi's parents, who were benefactors of the school, tried to reason with Sister. But she wouldn't budge. The humiliation had been too great: the most famous guest to visit the school in so many years walking out on them the way he had. The impression he must have had of them all--the teachers, Sister herself--thanks to these girls who showed such disregard for good manners.

Sana and Marvi were seated on a bench outside Sister's office. Cyrus sat across from them at his little table. His job was to make sure they didn't talk to each other, and so, between scratching his thin ankles and swatting flies, he glared at them with his jaundiced eyes. The three listened through the door to the parents trying to negotiate with Sister. The girls were soon summoned. Marvi refused to apologize. Sana was too afraid to speak. Sister told them to go back to the bench outside. After the meeting was over, the girls learned from their parents of the punishment Sister had decided for them.

Their parents--mainly Marvi's parents--tried to make light of the situation. Marvi's mother came out of the office chuckling at the absurdity of the so-called wrongdoing and of the unusual punishment. Marvi's father shook hands with Cyrus and then with the school accountant, who happened to be walking down the hallway, and then with the gardener watering the bougainvillea bushes outside. Then he led Marvi and her mother from the school to their car. For some reason, the car was parked in a spot typically reserved for senior teachers. When she got home, Marvi threw her Swatch into the dustbin. Later that night, her mother rescued it and returned it to her dressing table. Sana, upon arriving home, waited for her parents to scold her. They didn't. Not during lunch, not during dinner, not after dinner, and certainly not in the middle of the night, summoning Sana from her bedroom right before she dozed off. (This had happened to her a few times in recent years.) As Sana lay in bed that night, she listened to her parents turning off the television and retiring to their bedroom. From the crack under the door, she saw the lights go out in the living room and realized that, just as Marvi--unconsciously or consciously, but certainly with no ill intent--commanded a certain influence over her, Marvi's parents had some influence over her own parents.

Early in the morning that following Monday--the first day of the school's three-week winter break--Marvi and Sana stood shivering before the locked gate of the school and waited for Cyrus to come get them.

They were required to come to school every day during the three-week holiday. That was the punishment. Five days a week, from eight in the morning to half past noon, they were to shelve books in the library, wash paint spills in the art room, sift through abandoned floppy disks in the computer lab, pick up litter on the sports field. After the first few days, Sister began to run out of tasks. The girls took long breaks. They went to the canteen and bought chilled Coke served in plastic bags, limp french fries coated with lemon juice and garam masala, and crumbling cubes of milk toffee. They lay on the floor between the white columns of the school's new aboveground library and joked about it collapsing on them, crushing them. They ate. They went back to work. Once dismissed from their duties, they went to either Marvi's flat or Sana's. They ate again. They sulked. They got stoned. The next morning they came back to school and shelved a few more books, sifted through a few more floppy disks, and found more litter buried on the sandy floor of the sports field.

"We'll go to my place today," Marvi said. "My mother will be out."

It was the middle of the second week of December, but the humidity wouldn't quit. The two lay in the shade under the library with their navy sweaters rolled up under their necks.

"I'm still hungry," Sana said.

"We'll order something. My mother said she'd leave money for us."

"I'm hungry now."

"Go get something. We still have time left."

Sana propped herself up on her elbows. "Too far."

"The canteen's right there!"

"Cyrus will come anytime now."

Marvi closed her eyes. "Go, already. We have time left."

"I bet he'll come find us in the next five minutes."

"I bet he's still having his tea."

"I bet he's walking here right now."

"I bet he's not."

Cyrus's tea break ended at eleven, but neither of the girls was wearing a watch, so they couldn't confirm the time. Sana didn't own a watch, because her mother was certain she would lose it within days. Marvi's Swatch lay on her dressing table at home. It was too soon for her to wear it again.

"Do you need change? I have some right here," Marvi said, and reached into her uniform pocket, which had "SXC" stitched on it in dark blue thread.

"No, it's OK. Really."

"Seriously, just take it," Marvi said, pulling out a fifty-rupee note.

"No. We'll order something at your place, it's fine."

"No takalluf," Marvi said, trying to thrust the note into Sana's hand.

"No, I'm fine. Really."

"Stop takallufing. You can go get me something, too. Fries, chicken roll, whatever you get for yourself."

Sana paused to consider. She had borrowed money from Marvi the day before as well. She said: "Did your mother smell anything yesterday?"

"I lit a scented candle."

"And the stubs?"

"Flushed them."

"So she's not suspicious?"

"Not at all. But I wouldn't care if she were."

