I could positively taste the sense of urgency in the air, the frantic pulse that beat around us as we stood on the top of the world. Our fingers were desperately interlaced, palms sweating in the frigid air. Paranoia tugged at my eyes and pulled them side to side, an endless beat that gathered bile in my throat.
"Dead!" Raoul cried, his brows furrowed with worry, "I can't believe it, Buquet actually died! On the stage, no less! In front of an entire audience! Oh, my God…"
"Everyone is saying it was suicide. An accident," I muttered half-heartedly. Raoul shook his head in disbelief, causing strands of his blonde hair to gently escape from the ponytail at the nape of his neck.
"No, no, no! Christine, do not even attempt to convince yourself otherwise; we both know exactly what happened. Everything was too much of a coincidence…the managers suddenly replacing you with Carlotta…then those threatening notes…the performance was a disaster, and it was only because things didn't go his way! I've never heard anyone croak like that in my life! Carlotta certainly didn't end up squawking like a rabid duck by accident! Maniacal laughter does not manifest out of nowhere by accident! And for God's sake, men just don't end up flopping about at the end of a lasso by accident!"
"I know," I sighed, blinking back tears. I felt like throwing myself upon the floor and sobbing miserably until there was nothing left, but that was obviously not an option. I was withering inside, and a sense of profound betrayal was snaking its way through my heart.
Oh, Erik…how could you?
"We are not going back in there, do you hear me?" Raoul said, and indeed, he sounded on the verge of tears himself. He cupped my cheek with his hand. "There is a lunatic running around the place and you are his prime target—"
"No, he would never—he—he promised-!"
"Do you think promises mean anything to him? He's mad, Christine! Anyone willing to murder and then boast about it should not be walking around freely! Someone needs to subdue him and haul him off to the asylum. I feel like a buffoon, I should have known this was coming, what with all those letters…"
The stars twinkled innocently above our heads, a billion eyes winking and watching and waiting for something to happen. They seemed to press down on us, as if they would collapse upon the earth at any second. I stared up at the statue of Apollo bearing his lyre that loomed above us, just another presence: just another reminder that I was not alone. I would never be alone.
"Who is he, Christine?" Raoul asked quietly, "I want you to tell me everything. I want to clear this up once and for all. Who is this man, this…Phantom?"
I will tell you who the Angel of Death is, I thought. He is the brilliant, unbalanced, and devastatingly tortured soul that will haunt me until the day I die. He is the one who builds only to destroy, the man who brought me to a place of divine fantasy, one who frightens me to no end, the man who loves me with all his heart…
…the man whom I fear I may love in return.
And so, in a final act of betrayal, I told Raoul absolutely everything.
I fear that I am dead.
She has killed me, and I am irrevocably dead.
For several moments after hearing her pour her heart out to her lover, I ceased to feel. I ceased to be. My heartbeat rose up and pounded in my ears. I felt my blood slithering through my arteries, heard it rushing like wind during a storm. It was as if I had separated from my body and was instead an outside source, watching that strange black creature crouched atop Apollo's shoulder. I watched his garish yellow eyes glimmer with shameful tears, his wasted form wilting beneath the night sky. What an odd fellow, I thought, what a peculiar specter. He is eavesdropping, Erik is eavesdropping.
Erik should not eavesdrop! Erik should give the blessed their privacy. How terribly rude he is.
Her sweet voice stretched out across the roof, its intensity changing like rapids in a river. One moment it was weak and trembling, and the next edged with razor sharp anger, and then suddenly filled to the brim with a curious longing and reverent respect. Worst of all was the pity. She pitied me!
"Poor thing," said the tone of her speech, "Poor, helpless little thing."
I was bleeding. My nails had dug into the wretched flesh of my face so viciously that it was screaming in agony, but I took no notice of it, instead subjecting myself again to the stab of her confessions.
"…his face, Raoul, it…I-I don't know how to…"
"Burned?" asked that abhorred boy.
She shook her head, and her beautiful dark curls bounced about.
"No, it…God, I have never in my life seen anything so horrible. He warned me that it was the face of a corpse, but I didn't listen. I didn't listen! I couldn't imagine it would be that…that bad. When I tore his mask off, the elegant musician that I had known was instantly replaced with the embodiment of terror itself. And I tried to remain calm, oh, I tried so hard, but he…he would not stop shouting. It was like a wild beast possessed him and shook me and spat curses into my face.
"As much as I wanted to look away, I could not. He held my head firmly in place and forced me to look…"
"Christine," he said quietly, "May I ask…what…what does it look like?"
"No nose," she said feebly, "He has no nose, Raoul, none at all, just a hole! A gaping hole that leads to the inside of his head. His eyes…they are sunken so far back into his skull that they look like empty sockets. His skin is literally white and nearly transparent and stretched so tightly over his bones that it looks like it will rip apart at any minute. I could not stop looking at his lips; those same lips that once produced such incredible music were now contorted and drawn back in a snarl…and every time I screamed, it angered him further, but I couldn't stop!
She buried her face into his strong, muscular torso, so unlike my withered, emaciated one. He looked as hurt as she did. Again came that feeling of detachment, as if I was watching the scene from above, a curious bystander.
