Upon awakening, he found himself in bed. Pushing aside the covers and sitting up, he realised that he was dripping with night sweat. His heart was pounding.
"Goddammit. What's going on?" he groaned, covering his face with his hands. "What the hell was that?"
He felt like he'd been chased by something. He'd desperately fled, desperately climbed.
Right. Freddie looked up in shock. I was running up some stairs in a fight for my life. Then she came after me./p>
"She"? Who was "she"?
The faceless woman. She wore an earring. The fleeting memory of a red butterfly.
I know that. A shrill sound. The sweaty green room of a bar. And...
Just a little more and he would have remembered, when morning light flooded through the curtained window and melted Freddie's memories away.
He punched the pillow. What was happening to him every night?
He got up, sluggishly putting his arms into the sleeves of his shirt. Checking the clock, he saw that he was certain to be late. Daryl was going to be making sarcastic remarks again - but what did he care?
A dustpan lay on the table, still with shards of broken glass in it. He had fallen asleep after picking it up the night before. Bright red lipstick marks still remained on one of the fragments.
Freddie tossed the entire dustpan into the dustbin beside the sink. Why had Stella suddenly shown up here last night, muttering something about dreams?
"No. That's not what's important."
Why had Stella had the same rosary as Georg?
"She couldn't have been cheating on me with Georg, could she?"
There was no indication of it, but he could think of no other explanation. Freddie wasn't enough of a believer in the goodness of the world - or, to put it another way, the truthfulness of women - to brush it off with a laugh.
"Stella and Georg...?"
Why would Stella, introverted and with no interest in anything other than writing novels, want to shack up with someone like Georg? Was it all a bit of fun, or was it serious? Then what was she sleeping with him for?
Confused, Freddie tried to recall the face of his former colleague. For some reason, however, though he was dressed like a man in a polo shirt and jeans, from the neck up he had the head of an old witch. The creepy witch grabbed hold of Stella's long hair, laughing, Stella sobbing with her little mouth wide open. The image took over his memories.
"I don't get it!" he shouted, throwing down the other glass that had been in the sink. As he looked down at the tiny shards, a sharp pain ran through his body.
This pain... like falling from a high place...
Clutching at his temple, Freddie leaned against the dustbin. He felt like all the blood had left his body. He took out his phone, thinking to call in sick to work with how awful he felt, but changed his mind.
He wanted to see her. To Freddie, Catherine seemed like the only one he had to rely on for mental support. In this chaotic, nightmarish world, the only thing he was sure of was his desire to be with her.
Her devilish blue eyes. Her porcelain skin. Her coquettish, pale pink lips. He wanted to smell the enchanting aroma of her skin one more time.
Freddie stood, as if sleepwalking. He had to go to work so he could see Catherine. Nothing else mattered. He just wanted to hear her voice. He wanted her to look at him with those goosebump-inducing eyes.
It was around noon when he arrived at the office. He entered the building and quietly punched in, before realising that something in the air felt different from usual. His colleagues looked strangely absent-minded as they sat facing their monitors. They mechanically tapped away at their keyboards, but their eyes were blank. Stooping over, feeling an electric charge as if from an approaching storm, Freddie made for his desk. Along the way, he noticed that Daryl's desk was empty.
He had come fully prepared for the lecture, and for a brief moment felt relieved.
"If you're looking for Daryl, he's dead," a teammate from the adjacent desk announced suddenly.
For a minute, he thought it was a tasteless joke. Dead? Daryl?
Come on, now. He's the type of guy who wouldn't die even if someone killed him. You must know that.
Freddie silently waited for a colleague to say, "What? You're not gonna fall for it? Boring," and he would immediately shoot back a reply.
But it never came. Instead, he was informed of the time and location of the funeral. It was the same cemetery as Georg. Reality finally set in.
"But how?" The voice he managed to choke out was so hoarse that it didn't seem like his own. "What happened? Why did he die!?"
His colleague shook his head slowly. "I don't know the details. As far as I've heard, he died suddenly."
"Sounds like his wife woke up next to him in the morning and found him cold, even though he seemed fine the night before. Did he have some kind of chronic illness or something?"
"Not that I've heard of."
He was a bit on the heavy side, but that was normal for a middle-aged man. He wasn't a heavy drinker, either - if anything, he was twice as health conscious as the average man. And he'd died out of the blue, just like Georg.
Why does this keep happening to people around me? What the hell is going on here?
As he held his head in his hands, Freddie heard the chiming of a bell from somewhere. It was the dark, solemn chime of a funeral procession. He had definitely heard it somewhere before.
He covered his ears, his colleague looking at him in confusion.
"What's wrong? Aren't you feeling well?"
"A bell. I can hear a bell."
"Bell? Hey, are you okay? I can't hear anything like that."
Freddie's colleague stared at him, a mask of suppressed repulsion plastered to his face.
"Are you sick, too? Maybe you should go home, then. Not like anyone can get anything done today, anyway."
"No, I'm fine."
He brushed off the colleague as he tried to send him home under the pretence of caring. Freddie had to be here until Catherine came.
