It wasn't Charlotte's first time at the Paris Opera, and she tried to retain her cool. It looked larger, more imposing than she remembered; last time she'd been too excited to notice much of anything. This time would be different, she told herself. She'd worked for this. Earned it. Now, instead of a young hopeful, she was an established artist. This time, the time was right. He'd hear her and know that she'd finally come for him. And if the story hadn't been real, well, the compensations of being a diva would outlast her disappointment. She'd come so far since she'd first sat on these steps. Back 135 years, forward 9. She was ready. It was finally going to happen.
She couldn't see the statue of Apollo from where she was standing. Right in front of the Paris Opera, its edifice rising above her and peering down with faces pocked by sulfuric acid, the very top was invisible. To see it, she'd probably have to cross the street to the Metro station; but for now, the tour was assembling in the front hall and she wasn't about to miss it. Charlotte, in all her 18 years, couldn't remember anyplace she'd wanted to go more.
During the tour, she refrained from asking stupid questions. She felt embarrassed enough for not speaking French, and she didn't need to expose herself any further as one of those American girls who came asking after "the Phantom." It wasn't as if she thought it was true. Not really. But gazing around at the marble figures, the velvet curtains, the red-lined boxes, it was a pleasant daydream. In this plush, overbearing setting, it almost seemed more likely than not that it had all happened. It was an odd feeling, she thought as she sat on the bottom steps of the Grand Staircase. A feeling of history. Right here, under my hands. Nothing like anything you find in America. Like the old art songs her voice teacher would give her to sing. She loved them; she felt transported when she sang them, as if she could see right into the time they were written. She felt involved in something grander than herself or her life. Charlotte wasn't certain they'd ever get her to leave this place.
Under her breath, she started singing a bit from Aida, something she'd been working on before she left on this post-high school/pre-college trip. She was traveling solo for the first time, and she loved the freedom it afforded her. No parents, no sweet but needy Abuela. She closed her eyes as she sang. She thought about Aida, thought about the improbability of anyone really portraying an Ethiopian slave in something as grand as opera. That wasn't the point, she reminded herself. It was a beautiful story; there was validity in that at least. She sang a little louder, imagining how the stage must have looked, seeing in her mind's eye the audience spread out before her, the light in the auditorium bright enough that the stage lights didn't hide them from her. But she didn't mind at all, it was what she was made for, and she'd always known it, whatever anyone said. They'd just have to let her transfer to Julliard. Someday… she leaned back against the railing And promptly fell over.
When she opened her eyes, the light had changed. She could see sky. In fact, everything had changed. The ground she lay sprawled on was wet, tools and ancient looking machines were scattered about, and there was a great deal of noise emanating from somewhere she couldn't see.
Charlotte craned her neck towards the speaker and sat up sharply, inducing a spell of dizziness. He looked wrong, somehow. His clothes were rough and untailored. He started talking again, but she couldn't understand a word. She was woefully unprepared in French and he spoke quickly.
"I'm sorry," she said, "I'm American. I don't speak French. Where am I?"
He shook his head, his eyes running over her suspiciously. She looked down; she was in the t-shirt and jeans she'd been wearing all day. She didn't see how that was offensive. Pushing off a block of stone, she scrambled to her feet and brushed off her hands. Around her spread a construction site; a wide area in various stages of completion. She spun slowly in a circle, tying to get her bearings, as the French guy fired off a volley of questions she couldn't understand, much less answer. Even if she'd spoken French.
She was still at the opera house.
It rose before her; she recognized the façade and now that she looked some of the buildings around it. But she didn't understand what was going on. How had she missed all this work going on? Were they restoring something? She needed a better view. The Metro station, across the street.
It wasn't there. Cobblestone streets like spokes spread from the Opera, but they were filled with horses and carriages and women in full skirts escorted by men with top hats. She was definitely underdressed.
