by Zahra Barnes
At first, I was sure it was a dream.
I squeezed my eyes shut and blinked twice in the darkness, waiting for the inky silhouette standing over my bed to evaporate like a plume of smoke. The shadow leaned over slightly, invading my space, closing in on me. Its inhale rattled in the silence, and my brain dimly started to realize it should probably panic. Then, the exhale, and a puff of warm air on my face. The shadow moved closer until it was only inches away. When I squeaked out a breath, it inhaled, and when it breathed out, I sucked in its air, trying not to choke on my fear. Finally, I realized I was wide awake. The person in my room wasn’t something from a nightmare.
I shrank away from the shadow and thoughts raced through my mind. How is this actually happening? Who the hell is in my bedroom? My eyes darted toward my phone, which I’d stationed on the other side of the room to motivate myself to actually get up and turn off the alarm in the morning. Yet another way any attempt to be active was seriously screwing me over. I was either going to vomit or pee all over myself. Probably both.
A gleam of white flashed at me from near the top of the shadow, and then a high-pitched giggle followed. My blood ran cold as I realized this person, or demon, or whatever it was, was laughing. My instinct, struggling between fight and flight until that point, made its choice.
My voice started as a wheeze. “Get the fuck out of here!” By the end of the sentence, I was doing what can only be described as a hoarse roar. Someone had the gall to come into my space and threaten me? Fury trumped terror, and I was enraged. I’d been dealing with the kind of fatigue that comes with being a woman, thanks to the asshattery that had been going on in the news. Between women getting catcalled nonstop and the terrifying video that was making the rounds of a Philadelphia abduction in progress, I’d had enough of feeling like women were in constant danger. This was too much.
At the sound of my voice, the shadow started and lurched backward. Now that my eyes had adjusted to the darkness, I could make out the man’s features. He looked familiar for a reason that I couldn’t place, no matter how frantically my mind scrambled.
“Get out!” I shrieked again. I lunged for the lamp on my bedside table. It was hollow and looked like metal, although it was really only stained with silver. Still, its slight heft made me feel more powerful. I leapt to my feet on top of my bed, thanking every deity I could think of that I’d decided to wear a t-shirt and boy shorts to sleep. Waving the lamp over my head like a madwoman, I watched as whoever he was tripped over a pair of heels onto his ass then stumbled into the hallway.
I rushed over and threw myself against the door, immediately locking it and jiggling the handle to make sure it was as secure as possible. My mind immediately went to Celine.
“Celine!” I screamed. “Lock your door! Someone’s in our apartment!”
“Celine, can you hear me?”
Our front door opened and slammed shut. I tossed the lamp onto my bed and grabbed my phone to call 911, then babbled the story to them.
The bored-sounding operator told me to stay calm and find a safe place to wait it out. She assured me that someone would be at the apartment soon. I had no idea if the guy was still in our place and wished the fire escape were somewhere more easily accessible than Celine’s room. I called her next and she answered, reassuring me she had heard my shouting and was hiding in her closet.
At that moment, I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience. Some omnipresent part of me floated on the ceiling of the apartment, taking in my balled-up fists and furious whispers into the phone while keeping an eye on tiny Celine, holed up in her closet. It was surreal.
Next, I called Grant. It was almost 11 a.m. in Abu Dhabi, so I wasn’t surprised when he didn’t answer. He was probably at work. Still, I dialed him a few more times and sent some texts summing up the situation. They were completely devoid of emotion, just messengers of facts. I was like an efficient machine. Am I in shock? I wondered. Is this what they always talk about in Grey’s Anatomy?
My bizarre distance from the situation was the only thing keeping me from coming completely undone. I held off from texting my parents so as not to give them midnight conniptions, but I wrote a note on my phone telling them how much I loved them, just in case. The only other time I’d done something like that had been when a particularly maniacal taxi driver had made me fear for my life on the way to JFK. It had always been a slightly ridiculous anecdote I could whip out when talking about close calls, but this made that story seem like child’s play.
I fired off a series of texts to Marley. She was visiting her family in California and happened to be awake. She called me, but I rejected it and texted her instead. I was too nervous to talk just in case the intruder was still there and would fly into a rage when hearing me on the phone.
“What???” she responded. “Someone’s in your apartment?”
