She comes in at eight in the evening every time. She leaves at 11, exactly when the gym closes. She’s usually the last to leave.
I see her on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when I work the evening shift. I don’t know if she comes on the other days.
She comes in looking like she’s already done the workout, like she’s tired and fading and drained. She leaves with more energy. I see her walk through the door knowing when she’ll appear through the glass. I watch her leave knowing the sound of her footsteps echoing off the lonely hall. Almost no one comes at night. They say the gym lights cast an eerie glow, and that ghosts haunt the creaking machines. I’ve worked here for a year and never seen one.
I met her on my first day of work. I said hello to her and she to me, but she seemed to stare for an extra instant, as if to memorize my face. But maybe I just imagined it. I was always searching for clues with her, always adding miles of words to fill in the silence of her brief responses.
By the fifth week– she had come every week– I asked her why she didn’t just buy a month-long membership. For you see, every Tuesday she bought a new one-week membership. I told myself I was doing this to save her money– and it’s true the deal would have been cheaper– but maybe I just wanted an excuse to talk for a little longer, or maybe I was simple curious about this enigma of a woman.
She replied without missing a beat. “I don’t like commitment.”
She said it with a joking smile, but I don’t think either of us interpreted it that way.
I waited three more months before trying anew. “Are you sure you’re not ready for that commitment yet?” I said on a Tuesday, a smile playing across my lips. I had remembered her words months later. I still remember her words.
“Do you know where you’re going to be next week?” She raised an eyebrow at me, and I was too surprised to answer. “Well, I don’t. Not with certainty.”
She hadn’t taken her receipt that time. She’d walked away towards the elliptical room, and I wondered if I had offended her.
She’d been nothing more than a passing curiosity, but I admit some slow nights at work I became consumed with the obsession of her. Outside of the gym, I promptly forgot. I went on with school and friends and coffee. But waiting behind the counter, fidgeting with the locker keys, I would let my mind wander.
In a moment of weakness I searched up her name in the computer database. Anna Li. A name as stale and overworked as scorched earth. But in a way, it was a name without strings, a name without expectations, like a river rock smoothed and shaped by the onslaught of water. She lived in an apartment by the university, and she’d listed a guardian as her emergency contact. She hadn’t signed the pool waiver release form, and I realized she’d never showered here either. Her name was Anna Li, but I still continued to see her as a solely a being, a presence, someone as unnamable as the wind.
It was raining that night, I remember because my windshields were broken and I thought I wouldn’t need to get them fixed. Not in this Californian drought. But it had rained, so I drove slowly to work that night.
She’d come in wet, with an unhappy look on her face, much like a cat. I told her this, but she only scowled. It was not an unpleasant scowl.
The interaction hadn’t been strange, it wasn’t that. It started much later, around 11, when I realized I hadn’t heard her familiar sounds, when I’d peered down the darkened hallway and hadn’t seen a slight shadowy figure approaching. She was as regular as clockwork, so I wondered what was the matter. Still I waited, not wanting to break our unspoken choreography. I would wish her goodnight; she would glance over her shoulder and say it back. But not tonight.
At 11:05 I knew I should be closing up. I half-heartedly left my stand beneath the counter and went to inspect each of the rooms. I went to the weight room first, thinking she wouldn’t be there. I felt like it was almost an intrusion of privacy to watch her exercising. Maybe I didn’t want to think of her as a real person, maybe I didn’t want to see her doing real things.
She was there in the corner, sitting with one leg bent under her and one leg stretched forward. She was watching herself in the mirror, a drawn look on her face, as if daring herself to some impossible challenge. I was startled to see her. She saw me immediately in the reflection.
“Sorry,” I said. “It’s closing time.”
“No problem,” she replied, standing up stiffly. She folded her mat and went to put it away; I quickly left to go turn off the lights in the other rooms.
By the time I was finished– nearly 11:30, I had that feeling when you were completely alone, when you feel safe in your own skin. There’s nothing quite like being alone in a very public place.
