Behind You

Not all gifts should be accepted...

Behind You

Tag stares at his empty hand as the frantic, bumbling Christmas shoppers make careless circuits around him. He doesn’t move, as if freezing the moment will somehow let him roll it back and undo it. His breath hangs in his throat. His right hand remains poised in mid-air, ready to type out a forgotten message to Sonia.

His phone lies at his feet, face down on the hard-tiled floor of the aisle. The brutal crack it made as it landed still echoes in his ears. He reaches down, a hollow dread filling him as he picks up the tiny device. It’s broken. Of course it’s broken. The screen glows teasingly at him, but the light is fractured though a latticework of cracks spidering out from the lower corner of the screen and arcing all the way across the glass. The phone is dead to his touch. He may as well run his finger across a brick.

“I’m so so sorry,” a voice says over his shoulder, breaking his moment of mourning. “Is it broken?”

Tag turns around, briefly wondering if the stranger had been standing there the whole time. The man smiles, his mouth twitching with a strange, frantic energy. For a moment it looks as though he might burst into laughter

“Uhh,” Tag says, trying to summon his thoughts through the rising cloud of frustration.

“I should have been looking where I was going. You look gutted, that’s terrible—I feel terrible.” The stranger speaks calmly, but his breath is ragged and Tag can’t tear his eyes from the shine in the man’s eyes. The moment is broken when the stranger turns away to glance over his shoulder.

Tag tries to reply that everything’s fine, that the stranger can leave him alone; but it really isn’t. The abrupt loss of his phone gnaws at him.

“Tell you what,” the stranger says. “Let me give you mine.”

The man holds out a phone. Shiny. Intact. Tag wonders if it can really be this easy. He stares at the phone: it is newer and better than his. The gleam of it distracts him from the trembling of the stranger’s arm, helps him ignore the man’s peculiar, nervous chuckle.

“Seriously, I barely use the thing anyway,” the man says, holding the phone closer. His voice keeps rising as he speaks

Tag thinks about the lessons they used to learn at school, about not taking things from strangers, but he’s not at school anymore. He reaches for the phone. It remains locked in the stranger’s grasp. For a second Tag thinks he’s being played, then the phone is released and it’s in his hand. There’s a thrill as he touches it, feels the weight. He is complete again.

Then, just as quickly, it’s gone again; back in the stranger’s hand. Tag feels the emptiness the again, somehow more pronounced after so nearly being filled. He looks up at the stranger. The man breathes deeply and stares at his phone; perhaps, reasonably, debating whether or not he should be giving it away so casually.

Then the stranger smiles at Tag, his eyes bright.

“I’m sorry, I .... here, let me reset it for you,” the stranger says, tapping at the screen. “Yes. There, it’s done. All yours.”

He holds the phone out. Tag stares at it.

“Take it,” the stranger says, an urgency in his voice. “Please. It’s yours.”

Tag reaches out. Part of him still wonders if it’s all a trick, but then the phone is in his hands again. His doubts fade completely when he sees the message on the screen, inviting him to set it up; to make it his.

In the background of his reverie he hears a high-pitched laugh. He looks up, meaning to thank the stranger, but the man has already gone.

###

“A complete stranger just walked up and gave you a brand new phone? Are you serious right now?”

Sonia stares at him as if he’s just told her that dragons are real and she’s waiting for the penny to drop.

In reply, Tag holds up the new phone, and retrieves the broken one from his pocket for comparison. “I guess he just felt bad about breaking my phone.”

Sonia takes the new phone, holding it between her thumb and forefinger. Tag feels a shudder of nervousness, watching the phone as it dangles precariously over the table.

Sonia shakes her head. “I’m not trying to be funny, you know, but don’t you think this is just a little a bit funny. People don’t just give brand new phones away.”

Tag takes his phone back and shrugs. The resurrection—and rejuvenation—of his phone has restored his sense of Christmas cheer in a way that even Sonia’s scepticism can’t pierce. “‘Tis the season ...” he says.

