~ Chapter III ~
The inside of her eyelids were glowing a faint orangish red, and her face felt comfortably warm. The smell of herbal tea pushed a similar warmness through her chest, and she sighed contentedly. She pushed herself up on her elbow slightly, and was rewarded immediately by the scream of her cramped muscles. A moment later she realised why she was so sore - she’d fallen asleep on the couch again. The gentle tinkling of spoon on mug poked at the back of her eyes, and she grimaced.
She jumped, pulling the blanket draped around her shoulders up to her chin at the exact moment that she realised she was wearing a proper shirt anyway. The sun continued the poking the noises from the kitchen had begun, and this reminded her how stupid it was of her to have not been alarmed by them - she lived alone; if she wasn’t making tea, nobody should have been.
“Hello?” she called, knowing just after she said it that this too had been stupid.
A man stepped out of the kitchen, smiling warmly at her. He was carrying a large mug - one of her mugs - in front of him, from which she could smell her favourite herbal tea as he placed it gently on the table by her head. “Good morning,” he said. “How’d you sleep?”
She shifted backwards on the couch towards the other end, not taking her eyes off him.
He furrowed his brow. “Are you okay?”
“Who the hell are you?” she demanded. “What are you doing in my apartment?”
He watched her uncertainly. “You... don’t remember?”
He nodded, rubbing his eyes and looking for the world as if a great fear had come true. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised...” he muttered. “Alright, uhm... hi, then, I guess. I’m Joshua. We met last night at La Café Grande
She shook her head, but even as she did so images began to form in her mind: herself reading in the shop; an almost-empty pot of coffee steaming slightly on the burner; a man’s laugh that seemed to come from nowhere... Nothing else would come, about this man or anything else from the previous night. Her head hurt the more she tried to recall details.
“I... don’t know,” she said. “I don’t... seem to remember much of anything from last night.”
He nodded, taking a seat on the opposite end of the couch. “Not surprising,” he said again. “You took quite a fall. You scared me for a while, I’ll tell you that much.”
She felt slightly sick to her stomach, and leaned forward, putting her head between her knees. “What do you mean, a fall?” she asked. “I don’t remember falling.”
“That’s because you hit your head,” he said, lifting the still-steaming mug from the table beside him and passing it to her. “Here, I thought you’d want something when you woke up. I looked for coffee, but...”
She made a face as she took the mug. “Can’t stand the stuff,” she said. “It’s bad enough I have to work with it, I don’t want the filth here too.”
He laughed, leaning back in his seat. “How are you feeling?” he asked after a moment, his voice concerned.
She shrugged. “Alright, I guess. A bit... lost, I guess. What exactly happened?”
“Well, you were at work last night,” he said. That much she knew - she’d been dreading the return to work for her entire mid-week weekend. “I came in around... 3:30, I guess it was. I was pulling a late shift myself.” When she looked at him confusedly, he clarified: “I work at the legal clinic a few streets over.”
She nodded, more images forming in her mind. Her reading again, this time tossing the book to the counter after a few moments; the door opening with a gentle tinkling sound; him, in a battered leather jacket, leaning on the counter and squinting up at the order boards.
“I think I remember...” she muttered. It was all a bit foggy and distant, more like a story someone had told her than an actual memory. “I was angry... at you, I think. Something you said, or...?”
He shook his head. “Not me, no - your coworker. Carly, or Cassy...”
“Camryn,” she corrected.
“That’s it, yeah. You were upset with her because she didn’t show for her shift. Wasn’t answering her phone, either, you said.”
She nodded again, more pictures forming on the edge of her memory. “Right...” she muttered. “God I hate that shift... working it alone makes it about a million times worse.”
“Well, that’s why I stuck around for a bit,” he said, smiling at her. “You just sounded like you needed someone to talk to. I can sympathise with that.”
“So... when exactly did this fall happen?”
He moved forward in his seat. “Well, you went into the back to take out the trash.”
“Yeah,” she said, her face in her free hand. “The bag ripped open.”
He nodded. “You slipped, and smacked the side of your head against something - the fridge, would be my guess.”
