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On Top of the World

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Maheen Salman Ahmad has spent her life trying to be the perfect student—class prefect two times in a row, dedicated student, active volunteer, expected winner of everything. She gives little thought to her social life, focusing instead on academics, on being on top of everyone all the time. And it's going fine. It's going perfect. But a failed Geography test disrupts her streak—and it might lead to a spiral, one failed quiz after another. Responsibilities build up on her; her family demands attention, her friends want her to change.  With the sudden increase of stress come other problems—and they might just push her off the edge.

Maheen Salman Ahmad
5.0 1 review
Age Rating:


It’s 6:30 in the morning, and I’m late for school.

“Shoot, shoot, shoot,” I mutter, scrambling out of bed. I reach over and violently shake my sister, Minha, awake. She grumbles something along the lines of what’s the matter?

“It’s six-thirty!” I hiss. “Get up!”

She’s alert in a second, sitting up straight, eyes wide. In a panic, I rush to the bathroom to change, but just as I’m closing the door behind me, Minha calls out.

“Maheen,” she says, sounding annoyed and tired. “It’s four-thirty, not six.”

I falter, checking my watch. Sure enough, it’s thirty minutes past four; I’ve misread. I deflate in relief and go back to my room. Might as well get some more sleep.

“I was having such a good dream,” Minha groans, face pressed into her pillow. “Did you have to wake me up?”

“Sorry,” I say. I look at the closed curtains and wonder how I didn’t notice how the light was too faint for it to be past six already.

My heart still thuds in my chest, my breaths coming a little too fast. The mere thought of being late to school always sets me off. The ideal time to wake up for school is fifteen minutes to six, and even waking up five minutes late gives me the shudders.

I take a deep breath and glance at my timetable, pinned to my soft board. The first class today is Geography—and we have a quiz. Instead of going back to bed, I decide to go over the chapter once more.

My sister shifts in the bed. “Turn of the light, will you?”

“Right,” I say. “Sorry.” The darkness that falls after clicking the light off isn’t enough for me to read—and I don’t want to mess up my eyes any more than I already have—so I grope for my book-light and clip it on to my book. Angling it away from my sister, I turn it on and begin to scan through the text. Then I flip back to the chapter questions and go through them.

Anxiety flares as I see all of them; I can’t remember the answers. Gritting my teeth, I go back to the chapter and read through it, word by word.

I repeat the cycle again—and still, I can’t get the correct answers to form in my mind with the efficiency I know my teacher expects.

I take a tight breath. I usually do well in Social Studies, but Geography has always been one of my weakest subjects. I can mostly remember things just by glancing at the text, so what’s wrong with me right now?

I take another breath. It’s alright. I have an hour to prepare—that’s more than enough time. I can do this.

To calm myself, I take a refreshing sip of cold water and make myself comfortable, then start reading.

The hour passes quickly. When it’s time, I wake my sister and change into my uniform, a white suit underneath a navy blue abaya and a grey hijab. Then I grab my bag, checking once to make sure I have everything I need for the day.

When I head downstairs, I find my mother moving around, preparing everything. She’s dressed for her hospital, a white overcoat signifying her job as a doctor.

“Assalam o Alaikum,” I say, heading to the kitchen.

“Wallaikumassalam,” she replies. “Is Minha awake?”

“Yeah,” I say. “She’s dressing.”

I find my breakfast, an egg with a piece of toast and a cup of milk, on the kitchen counter and eat it quickly, running through the chapter questions mentally.

I need to nail this quiz. It’s the second quiz of the year and I got a hundred per cent on the first one, so I need to do the same in this one. I can’t lose momentum.

And every mistake makes a difference, takes your grade down notch by notch. It could make me or break me.

After breakfast, I go through all the routine actions I have to do before leaving: wake my little brother, prepare his milk, check on our lunches. I keep an eye on the time as I do everything, making sure we don’t run late.

As usual, I’m done with everything with time to spare, which relaxes me slightly. My sister still hasn’t gotten down, so I holler for her. She tends to forget about the time.

“I’m coming!” she yells back. “Can’t a person dress in peace?”

