If she had dreams after she went back to bed, Sophie didn't remember them when she woke up in the morning. Sunlight was streaming in the window of her bedroom when the clock radio came to life at exactly seven o'clock, assaulting her sleep-addled mind with the inane chatter of Newcastle's premier breakfast radio hosts.
Slapping the snooze button, she waited beneath the sheets for a few moments, putting herself together. When the alarm went off again, she was out of bed like a shot, knowing that if she stayed any longer she'd end up falling asleep again. She was so tired that her arms and legs ached with fatigue, and her eyes were dry and sore. The back of her throat tasted terrible.
It was rare that her morning ritual varied in the slightest. Straight out of bed into the bathroom for a shower, the creaking of the ancient pipes heralding a rush of hot water that properly woke her up, before getting dressed, making herself a quick breakfast and then cleaning her teeth, just in time to be out on the street for the bus.
That morning, however, everything seemed to take longer than usual. Or, she thought to herself, time just seemed to be passing her by faster than it usually did.
Maybe it was because she kept staring from her bedroom window down into the courtyard. She hadn't even noticed she'd been doing it until the third time she caught herself looking, her heart catching in her throat. The deck chairs, crushed to splinters the night before, were still intact; it must have been a dream, she told herself, but she couldn't bring herself to believe that simple platitude. It had seemed so real, so certain.
Could she really have dreamt up the appearance of the blue box the night before? She'd fallen asleep on the couch, sure, had a drink of water… but after that, she wasn't sure what had actually happened and what she'd imagined, what figments her imagination had cooked up.
She did, however, remember that sound; the scraping, wheezing groan, ancient. Even the thought of that noise made the hair on the nape of her neck stand on end, sent a chill down to her very bones, despite the heat of the rapidly warming day outside.
She opened her window to let the breeze in, and the scrape of the wood set her teeth on edge.
Glancing at the clock, she realised she was out of time. Forgoing breakfast, she crammed her laptop, books and wallet in her bag and then she was off. Out the front door, down the stairs of her apartment building, and into the foyer. She bumped past one of her neighbours taking out letters from his mail slot, and then stepped through the glass-fronted double doors onto the building's raised doorway. A few steps down to the pavement, then a short walk up the street to the bus stop, little more than a sign on a metal pole.
Already waiting there was Mr. Francis, as stately and resplendently dressed as usual. Most mornings he went into town to take care of errands while he left his wife in the capable hands of her day nurse.
"Good morning, Mr. Francis," Sophie said, not as brightly as she'd intended.
Mr. Francis cast her his customarily appraising eye, before inclining his head. "Good morning, Sophie."
"How's Mrs. Francis?"
Even as she asked the question, a bus turned the corner into the street and began powering up the road towards them. She reached into her bag, pulling out her wallet, as it coasted to a stop. Mr. Francis, though, seemed not to have even noticed the bus, and was still staring at her in confusion.
"Hmm?" he intoned, as if for clarification.
Sophie was confused. "Your wife, Mr. Francis? How is she?"
"I don't know what you mean, dear," he said, just as the driver opened the bus doors. The elderly man got aboard, leaving Sophie gaping in his wake.
How could he have forgotten her? His own wife. The thought that dementia had gotten a grip on the regal old gentleman was too sad for Sophie to even consider, but she couldn't help but acknowledge the possibility. She chalked it up to confusion on his part, tiredness, maybe even some sort of weird game that had been all the rage in the forties.
Following him aboard the bus she noticed that, for the first time in weeks, it wasn't full to bursting. As she handed her money to the driver, flashing her student concession card in the process, she asked "Is everyone sick?"
"Sorry, love?" the driver asked.
"It looks like I might actually be able to get a seat today," she replied.
The driver shrugged. "It's been a pretty normal morning."
Shaking her head, she took her ticket from him and made her way up to the back of the bus. She chose a seat, placed her head against the cool glass of the window, and felt the vibrations of the engine as the bus trundled down the street on its way towards town, and past that, the university.
