That evening, Ammi and Abu went over to Shayan’s house for dinner. Neither Hassan nor Fatima was invited, and judging from the yelling and sobbing that Hassan had heard from earlier that afternoon, Hassan was pretty sure his sister was in no shape to leave the house. After their parents left, Hassan finally slunk out of his room and tapped on Fatima’s door (probably the only time he’d ever bothered knocking).
When there was no reply, Hassan let himself in. The door wasn’t locked, for once, and he found Fatima sitting on her bed, iPad braced on her knees. Hassan glanced over to find that his sister was watching that annoying movie about Anand and Tasnim (ugh, Hassan hated that movie). He sat down next to her, pausing the movie just as the sad song started to play. The music ended abruptly and Fatima shot him a glare with bloodshot eyes.
“What do you want?”
Hassan hesitated, passing her a tissue from the box on her nightstand. Fatima wiped her eyes and threw the wadded tissue into the shopping bag that she used in place of a trash can. He finally met her gaze, replying, “Thanks for covering for me.”
Fatima shrugged, pulling a chunky-knit blanket up around her shoulders. “I’m leaving soon and they already hate me, anyway, so it doesn’t really matter.”
“Leaving?” Hassan stared at her.
Fatima nodded, a faraway look in her eyes. “I can’t stand this anymore. I’m eighteen tomorrow, so I’ll legally be an adult. I already have an apartment rented in Iowa.”
Hassan gaped at her, mouth forming words but no sound coming out.
A little smile pulled at Fatima’s face. “Novy’s coming, too. We’re rooming together. You guys don’t know, but I won this big writing contest a week or two ago, and so I got acceptance into a program at UI for undergrads. And a full scholarship.”
Hassan rolled his eyes, surprised to feel a pang of sadness bite at him and quickly trying to cover it up. “Why leave? Are we that bad?”
She laughed a little, but her eyes were sad. “No, I don’t. But I can’t take this anymore. Getting blamed for everything, not being able to live up to expectations. Even when it’s not my fault.”
He bit his lip. “Can’t you just tell Abu and Ammi that?”
“They won’t get it, Hassan.” Fatima looked bitter as she said it, staring out the window. “When they look at me, all they see is their stupid, ungrateful daughter who dropped out of Harvard.”
Hassan opened his mouth to argue but then shut it again. He leaned back against Fatima’s plushy pillows, unable to imagine life without her. “What about school?”
She shrugged. “Online school? I don’t know.”
He raised his eyebrows at her but she just shrugged again. On an impulse, he rested his head on her shoulder, and she tensed in surprise before relaxing again. “What am I supposed to do then?” he asked. “Abu and Ammi will only have me to nag,” he quickly added, trying not to make it sound like he would miss her or anything like that.
Yet he had a feeling she understood what he really meant. Forcing cheer, she joked, “You can have my room.”
“I might trash it, you know,” he replied, pulling the other side of the fuzzy blanket around himself.
She rolled her eyes. “You’d better be careful.”
“No promises. But I’ll try.”
Both of them knew they weren’t talking about Fatima’s room anymore.
Fatima broke the news to Abu and Ammi over breakfast the next day. Hassan purposefully set his alarm to sometime earlier than his usual 12:30 pm (if he couldn’t sleep in on school days, then at least he had to enjoy his Saturday mornings, right?), suddenly irrationally scared that Fatima would sneak off during the early hours and he wouldn’t be able to say goodbye. Yeah, he knew it was a stupid thought. But still, when his iCell’s alarm started chiming promptly at 8:45, Hassan jumped out of bed and quickly began the process of gelling his hair (he had to be presentable, after all).
Fifteen minutes later he was making his way downstairs. For such a momentous occasion Fatima looked ridiculously calm (which was most definitely unusual) and Hassan paused at the top of the stairs, raising an eyebrow unconsciously at the sight of her sitting on the counter eating a granola bar. Abu and Ammi were both at the breakfast table, Abu scrolling through his phone and Ammi complaining about yet another thing. Nothing out of the ordinary.
But when Hassan took a closer glance he saw the smudged mascara just below Fatima’s long eyelashes, the look of thunder on Abu’s face, and the pinched expression Ammi wore. Never mind, not so ordinary.
He winced as Ammi then began her loud tirade. “What do you mean you’re moving out?” Her voice was shrill and angry. Hassan started to sneak back up the stairs but one glare from Fatima froze him in place.
“If you want to go then go!” screamed Ammi. “Are you paying for your school? Your college? You figure it all out!”
Fatima seemed to be struggling to keep her composure. “Actually, yes, I am. I have a full scholarship to UI and I’ll be in an undergrad program until that starts.”
“What about high school?” Ammi snapped. “Are you not going to graduate?”
Fatima took a deep breath. “I can do online school.”
Abu finally looked up from his iCell. “Who’s paying your rent?”
“It’s already paid.”
Ammi and Abu kept barraging Fatima with questions, looking angrier and angrier with each response obtained. Hassan was frozen at his place on the stairs, unable to move. He kept opening his mouth to say something—anything—to defend his sister, but no sound came out.
At last, the shouts ended as Fatima slammed the door in Ammi and Abu’s stony faces, puffer jacket slung over her shoulders and suitcase in her hands.
Ammi buried her face in her hands and burst into tears. Hassan glanced at her in surprise before darting downstairs, his footsteps conspicuously loud in the heavy silence. Neither Ammi nor Abu looked at him as he slid out the back door, running towards the garage.
“Api, wait!” he called just as Fatima was sliding her bags into the trunk of her car.
She turned around, gathering her hair into a loose bun. “Yeah?”
Hassan stared at his toes, realizing that he’d forgotten to put on shoes. The dew from their lawn soaked into his socks and he shivered. Fatima gave him a sad smile, shrugging out of her puffer jacket and draping it around his shoulders.
“I’m sorry,” he blurted.
She shrugged, adjusting her luggage in the trunk. “It’s okay.”
It wasn’t, really, but Hassan didn’t say that. Instead, he picked up her backpack and put it onto the passenger seat. “Do you have to go?” he asked after a beat.
Fatima rolled her eyes at him. “I already rented an apartment, Hassan. Of course I have to go.”
“Oh. Um. Okay.” Not really knowing what else to say, Hassan backed away awkwardly.
Fatima gave him a halfhearted grin and held out her arms for a hug, laughing at him exasperatedly when he hesitated. “Come on,” she coaxed. “I don’t have germs or whatever it is you’re scared of.”
The truth was, Fatima never ever gave hugs, and Hassan had been in shock. But he numbly stepped into her embrace, and all of a sudden realized that he was taller than her already (but that wasn’t really that much of an accomplishment considering Fatima was very short for her age). Could his big sister really be leaving? All along it had always been Fatima and Hassan, Hassan and Fatima. He didn’t know a world without Fatima there to have his back. And even though he’d begged and wished and prayed so many times that maybe one day she’d just disappear and he’d be an only child, this time she was actually leaving and it was different.
Her hair didn’t smell like teil, he thought to himself. Only like her shampoo. Somehow that thought wasn’t as reassuring as he thought it would be, and he forced down the lump that appeared in his throat.
“Well, bye,” he said quietly as she released her grip around him.
She feigned a smile. “Bye, Hassan. Text me every day, okay? Tell me what’s going on around here.”
He watched as she got into her car, and he waved until the car turned around the bend in the street and disappeared into the distance. He pulled her puffer jacket tightly around his shoulders, wondering if she would want it back in Iowa. Would she be flying there? Had she bought a plane ticket? He stared at the empty street, all of a sudden remembering that today, no one had wished his sister happy birthday.