Everyone knows that a woman shouldn’t be out walking alone in the middle of the night. Especially if she’s from Detroit, which Caroline was.
And yet where did she find herself? Alone, in the middle of Stockholm somewhere around 4:00 am, and not for the first time this week. But it’s light out, Caroline had reasoned as she stuffed her pepper spray into her pocket before closing the apartment door behind her.
It wasn’t just the canopy of trees overhead or the muted sound that pulled her out this early, onto the winding paths of Vasaparken. Everything about the light in Stockholm was different. A gentle mist had settled low along the steep hills of the city park, veiling the tops of the impossibly tall pine trees that lined the sidewalk.
She took the lens cap off her camera and pointed it up at the trees, looking through the viewfinder. For the last few years now, Caroline had developed a preference for the starkness of black and white, the depth and texture that it could capture, but a week in Stockholm had changed that. It was the fullness, the clear, deep blue sky and the endless layers of greens in the trees that she looked for at all hours of the day. And she truly studied them at all hours—since she had arrived, the sun seemed to never completely disappear, only fading into a slow twilight and then inching back up again, just barely having sunk below the horizon. It was as if she were entering some sort of mystical world, one she had been given all to herself.
Caroline smirked. Clearly this was a mystical world without the dangers of wandering alone at night—how else could she explain her obvious disregard for the rule that had been drilled into her mind since she was a child: a woman doesn’t go out alone at night, not even in a clean European city that felt more storybook than real.
Especially not if the person in question had a rather traditional Mexican father. Which Caroline did.
But the jet lag that had stubbornly followed since her recent arrival from Michigan meant that she found herself waking up at odd hours of the night anyway. And this was what she had come for, wasn’t it? Adventure and photography. And freedom.
Caroline scrolled through her photos, studying each one on the tiny screen until she finally came too far. Instead of this mystical land, Brad was staring back at her. She had taken one last photo of him before she had left, and clearly he hadn’t been happy about it. Or, rather, he hadn’t been happy with her. He had tried all methods of persuasion to get her to stay. After all, that’s what he was good at.
The thought of Brad brought back a whiff of the fog of listlessness and indecision that had weighed Caroline down all the last year, if not longer. It hadn’t been depression—not quite—just the feeling that her life had already reached a dead end, before she had even neared 30. She let out a hiss of frustration. She had left her life in Detroit and was standing in the middle of this magically foreign park, only to find herself sucked back into what she had left behind. It was a little too late for doubt.
Her thoughts were interrupted by rowdy shouts from a group of men passing by. She hadn’t noticed them coming up the park path, and now they were too close to completely avoid. They all looked larger than average, though Sweden seemed to be full of this type of guy. She put her hand on the pepper spray in her pocket and looked up at the group.
“Vill du komma hem med mig?” called a guy in a baseball hat. The group laughed.
Shit. Caroline had no idea what that meant, but by the tone, she knew it wasn’t anything good. She could feel her heart pumping the message, danger, danger loud in her ears. The best thing to do was to stay quiet and see what happened. But while the rest of the group continued to walk on, Baseball Cap stopped not far from her, clearly waiting for his answer.
Shit. Was this just going to pass, or was he serious? Caroline took a shaky breath, clutching her pepper spray tighter. He didn’t move. Then, from out of the crowd, another guy came forward—a big, blond, living stereotype of a Nordic Viking. Her gaze moved to him as he slowly approached, his eyes fixed on Baseball Cap, and when he spoke, his voice was quiet but firm.
“Låt henne va’.”
Whatever Viking Guy had said had an effect. Baseball Cap turned to look at Viking Guy. He glanced one more time at Caroline and then turned away to join the group again.
Viking Guy turned and faced Caroline for the first time. His shaggy blond hair fell over deep blue eyes, almost hiding them, but when he looked right at her, they were bright and clear. Oh, my. Her heart pounded harder, though it was no longer out of fear. No, this guy’s look was entirely different from Baseball Cap’s. Despite the fact that the park at night was just about the least appropriate place to size up a man—a very large one, in fact—she found herself doing just that. Then she caught herself. Blushing, Caroline gave him a little smile she hoped would show her gratitude. His eyes still fixed on hers, he gave her a slow smile that made her heart jump again. Then Viking Guy took a visible breath and nodded, turning away. Caroline watched as the group walked down the path and across the street, towards the subway station.
I had pepper spray, she told herself. I would have used it if Baseball Cap had come closer.
