“It’s Afra,” she says wearily. “My name is Afra. Your name is Khawlah. It’s not hard to call people by their names you know. And I’m a month older than you!”
“Whatever, Newbie.” I say, slipping a piece of gum in my mouth. “Beat it.” I feel her gaze burning through me as I pick up my sketchbook from where it was laying on the grass, flipping to my latest piece. It is a charcoal sketch of a girl’s blurry silhouette. She holds an umbrella loosely down by her side, looking up at the pouring rain. The purple shine of her glasses is the only color mingling with the shadows of her face, which is mostly hidden by her hijab.
Afra sighs and rocks her swing gently, resting her head against the rope bindings tying it to its tree. Her long, floral dress flows out around her like the petals of a flower, and her baby blue shawl drapes elegantly over her shoulders.
She’s so different from me. I try not to look down at my own outfit for comparison in a moment of self-consciousness. My abaya is clean and fresh, but creased and torn in places around the hem. I had thrown a hoodie over it this morning to cover the missing buttons. I haven’t known this new girl in school for three days and I can already tell we are as different as night and day. Where she is elegant and organized, I am a hot mess, constantly forgetting and scrambling everywhere. Yep. This “friendship” is so gonna work, I think sarcastically.
“I don’t understand,” she whispers curiously, watching the rapid movements of my pencil. “Why did you run from them?”
I keep my head bent over my drawing and smile softly, irritated. “Why do you care? It’s not of your concern. ”
“No.” She bristles. “But you’re Muslim. Doesn’t Islam encourage helping others? All those Hadiths of your Prophet? Judaism does that too. We can help and support each other.”
I bite my lower lip in contemplation, surprised by her knowledge. “We Muslims also mind our own business and leave alone things that don’t concern us. But tell me anyway, what would you have done?”
“Running makes you seem guilty. If you run away, they’ll actually believe you’re as they say.”
“A terrorist.” I feel her flinch as I say the word she had been hesitant to utter. “You can just say it. They think I am a terrorist.” I pick my eraser up from my lap and furiously rub away at a particularly dark form behind the girl. “And I couldn’t care less.”
“They were harassing you.”
“I can take care of myself,” I say firmly.
“By running away?”
“But I’ve seen what you can do…”
I raise my head sharply, glaring at her. Ever since she witnessed those stupid kids taunting me that day, she hasn’t left me alone. This needs to stop. “And what can I do?” I ask calmly. This new girl is getting more annoying than ever.
Her lips barely move, and I almost don’t hear it. “Fight like ten men.”
My heart skips a beat, but I quickly force another sarcastic smile to hide the panicked feeling. “Yeah? Tell me more.” Where, oh where, Ya Allah, did I practice that she saw me?
She studies my face, frowning. “You know, it’s not funny. They have no right to tease you and call you such names just because you’re Muslim. You should show them what happens when they keep…when they keep picking on you.”
“And what happens when they keep picking on me?” My thoughts race. I need to think of something and fast. I need to throw this Nosy Newbie who keeps following me home from school for protection of all things off my trail.
“You tell me,” she says, her dark eyes never leaving mine. “Why are we even here anyway?” She gestures to my house. “You never leave your home. It’s like you’re afraid of them.”
“You’re right,” I say, looking at her hard. “Why are we here? I never invited your busy nose poking into my life.”
“Because we’re both different from everyone else. You live in a place where Islam isn’t so common, and you wear the full niqab. I’m…” she trails off, looking down at her hands and I have to refrain from cocking my head towards her. I don’t want her to realize my interest has suddenly piqued.
“And I’m like that too,” she finishes. “Isn’t that enough? Shouldn’t that be enough for us to form a strong bond? I can help you.”
“Then tell me how you’re so different.” I shoot back. Anything to keep her from talking about me.
She sighs, and I see something flicker across her face, but it’s gone before I can place it. She hesitantly slows her gentle rocking to a stop. “I only want to help you, Khawlah. It’s not right for you to be alone and taunted all the time,” she says finally, never answering my question.
“I never asked for your pity.” I snap at her. “And I don’t need you clinging onto me so desperately for attention.”
She stays silent, staring at me placidly, the expression gone from her face. I hold her gaze, never wavering. Satisfied with the hints of anger in her eyes, I turn back to my drawing nonchalantly while she stands abruptly. “Try not to come back,” I call as she strides away. I smile, relieved.
“Finally,” I breathe to myself. My pencil continues scratching for a few more minutes. The soothing sound fills my insides to a content peace. Feeling cramped from being in the same position for so long, I stretch, blowing a bubble of gum underneath my niqab.
