There is a bar called the Stray Sheep. It's a small establishment, tucked quietly away in the corner of a dull, dirty town. While it does carry many kinds of alcohol, here and there you can find run-down sections of the interior that are reminiscent of the dried-up skin of a woman past her prime.
Neon lights that flicker on and off, on the verge of exhaustion. Cigarette smoke with nowhere to go. The faint, wafting stench of garbage. It is a modest, wholly uninteresting bar, and yet at night, men of the town with nowhere to gather there as if drawn in by it, almost as though trying to scoop up the broken fragments of their lost dreams - or, perhaps, to forget the dreams they are about to have, even if only for a moment. This is the tale of a man who found himself at one such bar...
In front of the television, several regulars passed around stain-covered bills as they tipped back their glasses. A women's professional wrestling programme was being broadcast on the large LCD display behind the counter.
Galaxy Women's Pro Wrestling. Ahead of the GWWA title match, even the Stray Sheep, usually as silent as a rain-drenched grave, had had a little life breathed back into it.
"Which're you betting on, Toby?" a slightly stylish man wearing a checkered hat asked his companion, fishing out a one dollar bill that he had thrust into his pocket. He appeared to be in his early thirties. His yellow goatee was conspicuous against his angular face.
"Feather, duh," replied the thin young man clad in blue overalls. Compared to the man in the hat, he looked quite young. He seemed to be putting on airs to look cool, as someone of his age would, but one of the virtues of someone who is ignorant to the world's workings is their inability to hide things. He spent his days being teased like a small animal by the man in the hat and his other friends. "Feather Adonis's on a streak of successful defences, after all."
"I wonder." The man in the hat stroked his goatee.
"Huh? You mean you're gonna bet on Betelgeuse, Orlando?"
"The pay-out is way bigger if she does it."
Orlando took a gulp of his Budweiser and tossed a few notes at the man who was giving out the odds. The man took them wordlessly, made a note in his notebook and returned to the other customers.
"You sure do love to gamble, huh. Unfortunately for you, though, Feather's got this one in the bag."
"The safe choice, huh? What a boring life you must lead."
"No way. The safe choice is the best choice."
"Gah. Hey, Jonny. You say something to this kid with no dreams," Orlando said to his other companion, but his spot at the table was vacant. All that remained was a cigarette that had lost its owner, smoke drifting up from it as it lay on the ashtray.
"Hm? Did he go for a shit?"
"Nah, he's over there. Look."
Toby tugged on Orlando's sleeve and jerked his chin in the direction of a man who looked to be about the same age as Orlando. His striking hair, black as a raven, and sharp features betrayed his Asian heritage.
The man stood in front of a coin-operated game cabinet in a corner of the cramped bar, an antique jukebox beside it. He pressed the start button on the free-to-play game.
"Christ. He's playin' that game again?"
"Jonny's taken a liking to it recently."
"Yeah. I wasn't interested at all at first, but it's pretty addictive once you get started."
"I'm gonna go take a look."
Toby, who worked under Jonny and idolised him like a big brother, scuttled over to him like a baby squirrel that had found food.
"Hey, wait up. Aren't you gonna watch the match?"
Orlando regretfully looked over at the TV. The title match was about to begin, and a quiet sense of excitement was building within the bar.
"In the red corner, the champion, Feather Adonis!"
Once the announcer had finished, a blonde woman wearing a risqué costume raised her hands high on the other side of the fuzzy CRT screen, responding to the cheers of encouragement.
The TV was perched on the edge of the bar. His eyes met those of the bartender standing on the other side of it. Strictly speaking he didn't know whether their eyes actually met, since the bartender was wearing sunglasses, but he looked at Orlando and gave him a profound smile. As if to say I know, he used his index finger to resettle the sunglasses on the bridge of his nose.
He was normally just a middle-aged old guy who didn't stand out from the crowd, simply telling unfunny jokes to Erica, the waitress, who would jump in with her own retorts, but sometimes he felt like he could see through him. It was a damp, unpleasant feeling - like a washerwoman pulling her hand from the lake in which it was submerged and using it to stroke the cheek of a traveller who happened to be passing by.
"Ah, fuck it." He reflexively resettled his hat so that it was low over his eyes and obstructed his view. "Oh well. I'll just look at the results of the match later," he said to himself, turning his back, deciding not to watch the match and instead walked over to Jonny. "How's it goin', Jonny?"
"He's doing good," Toby answered for him. Peering over his shoulder, he could see a prince on the screen inside the cabinet, clambering up the exterior walls of a castle in order to rescue the princess imprisoned within.
"Rapunzel" - that was the game's name. Despite being a simple game where all you had to do was climb the stacks of blocks, as you played it over and over you would come up with surprising tactics and unexpected methods to beat it, and couldn't help but lose yourself in it. For Orlando and his friends, it was becoming even more of a passionate hobby than betting on wrestling matches.
"I've already beaten your record," Jonny muttered as he worked the levers. The score that Orlando had managed a few days earlier had been knocked off of the high score list displayed on the game's screen.
"Seriously? I'd only just beaten Vincent's, too. Goddammit. I'll get you next time."
"Speaking of which, Vincent's not here today, is he?" Toby said as if he'd suddenly remembered.
Vincent was one of their drinking buddies, who had done all manner of stupid things with Orlando and Jonny since they had been in high school together. They were just stuck with each other.
"He only just got a new job recently. Maybe he's just busy?" Orlando murmured, rubbing his goatee.
"Nah, he must be with Katherine," Jonny retorted quickly. "I saw her recently, and she told me that there was something she wanted to talk to him about."
Vincent's girlfriend. She always wore glasses and black clothes, like she was in mourning dress. She had also been in the same class as Orlando and the others.
"They've been together for such a long time. She must have her own take on things."
"Makes you jealous, doesn't it? I wish I had a girlfriend."
Toby gazed longingly in the direction of Erica, who was ferrying around alcohol on a tray. With her yellow uniform and red hair, she stood out wherever she was.
"Moron." Orlando grabbed Toby's head and pushed it down. "Male and female relations are more trouble than they're worth. Vincent must be at a cake shop or somethin' right now with Katherine in a cold sweat."
"Tch, I fell." Jonny tutted and banged on the cabinet. The prince, failing in his endeavour to scale the tower, plummeted into the abyss without ever reaching his princess.
GAME OVER was displayed in a garish yellow. A witch sneered beside it.
"Lemme have a go next."
Switching places with Jonny, Orlando took his hand out of his pocket, rolled his shoulders, and suddenly remembered something.
"Come to think of it... I haven't seen him lately."
"You mean that guy who works for the game company?"
"Didn't he say his name was Freddie or somethin'?"
"Well, it's only natural after an incident like that," Jonny muttered, looking like he was dredging through the depths of his memory, causing him to have a flashback to a scene he had all but forgotten.
A man with wild eyes. An ominous note. A deserted house. Fluttering curtains. The news that a woman was dead.
"I'm sure he's doing just fine somewhere."
"Yeah," Toby responded to Jonny's monologue, but his voice sounded somehow vacant.
"A man who had nightmares, huh?" Orlando said in a low voice. No one replied.
"Oh my. Feather has used her Crimson Messiah, an illegal move! Betelgeuse can't get up! It's over!"
Only the voice of the commentator on the wrestling broadcast was audible, sounding like a clown who had stumbled upon a funeral.
A rumour that you would die if you had nightmares. A mysterious string of deaths from weakness. It was a chilly night, a few months before they were to become caught up in all of this.