Chapter 1: A Late Arrival
The train horn bellowed throughout the gorge, echoing off the dark hills before her eyes and cutting through the night's chill with thunderous intent. Over the last hours, Christine had become accustomed to the sound, and now all she heard, all she saw, all she felt was the all too distant sound of her father's violin amongst the clatter of the rails. A hollow ghost of a memory. Insubstantial and unimportant.
Wrapping her heavy scarf tighter around her throat, she let her fingers linger in the yarn's folds. The well-read note she'd been carrying throughout her journey crumpled further. In the distance the warm orange glow of the coal town beaconed. It was to be her home now.
Mauch Chunk. The strange little name of a sleepy little town hidden in hills anthracite black. There would be no more singing for dukes and earls in Paris, no more singing for rich robber barons in New York. She would raise her voice for company men and the bawdy workers who most likely drank too much near the river's banks. She'd had many promises in her life and now she was sure, every single promise ever made to her did not matter. Every single one had been hollow words, foolishly spoken.
Impossibly, the wind blew colder through the rail station, the breaks hissing to a stop. Though the train had met its destination, the station and downtown before it sat in sleepy blackness, none of the glow from before in sight. A thin, sharp woman stood alone below the single station light, her eyes persistent in their searching. Christine's heart stopped. It was as though a ghost had come to meet her. The woman so looked like her long-ago ballet mistress. When the woman's eyes fell upon Christine, they lingered, a small nod of the head her only confirmation that this must be Molly Weaver.
Clutching her few bags of belongings, she made her way toward the exit. It felt good to finally move. Warm even. Never mind that the woman Christine was to meet looked like she blew winter itself from her lungs.
"Madame Weaver." A questionable French accent gracing her voice.
Christine tried for a smile, "Vous êtes français alors?"
"Come, child." Unimpressed, Christine watched as Madame Mol spun on her heal and took to a brisk pace up the town's main street.
"What about my trunk, Madame?" Christine hollered at the woman's back.
She didn't even bother to turn, "It will follow you in due time. Come now! The hour is late and I have things to do."
Christine filled her lungs and blew the air out through puffed cheeks. She wondered if full grown women were able to reincarnate into other full grown women. By the time the breath was released, she was upon Mol's heals.
The short walk up the avenue to the Hotel American was uneventful, yet Christine's frozen feet could not help but fill with slivers of pain at each step. She'd sat too long on the cold train and now her limbs were realizing it. It was nearly a forgone conclusion that she would be ill in the morning. Had she any money on her person, she would have upgraded to the indoor car. Perhaps she should have tried harder to impose upon the kindness of a handsome stranger. No, her mind answered firmly. That was never an option, and she pushed such stupid thoughts away.
Still, an opera diva with no voice was not an auspicious start to a small town debut. Molly Weaver directed her up the front stairs of hotel with no ceremony, opening the door and entering before her. The lobby of the hotel glittered in red and gold, sumptuous in its décor. Heat all at once oppressed her person and, though she wanted nothing more desperately than to slink into the large armchair by the fire, Christine moved to stand by the open window as Mol checked her into her room.
"Breakfast is at seven sharp in the dining hall to your right. You are expected at the Opera House no later than eight o'clock to begin rehearsal. Unlike in the city, divas here would do well not to be late. Do you have your music?" When Christine did not move fast enough, she continued on, "Never mind. He will be able to play whatever aria you intend without the customary advanced notice. Tomorrow you will dine with the Cummings. It is important you impress Mrs. Cummings, but remember she is the opera's patron. Not yours. Sleep with your window open tonight if you want your voice acclimated for tomorrow."
Mol dropped a small silver key into Christine's hand and left without a second look.
"Madame Weaver, it is customary for me to meet with the managers before rehearsal begins." Mol straightened the front of her bodice, her frank gaze calculating over Christine's person.
"You have met the manager. I manage the Opera House for Mr. Y in all things. We will discuss your terms in the morning. Before rehearsal." A curt smile cut the woman's lips and she exited through the main lobby door into the night.
"Well," Christine whispered to the cool night air, wholly unsure how to complete the sentence.
Chapter 2: A Welcome
The Opera House was indeed an actual opera house. It sat as an imposing building on a strange triangular street corner at the top of Main Street. The first floor, to Christine's dismay, was the local farmer's market. Open all days but Sunday and Monday. Sunday for the Lord and Monday for the Phantasma, the waiter had told her at breakfast. Though fleeting, Christine's pulse fluttered at the name. She had not the courage to ask its meaning.
The second floor, sat 600. Surely, that would be the entirety of the whole town, would it not?
Madame Molly lorded over all. She was strict, cold, and very much a widow to another infamous type of Molly from these parts. And while she was the Opera's manager, she was not its owner. That singular title went to a mysterious Mr. Y. No formal name, no first name, and from what Christine could gather, no real reputation at all. The other acts spoke of him matter-of-factly and without much fanfare.
One thing was clear. The Opera House had not seen a true opera in some time. Perhaps, ever. And there seemed to be no expectation to. All the acts before her were a wild mixture of classical fundamentals trussed up into the new vaudevillian fad. They were bawdy and loud and a select few could not possibly be appropriate for wholesome consumption.
While Mol had been clear that her attendance at eight o'clock sharp was a requirement, Christine was not bid to the stage until long after the midday meal of cheese and fresh bread. Luckily, her ominous sniffle from the morning had disappeared with her scales.
Before Christine could even set foot upon the stage, Mol's voice pinned her, "I trust no one helped you with your corset this morning, child." A deep flush threatened to bloom from Christine's cheeks down her neck. No. There had been no one to help her dress this morning. Molly Weaver knew that quite well. So yes, of course, she was laced more loosely as the custom required for sopranos. There had been no other choice.
"I am quite prepared for practice, Madame."
"And what will you be practicing?" Christine had the decided impression she'd already offended the women in some way.
"The aria from Eugene Onegin, if your maestro pleases." The old woman tilted her head from her seat in the orchestra. A tense moment yawned before them, until Mol nodded, "He pleases. We hope your New York ways allow for our practice organ. He will play half volume, should he must."
Christine's brow furrowed. "The aria is general played with –"
"Let us hurry. Mr. Y's train waits for no man this evening. Miss Day, begin."
Christine was used to eccentric creatives. At times, she believed the entirety of New York City only consisted of such people. However, Madame Mol was unquestionably a curt eccentric. And that was the nice term gracing Christine's mind as the organ began.
The familiar music washed over her and all at once the odd exchange drifted away. As the melody swirled about the room, she took her breath and exhaled the starting notes of Tatyana's confession of love. The music bid her lose herself to Tatyana and she agreed, offering her entire world over to the woman she pretended to be.
In the aria she felt herself again – all at once powerful and free, as though the world itself clamored for music only she could provide. As her final note soared above to the rafters of the opera house, those within its walls stood still. Christine was not a diva to wield her power, but she was a singer who knew the extent of her talent. It was never as sweet or are captivating as in her youth, but that was to be expected. When freed from the sorcerer himself, the spell dies as well.
Before anyone could move, the opera singer smiled sweetly into the darkness, "I believe, Maestro, that your A sharp is flat in both timbers."
She swore she heard a faint, deep chuckle from the darkness.
Mol was the first to recover her wits, "I believe that was enough for today. Miss Day, if you will please provide me with your performance list we will prepare for your inclusion in show as soon as possible."
Christine waited until the end of full rehearsal to approach Mol. "Madame, we did not have time to discuss terms this morning. I would like to do so now."
"Your terms were provided and agreed upon before your arrival with Mr. Y and your manager in New York."
Christine winced at the causal mention of her former manager, "Well, he is no longer my representation. I would prefer to reaffirm my salary and schedule."
Movement behind Christine distracted Mol, "We will speak tomorrow. The reporter is here for your interview." An earnest looking man, toothy smile and hand extended, approached Christine in all his very American swagger. Mon Dieu.
"Miss Daaé, it is truly a pleasure to meet our new opera diva," Mrs. Mary Packer Cummings' warm smile filled her round face and starved off the chill from the evening air.
"Thank you for inviting me tonight, Mrs. Cummings."
"Mary, please dear. And I did say your last name correctly, did I not? Mrs. Grey's pronunciations are often to be desired." The woman of moderate age took Christine's arm and lead her through the entryway of the grand mansion overlooking the river. "You are French, are you not? I believe Daaé is a French surname?"
"Swedish, actually. But I grew up in Paris and will gladly call myself French."
"How delightful. I hear you did a very French thing today at the Opera House. You sang and stopped time." She looked across the room to a staunch older man with prominent sideburns, "Is that not what Mr. Y said earlier today Mr. Cummings? The French opera diva sang and the world stopped?"
Mr. Cummings, engrossed in conversation with two other men already, merely nodded acknowledgement in their direction and continued talking, a golden glass of scotch and cigar in hand. The dinner party was to be a small affair: the Cummings proper, Mr. and Mrs. – Mrs. Cummings being the true power of the family; her father, Asa Packer, founded the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company and thus she was the town's daughter-heir and first lady – Mr. Cummings' brother Porter, a prominent figure in the railroad company; and his cousin Herbert, a coal mine owner from deeper west in the valley. The last guest was to be a Mrs. Grey, a close friend of Mr. Porter Cummings and resident mainstage act at the Phantasma.
"Of course, I've never personally met Mr. Y. Mr. Cummings deals with the more singular folk about Mauch Chunk. Porter's sweetheart always gets here a bit late." Mary tittered at Christine's side, "She prefers not to force conversation before dinner and wine. Of course, I'm sure you met her early today."
"Actually, no. I didn't have the pleasure. Mrs. Cummings –"
"Mary, dear." Mary ran her fingers lightly over Christine's up-bound hair, "What a lovely broach. Such a unique shade of purple."
Christine thanked her politely, "It was given to me by an old friend."
"An admire no doubt. How very French."
Dinner was hardy fare, filling and rich for even Christine's palette. Conversation between Christine and Mary remained light and welcoming. The men spent much of dinner engrossed in business, with far too much talk of iron and coal for Christine to follow. The group did settle in when Mary asked Christine about her travels from France. All seemed to be ears for tales from Europe.
Herbert was the one pointed enough to ask, "I hear the Paris Opera House never recovered from the terrible fire it had. What was that all over again?"
Christine took a large swig of her red wine. "The fire was after my time there. I only sang for one engagement on that stage. Much more of my training has been in New York."
"It was a damn fine place before that sordid affair."
It was always at this time in such conversations about the Palais Garnier that Christine desperately tried to change the subject. More often than not, American interest in the ten-year-old affair, as Mr. Cummings had put it, came in generalities, not details, and precious few had ever connected her name to the story. It was one of the only beauties about time. It could slowly, inevitability destroy any trace of one's name.
"It was a terrible loss for Paris, but then I hear that no one in America looks to the past, we look toward the future. Like you and your steam engines."
The men thankfully laughed. Hearty, deep laughs. "Not steam, child. Coal. Coal engines."
At dinner's conclusion, the men decided it was silly for the ladies to sit alone, just two of them as it were, and included themselves in the evening sitting lounge. As they gazed out onto the darkened valley, Mary asked Christine how long she planned to stay in town. She replied honestly, "I know my contract extends into the Spring season, but beyond that, I do not know."
Mr. Cummings, new cigar at hand, ambled from his chair to stand by the ladies. "So, Miss Day."
"That is what I said, Mary. Now, Miss Day, surely you will join us on Sunday for church. What are you? Episcopalian? Moravian? Surely not Catholic."
"Lutheran, Mr. Cummings. I grew up Lutheran."
"Our town is knit together on the foundation of God's great order, my dear. It is important that those seen in our community be seen going to church. Particularly for one unmarried such as yourself."
It was Mary who placed a hand on Christine's and interjected, "There is a lovely St. Mark's Lutheran Church on the road South to Lebanon." The strange weight in the room did not dissipate, even when Christine thanked Mary and agreed to go.
"Will you sing, my dear?"
"I would love to sing Mrs. Cummings, but I fear the hour is very late and I must be at rehearsal early tomorrow."
"Oh yes. Of course. Next time then. And you will meet dear Mrs. Grey. I am so sorry she did not come in time to meet you."
Herbert's mustache frowned into a deep line across his face at the mention of his sweetheart. "If we are to catch the train," his gruff voice far too loud for the room, "we must be leaving."
Properly bundled in a mountain of beaver fur, the men left for Phantasma with no explanation of what they would actually be traveling to, and leaving Mary and Christine alone in the foyer.
"You will like St. Mark's. Apart from the Opera House, it has the only organ in the county." Christine smiled toward the kind woman. In the late firelight she looked tired, her round glasses obscuring a clear view of her eyes.
"I'm sure I will."
"I believe a few of the songs at we sing at our St. Mark's are from your hymnal."
"We do so love to sing."
"And some of us have much more lovely voices to raise to God." A knock at the front door startled the women. "They call Mauch Chunk the Switzerland of America, my dear. We are a vibrant little town. Hardworking men and young ladies who return from school very finished. You will find a good home here, an easy routine to settle into." She opened the door to the night air and Christine breathed in the sweet scent of fall. "James here," a disheveled man walked into the porch's light, "will walk you back to the hotel."
With a thank you to her first true acquaintance, Christine began her short walk back to the Hotel American, James just a few steps behind.
Chapter 3: A Voice
"Madame Mol, while I appreciate it is not how your Opera House operates, I need a pianist to practice with, and adequate rehearsal time. If you cannot provide me with such requirements, I am happy to speak with Mr. Y about them. You contracted me to sing here. Without a pianist – a competent pianist – there is no way I will be ready to perform in a week's time."
Was what Christine had meant to say today to Mol Weaver. What she did say replayed in her mind, sounding childish, whiny, and petulant.
What she wanted was not an extravagant demand. It was not a matter of opinion. It was a simple fact: a singer needs a pianist and a singer needs rehearsal. Christine could handle the changes that came when performing acts instead of operas. She was flexible after all, if not excited for the change in pace. But common expectations should still be met. Diva's expected accompanists who could play the selections she was to sing.
Nonetheless, Mol had huffed and excused and half listened until Christine gave up in her attempts. That had been a week ago. And still her opening night had not been scheduled.
What good was an opera singer if she was not perfection? What was she worth paying if she did not produce an income?
Now back in her hotel room, she seethed at her own inability to confront the woman for her basic needs. She was not sixteen anymore. She was not some poor orphan opera dancer anymore. She was not inexperienced in the nature of the theatre. She would not be intimated by this woman. She would not sit silently as managers controlled her fate and took her voice from her.
She was not having this same conversation with herself again.
Twisting her hands into the back of the overstuffed chair, Christine stifled a frustrated roar and kicked at the music piled next to her, sending books and pages scattering about her feet. The relief was fleeting. Foolish, she thought. Her anger only ever served to hurt herself. A curse to God escaped her lips.
Perhaps escape to the rural mountains was not for her and she just return to New York. Returning could be no more shameful than her leaving.
Falling to her knees and with a steading breath, she took to righting her mess. Her fingers lingered over the pages and pages of music. Works her father had loved to play, operas she had longed to sing from, practice pages with lingering French annotations in the margins. How easy life would be, to merely be notes on a page which rise and fall at one's – no. No. It was not easier to be notes on the page. She had been once, and it had only brought her heartache and tragedy.
She would not return to New York. We never look back, she reminded herself.
This could not be her life – wishing herself away to times of false love and safety and music.
Unbidden and sharp, her memories betrayed her and came rushing in. Sheet music crumpled between her fists, her hands clutched at her bodice. It had always been so easy with him – to escape into the music, to feel like so much more when in the music. The familiar ache in her chest, which always rose when her mind wandered into the hauntings of the past, returned viciously. His love was not false. Selfish. But not false.
She would feel the treacherous ache pulsing through her veins for days. Another ghost she could not escape. Another longing she could never forget. He sent you away. They loved you, but did not want you. They said they loved you, but did not want you.
The phantom was dead. Long dead. And Roaul just as dead to her, though his heart still beat.
We never look back.
Warm tea steadied her nerves, though her muscles still felt the lingering emptiness which always surfaced when her memories let loose. Christine took careful time to organize the cluster of music she's displaced – prolonging each moment steadily to fill the evening hours.
At the bottom of the pile she found a copy of the Carbon County Gazette, the front page announcing her arrival.
'Suffering Soprano Christine Daee flees New York to reside on Opera House stage'. She did not need to read further to know her reputation had proceeded her to the earnest looking, bloodsucking reporter. Worse – they couldn't even spell her name correctly. At least there was no mention of Paris in the article. Had the reporter had any real resources or connections, he would have had a greater scandal to tell than her abrupt departure just days before the opening night of Puccini's Tosca.
He'd not used a single quote from her in the whole article. It was like she'd not spoken to him for two hours. She might as well have been a porcelain doll staring back at him with wide eyes and a vapid smile.
It could have been worse. But it was still bad enough. On such a miserable day, she'd had enough.
Enough - the word echoed through her mindand rage defiant burned down her spine. She could not correct the past, but she would create for herself a future where she had her own voice. If no one would listen of their own accord, she would make them listen. And if not to her, then she would use someone they would.
On the back of the 3rd movement from Pelléas et Mélisande, Christine wrote:
While I have yet to have the pleasure of meeting my most esteemed manager, I wish to thank you for your most generous engagement at the Opera House. I look forward to providing my voice to your vision. Should you have a particular selection you wish to hear, I am most amenable to your suggestion.
There are, however, a few perplexities in the nature of our arrangement that I hope you will provide clarity on.
I have yet to be provided the benefit of a daily rehearsal room and pianist. These are two requirements I must insist on. While my previous representation and I have parted ways, I do know that these fundamental requirements were part of my contract. I hope this news does not deter you from our partnership.
Indeed, the only change I see necessary is if you would kindly provide me my portion of ticket sales directly from yourself, rather than send them to New York for reimbursement.
I look forward to meeting your choice of pianist as soon as possible.
I realize that these requests may trespass upon your hospitality quite enough, but I would ask only one last favor, as I'm sure it is within your excellent abilities. I have noticed from the Phantasma pamphlets that you are in possession of an e with accent aigu. Should you have a spare type of this very French letter, would you be able to provide it to the Carbon County Gazette for use? There are many indignities a female must suffer for her art. Incorrect spelling of her name should not be one of them.
I look forward to meeting you before opening night.
Your humble soprano,
The letter sat where Christine had addressed it last night, on her writing desk. She must move it before the bellman arrived with her morning coffee. If not, he would surely spill all over it.
How to get the letter to Mr. Y though? Christine did not have an address for him and based on the general chatter about Mauch Chunk, it was not like one could simply stop by his door uninvited. Even if her brazenness had lasted beyond her fitful night of sleep, she didn't even know where his door would be. Phantasma, most likely. And she was not at all interested in visiting the American carnival.
She did not trust Mol to take the letter to him. The only other person would be Mr. Cummings. Mr. Y had discussed her singing with the man.
Though the hour was early, Christine dressed. If she was to catch Mr. Cummings before he left for work, she must leave soon. Before coffee, even. She was careful to add an extra layer of socks. The temperature had turned and the mountains of Pennsylvania held a far sharper cold than any street in New York.
When Christine was finally able to knock on the Packer Mansion door, she was more than a little concerned it was inappropriately early for the household. In her experience, Americans rose early to start the day with no care for morning refinement; however, all the windows of the mansion were dim, and frost still clung to the edges of their frames.
"Mr. Cummings is a'ready at the work, Miss." James startled her from behind. "Best you head there quick." Christine took several steadying breaths, trying to slow her heart rate, and not yell irrationally at the mussy man. It was not his fault unholy terror rose in her chest whenever she was surprised. Still, her voice froze in her throat and she knew no good sound would come out. With a nod and a tight smile, she left James on the front stoop and made her short way to the company office.
The LeHigh Coal and Navigation Company offices sat imposingly before the wide river bed, lording its four stories over the railroad station between. The red building was the tallest structure in town, its interworkings the steady heartbeat of every action taken throughout the valley. While American society often perplexed Christine, it was clear to see that any young man looking to advance could be found working within, and every other man without means or connection worked without.
Christine hadn't even grabbed the door handle before she heard Mr. Cummings sauntering down Main Street, three men and a small boy in toe.
"Miss Day," he nodded, his walk barely slowing for his words. He opened the door before them, readying to sweep past Christine entirely.
"Mr. Cummings. You're just the man I was looking for."
Hand placed firmly on the open door, he allowed the rest of the men to pass before him. "What can I do for you Miss Day?"
"I have a letter for Mr. Y and I hoped you would be so kind as to deliver it to him."
"Is the United States Post Office on strike?" he mocked.
C'était une mauvaise idée. "I do not have an address for him. Since you are aquatiu-"
"Sam!" he hollered through the door.
"I was just hoping—"
"Sam," Mr. Cummings asked the small freckled boy who had been walking with the men, "This woman has a letter for your employer. Make sure it gets to him?" And with less than a nod, Mr. Cummings excused himself from her company.
Sam could be no more than eleven or twelve. He was a lanky boy in disheveled clothing, but there was not a spot of dirt on his person. From the way his boots reflected the early morning light, it looked as though he had carefully shined the old things for hours. "You are Miss Daaé. Did I say that right?"
"You did. Much better than anyone else in this town."
"Mr. Y says you have the most beautiful voice. More beautiful than all the angels. You're very pretty." The statements left his mouth as though he was talking to himself. When the boy realized he said them out loud, to her, he blushed scarlet. "I'm sorry, Miss. You have a letter for Mr. Y?"
"I do. Your name is Sam, oui?" He nodded. "Will you make sure Mr. Y gets my letter Sam?" His nod didn't stop and continued on through the train's horn.
"I gotta catch that train, Miss." Releasing her letter into his care, Christine was only half convinced it would find its proper recipient.
Since it was still painfully early in the morning and she had yet to enjoy a cup of coffee and Mol would have her sit in the Opera House until at least mid-day, Christine decided she would enjoy a warm breakfast from the baker and see if his wife had any interesting news from New York since last week.
She should have known the interesting news would be her article in the paper. Did that foolish Frenchman really leave you for the South Pole? Was it true you suffered indignities no proper American woman could imagine? What were those indignities? I can't believe you didn't up and leave for Paris when they brought in a young ingénue!
Sweet Lord, how she longed for a quiet, lonely train ride.
Chapter 4: A Pianist
It was late in the afternoon, just as Christine was nodding off in the middle of another duet, when a man – no more tall than he was round – wandered past her in the auditorium of the Opera House. He must have been lost from the market downstairs. His waxy bowler hat sat askew atop his head, as through it would defy both modern sensibility and gravity in its peaked position. He had to be a tourist. Only someone from a very large city would be caught dead in fashion like his.
He stood before Mol, shooting impatient glances from the stage to her until the end of the number. Christine wondered if the darkness of the room made him look more rosy than normal. Surely the strange purple color that mottled his nose and cheeks had to be a play of the light.
When Mol snapped at him about his business, he presented a letter for her to read. "It's about time. She's back there and hasn't shut up about you in weeks. You won't bother anyone in the upstairs loft." The two knew each other and there was no love lost between them.
The man didn't so much as acknowledge Mol's answer. Instead, he made a brisk turn and sauntered toward Christine, greeting her with a broad smile. "Miss. My name is Herbert Greene. Mr. Y sent me to be your pianist. He is deeply sorry for the delay in my arrival and thanks you for your thoughtful reminder."
Christine beamed at him. If she was truthful with herself, she was smiling more with her own self-pride than with the news Mr. Greene brought. Whatever the politics of this place, Christine's frank request to Mr. Y had garnered her exactly what she had wanted. Well, one request at least.
Following Mr. Greene up a winding set of stairs behind the stage, they arrived at a set of practice room hidden amongst the rafters. "Do you have your music?" he called over his shoulder, fiddling with the lock.
She did not. There had been no reason to before this moment. Mol only allowed her rehearsal time once a day for two songs. The same two songs for the last week. She tightened her hand on the rail, "I'm afraid it wasn't needed before."
"No matter. Sam!" The boy from before materialized behind her. Had he been in the theatre with Mr. Greene the whole time? At the boy's answering holler, Mr. Greene continued, "Go get the Diva's music from Leeran and be quick about it." He turned his attention to the piano sitting in the middle of the room. His fat fingers plucked in octaves at the C keys. "Always perfect," he mumbled to himself. "You can call me Herbert, Miss. While I am not as accomplished at the piano as Mr. Y, I will be a good second. He wishes he could play for you himself, but he is quite busy with the Phantasma."
"I'm sure you will be exactly the person I need." At Christine's smile, he blushed from head to toe. The purple wasn't purple after all, merely freckles kissed brightly red by the sun.
"How 'bout we begin with warm up scales in the minor cord? And then I do have some selections that Mr. Y thought you would find stimulating." He pulled out sheets and sheets of music from his worn leather bag, all of it new, with only minor markings in the margins.
"Which minor cord?"
"Oh, my dear. There is only one." His hands pressed sweetly upon the keys and filled the room with a melancholy harmony. D minor then. In mere moments, Christine imagined she knew much more about the gentle, round man named Herbert Greene than could be gathered in years – a man who's only minor cord, and therefore key, was D. This would be a lovely day.
They broke for lunch two hours after they'd begun. Sam had brought up a light fair of smoked meats and cheeses from the market below and was careful to keep his hands before him the entire time he laid it out. When the boy did not make a move to eat with them, Christine ripped a piece of soft bread from the loaf and handed it to him. "I mustn't eat too much if we will sing again and this food should not go to waste. Eat, Sam."
Herbert, for his part, seemed pleased at Christine's direction, and nodded in agreement when Sam looked to him for confirmation. "He's not normally so polite. We don't want you to get the wrong idea. He eats very well at home."
"I'm sure. Growing boys are always hungry."
"I must say, Miss. Your type of singing will be a remarkable addition to this town. Mr. Y has outdone himself. I don't believe we've had a real opera diva sing here since…well, I don't know when."
"Thank you, Herbert. After listening to the other acts for these last weeks, I was beginning to worry my talents would not be what the audience wants."
"I'll be honest, Miss. It doesn't really matter what the audience wants. It matters what Mr. Y wants and he wants you to sing."
"Will you sing at Phantasma?" Sam asked through a mouthful of sharp cheddar.
"I don't believe so. My engagement is for the Opera House. What is Phantasma like?"
Sam looked eagerly to Herbert again and the man nodded his permission through another bite of bologna roll. That was all Sam needed, "It's like no other place in the world, Miss! There are rides and games, men who perform feats of strength and ladies who sing like mermaids. Mr. Y has mechanical humans and rollercoasters! We even have the electric light throughout all our streets. I can look like daytime in the middle of the night!"
"So, it's more a town than a carnival."
"It's more like a place between," Herbert interjected. "I believe some call it an amusement park."
"It is like Coney Island?"
"I'm not sure what that is."
Before Christine could explain, Sam spoke, "You would love it, Miss! If you come tonight, we could ride the pirate ship and I'd show you the merry go round and we could listen to—well, you might not enjoy Miss Meg's musical numbers, but you could see them anyway. And you can stand on the moon!"
So, something like Coney Island, then.
"Thank you, Sam. That is very thoughtful. Let me think about it. Could we meet Mr. Y?"
The boy's smile faded a bit at the request, and he looked again to Mr. Greene. It was the pianist who answered, "No one really meets Mr. Y. Mr. Y welcomes you to Phantasma." He dusted off his hands and took to standing. "Sam wants to tell you yes, but we all learned a long time ago that we don't make promises concerning Mr. Y. We can promise to take you to him, but we can't promise you'd meet him. Even if you used that lovely voice of yours to draw him out."
They returned to practice, Christine selecting one of Mr. Y's pieces of sheet music for the afternoon. She was not clear on who the composer was, but the piece was in French, a fact she was grateful for. They spent the remainder of the evening perfecting the piece's swelling notes and steep octavos.
Herbert proved a competent pianist and even more competent director. With a type of kindness she was sure she'd never seen before, he would recommend a phrase change or ask her to adjust her pitch. It was refreshing and welcome to her. As though they were equals moving toward a similar goal; not maestro and diva fighting to a finish line. She found that she'd enjoyed this more deeply than any rehearsal before. And for the first time in years, Christine felt her voice tire from practice. A fact that led to a wide smile on her face.
As they made their way down the stairs from the practice room, Herbert asked, "Do you want to join us at Phantasma tonight, Miss?"
"Please call me Christine. And I don't think tonight. I'm rather tired from all our work today."
"But Christine-" Sam began before Herbert chuffed the boy softly at the neck.
"I can call her Christine. She is still Miss Day to you." She tried not to grimace at yet another horrible mispronunciation of her name. He was a nice man. His playing had been very good today. She needed him. The older man smiled. "Of course. I will see you tomorrow morning at eleven o'clock in the practice room. There will be several more times for her to join us on the train."
She smiled at them both and bid them goodnight. Tomorrow she would make sure to let Sam know he could call her Christine. At least, when it was just the two of them. Surely, American informality was sweet in children?
Chapter 5: A Contract
It was two days later that Christine saw Sam again. He sat, with a group of ten other children, in the first pew at St. Mark's Lutheran Church during Sunday service. They were all neatly dressed in light colors as was the fashion and sat remarkably still throughout the long sermon.
Christine found herself lost in looking at the them, with their soft hair and quietly bent heads. Yet another ache rose in her heart: the knowledge that children of her own would forever be lost to her. She stifled the flash of pain as quickly as it rose. She would not wallow in her own pity for God's decisions. She must hold fast that there was a reason.
The children turned in her direction during the Sanctus, her voice easily rising above the other parishioners in the stone chapel. Sam beamed and quickly began whispering amongst his gaggle. When their eyes went wide, she smiled and waved.
It was a stout, cherubic women with wild red hair who hushed them into decorum. Christine attempted a small apology with her smile at the women. She received a knowing nod in return.
After church, and after receiving a warm welcome from the pastor – with a pointed request she sing for the church during the coming Lenten season – Christine found Sam's hand wrapped tightly around hers. "Christine! I want you to meet my friends. They didn't believe I'd met you, but now they do, and I want you to meet them!"
Christine allowed herself to be pulled along the outer courtyard before the church. The air in Mauch Chunk had warmed and she could smell the crisp bite of fall tumbling on the wind.
With all the dramatic flair of a great actor, Sam stopped before his troop, thrust out his hands toward Christine, and said, "See. I do know Miss Daaé. Just like I run special errands for Mr. Y all the time."
"Hello," Christine smiled warmly.
"Are you really French?" "You sang so pretty in church!" The troop began and the chorus continued, "Do you think she can really hold a note as long as the river?" "I bet she has hundreds of pretty dresses." "She is so pretty," a small boy blushed a furious red; he'd clearly not meant to say his statement out loud.
"Well thank you all. And what are your names?"
"Late for lunch," the red-haired woman spoke. "We best get back before all the food is gone."
"And where is that?"
"The Phantasma. Do you want to come with us, Miss? There is always enough food to share." At the woman's careful gaze, Christine decided to decline. It would be best another day. She must practice, after all.
"See you tomorrow, Miss!" Sam hollered as they began their walk toward the train station. It was all Christine could do not to holler back at him see you soon.
The knock at her door came before sunup, loud and curt. Christine shot up in bed at the noise, her hands struggling to find purchase. She squinted in the near darkness. For a moment, she swore she was back in the opera dormitories and Madame Giry was conducting a dreaded bed check. She fumbled with the gas lamp as another round of knocking began.
"One moment." Christine's toes curled at the cold wood floors. The fire had long since died in the hearth. She tightened her wrap around her firmly, twisting the ties in her hands as she opened the door.
"Christine Day?" A tall man, all legs, with a tall brimmed hat, a small nick notched into its sad brown trim, stared back at her.
"And you are?"
"I'm sorry Miss. My name is John Sellars. I am one of Mr. Y's lawyers. I'm looking for Christine Day. I believe that is you."
"Christine Daaé." She corrected.
"Ah. Sorry. French." He had the grace to adjust his hat slightly. "I do apologize for the early hour. Mr. Y was explicit I see you first thing this morning and I took the last train out of New York last night." Christine did not move to welcome the man into her room. At the pause, he lowered his voice and pulled out a heavy business card, "It would be best if we spoke in private."
The law firm written on the card was one Christine recognized. She recalled that one of the senior partners had attended the opera often, the ballerinas always eager to meet him and his gentlemen friends after a show. Though improper, Christine nodded and let him in, asking if he would be so kind as to start the fire in the room.
"Would you like me to give you some privacy to change?"
"You believe your information is very important. If it could not wait until sunrise, it should not wait for house clothes." Mr. Sellars had the grace to show an apologetic smile.
He made quick work of the fire and sat down before her in the other armchair. "Mr. Y has become aware that you have broke from your previous management. Is that correct?" She nodded uncomfortably. No turning back now. "In this event, Mr. Y would like to request a new contract with your new management; however, he also believes you currently do not have any representation." She nodded again. "Do you have anyone that would be able to review the terms of the contract for you?" He meant a man. Did she have a man to review the terms of her contract.
"I do not. But I am fully capable of reviewing it myself."
"Mr. Y also stated as much. In these types of atypical matters, he sends me. To help." Mr. Sellars pulled out a pile of papers, neatly tied together.
"Do these matters happen often?" It would be alarming if Mr. Y aided hopeless ingénues frequently.
Catching her meaning, Mr. Sellars clarified, "Atypical. Meaning they require…sensitivity." When Christine's demeanor didn't change, he continued, "I am socialist and approve of female suffrage. Mr. Y finds that my morals align most often with his atypical legal needs."
Well. How very modern of a rich man. "Which would explain why you discard etiquette so early in the morning."
He blushed, "Mostly." He cleared his throat, ruffling through the bag on his lap to pull out two folios of paper. "Would you like to review this, and we can talk in a few hours? I have also brought a copy of your previous contract with Rousseau and Chagny to compare." Christine sat dumbfounded before the man, surprise clear on her face. He smiled and rose to place the documents on her writing desk. "I will leave these here and look forward to meeting with you later today. I would like a few hours of sleep."
What a peculiar man.
She finally woke from her stupor when he walked toward the door, "Yes. Of course." She couldn't help but ask, "My former managers…"
"Mr. Y has taken care of it. You have no need to fear their repercussions as long as you sign the new contract."
"How has he taken care of it?"
"He formalized the dissolution of his contract with them, as well as yours. Contingent upon your contract with him. You will find that Mr. Y often gets whatever he wants. He wants you at Phantasma and you wanted free of your other management. A sound decision, given the old contract I reviewed. Enjoy the freedom he provides, Miss. It is rare in rich men."
"That is…" She stumbled to find her words, "What type of man is Mr. Y?"
"I've never really met him Miss Daaé, but I suspect – if the terms in that contract are any indication, he is a generous man beyond measure." He turned the doorknob and bowed slightly. It was an old-world gesture Christine missed. "I'll ask the hotel to bring you up some coffee and breakfast."
He left at her nod, clearly ready to find his own bed.
One thing Christine was sure of – her new contract with Mr. Y was far simpler than the one she had with Andre Rousseau. Pages and pages of vitriol had been removed, much of it she could not understand at all. Her English was passible, but there were large passages she could not decipher, and suspected this must be why the lawyer was here.
Mr. Y's contract on the other hand, was understandable and short: her commitment to his Opera House would be for no less than six months, with an option to continue on indefinitely; she would receive seven percent of all ticket sales on Friday and Saturday nights; two percent on other evenings she sang, to be determined by her no less than two months in advance; in addition, should she sing at Phantasma one day a month, she would receive an additional stipend of twenty-five dollars on top of her twenty-five for her residency; and finally, Mr. Y would pay for her room and board at the hotel for as long as she required its services during the contract. Should she sign the contract today, she would receive an additional fifty-dollar bonus. Should she leave before the end of her residency, she would owe Mr. Y all future moneys expected for the duration left.
Mr. Sellars had been right. Mr. Y's contract was more than generous. In New York she had been a principle diva at the Broadway Opera House. A minor house, to be sure, but still well-attended and known. Her monthly salary had been ten dollars, though she believe Raoul was taking a cut of ticket sales on her behalf. Mr. Y was offering her a fortune and he wasn't even demanding she sing a full opera, just a few selections two nights a week. It was impossible.
A shiver ran deep through her bones. The impossible had been a steady companion in her life since childhood and it had always been a fickle and failing friend. This was too good to be true. It could not be true. Her stomach fell and her face flushed deep. Something about this must be wrong. Men were never generous for no reason. Never. It was not in their nature.
Her mind, unbidden, turned to her lost fiancé. Raoul had been generous: generous in saving her from a poor madman, generous in whisking her away to England and then America when society's whispers had become too much, generous in giving her time during their engagement, and very generous in how he'd left her alone in another small opera house – an ocean and world away from everything she knew. Generous in his shame. Bitter tears threatened to shed from her eyes. She would not let them fall. She'd promised herself she would never cry over him again.
Six months was a manageable engagement. Her employer didn't wish to meet with her and by all accounts, would not in the future. The point, however, that convinced her to agree was simple: she would not allow Rousseau and Chagny to take any more money from her and she could not do that if she did not sign the new contract with Mr. Y.
She wouldn't wait for the lawyer. Christine signed her name on both copies of her new contract with a flourish and dressed for the day. At the lobby she left one copy, sealed in the packaging it had been given in, with a note for Mr. Sellars – The document is enclosed. The trains for Phantasma leave on the hour. Please let Mr. Y know he has my thanks.
As she exited into the now certainly winter wind, Christine felt lighter than she had in years. Her curls twisted in the air behind her. The heals of her shoes clicked on the pavement, crunching fallen leaves underfoot. She could hear the heavy rush of the river at her back. A melody escaped her lips. Soft, at first, but with more voice as she continued. It had been so long since she'd sung the sweet Swedish lullaby, she was surprised she remembered the words. They floated above her like birds on the wind. How proud her father would be of her today, she thought, a self-sufficient woman in the world.
