I knew I was deliberately disobeying Antoinette. Though I couldn't work out why, I knew she had her reasons for wanting me to stay away from the bookstore. I knew she would be incensed when she found out I'd ignored her warning—and she would find out. She always did.
But anger and frustration smothered my guilt into temporary silence, and I stomped blindly ahead, my feet finding their way of their own accord to the antiquated sign hanging over the old storefront. I turned left past the sign, wound my way through the alley adjacent to the building, made another left and arrived at the back door. With a huff that would have put a walrus to shame, I swung my bag forward and began digging through the front pocket for my keys.
Why was I so angry?
We weren't living in the nineteenth century, for Pete's sake. Philippe had no control over his brother's choices, just like he had no right to imply that somehow, my inferior social status—if you could even call it that because we weren't, I was itching to remind Philippe, living in the nineteenth century— rendered me unfit to associate with de Chagny wealth.
I know what he wanted for Raoul. Success. Smoothly-polished, socially-laudable success. The cover of business magazines, both brothers standing back-to-back, arms crossed, looking boldly at the camera. "The De Chagny Empire," the headline would read, "How the Powerhouse Brothers Are Revolutionizing Tech, One App At a Time."
Under Philippe's plan, Raoul would have the penthouse in the city and the sprawling family estate in the country. The sleek cars, the private jets, the board meetings, and the conference calls. A perfectly pressed suit to match his perfectly pressed wife.
She would be wealthy, obviously. Blonde, obviously. Tall. Slim. Gorgeous. Vapid, probably, but grade-A arm candy. She'd pop out a few perfect blonde kids. They'd attend private school, take horseback riding lessons, run in the same circles as the blue-bloods. And all the while Mrs. de Chagny would proudly survey their slice of Camelot, her arm looped over her husband's, not a care in the world running through her head. Not a care in the world running through Philippe's, because Raoul would have done his duty.
He would do well, and I would be gone.
I stared into the jumbled mess in the front pocket of my bag, only vaguely registering the faint glint of the key beneath a tube of Chapstick.
I couldn't bear to be gone from his life.
My fingers found the key and slid it into the keyhole. The smart click that followed announced that the door was unlocked, and I pushed it open slowly, blinking in the sudden dimness. For several seconds, I simply leaned against the wall, staring at nothing.
I didn't want Philippe's vision for Raoul. I didn't want Camelot. I didn't want cars or estates or jet-setting weekends or shopping sprees. I didn't want Raoul's wealth.
I just wanted Raoul.
The thought came unbidden, but unobtrusively. It was not revelatory, not really. I'd felt my affection for him growing into something stronger the older we grew. It happened slowly but steadily, gently, nestling itself into my heart and waiting patiently for acknowledgement. And once I acknowledged it, it simply nodded in quiet agreement.
"I love him," I mouthed in the darkness, impressed with how easily the words fell off my tongue.
I loved him. Loving Raoul felt natural. I felt right. I couldn't imagine feeling any other way. I couldn't imagine any other outcome, really. When we were young, we used to joke that we would marry each other.
"I'm going to come to our wedding naked," he would say, flashing his jack o'latern grin. He was seven and had just lost another tooth.
"You'd better not," I would warn him, genuinely irked. "That's disgusting."
"I'm going to make a cake with worms and bugs in it," he would say, leaning in and relishing the unfettered ickiness of the imagery, "and I'll put it in the middle of the church and then all the worms will crawl out and into everyone's shoes and the bugs will fly up and get stuck in the lights."
"You have problems," I would say, feigning haughtiness, yet secretly delighted with the imagined catastrophe.
"Why are you marrying me, then?" he'd query, crossing his arms.
"I dunno," I'd say defensively, crossing mine. "Because I just like you a lot, that's all."
That was all.
Wasn't that enough?
Not for a de Chagny, came Philippe's silent, unbidden reprimand.
"Oh, sod off," I muttered, shutting the door with one hand while I flicked on the lights with the other. But my mood softened at the familiar sight of the back room. Boxes stacked in orderly towers against the walls, the low ceiling, the small table where I ate lunch, the stack of magazines Antoinette left on one of the chairs for me…she always took pains to ensure they didn't fall prey to the ten-year-old-magazine-in-the-waiting-room curse and updated them weekly.
I walked past the boxes and stopped just before the door that led into the store, my hand hovering over the doorknob.
For a split second, images of a musical score scrawled in red flashed in my mind's eye.
"Sod off," I told it. As with the remembrance of my conversation with Philippe, that seemed to momentarily do the trick. Anxiety loosened its grip around my throat and I nearly laughed.
Ridiculous. For Pete's sake. I opened the door.
It was incredibly cold. Unusually so. Antoinette must have left the air conditioner running. Despite the temperature, warmth stoked me to the core as I surveyed the shelves and the secrets they bore.
I could breathe. It felt like home.
