The cab ride was mercifully short, and when the driver pulled up out the front of the Rosettis' house, Sophie leant forward to pay him. He begged off, saying that Mrs. Rosetti had already paid him.
As she grabbed her bag and prepared to get out, she caught a brief glimpse of the man's face in the rear view mirror. "Hang on," she said, "are you…?"
"Sorry, love?" the man said, and she thought she recognised his slightly doughy face and balding pate immediately. He was the bus driver from earlier in the day; but what were the odds of that? "What's wrong?"
Sophie shook her head. "Um, just déjà vu, I guess, unless… are you a bus driver as well, by any chance?"
The man frowned. "No."
"Oh," she said, and reached for the car door. She cast another look at him, but he was staring off into space, as if confused. She remembered seeing that look on Leisel's face, and Mr. Francis' earlier in the morning. She knew what they had all been thinking; the same thing she had been in the shop, earlier, when that man, the Doctor, had pushed her to look for the missing pieces. Something was very, very wrong.
Finally, the man shook his head, and he urged her out with a friendly, "Come on, love, out you get."
Taking her bag, Sophie stepped out of the cab, which almost immediately started up the street. Her mind still racing, trying to figure out what was going on around her, she turned towards the Rosettis' house, a squat, dark-brick bungalow sitting on a quiet, leafy suburban street. It had been built in the fifties, and it matched its neighbours almost to a tee. The only difference, really, was that while the neighbouring gardens featured well-trimmed rose bushes or a perfectly manicured lawn, the Rosettis were growing tomatoes and herbs. Despite her confusion and the creeping sense of dread that surrounded her, Sophie couldn't help but smile as the scents of their garden played around her in the darkening night.
She'd been here a few times before, mostly to events that the Rosettis threw for their enormous extended family; important birthdays, confirmations, baptisms, that sort of thing. They'd invited her along mostly as a courtesy, and she'd always had plenty of fun, but it'd always been tempered by the knowledge that, amongst all those toddlers and kids and teenagers and the teeming masses of an unrepentantly Catholic Italian family, she didn't quite belong. Her parents, she knew, had been irreligious and hadn't had much in the way of family at any rate.
As she headed up the garden path towards the front door, her rather sensitive nose picked up the scent of cooked tomato and spices, quite distinct from the smells of the gardsen. The night had cooled considerably, and she realised she hadn't eaten since breakfast that morning. Her stomach rumbled, and as she reached the bottom step, pain exploded through her skull yet again. A white-hot, searing pain, as though a poker had been shoved into her temple.
Her breath caught in her throat, and she tripped, barely catching herself before she fell to her knees. Once more, just as it had all day, the pain simply died away. She was still standing, at the foot of the steps leading up to the Rosettis' porch. The sound of the cab driving down the street had stopped. She turned, and looked over her shoulder. The cab was gone.
How long had she been down for? So far, it had seemed like a lot of time had vanished with each of her migraines, but for Leisel and for that man in the book shop, the Doctor, it had seemed like only a few seconds had passed.
She felt her eyes begin to burn, tears welling up. Sophie was panicking, and she knew it; her lungs seemed tighter, each breath a solid effort to take and to keep. She hauled herself up the steps, and pounded on the Rosettis' front door.
There was no answer at first, so she tried again, and then she heard movement in the hall. "I'm coming, I'm coming," she heard Mrs. Rosetti say. The door opened, and the kindly old woman greeted her with a warm smile. "A little impatient, Sophie?" she said, gently mocking.
"Sorry, Mrs. Rosetti, I just really need a trip to the bathroom."
Mrs. Rosetti stepped back from the doorway, letting her inside. "Of course, dear, of course. Just down the hall, on your left."
The interior of the Rosettis' house was one of the more overdecorated, homely and somehow still meticulously tidy dwellings Sophie had ever been in. Mrs. Rosetti, despite what the interior of Bakers Hill Books seemed to suggest, was a neat freak, whose mother's instinct for mess or dirt was unavoidable, and her house betrayed that.
