Freddie was driving in his car. He was on his way to Georg's funeral.
Large drops of rain, accompanied by wind, pounded against the windscreen. From the radio, which he had turned on for a change of pace, played a funeral march.
He slammed the switch to turn it off. The world was full of stupid shows.
As he drove down a road leading to the outskirts of town, Freddie's thoughts turned once more to the past. The dream he'd had at dawn was different from the ones so far - strangely realistic. His neck still ached where 'Stella' had strangled him. A thin line faintly wound its way around his neck, inflamed, like a string. There was no way that could actually be possible, though, so he must have been bitten by an insect or something like that. He'd have to stop by a pharmacy on the way home and buy some insecticide.
He'd spent the night before with Catherine, but he couldn't remember how they'd spent it. When he woke up the next morning she was gone, and Freddie lay in bed alone, covered in a cold sweat.
The song-like melody came and went fleetingly inside his head. Distracted by it, he forgot to turn at a corner. He felt the impact of the car running aground on the shoulder of the road. The tyres, shaving away the asphalt, let out an ear-splitting screech. Freddie was thrown forwards with a dull thud, his chest slamming against the steering wheel. For a moment he was unable to breathe, but was lucky that that was all. If he hadn't been wearing his seatbelt, he probably would've gone straight through the windscreen. He turned off the engine and staggered out of the car. Driving rain suddenly hammered against him, stealing Freddie's body heat away.
The car, rather than turning the corner, had passed by an oncoming vehicle and run onto the pavement opposite, then slammed into an elm tree and come to a stop. The bumper was crushed, part of it wedged into the roots of the tree.
It couldn't be the old witch's curse that he'd had an accident as soon as he thought of Rapunzel, he told himself, horrified by the strange coincidence. Georg's face flashed through his mind.
"Stupid. No way in hell."
He couldn't think of anything that Georg would bear a grudge against him for. Telling himself that he was too tired lately, he went to check out the damage to the car.
Luckily, aside from the dented bumper, nothing else appeared to be broken. The engine turned on without issue, and the oil didn't seem to be leaking. There were several scratches to the body, but the car was second-hand and already a decade old. A few more wouldn't make a difference. If he went straight to the funeral, he could still make it in time. In the end, though, Freddie got out of the car. He made a call to the dealer to request a tow truck. His instincts warned him that if he drove again, he was likely to end up in another accident.
After going through a variety of procedures, he called a cab, arriving at the church almost an hour late. The rain had let up somewhat, but the cold had intensified in its stead. Putting up the collar of his coat, he let out white breaths as he headed for the graveyard. Crossing over a lawn, withered and mottled from the cold, a crowd of black umbrellas carried by mourners within the grove of trees came into view.
The coffin seemed to already have been interred within the ground. As the pastor prayed, the attendants placed flowers atop the coffin one by one. Freddie, standing at the tail end of the not-particularly-long queue, realised that he had left his offering of flowers in the car. Damn, he thought, but there was nothing he could do about it now. When his turn came he knelt beside the grave, grabbing a fistful of moist earth.
"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust," he muttered, repeating the faintly-remembered words of prayer, sprinkling it onto the coffin.
The coffin was smaller than he had imagined. Is this how it all ends after a person dies? he wondered gloomily. Many of the mourners made the sign of the cross as they prayed, but Freddie simply stood there, motionless. Although he did believe in the devil, he knew that there was no god conveniently in this world to save people.
Once the prayers had been said, the coffin was covered over. Seeing this, some of the attendees broke down in tears once more, but Freddie was grasped by an emotion not unlike jealousy. At least there was someone who would cry for Georg. He was envious that even a man like him - not much of a talker with a constant backache - had someone to mourn his death. Would anyone be sad if he were to die? He couldn't think of a single name.
With the service over, the people naturally began to disperse. Although he thought he should extend his sympathies to the late Georg's family, he changed his mind upon seeing an aging gentleman who looked the part speaking to Daryl. Daryl, wearing a feigned expression of meekness on his face, occasionally pretended to wipe tears from his eyes with a handkerchief. Georg was an indispensable talent to our company, and how shameful it is that he has been robbed of his bright future, he could hear him saying. I pray that his soul finds peace. The words of condolence, unbelievable in their flippancy, made him want to throw up, and he walked by without so much as turning around. He sympathised from the bottom of his heart with Georg's family for having to hear something so tasteless.
Several of his work colleagues had also attended, and they invited him out to drink and reminisce about Georg, but he refused, saying that he wasn't feeling well. It wasn't as though he were lying, and he had to show his face at the dealership later, too.
Breaking away from the crowd, he went around the back of the graveyard and walked down an eerie path lined with cracked, moss-covered headstones, when he saw a woman walking ahead out of the corner of his eye. She wore a black suit, her face covered with a veil. She held an umbrella low over her eyes, so he couldn't see her face, but the golden hair and slim proportions he could see beneath the umbrella seemed somehow familiar.