She felt nauseous again as the memory formed in the distance again. She took a sip of the tea, and it both calmed her stomach and eased the tension in her chest she hadn’t realised she’d been carrying.
Josh was continuing with his retelling. “You called out as you fell. I asked if you were alright, but you didn’t answer. So I followed you into the back, and there you were. There was no blood, so I didn’t think you needed an ambulance. I just took you home.”
“How did you know where I lived?” she asked.
“You were more or less lucid for a few minutes,” he replied evenly. “You told me to call your boss, let her know you were leaving, and why.” He reached into his pocket and fished out a cell phone - her cell phone. He tossed it onto the cushion between them. “She said she wants to talk to you when you’re feeling up to it. Just to make sure you’re alright.”
She pulled the phone towards her, pulling up the call history. There it was: 4:13am, a call to Moira Schiffer’s home phone. “I’ll bet she was pissed...”
He frowned. “Didn’t sound like it. More worried than anything - though I don’t know if she’s more worried that you hit your head, or that you had to be taken home by a strange man,” he added, smirking.
The picture seemed to become more solid in her mind. She could clearly envision herself, sitting behind the counter on her hard metal stool, leaning forward on the counter and laughing at something or other he had said; tossing his empty coffee cup into the trash and realising grimly that she’d need to change the bag and take this one to the back; tugging on it as it caught on the corner of the sink, as it always does; cursing under her breath as the bag ripped; marching back towards the front to find another one to double bag it... and she remembered a number of emotions and sensations as well, stronger than any of the images - panic, shock, pain, most likely from the fall.
He was leaning towards her slightly, trying to look into her eyes. “You look alright to me...” he said quietly. “You had me worried for a while. I thought about just dropping you off in bed and leaving a note, but... you were pretty out of it. So I stuck around, woke you every half hour... and I didn’t think you’d want to wake up alone, with an aching body and no memory of the night before.”
She laughed softly. “Good thinking,” she said, taking another sip of tea. “Well, I guess I owe you one...”
He waved her thanks aside. “Don’t worry about it. I’m just glad I was there, or you may’ve lay there until the morning shift came in.”
“Morning... what time is it?” she asked, looking around the room despite knowing that she still hadn’t put a clock of any sort in the room.
He glanced down at his watch. “Just after 10:00,” he said.
“I should get changed then,” she said, rising. She turned to him expectantly.
To his credit, he caught the hint. “Alright,” he said, also standing. “I should get going anyway, I could use some sleep myself.”
“Good, good,” she said, nodding. She headed towards the front door, unbolting it and sliding the chain-lock loose. He was behind her in a few strides, stepping around her as she pulled the door open.
“Thanks again, for everything,” she said, as he stepped into the hallway beyond.
“Not a problem,” he said, smiling. “Do you, uh... do you need anything? I could run down to a corner store for you, if you want, or...”
“No, it’s okay. I think I just need a shower and some fresh clothes.”
He nodded, looking slightly put out. “Alright. Well, then... goodbye.”
“Bye,” she said to his retreating back.
She pushed the door closed and slid the chain lock in place, resting her head on the back of the door and her eyes closed tight and a small sense of regret tugging at her chest. “At least he knows where you work,” she told herself, straightening, pulling her shirt off over her head and stumbling slightly towards the bathroom.
The shop looked as it always did, and still carried for Sara the same sense of mingled dread and morbid optimism. It was significantly busier than it was during any of Sara’s shifts, of course - it was now after 11:30, and a long lineup zig-zagged gently from the front counter to the glass front doors. The smell of coffee combined with the somewhat musty scent of damp clothing, and the steady undertone of conversation blended peacefully with the gentle rain sprinkling the window and sidewalk outside. She nodded in perfunctory greeting to the middle-aged man directly in front of her as she joined the lineup, leaning slightly to the right to try and catch a glimpse of who was working this morning.
The girl working the cash register smiled at her as she came to the head of the line. “Hey Sara,” she said, in a voice dripping with a forced and sickly sweetness.
“Hi Leanne,” she replied, lifting her purse onto the counter. “I’m here to see Moira, she should be expecting me.”
“Sure hun.” She turned her head over her shoulder, and before Sara could stop her called out at the top of her lungs: “Moira, Sara’s here to see you!”