Sophie found her way to bathroom. It was a small room with a sparkling white vanity top beneath his-and-hers mirrors, toiletries and beauty products arranged beneath them,, and Sophie went right for the sink. Splashing her face with water, she looked up into the mirror. The face looking back at her seemed to belong to a stranger. It was hair pale skin, her green eyes, the freckles across her nose, but that's where the resemblance to the face she knew stopped. Hollow cheeks, dark rings under her eyes, dishevelled hair… she was starving, and tired, even though she thought she'd probably slept more these last two days than she had in months.
What was happening to her? The headaches, the missing time… the missing people! None of it made sense. And that man at the store, saying he'd see her again. His presence had been disconcerting, but his voice had been comforting, kind. She had been able to pick up on his sincerity. He genuinely believed he'd be able to help her. His voice was, to wit, familiar, but she couldn't pick from where.
"What kind of name is the Doctor?" she said to herself.
Before any answers were forthcoming, however, there was a knock at the bathroom door. "Are you all right, Sophie?"
"I'm fine, Mrs. Rosetti," she called. Turning off the tap, she went to the door, opening it for the old lady. "I've just had a long day is all."
"Well, it's a good thing dinner's ready, dear," she said, taking Sophie's hand and leading her towards the dining room. Featuring a boarded up fireplace surmounted by a mantel overflowing with framed pictures, an impeccably set table and a bookshelf packed with paperback novels, the dining room was unmistakably, along with the kitchen, the heart of the house. "Nothing fancy, just gnocchi and my sauce, but how long has it been since you've had a home cooked meal that didn't come out of a packet?"
Sophie favoured the woman with a tired grin. "A long time."
"I thought so," Mrs. Rosetti said, before pointing to the dining room table. "Take a seat."
Sophie was only too happy to sit down. The mouth-watering scent of dinner was wafting in from the kitchen, and Mrs. Rosetti disappeared to dish it out. "A glass of wine, dear?" she asked from the kitchen.
"Uh, no, thanks," Sophie answered. She looked at the mantel, at the pictures there, filled with the smiling faces of the Rosetti family past and present. In some cases the pictures were in black and white, the occupants of their frames dressed formally, their smiles even more forced than was typical in staged photographs. She saw one of a young woman, her dark hair curly and hidden by a veil of white lace, in the arms of a tall, broad-chested man in a suit. She recognised the young woman a moment later. It was Mr. and Mrs. Rosetti's wedding day, in Italy, before they'd come out to Australia.
It dawned on her then; since she'd come into the house, she hadn't seen Mr. Rosetti. Standing, she went to the door into the kitchen. Leaning in, she saw that Mrs. Rosetti was alone. "Um, Mrs. Rosetti, where's Mr. Rosetti?"
"Hmm?" Mrs. Rosetti asked, standing over the stove.
Only two bowls had been placed on the kitchen counter.
"Where's Mr. Rosetti?" Sophie repeated, her heart pounding in her throat. "Where's your husband?"
Mrs. Rosetti froze, lowering the pot she'd been holding back onto the stove. She turned to Sophie, her expression one of confusion. There was more, there, in the way the skin around the eyes had tightened, in the way her mouth had become a thin-lipped line. Desperation, sorrow. "I'm sorry, Sophie?"
"Roberto," Sophie pushed, dropping the honorific. "Your husband? You've been married for years!"
"I…" the old woman began, her voice wavering. "I don't know what you're talking about, I'm not married."
"Mrs. Rosetti, you are! Rosetti isn't even your name, it's his!" Sophie insisted, starting to panic. How was this possible? How could Mrs. Rosetti just forget her husband? She rushed to the old lady, and took her hand. "Come with me," she insisted, and pulled her towards the dining room.
Sophie pointed to the pictures atop the mantle, but came up short.
In those photos, which in her experience had always shown Mr. and Mrs. Rosetti, their brood of kids and the ever-expanding circle of grandchildren, she could now see only Mrs. Rosetti, smiling from otherwise blank picture frames. Even the old black and white pictures of her parents and Mr. Rosetti's were blank.