Chapter 6: An E with Accent Aigu
The next few days fell into place as though they had been written by an optimistic novelist. She rehearsed all day, ventured about town in the early evening, and waited expectantly for her opening night. The other acts had even become friendlier toward her. Well, some of them, at least. And Christine found she might actually be making some friends for the first time in a long time.
Friends or otherwise, the conversations inescapably turned to Phantasma and its glow upriver. Had Christine gone? Did she enjoy the rides? Had she heard Phantasma's bathing beauty sing? Had she even been through a hall of mirrors before? All answers were no.
When she asked about their performances at Phantasma, the other acts would regale her with descriptions of wild feats in a large, open-air amphitheater where Mr. Y had rigged special electric lights and phonograph pavilions throughout to create a singular experience. The Spectacular, they called it.
Many were excited for the new 'proper' theater in the park. The one Mr. Y had begun construction on no more than a year ago. It was almost ready for its own opening night. They recounted tales of mysterious shipments and expensive velvets making their away from the commercial rail lines to Mr. Y's private ones and then into the new structure, intrigued and envious of the blatant finery.
Christine knew inevitably she would have to take the Spring Song upriver. It was in her contract after all, but she declined every offer to go and had little desire to make the journey unless she had to. There was something lovely about the mystery of the place. Everyone spoke so fondly or excitedly or fantastically about the Phantasma. She was certain it would never live up to her expectations now.
It was on her third day since meeting with Mr. Y's lawyer that Christine woke with an eerie feeling. Not for anything in particular, but that something was slightly off. Like she'd woken up wrong after falling sleep too late. She arrived early to rehearse, tripping up the stairs; Herbert was late – he'd missed the first train from Phantasma; her notes were clogged in her throat; the water was warm at lunch; and Mol had complimented her.
She accepted Mary Packer Cummings' invitation to an early dinner – just the two of them at the hotel – hopeful a change in company would help. Mary did indeed provide a polite distraction from the day, with sweet conversation about warm places she had once traveled to. She longed to see the Alhambra again, and regaled Christine with fine details of Venetian architecture.
Christine was grateful for the conversation and supplied her own tails of Swedish seasides, German palaces, and Paris life. Mary seemed just as delighted. By the time they finished dessert, all strangeness of the day had been forgotten and the sun had only just begun to sink below the mountain line.
The fire in her room had been already lit when she entered through the door and the warm glow bathed her in golden light. She unpinned her hair from atop her head and gathered it at her nape, absently twisting her purple clip to secure it.
Tonight would be devoted to reviewing the new pieces Hebert had given her. Requests from Mr. Y. Hybrid songs, Herbert had call them – something like an aria, but not. Something soaring, but with less power from her diaphragm. A new vocal challenge. She began softly humming the melody of one before her.
Her voice came easier than this morning, warmed from good conversation and better cognac. She slid into the chair by the fire, repeating a complicated trill.
It was not the melody, exactly, or the words, or even the imagined accompaniment, but the combination of all three which reminded her of the dead Opera Ghost. While music always brought fleeting thoughts of him, there had been rare occurrences where Christine swore she could feel him again beside her. It was as though, in those moments, the music itself embodied his very soul. When these hauntings came, loneliness and loss engulfed her.
There had never been a proper goodbye.
She'd not even been able to weep at his grave. She could not sing him away to his next life. Instead, she was forced to hold her tears and requiem until she was alone in her darkened room, wings away from her ardent fiancé. He'd been astonished at her request to attend the funeral and made his irritation to be out in the wintery cold, amongst no one but the Girys and a singular man, known. What a good fiancé he'd been – indulging her request.
He made sure to tell her so. Several times. And allowed her the freedom to retreat to her rooms before their friends arrived that same evening. She was clearly in no fit state to dazzle them.
Raoul could never understand what bound her to the Phantom. He could never understand that in those final moments, when she'd decided to stay by the maestro's side, she'd meant her actions; he could never understand that the Phantom of the Opera had been her love – passionate and intense in his own way.
For good or for ill, his soul had called to hers in the underground of the opera house and bound her to him with his voice. The tether was immutable, inescapable. Only now did she realize what the music had done to her in her youth. After all these years, it still called her to him intangibly, vibrating through her being. She felt him now in the music - a spirit beside her. But tonight, the sprit felt different.
The new music from Mr. Y soothed her loneliness in a way other pieces had not. It made her feel less lost in the abyss of his absence. It made her want to know this new composer – with European sentiments in the middle of the rugged wilderness. She would have to write another letter begging his indulgence. Perhaps Herbert would know who wrote the scores.
Christine did not hear the knock at her door when it first occurred. It was the steady cadence of it that made her turn and rise. She hadn't requested anything. Sam's ruddy, welcoming face smiled back at her when she opened it, and she couldn't help but smile back at the boy. "Hello, Sam."
"Hello, Miss. I have a letter for you." His hand presented it with a flourish, as a solider would present a missive of great importance to his general. His seriousness amused Christine. She took the envelope from him, noting its strange, lopsided weight.
Her name was not on the outside of the envelope. The seal was a deep, blood red marked with a very vertical and sharp "Y" at its center. She snapped it in half, as one would do in her childhood, and lifted the flap, turning the whole thing over in the process. A small piece of metal fell into her hand – an e with accent aigu.
Her smile deepened. "Mr. Y wanted you to know he was sorry the type did not come sooner. This is your copy. He already sent one to the newspaper this morning. They take a while to make." Christine was only half listening. There was a note still in the envelope; curiosity burned within her to read it. It was written on the back of blank sheet music.
Forever your servant.
The writing was in red ink, cast in his unforgettable tight slope. At first she froze, stunned. It couldn't possibly be. It was the sharp "s" that set Christine's heart to racing in her chest, her breath struggling in short gasps. It was the same "s" he has used in her name throughout the folio for Don Juan Triumphant. The words before her jumbled as a tremor coursed through her body.
He was alive?
He was alive.
Her whole world shifted irrevocably.
Her pha– The phantom was alive. And thriving. And sending her notes and music and contracts again. Emotions swirled inside Christine – fear, astonishment, denial, and other more complicated feelings she refused to put names too. He was alive and that meant he was man again. A man capable of the most beautiful and horrible actions.
Did Raoul know he'd sold her to the Phantom of the Opera? How long had her ghostly maestro known she was in America? How long had he been planning his capture of her? Because surely, he wanted her.
And she wanted that.
And yet did not want that.
Her conversations with the other acts nagged in her mind. A new theater. Nearly ready after construction began less than a year ago. A whole year. Cursing heaven at her own foolishness for walking into his trap, she crumpled his note in her hands.
Anger provoked her action. He had done such cruel things. She had to see for herself. It was unbelievable. It was wildly impossible.
"Christine?" Sam asked.
She did not feel the chill as she exited the hotel and made the short walk to the train station. The Bluebell sat on its track, the horn already bellowing a planned departure. She sat facing the glow of Phantasma's lights in the open-air coach. Her mind raced. Her sorry madman was alive. Her angel of music has returned to her. He'd known. He'd planned. She'd signed a contract to sing for him again. She signed his contract. She'd signed her soul to him. She was bound to him again.
Foolish woman! Ten years gone by and still she could not see the danger before her. It had been too good to be true. Everything always had been.
Like sin – unbidden, unwanted – the memory of his kiss seared her worried lips. Hundreds of kisses had occurred between that time and this and still nothing compared to his tenderness, his desperate, restrained passion. Nothing made her body and heart ache like the memory of that kiss. Her desire to return to his side overpowered her and twisted her stomach in shame.
The train lurched forward, beginning its trek to Phantasma. "Miss! Miss! You must be cold!" Sam draped Christine's coat over her shoulders and sat down beside her. She shook her head out of dangerous thoughts best left buried and looked to the boy. He was concerned for her. She could see it in his eyes. Concerned and confused.
"I need to see Mr. Y tonight. It is very important." She wished her voice hadn't cracked.
"He doesn't like visitors, Miss."
"He will see me." She took Sam's hands, "I am not a visitor. I am an old friend." The boy nodded, careful not to startle her anymore in her state.
'God give me courage.' Christine's breath fanned across his face – her poor, tortured angel's face – in a ghostly whisper. It was monstrous in the shadowed light. Tears fell from his eyes to the dirty cloth of his evening jacket. It had always been so pristine before. Now it was as ruined and torn as the pain behind his eyes. Those eyes pleaded with her for mercy, begged for her pity if it would bring with it her love. In his own, monstrous and passionate way he loved her.
She did not doubt him when he said he loved her more than himself. She did not doubt him when his demands showed her a man that loved beyond all reason.
'Make your choice,' he ordered.
There was no choice to make. She had been denied her choice before Don Juan opened. She had begged to flee, and her voice had fallen on deaf ears. Now, the man who had taken that choice from her hung from a rope, his feet barely brushing the floor. She loved him in his bravery, but wished he'd been less foolish.
And her dreadful fallen angel: whom she did love for all his wild creativity and strange, cold innocence, required a choice from her which stripped her of her voice again. Choosing him meant saving Raoul. The Phantom would never believe she would choose him separate of this fact. He did not trust her to love him alone. And truly, he'd given her very little reason to.
Her blood roared in her ears as her hands rose to his face, making her non-existent choice. Her fingers glided along his rough jaw upward, careful to brush them above the distorted flesh of his right cheek. He was so cold.
She searched his face for understanding, but found the same desperate stare as before. Careful to move slowly, she pulled him down to her and brought her lips to rest upon his. The world shifted underneath her. The shape of his lips was strange, bulbous and uneven, but soft and warm. His body froze under her hands and the wildness of before seemed to melt from him. For all the passion bound up in this man, he had no idea how to take his pleasure. Christine nipped lightly at his lower lip and pulled away.
The Phantom's eyes glistened with wonder and unshed tears. She dimly heard Raoul yelling behind her, yet she could not make out his words. An inexplicable type of hunger tingled on her lips and she pulled her angel to her once more. This time, his arms came around her and crushed her to him. Christine's head spun as the Phantom returned her kiss, devouring her lips and sparking a treacherous desire deep in her body.
He ripped himself away from her, a broken sob escaping as he turned. Christine struggled to find her footing, throwing her hands wide for balance. She didn't realize he'd spoken until he turned and yelled again – 'Go now! Go now and leave me!'
Raoul rushed, grabbing her by the arms and pulling her away.
Later he would tell people Christine's actions had been a heroic display of female sympathy; that afterword she had been in shock for weeks. He wasn't wrong. He was simply wrong about the cause. One moment she had been in her angel's arms, worshiped despite the situation, and the next he'd rejected her. She'd done what he asked, and he'd sent her away.
She had been right. Her choice was no choice at all.
By the time the Bluebell slowed, Christine was seething in rage. How dare he. How dare he lie to her like this. How dare he leave her, feign death, and curse her to ten years of guilt and sorrow. That selfish, monstrous man! No one had listened last time and by God they would listen this time. He still loved her voice? Well then, he would damn well hear it. She would make him listen; she would make him hear.
The glow of Phantasma transformed into the brightness of day before her. There were thousands upon thousands of electric light bulbs affixed to every building and walkway, illuminating strange patterns in the low night sky. And there must have been as many people as bulbs buzzing about under them. Hundreds and hundreds of people, laughing and running to get closer to the strange contraptions and entertainers.
Old and young alike jostled through the main entrance: a grotesque, malformed mask as smooth as porcelain. If she had any doubt who this place belonged to before, she did not now. A shiver burned through her spine, settling in her stomach. Bawdy, loud music filled her senses. It reverberated through her from her head to her toes.
"They're just rides, Miss." Sam advised when he saw her head quirk to the side. A man was swirling fire about himself, trails of smoke leaving lovely patterns in the fire's wake. Children hollered from a swinging ship across from him, parents looking on with glittering smiles. Sam pointed to the only contraption Christine recognized, "That's the carousel. You'll like that one. Do you want to try it?"
"Not now. Let's find Mr. Y." She was thankful for Sam's hand in hers as they traveled deeper into the carnival-city. Without it, she would have lost herself in the panorama of flashing light and darkness. The lane they traveled down sat between entrances to other attractions. Some Sam called performances, some he called rides. This area was for children, he specified with a flourish of his arms. The real fun stuff was for adults up ahead. Just beyond the coliseum of the Spectacular.
Let your mind start a journey to a strange new world. Christine couldn't help remembering the Phantom's impassioned words in her mind. It did not surprise her that the farther they walked, the deeper into the strange and strangely beautiful they would go. Was that not the definition of the Phantom's mind?
When Sam slowed his steps, Christine realized the world had become darker around her. There were less bulbs and fewer rides. Music played from hidden places, lonesome and melodic. They passed through yards and yards of sheer red fabric ruched so close together you could not see through it. "Stop right there, my boy." Christine's eyes went wide. A tall man – impossibility tall – stood before her with a much, much smaller woman on his shoulders.
"You're not supposed to be here Sam," the small woman glared at them both. "You know Mr. Y's rules." The three continued talking, but Christine could not hear them. The spot between her shoulder blades began to tingle, the touch ghosting to rest at the nape of her neck.
Such graceful haunting of her skin, used in the past to calm her, released the gaping despair she kept a despotic hold of. in the wake of it, she couldn't breathe. He was here. He was watching.
She rolled her shoulders, desperate to scrub the feeling of his transparent touch from her body. She gasped when she heard her name. Both the impossibly tall man and the very little woman gaped at her face, eyes wide and mouths open.
She cleared her throat and looked to the woman, "I would like to see Mr. Y. Will you take me to him?" The woman tilted her head to the side. He was whispering to her. Bitter and sudden jealousy constricted Christine's throat. It was a white-hot emotion she refused to dwell on longer than it took to use.
Leveling her hard gaze and the woman, Christine's voice turned cold, "Perhaps my request was not clear. If Mr. Y will not see me, then I demand to see the Phantom of the Opera. Immediately."
Chapter 7: An Interruption
The building and subsequent second floor room was sumptuous in its refinement. The little lady – Fleck she'd clarified – led Christine into the space with little formality and stayed only long enough to ensure Christine did not touch anything.
The hardwood floors had been laid in an intricate, woven diamond pattern. The walls were wallpapered a deep burgundy, and several large landscape paintings hung overtop in thick golden frames. A grand piano rested in the far corner before a set of double doors, covered in reams and reams of music. A desk sat near it, organized chaos upon it. Other instruments were discarded thoughtlessly about the room.
Christine walked toward the small sitting area by a marble fireplace. The fine ivy design on the rug looked familiar to the one that had been on her apartment floor in the Palais Garnier. She nearly lost herself in the pattern.
There were no switches for electric lights, and as she roamed the room again, she realized candles were strewn everywhere. Much had changed for her phantom, but his preference for candlelight seemed unabated.
He was determined to make her wait for him. The more the minutes passed, the more her anger ebbed away to nervousness. She twisted her hands before her.
At a loss for any other action, Christine went to the piano and sat down. The Phantom's familiar scrawl filled pages and pages of music in red ink. His most current work sat on the upturned rack, merely a melody with words below in English. It was much like the piece Herbert had given her – an aria, but not an aria. "And you once said, I wish you dead. You sinner. I'll never be more than a wolf at your door, for dinner."
A whisper of wind disturbed a lock of Christine's hair, fallen loose from her low bun. She looked up when it tickled her neck, still lost in the music's melody. She jumped at the movement in her periphery.
It was him. Still as darkness. How long he'd been standing there, she could not say. Her Phantom stood before her, holding the balcony doors open in his hands. She smirked to herself. As if there would be any other way he would come to her.
He was still all angles, sharp and fine; his unforgettable porcelain mask the only bit of soft edge to be seen. And while he was still impossibly tall, he did not seem as imposing as he did when she was younger. Perhaps it was the loss of his fine evening wear and black cape. Perhaps the glow of the candles softened the edges of his white mask. A long overcoat hugged his body, accentuating the razor slimness of his waist. He looked almost frail.
But then Christine's eyes met his, and her breath caught in her lungs. Those mismatched eyes glowed with their own fire from within – so familiar and wild and hungry. All at once his presence seemed to completely fill the space. She was crowded in; she could feel him all about her, seeping in through her skin.
"You voice is even more beautiful than I remember."
A violent shiver stole through her. Christine had not known the depths of her longing for the deep timber of his voice until he'd spoken. Speak again, her mind begged, her parched state drying to an unabatable thirst. When he did not, she woke herself from her own perverse want and rose to stand next to the piano.
"Why would you need to remember? I'm sure you've heard me sing every day since I arrived." He smirked at her, but made no indication of moving from the doorway. "You played for me that first day of rehearsal. Didn't you?" The pause was painfully uncomfortable.
He moved from the balcony into the room, careful not to startle her. "I was informed that you wished to meet with me. As my note stated earlier, I am forever your servant. Anything you ask of me, I will do. What can I do for you, Mademoiselle?"
"You are Mr. Y, then."
"And you did not die in Paris." Her throat felt like she'd eaten sand.
His tone was gentle, cautious, "Contrary to my former moniker, I am not a specter before you. No, I did not die in Paris." Hurt she'd buried deep within her bubbled up to her chest. He was mad, certainly, but the belief that his brilliant mind had been lost to her world—this world—forever had ate at her these last ten years. She let herself feel it now. Now that she knew it was a lie; now that she saw him before her and she would not get lost in the sorrow. Pain pressed heavy on her chest and her lungs struggled for breath.
"Why?" He did not answer, and Christine did not know if she was asking why he wasn't dead, or why he wanted her to believe he had been. "I've spent years…" tears threatened to fill her eyes. This was not what she'd come to say, was it? "I've spent years mourning you and here you've been free. Living well. Living." Envy dripped from her words.
His throat worked as he struggled to remain collected, "I would hardly call what I am doing living. And come now, Mademoiselle. Years mourning me? Why? What loss did I impart on your heart? Surely the lovely Vicomte was more than able to fill such small holes."
Words, voluminous and vulgar clawed at her throat, they urged her feet forward toward him, but would not rise as any reasonable sentence in her mind. He did not know, or could not imagine, what feelings twisted and writhed inside her. Anger rose first. Christine's hands desperately wanted something to strangle. Instead, one whipped out violently across his bare cheek. When her heated eyes met his defiant ones, only one word could she utter, "No."
His Adam's apple bobbed heavily in his throat. She did not wait for his response. She could not stand in this room any longer. She had to move. Damn him. And damn this whole world he'd created without her.
Christine turned from him and walked out the door.
He followed her on the dark wooded path back toward the bright lights of the park. She could hear his overcoat brushing the low foliage, his steps, ever graceful, were silent. She quickened her pace. His strong, thin fingers reached out and groped her arm tight, twirling her back before him. "We are not done speaking."
She couldn't help her words, "The last thing you ever wanted from me was to speak." Again, he did not reply, but held his body closer to her, menacing over her so she had to look up to his face. "Fine. If we're not done speaking, what would you like to say?" Her Phantom looked down at his hand on her arm, staring at the movement of his thumb rubbing softly back and forth. Christine clung to her anger and flinched in his grip, now was not the time to get lost in that small touch.
He released her and directed her back toward the building. When she did not move, he clarified, "I should think we would like to have this discussion where there will be no prying ears, or eyes."
Christine gulped a deep breath of the cold air and nodded in agreement. Though she couldn't fathom who would listen in the woods. Did not wait for him to lead her back to his home. When his hand touched her shoulder, she stopped and looked back, eyebrows upturned in his direction. She was not ready for the hungry look of longing on his face. Utterly self-conscious, as though she'd intruded into a private moment, Christine turned and focused all her attention on moving forward, the Phantom close behind.
They'd bared taken a handful of steps before she heard voices in the distance, bawdy and loud. Her phantom crowded behind her, muttering a curse under his breath. "Who is—" his icy hand covered over her mouth and did not release her until they were in the dark foyer of his home. She stared at him with astonished eyes. "Forgive me, they cannot know you are here," he breathed, and pushed her into a small, dark closet. "Stay here." The voices were much closer now. Mr. Y rested a single finger at his lips. Silence.
He wanted her to hide. He closed the door before her, blocking out all the light.
"So shy tonight Mr. Y! You must celebrate with us! My little Meggie was a triumph!" The man was drunk, clearly. Muffled cheers went up after his voice, indicating at least two or three more in his party. His fist banged loudly on the door. "Why is it always so damn dark around here?"
Her phantom made his way down the stairs with lead feet. A faint smile traced Christine's lips. That was very unlike her cat-like Phantom. He opened the front door slowly. "Mr. Cummings. What can I do for you?" His voice held no kindness in it.
"You were not at Meggie's performance."
"I'm often absent from the Spectacular. I'm sure Miss Giry was splendid as always." Meg! Meggie Gray was Meg? Damn Americans and their horrible accents!
"But you didn't see it. Here. I brought her so she can sing for you. So you can see it."
"Porter, please." Meg begged softly. "Mr. Y is very busy." It was the unremarkable man from the Cummings'. The brother. The one who'd spoken throughout dinner with his mouth full in an uncharacteristically monotone way. The one who'd looked so sullen when the singer did not show up, when Meg had not shown up.
"Nope. Tonight, you sing." He crossed into the foyer, his voice coming closer, "What would he be busy with anyway? Entertaining a lady?" He bellowed a good, long laugh at his own statement. The men with him joining in. When his humor subsided, he hushed, "Or are you entertaining that new little songbird from New York? The one with the warm smile but fish-dead eyes? Is she up in your room –"
"—in her skivvies? I thought the Parisians value appearances."
"Mr. Cummings," the Phantom leveled the full force of his displeasure at the man, "that is abhorrent conversation in front of Miss Giry, and you will not insult the reputation of Miss Daaé. As you've said Parisians value appearances." Christine found it hard to silence her breathing. The room suddenly bloomed thick with tension.
"You'll love her new song!" Mr. Cummings roared, ignoring the turn in conversation, and made his way up the stairs.
"Porter, he wrote it," Meg muttered. Their words faded through the doors above and soon all Christine could hear was a faint piano accompaniment through the floorboards.
As the song entered its second refrain, Christine quietly opened the closet door and ghosted from her hiding place. There was no reason to say any longer. She stole a long coat from the closet, hers lying somewhere near the kitchen of the house, and wrapped herself in it, the smell of amber and forest filling her nose.
Though it was much darker in the night than before, she found her way back to the lights and frivolity of Phantasma easily. The crowds were smaller, but more rancorous. She kept to the edges of the doorways and pulled the coat tight at her chest.
She stopped before a store front window at the center of Phantasma's main street. Bright gold lettering obscured her view inside. The Siren's Song, it read. The entire window looked as though it was underwater, tall green grasses and vibrant coral swaying gently in the unseen current. The closer Christine leaned, the clearer the object behind the glass formed a mermaid's tail. It shimmered blue and silver as it swayed in the light.
Christine pressed her nose against the glass, squinting to see more clearly. A pale face rushed out to meet her. Christine's own eyes grew wide as she fell back startled. The creature's features were sharp and fine, the peaks of her cheeks and brows nearly translucent, like glass. It followed her, mirroring her movements with an eerie elegance.
Christine could not look away from the creature's large brown eyes. She could not possible be real. Could she? The eyes looked so familiar…
"Mr. Y's automatons are really amazing, huh?" She jumped at Sam's question. "He calls this one his sea angel."
"Automaton? She looks real."
"That's the whole point."
"So they are machines?" The creature still followed Christine's movements, her hands touching the glass with their own curiosity. Somehow the fact that she was mechanical made her all the more eerie.
"How many does Mr. Y have?"
"In all Phantasma? Lots."
"Do they all have such expressive eyes?" She looked so lovely, but so very sad.
Sam struggled with her word. "They all have brown eyes."
He shrugged. "I asked him once. He said it's because all angels have brown eyes."
The Ferris Wheel lights flashed against the glass, casting clear light on the mermaid's face before going dark again. Brown eyes and brown hair still slightly curled in the water. She looked like Christine. Younger, but the fleeting resemblance was undeniable. The eyes looked familiar because they were hers.
"Christine, can I take you home?"
Sam took her hand and led her away, expertly weaving through the drunken crowds toward the station. The mermaid's eyes and the Phantom's voice would haunt her tonight. She was sure.
Chapter 8: A Bargain
"I hear you have this strange notion you can get ready for a performance without any mirrors." Herbert's fingers danced along the keys as he prepared them for morning practice. Christine shot him a wary glance. "You know, women often prefer to look at themselves before entertaining a roomful of scrutiny."
Women often don't have old admirers who prefer to gaze upon them through mirrors.
"Thank you, Herbert, but I'll be just fine tonight. With or without a mirror to prepare."
"Suit yourself." He began the introduction to her first piece. "I do have to thank you though. Mol was so vexed at your demand she just about fell over. Making her move that big mirror from the dressing room was the best request I've ever seen. Blood to the head, you know. It was personally very satisfying to watch."
"I'm glad I could provide such entertainment."
Christine dug her hands deeper into the pockets of the overcoat she'd taken from Phantasma. The small mountain town had become painfully cold over the last few days and the garment was the only thing that seemed to keep out the chill. Particularly in the practice rooms, where the small stove in the corner did nothing to cull the cool air.
Again this morning she'd woke thinking warm arms were tight around her, a welcome reprieve from the constant cold. She was wrong, of course. No arms wrapped her. She'd merely kept the coat from him on again and fallen asleep.
It was a perverse attachment. Perhaps because she did not drown in it, as with other men's clothing. Or perhaps it was the reminder that she did work for the Phantom of the Opera. Or the smell and feel of the garment soothed her.
The soft irradiance of the embroidery reminded her of peacock feathers. She straightened the deep navy lapels with her fingers. Herbert's playing became louder, his subtle way of telling her she had missed her que. She bid him begin again, an apology clear in her eyes.
But Herbert did not begin again. Instead, he rose from his seat with a start and…bowed?
"I thought I could play for Miss Daaé today." Christine's entire body fissured with the sudden rush of her heart. She spun on her heel to see Mr. Y in the doorway. "Thank you, Herbert, but your services will not be needed this morning." The man left looking rather spooked, only fancying a slight nod at Christine, grabbing Sam with one hand, and placing a small pocket mirror at the piano as he left.
When their footsteps faded on the stairs, Christine spoke, "I believe you unnerved my kind pianist."
"Did I? I didn't notice." A small grin stole across his lips. It looked good on him – a grin. Christine couldn't help but mimic the action in her nervousness.
"Do you unnerve all your employees so?"
He made his way to the piano, setting down her coat in his hands and unclasping his black gloves. "It is useful for some. Maddening in others. I do like your coat Miss Daaé. Has it kept you warm?"
She blushed. She couldn't help it. And as her face heated, his eyes went from teasing to searching. That was the look in his eyes she remembered.
"Why should I let you play for me?" Whenever there was music between them, the Phantom grew his strange power over her until she was unable to resist his demands. Such past control still gnawed at Christine in the dark places of her mind. She longed to create the ethereal sounds he could pull from her in those moments, but never again could she give him such unnatural control. It would corrupt her utterly.
He sat before the keys and spoke, "I am unable to come to your opening here." He gestured to the mask covering half his face. Black today. Something new. "I thought—I hoped, I could be of use to you. I realize you have no reason to trust me."
Before he could press a key, she closed the distance and dropped the lid. "You're right. I don't." That statement was truer after speaking it aloud. She did not trust him, and that inability warred with other emotions she could not control and would not name. How desperately she wanted him to challenge her voice, to hear her and offer critique. In this, she unequivocally trusted his judgement.
"Do you want to end your contract?"
Her mind stalled at his question.
It was a natural one. Now that she knew he was her employer, she should wish to separate herself from the situation. Had he asked her two nights ago, she would have said yes, her hurt and astonishment clouding her judgement. But now? Her furious passion at discovering he was Mr. Y had cooled, and while she was sure Sam kept him informed of her comings and goings, the oppressive possession of the past did not seem to drive his actions now.
But this all mattered little. In truth, she had nowhere else to go. Familiar fears were better than unknown ones – wasn't that how the saying went? There was her answer: "No." Her Phantom nodded to himself and tension eased from his body. She had to ask him, "Surely you knew I would come when you wrote that note."
"I don't know what I thought."
"Your handwriting is rather unforgettable, Monsieur." He looked away from her then, his fingers taping a melody on the lid.
"As is your disfavor for playing Persephone, Mademoiselle." So he'd assumed she would not travel again to his domain. "What must I do to have you stay?"
"Did I not just say I would stay?"
"Like Faust, I am more comfortable when there is a bargain."
"We have a bargain. Should you not be demanding I bind myself to the contact I signed?"
His eyes flashed to hers, "I am trying to be better than before. The odds are high, however, our conversation will deteriorate to that quite quick. I've always had very little sense around you."
"Am I what? Out of sense?"
"Trying to be better?"
"Where you are concerned, yes."
"If you really believed I would leave, you wouldn't be this calm." He said nothing. His silence confirmed her suspicions. He knew he had the better hand. He was just being kind. A bitter thought rose within her, "Or your infatuation with me has ebbed." His jaw worked, yet he said nothing. "You have done evil things."
"Yes. And they haunt me."
Christine wondered if that was true.
She took a deep breath, "The terms of my contract where quite generous. I will stay. With only a few additional conditions." Squaring her shoulders, she held his gaze, "No hypnosis. No manipulations. No spying. If you impose upon me your will or your person I will leave and owe you nothing."
With the morning light at his back, his face looked as pale white as porcelain, the cut of his cheek bone sharp and hollow. His eyes, which had always held such an unnerving luminescence from within, only looked like a man's eyes, mismatched in color though they were. His Adam's apple bobbed in his throat. "Agreed."
Swooping his arm behind him, he adjusted himself on the seat and opened the keyboard lid.
"I have one more term for our bargain." His fingers hovered over the keys. "I want your name. Your Christian name."
"That is not technically a term."
"Fine. I wish to call you by your Christian name for the duration of our contract."
"Names have power."
"Yes. They do."
He pressed the first cord of Rossini's Tancredi aria without releasing her gaze. Of course he would acquiesce. Had he ever denied her? Only once. "Erik. My name is Erik."
Christine's fingers absently brushed over the gilded spines of Mauch Chunk Library's poetry collection. With very few friends and Winter coming on, she found the building full of books a welcome, albeit quiet, friend.
Normally her thoughts would be occupied with the textual challenge before her. English was an impossible language in written form. Poetry, in particular, proved rousing practice. Today, however, a single word overpowered all her thoughts.
Erik. He'd give her a name and it was Erik. Enteral ruler. True king. The lunacy of the name's meaning was not lost on her. What irony. It fit him, though.
His name was Erik. Opening night faded into the background of her thoughts while memories consumed her, taking on a different color now that she had a human name for her torment.
He had a name. Without one, he'd been more a specter than a man. Where once his actions had the trappings of a demonic immortal, now they became the desperation of a man – a talented, artistic man. It was not that naming him gave him any less culpability in his actions, but now Christine was able to fully let die the haunting notions of the otherworld which clung to the memories.
A man had ruled the Opera House. A man had crafted ethereal harmonies. A man wore the mask. A man had manipulated her. A man had demanded an impossible choice of her; one that, no matter the choice, would leave all parties unhappy.
A man had nearly killed her fiancé. A man had killed Joseph Bouquet and Ubaldo Piangi.
A man had sent her away from him after a single kiss.
The fundamental difference in knowing the Phantom's name was this – the Phantom was a demon who could not be reasoned with or repent of his sins. Erik the man had a possibility for redemption. If he wanted it.
And Christine wanted that for him.
After a day in his presence with music about them, Christine felt his absence at last night's performance. For how badly everything ended in Paris, it was still undeniable that they were drawn to each other when music was involved. She was better when he was involved.
A familiar voice pulled Christine from her blind reverie, "Porter honey, you must be more careful around Mr. Y."
"He needs to be more careful of me." Christine peered through the bookcases to see Porter Cummings' hands tightly wrapped around Meg Giry's waist. Her chest tightened at the sight of her old friend. She looked the same, though her features had fully grown in; her nose was still sweet and small, the end still slightly upturned, and her hair still shown a blonde so pale it looked like sun-bleached wheat.
"Yes, he does, but he is—can be a madman. I'd hate to think you'd get hurt in one of his rages."
Porter trailed wet kisses down Meg's neck. "You're such a peach."
"I'm serious, Porter."
His fervent ardor froze immediately, though his hands stayed firm, "He's a thin, strange man. I bet I could kick all the teeth out of his crazy head. He's got nothing on me. Don't put yourself in the middle of this sweet girl. When in doubt, just rip away the mask and he'll crumple to ugly bits."
Meg quieted and let him return to his exploration. "I just worry what would happen to Phantasma if the stri—"
"That," his voice rose, "is none of your concern. Do not speak that word to me." Christine's own shoulders hunched protectively at the tone in his voice. She couldn't fathom how Meg stood tall before him. Porter walked around Meg, until his chin rested on her shoulder, "Meggie you know I'll always take care of you. Whatever happens to that freak charlatan, you'll be taken care of. You want Phantasma all to yourself? I'll make that happen. You want jewels and flowers? I'll ship them in from New York with more admirers. You want the new French girl gone? I'll make that happen too. You want her—"
The rest of Porter's words did not reach her mind. Meg's eyes had found her own through the stacks and what Christine saw there was weary, angry, and cold.
Christine raised her eyebrows, offering help, but Meg turned on her heal to face Porter. When she had done that as a child, it was meant as a diversion for Christine to run away from whatever patron had come to explore the ballet girls. Meg had always been much more charming than her. But more so, Christine did not wish to linger and have to talk to Porter Cummings after eavesdropping on their conversation. Her feet carried her quickly from the library and did not rest in her room until long after dinner.
Chapter 9: An Adventure
While at night Phantasm was the epitome of Mauch Chunk's north star, during the day it looked like a sleepy little town, those who were tied to its orbit busily preparing for the evening. Christine found she preferred the outskirts of the carnival city where the workers clustered together in matchbox houses.
It became quickly apparent that the stranger people and more unique acts of Phantasm did not leave the park grounds. Many other men and women worked away from the amusement park and came home for supper. Herbert did. Mol did. It was as through Phantasma was part of Mauch Chunk, yet not. It was its own little refuge city – a place for people who could not stand the glaring of other people in the daylight.
She even saw where Meg lived – in her own matchbox house painted a soft buttery yellow. Try as she might, Christine had not been able to find Meg since the library. The interaction had made Christine uneasy, and the more she thought about the reality of Meg living and working for Erik, the more uneasy she became.
Meg had known Christine was coming. She must have. And yet, Meg had not sought her out. They had parted as friends, as family, in Paris. While Raoul had whisked her away from the Opera House and Paris life had become very different, she had sent letters, they had history. Meg was avoiding her.
A dangerous thought blossomed in her mind. It was clear from the town's talk and the Phantasma billboards that Meg was a main feature on the amusement park's playbill. Erik had favored her, clearly, over the years to help him realize Phantasma's all-encompassing vision. Christine's arrival and her history with the illusive Mr. Y challenged that centrality.
And the fact remained that Meg was in some type of relationship with Porter Cummings, who, upon more meetings, had little to recommend himself for. His angry talk at Mary's dinner parties continued to sour towards the unwholesome discussion of strikes and lazy workers and how his poor dear Meg worked tirelessly for Mr. Y.
Much like in working Paris, strike talk was often whispered in ale houses and in the evening meetings of men. Christine was no stranger to the talk. Goodness, she remembered vividly the day Carlotta and all the other Opera principals had threatened a strike. This type of talk, however, possessed a wild sense of venom from both sides that began etch itself on the faces of anyone who spoke if it.
It was lucky, then, that most of the Opera House patrons were travelers through town on holiday.
Christine made her way toward the rectangular building, just west of Meg's home. It was Phantasma's very own school. Sam had told her all about his lessons and how Mrs. Schuyler – the stout red head from church – was a dragon of teacher. But she could tell a good bedtime story and was always sure to bake a cake their birthdays.
The school acted as a kind of orphanage for the local children whose parents had died. There were twenty students in all at the little school, ten of which were under her care. One of those ten was Sam. She entered the little square building with a renewed sense of purpose. In exchange for French lessons, Mrs. Schuyler had allowed Christine to stay and practice her reading with the other children.
She was unsure how helpful she could be with teaching French, but the children enjoyed hearing her speak in the lyrical tongue and did quite well mimicking her words.
It was in these afternoons that she saw the good Erik had done in America. In Paris, he had been a selfish tyrant, unbothered by the plights of others. Yet here, in this world he had carved from nothing, he'd created his own type of haven, with schools and rules and order.
Christine listened to the melody of the children reading. Careful to note their inflection on the verbs. She was not being the best student today.
How do you reconcile one man's actions when they are so universally disparate? Indeed, it seemed as though he'd done so much good that the monster he once was and the man he now is could not be the same.
Thinking of Mr. Y often conjured him, and her ruminations this afternoon were no exception. Just as she tried again to remind herself that appearances were never what they seem, Mr. Y appeared in the doorway, hands behind his back. The children's eyes went wide and smiles filled their faces.
Unlike nearly every other person she has ever known, the people of Phantasma were always delighted to see Erik. At a stark minimum, respectful. And the dower façade in his eyes told her he was still not accustomed to it.
"Mr. Y, it is not the first of the month," Mrs. Schuyler welcomed when she saw him at the open door, "What is the special occasion?"
His gaze lingered on Christine's face for a quiet moment, and then turned to the children, "I thought today would be a lovely day for some music. And should we not, Mrs. Schuyler take advantage of a beautiful day?"
