The Viper Gang
Fatima yelped as a piercing sharp sensation radiated up from the sole of her right foot to her ankle. The accident caught her off guard. She had begun her morning as usual, waking up at the brink of dawn to pray and feed her mother, when she had stepped on a shard of glass. She didn’t even need to think because she knew where the glass had come from, and she cursed herself for missing the shard when she was cleaning after her father last night.
Fatima hopped to the bathroom on one leg to grab a pair of tweezers, which she often used to eradicate any evidence of an impending unibrow and used it to retrieve the stubborn shard embedded in her foot. What had begun as a well-thought-out solution quickly became a nightmare. It took five excruciating attempts to remove the shard, and that was after Fatima had dug the tweezers deep into her wound, sending a river of crimson blood to flood her bathroom floor.
Fatima’s valiant efforts finally paid off when a thick glass shard flew across the bathroom, leaving behind a gruesome pocket of flesh in her foot. She heaved. Cold sweat plastered the tendrils of loose hair to her face. She was already exhausted despite having just started the day. Fatima limped over to the medicine cabinet and rummaged through it for a bottle of rubbing alcohol. She winced, knowing what needed to be done.
Fatima poured rubbing alcohol all over her wound, flooding the pocket of empty flesh with burning acid.
Some say that the world had not heard a scream as shrill and agonizing since Lucifer fell from grace.
Fatima sucked in a breath of fresh air as she fell to her knees, careful to keep her wounded foot from touching the ground. She felt pain in every part of her body, and her body reacted by having tears pool around her eyes. All she wanted was to take a break, to have a moment to revel in her own pain. But then she remembered her sacred oath. She had sworn to herself that she would never succumb to her own weakness, so she wiped her tears furiously with the back of her hand and proceeded to wrap her foot with an ace bandage.
By the time she left the bathroom, her father was still passed out on the sofa. The stench of liquor basked his skin and mingled with the pungent smell of dried vomit which clung to his grayed beard. Fatima stood in one place and watched as her father groaned, clutching his head with fisted hands in anguish.
She wasn’t sure if she recognized him whenever he was hungover like this. His swollen gut strained against the buttons of his shirt while the rest of his willowy extremities were thin like tree branches. He was so thin, like he was wasting away. It didn’t matter how much Fatima fed him. Every day, he became less and less like the man Fatima thought him to be; he was a shadow tethered to a diaphanous body.
“Baba,” Fatima said gently.
Her father tossed and turned on the sofa. His countenance was fixed in a permanent gnarled state of discomfort.
“Fatima. My head hurts so bad. Can you get me an aspirin?”
Fatima left, only to return with a glass of freshly made lemonade. Instead of arguing back, her father sat up and drank every last drop. The drink eased his pain and replenished his dry veins with water. He sighed from relief.
“Thank you, eshgham.”
Her father returned the glass, and she looked down at its emptiness. “Baba.” Fatima’s head bowed low. She buckled underneath the weight of the world. “You were supposed to drive me to school today.”
“Ah! I forgot!”
Her father swung his legs off the couch, only to fall face-flat on the floor. Fatima had to lift him back to the couch. She looked down on her father. With her hands digging into her hips and the concerned look on her face, she seemed so much like her late grandmother that her father had to rub his eyes to make sure he wasn’t hallucinating.
“You’re in no condition to drive. I’ll call someone to drive me.”
“I’m so sorry, eshgham.”
Fatima was beginning to loathe the name. Once a term of endearment, had now become a mockery of her pain.
“Can you at least make sure Maman takes her medicine?”
“Of course, eshgham.” Her father said with all the confidence in the world. If only he saw the horror through Fatima’s eyes. If only he saw the extent of the damage he had done.
But alas, parents never really knew how much they hurt their children until it was too late.
Fatima blinked, concealing the horror behind her eyes once more.
“Just make sure you give her the right medicine and the right dosage. I’ll call you again to remind you.”
“Yes, yes.” Her father waved her off. “I can handle this, Fatima.”
But just in case, Fatima sorted out the medication and checked it twice before she left.
Joshua drove a Dodge Avenger, which he lovingly dubbed, ‘Frankenstine’. Most of the time he called her ‘Frankie’ for short. He had bought a used car and replaced all its broken parts, splurging most of his budget on paint and accessories. As a result of his laborious effort, the car had transformed from a dying piece of metal junk to a revved up hottie.
I brought her back from the dead, Joshua would mention on more than one occasion. Frankie was his pride and joy, second to his beloved Grace.
Fatima sat in the backseat in eerie silence as Joshua accelerated up the highway. She would notice how frequently Joshua’s eyes would flit from the rear view mirror to the road. His big brown eyes resembled that of a deer’s. Thick rows of curled lashes framed the earthy tones in his irises as they moved back and forth. To Fatima, Joshua resembled a deer. It didn’t help that he had quick lengthy legs which added to his height. Why Grace would love a man that brought up images of roadkill and antlers completely flew over Fatima’s head.
