Never in a thousand years would Hassan have expected his perfect, rule-abiding sister Fatima to drop out of Harvard a month after receiving her admission letter.
Nor would he have expected to be transferring schools in the middle of the year, from Illinois to Ohio.
And yet, within one day, he found out that both of these things were happening.
It started when he strode into Fatima’s room (without knocking, per usual) to steal one of her fuzzy throw blankets. Instead, he found her lying on her bed typing frantically on her Mac, only to quickly turn it off when she saw him enter.
“What do you want?” she asked, her bored expression looking all-too-feigned.
Hassan raised an eyebrow at her. “What are you doing on your laptop? FaceTiming a boy?” He was joking, of course. Fatima would never dare. With a 4.0 GPA (not counting extra weighted credits, which would give her a 5.0), overly-polite manners to all the aunties and uncles (not actually biologically related to them, of course), and superb tattling skills, Fatima had to be every desi parent’s dream daughter. Not to mention the fact that, although Hassan would never tell her this, she really wasn’t as ugly as he often told her she was. Considering they’d both be having arranged marriages as their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents had done, Hassan knew that his sister would never even dream of having a secret boyfriend. He smirked at the horrified look on Fatima’s face.
“I’m doing homework,” she replied in a strained voice. “Now go away.”
Hassan shook his head, sitting down on her spinning desk chair and hugging a furry pillow to his chest. “Homework that I can’t see, huh?” He grinned. “Maybe it’s kissing homework.”
Fatima threw a pillow at him, scowling. Wincing as a button on the pillow hit him in the nose, Hassan rolled his eyes. “Okay, okay. But seriously, what are you doing?” His voice took on a whiny tone.
“None of your business,” she retorted. “Can you leave?”
Hassan propped his feet up on her desk smugly. “Not unless you tell me what you’re looking at.”
“Go away,” Fatima growled.
Hassan glared at her. Initially, he’d just been teasing. But now it seemed like his sister really was hiding something, and nosiness had always been one of his faults. “If you don’t tell me, then I’ll tell Abu and Ammi that you have a secret boyfriend,” he threatened.
Fatima snorted. “Psh, like they would believe you. You’re the one who got a B minus on a vocab quiz two days ago, told Alisha Auntie to lose some weight at that party last Saturday, and tried to run away from home in second grade to be a ‘professional video gamer.’”
He paused, at a loss for words. He had to admit that she was right—reputation-wise, Fatima was beating him by miles. But in his defense, Alisha Auntie had been droning on and on for at least ten minutes about how he was too skinny and needed to eat more. All he’d said was that not everyone had to be obese like her, yet it had quickly evolved into the current gossip scandal of the desi community. Abu and Ammi had been so mad that they canceled his phone data for a week. He sighed, trying a different tactic. “I’ll rip up your English project,” he warned, picking up the meticulously drawn picture book that Fatima had made for her English class. He wasn’t joking—one time when she was in fifth grade, he’d spilled red paint all over her science fair board because she hadn’t shared her Halloween candy with him.
Fatima gaped at him, leaping up and trying to snatch the book out of his hands. “No!” He held on tightly, feeling the paper stretch and crumple beneath his fingertips. Just a few more seconds, and it would tear. He glanced at Fatima challengingly.
“Fine!” Scowling at him, she released her hands. “I’ll tell you. But you have to promise not to tell anyone or I swear I will track you down and feed you to a kootha.”
Hassan raised his eyebrows but set the book back down onto Fatima’s desk. She glared at him, seeming to be contemplating whether or not redoing her project was worth sharing whatever this secret was with him. At last, she slumped back onto her bed. “Well? Pinky promise.” She stuck her pinky out at him and he rolled his eyes but linked his finger with hers all the same.
“I pinky promise,” he retorted, not really seeing what the big deal was.
“I’m not going to Harvard,” Fatima blurted. “I’m cancelling my admission.”
Hassan’s jaw dropped. Not going to Harvard? Abu was going to murder her! “You’re joking, right?” This had to be a joke. This had to be a joke. There was no way this could possibly be real. “Ha-ha, very funny, Api.”