Marvi was lying still on the floor and speaking with her eyes closed, so Sana also lay back on her rolled-up sweater and closed her eyes. She tried to be as still as Marvi, but the cement floor was too cold, too hard. She turned to lie on her side. She rolled over on her stomach. Marvi could hear Sana fidgeting and thought a thought she often thought when Sana fidgeted: that Sana was thin despite her constant snacking only because she was so restless. Marvi was too proud to let on to anybody--not even to herself--that she knew she was chubby. Not fat--no, not at all--but chubby, stocky, plump. And Sana was lean, lean, lean. Marvi lay still while Sana turned and rolled and kicked and turned again. Marvi blocked the soft swishes of movement just as she blocked the sounds of the crows squawking in the trees, the rainlike pit-pat of the leaves in the breeze, the heavy hum of traffic from the other side of the school wall. Sana listened to all the sounds that Marvi blocked from her mind. Unable to rest, she sat up and saw in the distance a small figure-head and forearms coppery black against beige bush shirt and trousers--walking toward them.

"He's coming," Sana said, triumphant.

"We have time."

"I'm telling you he's coming here."

"We have time."

"Almost here."

"Shut up."

"You girls. You. Come with me. Stop sleeping, you. Get up. Get up. Good. Come with me, follow me." Cyrus waved his hands in the air as if he were conducting an orchestra.

"Cyrus-yah, we still have time," Marvi said as the two grudgingly stepped out from under the library.

"What time? What time? You girls sleep all day. Good thing I don't tell Sister."

"We weren't sleeping," Marvi said.

"You lying there all day, how is that not sleeping?"

Marvi turned to Sana and said, "'How is that not sleeping?' Do we really have to explain these things to him? Jesus."

Cyrus stood with his hands on his waist. "Now, you girls don't be taking the Lord's name in vain."

"He's not our Lord."

"That's also bad. It's more bad when it's not your Lord."

Marvi rolled her eyes and, unsure whether he had seen her, rolled them again. Sana wanted to ask Cyrus if Jesus was his Lord. She had always thought he was a Parsi.

"I hear you say Lord's name in vain again, I take you to Sister."

"And what? She'll use us as free labor in the summer, too?" Marvi said. But Cyrus was already walking away from them. He led them to the music room, a small shed behind the main school building. Inside, the wooden benches were pushed to one corner of the room. A few dozen songbooks lay in another corner under the ornate lattice of cobwebs. The ceiling fan was missing a blade.

"These benches, these books, you dust. Then we carry them to new music room. Up the stairs, you two will carry them."

"There's a new music room?" Sana asked.

"What do you mean 'carry them'?"

"Is it in the new library building?"

"What do you mean 'carry them'? Who's going to be carrying what?"

Cyrus glared at them with his permanently jaundiced eyes. "Dusting! I'm telling you to dust and you only talking back."

"I only wanted to know where the new music room is," Sana said.

Marvi lowered her voice. "Cyrus-yah, tell me straight. What exactly do you mean by 'carry them'?"

"Sister say you two help me carry them. But first we dust."

"She wants us to carry benches from one building to another? Is that what it's come to?"

Cyrus trudged past Marvi and Sana to a bench on which lay two rags. He trudged back and tried to hand one to each of them.

Sana stared at the rags. Gray and frayed, they looked as if they hadn't been washed in years. Marvi took a step back.

"Take. Take. We don't have all day. Sister wants this done today."

Sana took a rag and held it between two fingers. It felt rough, almost as if it would crack to pieces if she were to drop it. Marvi took another step back.

"We're not carrying any benches. Call our parents if you have to. Tell Sister we won't carry any benches."

Cyrus looked down at the floor. With his eyes obscured by his lids, his head looked like a bust in a museum. To Sana, Cyrus-with-Eyes-Lowered looked like a bronze Rodin statue. The concentrated light coming through the small window fell on his face and formed thin, white glazed shapes like reflections on a hard surface. To Marvi, Cyrus-with-Eyes-Lowered looked like a clay statue. His jowls drooped as if an amateur artist had placed his palms on either side of the face and pressed the clay downward.

But then Cyrus sprang to life. His eyes widened. The hands started conducting again. "Dust! You take this now. Start now. Don't make me late. You carry the books. You see the books. You carry the books. That's what you carry. Benches I'll carry. I tell the canteen boys. They do nothing all day. You girls dust and carry books."

Marvi reached forward to take the rag from Cyrus.