The longer he looked, the more convinced he became. She continued on, not having noticed Freddie. What was she doing here?
He approached her, meaning to call out to her, but changed his mind at the last second. A rosary was tied around her wrist. The rosary was identical to Georg's, emitting a silvery light. Why would... Stella have... Georg's...? His thoughts stalled, and so did his movement. Her form gradually grew smaller, finally vanishing into the shadow of the trees.
The rain, which for a time had almost come to a stop, grew fierce once more. The cold wind shook the branches of the trees violently, trampling the flowers that had been left at the graves. The funeral attendees let out shrieks as they fled, seeking shelter from the elements. Why is Stella here? Freddie stood alone in the solitary graveyard. He couldn't move a single step, as if there were needle ice stuck to the bottoms of his shoes.
"Fre...dd...ie..." he thought he heard a hateful voice say and turned around, but the only thing there was Georg's brand new headstone.
He first returned home for a while to shower and thaw out his frozen body, then went through the formalities of having his car fixed at the dealership. It was explained to him that his insurance didn't cover accidents caused by his own negligence, and though he understood, it did depress him. The repair fee wasn't as much as he had thought it would be, but the unexpected bill smarted for someone on a low salary like himself. Daryl's threat to fire him if his next proposal didn't pass flashed through his mind.
"Shit. That asshole."
The fatigue penetrated his body to its very core, but he still felt like he needed a stiff drink. He didn't know how long he wandered for, but Freddie eventually found himself in front of a bar on the outskirts of town. The Stray Sheep.
A place for sheep who've lost their way - just like me.
A sarcastic smile on his face, he slowly opened the door.
The usual bartender stood in the usual spot. Upon noticing Freddie, he nodded ever so slightly. He wore the same tasteless sunglasses as always. He felt the urge to send them flying but, of course, Freddie instead simply sat down politely at the same spot by the bar he had sat in the last time. No sooner had he ordered a screwdriver than he was sucked in by the TV.
It was being reported that a new death from frailty had occurred. The victim was a young man. No one had been able to contact him for about a week and a friend, worried, had gone to visit him when they discovered the body.
"The deceased is Mr. Francis Dawson, 34. He was employed by a large brokerage firm and appears to have been a hard worker, with no reports of any incidents involving him," the female presenter read aloud in a businesslike tone.
"Sorry, could you change the channel?"
"Dear me. Does the news concern you, sir?" the bartender asked, setting the cocktail down on top of a coaster. He couldn't read his expression, but Freddie was half sure that his eyes were smiling behind his sunglasses.
"I just don't want to hear about someone dying. Especially not today."
"Someone once said that everyone dies; it's simply a matter of when."
"Just hurry up and change it, for God's sake."
"Ohh, scary. Very well, right away."
With the channel finally changed to a harmless shopping programme, he was finally able to have a drink. He listened to the sound of the ice cubes clinking inside the tumbler as he washed the chilled cocktail down his parched throat.
"Hi. Is here okay?"
He recognised the man who had spoken to him. He was a plain-looking, middle-aged man. Hadn't he called himself Vincent? He thought about turning him down for a moment, but the man had such an innocent-looking face that he silently indicated his assent. In any case, to be frank, he was too depressed to be drinking alone tonight.
"Aren't your friends here today?"
"Huh? Oh, Jonny and the guys. Looks like they all have overtime today. This happens, sometimes. Rum and coke, Erica?"
He placed his order with the red-headed waitress. Guessing from the casual exchange between them, they appeared to be old acquaintances.
"You know each other?"
"Since high school. Us, Jonny and Orlando were sort of stuck with each other in that way that happens a lot."
"'Stuck with each other'? That's awful. Now you've made me sad."
Erica, bringing over his cocktail, raised her beautiful eyebrows. She wasn't truly angered; it was nothing more than a playful exchange between two friends.
Friends, huh? Freddie didn't have anyone he could refer to as that. He had left the town where he was born as soon as he graduated from high school, travelling here and there, and had ended up in this town of drifters. That had been more than a decade ago, and all he had to show for it was the position of game planner at a horrible company with a shitty boss and a cheap, dust-blanketed apartment. Even then, it was infinitely better than having stayed in that town. Those crazy, Medusa-like women...
"Another of the same, please."
He'd need the power of alcohol to help him forget those repulsive memories - and someone to talk to, as well. Vincent was good for that. He didn't make any unwanted interjections, never interrupting his stories. He shut up and lent him a listening ear.
After emptying several glasses of screwdrivers, Freddie squeezed out his emotions, lingering like the froth clinging to the bottom of the tumbler, alcohol on his breath.
"You have a girl, Vincent?"
