Cutting through the park he frequented on his way home, he saw a woman sitting on a bench beneath a dim streetlight, swinging her legs back and forth.
"I've been waiting for you, Freddie."
Catherine raised her hand in salutation. She stood up, as if jumping down from a swing, then nuzzled her cheek against Freddie's chest.
"Mm. You smell good."
Catherine narrowed her eyes at the scent of alcohol and cigarette smoke that had permeated his clothes. Mingling with the citrus scent that came from her skin, it wafted lightly along on the night air. Freddie gripped Catherine by her shoulders and tried to detach her from him.
"What are you doing here?" he asked in a slightly stern voice. The park at night wasn't the kind of place where a young girl like Catherine should be.
"I had a feeling that you might be coming here."
"I'm highly attuned to these kinds of things, like where you are and what you're doing. Where I should go if I want to see you. I know it all." Catherine grabbed onto Freddie's nose and ran her tongue across his lips. "And I know that you think about me, too."
"Are you drunk, Catherine?"
"Maybe. I'm always drunk in reality, after all." She entwined her thin, supple arm around his.
"What are you doing?"
"Isn't it obvious? We're going back to your house together. We'll have a drink and a chat, and what comes after that is for you to look forward to."
"T-that's not going to happen."
Verbally he rejected her, but inside he was glad at Catherine's words. As soon as he'd thought about wanting to see her there she had been, almost like a witch had granted his wish.
"You can say that, but it won't work. I'm special, aren't I?" Catherine said, as if she'd read his mind. Her two blue eyes, filled with confidence, shone amidst the darkness.
Her statement could be taken as arrogance, but Freddie could raise no argument. He didn't know why, but he felt like it was okay to expose his innermost self to Catherine.
Catherine smiled suddenly, then began to trace Freddie's cheek with her index finger.
"I love the face you're making right now."
"Don't tease me."
"Hey, I'm not. You're just so cute, like a lost puppy out in the rain. Like you're saying, 'Help. Help me.'"
"Cut it out. I don't want anyone's help."
Freddie tried to shake off her finger, but Catherine wrapped her arm around his neck and he went still.
"You can rely on me all you want, you know. So long as it's you, I can deal with whatever you throw at me."
Her sweet breath tickled his ear, seeping through right to his core. The next thing he knew, he had taken her hands in his.
They walked through the park, hand in hand. They weren't exactly innocent high school kids. Until yesterday, Freddie would have snorted at this, but for some reason it now felt natural. Catherine went obediently along with it. Shockingly enough, beneath the moonlight her cheeks, reflected in a puddle of water, were faintly pink.
"This is kind of embarrassing."
Her voice, unusually shy, made Freddie's emotions heighten. He gripped her hand more tightly, and Catherine passionately squeezed back.
"I like you, Catherine."
He realised that his voice was trembling. His mouth was dry from tension and anxiety. This might be the first time in his entire life that he'd said such words to a woman and meant them. Freddie himself had never imagined that a day would come when he would utter a profession of love that had nothing to do with his personal interest or instinctive desires. Maybe Catherine was a special woman after all. If he was rejected this time, he really would never be able to trust another woman for the rest of his life.
"Tell me. What do you think of me?"
"Hehe. Didn't I just tell you?"
"I want to hear it one more time. Clearly."
Please, he begged, as if in prayer.
"I like you, Freddie. I love you," Catherine declared, bringing her face close to his.
She gave him a kiss like the gentle flutter of wings. As he felt Catherine's residual warmth on his lips, Freddie realised that for the first time in his life, he was experiencing actual romance.
On the way, they stopped at a nearby all-night supermarket to buy beer and snacks. It was a quiet shop with no other customers, and when Catherine enquired as to whether they had her favourite brand of beer, the employee who had been stocking the shelves behind her turned and presumptuously scowled, glaring at Freddie. After leaving the store, he walked along feeling unpleasant, as if he was suspected of shoplifting or something like that.
"He was staring because I'm so pretty," Catherine asserted, full of self-confidence. "I have pervy old men staring at my chest all the time."
"Yeah. I guess that could be it," Freddie agreed.
But Catherine would be wasted on a kid like that. I'm the only one who can satisfy her. He'd be better suited to going off and chasing some younger tail.
"I'll kick the shit out of him if he eyes you up like that again."
"Yikes, that's cool. I think I'm falling for you even more."
Cradling a paper bag, Catherine climbed the stairs to his apartment still hanging from his arm. That was when he noticed that there was light spilling from the window of his room, tucked away in the corner. He was sure he had switched it off before heading for the Stray Sheep after he'd got back from Georg's funeral. As long as he hadn't been burgled, there was only one possibility he could think of. Was Stella there...?
