Shaking wildly, Leisel collapsed into sobs, but Sophie wrapped her into another hug. They were standing beneath a streetlight, but even so, Sophie could see that there was no moon, no stars above. Just an endlessly, oppressively sky. Though she'd always thought of the night sky, in her more poetic moments, as a canvas hung far above, now Sophie thought it resembled a blanket thrown across the world, suffocating and dangerous.
It wasn't night, she realised. It was darkness. Just darkness. The realisation was enough to draw goosebumps across her arms. She suppressed a shudder, though, for the sake of Leisel, who was clutching her tightly.
Holding the girl tight against herself, Sophie whispered into her ear, "It's going to be fine, Leisel. I've got you now. You're safe."
Sucking in a breath, her teeth chattering, Leisel said "I don't know where the people have gone, Sophie. I don't know."
"Neither do I," Sophie said, "but now we're together, we can help each other figure it out."
Having Leisel cry against her was doing wonders for Sophie's own fortitude. With someone else to focus on and help, her panic was dying away, and she was getting a clearer picture of what was going on. Even if everything that happened, the vanishing people, the time skips, had seemed impossible, at least someone else had noticed now. She wasn't simply missing things or forgetting them.
People weren't simply bleeding away. Mrs. Rosetti had practically vanished before her, and the lack of people in the photographs had just been further proof.
"Leisel," Sophie said, determined to gather what information she could, "what happened to you this afternoon? After you dropped me off at my place, what happened?"
"I don't know!" Leisel wailed.
Sophie released her from the hug, and clamped her hands on her friend's shoulders. "Look at me, Leisel! Look at me!"
Leisel's bloodshot eyes met hers.
"What happened after you dropped me off at my apartment? Please think!"
Leisel bit her lip and shut her eyes. At length, she said "I don't know."
Sophie exhaled, and but kept calm. "Come on, Leisel. Think. What happened today? Start from yesterday, if you have to, but tell me. What happened?"
Taking a long, deep, steadying breath, Leisel considered. She was clearly thinking hard, which Sophie thought was odd; surely she'd at least be able to remember what had happened once she'd dropped Sophie off home? Finally, Leisel said "Yesterday afternoon, after class… I can't remember what happened then. Or what happened last night. I think…. I think the first thing I remember after that was getting a coffee this morning, and you meeting me at uni."
Sophie blinked. "Do you remember waking up?"
"No," Leisel said, shaking her head. "I just remember being at uni. With you. I don't even remember getting the coffee."
Nodding, Sophie had Leisel continue her story.
"Then we were in class. You got sick. I was with you. I don't remember what happened then, though. Like, I remember you running off, but that's it. Then I was in the bathroom with you, helping you, but that's it. I don't actually remember following you," Leisel said, frowning. "How come I can't remember?"
"I don't know," Sophie said, offering her a smile. She wiped away the last of her tears, and took Leisel's hand. "What next?"
"Then I drove you home," Leisel said, sniffling. "Then…" she trailed off, and stared away into the night.
"Come on, Leisel, think," Sophie urged.
"Well, then I was here," she said. "I just showed up here. With you. I heard you shouting, and then I was talking to you. A lot of time must have passed, but I don't remember anything… I just remember you getting out of my car, and then I was here. With you."
Sophie squeezed Leisel's hand.
"What's happened?" she asked. "What the hell has happened to me?"
Sophie shook her head. "I have no idea, Leisel. I thought I was going crazy. People have been going missing all day. Just vanishing. Remember this morning, in class? When I said that there were fewer people than there should be? I guess I was right."
Leisel nodded. "Now that I remember. But everything seemed fine?"
"I know!" Sophie answered, adrenalin pumping. "I just shrugged it all off. There weren't many people on the bus, we didn't have that many customers at the store… one of my neighbours didn't even know who his wife was, and then when I went to their apartment, it was empty, as if they'd just moved out."
Leisel blinked. "What does that have to do with anything?"
"Don't you see?" Sophie said, and she couldn't help but grinning. She felt like she was getting closer to figuring it all out, and even though she had no idea yet how to solve the problem, it was enough that she was making progress on understanding exactly what was going on. "It wasn't that they'd moved out! It's that they never existed in the first place! There was nothing in that apartment at all. Just now, I was at my boss' house, Mrs. Rosetti, and there was no sign of her husband. She didn't even know him! She never knew she even had a husband, which makes no sense, because she wasn't born Mrs. Rosetti, and then she just disappeared, pretty much right in front of my eyes."
At a loss, Leisel just nodded.
