KHATAM • by Bracken MacLeod

Even though the chair in the delivery room was unforgiving, Amahl welcomed the chance to sit. Although it had been Mira who labored and bled, after twenty sleepless hours he needed rest.  He would have easily fallen asleep on the bare floor, but then he couldn’t hold his son.

The light of the buzzing fluorescent bulb above them blanched the baby’s dusky skin with brightness. The boy’s inky hair absorbed the light like the characters in Mira’s charcoal drawings. Beneath the antiseptic scents of polymeric disinfectant, bleach and isopropyl alcohol the scent of his baby was there. Deep underneath the iron smell of blood and spilled amniotic fluid and a hint of something else. Something that reminded him of the autumn evening in which they’d conceived the boy.

An uncharacteristic quiet had settled in the neighborhood. Traffic stopped. The men downstairs circling small tables on the tea house sidewalk fell silent, foregoing their gossip as they sat huddled around hookahs, sipping hot drinks and smoking. Mira’s curried breath was quickened by the same anxious desire he felt. His beloved. His Mira. Since she had begun tracking ovulation cycles and periods of fertility, sex had almost become a chore. That night, in the sticky heat of a quiet humid evening, it had been like it was when they were first married: oceanic. They made love as exhaled smoke from the café diners below drifted in through their windows, flavoring the night.

A few weeks later, the good news: “I’m pregnant.” She announced it quietly, as though the fact was too fragile to be spoken. She placed his hands on her still flat belly and said it again, a little louder, before kissing him. “We’re having a baby.” Pregnant with the knowledge, Amahl moved through their apartment with more deliberation; a greater purpose filling him as he nested, preparing the room in the center of their home for the arrival of the baby. Preparing for a new life. The child’s. His own. His family’s.

The smell called to mind the image of Mira standing in the spring market, full and flushed, smiling at him over a fiercely-craved date plucked from the bag before she paid–too eager to wait until they got home. She smiled as she bit her prize in half, one hand resting on the belly containing their son–due to join then in only three more weeks. “Happy now?” he asked. She laughed, tearing through the body of the dried fruit with her teeth. Behind her, at the opposite end of the alley, the bomb exploded, blowing a wave of fire and blood and hot metal through the long corridor, thrusting her into his arms. Together they crashed through the fruit cart from which she had picked her dates, landing in the dirt and the syrupy remains of ruined pomegranates and figs crushed beneath their entwined bodies. Mira’s breath on his face–the herald of the creation of their son–was wet and stank of copper. Groaning, she rolled off of Amahl and onto her back. He glanced up at the shrapnel that had streaked through the spice-tinged air to nest in the wall just above their heads, thankful that it had missed them both. To his right lay the man who had sold them the fruit; the blast had not spared him.

Mira gasped, clutching her belly. Amahl felt a wet warmth plastering his pants to his legs. He sat up to see the stains soaking the front of Mira’s dress. “My water,” she said. “My water broke. Oh god, Amahl. The baby!”

That was twenty-four hours ago. Gone in an instant, he thought, cradling the infant his wife had borne. The nurses had given him a set of scrubs to replace his burned, bloody clothes, but the stench of smoke was in his hair, his pores — a smell that, until twenty-four hours ago, had reminded him of the night of creation.

“Mr. al Adin.” The nurse stood in the doorway, wringing cigarette-stained fingers. “Your wife is out of surgery and is in recovery. I imagine you’ll want to be there when she wakes up.”  He walked over to the new father and held out his hands to take the child. Amahl shrank back from the man’s reach. He did not want to give his son up to the nurse or to the ground.  I’d give anything for him to grow old and bury me instead. But of course there was no one to accept his offer. The life he was given couldn’t be bought or traded, although it could be stolen in a burst of fire and a cloud of smoke.

Amahl gazed down at the baby cradled in his arms. He wiped at his tears, feeling a slow realization swell up and envelop him like a cooling tide. Once I was an infant, helpless in my father’s hands. Closing his eyes as he held the boy against his chest, he imagined what his father had felt twenty-seven years earlier. This is how much he loved me.

He kissed the baby softly on the forehead. “Thank you” he said, and stood up to take him to meet his mother.

Bracken MacLeod has worked as a martial arts teacher, a college philosophy instructor, at a children’s non-profit, and as a trial attorney. While he does his best to avoid using the law education, he still occasionally finds uses for martial arts and philosophy. He lives in the Boston area with his wife, son, and a collection of emptying Scotch bottles. He is a member of the New England Horror Writers organization, and his short story “Nullification” appears in issue 19 of Sex and Murder Magazine.

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