What instrument, the children demanded with wild abandon. Mrs. Schuyler's own voice went quiet, her face a bit paler at the question, "Yes, Mr. Y, what instrument?"
"Get your coats. Today will be about the violin."
The school mistress was downright green at the statement. At Christine's searching eyes, the woman asked, "Please go with them. Watch over them for the rest of the day."
"But what's going on?" Christine whispered.
"Something's gone wrong at the railyard. You're watching the children so I can go help."
"I don't un—"
"Miss Daaé, the melody waits for no man – or woman!" Mr. Y hollered from outside the door. She had no choice but to follow.
Off into the woods they went, Erik's fine fingers dancing along the violin as he spun musical tales about the children. When she knew the song, she would join her voice to the melody. The children were unafraid of their adventure and unrelenting in their demands on Mr. Y's music.
It was a strange trail. The trees were bare before them and they could see for hundreds of yards in all directions, the scene eerie and white with the first lingering snow. Erik was careful to point out special features in the landscape and shape them into tails about firebirds and unicorns, the children eagerly hanging on every word. Sam was the only one somewhat unimpressed, as though he knew the trail by heart and found Erik's metaphors useless. The boy stayed near Christine, watchful to help her over a log or around a slippery rock. She caught his surprised look when Erik took them left at a small bubbling creek instead of over it.
It took the entire late evening into moonrise for them to return. And in his own turn, Erik humored and entertained. Christine couldn't quite place the change in him until she realized – he was carefree. Happy? Enjoying himself with the company around him.
What magnificence acceptance could wield. Finally, their walk in the woods returned them to the little schoolhouse. Nothing looked out of place, though fewer people filled the outdoor area than before.
Hanna Schuyler waited at the open door, her arms tight against her waist. "Supper's ready for the lot of you and then you can go home." She nodded to Mr. Y, "Thank Mr. Y and Miss Daaé for your adventure today." The children repeated her kindness in unison and Erik carefully motioned Christine away with the placement of his hand on her low back.
When they were a safe distance from the matchbox houses, Christine ventured to ask, "What was this all about today, Erik?"
"Nothing to concern you with." At her glare, he adjusted his answer, "The likelihood of a strike continues to mount. I don't want to burden you with these local politics."
"What happens if they do strike?"
"What are Mrs. Schuyler's particular skills that they needed her more than you today?"
Erik smirked at her thinly veiled attempt to snoop, "We all have our parts to play. You've seen how Hanna can be as a dragon protecting her young." They stopped at the back of the Phantasma train station. "She can be a very good voice of reason."
"All this talk, and yet the show will go on."
"It will. Your first proper performance at Phantasma is quickly approaching."
"And you will be in attendance, I presume."
"Of course. It is my own little opera house, after all."
"No tricks, Mr. Y."
"I wouldn't dream of it, Miss Daaé." She heard the smile in his voice and delighted in it. It was a shame the train horn blew in interruption, echoing throughout the canyon.
"It was wonderful. Today, I mean. It was wonderful to see you happy." Erik's hands rose to touch her arms, but stopped, hovering lost in the air.
"I suppose I was happy today."
"The children admire you."
"I provide them a diversion. That is hardly admiration."
"And yet, they were so excited when you came to fetch them today. They didn't tire of their adventure, and they were sad to see you leave them tonight."
Silence followed her words. The muscles in his jaw worked, casting a strange shadow in the moonlight. Finally, he was able to form his words, "It is nice to no longer see revulsion in people's eyes." Christine's heart lurched. Her hand reached out to touch his chin, pulling his face toward her own. In the cold night, he was almost warm.
"You deserve only good things, Erik."
He leaned into her touch, sighing, "It is a testament to your goodness, Christine, that you believe that."
Looking into his mismatched eyes, she wanted to tell him he was wrong. She had little real goodness left in her. But he, truly, did have goodness within him. While he did deserve justice for the evils he had done, he deserved good things too. She couldn't help but wonder which one she would be.
The next week in Mauch Chunk got progressively colder. How that was possible, Christine could not fathom. The newspaper began to predict on-coming snow, and much of the town had rallied for the wave of winter tourists bent on visiting "Little Switzerland". Though Christine had been very young the last time she'd viewed the Alps, she remembered they did not look anything like Mauch Chunk's hills. Still, the town was excited, and it was a lighter conversation than that of striking.
After her discussion with Erik, her awareness of the town had shifted. Before she'd only seen tourists. Now she recognized the locals winding through the throngs, their hard-set eyes and tight shoulders telling a story all their own.
Daily practice continued, and she did not see or hear from Erik again; however, she was not ignorant of his actions and planning. A drawing of her graced the new Phantasma posters. She was to perform on the coming Friday night. There was no doubt that he would be in attendance.
Famous Opera Diva to grace us with new selections. Songs never heard on American shores!
Letters began to arrive with an alarming regularity. Letters from fans, letters from friends in New York. Word had finally taken hold that Christine had not disappeared into the night back to France. The letters from Rousseau she did not open. What use could those words be anymore?
Each time one would arrive though, she would steel her nerves with a small glass of whiskey. What did the Americans call it? Oh yes, liquid courage. It always did seem to live up to its moniker.
The week went quickly, though the nights were long. Mol had pulled her from the bill to increase anticipation at Phantasma. And soon she found herself rehearsing with Herbert for another opening night. Not for long, he warned. Mr. Y wanted her voice perfect for tonight. She was to get on the dinner train and get ready there.
"Are there mirrors in the dressing rooms?" She asked at the conclusion of their practice.
Herbert chuckled. "Actually, no. I saw men removing all mirrors from your room this morning."
The Palais Garnier house stood before her in miniature, sumptuous glory.
On the Phantasma stage, the Phantom of the Opera had created a mausoleum to the past. The gilding, the velvet, even the smell – talc and sandalwood – served to transport the audience to another place and time. And she could not shake the fear from her body: its memory deeply etched in her bones. The details may be fuzzy in her mind, but the body remembered. Did one kiss between them – passionate and desperate as it was, mean he had changed?
Did what he'd built mean it?
Singing at Phantasma was the culmination of every single one of her fears and anxieties. The past rose from the dead around her. Erik was, and ever would be the Opera's ghost.
Finally, Christine understood, though the thoughts did not form with great clarity. Perhaps the only thing that had changed since the disastrous evening of Don Juan Triumphant was her own feelings toward her fallen angel. Perhaps their kiss had only changed her irrevocably. Perhaps Erik had never turned to the light, she'd merely begun to walk toward his darkness.
Her thoughts unsettled her.
She may want him, but she did not want this.
Standing behind the heavy red velvet curtain, she looked out onto the slowly filling house. It would be full tonight, at least three hundred seats. There was only one real box, however. Up and to the right sat the lone feature. He would sit there. Lord and master of everything before him.
Christine new Erik was behind her before he spoke.
"What do you think of my theatre?" his breath warm against her bare neck. Her pulse leapt in her throat, deepening her response.
"It is certainly all yours."
Her music scattered from her mind when his bare fingers ghosted down her back. It was a touch he'd not meant her to feel, but it scorched her nonetheless. The frenzy about her ebbed away, until all she heard was her heavy breathing and his voice.
"What will you be singing tonight?"
"You should be in your box, Monsieur. The show is about to begin."
His voice whispered in her ear, "Will you look to Box Five and expect to see your precious, blonde Vicomte tonight? Here again in my theatre?" At the implication of her former fiancé Christine spun around to face her Phantom. She did not like and would not suffer Erik's spiteful references, no matter how cocky he delivered them. It was all too much.
"I only ever expected to see you in Box Five." More words filled her mind, but her voice failed her when she looked into his mismatched eyes. The longing and disbelief found in them made her chest hurt. He'd not expected her to answer him. In truth, he looked shocked that the statement had even left his lips. Now was the time to tell him, now was better. "So much was wrong before in Paris. Here, I wish to tell you the truth. Always. But you must listen now. Do not remind me of before. I don't like it."
His body had inched closer to hers, his hands just brushing against her own, as though he wished to clasp them tightly, but dared not touch her. Frustrated with his hesitancy, she took them and pressed their entwined hands in her skirts so no one could see. A stifled gasp escaped Erik's throat.
"Are you still angry about Paris?"
She's promised to me honest, "Yes. You killed men and burned my home." And left me.
He had some grace to look uncomfortable. "Do you want to be here?"
"Yes. Although, this is all a bit much."
"With me?" Christine began her answer –
"Christine!" Meg's voice cut through the heavy tension, popping whatever bubble they had created for themselves.
"This conversation is not over."
Releasing Erik's hands, she embraced her dear old friend turned stranger. Porter was behind her, his hands dancing along the ruffles of her skirts. It did not escape Porter – who believed himself the shrewdest man in three states – where Christine's hands had been moments prior.
Relief from the awkward reunion came swiftly in the form of the theatre's dimming lights, reminding its performers to begin. Meg released Christine with a final squeeze, "We must have lunch soon. I want to know how you came all the way here from Paris."
"Yes, of course." She replied.
"And dear Raoul, where is he? Not hear with you if I'm to believe the papers."
"The papers are right. He is not here with me."
After wanting to reconnect for so long, and Meg's utter avoidance, Christine was at a loss at her calculated welcome. Her heart ached with the knowing that she'd lost a friend forever, though she had no idea what she's done.
The Mistress of Ceremonies excused herself, with little notice of her devotee behind her. Christine let out a long breath at their fading figures. "At least he followed her," Erik whispered in her ear, "I would hate to invite that chauvinistic idiot into my box." She stifled her chortle.
Christine took the stage with a familiar confidence that only manifests after years of performing. It didn't matter where or when, a stage is a stage and she was always meant to be upon it. The initial shock of the building's furnishing had faded into the back of her mind, as had the memories it arose.
The house was full. A wide variety of faces filled the auditorium; similar in look, but almost wholly different from those who attended the Opera House. No hush accompanied her place on stage, no eager expectation, only shuttered curiosity. As though she was something utterly other than what they were used to.
Only Herbert smiled from the front row at her.
Careful to keep her eyes away from Mr. Y's box, Christine nodded to the maestro. Verdi's familiar melody filled the void before her. Her own notes rose above, echoing the sad melody of the strings. Soon it would turn fierce, soon it would turn unrelenting and the resounding echo of anticipation filled her with joy.
But joy filled no one else. Christine had barely begun the transition from the head of the aria when she knew she lost the audience. If she ever really had them. They were bored. They did not understand. They wanted their bawdy waltzes in three-four time.
She tried valiantly to regain their interest, but the shouts began and then the jeering, and she was finally forced to stop all together when a withered tomato flew through the air and landed against her shoulder. Its remnants splattered red across her chest and neck. More refuse threatened.
Shock registered through her body. This had never, in all her years, happened before. She could feel Erik pressing against her mind. She would not falter. She would not cry. Christine looked up to him and his eyes were burned with fury.
So Phantasma did not want opera then. She should have known. Herbert had tried to tell her as much as they chose selections for tonight. She had not listened. They wanted something modern, something new.
She could give them that.
And may her Phantom take mercy on her for it.
She waited for the rotten cabbage to pass her before lifting her hand. Steel hardened in her bones and, finally, a true hush went through the crowd. She looked to the maestro, "Please abdicate to Herbert for a song, good Sir." A long moment passed, the crowd hushed again, curious. It only took one look with Herbert for him to know her plan. He smiled.
She's yet to perfect it, but she doubted the audience would care, if they even noticed.
Christine's gaze roved the crowed, defiance flinting in her eyes. "And you once said, I wish you dead –" The crowd leaned in, "you sinner. I'll never be more than a wolf at your door for dinner."
Oh, with this strange melody she had them, "And if I see you run, like a ghost in the town, you liar." She dared not look above, "I'll leave with your head, oh I'll leave you for dead, Sire." And the music began under her in haunting harmony.
If you are wondering about Christine's song, the lyrics are from "The Wolf" by PHILDEL. (If you take a listen, it has total Erik/Christine vibes.)
Chapter 11: A Question
The roar of the crowd thundered in Christine's ears, matching the ferocious beat of her heart. She'd won them over, thanks to Erik's strange siren song. They cheered for more, but she had nothing else to sing. Only more arias and operettas: nothing they would endure. She bowed and left them to a silent, open stage.
She's barely escaped into the wings when his honeyed voice whispered in her ear. Wait for me, he bid.
Her heart would not slow. At its beat, her blood rushed in her veins.
Christine tried desperately to meter her pace toward the back of the theater. Running would do her no good. It would only look like fleeing and give people reason to gossip. It would be like dripping fresh blood before a pack of wolves.
Fresh, cold air would do her good. She walked carefully on, metering her steps to match the waltz in three-four time that had begun on stage, headlong into the darkness, until her hands found the stage door. She slipped through into the icy night.
Erik's song was something wholly different.
The act of singing it, something wholly different. He was not in her mind as before, but something of himself was irrevocably woven into the words and melody. Before, he'd used hypnosis and lies to enchant her. He'd utilized fine melodies of other great composers to captivate her. These arias, his songs, empowered her alone as the seductress. They had their own type of power.
She understood him better now. For with such power, how could she fault him for the use of it? No wonder he'd been corrupted, no wonder madness had festered in him. The power he crafted and could wield when perfected was intoxicating. Even she, who knew what damage could come from it, wanted more.
"Christine, you will freeze out here." The subject of her thoughts wrapped his jacket about her shoulders. It was warm and smelled of him. "And this is most assuredly not good for your voice."
She smiled at his concern and finally took notice of her surroundings. She'd made her way toward the bright lights of the carousel. While the theater had been full, the rest of Phantasma looked deserted. "Where is everyone?"
Erik's hand at her back pressed her toward the mechanical wonder. "The performance tonight is the first of its kind here. Most guests are inside. I thought it would be best, for this evening at least, to minimize the number of people." He directed her through a small gate, nodding at its keeper who promptly left his post. "Come, the ride has a heater at its center."
Erik lifted her by the waist onto the slow moving platform. Tinny music filled the air between them.
"I had truly believed, Christine, that the greatest moment of my life had passed until tonight. Your voice – my song, hearing you sing it — it was unparalleled." Christine brushed off a small piece of tomato that stuck to her skin. "Though I had hoped they would have enjoyed the classical selections more."
Best not to dwell on it, she thought. Walking carefully through the moving horses and animals she asked, "Did you write it for me?"
The expression on his face was unreadable, though the mask stiffly moved above his features. "No, my dear. I have written thousands of songs for your voice, but that was not one of them."
"You imagine yourself a vengeful wolf."
"That song blossomed from darker moments of selfishness."
"It has –"
"A certain power to it, doesn't it?"
"Does knowing its origins change it for you?"
"No." She leaned against a stationary chariot, gilded gold and shimmering in its reflection against the center mirrors. She could not look at him when she admitted, "It makes me feel somehow closer to you. As though we are more alike than we imagine, I believe." She did not have the courage to tell him she imagined herself the wolf; that, should he send her away, she may curse him too.
"I am trying to be better." he said to himself more than to her. Somehow that felt right: he, trying to be better, and she, more worldly than before.
She could not help but ache for his touch, her body pulled toward his own as the carousel spun. "You may not admire me as you do if you knew what I've become."
"You can be nothing but an angel."
"Oh Erik. How very wrong you are."
"And what are you, if not an angel? All goodness and light." He stilled by a black stallion, watching her approach with careful eyes.
The answer did not satisfy him, she could see. Nor had it changed his mind. That disappointed her. How she longed to merely be a person, both good and bad in everyone's eyes. It was as though she was eternally cursed to be seen as nothing but sweet, complying, and naive.
Until she wasn't. Until she was the worst of womanhood. The lines were so clear for women – angel or demon. Nothing in between.
She shut her eyes against the disappointment of it all. The diligence it took to stand on her own two feet exhausted her, and Erik's all too simple answers about her kindness and virtue were sweet morphine to the bitter promises she'd made herself.
How dearly she had wished to be her own woman. And oh, how immediately his presence in her life subverted that.
The air about her changed. Charged. Her eyes opened to see Erik before her, his own eyes burning into her with a demanding intensity. Lord, they were unearthly beautiful.
This close, she could see the small fissures in his skin, just outside the mask. She noted the strange mottled paleness around his lips, slightly bulbous and darker on one side. It was all there, yet softened in the carousel's kerosene lamps.
His broad hands rested at her waist and drew her closer to him, "And why can't you be both?" Hunger roughened his already deep voice. The hushed intimacy of his nearness caressed her body until she throbbed with want for him low in her belly. How had he read her thoughts so completely?
She waited, barely breathing, for his lips to touch her own. Surely, he must realize that if she'd not left yet she wanted this. When he did not move, she clutched fate in her own hands, "Kiss me."
His swallowed, suddenly so very still. Christine let her fingers brushed through the nape of his collar and brought his lips to hers. He let her, and at the first soft touch of her lips, he sighed.
His lips were cool and dry from in the cold air, but beguiling in their plushness.
It was her turn to sigh. Just the first time, the fire smoldering between them flared and burned any hesitancy in its wake. Christine melted against him, her blood thrumming heavy through her veins. When Erik realized her passion matched his own, he took control of this kiss, sliding his mouth firmly over hers, demanding a deeper response to his carnal invasion.
Christine's whole body shivered when he drew her tongue into his mouth. The hungry slide of his tongue against her own, so assured and passionate, scattered every last thought in her head. She was nothing but desperate desire for the man in her embrace.
Rancorous shouts from the direction of the theatre shattered their focus, and they tore themselves apart.
The performance was not due to be over for another hour, but a larger gang of men, well dressed and well kept, had left early. Of course, they were led by none other than Meg's devotee.
Erik took Christine's wrist in his own and pulled her to a hidden door at the center of the carousel, unceremoniously shoving them both into the small mechanical room and shutting the door behind them.
Suddenly, he was so close and the small room so warm. Christine's checks flushed as every single one of her shallow breaths brushed her chest against his. Erik lifted a thin finger to her lips for silence, and the urge to taste him overwhelmed her.
Their voices grew louder until it was clear that they stood amongst the mechanical horses.
"I swore I saw his pansy ass over here."
"You can't miss that black mask of his."
"Have you seen him without it?"
"Must be ugly as sin if the mask is better."
"Quiet." Palmer bit. "He must be around here somewhere."
"Maybe he and that tart ran off together."
"I'm pretty sure I saw her cute ass with him."
"Boy she must be desperate if she's going to take a ride on that."
"I wonder if she moans as pretty as she sings."
Erik's breath was metered and even, as though the conversation outside mattered little to him. But Christine seethed at the hearing of it. These men, these horrible, bawdy, ill-mannered men, who were considered the more reputable members of Mauch Chunk society, could eat the dirt under her shoes, for all she cared for them.
The surprise she'd first felt at hearing their voices and Erik's rushed movements had transformed into a hot ember of rage in her stomach. So many well-meaning and mannered men had transformed before her eyes into disgusting monstrosities – their masculinity and ego the worst of humanity.
Erik ungloved his hand and rested it against her flushed neck, steadying her with his presence. The coolness of his touch returned her to the present. He lifted her chin to look in his eyes. Desire lingered in them. They reminded her that he was with her, their speech was nothing, and soon they would be gone. It did not calm her.
"Let's backtrack to his little chateau," Palmer announced after realizing Erik would not appear.
"I'm sure we'll find him."
"Do you think she fucks him with the mask on?"
Christine stifled her gasp until she choked on it. Anger shimmered down her spine. Erik's grip only tightened slightly on her neck, the gentle pressure telling her not to be offended. That was impossible.
"Are the lights on or off?" Another shouted, the throng laughing in reply. They waited until the gang's voices could no longer be heard.
It was Erik who moved first, removing his hand from Christine's skin the moment her head leaned into his touch. Though in her mind she knew it was not the time or place for such things, still her heart stung with the rejection of it. He would not meet her eyes.
"Come," Erik whispered, opening the door. "It is time I take you home."
He would not let her sit outside in the Spring Song. Instead, they waited for the Bluebell, his hands gently rubbing her arms as they waited. Once it arrived, empty but for a single Phantmasa man, Erik cleared the indoor car and sat across from her, facing the only door anyone would come in through. His mask glowed in the faint light and he fought the smirk pulling at his lips.
His seeming glee only fueled Christine's annoyance. "What makes you smirk like the devil?" She scowled at him. His soft chuckle added to the music of the railcar. He realized at her expression, that whatever joy he'd discovered upon had not naturally extended to her.
"I was merely thinking that my once sweet songbird would have been a very dangerous thing tonight, left to her own devices."
"You patronize me?"
"No," the world sharp, yet careful. "I marvel at your fierceness. Something, or dare I say someone, has hardened you into steel and filled you with fire. And I have never been less envious in my entire life. In fact, I am thankful. I have the benefit of this new nature, but it seems none of the vengeance is saved for me? What upset you so tonight? Those men mean nothing."
"Yes. And they will pay for their vulgarity."
His statement mollified her, though she wondered exactly how they would pay. Christine gazed into Erik's eyes and found no clear madness seething underneath. She would hope he would not kill them. She refused to ask him if he would.
"Why were they looking for you? Why do you work with them?"
"I work with them because I must. Railroad men, company men. They are no different than opera managers and crew. Selfish, egotistical. But to create things of majesty, one must often deal with un-majestic individuals." Christine was not moved by this answer, so he spoke frankly, "They are the muscle when something is expected of me."
"What have you gotten yourself into, Erik?"
"The railroad and Phantasma live in a special type of symbiosis in these rural mountains. I am free to create and create I do, as long as I keep the population entertained. As long as I keep their minds off their long hours and hard working conditions."
"The strike." Her answer took him aback.
"Has been threatened before and will be threatened again. The railroad merely seeks my many assurances."
"How can you given them assurances there won't be a strike?" He did not answer her, but looked ahead. "So all of Phantasma is a lie? Smoke and mirrors to give a pretty façade to the rich men?" While the question was whispered, and meant for only her, Erik took her hand tightly in his own. Whatever his answer, it did not come, and they lurched into the Mauch Chunk station in silence.
Christine rose from her seat to the exit. He followed her, though he stayed carefully on the threshold of the car. His eyes rose to meet hers, ready for her challenge, and though in her own mind she didn't know exactly what she meant, she still asked, "How much of it is a lie?"
"None of it." he answered, embers burning in his voice.
Chapter 12: A Prelude
Christine woke to the smell of hot chicory coffee and fresh croissants. But that was not possible. Americans couldn't make croissants. Not properly, anyway. She must be dreaming. She lingered there, in the soft, warm dream.
Sleep had found her quickly last night. The sweet look of amusement she pictured on Erik's face whisked her away to a timeless Sunday afternoon, lost in the manicured rows of the l'Orangerie.
Under the orange-scented sun he was gentle and close – stealing touches of her skin as they walked, his unmarked and perfect face devastatingly handsome when he smiled. The small lines that appeared around his eyes made her fall unquestionably in love with him all over again.
"You should enjoy the pastry while they're warm, my dear." His voice sounded too far away for how close he was against her ear. Christine fought to linger in the dream.
"I did slave away on them this morning." She cracked her eyes to the daylight. Mr. Y, for his demeanor in her velvet armchair effused that moniker, looked over his steepled fingers at her, a soft smile touching his cheek. His mask was firmly in place, yet the lines at his eyes were there.
She clutched at her hair, taming the while mess into a low bun and thanking God she'd fallen to sleep again in his overcoat. Modesty was one of the only virtues she had left.
"If I didn't know you better, I would say you are up to one of your old tricks, Monsieur." Her feet were cold on the floor, but he'd been right about the warm, buttery pastry. On the second bite, she moaned. They tasted like home. It would have taken him all night to make them. He would not have slept at all.
"You know me better, Mademoiselle?"
For the first time in a very long time, a wild, genuine smile filled her features, the tenuous thoughts of last night escaping her. "Yes. I believe I do. What adventure do you have for me today?" Whatever his plan had been, it mattered little, for while he was enchanted with her smile, he asked what her preference would be. Christine bit her lip, turning it wet rosy red. Remembering the serenity of her dream she answered, "I would like you to surprise me. Perhaps it can include a walk in the sun?"
"Bundle up warm then, and we'll depart."
"So this early arrival wasn't for an extended music lesson?"
"Just because you've requested an adventure, doesn't mean there can't also be a music lesson."
She laughed, her good mood building upon itself, "So easily swayed from your plans, Mr. Y. What am I to think?"
He smiled up at her from his chair, the skin at his eyes crinkling deeply, "You should think that I would give up anything to have you wake up in my presence this happy every day. Even music lessons."
How badly she wished to kiss him then. What would he do if she fell into his lap and pressed her smiling face to his own? Would he kiss her back with the abandon locked safely in her memory? Would he slow her and tease her lips instead? She shook her head to clear the wild notions.
To wake with him, bringing breakfast and companionship, was an unexpected delight that left Christine light. It further dissolved the melancholy from the night before.
She couldn't remember the last time she'd felt – content, excited. She abruptly turned to him from the bathroom door, "To wake to warm pastry and your voice makes a bleak morning seem bright. Even if all we had planned were music lessons." She did not stay to see his reaction.
They walked to Phantasma. It was an adventure enough for her: flowing the slow, winding trail with fresh snow upon it. Icy snow, which slid under Christine's boots and gave her good excuse to cling tightly to her companion's arm. It was an entwinement that surprisingly generated little physical warmth between them, though the walk was long.
Christine found she did not mind the chill, for the cold loosened whatever remoteness held her Phantom's tongue. They began speaking about music and ventured windingly into all manner of other topics. And the more he spoke, the more she saw his creative mind – how passionate he was about art and architecture, science and music; how charming he could be, even playful.
"How does the mermaid float?" She asked him after he told her many of the 'workers' at Phantasma were automatons, subsequently swearing her to secrecy after the confession.
"There are special pockets for air under her skin." He paused a moment at her quizzical look. "You've seen how oil and water sit separate in a vial, yes?" She nodded. "It is much the same of the mermaid. It's a matter of balance. Too much air and she would float on the surface, not enough and she would sink. With just the right amount in the right places, she floats like a dream underwater."
"And her features. Where did you dream them up?"
"I never needed to dream to see your face before my eyes." So he did not deny the machine looked eerily like her.
"I have aged greatly since you last saw me. I daresay you made the young me far more beautiful with her glass bones."
"And yet, I believe I captured your lovely brown eyes perfectly in her. They have never changed."
The exchange should have made her uneasy. Yet, seeing this bit of madness still in him, however carefully controlled, was comfortable somehow. She could not place within her why, and, though she knew she should be concerned with her own reaction, she found she could not muster up the fear to care.
He continued, "You should know," he stopped on the path, "I never intentionally crafted her to look like you. It just. I just. I close my eyes and see your face, Christine. Some features are bound to seep through no matter my intention."
"Do all the automatons have brown eyes?" She asked, remembering Sam's statement from that first night in Phantasma.
What could only be considered a bashful smile transformed his features. "Yes."
She changed the subject then, back to the mechanical feats he'd crafted from his imagination that did not resemble humans.
In turn, he baited her often, attempting a rise out of her or a smile, maybe a laugh. His own demeanor confident and unworried, as though he had no other cares or thoughts outside of her.
What a tragedy their history was, when the present could be so wonderful like this.
Eventually, when Christine could just make out the spires of Phantasma through the trees, their conversation turned toward Paris. "Do you long for Paris, Christine?"
She did not wish to ruin her sweet mood, and instead answered in generalities, "I miss parts of Paris. I miss the access of the city, I suppose. The places. Do you? Do you long for Paris?"
He shook his head at her teasing inflection, and though it took some time for him to find the word, he eventually simply answered, "No."
"Surely there must be more. You must miss something."
"My answer is too simple for you Mademoiselle?"
"Why make it simple when it can be complicated." A deep laugh echoed around them from his lips. It was the most warm, wondrous sound she had ever heard. How could she bid that sound from him again?
"Truer words of the French have rarely been spoken." She tightened her hold on his arm.
"I do miss visiting my father. I worry he is lonely there. Though I know that's foolishness."
"You know he is with you, Christine."
There were more words she wished to speak, but too much fear of what those words would bring held her back. The last time she had been in that cemetery, it had been to lay him to rest. Christine only nodded in reply.
"And how did you come to leave Paris?"
"It was time. I had no one and Raoul," his body tensed at the name, but he had asked, "Well, Raoul was never really used to staying in once place. He was ready to move on."
"And New York. Why did you leave New York for lonely Appalachia?"
"I'm sure you know already." Her gaze darkened at the memory. Alone in a hospital bed. No friends, no family. Only flowers. Lilies of the Valley. "You are always very well-informed."
He did not deny her words, "I would like to hear it from you. How did you come to love and lose the ever-magnanimous Vicomte?" To be fair, he did try to hide his distain in his tone. "Or did he lose you?"
"I believe it is my turn for a story. How did you arrive in America?" Erik's eyes shifted to her face, though he kept his firmly forward.
He was careful with his words, "I should think that is a story rather boring for you."
"How so? You have always been the most inventive of tricksters. Surely making your way and building Phantasma is a wonderful story."
"It's rather boring, my dear. The attractions and inventions are the most interesting part. And you know that once I begin speaking on those subjects, I am lost in the maze of my own mind."
"But how did you come to begin? Surely the Cummings had to approve your building out here."
"That is true. I," he paused and upon short reflection decided to share with her, "I provided something useful to the Cummings and in return they allowed the idea of the amusement park."
"And the Girys. They also joined you here." It was an unfair fishing for information. Rather transparent, Christine knew.
"They have always fancied themselves my protectors. I'm afraid my tolerance for them evaporated with the poor madam's death."
"I wouldn't be too sorry for her. Phantasma has given her more than enough fame and admirers. She wants for nothing in town. The Bathing Beauty they call her. Her mermaid act was one of my better ideas, though lacking in refinement."
Christine thought back to that first night we she'd realized her Phantom was alive. Porter had been so adamant that Erik listen to Meg. Surely he'd not gotten that idea on his own. "She wants for your approval. Your praise."
He sighed and they walked in silence for a time.
"Tell me what New York is like. When I arrived, I did not stay there long. Is it much like Paris?"
"No. I found it nothing like Paris, though the city has it charms. It was rather boring for me. Opera in the morning, opera and dinner parties in the evening. Much the same every night."
"Except for the music."
"Yes. The music often changed." Erik's steps slowed again to a halt and Christine naturally turned to face him.
"What is that in your voice? I can't place it. Distain, annoyance? Disappointment."
"The music changed, yes. But it was no longer magical. I found that without – without you there was little to make the opera magical."
He released her hands and his eyes turned cold. He did not believe her.
"But you had your magic. Your voice, your beauty. You even had your white knight to keep you company."
Her biting response came quickly and unbidden, "Why do you insist on reminding me of him? What benefit does it serve? I am here with you now."
"Perhaps I am reminding myself that your attention, though utter beguiling, is not the same as your affection."
"Do you think I would do that to you? Play with your emotions in that way? You think that little of me?"
"Past experience has taught me well." Christine's mouth drew into a hard line and she released his arm. At her action, he took both her hands in his and rested them on his chest. Their boots slipped against each other on the icy snow. "It is a protection of myself Christine, not a remark upon your nature. You are kind. I am the lonely fool that mistook your natural kindness for love before."
She glared hard at him, the easy joy of the morning evaporating.
So he spoke spiteful words to remind himself that she did not love him, could never love him. That she was naturally this kind to everyone. How little did he know of the Christine now. How little did he understand that life had tempered her soft heart with indifference. That is what loneliness and disappointment can do: eat away at you until you've either locked all the softness away in an unreachable place or irradiated it from you completely.
"There is no other company I would rather be around in all America than you."
"That speaks very poorly of company in America."
"You must learn to think better of yourself. A cannot abide this in you, Erik." The moment yawned between them, Erik's eyes searching for something in her own. What did he want to see? Truth? Trust? He could not see the love there, chained though it was by her sheer force of will.
She could give him none of it until he was willing to accept it. If she spoke now, he would not believe her, and his heart would break again.
"I have done horrible things."
"As I have. We atone."
"I cannot think of a single possible act you would commit that would be horrible. It is not in you. And I regret nothing I've done which brings me to closer you." Christine lost her words and found none would be helpful to her. She selfishly hoped he loved her still. She wanted that. Yet he was, after all, a man. A species whose own nature was capricious and limited in attention.
Unable to say what she wanted, she repeated her statement, "There is no other company I would rather have than yours."
The winding trail ended at the Phantasma station, the events of last night returning to her mind at the sight of it. He'd enchanted her in again to a world that was not real. It was a world where every goal was to make one forget the world. Was he really doing anything differently than before? Had he really changed at all in the ways that mattered?
Sensing she was far away from him, Erik ventured a small white flag, "Mademoiselle, one day I hope you will tell me the story as to how you came to me utterly alone.”
Chapter 13: A Warning
Whatever plans Erik had had for the day quickly evaporated when Meg and Sam found them in front of the fun house. Christine longed for the knowing kindness of her old friend but found too much distance in her eyes now. Meg gave no greeting, not even an acknowledging smile. It seemed she had not meant her kindness during opening night.
"I need to speak with you," she said to Erik, urgently grabbing his bent elbow and pulling him away. He dismissed her out of hand, releasing himself. "You know you should not have allowed the men to hold their meetings here," her words bit sharp from her mouth.
"I allow nothing."
"We all know that's horseshit." Mr. Y raised a careful eyebrow, coolly deeming her remark unworthy of response.
Sam, though, flushed a vibrant red, "There's men waiting for ya at the Colosseum, Mr. Y."
With a quickness Christine had forgotten, Erik rounded on Meg, "You let them into the Colosseum?"
"Where else was I supposed to put them?"
"You know better than to leave them there unattended."
"They are attended. Fleck and Squelch are with them."
Erik took Christine's hand in his. "Please take Miss Daaé on a tour today, Sam. I'll see you later." He pressed his lips and mask's edge to her gloved wrist, "My dear." He did not look back, nor toward Meg as he left them, his focus fully ahead.
"Should he go alone?" She asked Sam. The boy shrugged his shoulders and let his hands flap wide. "I suppose he is very good at taking care of himself," Christine said, answering her own question. Sam took her hand and led her farther into the amusement park, determined to entertain.
An hour ticked by. Then two. Now she counted minutes. Ten. Five. Three.
Terse conversations in French took less than an hour and Americans lacked all French formality. Something did not feel right. Something felt very wrong.
Sam had listened well to his boss and kept her far away from whatever was going on at the Colosseum, but it had taken great effort and he failed in the end. Christine snuck away in the direction they had gone, past the Hall of Mirrors and under something called The Wonder Wheel.
She remembered the venom in the men's words last night and her footsteps quickened.
Just like the miniature version of the Opera Garnier, the Colosseum must have been a miniature of that same great feat of architecture in Rome. Christine slowed her footsteps as the lower part of the building came into view. At least twenty men, all in suits stood at the attraction's entrance with their hands in their pockets. There were none of Erik's men in sight.
A nagging fear bit at Christine's chest. She knew Erik was formidable, but twenty men was excessive. Whoever wanted to meet with him came planning war.
There would be no way to just walk in and confirm his wellbeing. Why would he even enter alone? She knew her phantom well, though. Surely, he'd been prepared. He'd evaded more of the Gendarmerie at the Garnier multiple times; he'd built everything around them; he was not above murder.
Most likely he was playing with them. Still, her logic did not ease her fear. Her stomach twisted with worry.
Christine had to get in.
Knowing Erik, there would be some type of trapdoor or back entrance, she just had to look carefully for it. She doubled back around the Hall of Mirrors and came up behind the building. Christine didn't need to look carefully though – Sam was already at the false door, leaning against it and looking rather smug.
"I see your boss has taught you well." Christine whispered.
"He said to keep an eye on you. You don't disappoint Mr. Y."
"Well said." They entered silently into the darkness and she let Sam take the lead.
The crack Christine heard was heavy and strange. It was not a snap, exactly, but more like a thick, popping sound. Even still, the noise reverberated clearly through the enclosed space before her.
It was ungodly quiet.
And then she heard Erik moan. Muffled. As though he was trying to keep it within him. Sam pressed his hands against her stomach, shaking his head, pushing her back toward the door, but she would not let him stop her.
Something was horribly wrong.
Stilling his head between her hands, she pulled him close and whispered in his ear, "Go find help. Now." Sam refused to move at first, vigorously shaking his head against her hands. However, he did rush from her side when a sharp snap met their ears, Erik's sound of agony following immediately after.
The Colosseum was, in fact, a perfect replica in smaller scale. Erik had even recreated the elevated seating as though a section was destroyed. The result was a small, but cavernous feeling auditorium which carried the muted sound of men's shoes striking his ribcage directly to her ears, hidden in the darkness of an arch.
"We told you to keep them happy. Keep them quiet." She knew that monotone voice. It was lilting in glee. Sneaking closer, she saw Porter Cummings, his arm tight around Meg, his nose bloody. There were a number of still bodies near the standing circle of men, but nothing close in number to the gang outside.
Another large man lifted Erik up by his arm and wrenched it, resulting in a crisp pop as his shoulder reentered its socket. They tossed him to the floor.
Christine's fingers dug into the stone to keep her upright. Her face flushed, the blood rushing to the surface of her skin and roaring in her ears.
Erik's mask was gone and, though she was far from the scene of thugs, both sides of his face looked utterly deformed. He clutched at his arm and tried his best to stay still.
Her heart thundered in her chest.
An angry, prickling sensation gnawed at the center of her back. Even injured and bloody as he was, he reached out to her mind with his. He'd seen her in the darkness. The tension is his body coiled at the realization of her nearness. Her eyes caught the gaze of his own and they were vulnerable and afraid.
