By Asad Shabbir
A young boy stood outside a dreary hospital building late in the night. There were no ill-fated signs that had brought the boy there. He was wearing dark jeans, a blue t-shirt and a thin grey jacket which did little to warm him from the cold weather. He just stood on the sidewalk, watching the cars zoom by as he enjoyed a cigarette. To most late night commuters, he was just a kid.
What could have possibly gone wrong? Everything was so damn perfect.
His seemingly bright future had crumbled. He tried to remember the day everything went right. The day he was given everything he could have dreamt of. Thinking back to the good times wouldn’t matter much, he decided, since nothing mattered anymore. So he chose to relive the glory.
He leaned against the light post, willing tears away as he clenched his eyes shut, trying to disappear.
The sun had barely emerged from the horizon when the calls for prayer started to echo through Islamabad. Different calls for prayer overlapped and created an overwhelming effect. Most of the city was still asleep; the silence was pierced only by the flurry of movement from religious citizens. Among the few cars on the usually polluted roads were cars heading towards Islamabad International School. The day so many students had been dreading or looking forward to had finally arrived. The final end-of-course grades were going to be released today.
Amir would have given his right arm and a leg to relive that day. He would have given anything to have that feeling again. The feeling where nothing is wrong, and if you can’t do something today, you can always try again tomorrow. No force in the world, however, could do that. He lit another cigarette, making several attempts as the wind got stronger.
Amongst the many commuters to the school, Amir was perhaps one of the only ones who was not worried. He had performed well in the exams and had decent grades during the school years. The A Levels was a rigorous and demanding course, and it was finally over. Sitting in the back of his car, he breathed a sigh of relief. This entire saga would come to an end within hours. His father who was driving him to school, kept attempting to calm Amir. Amir himself had resigned from telling his father that he was not stressed. From his point of view, he had done the best he could. It was up to the examiners and Cambridge to decide fate now. There was nothing he could do, and there was no point in worrying.
He inhaled deeply, wanting to feel the smoke inside him. Snatches of memories revived his desire to do something rebellious and standing at the side of a busy road at midnight while smoking was the best he could muster.
“It’s getting warmer. I think it said 29 on the weather last night,” said his father, Jamal, steering the compact Suzuki into the fast lane.
“Yeah Dad,” Amir said, not really listening. He had his iPod plugged into his ears, lost in his own world. After the exams, he had slept through the holidays until the results. His entire sleep cycle had been heavily corrupted. He had woken today at the time where he usually goes to sleep, so small talk wasn’t really welcomed.
Amir chuckled to himself. How his former self could even think about sleeping! The things he had taken for granted, the things he did without realizing how valuable they were. He hated himself. He hated his former self.
“Look at that, look at all that trash! This is a filthy place,” exclaimed Jamal, pointing towards a heap of trash at a street corner.
“It’s Pakistan, Dad.”
‘We need to do something about this. Just saying that it’s Pakistan is no excuse,” Jamal said.
Amir ended the conversation with a noncommittal grunt. He just wanted to get to school and get it over with.
“I hope there is coffee there. They had food for the graduates last year,” Amir said, pulling out his cell phone.
“Beta, aren’t you worried?” asked Jamal. His concern over his son’s absolute lack of interest in his result was making him anxious.
“Dad, I did well. I know it. I am not worried for myself but for a couple of my friends. That’s it. I always do okay in these kinds of things,” Amir replied, removing his headphones.
They were nearly there, now. As Amir saw the long line of parked cars around the block, he began to feel a bit nervous. Damn it, Dad was right.
“I’ll park the car and you meet with your friends.” said Jamal, unlocking the doors.
“No Dad, I don’t want to go alone,” said Amir.
Jamal smiled at his son and drove until a parking space was found. Within a few minutes, they were walking towards the school. With each step, Amir felt something rise in his chest.
Perplexed, he decided that he should get something to drink as soon as they entered. They passed the gates; Amir breathed in the familiar air and took in the atmosphere.
The warm tears on his face tried to calm the fury that had begun to envelop him, but the force was too great. Every single plan he had for his future had been shattered. Any hope, dream, or aspiration had disappeared. All he had felt like a few months to properly live before he got very sick and died a slow and painful death.
“Oye, Amir, come here!” came a yell from the other side of the building.
“Go hang out with your stupid friends. I need to talk to some parents,” said Jamal, pushing his son in the direction of his beckoning friends.
“What’s up guys?”
“We are so screwed. At least McDonalds is hiring.” said Zaka, one of Amir’s best friends.
“No, even they have standards, Zaka,” said Iram.
“C’mon guys, it can’t be that bad,” said Amir.
“You’re the bloody nerd here. I won’t be surprised if the best university in the world sends a platter with a PhD to you,” laughed Iram.
“Guys, shut the hell up. We’re all screwed. At least let’s get something to eat. I am starving,” said Amir, silencing the group. He led them to the courtyard where they had spent 15 years playing. A massive table was laid out with coffee, chips, cookies, and other snacks.