“Thanks, Leanne...” said Sara, cringing. She nodded in response to Leanne’s overly-cheerful smile before turning from the counter and heading towards the only empty table in the shop - the one closest to the end of the counter, and thus the one most often disturbed by the cashiers running to the kitchen/storeroom for supplies. She didn’t have long to wait, thankfully; after a moment or two the bulky frame of Moira Schiffer, owner and manager of La Café Grande
, came sideways through the kitchen, wriggled herself around the counter, and squeezed into the chair across the table from Sara.
“Good morning dear,” she said kindly. “How are you feeling? Can I get you anything?”
“I’m fine, Moira,” she said truthfully. “I was just told you wanted me to check in, so here I am.”
Moira smiled warmly, but the smile didn’t quite reach her eyes, which still looked concerned and were scanning her face delicately.
“Really, I’m fine!” said Sara, smiling despite herself. “Honestly, Moira, a few Tylenol and I can even manage the headache.”
Moira nodded, but leaned forward conspiratorially. “That’s not quite what I was concerned about, dear,” she said plainly.
Sara furrowed her brow. “Then what...?”
Moira gave an impatient sigh. “It’s not every night I get a call from a strange man claiming he needs to take one of my supervisors home,” she said, given her a pointed look. “I was concerned, that’s all.”
“Well, you have nothing to be worried about,” Sara replied. “He made me tea, filled me in on what happened, and left when I asked him to. He was a perfect gentleman.”
Moira narrowed her eyes disbelievingly. “Really?” she said.
“Really,” replied Sara bracingly. Then, smirking reluctantly: “Actually, he was a nice guy. Kind of cute, too.”
Moira smirked, and playfully smacked Sara on the hand. “You be good, young lady,” she said reproachfully.
The lineup dwindled as they talked, Moira asking probing questions about the previous night despite Sara’s insistence that she couldn’t remember a thing. By the time she seemed to reluctantly accept that she wasn’t going to learn anything exciting other than Sara’s second-hand telling of the story, there were only a handful of people left in the shop.
Leanne came over to the table just as the conversation was beginning to lull. “Moira, I have a woman on the phone, asking to speak to a manager. She sounds pretty upset.”
“Oh dear,” sighed Moira, lifting herself out of her seat. “I’ll talk to him.” She patted Sara’s hand again. “You take it easy for the next few days, dear. I don’t want to see you here for work until Monday evening, you hear?”
Sara nodded, inwardly rolling her eyes. “Alright. Thanks Moira. Oh, Moira,” she said, calling the owner back. “I don’t suppose you’ve heard from Camryn? I texted her this morning, but she hasn’t answered.”
Moira looked questioningly at Leanne, who shook her head. “Sorry dear,” replied Moira.
Sara nodded in thanks, and pulled out her own phone. She searched through her phonebook for a moment, found the number, and hit the call button.
A few rings later, Camryn’s voice answered in a cheerful, high-pitched voice. “Hey, you’ve got Camryn. Sorry I can’t answer - leave a message!”
Camryn sat on a stiff metal stool with no backrest, leaning on the front counter and lifting her hair into her face. “I’m thinking red...” she was saying. “Or maybe purple. What do you think?”
Sara shook her head as the unbidden memory was shattered by the sound of the answering machine’s beep. She struggled for a moment to label it properly, but found the more she tried the harder it became. “Hi, Cam, it’s Sara. Call me when you can. Thanks.”
Leanne sidled into Moira’s vacated seat, and fixed Sara with an expectant stare. “Alright, spill it,” she said.
“... spill what?” asked Sara as she stuffed her phone back into her purse.
“You know,” she replied, rolling her eyes and smirking. “Tell me about this guy who took you home last night.”
Sara ran a hand through her still-damp hair. “There’s really nothing to tell, Leanne,” she said.
“Well, did anything... you know, happen?”
She fixed her with an incredulous look. “I was unconscious all night, Leanne,” she answered. “No, nothing happened.”
“Oh...” she replied, looking thoroughly disappointed. “Well, did you at least give him your number?”
