37 - Chris
The cubicle door swings open with an eerie creak. The room is empty. Blank, clean white tiles lining the floor and walls. Just a box of tiles. Nobody. Not a soul.
I glance at Ashley who's huddled behind me, passing her a bewildered look. Hers are shivering in silent fear. Had we just imagined the voice? The footsteps? Our names?
I shake my head, blinking my eyes, trying to rattle out the madness in my skull. I let out a sigh of relief, turning back towards the rest of the bathroom-
And, like a force has shoved into my chest, I always shatter back through the wall.
There, leaning between two of the sinks, is a man. He's crossed his arms across his chest, his caramel skin moulding over his muscles. "Good day," he greets us with a half smile, his dark hair rough and littered with grey dust, like he's just strolled out of some collapsing building. Casually, he unclasps his arms from across his chest and brings one up to shake the dust out of his hair. It falls like dandruff to the white tiled floor. And then disintegrates. Vanishes.
"I have to say," he mutters, pushing himself off the mirrored wall, an amused smile on his face. "Ashley, you did a great job in following my clues. I'm impressed." He raises a single eyebrow, "And your friend Sam too."
Ashley stiffens beside me, her hands clasping onto my bicep. Sam. He's been involved with her too.
"The photographs; on that site? They're not just photos! They're clues!"
My throat clenches. "It was you?" I shake my head, disbelieving. Who the hell even was this guy? "I thought- Dr. Hill-"
The man chuckles under his breath. "I really doubt Dr. Hill would have invited you to find out all his secrets." He shrugs casually. "He's just pretty quick in improvising."
"Are you," Ashley's voice is tight beside me. This man has pulled up her fear again. Her anxiety. "One of them?"
The man smiles apologetically. Genuine. His eyes look sad. "I'm sorry this happened to you," he nods, his voice gruff but authentic. I don't know whether I believe him or not. "But no, I don't work for him." By his queasy expression, it looks like that would be the last thing he'd be caught dead doing. For some reason, that makes me relax. Just a little bit.
"Why," I start, feeling a flicker of confidence growing. I reach behind me and grab Ashley's hand, slowly leading her out with me. She tugs back on my hand, like she's rooting her heels into the floor, determined not to move from her spot. But I glance meaningfully back at her, assuring her it'll be alright. She glares back but I can feel her pulse settle – just a little – underneath my fingers. And she obliges. "Are you here then?"
The man sticks his hands in his pockets, shrugs and says, "I wanted to make sure you were alright."
That sounds like the most unnatural thing that could have come out of his mouth. I narrow my eyes at him, feeling slightly uncomfortable. I'm unsure. There are exactly 16 tiles length between us, from where he stands to where we are. I am determined to keep that distance.
"And," he breathes, a sad smile readjusting itself on his face. "I wanted to say." His eyes lift up to my face. Not Ashley's. Mine. "Stop hating yourself over his death. You couldn't have done anything about it."
My mouth runs dry. Ashley glances at me in shock, surprise, confusion. The Stranger. How does he know about him? How did he know any of that had happened? My eyes feel like they are bleeding. Burning and pricking. I grit my teeth to force myself not to cry.
I can feel my whole body heating up. I've tried to forget the memory. The sickening sound of his head plopping in the snow. His blood creeping out into it, turning it red. The crunching sound of my fear, like the slicing of the wendigo's claw across his neck. And then my pounding footsteps, like the rushing of my heart, as that exact fear had shoved me out of there. Abandoning him. Killing him.
Ashley squeezes my hand beside me. She knows. Of course she knows. I had told her, through a tight throat and waterlogged eyes, my guilt. The heavy feelings that were dragging me down. Making each of my footsteps heavier and heavier as they dragged the weight of my regret on the back of my heels. I had tried to forget. But I never really had. It was always there. That lingering guilt.
"Who are you?" my voice croaks as I swipe away rebellious tears from my cheeks.
I feel Ashley lean her forehead against my shoulder and whisper tight but reassuring words. Forgiving words. Despite myself, despite the company, I wrap my arm around her shoulders and press a kiss to her temple. A brief thank you amidst the fear, the guilt, the memories.
The man heaves his heavy shoulders up in a shrug. And I can see something genuine in his facial expression. A kind of remorse. An understanding. "You can call me Tag," he rolls one shoulder. And for a second, I think I see him flicker. Like a computer screen losing connection for a split second. And he looks like he's losing strength.
And then he's moving. Quickly, like he's in a rush, towards the door. But before he wraps his hand around the handle, and opens it, he turns back towards us and smiles meaningfully, raising his eyebrows. "Ashley," he hums. There's a pleasant amusement in his eyes. "You better say yes."
And then he's gone.
And it's silent.
The room is once again just a box of tiles. And I let out a breath. Ashley's shoulders relax beside me.
Without any words, I'm yanking my phone out of my pocket and searching for any articles focused on The Stranger that night. They must have found his body. Some DNA. Some name.
And then my mind remembers. I glance up towards the mirrored wall, my heart pounding. How had I never registered it before?
Tag never had a reflection.