Note: There is an attempted assault in this chapter. Nothing explicit.
She didn’t expect her hallway to be busy on a Tuesday morning. She was settled at her desk, happy to sit and get her work done in peace. That’s when she heard the tell tale signs - the bumping of furniture into walls, the grunts of someone navigating the tight corridors with limited visibility, and the constant opening and closing of the door across from hers. She knew the previous tenant had moved, but didn’t realize that the turn around would be so fast. She was very curious about the new occupant, but every time she got up from her laptop to look through the peephole, she was always a little too late. She only got a glimpses of her new neighbor through slowly shutting doors and close packed stair rails. She could tell they were relatively young, and seemed to be relatively in shape; after all, they were moving a solid amount of furniture by themselves. However, her job seemed to be conspiring against her, keeping her from fully creeping on the new resident. Every time she would hear someone coming up the stairs, her laptop would ping, alerting her to another bug in her program.
After about six different attempts to spy on her new neighbor, she gave up. The curiosity was still present, eating away at the back of her mind as she hunched over her laptop. It was a small building, she reasoned. And a small town. She was bound to run into them eventually. Based on the glimpses she caught earlier, the new neighbor was either a man or a very muscular woman, either of which would be welcome to her (small) circle of friends.
By the time evening rolled around, she noticed the banging on the walls and feet on the stairs were absent. In fact, she couldn’t remember the last time she heard the sound of the door opening and closing. So the new neighbor was all moved in, then?
She could suddenly hear her mother’s voice, lecturing her. You need to go welcome them to the neighborhood, Mika! The silence after unloading into a new space is heavy. You know what lightens it? Cake.
To be fair, one thing she and her mother always agreed on was that cake improved most situations.
She stared at her own door for a long time, trying to decide her next move. Was it still considered cordial to greet people moving in next door? Or creepy? Her gaze shifted to her kitchen counter, where half of a small chocolate cake sat under a glass dome. After a few agonizing moments of debate, she gathered her courage and stood up, crossing the tiny apartment with determined strides. She didn’t think too hard, cutting a large chunk from the cake and carefully moving it to a small plate. As she laid cling wrap carefully over it, she became acutely aware that she was still in her pajamas. The plate stayed half covered on the counter, waiting for her as she went to her closet. Again, she tried to keep her thoughts from taking over, simply exchanging her flannel pants for some jeans and slipping a bra on under her tshirt. Casual. Just keep it casual.
She finished covering the plate and slid on her shoes. She would keep it quick. Short introduction, brief welcome, hand over sweets, and retreat. Don’t linger. Don’t make it weird. Her heart rate elevated as she opened her door, taking two steps into the hallway before halting.
What if they didn’t like chocolate?
She stared at the cake, as if asking it to magically transform into something the person next door would like. However, since it was unfortunately an ordinary cake, it stayed its original form. She steeled her resolve - worst case scenario, they would take the cake, make no conversation, and never return her plate. Best case scenario, they wouldn’t be home, and she could abort her mission and return home to eat the cake herself.
She quietly inched to the door, all the confidence she had a few minutes ago draining like sand in an hourglass. The hallway was uncomfortably silent, holding the evening lull between the day shift and night shift. She stood in front of the door for a moment, listening intently; the walls were relatively thin, but she didn’t hear any noises coming from the apartment. Maybe she would get lucky and they would be out for the evening. She raised her hand, preparing to knock, but a frustrated noise from inside the apartment distracted her. She faltered, shifting her weight and attempting to garner her courage again. Unfortunately for her, the floor creaked loudly under her foot. Her heart dropped, and she barely heard the sound of a chair scraping against the floor over the rushing of the blood in her ears. She quickly put the plate on the ground in front of the door, bounding across the hall and into her apartment. She shut the door quietly, leaning up against it and looking through the tiny glass eyelet. The apartment door opened across the hall, finally showing her the face of its resident.
He looked young - around her age, maybe - but carried himself as if he were much older. His dark hair was longer than she expected, hanging around his face like a curtain. He looked to either side of his door, then finally noticed the plate on the floor. He stared at it for a long time - a weirdly long time. Long enough that she considered going into the hallway herself and telling him it wasn’t a bomb or anything dangerous. After what felt like ages, he bent down and picked it up, taking a closer look at it. He took another look around the perimeter of the hallway, his eyes pausing on her door. She wondered if he could hear her heart pounding. He turned and went back inside, closing the door behind him.