She had to go to him. She could stop this. At least stop the blows from hitting him.
Christine took steps toward the light when Porter's voice filled the room, "Enough." He hunched low near Erik's head, "I believe we've made our point boys." He took a handkerchief from his pocket and placed it in Erik's hand. "Remember our deal, old man. I'd hate to have to use your new songbird for collateral next time. God. You really are ugly under that mask."
Erik's eyes blazed like fire at Christine. As ever, his fears were for her. Yet Porter's warning ignited anger. How dare he threaten Erik – the Phantom of the Opera, the creator of Phantamsa, the monster – and think he would live to see its fruition. In that gaze, she saw his madness. Porter had meant to stifle Erik's rebelliousness with fear. Instead, all he'd done was kindle an all-consuming rage already smoldering within.
That gaze stopped Christine in her tracks. Before she could run into the light, a gunshot pierced the deafening silence of the room. Shouts filled the space and Porter's men ran like rats.
Meg struggled against Porter's embrace, searching wildly about the venue to see where the shots had come from, but it was futile. He was stronger and took her in his arms with him.
All Christine saw was Erik, lying broken in the middle of the dirt floor and she lifted her skirts and ran to him. He turned away from her, shielding his face before she fell to her knees at his side.
"Please don't do that." Hot tears clouded her vision. He would not look at her. "Someone get a doctor!" She placed her shaking hands on both sides of his neck and pulled his face to hers. His nose – what was left of his nose – was surely broken, his eye socket did not look right, his swollen lips were bloodied and mangled, and still he would not look at her.
No. It was not that he would not look at her. He could not. In trying to shield his face from her, he'd exacerbated his pain and fainted. Christine touched his forehead to hers and took a steadying breath. His own breathing was so very shallow. His chest barely rose. "You will not die," she whispered, "You cannot leave me yet, my love."
Sam had gotten help, but only a select few: Fleck, Squelch, and the strong man, Simon. They stood around her, waiting for her grief to quiet. She swallowed her sobs and found strange comfort in having a purpose. "We need a doctor."
"Sam went for him, Miss."
"Do we move him?" Squelch asked. "The spectacular tonight?" Simon followed. They shouldn't, Christine knew, but they needed to. No one could see the Master of Phantasma as he was. Her fingers gently grazed his hand, thin and limp in her own.
"Can we get him to the house without being seen?"
"Yes." Fleck answered, "But we need to be quick about it."
Remembering the fire in his eyes, Christine stole herself against how awful the walk would be. She hoped he would stay unconscious for it. "Then let's not waste any time."
Simon was able to hold Erik completely in his arms and strode easily through the hidden walkways of the park. Christine kept a careful hold at the nape of Erik's neck, trying to lessen the jostling of his head.
"You are not to tell anyone what happened here."
Fleck, who was perched on Squelch's shoulders answered for them, "As long as you don't say a word about the that ugly mug of his."
Christine's startled gaze traveled from one to the other. "We protect our own," Simon clarified. His voice was soft, gentle, as he spoke. It hurt her heart to realize that, of the company present, past history would say she was the least trustworthy with the secrets of Phantasma. She only hoped that when Erik woke, he would let her in enough to trust her with those secrets now.
Miss, he could be much worse. Really. People will just think he took a tumble.
Christine carefully wiped the remnants of Erik's blood from his forehead.
His hip is swollen, but it's not out of place.
It was the last thing they'd thought to care for in accessing his injures.
We have to pop his shoulder back in though. It's only in by half. Probably a good thing we don't use the salts until after we've done that. He might try to kill us otherwise.
She winced as she remembered the sound.
He's not going to want to scream in front of her.
His right eye was bloody inside. Christine had no idea how to help that.
If the doctor doesn't get here soon to set his elbow, he might lose feeling in his fingers.
At least his breathing was even, though it wasn't deep. He was so pale.
His ribs will heal on their own. If Cummings had hit a lung, we'd know by now.
But his entire stomach was bruised black.
"And his face?" Christine asked.
"He was never a great beauty, Miss."
"The nose might be broke, but I've never seen him without his mask to know. We best wait for the doctor so we do less harm." Fleck answered her.
"He took some bad blows to the head. The worst of it now is if he'll wake up."
"He's a strong one, Miss. I'm sure he'll wake up. We just have to wait."
"Why weren't you there?"
"Oh, Miss. If he looks like this, he wanted them to hurt him."
They'd brought her ice for his head and left her with him upstairs. The gray pallor washed over Erik's skin deeper as the day progressed, until the evening light skewed his body into something skeletal and otherworldly. If her hand was not pressed to his chest, feeling the beat of his heart, she would swear he was long dead.
He had always been a lean man, with a graceful strength and speed that had made him lethal. But without his sharp eyes and honeyed voice, he did indeed look like death itself. Christine's fingers skimmed lightly over his chest in small movements. It comforted her to feel him.
It also kept her hand away from his face, which only continued to swell more as the hours went by. Her mind was dizzy with worry and could not cope with the thoughts running through her head.
As the sun sunk lower, his mouth parted and he began to breathe through his lips.
Porter and his men had done this – planned this. Her Phantom was forever conspiring about something, and for once it seemed he was not the one to fear. One thing was clear, whatever past she and Meg had, it was lost to the politics of today. The damage was irreparable. She'd stood by and let them hurt Erik. She hadn't protested once.
As the minutes ticked on and there was no sign of the doctor, Christine could not keep herself still and began to pace about his bedroom. The room was luscious in fabrics and furs. It was as though Erik could never keep himself warm and so tried to fill his spaces with as much warmth as possible. The deep reds and velvets reminded her of his underground home, so dark and mysterious once.
His desk provided her with at least some distraction. It was overflowing in sheet music: bits and pieces of melodies and lyrics not yet complete. All in red. All covered in ink droplets and smudges. More piles of images with staging upon them. Not of the miniature Opera Populaire, but of a round stage, larger and more open.
It was one piece, lower on the pile, that captured her curiosity most. The barest hint of a melody noted the page, but the lyrics were written in hard, sloping cursive.
I met a ghost of a king on a road
When I first felt fire burning in
To my knees I fell
He said you are a lonely soul
With a heart of stone that rakes against your thirsty bones
Such a lonely soul
He said I can show you what can save you
"I must be dead. I hear angels singing," Erik rasped, immobile as he was on the bed. Christine rushed his side, allowing her hands to finally trail lightly over his face.
"Thank God you're awake."
"You were a little dramatic, thinking I would die."
"The last time I saw your unmasked faced you claimed you were dying."
"My heart was breaking. It did feel like death."
"And now?" A wistful smile stole across her face and Christine's thumb gently traced the edge of his swollen lip. She wondered if he'd heard the confession that had followed her demand, but he said nothing.
His eyes were full, valiantly trying to mask his sincere unease, a glassy sheen noting just how much pain he was in. "What do you need? Your people did not have any laudanum or morphine."
"Good. I would not have wanted it. Water, my dear. Please." He shifted to sit up on the bed and cursed. Christine rushed back to his side.
"You shouldn't move. The doctor is coming to set your leg."
Erik's body became rigid again, and not with pain. "Which doctor?"
"I don't know. Sam went for him." He relaxed, yet only slightly. Christine waited for his next request, rocking on her feet.
"Did you like the song?"
"Yes," Erik pointed toward the desk, "The one an angel was singing."
The fear and frustration of the day bubbled over in her chest, "Are you really asking me if I like your music? Now? When you've been badly beaten? When they could have killed you?" The smile from his face fell. "How dare you make light of this! What were you thinking entering anywhere with that many stupid men? Why didn't you defend yourself? How could you possibly allow them to hurt you?"
Fleck opened Erik's bedroom door and peered in, "Good to see you up, Mr. Y. Is there anything I can get you?" The scene before her had to be the worst type of pantomime – the hysterical woman admonishing the sickly man. Fleck did not look amused.
"Yes. Would you please bring up some tea for Miss Daaé and myself?"
Christine's attention did not wavier from Erik. Her fingers trembled at her sides.
"What would you like me to tell you, Christine?"
"The truth. I would like you to tell me the truth." He looked to the chair she'd been sitting in before he'd woke, a gesture requesting she return to it now.
"What is Phantasma?"
Christine huffed an exasperated breath. She never did get simple answers from her Phantom. "An amusement park."
"Yes. And who do I amuse?"
"Today? Not me." Erik pinned her with his poignant gaze. She returned it defiantly. The two sat in silence for a time, arguing with wills as through the fate of the world's revolution depended upon one winning and one loosing. Unlike all other things before her time in America, Christine did not yield.
"I amuse those who should not dwell on the meagerness of life. I entertain those who see little wonder and beauty in the world around them. Tell me, sweet woman, do those in fine clothes and rich jewels tend to be the ones without beauty?"
Porter's words replayed themselves in her head, We told you to keep them happy. Keep them quiet. "You told me this last night, Erik. You're to distract the workers and stop the strike." Christine could not hide the hollow disappointment in her voice.
"Phantasma is a distraction all on its own. I do not stop those who wish to dissent, I merely delay it for a time."
And now was the time. Whatever delay he'd caused had run its course. And the company was warning him to work harder in the only way it knew how – with brute force and ungodly words.
Something in Christine shifted. A knowing perhaps, but something she could not pinpoint. It was as though she could see the world all at once as a coin: both the power and desires of the modern age and the hope and pain of those it consumed, and she could not reconcile one within the other and could not bear for both to live together at the same time.
The world had been so much more manageable when it seemed a man controlled it entirely. The young girl in her – whose hopes and dreams Christine kept locked away tightly in the bottom of her heart – longed for those old, easy days. The woman now wondered if she would ever rest from callousness again.
"I allowed them their show today because it suited me better than any alternative. You and I both perform better when underestimated."
"Is that why you brought me here?"
His gruesome face held her, and she could not look away from the burning in his eyes, "I brought you here because I wanted you. The ache in my chest had become unbearable. I would live a half-life again, I thought, if only I knew you were close, if only I could hear your voice."
She'd stopped breathing as his words that weaved their own type of magic and when breath returned to her it made her whole being fissure within her skin. So he did still love her. "But what is coming…What is coming is not safe for you. And I would rather see you safe and far away from here than in the needless danger I have placed you in."
He loved her, but would send her away, demand she leave his side once more. Another rejection because he could not believe loving him was what she wanted. Because he thought his love was selfish.
"Please, tell me what you're thinking."
Christine heard footsteps on the stairs and rose, "I think the doctor is here."
Erik pulled a dull black mask from his bedside table, wincing. It seemed neither of them wanted to go where inevitably this conversation would lead.
Erik did not allow her to watch as the doctor set his leg. She was instead relegated to the lower level sitting room which had little character and a cold fire. It was Herbert of all people, who finally found her: sitting bolt upright in her chair, her hands nervously twisting and untwisting a large chuck of her skirt. She was so lost in her own thoughts she did not hear him enter.
Christine lamented her own foolishness. To think, she'd been the crafter of her destiny, that she'd been the one to choose Erik's contract and leave New York. He'd planned it all. And like a cork figurine in one of his dioramas, she'd easily complied with all his maneuvering. How stupid she'd been! She should have known her freedom had come too easily. She should have known better when dealing with men. She should have known.
But she had wanted him and to believe the best in him and to believe that if she could change, so could he. Now she wondered, had she changed at all? And if she could not change, there was no hope for him.
"It would be best if you return to Paris, Miss," Herbert's voice was kind and soft. It reminded Christine of her father's voice; the sweet familiarity called to her.
"It would be best if you return to the hotel, Miss."
"I won't leave him."
"Mr. Y will be fine, but there are already rumors about where you've been all day and the last few days and the days before that. It is in your best interest that I take you home or you won't be able to leave the Phantasma grounds."
The Carbon County Gazette headlines from recent days bubbled up in her memory. There was talk in town of Christine entertaining the illusive Mr. Y of the Phantasma. Rumors and gossip with truth to them to be sure. Yet such things were dangerous for female reputations. Her social engagements with Mary Cummings had stopped altogether already. She couldn't say she really felt bad about that.
Christine's heart burned in her chest. She'd left Erik before – a different kind of broken, but broken nonetheless, and she had never forgiven herself. How could she do so again when he was all she had in the world? Even if she was deeply disappointed in herself and furious at him. No. She did not want to leave, even if staying meant she could not leave again.
But she did want to go home. Home to Paris just before summer. Home to the Opera Populaire with its grand halls and maze-like wings. Home to a time and place where everything could be different and wonderful again.
"Herbert is right, you need to return to town." Erik leaned heavily on a black lacquered cane, its gold head completely encased by his hand. He'd replaced his dull black mask with one of creamy porcelain. It made him even paler in the parlor light. Her mind spun in memories. It fit poorly and the swollen skin underneath irritated as he talked.
"You shouldn't be out of bed."
"And you can't be here, Christine."
"We've not finished our conversation."
Ignoring her reply, he continued, "I would like you to sing again tomorrow night. Arias of Wagner, Verdi, and Bizet. The ones you know intimately."
"Erik, I –" The façade of Mr. Y rose tall and cold before her.
"Miss Daaé what I have just said is what I expect of you." Her voice strangled in her throat. "You will sing as outlined in your contract and we will speak nothing of what happened here today." Erik's eyes only softened for a moment, when he saw her own glassy with unshed, angry tears. She could not find her will to leave. He came closer, careful to stand over her, but not touch her, "Please don't make me make you."
She couldn't look at him. And in that moment, she hated him. "It would be the last time I ever sang for you." He nodded. Whatever strange version of truth they'd built laid fragile in the balance. He demanded she leave him, again. He refused to listen to what she wanted, again.
She was at the door when he spoke, "These are tense times, Miss Daaé. I think we all would understand if you wished to return to New York. Please consider your contract with us at an end."
Her heart shattered and the pieces lodged in the soft tissue under her skin. Darkness threaten her vision. Erik turned from her and she moved to follow him, ready to argue again, but Herbert held her elbow and directed her from the room.
Christine left with Herbert in tow, heedless of the dark night before her, unable to feel or see anything but the painful ache pulsing throughout her body. Damn him. Damn her.
Had Sisyphus ever been able to escape his fate? Or did his bolder roll back over him every time?
It was late and the next train would not leave the station until the Spectacular was over. She did not wish to see anyone. It was a long, cold walk along the railroad tracks to the hotel.
I know. Erik is an idiot.
The lyrics used in this chapter are from "Ghost of a King" by The Gray Havens.
Her Opera House performance came and went. The crowd cheered and delighted in her European sensibilities.
She smiled and bowed and thanked them yet felt hollow inside. The room was the same drab wood and velvet. The smell of barn animal and human sweat permeated throughout and the hot kerosene lights only made it the smell more powerful. All this Christine could have overlooked, if she had been able to feel Erik in the darkness.
While on stage she searched the ambient darkness, looking for a sign of him anywhere. He remained wholly hidden to her, if he came it all.
And then a week passed. No word from Phantasma came. Her name did not appear on any more Opera House bills. She took to walking the ice streets and watching the river water rush by the railroad tracks. She went to services at the church and longed to hear the organ play instead of listening to the sermon. She did not know if she would not leave or could not leave, but she stayed all the same.
A sly type of unease took hold in Christine. She had thought that if only she stayed in town, Erik would return to her, unable to stay away long. Clearly, she'd misgauged her magnetism. Yet she caught Sam out of the corner of her eye every day. Just lolling. Just watching. When she'd call for him, he would shake his head no. Be close, but not too close, Erik must have bid. It was the only thing that rose her spirits at all.
It was late in the evening on an uninteresting day when Christine's immobile unease broke. She'd not slept well and when she had, her dreams were haunted with men running in the darkness around her. Out her hotel room widow she watched Sam hover close by. It was sweet and reassuring to see him – carefully walking the cracks in the pavement, trying valiantly not to stare at the front of the building.
Truth finally set in, firming her resolve. Erik had dissolved her contract. Released her and hadn't even shed a single tear. The pain in her heart throbbed and she took shallow breaths to ease it.
Where would she go? Back to New York? Paris? Neither option seemed right. But she had no place to go and little money to get anywhere. Her sorrow twisted to resentment. Ten years and still he played with her like she was a doll – beautiful and expendable. Did he even care what would happen to her? How could he both want her close and yet want her gone?
He'd said he wanted to protect her. Didn't he realize he's always done a poor job of that? When were his plans ever with the intent to protect anyone? It had taken ten year, but had become clear – she had to be her own protector. No one else would do. It was time to tell her Phantom he had no say where she go or what she do.
He could cancel her contract, but he could not make her leave.
He would say he wanted her gone, but she wanted him. He was worried for her safety? Well then he could live in fear and guilt for a little while longer. She deserved to fuse her desire for him with his love of her. She would take nothing less.
Removing Erik's warm house coat, she drew on her own heavier coat and slammed the door behind her. Her steps filled the hallway with her sense of purpose, renewed and defiant. Sam jumped to attention as she exited the front double doors. Christine called him with her hand turning toward the train station.
"Where are we going?"
"I think it's high time I see this Spectacular you go on and on about." The boy stopped in his tracks.
"Are you sure?"
She bought both their tickets with a few coins from her pocket and did not stop to reassure him. "Do you want to sit inside or outside?"
Sam tinkered with a mess of metal scraps in his lap. He carefully twisted and wound silver wire along the threads of the pieces, creating an intricate pattern in his wake.
"Que faites-vous?" She asked.
He shrugged, "Je ne sais pas encore." He'd answered her well. He was learning.
"Are you making it for someone? It looks like a butterfly."
"Oh, that's not good."
"She's scared of butterflies."
"So it is for someone." He shrugged again, his face a vibrant red, and began unwinding the silver wire into a new shape.
"Why do you want to see the Spectacular?"
"Didn't you say I had to see it. Isn't Miss Meg wonderful in it?" Christine tried to keep her tone light, but it was hard.
"Mr. Y said you shouldn't come back to Phantasma."
"Do you think Mr. Y is always right?"
"Mr. Y asked me to leave and not come back." The small boy's head shot up at her statement, his fingers stilling in the twists of wire.
"But I like you. I want you to stay."
"I like you too, Sam. And I would like to stay." They sat in silence for a time, the dark trees rushing past them in the outside coach.
"I don't think Mr. Y is right about this," he whispered.
"Neither do I."
"What do we do?"
"Do you think Mr. Y will know if I'm in Phantasma tonight." The boy's head dropped back to his work, his cheeks burning. "Sam?"
"Mr. Y always knows when you're coming to Phantasma." Christine struggled to understand why that statement brought her more satisfaction than unease.
If you asked Christine Daaé to explain her emotions standing again before the Phantasma Colosseum she would be unable to tell you a single clear emotion in her heart or her head. The bravado she'd formed, so brazen just minutes before, seemed to evaporate completely as she watched groups of tourists crowd through the archways to their seats.
There were hundreds of people. She was just one of the throng. Sam took her hand. "There is a better spot for you to watch around his way," he pointed to a darker corridor to their right.
She shook her head at him. She wanted Erik to seek her out. She would not grovel to him to keep her. "No. I want to see the show just like everyone else does. No special treatment." He was disappointed in her answer but led her through the main archway.
From their seats in the middle of the Colosseum, she could see that the building must have been built into the ground. A detail she had not noticed, preoccupied as she was during her last visit. An additional tier of seats rose behind her and one below, yet the building had not looked so large and imposing from the outside. He was always good with tricks.
The lights were already dim throughout the space and the familiar smell of sawdust and tar filled the air. The center stage was a wide, round circle in the middle of the arena and thousands of ropes twisted and rose from rigging about it.
Three resounding drumbeats boomed throughout the space, reminding Christine of thunder, and the crowd went silent.
Come along and follow us.
Follow if you dare to.
Invisible voices rang over the audience.
A lone figure walked out in the near darkness to the center stage. Drumbeats began again, low and fervent, gaining speed and ferocity as they continued. When Christine felt her own heart rush at the same speed, they thundered twice more. On the final downbeat the arena flooded with colored light. The women and children around her gasped.
Meg Giry in tight-fitting men's riding attire and hip cocked askew, smiled widely, lifted her hand, and directed music to fill the space in a way Christine had never heard before.
Dancers and acrobats and all manner of acts filled the floor below, smoothly transitioning from one feat to another, creating a moving tableau so vibrant and arresting that Christine didn't know where to look. It truly was spectacular. Over the commotion, Meg welcomed the world to Phantasma and Mr. Y's Spectacular. She bid them join her in the strange and exciting imagings they were about to see. And in the burst of light and smoke she disappeared.
The scenes melted into one another, shifting performers and colors as the music changed. When Meg returned, it was by rising from a rock in the middle of the stage, a large blue mermaid tail encasing her legs. Her golden hair looked nearly white under the spotlights, falling in endless curls past her waist and covering the exposed skin of her upper body.
And at last, the bathing beauty of our show!
Bathing beauty, say hello!
Christine couldn't help but compare the sheer magnitude of all Phantasma to Don Juan Triumphant. Erik's previous work paled in comparison to this lush and exciting display of otherworldly sights. The vibrant colors alone made the older work even more drab in her memory.
Any yet, as exciting and exhilarating as everything was, Christine could not shake the feeling that there was an inescapable sadness throughout. A melancholy she couldn't quite place. But it was there: a living, breathing part of the throng.
She felt him then, a light, ghosting caress at the base of her neck. The tingle of his touch drizzled down her spine in a slow stroke, pooling in her stomach. He may want her gone, but he could not stay away. A fuzziness began to fill her ears and she swerved in her seat, looking for the darkest shadowed corner she could find. Realizing that she would not decipher his eyes in time, Christine bent her head to Sam and asked to take her to the better seating he'd recommended.
Sam jumped to attention and pulled her hand until she rose. The fuzziness dissipated instantly.
"Up there," Sam pointed to a set of wooden rafters, two flights above the farthest mezzanine. The people around them paid the pair no mind, still too enthralled with acrobatics before them.
"Aren't you coming?" Sam didn't answer, but merely looked up. Furrowing her brow at the passive face on her little guide's, she followed his gaze to see Eric standing at the top of the stairs. She shouldn't have been surprised, it was exactly what she'd wanted, yet her heart gave a start at his sudden appearance nonetheless.
She lifted her skirts and took to the stairs, the music around her deafening and the vibrations of it reverberating through her body in a strange, unholy type of way. It wasn't until she was next to Erik on the landing, protected by a gently wrapping structure around them, that the sound muffled to a tolerable level.
Christine spoke first, "I thought we agreed. No hypnosis." She imagined his swollen eyebrow arching under his mask.
"I thought I had released you from your contract."
She would ignore his provocation for now. She'd ended nothing, and his presence here, now, with her, must mean something. She looked out over the performance. "It really is spectacular, Mr. Y." She could see him frown out of the corner of her eye. "I had to see it for myself."
"And you think it is spectacular." Christine wasn't sure if his statement was a question or not. Leaning forward, he braced his hand on the thin iron rail lining the landing.
"Meg looks beautiful out there. The audience hangs on her every word."
"Yes. She does command their attention well." A small spark of jealously flickered in Christine's heart at Erik's tone. Meg had had so many more years with him. He'd probably written hundreds of songs and spectacles for her. Still she'd stood there and let him be beaten.
Would there have been any world where it all could have been Christine? Was this the plan from the beginning for the Populaire?
Those thoughts where foolish. Nothing so wonderful as this would have ever manifested in Paris.
"You should have left last week, Christine."
"I did not wish to go. I like this little town."
His hand gripped the iron and she barely heard his murmured plea, "God give me courage."
Christine stepped back, unwilling to see his face when she asked, "Are you really sending me away?"
"Yes." He turned, and her gaze fell to the floor. "'It will be safer for you if you go."
She couldn't bear to tell him she had nowhere else to go. "What if I don't care about being safe? What if I want to stay?"
"I don't want to leave. I won't."
His hand rose to capture her chin, but he stopped before he touched her skin. The longing in his eyes warred with a familiar look of madness. "Woman, please do not tempt me past reason."
At his words, she quieted. She waited, and found she had little fear for what would overtake him. Erik's madness flowed in waves of rage, however, all the people around him now he had pulled here. He would not lose all sense in this safe haven he'd created. Then again, he had warned her he had little sense where she was concerned.
Or, with astonishment she realized, perhaps she didn't really care if anyone else got hurt. As long as she was allowed to stay beside him. Her stomach fell for reasons wholly unrelated to the man beside her. Had her empathy really whittled away to so little? Raoul's words came rushing to her ears – There is no heart left in you Christine. When did you become so cold inside?
Christine took his hand. She had no courage to speak words of love, but tried to speak the truth, "If I wanted to leave you, I would have done so when you revealed yourself me. I've chosen to stay. I want to stay."
He placed the crown of his head at hers. Tears – his tears – began to fall lightly on her cheeks. Her heart swelled in hope. She would win. He did love her and would keep her.
"The train to New York leaves tonight at nine. You should be on that train Christine."
His hand was cold in hers, taunt with tension, but he did not pull away. "There is nothing so dangerous as you, Erik. And I am safe with you. I don't wish to leave." Don't send me away.
The thunder of drums filled the arena and shattered their quiet intimacy, the cheers of the crowd returning to their ears. All at once, Erik released her and she shivered at the loss of his fingers intwined with hers.
Searching for his eyes, Christine lifted her head. He was already backing away from her as though desperate for the space. His eyes – those vibrant mismatched eyes of his were dead inside. "No one is safe with me. I want you gone from my sight and out of this town by morning."
I apologize if my French is horrendous.
Chapter 16: A Sonata
O lovelies, we go 'rated M' today. I do hope all this sweetness is worth the angst.
Christine's vision blurred and focused on the low burning fire in her hearth. Sleep evaded her.
She had not left on the nine o'clock train. There would be another tomorrow. He would still say he did not want her tomorrow.
No matter how hard she tried, no matter what melody she spun in her head, nothing would sink her into mindless sleep. Her hair flopped messily around her, barely held up by her old hair pin. His old hair pin.
The sherry had been useless, and she had nothing stronger in her luggage. When she would momentarily drift away, footsteps from the hall would rouse her, sharply pulling at her senses. But they were never his.
It was no use. Sleep would not find her tonight. She looked out her window onto the quiet main street, light snow falling softly on the ground. A cold walk would do her good. A clear head would help her see her future.
Wrapping herself in Erik's coat and firmly securing her feet in two pairs of wool socks, she left her warm little room for the wide expanse of night.
The little town was quiet, serene. The moonlight through the cloudy sky illuminated her path and gave the falling show a yellow tint. Her feet crunched against it in that satisfying way, and her footsteps magically disappeared behind her, fluffy snow filling the impressions moments after her steps.
She found herself before the Opera House, carefully winding her way through the back alley to walk the stairs of the stage door.
Two minds warred within her: one who wanted nothing to do with the complications that loving Erik would bring, and the other who could not deny that leaving now would doom her to a dark life of loneliness. She wanted Erik – this she knew – but did she want him despite herself? Would she play the pinning women to a man who would deny her?
When Christine first arrived, she thought she'd found her angel better than when she'd left him. She thought he heard her when she spoke. Now she was not so sure. He'd manipulated her situation to drive her to him and gave her the semblance of freedom so that she would willing bind herself to him. And now he was sending her away from him, again. Desire for him aside, she could not forgive him for that.
The soft notes of a piano melody filtered through the floorboards from above and Christine followed the sound to the door of her practice room. It was impossible not to know who was playing, and for a time Christine stood at the door just listening to Erik. The sweetness of him laid bare before her. Lonely and aching and beautiful.
When she could take the melody no more, she quietly opened the door and stepped into the room. He looked in her direction but did not stop playing. He still wore his porcelain mask. It still sat strangely on his swollen face. His broken leg rested awkwardly under the piano, unbent. He kept his elbow tight to his waist, thought it was not in its sling. Nothing impacted the beauty of his music. His fingers drew the crescendo of the sonata to a close, carefully letting the final minor cord linger in the air.
He awoke from the music with astonishment in his eyes. Christine understood. Even without his hypnosis, he'd called to her and somehow, she'd heard and come. She felt it then – again, as before – the undeniable cord that bound them together, his spirit to hers, pulling at her heart. Hungry and raw, it demanded fulfillment. She was tired of denying it, restricting it, and she could not fault him for the same. Starvation no more.
Had she not been trying to forget him all these years, thinking he was dead? Hadn't it been impossible? Wouldn't she have done anything to get to him if she'd known?
And here he was. Alive. Alive and staring at her a though she hung the moon. She went to him, her body desperate for his touch. Anger and hurt could be remembered in the morning.
This one time, she would take what she wanted.
Her hand brushed his jaw.
"Christine," The deep timber of his voice wrapped her in warmth. Erik's hands traveled to her arm, his thumbs gently tracing the sinew there. "If we continue this, it will irrevocably change everything. I will never, never let you go. I won't be able to."
The flush of warm blood filled her cheeks. Her throat burned. Good, leave your foolishness behind you.
It had all been bravado. At his core, her Phantom was a selfish man. And she was the only thing he had always wanted.
Christine took Erik's face in her hands, careful to gentle her caress around his swollen cheek, and drew his lips to hers.
With that simple touch, a fire ignited inside her. This man belonged to her, next to her, and nowhere else. He was hers and she would never let him go. Change be damned.
Erik's arms wrapped tightly around her, pressing her more deeply into his chest. She couldn't help but melt into him, the feel of him against her too sweet to deny.
His lips, swollen and strangely shaped, slid against Christine's own with a singular hunger – sharp and ferocious like his mind. He pulled her down onto his lap, unwilling to release her from his embrace.
Even through the heaviness of her fabrics, she could feel him, hard and aching against her. If there had been any doubt of his desire before, there was none now. She shivered at the thought. This was his want of her. Hungry. Wild. A craving unsatisfied for ten years. More. Something neither of them could control once unleashed.
Of their own volition, Christine's hips rocked against him, desperate for the dark, luscious feel him.
Erik responded by biting her lower lip with his perfect teeth, quickly sweeping his tongue across the space in his wake and pushing past into her mouth. Something broke in her when his tongue touched hers, hungry yet still unsure. It unleashed her and she devoured him in return – teasing him with strokes of her own and pulling him deeper into her, kiss after kiss.
Desperate for air she released him, and he growled in response. Her hot breath fanned against his parted lips, "I cannot kiss you properly with your mask on." Erik's gaze returned her own with astonished humor.
"If those were not your proper kisses, God help me." He searched for her lips again, but she denied him.
"Please." Her fingers fanned through his hair, tugging lightly at the edges of his wig. She teased him with playful nips at the edge of the mask, making her point that there was skin she wanted to explore.
She would not let him hide from her. There was no need anymore.
Even swollen as his face still was, Christine could tell his elegant eyebrow rose in skepticism. Erik's hand searched the bare skin of her leg under her dress and tightened when his explorations resulted in shivers wracking her body.
"I am not a handsome man, Christine." What lies he tells himself.
Then his cool hand found her core. She was warm and wet and his fingers brought desperate relief to the ache. An overwhelmed sigh broke from his chest.
"And yet I still weep for want of you. All of you."
Suddenly she didn't care for his permission. She lifted the mask from his face and pulled his lips again to hers. Erik's answer was to roll his fingers through her folds until he found the bundle of nerves at the apex of her thighs, already pulsing with the beat of her heart.
This felt good. This felt right. Natural between them.
Erik trailed wet kisses down her neck to her breasts. The heavy breathing from his nose a strange and erotic feeling in her madness. He bit at the fabric hiding her, but did not slow the pleasure of his skillful hands.
Her body overtook her mind, jittery and needy as it was. She could not delay the crashing waves of her orgasm much longer. Her hungry Phantom played her too well. And she wanted so much more than just her pleasure tonight.
She wanted so much more: to feel his skin against hers, to feel him inside her. He seemed to know and rose with her, headless of his injured leg. "You deserve a soft bed and candlelight."
"I want you now."
They ended up on the floor much as they had been, with Erik's back against the wall and Christine astride his hips. His fingers moved faster against her, feeding her desire for him.
"Christine, let it take you."
"I want more of you than just your fingers." She fumbled with his shirt, determined to feel his skin under her hands before her climax, dangerously on the edge.
He nipped at her ear, "You'll have everything, my dear. But first I want this."
Erik's hands had discovered her weakness, and with a steep flutter of his fingers, she fell. At first, the stunning sensation made her freeze. Upon repeat, she rocked her hips against his hand hard, unable to control her own movements. He coaxed her on, with lascivious words murmured hotly in her ear. The things he would do to her, he promised. The worshiping she was owed.
Her mind followed him willingly into his dark and erotic imaginings until all she heard was the need in his voice and all she felt was the pleasure he drew out of her. She dropped her head to the crook of his neck, nipping as him with her teeth, and let the pleasure seep out in her in her voice.
And yet the deep ache in her core still clenched in want.
Trying to soothe her, Erik trailed his fingers down her thigh, leaving streaks of her own wetness in their wake. She felt boneless and hollow and after kissing the racing pulse at his throat, her hands searched for the buttons on his trousers.
"Christine," he breathed, stilling her hands with his. She looked into his face – his deformed, swollen, angelic face – love and want warred in every line. He wanted her, desperately, but was offering her a final moment to say no. A choice. And finally, he would not make it for her.
Deliberately, she nipped at his lips with her eyes open. I see you my love, her being cried. His hands loosened over hers, allowing her to release him into her grip. I see you. His breath caught at her touch. Unlike the rest of his skin, here he was thick and warm. She drew her hand along the length of him, swiping her thumb over the tip and rolling his own wetness along his throbbing skin.
Christine marveled at the power she wielded over him. Never once had she felt more wonton or more in control. He was at her mercy and his eyes burned with want of her. She felt his gaze along her skin and shivered. "Tell me," she whispered.
What she wanted him to say, she didn't really know, but at his answer her heart thundered. "I want you."
"Yes. Always." Erik gave her no more time to explore. Instead, he lifted her against his chest and set her aching center over him. The edge of his hardness pressed into her with intoxicating ease. As ever, he'd prepared her well. His head fell back against the wall and he cursed to heaven.
He tried desperately to still her with his hands at her hips. He needed a moment to gather himself.
It was not enough for Christine. She set her pace, slowly filling herself with him. The overflowing well of longing within her eased – finally drying up after years and years of want. Now there would only ever be desire and pleasure. Years and years of pleasure for them both.
Erik's words became a fumble of English and French and other foreign tongues, making no more than a sliver of coherent thought.
"You deserve romancing." His choked confession made her smile. He was her captive at last.
This first time would be quick, and she would ring out of him all the pleasure possible. Christine caressed her hands at the nape of Erik's neck and returned to his mouth, rising her hips to begin a steady rhythm between them.
"This is romancing," she moaned against his lips. Erik's body rose to meet hers, pressing her down more firmly on him in turn, unable to let her rise away from him. That was right. Any separation was unbearable.
It was exquisite – the way they harmonized together. They were one whole body between them. Complete when intertwined. When his hand again found her breast, pinching her nipple between his long fingers, Christine rolled her hips in her particularly hungry way, her body clenching fiercely around him.
His climax came as a burning roar. Her entire body pulsed in time with his, even when Erik could bear no more and pulled himself out of her. His hands again snaked into her wild chestnut hair. Christine's eyes slid closed at the sweet feel of his fingers massaging the based of her skull. There was such tenderness in his touch.
When she opened her eyes, his own mismatched eyes gazed back, golden in the moonlight. He heart filled at the adoration she found there, the wonder. It felt good, right, to be worshiped. She bit back a smile from her swollen lips. Erik settled her atop him, their foreheads pressed together, and she listened to their heartbeats slow.
Sleep found her, drifting into the edges of her consciousness. What would ten years of this adoration of looked like? Ten years of his touch and hunger. Ten years of this deceptively relaxed embrace. Ten years of longing finally sated.
Erik's hands gently tangled themselves in Christine's hair. She looked like an angelic ghost in the early morning light – ethereal and otherworldly. Her breathing was deep and her chest warm against his own, despite the cold.
But she was pretending to sleep, her fingers trailing light patterns across his upper arm in nonsensical waves. Her heart warred with her blissful mind, contented and yet not. Christine was unsure when exactly the iron ribbons around that foolish organ loosened, but she was sure they had – just enough for her longing and Paris memories to sink into the very marrow of her being.
The hungry desire had been sated and still the love was there. Still the want lingered. Being with him, lying with him, even on this cold ground, felt like the first true choice Christine had ever made. Second, if taking her contract still counted as her own choice. And this time, he did not question her. This time, he did not deny her.
It was a delicious feeling. And yet, doubt rushed in, its shadow dancing in the periphery of her vision. She had planned to build a life of her own. She had never imagined a life with Erik was possible. Now that it was, it was impossible not to fill her whole life with plans including him.
Carlotta had told her once, before she left Paris for good, be careful of happiness. It was the only kind thing the Opera Diva had ever said to her.
"Tell me how you left Paris," Erik whispered.
"I'm sure you know already."
"I want to hear it from you."
Christine sighed and snuggled deeper into his chest, the fine cotton of his shirt catching lightly on her skin. "Raoul said one day that I had an offer from a New York opera house and it seemed like a good adventure."
"Please don't lie. I want to know your reason. Your real reason." Vain man.
In his arms, between night and day she found she could not stop the words. "With you gone, Paris held nothing for me. Without you the music was no longer magical. I couldn't bear it anymore and New York seemed as good a place as any to try and forget."
"But still you sang."
"I know how to do nothing else."
"Yes you do."
"Nothing respectable. Nothing fit for nobility. I'm a performer Erik. A master of one thing."
"And the Vicomte?"
"At first, I tried to forget with him. And at first it worked. But then I resented him. He'd been able to actually forget, where I had only pretended. And then the resentment grew to hate until I could no longer look at him anymore."
