Freddie carried himself back to his apartment on shaky legs. He collapsed onto the bed in the pitch black room, not bothering to turn on the light or get changed. Feeling as if his body was nailed to the hard mattress, he didn't feel like he could take another step.
He had never found Stella in the end. He had searched every inch of her house, and yet she was nowhere to be found, refuting Toby's theory of a sudden illness. He concluded that she must have gone out after all.
"Maybe you'd better file a report with the police?" Vincent had said, concerned, but after mulling it over he decided to wait until morning.
Of course he was worried about where Stella was, but he was similarly concerned about Catherine. How had she been so knowledgeable about the layout of Stella's house? Considering the fact that she had vanished from the office suddenly while he had been on the phone with Stella, the more he tried to pass it off as a coincidence, the more obvious it became that such a thing was impossible.
Was Catherine somehow involved with Stella's disappearance? As long as this question remained without an answer, he couldn't bring himself to contact the police. In the end, he had left a note on top of Stella's work desk informing her that he was waiting to hear from her, and parted from Vincent and the others at the front entrance.
"Feel free to contact me if anything comes up."
After he had thanked Jonny, who gave him his work number, Freddie extended his right hand to Vincent.
"Thanks for helping me out."
The act came as a surprise even to him. He had never moved to shake another person's hand before. At the time, though, it was what he truly wanted to do. This Vincent guy usually looked like just another drunk, and yet just being heard out by him had felt so mentally supportive.
Vincent eyed Freddie's hand in surprise, but shook it shyly and said, "I'll be waiting tomorrow night at the Stray Sheep."
"Alright. I'll be sure to come."
"Would be nice to have a good drink together, huh?"
"We can laugh all of this off as nothing."
After a quiet smile, the two parted. Freddie turned his back to the others and began to walk. No one called out or tried to stop him. That was how men said goodbye.
"Stella. Where have you gotten to?"
The woman with the long, golden hair. Now that she was gone, for the first time he felt uneasy. There was nothing he could do to ease the anxiety that seized his heart, which he surely would not have felt were this a complete stranger. How peculiar it was for him to feel this way over a mere woman, he thought - a dreadful woman who had been two-timing him with a work colleague, no less.
He sluggishly pulled out his phone. It might be pointless, but he had to try contacting Stella one last time. But his hand slipped from days of fatigue, and he dropped the phone onto the floor by the bed.
He tutted and sat up reluctantly. His arm heavy like lead, he reached out and switched on the desk lamp on the bedside table. Dim light illuminated the room. For the first time, he noticed that something was unusual.
Freddie's surroundings differed from how he remembered them. Had that magazine been lying on the floor? Why had his alarm clock fallen over? Feeling uneasy, Freddie got up from the bed. He flipped the switch on the wall, turning on all of the lights in the room.
The terrible sight that had been masked by the darkness was revealed. The entire floor was covered with magazines. The closet was open, and all of the shirts that had been set on hangers inside lay at the bottom. The drawers of the work desk upon which his notebook PC sat had been left open, too.
Freddie, forgetting his exhaustion, leapt over to the desk and rifled through the bottommost drawer. He took out a black mobile bag and looked inside, letting out a subconscious sigh of relief. His passbook and ATM card were safe. His spare key was there, too.
He headed for the front door and checked around it. The knob was intact, and there were no traces of it having been forced open. That meant that whoever had sneaked into his apartment had used a spare key. He fumbled around in his pocket and found his own key. Of course it was there; he'd only just used it a little while earlier. The door had definitely been locked when he arrived home.
"Then that means... that means..."
He didn't want to think it, but there was only one person besides him who had a key - Stella. He hadn't given one to Catherine yet.
"What the hell is she up to?"
So it meant this. Stella had called Freddie at work at 9:20. At the time, she had made sure to ask Freddie exactly where he was, even though it wasn't something she ever usually cared about.
At 10, he had been waiting at the Stray Sheep, which was when Freddie, tired of waiting around for her, had gone to her house with Vincent and the others. Now that he was home, it was after midnight.
"Has she just been leading me about?"
It made sense. After summoning Freddie by phone, Stella had come here. It had taken more than two hours before Freddie returned, giving her plenty of time all to herself to accomplish what she had set out to do.
