He sat up with a start. His pyjamas were damp. The room was dark. The only light was the blue glow from the tank where he kept his tropical fish. Brushing off the blanket, he fumbled around for the remote that controlled the lighting. Lighting a white light that symbolised tranquillity, Freddie finally felt at ease.
What a horrible dream. It felt somewhat eerie, but however hard he tried to recall the details of it, they simply melted away like the fleeting first frost of the year.
The woman sleeping beside him turned over. He could smell something citrus mingled with the faint smell of alcohol. His nostrils prickled at the woman's scent, and Freddie let out a big sneeze.
The woman awoke. Brushing back her long blonde hair in irritation, she looked at Freddie with unfocused, grey-green eyes. Her eyes, which reminded him of a thick forest, gradually began to focus.
Glancing at the clock hanging on the wall, he saw that it was after ten in the morning. It's too late to be saying good morning, Freddie thought, and an instant later was pulled right back down to earth.
"Dammit. I'm late."
As he got out of bed to change, his foot caught on a wine bottle lying on the floor and he tripped. The tongue of the black cat on the label stuck out, almost as if scorning Freddie. They had drained the bottle together the previous evening. Tipsy, he had put his arm around the woman's waist, the pair collapsing onto the bed. He didn't remember anything after that.
"What time is it?"
The woman's fingers crept over to the TV remote. Her green manicure was peeling off. The strap of her camisole hung from her shoulder, partially revealing a chestnut-like nipple.
"I am currently at the scene of the accident."
A reporter from the town's cable TV was displayed on the monitor. She wore a grey suit and held a microphone in her hand, standing in front of what appeared to be an intersection.
"As I said earlier, the accident occurred at around 12:20 this morning. A pedestrian on her way home ignored a red light whilst making her way over the crossing and was hit by a truck, sustaining serious injuries."
There was yellow tape reading KEEP OUT behind the reporter. He could see police officers managing the traffic scattered amongst curious onlookers.
"The woman was taken to a nearby hospital, but was pronounced dead just after 1 AM. Her identity is as yet unconfirmed, but an official at the hospital has commented that she was in her early twenties, had red hair and an ear..."
"Turn it off, would you?" Freddie asked the woman, but, unable to wait, took the remote and turned the TV off himself. The nightmare he couldn't remember and his lateness had him flustered. "Shouldn't you be on your way, too? You have a deadline, right, Stella?"
"Ugh. I guess so..."
The woman called Stella let out a small yawn, then took off her camisole and tossed it to the floor, displaying her round, shapely bosoms and shaking them as if to show off.
"I'm gonna use your shower."
"Don't use too much shampoo. There's not much left."
"I'll just buy more later."
Stella went into the bathroom, and the sound of the shower drifted out. She cheerfully began humming the tune of Hotel California. Without listening to her unskilled singing, repeating just the hook over and over, Freddie quickly made preparations to leave. As he dressed, he tossed his laptop and phone into his bag. He couldn't forget the data for that afternoon's planning meeting, either. Spending the whole night with Stella meant that he hadn't had time to make any alterations.
"Look at you, showing up late on the day of such an important meeting. If that's how you feel, maybe I should give you a few more days of holiday."
The sarcastic face of his boss showed in his mind's eye and he tutted. The instant he did so, a button popped off of his shirt.
It was still only morning, and the day was looking crappy already. From the moment he had woken up, the unrest in his heart hadn't settled.
He rummaged through his closet in search of a new shirt. With a clatter, a framed photo fell from where it had stood on the middle shelf. It showed Freddie with his arm around Stella's shoulders. It had been taken at the amusement park in the neighbouring town, back when they had only just met. They stood on a green lawn. Behind them was a large ferris wheel, and an endless blue sky. Their awkward smiles were filled with a calm happiness, in stark contrast to the way Freddie was prone to twitches these days.
Feeling as if he had seen something he shouldn't have, he put the photo face down and took out a shirt. As he finished changing into it, Stella came out of the bathroom. All she wore against her pale, naked body was a bath towel. Her long hair had been wrapped up in a towel, and she was surrounded by a cloud of warm steam. Her lips were the colour of garnet. She exuded a womanly smell all over.
