Of Vice and Kinsmen

Submitted into Contest #142 in response to: Start your story with someone being given a book recommendation.... view prompt

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Fiction Contemporary

As Amina’s eyes zip down to the next row of paperbacks and finally locate the correct section, she ironically fails to notice the squatting man browsing through the lower shelf. The man barely loses balance, but his grumbling unsettles Amina. She snatches the recommended book and backs out of the narrow aisle, profusely apologising. Feeling flustered, she presses the novel against her chest and slides into the view of the front desk’s library assistant. She has fortunately bagged the last copy.

Why is my heart beating so fast?!


The collision with the man did give Amina a fright. She has, after all, been so fixated on moving quickly through her local library to find the novel, the unassuming name written down for her on an index card in a scrawly hand. Although Amina knows, the collision isn’t the real reason she’s rattled…


Calm down; she tells herself angrily, you’ll give yourself away…


“Hello,” the library assistant, a stereotypical middle-aged woman in an ugly knitted jumper, is behind the desk rearranging the returns trolley. She spots Amina hovering uneasily and approaches with an urge to educate or direct, “Can I help you?”

Amina is already fumbling inside her denim jacket for her purse. Her fingers get caught in her keyrings and she tries to untangle them in a flurry of frustration. The assistant almost laughs but her face is sympathetic.


She suggests politely that Amina hand over the book.

“I’ll scan it in for you since you’re in a rush? Weekdays are always so busy, aren’t they?”


Amina ignores her and tears her hand out of the pocket. She flicks open the purse’s button closure, and without meeting the assistant’s intrigued gaze, shakes the plastic card onto the bench. As the assistant takes the card, Amina realises that she has cut her hand - her blood stains the card’s underside. The assistant doesn’t notice as she squints and checks the library account.


An old fashioned bell sounds and Amina musters enough courage to meet the assistant’s eye.

“Kiya Olivier?”

“Yes,” Amina confirms forcefully.

Too quick Amina.

The assistant stares at the stone-faced expression of the card holder's face. She is undoubtedly unsure, her lips pulling inwards.

“Do I have any outstanding charges?”

The assistant studies Amina’s pinched face and then the screen.

“All good” the assistant confirms, but then trails off as the renting history loads.


Amina feels her heart quicken again and imagines just making a hasty dash for the exit.

All this stress for one book seems so unnecessary. But - everyone else is reading it. And I can’t be the odd one out again. Not again.

But the assistant smiles approvingly towards Amina, who is experiencing a real case of “cold feet” as she shuffles on the spot to keep lively in the poorly heated space.


“Ah, a lover of Steinbeck, I see?” the assistant notes, scrolling through Kiya’s renting log, noisily.

What a complete disregard for privacy.

“Who?” Amina answers, absent-mindedly. Fortunately, the assistant doesn’t hear.

“I’ve loved his work since my college days” the assistant sighs “What’s your favourite Steinbeck novel?”

Amina falters.

You’re not serious.


She is completely unprepared. She doesn’t know who Steinbeck is but imagines that he must be an integral part of the Modern literature scene. Amina doesn’t believe anything written before the millennium is remotely interesting. Her sister, however, is a self-confessed Modernist. The sisters are always at loggerheads and are polar opposites in every way. Except for their shared features - deep-set eyes, shiny foreheads and the hideous Olivier chin. The very same features Amina is counting on to provide the perfect cover for using her sister’s account to rent a book she could never take out on her secondary school library account. It’s the kind of book everyone at Hurley Academy is reading but no one wants their parents or teachers to know.


“I don’t have one. I think they’re all equally…riveting” Amina’s sarcasm is so tangible she is convinced the assistant will finally clock that she is a complete fraud.

Who says “riveting” anyway? Too much, Amina, you’ve been watching too much Bridgerton… But the assistant is satisfied.

“The book please,” she says, laughing freely as if she has just made a brand new acquaintance.


Amina stiffens a smile and peels the paperback away from her chest. It finally exchanges hands (Amina diving to retrieve her sister’s card before her scheme is foiled) and at the sight of the cover, the assistant makes a noise.