Later that day, just when they were getting ready to go home, Sana and Marvi saw Cyrus walk from the library, across the courtyard where the red and white papery bougainvillea petals covered the ground, and toward the main building, where he had his little desk outside Sister's office. Marvi, leaning against a palm tree, wondered what complaints he would whisper into Sister's ear that day. She wondered how Sister and Cyrus would conspire to further punish them. Sana was fidgeting with her vision by switching back and forth between focusing on objects near her (a frond hanging inches from her face) and on those far from her (Cyrus). It was only when she was focusing on the frond that she realized--even though his body was a blur--that Cyrus's back was stooped lower than she had ever seen it stooped before. She returned her focus to him and saw him wipe his face, his forehead, his cheeks, with the back of his hand as he stepped inside the school building.

The next morning was filled with work. The girls were told to help the accountant refile his cabinets. There were many cabinets, each containing many files. And the files were dusty and disordered. The work didn't seem to end, and they didn't even stop for what would have been their lunch break during a regular school day. Finally, with only an hour left until they were dismissed from school, the accountant said that the receipts and worksheets were nearly in order and he could do the last few files himself. The girls then walked over to the primary school area, which was walled off by a small red fence from the senior section, and took turns sliding down the slide and swinging on the swings. In the middle of the playground was a statue of Jesus dressed in a loincloth, his body limp against the wooden cross. Countless ghost stories had circulated among the primary school girls about the strange man in the playground.

Marvi pushed with her legs to propel herself higher and higher, even though the swing's chains were digging into the sides of her body. She thought of Sister and the teachers in the art room and Cyrus and his tray and Pasha Salahuddin staring at them. She thought: Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.

Sana, too, had Jesus on her mind.

"Do you think Cyrus is Christian?"

"I don't care."

"He might be Parsi."

"Who cares," Marvi said, slowing down.

"I think Cyrus is more common as a Parsi name."

"Then what's he doing at a Catholic school?" Marvi dragged her feet on the ground to slow herself to a stop. Sana was barely swinging.

"Well, what are any of us doing at a Catholic school?"

"Why are we talking about Cyrus? Don't you get enough of him anyway? Jesus," Marvi said, relishing the word, since now she could say it aloud without being reprimanded.

"I've always wondered what's the difference between Zoroastrians and Parsis."

Marvi thought it over. "One's just fancier. Like Iranis and Persians."

They both were silent for a few moments. Then Sana had a thought. She said, "Imagine if someone saw us right now, on these swings. They'd think we're such sweet little girls."

Marvi snorted. "Not Sister. I mean, if she were to see us, she'd say, 'Carry that slide to the other end of the playground! Mow the lawn! Count the gravel in the path!'"

"No. I mean yes, she would. But I'm saying something else here. Look at us. Playing on the swings and then going to your place and smoking up. Who would be able to tell how bad we are?"

Marvi frowned and said, "We're not bad. We're not. And if we are bad for smoking up, then they're the ones who are responsible. Sister and that Pasha Salahuddin and Cyrus and everybody who's doing this to us."

"Yeah, I see your point," Sana said.

"And even if we are bad, we're not that bad. We're not stoners or potheads or whatever."

"No. We've only started. And I don't even get that high."

"And it's this one-time thing. It's not like I'll keep stealing hash from my brother. It's not like my family keeps it hidden all around the house."

"Yes, you're right."

"They can't blame us for it. If anyone's to blame for anything, it's them."

Sana sat there thinking about how they would go that afternoon to Marvi's home and lock themselves in the bedroom and then later a servant would knock, saying Sana's father was at the door to pick her up, and they would emerge red-eyed and reeking of Coconut Lime Breeze Body Spray. Sana didn't worry about getting caught when she got inside the car with her father, because she never felt very high. All she felt was a certain sluggishness that calmed her muscles, made her a little less fidgety. Later that night, she would be able to lie still in bed. She would fall asleep easily. The prospect energized her, and she started swinging higher and higher, feeling light as she gripped the chains.

Marvi also pushed her body forward and swung higher and higher. She thought of the cellophane-wrapped cylinder of dark, waxy hash she had stolen from her brother's bedroom. She pictured it sitting deep inside the drawer of her bedside table. Though she had hidden it carefully, she wondered what would happen if her parents, if the school, were to discover it. What terrible punishment would the teachers think up for a wrongdoing that really was a wrongdoing?

By the third and final week of winter break, there were no chores left for the girls, so Sister instructed Cyrus to come up with ways to keep the two busy. Lying under the library and playing in the playground were no longer options. Cyrus would find them and nag at them. He wanted them to refile files they had already refiled. He wanted them to shelve books they had already shelved. He wanted them to sit on that bench near his desk--just sit there with him doing nothing. The girls didn't comply. They found new hiding spots. They disappeared for longer and longer periods. They started smoking hash at the school.

Marvi passed Sana the toke they had made that morning with a plastic water bottle they found lying near the canteen. Sana toked it and then popped a fat cube of milk toffee into her mouth. They were sitting on the roof of the primary school building, amid house crows they had to shoo away.