I indulged in a bit of melodrama and ran my hand slowly over the spines of the nearest volumes—Baudelaire, Fleurs du Mal, early 20th century editions. My fingers slid over the curves of the careful, gold lettering, traced the intricately-scrawled "F," rose and fell in between each spine's crest. Antoinette had been here; not a speck of dust or grime sullied my fingertips. Baudelaire would have been disappointed.
I couldn't quite explain the allure of those old books. The older, the better, I'd always thought. They felt so natural, so familiar, and I didn't quite know why. The crisp crinkling of their delicate yellowed pages spoke of vibrancy, not of decay. If I examined those pages long enough, I could almost imagine what they had looked like brand new. Old friends. Puzzle pieces that fit somewhere within me.
Raoul fit right with them.
I would never tell him, of course. I would never push it. I certainly hoped he reciprocated my feelings, but I would never risk complicating our friendship with something as potentially damaging as love. I loved him too much to love him. Cliché, passé, but the logic was tried and true for a reason. Raoul and I ran the risk of separation down the road, and I knew it. And I couldn't bear to accelerate that separation. I loved him too much. Perhaps I was simply delaying the inevitable, but for the moment, I didn't care.
I wasn't going to pine wistfully for him at a window. I wasn't going to wax poetic about unrequited love. I didn't feel the need to. I was simply going to remain grateful for his unwavering friendship, grateful for the fact that he'd wandered into my life and had decided to stay put.
I was also going to take a page out of Meg's book and give his brother a swift kick in the cojones.
The corners of my mouth twitched upwards. Clearly, Meg was proving to be a worse influence on me than I thought.
Philippe or no, I felt calmer and more content than I had in weeks walking through those aisles in the dimly-lit store. Buoyant, almost. Antiquity tickled my lungs. The afternoon's frustration had bubbled over, and I sought refuge in the silence of the centuries pressed between delicate pages. I needed this strange silence, needed the presence of the past as intrinsically as I needed air in my lungs. The sheer desperation of this need struck me as simultaneously startling and not altogether unexpected—why, I couldn't hope to understand. Perhaps the noise of my life had worn me emotionally ragged. Perhaps I'd let my dreams sift through my fingers and had sunken too comfortably into frazzled mediocrity. Perhaps it was all too much—classes, work, Raoul, Dad, the Valeriuses...the score, that horrible, red, heated, tangible memory that I had not lived. Those feverish images I knew by writ yet had never seen. The Voice that I rang distantly in my head yet never found its way to reality. Stability eluded me, tranquility eluded me, something, anything that made sense eluded me.
Too much. It was all just too much. I was done. Beyond done.
And so, for the first time in months, I sang.
Quietly at first, almost unconsciously, an old folksong Dad used to play on his violin. The lilt of my native tongue felt rich in my throat, cresting and falling like the spines of the books lined pertly in a row on the shelves. The sound struck my heart like a gong, vibrant, visceral, raw. Alive.
Was it life from which I shrank?
Too many memories, I would say when pressed for an explanation as to why I had abandoned my voice. Too many painful memories of Dad and his suffering and the unbearable heaviness of his loss.
Yet in that moment, I hardly felt the heaviness. I felt alive. As he had been. As I once was. This, for the first time in what seemed like eons, was not a funeral dirge. It was a hallelujah chorus.
I could almost see him smiling again, eagerly encouraging me to continue, picking up the violin and keeping time with me, stomping the floorboards with his scuffed hiking boots.
Keep at it, kid! he'd shout. His smile would spread under his close-cropped beard as his wild mop of curls—my curls—flopped in front of his crinkled eyes. It's been too long! What are you doing, huh? Snap out of it.
I don't know how long I spent there, winding my way through arias and giving the notes full reign, unable to stop myself as the familiar exhilaration of performing seared and swelled within me. My technique had suffered due to lack of practice and my range had contracted like a shrinking rubber band, but I didn't care. I didn't care. I was ageless, timeless, powerful, triumphant and tragic, pure emotion, only a voice yet human to my very bones. Free.
God, I missed it. God, I missed it.
Raoul was right. Dad had been right. Meg, Antoinette, Dr. Valerius, everyone had been right. I needed it. I needed its boom in my chest, needed the heat of the lights drawing beads of sweat out from my brow, needed the orchestra's swell and the cadenza bubbling in my throat and the pounding of my heart as I sang and breathed and lived—
The song died swiftly in my throat.
Silence. Leaden, stifling.
Every muscle in my body turned to granite. Inwardly, it felt as if something massive and monumental had suddenly, violently collapsed, shrinking into itself and coiling into a pulsing mass of dread in the pit of my stomach.
Not in my head. Not filtering, ghost-like, through some semi-conscious haze.
Clear, low, uttered in a whisper like a reverent prayer that trickled instead like a curse down the back of my neck.
Alive. Not just a Voice, I knew. Not this time. I felt it keenly, knew it with sickening certainty.
Every atom in my body screamed at me to run. Instead, as if animated by the strings of a puppeteer, I felt myself turning towards it, struck dumb by horror and a queer sort of longing.
I stopped turning, my breath ragged.
