There came a moment late in the evening when Dawn realized that someone might be following her. Or not realized it exactly—she’d had enough to drink to have a hard time putting things together as precisely as that—but just that she kept seeing the same man wherever they went.
“There’s that guy again,” she said to her friend Karin.
“How do you know it’s the same one?” Karin asked, voice slurred. “Maybe it’s just two guys who look alike.”
“No, no,” Dawn said, “it’s that same guy, the one in the gold suit. How many guys in a gold suit can there be?”
“Gold suit?” said Karin. “I haven’t seen anyone in a gold suit.”
And, true, when Dawn looked around he wasn’t there anymore. But he had been there, wearing a gold suit. And he had been there earlier, too, in the previous bar. Never close to her, never all that close, never looking at her, not really, always looking away so she could just see the glistening suit and the back of his head. Mostly he was not there, but every once in a while when she looked around, there he was.
They went on to the next bar. When she was out with Karin, this is what they did: went from bar to bar, drank, waited, watched. Sometimes other people talked to them, sometimes not. They each sat on a stool and ordered a drink. When that drink was gone, they went on to the next bar.
There he was again, glistening, facing away, partly hidden in the crowd. He was bobbing his head slightly, maybe singing along to the blaring music, maybe not. She couldn’t see his face, so couldn’t tell. He wasn’t talking to anybody, was just standing there. She pawed at Karin’s arm, trying to get her to turn around and look, but Karin was talking to someone, a man, older, not unhandsome, a little cagey, and wouldn’t be distracted. When she finally did turn, the man in the suit was gone.
“It was him again,” Dawn said.
“The gold suit guy?” Karin made a pretense of looking around. “Are you sure you’re not seeing things?” she asked, and then turned back to continue speaking with the man on the stool next to her.
Maybe I am seeing things, Dawn thought. After all, nobody in this bar was dressed up, no men were wearing even business casual. Why would someone be wearing a golden suit here?
Leaving Karin still talking, she slid slowly off her stool, making her way across the room to where she had seen the man in the gold suit. He wasn’t there, no sign of him. Was there a back room? No, didn’t seem to be. Wouldn’t he have had to come right by her to leave? Maybe I am imagining it, she thought again.
“Excuse me,” she said to two women standing near where she had last seen him. “Did you notice a man in a gold suit?”
“A gold what?” said one.
“Is this some kind of joke,” said the other. “Do I know you?”
Slowly she wove her way back to her stool, but by the time she arrived, Karin was gone.
Maybe Karin was just in the bathroom. Maybe she’d be back any minute.
When she wasn’t, Dawn tried calling her, but Karin didn’t pick up. She texted her, waited. It wasn’t like Karin to just leave. She ordered another drink, sipped it.
About halfway through, someone sat down at the bar beside her and nodded slightly. A man, older, his breathing ragged. He wasn’t exactly handsome, but wasn’t ugly either. He looked almost like the guy who Karin had been talking to earlier. Was he?
“What are you drinking?” the man asked.
“Were you here earlier?” she asked. “Talking to my friend?”
He looked confused, unsure as to what answer she expected. Like there was a right and a wrong answer. But there was no right or wrong answer—she just wanted the truth.
And then he decided on a strategy. “I don’t know,” he said in a voice that was meant to be coy. “Was I?”
Immediately she got up and left.
She walked on to the next bar. She looked for Karin inside and, when she didn’t find her, went to the next bar after that. After that, there were no more bars, so she walked back, thinking she would check each of the bars in reverse order until she found her friend.
She would have, too, if she hadn’t seen, far down the block, the man in the gold suit. There he was, the back of his suit, the back of his head, walking away, unless it was someone else. But how many men could there be in gold suits in one city? No, she thought, it wasn’t someone else, it couldn’t be.
She followed him. It was late, the bars still crammed with people but almost nobody outside on the street. He was walking quickly. To keep up with him she had to occasionally break into a jog.
She moved swiftly past the windows of the remaining bars, through the puddles of light and noise coming through their half-open windows and doors, until she was on quieter, darker streets, the noise and light fading behind her. He was still there, a little way ahead. There were fewer streetlights now and she couldn’t always see him glistening.
What am I doing? she wondered. This is dangerous. Why follow him? But she kept following him still.
And then he slowed, or she sped up, or both, for suddenly he was right in front of her, almost close enough to touch. How could she get so close without realizing? Was she that drunk? There she was, reaching out, her fingertips brushing the smooth cool fabric stretched across his back, then reaching further still to grasp the man by the shoulder.