First thing that morning at uni was the second Critical Reading lecture of the week. Why that class needed two two-hour lectures was utterly beyond her, but she was scared enough of Professor Lancer not to try and skip it, especially this early in the semester and especially after Leisel's little display the day before.
The trip usually took an hour, but it felt like barely twenty minutes before she was pressing the button to get the bus to stop.
She took her phone from her bag and texted Leisel, asking her if she'd arrived yet. Leisel, notoriously lazy when it came to replying to messages, seemed to be on her game, the reply coming almost immediately.
Sophie rushed off to meet her friend, who was enjoying an early morning coffee at the uni's tiny, homely café. Joining Leisel at one of the picnic tables outside the small building, she smiled. "How's it going?"
"Not bad, not bad," Leisel said, sipping at her coffee. "How was work?"
"The usual," Sophie said. "I did find two of the books we need for this class though. Birthday Letters and Tempest."
"Oh, cool," Leisel chirruped. "How much do I owe you?"
Sophie shook her head. "Nothing. I put some money in the till yesterday for them. I'll lend them to you, but just remember that they're mine."
Leisel laughed. "You already have too many books in your place, Soph."
Sophie had to agree. "How was the beach?"
"Eh?" Leisel asked, lifting an eyebrow. "What do you mean?"
Sophie blinked. "Didn't you say you were going to the beach yesterday? After class?"
Leisel considered, and then stared off to the side, as if confused. "I suppose I did say that."
"So you didn't go?"
"I guess not," Leisel said, sounding as though she was admitting something to herself. Her brow was crinkled; she was thinking hard on something. "I can't actually remember what I did yesterday. I remember being here, in class with you… and then I remember you texting me."
"Jesus, Leisel, how much did you drink last night?" Sophie teased, but she couldn't ignore that nagging voice of concern at the back of her mind.
Leisel laughed, snapped out of her confusion. "Ha, you can be a bitch."
Checking her phone, Sophie saw that they didn't have long to get to class. "Come on, we'd better go. If Lancer has any idea who we are, she's probably gunning for us after your little display yesterday."
Leisel blushed. "Yeah, fine. Come on."
The lecture hall wasn't nearly as full as it had been the day before, and was thankfully much cooler. They found seats fairly close to the front, on Sophie's insistence, so they'd be more likely to pay attention. She pushed aside the competing notion that they'd be more likely to be caught when that attention inevitably waned.
As the minutes dragged on, and more and more people filed into the hall, Sophie was sure the class was a lot smaller than it had been yesterday. "God, how many people did Lancer scare off?" Sophie asked Leisel, who was busy poking through the copy of Birthday Letters Sophie had found.
"Huh?" Leisel asked.
"Yesterday this place was packed," Sophie insisted. "We barely got seats, remember? Now look at it."
Leisel said, her tone non-committal, "Yeah, I suppose."
Sophie frowned, but decided to drop it. What was happening? It felt like time was slipping away from her, like things were happening too quickly. That wasn't all that was bothering her thought. First, Mr. Francis seemed to have no idea who his wife was, and now here she was, in a class that had been packed the day before only to find that the enormous lecture hall was not even at half capacity. Leisel had been adamant about going to the beach, and now she didn't even properly remember saying that. The bus ride had been so short, too, and she'd gotten a seat. She barely remembered ever landing a seat on that damn thing before.
What was happening?
"Leisel," Sophie said, touching her forehead with the tips of her fingers, "I think I'm getting a headache."
"Are you all right?" Leisel asked, but even as her friend spoke Sophie felt the white-hot explosion of pain radiating out through her skull from her temples. Leisel asked her something else, but the question was lost in a burst of pain that seemed to drown all other perceptions out.
Then, as quickly as it started, it stopped.
Professor Lancer was up at the lectern, the projection screen behind her active, and all the students in their seats. Leisel was looking at her with concern, but that was the only continuity; everything else around had seemed to change. It was though a few minutes had just vanished.
She noticed Leisel's mouth was moving, and in a rush all other perceptions came flooding back to her. Sophie gasped, as she heard her friend ask "What's wrong?"