"What happened between you two?"
She couldn't bare the memory, "Ah, but that is not the story of how I left Paris." His mouth formed a comical grim line. Christine ran a finger along it, disliking the implication of his thoughts. She clarified, "Death. And lies."
He knew better than to press further. "And you ran away."
"Yes. No. I wanted to be a master of myself. I wanted people to hear me, not just listen to my voice. I figured a master of my own life would be a respectful start. So I left."
"Independence. Freedom. The ability to live in my own sense of the world. Something different than what I'd been living."
"Was I really that important, Christine?"
She righted her dress before him, careful not to hit his leg. It hurt that he'd heard her, but not really listened. Just like everyone else. Still, she would be honest with his question, "You are really that important, Erik." She slipped her arms into his jacket, gathering the front before her in her hands.
His hands held her face, lifting her to his gaze, "It seems you have saved some of your fierceness for me. You never planned to leave Mauch Chunk did you?"
Christine meet his lips. A silent confirmation.
He'd warned her already that last night would change everything, but she needed to be sure. "Will you really send me away?"
"I should." She nodded, looking out on the winter morning. "I should, but I find I have no will within me to make you go."
She helped him up from the floor, allowing him to brace his weight on her shoulder. "Good," she whispered against his lips.
Chapter 17: A Truth
The concussive energy which had weaved itself throughout the small mountain town stalled with the coming of an early spring blizzard. And though every inch of snow brought the ability to strike meaningfully further and further away, it did nothing to cool the flood of letters and stories traveling to Erik's door.
After her refusal to leave and his surrender, she installed herself in his home, quickly becoming accustomed to daily life with her Phantom. The mundaneness of life charmed Christine. In every way it was what she expected and so much more than she ever hoped for.
The days passed with relative ease until weeks had piled together and the snow drifts were high and wide. While the weather did not stop the world of Mauch Chunk from running, it did immobilize Phantasma, and the stillness of the place seeped into Christine's bones, causing a strange sense of contentedness to war against worry within her.
Erik, it seemed, constantly lived within this war, for he was unperturbed by the forces of nature and their implications. Each morning when she would find him, lost in his letters or thoughts; she would return him to the present by running her fingers softly through his hair, caressing the already pristinely placed locks. In response, he would raise his head with the sweetest look of admiration in his eyes and seek her lips for a kiss.
Under her care, his injuries healed quickly, until the cane at his side and a heavy bandage around his broken tibia were the only indications of his encounter. For anyone else, his recovery would have been considered unnatural, so fast was its speed. But Erik was a different sort of man all together and was used to pain.
It had been natural, in a sense, to pack her bags and ensconce herself in Erik's house again. It was not safe for her in town, and she found she had little argument against the proposed situation. The only other option came from a kind note signed by Mrs. Cummings stating it would be ungodly and unseemly to stay anywhere other than their fine home. She wasn't wrong, but Christine had run away from the life of European nobility, there was no way she would willing choose the American version. Especially with the Cummings. No, isolation with Erik would do.
And what a wonder Erik in isolation was. With the absence of others came the release of his tightly controlled demeanor. Christine found he could be thoughtful and calm, excitable and downright playful when he wanted to be. At first, she assumed it was her presence. Yet as the days continued and the snow remained falling and he began to forget to wear his mask while he was composing, she realized he was being more himself without the expectations of the world.
When he would realize she was near, he would stop, look to her, and ask if he should replace his mask. "No," was always her answer.
Christine's hands pulled tightly against the morning chill and she burrowed deeper into the warmth of the blankets. She let her mind linger over the last few weeks of the storm with all its sweetness.
It was then she realized that she was not the cure of his life, but the balm for his loneliness. And a small part of her broke.
Truly, she'd wanted to be his savior, his utter reason for reformation. It was a selfish, bitter thing to breed within herself. She tried to let the feeling pass, to acknowledge that holding him captive in that way was cruel and far too similar to how Raoul had treated her for so long. Yet, melancholy crept into her and faded the brightness in her eyes.
She rose from bed, pulling a shawl tightly around her shoulders to stoke the fire. Though she slept next to Erik each night, wrapped tightly to his side, he had not taken her since that night in the practice rooms.
And yet the nights were long. She would to bed early before him but would not close the door between the room and the study. It was in those late hours – when he thought her fast asleep and dreaming – he would let the madness of his mind run free. He would pace and speak to himself in English and French and Italian and German. Plotting. Paper would shuffle and crumple and shuffle again. A note would play here, a tinkering with a twist of metal there. Maps became an obsession.
Other nights he would stand at the door, looking a dark specter against the illumination of the fire behind him, and stare inside. On these nights he kept his thoughts tightly in his mind.
Yet they all ended the same. He would finally fall into bed beside her, fully clothed atop the blankets, and wrap his arms around her, burrowing his head into the mess of her hair. He would fall asleep playing cords against her arm.
She had not even once woken beside him in the morning light. It soured her mood further. Years of her own loneliness had become a poison within her, and Erik's intimacy was an easy antidote. At least he kissed her freely.
Christine found Erik where she'd expected: lost at his desk, his long fingers pressed against the temple of his black mask. Someone must be coming today. She walked past the warming pot of coffee by the fire and stood at his side, lightly running her fingers along the nape of his neck. She was careful not to rumple his perfect hair or linger too long once his eyes rose from his letter.
"It seems the snow is no longer a deterrent." So there would be no kiss today. No good morning. No sweet smile. People must be coming.
"What does that mean?"
"It means our lovely seclusion is at an end."
"How will they strike in the snow?" Christine asked, leaving his side and setting herself in the chair opposite him.
"Much more easily than how they've been going to work." At her quizzical expression Erik clarified, "The snow may mean we have no work here, but the people of Mauch Chunk still do. Men have been working though the drifts. A small child caught sick and died yesterday. The women are demanding justice. There will be no more delays. With the storm finally passing, the fight will return. In force."
"I just thought –" she was unable to finish her sentence. What had she thought? That life would still forever? That somehow everything would sink away into the snow? That her happy world meant the whole world was happy? "Will Hanna need help at the school?"
"I'm sure she would always welcome your help. But you've never aspired to be a teacher, Christine."
Her arrival in Mauch Chunk had been a declaration of her intent to live her own life, to carve out something in the world that would be her own, on her own terms. How quickly she'd returned to the petulant Opera Diva – how easily her Phantom facilitated her selfishness.
"I would like to help."
"What is wrong, my dear?"
The endearment and Erik's piercing eyes twisted something dark within Christine. "I fear I've not been myself. I—"
Though Erik's eyes flited from his papers to the clock behind her, he did not speak or move. He waited as still as marble, a hint of fear creeping into his eyes. When she could not find her words, he asked, "In what way, Christine?" Still she could not answer him. The shame of her childishness choked her. "If this is because of the night we shared, if you regret it –"
"No." She answered firmly, reaching for his hand across the desk, "No. That is not what I mean." It felt impossible to tell him how painfully disappointed she was in herself. So instead she focused on the implications of his statement. "I don't regret that night. I thought perhaps you did."
"How on Earth would it be possible that I would regret it?"
"The only reason." His attention was fully hers now, "Truly the only reason has been my vow to not force my will upon you. My dear, surely you know that any touch from you is a gift from God to an unworthy sinner." Christine's face flushed a deep crimson. "You have no idea the utter pleasure and torture it has been to lie beside you every night and not, not –"
"Consummate our desires?" She offered. It was now his turn to blush.
"Our?" His elegant eyebrow peaking.
"Yes. Our." She wanted desperately to tell him she'd loved him since the first moment he'd sang to her; that she'd lusted after him since that first kiss under the Opera House. While old memories and dead bodies lay between those desires, it was much easier to forget their darkening shadow so far away removed from them.
"You deserved so much more than a cold floor. You deserve a warm bed and a proper wooing. You deserve a marriage proposal."
"Are you proposing to me?"
His body froze before her, while his eyes became molten fire. "Would I think you accept, I would ask."
She couldn't help her response, not after all these years, "I did accept your proposal once before and you sent me away."
"You had no choice in that proposal."
She blinked at his response, her mind unsure she'd heard him correctly.
He was not wrong.
The surety in his statement mollified years of frustration in her. A broken part within her fused back together.
"I'm glad you see that now. But you should know I had chosen. I was willing. You were the one that deemed my answer insincere and not enough." He stood and began to pace about the room. She'd struck a nerve.
"We were both very cruel to you, weren't we?"
"Not cruel," she paused, thinking for the right word, "selfish. You were both very selfish." He nodded at her statement. His mind worked before her, reshaping his memories with her new word though he did not seem to totally agree. "I don't need a proposal to be with you Erik. I don't even need a proper wooing. Being in your presence makes me long for you. You need only roll to me in bed and I would be yours."
"And if I was proposing to you?"
"Would you believe I was sincere in my reply?" He did not speak and the air hung heavy. Christine rose from her chair to leave. "What would you need from me, Erik? Would you ever be convinced that I would willingly be your wife?"
"To believe you love me, Christine – it is easier to believe in the existence of God."
"That is unfair, unkind, and blasphemous. And I know you believe in God."
He answered her questions with one of his own, "What happened with the Vicomte?" When she would give no reply and the silence in the room had become deafening, he changed the subject, "Today there will be visitors from both the company and the strikers. Both sides will expect a diversion at Phantasma. It's best you stay away from everyone today, but we will begin your practice for the Spectacular tonight. You must be ready."
"I will be in the Spectacular?"
"Strikes in America rarely end at the bargaining table. If you will not leave, it is best we put your gift to use."
Chapter 18: A Memory
The sharp echo of a snow shovel grated Christine's ears from the kitchen. One lonely shovel being terribly industrious. When she peered out from the door, Sam's wool hat shifted quickly too and frow above a drift. A smile snuck across Christine's face.
Erik worked the little man very hard, and yet he'd been up to every task, never once complaining or shirking his work. He was responsible, polite, and yet mischievous in a charismatic way. I bet he gets into much more trouble than we all realize.
On a mischievous whim of her own, Christine grabbed a handful of snow and crouched low at the door. He'd yet to notice her and surprise would be her only advantage. She packed the snow tightly in her hands, the cold turning them a bright red.
She aimed and pulled her arm back and froze. Sam was singing. Low and to himself. A warm tenor. A hint of Erik's inflection in the words. It was not just any song, but the Swedish melody she'd hummed absently on occasion. She faltered, her heart melting at the sweet sound.
Christine fought against the undertow of emotion. This child was not hers. She could not presume to make him hers. And yet her heart clutched at the idea fiercely and would not release its grip.
Restless memories assaulted her vision: the sterile room, the lack of people, the doctor. 'I am sorry for your loss, my dear. You are very lucky to be alive.'
'What was it?'
'Was it a boy or girl?'
'It is better for grieving mothers not to—'
'Was my child a boy or girl?' She demanded.
'My little boy.'
'You are focusing on the wrong thing. You are alive, though I doubt you will have any…'
An icy snowball struck Christine square in the shoulder knocking her out of the terrible memory. Her vision cleared and she saw Sam smiling at her, another snowball already in his hands. "Gotcha!" he hollered.
Christine peaked her eyebrow and made ready her attack. One snowball just wasn't going to do.
The warm sun had moved in the sky by the time Erik thrust open his second-floor window and yelled: "Christine! A jacket at least!"
She laughed up at him and threw him a kiss. She was warm and happy. Nothing else really mattered.
Sam, however, took the command with caution, looking over Christine was careful eyes.
"I'm warm, Sam. It will be fine."
"It's cold out here, Miss."
"That's just all the snow running down your jacket. I have better aim."
"Yes, but I have speed."
Sam met her at the kitchen stoop, now dry from the mid-day sun.
"Why are you doing all this work by yourself?"
"The other kids had other things to do. Hanna said to go make myself useful."
"You're very good at doing that." The boy smiled up at her, clearly happy with her praise.
Sitting down together they looked upon the bare trees blocking them from Phantasma. It was a strange, skeletal sight against the white snow. "What is it like? Seeing the world?" Sam asked, breathing into his hands.
"I haven't seen very much of it."
"But you have. You and Mr. Y. You've been to Paris and England and New York, and Mr. Y's been to Jerusalem and Greece, and Italy." Christine blinked at the onslaught of new information. "It must be amazing to see all the world."
"There are beautiful things in those places, yes."
"I knew it."
"There are beautiful things, but the world can be a very lonely place." The boy shivered and Christine wrapped her hands around him to keep him warm.
"But not here at Phantasma."
Christine smiled and repeated him in agreement. Phantasma was beautiful in its way and decidedly not lonely.
Sam stuffed his finger in the snow, carefully swooping cursive letters through the icy whiteness. He had become very good at the letters. "Sometimes I still miss my momma though." Her heart hurt for him. Of course he missed his parents. He had been old enough to remember them when they died. It was a kinship they shared. Loved ones lost.
"Mommas are important." She began mirroring his movements in the air before her. "It's good that you remember her. I don't remember my momma at all."
"Yours is gone too?"
"And my papa. But I remember him." Tears pooled at the edges of her eyes, as they always did when she talked about her much-loved father.
"So you never stop missing them?"
"No, mon cher, but you find you think about the loss less and the missing seems smaller."
"I would miss you. If you left, I would miss you."
"Why would I leave?"
"People leave. You almost left before. I would miss you. I wouldn't want you to go."
"And I would miss you too, Sam." Which is why I'll never leave.
In a rush of limbs, the small boy wrapped his arms around her and held her tight. She returned the hug just as tight. A fierce type of magic – new and wild –blossomed in her and bid her speak the words she'd trapped in her mind moments before, "Which is why I don't plan to go anywhere. I didn't before, even though Mr. Y commanded it, and I won't now. Will you stay here with me too? This works both ways, you know."
Christine felt his head nod against her.
"Good. Now let's seal this promise with coco."
"Hot chocolate?" He looked up at her with smiling excitement.
"No, mon poulet. I'm French. I can make you something much better than what you're thinking of." But, to be fair, Erik was in residence and a much better cook. "Has Mr. Y ever made you special warm coco?"
He shook his head no. Christine smiled and bid him rise with her to go into the kitchen. Thank God for small favors.
Chapter 19: An Interlude
When Sam had finished his second cup of hot coco, his gallant band of followers fell through the kitchen door, snow covered, red-cheeked, and smiling – Charlotte a sweet blonde haired child of three, Elijah who looked Sam's age but read large tomes without assistance, and Sarah a curly-haired child of eleven who was always humming to herself.
Much like Sam, the children had grown on Christine. She found their arrival a welcome surprise and passed out the remaining coco to them all.
"What gives you such a sour face?" Christine asked Sam as she topped off Charlotte's little cup.
"Christine, can we play school here today? Mrs. S said the school won't be open for another week, and that's just too long." Elijah had even brought two books with him, tied tight together by a worn, old belt. They were from Erik's library. No one would have given the small boy The Count of Monte Cristo or Gulliver's Travels except Erik.
"We can if you would like. But we will have to be quiet. Mr. Y will have visitors today."
"How about the attic?" Sarah offered. The attic would be a good place: quiet, and a floor removed from Erik's discussions.
"It may be cold up there. Are you sure you want to stay in your jackets all day?" They nodded. "And what would you like to learn about?" They all grinned at each other, their gazes landing squarely on Sam. At her look, he blushed.
"We want to learn about Paris and the big Opera House you came from."
"That's not lessons."
"It is if you tell us about how the stage works."
Christine took a deep breath. Erik wouldn't like this. She knew he'd kept the truth about his Paris life rather hidden from everyone, and she was unsure if she could keep her own experiences devoid of his presence. But their faces were so excited, and she did have rather good stories about the opera house.
"Alright. But promise one thing." They all nodded again. "When Mr. Y asks who started this, you have to tell him the truth that it wasn't me."
Sarah smiled first, then Elijah; Sam looked only a little worried at her request, and Charlotte pulled on her skirt to be lifted up into Christine's arms. "Up with you all then! Let's go! Time waits for no one!"
True to Erik's assessment of the situation, both sides of the strike arrived at his table in turns. Cummings with his men came first and stayed only long enough to dry their feet. They seemed more interested in Phantasma in winter than their plans to counter the strike. Porter was strangely absent from the party. The strikers came soon after, and – to her surprise – Mol Weaver and Hanna were with them. She could hear Mol's voice in Erik's study, sharp with authority and unwavering. It was clear: the woman was leading the negotiations. How very modern.
With the leaving of the strikers, the return of Mr. Y solidified. It was Hanna and Sam, late in the afternoon, who finally drew him out of his stoic façade.
"Mr. Y said you would be able to help me at the school, Christine. I would greatly appreciate it."
Sam was beating her soundly at chess. It was a stupid game. "I should like to help as best I can," she answered. Erik nodded at Hanna in agreement.
"Good. I could use you. The children will be learning geography and it will be best for you to also have a clear knowledge of the maps."
"I know my states quite well."
"Yes. That is good. You knowing your map of Pennsylvania will be better." Her tight smile told Christine that in matters of the school, any education she already had would be unhelpful. "It would be best if you join me and the children at church this Sunday."
"And why would I subject her to such burning Christian gossip?" Erik did not lift his head from the l'Humanite in his grip. Even from a distance, Christine could see the paper was nearly a month old.
"Because it will give people something to talk about other than the impending implosion of this small town."
"I don't mind," she cut in.
"Christine, I believe you miss the context. Their words will not be kind. I refuse to subject you to such idol vitriol." The tension in the room twisted, though Erik's gaze remained firmly on his paper.
"I know exactly what Pastor Whitt will not say to me. They can judge me all they'd like. You and I both know it is not the worst they could say."
Thankfully Sam interjected, "I'm confused. Everyone at church likes Christine."
"Exactly." Erik snorted, finally dropping his paper. "You are determined then, to have them gossip that you are my mistress."
Sam's eye went wide. Christine could cuff him for his carelessness. Too late to back down now.
"And what am I, if not your mistress?" Erik's eyes, humorless before, burned at her question. He'd as good as told her this morning he did not believe she would be his wife. She'd told him he could have her whenever he wished. What definition was she missing?
Hanna coughed and stood to leave, "They gossip now that she is your captive. Seeing her at church will be a sign of good faith you are with us, Mr. Y. And right now, we need that more than we need a guaranteed fund."
"You'll need more than my help if Porter Cummings has his way."
This was too close to raw truth and Christine could see Sam turn anxious at the talk. She took him by the hand and pulled him close, "There is nothing to worry about. You will be fine. We all will." Christine did not know where such surety rose in her voice, but as she spoke the words, she believed them to be true and magic formed. He calmed in her embrace.
"I know. And if it isn't, Mr. Y has a plan."
Yes. Mr. Y always did have a plan. What was the plan? Christine thought hard and found she knew basically nothing of what would come next. Sam knew more than she did. Damn.
Hanna and Sam exited as they entered, anxious yet decided. Christine mourned the small boy's adultness. He hardly seemed like the child he was. She wanted him to stay with them, stay near her. Maybe Erik would let him take the small room on the first floor as a bedroom. Sensing her own thoughts, Erik commented, "He's a good boy. Brave for one so young. Fearless. Determined."
"You love him."
"In many ways I consider him my own, though he would never presume to say the same of me."
But what if he would? What if they could be his parents? All their parents? Madness, she dismissed out of hand. What child would ever want them as parents?
Erik returned to his paper, avoiding Christine's gaze. Her ghostly phantom had more hiding behind his façade then he let on. He loved the boy. He loved Phantasma.
Yet he viewed the strike as a minor annoyance even though it consumed everything around them.
All over again she felt like a pawn on a chess board, ignorant of everything before or behind her, only able to take small steps toward the truth. The constant fury that ebbed and flowed in her rose like bile and clawed at her throat. How she utterly hated feeling out of control.
She would get this out of him. He would tell her his plan. A plan he'd clearly already shared parts of with a small boy. She knew his weaknesses. It should be easy.
She went to the soft armchair opposite him and sat, the fire casting a sharp contrast on her hair and features. Erik, perceptible as always, shifted only slightly in his chair, enough for his good eye to catch her in his periphery. In that moment, Christine's approach was decided. She would be direct tonight. No games. No coquetry. That at least, seemed to earn her voice some respect.
"Will you tell me what your plan is, Erik?" She kept her tone light, careful. Nothing too sweet, or he would recoil from her. He'd always hated blatant sweetness.
"Hmmm." He pretended absorption in his paper. How three-week old news was more interesting than a flesh and blood women before him added to the hypocrisy of the evening. She shifted so her elbows rested on her knees, displaying the modest cut of her dress in the most enticing way.
"Erik, I would like you to share with me what you intend for the town. I would like you to trust me with that knowledge." With infinite slowness, he pressed his finger down, curving the paper in his hand to provide him a full view of her. "I would like you to trust me as much, it seems, as you trust little Sam."
She waited as his gaze appraised her and she couldn't help the flush that rose to her cheeks or how her nipples turned hard when he lingered on her chest.
"There is nothing to tell." He shifted restlessly, "The strike will happen, the company will end it bloodily, and everything in the town will go back to normal." She did not miss his inflection. He'd answered her precisely, specifically. The concerns and plans were not for the town then. Were they even for the strikers?
Now that she had his attention, she sat back in her chair, careful to control her breathing and not think of his masterful hands, how they had been just as deliberate with her as with his paper nights before, "You're not telling me everything."
"No. I'm not." Her eyebrows peaked in surprise. At least he was honest.
"I would like to know everything."
"Knowing what you know is dangerous enough."
"And what do I know, Erik?"
He refused the state the obvious. It was beneath them both. "It's not safe, Christine. You saw what they did to me. Since you would not leave at my request, your ignorance of my contingencies is safest for you."
"They would never expect for you to share your plans with your opera diva mistress."
He dropped his paper in earnest now, nodding. "They would, however, believe I would share them with my lover. And you and I both know Meg Giry has enough incentive to be truthful in that assessment."
Her stomach filled with butterflies. His voice had caressed the term 'lover' so reverently, so truthfully, that she'd heard nothing else. He'd not meant it as another term for mistress; he had meant it in a wholly different way.
Was that what she was to him? His lover? Christine heart ached at the sweetness in his voice. His eyes darted from hers to her hands and away, an old habit in his nervousness when he discussed affection so directly.
He was testing her boundaries. Carefully crossing the line, inch by inch to see when she would turn away from him. It was a new approach for him, one he was unsure how to navigate properly. Little did he know that she would erase the line completely now, both damned as they were.
It was then that she realized their lovemaking – as she would now remember their passionate first encounter – might have been his first true carnal encounter. Never in all her life had a fact driven her to such hunger before. He was so calm and assured in things. All things, it seemed, but this. What angelic humor that this, passion, was the topic of her greater knowledge. The things she could show him, the wonder she could command – it flustered her thoughts.
Christine no longer resisted the pull of him and rose to stand beside his chair, her hair tumbling messily out of her loose clip. Her previous goal forgotten. At the sight of the errant fastener, Erik lifted his hand, pulling it from the mess of her curls. "How does your leg feel tonight?" she asked.
But Erik was absorbed in the purple bauble; the only thing left of that first wedding ensemble he'd created. He turned it over in his hands. Christine knew he remembered placing it in her hair all those years ago, when another passion had taken him completely. It was the first time his hands had lingered in her hair, testing the feel of it against his bony fingertips.
"Hmm," he answered absently.
"Love," she tried the word from her own lips, "how does your leg feel tonight?"
His eyes rose to meet hers, and there were unshed tears in them. "You kept this?"
She traced the unmasked side of his face softly with her fingertips, careful not to startle him, and enjoyed the deep crimson blush that rose to his cheek. He closed his eyes at her touch and a tear escaped. "You would not let me keep your ring."
At her words his eyes opened, and she saw all the years of longing for her a tumult in their depths. Erik pulled her down to him and captured her lips. Without releasing her, he drew Christine onto his lap, desperate for the closeness.
She shuddered at the feel of his chest, broad and firm, against hers and sighed into his mouth.
"You called me love," he breathed, a prayer against her own lips.
"Because you are." Her hands roamed his body, unable to feel enough of him under her. Too many clothes. There was too much clothing between them. Christine tugged fruitlessly at his shirt collar, desperate for more skin, hungry to trail kisses along the sharp line of his jaw.
He took her lower lip between his own and tugged, refocusing her fully on what his mouth was doing. And when she moaned at the gentle pressure, his tongue swept in to taste her fully. It was deliciously sinful. Her body burned for him and her heart ached for his unreserved desire.
And it was his desire. Where Erik lead, Christine would follow, heedless into the dark, to oblivion, for all she cared. So long as he would keep kissing her.
Christine's hands rose to rove her fingers through Erik's hair and tugged at his wig. A thoughtless action, she only wanted him closer to her, yet he pulled away at the pressure. His chest heaved against hers and she could feel their hearts racing. Racing together – the same, sharp staccato beat. He tightened his grip on her hips, stilling her over him. She had not realized she was moving.
Erik's mismatched eyes held her gaze, molten and wild, and she could not look away. So much of him – everything he tried to hide, everything he successfully kept hidden – laid bare before her in his eyes.
There was love, unquestioningly. Yet there was also wonder and astonishment, regret, desire. They warred within him just as they warred within her. Christine's throat went dry with all the truths she longed to tell him. She wanted to speak her love out loud. Finally. Completely. To bind him to her with words he'd longed to hear.
Without breaking their gaze, Erik leaned toward her and kissed the soft flesh just above her heart. Christine took a deep breath at the contact. His hot breath ghosted over her skin, "You are not my mistress."
"No?" It was a question. It was statement. Did it matter if she was his mistress? Christine couldn't think with his mouth on her.
His lips traveled up her neck with gentle nips of his teeth, "You are my love."
Against her ear he murmured, "And I am yours."
And so he spoke the binding words when she could not. He bound them together, defiance and desire heavy in his voice. Did he know that she loved him with just as much passion as he loved her?
Christine took Erik's head in her hands, forcing him to look in her eyes, "Always." There was no cold tension in his body at her word, no shadows in his eyes. He believed her. Whether or not the past mattered, in this moment he believed Christine claimed him as her own.
She gave thanks to God for miracles to hopeless sinners. And then she took his lips ravenously, sealing her affirmation like a covenant between them.
She felt his fingers curl onto the back edge of her dress, pulling at the fabric and couldn't help but smile. She'd successfully, somehow, undone his vest and several buttons on his shirt.
"You deserve a proper wooing."
"I believe this is a proper wooing." More than proper. What could possibly be more proper? Christine shifted her weight on the chair and Erik winced as she impacted his hurt leg. The discomfort seemed to remind him of something, and he gently set her back from him.
His voice was soft, careful not her hurt her, "You must practice. And you deserve a soft bed, at least."
Chapter 20: A Feat
"Erik, this is indecent."
"I must say, even in my wildest fever dreams you never looked quite so fetching in riding trousers," he whispered hotly into her ear. A sharp tug on her waist indicated the rigging tethering her to the gimbal was secure. "While I'm not pleased with how seductive you will look to others in them, I'm afraid that is exactly the point, my dear."
"To be a distraction."
"To be fair, I could have put you in one of the acrobatic outfits. Their legs are bare." At his inflection, warmth pooled in her belly. The Colosseum was empty but for Erik and Simon, and bathed in cold moonlight from the wide-open space above. "Now," Erik circled her, stopping to adjust the sleeves on Christine's shirt – his shirt, "the ropes connecting your harness attach to the gimbal above. Simon will control the balance and length of your tether, but you control the speed and force."
"Has anyone ever done this before?"
"No, my angel. You're very brave to indulge me in this."
"I believe the correct phrase is ignorant of the repercussions." He snickered at her retort, tucking a stray lock of her hair back into her bun. "What are you going to have me do?"
All the air escaped from her lungs at the look of delight on his face. A wide, excited smile filled Erik's features, skewing his mask, "I'm going to make you fly."
For a moment, no matter how small, this man had forgotten the torment behind and before him and enjoyed all that he commanded. He was excited for this.
His arm rose to indicate her path. "You will sing the first stanza of the song here, a cappella. You must face toward the shell. It is the only way your voice will carry in the center of the ring. Once completed, the chorus will build. Start slowly, but you will run down this slope and up the ramp. The goal is for you to keep running and the force will begin your swing."
Christine gasped as an invisible tug wrenched her from the floor. Her stomach fell at the quick rush, her legs dangling three feet off the ground. Erik cursed and grabbed the harness by the lock at her waist. "Just showing her boss," Simon hollered from the darkness. At Erik's pull of the harness she was lowered back to the ground. Christine clutched his shoulders, desperate for some solid form beneath her.
"Don't worry. They all know full well if you're hurt, they die." His booming laugh echoed menacingly against the empty seats.
Simon spoke again from his hidden place, "Boss, this was your idea."
"And it will work just as intended if my strong man stays focused. Physics."
Oh great. We're putting our faith in science now. Christine hoped his mastery of science extended farther than the students who'd mulled about Montmartre during their evenings off. How anyone could think scientifically while out of their minds on laudanum, she still could not grasp.
"Let's get you in the sky." He stood behind her, both hands on her waist. "The ropes should feel snug. That's important."
He released her then, and with a deep breath she took to running down the slope of the stage and up the ramp closest to the lower seats. "Good. Just keep running."
The end of the ramp rose up before her and Christine stalled, the force of her halt jarring her off the ramp and swinging her uselessly just feet from the edge. Her face flushed in embarrassment. Silence filled her ears.
The third time was the charm. The trick was to sit into the harness, and let it begin its carry two steps before the end of the ramp. Erik had not anticipated this. She'd figured it out on her own.
The air against her body exhilarated her senses and she flung her arms out wide behind her. It really was like flying. The force of her run only got her around half the Colosseum, and she struggled as she fell from weightlessness.
At the sixth attempt, Erik suggested she try kicking her feet off the rigging poles, if she could get her footing. She missed the first one, but firmly hit the second, pushing off the pole with as much force as her leg could muster. It worked, and she made the entire circle.
"Good!" Erik exclaimed. "The goal is to make it around once and have the crew unharness you during the first fireworks. Let's try it now with music." Her limbs screamed in protest. Angling her body and staying still in the air was hard work she was unaccustomed to; however, she could not deny Erik when he was so clearly enthralled in his creation.
From a small cubby under the center stage he rolled a phonograph, placing it exactly at Christine's mark. "You'll have four bars before you start to run. Don't get distracted by the sound." The expectation in him was palpable. Never had she wanted to meet his expectations more.
He set the needle upon the record and stepped away. The chorus began and the sound carried throughout the room, passionate and booming. He counted her down the last measure and she took off into a run. She used the downward slope to sprint faster, taking as much speed with her into the ramp. She did not slow her speed on the rise. The music was too powerful for that. With her last strides she bent deep, pumping her legs hard against the ground and resting into the harness.
She didn't fly. She soared, and the music echoed around her in bombastic support. She rose with so much speed, she missed the first and second rigging completely and kicked off the third. Her acceleration carried her past her previous end point and Simon gently released her rope, until she could run again on the dirt floor. She ended a third of the way through her second spiral, right next to a trap door in the wall.
The music ended and silence filled the cavernous space.
Christine's head spun at the otherworldly perfection of the feat she'd just performed. There was nothing like it. Never in all her imaging could she have believed she was capable of something so adventurous, so defying.
She searched for Erik in the moonlit arena and saw him staking toward her.
The rush of wonder throughout her body condensed to hot need as she gazed at him. His pale skin barely contrasted with his white shirt, yet she could see the definition of his forearms where he'd rolled up his sleeves. There he was. Her love. She swallowed thickly at the sight of his open collar, the muscles of his throat highlighted in light and shadow. Christine's body throbbed at the memory of how his throat had tasted under her tongue. He looked like a warlord coming to claim his spoils.
His hand reached for her, capturing the nape of her neck and pulling her near. His lips seared her own and coaxed her into an even deeper claiming before she could wrap her arms around him. She felt the harness tug low near her thighs and groaned at the teasing pressure.
The kiss changed, deepened into something less demanding, but with no less hunger. Erik's arms pulled her close and they both inhaled at the press of her breasts to his chest. Erik released her lips. "Bravissima," he whispered against them. Her nose brushed his porcelain one. The act made him blink, and confusion filled his eyes.
"What?" Christine asked.
"She's just so short, boss! I thought I'd help a guy out!" Simon had lifted Christine off the floor to balance their heights while they kissed. It was a testament to Simon's gentleness that she'd not really felt the change, though she dearly appreciated the sentiment. Christine felt Erik's body chuckle in silent laughter.
Her knees were weak when he returned her to the ground. Erik's hand began to unlatch her harness with careful movements. "We're done for this evening. Thank you, Simon."
Christine swore she heard the strong man laugh and say 'Sure you are' from the darkness. She couldn't help but giggle to herself.
"Do you laugh at me good lady?"
She could not hide her smile now. Too much passion and nervousness and delight coursed through her veins. "Never."
"Then what is so entertaining?"
At his question, Christine was forced to think of an answer. Silence would not do well; he was genuinely curious. She struggled to think through the distracting touch of his hands on her thighs. He bent to finish his task. The words came before she had a chance to think on them, "You kissed me before someone –"
"Simon is hardly someone." His lips joined his hands.
"And he jeered at you and you merely laughed." His left hand tugged at her shirt, freeing it from her pants. "I like how you are with people here." The nose of his mask ran along the top of her trousers. "I like how you are with me."
He stopped his movements and spoke into the skin of her stomach, "When there was no hope to win you, I found everyone else's slights mattered little. In America, men and women have less horror and more curiosity in their gazes, and that poison is less sour to swallow. And of course, now that you're here, now that you dare to be alone with me, to look at me without fear, now that you call me my love, I find no one else's opinions matter. Let them say what they like. I have Christine Daaé in my arms, and so the world be damned."
Christine's heart burst with wonder.
She threaded her hands through his hair, holding him close. "Erik?"
"Hmm?" he murmured.
"I think a soft bed is too far away." She felt the smile in his cheek against the center of her chest.
"Then we best get going." He rose from her, taking her hand in his. When she tried to protest, he stilled her with his finger against her lips. "You deserve a bed and nothing less. I am determined."
So long as he didn't change his mind.
Chapter 21: A Secret
I apologize in advance, dears. You may see some grammatical errors in this chapter despite my best efforts. Work has been crushing me and I'm struggling to focus on anything else. I hope it won't take the enjoyment out of this *cough* warm chapter.
Christine took her time, slowly uncovering his body, reveling in every sharp line and lean expanse of muscle she laid bare. It was an indulgence she would deny herself no longer, even though her body was hungry for his. She kissed the calloused skin between his finger and thumb as she unbuttoned his sleeves.
The candlelight cast an eerie yellow glow on him, so different from the moonlight of before. It was different but made the man no less beautiful. When had he become beautiful to her? Christine tried to remember, but in her hunger found only the vague and then assured sense of want in her memories. She trailed her fingers across his frowning lips, "What is this for? There was just as much light in the practice rooms." At the reminder of their first carnal encounter, his eyes smoldered, some of his hesitancy lost.
The hands that graced her body did so loosely, unsure where to touch her, afraid his want would break her. She bit back her smile at the thought. She grazed her fingers down the center of his chest. The tips ebbed and rolled against scars long healed. "There is nothing handsome under these clothes, Christine," his voice caught on the confession.
She playfully kissed the edge of his lower lip and unbuttoned her own shirt. "Maybe I want to see all of you. Maybe I like seeing your skin against mine." She was thankful for the ease of men's clothing. With the tug of a few mere buttons, she had her Phantom distracted with her own level of undress. By the end of the night, Erik would never question her desire for him again. "Your mask hides the very real perfection of your smile. What other wonders will I find when I see all of you?"
Her fingers itched to remove his mask. "You know very well I have no physical perfection." She trailed kisses at the edge of his hidden mouth.
"Your definition of perfection is very narrow then. Your voice is perfect. This here –" Christine nipped at the small dimple formed by the movement of his mouth, "is perfect. Your hands…" She set them firmly around her waist, "now they are unparalleled perfection." She playfully nipped his lower lip between her teeth. "It's been countless nights of want, Erik. And there's the bed. Don't you dare deny—"
"You know I can deny you nothing." She let his hands take over pulling the shirt from her body and pressed wet kisses along his neck. His thundering heart vibrated in his bones. Christine let her smiling lips linger on his skin, enjoying the shudder it drew from him.
Unable to stand the sweet teasing any longer, Erik buried his fingers in her hair and pulled her mouth to his. Unlike their first night together, Christine let him set the pace, responding with hungry strokes. They broke apart with a moan in both their throats.
"Tell me a secret," she begged. The night was long, and she intended to go slow with him. What could she get him to confess in these heated moments?
She wanted everything in him.
Christine tugged at his mask, eliciting a struggled laugh. "I told you. I cannot kiss you properly with your mask on," she danced teasing kisses along his puffy lower lip, attempting to prove her point.
Erik straightened and replaced Christine's hands at the fastenings, "I didn't believe you before, but now I do."
"That is not a secret."
"Yes," he teased her already swollen lips, "it is." He kissed her again, deeply, unhindered by the porcelain mask, and lifted her in his arms.
Christine felt his desire hard and hot against her. When she rocked her hips against his, desperate to relieve her own building pressure, and he burrowed harder against her, falling to the soft bed.
Her hands immediately found the buttons of his trousers. "Now tell me a secret," he whispered against her cheek.
His demand twisted every ache of want tighter within her. That was his beauty: his ravenous eagerness, his demand of equality with her. His soul made him beautiful where his skin could not. Yet under his scars and malformations set clean lines and pale skin. As in everything, all of him was both beautiful and monstrous. But that was not right. It was not right to call him monstrous anymore.
"Christine," he sang low into her ear, "a secret."
