I SWEAR I DIDN’T DO it. That’s what you want to hear from me, right?”
At twelve years old, Ahmad Mirza probably shouldn’t have been used to roundtable interrogations. Or know from experience what your captors wanted to hear before they would let you out from under the lights aimed at your face. “I mean, sneaking around and stealing isn’t part of my daily routine.”
It was the usual setup. The same old faces were clustered in the conference room, all wearing various expressions of dismay. Mrs. Evans, his homeroom teacher, clung to her coffee mug like it was a lifesaver and she was a woman overboard. Mr. Willis, the art teacher who always wore a jolly expression and
cheerily arranged dreadlocks, seemed abnormally grim.
The door creaked open ominously, and Ms. Mallory, the nosy office secretary, peered in. “Do you still need the vice principal, Mr. Willis?” she asked.
Her voice sounded a little too eager, in Ahmad’s opinion. Resentment bubbled up and he tried to push it down. Today wasn’t an ordinary day. Today, he might have already pushed the limits of any patience PS 54 had for Ahmad Mirza and his escapades. But he ended up blurting it out anyway.
“Go ahead, Ms. Mallory. You can bring the torture devices too, but I won’t talk.”
Mr. Willis sighed heavily. “No, we don’t need him, Ms. Mallory. Just . . . close the door.”
Ms. Mallory shot Ahmad a giddy smile as she did just that. She was probably off to make sure she still had Ahmad’s parents on speed dial, and she probably did.
He didn’t want to think about that, though. That started the squirming up again, and the shaking in his legs that would reach his voice and really prove his false bravado to be just that: an act. Even if this was
Ahmad’s normal—lunch detention and angry teachers—he didn’t want to look his mother in the eyes and tell her he messed up again.
“This sucks,” Ahmad mumbled to himself.
Especially because today—for once—it wasn’t his fault. There had been no fight over the contents of his lunch box, no classmate leaning in and jeering at the green chili–spiked mashed potatoes that made your nose sting with the scent of fresh mustard-seed oil, or the little dried fish even he hated with eyes and silvery scales still intact.
He’d managed to be mostly respectful during class discussions, and kept his hands and feet to himself during gym. He’d even raised his hand a few times in the name of being helpful and passing out pencils, though he wasn’t called on.
But in spite of all that, here he was. It didn’t feel fair.
Particularly today. Because whether Mr. Willis and Mrs. Evans believed it or not . . .
“It’s really not my fault,” he tried again. “I don’t even know how it got here.”
It was the package currently resting in front of Mrs.
Evans on the table. It was an innocent yellow mailer, sealed over with Scotch tape. Nothing about it said anything like DANGER or DEVASTATING REPORT CARD INSIDE. It looked like, if you turned it over, it would be something boring like his baba’s tax papers or maybe a trinket Ma ordered from overseas.
It was nothing special. At least on the outside.
Now Mrs. Evans heaved a heavy sigh. She reached for the package, tilting it downward so that its contents could slide into her palm.
“Be careful!” Ahmad gasped in spite of himself, leaning forward in his seat. Mrs. Evans shot him a dirty look but worked it out more carefully.
Though Ahmad had held it himself just half an hour ago, the sight of it made his heart lurch. It was a shiny game case, the type that held a Nintendo Switch cartridge. The cover, though, wasn’t the usual 3-D characters with smiling faces and multicolored backgrounds. It was pitch black, with embossed neon images—thin lined and finely detailed, like hand sketches—on its front. What looked like flying cars and, amazingly, rickshaws were etched over a skyline that looked almost like New York City.
At least, if New York City had buildings even more futuristic than the skyscrapers Ahmad passed on his way to school.
Even though he couldn’t see the title clearly from where Mrs. Evans held it to the light, he still mouthed it, quietly, to himself.
Mrs. Evans let out a hiss, startling both him and Mr. Willis, who leaned forward with a frown.
“Everything all right, Mrs. Evans?” he asked.
She frowned down at the game. “Yes. I think it was just static electricity.”
“It’s not just that,” Ahmad blurted out, even though inside his brain was chanting, Shut up, shut up, SHUT UP, Ahmad. “It probably doesn’t like you.”
“Ahmad, really.” His teacher leaned forward and waved the game in his face. “Okay. For the last time, tell me what this is.”
“A video game,” Ahmad responded. It was getting harder to control his snarky tongue and fidgety feet. He was usually better at this. He was. But the fact that they had been here a half hour and he still couldn’t tell his side of the story was rattling him. “Honestly,
I’ve told you this like twenty times now. I don’t know where it came from.”
Except, of course, he did. Sort of.
“That’s not what you told us before, Mirza.”
“I did tell you that! I don’t know why I have it. Really, I don’t.”
“You also told me,” Mr. Willis broke in, “that the game belonged to you.”
Ahmad stuck his chin out. “That’s because it does.”
“The question is, Mirza,” Mrs. Evans snapped, “how you knew for sure this was your video game, and—more importantly—how a video game that apparently belongs to you was delivered to the school office this morning to begin with!”
Ahmad had no idea himself, though he’d glanced over the package probably a thousand times since it was first shoved into his hands a few hours ago. His sister’s name and school were neatly printed on the return address—Farah Mirza, care of Princeton University.