But what exactly was that? Given that his passbook and ATM card had been left behind, it didn't seem like she was after his money. Stella, as an author, was richer than he was in the first place, and she surely knew that Freddie's savings had almost run out. She would never take that kind of risk all for a couple of hundred dollars.
Or was there a personal item of some sort that she had come to retrieve? He couldn't think of anything. The things Stella had left at his apartment - a toothbrush and mug, amongst other items - were all things that could easily be bought at the supermarket. He had another good look around the room.
Something glinting in the kitchen sink caught his eye. It was a bunch of shards of glass that had shattered into a million pieces. Someone had slammed the photo frame from his closet into the sink and broken it.
He scooped up the photograph, both sides curling from the dampness. It was a snapshot he had taken with Stella at some point at an amusement park. The pair must have been smiling at the camera, but the stains and blurs made it impossible to distinguish their faces.
"Did she do it all for this...?"
Had she really gone to the trouble of luring Freddie out and sneaking into his apartment, then digging through his closet, finding the photo and breaking it? A feeling of spite he couldn't put into words sent a chill down his spine.
Another part of him, however, didn't believe - didn't want to believe - that Stella had done such a thing. She definitely was a strange one, but had never been the kind of woman to act paranoid like this in the past. She was an indoors person, like Freddie, and he couldn't help but think that such active behaviour didn't fit her.
"Or did someone else do this?"
That would mean that Stella had made the appointment with him to meet at the Stray Sheep and then vanished. The only option he could think of was Catherine.
From the phone calls and how I've been acting, Catherine knows that me and Stella are dating. Driven mad by jealousy, she waited for her to head for the Stray Sheep and kidnapped her. Then she came here, broke a photo of me and Stella, and left.
Could it really have gone down that way? It wasn't unthinkable.
"No way in hell!" he yelled, unable to bear the thoughts that had already passed into the realm of delusion. "Catherine's not that type of girl. You know that, right?"
Freddie's shout echoed emptily in the room, in which only he stood.
"Who'm I talking to?"
The nonsensical explanation crouch down, head in his hands. Everything was swallowed by a maelstrom of suspicion and confusion. Nothing was certain anymore, and he didn't even believe that tomorrow morning would come. He realised that he might be on the verge of losing his mind.
Stella. Catherine. The two women's faces appeared in his mind's eye, then vanished. Stella. Catherine. Stella. Catherine. Stella Catherine. stellacatherinestellacatherine...
A sob-like cry slipped from his mouth. He wandered, zombie-like, over to the fridge and took out a beer. He tugged open the pull-tab and put it to his lips, but most of it spilled down his chin and chest, dripping onto the floor. Unfazed, he opened a second can.
He couldn't bear to be sober on a night like this. Even with the alcohol-bestowed strength, he wanted to fly away to some other world.
But there was no god in this world after all. Without even having his final wish granted and unable to sleep a wink, Freddie simply went on replaying delusions inside his head, unable even to tell whether this was a dream or real life.
He couldn't remember how he managed to make it to the office. He had still heard nothing from Stella. Despite knowing that he should probably report it to the police, the dull ache in his head wouldn't let him pick up the phone.
The sky outside was hidden behind dark clouds, and the unending night continued. By this point, he had even lost all sense of time. Perhaps it was because he felt as if he would be able to live a normal day in the controlled environment of the office, then, that his body dragged itself in to work.
He managed to robotically punch his time card and drag his stumbling legs to his seat, but that was his limit. Wondering if the world had turned a dull grey, he slumped down into his chair. Faint anaemia meant that he didn't even feel like starting up his PC. How much time had passed since then?
Freddie realised that someone was calling him. He weakly lifted his head, heavy as though he had been made to wear an iron collar, and saw his colleague's face.
"Did you finish the game proposal? The president says he wants to see it."
It was so tiresome that he could hardly stand it, but work would make no exceptions for Freddie's situation. Hurried along by his colleague, he begrudgingly booted up his machine. The scratching sound the harddisk made as it loaded made him feel like insects were crawling around under his skin, and he felt disgusted.
He clicked its icon on the desktop and started up Word, then opened the document file containing the new proposal.
