I’d thought that newborns were the most exhausting of children. It turned out three year old little munchkins gave them a run for their money. Azmiah had always been active but lately it felt like she’d somehow engaged fast-forward mode. Entertaining her all morning, through the drive from the airport and the wait until we could check in to the hotel we were staying at so that she wouldn’t decide to strip off all her clothes – her newest trick – had exhausted me and we hadn’t even gotten to the main event of the day yet.
I tugged down the full skirt of her dress one last time and then let her loose to go bother her grandparents. All three of them were going to spoil her rotten, I knew. But that was a problem for another day. For now, when I had to fix my hair and frantically gulp down a bottle of water in one of the rooms Rayyan had booked out so that we wouldn’t have to drive far, it suited me fine to make use of the free babysitting.
Normally, Zaakir and I would trade off but I’d spotted him disappearing into a corner to soothe nerves and I had no desire to interrupt that conversation. I glanced at my watch. We needed to be ready to go in fifteen minutes or we’d be late.
I fiddled with my hair, trying to set it right by feel and succeeded only in turning it into a rat’s nest. With a sigh, I dropped my hands. I hated to do it but I was going to have to disturb Amira – I needed a mirror.
She let me in immediately and disappeared back into the suite’s bathroom, calling out a muffled instruction as to where she’d left her hairpins.
I caught sight of a letter tucked away amongst the detritus of a bride readying herself for her big day and smiled, assuming it was a love letter shared between her and my brother. I went to lift it up and put it away so it wasn’t in danger of being ruined by the hair and make up products and caught a glimpse of the inside, covered from one end to the next in a flowing, almost pretty script.
Not Rayyan’s handwriting.
But, I realized a short second later, a hand I did recognize.
I’d seen that same script on cards and letters addressed to many, every single time Mirzaq had seen fit to apologize over something.
A shiver ran down my spine and the paper dropped from my suddenly numb fingers.
Frustration took me over, fast and unrelenting. Every time, every time I thought we were finally done, he managed to pop up again.
I heard footsteps and turned to see Amira smoothing down her skirts. “What do you think?” she asked me expectantly, a beautiful smile on her face.
I tried to match her smile. “You look lovely.”
“You think?” A pleased note entered her voice. “It’s not too much?”
“It’s perfect.” The dress was all the prettier for its simplicity, a gorgeous fall of light grey that made her skin all the more vibrant.
Amira reached for her bun next, patting down the few flyaway strands that hadn’t been tamed. I handed her a can of hairspray, suppressing a shudder as my hand touched the letter that now lay atop an eye shadow palette.
Her eyes flew to the spot I’d just touched and she paled, losing the rosy flush of happiness that had adorned her face all morning. Immediately, I felt a surge of regret.
Dainty fingers plucked up the letter, holding it as though it was something rotten. “I should have gotten rid of this years ago,” Amira said sorrowfully. “I’m so sorry, Azraa. You were never meant to see it.”
I explained that I hadn’t read it and she sighed, closing her eyes. “Thank goodness. Please don’t,” she begged “It belongs to you, technically. He wrote it to you. But,” her fingers crushed the paper between them. “Azraa, it’s disgusting. The things that he said…” she trailed off.
“This is meant for the trash.” She held it out. “I should have dropped it in there long ago. I kept it because… I wanted a reminder, I suppose. Of what kind of ugliness I’d survived – we’d both survived. That’s why I took it from his study that day.”
“When did he write that?” I reached out to take it despite my better judgement.
Amira’s eyes widened. “It’s his suicide note, Azraa.”
My stomach churned and I yanked my hand back. “I don’t want that,” I whispered.
Decisively, Amira tore the thing into pieces and then went to the bathroom. A moment later, I heard the flush of the toilet. “There,” she declared in satisfaction. “Right where it belongs.”
Morbid curiosity had seized me and I found myself asking how she’d gotten the letter. We’d arrived at the house in Australia after Mirzaq’s friend and he’d never mentioned a thing about a note.
Amira turned away. “I went back there that night,” she admitted. “He called me when he realized that I’d left with you. You were fast asleep, you didn’t wake up even when he started threatening me and screaming at me to come back.”
She took a deep breath. “I went. I must have been outside for an hour, arguing with myself. In the end, I called Dawood and drove back to the hotel. It was too late by then.”
My mouth was dry. “And the letter?” I managed to croak out.
“Dawood read it when he found Mirzaq. He was horrified. As soon as we returned to the house, he told me about it and gave it to me to get rid of.” She rubbed her palms over her forearms as though she was cold. “I kept it. I felt guilty for ignoring him and reading it, remembering what he was like… it helped me feel better.”
My heart went out to her. “You didn’t do anything wrong. You had no idea.”
Amira’s eyes went distant. “I don’t think I would have helped even if I had known. That’s awful, isn’t it?”
“No!” The word burst from me violently. “No, it isn’t. There’s nothing awful about you.”