I switched off the Wi-Fi, turned off the lights, and headed towards the door, keys in hand. I remembered that night there had been a strange stain in the women’s locker room, so I paused to use some of the hand sanitizer by the door. As I placed my hand beneath the sensor, waiting for the cold gel to fall, I thought of how I never used this machine, and why was that? Banal thoughts, for an unusual night.
A train sounded in the distance as I walked into the cold air. I locked the doors behind me, feeling the mist of light rain still falling. Maybe tomorrow I wouldn’t water the plants back home, I thought, walking down the pavement to my car. The lot was empty– only my tired Subaru waiting under a tree. I knew I didn’t need to bother parking in the shade, not when I returned to my car so late at night. But I did anyway, every time. Old habits die hard, I suppose.
I stepped forward, then heard a hiss.
I turned too suddenly, nearly tripping over my own foot. “Whoa.”
The sound came from the stone ledge bordering the sidewalk. She was sitting on top, one leg folded, the other hanging over the ledge.
Though this sounds strange now, looking back, what made me ill at ease was not the fact that she was waiting here thirty minutes after closing time, or sitting in the rain with no concern to catching a cold. No, it was simply her facial expression that caught me off guard, the way her eyes widened so dramatically, the way her lips pressed together in a thin colorless line. She was illuminated under the lamplight, causing each shadow and crevice of her face to be highlighted and contoured. Her eye sockets appeared deeper than a cave, her cheekbones sharper than rock face. Her pale skin looked green beside her yellow tank top. An alien, I thought.
“Will you give me a ride home?” she asked, an odd breathiness in her voice. She looked like she didn’t care to explain, but at my shocked expression she added, “I think I hurt myself. I can’t get home like this.”
“Can’t get home…” I repeated. My car was the only one in the lot.
“I usually run to the gym,” she finally explained, voice reluctantly dragging like an anchor in the ocean floor. “And back.”
“Even at night?” I asked, too unsettled by the peculiar situation to realize I was having a conversation with her. I spoke more to her that night than I ever had.
“Yes,” she stared at me. “It’s not unsafe if you can outrun the big bad guys.”
I exhaled, trying to understand her words. It hit me that she was waiting for a response. “Sure, I mean, sure,” I said.
“Great.” She awkwardly lowered herself off the ledge, wincing at the slight jump. I unlocked my car, hastily clearing the mess and throwing it in the backseat.
She got in, empty-handed, without a bag or phone or wallet. I remembered now that she never had things with her, never anything more than what was on her body. When she had to pay, she’d hand me cash, sliding the green bills onto the counter with long-nailed thin fingers. And no cellphone ever made an appearance, not even when a line formed behind the counter, and everyone else was texting away patiently. She’d be the only one waiting with her head up, absentmindedly inspecting the peeling paint on the ceiling.
We drove in silence. All she had said was to drive straight. The rain was much lighter now, of a sheer quality, its droplets splintering against the windowpane and dividing into thin wispy streams. I still drove slowly, though not out of caution this time.
I wondered what type of person you have to be to not have anyone to call. It was midnight on a Tuesday, who wouldn’t be home at this hour? To have no friends, no parents, no third cousins twice removed that would be willing to drive over. Or maybe she simply wasn’t willing. Maybe she had distanced herself from all that, determined to go alone.
She told me to turn left at the intersection.
What were her days like? How did she live them? Were they busy, jam-packed with classes then dates then gym sessions? Or were they simply empty, maybe in bed until late afternoon, then some scrambled eggs in the drafty apartment, then finally, at five minutes till eight, a reluctant drag to the gym? I glanced at her, but her face was turned away from me, bent against the window, arms crossed against her chest. I remembered the faint scent of sterile hand sanitizer, wafting through the car. I could never use that sanitizer again.
“It’s this one up here,” she finally said, straightening up as we neared an apartment complex. She tapped her hands against the glass, the rings on her fingers making sharp clicking sounds. I set my blinker to turn inside, but she shook her head. “You can just drop me off here.”