Freddie tutted softly. He didn't want to be running into Stella when Catherine was with him.
"What's wrong, Freddie?"
Catherine didn't seem to have noticed. Maybe she thought that Freddie had forgotten to turn off the lights.
"What's wrong? Let's just go inside."
Perhaps tired of being spoiled, she tugged on his arm.
"No, hold on."
"I'm getting cold. I wanna get warmmm. With. You."
Catherine shot him a sweet, flirtatious look, but he didn't have the chance to savour it. Freddie's gaze was locked on the room's door. A dark figure flitted past the frosted glass window beside it. Long hair. An hourglass figure. Impossibly stylish proportions. There was no mistaking it - it was Stella.
Usually, she would have contacted him by email first - why had she chosen tonight of all nights to show up without warning? Not understanding Stella's intentions, Freddie simply stood in the hallway.
He was brought back to reality by Catherine tugging him forwards by the arm. He at least had to stop them bumping into each other. Getting caught up in a troublesome lovers' quarrel was the last thing he wanted.
"S-sorry. Could you go home for today?"
"Where'd that come from?" Catherine asked, her eyes upturned. A violent light, like bubbling lava, took hold in her previously placid eyes. "Is there some reason it'd be a bad idea for me to go in there?"
"...Of course not." He casually used his body to shield the door from Catherine's attempt to push inside. "I just don't feel so good. Maybe I had a bit too much to drink."
"Oh, really? You should go lie down in bed, then. I'll be your nurse."
"U-uh, nah, I'm fine."
He grasped her shoulder and pushed her away, deepening Catherine's suspicion.
"What's up? I'm telling you that I'll be your doting nurse. Why are you acting like this?"
"I told you, I really don't feel well. I really want to be with you, but what if I threw up on you or something?"
"Ew, is it really that bad?"
"Uh... My stomach is pretty upset. I'm really sorry. I'll make up for it, I promise. Just go home for today."
As he put his hand against his chest and gazed exaggeratedly at the sky, he heard a voice from inside.
For a moment, he felt as if the whole world was in monochrome.
"Huh? I thought I heard someone's voice just then."
"M-must've been your imagination."
Catherine tried to peer over his shoulder and through the window, and he restrained her with all his might.
"Are you back, Freddie?"
He heard the knob turning from inside and reflexively spun around. As the door opened, it made the same sound as rope rubbing against the tree branch from which one was to hang. A cold sweat covered Freddie as Stella peered out. Immediately, he streched out his arms as if to shield Catherine.
Stella was dressed roughly in a camo-patterned tank top and holey jeans. Her face was pale, and she didn't look well at all.
"Why're you just standing around? Aren't you coming in?"
Answering noncommittally, he desperately tried to come up with an excuse, but his headache worsened suddenly, as if his lie to Catherine about being drunk had come true, and he couldn't think of aynthing sensible.
"She's just a colleague from the office, and I only came here because she said she wanted to see my apartment."
It was the dumbest excuse, so bad he wanted to strangle himself. Not only was it bad, but he couldn't stand acting unassumingly toward Stella. Freddie had vowed that he would never become a woman's slave - and yet look at him now. His disgrace made his chest hurt even worse.
"What are you talking about?"
But Stella simply stared at him in confusion. She opened the door wide, moving aside to let Freddie in.
"Hurry up and come inside. It's cold."
"Come in? You mean her, too?"
"I told you, I don't know what you're talking about. There's no one here but you. Or do you mean you're even drunk on a day like this?"
"No one else here...?"
Turning around, all he saw was the chilly hallway illuminated by fluorescent lights, a dark abyss further in. Catherine was nowhere to be found.
Until merely ten seconds earlier, Catherine had been right behind him. He could feel her breath on his neck; the slenderness and curvature of her shoulder that he could still feel against his palm. Catherine, he went to call, but just managed to regain his sense of reason. He couldn't just go around calling her name in front of Stella.
"S-so, uh, what's up with you today, Stella?"
"There's something important we need to talk about."
He'd never heard Stella mention anything like this before. He hesitated, and Stella jerked her chin, motioning for him to enter.
"Just come on in, would you?"
He didn't want to go inside. Why? he wondered. It was his own, safe home, so why was he so resistant to set foot inside it? He felt as if his precious sacred space was being invaded.
Stella's voice took on a hardness. All he wanted to do was turn on his heel and run off to search for Catherine. Had she figured out what was going on and left? Or had he disappointed her? Fear and unease ran through his mind.
In reality, however, he could not go looking for Catherine. As if a moth drawn to a flame, he had no choice but to go inside the apartment. The world closed off behind him.