"Fine. Could you go to the president's office, then?" the colleague asked, overpowered, as Freddie glared at him. "Sounds like there's something he wants to talk to you about."
"Talk to me? The president?"
"I'm guessing it has something to do with the next planning meeting."
Ohh, right. Freddie was secretly despondent. Now that both the programmer and the producer were gone, they would have no choice but to disband the project. And after all that trouble he'd taken to bring the proposal almost to completion, too. Freddie dragged his heavy legs in the direction of the president's office.
He knocked on the door. After being ushered inside and receiving words of condolence regarding Daryl, however, he received an unthinkable proposition.
"How about it? Want to try out being a producer this once?"
Taking a seat in the indicated chair, Freddie ruminated on the meaning of the president's words.
"I've had a read through your proposal. I found it to be very interesting."
The president must have been given a temporary version of the proposal that he'd handed in to Daryl before.
"It would be a shame to simply dissolve the project. I would like you to take it over. What do you think?"
The president gazed at him with evaluating eyes. Freddie was painfully aware that he saw him as no more than his own personal money tree, but if anything was grateful for how plain it was. All he had to do was get on board. Why did he have to let this chance to climb the ladder pass him by?
"I'd love to," he answered with zero hesitation. The president nodded with satisfaction at the excited-sounding response.
"I won't speak ill of the dead, but Daryl was more than a little conservative. I hope a young man such as yourself will come up with some innovative ideas and make plenty of good games."
Good games. "Games that sell well" is what he really means. Then leave it to me. I know my proposal will do it. I made it with Catherine, after all.
Suddenly, he was hit by a stab of unease.
"So, uh, what about the project members?"
"I'll leave that to you. Go ahead and use whichever personnel you think you need as producer."
Freddie bowed his head. If he'd been ordered to, he might even have licked his shoes.
He could go on working alongside Catherine. That alone lifted his spirits.
I'll have her work under me as the main planner. Better tell her tonight.
"Excuse me, then."
He left the president's office, trying with all his might not to pump his fist in the air. The president's secretary watched suspiciously. He did his hardest to adopt a series expression, hurrying into the men's toilet. Once inside a stall, he exploded with triumph.
I did it. This is thanks to you, Daryl. I'll bring a nice big bouquet to your funeral.
He felt like all of the disasters up until now had been turned around into an unexpected success.
Right. So I'm a producer. Right.
He envisioned Catherine's joyous face when she heard the news.
"Catherine. Ahh, Catherine."
You are my angel after all. Hurry up and get here soon. Be happy with me.
His world had changed since Catherine had appeared. The nightmares aside, he couldn't help but feel as if in real life, the whole world conveniently revolved around him. Freddie had never looked forward to nightfall so much before in his life.
"Hey. About this selling point..." Catherine said, skimming the file that was displayed on the monitor. She and Freddie, his hand placed on her slender shoulder, were thinking up ideas for the proposal.
They were the only two in the silent office. The next door team had gone home early tonight. In wake of the successive occasions of morning, the president had ordered them to go home. Freddie hadn't obeyed, however. He stayed behind, watching his colleagues leave as they cast strange looks at him yet left without saying a word.
He had waited in the abandoned office for a few hours. Then, finally, the one he'd been anxiously awaiting had appeared.
Catherine walked towards him, the clicking of her heels echoing. She, waving lightly at Freddie, was the only one in this shifting world who hadn't changed since they had met. As expected, she clapped her hands with glee when he announced the gist of his promotion to producer to her.
"Then we'd better celebrate, huh?"
Ahh, Catherine. You really are the greatest.
The hand that rested on Catherine's shoulder slowly slid down towards her chest.
Her lips smiled teasingly. It took all of his strength not to devour them. The night was long. The more he restrained himself, the sweeter she would surely taste.
"I tried making a document to go with the proposal. Wanna check it out?"
She sent the data to Freddie's PC. He clicked his mouse to open the Word file, and a sketch of a room was displayed on the monitor. It was a document for the "Peeping Tom Dating Sim (Temp.)" they'd planned together.
"A sketch of the house of the character who gets peeped on. How about something like this?"
The game's characters were to be another man's wife in her twenties, and a male protagonist to serve as an avatar for the player who would have trysts there with her. The premise of the game was that the player would set up hidden cameras around the house through which to record, meaning that they would naturally need a carefully-modelled house to serve as the setting. That was what Catherine had done a rough sketch of.
"It's not bad," Freddie replied, looking at the screen.
It fitted the criterion that there would need to be a certain number of rooms in order to lend some variety to the locations in which the liaisons took place, and would give the players more fun in thinking of where to place the cameras. Bathroom. Kitchen. Study. Garage. There would be plenty of immoral situations to enjoy in those places.
"This... isn't your house, right?" He couldn't deny that at least some hope was mixed in with his question to Catherine.
"Hey. Of course it's not."
Rejected so easily, he gave a wry smile. It was only data for a game. She'd probably just gone searching around on an estate agent's site and pulled a sketch of a fitting house for sale.