Mika collapsed into one of her dining room chairs, trying to control her heart rate. Her cheeks still burned with embarrassment, though she couldn’t pinpoint why exactly she felt so mortified. She hadn’t even actually met him, not face to face. The door had always been between them.
Even though first contact was not successfully made, her plate still ended up at her door the next day.
To be clear, she didn’t actually see him the next day. Or the day after that. In fact, almost a week went by before Mika saw her new neighbor again. Of course, they didn’t run into each other on the day that she got dolled up for her best friend’s birthday, or the day her workout outfit actually matched and had her looking like she had her life together. No, he had to leave his apartment at the exact time she was on her knees in front of her door, bags of groceries toppling over while she tried to pick her lock for the hundredth time. They both stopped, staring awkwardly at each other as the silence slowly smothered them.
“Do you live here?” he asked, finally breaking the tension. His voice was softer than Mika expected, though his gaze was very serious. She wondered what kind of neighborhood he lived in before that had him so defensive.
“Um, yes. Yes, I do. I just forgot my keys inside.” she explained. He was staring as if he were trying to figure out a hidden meaning to her words. His lack of response encouraged her tendency to ramble. “I have this bad habit of turning the lock on the knob on my way out but I don’t always grab my keys before I go so...this kind of happens a lot.”
He looked at her for a long time before finally saying, “Okay.” He turned, locked his own door, and trotted down the stairs without another word. She let out a long breath.
“Excellent first impression, Mika. You’ve really outdone yourself this time.” she muttered to herself as his footsteps faded down the staircase. Her lock clicked open, the door swinging open silently. “Now he thinks you’re awkward and a criminal. Wonderful. Really.”
She gathered her grocery bags, continuing to chastise herself as she took them inside and dropped them on the kitchen counter. Her phone was ringing somewhere amongst the bags, but she couldn’t get them out of her hands fast enough to answer it. She cursed her bracelet loudly as it stuck in the bag handle, shaking her hand violently to free it from its plastic prison. She only thought afterwards to check and make sure there were no eggs in the bag. Luckily, the only collateral damage was a now severely bruised apple.
Her phone finally surfaced, a missed call notice from her best friend glaring at her from the screen. She swiped the pop up, electing to call her back without checking the voicemail first. She held the phone to her ear with her shoulder, organizing her groceries as it rang.
“Alo?” her best friend sang as an answer.
“The groceries were holding me captive.” Mika said.
“I don’t need your excuses. You should be waiting by your phone at all times for me to call.” she said shortly.
“Elena, one of these days you’ll have to let me have a life.” Mika replied.
“I’ll take it into consideration.” Elena said. “In the meantime, what did you buy for tonight? Hopefully not that shitty sweet wine you got last time.”
Mika held up the bottle of riesling to which Elena was referring. “I absolutely got it again. It was delicious. But I also got something dark and bitter for you too.” she said, taking out a bottle of bordeaux and putting it on the corner of the counter. The riesling went into the refrigerator.
“As long as there’s choices I suppose. I was planning on bringing some soup and bread since it’s been cold out. Does that sound good to you?” she asked. Mika made a noise of agreement as she put away her premade meals for the week.
“Sounds amazing.” she said.
“And what’s for dessert?” Elena asked.
“Well I passed by that amazing Greek restaurant on my way home, but the line was out the door and I didn’t have time to wait. So we’re going to have some baklava.”
“Perfect. I’ll see you tonight then.”
“See you tonight!” Mika replied. They said their goodbyes, allowing her to put her phone down and finish organizing her groceries. Occasionally she remembered the interaction with her neighbor in the hallway and felt the heat of embarrassment creeping up her neck again, but she dutifully tried to ignore it. He’s a man , she thought to herself. If he even noticed it, he’s probably forgotten about it by now. Live your life.
She busied herself for the afternoon making her filo dough and the filling. It had been a while since she’d made baklava, and it was one of her more complicated cravings, so she took extra time to make sure everything turned out right. She had light, breezy music drifting through the small apartment as she rolled and mixed. She had a glass of wine on the counter, its contents slowly emptying as the baking tin filled with pastry. This was her happy place.