The corner of her mouth twitched.
The letter was on its way to the sewer where it belonged and Amira, sweet and kind Amira, was about to become my sister. I refused to let Mirzaq infect the moments leading up to that any more than he already had.
“Amira, forget about him,” I told her, internally reminding myself to do the same. “It’s what he’d hate the most.”
A proper smile bloomed on her face. “You’re a good sister.”
I squeezed her fingers. “Ready to go make that official? And,” I added, wrinkling my nose in mock annoyance. “I guess also marry Rayyan.”
And just like that, Amira was radiant again.
Back in our hotel room that evening, I sighed in relief as I kicked off my shoes and pulled on a t shirt. It wasn’t late, technically, and our parents were still awake and having fun – they were only an hour off their own time here. Zaakir, Azmiah and I on the other hand, had been in Dubai and our bodies were convinced it was the middle of the night. All three of us were exhausted.
I settled against Zaakir and felt his arm come around me to rest on my stomach. “Is it absolutely horrible of me to be a little jealous of them?”
He laughed. “Should I be very worried?”
I made a face. “Ew. Not of them. Of their wedding.”
It was exactly what I’d wanted for ours – small, simple, and intimate. There had been no gossiping, no standing on ceremony or pasting fake smiles on our faces… I felt a little disgruntled.
“It’s not horrible,” Zaakir reassured me. “It’s normal. You didn’t get to have the kind of wedding you really wanted.”
I lifted my head. “The marriage is pretty fantastic though.”
He kissed my forehead. “Love you.”
“Love you too.”
My five year old’s voice was the sweetest thing in the world. Just not when she was yelling my name loudly enough to wake the dead first thing in the morning from the toilet.
I groaned and yanked a pillow over my head. “See to her please?” I begged my husband.
He didn’t move. “My name isn’t Mama.”
“Zaakir!” I whined. “I’m exhausted.” It was the truth. Cramming for my exams had meant that I climbed into bed less than four hours ago. I could barely keep my eyes open.
He let out an obnoxiously fake snore.
Azmiah yelled again and I immediately recognized the frustrated tone. My eyes widened and I started pushing away the covers. I knew my daughter – if we didn’t come to her quickly enough, she’d just try to clean herself and then I’d have a flood to deal with.
“Coming, baby.” Zaakir called, swinging his legs over the side of the bed.
“Thank you,” I told his retreating back.
He came back with her cradled in his arms. I held my arms out and Azmiah jumped into them, giggling. “Missed Mama,” she informed me.
I kissed her fine hair and made her lay down next to me so Zaakir could get back into bed.
He put his arms around the two of us and I shut my eyes, drifting off again.
When I woke up next, I was alone in bed and I could hear little giggles from Azmiah’s bedroom.
“Hey,” I greeted, putting my arms around Zaakir’s waist. “Thanks for letting me sleep in.”
He turned to face me and rested his head atop mine. “You needed it. You’ve been putting in crazy hours lately.”
“It’s only for a few more weeks,” I reminded us both. A few more weeks and I’d be a fully fledged psychologist.
I still wasn’t sure what I’d do with the degree but it made me happy to have put in the effort to get it. I’d stumbled back into studying by accident when I’d picked up a book one of Zaakir’s colleagues had lent him – it focused on his field of sociology but there was a decent amount of psych theory in there that had grabbed my attention.
I’d planned to take a few classes to entertain myself and it had just… snowballed. I loved it. It was challenging but I loved it.
Zaakir let out a hum. “Until you decide you want to keep going.”
I glared playfully at him. “You’re the degree collector, not me. I’m happy with the one.”
And, in a few months, there was a possibility I’d be in no mood to do anything. I’d realized three days ago that I couldn’t remember when I’d had my last period and a quick doctor’s note later, it was confirmed.
I was having another baby. I’d planned to give Zaakir a set of booties as a gift after my final exam so we could celebrate properly but suddenly, I wanted him to know immediately.
I pulled away from him. “Give me a minute. I have a surprise for you.”
The little box was still in my purse – the one place he wouldn’t find it.
He frowned at it. “What’s this for?”
“Open it,” I invited.
His mouth dropped open as soon as he lifted out the booties. “You’re-”
I nodded. “Surprise.”
He flung his arms around me. “I can’t believe this,” he breathed, grinning so hard I could see all his teeth.
Azmiah shoved between our legs, clearly feeling felt out. I laughed and lifted her up. “You’re getting a baby sibling,” I cooed in her ear. “Are you excited?”
She’d been obsessed with babies ever since she’d started going to play school and as soon as I said the word baby, she squealed happily. “Yay!”
It had taken me seven years all in all to get just one Bachelor’s degree whereas my darling husband had nabbed his Masters within four years. I’d been adamant that no one would make a big deal about it. It was just the one degree, after all.