She closed her eyes and took a couple more shaky breaths. She whipped around at a rustle behind her, but it was just a leaf scraping the sidewalk. Caroline looked down at her camera. The magic of her morning was long gone. Besides, the mist was beginning to dissolve from Vasaparken’s hills, and the first cars sped down Odengatan. It was time to go back.
She crossed the empty street and walked up to a formal-looking stone building, one of many, old and tightly packed into the long block. She looked up and counted the windows until she came to a balcony on the third floor. Her balcony—for this month, at least. Just that thought made something in her soften.
Caroline punched in the building code and walked through the entry, towards the stairs. Her body begged her to give in to sleep.
Just a few more minutes, she told herself.
She gazed up the marble steps that spiraled along the rounded walls of the stairwell and disappeared. Then she looked over at the tiny elevator next to her. As a rule, she had taken the steps all week, half-afraid of shutting herself into the tiny box, made for “max. 2 personer”—even she could read that much Swedish. It looked as old as the building itself, but today, her weary legs got the better of her.
She pulled on the wooden door and slid open the metal gate just beyond it. The door closed behind her as she pushed her floor number and crossed her fingers. Nothing happened. She pushed it again. Nothing. Caroline sighed. It wasn’t the first time this week that she had spent a good while trying to figure out how basic things worked here—the coffee pot, the shower handle and even the light switch, for goodness sakes. She fought twinges of frustration as she jiggled the metal gate and then pushed the button one more time. The elevator still didn’t move.
Caroline gritted her teeth and resigned herself to the stairs. But as she was about to grab the handle of the heavy wooden door, it was yanked out of her reach. Before she could step out, the bulk of a man pushed his way in. The “max 2 personer” sign clearly didn’t have a guy like this in mind, but he didn’t seem to care. Caroline shrank back into the corner of the elevator, looking for a little more space.
He managed to close the gate with a satisfying click, and the elevator jolted to life on the first try. Caroline found herself flattened to the back of the wooden, closet-like space, the view directly in front of her blocked by the broad shoulders that pulled at the seams of this man’s t-shirt. Without thinking, her gaze lingered on these shoulders and the thick, muscular arms that almost brushed against her. Something made her look away, her heart pounding. Caroline took a deep breath, and the smell of beer and stale cigarettes assaulted her. Ugh. At first the man seemed not to notice Caroline, but then he muttered something in Swedish—to her, she assumed, since no one else was there.
The elevator creaked and rattled as it made its way up until, with a ding, the little carriage came to a sudden stop at her floor. Briefly, Caroline wondered how she would squeeze herself around this imposing man, but as she considered her options, he opened the gate and stepped out, letting the door close unceremoniously onto her. Quickly, she pushed it open again and stepped out onto the landing of the third floor. The staircase curled around to her right, and to her left, the dark entranceway to the building’s two third-floor apartments.
The man walked up to the door opposite hers and began fumbling with his keys. She took a step towards her door and then stopped, staring unabashedly as she got a better look at the guy. Was it Viking Guy from the park, or was it another one of his Nordic god look-alikes? She wasn’t sure, but the thought made her heart jump. Caroline had never seen her neighbor, but on her first night, she had heard him through the walls. And what she had heard hadn’t given her any interest in knocking on the door to introduce herself.
She continued to stare at him until the clatter of his keys on the ground startled her out of her thoughts. She turned away, thinking he had caught her staring, but he still didn’t seem to notice her at all. As he bent down to pick them up, Caroline reached into her own pockets. Her keys weren’t there.
“Shit. Not again,” she groaned.
The words slipped out of her mouth before she could stop them. The man turned around and looked at her as if he were seeing her for the first time. It was Viking Guy—she was sure of it—and now his clear blue eyes were staring at her again. She thought she saw a glimmer of recognition.
“Du,” he said under his breath. Then he asked, “Are you American?”
His eyes were even more intense up close. Something about their color drew her in—in fact, they were not unlike the colors she had tried to capture with her camera only minutes before. In another light, she might not have noticed them, further hidden behind a few days of stubble and a bruise on his cheek that she hadn’t seen earlier. But he looked at her again in the same way he had in the park, a way that made her suddenly feel his entire presence. And her own. And just for a moment, she forgot everything else.
He had asked her a question, Caroline reminded herself, searching for what it was. About being American.
“Yes, I am,” she said.
“That’s why you didn’t say anything,” he said softly.
