Do Not Answer

Short Story by Naveed Ashraf

Do Not Answer

I’ve had this feeling that someone has been following me, not always the same person, but it’s as if someone or the other has been tracking me like a shadow, throwing furtive glances at me while trying to remain unnoticed, but all the same I have spotted them. Once, just as I looked back and saw a suspicious looking man, he scurried on to a side street. Today, I am sure, it’s that same man sitting to my right, a few benches away. He is tall and thin and wearing the same black overcoat with its collars turned up, and a short-brimmed hat on his head, tilted slightly to one side. He seems to be pretending he’s here to take in the autumn colored trees. That’s why I had come to Central Park, for the comforting caress of nature, but he had to spoil it all for me. Instead of soothing my senses the bright orange and yellow of the lingering leaves on dried-out branches are starting to have a jarring effect on me. Above the shimmering leaves a kind of sadness seems to hover, as if the air is still sad the summer is gone. Dappled light falls on dead leaves scattered all around my feet.

Now he’s staring right at me with his narrow, piercing eyes brimming with menace. A wave of fear runs through me, and I know that I need to get away. A group of people is approaching and behind them is a gaggle of girls, nicely dressed as if they are going to a party. I slip right in the middle of the group that’s in front. He does not see this, too distracted by the girls. I steel a glance back and see that he is up on his feet, his overcoat flapping by his whirling movement, but then he sees me and hurries after me.

I go across Central Park South and dash down Eighth Avenue, cutting through a sea of people. A din of voices fills the street, the constant hum of cars and busses surrounds it, and it bellows out exhausted clouds of dense steam at places. I feel that I am not walking at all, but instead sitting by the window of a train barreling forward, everything outside is flying by in the opposite direction at a dizzying pace. I look back again and don’t see him, but that could be because it’s hard to spot him in the crowd. The noise keeps getting louder, and my mind starts to wander again.

***

I had stopped thinking about Pakistan a long time ago, and the memory of my younger days had almost faded, but sometimes when I see a young family at the corner of a street, waiting to go across, the memories blow back in full view and I am transported to another time, another place. I begin to see every detail of my childhood home, the woven beds and the wicker chairs, the springs creaking every time the backdoor was opened, the click of my father’s glasses as he took them off, the aroma of my mother’s cooking wafting through the tiny house, my siblings and I playing pranks on guests from the village. My parents telling us the stories of their childhood from when they lived in the village. They were first cousins and always knew that they were going to get married to each other; their parents had written the scripts of their lives long before they could read them, let alone write them themselves.

I had always known that cousin marriages can result in children with birth defects, physical deformities or mental illnesses. But I had got lucky, and so had my siblings; none of us had any physical or mental maladies. My head begins to hurt thinking these thoughts; the incessant pull of opposing forces have gnawed at me for so long, and how I haven’t come apart at seams, torn asunder at the joints, I do not know.

To the noise of the street is added the noise within my head. I need a drink. I look back and see him again, hunkered down in his oversized overcoat, as if retreating more into it would hide him from me. I pull my hoodie over my head hoping it will reduce the noise and the world around me will somehow disappear. Then I turn on to a side street and stand still, plastered to the wall watching people go by on the avenue. The man in the overcoat keeps going straight down the street.

My phone rings. “Do not answer” flashes across the screen. It distresses me every time I see that. I put the phone back in my pocket and look up and down the street; I have finally lost him. I go into a bar. It’s a narrow space packed with people, the air feels heavy and surreal, but I will drown it all in a drink.

***

The bartender is a voluptuous woman, wearing a low-neck T-shirt, her hair sculpted into a towering bun on her head like a bird’s nest. She seems surprised to see me and gives me a long, perplexed look before coming over. She places a glass of water before me on the bar. I ask her for a jack and coke. She says curtly, “Drink this first.” She must think that I am drunk already. I look around and see a large, intimidating looking man with thick eyebrows coming towards me, but I take the glass and down it, and she puts her hand up and stops him, “It’s okay, Walter,” she says. I’m bewildered and can’t understand what’s going on. I finish my drink with a few large draws, and ask for another one. She seems more relaxed now and does not make me drink water again. Suddenly she says, “It’s going to rain today, I can feel it in my hair.” She pats her hair gently. “You’ve got your own weather channel up there.” I wonder if my humor will lighten the mood. But then a tiny bird with brilliant red and yellow feathers flutters out of the nest and tweets something in her ear. Startled, I almost fall off my bar stool.

Before I can recover from my shock I see a faint fog filling the space. A shrill twang shrinks my head, my hands and feet grow cold, and the back of my neck feels like it’s turning into stone. The blond sitting at the stool to my left keeps staring at me. I look around and everyone is throwing furtive glances at me. Suddenly, the blond sticks out her tongue and wiggles it side to side. Her features become fuzzy and she seems to be melting, as if a waxen figure is exposed to too much heat, changing into an indistinct mass, but then she starts to mold herself into a long slender form, climbing onto the bar. To my horror she turns herself into a serpent and starts slithering toward me. I want to run but I can’t move, my limbs have gone lifeless. I look toward the door and see him entering the bar, the man in the overcoat. The floor starts to tilt to one side, but I still can’t move. The bartender is screaming at me but before her words can reach my ears a blinding white light fills the bar and I lose consciousness.

“Honey... honey, can you hear me? Are you there?” she is saying. She grabs me by the shoulder and jolts me. She is now clad in all white. I look around and see that I am not at a bar anymore; it’s a long, bleak-looking hall with beds lined up on one side. I am in a chair by the window, sitting in a shaft of sunlight that seems to have just burst out from behind the floating clouds. “Are you okay, honey?” She is holding a glass of water, reaches in her coat pocket and pulls out several large multicolored pills, cupped in her gloved hand.

“Now, honey, I’ve got extra for you today. Doctor wants you to take extra for the next two weeks. Okay, sweetie? You had quite the night. You had the shakes and you muttered and screamed and ran around. Walter had to chase you down all over the hallways. We had to give you a shot but we don’t want to give you another one just yet, as long as you take these, and then you can go on scribbling in your notebook.”

“Here, now, open wide and drink the whole glass and then stick your tongue out. Don’t slip them under the cushion. I don’t want to have to call Walter over. Okay? Here we go then.” She shoves the pills down my throat and hands me the glass of water. “That’s good, now open wide and say aah. We don’t want to go to the injections, do we?” She sticks a finger inside my mouth and pokes at the inside of my cheeks, leaning forward, she takes a deep look inside but finds nothing. She gives me a triumphant smile, as if she has just had a small victory.

Then she pulls up a chair and sits down beside me, gently putting her hand on my forearm she says, “Look, honey, I hate telling you again but I have to: Jimmy doesn’t want you calling him, it’s been over a year since he worked here last. He even put ‘do not answer’ for your name in his phone. You have to stop or we will have to suspend your phone privileges again. He does not do counseling any more. Okay, honey? After all, we are all here to talk to you.”

About the Author

Naveed Ashraf

Naveed Ashraf lives between New York and Rawalpindi. He has worked as a theater actor in Washington DC, including in the play Indian Ink at the Studio Theater. He has written articles for Pakistani newspapers Dawn and The Friday Times, and his short story “Impasse” was published in The Aleph Review.