"Do you speak English?" she insisted loudly to the worker, who dismissed her with a wave of his begrimed hands. "Merde," she said, employing the only French word she knew that she could use in a sentence. The man raised his eyebrows and walked away, muttering to himself.
Charlotte thought it best to retreat from the area. She had to figure this out, but she didn't think that was going to happen here. What did people usually do in situations like this? Newspaper. She'd find a newspaper, and it would tell her what day it was. She didn't remember getting hit on the head or anything, but she had fallen. Or it had felt like it, though she didn't hurt anywhere. It could be one of those Dorothy situations, but she was pretty sure concussions didn't work that way in real life. Regardless, she'd have to work with the assumption that this was real; like Pascal and God, the consequences of denial were greater than belief.
She walked down the street, collecting stares, whispers, and a few pointed fingers, until she found a trash bin to root around in, which garnered even more attention. There it was. Le Figaro.
June 5, 1871.
She was going to have a learn a few more French cuss words, because she didn't think "merde" was going to cut it this time. If she was right about what the French guy said on the tour, she was either in the middle of the Paris Commune or right after it. Or was it before? Things looked pretty calm, but the Opera house wasn't completed yet, and wouldn't be for another four years or so. Again, if she remembered rightly.
First order of business was to get some decent clothes. She set off towards what she remembered being the less affluent part of the city, in the hopes that she could steal someone's wash. Then she'd find a way to get to Spain. Thanks to her Abuela, she spoke decent Spanish. She'd neglected to take French in school so that she could better communicate with her Mexican grandmother. And then she'd see what happened. She'd work on her singing, find a teacher. She'd learn French. She'd take whatever jobs she had to.
And she'd do whatever she had to do to get back here and sing.
Guillermo had told her she had nice legs, and that she ought to use them for more than his pleasure. It would bring good money to sing and dance in a few taverns he owned. Nothing too risqué, he promised her; his business was strictly on the up-and-up. But she had the training, or enough to serve anyway. And it would keep her from the only other job a strange woman with no prospects could expect. It was only for a few nights, after all. Performing was performing, after all. And money was money.
She could still work on her career. And her French. And it was only for a few nights.
So she told herself.
What was it all for, she'd started asking herself. She was never going to get home. Never see her parents, her abuela, again. She could hardly recall what any of them looked like, though she could well picture their appalled expressions if they knew what she'd been doing.
Well too bad, she thought. I had to survive. I've always known it took a tough character to make it to the top.
So she was headed to Paris. She was done with Guillermo and Pablo and Manuel and whoever else. Her French was good enough, now; Antoine had seen to that.
Bastards! How dare they reject her! Those self-congratulating, arrogant, cabrónes! She knew her voice was good. She knew she could compete with the best. And she knew that if there really was a Phantom, he wouldn't be able to resist her.
She'd see to it. But for now, to find a teacher. And to afford that, she'd need a job. Jean had suggested a few music halls always in need of talent. Well, she had that. She'd show them. she was still young, after all. Merely 24. She had time. She knew about working her way up.
It wasn't Charlotte's first time at the Paris Opera, and she tried to retain her cool. It looked larger, more imposing than she remembered; last time she'd been too excited to notice much of anything. This time would be different, she told herself. She'd worked for this. Earned it. Now, instead of a young hopeful, she was an established artist. With the right connections. This time, the time was right. He'd hear her and know that she'd finally come for him. And if the story hadn't been real, well, the compensations of being a diva would outlast her disappointment. She'd come so far since she'd first sat on these steps. Back 135 years, forward 9. She was ready. It was finally going to happen.
She'd found comfort, over the years, in the fact that her name, Charlotte, shortened to Lotte. Little Lotte, she thought. That's me. It's a good omen. Or anyway, a comforting coincidence. Either way, she held firmly onto her belief that none of this would be happening with no reason. She'd done some things she wasn't proud of, and maybe she wasn't the naïve girl who'd landed her by accident nine years ago, but it wasn't all bad. She was just older, wiser. And anyway, now she'd know what to do with the man if she did find him.
