The ghost in the Paris Opera existed.

Yes, he existed in flesh and blood, even though he gave himself every appearance of a real ghost, a true phantom.

From "The Phantom Of The Opera" by Gaston Leroux

Breathe. Focus. Measure. The steady click click of the razor blade against the glass table-top is the beginning and the end. Get the white lines straight. Ignore the muffled wails and screams through the brick walls. None of it matters, nothing except for the task at hand. Measure out the Charlie. Can't go on stage if yer not high as a kite.

Darren hates this noise, well, fuck him. Let him sigh like me mum and walk across the room and scowl at the wall, he thinks I've lost the plot and sold my meager soul to the white powder before me. What does he know? Nothing. Stupid fuckwit, son of a cozzer.

I don't need to quit, nothing to quit. I only take a hit before a show for my nerves. I'm a nervy guy. Can't go on stage shaking like a bleeding Chihuahua, makes for a bad show, and it's all about the show.

There. Two perfect white lines showing me the way. Hello, my lovelies; Erik missed you. I'm not a junkie. I can stop anytime. Fuck you, Darren, stop looking at me like that; you know I hate being gawked at.

Now to inhale. Just need a bit a paper…Shite, it appears I have forgotten a critical step; that's not like me. I need some nicker. Darren's a lost cause, the fuckin' wanker prolly nicked the fiver I had set out.

"Jules, give us a tenner." Good ol' Jules, he's a right diamond geezer, a true mate. He'll help a friend out.

The scrawny weasel lifts his lip in a sneer. "Why would I do that, Carver?"

Bastard son of a whore! The fuckin' nonce! I'll kill him! Stupid muppet would sooner sell his father to the devil than help anyone.

"Because you owe me five times at least, now give us the fuckin' tenner " Both Darren and Bucket look at me in surprise. Didn't know I could snarl like that. Don't get between a man and his coke; I'll lick it off the table if I have to.

Jules slides to his feet with all the grace of a dead swine and reluctantly hands over the crumpled nicker. "Thanks Bucket."

The fluorescent light of the room makes Jules' oily skin shine hotly; his acne is sparkling as he scuttles back to his seat whining. "It's pronounced 'Boo-kay'." He repeats that to himself like a mantra of self-importance.

He doesn't matter though. Nothing else matters except getting this damn bill flat enough to roll. Nothing except hitting that spike, getting that buzz. Not a damn thing, not even music.

Wait, what?

That's not right. My hand starts to tremble as it hovers over the two white stripes. When did that thought arrive? It's not true; music is life. It's everything

Can feel my breath come shakily into my lungs as I look back at Darren. He's right, the fuckin' bastard is right. No, no, he can't be. I'm no junkie. I only take a hit before shows.

We've been playing a lot of shows lately.

Shite.

Fuck, I've gotta stop. I can stop. The screams from the crowd outside get fifty times louder as one of the limp-wristed managers stumbles in and looks around with wide eyes. He stares at me last, and longest.

I hate when people stare. Like maybe I'll just take the mask off if they look at me long enough. Feels like my skin is going to crawl off. Bastards should just mind their own fuckin' business. I should be used to it. I should quit being a fuckin' pansy about the mask; more people stare because of it. So you're ugly, so what? So what if your sister ran screaming when they first took the bandages off? It doesn't matter that you couldn't face yourself in a mirror for seven years after the last surgery.

So what?

Andrew, or Ricky, can never fuckin' tell the difference or be bothered to care, is now staring at the accusing white lines before me. Ricky, or Andrew, leans over to Darren; "He high?"

Darren gives a half-assed shrug and doesn't look at me. Christ, he's the only person who pisses me off when he doesn't look at me. "Not yet," he mutters and looks back at the wall. Fuck you Darren. Fuck you for making me give a damn.

Andrew, oh hell it's prolly Ricky, snorts in distaste and lets one hand flap through the air in what should have been a dismissive wave. "Just so long as the freak doesn't OD on my stage." Valiant attempt to sound tough there; really good try. Too bad that feminine lisp makes it impossible for Ricky to frighten anyone except good Catholics. Still, receiving nothing except contempt from a man who by all accounts would have burned beside me on the stake sets my teeth on edge, and I'm out for blood.

"Listen here, you school-boy chasing, skirt-wearing, cock-smoking bastard." I don't raise my voice. Don't have to. The growl of it is threat enough and all eyes are on me. "The day that I let some Perry Cuomo tell me that I am a freak is the day that I start taking it up the ass " Almost yelling now, but damned if I care.