“Look, I hope it’s all good, I really do. But at least get it checked out before you start using it. He could have loaded it with viruses or malware or who knows what. You could be sending all your bank details to China the first time you use it. Right?”

“Sure, sure,” Tag nod. “I’ll be careful. Now, how about we get away from all of this Christmas crazy and I buy you a drink.”

Sonia smiles, the offer catching her by surprise. “Well, now you’re definitely making sense.”

###

The first round disappears in a haze of Christmas cheer and suppressed emotions, and Tag folds even more quickly to Sonia’s insistence that she buy a second round. Left alone at the table, he retrieves the phone from his pocket where it has been sitting impatiently, trying to tempt his attention away from Sonia.

He feels the weight of it, relishing the smoothness of its surface. He finally takes up the invitation to set it up. Moments later it’s done, and the phone is his. He lowers it again, hiding it under the table, when Sonia returns with their drinks.

She smiles at him as she sits back down. “You know, I normally hate Christmas shopping but ... yeah, today’s been kinda fun.” She hesitates. “We should do it again.”

Tag grins, feeling the pressure of being too nervous to say the same thing lifted from him. “I’d like that.”

Before he can stop himself, he gets up and moves around the table to sit next to Sonia, enjoying the way that she raises her eyebrows in surprise, but also quickly slides across to make room for him.

“You can help me christen this thing,” he says, holding the phone up in front of them. Sonia rolls her eyes but smiles dutifully for the camera. There is a barely audible click then Tag holds up the photo for her approval. It’s a good one; both of them relaxed and happy. Sitting with her at that moment, Tag can’t think of any place he’d rather be, and he wonders if she feels the same.

While he is distracted by his reverie, Sonia reaches over and takes the phone. Its sudden absence from his hand causes a stab of anxiousness. He resists the urge to take it back, and instead focuses on how good it feels to be so close to Sonia; her warmth, her scent. Sonia notices him and smiles briefly as she turns to glance behind them both. She then hands the phone back to Tag.

“See, I told you there’d be something wrong with it. The camera’s duff.” She points at the photo, at the tiny mark on the image just above Tag’s right shoulder. Tag brings the phone closer. The mark is barely visible: a short strip of shadow so faint that it wouldn’t even show up were it not for the paleness of the wall behind them. Tag turns around. There are no shadows on the wall. No marks. He looks at the photo again and struggles for a reasonable explanation, one that doesn’t involve his new phone being broken.

“Oh, come on,” Sonia says, laughing at his expression. “Why so miserable? I’m sure that shiny new phone of yours is perfectly awesome in every other way. It’s probably just something on the lens. Now, put it down and tell me about how we’re going to do this again.”

Tag smiles and does as he’s told.

But the shadow still lurks in his memory.

###

Tag opens his eyes into darkness.

He feels his heart pounding in his chest, but he can’t remember why. His breath is short. A thin sheen of sweat chills his brow.

He switches on the bedside lamp and looks around his room.

It’s empty.

No one there.

He shakes his head. It was a dream, of course; nothing more. A dream that someone was following him.

He closes his eyes and goes back to sleep.

But not for long.

###

The next morning Tag sits at the kitchen table waiting for the sun to rise. His head rages at him over the post-shopping drinks from the day before, but the pain brings good memories. He looks down the hallway to Sonia’s door. It remains closed.

His moment of burgeoning self-pity is instead broken by another door opening. His landlord, Mike, shuffles out, fastening the belt of his dressing gown. He stops when he notices Tag. “You, uh, you been there a while?”

Tag finds he can’t remember how long he’s been sitting there, but he’ll take any chance to make Mike sweat. “Yeah,” he says, nodding purposefully at Mike’s door. “A while.”

Mike walks to the sink and pours himself a glass of water. “You and Sonia were out late last night.”

“We were.”

“Have fun without me?”

Tag doesn’t say anything to that, but he knows Mike will prod him further for a reaction if he leaves the silence hanging for too long. “Listen, Mike, did you hear anything last night? Someone walking around?”

“Other from you two coming in?”

“Later than that?”

Mike shrugs, his attention suddenly captured by something else. “What’s that?” he asks, pointing in the direction of Tag’s hands.

