2012 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest Runner-up
Mostly he shrieked endlessly in the sticky Karachi heat or when a bomb went off, and in those moments Zainab fantasized about dangling him up by his tiny pink feet, still soft and wrinkly at age three, and smashing his brains out against the garden wall or suffocating him with a pillow. Occasionally her thoughts were less violent, involving driving around the corner to the beach to leave him in their filthy stretch of the Arabian Sea or abandoning him in the deserted imported-cosmetics aisle of the yawning French supermarket across from the Cinnabon in the new mall down the road that was designed to lull Pakistan’s frightened wealthy into the illusion that their lives met some standard of global normality. In reality her imaginings translated into little more than periods of sweet separation from her child that she stretched as long as possible, sometimes up to five or seven or ten hours, while she ordered one treatment after another at Ruby’s Beauty Saloon half an hour away with its Bollywood music and peeling green wall paint or stared into space at a coffee shop at the other end of town, armed with newspapers and magazines whose headlines about Taliban suicide blasts and Shia-Sunni clashes she knew she no longer had the mental energy to read.
Today there was relative silence. She had fed Faiz an adult dose of NyQuil and then taken some herself, along with two Xanax. She had placed him on the sofa in the living room instead of in the crib that thirty years ago had been her own. He slept coiled up in that crib, she thought, like a fleshy, stinky prawn; even his sleeping presence in the bedroom would only have angered her and made it impossible to sleep. As she drifted off she saw, briefly, Ali’s face, but the drugs helped her let go, for now, of the knowledge that her husband was away in Dubai with the mistress they did not speak of, while wailing to her in this house was the child their marriage was dissolving over because she insisted on raising him in the firestorm that Karachi, the real love of her life, had become.
The precise succession of sensations and sounds that later shook her awake was familiar. First, for what seemed like five entire seconds, that low, loud, boom, and rumbling, like thunder but duller, and longer. Then, for at least twenty seconds, that throb and noise of her heart beating as it leaped into her throat and ears and strained to shatter their drums and jump out of her skull. Last, that silence, as she lay immobilized with the knowledge that another bomb had gone off. This one was louder than the one at the police investigation building half a block from the office that had thrown her forward onto her desk and set her heart beating every time she walked into the parking lot for a week. It was louder than the one at the shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi, Karachi’s protector saint, that had set the windows rattling at home despite being a fifteen-minute drive away.
Since Faiz was born, there had been a new sound to add to this sequence: his wail, shrill and relentless. It pierced the space, now, between his fright and her quiet resignation. She turned the TV on in the living room; the insistent red pulsing of “Breaking News” was already, as always, flashing across the screen, trying frantically to send almost-jaded viewers into spirals of anxiety. A news anchor was shrieking about a suicide bombing in Defence. This one had gone off a few blocks away, at the house of a police official and in the middle of a cluster of schools.
Zainab leaned over to the sofa and pinned Faiz down as he screamed louder, kicked stronger, and tried to grab onto strands of her hair. She stared with fury at this child who was making it impossible for her to live in her city without the guilt of raising him in it.
She remembered, then, ladling into her mouth spoonfuls of cream-of-mushroom soup served with hot buns as she dangled her legs over the edge of the chair at the restaurant on the hill Dad would take them to on Sunday nights. And riding the mechanical lion at the amusement park near the shrine, its yellow plastic slick and sticky from the clinging hands of Karachi’s children. And driving down the street outside her parents’ house on her pink tricycle to buy Polka’s strawberry-and-vanilla ice cream that would melt too fast into its soggy cone back before Ben & Jerry’s came to Pakistan. And laughter at slumber parties away from home, and quiet, unshattered nights spent playing Monopoly with Mum, and her grandfather taking her to Saddar every month for cream puffs to a bakery on a road now blocked off to secure the American Embassy against attacks. Until she turned eleven and cried in class because of the armed robbers in their house that morning, and school started being closed once a week because of sectarian clashes in the city, and kidnappings and car-lifting became common, and, later, Pakistan developed its own Taliban. Until then, life had been about those cream puffs, and the sweet, white filling they oozed into her face.
Faiz would have the advantage of never having known a different Karachi. He cried harder in the passenger seat the faster she drove. It didn’t take long to find the spot; ambulances and police sirens howled around the torn limbs, the wet stains of blood and the crater in the ground. The air reeked of burning flesh and tires. She thought she saw the face of a fifteen-year-old boy walking into death, brainwashed into strapping on explosives mixed with nails and ball bearings for maximum destruction and maximum points in heaven. She wondered if he had been told about the schools in every direction around the family home he was recruited to bomb. She wound her way over to the blown-up house, a charred hollow now, carrying Faiz, who wailed louder, frightened by the swirling red lights of the ambulances and the shoves of journalists and cameramen swarming over the scene.
But once at the lip of the crater, with the earth opening up at his feet, he was worn out, silent. She felt the warmth of his body glued into hers, his fists curled into cheeks that were soft and dense like clouds of dough. She saw him staring at bodies, sobbing quietly. And then she felt him wilt into her arms, his little fingers clinging desperately to her hair, his wet nose burrowing into the nape of her neck.
She stopped fighting, then, held him close, and cried, rocking him safe, whispering into his ear, over and over again, what she had come here to show him: that he would have to be brave, now and for years to come, because this is where they would stay, that they were here already, that this was home, that this is what home had become.