Authors: Minka Kent
My iPhone is freely available in my left pocket, and I read in an article once that if you press the “Power” button five times in a row, it’ll send your phone into SOS mode and silently dial 911.
I didn’t come all this way just to run away, but preparedness saves lives.
I make my way to the elevator, only to find an O
sign taped to the front.
Locating the stairs, I take them one by one, then two by two until I realize being breathless is not going to help me in case of an attack.
Slowing down, I round the final turn in the staircase, only to come face-to-face with a shapeless form in an olive-green raincoat.
“Gotta watch where you’re going.” A tall man with inky-dark hair and a five-o’clock shadow yanks the hood of his slicker down, revealing an icy glare, irises so pale they nearly glow in the dim hallway.
“My mistake,” I say, which isn’t technically an apology. I don’t make a habit out of apologizing to assholes.
He pushes past me, trudging down the stairs with heavy steps that eventually fade, and I find myself standing in front of apartment 2A.
My heart flutters in my chest, all but climbing up the back of my throat. My keys are heavy and warm in my clenched fist, and I trek to the next door.
A gold number “2” and letter “B” are fixed to a painted black door, the finish pristine and almost mirrorlike.
I glance up and down the hall before placing my ear to the door, listening for some sign of life on the other side.
I give it another minute, shove my fear into the hidden depths of my soul where it belongs, and retrieve the monogrammed key ring from my front right jacket pocket.
The key slides into the keylock with ease before I feel the pop of the lock.
Maybe I should’ve knocked first, but given the fact that someone mailed me a key to this exact apartment, I think we’re past that formality. If anyone’s here, if anyone asks what the hell I’m doing, I can blame it on the key.
Heat creeps up my neck before blooming in my cheeks, and I can’t help but feel like a cross between a burglar and a snooping, nosy teenager about to search their parents’ bedroom for God knows what. But my curiosity is quashed the second I twist the knob and push the door open.
The place is dark, nothing but drawn curtains and dark forms where furniture should be. Reaching to my right, I glide my palm along the nearest wall until I come across a switch.
A second later, three lights above a short kitchen peninsula illuminate the space, and as my eyes adjust, I scan my surroundings.
Sofa. Chair. Kitchen table.
And cardboard moving boxes stacked in every corner.
I let the door fall shut, and with a firm grip on my keys, I tread from the kitchen to the living room to a bedroom and back. Each space is home to unopened moving boxes and haphazardly placed furniture.
Returning to the kitchen, I check the cabinets—empty. And then I check the refrigerator. Also empty.
No one lives here—yet.
An unsealed manila envelope resting on the counter manages to catch my eye a moment later, and I help myself to its contents.
It’s a lease agreement, with the Harcourt Apartments’ logo printed on top.
Nine hundred seventy-five dollars a month plus water and gas.
I flip to the next page, eyes landing on the signature line. The agreement was signed over a week ago—and next to the date is none other than my name.
But it isn’t my handwriting.
Not even close.
Sliding my phone from my pocket, I begin to call Niall, hands trembling so hard I can hardly manage to hold the damn thing steady.
He’d know what to do, what to say, what to make of all this.
Then again, he knows nothing about this. I haven’t so much as mentioned the key to him. He might question my sanity, and I wouldn’t blame him.
The line rings once before I hear footsteps and a muffled voice from the hall, growing louder by the second. A rush of heat radiates through me, and my breath shallows. I end the call and silence my phone.
Funny how easily I talked myself into this, and now, at zero hour, when it’s too late to duck out of here unnoticed, I’m shaking in my Wellingtons, wishing I was anywhere but here.
The voice is closer now—just on the other side of the door.
Eyeing a small closet by the entry, I sneak inside and shut the door behind me as quietly as I can manage.
And then I hold my breath, squeezing the handle until my knuckles throb.
If someone comes in here, if someone tries to open the door, they’ll think it’s stuck. That should at least buy me some time.
A crack between the door and the jamb provides me with a sliver-sized view of the kitchen.