Just a month prior, his tongue would surely have crept between those lips. Perhaps even last night he had done it without hesitation; he vaguely recalled the rough, comfortable sensation of it. This morning, however, it was no good. Freddie hurriedly averted his eyes. For some reason he didn't understand himself, the action was a startling one.
"What's wrong?" Stella asked, being alert enough to notice. It was always the women like Stella who would play the fool to entice men, and then be on the ball at times like these.
"It's nothing," Freddie replied mechanically. "Just hurry up and get changed and go, would you? I've gotta go straight to work."
"I've got a key. Can't I just take it easy for a bit?"
"I don't want you to."
He didn't mind sharing a room with her - if anything he welcomed it, especially on nights when the world was sound asleep. But he didn't want her doing her own thing when he wasn't around. It wasn't that he didn't trust Stella; instead, it was an unpleasant feeling that appealed to him on a more instinctive level. A woman invading his own private world - he didn't like that at all.
Shaking off the vision that threatened to dazzle him, he shook his head and forced it out of his body. It was like a deep black that ruptured and exploded with an electric crackle.
"Just hurry up and change."
Ignoring Stella as she tried to dry her hair, he gathered up her cast off underwear and clothes and thrust them towards her.
"Fine, I get it." Stella pouted, but her grey eyes glinted as if she had suddenly changed her mind. "Hey. Listen to me instead. I came up with a good idea when I was in the shower."
"Tell me about it later."
"You know about Rapunzel, right? You know, that fairytale."
Is she listening to what I'm saying? Why the hell are we chatting about fairytales when I'm about to be late? Get eaten by an old witch or something.
Freddie roughly thrust his wallet into his pocket, then pointed at the face of his watch. Stella, however, didn't notice. Perhaps due to her writer's blood being in a frenzy, she was lost in her own ideas.
"Long, long ago, there lived a princess. An evil witch shut her up inside a tower..."
She had been complaining about not being able to come up with anything for the job she'd been given recently, but she must finally have run out altogether. Fairy stories weren't exactly what one would expect in a horror novel for adults.
"The princess, never having gone outside, was visited by a prince. Seeing her peeking out from a window in the tall tower, he fell in love with her at first sight. He decided that no matter what it took, he was going to climb that tower."
"If you want to talk, you can do it to yourself as much as you like."
He was reluctant to leave Stella behind, but had no choice. He grabbed his bag and left.
Dammit. The sky's so bright today.
"Wait up. This is where it gets good."
"I don't care. Come on. Go straight home once you're done changing."
As if to cut off Stella's voice, Freddie shut the apartment door.
Fowles Electronics was located in a spot to the east of the town centre. They rented a floor of a multi-tenant building, and, including contractors, had a total of roughly 60 employees. In this town, with no industries particularly worth boasting about, it was known as an upright medium-sized business.
The company was in the business of developing game software. They did not, however, have the strength necessary to create, distribute and market the software on their own, so they primarily assisted with the programming of things such as cabinets to be installed at amusement parks and mobile applications.
Freddie, coming out of the meeting room that was partitioned off on one corner of the floor, returned to his seat and slammed down the documents.
"Gotta be fuckin' kidding me."
Harsh words emerged from his mouth. A man who had been staring intently at the PC next to him stopped working and looked up.
"What's up? Did the planning meeting go badly?"
"Understatement of the century."
He sat down roughly in his seat. Opening his desk drawer, he took out a small bottle containing supplements. He took out three orange pills, gulping them all down at once with some mineral water. The label read Vitamin C to make your stress melt away, but was it true? It felt like he had only been growing more and more stressed lately.
"This is all his fault."
"You went at it with Daryl again, huh? You don't learn, do you?"
The other man chuckled like a toothless old woman. Georg Valença. A programmer. He was a man of Polish descent who had joined the company sixth months or so earlier. Despite only being in his twenties, he was fond of phrases preferred by older people, and Freddie secretly called him "the old witch".