There were so many. How to pick just one? He helped her with the final buttons and groaned when she took him in her hands. He was so very hard. And warm. Christine tugged lightly on him and his hips began a needy motion for her.
A half-truth, she thought. She spoke softly against his mangled cheek, "I've dreamed about you every night since coming here and not a single one has come close to what I feel when you touch me."
The whole truth was that she'd dreamed of him nearly every night since his supposed death.
At her confession, Erik burst into movement, ridding them both of the rest of their clothing and gathering her up tightly in his embrace. "And what do you feel when I touch you?"
She rocked her hips and shivered at the pleasure of him sliding through her folds. It was too much power to give him – telling him the truth, but she would. How could she not? "Like I'm finally whole." His kissed her temple and settled himself at her entrance. "Like the world is right."
He began his slow press into her, the ache in her core clenched desperately for the fullness of him inside her. "Like I'm dying of thirst and you've brought me the cleanest, coldest water in heaven to drink my fill."
His mouth captured hers in a devastating kiss and when he was finally, fully seated in her, he spoke into her mouth, "I love you."
It was not a slow seduction. They burned too hot for that. Erik began his thrusts, sure and forceful. The slide of him inside her spread through every nerve in her body until she could only cling to him and gasp, her hips rising to meet him each time.
This is what she had always wanted. This is what her body knew he could pull from her. Their untamable connection condensed between them, turning into a wild, deep river they willingly downed in.
Christine looked into Erik's eyes and found no expectation there, no pride. She saw a man as enthrall to the passion as she was, hungry for their mutual release. He could feel it too – the unparalleled connection, their souls laid equal. "Has it ever been like this?" he questioned.
His hands worshiped her body, reverently stroking her skin, sending fissures along her veins.
"Never." The pleasure built inside her, feeding off itself until her climax became an undeniable inevitability. The force of their movements had driven them to the top of the bed. Christine's head sunk into the pillows and Erik tossed them off of her with disgust. He wanted to see her. Every second of her pleasure. Pleasure he commanded. He settled more heavily on top of her, his arms caging her head and slowed his pace.
Christine whimpered, "Faster, Erik. I need you."
He worked his tongue into her mouth and grabbed her hip with his hand, coaxing a demanding roll of them in time with his own movements. "You have me."
At the new angle, it was his turn to moan. And that sound strummed every fiber in her already aching being. He thrust harder and found a new spot deep in her core. The pleasure crested throughout her body and stole the voice from her throat.
He repeated the motion and her muscles clenched on him hard. "Are you sure you want faster?"
She wasn't any more. The pleasure was so sharp and so close, Christine thought she might die at the break of it. Still, her hands clawed low on his back, urging his actions. He sucked on her hard nipple and began a relentless pace.
It was too much. Too aching a pleasure. Too much of him. Too much love. His name broke on her lips as her orgasm pulsed through her, cresting in frenzied wave after wave of unabated pleasure.
Erik followed a single thrust after, his voice roaring in her ears as he shuddered inside her, relenting to his own fevered release. For the second time tonight Christine bound herself to him – wordless vows etched with her lips along his skin. You are mine and I am yours. You are mine, my love. And I will never release you. You are mine.
Their chests heaved against each other, shivers racking their over-sensitized flesh. He did not rise from her and leaned heavily on his arms so he did not crush her. Christine was content to lay under him, still joined, dancing wet kisses along his chin until morning.
The candles had all but burnt to nubs by the time Erik finally let Christine rest for the night, the fire nothing but cinders in the grate. He rose from her for only a moment to let in the cold night air. Christine shivered at the first kiss of the chill and burrowed deep into Erik's arms when he returned to her.
They lingered between wakefulness and sleep, drawing gentle circles on each other's damp skin. Christine marveled at the contented stillness of her heart. Never had she felt so at peace. She closed her eyes and listened to the strange beat of Erik's own heart and lost herself in the steady ebb and flow of his breathing.
She didn't hear him when he asked her, "Do you prefer my bed to the hotel's?"
"The bed. Is it more comfortable than the Hotel American?"
"Everything in this room is more comfortable than the Hotel American." His chest rumbled with a halfhearted laugh. "Though they did have the most delicious croissant." Erik wove his fingers throughout her, gently dancing along her skin. He brought their entwined hands to his lips.
"What is it like? In town?"
"Small. Providential. Though I'm never quite sure. There are always so many people coming and going, it is hard to tell." She struggled to wake from her halfhearted slumber.
"And the Cummings? What were they like at your fine dinners?"
"You're a mystery to them, you know. With all your elegant airs." She pressed her smiling lips against his chest.
"I've always wondered what dinning with the very rich would be like."
Christine was taken aback. She'd forgotten such parts of society were forbidden to him. What a loss for the rich. "Have you ever met Mary and her husband?"
"A few times. One must make appearances. But I'm never proper company for dinner parties, even if invited." So he'd isolated himself. "Tell me about the last one you'd gone to."
"They're really very dull."
"I'm sure that's true. But I'd like to hear about it nonetheless." He did enjoy descriptions of the mundane. It was as though anything truly domestic was foreign to him, and he listened as intently as a child listening to a wild adventure.
"It was before your broken leg. We had roast chicken. We discussed the new fabrics that had arrived from Philadelphia. Mr. Cummings' and Porter discussed a new cigar factory starting in Lancaster. And something about a steel mill in piston..pitsville…"
"Yes. That was it. As you can see, the evenings are riveting. I think we had sorbet for dessert. Most nights they ask me to sing a song or two. And I agree out of sheer boredom. Only in English, mind you. Then they ask me to tell them all about you." She knew his eyebrows rose in interest. "Don't worry. I kept you very mysterious."
"And what did the Cummings say about the steel mill?"
"In Pittsburgh?" Christine thought back, trying to remember what exactly had sparked her annoyance during that conversation for her to even remember it. "It was something about the water around the city and Phantasma. Something about underwater railways. That's what it was. That they would finally beat you at your own game with unrustable steel." She yawned as pale sunlight began to filter in through the window.
"Unrustable. What nonsense."
"But I remember that statement nettled me. You unable to do something. It's offensive really."
He kissed the crown of her head, "Willing to defend my honor, my love?" She smiled at the endearment and rose to kiss his lips in the darkness. Every time he spoke the words aloud the coil binding them together wound tighter and Christine marveled at its increasing intensity within her, unwilling to ever let it go.
She drifted to sleep in the early morning light, Erik humming a melody softly in her ear.
Chapter 22: A Reckoning
The strike began in earnest the next day.
The train station horns did not bellow and the clatter of the track was silent. There was no need to ship workers to the edge of the railways and the coal shovelers had joined them.
Even those determined to visit Phantasma, walking on foot or horseback from the town, seemed to carry with them the weight of the Appalachian silence. Still, they came in droves, filling the amusement park with their laughter and excitement, and tired feet.
Herbert had decided there was no reason for them to practice, as had been their custom, since Mr. Y had taken over the position so thoroughly from him. Christine's rehearsals for the spectacular continued in whispers and never once did she fully complete the numbers before any of the other acts.
It was useless to practice outside the Colosseum. And inside the Colosseum, Erik hoarded all her time like a hungry child before a feast. He refused to share her attentions with anyone else. It had be years, she reasoned. And his possessiveness only seemed to match her own.
And so, with little practice to do and the sun high in the sky, Herbert instead decided it was time for Christine to experience Phantasma.
"What would you like to try today? The racing horses? The swirling teacups? Or perhaps you are quite brave and will join me on the Tornado."
"What's that one?" she asked, pointing to the tall structure where ballooning fabric parachuted couples down to the floor.
"I'm afraid, my dear, if you want to try the 'Fall from Heaven' you will have to bribe Mr. Y to take you. I'll never get on that infernal contraption."
Though she'd been in Maunch Chunk all winter, she'd rarely looked any closer at Phantasma than it took to find her way. She'd never been one for carnivals. And there was something particularly uncomfortable about an entire park existing as a manifestation of Erik's mind. Still, the amusement park looked different, and it wasn't just the mountains of snow that had been removed to show the cold dirt beneath.
A gnawing worry had taken up residence in Christine's belly since Erik's incident with Porter: ever present but easily forgettable. Now, it made its presence known in the silent spaces of Christine's day. The unease rolled in her as she looked at the rides she would have to brave.
Much of the commotion at Phantasma had always been tourists. While they still filled the walkways and their screams echoed from the rides, the absence of the local inhabitants and a large chunk of Phantasma's workers changed the tenor of things. She couldn't put her finger on what was wrong, but something was wrong. Perhaps the strike had gotten to her.
She'd successfully coaxed Sam and Herbert out of riding the Tornado, but was not able to escape the pirate ship. It was a marvel, though she lost her stomach as some point during the ride and was not sure where she would find it again. Sam simply smiled and howled next to her, delighted.
Christine returned to solid earth grateful for the stillness of Phantasma's main street. It was still decorated with garland and bows for the recently passed holiday season. If she looked straight ahead and did not stare too hard at any one thing, she could almost imagine she was walking near Le Marais, her boots tapping over the old cobblestones.
"What is that?" She asked, a dark building with tall, closed shutters catching her eye. It was the only structure whose main door mirrored the misshapen mask at the entry of the park.
"That," Herbert answered, "is Mr. Y's fun house."
"And what's in there?"
"Fun of course."
"Why don't you go inside to find out." Christine looked to her escorts, wondering if this would end much like the amusement ride and she would find herself without a stomach again. But Herbert's eyes were encouraging, and Sam looked ready to burst with information. When she nodded, Herbert held fast to Sam's shoulder. "We'll wait out here for you."
There was no line outside the fun house and Christine had no good retort for why she did not want to enter. Without any good explanation other than her unease, she walked toward the malformed door and through its darkened entrance.
The music from an old jewelry box tittered discordant and warped as she entered. The gnawing feeling in her belly blossomed, fulling her body and frying her nerves. Her eyes struggled to make sense of the relative darkness around her. Christine lingered in the foyer, all at once terribly unsure if this was a good idea. It was that melody – she knew it, but could not remember from where. It conjured up other strange memories from the darkness.
Two large hands reached out from the dark and shoved her forward, their touch utterly spanning her low back. She sucked in a startled gasp and hurried away at their demand for motion.
Her feet sunk into hot ground. The roll and feel of it was warm and sinking around her ankles. Sand. She was sinking into hot sand. The heels of her boots did not click against its floor. She struggled against the swallowing with heavy, slow steps. The discordant harmony paced with her – speeding and slowling with her pace. The harder she fought against the sinking, the tighter the ground's hold became.
The darkness was oppressive. The music changed tempo. Was the music in her head? Surely, she could not dream up such unsettling melodies.
Sweat beaded on the back of her neck as the room warmed around her and she removed her winter jacket, letting if fall to the floor forgotten. The scorching heat burned her skin. The music turned to a single flat note held in perpetuity.
When she thought she could take no more steps, lights burst in her vision. Wild, vibrant lights all the colors of the rainbow, changing from one color to the next in quick succession, until she could no longer distinguish the colors to more than a feeling within her. Panic seeded where worry had been planted, yet she could not feel it. Her head was too scattered in the heat. Her fingers trembled against her skirt.
Christine closed her eyes and struggled for a breath.
A cool breeze blew against her temple. She opened her eyes in response and the world from before faded away. She was in darkness again and her feet did not feel heavy.
Shallow light began to fill the void and the world rolled underneath her. She could not catch her footing on the moving floor and stumbled to her knees. It was colored with strange patterns and spun and undulated, all moving in seemingly different directions. It rolled her along the room in an endless pattern of swirls and shifts. And above it all Faust played.
Christine's fingers dug into the floor, trying in vain to steady herself against the motions sickening her. Her head spun and dark spots danced in her vision.
An archway formed in the distance, solid and unmoving against the floor. She braced herself, determined to end this dizzying display and rose to her feet. Like most unpleasant things had been in her life, they were better when you moved through them quickly. She took the floor at a run, never lingering on a swirl for longer than a moment.
Why did they call this a fun house? Did Americans think this was fun?
She stumbled twice but made it to the solid archway unscathed. The moment she touched the feature she screamed. It was warm and wet and breathing. A rush of wind from under her feet stole her scream from the room.
Gasping for breath, she rushed onward, deep into an inky blueness, strands of damp filament dancing and growing larger around her as she traveled deeper.
Everything around her breathed. And shimmered. And moved with a floating grace. Even the music hummed in a muffled, distant way. She couldn't rightly tell which way was forward or back, or even which way was up or down.
Her hair floated strangely away from her body. It was like she was under water.
That's what it was.
She was underwater and the kelp danced and the surface of the water shimmered and the siren's song was coming closer the longer she walked down into the depths. The deeper she walked, the darker the water became. But the song was so pretty and strange, and she had to follow it onward. It enchanted her. The sea had always been beautiful. And the worry in her stomach faded to a dull throb.
From her periphery she saw a tale and turned. Another moment passed and she saw shimmering scales upon an arm and turned again. The mermaids where always just out of reach. Searching for them, she twisted herself in the sweating kelp until her feet could no longer move and she struggled for freedom.
This was what sailors warned about – sirens dragging you into the deadly depths with their voices. Panic began anew when she could not untie her ankles and the kelp pressed tighter.
And then all she could do was hold on as it lifted her up in a rush to the surface. So fast. Too fast. Christine didn't have enough breath in her lungs to scream. She closed her eyes and held on tight.
Her hands felt soft grass between her shaking fingers. The movement of before was only a memory. Stillness pervaded her now. Warm stillness and chirping. Christine opened her eyes, and a golden poplar tree grew before her, bright and shimmering in the moonlight. The wide expanse of the night sky towered above them, millions of stars glittering against the deepest blue.
Christine forced the air in her lungs and crushed the growing panic in her stomach. When she got out, she was going to scream at Erik. This place was awful and strange and dangerous.
Golden leaves fell from the branches of the tree, landing softly on the ground and in her hair. They glimmered before her in a radiant mixture of fall colors. At least the poplar tree was still and lovely and golden and…a poplar tree.
It was a golden poplar tree.
The panic she tried so hard to calm roared back to life within her.
A golden poplar tree was the only feature of Raoul's torture he had shared with her. A shimmering, golden poplar tree with ropes for branches that reached out for your throat. 'Keep your hand at the level of your eyes,' he'd said. He had never smiled when he repeated those words in the telling of his story. It was why there were shallow scars across his neck to this day. She had always made him cover them. She had not liked the memories they provoked.
That had been unfair of her. After all, she did not bear the scars. She merely had to look at them.
Christine search the branches for magical lassos, and, while the tree did look like hundreds of vines of twisted rope, none of them ended in a deadly display. Her fingers rubbed her throat, assuring her there were no threads around her own neck. It did not help lower her fear.
Before her eyes, under the shifting night sky, the tree bore ruby fruit. So much fruit that the bows of the tree sunk in heaviness. She rose to pick the ripest one and found it cold and hard – a true ruby the size of her hand with thousands of facets to create its shape.
She pulled the jeweled apple from the branch and with its snap a cavernous scream filled the expanse. The anguish of the cry brought tears to her eyes. She dropped the apple from her hands and covered her ears.
And then the floor swallowed her up and she tumbled into the abyss.
Lights in strange places.
How long was a fun house supposed to be?
Christine righted herself from the mound of pillows she'd fallen into and saw her reflection in the dim light. She was pale and scared and – and her face was too long? No, too wide? Too…. She looked around her and several Christine's looked back at her. All the same, yet all different. All her, yet – not her.
Only one panel did not reflect her image. She walked toward it and saw that it was merely glass. She touched an edge, and when she realized it was free standing, she walked through the passage into a new corridor of glass and mirrors. She did not see the imposing figure hiding in the mirror behind.
It was a maze of mirrors and after only a few steps inside, Christine was lost. What has Theseus used? She wished absently for some string. Her own scared reflection continued to look back at her. And then others began to look back at her. It was a dizzying array of bodies and faces. Characters from history. Caged or floating. Still in repose.
Music began above her. Another discordant and haunting melody. It made her skin crawl. She continued walking, wondering how so much could be fit into the two-story stone building on Phantasma's Main Street.
Christine slid between two panes of glass, opening a long corridor before her. Her feet flew across the floor, relief filling her that she was finally at the end of this awful amusement, and she slammed headfirst into a wall of glass.
No sooner did she push away, than she saw a face smiling back at her. She screamed.
But the woman behind the glass did not hear her. She was dancing and smiling, dressed in flowing fabrics that floated at her movements. Her face was wrong. Parts were missing. She looked…dead.
Christine turned and ran, seeing another figure through the glass – a man dressed as a sheik, laughing at her with no teeth. And then another: a merman with bites out of his stomach, a French ballerina with bloody feet, gypsies and cowboys, and all manner of men and women. Some walked, some shimmered in place. Some looked to the distance, others stared into her. Some screamed for help. Did they have souls like hers? Did they feel what she felt?
They were in cages. All of them.
She pounded on the glass and hollered, but nothing budged. Sad brown eyes called out to her in agony.
All were beautiful yet had something wrong. Something grotesque. Something strange. Christine fumbled along the pathways, lost in an unending loop. Her mind remembered other old corridors and her body remembered those memories. The fear and the inevitability of loss roared again in her blood. Unable to get away, and lost in the maze of her own mind, she began to cry. They all had her eyes. They all searched her eyes with imploring sadness.
And they all had her eyes.
Tears clouded her vision and the maze got darker.
Hands began to touch her again, and fear rolled her stomach. There were no hands on her. Yet she could feel them, ghosting over her, pulling her under, pulling her to them.
She would never get out.
She would be lost in this horrible sad maze of Erik's mind forever and she would never be free. She would turn into another one of the lost souls he'd trapped inside. His imaginings would drown her with them. She ran – she ran blindly and ran and ran and suddenly she could no longer hear the music over her screams.
Strong arms wrapped around her through the dark and she screamed again. "Christine!" Urgency, low and sharp, filled Erik's voice as he spoke into her ear. "It's me. Christine, it's okay. It's just me." She struggled to control her racing heart, the tension in her body still not easing at the realization it was Erik who held her. Unwilling to let her go, he moved with her tightly against his chest to a small door. As ever, he found his way effortlessly in the darkness. "Stairs here," he warned, finally easing the caging of his arms.
Christine could not control her heartbeat or her breathing. Her hands trembled against the stone walls. She desperately tried to stop her tears, but couldn't.
As they rose from the first floor, light began to fill the space, until, at the top of the stairs, they were awash in midday light. Christine turned to look at him, but found she could not. Instead she burrowed into his chest and stared blankly at the sun-filled wall. She needed some time to get her barring. Erik's hand lightly rubbed her back – up and down, up and down – giving her a meter to slow her breathing to.
When it finally evened and she lifted herself away, he spoke. "My workshop," he gestured at the attic space. It was filled to the brim with mechanical things and contraptions. She was again overwhelmed. But not at the strangeness. It was the mundaneness of the place that overwhelmed her. So different from below. So full of light, unlike times before. Christine couldn't help but remember his other workshop – how dark and cold it had been. Had this been what was in the shadows all along?
"Thank you. For the rescue. I'm not sure what came over me." An unbidden blush filled her cheeks. Would Erik be disappointed in her reaction to his creations? Of course he would.
He took his seat before the broad workbench at the center of the room, hunching over a mess of cogs and circuits. They sat in silence for a time: Christine regathering herself. She'd been right before. She was never one for carnivals.
He dared not to look up from his work, "I'm sorry you found the Fun House unpleasant." His voice was off. Hollow. It struggled to find the familiar warmth Christine had grown so accustomed to.
"I find that name infinitely misleading. What were they? In the cases?"
"You know they are not real. Not real people."
"They moved. In the water. In the cages."
"It's all cogs and wires. Surely you've seen the posters for the amazing automatons. I know you've seen the Singing Siren." His head swung to the side, trying to see her in his periphery, "You know as well as anyone I can make lifeless things look very lifelike."
"They are unnerving." She swallowed, her throat dry. "And the mirrors? The floors?"
"All tricks of the light. Those you should know well from before."
His tone burned with condescension and Christine bristled at the hearing of it. He was implying she was still a scared petulant child, but she knew better. That Fun House was unlike any carnival ride she'd ever been on. Indignation rose within her. "And the poplar tree?" she accused. Her tone careful, but critical.
He eyes found hers then, seeing the truth she held in them.
"So, it seems, the Vicomte did tell you something of his journey to the Underworld." He tossed the contraption in his hands aside, turning to look at her. "Did you find none of it beautiful? None of it beguiling? Was there not some small part of it you could find to love?" She was stunned at the passion behind his words, and when silence lingered in the air, he began to pace. "All this I've built. All these things I've created. How can you understand when everything you are is beautiful? How can you know how wondrous strange imaginings can be? Can you not see that sometimes there can be beauty in the ugly things? That not all the goodness fills the beautiful things?"
She winced at his words, each one precise in its infliction of pain. With clear purpose they struck true to her core. "Are the things I create monstrous? I am monstrous, Christine?" And there the question was before her, a gauntlet tossed at her feet. The Phantom of the Opera finally demanded his reckoning.
"You are no more monstrous than I am."
He scoffed, "Don't be a child. I created all you see. I am the things you see. They are as a part of me as my mind and music, as my face and mask. If you cannot love them, there is no hope you will ever love me."
But they'd said the words. He'd bound them with them.
And still, he didn't believe it. "Is that what you want from me? For me to love you." It was a stupid question.
"Broken and cursed as I am. Greedy and needful as I am. Yes." He stopped pacing, and turned his back to the window, pulling the mask from his face. "I thought if I brought you here, I could live half a life – so long as I could hear you sing again, so long as you were near me. But now I've kissed you and touched you and heard you speak like a lover. I want everything again."
"Erik, there is nothing in me to love." Her voice was so quiet it made him take a step toward her. "There is so much beauty and strangeness you command. Somehow you defy God and have things both wondrous and beautiful. But me? I have a beautiful face and a beautiful voice, but inside I am rotten and cold and broken. There is no beauty underneath."
His gaze seemed to mirror her own agony. Her neck ached, but she could not will her muscles into submission.
"So this is your tactic this time? Instead of me not being worthy of you, you are not worthy of love? This is cruel Christine. If you cannot love me, just tell me. You've never been caged here. You are free to leave." But the madness was there. Lurking in his eyes. He was fighting it valiantly.
The world opened up beneath her and swallowed her whole. She must still be in the fun house. This could not be real. I can love you. I do love you. "It is not a tactic. It is a fact. You have changed and grown and become better without me. I've spent ten years indifferent to goodness. I don't mean to be cruel. You can have whatever is left of me Erik, whatever is here is yours. I just – I just think that when you see the real me you will be disappointed in what you find."
"What did he do to you, Christine?"
She stood motionless before him, unable to speak. Of course he would ask. Of course he would demand the reason fo her empty coldness.
His hands fisted on his work bench. "It is best you go Mademoiselle."
Hundreds of emotions tumbled around in her chest – fear, disappointment, anger – anger was the most helpful and she clung to it fiercely. Erik's eye blazed with their own wild distress and she could not bear it. "You want to know why I was left here? What he did to me? Like you he was in love with my voice – 'Sing, Christine. Sing and be glorious before these men. Look how you impress them, look how helpful your voice will be to us.' He became like you. And then he became worse. He saw that I had pulled away from him, from everyone, but was convinced I would change with time. Until I could no longer stand to hear his voice." She did not let him crowd near to her and walked away to the far side of his work bench.
"He took me from Paris to England and then to America. He could never stay still, even though all I wanted was to be still. He left me at the mercy of rich men who were accustomed to getting the things they wanted. His willful ignorance at their propriety endeared him to all." She could not bring herself to meet Erik's gaze.
"When he suggested we return to Paris, after he would not marry me, after I bore him a dead child," her voice broke, "and nearly died and still he would not marry me, I urged him to go on ahead. And he did, with a younger brown-haired woman he met by the sea."
And there it was. The truth that had turned her cold. The hurt, not surprise, mirrored in Erik's eyes meant that he had known. He had always known and wanted her to tell him herself.
"But you had been with child. Surely he wouldn't have let you endure that stigma alone. Surely he wanted his child."
"I had no vows. I had no name. I had a man, but no marriage. I had a child. I had a child growing, but no family to bring him into." The sobs began and she could not stop them. Still she would not let him near. Her gaze fell outside to the newly falling snow. "He told me I'd lost all my magic, that I'd fed all of it to a wound that would never heal. He said that's why the child had not lived. And he left me in the house alone.
"And you were dead. My angel and protector was gone. And the memories I had were of a monstrous man, a man I'd broken, who'd broken me. I only understood how much I wanted you after you were gone. And I was horrified with myself. That I knew all the terrible things you'd done, and still I wanted you." She looked him in the eye, "God may have cursed you, but you've cursed me."
They finally locked eyes from across the room, both unable to look away. After long moment, Erik released a cavernous breath and closed his eyes. When he opened them, they were brighter in color than Christine had ever seen them.
"I have done terrible things."
"Yes. And I used to care" she answered bitterly. And there was the truth of it. She no longer cared. Her eyes slid shut, disgusted with herself.
"When there is less danger, when you and I can sit in silence together again, I will demand and full account of what happened before. And you will leave out no detail."
It was not his story to demand, and yet she knew why he demanded it. He wanted justice for her. He felt the hearing of it was a just punishment for him. But telling Erik the story would provide her no justice and cause her only more pain. She would not look back, through the yawning fall behind her feet threatened.
"Life has broken me. I let life break me. He never heard me. He didn't want to. He listened, but never really heard. And I choked on all my words until my body filled with bitterness and sadness. I wasted ten years of my life with a man who loved my voice, but never heard the words I spoke. I poured all the rest of my hope into a child who is gone from me. I am I so very cold now inside. Will you want me now? Now that you know I am just as broken and ugly as you think you are?"
Erik took Christine in his arms and held her close, the malformed side of his face resting against her cheek, "Yes."
She clutched him tightly to her, afraid he would release her and leave her alone again, "I don't believe you."
"Then it is my turn to prove it to you."
"And which river does the Lackawanna flow into?"
The Susquehanna, Christine absently answered while she marked the children's arithmetic at the back of the schoolhouse, Charlotte asleep on her lap. Hanna nodded in approval when Thomas answered correctly.
"And which river is closest to the Susquehanna?"
"The Allegheny," Sam hollered from his seat. He was very proud that these answers came easily for him. They should, he'd heard them often enough.
"Sam remember to raise your hand." Christine smiled to herself. "And what river does the Allegheny flow into?"
The Ohio River. When the students collectively answered correctly, Hanna passed out sweet mints from Mr. Y. For the last three days, class ended in this geography lesson and the children seemed delighted by the certain routine.
And like the days before, the children began to whisper amongst themselves as their candy melted in their mouths. It was at these times, her constant worry would blossom again in her chest. They were all so little. What is something terrible would happen? Especially to those without parents. How could she, a woman with relatively little money and no power, protect them all?
Like their elders, they spoke in hushed tones about what was to come next, trading what their mothers had said, or what they'd overheard from other Phantasma performers. To stop them would only cause more fear or more children's gossip – both of which would only lead to trouble.
Hanna smiled tightly from the front of the room, excusing the children early to end the chatter.
Sam stayed, hugging Christine's shoulder as she corrected his math. "You did well Sam." Elijah refused to look up from his new book, The Count of Monte Cristo.
"I could have done better. Sevens confuse me."
"I don't know why," Elijah answered, eyes still firmly in his book. "Seven. Fourteen. Twenty-one. Twenty-eight."
"What's seven times three hundred forty-two?"
Christine counted five seconds, "Two thousand three hundred and ninety-four." There was no question in Sam's mind that his friend was right.
"Run off to Mr. Y now," Hanna slid more chalkboards on Christine's desk, "He'll be expecting your help tonight before the show." With a nod, he took to his mission and rushed out the door, the other children quickly following.
"You're sweet with Sam," Hanna commented, sitting down opposite Christine.
"He's a good boy. Smart, charming. They all are. I don't want to see them get hurt."
"He is a good boy." The teacher looked toward the door the children had gone through, replaying a memory she would not share.
"What happened to his parents?"
"His mother died giving birth to his little brother. The child did not survive. And his father died a few years later."
"How did Mr. Y find him?"
"Like he found most of us." Christine set her chalk down, her full attention now on Hanna. "Miss Meg did most of the finding, I reckon. Maunch Chunk is a small town with hard work in it. We do our best. The railroad is better than the coal mines. But word gets out when a strange man sets up shop in these parts. Word got around that he paid better wages and had better conditions. People gravitate toward that."
"And the children?"
"He has no perversions. He allowed us to build this school and he fed and clothed the orphans. The only reason he gives Sam errands is he kept getting underfoot." A wistful smile tugged at the edge of her mouth, "Mr. Y would find him in all sorts of wires and contraptions in the fun house. 'How does this work? What does this do? Can I make the sparks happen?' It was dangerous. Sending him off with letters or an errand kept him out of trouble and out of Mr. Y's hair."
If only Hanna really knew about his hair. "I can imagine. It's a taste of Mr. Y's own medicine."
"What do you mean?"
At the quizzical look, Christine paused. How did she answer without giving too much away? It was clear the people of Phantasma enjoyed they mystery of its owner more than whatever the truth would be. Somehow she knew the truth would disappointment them. "He used to fiddle with things and it mostly ended badly for him."
It was an understatement of the century.
"So you did know him before."
"Before all this."
"And is he how you left him? Still the same strange dreamer?"
"No. Yes… he's different, and yet, the same – is that how you see him? A strange dreamer?"
"Most of us just call him strange. But he's created all of this. And Phantasma is something like the future, I believe. So, yes. He is a strange dreamer." Christine's heart softened at the explanation. It was the kindest one she'd ever heard about Erik. It was a far cry from 'monster' and that pleased her to her core. These people understood him in a kind way; they weren't afraid of what they didn't know. "Can I ask you a question?"
"Where does he come from?" At Christine's face, Hanna clarified: "I mean, surely you met him in Paris, but we have all these ideas about where he came from. I think he's from someplace hot. He's always so bundled up in the cold. Since you knew him before, I just assumed you knew."
But Christine didn't know. She'd never even thought to ask. She'd just assumed that he had always been living there – in his unremarkable little home by a lake at the bottom of the opera house. She'd just assumed he'd been born of the world fully formed and methodical. To think some place, or someone, had molded Erik into what he had been was too sad, too horrible a thought. What a childhood that must have been. A childhood fit for no one.
Shame and tenderness flooded Christine's cheeks. Erik was a man who deserved respect and protection and the world before Phantasma had given him none. She had given him none. All because God had deemed such grace and mastery could not also be beautiful. "Mr. Y has only ever been a mystery."
Hanna smiled then at Christine, a knowing, somewhat saccharine smile. She saw the pitiably selfishness Christine languished over in her mind.
"The mask, why does he wear it?"
An easier question, to be sure, but just as dangerous to answer. "Why does it matter?"
"It doesn't. I'm simply curious."
"Curiosity killed the cat, you know."
A laugh burst from Hanna's chest. At the sound, all the tension in the room evaporated and Hanna's smile seem friendly again once more. "Fine. Then tell me what it's like to kiss him with it on." Christine couldn't help but laugh with her.
"Frustrating." She flushed at the memories of Erik's lips on her own. Heavens, how she hated the hinderance it could be in kissing him deeply.
It was a remarkable delight, to speak of loving him casually, with very little stigma coloring the conversation.
Hanna sobered first and took Christine's hand in her own, "Be careful tonight," she warned.
"Why would I need to be careful?"
"I just feel it's appropriate to caution a lamb before it walks willingly into slaughter." Christine's face lost all color at Hanna's words. "I'm sorry, Christine. That was not a kind thing to say." She rose to collect her things and leave. "I just mean that tonight is dangerous and several men have many plans. I fear that Mr. Y, even in his brilliance doesn't know about all of them."
"Hanna, if you know something, please tell me."
"I don't. I don't really know anything. But rich men and foolish men are all the same, no matter the shoes they shine. To them vengeance is justice and they cannot be reasoned with."
Christine's gaze bored into Hanna's, demanding she tell her more. "What are the strikers planning to do?"
"Hanna I need to borrow your yellow—" Christine turned at the familiar voice, raspy and warm behind her. Mol Weaver stopped at the sight of the two women. "Well, hello."
"Christine." She smiled tightly, "Have a good day." And like that, Christine was dismissed, the conversation with Hanna completed without clear answers.
It doesn't really matter what they're planning, my love. All that matters is my plan.
Christine made her way from the small village back through the maze-like paths of Phantasma, careful to appear inconspicuous to the families enjoying the amusements. She had no mind of the cold that blew around her, or the hours her feet lingered on the trail. Instead, she took in every view of Phantasma she could, trying to see through Erik's eyes.
It really was a marvelous place. Strange, yes, but still wonderous in its own way.
Did you find none of it beautiful? None of it beguiling? Was there not some small part of it you could find to love?
A familiar melody reached her ears from a man playing the hand accordion before the carousel. For a moment, Christine swore she could feel the warm breezes of Montmartre ruffling her skirt. Homesickness for Paris only deepened her melancholy. It was a place she would never return to, if bound to him.
To love the Phantasma was to love Erik. He'd said as much. She'd been drawn to everything in the amusement park, even in the fun house, though the affinity unsettled her and the fear still lingered in her body. What was she, if she found such strange things beautiful?
She loved Erik. She knew what that said about her.
Even before all this, he'd enthralled her with his voice and creativity and brilliance. For the last ten years she'd longed to be lost in that thrall again, if only he'd been alive. And now, standing before him, in a world of his own making, she cowardly held fast to social convention, though she demanded differently for herself.
The shame of her selfishness and hypocrisy burned in her chest. It wasn't that she did not love Phantasma. It was that she did not understand it. When she looked at his creations there was a sharp sadness in all of it, as though no one would ever really understand the true beauty. She included herself in that assessment. She could appreciate the spectacle and marvel at the genius, but truly understand it? Christine feared she did not have the mind for that.
Would he respect her if she could not fully understand him? Love her, yes. He'd already proven he could love her and love her passionately. But they would need more, or eventually he would grow tired of her. She could not watch his love turn to hate – or worse, apathy – not when she would never be able to let him go.
He had asked her if she could love him. Could. Not did she; not had she always. Could she. As though the last weeks of their romance promised him nothing.
It was time to tell him. To say that she loved him, was in love with him – that she had been for so long, she knew no other type of love. She'd hoarded her love for him, wallowed and mourned in it, and would now protect it at all costs.
She prayed that he would hear her and believe her words. She prayed that he would listen.
Dearest readers - I want to take this moment to wish you the Happiest of Holidays and sincerely thank you for all the reads, comments, and reblogs. This story has been a steady part of my life now for over a year and I'm so glad that you are enjoying it as much I have. Truly, thank you.
I also wanted to let you know that there will not be an update next Saturday (12/26). After the Halloween crash, I don't want to take any chances. (Poor Chapter 15 still glares at me about it.) INSTEAD! There will be an in-verse one shot called The Christmas We Deserve releasing on 12/22. I will be posting it as a separate story from this timeline, so if you want more Erik/Christine/Orphan children sweetness (it's totally K rated) be on the lookout!
Chapter 24: A Point of Context
Christine took the long way back to the house, walking the shaded path that outlined Phantasma. It was quiet and less anxious out amongst the skeletal trees and old snow than in the center of the park, and the cold air helped clear the nervousness from her body.
She repeated the melodies of tonight's performance over and over, until she was sure she'd incorrectly repeated the bridge twice in her daydreams. It was the final note that concerned her. Not that it was outside her abilities, but that Erik had strictly provided rules for how the note must be given. There was an exact placement for her body, an exact attack for the note, an exact length for how long she must hold it, and an exact command – she could not open her eyes no matter what she heard around her.
By the time she arrived at the back door, her shoes were soaked through and a cold sweat beaded along her brow. But she'd been able to plan her words. And that, at least, was a small mercy.
The smell of warm bread overwhelmed her as she walked through the door. "Careful where you step," Fleck greeted, absorbed in her task of kneading. Flour covered nearly all of the black stone floor. While her cooking was magnificent, Fleck was certainly not the most careful cook in a kitchen.
"I thought you would be practicing for the show tonight."
"It's the same as every night. No need to practice what you know.' She gestured at the oven, "Take those out will you dear?"
Grabbing the edge of her coat, Christine covered her hands and pulled the fresh rolls from the oven. "Why so much bread?"
Fleck didn't answer her at first. She took her time dusting the loaf before her with dried bitter herbs and butter. "I felt like making bread today."
Everyone at Phantasma had secrets it seemed. Christine didn't push, instead making her way to the back stairs. "It would be best to have a light foot. Take those wet shoes off and go up the main stairs." She peaked her head at the peculiar advise but had learned to listen when Fleck gave suggestions. She left her shoes to dry next to the large crock of sealed sauerkraut and turned toward the main hall.
Christine tugged off her winter coat in the living room and rested it over the gilded settee. Even though the fire was low in the room, the relative heat from her chill outside was suffocating. She pulled the clip from her hair and quickly wrapped the loose mess up and away from her neck, securing it with the purple bobble once more. A heavy thud from the upper level startled her. Her eyes peered at the ceiling, waiting for a repeat of the noise. Instead, she heard muffled voices.
She took the stairs slowly, careful not to make a sound. While she knew fooling Erik would be nearly impossible, she did not want her presence known to whoever else was with him. If it had been a performer, Fleck would have said something, surely. Instead of waiting in the small nook outside his study, Christine turned to enter their connecting bedroom. Her clothing was scattered across it in piles. She'd not left if like this.
The voices from the study were louder now, and sharp. She could make out words. Making sure the door was securely closed, she pressed her ear to its center.
