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Like Everybody Else

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I’m not really a bad man. Love me and you’ll see! To be good, all I ever needed was to be loved. If you loved me, I’d be as gentle as a lamb and you could do whatever you pleased with me.

Gaston Leroux, The Phantom of the Opera

“Erik?”

I was certain I was dreaming. It was the only explanation, and a sound one too, since the likelihood of my madness and grief producing hallucinations far outweighed the likelihood of her ever returning. Oh, I’d been mad to love her, to even dream of touching her. I was mad now, laid out in state on her bed like dead royalty in a processional, clutching that stupid veil between my crossed arms.

“Erik, are you here?”

I recognized her voice, too. I’d remember it until I died, which wouldn’t be too long now, I hoped, and I’d likely remember it after. If there was a God, and I was willing to bet He did exist just to spite me, the worst punishment I could envision was an afterlife of eternal memory. That innocent, childish voice of hers agreeing to run away with the boy replayed in an endless loop like one of those contraptions you put a franc in and look through to see a horse running or some such. She’d told me about those one day, completely enchanted and blissfully ignorant of the simplicity of the device until I’d made one for her and explained how it worked, after which her face had fallen like a child learning that the moon was a great mass of rock. “But the pictures aren’t still,” she’d insisted stubbornly. “I can see them moving.” The result, the fantasy, was what intrigued her, never the inner workings. A scientist my Christine was not.

There I went again. I even thought of her possessively, which only proved I could never have been all that aware of her inner workings to believe I’d owned even a part of her. I had to stop myself thinking that way. My ignorance had never been blissful, and I hadn’t even the comfort of Christine’s excuses of youth and inexperience and, frankly, a lack of curiosity. I’d walked into my hell, eyes open.

But then, it wasn’t as if it had been a long journey from the purgatorial void I’d squatted in previously. I should consider myself lucky, I thought, that it had finally ended. Fortunate that the hope I’d thought myself rid of years ago that had flared up with her dramatic entrance had finally, truly, burned off and that I had no more strength to keep up this charade of life. I was finished with this world, and it had been waiting to be rid of me for nigh on fifty years, now. If I lay here for long enough perhaps it would think me dead. A little longer, and I could perhaps convince myself. And if I could believe it, my body would not lag far behind. Bodies were so fragile, really. So simple to destroy, and I’d done my share. But this last murder would not require my strength or my clever hands. For the first time, my weakness would deal the fatal blow.

In the meantime, I hoped the voices would stop long enough for me to die in peace, whatever awaited me after. Strange how I thought of her as soft-spoken, when she had the voice of a trained operatic soprano. The girl was capable of such noise, when she wanted to. But I didn’t want to hear her right now, and since she was all in my head it should be a simple matter to block her out. Was my brain so far deteriorated that I could not even command its silence? Another sign that it was time to go; my mind had always been my only asset, and the disaster with Christine had irreparably upset the balance it had created for me. It had never been quiet, though, I mused. I had never been able to turn it off. Always thinking, inventing, composing, cursing, even when my body had fully withdrawn from its surroundings. Even now, my eyes scanned the ceiling, counting the hairline cracks in the plaster I’d installed so she wouldn’t be faced with the roughness of hewn stone; a roughness I’d preserved in the rest of the house as a reminder of the inherent possibilities of rawness. My eyes drew new designs on the molded and carved surface and I found myself making plans to improve on the initial design, because there really shouldn’t be cracks there already and I must have miscalculated the weight and anyway, Christine would have preferred flowers or vines to those ridiculous comedy/tragedy masks—

I shut my eyes defiantly. She wasn’t coming back. It wasn’t as if the ceiling had run her off, anyway, any more than the wardrobe of new dresses or the silver-handled brushes and hand mirror. It was me. My soul, ugly and rank, hidden beneath layers of blood and filth so thick even I had been able to forget it for a time. I had read the wrong books; my mind had been filled with rescued damsels and princes triumphant. I laughed, or thought I did; I don’t know whether there was any sound. The books hadn’t been wrong. I’d just forgotten to read the cast list. She was right, they were all right, to hate this face. It only mirrored what lay within. Fair warning. Funny how easy it was to come to terms with my face when I simply admitted my sin. The stone which made up the walls of my home could be carved and polished and shaped into Michelangelo’s David, but my soul was in a continual process of decay and there was nothing my artistry could do about it. Best for the rest of my body to catch up to the festering travesty of my face. I only hoped the end would come soon. I’d never been good at waiting.

