"What is it?" I asked, shrugging off Elliot's hand once we rounded the corner.
Elliot smirked and wiggled his eyebrows in silent delight but said nothing yet. looking around for people.
"Elliot? Elliot!" I waved my hand in front of his face. "What? Why are we here?" I felt nauseous almost, unsure of what he would say. I wasn't sure why I was panicking, but Elliot had a habit of hurting me indirectly. "Tell me!" I insisted, feeling a chill in my chest.
"I like someone." He whispered conspiratorially, bouncing on his heels, and I knew what was coming before it hit. "It's Shreya, I think I'm in love!"
I knew we were in the seventh grade, and love meant less than pinky swears but it hurt. It hurt that he picked her, the girl I liked, the only girl I honestly trusted with my heart. I had secretly been giving her pieces, sneaking in looks, cute messages, and as much sarcastic and adoring praise I could. And Shreya understood, I knew she understood, she let me avoid eye contact. She let me sputter and try out jokes on her and my own angry style of flirting.
"Why?" I asked, my voice stiff, feeling inconsolable and numb all at once. "You love her?" I tried teasing him, but it was half-hearted.
"Dude, stop! She gets me, and she's funny, and she isn't mean. She's so pretty, and she knows basketball." Elliot's green eyes were wide with this epiphany, his cracking voice creating more coherent sentences than I had ever heard in the last four years.
"That's it?" I challenged, fighting to hold back hot, furious tears. This wasn't the plan.
Elliot looked at me strangely and smiled suddenly. "Khadija, what's wrong? Wait, do you like me?"
"No!" I snapped, coming off angrier than I wanted to, and Elliot burst into laughter. Cruel laughter like always, only I was on the painful side of it now.
I resisted the urge to shove him, remembering that I was already in trouble enough. I turned sharply and left, internally loathing my inability to hold back my emotions, loathing how stupidly complex I was.
Why her? Elliot was one of those awful little boys who got away with everything, and Shreya was the complete opposite. She was gorgeous, with dark skin and hair so black it looked blue. She read the same books as me, held my hand teasingly, and said all the right things. It was her birthday next week, and I bet Elliot had no idea what her favourite chocolate was or her favourite colour. When she spoke, everyone paid attention, and she knew her dreams: the first female mayor of our lonely little town.
She had no vestige of a foreign accent, unlike me, and my mother adored it in her, encouraging me to shed my leftover Arab accent.
And for Shreya I tried, I smiled more, I worked harder to be as smart as her. Even though I utterly despised rainbow looms, I bought the cancerous thing to impress her.
And she loved even my most dismal little bracelets.
She probably doesn't like him, I decided internally, my face hot as I blindly marched as far from Elliot as I could go. She would never.
I finally entered the cool building, the tears had cleared enough for me to see where I was going. I carefully stepped only on the brown tiles, sniffling.
Elliot was my only other friend. He was the reason the boys allowed me to play soccer with them, the reason I had a group in every class, and the reason I was liked.
My eyes filled with more tears. I wasn't allowed to tell Shreya how I felt. She wouldn't understand. I owed Elliot, and if he knew...he wouldn't understand.
Why does he get to ask her? To understand?
I carefully made my way upstairs, desperately sniffing since I had no tissues.
Oh, no. I lowered my eyes instantly when I saw Lauren and Dezzy, my principal's warnings flashing in my head.
"Where are you going, Kad-ee-ja?" Lauren asked immediately, ramming her shoulder into mine.
My hand flung out to grab the railing, and I reeled back, furious enough to claw her eyes out. "Stop it!" My mother's potential disappointment meant nothing again, I would be the angry, Arab girl if I had to be.
"Aw, we made her mad, Dezzy look!" Lauren snickered, her voice high and shrill. As always, Dezzy just made a face and lurked in the background, doing nothing.
"Go away, you ugly cow!" I snapped at Lauren, feeling blood roar in my head. This little demon spent every waking moment mocking me, messing up my name, copying my accent, whispering things in Shreya's ear.
She humiliated me in the bathrooms, stole my homework, and my shoes while I was praying.
I hated Lauren, I hated her so much. My breathing spiralled into red huffs, and I curled my fists.
"You are literally so disgusting." Lauren drawled, and I wiped my nose with my sleeve. "I was going to invite you to my house, but not anymore, you little piece of-"
"Nobody wants to go to your stupid house." I interrupted her immediately, getting a savage pleasure from her angry red flush.
"It was for Shreya's birthday, and I'm never, ever inviting you again!" Lauren said angrily. "I only asked you because Shreya likes you, even though nobody else does!"
Her words made my blood turn to ice, and my veins hurt from the cuts. "I don't like her, and I hate you!" I shoved Lauren, hard, and ran.
I don't like her. I cannot, not in the seventh grade in a tiny school in a town no one knew. Not in Qatar, not anywhere.
I don't like her, Elliot does, and I care about having friends, more than I care about you. I quietly opened my locker, and carefully removed my card from it. I always snuck in a little "I love you", followed up by "best friend", always.
The chocolates meant nothing, but this card did. I spent more time on it than I had on homework in the last week, colouring and perfecting, writing down everything. Imbuing it with the essence of my care and happy memories.
I took it to the nearest garbage bin and dropped it inside, my heart beating just a little duller.
"I don't like you," I said tonelessly. I was suddenly being jostled by the crowds of middle schoolers when the bells rang, and I let the current buffet me over to my locker, barely feeling the push and pull of the group.