Saying the same thing as before, Stella stood by the kitchen. She poured milk from a carton into a cheap glass she'd taken from the cupboard, then put in some granulated sugar and stirred. Her tastes were as weird as ever. It seemed like a complete waste of milk to him, but Stella didn't recognise non-sweet things as drinkable.
"You want some, Freddie?"
There was something he wanted to ask. He waited for Stella to sit opposite him at the table, then began. "What're you doing here out of the blue today?"
"I thought you were busy with work?"
Stella silenty held the glass with both hands, wetting her lips with the sweet milk. The clock seemed uncomfortably loud as the seconds ticked by. She'd said that she wanted to talk, and yet here she was, not saying a word.
Unable to relax, Freddie shifted around on the chair, but finally couldn't stand it any longer and got straight to the point.
"So, what's this 'important thing' we need to talk about?"
"How have you been feeling lately?"
He was taken aback by the sudden query. There's no way my health is the 'important thing' she wants to talk about. Unable to read Stella's intentions, Freddie fell further into confusion.
"Have you been having bad dreams, or anything like that?"
"Yeah. Nasty dreams."
Why would she ask about that? Why would Stella even care about what kind of dreams I'm having? I never talk to anyone about my dreams. Prickle. Ahh, my head again.
"Don't you think something's weird about you lately? You're so curt on the phone whenever I call, and you don't reply to my emails."
Stella momentarily stopped talking and sipped at her milk as if appraising Freddie, who had his index and middle fingers pressed against his forehead.
"So I'm wondering if you're having nightmares that are stopping you from getting enough sleep or something."
"I'm busy with work. That's all."
"Yeah. Didn't we talk about this? A colleague passed away. I went to his funeral today. I've been kind of tied up, what with all of this..." He made it that far before he suddenly noticed. "Right. Where were you this afternoon?"
That woman he'd seen at Georg's funeral. Looking back on it now, she'd looked just like Stella - and the same silver rosary.
"You didn't know Georg or anything like that, right?"
"Yeah. A young guy in his late twenties. He's a programmer of Polish descent, laughs weirdly, sorta looks like an old witch..."
"Hold on one second," Stella said, holding up her right hand and indicating for him to stop. "Anyway, you still haven't answered my question. Are you having nightmares? Aren't you?"
"Really?" she murmured, her eyes searching. "You're not having dreams about falling, or anything like that?"
The sounds that echoed from the bell tower's stone walls suddenly flooded back to him. The funeral bell rang out inside the room. Pain. His head felt like it was splitting.
"They say that if you don't wake up right away when you dream of falling, you die."
Freddie pressed his hands against the table, desperately trying to support his unsteady body. He was afraid that if he didn't, the floor would give out beneath him and send him plummeting into the depths of the abyss.
"A flock climbing to somewhere high up. All of them with the faces of sheep."
Red eyes. Horns. hornshornshornshornshornshornshornshornshornshorns. horns.
"Cut it out. Is this for another of your stupid novels? Who gives a shit, anyway!?"
He kicked away his chair and stood. If the dream had seeped into the real world, it was all over. Was he supposed to just sit there and let her keep talking about the nightmares?
The real world. Think about the real world. Freddie frantically tried to think of something else. Right. Stella's trying to change the subject. She must be feeling guilty about something and making up some story about dreams so she doesn't have to answer my question. Does she really think I'm gonna go along with it?
"You and Georg..."
He began to voice the suspicions he'd had in his head the whole time. He should grill her about it, then break up with her. A woman like this...
"What're you talking about, Freddie?"
Stella took another gulp of her milk, seeming not to have noticed Freddie's irritation. Even still, Freddie didn't fail to notice the slight trembling of her fingers.
The blood rushed to his head and he made for her, but slammed his body against the table in his haste. The impact caused the glass of milk to topple over. The white liquid spilled across the table and began to drip onto the floor. He hurriedly tried to pick up the fallen glass as it rolled towards the edge of the table, but he was too slow. The cheap glass fell, shattering into tiny pieces. To Freddie's eyes, it looked much like a sheep. In an instant, he was plunged from the peak of range to absolute zero. The strength left his body.
"...Could you go home for today? Just go home," he said weakly to Stella, covering his face.
Her face downturned, Stella's expression was hidden beneath her eyelashes. Still, she stood obediently, grabbed her handbag and headed for the door.
"I might contact you again tomorrow. Is that okay?"
If he could make it through tonight - if he got to feel the morning sun on his face.
Freddie couldn't help but feel like this night would last forever.
"Alright, then. Bye."
The door shut, leaving Freddie all alone. Turning his gaze sluggishly to the broken glass, he saw black ants swarming around the spilt milk on the floor. Stella's too indulgent, Freddie thought, his head aching, as he watched the crowd of ants writhe impatiently.