“Oh God,” her phantom voice gasped, and she seemed so close. Perhaps it wasn’t a hallucination--after all, was there a more fitting punishment for me than to be haunted by her as I had tormented the floors above all these years? “Erik, don’t be dead. God, please don’t let him be dead.” So predictable, my mind. Too many operas, too many last-minute reconciliations. As if anything really happened that way. The bed seemed to dip on one side but I waited to open my eyes, willing away this latest torture. I really was insane. And that touch on my wrist, those fingers feeling for my pulse, that couldn’t be real. It couldn’t. I opened my eyes.

“Oh!” The look of surprise on her face was almost comic, but her round eyes quickly filled with tears as she leaned her bowed head on my shoulder. “I thought you were dead, Erik. You looked dead—I… I mean you were so still, I couldn’t see you breathing.” I blinked as sensation returned to my body, and wondered for the first time how long I had been lying here. I felt weak. I had been farther along than I had thought, unless this really was just an extremely detailed dream. She knelt at the side of the bed, waiting expectantly for something. I had no idea why she was here, so I had no idea what to give her. “Why won’t you say something?”

“Christine,” I whispered, the hoarseness of my voice evidence of that I’d been here for some time and that this wasn’t a dream. I wasn’t sure if even my imagination was this involved, either.

She smiled, but it looked strange through her tears. “Who else?”

I tried to rouse myself. It didn’t matter whether she was really here or not, did it? I might as well make the most of whatever trick was being played on me. It had to be a trick; even looking at her was torture, betrayal in liquid form injected into the vein. “Christine, what are you doing here?” Apparently my mouth had not received the caution signals my brain was sending out. “I sent you home with the boy.” Hadn’t I?

That caused a fresh outbreak of tears. “I know, Erik, I know. Can you ever forgive me for going? I didn’t know what I was doing, and you frightened me so, I didn’t know what you would do. I didn’t dare argue. But I didn’t want to go.”

“You gave a good impression of it.” Sarcasm was always lost on the girl, but it never stopped me from using it.

“The whole way home I was thinking about you, hoping you would still be here when I got back, because I knew even then that I couldn’t marry him, no matter what you said, and it took me a whole week to get back and I was so afraid I might be too late.”

My head hurt and I was beginning to regret all those hours spent teaching her breath control. “Hush, Christine, you don’t know what you’re saying.” A week? Had it been a week? No wonder my arms were loath to respond to my command. And where was that damned daroga?

“Yes I do. I’m staying with you, Erik. I’ve chosen.” Her face, so serious and sweet, held a determination I had seen only once or twice but knew brooked no opposition.

“I don’t believe you.” Did she expect me to roll over and take whatever new torture she’d decided to visit upon me in my weakened and defenseless state? She had to have known this would kill me. “Why couldn’t you have just let me die in peace, for once?”

She shook her head wildly. “No, don’t say that! I don’t want you to die at all. Aren’t you listening to me? I came back. I’m staying.”

“Right. Can we get to the part where the big puppy shows up to rescue you? I just want to know so I can put the breakables in a safe place.” I was reaching for the insults now. She’d already broken the only thing I couldn’t replace.

“I left him, Erik. I told him I wasn’t going to marry him.” She actually sounded like she meant it, but then her acting had gotten so much better lately. “I made a vow to you, and I broke it. I know you have no reason to believe me, but I’m here and I’m going to stay here. I realized that this… this is where I belong. Raoul doesn’t understand the opera, he doesn’t understand me. He doesn’t need me.”

God, this was exhausting. “So that’s it? I’m your little project?”

She leaned over me and kissed my forehead, my eyes, my chin, and it felt like a benediction until she brushed my lips with hers and it felt like something else entirely. “I’m going to save you,” she whispered, and God help me, I believed her. For all my voiced scorn, I didn’t actually believe she was capable of such premeditated deceit. The elopement was another matter entirely; she was too innocent to even conceive of maliciousness.

