A Friend Indeed

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Written by: Shaza Khawar

(In remembrance of the black day at APSACS Peshawar. A year gone and
the memories of the dark day still continue to haunt our minds and souls.)

The January sun shone down upon us, yet failed to provide us with the warmth it usually did. There was a slight wind, silent and mourning, as if portraying everything I felt inside. Adjusting my blazer I looked up at the building that was my destination that morning. The letters APSACS with the logo came into view, yet could not give me the pride and contentment they always did. Because, no matter how much I wanted to think otherwise, nothing was the same anymore.
Rangers with grim expressions stood on guard everywhere with huge weapons in their hands. Fear and tension hung in the atmosphere. There was neither the laughter nor the excitement that greeted me every morning. Everything had changed.
Taking a deep breath, I entered the school. A large collection of photos, flowers and burnt out candles met my sight. Photos of students, teachers, other school workers. The very photos I'd seen all along the city walls as I left home for school that morning. And also, a photo of him.
Trying to keep tears locked in my tear sacs, I averted my eyes from the picture and moved on. Though I could see students, parents, rangers and teachers, the school grounds appeared deserted. They lacked the liveliness and cheeriness that I used to see every day. Solemn expressions seemed to be engraved on every face I saw, mirroring my own grave one.
Looking into the distance, I could spot my classmates who would look at me and come to meet me with half-hearted smiles that I would return with a weak one. But the one I wanted to meet most did not come. Because he wasn't there. And, no matter how much I didn't want to think of it, he wasn't going to come anymore.
Together with the fewer than normal strength of my classmates, we entered the school building. I could instantly see the changes made. The rubble had been cleared, the walls washed and cleaned … they had apparently wiped out every damage that had occurred. How I wished, they could do the same to my memories too, the dark, painful memories that continued to haunt me every single night.
How I wished they could wipe out the gruesome images of blood, blood everywhere that danced in front of my eyes when I looked at the washed walls. How I wished they could sweep away the horrific images of the blood-stained debris and bodies lying around on the floor that was now scrubbed. How I wished I could somehow forget all that I had been forced to see that day.
The school-bell clanged loudly, yet sounded weak and feeble, as if lamenting like all of us. I reluctantly stepped into the hall with everybody else and almost immediately a series of terrifying pictures swirled through my mind like a film.
I could clearly see the brutal faces of the gunmen. I could still vividly hear the screams. Screams of agony. Screams of fear. Screams of ire. I could see, in my mind's eye, the gunmen shooting down one student after the other, their eyes wild. I could see the now spotless floor littered with dead and dying bodies, with blood all over. I could remember myself frozen with fear, within easy reach of the gunmen. I still could feel my heart shooting up to my throat and all blood draining off my face as one of them aimed his gun at me.
But … I lived. I survived. I didn't die. I underwent no harm other than a scarred soul. Why? Because he was there.
Who on earth would have thought a simple Career Counselling Session would be so pitilessly interrupted? Who would have thought that students like me would be - mercilessly murdered? Who would ever have thought that I would be spared from the terrifying jaws of death because a friend would rescue me?
Because ... that was exactly what happened. Through the chaos I could recall feeling a violent push on my side and the next moment I was on the floor, behind the seats, away from the sight of the gunmen and at that moment the gunman had fired.
After a heart-stopping moment, when I had finally gathered the courage to look behind. My heart nearly stopped. With numb hands and a blank mind, I crawled towards him. Trembling, I took his hand gingerly in mine as he smiled - a feeble smile - and breathed his last, owing to the blood oozing out of the ghastly bullet-hole in his chest.
As his soul departed his body and the reality sank in, my own self felt lifeless. The world seemed to have ended. Time seemed to have stopped. I could not bring myself to accept the fact that he was … 'No, no…' I kept telling myself. Hoping against hope that he would come around, I gripped his hand firmly with my heart beating painfully against my chest until - darkness enveloped me and I slumped down to the ground, unconscious.
It was so unfair, I argued with myself for the millionth time, dragging my feet along the corridors, with the pungent smell of blood, flesh and burning people following me like a shadow. Why did he have to go? All that we did … hurling our coats over our shoulders during our walks in the winter afternoons, laughing till it hurt, doing everything together, who would I do it all with now? The barrier stopping my tears suddenly gave way as fresh tears ran down my cheeks. Did I ever imagine that I could live without him?
Every eye in the school gleamed with sorrowful stories of that day - miserable, unhappy tales that made our hair stand on end … could one imagine us children witnessing such barbarism?
We'd learnt very valuable lessons that day. Lessons for life… at so tender an age. Selflessness, bravery, staunchness in the face of danger. And for me, one of them was friendship.  Undying, altruistic, true friendship. I may not have valued the gem of a friend I had while he lived, but I was going to make sure nobody forgot him as long as I lived. He died so I could live. He sacrificed the smile on his mother's face for one on my mother's face. He did not think of himself, he thought of me. And I was definitely going to cherish this gift for life.
I miss you, my friend. And I'm very, very proud of you. I feel proud to have had the friendship that not everyone gets to have. Thank you for everything, friend. You were a true friend indeed.