Sara closed her eyes and shook her head in amazement. “You’re unbelievable,” she said.
“Oh come on, don’t be such a prude.”
“No, I didn’t give him my number,” she sighed, with a twinge of regret.
Leanne gave her a sympathetic look. “Oh sweetie...” she said condescendingly.
“He didn’t give me his, either!” she said, not really sure why she felt so defensive about it. “Besides, why do you even care?”
Leanne shrugged. “I just want you to meet a guy, that’s all. How long has it been since you went out?”
“None of your business,” she spat, aware that she sounded like a child. The fact was, she couldn’t even remember exactly the last time she’d had a date of any kind - she’d been on the night shift for almost a month now, so it was that long at least. She rose from her seat and slung her purse over her shoulder. “I need to get going, Leanne, I have a few... errands... to run...”
Her voice trailed off as she glanced out the front window. A bus idled at the corner stop just up the street, the driver heading straight for the shop with the collar of his jacket turned up against the rain. But it was the ad along the side of the bus that caught her attention. It was an ad she’d seen countless times before, of course; the kind of ad that she had never really had a need to remember for any reason. An average looking man was giving her a blank, frozen smile from the centre of the panel, with the words ‘Hubert Cornett, Realtor’ stretched across his chest.
She was sitting in a cold, dimly lit room. A large photo was slid across the table towards her, showing a man lying face-up on a cold metal table, with his eyes wide open and staring blankly up at her. She felt panic, anxiety, confusion, and curiosity all at once, mingled with a faint sense of nausea.
“Do you recognise this man?” asked a man’s voice.
She searched her mind frantically, trying to recall the face and place a name to it, but she came up empty. “No,” she said. “No, I’ve never seen him before.”
“Sara, are you okay?” asked Leanne.
She realised with a start that she was leaning heavily on the chair beside her now, her knees weak and a dull pain throbbing in the back of her head. “Yeah...” she muttered. “Yeah, just felt a bit dizzy for a second...”
“Maybe you should go to a hospital after all,” said Leanne concernedly, holding Sara by the arm and rubbing her back gently. “You look like you could faint any second.”
Sara shook her head, still staring at the man on the bus ad. It was the same man - the same blank, staring eyes that seemed just as unsettling coming across the bustling street as they did in the flickering light of a random and forgotten memory.
“I’m fine,” she said at last, tearing her eyes from the window and turning to look at Leanne. “I haven’t eaten today, that’s all. I’m going to head home.”
Leanne looked ready to object, but Sara pulled away from her before she got the chance. “I’ll see you later,” she said, absently navigating through the shop and towards the heavy glass front doors. The driver of the bus had reached the door seconds before her and held it open for her, but she was too lost in her thoughts and fragmented memories to thank him.
She was marching down a long, narrow corridor lined with chipped yellowing stones. A man was walking in front of her, the handle of a gun sticking out of the back of his pants. He stepped out of the dim, flicking light and into shadow, holding open a large steel door. She stepped through the door into a large room with concrete walls, ceiling and floor. A massive black van loomed in front of her. She turned to face the man behind her--
Another wave of pain stabbed at the back of her head, and she stumbled slightly, feeling nauseous. A few pedestrians walking past gave her anxious, some even offended, looks and stalked past her, one of them muttering something about drunks as he went. She found she didn’t care enough to respond - and anyway, before she could--
The streets of downtown Queensbridge slid smoothly past her. She was sitting in a comfortable leather chair on the passenger’s side of a mid-sized sedan, sure - though she couldn’t imagine why - that it was the first comfortable seat she’d had in hours.
“It’s Sara,” she said, her voice echoing in her own head. “Ms. Wallace makes me sound like an old maid. I’m not old yet.”
“Alright...” said a man’s voice from the driver’s seat. She didn’t turn to look at him. “Sara. I’m sorry.”
She sighed, and shook her head. “Stop apologising,” she muttered. “It’s not your fault...”
As she rounded the corner, the bus pulled up alongside her, driving through a puddle as it went and splashing the ground at her feet. It was pulling away fast, but those cold grey eyes seemed to follow her as it splashed past her.
“Do you recognise this man?”
“No. No, I’ve never seen him before.”