"Here you go."
"Let's have a look."
The colleague peered over from beside him, but suddenly frowned.
"This isn't the time to be screwing around. The president wants you to bring the documents to him right now."
"So I just have to make a copy of this, right?"
"Exactly what part of that file do you intend to copy?"
Feeling a sense of unease at his workmate's confused expression, Freddie finally focused on the screen. Written on the first line was simply: "New proposal. (Innovative) dating sim", and the rest was blank. He used the mouse to scroll down the screen, but there was nothing.
"Oh, I must have opened the wrong file."
He closed the file with an awkward laugh, using the explorer to check through his work folder of proposals he had created in the past. There was only one file, and it was the one he had just opened. He looked at the timestamp, and saw that the last revision had been made several days earlier.
A sinking anxiety pooled in the pit of his stomach. Had he deleted the file by mistake? He checked the recycle bin, but it was empty. He and Catherine had completed it together - this was impossible.
"Right. I must have a backup."
He started up the machine on the neighbouring desk that Catherine had used, but was thwarted by its request for a password.
"Sorry. Could this wait until Catherine gets..."
Freddie was halfway through apologising to his colleague when he noticed the man tilting his head to one side and stopped, his words trailing off into nothing.
The unexpected response left him speechless. "Who? Catherine, the temp, obviously."
So the man didn't know Catherine? They worked in shifts, after all, so maybe they simply hadn't met yet.
Once he had explained the circumstances, the other man folded his arms in growing suspicion.
"I really don't know any girl like that. This desk has been vacant ever since Georg died. Look, here's the proof."
He opened the drawers, showing that they were all empty.
Freddie had witnessed Catherine using the desk several times. He'd seen her indiscriminately tossing in half-eaten chocolates, a handmirror and more and laughed.
"Why's it empty?"
"Why? Didn't you clean out Georg's things? Of course it's empty."
The colleague's misgivings about Freddie were now clearly displayed upon his face. Plastering a vague smile to his lips, he casually withdrew a step backwards.
"Wait." Freddie stood, grabbing onto the colleague's suit collar to stop him from fleeing. "Where... Where is Catherine?"
"I told you; I don't know any woman like that. Check out the time cards if you don't believe me."
Everyone who worked here, regardless of whether they were a full employee or a temp, was required to punch in and out. No exceptions were made, not even for the president.
Freddie did as he was told, checking though the time card folder next to the office entrance one by one.
"...It's not here."
Catherine's name was nowhere to be seen. It was proof that as far as the company was concerned, she didn't exist.
"Is this some kind of joke?"
He'd seen her here just last night. Not only last night, either; they had gone over the plan here together on several occasions. He had embraced her, and they had shared a passionate kiss. Did that mean that it had all been a dream?
He ignored his colleague calling him back and flew out of the office, taking out his phone just before the elevator hall. If he could make contact with her, he could clear all of this up. Everything would be okay if he could simply hear her voice.
"It's... it's not there."
Catherine's number was gone, and her email address had vanished from his history, too. It was almost as though she had never existed at all.
"I don't get it. What the hell is going on?"
He checked over and over, but it made no difference. The only person he'd been in contact with recently was Stella. Catherine's name was completely absent. Morning must never have come after all. Freddie was still trapped inside a nightmare that would follow him wherever he went.
"Catherine... Catherine..." he muttered incoherently. A female employee got out of the elevator, and he grabbed her by the shoulder, pressing her. "Have you seen Catherine?"
"Catherine. You must know her. Right? You do, don't you?"
The girl shook her head, looking as though she were about to burst into tears. Freddie loosened his grip, and she fled with a grimace.
"Why don't they know? They must!"
Of course. There was no way they would meet someone so bewitching and just forget about her. All of the employees here were idiots.
He would take another good look at the desk - not just Catherine's, but his, too. There had to be something left behind that would prove her existence.
Upon returning to his office, everyone saw Freddie coming and got out of the way. Sending people scattering either side of him like Moses, he made his way to his seat.
He searched through the folders on the PC and opened the desk drawers, turning their contents out onto the floor. Supplement pills spilled out from a bottle with a loose cap, and he ignored them as they crunched underfoot. There must be something - something to link me and Catherine.
