By FARAH ALI
Early one morning, when the sky was still dark, Annie locked herself in her room. She turned the key three times, then went to her bed and opened a book.
At half past seven, her mother knocked on her door and told her to get up. When Annie didn’t appear, her mother tried the handle and found the room locked. Half an hour later, she put her ear to the door and heard nothing, not even the loud whisper of the ceiling fan. A strange feeling got hold of her; she knocked and spoke more sharply. “Open!” She slapped the wood with the palm of her hand and began to shout for her husband. “Come quickly! Annie’s not coming out—something has happened to her!”
The bathroom door opened, and Annie’s father walked out, his face half covered with shaving foam.
Annie’s mother repeated her words, louder this time. Annie’s father gestured with his hands for her to lower her voice. “Don’t let the neighbors hear you,” he said. To the door, he said, “Annie, are you alright?”
“Oh, thank God!” Annie’s mother clutched her chest. “What are you doing in there? Why is the door locked? You have to get to school.”
“I’m not coming out.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m staying in my room.”
After that, Annie stopped responding. Her mother hammered and shouted for another fifteen minutes while her father stood silently. Then he walked back to the bathroom, finished getting ready, and left for his office without so much as clearing his throat. The only sound he made was that of the main door shutting with a bang. Annie’s mother dropped her hand and, throat raw and the skin of her palm smarting, lay down on the sofa and fell into a short, heavy sleep. When she woke up, she had a new plan; she tried the door with different keys. Keys that fit other doors, keys for suitcases, forgotten keys that she found at the back of a drawer and the bottom of her handbag. None worked. She laid her head against the door and closed her eyes. “Annie?” When no answer came, she sank down. “Why are you doing this?” she called out in a weak voice.
And Annie said, “I saw the knife.”
“What knife?” Annie’s mother said. Her voice was hard again; she frowned and sat up.
“The knife you were holding over Papa. You were going to kill him.”
“You’ve gone mad.” Annie’s mother got onto her feet. “You’ve gone mad and you’re lying.” She marched away and moved things around on the dresser in the living room. “Where do I go?” she said to herself, “Where do I go here? I’m all alone. Twenty-one years away from home. I’m not brave like some women are.”
The next morning Annie’s father said that if the problem was not solved soon, he would call the police. He looked in the direction of the door and said very loudly, “Did you hear that? The police.”
After he left, Annie’s mother pleaded with her daughter.
Annie said, “I saw you with the knife.”
Annie’s mother said, “There was no knife. There was never a knife.” And suddenly, from the other side of the door, she felt her daughter recede again, as if she had closed her mouth.
Annie’s mother wiped her face and threatened to starve Annie until she came out. “And when I finally see you,” she added, “I’ll give you a thrashing you’ll never forget. You’re going to be sorry about your lie.”
Alone in her bedroom, Annie’s mother thought about her choices, and moaned in despair. She put her hand on the telephone and dialed an acquaintance. She told the other woman there was a jammed bathroom door and could she please pass on a locksmith’s number? She wrote it down; said yes, they should have tea soon; and ended the call. She picked up the phone again. Reluctantly, she spoke to the locksmith and told him to hurry.
He arrived at the same time as Annie’s father. The locksmith set down his box and knelt by the door. He put his fingers on the lock to examine it when the quiet was ripped apart by the sounds of screaming. It was Annie’s voice. The locksmith stood up and looked around wildly at Annie’s mother and father, who had turned pale. He waved a long finger toward the door and said, “Who is that? What is happening here?”
Annie’s father said, “That’s our daughter. She’s a little disturbed. Could you please just quickly finish the job?”
But the man picked up his toolbox and took long strides out through the corridor.
Annie’s mother ran after him. “We will give you ten times your fee!”
But he only said, “I don’t want to get mixed up in your troubles!” and left the apartment.
Around midnight, Annie’s father returned to her door.
“Would you like to come out now?” he asked in a tone of quiet encouragement.
“Mama wanted to kill you,” Annie said.
“What is this nonsense?” said her father, in a kind voice. “Nobody wants to kill anyone.”
“She will tell you I’m lying. But I saw her with a knife.”
“Well. That was not a nice thing for her to do, I agree. I will speak to her. Now, do you want your mother to make you something to eat?”
