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"Red and Green Apples" by Faiza Bokhari

The plane swayed a little, and Leena steadied herself against the small bathroom sink. The ground beneath her felt sticky. Her reflection always felt familiar on flights, with cracked concealer applied at ungodly hours illuminated under the stark light. A few wiry grey hairs had escaped from her ponytail, and she tucked them gingerly behind her ears. If she’d had more time, Leena would have snuck away for a fresh cut and colour before making the journey to see Atif’s parents. Instead, she simply pulled on a clean t-shirt and leggings and focused her energy on dressing Zoya instead. Atif insisted they put her in the lace-trimmed dress Atif’s mother had sent them, even though Leena thought the fabric looked scratchy.

Leena unlocked the toilet door and walked back to her seat. There was Zoya, sitting on Atif’s lap like a docile paperweight. Before Leena could settle back into her seat, Atif was already holding Zoya out towards her, a small stream of viscous saliva hanging from her rosebud lips. Leena placed her gently on her lap and clumsily weaved the small infant seatbelt through her own. She watched as Atif turned and closed his eyes once more, his small head lolling with each bout of turbulence. Before long he was asleep again. They had taken this very same flight from Melbourne to Dubai multiple times before, but this time was different. Leena had so far only been able to watch fifteen minutes of a film, even though it had been hours since they’d taken off through rain-bearing clouds.

Months earlier, when Leena gave birth, she was almost alone. Atif stood beside her blinking rapidly at the doctor and midwives as though he was trying to communicate in morse code. Every time they shouted for Leena to push, he flinched, like a racehorse being whipped. Leena wished she could ask him to leave the room. ‘There was so much blood on the floor,’ he told her later. ‘It looked like an abattoir’. If she had gotten pregnant years earlier-as Atif’s family had wished and prayed for- there wouldn’t have been any travel bans. There would have been a small crowd in the hospital waiting room. Her mother, his parents and brother all there, clutching kitschy stuffed toys and oversized helium balloons. Instead, they announced her birth on the family WhatsApp chat, whilst a midwife in a patterned surgical mask hovered around them asking if she was pronouncing Zoya’s name correctly.

The day after she gave birth, Leena’s ankles tripled in size. The sudden swelling alarmed her. Her doctor explained it was postpartum edema. An excess fluid caused by progesterone. It had travelled south, down her body, settling into that space. ‘It’ll be gone before you know it,’ he patted her shoulder. Leena stared across at Zoya’s tiny body, wrapped tightly, in the cot beside her. She thought about the water swimming around her ankles and wondered if it was murky. She imagined it evaporating bit by bit as night turned into day.

When it was time to go home, Atif signed some forms in a perfunctory fashion. They bundled Zoya into a brand-new stroller and left the hospital quietly. They brought her home to their small apartment and watched as she slept, woke and fed. Days bled into nights then circled back again. The clock always told a different time, yet the numbers suddenly felt arbitrary. Leena filled paper-lined drawers with clothes for Zoya and wore the same billowing maxi dress day after day. When Atif returned to work two weeks later, Leena’s left eye began to twitch.

The turbulence finally began to settle, and the seatbelt sign was turned off. Leena unclipped the infant seatbelt, followed by her own and stood up. She held Zoya close to her chest and jostled her slightly, willing her to sleep. Wasn’t the plane supposed to emulate white noise? A lithe woman in a matching sweatsuit roamed restlessly down the aisle, a metallic water bottle hanging listlessly from her fingertips. Atif’s face was still burrowed into the side of his seat. His sleep so solid; Leena was sure he’d wake with abstract imprints scattered across his face. When they slept, they looked identical. Father and baby both with slim noses and thick lashes. During video calls, Atif’s mother always asked Leena to show her all angles of Zoya’s face. ‘Turn the phone this way, that way, oh how she is a mini Atif, a little Atif here for us all,’ she would surmise. Leena couldn’t disagree.

The more Leena swayed the more Zoya’s eyes began to bow wearily and soon she was asleep. Leena sat down slowly, holding Zoya steadily against her chest. A flight attendant walked down the aisle, carrying a basket full of mini tubs of ice cream and apples. The ornate wicker basket looked to be something out of a children’s fairy tale. Leena eyed the ice cream longingly, thought about the logistics and realized it would be impossible to eat with one hand. ‘No ice cream for me unfortunately,’ Leena gave a tight-lipped smile. ‘Red or green apple?’ the attendant said cheerfully.

The lights in the plane dimmed and Leena decided to watch the rest of the movie she had started earlier. Zoya was still asleep, splayed across her chest, breathing gently. Leena carefully reached for the headphones and pressed play on the remote. She felt her shoulders loosen. It was a Bollywood movie, and the costumes were ornate. Tight lehengas and choli’s as short as sport’s bras. Leena vowed she would start exercising again. Soon, once Zoya was a little older. Once she was in day-care eating small squares of fruit and stacking blocks methodically, only to then knock them down. The main actors launched into a musical sequence. Leena sung silently to herself and imagined moving to the choreography, swaying slightly. The music encased her. Her eyelids felt heavy, pinned down by exhaustion. Then, there was darkness. A distant sound echoed in her mind. When she woke, her neck was stiff. She turned to Atif and saw his body contorted to the side as it had always been, his gentle snores dipping and peaking. Leena rubbed her eyes with both hands. Both, free to wipe congealed sleep away. Panic filled her. There were credits rolling on the screen. She looked down in her lap and saw a green apple.

‘Zoya, Zoya, Zoya,’ Leena whispered hurriedly. Zoya who had only recently begun crawling, in what was more an army drag along the floor. Leena turned her seat light on and looked by her feet. Nothing. She reached her hand out to shake Atif awake and then retracted it. No, she would find Zoya before he woke. She felt the space around Atif’s feet, moving the blanket, searching underneath it. She jumped up and felt a sickness swell in her stomach. An old woman in the seat adjacent was fast asleep, a dull grey eye mask fitted over her supple face. Leena walked down the aisle hunched, her eyes scanning every inch of the floor in the dim light. A used tissue, a rumpled packet of peanuts. ‘Zoya, Zoya,’ she hissed with urgency. Then suddenly she heard it, a gurgle, a high-pitched squeal. A baby in a fancy scratchy dress on the ground, tugging at a sleeping man’s shoelaces with open curiosity. Leena swooped in and picked Zoya up.

In the arrivals area Atif’s family stood with a large pink stuffed bear in tow, a shaky Z stitched onto its belly. Leena and Atif walked out, carrying the weariness of travel with them. Leena approached Atif’s mother and held Zoya out in front of her chest, as though she was presenting a bouquet of flowers. Atif’s mother’s eyes widened. ‘My mini Atif,’ she crooned as she had done through the screen many times before. Leena thrust Zoya closer still and Atif’s mother hunched a little, taking a few short steps back.

‘Not right now Leena, wait until Mum is home and sitting, her back, remember?’ Atif rushed forward into the space between them. Atif’s mother smiled, a glint in her eye. They walked towards the exit, one after the other, like a line of dutiful ants. Leena balanced Zoya in one arm and her oversized handbag in the other. Full of bottles and nappies and green and red apples.

Faiza has a Pakistani background, was born and raised in Perth, Western Australia and currently splits her time between Australia & Hong Kong. With a Masters in Psychology, she has always been incurably obsessed with stories. Her writing has appeared in places like Djed Press, Portside Review, Indian Review, Burnt Roti Magazine, and elsewhere. She was shortlisted for the 2018 ‘Stuart Hadow Short Story Prize’. You can find her on Twitter @AllesFaiza


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