He stopped walking, turned to face her. Or would have, if he had a face. There was just a smoothness where a face might be.
This was shocking enough, but then, somehow, he smiled. And for someone to smile without a face was more horrible still.
What happened next? She wasn’t sure. How could she be sure? Because when he had smiled like that, in a way that, faceless, should have been impossible, it had felt like a part of her, the part able to think, had fled. What was left of her had only a series of scattered impressions, things she couldn’t quite make rational sense of, couldn’t quite link up.
During that time he hadn’t touched her. Instead, he looked at her—or not looked exactly since he didn’t have a face: his head swiveled in her general direction and then he walked backwards, away from her. She, as if hypnotized, followed.
The way he walked was too smooth, without hesitation. Impossible to do, if you couldn’t see where you were going. She began to wonder if he did have a face after all, but a face that was on the wrong side of his head, hidden there, under his hair.
He walked backward, down one street and then down another, without hesitation, as easily as if he could see where he was going. Perhaps he had memorized the route. He moved to a doorway, still walking backward. He pressed himself against the door, and put his hands behind his back. She heard the sounds of him working the lock. A moment later the door swung inward.
Behind was a cramped entryway, a set of stairs. He glided up them, still walking backwards. He moved along the hall at the top of them, and she followed. She walked past office doors with pebbled glass windows, men’s names gilded on them. And then he stopped at what seemed a bathroom door, a stylized image of a human figure on it. He held the door open and ushered her in.
She had to duck under his arm to get in the door. Inside the light was dimmer, almost darkness. She had done so, expecting him to follow her, but he hadn’t followed, letting the door swing slowly shut instead, leaving her alone.
When her eyes adjusted to the dimness, she saw that she wasn’t in a bathroom at all. She wasn’t sure it was, properly speaking, a room. The walls weren’t straight but instead bowed, and seemed to flex and relax, as if the room, if it was a room, was breathing. She turned to go out, but there was no door to go out of: the wall behind her was as smooth and blank as the man in the glistening suit’s face.
So, she held still, her head swimming with alcohol, and waited, waited. Something has to happen, she told herself. Eventually something must happen. When nothing did, she sat down and crossed her legs.
Maybe she slept a little, or maybe she just stared. Eventually, aware again, she began to believe there were shapes flitting around her, whirling and insubstantial, but becoming more substantial the more attention she paid them.
For a long time they were just shapes, just vibrant colors melding and clashing, but then either they became sharper or she did: it suddenly dawned on her that what she was seeing were human figures. She watched one glide across the space in front of her, slightly off balance, then another follow and catch up with the first, wrapping it in an embrace. The first figure turned and met the embrace, or seemed to, but then either fell back or was pushed away, the second figure falling on top of it. And then the two figures were writhing, one atop the other. Karin got lucky, she found herself thinking, but then was not sure what had made her think the figure was meant to be Karin.
And then, a moment later, she realized that she had spoken too soon, that what she had thought an embrace had never been an embrace at all, but one figure destroying another figure.
She shouted, but the figures paid her no heed, one because it was already motionless and spreading in broad puddle of light across the floor, the other because it couldn’t hear her. She stood and pounded on the wall, if it was a wall, and screamed to be let out, but there was no answer. She felt the wall, searched for the door, trying not to look at the figures as they reformed and acted out the same sinister pantomime over again. After a while, she put her head between her knees and tried to breathe, tried to think, tried to understand what she could do.
And then, in a moment of inspiration, she stood, moved to the center of the room, and, as naturally as possible, she walked backwards, toward the wall. She felt behind her with both hands and there it was, the handle, and she pulled on it and a moment later was out the door.
Which was why she knew before seeing her body that Karin was dead, why she didn’t respond with shock or alarm when, a few minutes later, she stumbled backwards out of the bathroom that was not a bathroom, made her way the half dozen blocks back to her car, drove to Karin’s house, and discovered the body of her friend strangled on the floor. But she had called the police when she was still several miles from the house. She knew. She already knew.
She didn’t tell the police this. She didn’t tell the police any of it. No, for the police, she claimed it was simply a matter of Karin disappearing while they were out at the bar and her searching for her, looking everywhere, and finally going to her house.
But what, she kept wondering as she talked, if I had gone to Karin’s house to look for her rather than following the man in the gold suit? Would she have been able to save her friend? No: instead, both of them would be dead. She was sure of it.
Indeed, for months after, when she closed her eyes, she would see that man in the gold suit, moving perfectly backward, looking at her despite not having a face, luring her away from her own death.