She was just pulling the baklava out of the oven when Elena walked through the front door, a large pot in her hands and a loaf of bread in a bag dangling from her fingers. Mika was so startled she almost dropped her baking dish, but caught it just in time to keep everything inside.
“You know, if you’re going to be so jumpy, you should probably remember to lock your door when you come inside.” Elena said, putting the pot on the stove.
“Well I was very concerned about being locked out earlier, I suppose I forgot to lock it again when I finally broke in.” Mika replied, laying the pan of sweets on a rack on the countertop to cool.
“Why don’t you just keep a spare key under the mat?”
“I did. But then I had to use it and I forgot to put it back.” she replied, gathering dishes and silverware for them to use.
“It does have to be under the mat for it to be useful.” Elena said, mixing the soup in the pot while Mika cut the bread into large chunks.
“On the bright side, my new neighbor caught me breaking in. It was a very charming first meeting.”
“You have a new neighbor? What happened to Jorgen?” Elena asked, leaving the soup to uncork her bottle of wine. She took a swig straight from the bottle before taking the glass Mika handed to her.
“Jorgen moved to a weird basement apartment below the club he used to invite me to all the time. There he can play his keyboard in peace.” Mika said. Elena gasped dramatically.
“Did he move in with Blue Hair Girl?” she asked.
“I’m not sure. I haven’t seen her since the night she threw him down the stairs.” she said with a shrug. Elena pouted.
“That was over two months ago. Shame, Blue Hair Girl actually seemed kind of cool.” she lamented.
“So did Jorgen, until we actually spoke to him.” Mika pointed out. Elena waved the comment off.
“But Blue Hair Girl was different. I mean, she had blue hair . People with blue hair can be taken at face value. They love themselves. They have nothing to hide.”
“Have you met anyone else with blue hair besides Blue Hair Girl?” Mika pointed out.
“Just because my sample size is small does not negate the fact that one hundred percent of people with blue hair that I have met have been cool people.” Elena said stubbornly, taking the two bowls Mika had gotten out earlier and ladling soup into them.
“I’m not a scientist, but I’m pretty sure that’s not how research works.”
“Well I am a scientist, so trust me.”
“Whatever you say.” Mika consented, taking her bowl and a piece of bread to the living room, setting them on the low table there. “What do you want to watch tonight?” she asked, turning on the television before going and grabbing her glass of wine from the counter. Elena set herself up next to Mika in the living room.
“Is that Mad Max out yet?” she asked.
“No, but I can get it.” Mika replied, scrolling through the apps on her television.
“I will never understand this witchcraft.” Elena said lowly.
“It’s not witchcraft, you just have to unlock the Fire Stick-”
“No no no, I don’t want to know what you do for this. I need plausible deniability whenever the police come for you.” she said, holding her finger against Mika’s lips to shush her. Mika shrugged, turning back to the screen.
“Suit yourself.” she replied, pulling up the movie and starting it.
Two hours, two bottles of wine, and many tears later, the girls were sprawled across Mika’s couch, idly watching a cooking show and critiquing the contestants more than the judges paid to do so. Night had fallen some time ago, and they were hitting the critical point between falling asleep or rallying for a night out. So far, sleep was winning.
Mika noticed the sound of footsteps coming up the stairs. Usually they stopped long before her floor, but these kept climbing.
“Is that the new Jorgen?” Elena asked lazily.
“No one can ever replace Jorgen.” Mika replied with a dramatic sigh. The footsteps continued their ascent. Elena attempted to leap off the couch, the wine making her movements a little more awkward and a little less coordinated. She went to the front door and leaned against it, watching through the peep hole. The footsteps were reaching the last stair case. Elena gasped.
“Mika he looks so rugged and handsome!” she said.
“And you sound like those awful soap operas. Or my mother.” Mika replied, maintaining her position on the couch. Elena skipped back to the couch, grabbing Mika’s arm and pulling her towards the door.
“Come on, let’s say ‘hi’ to him.” she said. Mika pulled back, refusing to move.
“There is no need for us to say ‘hi’ to him. Not in our current state.” she said.
“What, do you need to impress him? Do you want to woo him?” Elena asked, still tugging on her friend’s limb.
“Wooing is out of the question. My master plan is to make friends with him so that he can help me carry heavy things up the stairs.” Mika said. Elena successfully pulled her off the couch and onto the floor.
“Well you need to start by saying ‘hi’ to him then.” she reasoned.
