The car. That day, so long ago. Fifteen years ago.
She heard the engine, the wheels, the crackle of static on the radio. She felt the crash was coming, felt her parents were about to die. She sat there, in the back seat, her life speeding on down towards its inevitable outcomes; her being made an orphan, her isolation, her death.
She felt herself die, this time, as the car crashed. As the metal was torn apart, as the windows shattered, as her parents' lives her snuffed out before her, she felt herself die.
She was in the back seat, bleeding.
A fire, somewhere, was getting closer and closer to split open petrol tank. It would ignite, she knew, and take her with it as it turned the crashed car into an inferno from which there would be no escape.
Twenty-year-old Sophie Freeman felt her five-year-old self die.
She didn't recognise the voice, but it was warm, kind; a whisper against the gale, as if someone was speaking to her from very far away. The hint of a British accent, but she couldn't pick from where. The flames were getting closer, they were growing all around her. She was going to die.
"Sophie," the voice repeated, more insistent this time. "Can you hear me?"
She couldn't see anyone else, couldn't really hear that voice… it was though she was feeling it, remembering it. The fire was growing. Her parents were dead, and she was about to join them.
She was going to die, fifteen years ago, and she knew it with an absolute, gut-wrenching certainty. She was already dead. She'd died when she was fifteen.
"This is just a dream," the voice assured her. "Can you hear me?"
"Yes," she answered, though she knew she wasn't speaking. "I can hear you."
"Good," the voice told her. "You'll be okay. This is just a dream, all right? You know it's a dream. You've had it before."
"Yeah," she agreed. She was dying, she was dying, and she knew it, despite what this voice was telling her. She was going to die in just a few more minutes, a few seconds, the flames were so hot and so close.
"The fire isn't real, Sophie," the voice told her. "None of this is real. Just focus on the sound of my voice."
"I can't die here," she insisted, she pleaded.
"You're not going to," the voice promised. "You know you're not. Focus on the sound of my voice."
"Oh God," she cried, "the fire!"
She felt someone grab her shoulder, felt an arm wrap around her midsection. In all her dreams before now, she'd never remembered who exactly had saved her from the wreck of her parents' car; she'd always assumed a policeman, or a fireman, or an ambulance officer or something like that.
She felt someone tug at her little body.
"Hold on, Sophie," the voice told her, almost grandfatherly; it was a young man's voice, to be certain, but there was something indescribably ancient about it.
She was free of the car, free of the heat and the flame, and through her tears and terror, she looked up and saw her own face looking down at her. She reached out to touch that face, the freckles, the wide green eyes, only for the world to fall away from her. A second later, there was nothing but white light pervading everything, nothing but the sound of her own heartbeat…
"It'll be difficult," the voice told her. "You'll have to fight, Sophie, and fight hard, but it'll be okay. You will be okay. Do you understand?"
"What are you talking about? What fight?"
"Do you understand me?" the voice was rushing her now, as though whoever was speaking to her was running out of time.
"Yes," she said, more because she felt she had to than because she actually understood. She was about to speak again, when she heard the noise she'd heard the night before. It was a beautiful, terrible sound, as if the universe were being torn apart and then put back together, stitched up by some cosmic needle and thread.
Suddenly, the sound died away, replaced with the buzzing of a mobile phone set to vibrate.
And then she woke up.
"Damn it, damn it, damn it," Sophie said as she leapt up from her bed. Rooting through her bag, she found her phone, just in time to miss Leisel's call. Sending a text to her friend, telling her she felt all right, she realised that she'd slept a little too long. She'd cried herself to exhaustion, eventually slipping into sleep.
Quickly ducking into the bathroom to clean her teeth and check her hair, she gathered up her stuff and hustled towards her apartment door. She avoided looking at the Francises' door, and hurried down the steps. As she reached the ground floor, a headache overwhelmed her again, pain building from her temples across her forehead, until she was forced to shut her eyes against it.
She heard her heart pounding in her ears for a moment, and then the pain died away. Making a mental note to stop by the health care centre at the uni to get the headaches checked out, she headed out of the lobby of her building, past the mailboxes set in the wall and down the front steps. It was only a short walk to the bus stop, and she got there not long before the bus that would take her into work arrived.
Getting on board, she saw that it was even less crowded than the bus had been this morning, which wasn't too unusual for this time of the afternoon. What was unusual, though, was that the exact same bus driver was sitting behind the wheel.