I roll my eyes and check on my brother. He’s little, only four years old, so my mother has to help him dress. He’s in a bad mood as is usual in the morning, his face set in an impressive scowl as my mother buttons up his uniform shirt. It makes me smile, and he glares at me.

“Go away,” he says sullenly, yawning. No greeting, no nothing.

I’m used to it, so I just smile again and leave. It’s time to get all the luggage in the car, so I take the key from the box.

I grab my brother’s bag and my own, along with his breakfast box and milk bottle. He has his breakfast in the car as we don’t have enough time to feed him too.

“Maheen,” my mother calls, “there are a few bags by the door. Put them in the car, too.”

So I grab them too and put everything into the car’s trunk. The morning air is fresh, the sun lounging low in the sky. I linger for a moment, closing my eyes, feeling the light breeze against my cheeks. For a second, my anxiety fades. Then I head inside again. I have to make sure everyone gets out in time, test by thirty minutes past six, so we can leave in ten minutes after that. It’s six-thirty and my driver hasn’t gotten down; he’s already late.

I dial in his room’s number in the house intercom and ask him to come downstairs, then check on everyone again. My brother’s ready, my mother’s just finishing up, and my sister still hasn’t come downstairs.

“Minha!” I shout. “We’re gonna be late!”

Just then, she rushes downstairs. My mother gives her a disapproving look. “You haven’t had breakfast,” she says.

“I’ll eat it in the car,” Minha says hurriedly, hands busy with her scarf. All of us pile into the car, my siblings and mother at the back, me in the shotgun seat. I consider pulling out my Geography book and revising during the forty-minute journey to school but then decide against it. I don’t want to study too much, lest it makes me forget everything instead of reinforcing it.

Instead, I settle for mentally going through the chapter, again and again, paying little attention to the view outside. It’s so routine that it’s drilled into my mind. I could close my eyes and know what road we’re passing on and what shops flank us.

Well...that’s an exaggeration. I have a really bad memory in everything except academics. But I bet Minha could.

Almost subconsciously, I keep an eye on the time. I’ve matched places along our route with the ideal time we should reach it, and today it seems we’ll reach just in time.

I sit back and try to relax, knowing I need to before a stressful day ahead. School is fun but it’s stressing too. My teachers expect me to ace everything, get the highest marks, answer every question, understand everything in a second. My friends expect me to be there, to solve their problems, to help them with their work. I expect myself to always be the best. Expectations, expectations, expectations.

I close my eyes and try to think about nothing till we reach school.

“Allah Hafiz,” I call to my mother, and then leave the car, my bag slung over my shoulder. I find a classmate, Aliya, entering just after me and wave to her. She smiles and joins me.

“Prepared for the test?” I ask her, though I know she will be. She’s always prepared.

“You know it,” Aliya says. “Prepared and confident. You?”

I shrug. “Do you have to ask?”

She laughs. “Classic Maheen. I bet you didn’t even study, and you’re going to ace it.”

I smile, keeping my thoughts and anxiety to myself. It’s something that we, the smart kids, do: pretend we only study for five minutes before the test and then shrug when our teachers hand us the paper marked with a big A+.

Oh, I just remembered about the test this morning, we say casually. Wasn’t that hard, though, and I got a hundred per cent. We also make sure to keep the paper flipped over, so that everyone can see just how smart we are.

It started as truth, for me. I would barely study and get full marks, and I gave into the delusion of how awesome I was, and let the others believe it too. But as the workload and the stress all increased and I moved up the classes, I began to realize that I wasn’t the genius everyone thought I was. I had to study to keep my grades where they were, but I kept pretending that I didn’t.

Everyone fell for it, too, which I wasn’t sure was good or bad.

“This is just the beginning, though,” Aliyah mused. “It’s only going to get harder.”

I nod silently, still smiling despite my unease.

We get to our classroom and as we enter, the familiar buzz of conversation washes over me. A lot of student are bent over their books, two or three reading from the same, while other look at them and laugh.

“Don’t be so uptight, guys,” one of them, Maha, says. “It’s just a test.”

All the girls answer in perfect unison, “Shut up, Maha.” Someone laughs.

