Aisha grunted as she took the full weight of the bar off the rack. She was lying on her back, the bar in her hands trembling slightly as her biceps quivered. She steeled herself, brought the bar down to her chest. Nice and controlled. She gave herself a tight smile, took a deep breath, and tensed her shoulders to push the bar back up again, when a face appeared in her peripheral vision. Right where a spotter would stand, if she had one. Which she didn't. Aisha frowned. The face hovered, upside down to her perspective, and smiled at her. She closed her eyes, wishing the man would just leave her to her workout, and tried to concentrate on the bench press instead. She focused on her shoulders, her biceps, the bar pressing against the heels of her hands. She wiggled her fingers, readjusting slightly, pressed her eyelids closed tighter, and gave the bar an explosive push. She reached the top of the movement, and as she moved the bar back slightly to find its home on the rack, the weight was suddenly gone from her hands. Her eyes flew open. She sat up. Turned around.
The man - her unasked for spotter - grinned at her again as he replaced the bar back on the rack. He was an ordinary looking guy, maybe in his early thirties. He didn't look like your usual gym rat, but it didn't pay to make assumptions in a gym, she knew.
"What's your problem?" Aisha demanded.
"Saw you on Insta," the man said, still grinning.
"No, you didn't," she replied. She wasn't on Instagram. She wasn't on any social media. And that was very much on purpose. She picked up her towel and water bottle from the floor beside the bench. Turned away from him so she could take a drink, hoping he would get the hint.
He continued to hover, one hand resting lightly on the bar that he taken from her, the other thrust deep into his pocket. That smile still playing on his face. She desperately wanted to punch him in it, but she had been raised better than that.
"Look," she said, "I'm just trying to work out here. I'd prefer to be alone, if you don't mind."
He nodded, stepped back from the equipment as though to give her space, but that smile never dimmed. Aisha checked her watch, she still had fifteen minutes to go. She decided to go and fetch her headphones from her bag - use that universal symbol that says 'don't talk me, I'm not interested' - and move over to a different area and do some stretches instead. She would do extra weights next time to make up.
Her workout complete, Aisha pulled a light jacket over her tank top. She brushed out her hair with her fingers, then remade her ponytail, trying to work out what to have for dinner; she was starving. She hadn't seen the strange man again, and she was determined to brush it off as just another weird gym encounter. God knew she'd had enough of those over the years. She picked up her gym bag, slung it over her shoulder, and headed out on to the street.
The cold air hit her like a wall as she left the sweaty warmth of the gym. She was grateful for the jacket, and pulled it tighter around her as she turned left to head towards home. As she did so, she heard a voice, almost snatched away by the wind, calling out. She ignored it.
The voice came again, clearer now; the speaker had gotten closer, "Hey! Slow down!"
Her heart leapt into her mouth. It was the weird guy from the gym again. She was confident enough to tell him to go away in the gym. Out on the street, though, at night, in the cold, her confidence waned. She ignored him, put her head down, and kept walking.
Before she knew it, he was beside her, his stride matching hers. She could hear him breathing heavily, he must have had to jog to catch up to her. Her own heart was pounding, but not from her workout, or even the brisk walking pace. She was terrified, and she chided herself for panicking. He was just some weirdo, she told herself, with no social skills. Had her mixed up with some woman he saw on Instagram and wanted to chat to her, but didn't realise he just came across as creepy. Surely he wasn't a threat? She tried to recall what he looked like, without cutting her eyes across to him. He was a bit taller than her, broader in the shoulders. Not muscly like your usual gym rat, though, so perhaps she had that. Aisha stopped herself, was she really thinking of taking this guy on in a fight? She had wanted to punch him earlier, sure, but she didn't want to fight him. She just wanted him to go away.
"Hey," he said again, "I don't know your name."
She glared at him, despite herself. She wasn't going to give him her name, not in a million years.
"I'm Tom," he said, smiling that smile again. As though they were best friends, just out for a walk. In the dark. At 7pm. She continued to glare.
"I saw you on Insta," he said again.
Aisha opened her mouth to deny it, again, when suddenly she was up against the wall. She could feel the full length of his body pushed up against her own, the cold of the brickwork seeping through her thin gym clothes. She panicked, used the wall to steady herself and buck against him, and he stepped back. The sudden absence of resistance made her overbalance and fall forward, and he reached out to catch her.
"Gee, lucky I was here," he said, almost laughing, as she twitched away from his embrace.
"Fuck off," she snarled at him. She picked her bag up from where it had fallen, and walked off again. She was suddenly aware of her keys and phone, tucked into the outside pocket of her gym bag, and reached down to see if she could get into it. She pulled the zip open but by bit, pushed her fingers into the pocket, and felt around. The swinging of the bag made it difficult, but eventually she felt the hard corner of the phone, and grabbed between her fingertips. She pulled it out just as the man came up beside her again.
"Look, I'm sorry about that, I just want you to stop and talk to me," he said.
"I said," Aisha repeated through gritted teeth, "Fuck. Off."
She picked up the pace. An intersection was coming up, she was going to have to cross the street. She hoped there was no traffic, and wouldn't have to stop and wait on the curb.
"But I need to tell you this. You're on Insta. Like all over Insta. Pictures of you, I mean."
She wanted him to stop talking. She needed him to stop talking. Her eyes flicked across the cars at the intersection, pulling up at the red light. The pedestrian crossing lights went green, but she was too far away. She wasn't sure she would make it. She trotted faster.
"I don't know who's taking them. The pictures. But they're all at the gym. That's how I knew where to find you."
The pedestrian light turned red, and she watched the little red man flash in his box. She moved up into a jog, eyeing the cars stopped at their light. The car at the head of the queue inched forward a little bit, anticipating the green.
She stepped over the curb, willing the red man to continue flashing for just a few seconds longer. Just let her get across the street and away from this guy.
The man followed her across the road, speaking all the while. His voice getting louder, more agitated, "I've gone about this all wrong, I see that, but you need to know that this is happening. Someone is taking pictures of you. Posting them online."
The light turned green, and she heard the car at the front of the queue rev its engine, move off the line. She stepped on to the curb just in the nick of time, feeling the breeze from the car move past her as she did, followed by a sudden, sickening thud.
Time slowed down, and she turned, realising even before she saw it what had happened. She was wearing bright clothes, the man had been wearing a dark jacket. The car had seen her, but not him.
What had he been trying to tell her, anyway?