Love really is blind.
Joshua elongated the word for an unnecessary amount of time. His brown eyes flitted to the rearview mirror and when he saw Fatima glare back at him, he averted his eyes to the road.
“Don’t I at least get a ‘thank you’? I did just pick you up at seven-thirty in the morning.”
Fatima surprised him with a,“Thank you.” It contained no warmth or any sincerity of the sort, but Joshua took what he could get.
Joshua switched lanes and drove in silence for a few minutes before attempting to converse with Fatima once more.
When Fatima did not answer right away, Joshua quickly jumped in. “I was really hoping we could be friends. It only makes sense, right? You love Grace. I love Grace. We both love Grace. Grace talks about you a lot!”
“She does?” Fatima lifted an arched brow.
“Yep!” Joshua’s voice swelled with pride of knowing something. “Just last week you helped her with her calculus homework, she said, ‘God! What would I do without Fatima?’ And when you turned my face into a meme, she laughed and said, ’Fatima’s SO funny Josh!’”
“Was it the one where you were doubling over in pain over a trapped gas-bubble?”
Joshua blinked twice in speechless awe.
“Grace tells me you have digestion issues.”
“Yes…I think that’s the one.”
Unsure of what else to say, Joshua continued driving. He exited the highway and cruised down the in-road. When they were approaching U.C.B’s parking lot, Joshua asked.
“So if you don’t mind me asking, why do you need to be at U.C.B on a Saturday?”
“I have a study date with Maria Valdez and Nadia Oluwa.”
Upon hearing the two infamous names, Joshua’s brows shot up high on his forehead.
“No way! Are you guys plotting to kill someone or something? Since when was the last time the viper gang got together?”
Fatima looked over her shoulder, gazing at the rows of parking lots diminish in size as they drove towards the main entry. College students scurried by like ants across an endless lawn. Their backs heaved from the weight of their laptops and textbooks, and their eyes were purple from lack of sleep and full time work hours. They were utterly, hopelessly, miserable.
“The only thing we’re going to kill is this exam. Besides. I don’t fuck with Maria and Nadia like that. We only work together when there’s something to gain.”
Joshua pulled up by the main entrance and unlocked the doors. “Just be careful, okay? Especially around Maria. Sometimes I can’t tell if she’s really the senator’s daughter or an escaped convict.”
Fatima’s hand lingered on the door handle, as she looked back at Joshua. “How about you worry about your gas bubbles, and I’ll take care of Maria.”
Joshua’s stunned expression slowly broke into a full blown smile, and Fatima took it as her cue to get out of the car.
“Hold on! Does that mean––”
Fatima slammed the door, but that didn’t stop Joshua. He rolled down the windows and shouted.
“You just teased me! Does that mean we’re friends?”
“Good bye, Joshua.”
Fatima began walking with her back turned while Joshua couldn’t help but smile like a fool.
“I’LL PICK YOU UP IN TWO HOURS!”
Fatima turned back just in time to see Joshua driving off.
Fatima muttered under her breath and made her way towards the library.
Maria Valdez had quite the reputation to live up to. Her mother was California’s first Latina senator, Frida Valdez, who had shocked the nation when she marched up to the white house on her inauguration day with her lips painted scarlet. Like mother, like daughter, Maria had dreamed of following in her mother’s footsteps since the age of four.
At four years old, Maria ran a voting registration booth with her older cousin at U.C.B. and other Californian college campuses and used her girlish charm to convince students to register to vote.
At age seven, she was sent to the principal’s office for organizing a school walk out to protest on the behalf of gun control and school shootings.
At age thirteen, she wrote a fiery letter to her local representative demanding protection for immigrants.
At age fifteen, she took Hispanic heritage month to the extreme when she and her student council blasted Selena’s music down the halls, strutting in a tabasco dress and utilizing Spanish as often as she could.
Maria accomplished many things as her passionate heart allowed, but over time she went dark and took a long break from politics. Instead of helping out the community, she made a habit of shoplifting and hot-wiring cars. She never needed the money, of course. She claimed to do it for fun. The fact that Maria had avoided being thrown in jail (or Allah forbid, prison) was all due to her connection with her mother...and her spider web of gang affiliations.
Everyone wanted to know what had happened to corrupt the bright young daughter of Frida Valdez but alas. It remained a secret to this very day.
Fatima met up with Maria on the library’s fifth floor. Maria was sitting at an empty table with a collection of Gary Soto’s poetry in her hands. With her gaze focused in concentration, she occasionally bit down on the mechanical pencil she drew to her mouth. Each bite left marks of red lipstick all over the eraser.
Not that she needed one.
Maria never made mistakes when it came to annotating. Each note she scribbled down was as ruthless and bare as the comment before it. She was never the person to change her mind when it came to interpretation of literature. Everything she saw was fact, and those that dared to argue would experience her wrath.