It happens so fast—the apartment door opening and slamming.
The hasty trip-trap of heels across the refinished wood floors.
The jangle of keys falling on the quartz peninsula followed by the soft rumple of an overflowing paper grocery bag.
And then a voice.
“That’s so weird,” a woman says. “Yeah, if you could look into it, that’d be great. I wouldn’t want the keys in the wrong hands. When do you think you can change the locks?” She places a handbag on the counter: a Goyard St. Louis in brown and black—just like the one currently resting on the top shelf of my closet. It was an investment piece originally, one I purchased with part of my inheritance after my grandmother passed, but every time I’ve used it, I’ve felt nothing but guilt since I didn’t save for it or earn it. “Perfect.”
My body turns stiff when I watch her shrug out of a classic khaki mackintosh much like the one I’m currently wearing, and I squeeze the life out of the interior knob until she drapes the jacket over a barstool.
That was close.
If I had half a grip on this situation, I’d burst out of the closet like a crazy person and confront this lunatic, but if she’s smart enough to pull this off, she’s smart enough to take basic safety precautions. I can imagine scaring the life out of her, only to be stabbed in the jugular with some knifelike apparatus on her key chain—assuming she shares my affinity for preparedness.
She’s leaning against the counter now, and I can finally get a good look at her.
Same chestnut hair as me, cut into a familiar angled bob like the one I used to wear before I allowed it to grow out.
Same angled chin and stick-straight nose.
Same clear-framed, metropolitan-chic glasses.
Her nails are pale and neutral—classic taupe, I believe—the very same color I once gravitated toward for its versatility and chicness. And when she tucks her hair behind one ear, she reveals a dangling filigree
earring in rose gold—the same style I used to wear. In fact, I’d purchased a pair similar to that on vacation in Saint Thomas.
She appears to be tapping out a text message. Then another. And she nibbles at the end of her thumb as she waits for a response.
A minute later, she places her phone on the counter screen-side down and begins to unload the contents of the paper grocery bag.
Two bottles of white wine.
A loaf of bread.
Three frozen dinners.
An assortment of canned goods.
A box of oatmeal.
Feminine hygiene products.
I think she’s planning to live here . . . as me.
There’s no other explanation for any of this.
With bated breath, I wait for an opportunity to slip out of here unnoticed, watching as “Brienne” heats a frozen dinner, checks her phone every other minute, and carefully unpacks half a box of kitchen gear.
After she’s finished eating what smells like lasagna, she retrieves a white charger cord from her bag and plugs it into an outlet next to the stove. A second later, she fires off another text before finally charging her phone and sashaying out of the kitchen and down the hall.
She’s either in the bedroom or the bathroom, and if I guess incorrectly, things could go very wrong, very fast.
Resting my head against the back wall of the closet, I release my hold on the knob, my hand cramped and almost in a permanent grip-like shape.
And then I hear it: the spray of a shower.
The faint echo of music follows, then the metal-on-metal rack of the shower curtain rings against the shower curtain rod.
This is it.
This is my chance.
I manage to open the closet door with hardly an audible noise, at least not anything she’d be able to hear over and above the shower music and the Fitz and The Tantrums song she’s playing on full blast—which happens to be from the very same album I play when I deep clean the Queen on Saturdays.
Four steps and I’m at the door, only when I attempt to make my great escape, I realize she’s secured the door using the chain lock.
When she gets out of the shower, she’s going to know someone was in here with her. But I don’t have time to give it another thought. I get the hell out of there, making the least amount of noise as possible, and in what feels like the blink of an eye, I’m back in the driver’s seat of my Audi.
I can’t start the engine fast enough, and within seconds I’m zooming through the side streets, heading back to the Queen, with white knuckles and a racing mind.
I need to calm down so I can think, so I can process what I just witnessed.
I know what I saw.
That wasn’t a “visual disturbance.” That was a woman who looks like me and dresses like me and who signed an apartment lease with my name.
I pull into the driveway a while later, with no recollection of the drive home.