Sophie just shook her head, and stood up from her seat. She was moving, suddenly, propelling herself faster and faster towards the nearest exit. Dashing down the corridor, she found the ladies' room and burst inside, barely making it to a stall before she vomited.
Kneeling on the tiled floor, she hacked and spat, trying to get the taste out of her mouth.
She felt, rather than heard, Leisel enter the stall behind her.
"God, Soph, are you all right?"
Sophie just managed to shake her head before another wave of nausea overwhelmed her. This time, she managed to retain control of her stomach long enough to look up. She noticed that Leisel had grabbed her bag for her and was carrying it. "I don't know," she said, honestly. "I just feel… I don't know."
Shaking her head, Sophie leant back, and Leisel helped her to her feet. "Come on, have some water."
Leading her over to the sinks, she turned on the cold tap, and Sophie was only too glad to feel the water pour over her outstretched hands. She splashed her face and had a quick drink.
"And you were having a go at me for how much I drank last night," Leisel teased, her tone gentle.
Sophie couldn't help but smile. "Thanks, Leisel. I don't suppose we've done much to get our stocks up in Lancer's book."
Leisel frowned. "Who?"
Sophie blinked. "Our professor? I just left her class?"
Leisel shook her head. "Look, don't worry about that. Here, take your bag. We've got to get you home, Soph. You're obviously not well at all."
Sophie sighed. "I can't just skip a class, Leisel, and I have work this afternoon."
Her friend grimaced. "Come on, Soph, I think your manager would understand if you begged off work today, huh? I mean, you're pretty clearly sick. They can't expect you to sell dusty old books all afternoon on a day like today if you're like this… you probably got sick because of that shop, anyway. Can you imagine all the mould and germs and stuff that are floating around in there?"
"They're depending on me, Leisel, and I need the money," Sophie said. "You're right, though. I'll go home now, have a rest. I'll be right for this afternoon."
"Are you sure?" Leisel asked, watching her with worry plain in her eyes. "You've been running yourself ragged for so long now, it can't be good for you at all."
Sophie laughed. "No, I suppose it's not."
"We didn't even go out for your birthday last month," Leisel added, as she helped her friend out of the bathroom. "Come on, I'll drive you home. Here's some gum, by the way. Figured you might need it."
Sophie took the proffered stick of gum, if only to get the taste of vomit out of her mouth. "I can't let you miss a class for me."
"Oh please, Soph," Leisel said with a sigh, "like I give a shit."
Leisel's car would have already been old when Sophie had been born. Blue, damn near falling apart, its engine roared with reluctance whenever it was started and it resisted every change of gear. Still, Leisel loved the rust bucket, and Sophie couldn't blame her. There was something homely and dependable about the thing, despite the near-constant oil changes and the number of near-disastrous breakdowns they'd survived.
Sophie settled into the passenger seat as Leisel drove, and stared out the window. Until she was about ten, car rides had terrified her. Even seeing a car go down the street had been enough to frighten her.
Years of grief counselling and therapy had helped her get over that particular anxiety, which she'd been told wasn't unusual considering what had happened to her parents. She had a family photo album stashed somewhere in her aparment, but "family" might have been a stretch. After all, it was only ever just the three of them in the pictures. Mother, father and baby Sophie.
As the car drove, she thought about the pictures she'd always studied so intently. Her mother, vivacious, happy, with Sophie's curly brown hair. Her father, balding, tall, with her brilliant green eyes. Little Sophie sitting on their laps, hugging them, playing with blocks on the red shagpile rug that had been in their living room. They'd both been only children, their parents long dead, and they themselves had been just barely young enough to have kids. Sophie had been their miracle baby. Twice over, she realised as Leisel's car rumbled through the Newcastle streets.
Sophie remembered the feel of that rug against her little hands. She remembered those blocks. She even remembered, through flashes of perception and emotion, the joy with which her mother had reacted when she'd managed to stack them the first time.
She remembered so little about her parents beyond the basic statistics, the simple facts of age, name, birthdate and, of course, date of death. That was fair enough, since they'd died when she was so young, but even so she remembered how they had made her feel; Matthew and Sarah Freeman had made her feel safe. Loved. Warm.
