The area ahead was like a kind of plaza. There were rows of what looked a lot like church pews on the earthen ground. Ahead of them, where there would usually be an altar, was a small booth with a door on either side. This, too, looked like a confessional booth from a church, but he couldn't tell for sure. There was, of course, no ceiling. The plaza itself was huge, suspended in midair and enclosed by cylindrical walls. Bluish-white roots crept across the walls, looking like the blood vessels of a giant.
There were around fourteen sheep in the area. When he examined them closely, they all had different characteristics. He could see one with long, human-like hair, one wearing glasses, and one wearing a wrap around its stomach. He even saw a brazen-looking sheep wearing a headband.
"Hey. Looks like you survived," one of the sheep said. He wore a tie around his neck.
"You're the one who talked to me earlier?"
"Well, could be. We all try to help any newbies. So long as it doesn't become a burden on ourselves, of course."
It was true - the sheep who had given Orlando advice below had kept climbing, rather than make sure that he was alright.
"I see. Well, thanks, anyway. Even if it wasn't you."
"That's a good attitude you've got there."
"What is this place?"
The sheep with the tie shrugged in response to Orlando's question. "We're in a dream. I think you knew that already, though."
"Yeah, I guess."
"But if you die here, you die in the real world as well."
That was precisely what he had expected.
"How are we supposed to get out of here?"
The sheep indicated the confessional-like booth with his chin. "Go up higher from there. What's up there is just more of what you've already seen, though. There's a story that if you keep going you can eventually get out, and if you reach the end you get a wish granted." He shook his head. "I don't actually know, though. It's not like I've ever spoken to anyone who's made it out, so I can't say for sure."
"Shit. That thing..." He saw the giant tuna in his head. The idea of being attacked by it again made him shudder.
"Looks like you were attacked by a monster, too," said the tie-wearing sheep.
"Yeah. It was fuckin' awful."
"What did you see?"
"What? What do you mean, what?"
"It seems like everyone sees the monster differently. For me... well, that doesn't matter. They just change as soon as you figure them out anyway."
"Bullshit, huh." If anything, he wanted it to look like something else. Nothing was creepier than being stared at by those dead fish eyes. It also reminded him of his past failed investment each time he saw it, and it was too much to take.
"We're done climbing for the night, anyway."
"The night? How long does this thing last?"
"If you keep climbing you'll wake up, go back to the real world."
"I've only experienced it once so far myself, though. But you can't remember anything about this place - the dream. When night falls and you go to sleep, you're dragged straight back here."
"So you're saying it's just temporary relief... but you don't even know that at the time."
"That's about the gist of it."
What a nightmare. It didn't abide by the rules of the real world at all. How completely unreasonable. Orlando looked around the area once more. In one corner stood an evil-looking demon statue. A small golden bell hung from above the confessional.
"Are you sure there's no way to remember what happens here in the real world as well? Or some way to make sure you don't come back here again?"
"No idea. Everyone's tried a bunch of things, but I guess no one's found anything yet."
Sheep were gathered in twos or threes, sitting on a chair or the ground, or restlessly pacing across the same spot.
"Hey. I was wondering..." Orlando began. "Why do you look like that? You're all human, right?"
"Are you trying to say we look like sheep?"
"Sorry, but you look like a sheep to me."
He touched his own arm. He looked down at his hand. Despite being half naked, nothing seemed strange about him. He patted his face and head, and for the first time realised that he was wearing his favourite hat. He tried to put it back into place, but couldn't move it properly, leaving him perplexed.
"The hell's going on?"
Something hard poked out from either side of his hat. The surface was rough, bumpy and ridged. Grabbing onto one, it felt like his skull was being tugged.
"Are these... horns!? Are there horns growin' outta my damn head!?"
"Looks like some people can tell for themselves."
"Totally for real. Makes things seem pretty serious, huh?" said the tie-wearing sheep, and left.
Having a sudden thought, Orlando called out to him. "Wait! Please, wait. Did you cheat, too? Is that why we're curs-"
The sheep turned, his eyes wide, exposing his oblong pupils. He quickly regained his composure.
"Cheating...? Some guys say that. But I'm serious about it. I'm going to make her happy." He turned away again, walking off.
"He seems pretty crazy about her... But I guess the possibility is pretty high." All of the men sent here had cheated. To test this theory, he called out to another sheep. "How about you? You cheated, right?"
"I can't deny it. I was two-timing my girlfriend... But what was I supposed to do when that girl showed up? She was just my type: big boobs, pudgy all over, full lips... How the hell was I meant to resist!?"
"Yeah... I see what you mean. No helping it. I feel the same way."
"I haven't cheated," said another sheep.
"I don't want kids, but I've never betrayed my wife."
"Me either. I have money troubles, so I've not taken the plunge and gotten married, but I've never cheated..."
So there it was. It didn't look like cheating was an absolute condition. There were common factors, though, like not fulfilling a woman's desires, or somehow betraying her expectations.
"I've done both... I'm getting cold feet about marriage, and I've cheated," said a sheep who happened to pass by, with messy black hair and, for some reason, holding a pillow under his arm. "She's young, thin and blonde, but sexy. She's so wild and free... That's right, free. She's not tied down by what the world thinks is normal, and she's strong enough to fight those bonds head-on... Goddamn. I can't fall for her, but I think I have."
The story sounded like one Orlando had heard before. The messy-haired sheep wrapped the pillow around his head. "Christ. I already have Katherine!"
"Wait a sec, you..."
About to speak a name he knew well, he barely managed to gulp the words back down. The sheep in front of him was Vincent, he had no doubt about that. But after having ridiculed him so severely for his cheating, it would be pretty awkward to just say, "Hey, it's Orlando; I've done it, too!" He didn't think they had the kind of relationship where he could just start putting it on, but...
Purposely changing the tone of his voice, Orlando asked, "How many days since you started having this dream?"
"This is only the second."
Of course. It perfectly matched the period of time since Vincent had met Catherine.
"What makes you ask that?" he asked curiously.
"Oh, uh, it's nothing."
Leaving him with an appropriate response, he hurriedly left the area. The surface of the blocks leading there up to the confessional was covered with an out-of-place red carpet. He walked across it with no particular goal in mind.
"What's happening, anyway...?"
There were around fourteen sheep in this area alone, and apparently more had already gone on ahead. That he, on his first day, was in the same place as Vincent, on his second, seemed to mean that people were dropped off at different starting positions. The tie-wearing sheep from earlier sat at the pew in the front row. Struck by a thought, Orlando sat down beside him.
"What is it?" The tie sheep turned his head in annoyance.
"You said you helped the newbies, right? Will you keep an eye out for the guy with the shaggy hair over there?"
"What are you talking about? I'd understand if you wanted me to help you, but..." His interest seemed to have been piqued.
"I think he's a guy I know. Watch out for him for me."
"Why can't you help him yourself?"
"Of course I will. But I'm not used to this whole thing yet. You seem to be an authority on the subject."
"Then he should come and ask me himself."
"He doesn't know that I'm asking you."
The tie sheep looked Orlando in the eye. Orlando pressed harder.
"He can't be left alone, you see. I'll help you, too... When I figure out what it is I can do, anyway. Please."
What was important right now was first and foremost survival. For Vincent, too. There was silence for a while, before finally the sheep spoke.
"I can't promise anything, but I'll keep it in mind."
He extended his hand. The tie-wearing sheep looked down at it, hesitating for a couple of seconds, before finally returning a strong shake.