Annie did not reply. Annie’s father sighed. He went into the kitchen and filled a large envelope with rice. He tore up some chicken, put the pieces inside, and closed the flap. He laid the envelope on the counter and pressed it with his knuckles and the palms of his hands. He poured water into a small tray. He carried the things to Annie’s door, walking slowly and carefully, but a little water spilled anyway. Underneath the door was a narrow gap. He crouched onto the floor and began pushing the envelope through it. The paper scraped against the wood and disappeared out of sight, millimeter by millimeter. Then he slid through the water tray. He sat a little distance away, listening for sounds. When he heard the crinkle of the paper, he breathed out in relief and went to bed.
In the dark, his wife’s voice said, raspy with tiredness, “You know it’s not going to be good if you call the police.”
After a few moments, he said, “I’m not calling the police.”
On the evening of the third day, a girl called Alice and a girl called Khadijah came to visit Annie. They were her friends from school, but they had not been to the apartment too often, because the place had always made them a little uncomfortable. Things here were so unlike their own worlds; the dim lighting in the living room, the stoop of their friend’s father’s shoulders, her mother’s mismatched clothes, the two-burner stove in their kitchen, the stack of old National Geographic magazines on the bookshelf. They came today because Annie’s mother had called them. In stilted fragments of English, she had informed them about what was happening, then commanded them to come.
Alice and Khadijah walked down the short corridor, past their friend’s mother, who stood silent and glowering. Alice knocked.
“Hey,” Khadijah said. “It’s just us. Tell us what happened.”
“Come closer,” Annie said.
The girls huddled next to the door and rested their faces on it.
Annie whispered, “I saw my mother with a knife. Standing over my father. It was nighttime and he was asleep.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. I saw it.”
“But your father’s fine. He’s sitting on the sofa right now.”
“I know. But she wanted to kill him. And then she wanted to kill me. I know it.”
Alice whispered into Khadijah’s ear, “She probably just saw it all in a dream.”
From the end of the corridor, Annie’s mother spoke sharply: “Tell her to come out.”
“I’m not coming out,” Annie whispered, and after that her friends did not hear from her again.
Later that night, Annie’s mother started hitting the door with the heel of a shoe. She screamed so loudly her hair came loose from her bun. A minute later, their bell rang. Annie’s father opened the main door and peeked out through the crack. It was their neighbor.
“Is everything all right?” he asked.
Annie’s father said in a confiding manner, as if he and the Nepali man had been friends for a decade, “Oh, she’s just a little upset about something. Everything is fine.”
Annie’s mother came running. She pushed past Annie’s father and opened the door wide. “Come inside,” she said loudly to the neighbor. “Come inside and help us.”
Reluctantly, the man followed her.
Annie’s mother shouted to her daughter behind the door. “If you really believe your story about me, why don’t you tell this man all about it? Go on!”
“My mother wants to kill all of us,” said Annie.
The neighbor crossed his arms and shook his head rapidly. “No, no,” he said to himself. Finally, he looked up, his eyes on the ceiling, and, in a trembling voice, he said, “Sorry, sister, I should not have come in. I cannot participate in your family issues anymore.”
On the morning of the fourth day, or maybe it was the fifth, Annie’s mother stood in the door of their room, her arms crossed, barring her husband’s way.
“You are not going to work in the middle of this situation,” she said.
“Get out of my way.”
He made a move to leave, but she put a hand on his chest. He gripped his wife’s arms, pulled her inside, and hurled her across the room. Nimbly, he stepped outside.
“I should have kept you and that one back home like all the other men do,” he said, his voice almost a snarl. “I don’t drink or sleep around, and I come home on time, and I am still treated like trash.”
Annie’s mother said, “Look at what you’ve done.” She pushed away the neckline of her qameez and bared an aging, yellow-green bruise on her shoulder.
“I’ll do it again if you keep disrespecting me. And I will lock you in here, do you understand? And I’ll make sure neither you nor your daughter ever leave your rooms.”
Annie’s room was four feet away. Once again, Annie’s mother thought she heard the small sounds go mute behind that other door, her daughter wrapping herself up in extra layers of silence. Her husband glared at her. She kept standing at the foot of the bed. After a minute more, he strode away. She heard him put his shoes on, then the lock being undone, then the slam of the door.