Zaakir had ignored me and as I held up the romper made to look just like a graduation gown, I was ecstatic that he hadn’t listened. “It’s adorable,” I told him in a thick voice, trying not to cry.
“There’s more.” He held up his phone. “People want to talk to you.”
Rayyan and Amira’s faces filled his phone’s screen. “Congratulations!” they chorused in unison. “Well done, baby sis,” my brother added.
That was it. I burst into tears.
Rayyan looked mildly alarmed.
I sniffed. “Thank you, guys. I really appreciate it.”
“Sure, Az. We’ll see you in a few months, okay?” They’d promised to be there well in advance for the baby’s birth as soon as I’d told them about it.
I couldn’t wait to see them both again. In the two years since they’d gotten married, they’d both been in so many dangerous places that I’d more than once found myself frantically scanning news headlines. Just in case.
“Stay safe,” I instructed as I always did, kissing my fingers and then extending them to touch the screen.
And then they were gone.
A head of fine, silky dark hair. A tiny button nose. And lungs to rival a loudspeaker.
He was gorgeous and I wouldn’t have given him up for anything in the world.
And now we had to give him a name.
Zaakir had been convinced that we were going to have another daughter and had made up a lengthy list of girl’s names. My parents had both contributed several names and Hajra had thrown out the idea of naming the baby for my grandfather.
But we hadn’t found a single boy’s name that we agreed on.
I sat back in bed and sighed. Baby was four days old and I was tired of calling him Baby. He needed a name and I’d warned Zaakir that we were going to sit here until we figured it out which he’d agreed to and then promptly escaped under the guise of checking on a napping Azmiah.
There was one name that I hadn’t suggested yet.
I’d been reluctant, simply because I’d first come across the name when pregnant with Azmiah and had stowed it away.
If Zaakir didn’t like it, Baby would still be called Baby for a few more days until it was absolutely vital that he had a name.
I hoped he would like it.
She’d finally asked. My brave, big six year old.
Azmiah knew that I had been married before, that Zaakir wasn’t her ‘daddy who made her’ and that he loved her no differently to her little brother because of that. I’d never wanted to lie to her and I’d known that trying, even to protect her, was doomed to failure.
I took her into my arms, the innocently asked question echoing in my ears. “Mommy, if my other Daddy didn’t die, would Daddy still be my Daddy?”
“Baby,” I cuddled her. It would be so easy to just say I didn’t know. But I did know. “Yes, I think so.”
Azmiah worked on this for a second. Her forehead scrunched up. “But then what about my other Daddy?”
“You would’ve had two, baby.”
“Oh.” She played with her fingers. “How come he died, Mommy?”
“Do you remember we talked about how certain things are meant to be? About fate?”
She nodded. “I ‘member.”
“That’s why.” I brushed her hair back from her face.
She was still frowning. “Are you gonna die?”
I winced. “Yes, eventually. But,” I headed off the tears. “You’ll still have Daddy and Tawfiq and Uncle Ray and Auntie Ami. And you’ll have your grandparents.”
“But I want you!” Azmiah’s face was turning red.
“I’ll be here for you as long as I possibly can. I promise.” And may that be a long, long while, I thought silently.
Azmiah sniffed. “When?”
“When you’re a big girl with babies of your own.”
“Then I won’t have babies,” my daughter declared stubbornly. “Then you have to stay with me forever.”
I couldn’t help it – I started to laugh. “Alright, baby. You figured it out.” We would leave the discussion of taqdeer for another day. She was only six, it was a little early to expect her to understand. I’d only come to peace with the idea when I was twenty five, after all.
I’d thought I was so clever, pushing people away so they couldn’t hurt me and running in the other direction whenever it seemed like that fate that seemed to be destined for me was closing in.
In the end, it had happened. I’d married Zaakir.
I’d been so determined. Just as determined as my little girl now was to never grow up so she could keep things the way she so desperately wanted. But it wasn’t up to us. Our destinies were decided by our Creator and I for one preferred it that way.
All of it had been fate. From the little boy who became by husband to the charming, handsome young man who made up part of my daughter. I’d run towards the one and run from the other but they’d both been meant for me.
Now, looking back with the knowledge that came from having lived through those experiences, I knew that things had gone exactly right. Back then, I would have railed and screamed and tried to claw my way out of it. I hadn’t known any better.
“Come on, Mommy! Hurry up.” Azmiah yelled from the kitchen. I’d barely noticed her slipping away, I’d been so lost in thought.
“Mommy!” she called again. “Daddy said we have to wait for you to eat our pizza.”
“Coming!” I called back.
I stopped in the doorway, taking in the sight of my son and daughter crowding my husband eagerly.
“There you are,” he sighed in relief. “I thought they were going to attack me before you got here. Everything okay?”
I took my seat. “Just as it’s meant to be.”
I had my family surrounding me, in the home that we’d made together. And I would forever be grateful that I’d lived long enough to see that this fate was nothing to be afraid of.