“But what if you have something heavy to carry tomorrow?”
“Then I will manage, just as I have before.” Mika said. She clambered to her feet, just to have Elena pull her towards the door. This time, she was unable to hold her ground. Elena opened the door, shoving Mika forward with a puckish laugh. Mika stumbled into the empty hallway, barely catching herself on the stair rail. The hallway was empty; she had crash landed just in time to hear the lock click on her neighbor’s door. She let out a sigh of relief, glad that she had avoided that awkward interaction. She quietly walked back into her apartment, the adrenaline making her legs even more wobbly. Elena was back on the couch, her phone lighting up her face with its blue glow.
“That was quick.” she remarked. Mika opened her mouth to respond, but Elena kept going. “Nicolae invited us out to that pub just north of Old Town. Do you want to change before we go?”
“I think I’m going to just stay in tonight. I don’t feel like dealing with people.” Mika said. Elena perked an eyebrow.
“Are you sure? I think Alexei will be there.” she said with a teasing intonation.
“Even more reason for me to stay home.” Mika said with a grimace. “Alexei is very cute, but his personality is not. Either way, I have a big project starting on Monday, and I’d like to get my rest.”
“That’s a fair assessment.” Elena said with a shrug. “Well, suit yourself. I’ll see you next week.”
“Don’t get into too much trouble without me.” Mika said, embracing her friend before seeing her out the door. She let out a breath, glad that she had gotten out of a night on the town without too much of a fight. She’d told Elena the truth - the company she worked for had just acquired a massive contract, and the next few weeks were going to be critical for the upstart of the project. Going out with her friends would have been fun, but she was happy to have an early night with no social obligations.
Though she predicted work would be hectic over the next few weeks, she was not mentally prepared for exactly how tedious and mercurial her new project managers would be. This meant that a project that would normally take Mika three weeks of steady coding to complete instead took six weeks, four frantic phone calls to her programming genius friend in the UK, three episodes of crying in the shower, and a strong desire to make her coffee more on the Irish side in the morning. During that time, Mika didn’t do much except work, sleep, and the occasional pit stop at the gym. Her schedule was completely derailed, which was not something she appreciated. She hated coming home late at night, but she also had the habit of allowing her work to absorb her, meaning she didn’t realize it was late until she finally broke her eyes away from the computer screens and noticed the night blanketing the city. She tried to be quiet as she ascended the five floors to her apartment, balancing on the balls of her feet as she climbed up and up and up. On more than one occasion her neighbor caught her massaging her calves at the top, trying to work out the burning cramps that seized them. Mika had come to terms with the fact that no matter what time of day, if she was doing something weird outside her apartment door, her neighbor would choose that time to come home.
Finally, after six weeks of unceasing brain power and stress, Mika was finally free. She was exhausted, yes, but really really needed a drink. A good, strong drink. She tried to be good, going to the gym for an extra half hour right after work in an attempt to clear her system before she drank it all away that night. It put her a little behind for the evening, but she figured in the long run it would be worth it.
She tried to sprint up her stairs, but gave up around the third floor. She tried to maintain a slow jog the last two flights, but was sweating again and gasping for air by the time she reached the top. She decided that earned her an extra drink. Of course, her neighbor decided to leave his apartment at that time, his brows furrowing in concern as he spotted her. Mika gave him a wave, trying to show that she was in fact fine and not dying of asphyxiation in the stairwell. She let herself into her own apartment before he could say anything, deciding that she now deserved two extra drinks.
She grabbed some water from the fridge, rapidly drinking it in an attempt to cool down. She knew she needed to eat, but that would have to wait until later. She finished the water, dropping the bottle in her recycling bin before making her way to her bathroom. She didn’t bother waiting for the water to warm up in the shower, moving under the spray while it was still icy cold. Goose bumps covered her skin, but she didn’t care. She had things to do. She made quick work of the soap and shampoo, trying to buy back the time she lost earlier. She nearly slipped on the tile of the bathroom trying to get out of the tub, but was able to catch herself on the edge. There would likely be a bruise on her hip later from it, but that was the least of her worries. She had just put the blow dryer down and picked up her curling iron when Elena rang her.
“Alo?” she answered, putting her on speakerphone.
“I’m on my way! Are you almost ready?” she asked.
“Um, getting there. Walk slowly.” she replied, swearing quietly as she burned her finger on the curling iron.