"Hello again," she said, somewhat surprised. There were enough buses, and enough routes, in Newcastle that it was unlikely to see the same driver once a week, let alone twice on the same day.
The man looked straight through her, though, as if she wasn't even there.
"Do you remember me from this morning?" she asked as he handed her her ticket.
"Can't say I do, love," he said simply.
She smiled at him, not too surprised. He must have dealt with a lot of passengers over the course of the day. She retreated up to the back of the bus, and took a seat, but it seemed like just seconds passed after she sat down before the bus arrived at her stop.
It didn't take her long to get down to Bakers Hill Books, which seemed decidedly more organised than it had been yesterday.
Now, instead of barrel-chested Mr. Rosetti, his wife, the slight, white-haired Mrs. Rosetti, born and raised in Puglia, was standing behind the counter. She grinned her pearly false-toothed grin as she saw Sophie come enter.
"Sorry I'm late, Mrs. Rosetti," Sophie said.
The store was much cooler than it had been yesterday; in fact, Sophie realised, everything had seemed cooler today than yesterday. Her apartment may have been warm, but it wasn't the inferno she'd stepped into yesterday night when she'd gotten home. Even the buses hadn't been as hot. It felt more like spring than summer.
"Don't worry about it, bella," the old lady said with a smile, her accent thick despite decades spent in Australia. "How are you today?"
"Fine," Sophie said, joining her at the counter. She put her bag beneath it, and enjoyed the sensation of the cool air from the electric fan washing over her.
"Don't lie to me, Sophie," Mrs. Rosetti told her, not unkindly. "I can see that you're looking pale. Are you feeling well?"
"I've just been getting headaches," Sophie said, waving away her concern. "Things seem a little weird lately. One of my neighbours died."
"Oh, I'm so sorry!" Mr. Rosetti said, tutting. "That's sad. What happened?"
"Just old age," Sophie assured her. "She was pretty poorly, I think, towards the end. I saw her husband yesterday and he seemed fine, but I think he was probably just putting on a brave face."
"Are you all right?"
"Oh, yeah," Sophie said, "it just caught me by surprise. I was a bit sick this morning, but I think I slept it off this afternoon."
Mrs. Rosetti studied her. "You work yourself too hard, Sophie. I'm happy to give you all the shifts you need here, but between the store and university, I think you're stretching yourself too far."
Sophie sighed. "It's fine, Mrs. Rosetti, it really is. I love working here, I do."
Mrs. Rosetti laughed. "Don't think I don't know how boring it can be. Now, listen, we have an old customer coming in this afternoon. She's got two or three boxes he wants to offload. Spy books and crime novels, mostly, that sort of thing. She should be in around four thirty, five."
Sophie nodded. "Have you sorted out a price?"
"A hundred and fifty for the lot," Mrs. Rosetti assured her. "Fifty for each box. All I want you to do is go through and price them, put them in the right section. I don't really mind if it's not all in perfect order, but keep it organised, if you don't mind."
Sophie glanced around the shop. "Yeah, everything looks a bit tidier today."
"How do you mean, dear?" Mrs. Rosetti asked.
"I'm just saying, the store seems a lot more organised today. I tried to clear up the poetry section yesterday afternoon, but I'm not sure how well I did… did you do all this tidying this morning?"
Mrs. Rosetti looked around the shop. The overflowing shelves and boxes of old and new books were certainly tidier than they had been yesterday, and they looked better than they had in months. Mrs. Rosetti shook her head, as though clearing it. Sophie was reminded of how Leisel had acted earlier that morning, when they'd discussed what she'd been doing the night before.
"I… suppose I must have done," Mrs. Rosetti said. "Anyway, I'll be off. Now, listen, I think you need a bit of a break."
"Look, Mrs. Rosetti," Sophie began to protest, but the old lady just waved her hand.
"No, dear, I wasn't going to force you take any time off. God forbid you should ever have a few days to yourself," Mrs. Rosetti said, her tone light and teasing, "but you should come over for dinner tonight. I'll send a taxi to pick you up after closing time, hmm? Mr. Rosetti and I would love to have you."
Sophie grinned. "Thanks, Mrs. Rosetti, but I don't want to impose on you…"
"Impose?" Mrs. Rosetti exclaimed. "Don't be ridiculous! Roberto loves you, I love you. The taxi will be here at six thirty sharp, and I expect you to be on my doorstep by six forty five at the very latest."
Sophie couldn't help but smile. "All right, Mrs. Rosetti. Thanks for the offer. I'll see you then, I suppose."