As good as her foster families had been, as caring and kind, she'd never felt anything approaching the love and companionship she'd felt when she was her mother's arms, on her father's shoulders.
The closest thing she had to a family now was Leisel, the Rosettis, the Francises; as much as she adored Leisel and the Rosettis, as much as she admired and respected Mr. and Mrs. Francis, as much as she'd appreciated her foster families, when it came down to it, she felt alone. She'd always been alone. On the periphery. That's just who Sophie Freeman was. It wasn't so much that she enjoyed this perception overly; she'd become resigned to it as a fact of her existence.
Lost in her own thoughts, she didn't notice that they'd reached her apartment building until Leisel nudged her. "You're home, Soph," she said, her voice kind. Leisel was always kind.
Sophie smiled. "Thanks, Leisel. Look, I'm sorry about all this."
"Don't be sorry, Soph, you can't help that you're sick."
When she'd first met Leisel, in her first ever class at uni, the confident young woman had slightly overwhelmed her. She was the eldest daughter of a big family, her dad a Polish immigrant and her mum a second generation German immigrant, and she had a depth to her, a background, that Sophie couldn't hope to compete with. They lived up the coast, and leaving her family, Leisel had told Sophie, was one of the best things she'd ever done for herself. She loved them, of course, but she'd felt that she needed to spread her wings, stand on her own two feet.
Sophie had teased her about the cliche, but Leisel had shrugged. The fact was that Leisel knew her family, and they'd helped her define her place in the world, a feat Sophie had never quiet managed.
For Leisel, her family had been an anchor, keeping her grounded and strong. Sophie had never had that, despite the best efforts of the generous, fantastic men and women who'd welcomed her into their homes over the years.
Sophie reached over the centre console, and gave her friend a quick hug. "Thanks for getting me home."
"No problem," Leisel assured her. "Look, I'll give you a call later this afternoon, okay? Make sure everything's all right?"
Sophie nodded. "I've got work at two."
Leisel smiled. "We'll see."
Sophie shook her head. She picked up her bag, put it over her shoulder, and stepped out of the car, heading up towards her apartment.
Even though she'd left the window open that morning, the apartment was stifling. Sophie threw her bag on the couch, and went to get herself a glass of water. The old pipes groaned with consternation, but finally a stream of too-warm water came from the faucet. Letting it run for a while, she suddenly remembered how Mr. Francis had seemed unaware of his wife that morning.
She turned off the tap, wondering if what she was planning was actually a good idea. Maybe it would be better to just leave well enough alone. No, she decided, something was wrong, and they might need her help.
She went out into the corridor, and crossed to the door leading into the Francises' apartment. Knocking once, she pressed her ear against the wood. She could hear nothing from inside, which was odd, because Mrs. Francis usually had some kind of music playing. Jazz, girl groups from the sixties, Frank Sinatra…
Her heart sank. Could Mrs. Francis have passed away? Was that why Mr. Francis had not answered her that morning? Sophie knocked on the door again, only to once again hear no sign of movement on the other side.
She reached down to the doorknob, twisted it, only to find the door unlocked. Opening it, she stepped inside.
"Mr. Francis?" she called. "Mrs. Francis?"
Struggling to remember the name of the day nurse, she looked around the doorjamb, to find an apartment identical to hers… without a single item of furniture in there at all. No pictures on the walls, no chairs, no nothing. It was as if no one had lived there at all.
Could they have moved out? She would have noticed, surely, movers? Unless they'd come in yesterday afternoon while she'd been at work. Mr. Francis had been leaving, on his way somewhere… maybe to wherever it was he would be staying now? Perhaps he'd come back this morning just to return his key to the landlord, who lived on the first floor himself. But she'd asked him yesterday how his wife was, and he'd told her she was fine.
She must have died, Sophie realised. "Oh, that poor man," she said to himself, and left the empty apartment, shutting the door behind her.
She returned to her apartment, got herself a drink of water, and went to her bedroom. Sitting on the dishevelled sheets, she sipped from her glass and she began to cry.
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