"Erik this is impossible. Why are you siding with Porter?"
"Because it's foolish to go against both the railroad and the coal company, Meg. You know this. Do you want Phantasma to fall?"
"But all those people."
"They've had it worse before. It's not our place."
"So none of them matter."
"No. Phantasma matters more."
"She matters more." Christine struggled to keep her breathing even. "After all this time, after everything she's done to you and what we've done together, you go crawling back to her." Meg's voice was awash in anguish.
"I never pretended to love you, Meg."
"No. You just let me love you." Silence filled the air and even Christine could feel the pain pulsing in the other room.
"We built this place together – you and I. We created a place where people like us can feel welcome, whole. Are you really willing to throw that all away because a few rich men are angry with you? Since when has fear ever determined your course?"
Sharp steps echoed in the room, followed by silence. Christine's nails dug into the palms of her hands. She imagined Meg, her dear old friend, pressed tightly up against Erik, her hands holding his face as she kissed him. It was unendurable.
"What do you want me to do?"
"Send her away and come back to me. Help me get rid of Porter Cummings tonight."
"As I remember, you where the one who courted him."
"And it kept us safe, didn't it? It gave us access to the mine you needed, didn't it? Don't be willfully daft."
"Christine begins the show—"
"No. That's my role. You can't be seri—"
"Christine begins the show tonight because Porter expects it. She'll sing her numbers and then the trio will go on. You must close the show, my dear. You must keep him enchanted until the very end if this is to work. He has to believe he's both cuckholded me and won the strike. You should sing the new song tonight."
"The one written especially for me?"
"Yes, the one especially for you."
"The last song you wrote for me you gave to her."
The song about the vengeful wolf. It had been for Meg. About Meg. Christine felt her blood rush in her body. He hadn't given it to her; she'd taken it.
Another pause. All this time. All his words. He could not have been lying. He'd loved her for years. He'd nearly destroyed half of Paris to possess her. He'd damn near confessed his love yesterday to her and demanded hers in return. He was hers and she would hold on to him.
Christine slunk away from the study door across the room, unable to stand any more. Wrapping her hand tight against the crystal knob, she slammed the door to the bedroom closed. "Erik, are you in the study?" she hollered at the door, her voice hard, but not tinged with the bitterness overtaking her. She took metered steps to the door, "Erik?"
When he did not answer, she opened the door on her own. Erik's hands where holding Meg's upper arms tightly, the collar of his shirt open to the air. Meg's own hands had settled on his narrow waist and did not move. His black mask was affixed snugly to his face.
"Erik, I believe this is where you tell one of us to leave."
Meg smiled at her, resting her head on Erik's chest.
Christine refused to make a scene. Not while Meg was still here. Fire blazed in her eyes, but she kept her frame calm, waiting. Neither he nor Meg needed to know just how under her skin they'd got. Erik set Meg way from him, pulling her hands from his waist and moving toward Christine. "Miss Giry, it is time for you to go."
Meg only snickered, her head held high. And to think, at one time they had been as close as sisters. Christine did not even recognize the woman now. While hot anger filled her, Christine couldn't help but recognize some of the pain in Meg's voice. All she'd done was love him; she could not fault her for that.
They heard the front door slam closed, and Erik made sure Meg walked away from the house. For Meg it would confirm Erik was choosing her, his gaze following her from the window.
"It seems you have not spent years pining away for me." Her voice felt very far away from her.
"That is unfair. Neither did you."
"Yes, but you sent me away and then died."
"We all seek comfort in different ways."
"Oh, and how many years did you seek comfort from her?" her voice rose, deadly.
"How many years did you seek comfort from the Vicomte?" How the rage burned in her chest. She saw the same rage in Erik. It cut his muscles sharper and made the vein in his neck and forehead beat faster. They would get nowhere with this argument. The comparison was unfair and unequal. And Erik was willfully arguing in ignorance.
"She's beneath you."
"Those are fine words coming from you." He paused, the sharpness in his body softening. His face went from angry to blank to astonished, "Christine Daaé, are you jealous?"
She did not answer him and would not look him in the eyes. "She took your innocence," she seethed.
Christine bit her lips closed. She'd not meant to say the statement out load.
"Hardly." Erik walked toward her then, the afternoon light falling against his back. Was that what this was, really? Jealousy that Meg had had first what should have been hers? He took her face in his hands and let her hair tumble through his fingers. "There is nothing between us now. There is only you. There, truly, has only ever been you. You cannot fault me for wallowing in my own pity when all hope was lost to win you. Just like I cannot fault you for loving that boy for so long."
Christine struggled to rein in the possessive tenor of her thoughts. They were dangerous and shameful. She rested her head in Erik's hands and let out a long breath. There would be time enough to eradicate the memory of Meg Giry's touch from his skin in the future. She needed to focus on tonight.
Erik's knowing look beckoned her to let loose her secrets, "How much did you hear?"
"You're playing both sides to protect Phantasma, aren't you?" He did not answer her. "Or are you really going to side with the railroad tonight?" Yet Hanna's words implied he would side with the strikers. He would not look her in the eyes and let her go. "Erik, the people of this town need your help."
"I learned long ago I can be no one's protector." Not even his own, she thought.
"I won't help you. I won't sing tonight."
"Of course you will sing tonight."
"You have Meg. You've written her a special song. Make her your Diva." He rushed toward her again, caging her against the door with his arms.
"Christine, you know I am your servant. You hold my very soul in your hands. Everything I've ever done has been in pursuit of you. It is nonsense to compare yourself to her. And you must sing. There is no other way to create the diversion."
"No. I will not let you use me in this way again. I'm not a puppet for men. If you will not save yourself, I will save you against your will. I hold your soul? Good. It is far better in my care. I will not sing for you. You cannot make me."
"Actually, my love. I can make you." He menaced over her, his tall frame imposing and fierce in the dying afternoon light. She felt him then, brushing at the back of her mind, the press of his thoughts like heavy molasses dripping down her spine. She shivered and the feeling diffused. "But then everything we've worked toward would turn to ash, wouldn't it?"
"You're better than this and I refuse. Do you remember what happen last time you planned a performance like this?"
"I have my reasons."
"They hurt you, Erik. You still walk with a limp. The people just want better working conditions. I won't help you. Siding with Porter Cummings is wrong. You know he wants them all near-dead."
He wrapped her ridged frame in his arms, resting his cheek on her head. "My foolish woman."
"If you do this, if you put me back under your spell, you will never hold me again. Do you hear me? Are you listening." It was a lie. Christine did not know that she could never keep such a vow, not when his body was like a safe harbor in a storm, not when he could draw out such pleasurable secrets from her, but she made the statement nonetheless.
"I hear you. I am listening." He kissed the temple of her brow. "Tell me you love me." Tell me the truth first! Her mind yelled.
"No. Not like this."
"Tell me you'll forgive me. Tell me you'll trust me."
"You've given me no reason to." A lie. Flung carelessly on the floor.
"Then hear this. For you alone does my whole world matter. For you alone are all my actions made. When Phantasma crumbles under our feet tonight, remember that I trust you completely and our survival rests on your trust of me."
"Then trust me now. What will happen tonight?"
His mismatched eyes lingered on hers, and she saw that she asked of him so very much. He'd given her his soul, why couldn't that be enough? No, she must demand truth as well.
"The company has decided a raid on the show tonight is the best way to alleviate the situation. What they really want is unrestricted access to Phantasma."
"And so you'll let them take those innocent men."
"We both know they are not innocent. But no, I will not let them be taken. They will get a fighting chance."
"What about everyone else?"
"You need to be by the schoolhouse with Sam and the other children tonight. Right after you sing, I want you to leave and go to them."
"And where will you be?"
"And from there you will take the trail we walked with the children until you go over the river." It made sense now, her clothing strewn about the bedroom, Fleck making loaves of bread fit for an army, the way Phantasma felt different the last few days. He'd been planning this all along.
It wasn't an end to the strike.
It was an end to Phantasma.
"What will happen?"
"They will burn Phantasma to the ground to steal my secrets. And I will let them. So long as you and the children are gone before the performance ends."
"Where will you be?" She demanded again.
"What matters is you will be safe."
"What matters is where will you be?" she nearly screamed, her fingers burrowing into the shelves of his shirt.
He looked down into her eyes, his hands tight around her shoulders, "Right behind you."
He sealed his promise with a kiss.
Chapter 25: A Spectacular
If Christine were to imagine that tonight felt different to any other person entering Phantasma, she would be wrong. The visitors and attendees saw nothing other in the anticipation and excitement of the Spectacular.
And that was exactly what all parties controlling Phantasma, and the small town just miles away, wanted it. Some hoped Mr. Y would make vailed support for one side, others just wanted a chance to take a swing at some soft-jawed fellows.
No one knew what Christine knew. Her stomach twisted in knots at the thought of it.
They will burn Phantasma to the ground to steal my secrets and I will let them.
How many people would be hurt tonight? How many people would die tonight? Was it Erik's fault, truly? Or were all these actions the fault of rich men that would not be denied?
Did it matter?
Or was he again over exaggerating what would come? He'd done so before.
Christine twisted her hands before her, careful to not bring too much attention to her nervousness. The long, embroidered robe covering her aided in concealment. It resembled something of an ancient coronation robe – grand and imposing. The intricately embroidered peacock feathers shimmered aquamarine and blue in the shifting light. She imagined the pearls threaded through her hair turning their faint color in sympathy.
The Colosseum, bathed in colored light and filled with people, was cavernous before her. Everything looked larger and wilder from her place on the arena floor. She could barely even make out the open sky above her.
Her nerves eased when she heard Erik's voice whisper in her ear. "You will be magnificent tonight." She leaned back and smiled when she felt herself against him.
She would steal her nerves. There was no sense in pleading for change. No one ever listened to her reasoning anyway. "It's impossible not to be magnificent with such a consummate teacher." He pulled her deeper into the darkness of the undercroft, trailing soft kisses from behind her ear to the nape of her neck. The dull roar from above reminded her of the excited heartbeat of the crowd.
She turned to him, suddenly fearful, "This will go according to your plan?"
"My dear, you are the one who said my plans prior have been very poor." My dear again. Not my love.
Her nervousness twisted inside her into something wicked. There was no good choice that lay before them. There was simply a forked road of several bad choices and she would walk whichever one kept him beside her.
Christine took his face in her hands, careful not to dislodge his pristine mask. His attention focused solely on her, confusion and impatience at war in his features. "You have said your soul belongs to me. I demand of it now perfection. We have no space for bad plans, Erik. I lost you once and for ten long years it was like a living death. A refused to live without you in that way again. I refuse to live without my love for a moment longer, damn the consequences."
For a moment he did not breathe, the stillness of his body like a corpse. And then his eyes slid shut, a silent tear falling down his face. When he opened his eyes, it was as though the world shifted. He wrapped Christine in his arms and lifted her to capture her lips, his own ravenous and overwhelming.
"In all the world there is no one more perfect than you." He kissed her once more, lightly, sweetly. Her lips followed his as he pulled away. Before she could fully open her eyes, he had turned and walked back toward his hidden door. He did not turn to look back at her. He had not promised.
What Christine did not realize was that her demand cursed the one she loved. Erik, a man who has always had nothing to live for, now had everything to.
The lights above her flickered in the customary way, the crowd silencing at the silent request. Christine could feel the tension in the place. She'd felt it once before. Not just excitement, but venomous apprehension. This time, however, she was not bait, merely the distraction. A minor detail, perhaps, but an important one to her. She saw Simon waiting in his position and nodded to him. He smiled back.
Thought she denied it, her jealousy still seethed just underneath her skin. Erik had had a truly full life after her, no matter what he tried to explain away. She wasn't just jealous of Meg, she was jealous of Erik. A possessiveness very unbecoming of her clawed in her stomach. She hadn't been lying when she told him his soul belong to her. He'd given it freely and she would hold on to it forever.
And Meg was here, somewhere. On the same side, but not. How could they really be on the same side when they wanted the same thing?
When Fleck materialized at her side, readying for her own entrance. She couldn't help her question, "Where's Meg?"
"Her dressing room, being watched," she answered haphazardly; and then remembered, "I'm sorry about earlier. I thought it best not to warn you. Or deter you."
The nagging concern that would not leave her mind was finally given voice, "Would she do anything?"
"I wouldn't put it past her. But if she wants you out of the way, she won't do it herself. She can't have your blood on her hands if she wants him to come back to her. Or if she wants to keep Phantasma running." Christine couldn't determine if she was comforted by Fleck's reasoning or not.
"How long were they…close?"
"You have to realize it was never like how he is with you. You two just look at each other and you turn into the sun and moon. It's more than a little sickeningly lovely-dovey, really. They were different. You're good for him. He smiles with you."
"How long? Please, Fleck."
"Meg found me three years ago. So at least that long. Though not very regular, I think."
"Meg found you?"
"She found most of us. Brought us here. This thing with Cummings really has her lost."
They had built Phantasma together. Christine's heart burned until all she could feel was a numb hollowness in her chest.
They'd built Phantasma.
The drums beat three times. Fleck patted her hand, concern in her eyes, "It's time."
Christine took her place in the center of the darkened area, her robe fanning out around her. Fleck set its ends perfectly on their mark, locking them in place for her run. She eyed the ramp to her right, making sure as best she could there was nothing in her way. There would be no way to check once she was singing.
A lone piano key provided her the rhythm. She lifted her head as they'd practiced. A sea of faces swarmed her vision and in their multitude, her mind went blank in singular focus.
We lay down in the riverbed
Rest in the silhouettes our fathers and mothers laid before
She could sense the audience curiosity at her voice. Anticipation began to bubble. A cold spotlight filtered down over her, and the crowd gasped at the vision she made.
Restless souls in the desert sand
Dream of another land that heroes and villains claimed before
The lights rose warm and glittered throughout the area, bouncing off the mirrored floor Erik has laid just hours earlier. She did not look down to see the beautiful filtering lights. She kept her head lifted toward her mark.
We are Kings and Queens and Vagabonds
The music built, and harmony shifting for the transition in melody. Christine sucked in her last strong breath and lifted her voice above the throng. It reverberated back to her, an ethereal ghosting echo accompanying her performance.
We are Kings and Queens and Vagabonds
She let her final fading note fall with a pant and began to count her measures. The shift began. Drums under her thundered a furious pace and the chorus let loose its now familiar rush of melody.
She took off in a rush, her robe falling free from her shoulders. She felt the crowd lean in, watching her run to the edge of the ramp with open fascination. At her lift from the ground they cheered. She kicked off with practiced force from the second pole, making an additional turn of the arena easily.
The fireworks splayed colorful fountains throughout and masked her landing, gentle and easy as ever. Squelch and Fleck made quick work of unharnessing her, racing to the undercroft for her crescendo. The melody shifted key and she braced her hands on the crystal shaped cage Erik had created for her. The same ones that had caged his automatons in the fun house. Thin crystal-shaped contraptions lit from the inside.
'Remember the arena is not meant to distract you,' he'd clarified last night at the final rehearsal. 'This case will protect you and be a grand impact.' He'd not let her see what was planned, or what else would happen around her. Too many eyes, he'd warned. 'Your performance must be a surprise to everyone...Keep your eyes up and pinned at the shell.'
The light shifted again and revealed her to the audience, a corona of it haloing her head. The mirrored floor danced in broken pieces above her head, dangling most over the audience. She commanded their attention, master of all before her. She bid them join her on the journey. For a second, so she could take a deeper breath, she looked down to the floor and saw ten other cages with ten other Christine's signing to the audience.
Her bravado faltered. Her vision blurred, the memory of Erik's bridal mannequin before her eyes. Her body vibrated with the haunting touch of fear and disgust she had felt that night, amplified by the revelation of her insignificance. The air and movement around her slowed. She struggled against the overwhelming memory. Caged in ten different ways. Caged in ten different lascivious outfits.
Keep your eyes up and pinned to the shell.
He knew she would trust him. He knew she would not look. He'd again caged her in a gilded box and this time she'd gone willingly.
She always followed willingly.
She missed her que.
All at once, separate of her own bidding, her body relaxed, and the notes flowed from her throat. Tears stung her eyes. Her soul felt whole, but her body was hollow.
To save the performance, Erik invaded her mind once more. And with his control came the unmitigated beauty of her voice, commanded to perfection.
It had been easy. The claim immediate. Christine fought against his total control but found no barrier to break. It merely gave way in her fury, wrapping her in an infinite, tender sadness.
She knew why he'd done it, but how she hated him for it. Christine closed her eyes as the final note neared and gave way to the darkness. Her note hung in the air, resonating back through the pavilions. As he pulled it from her, she heard a crack, and then another, and then thousands as the mirrored glass over the Colosseum shattered to pieces above them all.
The crowd screamed and cheered, and Erik released her from his hold. Simon grabbed Christine by the waist and wrenched her away, unto the darkness.
Chapter 26: A Choice
TRIGGER WARNINGS: Violence & death in this chapter.
Dear readers, I'm excited and nervous to present this next chapter to you. Saying any more would give too much away. Needless to say, I apologize for any grammar errors or word issues. I'll be editing again soon. It's a long chapter and I keep getting wrapped up in the story. Enjoy, my dears. I hope I've done our character development justice.
'Bad things should not have had to happen to you to make you strong.'
'They didn't. I was strong from the beginning. Bad things happened because I did not think my words would make a difference. After all, I had been taught my voice only sounded beautiful. Not that the words mattered.'
Christine didn't feel her feet beneath her. She didn't feel much of anything in her body. It did feel good to run, though. Sam guided her at a relentless pace, Squelch and Simon close behind. They kept to the darkest parts of Phantasma, careful to not be seen. The amusements cracked and boomed about them in their familiar ways. She did not turn to look at the noises. No one knew what was coming. So many people would be hurt. Their faces blurred in her periphery.
They would be hurt, but nothing like her hurt.
She fought back her thoughts, determined to live for the next moment. The betrayal was too fresh and too deep. It didn't matter what her mind would logic away, her heart beat raw and heavy in her chest. She'd only ever asked one thing of him. One thing.
They made it to the schoolhouse, all its widows dark, the door left slightly ajar.
"Come on guys," Sam whispered. There were less children waiting for them than she had thought there would be. Only her trusty four, including Sam.
At the sight of Christine, Charlotte begged to be carried. It was a relief to feel the little girl holding her tight. Sam did not look back to make sure they were fallowing him. Instead, he continued on – leading them directly into the forest. The woods were different in the night and the children stopped several times to watch and listen like Mr. Y had taught them.
Their caution kept them safe. They were no more than a mile from the schoolhouse when Sam directed them deeper into a thicket, steering clear of several company men in the open meadow marking the regular trail.
It was at a small brook, not the important one, but a brook nonetheless, that Sam stopped and turned, a pocket watch in his hand. Simon held Elijah, who had already fallen asleep in his arms. And Sarah's wide eyes stared back at her, her violin case in her hand.
An explosion blasted through the forest, a large pillar of red smoke billowing from the lights of Phantasma. Christine's body retched at the concussion of energy, falling to her knees.
"No!" the word was ripped from her very core.
For all Erik's words, she'd never thought he was being literal about Phantasma falling down around them tonight.
"What building was that?"
"The Colosseum?" Squelch offered. No. That would be too many people. Too many innocent lives.
"The new theater," Simon answered. "I saw him rigging dynamite to the roof last night."
"The shattered glass was the deterrent at the colosseum. Shards in the lungs."
"Anything else he'd think to blow—" Another explosion burst from Phantasma, sending the Ferris wheel off its axis and to the ground. That answered her question. Lord help her, she hoped there were no people on it. And then the realization hit her.
Christine had told Erik countless times since her arrival in Maunch Chuck that she would leave him if he'd hypnotized her again. He did so tonight knowing full-well she may never forgive him, even if it had saved her performance and their lives. Now she knew. He never intended to see her again. He'd lied to her. He would not be right behind her.
All at once hate for the men of Maunch Chuck flushed over her. Those damn rich men and their rich schemes. Men who had no concept of human worth. Men who would take what they wanted no matter the cost. Because, of course, it cost them nothing. They would take everything from her love once more, and then they would take him away from her.
Damn him. He was not allowed to leave her. She would choose how they parted ways, and this was not it. He had to live long enough for her to be properly mad at him. A calm stillness overtook her as she made her choice.
Sam clutched his hands at Christine's shirt, pulling her attention from Phantasma. The children tried to silence their cries, but tears streamed down their faces. "Sam, where does Mr. Y's trail lead?"
"To a private train switch at the bottom of the gorge."
"And there will be a train there waiting for you, yes?"
She motioned the children close, huddling them together, "Now you all know what Mr. Y has said about this trail on our walks. It's magical."
"Miss. That's just –" Sarah started.
"It might just be stories, but Mr. Y can make everything magical. He is the most wonderful and horrible kind of wizard. Now, I believe, that he's covered you all with his magic. He loves you and wanted to make sure you are safe tonight. Let's not waste all his power. We must be brave."
"But I don't want to go without you," Charlotte spoke into her neck. Christine pulled her tighter to her.
At her words, the other children rallied. "Now I want you all to follow Sam and make it to the train on time. No stopping, and no looking back. Go. Go now." She pushed them from her arms and took steps back from them. Sam turned at looked at her one last time. She answered his silent question, "Mr. Y needs me, and I need to know you are safe so we can help him."
"You promised we'd leave together."
"And we will. I keep my promises."
He didn't like her answer, she knew, but he listened and turned and set a relentless pace for the children behind him.
The return to Phantasma was quicker than the leaving of it. She let Simon and Squelch worry about the company men and their silence. It was easier to let them lead. Her fury would only make her ignore all danger.
The moon waxed large above a clouded sky, illuminating their trail in high and ghostly relief. It allowed for them to see the handful of men in the meadow at a distance. Their gun barrels flickered light throughout the brush.
Simon braced his hand on Christine's shoulder, forcing her to still. Surprise was the only advantage they had.
"We could skirt the whole thing."
"That will take too much time."
"Maybe we could –"
"Go! Go back to Cummings!" Meg's voice shouted from the darkness. She entered the clearing, gun in her hand and Fleck at her side.
"Meggie, put the gun down. There's no one out here," a man hollered. Meg stilled at his tone, seeming to remember herself.
"Yes. We're safe out here. Go back to the park," another said.
"Mr. Cumming's orders are to wait here for the girl."
"Have you seen her yet?" Meg flung her arms wide. "Do you really think he would let her get caught so easily?"
The men adjusted their guns, unaccustomed to a woman's ire. Fleck's eyes found Christine's in the distance and went wide in surprise.
"They were supposed to come this way."
"And if you haven't found them yet, you've missed them. Get your asses back to Phantasma."
They waited only a moment longer, sulking at their submission to a woman, then listened and took up a jog back the way she'd come.
Meg watched them leave, keeping her eyes firmly on their backs until they were lost in the forest's budding greenery. It was in the next still moment, she took Fleck's hand and held it tight, falling to her knees on the meadow grass. Deep, thick coughs erupted from her chest.
"What's wrong with her?" Christine whispered.
The hidden trio sat in the underbrush and watched and another fit wracked her body.
"The shattered mirrors," Squelch realized. "Mr. Y made it puff back into the air during her song. She breathed in the shards." Thousands of tiny shards, Christine thought, tearing at her lungs. It was horribly cruel.
Had that really been Erik's plan? It was heartless. Cold. And Meg's only great trespass had been loving him; had been wanting to build and keep something with him; had been wanting to protect it at all costs. They were the same in that.
Christine rose and went to her, utterly mesmerized at the agony her heart felt for her. Meg rose from her crouch, eyes glassy, blood on her lips. When they saw each other, Meg's eyes flashed with defiant anger. So this would not be a concession of hearts.
Christine's footsteps halted when Meg lifted the gun in her hand and pointed it square in her direction.
"Stop where you are." She squeezed the trigger. Christine jumped at the crack, but the bullet hit no mark.
"Where is he?" Christine shook her head. Meg did not believe her. "By the time I began singing he was gone. He's with you. Call him out."
"He's not, Meg. He's not with me."
"Liar." She fired the gun, hitting Squelch in the arm. She didn't dare move to help him.
Another explosion peeled through the valley. "That would be the coaster," Meg whispered into the night. "He has to be with you. He can't still be there. He can't."
The gun glinted in the moonlight, a silvery thing with twisted etching ground deep in the barrel. A revolver. Raoul had had several in his collection. He had always said the ones with the most ornamentation were the most unreliable. She'd fired two shots. That meant three or four more. "Meg, I –"
"No. No! Tonight's not your night, Christine. Even if he made you fly. He has to get out of here. It's not safe!" She shot again, hitting a tree. Christine still continued to walk slowly forward. "All our hard work destroyed because you couldn't live your rich life. I'm the one that drew him out of his madness. I'm the one who molded it into something he could harness. I'm the one that collected every damn person in this place to make it run. Couldn't you have one great love and live with that?"
"Meggie this isn't you," Simon yelled from beside Squelch. "Come with me and we'll get out of here." Agony filled her eyes and for a moment, and Christine recognized the small ballet dancer from her childhood. The one who would help others and put herself in danger. She'd done it all her life. And here she was, doing it again.
"Does he know?" Meg returned her gaze to Christine, she lifted her arm again, leveling the barrel of the gun square at her chest. Christine continued in her low voice, "Does he know all that you've done for him? Did you tell him?"
What a fool she'd been. She should have hugged Meg tight, should have delighted in seeing her old friend from the beginning. But there had been too many years and too many unsaid words between them. There was Erik between then.
"Of course he knows. He should know. He…" Meg's voice went small. She did love Erik. Worse, she might love him as he'd once loved Christine. Driven to madness from the unrequited pain. Christine took Meg's hand, careful to angle herself away from the gun barrel.
"Men care very little for all the things we do for them. Most of the time, they don't even hear us when we do it."
"He loves you." And one day she would know if that was fair or not.
"And you came out here to make sure he was safe. But you know he's not here. He could never leave his masterpieces. He's still there. He's still in Phantasma. And it's yours as much as it is his. Let's go save it for you." She took the gun from her hands.
"It is mine."
"Yes, it is." Fleck agreed.
"But he loves you."
Christine knew she was already on the path to hell, and so the lie came easily to her lips, "You and I both know there is little reason in his mind. You've been by his side longer than I've ever known him. Let's save him first and then we can make him choose."
It would be no choice at all.
They left the trio in the meadow, demanding they follow back to the children and get them on the train. Where they were returning, they had to go alone.
Meg struggled with her breathing along the path and Christine was careful to meter her steps. They were taking too long. So much damage could already be done before they found Erik.
At the thought of him, the amusement park – glowing and ravenous – came into view. Most people had already fled. Those left were struggling with injuries or stealing what wasn't bolted down.
Christine refused the dwell on the utter sadness of the place, or the still shadows she could just make out in the darkness.
It was Meg who drew her attention, "We have to avoid Porter."
"I don't think that's possible."
"I can't see him."
"Where would they go Meg?" Christine asked. Surely, where one was, the other would be close.
"Porter was going to overtake him at the Colosseum."
"But Erik would have known that." The glass in your lungs says as much. "Where would they end up?"
"Porter wants the plans for the automatons. He knows Erik's workshop is above the Fun House. They would end up there." It made sense the minute Meg said it. They rushed together by way of the fallen Farris wheel.
Christine's eyes darted along the facades of empty shops and broken glass. There was no sign of Erik. Not even on the rooftops. The click of their boots thundered in her ears.
At the sight of the Fun House's entrance, she released the breath she was holding from her lungs. Still standing. Still intact.
And then it wasn't. The blast from the front doors of the building threw them back against the pavement, glass shattering everywhere around them. Flames licked the brick building as smoke billowed from Erik's workshop. Christine didn't notice the blood trailing down her arms and face. She fumbled to rise, her mouth agape in a silent scream.
They were too late.
She prayed silently that Erik's mind would call out to her. It didn't matter anymore if she was lost completely within him. As long as she was lost with him. She willed her soul into the darkness to search for him, but there was no answer. Only emptiness.
Angel my soul was weak, forgive me.
A broad hand grabbed a fistful of Christine's hair, wrenching her up from the ground. "So I see the little whore didn't run away after all." Porter Cummings spoke against her cheek. "Help up Meggie," he directed a man beside him. "Let's go find your corpse lover, shall we?"
What an idiot. He thought Erik was still alive.
But if her love was alive, she would feel him by now. He couldn't bare her sadness; he wouldn't leave her in the monstrous pain of it. And she didn't feel him. Which meant – which meant he had lied to her. He'd not been right behind her tonight. He would never stand behind her again.
"I always wondered what must be between your legs to bewitch a man like Mr. Y. And then I realized – he'd probably never been between any legs." Porter's voice whispered close against her ear, "You just like them wicked and ugly. I would have thought you could do better." He pressed the length of himself against her, careful to see if Meg was looking.
Christine kicked him in the shin.
He cursed and pulled her head back by her hair, quickening his pace. "Stupid woman."
He lifted her on to the unmoving carousel, carefully tying her hands to one of the outer poles. Another of his men took a heavy can and began pouring the contents over the platform on the other side. "Let's end this."
Hopping from the ride, Porter pulled the machine's lever and lit a cigar. When he was done, he held the matchstick in his hand, watching the fire dance at the tip. Soon she could no longer see him, the carousel revolving in its inevitable way.
She did, however, smell the ignition of the liquid as it touched the oil.
"Come out, come out wherever you are, Mr. Y. You'll want to save your dying little songbird." The screams from earlier had faded away, leaving in their wake a discordant silence and the unnatural sound of the melting band organ within the carousel. "You know your failure was when you started giving women everything they want. All they know is how to take and take and take. You used to be such a smart man. Smart and ugly. It worked for you. The little singer ruined you. Turned you into a love-sick puppy. I hope her credentials were worth it."
She lost sight of Porter, his arms tight around Meg's waste, her gun in his hand. The barrel had had five slots. The heat from the carousel burned Christine's back and she pulled against the ropes tying her in place.
"But Meggie is so smart. So smart. She knew she could do better than you. She knows how to listen to a man."
"Erik, I –" but Porter silenced her before she could say anything more.
Christine had to figure her own way out. No one was going to save her. She struggled against the ropes and wondered if the pole would break before she would catch on fire. She was back around again, Porter and Meg coming into view.
"Porter, Meg's hurt. She's bleeding! You have to get her to a doctor."
He took a quick look over her and, satisfied that she did not seem hurt, laughed. "Maybe you weren't that magical after all. Your man not gonna save you?"
Christine couldn't help herself – "You nasty son of a—"
And then they were gone again. She searched the ceiling above her, the flames licking between the boards.
Long fingers materialized at her wrists, cutting the rope with a sharp knife. Christine's head shot up to see Erik's fiery gaze. Blood dripped from his temple, smearing a brilliant red against his mask, but he was whole and breathing. Relief cascaded through her. She pressed her face forward into his and captured his lips in a quick kiss. And then her hands were free, and she wrapped them tightly around his waist. They rushed from the platform and crouched low to the ground.
"How many men?" he asked against her ear. She motioned two toward Porter, and two more to their left. His next actions warred within him. He did not want to leave her.
She pressed her hand to his chest, "Go take care of the others. I'll distract him." He closed his eyes in silent prayer. "Trust me." She lightly kissed his temple and then he was gone from her side. She rose and took a steading breath. She heard Porter curse. Meg screamed.
Christine took the final curve of the carousel slowly. The last thing she wanted was Porter shooting out of hand. He cocked the pistol at her appearance, aiming at her head.
"Where's your lover?" Christine's eyes took in the scene before her. One of Porter's guards was already on the floor several feet behind the display.
"Did you really think he would let you win?" She stood her ground, careful to look only at the man pointing a gun.
"No one lets me win anything."
"I've known Mr. Y for over fifteen years. I know that every single action tonight he'd planned for. Right down to your mistress over there running into the woods to follow him." At the mention of his lover, Porter looked down. Meg shook her head furiously at his questioning gaze. He turned back to Christine, even closer now, betrayal shimmering in his eyes.
"You lie." What were the chances that a revolver misfired? Erik was nearly done, but needed more time. The cruelty in her throat burned like acid.
"Tell him, Meg. Tell him how you love Erik."
Meg's eyes seared Christine with their own bitter betrayal. Yet there was no other way to make a distraction. He had to work with what she had. And, after all, nearly all the kindness had been wicked away within her.
She had to keep his attention. "They laugh at you, you know. I hear them in the dark, through the walls." He cocked the gun, halting her progress. "He lied to me too. That's how they keep us here. With their lies. Rich men do it so well."
Porter clutch to Meg tighter, his eyes glassy. He really did love her it seemed – as best he could.
"This could have been easy!" Porter yelled to the sky, "All I wanted were the damn plans! And I would have married you! Everything here belongs to me anyway!" The carousel popped and crashed behind her, the sweeps breaking in half. Porter's eyes burned black against the firelight. "I suppose taking the one thing he really wants will have to do."
Erik emerged from the darkness to cover her body with his. "Finally!" Porter laughed.
Christine pressed herself against his back, grabbing his left hand tightly in hers. The back of his white shirt was mottled in dirt and blood and clung wetly to his thin frame. Through the darkness she saw that it had begun to lightly snow. The flakes fell unhindered by the scene before them, yet melted when they touched the ground.
"No one believes me when I say I will burn a place to the ground to get what I want. Why is that?" Erik asked in a calm tone.
"Just give me the plans, man." Porter pulled a writhing Meg closer to his body and turned the gun on her.
"You've greatly overestimated my attachment to her."
"Really?" Palmer flicked his gaze sideways. A man sat on top the fallen pirate ship, gun aimed. "Make your choice. The Angel who built Phantasma with you, or the French whore. Either way, it won't save those dirty little brats of yours in the gorge. Did you really think I didn't know about that?"
A cold fury overtook Christine. The fear, the horror, the pain – everything else was frozen away at the depth of the chill in her heart.
Her children were in danger. Their children were in danger.
Erik's hand crushed Christine's in his.
"What a choice right? It speaks volumes that you hesitate at all."
"Erik, please. Just give him what he wants. We can start over. We could build it all again." Meg voice cracked on her words and then went silent. She knew. She knew there was no going back, but her happiest moments were behind her and she was determined to hold onto them.
Christine spoke into the center of his back, her lips moving against his body, "You have to stay alive tonight. Promise me."
"I have no intention of dying." He threw his voice in her ear.
"You said you would do anything I asked of you."
"Where you are concerned," he responded absently, continuing to assess the situation.
She could not see before her, but heard Meg struggling against Porter.
"This does." Christine took her hands and twisted them firmly in his, the seconds ticking in her mind with painful clarity. "I love you. I love you irrevocably. Your soul is mine? My soul is yours. You must stay alive tonight and come back to me."
She was glad he could not see the tears in her eyes, "I am a horribly selfish woman now, and I demand nothing less of you than your life. It belongs to me. No matter what happens, you will live it well."
He was brilliant and fast, but he could not outwit two guns. He had to make a choice. A choice that, really, was no choice at all. Neither would end well. Neither would prove anything. She knew what choices like this did to a person – how it would eat him up inside and sallow him whole. She planted a short kiss to his shoulder blade.
She would not force him to make it.
Christine released his hand and pushed both of hers firmly on his back, sending him tumbling forward. It was enough movement to catch Porter's man off guard.
A gun shot echoed over Christine's right side and struck her. She gasped and Erik bellowed. Palmer fired a second shot, and a scream tore from Meg's throat. Blood covered Christine's chest and she blinked through the agony, falling to her knees. She looked down and saw Meg's gun by her hand.
Just a graze. The bullet that had hit her had only grazed against her chest. It was bloody, but not deadly.
Porter howled before her, blood pooling through his fingers as he pressed his hands into Meg's stomach. She'd twisted just in time and blocked his shot.
A wicked smile tugged at Meg's lips. She pushed him away from her, a small knife lodged in his stomach.
Erik has moved to stop the shooter that struck Christine. The man would be dead in moments. But they did not have moments. She would not give Porter any more time. He deserved none. Give them time and rich men get away. Give them time and her children might end up dead before she could reach them. A stab to the stomach did not mean he would die. Staggering to stand, she took the gun in her hand.
One bullet left.
This man would kill everything she held dear. This man had tried. She would not hesitate. She would protect the ones she loved. No matter the cost.
Christine pressed the gun to the back of Porter's head, cocked the trigger, and squeezed.
The shot reverberated through her chest and rang in her ears.
And then there was silence.
She turned to Erik when the echo of the gun shot faded. Surprise and horror filled his features. He stopped mid-stride, astonished at the emotionless execution he'd just witnessed. See, she wanted to say, I told you. You cannot love me as I am now. The words danced in her head, but she found she had no breath to voice them.
Darkness danced in her periphery, but she willed it away and turned to sprint toward the forest. All that mattered was getting to her children, getting to Sam.
"Wait." Erik grabbed her arm. Glass from the Fun House tore further into her skin.
He checked her ripped flesh. After assuring himself she was harmed, but fine, he turned, took Meg in his arms, and ran back toward Main Street.
She did not know why she waited, but she did. She did not know why she trusted him to return, but she did. Christine heard the crash of glass in the distance.
Erik returned with his automaton mermaid in his arms. Her pale glass features mocked Christine in the moonlight.
"Meg?" she asked.
He did not reply, but set his shoulders and motioned his head behind her. "Now we run."
And he let her lead them into the darkness.
Chapter 27: A Hopeless Plan
"Christine, wait." Erik's breathing labored behind her.
"We have to hurry."
"Yes, my love, but I'll save no one if we don't rest my leg a moment." At hearing his endearment, a warm sense of reassurance eased the tension in Christine's body.