"Wife, girlfriend, partner - whatever. Just a girl you're dating."
"Ohh. Well, of course I do... I think."
He scratched his cheek, his face indecisive. Did that mean that it wasn't serious? Come to think of it, the last time they'd met, he seemed to remember hearing something about him dating someone. Had a woman got her claws into him, too? Still, the fact that he was vague and evasive rather than stating that he had a girlfriend was the vastly preferable reaction. It was proof that he hadn't yet succumbed to a woman.
"Let me give you one bit of advice. Don't get too serious with a woman. Sleep with her two, three times, then shut it down. Even if you slip up, don't get in too deep."
"Uhh, what are you talking about?"
The man called Vincent seemed like a good person, but not a terribly bright one. He was exactly the type who would easily fall prey to a woman. Aided by the alcohol, he explained it in an easily understandable way.
"Women are the type who will try to take control of a man if he lets his guard down. To them, we're like fried chicken. They chew us right down to the bone, and as soon as they get tired of us we're either tossed aside or crunched up into little pieces."
"No way. She's not that type of woman," Vincent argued uncertainly. He must be thinking about the girl he was with.
"Look out. Maybe one day you might find yourself with a chain wrapped around your neck."
Vincent put his hand to his throat, creeped out. He looked as if he had instantly sobered up.
"How can you say that with such certainty, though?"
"Because I know."
"Know? Know what?"
"It happened when I was in junior high," he muttered.
As he did so, it seemed to Freddie as if the rotten smell he had been trying to forget permeated the entire bar. The last of his reason warned him that he shouldn't talk about it, but there was no stopping his tongue, loosened by the effects of the alcohol, from wagging now.
"It was a normal, stupidly peaceful Sunday. I went home after basketball practise let out and walked in on my sister and a guy she'd dragged in with her - in my room, of all places."
Standing there motionless, Freddie's older sister Helen's pale backside wiggled as she spoke.
"Your friend is the greatest."
No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't forget the sight of the visible blue veins, like a spider's web, with her asshole at the centre.
"She'd brought back my friend to screw while I was out. George was crying, screaming forgive me over and over, but she sank her teeth into his shoulder and demanded that he move his hips more. Blood pooled up from the tooth marks you could see clearly, and some of it dripped onto the sheets."
Vincent seemed unable to speak. It summoned a warped pleasure from within, the memories becoming more and more vivid.
"Once it was over, she blackmailed me, saying that if I told on her she'd spread rumours that George raped her. Poor George. He was such a good, hard-working guy. A while after that, he vanished from town. A missing persons report was filed, but he's still missing to this very day. Helen's still living that carefree life, seducing rich guys and playing the part of the chaste wife on the surface."
Please, just hurry up and die.
As Freddie abruptly fell silent after being so talkative, Vincent looked at him with clearly baffled eyes.
"Ah, um, uhh... What should I say?"
"You don't have to say anything."
Freddie took a cigarette from Vincent without asking, then put it into his mouth and lit it. White smoke swirled up towards the ceiling of the Stray Sheep.
"I just speak, and you just shut up and listen. That's all I want."
He regretted having ordered a screwdriver while he talked. The smell of the slice of orange was just like the odour of the woman's body that had filled the room that day. The strench of spoiled honey. To quell the nausea rising up in his stomach, he mindlessly smoked the cigarette down to ash.
"Women are more or less all like that. They're all too happy to sacrifice men for their own desires. If you want to stay in this world, you have to get out of there before they show their true colours."
Freddie had been sure that it was Stella herself whom he'd encountered at the cemetery. What had she been doing at Georg's funeral when she shouldn't have had anything to do with him? Why did they have the same rosary? The more he thought about it, the more he realised that there was only one possible conclusion at which he could arrive.
After a long silence spent clouded in purple smoke, Vincent hesitantly opened his mouth.
"I get the feeling that there's a woman out there you can trust. I mean, maybe it doesn't seem that way to you..."
Vincent hurriedly waved his hand as if to say don't misunderstand me, but it came as a surprise to Freddie himself that rather than being angry, he actually liked him. Was he actually listening to me? But he couldn't hate him.
"Are you seeing a good woman?"
"Yeah. Sometimes I think she's too good for me."
He looked weak and like he would promptly abandon his responsibilities, but deep down he was strong. He felt like no matter what happened, this guy would manage to survive.
"I'd like to meet a girl like that, too."
He deeply wanted to see Catherine. She might be different from the other girls he'd dated so far.
Catherine. That wild and devilish girl. He would have felt better if he'd just laid it all bare like this from the start.
Finishing his cigarette, he placed an order with the waitress.
"Two rum and cokes."
"Wait, I'm not done yet."
He laughed silently as Vincent pointed at his half-drunk glass.
"As thanks for listening to my story. And for this, too," Freddie said, taking another cigarette.