Today's Reading

The idea of an arranged marriage had never bothered Khalid. A partner carefully chosen for him, just as his parents had been chosen for each other and their parents before them, seemed like a tidy practice. He liked the idea of being part of an unbroken chain that honored tradition and ensured family peace and stability. He knew that some people, even his own sister, thought the practice of arranged marriage was restrictive, but he found it comforting. Romantic relationships and their accompanying perks were for marriage only.

At the thought of romantic perks, Khalid's attention drifted to the window once more—but he stopped himself. The girl with the (broken) red mug would never be more than a fantasy. Because while it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single Muslim man must be in want of a wife, there's an even greater truth: To his Indian mother, his own inclinations are of secondary importance.

Chapter Two

The Toyota lurched down the street, wheezing and anemic. Ayesha reached for her travel mug, but her hand closed on empty air. In the rearview mirror she spotted the red shards on the asphalt. Blast.

She had been in such a hurry to get away from Hafsa. Now she would have to face her first day as a substitute high school teacher without the comforting armor of chai.

No matter, it was worth it. The moment she had spotted the red Mercedes convertible pulling onto the street, Ayesha had known why her cousin was visiting so early in the morning, and she didn't want to hear it.

Besides, there was one rule repeatedly drilled into her at teachers' college: A teacher can never, under any circumstances, be late.

Ayesha had graduated from teachers' college last June. It had taken nearly seven months of papering local schools with her résumé to secure a substitute teaching position. Now her stomach flipped over as she parked in the staff lot of Brookridge High School, a squat, two-story brown brick building constructed in the 1970s, ugly and functional.

The building was similar in layout and atmosphere to her old high school. It had the same well-tended shabbiness of a public building, the same blue-tinted fluorescent lighting, and waxed and speckled linoleum floors. The same mostly white staff dressed in business-formal slacks and skirts; the same mostly brown and black students slouching in jeans, track pants, and too-short dresses. Ayesha tugged self-consciously at her carefully chosen teacher clothes: blue button-down shirt and serviceable black pants. Her hands nervously smoothed the top of her purple hijab.

Part of both worlds, yet part of neither, she thought.

Such existential thoughts were really not helping to settle the butterflies in her stomach.

She entered the large, open foyer, its concrete walls painted a dull green and smelling faintly of industrial cleaning solvent. The familiar scent calmed her, and she smiled slightly at a female student in black leggings and a blue hoodie carrying an overloaded backpack. The girl gave her a dubious look before shifting her bag and walking purposely down the hall, reminding Ayesha to hurry. A teacher must never be late.

The secretary, Mary, was waiting for her in the main office with forms to sign. The principal, Mr. Evorem, was absent today, Mary explained. "He'll want to meet you tomorrow to welcome you properly."

A white man in his early thirties with a short black beard walked into the office just as she was finishing the paperwork, and Mary asked him to take Ayesha to her class. He peered over her shoulder at her schedule.

"Grade-ten science?" His eyes were wide. "You're covering for Rudy?"

"Who's Rudy?" Ayesha asked as they walked toward the stairs.

"He's the last teacher those little shits scared off. I think he chose early retirement over that class."

Ayesha looked at him, waiting for the punchline. There wasn't one. "Nobody told me that."

"I hope you're light on your feet. The bastards like to throw things."

• • •

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