I pulled over to the street shoulder. She looked at me then opened the car door.
“Wait Anna Li,” I said.
“What?” she said, brows crinkling in puzzlement, as if that wasn’t her name.
“Um, will you be okay?” I think I registered at that moment of desperation that this would be my last. That I was plucking away at fading strings, that I was running towards a train beginning to pick up speed. I was losing her, and I wasn’t ready yet. Maybe I wanted some sort of token, a souvenir of sorts. Or maybe I just wanted proof that I had known her.
“Yeah,” she smiled, one that made me more afraid than comforted. It was all flashing teeth, no lip, like a horse before it bites. “I’ve managed thus far.”
“But aren’t you afraid? When you run home so late at night?”
“You’re not afraid of things that can’t catch you.”
“Oh, okay.” But I couldn’t imagine her flimsy legs sprinting fast.
She bit her lip, looking like she wanted to say more. She hesitated before shutting the door, and then added, “But there are some things you can’t outrun,” she shrugged, distinctly not afraid– I remember that. “Goodnight.”
“See you,” I said. She didn’t reply.
I watched her cross the damp grass and disappear into the shadow of an apartment building. The rain was starting to come faster, so I left quickly, determined to make it home before I couldn’t. I still don’t know if I made it home.
On Thursday I went to the gym as usual, parking beneath the shade even though I knew the sun would set before I left. I couldn’t get the memory of her figure on the ledge out of my mind. I kept glancing towards the lamplight, as if expecting to find her underneath. I’d been waiting for her ever since I dropped her off two nights ago. The obsession had burned into embers of insanity.
Behind the counter I started to grow more anxious as eight drew nearer. When the hour came and went, I thought I’d had an aneurysm. Or heart palpitations at least. No other visitors came, so I was free to fret, wringing my hands behind the counter and glancing so often at the wall clock it looked like I had a twitch. By nine she still wasn’t here, and I felt like I had missed the train. Like I was watching it chug away, too tired to try to catch up.
Out of restlessness I typed in her name, but I never got to see the results. For as the computer searched through its database, I heard a faint but foreign sound issuing from the hall corner. I looked up and saw the familiar TV hanging on the wall in the hallway. That had always been there.
But all the TVs in the gym were customarily turned on mute. So why was the volume on this one on, albeit very low? I got out from behind the booth– unlike me I know, but I had been possessed– and crept closer to the monitor, watching the screen. They were showing the same news from earlier that day, only this time, I paid attention.
Girl discovered dead by the side of the road. Attire: yellow top and black running shorts. Several callers have testified to say they had seen a girl many times jogging along that street at midnight. She was found Wednesday morning, around five am by a garbage collector. The only wounds on her were scratches reopening the scars on her left foot. She was lying in broad daylight, in plain view.
I hurried back to the counter and violently dug through its drawers. Finding the dusty remote control, I muted the hall TV, my hands trembling like a sparrow caught in the wind. But she had driven back with me, I thought, she hadn’t run home that night. That night out of all nights, she had chosen not to.
“Hi, can I buy a one-week membership?” A girl had approached my desk without me noticing. She was thin with translucent skin, and I felt like I could reach across the counter and push her down easily with one hand.
“Sure, could you first sign this form…”
I quit the gym days later. It became too much after that. My coworkers were sorry to see me go, sorrier still that one of them had to take the open night shift now. On my final night, when I came into work the pesky TV was on again. Autopsy report released, it announced. The dead girl has yet to be identified, but the manner of her murder has. She was attacked reportedly from the front, not from behind as most would have guessed. So she wasn’t caught, I realized, wasn’t sprinting away with adrenaline shooting through her veins as she tried to get away from her big bad guy. She was taken from the front, by surprise it seems for there wasn’t a struggle, scratched then strangled to death by a thin pair of sharp-nailed, ringed hands.
There are some things you can’t outrun, she had said.