"Where did they go?" Sophie asked, dropping Mrs. Rosetti's hand and stepping over to the mantle. She picked up the frames, one by one, but there was no one in the pictures. Just Mrs. Rosetti. The wedding picture now just depicted a smiling Fabrizia Rosetti, her hair tucked away beneath her veil, her beautiful, simple white dress flowing about her, the smile on her face transfixed on the paper for no apparent reason.
"Sophie!" the woman chided as Sophie threw the empty frames aside, unable to find a single other person in any of them. "What are you doing?"
Sophie whirled on her, barely able to breathe. "Where did they go?"
Mrs. Rosetti was shocked, for a moment unsure what to say. Sophie saw it, though, when she answered. A moment of discomfort, and "I think you need to sit down, Sophie."
"No!" she roared. "I can't! I've been sitting down, sleeping, taking it easy all day, and it's been happening around me! People are vanishing, one by one, and no one is noticing! No one can even see it!"
"What are you talking about?" Mrs. Rosetti pushed.
Sophie grabbed the largest of the photo frames. She'd seen it before; it had shown the entire extended Rosetti family. Mr. and Mrs. Rosetti, their kids, their grandkids, Mr. Rosetti's brother, his wife and his kids, even the newest member of the family, the first of the great grandchildren. It had been taken in the back yard of this very house. They'd all been grinning at the camera, laughing; it had been the great granddaughter's baptism, and after the pomp and ceremony of the church they'd come back here for a party that had lasted until well after dark.
Mrs. Rosetti had glowed with pride when she'd shown it to Sophie, and now it depicted an empty yard, with a smiling Mrs. Rosetti sitting there surrounded by empty chairs and a barren table, which in the original picture had been positively laden with food, entirely alone.
"Look at this picture," Sophie insisted, thrusting the frame into Mrs. Rosetti's hands. The old woman just stared at Sophie in bewilderment. "Look at it!"
Mrs. Rosetti stared at the picture. Seconds slipped by before she said "What about it?"
"Look at it!" Sophie repeated. "Can't you see it? It's wrong! You, all alone in that big picture. There should be other people in it. Lots of people! Your entire family!"
Mrs. Rosetti considered the picture. "This photo has sat on that mantlepiece for years, just like all my other photos. A lot of which you've now broken, by the way."
Sophie couldn't believe what she was hearing. "Oh, come on! Mrs. Rosetti, you have to see it. You have to see! In all of those pictures, it's just you. No one else!"
"Of course there's no one else," Mrs. Rosetti answered, dismissively. "Why would there be anyone else in my pictures?"
"Because…" Sophie realised she was going around in circles, but she needed to try one last time. "Because they're your family! Your husband, Roberto. You run the shop with him! Your daughter Diana, and your son Giovanni! Giovanni's kid… I can't remember his name, but he's tiny and blond with big blue eyes. Roberto always says he looks like a proper Venetian. Come on, Mrs. Rosetti, you know these people! You love them!"
Mrs. Rosetti looked at the picture again, cocking her head as though she was trying to sort something out. Sophie bit her lip, hoping she'd remember them, her family. All those people that had been forgotten, that had just vanished. Like Mrs. Francis, she realised; like Mr. Francis. Like the people on the bus, and in class. Perhaps even like the books in the store, silently slipping from the world, one by one.
Finally, with a sigh that shook her, Mrs. Rosetti set the picture frame back on the mantle piece. "I think you'd better leave, young lady," she said, looking at Sophie, her expression steely. "You come into my home, spinning these wild stories, talking nonsense, and then you break my things! This is what I get for employing you, for caring for you and your welfare?"
Sophie gaped. "But Mrs. Rosetti…"
"But nothing," Mrs. Rosetti said, planting her hands on Sophie's shoulders and shoving her firmly towards the front door. The woman grabbed Sophie's bag from where she'd put it beside the table and shoved it into her "Leave my house. Now!"
"Fabrizia!" Sophie shouted, but before Mrs. Rosetti answered, Sophie's entire world was swallowed up in white hot, blinding pain. Sophie screamed, and fell to her knees, and when the pain cleared she was outside Mrs. Rosetti's house, back at the foot of the stairs at the end of the garden path.