As he opened the topmost drawer, a silver glint caught Freddie's eye. He snatched it up, and found that it was a silver rosary.
"This... it can't be."
He had found it when he was tidying up Georg's things. He had originally meant to send it to Georg's family along with his other belongings, but had hesitated and had forgotten to sort it. He had to ask Stella up front about it - about her relationship with Georg. How much did his death mean to her? Now wasn't the time for that, though. He stuffed the rosary into his trouser pocket and went back to searching for evidence of Catherine.
It was all in vain. Even though the two of them had shared such profound time together over the past few days, there wasn't a single trace of her on the PC, his phone, or the desk.
"...Someone tell me. Anyone. Am I dreaming, or is this real life?"
No one responded to Freddie's murmur. His colleagues all simply watched silently from a distance. Someone was making a call on their mobile phone. Personal calls are forbidden during work hours - why are they looking at me while they talk?
Freddie sat still in his chair, watching intently as the seconds ticked by on his watch. All he could do now was wait for night to fall. When night fell, she would surely come.
Believing this and heading for his desk, he stepped on something. He bent down and scooped up what appeared to be one of a pair of earrings.
It was a small, red glass butterfly with its outlines picked out in silver. It seemed to have fallen out along with the bottle of supplements when he had tipped out the drawer.
...He recognised the red butterfly. Holding it in his palm, he had a flashback to a nightmare he had once had.
"Right. Back then..."
The high, high ramparts. The long, long staircase. Running for his life from something chasing him. The thing that slithered after him. The faceless woman. This earring had been in her ear.
The forgotten name spilled forth like water from a blocked tap. A woman he had dated long ago. She was the red-headed vocalist of a no-name rock band. She'd said that the first day they'd slept together had been her birthday, and so he had bought her a pair of cheap earrings on a whim. When he and Sophie broke up, she had thrown them against his chest and turned on her heel. Although it had been summer, the day was faintly chilly and rainy.
"What's something like this doing here...?"
He recalled her scream, like nails scraping against glass. It was a fuzzy-faced Sophie who tried to kill me in my dream. No doubt about it.
It had been some sort of revelation within a dream. Events that happen in real life are picked up by the human instinct and streamed to the memory via dreams. Thinking of it that way would explain it.
Maybe Stella's disappearance was Sophie's doing, too. She was a jealous woman. When we walked along the street together, if I so much as looked at a woman we passed she'd say with a laugh that she'd kill me.
The earring of a woman whose very existence he had forgotten. He could only imagine that it showing up here and now in a place like this was Sophie trying to make a display of herself. Such an ugly, egotistical lump of flesh she was. He had forgotten about her for all of this time - why was she showing up now?
"Wait. What if she got Catherine, as well..."
Perhaps it was also Sophie's fault that he had lost contact with Catherine. An overwhelmingly realistic image of Stella and Catherine confined in some dark basement warehouse with Sophie cackling, a knife in one hand, appeared before his eyes.
I'm going to save them.
He sprang into action, dialling 911.
"Hello? Is that the police!?"
Freddie rattled off a report of Stella and Catherine's disappearances to the police officer who answered, informing him that Sophie must be behind it. It was no more than simple conjecture, but as he talked it morphed into conviction.
"That's right. Sophie Mallow, 24. She's the vocalist of a band called The Crusaders. Her address... uh, I can't remember."
After they had broken up, he had deleted all records concerning Sophie. He had thought that he would never see her again, but now cursed his imprudence.
"Please, at least find out that much on your end! You're the police, so you can do that, right!? ...Huh? The reason why I think Sophie's involved?"
He was suddenly lost for words. Freddie still had enough wits about him to realise that he wouldn't be able to convince the police with talk of finding an earring or having a dream.
A silence followed, and now the policeman's tone, which had been serious up until now, was intermingled with suspicion.
"I'd like to hear more specific details," he said. "Please tell me your name, address and telephone number."
"Frederick... Uh, wait."
He hesitated in giving his name. As the call went on he grew calmer, and began to wonder if he wasn't spouting complete nonsense. For starters, it wasn't even certain that Stella and Catherine were actually missing. This certainly wasn't the type of incident that the police could do anything about. It was all to do with his own nightmares, after all. He declined the request to come to the station, making the excuse that he was working, and hung up.