What had she done? She'd killed someone. Purposefully. Willing. And yet, Erik still called her my love. His voice was still soft with a sweetness he only reserved for her.
Then the worry bloomed poisonous. They had to get to the children. She'd forgotten about Erik's leg. He was always so good at hiding his pain. "Just a few minutes. I promise they won't be wasted."
He slid his body down a tree and bent over the limp automaton in his arms. Through careful slits in the skin and scales he pulled small weights. She lifted a piece of the discarded metal in her fingers. "So you did create unrustable steel."
A shallow smile grazed his face. "I am rather brilliant."
Yes. He was. And it was his brilliant mind that drove so much of his trouble. She wondered just who knew the truth about why Phantasma has burned. Now that he was beside her, she couldn't help but feel the bubbling resentment of her performance. Too much had happened too close. One event did not excuse the other, but this was no time to argue over boundaries.
Still, she couldn't help but ask, "The strike was just an excuse tonight, wasn't it?"
He did not look up from his work. "I told you as much this afternoon. Yes, for the railroad it was. Just before you came, Cummings and I had arrived at an impasse. It was best for you to know as little as possible."
"But the men, the women." All the men and women who had ventured to Phantasma today. All the lives put in danger because a few men found they wanted something they could not have.
"Madame Mol and Hanna don't need your tears. They'll land very well on their feet." That is not what she had meant. Now was not the time for an education.
"Will we?" she asked, her voice small.
He did not answer as first, his fingers working carefully deep in the machine's tail, nor did he look up when he asked her another question in place of an answer, "Why did you push away from me?"
Christine held her breath, held the painful aching her in chest and let herself feel it. She desperately wanted him to look her in the eyes. If he did, he would see everything in her own and not ask such a question. How could she possibly allow him to make that choice? She could not. It was unendurable. She swallowed and pushed the pain down lower; she refused to feel the shame seeping in.
Her words escaped unbidden and bitter, "Why did you command your influence over me?"
They did not have time for this, and he would answer with surety that his excuse was better than hers. After all, his betrayal saved his plan. Hers merely saved them all.
True to her shrewd thoughts, Erik would not lift his head to meet her eyes; he would not be baited away from his question. She decided it was best to leave her own lie. They would have more than enough time for answers and arguments when the danger was over. "The only choice to make was for the children. There wasn't any time for another choice."
"So you took it from me." He was angry.
Well so was she. She would not cower before him, "People should never be forced to make choices between the ones they love. Not when the other would face death. We're even now."
"I would have chosen you. I've always chosen you."
"And yet when I say the same thing to you, you never believe me. Even after all this."
"That is a reflection on my character, not yours, Christine." She took his face in her hands and made him look at her. His voice was very quiet when he answered, "But I believe you now and you will never know the depth of my regret that I did not believe you then." He wrapped his hand around her wrist. "And though I would spare you all the pain of these last years, I would not change anything that has brought us here. Finally."
"I love you. I love you with all of my soul. If we'd had more time, I might have told you it was fine – choose her, maybe we could have saved them all. But my only thoughts were for the children, and we had no time. And I chose them first. I will always choose them first."
Erik went painfully still, his thumb gentle moving forward and back along her wrist. He regarded her with a wholly different and strange type of possessiveness and kinship that left her off balance.
It did not escape her that the last time she'd said she loved someone more than him, he'd disappeared for ten years.
"Yes. Yes, you are right. You are my soul, but in that moment, all I could think of was how to get us out of there and to the children." She took his lips in a passionate kiss, pouring relief and wonder and understanding into every caress. He brought her close and held her there. "Never again, mind you. Your life is not yours to sacrifice."
When she released him, Christine saw the long, thin crack across the entirety of his porcelain mask. It was a wonder it had stayed in place so long. "What is the plan?"
"You will not like it."
"Then you better tell me quick so I'm prepared." He would not meet her eyes again.
"The siren will provide the distraction we need, but I have to throw your voice to make her sing and there is no time to teach you."
"Erik," wariness warred with practicality.
"I know. I know it is a violation. I know that you've not forgiven me yet for earlier tonight, but there is no other way." He pulled the last of the weights from his task and looked up at her with vulnerable eyes. "Is it really so horrible? To be with me in that way? Now that you are my soul and I am yours?"
Yes. How could she explain it? How could she tell him his overpowering her mind felt less like a mutual action and more like an invasion she could not stop. It did not matter how much she loved him or how much he would regret the action later. But there was no time, and she had no better plan for how to get the mermaid to sing. He'd asked her to trust him just hours before. And she would try.
She decided to ignore the question, picking up the discarded pieces of metal strewn around them and rolling them in her hands. "And what else?" she asked, bidding him to continue.
Erik pulled the purple clip from her hair and burrowed it deep into the back of the automaton. "I want that back," she whispered, "It is important to me." He merely kissed her temple and continued with his adjustments, walking north to the head of the river where he would place her into the water.
They'd rushed in silence for the last few miles, both too sure that what would come next would somehow ruin everything they'd worked so hard for.
At the sight of smoke in the distance, Christine grabbed Erik's elbow. "Please. Don't do this. There is another way to do this."
"How? We need a distraction, and your beautiful voice is the best weapon we have."
"Let me be the distraction." At his wrinkled expression, she continued, "Not just my voice. Me. Let me distract them while you start the engine." She pulled the small weights from her pocket. "I'm sure I will have enough leverage with these."
"No," he gasped, horror filling his eyes.
"We'll still put the mermaid in the water. That will buy is some time, but when they realize she's there, they'll know you're there too. And they want you, not just the metal. They can't make it without you. They won't hurt me. If they do, you won't do what they want."
"Absolutely not. If that's the case they can just have me. I'll go and you sneak to the train."
"I don't know how to get it moving." She pulled herself closer to him, his eyes still on the metal in her hand. "You took out all the steal from her body, didn't you? You were never going to give any of it to them."
"My plan will work, Christine. Please trust me."
The truth pulsed in her heart – "I do trust you. And if your plan was better, I would let you in this one last time. But it's not better and our children are at stake."
The tension in his shoulders did not ease, but something in his gaze shifted. Resting his creation on the ground, he took Christine's hand and placed his onyx ring on her finger, bringing it to his lips – "I will never forgive you if you get hurt."
Christine kissed his lips quickly one last time and turned, beginning the shallow loop to come in directly where the children would have.
She had no idea what she would say or who she would even meet, but Erik was trusting her and would stay hidden until the last possible moment. In her rush, she did not stop to think that more men may die or that she would be the one who had to end their life. All she could she think was that, for once, what would happen next in her life – in this dangerous moment – belonged solely to her choice.
She scratched at the wound on her chest from the bullet graze. She would come in scared, worried. A hysterical woman was always something shameful to look at. They would look away and that would give her time. A little fresh blood would add to her look of distress when she came upon them. It burned when she opened the scab.
Christine's long strides ate up the path behind her, cutting through the trees, headless of her footing. She tumbled out from the brush and skidded to a stop before a small clearing, an engine and single short railcar filling her gaze.
"Christine!" Sam yelled, pulling himself as best he could from Charles Cummings' grip. The rest of the children hollered from behind in the locked rail car.
"Where is Simon? Fleck?"
"They're all on the floor in here. Cummings knocked them out cold!" Sarah yelled.
Her gaze returned to the man at Sam's side. Charles? Charles Cummings? Mary's superior, but altogether unremarkable husband? He was going to do his own dirty work? She buried her surprise and let tears leak from her eyes.
"Where's Porter?" Cummings demanded.
"Where's Mr. Y?"
"Oh please, woman." Christine's eyes filled with unshed tears and she frantically searched the periphery.
"He said he would meet us here. What have you done?"
Cummings motioned for his three brawny men to point their rifles at Christine and kept his hand firmly on Sam's shoulder. "You might have a beautiful voice, but Y must prefer beauty over brains. Miss Gray figured it out months ago. Now tell me, you pretty little thing, are you going to be good for anything more than a melody?"
His voice was cold, unconcerned, and his gaze shrewd. This man did not flinch at female sensibilities. How very unkind Mary's life must be. Christine felt the tears dry across her cheeks and fury overtake her features. She was a good actress, but this man would not be moved by tears.
At the set of her shoulders, the man laughed. "There we go. There you are. Now tell me, did Mr. Y tell you what I want from him?"
"No?" He pulled his own gun from his jacket pocket. "No is not a word I am accustomed to. And pretty women should never lie." Rich men are always so pleasant and kind until they are not. "It gives them wrinkles."
Christine's hands clenched at her sides. She'd like to give him a few wrinkles. "I don't know what you want from Erik." She felt her phantom's ghostly touch along the back of her spine. Reassuring, not prodding; letting her know he was close by. "Perhaps if you tell me, I can provide it for you? Let the children go on their way and I'll return with you to Phantasma."
The pressure of Erik at her mind prickled sharply and she winced at the surprise rush of pain.
"Or I could just take Mr. Y back with me. What good is a traveling singer who doesn't know anything?"
"Mr. Y is dead."
"You're lying. Tell the truth."
"That is the truth."
"No. But perhaps you can be persuaded?" He shot off a bullet at Sam's feet, making him jump and the other children scream. Christine's heart stuttered in her chest. Her body leaned to run toward Sam, but stopped when she heard the other rifles cock. "I see we know each other now. Tell Mr. Y to come out."
This was not going to plan. Oh hell, she hadn't had a plan, but this was not going well. She looked pasted Cummings to the water and realized that one of his men was gone. There were only two rifles pointed at her.
Cummings followed her gaze – "Don't—don't you want to know why Porter didn't bring me himself?"
"Know why my idiot brother couldn't do the one thing I asked of him and get rid of you? Please, enlighten me."
"Because he's dead." Christine held his gaze, "I shot him in the head."
The old man all at once paled before her. "You could never." There was something rolling in the river water, bobbing up and down at the edge of her vision.
"You would be surprised what I can do." Christine took a step closer, "I can sing the most challenging melodies. I can enchant royalty and wealth. I can escape the clutches of madness and darkness. I can make my own choices and demand that you listen." She took a single weight from her pocket. "I can kill people who are loved. Erik is dead, but you wanted his unrustable steel, right? Here it is. Give me my children and let us go and you can have it."
"Oh, please woman. That's not it."
"No? Are you so sure? It certainly gleams unlike any other steel. The children and our passage and you can have it."
"Or I could just kill you and have it."
Christine took a step forward. "You will give me my son."
"Samuel? He's not yours."
Her voice dropped low, "Give me my children."
The children shouted pointing at the water, the gentle waves of the river glittering against the moonlight.
"Fine." Christine threw the piece of steel toward the mermaid. It sailed through the air in a high arc, plopping in the water near the automaton's tail.
Cummings stood mesmerized, his own mind ticking away at what would be inside. Suddenly he yelled, "Get it boys! That's what we want!" His men rushed into the river, headless of the cold.
In the distraction, Erik slipped through the engine car door and back out of Christine's momentary sight.
Cummings made his way to Christine, "I am a reasonable man, my dear. I know you know this. All I want is what Mr. Y owes me. I gave him a nice place for his little attraction and all I want in return is was he promised."
"You can't have him." He's mine. "He's dead."
"And so soon you can join him." He let go of Sam and grabbed Christine by the waist, his gun digging deep into her side. Only a single man came back from the water, the heavy machine in his arms.
"Your little songbird is a very good actress, but you're too ugly to die, Y. Come out or I'll shoot her and your little urchins."
"Don't you dare!" she screamed into the night. "Sam get on the train and go!"
"Was this your plan?" Erik's voice echoed about them, fearsome and furious. "To get yourself killed after you've told me you love me?"
Sam's eyes went wide and rushed to the car steps.
"I will never forgive you, Christine." The children locked in the rail car gasped, their eyes saucer-like and silent. Cummings turned, Christine still tight against him.
Erik filled her vision. His mask was gone, and the malformed ridges of his skin looked grotesque in the moonlight. Anger twisted their edges taunt and the sneer on his lips only served to accentuate how much of his nose was missing.
"Christ," Cummings breathed, "You really can't die, can you Y? With a face like that why would heaven or hell take you?" Christine slammed her elbow backwards into the soft flesh of Cummings' stomach.
"Let her go."
"You know, man, I can just follow the tracks and find them later. The railroad is my business after all. I'll telegraph Pittsburg and Cleveland, Chicago if you'd like. Where do you think they'll go? A band of freaks and children?"
"But you won't."
"Because I'll go with you. But they must go and you're not to follow."
It was Christine's turn for horror, "No."
"You're a crafty one. I'll take some insurance, just in case."
"I won't let you take her."
"Miss Day? Why would I want her? No. I'm taking you and that damnable contraption back. Can't have you screwing me with bad steel. We have to keep you honest, Mr. Y."
This. This was never the plan. Christine looked anxiously at her Phantom, willing him to tell her what he was going to do. He merely nodded.
"Are you sure you wouldn't work better if she was near? She's lovely leverage."
"They go free, or I will make your life a living hell."
"No. Erik, no." She pulled against Cummings grip, but could not get away.
"No, my dear. No goodbyes. This is what I deserve. Get on the train like a good woman." Erik watched from spot motionless. Her body ached and warred against her. She could not leave him. Not again. Never again. Sam's hand took her own and led her slowly to the train steps.
The pain was fresh and hot, but she'd felt it all before so clearly. A painful old friend. Charlotte ran into her arms. Sam took her hand, and she held him close to her. She did not bother to step inside the train car, choosing instead to hold her body on the top step.
"Pick it up." Cummings demanded of Erik, pointing down at the automaton. He crouched and adjusted the siren's hair.
"I can't carry her again. My leg."
"Oh yes, my brother's parting gift to you. That was sloppy of him." He motioned for his last man to take the automaton back into his arms. "Consider her living to be my last magnanimous act for you."
Christine had no voice. If she opened her mouth sobs would come out. He had to see her stronger than that. But this could not be the end. Not for her clever man. Not for them.
"I love you." Erik said across the expanse as Sam rushed for a lever and the train began to move. He tossed a bobble from his hands, Christine catching it against her chest. "And you were right. Only the children matter now."
As though bid by angel, she found her voice – sure and solid – "Your life is not your own. I demand you return it to me." He smiled at her command. The train began to move under her feet. She realized she'd not said his words back to him. Words he deserved to hear. As he faded into the darkness she yelled, "I love you."
It was not ten minutes later that a final explosion echoed throughout the gorge. What was left of Christine's heart shattered to the floor with its reverberation as she clutched Erik's purple clip in her hands.
Chapter 28: A Reprise
The train ride had, actually, been quite short. And very fast. No belongings weighed down their travel and the small engine quickly arrived at a dead-end depot just a mile from a small riverboat waiting on the Susquehanna. A day later they found themselves on another train, in a private car, headed for Pittsburg.
Erik did not manifest. And the more the minutes and hours collected, the wider the sense of doom became in Christine's chest.
She couldn't stop the images of that horrible night from replaying in her mind. They looped and twisted together until they were a mesh of incomprehensible images flashing before her eyes. But there was no way Erik was dead. Her love was better than death.
Christine urged at every stop to wait. Stay. Give Erik time to catch up. She was the only one willing to.
Herbert had met them on the train to Pittsburg and the other adults looked to him to help her see reason. They could not wait; Mr. Y would not want that; they could not take the chance. It was a welcome relief to see his face. Someone had to ensure the arrangements, he'd chuckled. But now his presence only nettled her pain.
More than once Christine thought to leave her company and retrace her steps to her Phantom. The only thing that held her though, was her children. They looked to her for the cues – cautious of the other adults and willing to forsake them at her word. But that was unfair. She could not take them with her if she left. And she would not leave them.
They huddled close, even in her despair, and she felt better in their company.
Sarah would play small melodies on her violin. Elijah would read to her. Charlotte would try in vain to plait her hair. Sam had taken to reading her the most recent newspaper he could get his hands on each morning, trying studiously to translate the sentences into French.
It was beautiful and painful just how much of Erik had worn off on them. She didn't even have to search hard to find him in them. They were his own children after all. She wondered if he ever realized it.
On a brisk Spring morning – the first buds of leaves just peeping out from their tired tree branches – Sam found an old copy of The Pittsburg Chronicle, dated just days before the night of the Spectacular. The stories he read her all sounded so very trivial. At least there was no talk of the mysterious Phantasma and its undoing.
How had it only been a week? She was barely listening as Charlotte brushed her hair. Instead, she watched from her hotel window as all Erik's boxes were loaded into the steamboat Majestic at the Ohio River Port.
"Christine, it's time to go." Herbert's voice was soft through the door.
Sam answered for her, "We'll be there." She twisted her hair up and clipped it in a low bun. "Mr. Y made sure you would have the best cabin on the boat," he offered.
Of course he did. It would have a piano, do doubt, and a large bath for soaking. Accommodations she found at every fine stop they'd had so far. Christine didn't feel anything at the thought. She should, but she couldn't bring herself to. In the mirror her pale face looked back at her. Soon she would look the part of a ghostly bride. She might as well have been locked away in one of Erik's crystal jails.
She kissed Sam and Charlotte on the cheek and sent them on ahead. Fleck took their place in a sharp burgundy dress and matching hat.
"This is not what Mr. Y would want for you." The little lady dropped a large book on her lap.
"What is this?"
"Music. Music we don't have space for. Herbert didn't let me toss it. So if you want to take it with you, you're going to have to carry it."
It was her music. Hers and her father's. Erik had tucked away everything that was important to her in their trunks leaving little room for himself. She pulled at his deep navy coat covering her, desperately searching for the smell him in the fabric.
Don't look back, she reminded herself. If she didn't look back, she could still feel him behind her. Better haunted than alone.
The book of music sat carefully askew in her room, unaware of the rhythmic sway of the river underneath them. The evening breeze softly danced through her open widows, gently pulling at the leather cover. Everyone else had gone off to sleep earlier in the night and she could no longer avoid the page's siren call. Sleep alluded her and the promise of music pulled at her heart.
Christine undid the bow around the middle of the folio. Her father's well-worn music filled her vision: familiar notes dotted the pages before her, reassuring and like home.
But there was so much more music than just her father's. In between the pages lay hundreds more, filled with notes in red ink.
Through unshed tears, she sat at the piano, for, in fact, there was a piano in the room, and began to play the gentle melodies she found there.
She closed her eyes and let her fingers find their own melody in D minor. The world around her stilled.
One death was enough.
Hadn't she lived through enough loss of him? There would be no more smiles, or more conversations, no more music. And no one could play what he'd left her properly. No one would ever play like him.
Her fingers roamed along the keys, making a strange song of longing in their wake. She began to hum in sympathy to the notes.
He'd left her his music and their children. Not theirs, but theirs; Not hers, but hers. They had stood by her side these last days and tried desperately to cheer her while missing him in their own way. Her sadness was unfair to them. She must do better.
She let her hands cross, reaching for the higher register of notes.
And then she heard a sweet accompaniment under her. Longing and lovely.
She was going mad. Had this been how he found the music? Alive and next to him? She was certainly going mad. She must be. Yet she held on, keeping her eyes closed, playing her melody and listening to the intricate additions manifesting around her.
A smile tugged at the edge of her mouth. Her Phantom had chosen purgatory haunting her instead of heaven. How selfish she was in that happy thought.
A cold hand ghosted over her own, and her heart stuttered in her chest. The ghostly accompaniment took the melody from her. Soft lips, strangely shaped, kissed the nape of her neck. The tears she'd kept tightly in fell down her checks in waves.
"If I am going mad please don't leave me," she spoke to the spring night air.
"You said my life was not my own. I gladly return it to you."
At the sounds of Erik's voice, Christine's eyes flew open. She turned in her seat, filling her vision with his disheveled, dirty, yet carefully masked face. Was she mad? It didn't matter. He was smiling and he was with her.
"You're alive." She touched his cheek and he felt so very real.
"You made me promise not to die."
"Only you could keep such a promise."
His fingers danced along her jaw, "It seems you thought I couldn't." At his cold touch, her heart began to beat again, and the overwhelming sorrow retreated back to its sleeping depths.
"Never again." He kissed her then, his lips hungry yet reverent.
Erik had been filthy, his black mask even caked with mud. Christine rushed to the bathroom and began the tap, her gaze never straying long from him. If she looked away, he may vanish. He took her codling with good humor and allow her to pull his clothes from him and push him toward the bath.
When she urged him to step in, he paused and gently drew her closer by the tie of her robe. When it opened, he washed his fingers in the water and brought them up to her healing scar. He carefully traced along the jagged edges, letting the pads of his fingers rise and fall along the torn skin. Elijah did the same thing when she read him to sleep at night.
The scar no longer tugged in uncomfortable ways but would certainly leave a wide mark across her chest. Low cut bodices would no longer do in company.
At his touch, the restless urgency in her calmed. She tugged at the knots holding his mask in place and gently pulled it away from his face. All she wanted to do was trace every line, dip, and valley and command them to her memory.
"Forever to be a reminder of your implacable determination."
She smiled up at him. At the lost look on his face, she frowned, "I can cover it, Erik. If it's too hard to bear."
"Never. If my wife can look upon my face with love, what kind of man would I be if I cannot do the same? I'm just sorry you were hurt."
"Your…wife?" she whispered.
"Have I been presumptuous? I'll admit the word feels strange in my mouth."
"Your wife?" She asked again.
"I've always wanted you for my wife. If you'll have me for a husband."
Realization filled her mind, "You finally believe I love you."
"Yes." He kissed the palm of her hand resting near his mangled cheek. "And I find that such a fact makes it impossible not to be bound to you before God."
Christine bit her lip. Joy bubbled up within her chest and felt strange, it did not match the calm sense of rightness filling every other part of her. Water overflowed onto the floor at their feet and she jumped to stop the faucet. He should wash first. There would be time for declarations later. "If I kiss you, you'll never get in the tub."
"On the contrary. If you kiss me, we'll both end up in the tub." A bright flush turned her skin the color of her scar. "Does that mean yes, you'll marry me?"
She couldn't help her smile. Just because he was alive did not mean they would not discuss what happened, but she knew that whatever the resolution to those conversations, it would not change her answer. "No more hypnosis."
"I'd like words."
"No more hypnosis."
"And no more false deaths."
"The angels cannot keep me from you."
"Yes, you will marry me."
She repeated, "Yes, I will marry you."
"Yes, you will bind yourself to me."
"Yes. I will be your wife and never leave your side. I go where you go. And I will love you always."
He kissed her fiercely, wrapping his arms around her and pulling her close until all she could feel was his beating heart against her own and his expert tongue promising sinful perfection. He pushed her robe from her shoulders, and she shivered at this possessive touch – so bold and new, yet like him.
Now that he knew she was his, he would not bank his want of her. Good. She would not either. She took his lip between her teeth and tugged, sucking on the plump bit of flesh as she did. He groaned low in his throat and pressed his hips hard against her own.
Before he could pull any more clothing away from her body, Christine stepped back, desperately trying to calm her breathing. "You must be tired and dirty. In the tub with you." She took a washcloth and soap from the side table. Her fingers trembled.
"My love, you have my full attention. I promise." Yes, she did, but that did not mean they had to rush. He'd just come alive again, after all. She pulled him back against the lip of the tub and dropped the washcloth into the warm water.
She started along his shoulders, following the dip and bevel of his lean muscles. He sighed deeply and dropped his head to his chin. "How did it take you so long to get to us?"
"I was not far enough away when the dynamite detonated. By the time I woke up, it was a day later and there were scouts everywhere." She carefully squeezed the rag along his collarbone, warm water dripping onto his skin. Another secret he'd hidden from her. Dynamite in the automaton. She would not dwell on that detailed tonight. "I'm sorry it took so long."
"Did you hear from anyone? Hanna, Mol?" She dared not ask about Cummings.
He nodded. "Everything will go back to much as it was before. Quickly."
"I'm sorry, Erik."
He still her hand against his chest with his own, "Sorry for what?"
"For Phantasma. For Meg. For everything." He slid his fingers through hers and brought the back of her hand to his lips for a kiss.
"There is nothing to be sorry for. Meg lived and is now very wealthy as the last surviving owner of Phantasma. I lost nothing irreplaceable. You made sure of that." She found the wave of relief at his statement rushed through her.
"Still. It was your life's work."
"I've had several of those, my dear. I find that the fulfillment of them is fleeting." She dropped kisses along the back of his neck. "Tell me what you're feeling."
"Relief." She moved to wash his legs under the warm water. "What did Meg say to you?"
"She would not see me. I did—I felt I owe her an apology. When she saw me from the window, she screamed. I couldn't reach her after that."
"She deserved better."
"She knew I couldn't love her when my heart was so full of you."
"In a small way, I believe I know how she's hurting. After all, we love the same man. I know how it hurts to think I've lost you to God. To lose you to another woman, that pain would be unendurable." He let the silence linger over her sympathy.
"What else?" When she did not rush to answer him, or lift her head from her work, he pressed further, "You said before that we—that I did not listen to you. I would like to do so now and always. Please, tell me what you're feeling."
Her hands stilled. She'd pushed all her feelings so far down that she didn't even know what exactly they were anymore. When she'd first left New York, she was so rigidly focused on moving forward she would have sacrificed anything to carve her place in the world. Erik had brought her back to life again. He'd softened her icy hard heart into something willing and warm.
He'd listened. He'd learned. He'd let her into his new home with a patience she would have never imagined him possessing. Yet danger beat through his veins – it always would, no matter how hard they tried to form a regular life. The fall of Phantasma had proven that.
Still, a life of danger with him was far more preferable, short as it may be, to a long life without him.
His fingers bid her chin to rise and look at him. She'd been silent too long. When she met his eyes, she saw love and worry fill them, his brow marked with lines she'd never noticed before.
"I feel like my whole life lays before me. And I'm nervous and excited. I'm calm and worried. Just an hour ago I was wondering how I live with four children and four strange adults. Where could I sing? What name could I take?
"Now you are back with me and I find I don't care anymore. We'll figure it out together." She began to wash him again. "I worry that whatever magic Meg was able to wield to make Phantasma form, I do not possess. I worry one day you will realize I was not a woman to pine over all these years."
Ah, yes. That. She found her heart had not softened on that event, "What were your words? 'I regret nothing that brings me closer to you.' Well I say I regret nothing that keeps my family safe." Porter was evil, he'd threatened so much, and surely, he wouldn't have just let them go. She'd tried to feel remorse but found none within her. If she was damned, so be it.
In his gaze, he did not believe her. He still held more stock in her goodness than she did. Eventually, he would learn.
"Where will we go?"
He didn't even hesitate, "San Francisco."
"California?" He smirked at her tone.
"There's a new Opera House there."
"Opera Houses always look for stunning new divas."
She scooted closer to his face, "Erik, no."
"Erik, no? My love, I thought you liked my scheming."
"I'm not discussing this with you tonight."
"So, no Opera Houses. Understandable. How about a Phantasma by the sea?"
He took her arms in her hands. "And you love that about me."
"I do love you. And it's a long way to California." She melted in his hands. "And your bath is getting cold."
"Perhaps you should warm me then?" he asked, quickly pulling her into the water with him.
Christine's laugher rang throughout the room, silenced only by Erik's smiling lips falling upon her own.
The children found Erik in the morning sitting on the small balcony overlooking the Ohio River. His legs were crossed in his characteristically nonchalant way, a Chicago newspaper open in his hands. Their shock gave way to joy as they rushed to him, hugging him tightly.
At first, Erik was lost in their actions, completely overwhelmed by their delighted affection. After all, the last time they had seen him, they'd seen his face. But they did not leave him, and it took only moments for him to wrap his arms around them and return their hugs.
Only Sam stood back at Christine's side, his face guarded. "You left us on our own."
"No," Erik replied, opening his arm for him, "I left them in your care. And you kept them safe, just as I knew you would."
Christine saw the boy's chest expand at Erik's justification. A smile tugged at his lips. Mollified, he rushed to Erik and hugged him tight. Erik rested his hand on Sam's hair and kissed his brow.
Christine dared to speak, "We'd like to talk with you all about something important." The children pulled their gaze to her, though they did not move from Erik's side. She cleared her throat. "Mr. Y and I… well, we know we can never take the place of your real mommas and papas," the confusion on Erik's face turned to awe before her eyes, "but we would love you and protect you." He would not remove his gaze from her, terrified that the children would reject him. "And we would like to be your parents."
"Parents?" Sarah repeated.
"You want to be our parents?" Elijah asked.
Charlotte crawled up into Erik's lap.
It was Sam who rushed to her side and wrapped his arms around her. "That's how it works right? If you stay, I stay?"
The tension in her body eased at his hug and she held him in her arms. "That's right," she spoke against his ear.
Charlotte gasped, "That means I can call you papa and momma?" Her little hands held Erik's face in them, his mask lifting slightly from his skin at the pressure. She looked into this eyes with smiling adoration.
Erik's laugh filled the room, "Yes, my dear, you can." At his answer, she giggled, and nuzzled into his neck for a hug.
"I have a momma and a pappa."
In unison, the older children agreed, "Yes."
Christine's chest hurt with all her joy – so much it would never again be all contained inside her person. Happy tears, for the first time in so long, feel freely down her cheeks and she didn't care at all to wipe them away.
12 years later
Samuel Dantes stepped from an old train car, the faded name Blue Bell painted on its side. Tomorrow he would be in New York, and the day after, on a boat to the old world. Maunch Chunk was his last stop before his new adventure.
He surveyed the quaint little town before him. How small it looked. The bricks of the railroad building stood imposing as ever, just beyond the small station park, and felt as though they were sucking all the morning warmth into their porous depths. The main road up to the center of town was still wide and steep. The Cummings' house loomed over everything still as it once did.
He checked in at the Hotel American under the last name Y. No first. He did not give Dantes – as his family was likely to do since his childhood. With a mischievous smile and resolve of character, his brother had christened them such long before they arrived in California. His father had called it a fitting name for a family such as theirs. But Samuel was here to lure out old memories and he hoped an old name would spark them.
The receptionist, a youngish pretty thing, at the counter smiled brightly at him. And for her friendliness he asked, "When do the trains leave for the Phantasma?"
"Yes. The amusement park."
"Oh that's been closed for ages. The only people who live up there now are recluses."
"Is that where Meg Giry still lives?"
"Giry? I'm sorry I don't know a Giry. Maybe Miss Schuyler will know what you're talking about? She sometimes tells stories about the old amusement park."
He smiled warmly at her and took his leave. Schuyler was a name he remembered. It was as good as any lead to follow.
He sent a letter to Miss Schuyler, asking her to join him for the show at the old opera house later that day. It had just been fitted for the new motion picture. He couldn't help the invitation. His parents had fostered theatrics into his blood. Try as he might, he couldn't much help the vice any more.
She arrived late, Sam spotting the red hair he remembered so well from a distance. The cinema would be nearly full by the time they found their seats, but it mattered little to him. I'd seen this film before, several times. He simply wanted to see the space again, hear the old organ and see if it sounded like it once did in his memory.
"When you signed your letter Mr. Y, I knew it would be you." Hanna said with a smile. Her wide arms wrapped around him for a hug and he returned it gladly.
"It couldn't possibly be my father?"
"Heavens no. Your parents had a real knack for survival. Coming back here would go against everything they are."
She was right. He had begged for years that they travel – visit the places they'd once seen, see if they were the same once more. And every time his parents would meet his plea with a soft chuckle and a quiet no. It would be tempting fate, his mother would say. It would be awaking old demons, his father would answer. No, they would not look back. They truly had only ever looked forward.
They made their way to their seats, headless of the darkened room. The reels had begun, and blank light flickered before them. "And how have you been, Hanna?"
"Living. Much like the rest of us. But you don't need to know about me. I want to know about you." As he began to speak the manager announced the show could not go on. There was no musician to play.
Sam snuck from his seat and sat before the piano just right of them. Hanna's gaze questionedhis actions. He looked to the music and then promptly ignored it, choosing instead to play his own melodies. The crowd cheered, the announcement ended, and the film began.
"You're very good," Hanna whispered.
"I would be a shame to my father if I wasn't." She smiled.
"Why are you here, Sam?"
"I wanted to see Phantasma again. But Miss Meg let it go."
"As soon as Meg was fit to stand, she took her money and left for Paris. The last letter I had from her was written on very fine paper."
"She was very kind to us. I was sorry to leave her here alone."
Hanna let him play. He wondered if she was afraid to answer him or had no answer for him. Eventually, she turned from the film when he changed his music. "What little heart Mr. Y had must have always belonged to Christine. Once she was by his side again, there was no more room for anyone else." And Hanna believed her statement, though it was very wrong. His father had a large heart – warm and gentle. Perhaps the years had made it larger. Perhaps the Mr. Y Hanna knew and the father he'd come to love were very different men. He'd been young, and his memories were faded.
They quieted for a while, watching the film and allowing Sam's fingers to dance along the keys. When it was over, they walked toward the rushing river, absently walking from the center of the town.
"What will you do all across the Sea, little man?" Her old endearment made him smile.
"You always were one for adventure, weren't you?"
"I'm to land in England, and then to France, and more. I plan to see the world, Hanna."
"What do your parents think about you seeing the whole world?"
"They hope I'm not too naive."
"Your mother will miss you terribly."
He could only nod. He would miss his mother very much of his own accord. Thick as thieves, his father had loving said of them for as long as he could remember.
"You should stay here for a while. Rest up before such a long journey."
But there was no reason to. What was once so special about Maunch Chunk was gone. His family had taken it with them when they left. "I'm afraid I must be off. I must be in Paris on a specific date."
"And what is so very important that you must be in Paris on a specific date?"
"The old Opera House there is to have an auction I must attend."
"Young men and their demandable urgency." She stood still on the path, her body carefully angled toward him. "I don't go in there anymore, my boy. But you've come to see your old home and it's there before you."
He'd not even realized they'd walked the full distance to Phantasma. The imposing and beautiful entrance way was overgrown and wild, pieces of the casting porcelain scattered about the grass below. There were none of the tall structures from his childhood, and none of the fine and pristine walkways he would run. Yet still, he could hear the ghosting melodies of his father in the air.
Sam kissed Hanna's hand, "Will you wait for me?"
"No. But I'm sure you'll catch up to me. I walk slow these days."
The pirate ship sat decaying on its side, the carousel a pile of burnt twisted metal before him. It was sad, but not what he was looking for; he continued on, walking the old pathway into the darkened forest. His father's little house sat hidden. The windows were blown out and the roof caving in, yet it had not been burned. It didn't even look raided. Just forgotten. He made his way around the back and stood at the stoop by the kitchen.
I don't plan to go anywhere. I didn't before, and I won't now. Will you stay here with me too? This works both ways, you know.
His mother's claiming words came rushing back to him. Tears pricked his eyes. What a wonderful life it had been, to have Christine Daaé claim him as her son.
He made his way to through the house, taking the stairs carefully. By the time he made it to the attic landing, his pants were torn and dusty.
The wide-open early summer sky, filled with clear bright stars, danced above his head in the open holes of the ceiling, and for the first time he worried that what he'd come for would be lost to him. Yet nothing in the attic looked like it had been moved in many years, the dust and leaves unperturbed by a living soul.
Taking off his deep brown jacket, he rolled up his selves and began moving the old furniture in his way until he finally uncovered a heavy locked trunk. A smile danced on his lips. His old Gazetter lock still clicked in that particularly musical way he remembered, even though he had to pick it.
Piles of old music paper ruffled in the fresh air it had not touched in years. Pages and pages of lined paper with his father's familiar red ink. Sarah would have cooed over the treasure trove of his melodies and been lost in the lines for hours. But Sam didn't have hours.
No, what he was looking for he found at the bottom of the truck, wrapped in an old jacket of his. And thanks to the small fabric's careful protection, the gilded letters on the front of the book still glittered sweetly in the moonlight – World Atlas.
The book had been his father's first gift to him, and finally, it was back in his hands after all these years. The book feel open to the map of Paris in his hands, his father's sharp and careful ink drawings over the maps showing the Paris skyline from the top of the Opera House. Within the scape, small stars dotted the sky, as though dawn was just breaking beyond the horizon
Sam smiled and carefully returned the lock to the case. He would arrange for the truck to be sent to New York after him. Sarah would be happy to get it eventually. But the book he took with him, securely under his arm, and made his way from the little house.
He left Phantasma without looking back, and the next morning he took the first train to New York, not even waiting for a proper breakfast before departure.
It is often said of youth that their hunger for adventure and the unknown predisposes them to the most inopportune trouble. And that very well may have been the truth in Sam's case, venturing into the infamous old haunts of his parents' former lives. Yet there was one vital distinction in his character that would forever change his journey – he trusted his parent's word and judgement completely. Outside influence would never waiver his faith in them.
As he lost himself in the beautiful drawings of his father, his mother's parting words to him replayed in his memory – Remember that who we once were is not who we are, my son. Whatever revelations you discover of us, and no doubt you will discover some things, you are an infuriatingly curious man, remember that everything we've ever done was out of love and we are better for it.
I cannot believe that I just wrote 'The End' on this story. In June of 2019 I took a trip up to Jim Thorpe, PA (originally Maunch Chuck. YES. It is a real place. And yes, you can ride open air on the Bluebell) and, after seeing the US Tour months earlier, this story blossomed so fierce and so fast in my head I couldn't do anything but write it down. I promised myself that I wouldn't start posting in serial until I was 80% done with the rough draft, and what a great idea that was for me, for you dear reader - because this story is so much better for it.
It's been a kind of companion for more than a year and a half, and I cannot write in words to you how much your enjoyment and excitement of this story and my writing means to me. How much your support (and reads! I see you peeps that just read and I love you for it) has given me confidence in my writing skills again.
Truly, this has been a joy. From the bottom of my heart - thank you.