Fatima gave him a tight-lipped smile and shook her head as she opened up her laptop and showed him the screen. “I’ve been thinking a lot. And I’ve realized I don’t want to go to med school. Or Harvard.”
He gaped at his sister, still not quite accepting that this was reality. “But… why?”
Fatima rolled her eyes at him like he was stupid. “I’m done with being that one smart brown girl. You know, the one who smells like curry and teil and studies until midnight. That’s not who I am, and that’s not what I want people to think of me.”
Hassan stared, his eyes practically bulging out of his face. What had just happened? “Api? Is something wrong?”
Fatima shrugged. “No. Maybe. I don’t know.” She paused, her face softening. “You think I’m stupid, don’t you? For dropping out.”
“You could never pull off stupidity,” Hassan sighed in response.
Fatima smirked. “Yeah, that’s a look you’ve mastered,” she said, sounding more like her usual self. Meeting his gaze, she said quietly, “I’m applying to the University of Iowa. To major in Creative Writing.”
Hassan tilted his head. He could see it, now that she’d explained her motives. He remembered how she’d always aced writing assignments, and hated science class. How she’d pretended not to be crying when people used to bully her in middle school for being a nerd. How she’d despised it when other kids would steal her homework to copy. At last, surprising even himself, he admitted, “I think you’re doing the right thing.”
Fatima stared at him, looking surprised. Finally, she smiled, and then returned to glaring at him. “If you tell anyone I will kill you.”
“Murder is a sin,” Hassan replied cheerfully. “But you know you need to tell Abu and Ammi eventually,” he added, his voice taking on a somber note.
Fatima sighed. “Yeah… I’ll put off that day as long as I can.”
The next piece of news came at dinner, over curry and rice. Yes, Hassan was moving to Cincinnati, over a hundred miles away from where he currently lived. Abu had gotten a job offer near where Hassan’s cousin lived, and he’d accepted it after Ammi insisted that she wanted to live closer to her sister’s family. Hassan sighed. He wasn’t exactly sad that they were leaving their city, anyway. To be honest, the other kids he knew here were really too lame for him to be friends with. Maybe switching schools would be a good thing, so that the other kids’ nastiness wouldn’t rub off on him.
But within two weeks, he realized that he hated moving. Hated it. With all his being.
All the boxes (shudder shudder) stacked everywhere made his nice house look like a factory, and the walls looked naked and ugly without the family photos everywhere. Honestly, even though Hassan had despised all the baby pictures hung all over the place, he kind of missed seeing his younger self staring at him now that the pictures were gone. And then his clothes—his precious apparel, folded and stacked and thrown into cardboard boxes. He sighed miserably as he sealed the box containing his favorite Adidas jacket with clear tape. Uncapping a Sharpie (ew, Sharpies smelled gross), he wrote in all capital letters, “FRAGILE, DO NOT OPEN!” He shivered at the thought of someone contaminating—or worse, ripping—his jacket; not only was it very trendy, it was also one article of clothing that both he and his cousin Shayan had.
Shayan… Hassan used to despise Shayan with an intense fury. After all, Shayan was virtually perfect, never putting a foot out of line. With straight A+’s and good manners (and of course a mustache), Shayan was the stereotypical brown kid. He even smelled like curry! No wonder Hassan had hated him when he was little, especially when Hassan himself was the exact opposite. Mediocre grades (he was a B average but he did get the occasional C, much to Ammi and Abu’s dismay), no mustache (luckily), and horrid manners. He knew all the aunties and uncles gossiped about him and his “failure” of a life, but he’d never really cared—it wasn’t like their opinions mattered when he was the coolest desi kid on the block (after all, he didn’t smell like curry or teil, and that fact alone was enough to set him apart). But somehow he and Shayan had managed to get along (they’d bonded over a mutual love of cricket and Clash Royale, and Shayan had to be the only other kid his age whom Hassan could openly Clash in front of without being embarrassed), and Hassan had to admit that Shayan was a good friend. Hassan suppressed a laugh as he turned back to the cardboard box in his hands. That Adidas jacket had to be the only piece of cool clothing Shayan had. When Hassan moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where Shayan lived, he would make sure to help him pick out some better choices that his usual striped polo shirts. Snorting at the thought, he picked up the box and carried it out to the living room.