Tag looks down, not even realising he’d brought the phone with him out of the bedroom. “Uh, it’s my new phone.”

“Nice. How much?”

“It was ... free. Someone—my old phone got broken and they gave me this one.”

“Let’s see,” Mike says, and reaches down to take the phone before Tag can stop him. An angry discomfort rises in him as it’s torn from his grasp. He ignores the feeling: it’s a common reaction when dealing with Mike.

He watches as Mike turns the phone over in his hands, resisting the desire to snatch it back.

“Not bad,” Mike says. “Want to sell it? I’ll let you off a few weeks’ rent.”

Tag takes the phone back. “Sorry, Mike, it’s not for sale.”

“Suit yourself,” Mike says, turning his back on Tag and refilling his water glass. He walks back to his room without a second glance. “Hope you and Sonia have fun together.”

The door closes. Tag breathes out as the tension slips away. He runs his fingers over the smooth, cool surface of his phone and wonders when Sonia will get up.

###

“I had an encounter with our glorious landlord yesterday,” Sonia says over her beer.

The barely contained excitement of Christmas Eve surrounds them, and Tag feels his nerves tingling. Even the mention of Mike can’t break the thrill of being close to Sonia again ... of being alone with Sonia again—apart from the hundred or so people crowded into the pub around them.

“You too?” he says. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him come out of his room this much.”

“You know he actually asked me if we were sleeping together.”

Tag almost chokes. “What, uh, what did you tell him?”

Sonia pauses, grinning. “I told him we were. It’ll drive him mad trying to work out when we’re doing it.”

Tag smiles as he tries to work out an appropriate response, but Sonia gestures towards him: “What’s this? What are you doing?”

“What’s ... w-what?” Tag asks, his anxiety spiking.

“This thing where you keep looking over your shoulder. Do you not want to be here or something?”

“What? No!” Tag replies quickly. “I mean, yes … I do want to be here …”

He tries to find the rest of the words: I really enjoy spending time with you … but they remain stubborn and silent. Something inside is stopping him, making him feel oddly self-conscious. Except ... it doesn’t feel like it’s inside of him. He looks behind, scanning the whole pub. What is it that’s out there?

He turns back and Sonia is looking at him with a single question across her face.

Tag sighs. “You’ll say I’m crazy if I told you.”

“I kinda already think you’re a bit crazy,” Sonia said. “But tell me anyway and I’ll make up my own mind.”

Tag fiddles with his glass for a moment before speaking. “I feel …”

“Yes…?”

“I don’t know why but I keep getting this feeling like someone’s watching me, you know?”

Sonia’s face falls a little at Tag’s answer. She hides it quickly, but he still notices.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I really ... I do really enjoy hanging out with you, and here I am acting like a freak.

Sonia smiles. “Yeah, well, everyone’s a freak, aren’t they? Good thing you’re my kind of freak.”

Her eyes widen as she realises what she’s said and she buries herself in her pint glass. Tag drinks too because it feels like the right thing to do. Somehow his nervousness has unlocked part of the tension between them. A dozen variations of ‘I like being your kind of freak’ race through his mind, but he says none of them. Instead he just smiles.

Sonia smiles at him. “So, is that camera of yours working properly yet?”

Tag’s hand tightens around the phone that has been resting there the whole time. “I think so,” he replies. “I’ve keep keeping my Instagram feed well fed with—“

“Yeah, I’d noticed,” Sonia says. “I mean, how many times a day do you eat anyway?”

Tag grins. “Point is none of those pictures have any marks on them, so I guess it’s all fine now.”

“How about it then?” Sonia asks, patting the seat beside her. “Let’s get a selfie. We can send him to Mike and drive him nuts.”

Tag moves over to sit next to her. Maybe it’s his imagination, but there’s a warm buzz of electricity surrounding her. He wants to sit there forever, soaking it up. As he sits down, their thighs brush together; a wave of excitement rushes through him.