"And that's not all," Sophie went on. "It's not just people. The bus ride… it usually takes me an hour to get to uni from home, and this morning it felt like a few minutes. When I was getting ready this morning, time was just flying past. Like at work this afternoon. And at work! All the books were just… yesterday, the place was packed, and today it was like every time I looked up, there were fewer and fewer on the shelves. Mrs. Rosetti told me that a customer was coming in with three boxes of books, and it turned out to be Professor Lancer, but she only had one."
"Wait, wait," Leisel interrupted. "Who's Professor Lancer?"
"Oh, come on, Leisel, you know her! Our Critical Reading lecturer at uni! She has a weird obsession with Birthday Letters," Sophie said, which reminded her of the one object still in her bag. Reaching in, she pulled out the dog-eared, annotated old copy of Ted Hughes' written memorial to his dead wife. "Look, you remember this book?"
She pressed it into Leisel's hands. "Um, yeah, I was reading it this morning."
"And I was reading it last night," Sophie said. "Actually, it was the last book I read."
"So," Sophie said, "what if. What if it's the last book in the world? I know this is going to sound really weird, but the people who are disappearing… it seems to be focused around me. God, that sounded so self-centred."
"Yeah, it is," Leisel said, and through her tears she smiled at Sophie, playfully slapping at her friend's shoulder. "Why do you think that?"
"Two reasons," Sophie said. "First, the book. Of all the stuff that was in my bag that's disappeared, why would just this book be left? It's the last thing I read. I fell asleep last night reading it. And the second is… well, this is going to sound even weirder. There was this guy at work today, he wouldn't tell me his name. He just told me he was the Doctor, and that he'd been…"
When she trailed off, Leisel nudged her. "Go on!"
"He'd been following me, kind of. But not really. Like, the way he phrased it kind of implied that he didn't have a choice. He told me I was at the centre of the world."
Leisel frowned. "So if it's all about you, then why am I here? Where is everyone else? My mum and dad… I can't even remember their names!"
"No," Sophie said, "I know. We need to find him. He might be able to help us."
"That doesn't answer my question. If everyone else has gone missing, your neighbour, your boss, all those people from class, all your stuff… if I can't remember anything or anyone aside from you, why am I still here?"
Sophie blinked. She thought, and couldn't come up with a good answer? Why Leisel, of all the people she knew, of all the people in the entire city. Suddenly, she understood. "Because you matter."
Leisel was taken aback. "What?"
"You matter to me," Sophie said. "That's why you're still here. I love you, Leisel. You're my best friend. Mr. and Mrs. Francis mattered to me, and so did Professor Lancer and the Rosettis. Maybe not for who they are, but for what they represented… and you, Leisel, you mean so much to me."
Down the street, the streetlights began to flicker out one by one.
"What's that?" Leisel asked, her voice high with fear.
Sophie squeezed her hand. "I have no idea," she said, "but something tells me it's a good idea to stay out of the dark."
"Don't know," Sophie said, with a shrug. She smiled at Leisel, hoping the terror that was coursing through her didn't show. "Come on, the lights are still on in this direction. Run!"
Hand in hand, the two women bolted down the pavement. The streetlights were still going out, and were now winking off faster and faster in succession. Sophie, still clutching the book, let her bag fall on the pavement and left it there, Leisel hot on her heels.
They turned the corner, just as the last light went out, and Sophie let out a gasp. She recognised the building they were standing out the front of. Sandwiched between two lit streetlights, she saw the somewhat imposing brick and concrete edifice of her four-storey apartment building. The art deco design, the white-painted window frames, the glass double doors.
Beyond the glow of the lights, however, there was nothing. Not even the darkness of the night; just crushing, oppressive blackness, like Sophie had seen in the night sky when she and Leisel had first found each other. Even out there, though, Sophie could feel an absence. In the seat of her gut, she felt that, somehow, she and Leisel, this stretch of street and the building before them was all there was.
"I don't feel right looking at that," Leisel said, nodding into the blackness that even now was pressing in around them, "it's like there's something missing."
"Yeah," Sophie agreed. Looking into the blackness felt like standing on the roof of a skyscraper and looking straight down, the forces of gravity and fear pulling one towards the oblivion of the pavement. It was a deeply discomforting sensation. "I… come on, Leisel, let's get inside."
The two rushed in through the front door. The lobby was, of course, deserted; no neighbours poking through their mail slots. Sophie shouted as loud as she could, but there was no respone. "Come on," she told Leisel, "we'll try upstairs."
On the second floor no one answered, and on the third floor the pattern was repeated.
Finally, they reached the door to Sophie's apartment. She realised that she didn't have a key any more, but that hardly seemed to matter. The door just opened. Confused, she looked to Leisel.
Leisel shrugged. "I guess if we're the only people in the world, we don't need to worry about locks. You wouldn't need to keep anyone out."