"I thought," I heard her say between sobs, "that he was going to kill me. I thought—oh, Raoul! —I truly thought he meant to kill me! Never in my life have I been so frightened. And after he screamed for what seemed like a lifetime, he sunk to the floor and hid his face in his hands and trembled. I did not know if he was weeping, or ill, or mad, but I simply sat there like a troll, watching. I am helpless. I am worthless. I should have done something."
"Do not say that," he whispered fiercely into her hair, "He has you believing that you are nothing without him. I'll have none of that, Christine. Do you hear me? You can break free. You are no longer his prisoner. You are strong—"
"No!" she suddenly wrenched herself away from his embrace, rubbing her eyes with her fists, "I am not strong! Don't you see? My stupidity caused all of this! If only I had been wiser, if only I had listened, if only I had opened my eyes to see what was before me…none…none of this would have…I've ruined him!"
"Christine, this is not your fault!"
What would his skull looked like smashed upon the pavement, I wondered? Shattered like a bloody porcelain plate. Glorious. Yes, glorious. De Chagny would not contaminate her any longer. Not Christine. Not Erik's Christine.
"You have not ruined him," the Vicomte continued, "He was beyond repair to begin with. You must understand that. This is not a healthy man we are dealing with. Any man that sadistically tortures and kills and devises elaborate ways to delude people into believing his sick fantasies is not a man who should freely walk the streets!"
I think…I think I should like to show you what sadistic torture really is, boy.
"Is that was this is?" Christine demanded, "A sick fantasy? Because you may be right, you just may be. But what scares me the most, Raoul, is not that terrible face of his, or his insanity, or even the way he killed Buquet tonight…no, what scares me beyond comprehension is the fact that even after knowing all of that, I cannot bare the thought of being away from him! What is it that motivates me to continually return to him? Fear? Shock? Or is it something else?" She tore her hand down the side of her face. "God help me, I do not even know what is real and what is an illusion anymore!"
A pause. Laden with grief. Laden with unspoken frustration. Then it softened, became gentler.
"This is real," said the boy, "We are real." A crease between his brows, his teeth biting his lip, his hands rising up to her slender shoulders and clenching them with desperation. He begged for understanding. He yearned for her. "Please, Christine. You must see. You must realize how twisted his game is. Perhaps he was a friend to you once, but friendship has descended into obsession. Not love. He does not love you. He may lust for you, but not as a person, as a thing: as a shiny bauble that he can keep and admire and control."
Tears flowed freely from her haunted eyes, slowly running down her ivory cheeks and then falling to the ground, where the snow greedily devoured them. She was struggling, torn in two. She did not want to listen to him, but she was. I could see that she was. He made more sense than I ever would.
And yet my brave girl still tried to convince herself otherwise.
"He loves me," she said, more to herself than to him, "He does. He said so. And his eyes…they were sincere. They were just as terrified as I was. They seemed that way. He seemed that way."
"He is maniacal. He does not know what he feels because his mind is warped. Look at what he has done to you! You are constantly looking over your shoulder and jumping at the slightest noise. There is no joy for you anymore, only paranoia! Every little move you make, you fret over whether or not you have displeased him. His presence hangs over you like a disease! That is no way to live, no way to live at all!"
"But there is joy. There is joy, there has to be. When I am with him, I feel…I feel…"
"Not love," he said sadly, "What you feel is not love. You are overwhelmed. And how you weep! Love does not bring tears like those. That is not love. Do you know what love is, Christine?"
"I don't believe I do," she replied shamefully, "Not anymore."
"Then I will tell you what love is." He took her hand and placed it in his, his gaze intense, "Love is laughter. Love is the sweetness of knowing that you are near the one that you belong to. Love is absolute and utter compatibility and knowing that there is one person out there who completes you. And when you are in love, you ache, not with grief, but with happiness of the most divine kind.
"I love you, Christine Daae. I have never felt this way before. You are the best thing that will ever happen to me. I love you and I need you, and I wish nothing more than to spend the rest of my life with you."
Slowly, as if fearful that the moment would vanish, she smiled. It was a wet smile, breaking through her haze of grateful tears. She let out a smile after her many months of severity and heartache, and for a moment, I caught a glimpse of the radiance that had emanated from her before I had spirited her away to my dark world: a radiance that wanted so badly to break free of its bonds. A radiance that I had kept chained and locked away.
"Raoul," came her pleading sigh.
And that was when she kissed him.
Her lips molded with his in a torrent of burning passion that I had not believed she was capable of. Their kiss was one of desperation and incredulity, so fierce in its execution that it was as if the world would be destroyed if they broke their embrace. When he writhed his fingers in her hair, so insistently and yet with infinite tenderness, it became very clear that every word he had spoken was true. He loved her more than any man could love a woman, indeed, as much as I loved her myself. It was as if I were down there, below the statue of Apollo, kissing her with as much adoration as I could muster.
Yet I knew, as I watched them melt together, that it was not me whom she longed for.
It never would be.
The world seemed to slow, and the deafening roar of the wind pulsed in my eardrums as my heart beat to my love's refrain, echoing over and over again:
(Author's Note: I borrowed a phrase from Alfred Noye's beautiful poem "The Highwayman." See if you can spot it! :) )