Kelowna Secondary felt enormous to Ahmed, too big to be an actual school. But in reality, because Ahmed’s year level was very small, and because the select-entry Christian College up in the hills had finished construction, the school was emptier than it had been for years. Over the scorching summer all the portable buildings had been wheeled away, and the playing fields now seemed to stretch out endlessly from the double-storey building, leaving it an island stranded in a golden, sun-dried sea.
Ahmed met up with Ibrahim before school and was rendered speechless at first. Ibrahim had ditched his usual jeans and leather jacket in favour of an imam’s outfit: a long white robe that reached to his ankles and a taqiyah on his shaved head. Ibrahim wasn’t exactly smiling when Ahmed found him next to the bike racks, but his face was proud.
“You look like my dad,” Ahmed managed to choke out while Ibrahim watched people pass by him to get to the school doors.
Ibrahim’s robes flapped a little as he shifted his weight, and he nodded slowly, magnificently. “It’s better than looking like your mum though, isn’t it?” He broke into his usual grin as he looked down at Ahmed.
“You’re not far off her either,” Ahmed mumbled as the bell rang and they made their way inside.
Ahmed cursed Ibrahim for the rest of the day. Not just for the stupid robes, but also for making him think about his mother. For the whole day, she was all Ahmed could focus on, and everything else felt like a dream.
His mother had been beautiful, even though everyone who had only known their mother when they were young said that. She was a small woman, shorter even than Ahmed’s dad, and had black hair that fell to her waist. When he was very little they played a game Ahmed called ‘Butterfly Queen’, where they jumped together on his parents bed and then his mother would flop back so that her hair spread out in every direction.
“Am I the Butterfly Queen?” she would ask, looking up at him with searching, smiling eyes.
Ahmed would pause for a second and lightly run his fingers over her smooth strands.
“Yes, you are the most beautiful Butterfly Queen!” he would yell, and she’d beam and hug him tight.
* * *
Maheera doubled over laughing when she saw Ibrahim. They had all met up near the car park, where the basketball courts were.
“You idiot! I didn’t think you’d actually do it!” Maheera was standing with a girl Ahmed didn’t recognise, but next to Maheera the girl looked plain. Like a dandelion next to a sunflower.
“Be the fearful cobra…” Ibrahim intoned deeply, looking around at them.
“…and shrink not from your nature…” Maheera followed on. They both looked at Ahmed to finish.
“…for you are as He has made you,” Ahmed finished, reluctantly.
Ibrahim bowed his head and spread his palms. “I am now the cobra.”
The girl Ahmed didn’t know was watching them carefully.
“What’s that from?” Her eyebrows jolted as she spoke. “The thing you just said.”
Maheera stepped in. “It’s from a book we all just read. Inara, these are my friends, Ibrahim and Ahmed. Guys, Inara’s from West Side and she goes to the mosque there.”
They all shook hands, which felt so strange to Ahmed, like they were old people at a country club. He glanced at Maheera and before he could help himself, he was thinking about how if his mother was beautiful, then Maheera was radiant, like the sun compared to the moon.
Ibrahim was in the middle of asking Inara something convoluted about what she thought about a certain verse in the Quran, when suddenly an object flew into their little circle and hit Ibrahim square on his big, round nose.
Laughter rose from the other side of the basketball courts and Ibrahim swore under his breath while he grabbed his face. A patched up football lay wobbling at his feet.
None of them knew what to say, even the usually reactive Maheera, and Ibrahim kept quiet while he searched for the source of the football. Then they spotted the group of tough-looking boys and girls on the other side of the court, and saw a skinny, hunched figure start striding towards them. Ahmed felt like he was watching it all through glass, like at the aquarium when the sharks closed in on the fish dumped into their tank at mealtimes. But then he realised that it was just Dylan walking towards them, not a shark. He almost raised a hand in welcome, but then saw Dylan’s red, angry face.
“I bet you liked that, didn’t you?!” Dylan yelled at Ibrahim, while staying a safe distance back. “Getting your face slapped by some pig skin. You’re all pig-fuckers, aren’t you?” He shot a nervous look back to his group and someone made an ‘oink’ sound.
Ibrahim kicked the ball out to him and Dylan stooped to get it. Ibrahim was glaring, but uncharacteristically holding his tongue. Ahmed realised that he was scared, Ibrahim’s eyes kept flicking over to the big group.
“You’re animals,” Dylan spat, before turning to leave, but his voice wavered so it sounded more like he was answering a teacher’s difficult question than actually insulting them.
“Shut up,” Ibrahim counteredsaid, finally regaining his voice.
“Sand-monkeys!” someone shouted from the group, and they all took it up as a chant. “Sand-monkeys! Sand-monkeys!”
And as Dylan re-joined them, head hung low, Ahmed glimpsed Angus, standing in the middle, his long, curly hair like a halo around his head. Suddenly, Ahmed knew why Ibrahim’s outfit had so unsettled him. Ibrahim had made them – Ahmed, Maheera, and now Inara – stand out, scapegoats for anyone to use. Angus and his friends now had a shockproof way to begin high school, gathering people to them. After all, Ahmed thought numbly as the jeers and laughter rang through the air, having someone mutual to hate is a great way to make friends.