“Fine. I’ll stop for snacks.” she said.
“Yes, yes, perfect. See you soon.” she agreed, hanging up before Elena could respond. She attempted to hurry the curling of her hair, which mainly led to more burned fingers. After hair came makeup, which took longer than she would like. Considering most days she was hiding behind computer screens, makeup was not a common practice for her. But she managed to get enough on to make a difference before Elena was calling again.
“I’m almost ready.” she said by way of greeting. Elena huffed and hung up again. Mika quickly slipped her dress on, grabbing her shoes, bag, and phone before running out the door. With the adrenaline of tardiness running through her, taking the stairs quickly was not as difficult as it was earlier. Maintaining her grip on all her items was more of the challenge.
“You’re a mess.” Elena said when Mika tumbled out onto the sidewalk. She was leaning creepily against the lamppost, the light making her stand out against the dark street.
“I didn’t manage my time very well today.” she admitted, putting her stuff in her purse and slipping her heels onto her feet.
“Well that doesn’t matter now, because it has been entirely too long since you’ve gone out with me and tonight we’re going to have every drink. All of them.” Elena said, linking her arm through Mika’s as they set off down the street.
“I don’t know if I can handle all of them.” Mika said.
“No, no, we share all of them.” Elena amended.
“Oh, well, that’s totally plausible.” she agreed. They took a turn onto a smaller street, which was empty thanks to the later evening hour. It was a little too early for those going out on the town, but Mika and Elena tended to do it that way on purpose. That way, most of their friends wouldn’t be present to judge them for their pre-drinking meals. The small street they were on dead ended into a busier one, the foot traffic already building for the night. Their favorite pub was still relatively quiet when they ducked into it, and they waved to their favorite bartender as they claimed the booth in the corner.
Mika laid back against the worn leather seats, finally taking a moment to sit and be still. Life had been so hectic the past few weeks, and she hadn’t realized the toll it was taking on her until this moment. She felt tired - mind, body, and soul. For a second, she regretted agreeing to come out tonight. But then Hans (the favorite bartender) arrived with a steaming plate of garlic and cheese chips and two pints of Guinness, and that was all it took to renew her.
“Hans, you saint.” Elena said, taking the dish from him. “How did you know?”
“Mika looked exhausted. You two need carbs to jump start the night.” Hans explained, placing the beer down in front of them.
“You know, when you tell a girl she looks exhausted, that’s code for saying she looks like shit.” Mika pointed out, taking a large bite from the food in front of her and washing it down with a few gulps of beer.
“Well in Hans Language, exhausted is code for ‘needs more food’.” he said.
“I like Hans Language.” Elena said decisively.
“Me too. It’s very encouraging.” Mika agreed.
“I’ve spent a lifetime developing it. Most things just lead to more food or more drinks.” Hans said, as if the fact were obvious. “Anyway, I’ll be right back with something to eat for you two.”
“But you didn’t take our order!” Elena called as Hans walked away. Hans waved her off, implying that he already knew what they would want. “Hans always thinks he’s so cool, just getting people food without asking.”
“To be fair, he was on point with these.” Mika said, her mouth full of cheese and potato.
“Don’t let him hear you. It’ll only fuel his ego.” Elena said in a hushed tone, digging back in to the plate in front of them.
True to his word, Hans returned shortly, bringing with him a triple-layer hamburger with a matching pile of fries. He also put down two more pints, even though both girls were just about halfway through their first. They thanked him profusely, taking the plate with awe and excitement.
“And was he wrong?” Mika asked, taking the knife from her bunch of silverware and cutting down the middle of the burger. Elena shushed her, taking her half of the burger and tucking in.
There were a few fries left on the plate when their other friends arrived, but luckily the massive burger was hidden away in their stomachs. Mika and Elena slid close together in the booth, allowing for Nicolae, Alexei, Jonas, and Jonas’ new girlfriend Maria to squeeze in with them. Mika found herself feeling a little uncomfortable, and not only because of the close quarters. With all the overtime she spent at work over the past month and a half, she had gotten used to being by herself. The only people she’d really seen had been her quiet neighbor and Elena, one of whom could carry on a conversation with a house plant (and had, on more than one occasion). She felt a little bit claustrophobic, surrounded so closely by so many people that were all talking at her. Hans brought her another Guinness, and she was grateful for something to do with her hands while trying to catch up on the past few weeks of her friends’ lives.
