Anna must be six years old. It’s hard to tell from Chamali’s window. The girl scoots about the lawn, next to the rotted bones of a barbeque. She is swinging a broomstick without an end. Now and then, she goes to the curb and jumps on the road, as though daring a car to hit her. No one stops her.
Chamali has been watching for hours. Anna’s parents are in the house, drinking. He can see them through the window, leaning into a couch as they watch a screen. Bottles sit on a table. It’s almost noon, not quite, on a school day in the middle of summer.
Anna jumps on the road. This time, she takes a few steps towards the painted line in the middle. A car honks and swerves. Anna races back to the grass and retreats with her broomstick to the rusted barbeque. She opens the door underneath the burners and hides inside.
Chamali goes downstairs. Soon, a delivery of food will come to his house. Later, he will get a phone call asking him about his health, and if he needs a visit. “No,” he will say, for as much as he cannot stand the thought of leaving the house, he equally hates the thought of someone coming inside.
In Pakistan, where he was born, people did not spend time in houses. He remembers that. Every chance they had, people went outside, for what was there inside those little hovels in those tall dilapidated buildings? He remembers morning prayer. At four am, the speakers would blast, and everyone would get up. It was an excuse to stir. A reason to go outside, where the real world existed.
In Pakistan, the sun is also shining. And it’s also summer. And it’s a school day, and everyone goes outside. But Chamali hasn’t left his house in eight years, and that won’t change no matter how bright the day is today.
It was innocent, Chamali thought. He is twenty-one, in a country with freedoms hanging like leaves on trees along every street – whole forests of freedoms, easy to pick. Studying in university, he does well during the days, but at night, the freedoms drop from their branches, and he stuffs them into his pocket.
“How old are you,” he writes on the computer.
A pause. Hurry! he wants to tell the computer. “Fourteen,” comes the reply.
“That is very young,” he says, overwhelmed at the thought.
“I don’t mind meeting,” says the computer. “If you have money, lol.”
Chamali has money. That’s what happens when you’re a good student and you have a scholarship. He makes an arrangement and walks to a house four blocks away. The light outside is off. He looks around for activity – any hint that this is a trap. But it’s not a trap. He walks inside and meets her. They drink soda. Turn on the television. She is wearing shorts and a t-shirt, and texting on her phone. He puts a hand on her knee. Gives her money. Then they’re in a child’s bedroom, on a bed filled with stuffed animals. Chamali turns them around so that they don’t see what happens next.
When he gets home, satiated, he turns on the computer and starts to work on his thesis. But he can’t resist. He can’t resist seeing who else may wish to talk to him, who else feels the freedom in this world, maybe in the same way that he does.
A howl in the night wakes Chamali up. In Pakistan, it is also dark. Quiet. Prayers are not starting yet. He was dreaming of a gold mountain in Punjab province. No one believes in it, until they see it for themselves. When he was young, a little prodigy wearing glasses in the hand of his mother, he went to that gold mountain. Stood in the trees at the bottom and looked up, blinded.
Across the street, Anna’s house is dark. She must be asleep. He imagines her in her bed, surrounded by things her parents have accumulated in the house over time. It is all junk in there, everywhere – they bring it home all the time, as though it has value and will save them some day.
A woman runs onto the lawn, Anna’s mother. Chamali presses his face against the window. The woman is only wearing underwear. She trips on a lawn hose and falls to the ground. She doesn’t get up. Two or three cars pass the house, unaware.
“Get up,” he says to her, drawing words in the breath of his fog on the window.
But she doesn’t get up, and Chamali falls asleep against the window. When morning comes, the woman is gone and the howls are, too. Chamali shakes himself of dreams of a gold mountain, something no one would believe unless they saw it for themselves.
Chamali is three weeks from handing in his thesis. It is a glorious piece of work and will set him up for a career as a research scientist or even a professor. He will publish many articles, make many speeches at conferences.
But the night is rich, and Chamali walks to his advisor’s house for dinner. Dr. Foster is well-established and anxious to bring the best talent to his research group. Chamali arrives with a bouquet of flowers and sits down to eat. There is lasagna and wine. Pie for dessert.
The phone rings. “Yes,” says Dr. Foster, in his deep voice. “Now? Fine. Just wait.”
Dr. Foster has a beard streaked with gray and his nose is marked with ridges from his glasses, which he takes off and puts on all the time, it seems. “Can you take care of the kids for a few minutes? There’s been an issue at the department and they’ve called a meeting.”
Chamali shrugs, as though this is no hardship. “Of course, sir.”
“I can pay you some babysitting money!” says Dr. Foster, opening the front door. Then he’s gone.