“Quite a spread,” remarked Amir, grabbing plates and handing them out.
“Oh shut the hell up. How can you even think about food right now?” screamed Iram.
A wry smile forced itself onto Amir’s disfigured face. She was right; how the hell could he be thinking about food at that time?
“I’m hungry.” Amir answered.
Iram punched him playfully and accepted the plate. Zaka, who had had a thing for Iram, was so worried over the outcome of the last two years that he did not bother shooting Amir a dirty look. Noticing the lack of response, Amir tried to calm them down.
“Guys, we have worked our asses off. We studied for the exams. We did them well. Don’t worry. No matter what we do right now, we cannot change the result. Just have a biscuit and chill,” Amir put on the most relaxing tone he could manage.
“Screw you,” replied Zaka, taking a plate and putting a slice of cake onto it.
Saying that Amir’s mind was racing would be an understatement. He knew his parents would be looking for him, he knew he was being a fool, but he just had to get away from the chaos inside the hospital. He wanted to get away from that indifferent doctor.
“I am sorry to inform you but your son has cancer.”
Just like that. No buffer, no easing into it. The first thing Amir remembered was the sudden cold. He was not shocked or scared. Just cold. He felt as if this were a scene from a movie where the hero is told he has cancer, and in the time he has, the ill-fated hero learns the meaning of life. He stood waiting for that moment.
Before long, they were all being forced to wear ridiculous graduation suits and sit in a sweltering assembly hall. They endured innumerable boring speeches about the future a life before they finally got to the high achievers. Amir, Zaka, and Iram were sitting all the way towards the back and center. This gave them the luxury to have whispered conversations.
“Screw this man,” complained Zaka, “I can wait and see the damn results online later today. I don’t want to wear this shit and be happy about my future.”
“I think this could go on for a while. Wake me up when this is over,” Amir whispered, sinking lower in the seat.
“Are you kidding Amir? This is crap, but it’s important. It’s the last time we are getting a lecture in this school.” The urgency in Iram’s whisper echoed on her face.
“I’ve had enough lectures in this school for a lifetime. Plus, I am looking forward to the prank tomorrow,” retorted Amir, closing his eyes.
“Oh yeah, forgot about that.” Zaka grinned, a malicious expression settling on his face.
The speeches went on and on and on…and on. Each rephrased precisely what the one before had said. Bright future, choices, mistakes, life, enjoy, luck, and college were repeated more times than anyone could bear. After nearly an hour, a large amount of applause jolted Amir back from his semi-conscious slumber.
He was glad he hadn’t listened to his teachers telling him about how great his life would be. How successful he would become and how amazing everything would turn out. They were clearly wrong. It hadn’t been a week since they fed their students all this bullshit. They were wrong: life is unfair.
“What happened?” Amir asked.
“The old dude just finished telling us we’re screwed and we won’t make it into college,” said Zaka, overjoyed that the trauma had ended.
“And now, we will commence the high achievers ceremony,” said Ms. Nasreen. “We will begin with the most distinguished achievements, and move onto other achievements.” She pulled out a very formal looking paper.
“I like the diplomatic way they phrase this crap. They basically just said that we will talk about the smart people first and then move to the idiots,” snorted Iram.
“The first high achiever award goes to…Kamran Akbar for achieving 7 As and having the highest score in Business in Pakistan!” she announced, almost taking a step back due to the intense applause. She was a timid little woman and was taken aback by the thunderous noises.
A few minutes went by, and the distinguished achievements became grander and grander. The level of applause, however, decreased every announcement. People were getting tired of clapping for other people.
“And now, the time has come to announce this year’s first position and highest achievement,” Ms. Nasreen said, stressing every word to the point where every student was on the edge of their chair, clinging onto every word.
Amir sat up a bit straighter. His throat felt constricted and he felt sick. His father sat one row behind him. He exchanged looks with his son and nodded, giving as much support as he could. Amir felt arrogant to think he might be the highest achievement. He could see Ms. Nasreen’s lips moving but he couldn’t properly pay attention.
“For 12 As, highest scores in Chemistry, Biology, and Math in the world. And this goes to…Amir Asif!”
Amir did not hear the name. He was about to turn to ask Iram what Ms. Nasreen said when the crowd burst into the loudest applause so far. Every single head in the crowded room turned towards him. Zaka pushed him to stand up and go receive his award.
Absolutely numb, Amir walked up onto the stage to shake hands, grab his certificates, get a picture taken and be escorted back. He sat back down; the applause had still not ended.
If there was one moment in Amir’s life that he really regretted, it was that moment. Taking those awards, those achievements, being in front of the cheering crowd, being told he had made his country proud, was what instilled these false notions in his mind telling him that life was going to be good. If he hadn’t gotten those awards, he would never have known the thrill, and he would be more comfortable dying of cancer.