By the time she was done with the third drink an hour later, she was feeling much more relaxed and had almost adjusted back to her normal settings. That was about the time Nicolae suggested they go to a new club a few blocks over. Mika was happy to agree; this place was closer to her apartment, which would mean a shorter walk home later. They settled up with Hans, then set off to their destination. The foot traffic was heavier now, the sidewalks cluttered with people. The girls’ heels made a cacophony of clicking as they strode on the concrete, their laughter rising to the street lamps. Mika loved how the city came alive at night, the way people seemed more open to the world around them. Their eyes were up and sparkling, as opposed to the daytime, when their gazes dusted the concrete and they tried to avoid any excess interaction.
New spots were either extremely busy or extremely empty their first few weekends. This one was packed with people, a swirling mass of bodies moving in time with the beat. The music was loud, and Mika felt like the bass vibrated her limbs every time it hit. Elena and Nicolae put themselves in charge of getting drinks, leaving the other four to attempt to find a table. A booth in the corner had a bunch of mostly-empty glasses and completely empty seats. They claimed it, hoping its original owners had moved on with their night. Maria slid in first, stacking the glasses neatly in the corner to empty the table space in front of them. Jonas, of course, followed her, leaving Mika to share a side with Alexei. She really didn’t mind Alexei most of the time, he just tended to do things that made her slightly uncomfortable - like resting his arm on the booth behind her with his hand casually on her shoulder.
Mika wasn’t sure how Elena and Nicolae both ended up with an entire tray of drinks, but she didn’t ask questions. Instead, she took the opportunity to lean away from the back of the booth - and Alexei’s hand. After two rounds of shots, Mika was quickly forgetting about her stress from work and enjoying the night much more.
“Let’s dance!” Elena exclaimed a while later, grabbing Mika’s hand and dragging her out onto the dance floor. Mika didn’t look to see if any of their friends were following; she was too busy trying to keep up with Elena as she weaved her way into the crowd. She liked the song that was playing, but she couldn’t remember the name of it. All she really cared about was sticking with her friend and moving to the beat. At various points in the night, she spotted Alexei, Jonas, and Maria. Nicolae remained absent, but he usually was trying to chat up girls at the bar.
When they collapsed hours later back in the booth, Mika knew that she was spent for the night. The rest of her friends, however, seemed to be maintaining their level. In fact, Nicolae suggested they go round to a different pub, one that promised free snacks with the purchase of drinks past one o’clock in the morning. Her friends were all for it, but Mika decided against it. She was utterly exhausted. And drunk. And had a snack already waiting for her at home.
“You’re being a spoil sport!” Elena yelled over the pounding music. Mika shrugged her shoulders; Elena could complain all she wanted, but she was done.
“I’m going to go close my tab. I’ll meet you out front.” she replied, turning towards the bar before Elena could respond. The people on the dance floor were still going strong, periodically bumping into her as she stumbled to the bar. The bartender was busy on the other end, so she perched herself near the cash register and stared, hoping that would be enough to get her attention.
“Going for another round?” a voice said close to her ear. Mika whipped around, her hair hitting the man in the face. He blinked it away, but otherwise seemed unphased.
“Closing the tab.” she said, giving him a polite smile and turning back. The bartender made eye contact with her, and she waved.
“Shame, I was going to offer to buy one for you.” he said. Mika turned back around to find his eyes were very focused on her. Or maybe she felt like he was focusing really hard because she was focusing really hard.
“That’s okay, I’ve really had enough. Thank you though.” she said, hoping the conversation would end there. She looked past the guy, but Elena was nowhere in sight. She must have already been outside.
“Come on. Just one more drink. What could it hurt?” he said, giving what he thought was a charming smile. Warning bells were going off in Mika’s head, but luckily she was saved from replying by the bartender coming up to them. Mika gladly turned her attention to her, thinking that would get the guy to leave her alone. She lamented the volume of the music then, as she had no choice but to yell her name to the bartender to close the tab out.
“My friend Mika here will have one more - what, rum and cola? Vodka tonic?” he asked, directing his question to the two of them. Mika and the bartender looked to each other, and Mika thought she sped up the checkout process a little bit. Mika didn’t even look at the receipt, scribbling over the line and handing the girl twenty leu with it.