"And here are your dressing rooms," Poligny was telling her, with a nervous sweep of his hand. "I trust they're to your liking."
She gazed around at the red, plush surroundings, much brighter to her than the first time she'd been there in comparison to the accommodations she'd had to get used to. And 100 years younger, she reminded herself. Some days, she forgot this hadn't been her life always. Well, it was all different now.
"Yes, yes," she said dismissively. It wouldn't hurt for them to think her standards were high. "But I want you to tell me something. I have heard rumors of a ghost."
Debienne's face grew pale while Poligny's nearly cast a reflection. "Madame," Debienne began, "surely you don't credit these base rumors!"
She merely gazed at them impassively. "I want the truth, Messieurs."
They glanced at one another, coming to a decisions. "There have been some… disturbances," Poligny said. "But I assure you, it's nothing to worry about. It's hardly worth mentioning, but some of the more impressionable members of the company have been known to gossip. It shouldn't affect you, madame."
She waved her hand. "It's of no matter. I merely wish to be fully informed of such things."
They nodded and left her to get settled and arrange the rooms as she pleased. Inside, Charlotte was jubilant. It was true! She felt like crying and shouting and running around like a mad thing. It was true! The Phantom, in the flesh, and so close! Her debut was to be in two weeks' time; in Faust, no less. It would all start then. The rest of her life.
The next day, she went to Poligny's office after rehearsal to complete some paperwork they said was necessary.
"We're starting out promotion of your debut," Poligy said, unrolling a poster. "We thought, given your background, a rather… exotic name might serve all of us best." The poster spread across the desk little by little, revealing itself in painful increments. When the bottom came into view, Charlotte could hardly credit her eyes. It had to be a dream, or some cruel joke. It couldn't be real.
The poster said: La Carlotta.
She held her tears in check and smiled stiffly, wondering what to say. This couldn't be happening. It was worse than getting here in the first place, worse than losing her previous life and being forced to survive through what she could not, now, pretend wasn't near enough to prostitution as to make no difference. All for this?
Charlotte swallowed heavily, knowing she had to say something and that the posters were all printed and probably on every signboard in Paris. She was not Carlotta.
Well that was true enough. Carlotta was a bitch, a gossip, a blatant opportunist. It was a coincidence, like Lotte, only more sinister. But still a coincidence. It meant nothing. She could still do this. She could win Erik's love, as well as that of Paris. Names were nothing. She'd been called enough in her day. Not all of them were true.
"It's lovely," she said. At least she'd learned to act along the way.
"Wonderful," Poligny said as he rolled the poster back up. There came a hesitant knock on the door as he finished. "Ah, yes. One more thing. I thought you might like to meet your understudy; she's newly from the Conservatory, and while she's a bit untried we think she'll do nicely. Naturally, we expect her not to have to go on, but you ought to know that should you need a replacement, she'll do you proud."
He opened the door and a slim, wan girl stood in the frame, with hair as pale as her skin. She looked up at Charlotte nervously with uncertain eyes.
"Señora Carlotta. May I introduce Mademoiselle Christine Daae."
Charlotte's world stood still for a moment that seemed to last her whole life. That's what this was, after all; her life finishing coming down around her as surely as it had begun with her falling into the Opera's construction site. She gazed stonily at the girl; a mere wisp of a thing. There was no possible way this woman could secure the heart of a genius such as Erik. Nevertheless, Charlotte felt an instant and nearly uncontrollable hatred for her. How dare she come here and ruin her plans, her happiness, her very life?
But things didn't have to be that way, she decided. She would fight for what she knew to be hers. She see that Christine never sang. She'd noise around to her many friends and lovers that the girl was orchestrating a conspiracy against her. She'd push that ignorant vicomte towards her, if she saw him.
Charlotte's whole life was going to culminate here, and no upstart orphan girl who hadn't slogged through what she'd had to was going to get the better of her.
She'd bet her soul on it.