“He was standing over me when I woke up. He didn’t do anything but now I’m locked in my room and Celine’s in her closet and I don’t know what to do.”
“Oh God, the police are on their way? I’m going to get someone over there.”
“What do you mean someone?” I navigated the cursor to put apostrophes around ‘someone,’ instinctively sticking to my grammatical guns despite the state of emergency. I ignored my trembling fingers, refusing to acknowledge how scared I actually was. I was still waiting for Marley’s response when I heard banging on the front door.
“NYPD! Open up!” My body broke down the second I knew I was safe. I collapsed into a quivering pile next to my bed, sobbing with relief. Our front door slammed against the adjacent wall and I groaned inwardly at the resulting gash. There goes my deposit, I thought.
A familiar voice rang out. “Tessa? Are you OK?”
“Sir, you should wait outside the apartment,” a gruff voice said.
“No, I know her. Her best friend called me.”
I dug my fingers into my mattress like it was a life raft and pulled myself up, using the momentum to propel my body into the living room. I braced myself, expecting to see a ransacked apartment. Surprisingly, everything was in place.
Finn was flanked by two police officers. That trio was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I locked eyes with him and he edged past the officers. He scooped me up into his arms and gripped the back of my head like it was so delicate, almost painfully precious to the touch. I clutched his back, faint at the relief of being completely wrapped in something I knew wasn’t dangerous.
“Are you okay?” He pulled away and squeezed my arms roughly, like he was making sure I was actually there. If I hadn’t been grateful to be in the arms of someone safe, it might have been painful.
“I’m fine, I’m fine. Where’s Celine? Celine?!”
“I’m here.” She emerged from her room, her tiny fox-like face drained of color. “Is he gone?”
“I think so.”
The two officers spread out and searched our apartment. Given the minuscule size of our place, it didn’t take very long.
“No one else is here, and it doesn’t look like a case of forced entry,” said one officer. Now that my heart rate had slowed, I could take them both in better. There was clearly a good cop and bad cop. The one who had just spoken was a gangly black woman who was obviously new to the job.
“What does that mean?” Celine’s voice barely made a peep.
“It means this guy either had a key or one of you left the door open.” That was Bad Cop, a stout, freckled guy who’d been the one to bark out their arrival. He softened. “You should be careful, two girls living alone in the city. Are you both okay? Did this guy harm you?”
We reassured them that no, we were fine, just shaken.
I thought back to the night before. I was always vigilant about locking the doors, and nothing had distracted me when I was arriving. I’d never caught Celine leaving a door unlocked, so did that mean someone had a key to our place?
I thought back to the face I’d seen in the darkness of my room. I knew I recognized him from somewhere, but where was it? I racked my brain while the cops talked about standard procedure and filing a report and calling a locksmith for a door chain. I was in the middle of wishing it had all been a bad dream when it hit me.
“Wait, I know who it is!” Everyone’s heads swiveled in my direction. “The guy in our apartment. It was this man who just moved in above us.”
The police instantly tensed up. “Above you here?” Bad Cop asked. “Do you know where exactly he lives?”
“Give me a second.” I ran into my room and threw on some pants, then led them into the hallway and up the stairs. Celine was still collecting herself and decided to stay behind.
I’d only glimpsed the guy the week before. He’d passed me on the staircase, his arms loaded down with boxes. When I’d asked if he needed help, he’d mentioned that he was just up in 4F so he’d be fine. He had one of those faces you see everywhere, just a typical brown-haired guy with features that were neither gorgeous nor revolting. It had taken a while to place him, but now I realized it was definitely him.
The police pounded on his apartment door and an adorable young woman opened up.
“Oh, God. I figured you would show up for my drunken ass of a roommate. Um, sorry.” She looked nervously at the cops. “He told me what happened before he passed out. I’m Xia, come in.” She shuffled backward to make room for us. The man in question was indeed snoring on the couch.
Bad Cop turned to me. Both officers had told me their names at one point, but I’d completely forgotten them in the craziness. “Is this the man you saw in your room?”
I folded my arms in front of my chest, suddenly feeling naked even thought I was fully clothed. Finn pulled me in closer to him as I nodded. “That’s him.” I was positive.
“Brian did this last year, too,” Xia explained apologetically. “I tell him he needs to stop getting this drunk but he doesn’t listen to me. Last time, he went into some guy’s dorm and almost got in bed with him before he realized what he was doing. He’s totally fine, he just needs to sleep it off.”