Sonia holds her hand out for the phone, but Tag switches it to his left hand instead—the one that isn’t stuck between the two of them. For a moment he doesn’t know what to do with his right arm, then it’s around Sonia, where it feels like it belongs forever. She smiles. Tag smiles. He takes the shot.

He brings the phone down to look at the photo and a chill instantly sinks through him. It’s a good photo. Both of them bright, in focus, happy. Tag wants to see it as, perhaps, the first moment of him and Sonia being together. But all he can see is—

“Oh,” Sonia says next to him. She sees it too.

A dark blur hangs just behind Tag’s left shoulder. A shadow of something that isn’t there. Unable to help himself, Tag turns to study the wall directly behind him. It is smooth and clean. There are no marks. No shadows. Nothing to explain what he’s seeing in the photo.

He studies it again. It’s not imagination; there’s definitely something behind him. Tall, slender. Perhaps a scratch on the lens. He peers closer. It almost looks like the shape of a—

“—just the selfie camera that’s duff, at least?”

He looks at Sonia. She’s been talking to him and he didn’t even realise.

“Yeah,” Tag says. “Yeah. That’s right. No biggie.”

He puts the phone back in his pocket and doesn’t tell Sonia the other thing he’s seen. The thing that doesn’t make sense. The thing that probably really does mean he’s losing it.

The shadow on the photo is getting bigger.

###

The sound travels deep in the night. Trip-trap-trip-trapping its way into Tag’s dreams. He stirs restlessly, the sound bearing down towards him. Trip-trap. Trip-trap. The constant rhythm drills into him, through his sleep, and—

Tag wakes up. Sits up in his bed. He breathes a sigh of relief, rescued from the dream, and draws the covers close around him.

Is there is something in the darkness?

Pit-pat pit-pat ...

The sound is still there. Why can he still hear it?

Tag reaches out for his bedside light, almost knocking it to the floor in his fumbling. He switches it on. An amber glow fills the room, deepening the shadows.

No one there. Of course, there’s no one there. All the same, he scans the corners of his tiny room, making absolutely sure that there are no dark figures hiding in the shadows.

The room is empty. But—

Pit-pat pit-pat pit-pat ...

The sound continues. Feet stepping across a floor. Coming closer to him, closer. Tag forces himself out of bed and goes the door. He grips the handle, ready to turn it and see who’s out there. Then he realises a terrible thing.

The footsteps aren’t coming from out there.

They’re coming from inside his room.

He turns and looks into every corner a second time. A third time. No one there. Even if there was, it can be no more than three steps from one side of his room to the other. How do the footsteps keep coming? The room is icy cold, but a sweat prickles his back. He tries to tell himself that it’s not possible for anyone to be in the room with him, while every one of his senses tells him there is. Someone is there. Walking. Never stopping. Not stopping until they catch up to him. And then—?

Tag stares at the phone, sitting over on the bedside table. He walks over towards it. The sound of footsteps grows. Trip-trap trip-trap. It gets closer, coming from behind, but never reaching him. Soon it is all he can hear.

He picks up the phone.

The sound stops.

Tag almost laughs in the silence. He goes to put the phone down then stops himself. What if the footsteps start again?

He lies down in his bed, keeping the phone clutched in his hand.

But he doesn’t turn out the lights.

###

Tag hears footsteps coming again. He looks up and is surprised to find he’s in the kitchen now, sitting at the table. The phone is gripped in his hand, staring at him. The footsteps draw closer, closer, then stop. Tag sees Mike standing on the opposite side of the table, staring at him.

Was it Mike all along? he wonders.

“Guilty conscience?” Mike says.

Tag stares unable to understand the words. More words follow. Tag only hears some of them.

“ ... landlord ... have to be responsible ... terms of the contract ... single tenants ... in a relationship ... sleeping together ... find some new tenants.”

The words stop and Tag realises Mike is looking to him for a response.

“Uh, sure,” he says.

Tag looks back down at his phone, at the picture on the screen. The next time he looks up, Mike is gone.

###

Sonia walks through the front door; drained, content, and happy to be home after a full Christmas with her family. A fuzzy, warm ball of tension tightens in her stomach at the thought of seeing Tag. The buzz, however, is darkened by the question that has been growing in her mind over the last couple of days.