"You'll never get high if you keep eating between hits," Marvi said.

Sana didn't reply. She wanted to let the toffee melt in her mouth without biting into it.

"Give it back. You're just wasting it," Marvi said. She had noticed that Sana often became easily distracted when high. Marvi took two long tokes, and Sana watched her exhale thick curls of smoke. When Marvi opened her eyes, they were bloodshot.

"Why are Cyrus's eyes so yellow?" Sana asked.

"Because he has a venereal disease."

"Really?"

Marvi rolled her eyes and took another hit.

"Do you think he might be sick?"

"He's sick for sure."

Sana leaned over and took the bottle toke from Marvi. Milky white smoke swirled inside it. Sana held the bottle sideways to see if the swirls would change direction.

"Jesus. Are you trying to kill it?"

"I'm bored."

"There's a bit more if you want." Sana shook her head and returned the toke to Marvi, who removed the cap and poured water into it from her thermos. The smoke disappeared, and dark grains floated to the top of the plastic bottle. Marvi tossed it across the roof, and drops of water pelted the ground, which was already covered with dried crow shit. The more they smoked up that winter break, the better they got at smoking up, the more Sani noticed how excitable Marvi got when she was high.

"I'm so sick of this," Marvi said.

"The day's almost over."

"It's not about today."

"Well, winter break's also almost over. Three days."

Marvi's rolled her eyes. "Don't you see what they've done to us? It's insane. Look at us here, stuck here, hiding here, surrounded by crow shit. I did nothing wrong. But you just tried to look at the time, and now--I don't get it. I just don't."

"I didn't mean for this to happen. How could I have known he'd see us?"

"I'm not blaming you. I'm blaming them."

"I didn't mean to get you into trouble. I really didn't."

"I'm not blaming you. Do you even hear what I'm saying?"

"It's not like I knew they'd overreact," Sana said. "And then they got sensitive because you talked back."

"They were overreacting before I said anything. And at least I said something. At least I defended us."

Sana wanted to say something in response, but she didn't know what.

"This isn't about you or me. It's about them. How they made such a scene," Marvi continued.

"It was his fault. He made such a scene. He started it," Sana said, her voice shaking.

"He walked out. He walked out because he saw two girls checking the time. Jesus."

"I know."

"And they took it so personally. It became an insult to them, instead of to you and me."

"I know."

"Where you girls? Where you hiding? You make me run everywhere. I hear you shouting. I hear you from near canteen. Where you girls?"

Cyrus's voice was coming from the garden below. Marvi walked to the edge of the roof and looked down. Sana followed her. There stood Cyrus, between the beds of pink and white frangipani. He was wearing the watery-yellow bush shirt that he often wore to school. Sana had often wondered if he wore it because it matched his eyes.

"There you girls are. What you think you doing there? Do you know what Sister will say when I tell her you up here? Do you know what she'll do?"

The primary school building was only two stories high. Sana and Marvi both wondered if Cyrus could smell the hash. Sana wondered if he could see how red their eyes were. Marvi hoped he did.

"You coming down or I call Sister?" he shouted up at them.

"What do you want?" Marvi asked.

"What you say? Come down and talk."

"I said what do you want? What do you want from us?"

Sana, from the hash or from staring down at Cyrus, felt her vision skew a little. She was just a little dizzy.

"You come down. We go to classrooms and clean ink. You know the dried-up ink on the desks? The ink is everywhere." Cyrus shook his hands, as if to pantomime the scrubbing motion of cleaning the dark wooden desks that had been in the classrooms for decades--a century even.

"We're not doing it."

"What you say?"

"I said we're not doing it."

Sana joined Marvi: "Cyrus, we won't do any more chores."

"Stop now. Come down. Come. Sister keep telling me to give you work. What do I tell her?"

"Tell her we're not her servants," Marvi shouted.

"What?" Cyrus shouted back. "What you want me to say?"

"We're not her servants. We're students. You hear me? Our parents pay the fees here. We're students, not servants. I don't care if Sister wants the desks cleaned or the garden mowed or the bathrooms cleaned--you go do it. That's your work, not ours. You hear me?"

Sana saw that Marvi's face was flushed, her bloodshot eyes opened wide. When Sana looked down at Cyrus, she saw that he, too, was looking down, at the ground. His arms hung loose at his sides.

He stood there for a few moments. "OK, OK, OK. I go. I take care of computer room. I do it myself. I leave you girls."

Marvi and Sana watched him turn around and walk down the garden, past the pink and white frangipani bobbing in the breeze, past the canteen shed, and then step inside the main building.