Hauling herself to her feet, she rushed towards the front door.
Inside, Fabrizia Rosetti studied the pictures on her mantle. She knew her name, she knew that she lived in this house, and she knew that she made fantastic gnocchi. She knew, too, that she owned a book store, but she couldn't remember ever having read a book, or serving a customer. She couldn't remember where she'd been born, or anyone she'd ever met.
All she remembered was that girl, Sophie Freeman, and even that memory was fading fast. She picked up the large picture frame the girl had shown her, the she'd quite violent insisted that she should look at.
She heard banging on the front door, heard her name being called out. She didn't care.
Staring at the picture, Fabrizia Rosetti began to remember. She remembered her husband, Roberto, their wedding in a little chapel in Venetia. She remembered emigrating to Australia, the long ride on the ship in first class. She remembered struggling to build a life in a new country, learning to speak English, moving to Newcastle to buy a home and then their bookstore. She remembered her first child, the little girl's christening. She remembered all of them. Her family, the light of her life.
She'd forgotten them, all of them. How? How could she have just forgotten them? How was that possible? And, just as importantly, where were they? She put the large picture frame aside, and reached for her wedding picture. She had treasured and adored this photograph, the only physical souvenir of a ceremony that had near bankrupted her parents, that had taken place clear on the other side of the world.
There she was, the most beautiful she'd ever looked in her life, but where was her husband? Where was the man she'd pledged to live her life with?
"Roberto," she whispered.
The banging at the door continued. The picture frame slipped from Fabrizia Rosetti's fingers and shattered on the floorboards.
Sophie ceased pounding on the door when, suddenly, it opened. Her breath catching in her throat, she nudged it open and stepped inside. "Mrs. Rosetti?" she called.
There was no answer.
"Mrs. Rosetti, are you there?" she called, and made her way down the corridor. As she reached the dining room, she realised that there wasn't a single piece of furniture, not one decoration or picture, anywhere in the house.
The dining room was empty. The house was dark. Mrs. Rosetti was gone.
"No!" Sophie cried, and it was all she could do to slump to the floor. Her knees were weak, shaking, and he only sign that there had ever been anyone in the house was a shattered picture frame. Sophie recognised it immediately. It was the ornate, antique picture frame that had houses the Rosettis' wedding picture.
She must have been looking at it, trying to see what was wrong. Too late, Sophie knew. Now Mrs. Rosetti was gone, just like everyone else.
Sophie took a moment to get her breathing under control, but she couldn't stop the tears pouring down her cheeks. She didn't even try. Straightening herself up, she reached into her bag. Aside from the copy of Birthday Letters, it was empty. Her phone, her laptop, her wallet; everything else was gone. Her plan had been to go through her phone's address book at random, punching in numbers until someone answered; she would have tried the emergency services, the police, even information assist. Anyone. Now she couldn't even try that, and there was no sign of anything except floorboards and dust in the Rosetti house, let alone a phone.
She bolted for the front door and burst out on the street.
"Hello!" she cried into the night. She heard the word echo amongst the trees that lined the street and the brick houses, all of which stood dark and empty. "Hello!"
There was no answer.
She began to run down the street, but she had no idea where she was going. She didn't know what was happening, but she felt like she had to do something. Anything.
"Hello!" she called out again, coming to a stop at a street corner. "Is anyone there? Anyone!"
The sound of the other voice came as a shock, and she nearly jumped out of her skin. As she turned around, though, she smiled. Leisel stepped towards her, but she didn't look like herself. Her hair was matted, and she looked like she'd been crying.
"Leisel!" Sophie called, running towards her, wrapping her up in a hug. "It's so good to see you!" Sophie realised, however, that Leisel wasn't returning the hug. Releasing her friend, Sophie stepped back and looked her up and down. "What's wrong? What happened?"
Leisel was shaking her head, her lips trembling. "I can't find anyone, Sophie. There's no one else in the city. They're all gone."
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