Why didn’t you reply to any of my texts?

She tells herself that he was too busy. That his new phone died on him. That he doesn’t know how to use it properly yet. None of the answers convince her. And when she sees him sitting at the kitchen table, oblivious to her arrival, back turned to her, the emotions roll ruthlessly into overdrive. She waits for a moment, but he doesn’t turn to look at her.

“Hey Tag,” she says, her effort to sound casual making the greeting sound all the more pointed.

No reply.

Sonia abandons her bags by the door and walks into the kitchen, her fear and frustration jostling for position.

“Tag? Hey. How was your Christmas?”

Still nothing. He stares at his lap, lost in a private moment. She walks around the table, waving a hand to get his attention. As soon as she enters his line of sight he jumps, looking behind himself with terrified urgency. Seeing nothing he settles and resumes staring at his lap, his breath slowing once again. It takes the passage of a few more moments before he registers Sonia’s presence and looks up at her.

She struggles to hold back an audible gasp at the emptiness behind his eyes, and wonders when he last slept.

“Hey, I...” he begins, but the words get forgotten almost immediately as his attention goes back to the phone in his lap.

“How are you doing, Tag?” Sonia asks, guiding herself slowly into the chair opposite, making sure to avoid any sudden moves.

He looks up at her. Sonia tries to keep her expression steady, but this is not the Tag she said goodbye to only a few days ago. She looks away from him, looks at the phone in his hand, propped up against the edge of the table so the screen is angled to face him. As she watches, his thumb moves slightly, pressing down on the button. There is a faint click as the camera captures the image.

Again. The thumb moves. Click.

The thumb moves. Click.

Sonia finds herself getting drawn in by the near-silent rhythm.

Then they both nearly fall out of their seats as a door opens. Mike emerges, in his dressing gown and looks disdainfully at the table. “Sonia,” he says, then more quizzically: ”You go away for Christmas?”

“Yes, Mike, I’ve been gone for the last two days.” She leaves the chair and walks up to him, even though it turns her stomach to be so close. “What’s going on with Tag?”

Mike scoffs. “Don’t ask me. He’s been sitting there every time I’ve come out.”

“And you’ve just—you’re not worried by that?”

Mike stares at her as if she’s crazy. “I’m not his doctor.”

Sonia feels the rage boiling inside. Luckily Mike is gone before it can reach him. She turns back to Tag. He sits in the chair oblivious to the conversation about him. She down at the phone. His thumb sits on the home button. On the screen is a photo of him. A selfie.

The rhythm repeats. Tag’s thumb tenses. Click. Another photo. Identical to the one that was already on the screen. Sonia studies it more closely, thinking Tag has captured her behind him, but it’s just a shadow. She’s there standing on his other side.

She turns and looks behind them both. Nothing there.

Click.

She looks at the new photo on the screen, at herself staring at a shadow that isn’t there. She remembers the defective camera, but she also remembers the mark on the photos looking different; less like a—

She shuts the thought down before it can take hold and convince her that there’s anything more going on here than Tag needing her help.

“Tag?” she says to him, as she reaches down for the phone.

It is gripped tight in his hand; she can’t budge it. She sees the white knuckles, his fingertips purple from holding it so tightly. How long has he been like this, she wonders?

She leaves the phone where it is, and instead finds the button to switch the screen off. The change in Tag comes instantly. His shoulders slump. He exhales. She sees the blood beginning to flow back into his loosened fingers. Finally, he looks up at her.

“Sonia...? I—I—“ he starts to say.

“Whatever it is, it can wait,” Sonia says as she helps him out of the chair.

Tag looks around. “What time is it? Did you come back early?”

Sonia tries to hide the fear rising inside her. The fear that she has lost Tag; that he has lost himself. Behind the fear is the guilt that maybe she could have stopped it from happening if she had been there. She ignores that too, focusing instead on the weight of him, the effort needed to take him from the chair and lead him to his room.

She also ignores the blank look in his eyes as he tries to work out where he is.