"Yes you will," Mrs. Rosetti insisted. She picked up her handbag and headed for the door, leaving Sophie to her shift.
There was a steady stream of customers, but the hours seemed to fly by. Before long, Mrs. Rosetti's customer was due in, and Sophie finished her daily attempts at further organising the store, taking her place behind the counter. There seemed to be far fewer books in the place than there had been yesterday, and no one even had gone upstairs all afternoon.
Sophie shrugged it off though. She was definitely coming down with something; a headache flared up intermittently, and she was shaky and a bit nauseous. Probably just the beginning of a bout with the flu, but definitely not something she was looking forward to.
At least a home cooked meal with the Rosettis was in her near future.
The bell above the front door jingled, and Sophie looked up. A short, stout woman entered, struggling under the weight of a box that was probably full of books. Sophie went to help her, only to realise it was Professor Lancer.
"Oh, hi," Sophie said, sounding a little dim.
"Hello," the woman said, before realising who it was she was talking to. "Oh, hello! You're in one of my classes, aren't you?"
"Critical Reading," Sophie answered robotically. She was still embarrassed by the way she'd dashed out of class earlier that morning.
"Ah, that's right," Professor Lancer said, her eyes shining. "I remember you. Friends with the loud blonde one."
Sophie couldn't help but laugh. "That sounds like Leisel to me."
"How are you finding the course thus far?"
Sophie looked away, embarrassed. "I didn't actually get to the lecture this morning. I wasn't very well."
Professor Lancer lifted an eyebrow. "Oh? There's been a bit of a wog going around the uni," she said. "Take care of yourself. I'm sure that there's a lot of pressure on you, with work and uni, friends and a love life…"
Sophie couldn't help but laugh at that. "Love life? I haven't had a boyfriend since my last year of high school."
Professor Lancer smiled. "That's not true, I'm sure."
"No, really, I wish I was making it up," Sophie insisted. "If I'm not working, I'm at uni. I barely get a chance to do anything besides, well, this."
Professor Lancer nodded. Finally, they managed to lift the box of books onto the counter. "Is that it?" Sophie asked.
Lancer nodded. "It sure is."
Sophie frowned. "That's weird."
"It's just that Mrs. Rosetti said that she had a customer who was going to come in with two or three boxes of books. A hundred and fifty bucks, three boxes of books, fifty bucks a box."
"Well," Lancer said, "I did call Fabrizia. We agreed on fifty dollars for the box, but I only ever offered her one box of books…"
Sophie frowned. "I could have sworn..."
She trailed off, realising that she was going to sound forgetful or absent-minded at least, crazy at worst. She went around behind the counter, and opened the register, pulling out a yellow fifty-dollar note. "One note all right?"
Professor Lancer nodded. Sophie handed her the money, which she quickly put away in her wallet. "You know, Sophie, I might come across as a bit of a hard-ass in the lecture theatre, but I know what it's like to try and balance undergraduate study and work. Do you have a support structure?"
Sophie bit her lower lip. "Um, no. Not really. Aside from the Rosettis and Leisel and a few other mates."
"Mum and dad not around?"
"Um," Sophie said, considering whether or not to tell the woman. "No. They're not."
Professor Lancer considered her. "If you need help with anything over the semester, just drop me an email, all right? I can give you a few days' leeway for assignments, a bit of academic consideration. We just need to go through the motions, and all that."
Sophie smiled, genuinely. "Thank you very much, Professor. I'll see you in class next week then."
Professor Lancer nodded. "Next week, Ms. Freeman."
The woman turned to leave, and as the bell on the door jingled behind her, Sophie went to examine the books that she'd just bought on behalf of the Rosettis. Before she reached the box, though, the headaches returned; white hot pain exploded behind her eyes, knocking the breath from her.
She was suddenly on her knees, the pain too much for her to handle. All she could hear was the blood rushing in her ears, and her own laboured breathing; she missed the jingling of the doorbell as someone else entered the store.
Then, just as before, the headache died away. She shook her head, and pulled herself back on to her feet. It was only then that she realised someone had helped her up. Two strong hands had pulled her onto her feet. She turned around, and saw a tall man, at least two metres in height, with broad shoulders and a mop of dark, wavy hair. He was, incongruously for the summer heat, wearing a knee-length black pea coat, and tight black jeans.
"Are you all right?" he asked, and she blinked.