Marvi slumped on the ground. Sana remained standing.

"I bet he's going to tell Sister," Marvi mumbled. "I bet he's complaining to her right now."

Sana stared at the doorway through which Cyrus had disappeared. "No. I don't think he is."

Classes began. On the first day of school, when Sana said "Good morning, ma'am" to Miss Jan, Miss Jan walked by without acknowledging the greeting. When Marvi went to the staff room to pick up her new library card, Miss Haider pursed her lips upon seeing her at the door.

They had also run out of hash by then--and it was about time. They had too much work to do anyway. They had their mock exams and then their O levels. Every day after school, they carpooled to tuition centers across the city. Marvi took up smoking cigarettes. Sana watched Marvi smoke outside the various apartment buildings where the tuitions were held and then spritz herself all over with the Coconut Lime Breeze Body Spray before getting into the car--not that her driver would have dared to say anything if he smelled the cigarettes on her.

One Friday, right after school had ended, Marvi and Sana were sitting in the car. Marvi's driver had gone into the neighborhood mosque for Jummah prayers. After that, he would drop them off at the economics tuition center.

"I'm hungry," Sana said.

"So go get something," Marvi said.

"From where?"

"That cart right there."

Sana looked at the bun kebab cart Marvi was pointing at down the street. A few men stood scratching their faces as the vendor heated golden-brown buns and potato patties on a round sheet of iron. She swallowed hard.

"It's too far."

"What? It's right there."

"But all the men are standing."

Marvi rolled her eyes. "What do you think they'll do? Kidnap you?"

"No! But I'll wait for them to leave."

"What do you think they'll do to you? They're just waiting for their food."

"I want to wait."

"Why?"

"I want to wait. Or I'll eat when I get home."

"Jesus. Hold up," Marvi said. She leaned across Sana and rolled down the car window. "Cyrus. Cyrus-yah."

Cyrus was walking out of the school. He held a small steel tiffin in his hand.

"Cyrus-yah, come here."

Sana watched as Cyrus looked both ways before crossing the street.

"You girls all right?"

"Can you do us a favor?"

"Why you girls waiting here alone in car? You wait inside. Not good for you girls to be alone in car."

Cyrus was hunched over the car window. This was the closest Sana had ever gotten to his face, and she felt as if she were looking at it for the first time: the dark stubble against the dark skin, the threadlike red veins in the yellow sclera.

"Cyrus-yah, we're fine," Marvi said. "Just take this money, you see the bun kebab wallah? Can you go get three?"

"No, don't," Sana said weakly.

Marvi snapped at her as she handed Cyrus a hundred-rupee note. "You'll never go yourself. Here, Cyrus-yah, this should be enough. Get three, OK? It should be enough for three."

He unfolded the pink note and then walked over to the cart. Sana looked down at her lap.

"See, that wasn't so hard," Marvi said.

By way of reply, Sana lowered her head. They waited in silence until Cyrus returned. He held up a greasy brown paper bag.

Marvi leaned over Sana and took the bag. She took out one bun kebab wrapped in newspaper and handed it to Cyrus.

"For you. No, no, take it. Oh, Cyrus-yah, just take it. No takalluf."

Cyrus gave a small smile. Seeing him smile emboldened Marvi. She sweetened her voice and thanked him for getting them the snacks. He held up the change. A few dirty notes.

"Keep it, Cyrus-yah. Keep it. We'll see you on Monday."

Cyrus looked at the notes in his hands as if he didn't know what they were. As if he had never seen brown ten-rupee notes--so soft from years of handling--in his life.

It was only when Marvi began to roll up the car window that he put them in his shirt pocket.

Sana was frowning so hard she felt that all the energy in her body was concentrated on her forehead, that every single atom of her body was directed toward the furrowed spot between her brows. She didn't look up when Marvi spoke. She didn't look up when Marvi offered her a bun kebab. Marvi had placed the brown paper bag between them in the car. It now fell over on its side, but neither of them straightened it. Marvi looked away from Sana and, through the car's front window, watched Cyrus walk away down the street, his aluminum tiffin hanging from one hand, the bun kebab, wrapped in newspaper, clutched in the other. Against the gray streets and buildings, his bush shirt glowed a bright white. He walked until he came to a stoop and then he sat down. He put the tiffin down next to him and placed the bun kebab on top of the tiffin. He sat still for a few moments. Then he picked up the bun kebab and Marvi watched, not blinking even once, as he slowly unwrapped it and took a bite.
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Author:Nabi, Zehra
Publication:Subtropics
Article Type:Short story
Date:Mar 22, 2017
Words:6797
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