As though utterly appalled.

Amina grins amused. The assistant tries to hide her furrowed brows as she permits the book for rent.

“Thanks a lot,” Amina bags the book, sucks her bloodied hand and turns for the door. 

“Of course” the assistant stutters, a limp wave hanging in the air “Uh…happy reading?”


As soon as she bursts out of the turnstile exit, Amina releases a round of childish giggles. She is embarrassed for the perplexed assistant and feels utterly ridiculous for getting so anxious about being caught.


But it suddenly dawns on Amina that renting the book is the easy part. The real challenge is getting it into her family home and concealing her consumption of its murky content. All without her highly moral parents and goody sister finding out, and consequently skinning her alive.


*

The pages are sticky. Amina scowls at the sight of the coffee stains and other unknown blotches decorating the 10ptx text and wipes her hands on her royal blue school sweatshirt. Determination to, at least finish the fourth chapter, forces Amina to battle on.


Suddenly, her face feels flushed. Not because of the steamy plot of the story, but because the air is suffocating. She is lying underneath her duvet but can't risk opening the window behind the dodgy blinds for fresh airflow. The whole thing is a booby trap and has a reputation for toppling at the slightest touch.


Mum and Kiya will be on me like a rash. And then all of this sneaking around will be for nothing…

Amina allows a barefoot to hang outside of her quilted cave instead. The cave lights up and her iPhone pings. It’s another WhatsApp message. From Khadija this time:


[Khadija, 19.13] Page update - Im on p487. Yo im almost done wit dis chapter fam


[Lucia, 19.13] p211 - Becky is a dumb character man. Its obv Kenan is cheatin and hooking up


[Amina, 19.13] p90 @Khadijah wow @Lucia, Nah Becky’s cool


[Khadija, 19.15]@Amina, Im not playin, wanna get to the “juicy” bits init 👀 @Lucia, Becky is the GOAT!


[Tegan, 19.18] Guys HURRY, im on p618 - its gettin good, Beckys showin Kenan what hes been missin 🍑 and FINALLY gets her revenge😈🗡️


[Khadijah, 19.20] @Tegan, WHAT? Thats a major SPOILER⚠️


Amina gapes. Becky kills Kenan?


Excitedly, she flicks through to gauge her own progress. There are still ten chapters left, she has only overcome three.


So far it’s all been PG13, Amina hasn’t encountered any of the X-rated “juicy” bits. But according to the faster readers in their group, it seems there’s plenty of passion and gore in the second half.


Amina has been cramming, trying to steal a private moment to catch up with the story and the book club chat. It’s almost impossible in a household of five living in a two-bed terrace in the middle of exam season - the sisters all share one bedroom. There’s no space to even exist or breathe, let alone read in peace.


“Mina?”

Amina’s breath catches in her throat. Damn, not now…

Yanking back the duvet, Amina stuffs her noisy phone and the earmarked book under her pillow. The air suddenly reeks of cooker gas and curry spice.

“Yes, mum?” Amina tries to keep her voice level.

“Dinner’s on the table”

“Okay”

“Come and eat whilst it's hot”

“I’m not hungry”

Pause

“But it’s seven…”

“I know mum…”

“You’re not getting snacks later. Do you hear me?”

“Yes, mum.”

Another pause. And then banging.

“Mina? What are you doing?”

Amina grimaces and clambers to the end of the bunk.

“My essay, mum. I’m writing, I need to concentrate”


The door shifts and Amina yelps, instinctively dropping down from the top bunk. Her landing is impressively light, her body remembering how to move fast in situations like this. She takes several leaps towards her desk and slides into the swivel chair just as her mother comes inside. Mariym is carrying a metal ladle in an empty jam jar, with evidence of the lentil dhal jammed against the grooves of the spoon.


Amina fakes casualness, glancing up and tutting quietly at her unwelcome visitor.

“I really need to finish”

But Mariym’s eyes dance around the fading peony painted walls, as though following an agitated fly. She looks suspicious immediately.