She lays him down on his bed; his eyes close almost immediately. She watches as he falls into long-awaited sleep. She smiles, relieved to see him at peace again. Then she looks down and the smile falters.

The phone is still clutched in his right hand.

###

The footsteps are coming for him. They pound in the darkness. He can’t see which way to turn. All he knows is that the footsteps are getting closer.

He looks desperately for an escape, but a wall of black confronts him in every direction. He runs anyway. The footsteps keep coming.

In desperation, he throws the only weapon he has available to him—his phone—into the dark behind him. It disappears instantly and silently into the shadows.

The footsteps come for him.

He flees into the never-changing blackness, unable to tell if he’s even moving. Then, out of the shadows, something rushes towards him.

The stranger. He grins a terrifying grin and takes Tag by the arms. The footsteps continue in the darkness, coming closer and stopping right behind Tag. He turns.

It’s the stranger again, holding the abandoned phone. He pushes it into Tag’s hand; Tag’s fingers close inevitably around it. Then the stranger laughs and walks away, his footsteps never quite fading in the darkness.

###

Tag sits up in bed, breathless and sweating with fear. The darkness is gone; his bedside light casts the shadows away. He reaches for his phone, but discovers it is already in his hand, the fingers curled painfully around it.

And, across the night, the sound of footsteps comes for him.

###

Sonia watches Tag play with his breakfast. He makes a show of eating, but it’s not convincing her. Bringing him outside seemed the right thing to do but sitting in the cafe—surrounded by normal people going about normal lives—makes Tag’s deterioration all the more apparent.

“You thought the phone was making sounds?” she asks, while sipping her coffee; the first of several, she suspects. But she wonders if giving Tag coffee was a mistake: he can’t keep still; his hands fidget constantly with the phone; his eyes dart in every direction.

“No. The phone, it wasn’t the phone making sounds,” Tag replies. “It was making the sounds happen. It’s different. I can’t explain it.”

“Is there something wrong with the phone?” Sonia says. “Maybe you should take it back?” She doesn’t even know what she’s saying, but she knows that talking is better than simply sitting there and watching Tag fall apart.

Tag looks at her, his eyes wide and hollow. “I can’t ... I can’t take it back. It was ... it was ... it was given to me.”

Sonia starts to see it all making a dark sort of sense: who wouldn’t want to ditch a phone that kept you up all night. But why not just throw the phone away? Or, why didn’t the other guy just take it back to the shop? There are too many questions, too many dead ends. Sonia lifts her coffee, hiding a frown behind the giant mug.

“Look,” Tag says, holding the phone out with shaking fingers. She reaches for it, but he flinches: he doesn’t want her to take the phone, just to look at it.

“Okay, fine. What am I looking at?”

He taps the screen. “There. See? That’s the first one.”

Sonia looks at the photo of them both in the pub. Just a few days ago, but feels like a lifetime away, a moment full of lost promise. She puts away the sadness and determines more than ever to help Tag out of this.

Tag flicks past another handful of photos, stopping at the next one of them together: sitting in the pub on Christmas Eve. Sonia wants to understand what Tag is trying to show her, but she can’t grasp it. Is it her? Is all this somehow her fault?

“Tag, I don’t—what are you showing me?” she asks.

“Don’t you see it?” he says. “Behind me.”

Sonia remembers now, the weird mark behind Tag on the photo. But it was just that: a mark. Something on the lens. Nothing to get broken up about. “Yeah, Tag, listen, that’s just—“

“No!” Tag says, cutting her off. “Just look.” He flicks to the next photo. It’s him sitting at the kitchen table, exactly where she found him yesterday. She wonders again how long he might have been sitting there before she came home. She left the house early on Christmas morning, came back two days later. Is it possible he could have...? No. She doesn’t want to ask the question, but she does it anyway.

“Tag, when was this?”

“Look,” he says, ignoring the question as he flicks through dozens—no, hundreds—of photos of him sitting at the kitchen table.

“Tag, I don’t know—“

Then she sees it. “Wait,” she says. “Go back.”