Fatima was already in the living room stacking up boxes to make room for more.
“Ugh, another box of clothes?” she groaned, rolling her eyes at Hassan as she pulled her hair into an ugly bun. “Don’t you have enough already?”
Hassan slumped onto the couch, one of the few pieces of furniture that wasn’t already shipped off to Cincinnati. “You picked out half of them,” he reminded her sulkily, glaring at the ridiculous amount of cardboard.
She stuck her tongue out at him as she took his box and put it on top of another one, labeled COLLEGE SWEATSHIRTS: FATIMA. He scowled at it. About half the space in Fatima’s massive walk-in closet was occupied by college sweatshirts from a wide array of Ivy Leagues and other top colleges. And she complained about his wardrobe? Pfft.
Speaking of college… “You’re not going to bring all those sweatshirts to your dorm with you, right?” Hassan asked. They were moving in the middle of the school year, which kind of sucked, but Fatima was a senior and would be leaving for college soon anyway. And Hassan wasn’t worried about making friends (besides, Shayan was there).
Fatima frowned at him. “No, Hassan, I have a full supply of college-themed apparel waiting for me over there.”
He wasn’t sure if she was being sarcastic or not, so he just shrugged.
Fatima sighed and returned to stacking boxes before suddenly looking over her shoulder at him. “Wait a sec, Hassan, Ammi said you got a C+ on your math quiz. Didn’t you study?”
Hassan looked away.
“Let me guess, you were watching cricket. Or playing Clash Royale. Or playing Animal Chasing—”
“Animal Crossing,” Hassan snapped. “It’s called Animal Crossing.”
Fatima scowled. “Do I look like I care?”
Just at that moment, Abu walked in. “Are you all ready to go?”
Hassan nodded. “Yep.”
Fatima ran to grab her Stanford sweatshirt that she’d somehow forgotten while the movers came in to grab their boxes. Hassan scooted out of the way, somewhat intimidated by the big, burly men in the ugly Hi-Vis vests. Couldn’t Abu and Ammi have hired movers who didn’t look like people who’d just broken out of jail? He shuddered as one of their hairy arms bumped him. Ew, he thought to himself, feeling quite disgusted. Germs.
Unfortunately for them, Hassan and Fatima arrived in Cincinnati on a Sunday, meaning that the very next day was a school day. After a long car ride of Fatima listening to obnoxious desi songs and Abu and Ammi complaining about the amount of things they had to bring, they finally arrived at their new house. Hassan stumbled out of the car, yanking out his earbuds and switching off his iCell. Fatima shoved him forward as she too climbed out, kicking him in the leg.
“Hurry up,” she moaned, pulling her backpack up onto her shoulders.
He turned around to glare at her as he inhaled a deep breath of fresh (read: non-Fatima contaminated) air. It was already dark out, and Hassan groaned to himself. Somehow, although he really hadn’t done anything that day, he was exhausted, and just wanted to lie down on the couch with a fuzzy blanket and watch cricket. But he speculated that Ammi and Abu would make him go organize his school stuff, and then go straight to bed… ugh. School.
Fatima kicked him again and, scowling, he walked into the house. Luckily for them, the movers had already put in all their furniture and unboxed the majority of loose items, so all Hassan would have to do was put his own things away. Feeling a bit relieved and reluctantly grateful to those sketchy movers, Hassan made his way up the stairs to his new room.
The new house was nice, Hassan supposed. But he’d already seen so many pictures of it when his parents were picking a house to buy that he really wasn’t interested in its features anymore—he just wanted to sleep. And eat some curry. He sighed as he picked out an outfit for his “first day of school,” grumbling to himself about the loud music coming from Fatima’s room. He found himself walking around his room to the beat of Balam Pichkari as he packed up his backpack, and he scowled, silently insulting Fatima under his breath. Stupid sisters. Stupid catchy desi songs. Stupid, stupid, stupid.