There was another reason for his saying no - he didn't want to be tied up until the night. Catherine might show up as usual tonight, as if nothing had happened. If he missed her because he'd gone to the police, he would regret it for the rest of his life. He had to stay until nightfall. He had to stay until he saw Catherine.
Sorry. Doesn't look like I'm going to be making it to the Stray Sheep tonight, Freddie apologised mentally to Vincent and the others, then wondered whether there was anything else he could do.
"I do want to know where Sophie is..."
Checking his phone's address book, he realised that it contained the phone number of the club where he and Sophie had met. The Crusaders had often made use of the cramped bar, and he might be able to get some kind of clue out of it. With a prayer, he made the call.
"Yes?" said a curt voice. He guessed that it belonged to a middle-aged man on the wrong side of forty. He hesitated over how to broach the subject, but strengthened his resolve and decided to come straight out with it, saying that he was looking for Sophie Mallow and asking the man if he knew her whereabouts.
"Sophie?" The other man's tone shifted. "Who are you?" he probed, a mixture of surprise, confusion and caution in his words. "A friend of Sophie's?"
He responded that he was an old friend, using the name of George. "We were classmates in junior high. We're having a reunion next month, and Sophie's the only one I haven't been able to get hold of. I'm trying to find someone who can help me reach her."
The fabrication slipped so easily from his lips that he even surprised himself. Freddie's voice sounded younger than he actually was, and the man believed him readily.
"Oh, I see. You won't be able to see her, though, I'm afraid."
"So you don't know where she is?" He clicked his tongue.
"That's not what I meant." The man let out a deep sigh. "You really don't know?"
An ominous feeling welled up within him. He felt cold, sharp wires creeping inside the soles of his shoes, up through his legs and into his heart.
"Sophie's probably in Heaven right about now. ...Or maybe Hell, I guess."
The man let out another sigh. He could almost smell the odour of alcohol on his breath through the receiver.
"She was hit by a truck. It was awful. Her whole lower half was torn off, and she died instantly."
Sophie was dead. Freddie's body stiffened at the realisation. The man went on talking, but he could no longer hear him.
"Sophie Mallow, 24. Female. Was attempting to cross the road at 00:20 on April 4 on her way home from her part time job when she was struck and killed by a large truck that ignored a red light."
The article that Freddie had found from an internet search backed up the man's story, shattering Freddie's suspicions at their very core. Sophie had nothing to do with Stella's disappearance, nor Catherine's. That was because Sophie had died almost a week earlier.
Yes - that night when he had first had the nightmare. When he had awoken in a bad mood to news showing on the TV in the background, which he had ordered Stella to turn off, the reporter had been announcing Sophie's death in an accident. Subconsciously not wanting to watch, he had switched it off. Or perhaps he had actually heard the initial report of the accident before he had gone to sleep?
A familiar road crossing was displayed on screen. A young, red-headed woman had been in a hit-and-run there. It would have been easy to connect the dots and realise that Sophie had been the victim, but Freddie was so caught up with Stella that he hadn't been listening. Up until now, he had completely forgotten about it all. Or maybe, shaken by the death of a woman he used to date, his feelings of guilt in wanting Stella's body instead of mourning Sophie's death had brought on the nightmares? Not that any of this went beyond speculation, of course.
"Then I'll have it again tonight."
He was going to put an end to this dream. If there was anything Sophie wanted to say, he was all ears. In exchange, he would ask for Stella's release, since she had nothing to do with it.
Stella really had vanished. Didn't I only just determine that it had nothing to do with Sophie's death? What the hell am I thinking?
It didn't make sense. Was this reality a nightmare, or was the nightmare encroaching into the real world? The situation rejected any plausible theories Freddie could come up with, the worlds beginning to melt together and run into chaos. Freddie was all alone in his dark world.
He couldn't even hear his own murmur. Even still, Freddie kept begging. Please. Even if it's just you, show yourself to me. Let me hear the sound of your high heels clicking like always. If that's not possible in the real world, then at least come to me in the nightmare.
"If I can climb to the top of that tall tower..."
...will my wish come true? he wondered.