“You’re late,” Maria said without looking up from her book. “And you’re limping.”
“Rough morning.” Fatima straightened her posture and put less weight on her wounded foot. As if Maria smelled her vulnerability, she pressed.
“Did Mommy refuse to take her meds?”
Fatima suppressed her shock by combating it with an impressive smirk. “If I didn’t know any better, I would say that you’re stalking me.”
At that, Maria finally put down her book and curled her red lips into a grin. “Stalking is such a harsh term. I prefer to call it ‘research’.”
“Whatever,” Fatima said with an air of indifference. “Where’s Nadia?”
Nadia Oluwa was an international student from Nigeria; she was also loaded with money. Her father was a mega preacher in Abuja (Nigeria’s capital) while her mother was a fashion icon. Nadia often laughed in the faces of those who ignorantly believed she was some humble village girl who came to the U.S. for a good education, and she was proud to tell anyone that she had visited every country in the world at least twice. She was intelligent but had no interest in worldly affairs or politics. Her attendance at U.C.B. was an excuse so that her father could continue lecturing about the importance of education. At the moment, she was only interested in growing her own fashion line.
Maria only shrugged. “I bet her dress got caught in the elevator again.”
The elevator opened with a ding and out came Nadia dressed in a sleek purple top and a pair of black dress pants. A thick pair of Hollywood movie style sunglasses sat high on her nose bridge, and her wedged heels produced a muted thump as they packed the carpet.
“You’re looking...modest.” Maria commented as she eyed Nadia up and down with interest.
Nadia removed her sunglasses and stored them away in her designer bag. “Gurl, please. This outfit costs more than what your mother makes in a year.”
“Fatima.” Nadia addressed her with a dazzling smile. Fatima found that ‘dazzling’ was a fitting word considering that she had the diamond studs hanging on Nadia’s earlobes as a reference.
“Let’s not waste anymore time.” Maria said and ushered them to the study room. To their utter astonishment, there was already a group of students there. Three young men to be exact. Maria checked the paper list taped to the door. Printed in bold next to their allotted time was the name: Mustafic, Samir.
“You’ve got to be kidding me. I thought you said you already reserved the room?”
Maria glared daggers at Nadia who narrowed the bridge between her brows in confusion.
“I’m pretty sure I did.”
Before they had the chance to bicker, the door creaked open, and Samir stood between them and the doorway. Fatima felt her blood pressure drop when his gray eyes swept from her to Maria and then Nadia. She embraced herself for a wisecrack comment and was relieved when Samir ignored her altogether.
“Hey. My friends and I noticed that you girls have been standing here for a while. Is something wrong?”
As always, Maria spoke for all three of them. “Yeah. I’m pretty sure my friend, Nadia, reserved this study room. There has to be a mistake.”
Samir walked over to the reservation list and scoured the list of names and dates and discovered the issue.
“Ah. I see what’s wrong. You reserved this room for next Saturday instead of this Saturday. See?”
Samir proved himself correct by pointing out Nadia’s name. It was, indeed, set for next week. The three girls showed signs of disappointment but in different ways. Maria fantasized about torturing Nadia. Nadia crossed her arms defensively. And Fatima was more than ready to leave.
Samir gazed at Fatima who inadvertently glared at him back, and his overall disposition softened. “Maybe we can come to a compromise. What subject were you planning on studying?”
“U.S. History,” Maria replied.
“Same here.” Samir said. “Who do you have?”
“What a coincidence! We’re studying for Pollock, too.”
“Shut up! We have him Monday, Wednesday, Friday.”
Fatima could have sworn she saw a wildfire combust from the spark created between them both. She was ready to flee.
Samir invited them in, but Fatima hesitated. She hovered by the doorway, unsure of whether it was best to proceed when imminent danger awaited her in the room. Fatima had remembered the last time she and Samir were together, their tension had created a storm. And now that Maria’s fiery temper was in the mix, it would surely cause a full blown cataclysm.
Samir held the door open, waiting. Fatima could have sworn she was looking at the devil himself. She hated how he regarded her with such familiarity. She hardly knew him, and he, her. He seemed too eager, too welcoming, and too unreserved for her comfort. Fatima figured that he wanted something because that was the nature of people; they were self-serving and selfish at their core.
“Are you coming?”
When Fatima still hesitated, Samir shifted his tone into something delicate. It was the same approach one would take when coaxing a frightened animal.
“We’re just going to study. I promise I won’t flirt with you...”
Unless you want me to, he wished to add.
As if sensing Samir’s underlying treachery, Fatima narrowed her eyes, boasting a fan of feathery lashes in her show of cynicism. “Whatever. Let’s get this shit show over with, shall we?”
Pleased with her answer, Samir welcomed her into the study room, and he closed the door shut, entombing them all.