Later that day, a boy called Sarmad came to see Annie. In school, Alice and Khadijah had told him about Annie and the knife and the locked room. He was deeply affected by what he heard. “I want to see her,” he said to the girls. They gave him the address. “Come with me,” he said, and they said, “No, we’d rather not, but we can tell you where Annie’s room is, and, here, take this bar of chocolate, please.” When school ended, Sarmad drove to Annie’s apartment. He knew her mother was strict about boys coming over, so he straightened his tie and filled his arms with schoolbooks. He told Annie’s mother his name and said he was an old classmate and held his breath. Silently, she let him in and curled up on the sofa, covering her face with her dupatta. Sarmad stood for a moment, confused, then hurried to where the girls had told him to go.
“Annie,” he said in a low voice. “It’s me, Sarmad. Have they done something to you?”
“Is it true about the knife?” he whispered.
Sarmad nodded. On an impulse, he crouched down and stuck his fingers in the gap underneath the door, hoping he would be able to touch Annie’s fingers, but his skin only met the roughness of the wood.
“I care about you, Annie. I’m sorry I didn’t say it before. I guess I wasn’t sure, but now I am.”
“Maybe you were just stressed out, you know, and thought you saw the knife.”
“I did not imagine it.”
“Let me help you. I’ll do whatever you want.”
“I’m going to sleep now. Goodbye.”
For a while, Sarmad visited almost every day. He brought things for Annie, small objects he could fit into his pocket and, later, slide underneath her door. A book, a bracelet, a tiny bottle of perfume. Once, in a fit of sentimentality, he plucked the petals off a rose, stuck them onto a piece of paper covered with glue, and sent his creation her way. Annie’s mother never spoke to him. He got bolder and brought a small CD player. He set it in front of Annie’s door and played a full hour of what he thought was her favorite music, after which he talked about ice cream and movies. He asked Annie what she liked to read, to eat, and to watch, but she did not say anything. After that, he fell into silence, and then he said to Annie—he promised her—that he would be back the following day. But he became ill and did not return.
Nobody visited the apartment. The Nepali neighbor stayed away because, for the first time in a long time, there was no more commotion from the place next to his. For years he had borne their abhorrent shouting: the man at the woman, the woman at the child, the child at whomever. Two or three times he had felt forced to interfere, hating the process of knocking and hearing the man’s false explanations. He had no desire to see those people. In school, Alice and Khadijah said that though they loved Annie like a sister, it just felt unsafe going to her apartment. She’s always been a little intense, a little dramatic, Khadijah said. Sarmad didn’t say anything, just stood moodily and listened. Don’t you remember, Sarmad, Alice said, back in sixth grade, or maybe it was seventh, Annie thought she’d seen a boy with wings running down her street? Alice touched Sarmad’s arm, and he liked the feeling. She’ll get better soon, he said.
Annie’s mother cooked and dusted quietly, and slipped meals through the gap beneath Annie’s door. She followed the method set by Annie’s father: for food, she used envelopes that he bought or that she made out of newspapers and magazines; for water, she used up a whole new set of disposable trays, and, for some time when he kept forgetting to buy more, a steel soap dish, a thin cardboard box, and old plastic containers that she cut down with scissors. She quickly became adept at getting them to just under a quarter of an inch, and her skin hardly scraped on the sharp edges anymore. Annie’s father often came home earlier now. One evening, he brought a bag of mandarins for his wife. She held one up and smiled a little. It was almost a shy smile.
“Everything looks fresh and clean,” he said. “Annie okay?”
“She has been in her room all day.”
One day Annie’s mother decided it was time she finally went out of the apartment. Hesitantly, and in a not-too-loud voice, she said in the direction of Annie’s room, “I will be back in one hour.” She took care to lock the main door behind her. She bought toothbrushes, soaps, and a new kind of talcum powder. From another shop, she bought an axe.