His big sister was known for being . . . well, hard to predict. But this was mysterious, even for her. Sending a package straight to his school, without any warning?
“Ahmad, I’m about ready to get the principal in here
himself and suspend you,” Mrs. Evans interrupted. “We know what’s in the package, and that it’s from your sister. And you have no idea why she sent it to school?”
“My sister does what she wants,” Ahmad said firmly, and not without a little pride. The next part was harder to ease out, but he managed it, his fingers fidgeting in his lap. “Well, I mean, we did talk a lot about, you know. School. And friends. And how I didn’t really have any. She might’ve wanted to . . . I don’t know.”
And he really didn’t know. Not having friends had never been a problem his sister faced. For him, though, it was his entire life.
“Okay, then,” Mrs. Evans sighed. “Let’s leave your sister alone for now. What I want to know is how much nerve you have, Mr. Mirza, to sneak out and steal a package from the school office when you were supposed to be in lunch detention.”
“Okay. Okay. Listen.” Ahmad closed his eyes and took a deep breath, trying to steady his voice and his thick tongue. “I’m not sure why you keep saying the word ‘s-steal.’ How could I steal it if it was mine?”
Ahmad’s voice broke on the last word, and he could feel his face flush. He tried to pretend he was
good at this—the whole bad boy routine—because people seemed to expect it of him. His parents no longer hugged him about the shoulders and patted his back and told him tomorrow would be better. His aunt Zohra wouldn’t call and anxiously shuffle about with offers to help with his homework. (As if she knew as much about pre-algebra and auxiliary verbs as she did about Turkish puzzle rings and weird facts about Middle Eastern architecture.)
If anything, a suspension no longer meant one of his parents would take off in order to collect him. His weird, goofy uncle Vijay would—and that meant never leaving school without being more embarrassed than he ever felt before in his life.
He was the Mirza who came home with urgent notes at the bottom of his report card in red ink. The one who spent lunch with his stomach growling because the contents of his box had already been mopped off the cafeteria floor.
But he didn’t like being that Mirza.
Mr. Willis, as always, came to the rescue. He put a firm hand on Ahmad’s shoulder.
“Never mind that, Mrs. Evans. Look. Ahmad. We
can address everything else with your parents. But I am terribly curious to know how the boy I left at the door of lunch detention managed to zip back down to the office, rummage through staff mail, and get back upstairs in time to get himself in a world of trouble.”
“You say that like it isn’t a normal thing,” Ahmad muttered, but he shifted uncomfortably in his chair. Ahmad wished he could tell them. He wished he could spin out the whole yarn, with every snag and loose end, and assure them that for once it was entirely, one hundred percent true.
But they couldn’t believe him.
How could they, when he couldn’t believe himself?
“See, the thing is . . .”
He worked his lip between his teeth. How could he put it, without being accused of another tall tale dedicated to excusing whatever trouble his fidgety body and overactive brain had steered him into?
“Look. I really didn’t go into the office. Mr. Willis even said it! I didn’t have time to.”
“Okay,” Mrs. Evans said cautiously. Mr. Willis leaned closer.
“It was more of a . . . well, someone made sure I
got the delivery, while I was still in the hallway.”
“You mean, another student?” Mr. Willis’s voice was full of doubt, and Ahmad’s heart sank. He could see it in his teacher’s eyes: Who in this school cares that much about you?
“I mean . . . well, um . . .”
It was no use. His mind had skittered off track. He banged his fist on the table, fighting back tears. This always happened. He started out sharp and snarky—and then, when he actually needed to be able to say something, it all just fizzled out. Poof!
After another heavy minute Mr. Willis sighed and leaned back.
“Well, that’s that. Mrs. Evans, I hope you don’t mind excusing Ahmad for the rest of the day. He’s going to spend some quality time in here thinking about how he can explain this to us.”
“But . . . the project!” Ahmad burst out, unable to help himself. His heart sank. Today was the day that art class projects were announced, and those were legendary.
“Don’t worry, you’re not going to miss out on all of it,” Mr. Willis said, frowning. “But there is a problem.
We’re doing it in partnered pairs this time, so unless someone nominates you during class, you’ll have extra work to make up.”
Ahmad sank down in his seat. This day had just gone from bad to worse.
“This isn’t fair,” he mumbled. “It really isn’t fair.”
“I wish I could make an exception and let you come back to class,” Mr. Willis continued, “but the fact that you won’t tell us the whole story—”
Behind them, the door to the conference room shot open. Mr. Willis, his mouth still open, whirled around. Mrs. Evans gasped and nearly dropped her coffee mug.
“Winnie? What are you doing out of class?”
Ahmad stared as Winnie Williamson—straight-A student and pride of the seventh-grade class—stepped through the doorway. Her brown cheeks were slick with sweat and her dark halo of curls were mussed about her face.
She looked nervous, entirely different from the girl who had rushed toward him earlier as Mr. Willis paused to speak to another teacher. That moment, when she pressed the package between his fingers and whispered, “This is yours,” her entire face had been glowing.
“Well, you see . . .” Winnie hesitated for a moment, her hands balled in fists at her sides. And then, almost the way Ahmad would, she just blurted it out.
“Mr. Willis, I’m Ahmad’s partner in crime. And I want to be his partner for the project, too!”