Raneem Rizwan. My sworn enemy. Well...that’s not entirely true. We’re best friends as well as rivals, which makes our relationship somewhat weird. We both are constantly competing for first places, for the highest grades. Sometimes I win, sometimes she does, usually by a tiny margin of half or even a quarter of a mark.

Now it’s to see who wins this time.

I sigh and sit down at my desk, pulling out my book and revising once more. But then it’s time for assembly, and then, the bell for class is ringing.

The knot is my chest that had slowly been tightening reaches a point where it makes it hard to breathe. I keep my worrying from showing on my face, though. I won’t give Raneem an edge.

Just a test, I remind myself. Just a test.

I decide against last minute preparation—it does more harm than good. I sit at my desk, fingers curled around my pen, which I’ve already checked thrice for ink. Anooshey, my best friend, catches my eye from across the class and grins, giving me a thumbs up.

I smile back. Anooshey is my sun—always smiling, always cheerful. She can usually tell if I’m nervous even when I’m not showing it, and it makes me feel all fuzzy.

I snort to myself, just as the teachers enter the class, holding a stack of papers. Behind me, someone whispers, “So much for hoping she’d forget.”

The teachers offers no prelude—she starts handing out the test papers straight away. One reaches my desk and I take a deep breath.

I can do this.

“Hope you studied,” Miss Areeba says. “You have twenty minutes. Start now.”

I readjust my grip on the pen, my hand sweaty, and scan the page. Five MCQ’s, five fill-in-the-blanks. It’s not much. But in this case, less isn’t more. I can only get one wrong if I want to do good and get an A, and all correct if I want an A+.

I want an A+.

I take a tight breath and glance around. Everyone is writing, heads bent, hands moving.

I can do this.

How much is this quiz worth? Even if it’s minor, it could be a big deal for me.

Okay, I studied. I know this. It’s fine.

I start working on the first question, hesitating slightly before circling the correct option.

I move to the third MCQ, and stop. I don’t know this. I have no idea what the answer is.

And this is only the third question.

A few seats away, Raneem leans back in her chair. For a stuttering moment, I think she’d already done, but then she leans forward again. She’s only stretching.

My heartbeat is loud in my ears. All around, students scribble on their tests. Aliya pauses, cracks her knuckles, and then resumes writing. Someone yawns.

I another breath. I can do this. I haveto do this.

I straighten my posture and imagine an A+ on the page, tell myself that it’ll soon be reality. Then I pick up the pace, gaining confidence as I complete each question.

I finish with time to spare and go through my answers once more. I’m still not sure about the third and two others are educated guesses at most—but I’ve done the best I could. I set down my pen and try to relax.

After a while, the teacher calls out for time, and student’s lean back in their chairs, pens dropping to the desks. At Miss Areeba’s instructions, everyone in my row passes our papers to the front, and she collects them and starts checking. I wait impatiently, pen tapping on my desk, anxiety a dull, constant burn in my chest.

When she hands them back to the first girl at the front, my pulse jumps. Both excited and dreading, I take my paper as she hands to me.

For a second, I can’t bring myself to look at it. But then I force myself to snap out of it and focus my eyes on the grade.

It’s seven out of ten. A B.

I’m frozen for an entire minute, staring at it, not believing what I’m seeing. This can’t be happening. How can I get a B? I’m an A student—I don’t get B’s!

And yet there it is, circled, written in glaring red ink. I don’t dare glance back at it. Then it becomes real—it becomes real that I’m a B student.

A voice insists that it’s okay. I don’t know of one student who hasn’t at least gotten a B, and I know for a fact that Raneem has too. Besides, isn’t this just a minor quiz? It doesn’t matter.

But it does, and I know it. Pressure builds up behind my eyes and I close them, stuffing my test paper into my bag.

I’m not going to cry.

I notice Anooshey looking at me in concern, and I smile at her. She doesn’t see through it, which makes me relieved and disappointed at the same time. I take a deep breath, trying to shrug it off.

I take a long swig of water, and the refreshingly coldness calms me a bit. I excuse myself, lying that I have to go the bathroom, needing sone privacy to go and collect myself. I try to look composed as I walk, and my shoulders slump as I duck into the empty storage room.

I close the door just so I can bang my head against it.

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