He goes back through the photos, then forward again. As the images move, Sonia watches the shadow behind Tag’s shoulder.

“It’s getting bigger,” she says. “But h—?”

Tag shakes his head. “Not bigger. No. No, not bigger.”

He turns the phone back towards him, takes another selfie, then holds it out for Sonia to see. In the bright morning light, the shadow is more obvious than ever. It looms over Tag, abruptly fading out where it meets his shoulder to give the impression that it’s standing behind him. It’s bigger than in the first photo. No longer something that can be dismissed as a mark on the lens. More clearly defined. Darker.

Wait.

Closer ...???

Sonia leans in, her breath tightening. It’s more than a shadow now. It’s a shape. An outline. She can see the head. Shoulders.

She falls back in her chair, rejecting the image. She tries to take a swig of coffee, but her trembling hands betray her and it spills over the saucer.

Tag looks at her questioningly.

“No,” she says, shaking her head. “No. No, no, no.”

“It’s getting closer, right?” Tag says, his voice calm again, as if all he needed was for someone else to see what he was seeing. For someone else to believe it.

“What—what happens when—?” But Sonia can’t ask the question. The horrible absurdity of the situation is too raw. “What are you ... going to do?” she finally asks.

Tag breathes deeply. “I’ve got an idea.”

###

The kitchen table has an olive-shaped burn on it. Tag stares at it, wondering why he’s never noticed it before, wondering what might have caused it. As he dwells upon the mark, the footsteps echo in his head. He can no longer tell if they’re really there or not. It doesn’t matter: they’re still coming for him. He holds the phone down, trying to resist looking at the screen, trying to stop himself taking another photo so he can see how long he has left.

“What’s the deal, Tag?” Mike says, sitting opposite, wearing his dressing gown as always.

Tag tries to put the phone down on the table, but he can’t bear to let it leave his hand. Not yet. “I was ... wondering .... uh, you still want to buy my phone?”

Mike leans back, eyes on the phone. “Maybe. How much?”

Tag’s hand is shaking; he rests his arm on the table to try and hide it. He can tell Mike interested, but it needs to be a challenge: Mike has to feel he’s won something. “You said three weeks’ rent,” Tag says, forcing the words out.

Mike looks away. “Too much.”

Tag places the phone on the table. He sees his broken phone on the ground. The stranger handing the new, shiny, phone to him. He pushes the phone towards Mike, mentally prising his own fingers away from it. His head is filled with nothing but the steady one-two one-two beat of the footsteps. He dreams of silence.

“Make me an offer,” he says to Mike. His hand screams at him to take the phone back. It’s his. It belongs to him. He is empty without it. Tag ignores the screaming. He stares at the phone, avoiding letting Mike see his eyes, and tries to resist covering his ears.

The footsteps are coming for him.

He sees Mike is reaching for the phone. He knows the moment they strike a deal the footsteps will fade, and Mike will start to hear them in the night. He will hear the distant echo of something coming for him, something that will never stop, until—

Tag snatches the phone back. He can’t do it. He tells himself that he can’t inflict this nightmare on someone else, not even Mike. But he’s not sure. The phone is part of him now, it won’t allow him to abandon it. He already feels better with it back in his hand, even with the footsteps pounding behind him.

“What the fuck?” Mike says.

“Sorry Mike, no deal,” Tag says. “You’ll thank me for it.”

“Screw you,” Mike says, but Tag isn’t listening; he’s staring at the phone screen, at the selfie he took almost on reflex as soon as the phone was back in his hand.

A dark figure looms over him, its head textured with deep shadows that give it the shape of a face. But Tag is transfixed by something else; by the part of the shadow that looks like an arm, the part that is reaching out to touch his shoulder.

###

The traffic roars in Tag’s ears, almost covering the sound of the footsteps coming for him. But the constant rhythm beats inside his head now, never pausing, coming for him without change or respite.

He runs back to the cafe, looking for Sonia, but their table has been cleared. He looks around at the other tables, at the people sipping their coffee in ignorance.

What would happen if he just gave the phone to one of them?

