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Emirates International Festival of Literature


Ayisha Qureshi                    The Next Best Thing                 

                                    Third place for the 18-25 years category

Though Romeo and Juliet are twins, they were also two imperfect halves of a whole. She has curls the colours of honey and caramel, pale golden skin and coppery eyelashes; his hair is darker, he has sickly brown skin the colour paper turns after a nearly drained teabag is dumped onto it. Unlike her amber eyes, his eyes are dark chocolate with funny zigzagging eyelashes messily stood up at odd intervals around the frozen pools of mystery that they have become. Unlike her softly curved body, his is more of a long, thin and knife-sharp collection of bones pushing against papery skin covered in criss-crossing, intersecting scars etched like deep grooves left by a frustrated artist who pushed too hard on the papery canvas of his skin.

Though they are twins, she is the most attractive peacock and he is the smallest, most helpless, blind bat that has spent most of its time hung upside down in the dark cave inside its own head. She is always first; easily dancing her way to the top with her vibrant colours on show to dazzle the world. He is the next best after his glamorous sister so he is always scuttling along in her shadow, struggling to clean up the fluff and feathers she has scattered all around. He mops up acidic tears, covers up blisters and bandages huge scars all while trying to keep a firm grasp upon his own sanity.

His sister has a monster; it lives within the chasm of her belly, coming out only when they are alone with food. It makes her weep helplessly as it bares its yellow-slab-like teeth and sneers in their faces before rolling fatly back to its hiding place with huge mounds of food to stretch her stomach to its fullest extent.

While she purges after a binge, he sits in pained silence with gritted teeth to maintain his skeletal size, fighting back the prowling hunger within him that rears its ugly head and howls furiously for not getting any nourishment. When the hunger explodes within him, the painful sounds of her gagging and retching strike his ears like poisoned spearheads that use their poison to further erode his crumbling brain; he sits with his monster, hugging his knobbly knees against his pounding heart.

His sister will leave the bathroom when she is done; grabs some make up to paint a fake mask of health and beauty back onto her face. She slips into skimpy clothes and clutches her bleating phone in one hand before sashaying out with her giggling friends who know nothing of the wild battle surging within her. They know nothing of how her damaged eyes are shattered by pain and can only see her fragile beauty as steaming mounds of fat and ugliness. He sits still and pays no mind to the funny looks and giggles of his peers, letting his sister bask luxuriously in the vibrant light of being the best out of the two of them.

One day when he exercised too far he was finally beat by his precious sister to the epitome of perfection. The weakness normally slumbering within him grew knobbly arms and calloused hands the knuckles of which it rapped against his weak brain to make it pound until it almost imploded.

He let himself into a house alive with the spine-chilling sounds of Rachmaninoff’s concerto number two but even as he let his favourite melody lull him into a sense of calm numbness, he knew something was wrong because his sister despised the haunting tune. She argued that it stripped her of her flawlessness and made her feel like a rickety clock-work toy; she said it exposed her crumbling frame and vulnerability as well as her weaknesses for her admiring peers to see what she really was beneath the silky, hairless skin pulled smooth and tight over soft bones that hid her imperfections.

He silently picked his way through the musky darkness, eyes calmly drifting over the shadows and dust-clothed furniture they never used; dead eyes that eventually found the crumpled form of his fallen sister sprawled upon the floor like a discarded toy. It seemed her monster had abandoned its shell-like disguise!  His icy, spidery fingers shakily latched around her narrow wrists in vain and struggled to pick out even the slightest murmur of her normally pounding pulse. He struggled to accept the truth even as it lay limply before him.

There was no choice, but to make a phone call. He had to hand her over to the expressionless professionals so they could prepare her for her final resting place far beneath the feet of her starry-eyed admirers.

As they wheeled her away from him for the final time, he caught sight of a ghostly reflection in the condensation-covered back window of the ambulance. Peering into his own haunted eyes and pulling back his puckered lips he revealed crooked, imperfect teeth and decided he no longer wanted to be the best thing in the world.

He no longer wanted to be prey to the fiery coils of hunger within him, curling tighter and tighter around his squirming heart, restricting his brain and destroying his sense of right and wrong; if being the thinnest was the best thing in the world, he decided he no longer wanted that.

He wanted to sink his teeth into the soft flesh of a ripe peach, be overcome by the tangy-honey sweet juice trickling messily down his chin, gathering in the hollows by his sharp collar bones and filling him with warmth and contentment. His mouth watered at the thought of biting into fluffy cloud-light cakes lathered in colourful marzipan and glossy cherries so he could let the sugary sweetness surge through him and burst within his mind like bright fireworks lighting up his formerly grey, decaying world.

Her death freed him, and for the first time in his whole life he accepted that perhaps being who he was now and winning his life back was better than the best thing in the world. If the best thing in the world meant being dead, he decided he wanted the next best thing; fighting to take one bite at a time against the raging beast inside him even if he almost died. He vowed to eat and enjoy each and every morsel, take hold of the scrawny demon within him and crush it with his newfound strength.

He may have lost a huge part of him, but he had in return gained more power than he had ever had before and for him, that was the next best thing and nothing else mattered; he was finally free.

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