A figure stood mere feet away at the end of the aisle, swathed in shadows cast by the looming bookshelves. Flesh and bone, manifest at last.
He was clothed entirely in indistinct, deep black, tall and incredibly, extraordinarily thin. His gaunt, ashen face seemed oddly expressionless and smooth, but his eyes…
Yellow, gleaming like the frantic flames of a newly-lit candle from within black sockets. His gaze bore into mine with such feral hunger and intensity that I froze, rooted to the spot and seized with an indecipherable mingling of terror and desperation.
I wanted to run. Away from him or toward him, I did not know.
And so I stood.
And I saw.
The visions came flooding through my skull all at once, each blurring into the next like dizzying rapids: my hand on the gown with the tear in the bodice; the music room and the searing smell of varnish; "Bound to me," he cried, "Bound to me!" came the anguished shriek, "Bound to me" in my blood and "Bound to me" in my pulse and "Bound to me" at my lips, battering sound and thought and Time away until distance shriveled and decades contracted and Death spun its seed to life once more.
A long exhale sounded between us. From whom it issued, I did not know.
He'd moved closer, imperceptibly, as if the soles of his feet were borne aloft by fog sliding off blackened midnight seas. And, imperceptibly, I'd inched backwards, alarm bells rising in pitch in my head as they shrieked at me to leave, run, flee.
Yet an inexplicable, persistent need to remain kept me rooted to the end of aisle.
My nerve endings buzzed. Heat pricked the sides of my vision as my pulse heaved a dizzying, primal rhythm against my sternum.
And never once did those yellow eyes break their hold with mine. If his overpowering sinister presence didn't strangle me first, the silence would.
"Can…" I began, my voice thin and choked by a frantic, building fear. I coughed quietly and swallowed, sputtering out the sentence without thinking. "Can I help you?"
The question was a reflex, so mundane that I nearly laughed.
Yes, Christine, go ahead and offer the creepy, staring ghost-thing customer service. I'm sure he's just in the neighborhood to look for an antique atlas and not to drag you into the bottomless pits of hell.
I really did not want to be dragged into the bottomless pits of hell.
"We're closed," I whispered desperately, edging backwards and grabbing the corner of the towering bookshelf to my right for support. "We're closed. You need to leave."
His thin slash of a mouth parted slightly, but he said nothing. Something flickered behind the burning ochre of his gaze, something, I noticed, distinctly softer and gentler than the raging intensity that had devoured me before. His white, skeletal fingers twitched at his side, and for a moment, he looked poised to reach toward me with one claw-like hand, yet it quickly relaxed and fell back into place.
His shoulders rose and fell with one quiet breath. As it fled his lungs, out drifted my name once again with all the softness of the wind sliding over leaves.
I felt light-headed.
"Who—" My own voice had shriveled to barely a whisper. "Who are you? How do you know my name?"
He came closer, his chin tilted slightly upwards, his face still curiously blank. And though I braced myself to leave, I could not release my grip on the bookshelf. I didn't want to.
His head suddenly snapped to the right. I spared a rapid glance behind.
The front door was rattling.
Someone was trying to get in.
No, no, no, no.
"Christine? Are you in there?"
I felt the energy in the room darken. All trace of softness had vanished in the figure's eyes, replaced by a swelling inferno. He riveted his gaze to the rattling doorknob like one possessed. Malevolence uncoiled from his tensed frame in suffocating tendrils.
"I got to the restaurant just as you left and saw you coming this way," Raoul continued, oblivious. "I tried to catch up but the Sunday crowds, you know? You were moving pretty fast. You in there?"
Raoul, leave, run, get out, go, I silently pleaded, struggling to speak.
The figure was advancing to the door now, his every movement as fluid and as lithe as a stalking cat's. He meant ill. I knew it. I knew it with that familiar, leaden certainty accompanied by that equally familiar sense of déjà vu. He meant ill. Destruction animated his every step.
"Raoul," I finally called. "Raoul, run!"
"Christine?" Raoul's voice now sounded worried. "Christine, what's wrong? What's going on in there?"
The figure drew closer and closer to the door, his hands reaching inside the deep black folds of what looked like an old overcoat. All the while, Raoul stood oblivious on the other side.
He was going to die. If I didn't do something, I knew Raoul was going to die.
A sound bubbled up at the base of my throat, unprompted, foreign yet intimately woven into my very being.
"Erik!" I called.
It was a reflex. Unconscious. It burst from my mouth with all the force of a battering ram. I didn't know what it meant. I didn't know why I'd said it. I didn't know why I knew the figure's name any more than I knew why he knew my own.
He spun around, rigid, and leveled me with the sheer force of his fury that was now warring with undisguised shock.
"What?" Raoul rattled the door again, harder this time. "Who's-Christine, what's wrong? Is there someone—Open the door! Christine!"
The door heaved against its hinges as Raoul slammed his body into the wood. As it swung open with a bang, sending dusty yellow light spilling into the darkened brown and gray of the storefront, the figure fixed me with one last wild, hungry stare. And vanished.