“Homework comes first, Mina,” Mariym reminds her middle child, “You won’t get through uni in two years if you do everything last minute like this”

Amina hides an eye roll beneath her heavy fringe. When her mum’s eyes narrow at the cluttered space, Amina opens a jotter pad to an old comprehension task and positions her biro deceptively. 


“What are you writing?” Mariym balances the ladle pot between ring-decked fingers and tries peering over her daughter’s shoulder.

Urgh, Amina grumbles to herself, annoyed by her mum’s relentlessness to know everything about her life, just go away. Typically ill-timed, Amina’s iPhone pings multiple times.

Her mum isn’t impressed. Phones are not permitted during homework time in the Olivier household.

“Steinbeck,” Amina lies to divert Mariym’s attention.

Mariym wrinkles her nose unknowingly. She is as clueless about a majority of literature as the rest of the family, sans Kiya the literature buff of course.

“Interesting. You will ask Kiya to help you -”

“I don’t need Kiya, mum.”

The phone pings again. The group chat is demanding attention.

It’s just a study group, Amina insists.


But Mariym’s fuse is short. She ditches the ladle pot on the desk table and makes a move towards the bunk. At only 5ft, she is immediately dwarfed by Amina, taller and lankier thanks to her Kenyan father, who manages to put her long limbs to use and swipe the device from above their heads. The sheer force of her swipe knocks the book out of its hiding place. To Amina’s horror, it sails like a redeye flight through the bunk slacks, past her mother’s face and crash-lands across the room, disappearing into the dirty depth of her younger sister, Nadia’s laundry hamper.

The sound of the book spinning into the hamper startles them both and sends Mariym into a frenzy.


“What in the world was that? I don’t know what you’re up to Amina, but I haven't got time for your games,” Mariym holds out her palm, “Give me that phone. You’re eating with us and that’s final”


Amina’s eyes prick with panic. She thinks about the novel in the hamper and her hands start to sweat. She can’t let the book of her sight, not even for one minute. Books in themselves are a welcome resource within her household. But this particular book - this one is of the “forbidden” variety. Amina knows she has taken a great risk by bringing a book of such a mature nature into her home. A home where her religious parents rule with an iron fist and preach righteous living as their mantra and any other “ism” outside of Catholicism as deviant and perverted.


At her daughter’s hesitation, Mariym’s nostrils flare and for a second Amina believes she will suffer a rare but humiliating beating - the ladle in the pot is a perfectly positioned weapon.

But instead, Amina’s phone is snatched and she is herded like a rebellious billygoat out of the room and downstairs with the ladle announcing their arrival and her shame.

*

Her curry is curdled, stodgy and cold.

But Maryim’s eyes burn through her skull so Amina doesn’t dare to request reheating.

Nadia is chatting everyone’s ears off as usual, spraying salivated curry across the plates. Amina’s head starts to pulsate. She is itching to get her phone back and check the chat. She’s certain she’s back of the pack now.

This sucks. Well done Amina, Mum’s probably seen all the dodgy messages too by now….


Rasheed Olivier is an irregular sight at the dinner table. He works two tedious jobs, so naturally, his presence initiates a family meal of “show and tell”.

Rasheed pats his youngest’s plate to remind her to eat and breathe. He looks expectedly toward his two older daughters. “So, girls? What you gotta share with your old Dad tonight?”


Kiya dunks her chapati and takes a bite.

“Got a 92% in my latest paper” Her tone is matter of fact. No one suspects any less of a result. Kiya’s successes are boring and she is predictable. A stellar firstborn A-star university student for sure. Not a kink in her armour.


Amina’s lips purse unconsciously and wonders, whether Kiya will ever get her head out of the clouds, sook enough to notice that her beloved library card is missing. The thought of it makes the jealous teenager smile to herself.

“Something you want to share with your father and sisters, Mina?” Mariym is merciless, making every effort to extend Amina’s misery.

Savage, Amina scowls quietly.


The family glances at Amina for the first time since her delayed arrival. Nobody has dared to speak to her. Even Rasheed knows his wife is no pansy when it comes to discipline. Amina is on a strict “speak when spoken to” basis tonight. Whatever the crime, it’s evidently bad by the look the matriarch is giving the teenager.