There are two children. Ben is twelve and watching television. Jess is eight and playing in her room. Chamali goes there and closes the door. He sits with her and plays with the dolls. The window is open, admitting summer air. It smells wonderful, thinks Chamali. Soon, he is cuddling with this young girl, a new game that he has invented on the spot. “You are so pretty,” he says to her. She tries to pull away, but he talks faster, calming her down. Easing her mind. Making her understand.
Dr. Foster is so grateful to Chamali, so impressed with his star graduate student, that he asks him to babysit several times. The money is not important, thinks Chamali, as he walks to their house in the evenings so that Dr. Foster can go on dates with women who like the thought of being with an academic. The important thing, he thinks, is freedom.
“I should come and see you,” says Andre. “Next week, Thursday around ten, that sound okay?”
“I’m fine,” says Chamali. “It’s good to speak by phone. It’s enough.”
Andre chuckles. “Sure. We can talk by phone all day long. But how much human interaction do you get? You haven’t left the house in years. You get no guests. It’s good to speak with people in person. You could make me tea or something.”
“Why do you want to see a sex offender?”
Andre pauses. Takes a breath. “You’re my patient, son.” Then he laughs. “Plus, it’s my job!”
“There is nothing funny about this…”
“You’re right. That’s why I’m coming over next week.” A pause. “What thoughts are in you these days?”
It’s a trigger phrase. Andre has been using this on Chamali for years, a prompt to enter his soul and turn it inside out for anyone to see. Chamali feels himself falling into that phrase, as though it’s a moon and he’s the astronaut set to explore it – the first to plant a flag, to build a colony, to display bright bright lights on the cratered surface displaying all his feelings.
“There’s a girl across the street…” he whispers.
“I didn’t hear that,” cuts in Andre.
“Nothing. I can explain.”
“Next Thursday, right?”
Chamali swallows and thinks about what someone will think when they come into this house. It is kept dark, cool. The curtains are drawn. Many rooms are barren. It is not a living place. It is just dead, airless, devoid of life – just like a moon, tucked in the heavens, hurtling through space without a purpose and with nowhere to go.
When sirens blare, Chamali believes it is the couple down the hallway, the one that throws the wild parties all the time. But the knock is on his door, and the police that come into his apartment sit him down and ask questions. They take his computer. Search the apartment.
He agrees to go with them to the police station. “I defend my thesis next week,” he explains. “It’s very important that I return home soon.” They are highly understanding as they sit him down in a small room and ask questions. Most of them are about Dr. Foster’s daughter, Jess. He has seen her two dozen times now.
When a policewoman comes in and puts Chamali’s computer on the table, the questions change. They have examined his digital history. They know what he has been doing. “But I am a Masters student!” he exclaims. “I have to defend the thesis. Two and a half years are leading to next week!”
They understand, all too well. He’s arrested. He’s in a jail cell. At the bars, he tells them to call Dr. Foster, that the professor will explain. But Dr. Foster does not come. Chamali is charged. Given a court date. A hearing. Swiftly, the thought of Chamali’s thesis defense disappears. In court, he sees Dr. Foster again, but it is not the Dr. Foster he remembers. This man has shaved his beard. Has hollow eyes and gritted teeth. He looks broken, and Chamali wants to go to him and give him a hug, but he is not allowed to do that.
On a day at the end of summer, he is sentenced to six years. His parents have come from Pakistan to hear the outcome. They sit in the gallery, listening. When the sentence is given, his mother wails, saying that this cannot be true of her only son, that such abominations are unknown to a boy as fair as this, as smart, as giving and gentle.
In his prison cell, Chamali faces walls that are the new extent of his freedom. He has a small space in-between where he is free, but his world is like the bottom of a crater with the walls collapsing and he struggling for breath. He spends the nights staring at the ceiling, wondering how he got here. There was a dream he had once, of going back to Lahore in Pakistan, a wizened and eminent professor there to lecture young minds on the possibilities that the world has to offer. He rehearses his speech. Repeats it over and over again, until he has it memorized.
When he meets Andre, the counselor shakes his hand gladly. “Nice to meet you. So you fucked up royally, right? It happens.”
Chamali stares at the man, in his sweater and jeans.
“You’ll have to talk,” says the man. “It’s a requirement of therapy. I mean, if you’re going to reform, you have to participate. Or, if you prefer, you can just tell the world that you’re going to be ill forever, and we can just keep you inside for the rest of your life. Do you still fantasize about young girls?”
The question makes Chamali sick. He wants to throw up.
“No, no, don’t look at me like that,” says Andre. “I want to know.”
“Not me,” whispers Chamali. “It was someone else. I cannot do those things.”
