Apr/May 2023  •   Fiction

Keep on Walking

by Azka Hameed

A face in the public domain

A face in the public domain

It burned when I pressed my finger to the lamp. I knew it would, but it was a habit of mine when daydreaming. It was the middle of the night, and I was studying for an exam. Or now, scraping the tip of my pencil back and forth against the light lines of the notebook. My movements were harsh, the lead pressing into the blank page and leaving a shiny silver-grey mark before snapping.

I sighed and chucked the pencil away. It fell outside the bounds of the circle of light. Maybe it was time for a break. I could find things to watch on the Internet. But the choices were endless. Instead, my mind drifted to a conversation earlier that day.

I'm in a family of four: my parents, older brother and me. My brother and me, we never got along. Maybe just enough to step in to defend the other from a school bully, or to borrow money from each other. Beyond that... it was best not to think about it.

And here he was, at the dinner table, doing what he always did.

"I might go for that promotion, after all," he said and drank water slowly from a glass like he had said the most natural thing in the world.

My parents exhaled at the same time.

Dad said, "You can't mean the one overseas, in London?"

"Yeah, the one in London. Don't worry, it's a contract for a year. It might go up to two years, max."

"What made you change your mind?"

Danial considered, his face serious. "It's a good opportunity. No matter how many times I think about it, weigh up the pros and cons, I can't help but think it'll help me out—with my job prospects, you know."

Mum smiled. "I think you're doing the right thing. I've been saying to your father this whole time, I hope he changes his mind. But I wanted it to be your choice. We'll miss you."

Dad smiled, too, but then his eyes drifted to me.

After dinner, I went to my parents' bedroom. Dad was away downstairs watching TV, and Mum was praying. I let her finish, her face bowed and limbs moving, back bowing then straightening, palms lowering then raising. When she was done, she looked at me.

"I don't think Dad likes he'll be stuck with me," I blurted out.

Mum paused before replying, "You know that isn't true."

It was the pause that got me. "Danial does everything around here. He keeps up with the community, he fixes things around the house. He knows how to invest..."

"And you can learn those things, too. You know your father will appreciate your help." Her eyes sparkled, "All you need to do is daydream a bit less."

I felt my muscles tense and a wide space open up between us. "You mean I need to grow up, take on a real job. Spend 14 hours a day in some high-stress role in finance halfway across the world just so I can make this family rich."

"I didn't say that," Mum said, "Your imagination is a beautiful thing, Hamza. But there's a world waiting for you once you're done. One that operates on plans, goals, and, yes, money. And as a family, we look out for each other. And make each other proud in what we do."

What we do or what we be.

I watched as she worked on her prayer beads, nudging a bead forward with each holy word she whispered. She saw me looking at the beads, glanced down at them herself, then returned her cool eyes to me. "There's a time to be spiritual and a time to be practical. They both exist. But they have nothing to do with each other."

"And you're saying I can have it all, if only I learnt to switch gears?"


I must have zoned out. My eyes were open, but my body shuddered awake at my desk. The lamp was still on, and my textbooks were piled high in a corner. I left my room and headed into the bathroom. In the weak white light, I saw my reflection and flinched away from the mirror.

It wasn't the reflection of my face I saw. I saw my actual face. That is, how others around me would see my face, or how it would appear in photographs.

I clutched and pinched at my cheeks, expecting things to switch back to normal. Nothing happened. I sniffed and clenched the edge of the sink with one hand, leaned over it. I felt the dampness from the porcelain soak through one thigh of my jeans. The wetness clung to my leg, and I focused on that to distract myself.

Next thing I knew, I was leaving the house. My watch read 12:15 AM. Yes, late, but Harry might still be by the local drugstore. He liked to hang out on the footpath, stare at the moon, and smoke. When I got there, Harry was nowhere in sight. I shrugged and went in, asked for a pack of cigarettes. I knew the guy at the counter, always the same guy this time of night on a Tuesday.

"Hey, Rahul," I said, "Get me one of those packs, yeah?"

Rahul nodded and slid it over. Once he had told me a bit about himself. Grew up poor, migrated over. Had a wife and couple kids now, doing better for himself. What struck me was an afterthought he had added at the end of this short bio:

You know what, kid? When I first got here, I didn't have enough money to get myself a decent blanket. A blanket. That's why I moved here, to Sydney, not one of those frost-bitten countries in the north, you know? I wouldn't survive. Back when I was in Canada, studying, it was a minus gazillion degrees. I had no heating. All I could do was walk. Walk the length of my flat, walk and walk back. To keep the body heat up. Sitting wasn't an option. I memorized every tile on the floor, every chip and every crack through the center. Needed to just keep on walking. Now, I've got heating and all this extra body fat underneath these fuzzy sweaters. But the cold won't go away. It'll always be in my bones.