Niall should be home within the hour. Part of me wants to tell him everything. The other part of me can’t help but replay the conversation with the PI last week, the way he laughed at me and dismissed me.
I don’t know what I’d do if Niall brushed off my concerns like that.
Heading to the back door, I ready my keys for the lock and draw in a hard breath.
I’ll tell him.
Just not tonight.
It’s strange that Niall still isn’t home yet tonight. He’s almost always home by five thirty sharp on Mondays and hardly a minute later.
I try not to imagine a scenario where Niall and Kate reconciled or decided to have a romantic dinner or worse: met up at her place for hot makeup sex, though that’s exactly where my mind is attempting to steer my thoughts.
I let the PI’s reaction from the other day play on a loop in my head. Again. I know I shouldn’t. I know he was just some asshole. But it wasn’t so much what he said as how he said it.
He straight-up insinuated that I was crazy.
But I know what I saw.
Had he taken the time to actually listen and let me explain . . .
Despite the fact that I know what I witnessed this afternoon, I can’t help but wish I had some kind of validation. Someone else who could see it, too, and tell me I’m not going insane.
The lock of the back door clicks around 9:00 PM, and a moment later, I hear the soft tread of Niall’s footsteps across the kitchen tile. They grow louder by the second, as if he’s headed for the back parlor.
A moment later, he stands in the doorway, still dressed in his teal work scrubs. “Hey, sorry. Met up with an old friend for dinner. We got to talking and—”
I glance up from my spot on the sofa. His pale gaze narrows in my direction.
An “old friend.”
Kate, I’m sure.
“God, are you okay? You’re shaking.” He takes the seat next to me, coupling my hands in his. “Did I scare you again?”
I shake my head.
I want so badly to tell him everything. About the apartment. About the woman living as me. But the only thing I keep thinking is, What if he reacts the way that PI did? What if he thinks I’m making this up or imagining things? If Niall’s pitying looks made me feel uncomfortable, how would I feel if he looked at me like I’d completely lost my mind?
“I’m fine,” I lie.
He eyes the half-empty glass of red wine sitting in front of me. I don’t tell him it’s my fourth one tonight. I’m not a lush, just a woman dying to quiet the voice in her head and numb the nerves of her frazzled body.
“How was dinner?” I ask. “Where’d you go?”
“Antonella’s.” His voice is lilted, but his face is still laced with concern. He doesn’t like that I’ve changed the subject. “You sure you’re okay? You don’t seem like yourself.”
“I think I ate some bad takeout or something.” I can’t tell a good lie to save my life. All he’d have to do is check the trash can in the kitchen, and he’d know I didn’t order takeout. Come to think of it, I haven’t had dinner yet tonight.
“You want some wine?” I ask. “I don’t want the whole bottle to go to waste.”
“Yeah. I’ll take some,” he says, settling into the sofa. I try to quiet the voice that tells me he’s only sitting with me because he thinks I’m out of sorts and feels sorry for me.
I head to the kitchen and return with an extra stemless wineglass.
“How was dinner?” I ask as I pour and hand it over.
I already asked that.
“You sure you’re all right?” he asks for the millionth time, refusing to buy my amateur lies. “What kind of takeout did you order?”
Sometimes I swear he sees clear through me.
I shrug, thankful for the dark of the room because it hides the crimson on my cheeks. “Some new Chinese place.”
I force a smile on my face. I just want to act like everything is normal. I don’t want to think about the other Brienne or the overwhelming rush of powerlessness flooding my veins every time I try to wrap my head around this situation. I’ll deal with everything after I’ve had a couple more nights to sleep on this and to come up with a plan of attack, to go over all my options.
People like that, the clever and conniving types, generally operate one step ahead of everyone else. If I act on anything in haste, if I don’t have all the facts lined up ahead of time, it could spook her. And I want to catch her. I want answers.
I want to know why she wants my life and what she intends to do with it.
“Oh, I got the mail today,” I tell him. “Put your stack by the microwave.”