But wait. Freddie's finger stilled on the mouse wheel. As he looked at the drawing, he began to feel a strange sense of déjà vu. Something wasn't right.
"What is this?"
But he didn't know why.
"What's wrong, Freddie?"
He pressed the tips of his fingers against the inside corners of his eyes and massaged. He must be tired after all. He couldn't remember having a good night's sleep at all recently.
He looked up and saw Catherine staring at him from his side. Drawing her shapely shoulders close, she reached out her fingers and combed them through Freddie's messy fringe.
"Are you really tired? Did something happen?"
"I, uh... Something did, I guess..."
Georg's death. Daryl's death. He couldn't help but feel like they were connected to him in a way that transcended work colleague and boss. Maybe that was why Freddie's heart was so heavy.
And then there was Stella. It always led to him thinking about her. What had been her relationship with Georg? He wanted to question her about it, but he was afraid, too. Freddie had dumped countless women in his life, but he'd never been the dump-ee before.
He thought of the women he'd cast aside. How had they felt then? What would he have thought in their shoes?
He smashed the mouse violently. Don't think about something so trivial. I have Catherine now. Isn't that enough?
"Hey, Catherine?" he asked impulsively. Once the dam burst, it wouldn't stop coming. "Will you come live with me?"
"I want to be with you. Not just at work - in the morning, in the evening, at night, too. I want to eat with you, have fun with you, sleep with you. How about it, huh?"
Catherine's eyes wavered. Her moist eyes looked as if she was thinking hard about it. Her lips parted, a small tongue peeking out and licking her dry bottom lip. She linked her little fingers. Momentarily she drew back, but right away surrendered herself to Freddie.
Their eyes met. He'd told countless women that he loved them. He'd voiced those convenient, empty words they wanted to hear, never knowing what love actually was. What he had never said was I like you.
She's the woman I've been searching for.
I like you.
Before he could speak, his phone rang as if it had been waiting for that precise moment.
Why now, of all times...?
He tried to ignore it, but today alone he had forgotten to put it on silent. A cheery cartoon melody evaporated the serious air in the room.
"Answer your phone."
Catherine puffed out her cheeks. Freddie didn't miss the hints of disappointment and relief that appeared in her eyes. She must have been anticipating what Freddie had been about to say to her. If he let the chance slip from his grasp now, it would be gone forever.
But the crucial words wouldn't come out. His ringtone continued to blare. Catherine urged him again to hurry up and answer, and he reluctantly pressed the call button, pressing the phone to his ear.
It was Stella.
He reflexively turned his chair around, showing his back to Catherine. He curled up like a cat, squeezing the phone to his ear.
"What is it?"
"Where are you, Freddie?"
"I'm at the office, obviously. I'm busy right now," he muttered in as small of a voice as he could. "Speak to you later," he added and tried to hang up, but Stella wouldn't allow him.
"You're having the dream, aren't you?"
He quickly decided to hang up and moved to press the button, but his hand stopped.
"What do you mean, 'the dream'?"
"Being chased by something and falling from a height. Pitiful, baaing sheep."
Suddenly, the scenes he had forgotten came flooding back. Sheep. Yes. I was climbing up a huge rampart. Remembering the fear of plummeting caused him to reflexively dig in his nails. His big toes curled inwards inside his shoes.
"How do you know about that...?"
"So you are having it, huh?"
She didn't seem at all surprised - if anything, she sounded as if she were receiving affirmation. It was almost like a doctor taking the pulse of a hospital patient who had long since ceased breathing and proclaiming them dead.
"A sheep fell, right?"
"Yeah. A poor sheep. The suspension bridge broke, and he fell right before your eyes."
"Right before my eyes..."
Was that what had happened? He could clearly remember hearing the bell chiming in its tower, but still couldn't remember any of the details.
"But how do you know any of this?"
He'd never told anyone about it before, and it was impossible to see someone else's dreams.
"W-what is it?"
Freddie's body stiffened automatically at the low voice, chilly enough to have blown out from the grave. His back froze, as if the drips of sweat on it had turned to frost.
"Tonight at ten. I'll be waiting at the Stray Sheep."
"What're you talking about? You can't just make plans without me. For one, I'm still at work... Wait, you know about the bar, too?"
"If you come, I'll tell you. All about the dream."
"I'll be waiting. Tonight at ten. The Stray Sheep."
After repeating the time and location once more, she hung up. Goddammit. What is Stella up to...?
He called her back right away, but was greeted only by a notice that the number was unavailable. Looking at the clock, he saw that it was 9:20PM. He could make it to the Stray Sheep in plenty of time.
In all honesty, he was creeped out. Stella's voice was colder than he could normally have imagined, almost like she had expelled all emotion. Not only that, but her talk of the nightmares Freddie had had. Why did she know about them? The more he thought about it the harder it became to find a rational explanation, his thoughts drifting off into the darkness. In any case, he knew that he couldn't just ignore it.
"Sorry, Catherine, but..." he said, turning his chair around, but no one was there. "Catherine?"
The lone monitor that had been left on, illuminating Freddie's face, was the only other thing in the empty office.