She recognised that voice, but she couldn't quite tell from where. An accent, a clipped, somewhat imperious voice… he was a young-ish man, who couldn't have been more than thirty, but there was something in his eyes. Something that glimmered behind them, that just seemed so ancient. Impossibly, unimaginably old.
She realised she was staring. Shaking her head, she said "Yeah, yeah… I'm fine. Um, sorry about that, I must be a bit dehydrated."
Studying her for a moment, the man said "No. No, I don't think so."
Sophie glanced at the clock behind the counter. The time surprised her; somehow, a few hours had vanished off the clock, and the cab Mrs. Rosetti said she send must have only been a few minutes away by now. "Um, how long we you in here for?" she asked him.
"Just a few seconds," the man said. "I think. Time's been getting away from me today."
Sophie looked at him. Did he know something? "I'm sorry, what?"
He shrugged. "I don't know, really. It seems like one moment I'm just standing somewhere and all of a sudden… I'm somewhere else. Usually comes with a headache."
Sophie blinked. She looked the man up and down. "Who are you?"
He didn't answer, but kept staring at her quite intently, before lifting his eyebrow and asking "Who are you, Sophie Freeman?"
Sophie took an involuntary step back. "Who the hell are you?"
"In this context," the man said, seemingly oblivious to how creeped out she was, "I'm not sure. I suppose, generally, you might call me the friendly neighbourhood Doctor. But right now… I don't know."
Sophie was shaking her head. Whatever nonsense this guy was talking, she didn't want a bar of it. "You need to leave this store. Now, sir."
"Because we're just about to close, and you're making me very uncomfortable," she declared, and started to guide him towards the front door.
"Am I? Sorry," he said, and stopped in the doorway. He turned to her. "Look, perhaps we got off on the wrong foot here. I'm the Doctor. You're Sophie Freeman. Hello, nice to meet you."
"How do you know my name?"
"Because, right now, you're the most important woman in the world," the man, the Doctor, said, his eyes aflame.
"What the hell are you talking about?" Sophie demanded.
"I'm not sure yet," he admitted. "I'm still trying to figure out what exactly is happening."
She shook her head. "Fine, whatever, just stay the hell away from me."
"That's going to be pretty difficult," he responded. "Wherever I go, there you are. The world's shrinking, Sophie, and you're at the centre of it."
Sophie felt like she'd been punched in the stomach. "What… what do you mean? The world is shrinking?"
The man just shook his head. "Haven't you noticed it? Time just flying past… people that are suddenly missing, almost as if they'd never been there at all. Look at this store. Where are all the books? Yesterday, there were hundreds upon hundreds, thousands. How long did it take you to get here? Where are all the people?"
Sophie blinked. "Get out."
"I can leave, Sophie, but you'll see me again."
"Get out!" she repeated, shoving him in the chest. He stumbled back a bit, but maintained his footing.
"Just trust me, Sophie," he asked. "Please."
Sophie was about to speak again, when she realised that he'd just asked the impossible. Trust? How could she possibly trust him? She didn't trust anyone. She had never trusted anyone, and she wasn't about to start now. Then it hit her; another headache, worse than any she'd experienced yet. Her knees buckled, and she fell, but she felt the Doctor grab her by her elbows and keep her on her feet.
She took a deep breath, and the headache disappeared. "Are you all right?" the Doctor asked, but she pushed him away.
"Get out," she demanded, her voice little more than a croak. She gave the Doctor another shove out the open door, and slammed it shut behind him. She locked it, quickly, and looked through the pane of glass onto the rapidly darkening street.
The Doctor looked at her for a second more, before walking off down the street. She turned around, and looked back into the store. She gasped when she saw how empty the shelves seemed… and then, a moment later, she wasn't sure they'd ever been filled to begin with.
She went back to the counter to get her bag, only to notice that the box of books Professor Lancer had dropped off was almost empty. She blinked. What felt like moments ago it had been full, packed to overflowing. She shook her head, remembering what the Doctor had told her; things had been vanishing all day, time had been getting away from her. Her breathing grew laboured, heavy, and her mind began to race. What did it mean?
A car's horn sounding on the street outside interrupted her thoughts, and they fell away. Shaking her head, she grabbed her bag and headed for the door. Unlocking it again, she stepped out, and noticed the cab waiting on the street. Locking the door behind her, she headed over to the car.
She didn't notice the Doctor, watching her from the shadows.
As the car drove away, he shook his head. "What's happening to you, Sophie Freeman?"