“Thank you!” she squeaked, turning and practically running into the crowd. She didn’t know if the guy followed her - she hoped not.
Outside, her friends were waiting for her. “Took you long enough.” Jonas said, his arm lazily around Maria’s shoulders.
“It’s still busy in there.” she answered. “You’re off then?”
“Yea, down round that way.” Nicolae said, gesturing in the direction away from her apartment.
“You sure you don’t want to come?” Elena asked. Mika nodded emphatically, which was not her best idea given her current state.
“I’m sure. It’s time for this old lady to head to bed. You youths have fun.” she said.
“Do you want us to walk you?” Nicolae asked. Mika shook her head.
“It’s a quick walk. I’ll be home in no time.” she said, pulling away from the group. Her feet were hurting, and her stomach was grumbling. It was time to head back.
“Text me, yea?” Elena said. Mika nodded, blowing a kiss to the group before turning and striding away. She made it about a half a block before she stopped, pulling off her heels. She’d rather take on the sidewalk barefoot than deal with the offending shoes any longer.
It was quiet in front of her building, which made her happy. The last thing she needed right now was to run into the chatty girl from downstairs, or the little old man who told the same stories every time she saw him. She reached into her purse, feeling around for the key fob to let her into the building. She was met with nothing but leather.
She swore loudly, pulling the purse wide open. Sure enough, no keys in sight. She hoped against hope that it was the light playing a trick on her, sitting down on the front steps and emptied the bag. Out fell her wallet, her phone, a stray tampon, and the receipt from the club. The purse held nothing else. She swore loudly again, climbing her way to her feet and looking at the call buttons. She rang for the landlord, but the board didn’t make a sound. She rang her own apartment, which made a low buzz noise. She cursed the landlord, wondering why he disconnected it from his apartment when there were tenants that needed his help.
“Locked out?” someone asked. Mika stopped cold. Surely not. She turned slowly, and lo and behold, there was the guy from the bar.
“No, just...waiting on a friend.” she lied quickly. He smirked.
“I don’t think you are.” he said. “No need to be defensive, I’m just trying to help.”
“I’m fine, really.” she said. He took one step up towards the building. There were now only three stairs between them.
“If you need a place to stay, I live just around the corner.” he said, taking another step up. She stepped back, and felt the doorway touch her hands. She swallowed, trying to wet her dry mouth. She’d heard of people sobering up in these situations, but that was not the case here. The alcohol and adrenaline made everything slow and fuzzy
“That’s very generous of you, but I’m okay. Really.” she answered. He took another step up.
“You turn me down at the bar, and now you turn me down here. How do you ever expect to make friends?” he asked.
“I have plenty of friends, thank you.” she said. One more step.
“Well then, why not one more? Come on. We can get something to eat. I’ll even let you take the bed.” he said, extending his hand to her. She kept hers by her sides, grasping at her skirt. Though he hadn’t done anything explicitly dangerous, she did not like this. At all.
“I said no thank you.” She attempted to say it sternly, but it came out a whisper. He grabbed her wrist, trying to pull her down the steps. She pushed against him, breaking free for a moment. But she didn’t think to run away. Instead, she tried to run back into her locked building. Before she knew it, his arms were around her waist, pulling her away from the door.
“It’s for your own good.” he said. She struggled as much as she could, grabbing and flailing and scratching. She remembered reading that screaming may deter something like this - that the attention might make them stop. But her voice stuck in her throat. Her heart was racing in her panic, and she couldn’t exactly think of what to do, but she just kept trying to get away.
Suddenly, she was free. She turned to see the guy still there, and didn’t understand why he had let go. In fact, he tried to grab her wrist again, but he was pushed away by someone. Mika lost her balance, toppling backwards and landing on the steps. Her head bounced against the concrete, making her vision swim. She finally realized who had stopped the guy - the quiet neighbor stood between her and him, defending her. The guy tried to swing at the neighbor, who dodged it easily. He sent out a punch of his own, which flattened the guy on the sidewalk. He didn’t move.
Neighbor turned back to her, and tried to help her sit up. She felt like a rag doll. He was speaking to her, but she couldn’t make out the words. Her head hurt. Her body hurt. She didn’t want to move. After a moment, dizziness overwhelmed her, and as the world started fading, she wondered if the concussion or the drinks that were making her hallucinate his apparently metal arm.