Iman didn’t remember her father. He’d been gone before she’d taken her first steps and all she had of him were what she’d been able to piece together between remarks from people who’d known him and the letters he’d written her.
Faizal Khan had been a quiet, logical man and he’d seen no point in hiding from the inevitable when five separate specialists had informed him of his impending death. Instead, he’d used the little time he’d had remaining on the Earth to set his affairs in order and make sure his infant daughter would have something of him, some small token that attempted to fill the hole his absence would leave.
There were over two hundred letters in the gorgeous chest – Faizal had written her at least one a day from the day he’d gotten his diagnosis almost to the day he’d died, right until the strength had faded from his hands and he’d no longer been able to hold a pen.
Despite herself, Iman wondered where she’d be if he hadn’t died. The man who’d written her daily for over six months would surely have loved her, even a little. Such dedication could not be anything but the result of love. But would love have been enough?
Faizal Khan had left her before she’d been capable of truly feeling the wound of it. But he’d had no choice. Would he still have left had his fate been in his own hands? Or would he have kept her close?
Iman didn’t know. When she’d been younger, she’d adored her grandfather even more for never having left her. She’d felt secure in the knowledge that he was the only person in the world who’d never leave, the one man who loved her too much to even think about it.
And yet he had. Or rather, he’d made Iman leave, abandoning her to the clutches of her mother.
Thinking about Aasia made Iman’s temples throb. There were times when she hated the woman who’d borne her so fiercely it was an effort to keep the vilest curses behind her teeth.
Aasia had never been a mother to her, not truly. Iman had always known that her mother hated her, for Aasia had never bothered to hide it. She’d always made it perfectly clear that Iman had been an unfortunate accident, a mistake that had never been rectified only because Faizal had threatened to divorce her and Ibrahim had offered enough of a bribe to make her go through with the pregnancy.
And tomorrow, Iman would be forced to go back to the house that felt more like a hotel than any kind of home at all.
Hours later, Iman woke with a start. She looked around, trying to ascertain what had woken her so suddenly.
“Iman?” her grandfather called through the door. “Are you coming down for lunch?”
Lunch. The thought of food made Iman’s stomach growl angrily. “I’ll be there in a few minutes,” she decided, making a beeline for the bathroom to wake herself up a bit more.
Ibrahim was still standing in the hallway when she pulled open the door five minutes later.
He smiled tentatively at her and a thread of guilt closed Iman’s throat when she noticed his drawn features. He grandfather looked frailer every time she saw him.
Impulsively, she crossed the distance between them and hugged him close, smiling despite herself at the familiar scent that always took her back to sleepy naps and afternoons sat in an office, colouring away happily while her living chair busied himself with boring black and white papers.
Iman pulled back with an only half-faked scowl and narrowed her eyes at her grandfather. “You’ve been smoking again,” she accused. She’d smelled it on his clothes.
Ibrahim feigned outrage. “Of course not! I quit smoking years ago.”
Iman folded her arms across her chest. “I can smell the smoke,” she said flatly.
“Ah,” Ibrahim winced. “Today was very stressful.”
“You promised.” He had promised. Years ago. Iman had cried incessantly and refused to eat for three days until her beloved grandfather had promised her he would stop smoking ‘cancer-sticks’.
The teacher who’d decided to explain the dangers of smoking to Iman’s class had received an earful from Ibrahim but he’d been helpless when faced with Iman’s genuine fear that he would die and every ashtray, cigarette and pipe had disappeared from the house immediately.
The memory made Iman’s eyes shine and Ibrahim’s face grew alarmed. “It was just one little cigarette,” he assured her. “I’m not going to die from it!”
“I know,” Iman blinked furiously to clear her eyes. She tried to find words to explain her sadness and faltered, shaking her head wordlessly.
Ibrahim sighed and reached into the inside pocket of his jacket. “Here.” He handed over a box of cigarettes. “Better now?”
Iman nodded silently.
Twenty minutes later, Iman was almost done demolishing her pasta and her grandfather was still eyeing her cautiously. Surely he didn’t think she was still upset about his smoking?
Before she could ask, and reassure him, Ibrahim spoke. “Are you done eating? I’d like to talk to you about something.”
Iman looked down at her plate. There were roughly two bites of pasta left on it and she quickly loaded up her fork, stuffing the lot in her mouth.
“Don’t choke,” Ibrahim cautioned automatically. “And chew properly!”
“What do you want to talk about?”
Ibrahim sighed. “I know you’re unhappy,” he started. “I know that you’re angry with me.”
Iman opened her mouth to deny it, shame colouring her cheeks. But her grandfather held up a hand.
“It’s alright,” he told her gently. “I understand.”
“I just don’t understand why,” Iman said helplessly. “You never even told me what I’d done! You just – you just made me leave.”
“You didn’t do anything.”
Iman shook her head, disbelieving. “Then why did you make me leave?”
“I had to,” her grandfather said simply. “It was the only way to keep you alive.”