Amina grits her teeth. The rebel in her is desperate to keep pushing. But the thought of the book keeps her restrained.

“No” she lowers her eyes and she forces the lentils down.

“No?” Mariym says incredulously and Amina stares, eyes wide. Begging.

It’s nothing” Amina protests. Her father sits forward intently.

Kiya slurps her Rubicon carton noisily. Amina huffs at her and Kiya shrugs.

Rasheed folds his hands in front of his salt and pepper beard.

“Meen,” Rasheed is a gentleman. He talks and everyone waits on his every word “What was going on upstairs earlier? Were you having some revision trouble?”

Amina can’t bear to look at him. All she can see is the book. She feels her throat dry. She’s not sorry, but she’s also not proud.


When the silence doesn’t lift, Mariym theatrically produces the iPhone and waves it in at her audience.

“She has an essay to write but is too busy texting and fooling around on that silly messaging app”

“Yikes,” Kiya adds, still slurping “Always up to no good, huh Meen?”

You won’t be saying that when you find out how many times I’ve used your identity to do all of my “no-good” schemes…

“Shut your mouth,” Amina snaps.

“Hey,” Rasheed raises his finger, “Have some respect. In this family, we honour each other”


Amina’s mind whirls. Her mother pushes up her glasses and starts stabbing the iPhone screen. She demands that Amina unlock it and show her father what she’s been distracted by.

“No way,” Amina almost gages, “That’s private”

“Privacy is a virtue,” Mariym states, “a privilege you don’t deserve.” And then addressing her husband, she informs him unashamedly that his daughter has recently become difficult, secretive and easily influenced.

Rasheed sighs.

“Meen…”

But Mariym is on a roll.

“Don’t pacify her, Rasheed. She needs discipline. We won’t have a rebel in this house.”

Kiya is cleaning her teeth with her tongue, enjoying the show.

“If you won’t unlock this phone, then you will go upstairs, retrieve that essay and Kiya will help you finish it.”

Both Amina and Kiya start to object, but both decide tonight they are no match for their mother.


Amina rises slowly. She feels sick, the curry lies weighty in her stomach.

“It’s Steinbeck, isn’t it?”

“What?”

“Steinbeck,” Mariym pronounces in her accented English and glances at Kiya for help, “ You said you were writing an essay on Steinbeck”

Kiya tilts her face sideways, a bemused expression growing on her face.

She’s going to bury me.

“Yes Mama” Kiya claps, “John Steinbeck. One of the literary greats. I didn’t know you were reading one of my favs, Mina. Say, what book are you studying?”

You’re not serious…


Amina almost falters, insisting she doesn’t remember the title. She can barely speak. She wishes she can recall a lentil and fake a choking episode.

“Then go and fetch the book and we can all learn about this Steinbeck together.”

When Amina hesitates to move, Mariym makes an effort of spreading her hands to show her husband the evidence of their middle child’s waywardness.

“What book…”

Mariym slams her hand down on the dolied table cloth, and her cutlery smashes the tension.

“Don’t test me! Or should I have Nadia retrieve it from her hamper? I saw the book, Amina. So, you better go quickly if you know what’s good for you.”

Everyone is looking at their hands. Even Kiya is now speechless.

Rasheed opens his mouth but even he can see the writing on the wall.


*


Amina staggers mournfully upstairs towards her impending doom, with every step feeling like a nail in the coffin she so foolishly created for herself.

She knows this bust is just the start of unearthing all of her sins against her family, particularly her lookalike but rival sister.

Her grave awaits.


As she fumbles through the hamper for the book that ended her story, Amina has a revelation of a very important lesson and ponders over the irony:


The very things (or people) you try to bury end up burying you…


Amina can’t help herself. She opens the novel one last time.


And if Kenan was a real person, She thinks, locating the graphic stabbing scene on p812 where Becky does get her revenge on the cheat, it would have done him good to learn from that revelation too.

April 22, 2022 21:52

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