I look up from my drawing and blink in surprised annoyance, as I catch sight of a colorful backpack leaning against a tree. I sigh heavily. I’m going to have to bring this back to her aren’t I? She won’t come here anymore. Dropping my sketch, I stand up, straightening my niqab. I slip my arm through her backpack and head towards the direction she had left. It’s funny how she’s usually all poised and organized but becomes scattered when upset.
As I step onto the sidewalk, shading my eyes, I think of something to say to her. I should probably not say anything. I walk quickly, wanting to make up for lost time. She won’t talk to me after that for sure. I won’t even make eye contact; I’ll just –
A shrill scream of terror from a nearby alley interrupt my train of thoughts. That place is usually deserted. Heart pounding, I race towards its direction and skid into the shadows of a corner. My head whirls as the scream comes again, more desperate, and I turn to see Newbie shoved against the graffiti-covered walls at gunpoint.
So now she begs for criminal attention.
I race as fast as I can towards her, softening my steps to deafen the sound. I need to act natural, stay unnoticed. Yeah, racing towards an attack is perfectly natural for normal people, I snort to myself. Keeping close to the walls, I slow to a jog, watching the movements of her attackers through slit lids, my mind calculating. Think, Khawlah, think. You can’t just run in blindly. Crouching in the shadows, I draw my hoodie up, shoving the ends of my niqab and hijab inside.
You shouldn’t do this. What if they notice something? Ignoring the nagging voice in my head, I shrug her backpack off my shoulders, letting it drop quietly in the shadows where its neon colors will stay hidden. I need to help her, even if that means compromising my identity.
You’re starting to think like her, aren’t you? A voice inside me taunts. All that stuff about helping other people –
Because I believe in it! I snap at myself. I just can’t be included with the rest of them. I shake my head clear from the thoughts and turn my attention back to the scene unfolding before me.
The guy cornering her has pale skin. Long locks of bright blond hair fall around his shoulders. I immediately name him Blondie. He is tall and not heavily built. Two of his accomplices keep lookout, leering at the girl with lazy grins. One is a massive monster of a man, his head bald and shining in the sun. The other is smaller in built, but still very muscular. He has a wild mop of red hair on his head, and a short, thick beard. Hulk and Redbeard, I think to myself. I watch as Blondie leans in closer, spinning the gun in his hands before carelessly pointing it towards her direction. He’s got an art of suspense.
He smiles softly. “I’ll ask you again. Your valuables, please.”
“And I’ll tell you again, I don’t have anything,” Newbie says furiously. But I know he won’t fall for the lie, since the side of her dress bulges slightly, noticeable to any trained eye.
“I beg to differ, missy.” He gestures to her side with the gun. “Unfortunately for you, I’m not new to this line of work.”
Her expression never changes as she reluctantly draws a phone from her pocket and holds it out to him. He takes it swiftly and stashes it away in the folds of his coat. “I believe we’re not yet finished.”
“No,” she says, slowly pulling a wallet from the pocket. The bulge is no longer there. I see her body tense a little and my heart skips a beat. No, don’t run.
“I guess you need this much more than I do anyway.” She suddenly jerks her arm and throws it hard at his face, forgetting the gun trained on her.
It sails past his head and he whirls, catching it and pointing the gun back at her before she had taken more than a few steps. He’s fast.
“Oh no, I can’t let you leave yet!” He exclaims.
Afra steps back in alarm. “But that’s all I have.”
“Yes, but you see, I forgot my mask at home today. Unintentionally, of course. So that means you’ll be able to describe me to the police. Of course, eye-witness testimonies can only go so far, but still, I can’t have you raising panic in this peaceful city, can I? My life would potentially be in danger.”
She stares at him, clenched fists shaking by her side, but keeps herself still. “You said you’d let me go,” she said quietly.
“And you believed me?” He laughs, removing the safety from his gun. “Who trusts a thief?”
“Just because you’re a thief doesn’t mean you’re a liar. Maybe you steal and hurt people that way, but you don’t have to further damage them by lying. You can still hold onto your honesty,” she suddenly bursts out.
I stifle a gasp of surprise. Is Newbie preaching to him?
Blondie just stares at her, speechless, his finger still resting on the trigger. Then a slow grin curves across his face. I feel my spine tingle when I see the coldness in his eyes. “Ah, but you forgot one aspect of this. I like the risk of a hunt. It’s… addicting.” He tilts his head and I see his finger move.
What happens next with Blondie and Newbie? Find out in the next installment – Khawlah & The Newbie: Part 2!