Andre stares at him and pulls out a piece of gum. “Want some? No? That’s okay. But you know, this is a decent start. It was someone else, right? Someone who couldn’t be you because what happened was so awful, wasn’t it? What happened was about as evil as you can get, and the children who were affected are going to live with the outcomes for the rest of their life. Someone – whoever it was – got some satisfaction out of it, but those kids? Every day, the rest of their lives. Every day with their own kids. Every day they wonder about what it might be like not to live with that hurt inside of them. Every day wondering how to fix it, when nothing can. And then, when you realize it can’t be fixed, wondering why they had to be in that situation. Why them and not someone else. So let’s talk about who could do something like that, if not you. Let’s talk about that person, whoever it is.”
Chamali looks at him. He’s grinning as he chews his gum. In his hand, he’s flipping a pen, but he doesn’t have any paper to write on.
Six-year old Anna must weigh almost nothing, thinks Chamali. How else could her father carry her like that into the carport to the side of the house? Like she’s a doll. He’s yelling at her, and she’s screaming. He puts a hand over her mouth.
There’s a garbage can next to the house. The father sticks a hose in it and starts the water. Anna bites his hand and he punches her in the face. When there’s enough water in the garbage can, he puts her in head-first. The screaming stops. The man sucks on the skin where Anna bit him.
The hose keeps filling the garbage can. Anna’s legs are pumping.
When she’s pulled out, she’s coughing. Water is coming out of her mouth. Panicked, her father smacks her on the back, trying to get her to breathe. Chamali watches her hack. He can hear the noise from across the street. When Anna has recovered, she kneels on the concrete, hands planted. Her father is watching her. Looking around, as though he doesn’t know what’s happened. He sees her daughter and puts a hand on her shoulder. It’s a gentle touch. Anna looks up and throws her arms around him. He takes her in, holds her close. She’s crying. He’s got his eyes closed. Neither of them knows where they are. Chamali watches, uncertain of what part of the world they are in, the three of them on this beautiful summer morning.
When Chamali left prison, he was put in a taxi cab. “We have a house for you,” Andre had told him. “You’ll register as a sex offender. You’ll have regular check-ins.”
The house had been small, two floors in a neighborhood not far from the mountains. Nothing like Lahore at all, he had thought. When he’d gone through the front door with Andre, the place had been barren. “We’ll have to get some things,” Andre had said. “Come on, let’s go shopping!”
And they’d gone out in Andre’s car. Trip after trip, they’d bought things for the house: a bed, a desk, a computer with suitable protections against accessing too much of the world, food. After each trip, Chamali had returned to the house gratefully. He’d drawn the drapes. Made it dark. Kept it cool.
The last time he’d left the house had been a walk. He’d strode down the street in the evening, wondering how he had got so old, so lonely. In a strip mall, he’d bought some cigarettes – it was a habit he’d learned in prison. On the way home, he’d thrown them into a garbage can.
When he’d got home, it was dark. Streetlights were shining. Headlights moved up and down the road. The house looked big to him in the evening light – far bigger than the life he’d known for the last years. Big enough, he’d thought, to be the whole world, an entire planet contained within a few walls under a pitched roof.
It was the last time he’d gone outside. The last time he’d been part of the world, and the last time the world had had anything to do with him, this brilliant boy from Lahore who’d once seen a golden mountain, first as he stood in the forest at its base, and then in his dreams as the years crept by and he wondered what he had done to his life.
It’s fall and it’s raining. Andre had come to the house, but Chamali had not told him about Anna. He couldn’t find the words. The sweater weather counselor had inspected the house, ordered Chinese food, and together they’d sat at a table and talked about the world.
“How are they?” Chamali had finally asked.
Andre had stared hard at him. “Your victims?”
The fading taste of spare ribs suddenly seemed terrible in his mouth. “Yes. Them.”
“How do you think? Do you think they’re fine? Doing well? Getting along splendidly?”
Andre had nodded, taken out a piece of gum. “What thoughts are in you these days?”
“Don’t ask me that,” Chamali had said. “Just do not.”
As usual, Andre had grinned. “I’m sorry, my friend, but that’s the only question that matters. The only one that counts. I’m slightly encouraged that you want to know how your victims are doing, and to answer your question, they’re doing shit. None of them is coping well. None of them is having a normal life. Fortunately, only one has tried to kill themselves, but hey, she botched it up, so that’s a positive. If you’re wondering if they’re going to forgive you, just don’t bother going there. Neither you nor they have enough years to get to forgiveness. So let’s just get back to it. What thoughts are in you these days?”
The words hang. Chamali stares at the table. It’s round, barely big enough for two place settings. It leans to a side and just looks tired. Nearby, the kitchen sink drips and the refrigerator grates with the sound of a misaligned fan. What thoughts are in you these days? thinks Chamali. And then an image of Anna comes to him, head-first in the garbage can, coming out soaking wet and yet still clinging to her father as though he were the only person in the world that could save her.
