The apartment was low rent, had a laundry room, and covered utilities, and at first that was enough. She could sustain it, even if she was a college student part-timing as a barista. Not to mention the insane amount of appeal getting out of her parents’ house had held. The fact that she was the first in her family to do so and not move in with a husband right after had filled her with way too much pride to see this coming.
It was 2 A.M. in the morning. Who on God’s earth was fighting right now?
From what Amira could hear through her bedroom wall, it didn’t sound good. Things were being broken, body parts and furniture and glass, and for a second she felt fear pin her to her bed. Like if she moved, if they knew she was awake, she’d be next. And next was the last thing she wanted to be.
So instead she buried her head beneath her pillows and shut her eyes, and pretended her heart wasn’t desperately heavy for whoever she’d just heard get so brutally beaten.
Another warning Amira hadn’t heeded: do not take any classes earlier than 8 A.M.
Six o’clock in the morning came what felt like seconds after she’d finally fallen asleep. The only indication she’d had that it had been longer was the fact that there was light coming through her blinds, and that no one was getting assaulted next door. In fact, the apartment next door was entirely silent when she’d left that morning, like whatever had taken place in there last night had been as real as a nightmare.
Amira had naively believed she could stay on campus until her next class hours later, but she’d quickly found that her legs were as useful to her as chopsticks with the amount of rest she’d gotten the night before. Her entire mind was focused on her bed, on getting to it before she collapsed, and so she’d barely noticed the boy in the elevator when she forcefully stopped the doors from closing. She all but collapsed against the elevator wall.
“You look awful,” he eventually said, and it was only until Amira processed that he was talking to her that she thought to respond.
“Probably,” she mumbled, looking up at him. Her blood almost froze in her veins when his face lifted to the fluorescent elevator light. “Not worse than you,” she huffed out, amazed at the way the cuts and bruises in his face were either healing or scabbed over. Some were stomach-twistingly new. He looked like someone’s unfinished painting.
He shrugged. If the elevator weren’t so small Amira wouldn’t have seen how his face turned away slightly, like he was just then realizing she could see him, too. She did manage a smile out of him though, which looked like it stretched a scar at the corner of his mouth painfully. His smile was beautiful; she almost forgot that it was surrounded by hues of purple and blue and yellow that weren’t supposed to be there. “I’ll be alright. You look like you’re at death’s door.”
“I’ll be at my own in a few seconds,” Amira answered. “That’s good enough for me.”
She only made the obvious connection when the elevator doors opened again, and he followed her onto her floor. In fact, he followed her all the way to the door right next to hers. And judging by the look on his face, he hadn’t realized there was anyone next to him at all. “Oh,” he’d laughed humorlessly.
She realized when he turned to try and fit his keys into his doorknob that there was a scar peeking out from beneath his undercut. It stung her just to look at it. “Please be careful,” she’d said at the last second, just before he disappeared into his own apartment.
“I’ll keep it down,” he’d responded. “Have a nice nap.” And then the door closed behind him.
It was 1:23 A.M. three days later, when she saw him again. He had not kept it down.
He almost looked better than she expected him to when she opened the door and found him there in a t-shirt and sweatpants. He looked much younger when his hair wasn’t stuck under a baseball cap. He reminded her of a boy scout. “Good morning,” he rasped out. It sounded like it was the first time he’d actually spoken in hours.
“Can I come in?”
Amira opened the door wider and let him in. “Is everything okay?”
There was something about him that made him easy to trust. She didn’t feel anything towards him but concern as she watched him settle onto her couch and put his head in his hands. Vaguely she was aware she’d forsaken yet another piece of advice she’d gotten before she moved out: don’t let strangers in.
“I have a favor to ask.”
“Okay, but your name first.”
His hand flew to the back of his neck. “Oh. Um, it’s Ethan.”
“Does that name mean something special?”
She pretended to think about it. “No, just a name. What’s the favor?”
“Can I hide out in here for the next couple of hours?”
Whoever Ethan was trying to avoid showed up half an hour after they’d finished the first Mission Impossible movie. The “visitor” had opened the door to the apartment adjacent hers with so much force that Amira jumped a little. Ethan was frozen, like he hadn’t even heard it. To Amira, he suddenly looked older. Like years and years of youth had been stolen from him. “Ethan? Who’s here?”
“My biological father,” he murmured, finishing off his coffee as the man in question started screaming his name from the other side of the wall. “He’ll go away soon enough.”
And she almost believed him, until three forceful knocks were pegged into her door two minutes later. Amira slowly got up. “Go into my bedroom and close the door. You’re not here.” He’s staring at the door. “Ethan,” she tried again, and then he was gone within seconds. With trembling hands, she finally opened the door.
“I’m sorry to bother you.” The man at the door was startlingly young, his hair in the beginning stages of graying, his wrinkles still fine and confined only to the skin around his eyes. He’d have looked charming if his eyes weren’t boring holes into her own. “Is Ethan here?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t know who Ethan is. I live here alone.”
Amira never had much experience with lying; it was a miracle he couldn’t tell that she was. He only nodded. “Alright. I’m sorry to bother you. Good night.”
And then he was gone, taking with him his strange ability to make the oxygen around him taste stale. She waited till she heard the elevator doors down the hall open to finally call Ethan out of her room.
“I’m sorry. That’s the last time I avoid him like that.”
“You should leave. Your apartment, I mean.”
“He’s not going to bully me out of my own place.” Ethan’s tone told her that leaving wasn’t an option, that it never had been.
“He can’t just do this to you every night,” Amira insisted, heart immensely heavy at the idea of him being in his apartment when his dad came back tomorrow. “At least call the police.”
“I’m not his only kid,” he scoffed. “Just the only one he hates. The others still need someone to feed them.”
Amira took a second to look at him, at the fact that the logo on his shirt meant that they went to the same college. She wondered how her mother would respond to him, to the fact that he was infinitely safer away from his parents than he was with them. It felt wrong on every level. She wanted to tell him he deserved to have been begged to stay home by people who cared, like she had been, but instead she handed him her phone.
“Those kids are better off the farther away from him they are.”
He looked at the phone like it was going to bite him. “I won’t.”
“Then I will, as soon as he shows up tomorrow night.”
“I don’t believe you.”
She pressed the phone into his hands, watching with both relief and awe as, holding back tears, he slowly called 9-1-1.