At first, he's certain that he has the wrong address.
He checks the directions on his cell phone, and then he looks up at the building again. Yes, the numbers match. He slips the phone into the pocket of his suit jacket and makes for the entrance of the women's dormitory.
Two girls burst through the double doors just early enough for him to avoid collision. At the sight of him they start, their conversation halting mid-sentence. He pays them no mind. He's used to this, used to living as a skeleton among men, with sharp ridges where his bones strain against pallid skin and shadowed hollows where they do not.
These things are scarcely visible beneath his white leather mask and his tailored suit and hat. But with the merest scraps of evidence—sinewy neck, fingers like spindles, rangy frame—one's mind can easily complete the missing information.
The girl working the front desk has a wide, toothy smile that falters for a split second as she watches him approach. He is only dimly aware of his words to her as he states his purpose, for his ears are instantly attuned to the residence hall lobby.
Through its open doorway drifts the purest, sweetest little singing voice he has ever heard. He doesn't just hear it, though; he feels it in his gut, and it unnerves him. It's as though a great wind has swept away the gravitational threads mooring him to the earth, and now he's drifting into the ether where not a soul can bring him back.
It's a young woman who's singing. He doesn't recognize the tune; it sounds contemporary, substandard. He's willing to overlook it. If the woman's voice were a tangible thing, he'd be able to see right through it, like crystal. Still, it's immediately apparent to him that its edges need polishing, its center more depth.
He could be that for her, he thinks. He could refine the edges of that voice; he could be the beam of light that permeates the prism just so, until it refracts a dazzling spectrum of color.
Or, or, he could curl up like a dog at her feet and bask in her voice forever, just as it is. Both options are equally appealing.
"The piano is in the lobby," says the girl at the front desk, and she points to the gates of heaven, which are flanked by bulletin boards designed to curb underage drinking. He nods and tightens his grip on the handle of his attache case, as though that might stop his hand from trembling. Just outside the doorway, he stops and peers in.
She is the physical manifestation of her voice, blonde-haired and blue-eyed and rosy-cheeked. Her nose is small and downturned, her lips soft and pink. She's sitting at the upright piano, and she smiles as she sings: free of inhibitions, he thinks, with the room to herself.
She is everything that he is not.
He should feel envious. It is, after all, his natural state of being. Instead, he is overcome by an urgent need to wrap himself around her and shield her from the atrocities of the world.
At the same time, he wants to pull her into his own darkness and keep her there forever, so that her radiance might chase away the shadows.
He guiltily pushes away the thought and steps forward. When his reedy frame fills the doorway, just within her periphery, she stops and rounds on the bench with a startled "Oh!"
They stare at each other. His heart pounds with such force that he hears it thrumming inside of his head. Her gaze flits over his frame, lingering a beat too long on the mask, and despite a lifetime of self-loathing he can't recall when he last felt such bitter despair over his ruined face. He stays rooted to the spot, waiting for whichever excuse she will offer to explain her imminent departure. He has heard them all.
Instead, her eyes brighten as they alight on his tool case. "Are you here to tune the piano?" she asks.
"I am." His voice crackles beneath the weight of his surprise.
"Finally! I've been begging the staff for months." She scoots off the bench and gestures to the now-open seat. "Please."
It is objectively the worst piano he has ever been called upon to tune. The keys are yellowed and chipped, the exterior marred with nicks and gouges and carved graffiti. The paneling is such a tawny brown that he begins to question whether it's actually wood. When he opens the lid to peer at the inner workings, he frowns.
"It is my understanding," he says, "that the college of music is quite esteemed. Surely there are far superior instruments there?"
He glances over just in time to see her smile. "There are," she concedes. "Some days, though, it's just more convenient and relaxing to come down here. And besides, the practice rooms in the music building are intimidating. Everyone there is so—" She looks down to the ground, her face reddening. "Everyone is so much better."
"No." His reply is so sharp, so insistent, that she snaps her head up to regard him, and he knows that he must continue. "Your voice is magnificent."
She gives him what is clearly a forced smile. "That's very kind of you to say."
"It is a fact, not a kindness." He swallows. "I am...something of a voice expert." He immediately regrets his word choice; now she will think him arrogant.
Instead her face brightens, and it's as though the sun has chosen to rise that day for him and him alone. "Really?" she asks. "Do you give lessons? I've thought about finding extra help. The department is so competitive."
He's never given a lesson in his life. "I do," he says. "The first one is free. A trial period, if you will." The words spill from his lips faster than he can catch them, and he is left near-trembling in their wake. His palms sweat as he and the angel exchange introductions.
"I have class soon," she tells him, and if he didn't know any better, he'd say she sounded almost disappointed. "Do you have a card or something? Some way that I can contact you?"
"Ah. Yes. Of course." He plucks a spare business card from his wallet. When she takes it from his outstretched hand, her fingertips graze his and he nearly gasps at the flutter of contact. His insides turn to warm slush. She exits with a smile and a promise to call, and he is undone.
At home, he sets his attache case by the door and begins his evening routine: shoes on the mat, jacket and vest in the closet, tie on the rack. He unbuttons his shirt cuffs and, in a fit of daring, rolls back the sleeves to expose knobby wrists and a pale, sinewy expanse of forearm.
Then, and only then, does he try out her name on his lips.
A warm, heady thrill courses through every inch of his body.
He cannot have her. He does not deserve her. And yet, in her eyes and her voice and in the deepest recesses of his soul, he saw and heard and felt something so exhilarating, so unfamiliar that it takes him a moment to place it.
It is hope.
He is startled by the sound of his phone buzzing against the surface of a nearby desk. He snatches it up and tries to steady it in his shaking hand so that he can read the caller ID.
He accepts the call and raises the phone to his ear, and for the first time in a very long time, the skeleton grins.
Thanks to Melancholy's Child for the "Erik fixing Christine's piano" prompt, and to the honors dorm at my alma mater for the terrible lobby piano that inspired me.