It’s fall and it’s still raining. Chamali is at the window. Across the street, he can see Anna’s parents in the living room, drinking as usual. A bottle smashes against a wall and Anna’s father dances as her mother lights up a cigarette. Anna is there, too, tugging at their sleeves, but they get tired of this and put her outside. It’s eight o’clock at night and the rain is getting cold. Anna huddles under the overhang of the front door.
Chamali watches, breathing. How many years continue to pass, he thinks, as he aches for going backwards, to before. What was it like then, he wonders? Who was he back then, before prison, before the things he did? He doesn’t remember, and in the reflection in the window, there is a man who is certainly not him – an aging, pale, useless man that has nothing left to contribute to the world. Why are you even alive? he asks his reflection. What is the value in your existence?
In the house across the street, Anna’s mother strikes her husband. He retaliates. Bodies fly, the man larger and stronger and quickly getting the upper hand, until she grabs a bottle and smashes it across his head. It doesn’t shatter into pieces, as it would in a movie. No, it splits in half and scratches him deeply across the face. He howls, face bloodied. He lifts up the table, as though he’s going to slam it on her. She flees into another part of the house. He drops the table on its side and runs after her, vanishing.
Anna sits on the doorstep. She is letting the rain land on her feet. She is digging her toes into the mud of the lawn.
Chamali breathes. Then he goes from the room and looks down a flight of stairs. The house is dark. He goes down to the front door and leans against it. His forehead is sweating. His breaths are hoarse. He turns the handle.
Air rushes into the house. The outside world, he finds, is bigger than it was before – it goes further, even though clouds are hiding the sky and rain is falling like it won’t stop. A wind is howling, pushing against Anna’s house and soaking her where she sits on the front step. She’s trying to get inside but the door is locked.
Chamali walks outside. The enormity of his world crushes him the moment he takes a step. What are you doing? asks the breadth of existence. Who do you think you are? Have you forgotten? Do you not know what you are labelled and how the world sees you? Every moment, every piece of the pain and suffering you feel, is deserved. In fact, you deserve worse. You need to stay inside that house, until the moment when they knock on your door and go inside to find you dead, either because your heart simply quit or because you did the proper thing and cut up your wrists until your filthy blood flooded the carpet.
He walks into the rain. The ground is so muddy and he’s forgotten his shoes. He’s cold and soaked. The rain falls like it’s punishing him. At the curb to the road, he pauses. When a car drives past, he doesn’t know what to do and just freezes. Far past Anna’s house, in the mountains, thunder is rolling, like a judgement on the world and the evil things that people do to each other sometimes – evil of a type he never imagined, didn’t know existed, couldn’t have dreamt of when he was a kid growing up in Lahore, a lifetime ago.
He steps onto the road. Gravel bites into his feet but he moves across it and onto Anna’s lawn. He steps over the twisted hose and around the decrepit barbeque. At the front door, he finds Anna soaked. She is knocking at the door but no one is answering. Her hair is long and soaked. Her clothes are tattered and soaked. She’s crying.
Chamali takes her by the arm. He’s as gentle as he knows how to be. She turns and sees him, and for whatever reason, she puts her arms around him.
“Don’t do that,” he says, but it’s the first time in a long time that anyone has touched him.
He detaches and holds her hand, drawing her across the lawn. At the road, he picks her up and carries her across. Together, they are getting soaked. Behind, thunder is devastating the mountains – there are avalanches there, tornadoes, hurricanes and tidal waves. There is no other explanation.
At Chamali’s front doorstep, out of the wind, the storm is muted. The rain is gone. He puts Anna on the doorstep. “Stay here. Don’t move.”
He goes inside and finds a blanket. Takes what food he has in the fridge – cheese, a bit of bread, carrot sticks. Peanut butter.
Outside, he puts the blanket around Anna. “I’m still cold,” she says, the first time he’s ever heard her voice.
“You can’t come inside,” he says. He unwraps the food and hands it to her. “Eat.”
“Thank you,” she says. There is almost nothing to her, this thin girl who looks like she hasn’t eaten in days. When she’s finished the food, she leans against him. He closes his eyes, trying to understand this. It seems to him, in a lifetime long ago, he would have understood this. But that lifetime is gone.
When he feels her hand on his, he wants to pull away. He wants to tell her no. Instead, he takes the phone from his pocket and calls the police. He explains what is happening across the street. Then he tells them exactly who he is and what he’s done. In fact, he can’t stop talking about it, explaining all of it in a way that he’s never even told Andre. It all comes out, there as he sits on the doorstep with this little girl’s hand in the weathered, pale and aging span of his own.