And it didn’t matter at all whether I believed her, because I wanted to. I wanted to more than anything, and I knew that even if this was my hell, I would do it all again for a moment of her acceptance. Of her seeing me as a man. If it all ended again with her delicate hands shoving the knife between my ribs, it was worth it for the touch of her lips.

I struggled upright, and she dutifully piled an extra pillow behind my back. “That’s it,” she said reassuringly. “We’re together now. I’m going to make you so happy.” As much as I’d seen and been and done, those simple words should have made me cringe like the vengeful cynic I’d worked so hard to become. And yet I found myself returning her smile, felt the heat of my love for her warm my cold flesh. I loved her beyond sense, beyond reason. She’d always been able to make me believe anything was possible, even if I had to kill everyone in Paris to accomplish it. Logic and experience were just hapless passengers where she was concerned.

She flitted around me, and for once I was content to let her tend to me like a child, or at any rate what I imagined it might be like. The apathy was leaching away, and my mind, which had been in some sort of shock after her return, was starting to turn her words over again and again. She was staying. She’d chosen me. The silly, handsome boy had lost. I was almost giddy with triumph, and when she walked out with the remains of the soup she’d made and I finally looked to the door the sight of a tiny army of valises and suitcases threatened to send me into a state of catatonic bliss.

“You really mean it,” I said when she entered, and she laughed softly, knelt at my side again, brushing a lank bit of hair back from my forehead though God knew it wasn’t covering anything worth seeing. Perhaps I should grow my hair long enough to cover the whole blasted thing, I thought. The opera werewolf.

“Of course I mean it. I never meant to hurt you, Erik. I know it doesn’t seem like it, but I… I was so confused. I didn’t know what to do, and Raoul seemed so safe. It was so easy to do what he said. You’re… you’re not easy.”

I shook my head ruefully. “No, I’m not. It was very brave of you to come back, Christine. You made the hard choice. You know that, don’t you?”

She nodded, happy and proud, but I couldn’t help but think that she actually didn’t foresee any difficulties at all. She never looked ahead, not really. “Are you feeling better?”

“A miraculous recovery, thanks to you.” I felt buoyant, drunk, and I was fairly certain that a ridiculous grin had affixed itself to my already beleaguered face. “Just seeing you again, Christine. So beautiful, so perfect.” She blushed, though I knew she’d had no shortage of compliments during her brief tenure as prima donna. “Such an angel… you could bring any man back to life.” I had to be drunk, I thought, to spout third-rate dialogue like that. She didn’t seem to notice the hack job I was doing of our reunion, and if she was happy, then I wasn’t about to complain.

“Are you happy I’m back?” she asked surprisingly.

“Happy doesn’t begin to cover it.” I stretched my arms out experimentally. “A few more days of your care and I’ll be in a better position to show you.” If she caught any untoward undertones in that statement, she didn’t let on, but I was too exhausted to care.

“I should let you sleep. Can you sleep?”

“If I can go to sleep knowing you’ll still be here when I wake.”

“I promise.” She smiled again and I nearly jumped out of bed then. “I’ll be on the sofa if you need anything.”

“This is your room,” I pointed out.

“I know, I just… I’ll take the sofa. I don’t want to disturb you. You gave me such a fright. I don’t want to risk losing you again.” I forbore to point out that I had no need to be half-dead to be frightening, or that losing me had never been a possibility.

“You needn’t worry, Christine. I have a few years in me left. I’m not leaving any time soon.” She kissed me chastely on the forehead again and closed the door behind her, but I could hear her moving around the other room. If she left during the night I would surely die, but it wasn’t any worse than what awaited me before. And I had gotten to hear her voice again.

But on the other hand, perhaps she intended to stay, and perhaps she would. In that case, I decided, I would have to make myself worthy of her, and of the sacrifice she had made to come here. How difficult could it be? She was my angel, my life, my savior. How could the sins of my past withstand such radiance, such innocence? She was right. She had saved me already.