Ali let his eyes linger for just a second on her lightly freckled face that was neatly surrounded by her wavy, long hair. Her bright, red lips shaped the youthful smile that he lived for.
“I am sorry I can’t go with you and visit your parents. You know, exams,” he sighed. “Ali, I told you it’s fine,” she smiled.
“You are 22 years old, Ali, and these are your final exams for your BA. I can’t tell you how proud I am of you. I would rather be with you for the rest of my life than a couple of days.”
“I love you,” he whispered.
Smiling she walked towards the airport security check-in. Ali felt sadder for every step she took. I’ll miss you like crazy, he thought. Halfway through the security check-in she turned back to face him, hesitated for a second and held his gaze. She tucked a strand of auburn hair behind her ear and smiled wildly. He was waving and staring at her, locking on to the eyes he knew were so warm and light brown they made his heart shudder to look at them. She stared and smiled; a hint of a laugh formed her lips. The moment she passed through security, a moving baggage-trolley reflected a bright light in his eyes, blinding him.
* * *
White walls, white ceiling, white floor. A chill travels down Ali’s spine, making his neck hair stand up, but he keeps walking down the hospital corridor with small, fast steps.
“I can’t wait to see our little princess, our first grandchild!” Ali’s wife says loud with excitement and tightens her arm around his. “Keep quiet, Aaminah, it’s late.”
“We have waited a long time for this day, Ali. I can’t help it. 59 is not an age for first-time grandparents,” she says wiping her moist eyes with her scarf.
“I know, I am sorry. You can say it as loud as you want to. I won’t let anyone stop you. I’ll even buy you a megaphone,” he says jokingly, and she laughs.
They enter the room buried in bouquets of red roses, balloons and oversized teddy bears their son-in-law has bought. Ali’s eyes stop in the middle of the room admiring his daughter Aleeza. She is in her mid-twenties and has her mother’s beauty.
“Baba, come here. Isn’t she the most beautiful baby you have ever seen?”
Ali walks towards his daughter. He drags a chair towards the bed, supports his hands on the armrests and carefully sits down, followed by a quiet groan. He leans forward to take a closer look at his granddaughter, who is resting in her mother’s arms. Ali touches her hand, and her little fingers curl around his index finger. He wipes a tear from his eye with his other hand.
“Do you remember, Baba, I once told you that I want you to name my first child?” “I remember everything from your childhood, Aleeza,” Ali smiles proudly. “Childhood? I was 14, Baba,” she laughs and continues:
“So, have you thought of anything,” she looks hopefully at her grey-haired father.
Ali had never given it a serious thought, considering it to be one of his daughter’s many teenage dreams that would eventually vanish, as she grew older. He is sitting besides the joy of his life and in order to not disappoint her at such a wonderful occasion, he says the first name that comes to his mind.
“Mona,” Ali looks at his daughter, son-in-law and wife.
“Mona is perfect, Baba,” Aleeza smiles broadly, and everybody agrees.
Ali cannot help but feel happy looking at everybody’s joyful smiles, especially his wife who kisses her daughter and granddaughter every other second. Ali’s eyes keep staring at his family though his thoughts fly away reminiscing for a moment.
They were lying in Ali’s double bed looking at each other. His fingers stroked her hair, face and arms, turn by turn. She came closer and rested her head on his other arm. She looked him in the eyes and asked:
“How many kids do you want?”
“Kids?” Ali asked baffled and answered: “I want a football team,” he laughed.
“A football team!”
She pinched him on his thigh and glared at the ceiling thinking.
“I will be pregnant for a total of eight years, and I haven’t even counted the substitutes!”
Both laughed for what seemed like an eternity. Ali got quiet and admired her as she laughed. She laughed freely, as if no one was watching. When she held his arm tightly, almost piercing his skin with her nails, his heart skipped a beat.
Man, I am lucky, he thought every time.
“Shall we, go, grandpa?” Ali’s wife asks and shakes his shoulder gently.
He comes back to his senses and says goodbye to his daughter and her family. Ali and his wife drive home.
Ali is sitting in the kitchen at the dining table. His wife has warmed leftovers for them. They are contently eating in silence, like they always do. She looks at her husband through 28 years affectionately and notices his grey stubble, which makes him look older than he is.
“Thank you,” she says quietly. “For what, Aaminah?”
“For being mine and giving me a wonderful life and family.”
Ali finishes his food and lays his fork down. He pulls his chair closer to his wife’s. “No, thank you for loving me,” he says and kisses her on the forehead.
He cleans the table while she washes the dishes.
Ali walks up the stairs towards their bedroom and randomly thinks about the kiss, which makes him recall a certain incident.
“Is it true that you will go away from me?” she asked clearly upset. “Who told you that?” Ali was caught by surprise.
“Someone who knows your family told me that your parents will never accept our relationship,” she said with a trembling voice.
“How many times have I told you to not listen to those idiots?!” Ali said annoyed. “Nothing in this world can stop me from being with you, you understand? Nothing!”
“But they are your parents,” she replied and could not stop her fear from flowing down her cheeks.
“Come here,” Ali said.
She hesitated. He tried again with a softer voice: “Come here.”
Reluctantly she came closer.
* * *
“Close your eyes,” he said, and she complied.
She smiled affectionately while she sniffled. Her smile made the whole world glow up for Ali.
“This smile is worth fighting for,” he whispered, which made her smile even more. The entire world can’t stop me from being with you, he thought.
Ali goes to bed and closes his eyes. He hears his wife come to bed at the side facing his back. His last thoughts go to her before he falls asleep and dreams the dream that he expects every night and comes every time.
In the dream, he is at the airport. A roofless airport, he notices, and the sun is shining. He is floating through the airport. He sees her. She is smiling.
“For the rest of my life,” she says to him. “For the rest of my life,” she repeats.
Ali embraces her. She walks towards the security check-in. She is tucking a strand of hair behind her ear and is smiling at him. A last gaze before the moving trolley blinds him and everything turns white. Ali is standing in a white hallway, an empty hospital corridor. There is a television at the end of the hallway. He starts walking towards the television and its sound gets clearer and clearer with every step he takes. The corridor shifts shape to a metallic and cold room, like a walk-in freezer. Ali keeps moving towards the sound, and he is back in the white corridor. The sound is clear to him now. He has reached the end of the corridor. A news channel is showing pictures of a plane wreck, and he glimpses a fragment of the headline: None Survived.
Ali jumps up in his bed. His forehead is sweaty, and his back is moist. His whole body is shaking. His wife puts her arm around him in her sleep, as if it is a natural thing for her to do. Ali lays his head on his pillow, again facing the wall, and his wife’s embrace makes him warm. He sheds a tear and whispers to himself:
Usman Chaudry: I am a 25 year old psychology student from Norway with Pakistani roots. Earlier I have worked as a journalist and studied journalism in Oslo and Dublin. This short story took shape in a creative writing class in Dublin. My other interests beside writing are films, books, the human mind and Manchester United. Follow Usman on Instagram @usmanmc