"That makes… a surprising amount of sense," Sophie said, and stepped inside. Her apartment was just as she'd left it, if much sparser. All the papers, books and magazines had vanished. Sophie checked the fridge, and even though she hadn't exactly kept it well stocked, it was now completely empty. "Try the tap," she told Leisel, as she went to check her bedroom.
"It's fine!" she heard Leisel say as she turned on the tap. Sure enough, she could hear the flow of water.
Her bedroom was much the same as it had been that morning, though it was certainly much tidier. All her books, movies and CDs were gone. Her bed was still unmade, however. In the bathroom, the shower and the taps of the sink worked fine. Finally, she returned to the living room, where Leisel was sitting on the couch, staring at her hands. Sophie went over to her, and sat beside her.
"What's happening, Sophie?" Leisel asked her.
"I have no idea," Sophie said, and the old sense of being overwhelmed suddenly welled up inside her. She fought to maintain control, but it was getting difficult.
"No, I don't mean generally, I mean…" Leisel paused, as though casting around for the right words. "I mean, what's happening to me? I can remember you, and that's it. I know that there's more to remember. A family, a life, but I don't remember anything about it."
Sophie frowned. "What's the earliest memory you've got at the moment?"
Leisel shook her head. "I'm not sure. I want to say a day at the beach with my parents, or winning a competition at pre-school, but that's not true. I don't want to admit it, but if I'm perfectly honest, my first memory is… well, it's of you. Do you remember what happened when we first met?"
Sophie thought. "Orientation at uni," she said. "You were in the stall for the English department when I went in. You asked me if I liked… oh, God, what was it?"
"Jane Austen," Leisel finished for her.
Sophie smiled at the memory. "Yeah."
"I remember that," Leisel nodded. "I remember getting your number, adding you on Facebook. I remember hanging out, going to the movies, the beach, going out in town, being in class with you. And that's it. It's just you. You're all I remember."
Sophie shivered, and stood up. "Then it is about me, isn't it?"
Leisel, bewildered, shook her head. "It must be. What do you remember? Like, when did this start?"
"Well," Sophie said with a shrug, "I remember it starting this morning, but it might have started before then. I mean, this morning on the bus, I…" she trailed off. It hadn't started last night; the weird things hadn't just been happening to the world around, they'd happened to her. To her own person. "Actually, no. Last night. I was having a dream–"
"Do you remember what you were dreaming about?" Leisel interrupted.
Sophie was brought up short. "Yeah. I do. I was dreaming about my mum and dad. In the car."
"Oh, Sophie," Leisel said, her face falling. "I'm sorry."
Sophie shrugged off her concern. "I think we've got bigger things to worry about than my screwed up fantasy life. Although, maybe not."
"Well, I have that same dream almost every night. I'm five years old, I'm in the car with my parents, and we crash. Just like it happened in real life. Sometimes there are variations, but it's all the same thing. Me, mum and dad all in the car, and then the crash," Sophie explained. "Except for last night. And today, actually. Last night, there was this new sound."
"What kind of sound?" Leisel asked, but Sophie was already headed for her bedroom. Leisel rushed to follow her. "Sophie!"
"I fell asleep on the couch," Sophie said over her shoulder, and stood at her bedroom window. "When I woke up, I came in here, and down there in the courtyard, I saw something. It was just a big blue box, but it didn't belong there."
"A blue box?"
"Yeah," Sophie said. "There was a light on top, and words as well, but I couldn't read them from this distance. It looked like it was made of wood. It must have just dropped out of the sky, right on top of the deck chairs. It crushed them to tinder."
Leisel peered over Sophie's shoulder. "But the deck chairs are down there…"
"Exactly!" Sophie's eyes lit up, and she turned around. "I was up here, and I saw the box. Smoke was rising from it. It was on top of the ruined deck chairs. I thought it was weird, so I ran out, and I went into the elevator."
"What?" Leisel interjected. "The elevator? I thought you hated that thing."
Sophie was surprised. "You're right. I have no idea why I used the elevator last night, but I did. Then, all of a sudden, I got a headache."
"Like this morning?"
"Exactly like this morning," Sophie nodded, "but I didn't throw up. Then the elevator arrived on the ground floor. I got out, went out to the courtyard and the box was just gone. I went back upstairs to bed. Then it all started happening."
"The people started vanishing?"
Sophie nodded. "Come on. Let's go downstairs. If it's that blue box in the court yard that's caused all this, maybe the answer is…"
She trailed off, as yet another headache began to burn through her mind. Her vision died away, and though she heard Leisel shout her name, she couldn't answer. She felt the floor tilt away below her feet and she struck it hard. This time, the headache didn't go away.
All she could see was blank, white nothing, and all she could feel was pain. Before she slipped into unconsciousness, she felt rather than saw Leisel vanish from her apartment.
Sophie fell to the floor, completely alone. Then the entire world went dark.
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