On the night of the party, I took the bus to get to Lilya’s house. It dropped me in a nice residential area, a ten-minute walk away from my destination. The evening was quiet and the air crisp with the approaching winter.
I may have seemed in control, but I wasn’t actually looking forward to the dinner party. I wasn’t what you’d call gregarious, and dropping out of school almost a year earlier hadn’t helped. Sometimes, we don’t realize that a great portion of social chit-chat hinges around what we do in life. As it happens, dropping out of school is not a very interesting thing to do, and it tends to make conversations awkward.
But now, things were different. I had a job. They were my crowd. There was nothing to fear. I kept telling myself: if I can’t even deal with this, then how am I supposed to help Nicolas deal with his own issues?
I was so focused on my motivational self-talk that I didn’t notice that someone had caught up with me on the sidewalk. A tap on my shoulder and the cheerful mention of my name was all it took to make me jump about two meters in the air. “Hey, don’t be scared! It’s just me.”
I looked beside me and found Aibek, grinning like he was watching a video of cats doing backflips. I winced and massaged my left shoulder. “I wasn’t scared, you just surprised me.”
“Right. Did I hit you too hard?”
I stopped massaging. “It’s fine, it’s my bad shoulder…” I muttered.
“Bad shoulder? I see.” He chuckled for a while. Eventually, he found enough breath to speak and said, “Roisin made me feel bad because I couldn’t stop laughing the other day. I hope I didn’t make you uncomfortable.”
“Oh, don’t worry.”
“But you have to admit that Nicolas is a bit special.”
This was the perfect occasion to extract some information about him. It might have been wrong to ask about Nicolas when he wasn’t there, but if he was going to keep pushing me away, screw him. I gathered all the subtlety I could. “Aren’t you two getting along?”
Aibek gave me a sidelong glance before displaying his mind-reading abilities. “Did Nicolas mention Silva to you?”
We had reached Lilya’s residence and stopped at the bottom of the front steps. I discerned the silhouettes of other guests who had arrived before us through the bright windows.
Aibek lowered his tone. “Look, Irina told us to keep quiet about it, but I’m saying this for your own benefit. Last year, before he went on sick leave, Nicolas kept harassing Silva. It got so bad that they had to issue a restraining order against him. Nicolas is not allowed anywhere close to him.”
My eyes grew wide. “Why was Nicolas harassing him?”
“He’s paranoid and he has delusions of persecution, that’s why. Don’t be fooled by what he tells you. It’s all in his head.”
I’m sure Aibek had good intentions, but he wasn’t great at voicing them, although there was something in what he said. Nicolas was ill after all; I had been informed that he’d had psychotic episodes in the past. “I guess you’re right. But last week, someone actually smashed his window with a brick.”
“Someone did what?”
Oh, maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned it. “Yeah…”
Aibek snorted. “Well, I just regret I wasn’t the one who came up with the idea.”
There was a lull in our conversation while I expected him to start laughing again, as if this was just a stupid joke. “Why would you want to do that?” I finally asked.
“Nicolas is dangerous. Sick people like him shouldn’t be allowed in society. It’s a fact.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. It took a moment for what he’d said to sink in. “You can’t be serious.”
“I’ve never been so serious.”
It’s possible I hadn’t been aware of it before, but my anger must have been building up for some time. Or I must have been feeling particularly cranky that day.
All that to say, the next thing I did was punch Aibek in the face.
I wasn’t the best at throwing punches. Even then, he looked pretty stunned. “What the hell is your problem?” he yelled.
“You can’t say stuff like that!”
Aibek disagreed and let me know by sending me a hook across the cheek. I could tell he had a lot more experience than me. I staggered backward, upsetting an innocent trashcan in the process. “You don’t even know what you’re talking about,” he spat. “I can’t believe you’re already getting sucked in by his lies. Be careful, or you’re going to end up as crazy as him.”
The door opened a crack and we froze. Lilya’s voice seeped through. “Aibek? What’s going on?”
Aibek glared at me and replied, “Nothing. A squirrel fell in your trash.”
He went up to the door, toward the sliver of light, while I retreated into the shadow of the street. There was no way I was showing up to that party now. Embarrassment slowly washed over me. I couldn’t wait to be home and disappear from the public.
When I got back to my place, I caught sight of a shadow in the living room and almost called the police—before I remembered Dana was now my roommate. From the doorstep, she looked like some angel of death who wanted to eat my soul.
“You’re back?” Dana said, while I was taking off my shoes and jacket in the entrance. “I thought you’d gone to a party.”
“Yeah, well, change of plans.”
“You don’t look well.”
I would have given anything at that moment to be left alone. “What happened?” she insisted.
“I had an argument with someone.”
I dropped my heavy body on the couch, a safe distance away from Dana. She was still working at her laptop. “About what?”
“Some guy said bad things about my client.”
She hummed to herself as she typed on the keyboard. I thought she’d completely zoned me out when she muttered, “Do you have a thing for your client?”
Strange sounds that weren’t quite words escaped my mouth. I decided to play dumb. “What did you just say?”
Doom filled her eyes as she looked at me. “Is he good-looking?”
“This is inappropriate. I’m not answering.”
Her attention returned to her screen. “You’re confused.”
Dana must have been honing her people skills lately, because she was spot-on. Even though I was supposed to be the one with clear judgement, I was so confused.
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