Zaka and Iram were saying things; his dad got up and hugged him. They sat back down. The ceremony proceeded. Amir was just…numb.
When he was certain he was not in a dream, he turned to Zaka and asked, “What the bloody hell just happened?”
Zaka pointed to the certificate. “I told you! You bastard, you got the highest achievement award. 12 As, lots of stuff. Congrats, brotha!”
Amir looked at his certificates, still in utter shock.
Usually, the hero in those movies is a lot older, not seventeen. Amir couldn’t take it anymore. He leaned back and threw the cigarette on the road, trying to chuck it as far as possible. The wind disagreed with him and it fell only a few meters from his feet. Seeing this enraged him even more. Amir grabbed his hair and let out a scream, trying to channel all his anger, all his pain, all the destruction, and all the chaos out of his body. When nothing happened, he threw himself to the icy sidewalk, weeping.
It was as if someone had triggered the clocks to run ten times faster. Before he realized it, they had received their certificates, Zaka and Iram managed to scrape a few As and were happy, they got their picture taken, they threw their caps, and were on their way home.
Jamal was overjoyed. He watched Amir text people from the rear view mirror. He had never ever felt so happy and so proud in his entire life. He shed tears when they announced that his son had broken records and was the highest achiever from Pakistan. His mission in life was complete; his only son had achieved what he was never given the opportunity to do. Jamal’s euphoric thoughts were interrupted when Amir received a call.
“Hello? Oh what’s up man! Yeah, of course I’ll be there. Yeah, put me down for that shit. Yeah. Thanks man. I can’t believe it. I still can’t believe it.”
They pulled up to their modest house. Amir did not even wait for the car to stop before he leapt out to show his certificates to his mother. Jamal hadn’t seen his son so excited since he had just gotten a new toy he had to show everyone.
He couldn’t stop smiling as he locked the car and entered his house. Amir’s mother, Tania, was hugging her son while looking through the certificates.
“Mashallah! I am so proud of you Amir. You made your parents and your country very proud today!” Tania said.
“Thanks mom. What did you want to show me?” asked Amir.
“Oh, there was a letter for you. It looked formal. I think I know what it is. I waited for you so you could open.” said Tania, her lips twitching. Amir took a parcel that his mother handed with shaky hands.
“Oh my god I am so excited!” she exclaimed, sitting down and making space on the kitchen table. Jamal pulled up a chair and took a seat.
Amir was at first trying to open the brown envelope with care, but his excitement got the best of him. He ripped open the top and emptied the contents on the table. The topmost letter was stamped with the Stanford University emblem.
“It’s from Stanford!” gasped Amir.
“Read it, what does it say?” Jamal’s voice stuttered.
“Dear Mr. Asif. I am the dean of Stanford of Stanford University and would firstly like to personally congratulate you on attaining the excellent results for A levels. It is of my belief that the A levels is a very comprehensive….blah blah blah blah…I would like to offer you a position in the Honors Class of 2017.”
A comforting voice interrupted his sobbing.
Amir did not reply. He had absolutely no intentions of listening about how everything would be all right, that he would survive, especially from his mother.
“M’fine mom. I’ll be there in a few minutes,” said Amir.
She stood there for a moment, watching her son fall apart. She knew him too well to comfort him when he was not feeling well. It only aggravated him more. Besides, she had no idea of what to say. Her son…Her only son had cancer. How could she see the silver lining here?
The smiles of the family faltered. Stanford was not cheap. The flight to the US itself would deplete their finances.
Amir saw this and read on to avoid the awkward situation. “Stanford University is an amazing place to study and an amazing place to carve your personality. However, not everyone is in the financial position to attend Stanford. Therefore, we are offering you a 100%, four-year scholarship to Stanford on the basis of merit. Please note that this scholarship includes accommodation and transportation to and within the US. We value merit and your results have enough evidence to show that you are needed at our university. Please consider and send in your acceptance/rejection by September at this address blah blah blah.”
Amir stopped reading, to see the tear-streaked faces of his parents. His mother wiped her tears and pulled her son into a tight embrace. Jamal had never been this happy before. His father wanted him to go to a good university. He had not had the tools present to pursue such a track. He may not have been able to fulfill his father’s wish, but now his own son was doing just that.
“You’re going to have a good life son,” gasped Jamal, resting his hands on his son’s shoulder.
Asad Shabbir is a seventeen-year-old blogger and writer. He grew up in Hong Kong, Islamabad, Tehran, Sofia, and Berlin. At only fifteen, the idea of his debut novel, Leo Solay, sprouted in his mind. At sixteen, he had been established as one of Pakistan’s youngest authors on an international level. Apart from his love for writing and reading, he is also an avid tech enthusiast. To him, his work represents his childhood fantasies and his experiences as a child in the different countries he has lived in. He currently lives and studies in Berlin.
Artwork: Tree of Knowledge, by Denny E. Marshall