She assumed he was talking about the park, about why she didn’t respond to Baseball Cap’s provocation. But Caroline didn’t want to think about Baseball Cap right now.
Instead she nodded and then added, “And I forgot my keys again.”
While the self-locking door on this flat was supposed to be a helpful safety feature, there were clearly downsides to the set-up. Especially since it was too early to wake up Veronica for the spare key. Luckily, her friend had shown her the trick to breaking in if this ever happened. The door handles were different from the knobs she was used to in her Michigan apartment: These were three-inch rods that opened when pulled down. If the top bolt lock wasn’t fastened, a slim arm could slip through the mail slot and reach for the handle. If that arm was long enough. It was time to find out.
Determined to focus on the dilemma at hand and not the formidable man only a few feet away from her, Caroline knelt down next to the door and shimmied her forearm through the mail slot. It barely fit, and she could feel the metal scraping at her skin. Suddenly, half way into the process of breaking in, she again became keenly aware that this strange man was watching her with interest. This large man with intense blue eyes. She turned back to him, and he seemed to read her hesitancy.
“Don’t worry. There’s no way I could fit my arm through there,” he said with a chuckle. They both looked down at his long, muscular forearms, easily twice the size of Caroline’s. “I just want to see if you can do this.”
She stretched her arm out as flat as possible, working it slowly through the slot. Finally, her elbow crossed through to the inside, and she bent her arm up, reaching around. Nothing but the wooden door. After a few minutes of groping, Caroline gave up. Her arm wasn’t long enough.
Slowly, she dragged her arm out and sighed. Then she looked up, once again conscious of the man’s presence. He was still watching her from only a few feet away with a look she couldn’t quite read—amusement and something else.
“Wait here,” he said, as if she had any other choice.
This time, his key found the keyhole, and the door to his apartment swung open. She watched as he retreated down an empty hall. Every Swede she had met so far had spoken English with a sophisticated-sounding British accent, the Swedish school standard, apparently, but this guy’s English was clearly American and sounded comfortable. He must have some connection there, she thought, judging from his reaction to her accent. But before she had a chance to think more about it, he reappeared with a long, wooden spoon in his hand.
“Try this. You can hook the handle with it,” he said, handing the spoon to her. “Someone might as well get use out of it.”
The corner of his mouth twitched up into a little smile, and she couldn’t help but smile back. Caroline knelt back down and wedged her arm through the opening again, spoon in hand, until her elbow passed through to the other side of the mail slot. So far, so good. The handle of the spoon should be long enough if she could get the angle right. She waved it around, but it just swished and banged on the wooden door. Closer, she told herself. She swung the spoon a little harder, but she hit the handle sooner than she had expected. With a clang, the spoon fell out of her hand.
“Shit,” she muttered.
He raised his eyebrows. “I’ll be back,” he said and disappeared down his hall again.
He returned with a wooden spatula this time.
“It’s your last chance,” he said, holding it just out of reach. “My kitchen is pretty bare.” Then he handed it over. His smile was a little wider this time.
She took the spatula with her free hand and fed it through the slot, grabbing it with her other hand. That hand was the only part of her body that was going to enter her apartment this morning if she didn’t get it right. This time, she held on tighter, and after a few more swings at the handle, she felt the spatula connect. She pulled down slowly until the latch clicked. The door glided open, taking Caroline’s arm with it in a decidedly ungraceful pull. Voila.
“Impressive,” he said, and he moved closer to lift the metal flap as she attempted to extract her arm from the narrow slot. It was a slow and slightly painful process, but, finally, she was free.
“Thanks,” she said. She handed him the spatula and rubbed the raw scrapes down her arm. He released the metal slot and they both stood up. She was close enough to feel the warmth of his body next to hers, but neither of them stepped away. And once again, she was deliciously aware of his presence. This was probably closer than a strange man should be in the earlier hours of the morning, but nothing about this situation felt threatening. In fact, it felt like something completely different. Caroline took in his considerable size again and tried to steady her breath.
She followed his gaze down to the scratches on her arm. Her heart thumped in her throat as he lifted his hand slowly towards the red marks down at her elbow, and she could feel the pull between them grow stronger. When he finally touched her skin, she drew in a sharp breath. He stepped back immediately.
Whoa. What was she doing? Viking Guy was quickly retreating.
“Let me get your spoon,” she said quickly.
“Um, sorry,” he mumbled at the same time, not looking at her anymore.
He turned back to his apartment and slammed the door before Caroline had a chance to turn around.