I kept returning to this thought: cold being in the bones even when the climate was hot.

I paid for the cigarettes and headed for the exit. After some hesitation, I looked over my shoulder and asked, "Hey man, does my face look okay to you?"

Rahul squinted so his bushy eyebrows came together, then shrugged. "You look alright."

I nodded, relieved, "Thanks." Then I grinned, "Remember to just keep on walking."

He didn't understand the reference.


I stood outside on the pavement, stared at the moon. A cloud darted across its face, then it reappeared. At least the moon hadn't changed its face. My nerves kicked in again. I shook my head. No, it couldn't be my face had actually changed. I was tired, and besides, it was pretty symmetrical... With shaking hands, I lit a cigarette and puffed.

I heard footsteps approach. It was Harry. He was wearing that goofy grin and a hoodie two sizes too big.

"What're you doing here this late?" he asked. He put an arm around my shoulders and squeezed me. I put a cigarette in his palm.

We stood there quietly for some time, smoking.

"So, what happened?" Harry asked after a while.

"How do you mean?"

"You're not one for a casual smoke. What's got you stressed?"

I ignored the question, began to pat myself down. "Do you think my parents know I smoke?"

Harry laughed, "You're kidding, right? When you smoke, your clothes reek. That's the deal," Harry tugged at my jacket. "This tells them you smoke. Yes, they know. And no, you can't just pat out the smell."

I chuckled, knowing it had been a stupid question. "Well, either the clothes will give it away, or when I die of lung cancer. That'll give it away, too."

"Ha, yeah."

"What do you reckon happens when we die?"

"Getting philosophical already?"

"No, really, what do you think?"

Harry let out a puff of smoke and bit his lower lip, "The world goes black, is what I think." He kicked back his heel to knock the concrete. "This is all there is. Once you leave, it's done. So take a good look around." He smirked, and the cigarette clenched in the corner of his mouth tilted up.

"I wish I could take a look at my own face," I said.

"How do you mean?"

I turned to him, "Does it look different to you... like something of a reflection of what it usually is?"

Harry shook his head, "Nope."

I had an idea. I pulled out my phone, remembering the photos I'd taken that weekend. And there I was, in the photos, in a group of friends at a birthday party. And my heart sank, my face grew hot. Because my face in the photos was my old reflection.

Harry glanced over, too. "Yeah, see—you look the same as always."

I tried speaking, but my voice wouldn't come out. I felt my throat constricting and panic pelting me like hail.

Harry grinned up at the moon now, secretly worried I'd lost it. "You're nuts, man," he laughed, "Everything is as it should be."


And so it was. Nothing was off about my life except my face. And even with that, within a few days, I came to believe it was always what it now was. Yeah, sure, I'd been convinced for a while I had a different face for the 18 years I'd been alive, but I must've been wrong because that was the only explanation. Because no one saw it the way I did. Because if I questioned what was real, what did that say about me?

Still, the knot in my stomach wouldn't go away. Harry was by my side the day of the school assembly the following week. He saw me frowning.

"Don't worry, just two more assemblies to go before we're discharged."

He said this because assemblies at our school were something like the military experience. Not that I'd ever been in the military, but it was funny how one man—our school principal—could capture the spirit so faithfully.

Principal Brigg yelled for complete silence at 10:00 AM on the dot. He then began his weekly sermon, this time about the enduring importance of extra-curriculars:

We know well that in this day and age, academic excellence is important but simply not enough. We pride ourselves on our students thriving in every aspect, every situation of life. The aim isn't to become a lackluster jack of all trades but to become skilled and ready to face the diverse challenges of life. To figure out your strengths and weaknesses and home in on your purpose. To seek knowledge, follow your curiosity, and become a citizen of the world.

I was zoning out. I could feel the seat of my flimsy plastic chair grow slippery against the bottom of my legs in the near-summer heat. In my ears, I could still hear the hum of the mosquitos that had followed us all the way to the doors of the school hall before being unceremoniously locked out.

Then, the principal pointed at me, "You."

I was suddenly awake. I sat up with a bolt and looked around. I hoped, prayed, he meant someone else, but no, he meant me. He kept pointing and nodding until he could see I had understood, and then he asked me to stand up and come to the front.

I did as I was told and stood underneath the raised podium. Then the principal directed someone unseen to open the big exit doors, informing me, "This is a challenge to see how you'll fare in the real world."

Thunder rolled outside the auditorium, and the thud of beasts approaching came through the floors before they appeared. It was a stampede of wild animals. They crashed through the doors and in single file leapt in my direction. The entire school body gaped and screamed, wringing their hands and clutching their heads.

But no one moved an inch as they waited to confirm if the stampede would be my final undoing.