It was all starting to come together.
“Dorm?” I asked.
“We’re seniors at Hunter. I’m so sorry. He wanders a lot when he’s wasted. I swear, he’s harmless.”
Did I seriously fear for my life because of the type of drunken antics I thought I’d left behind in college? I reached out and nudged Brian with my foot. He jerked in his sleep, then swatted at his face and resumed mouth-breathing. In this light, I could see how young he looked. Typical blasted kid who didn’t know how to hold his booze.
“Sir, wake up. We have some questions for you,” Bad Cop snapped a little more loudly than necessary. I was kind of grateful for that, considering that this kid had almost made me lose control of my bodily functions.
Xia offered to get us some water. Good Cop, Finn, and I followed her into the kitchen as the questioning took place.
“Again, I’m so sorry,” she said. “I’ll use this as a reason he needs to go to rehab or like, lay off the drinking or something.”
“If that’s honestly what happened here, I swear, I’ll be grateful. I was so scared.” I felt Finn’s eyes trailing me and sucked in a deep breath. I wasn’t in danger anymore. I wanted to be strong.
I sipped the water and answered Good Cop’s kind questions until Bad Cop called me back into the living room. “It sounds like Mr. Levin here is saying he mistook your apartment for his in his state of inebriation.” Bad Cop glared down his nose at him disapprovingly.
Brian cringed, looking up at me with bald shame in his eyes. “I’m sorry. I stopped a floor too early. My key wasn’t working but I thought I was just too drunk to do it right. The door was open when I tried it, and I guess your room is directly below mine. I thought it was my room. I had no idea.”
Everyone looked at me to gauge my reaction. I stared into Brian’s eyes, and deep down, I felt like he was telling the truth.
“You need to make sure you have the right place next time,” I said.
“She’s within her rights to have you brought in for questioning,” Bad Cop warned.
I let the threat hang in the air and watched Brian’s reaction like a hawk. He hung his head. I turned to Good Cop. “You guys aren’t going to forget about this, right?”
She shook her head. “We’ll have to file an incident report.” That was enough for me. My gut was telling me this was a wasted kid who needed to get his life together, not someone who was an actual threat. But I was definitely getting an extra lock installed for us.
“Okay, I don’t want to press charges or anything, as long as there’s a record of it in case it happens again,” I said.
I thanked Xia for her cooperation and our little motley crew headed back to my apartment. Finn’s hand on the small of my back guided me gently. It felt as sure as an anchor.
We were greeted by the smell of waffles as soon as we walked into the apartment. Celine’s head popped up from her station over the stove.
“I’m sorry, I do not have any doughnuts!” she told the cops. “But waffles will do, yes?” Her preternaturally bright eyes darted between the officers, eager for their approval of her French interpretation of American ways. I winced at how loud her voice was, but I could tell she was doing her best to make the most of the situation.
Good Cop shot Bad a hopeful look. Bad Cop shook his head slightly. “We need to go.” He told me to call the precinct if anything else happened, and despite our best attempts, they both left sans waffles.
That’s how I found myself eating golden-brown deliciousness in my apartment at 3:15 a.m. with Celine and Finn. I shook some more powdered sugar onto the tower in front of me and eyed my roommate. We would have to have another talk about house rules, because I knew there was no way I had left the door unlocked.
Finn leaned back across from me. “Crazy night.”
I finished texting everyone who would care if I ended up on Dateline to let them know I was okay. “Yes, and you need to go home! You’ve done enough of the superhero stuff for tonight. But seriously, thank you for coming. I was so freaked out.”
“You sure you want me to leave? I can stay, pull up a spot on the couch.”
“Yes, I’m sure. That guy was so drunk, I could totally handle him if he came back for another round.”
He rolled his eyes. “Glad I could be of service. And thanks for the waffles.”
Celine nodded, clearly fading in the throes of a sugar crash.
Finn stood up and shoved his hands into his pockets. He came over to me and I craned my neck to maintain eye contact.
“I owe you one,” I said. I looked down at the floor, suddenly feeling a little embarrassed that he had made the trip over for something that turned out not to be a big deal.
“Nah. It’s on the house.” He gave me a quick hug and left. I locked the door behind him, and before I finally went to bed, checked it two more times for good measure.