That night, Annie’s father and mother had dinner in front of the TV, after which he convinced her to go to their bedroom with him. She woke up around midnight, dragged the axe out from underneath her bed, and swung the blade at Annie’s door. The metal struck a gash in the wood. Annie’s father ran out and tried to wrest the axe away from his wife. She kept her grip on it, putting all of her body strength into her arms, making animal sounds from her throat. Moments later, though, her muscles slackened; she knew she was not going to take back control of the axe. She looked up at Annie’s father, her hair gray and brown and loose.
He spoke to her gently: “You’ll make everything go bad again.”
She let him lead her back to the bedroom.
A couple of nights later, Annie’s mother went into the corridor with the dinner envelope in her hand. She smelled it before she saw it: the wavy line of deep yellow liquid near the door. “Oh!” she gasped, lifting her feet up high and backing away. “It’s urine! That witch has spilled her urine down the corridor!”
Annie’s father said softly, “You see, I was right.”
After the urine incident, Annie’s father bought a small box of pills. “I talked to a doctor about Annie’s disorder,” he said. “These will make her normal again.” Annie’s mother began reciting the Quran out loud, with her slow, halting pronunciation, every morning and every night. She said prayers and blew them over the door. She crushed up the pills and mixed them in ground beef for Annie. Because envelopes were messy, Annie’s father bought twenty boxes of resealable plastic pouches from the supermarket. Each box had one hundred bags. Sometimes he spoke to Annie through the door, just a sentence or two about his day. And sometimes he got her treats. Once, he bought a cake, mashing up the whole thing and portioning it into several pouches. But it looked dreadful as it went through the gap, the yellow-and-white icing broken up and mixed into the brown of the cake. On the days he brought dessert, Annie’s mother stuffed the ground pills in that instead of the meal.
Annie’s father thought that his days were now going by more uneventfully than they had in a long time; he did not feel the urge to argue with his wife, or to strike her, or to put her down. The removal of his daughter’s visual presence was like the removal of a pebble from a shoe. He felt ashamed at the comparison, but it could not be helped. He realized this change in him most strongly when, one evening, he noted his wife’s appearance—a wrinkled, faded yellow shirt over brown shalwar, a hair sprouting from the mole on her chin—and felt something like tenderness instead of revulsion.
It was only sometimes at night that the silence behind Annie’s door made him deeply uneasy. Sometimes he remembered things, but he wasn’t sure if these were things he had really done or if they were false memories brought on by panic. He discovered that if he did not sit up or drink water or pinch his leg, he could become paralyzed with fear, imagining Annie coming out from her room. Sometimes he found himself straining his ears in the quiet of the dark to catch sounds.
Annie’s mother slept undisturbed. She had settled into a new routine. She took her Xanax, in the day as well as night, said her prayers, and said to Annie, “Make sure you finish your lunch” and “Finish your homework.” When bad thoughts came, such as the sound of Annie crying from a bathroom she had locked Annie in when she was seven, she swallowed half a pill more.
One evening, her husband said to her, “Let’s go for a drive. You haven’t had an outing in a long time.”
“But what about Annie?” she said, bewildered.
“Annie will be fine. She is a big girl. Besides, we won’t go for more than an hour.”
He took her to see a new fountain which danced according to the beats of a tune. The water was of two colors, amber and blue, like a candle flame, and when the tempo of the tune suddenly went up, the water shot up as well, so high into the air it made the watchers gasp. It frightened Annie’s mother a little. Tourists jostled each other for a better view. Annie’s mother said she wanted to go back home. She urged her husband to drive faster, and she pressed the elevator button repeatedly even as it took them up to their floor. She fumbled with the key and almost ran to Annie’s door. It was still safely locked.
“Annie, are you all right? Do you need anything?”
There was no answer, not even a sigh.
“See? She’s okay,” Annie’s father said to Annie’s mother.
Later that night, Annie’s mother turned to Annie’s father and said, “You don’t believe that knife story, do you?”
And he said, “Of course I don’t.”
Farah Ali is from Pakistan. Her work has been anthologized in the 2020 Pushcart Prize collection and received special mention in the 2018 Pushcart anthology. Her stories have appeared in Shenandoah, The Arkansas International, The Southern Review, Kenyon Review Online, Copper Nickel, Ecotone, Colorado Review, and elsewhere. Her debut short story collection, People Want to Live, is forthcoming from McSweeney’s in October 2021.