Having a programmer's disposition, he disliked people. He wasn't the most approachable of people, but he was nothing when compared to their boss, Daryl.
"This was his goddamn proposal to start with, and out of nowhere he just goes and changes direction like that."
Designated by Daryl, Freddie had spent about a month now working on a proposal for a downloadable mobile game. He recalled Daryl's words.
"Fortune-telling is a guaranteed hit. Make the game about horoscopes, and while you're at it, make it into something where we can come up with downloadable items we can charge money for. I'll get together some big wigs next month and have a planning meeting about it. Get it done quick, yeah?"
Since that day, he had been stuck in an endless cycle of overtime and late nights, and it had been only yesterday when he had finally submitted his finished proposal.
"Nice. You did a good job. You've earned a rest."
He hadn't actually looked through it properly yet, but he didn't care. He'd never expected much with regards to Daryl's ability to judge games. All he wanted was for him to sign off on the proposal.
That had led to today. It wasn't great that he had been late, but he had somehow made the meeting in time. All of a sudden, the situation had changed to one where all he had to do was explain the game to the management and wait for the green light. One of the executives, who seemed to be around fifty, looked through the documents that had been handed out and spoke up.
"Horoscopes seem a little mundane, don't you think?"
"Not in the slightest." Freddie shook his head. He was quiet by nature and didn't relish talking to people but, not wanting to have wasted all of his efforts up until this point, gave his earnest rebuttal. "The game uses a brand new program based on the movements of the planets as researched independently and analysed by the developers, and extensively utilises a minutely detailed system that is leagues above any other company's software, and we will make sure that the customers will be satisfied with it."
Stringing together random words as he came up with them, the execs shut their mouths as if bowled over by his passion. Good. Just shut up, Freddie prayed silently. Don't say anything you don't need to. All you really care about anyway is the length of the lines on the profit forecast's bar chart, isn't it? Just give your consent and hand over the budget, and we'll make a game out of it. You'll earn some cash out of it, too, and I'll get my wages. We'll all be happy.
"Are there any other questions?" He looked around at the VIPs. They all simply sat with folded arms, apparently having no further concerns to raise. "In that case, I'd like to hear the final judgement on the proposal from the president..."
He made it this far, speaking rapidly, when Daryl - who had until this point simply been going along with it, not saying a word - began to conspicuously flatter the VIPs.
"How about it, Freddie? If Mr. Managing Director Packard says it's so, why not take it back to your department for a bit and take another look at it?"
What the hell was wrong with him? In that moment, Freddie truly wondered if the unsightly middle-aged man with too much gel smeared through his hair was an alien from another planet. What kind of boss got in the way of his employees' work?
Provoked by Daryl's words, the employees who had so far remained silent began to speak up, as if a dam had burst.
"To be honest, I don't have the slightest interest in it."
"Aren't horoscopes out of date? My daughter doesn't believe in them at all."
"It won't work. We can't win the industry war if we can't come up with something that the youngsters will like."
What are these idiots talking about? Give me back all of the hours I've spent on this shit.
The meeting continued on this way, no one heeding Freddie's screams.
"Let's send this one back, then. Good work."
Freddie listened to the president's decision as if he were speaking to someone else. The word why? swam inside his head.
Suddenly, he had a vision of a sheep plunging from a tower. A pain shot through his head, as if a drill had been driven into it, and he massaged his temples.
The big shots made their exit, making the meeting room seem twice as large, and Daryl gave him a friendly pat on the shoulder. "What a shame. Well, there's always next time. Don't let it get you down."
He couldn't have come up with any emptier words had he tried. Without giving Freddie a chance to respond, Daryl followed after the president. I wish he would fall, he casually thought, cursing Daryl as he stooped over in servility.
"What do I mean, 'fall'?" He didn't understand the meaning of the words he himself had muttered. "My head hurts."
His legs suddenly feeling unsteady, Freddie clung to the edge of his desk.