Fiction — April 17, 2013 12:33 — 2 Comments

Asthma – Ahsan Butt

Turbulence used to terrify me. Before I developed the ability, turbulence felt like God’s judgment finally deciding on us. I hated planes. I used to pray so desperately.

There’s a kid sitting in the row in front of me, his father in the window seat next to him. The kid doesn’t have much time. With him, I’m able to see it. When he moves, there’s a weak trail of his own image like a faint echo of his immediate past that settles into his present when he stops. The trail will become clearer as he gets closer to the end, though I can never judge whether it’s a matter of days or hours. Sometimes soon is sooner than I think, other times people hold on. I do know that when the trail becomes as apparent as the person, it’s almost over.

The kid looks sick. His bony shoulders jut out, framing where the rest of his body should be, and he moves with so much caution for his age. His father has that exhausted forced positivity look to his face. At least it won’t be out of the blue. I guess that’s better. I wish I could say something to them to help, but I can’t. I don’t know them and even if I did, after all these years of sensing and observing death, I still haven’t learned anything that makes it easier to accept.

I was perpetually sick until I hit 13. I had severe asthma. We had a machine in the house that we used when I couldn’t get my breath back. All my fits started with coughs and weak raspy breathes that tried to get a hold on things. There was a point when the panic would set in. Mom would scramble for the machine. She’d put the mask over my mouth and nose and I’d suck in that awful taste and think about what would be happening if the machine wasn’t working or if she wasn’t around. I’d cry quietly in her lap and she’d rub my chest and hold me close.

I was vigilant, always thinking about who was around and where the machine was, but it finally happened that I was alone and a nasty fit started up. It seemed minor, but then my eyes were watering and I got scared and it escalated. I felt like I was folding in on myself. I couldn’t get to the machine. Eventually I hunched over on my side on the living room carpet. I remember it getting dark and it went completely black just for an instant. And then everything was fine. When my mom came home I was sitting quietly on the floor breathing normally. I never had another attack. We sold the machine two years later to a family with a sick kid. When they came to the house to check it out, I could smell that the boy wasn’t going to make it. I couldn’t figure out how the smell meant that, though I was positive it did. My senses had been amplified in this way. The kid was scared of the machine and the asthma and his latent panic was a component of the scent. I wanted to say something to his parents, but they were so hopeful. I didn’t say anything and they left with the machine.

I try to forget about my asthma as we make a shaky descent into Toronto. The turbulence is so rough I look around to make sure the kid’s still the only one close to death.

The plane lands at 8pm and I snag a cab that treads tenuously over tire tracks previously made into the deep snow. It takes over an hour to get to my parent’s place. My sister’s car is in the driveway. I trudge up to the front door of the house and it strikes me that I may be too late. Just like that. Why not? There’s no reason to believe that it would wait for me. That it mattered that I was flying home. I ring the doorbell and peer through a narrow pane of glazed glass until I make out my dad’s heavy figure coming towards the door with a leaner man’s grace. The door finally opens and he smiles warmly and gives me a light hug.

“Where’s Mom?”

“She’s in the tv room. She made chicken. Sameen’s already eating.”

We go to the living room, which opens up to include the kitchen. Sameen gets up and gives me a hug. Mom is sitting on the couch with her head tilted back. She leans forward and smiles when I come towards her. She kisses me on the cheek as I bend down to hug her.

“How are you?”

She smiles. “A little tired.”

I heard it in her voice through the phone the morning before. I told myself it could have been something wrong with the phone. It’s clear in person though. Her voice has that echo like the kid’s trail and the echo is certain.

I take a plate of chicken and sit next to her. Sameen asks me about the sudden visit. I tell her I was missing them. The first taste of pickled mango and masala shoots a familiar sensation burning down my throat and sets off my nose.

Before long I’m blowing my nose over an empty plate. It’s late and Mom says she’s going up to sleep. Sameen says she’s leaving and she’ll swing by to see me in the morning. She kisses Mom and tells her to let me make my own breakfast. They look at me together, both seeing something different in the same person. Both smiling. I tell them to stay like that and I take a picture. Sameen leaves. I put my plate in the sink and walk Mom up the stairs.

I take her to her room and she goes into the adjoined bathroom. I stay in her room looking at the pictures on her dresser, waiting for her. Dad passes through her room and pops his head into the bathroom. He mumbles something to her and they both laugh, which is rare and nice. Then he says goodnight to me and goes to his own room down the hall.

Mom shuts the bathroom light behind her and comes in. She grabs her tasbih beads for her nightly prayers and settles into her blankets. I sit on the bed beside her holding her hand as she clicks the beads in the other. She lies on her side, smiling but squinting. She asks me to turn off the light. I ask her if I can sleep there next to her. Her face falls into a relaxed smile. I turn off the light and nestle in close to her. She puts her arm around me and I stay awake as long as I can.


Ahsan Butt is a Canadian of Pakistani heritage, currently living in Seattle. He's a software engineer who also performs improv in his evenings. This is his first published story.


  1. Kashif Butt says:

    Great story! Very touching!

  2. Sadaf says:

    Very nice.. reminded me how subtle and powerful short stories can be. Hope to read more from you.

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