He can’t bring himself to do it. He can’t condemn someone else to this horror. He can’t face the pain of giving it away.

It won’t let him leave it behind

He hears something behind and whirls around, knocking into a nearby table and spilling the coffee resting there. But it’s just a waiter. He stands staring at Tag in alarm, as the complaints rise from the table Tag just disrupted.

He excuses himself and runs into the street.

###

Tag runs, the sound of footsteps growing ever closer behind him.

Thu-thump.

Thu-thump.

Closer ...

… closer …

The rush of the traffic, the buzz of the people, the cry of the birds in the sky—none of it does anything to mask the sound. It is all he can hear.

He lifts the phone to his face, his trembling fingers somehow maintaining their grip on the device. His other hand does what it needs to do to take another photo; there’s no need to think about it anymore.

He stares at the screen. The shadow hiding in the photo is the size of a person now, every limb sharply defined in darkness. Its arm reaches out for his shoulder, a fingertip away from making contact. Tag has never believed in ghosts, but he knows the end will come when the shadow touches him.

He keeps walking, Staggering along the street. Half-running at times. Thinking he can escape it but knowing it’s impossible.

He doesn’t bother looking over his shoulder any longer; there’s never anything there. But the thing that isn’t there keeps coming for him. A distant shadow, growing closer and closer until it reaches him. And as it draws nearer, so the sound of its footsteps grows: getting louder and more constant.

He takes another photo. Stares at the shadow’s arm, almost at his shoulder now. There’s no time left. No distance far enough for him to run.

It’s almost here for him.

It’s time to discover, finally, the terrible price that the phone has demanded of him. He can hear it coming for him now. Footsteps. Coming. Coming. Getting louder. Changing. Following him. Different this time. No longer just in his head. Something has taken form and is behind him now, matching him step for step, hiding itself in the meter of his own pace.

He defies the urge to turn and face it. Whatever it is, it thrives on his fear. He refuses to feed it anymore, despite the all-consuming terror that grips his muscles, threatening to take control away from him. He can barely feel his legs. The ground has disappeared beneath his feet. The sound is almost upon him.

He feels its breath against the back of his neck.

Almost there.

He lifts up the phone, holding it in front of his face. One final photo. One image to show, at the end, what it was that had caught up with him. One single click.

Before he has time to press the button, there is a shifting of the air as something rushes towards him. The footsteps are all he can hear, pounding hard on the road now. Something strikes him from behind. The phone disappears from his grasp. The ground plummets towards him. The world turns upside down and spirals.

And darkness falls.

###

Light cracks through the darkness. Two dazzling faces peer down at him. One of them looks like Sonia, her cheeks shining. He doesn’t know the other person, but he must be an angel too. Silent. Serene. Crowned with a golden glow.

The angel speaks: “You're alright, mate. Take it easy, there. Take it easy.”

Tag looks up at Sonia. She is the most beautiful thing he has ever seen. He stares at her for a while, then tears his gaze away to look at where he is. He’s still in the street, lying on the ground. Everything’s different though. It takes him a moment to work out why. It’s so peaceful. Serene. Then he understands why: the footsteps have gone. There’s nothing following him anymore.

He brings up the phone, to take a photo—to be certain—but his hand is empty.

“Bastard made off with your phone,” the man says. “Did he get anything else? Are you hurt?”

The silence is overwhelming. Then it’s broken by another sound. Tag realises it’s laughter: his own laughter.

“They … stole ... my phone?” Tag asks, fighting for the words through fitful gasps of air.

“Yeah, I tried to get to him, mate, but—” The man stops, frowning at Tag’s reaction. “Here, are you ok, mate?”

Tag looks at Sonia and smiles. He reaches up to brush the tears from her cheek. She lets him.

“They stole my phone,” Tag repeats, unsure if he even manages to get the words out properly through his laughter. The man looks down at him, puzzled; exchanges a look with Sonia, who just carries on smiling. Tag wants to tell him that everything is fine, everything’s going to be just fine, but he can’t. All he can do is keep laughing.

fiction
Read next: I See You
Justin Cawthorne
See all posts by Justin Cawthorne