Christ, all I want is to be left alone

Ricky, aw fuck it is Andrew afterall, is almost literally hiding behind Darren, who looks ready to knock me down. And just like that the anger is gone. Fuck. Ass.

This isn't what I wanted to become. Some junkie threatening harmless poofs, oh brilliant choice of existance Erik, you fuckwit.

God, what's the point anymore? Why are you still here? Why don't you just give up? The sorrow is sharp and familiar; like a piercing that takes too long to heal, or the needle buzzing against my forearm as it wrote that same question three years ago. 'Cur etiam hic es?'

The answer to that question sure as hell wasn't cocaine when I first asked myself. Have I fallen so far?

A quick glance from the charlie to Darren to the terrified queer behind him confirms that I have fallen that far. Gotta get everything back in order.

"Come on, Erik." Darren is talking to me, his hands up defensively and his voice low, like I'm a cornered pit bull. Being looked at like that takes all the fight out of me and I'm back in my seat staring at the drugs before me before I even think about doing it.

Darren's still talking. "The crowd's getting rough," he tells me. "We just have to do one more show and then we can rest for a while."

Rest. I need it. Christ, I just want to lay down and sleep. It would be so easy to give up.

Pressure on my shoulder tells me that my dear friend has suddenly moved to my side. "The show must go on, Erik."

Damn straight it has too. And the short skinny of it is that I can't stand to go on stage sober. What to do?

It isn't a hard choice.

I lean forward and take the hit quickly; moving to my feet with a practiced sniff as my heart beat quickens.

"Well, we mustn't let them down," I tell him with wolfish grin as the energy fills my veins. Can't help but bounce on the balls of my feet as I stand next to him. I'm ready. Let's go. Time's a-wasting, and we're only gonna die sooner.

Bucket's on his feet and out the door without a word and the poof is fast on his heels, glancing over his shoulder.

Darren's at my side, face stern, making him look far more like his father than he'd ever admit. "Ricky's gonna think yer a homophobe now, man." He doesn't mention the Charlie because he knows he doesn't have to, and he knows I'll deck him if he does.

My shoulder's bounce in a careless shrug as I cross the room to the door. "He shouldn't flatter himself."

Darren gives a short laugh as he walks behind me. "Yes, because you hate everyone equally."

I pull the door open and grin maniacally as that wall of noise and heat hits me. "Damn skippy, now let's go, Kunta Kinte before the Massa' brings out the whip."

I'm stopped suddenly by his hand on my shoulder, looking back he gives me a charming crocodile smile. "I know I left the door for that wide open, but you ever go there again and I'll kick your scrawny ass." Good ol' Darren.

The instant I step on the stage, a jolt of power goes through every inch of me. The crowd surges forward like some living wave and screams for me.

Bucket's already behind his drums by the time Darren pulls on his bass and I get my guitar over my shoulder.

This is right. This is the moment that I live for. This surge of adrenaline and power, this knowledge that I have total control over everyone before me, it's intoxicating. But maybe that's the coke talking.

Without a word, Darren and I hammer out the opening chords and the crowd howls in recognition. I've never seen the Roxy packed so tight; a lot of lads are going to go home tonight bragging about their bruises. This is why Andrew and/or Ricky puts up with my bullshit.

Every person in here has come to see me. And it's not arrogance on my part that makes me say that. They want to see the mask. It's all people talk about. 'Did you hear about that guy in that band with that mask? He's a fuckin' maniac '

"I'm having trouble trying to sleep
I'm counting sheep but running out
As time ticks by
And still I try
No rest for cross tops in my mind
One my own...here I go..."

The air is heavy with the scent of sweat and marijuana. Slick, hot bodies pressing together as they crash against each other in time with the pulse of the music.

"My eyes feel like they're gonna bleed
Dried up and bulging out my skull
My mouth is dry
My face is numb
Fucked up and spun out in my room
On my own... here we go"

I can feel the chords in my bones as they vibrate out and shake the building. So much noise, so many people. I could never face this without being high. The coke sings in my veins and in these brief moments on stage, I feel truly alive and in touch with the music.

Darren's eyes are shut tight as he holds his bass, his shoulders tense as he plays. He understands; he feels it too.

"My mind is set on overdrive
The clock is laughing in my face
A crooked spine
My senses dulled
Passed the point of delerium
On my own... here we go"

Somewhere miles behind me, Bucket's a maniac on the drums, his skinny arms flying.

The crowd is singing along, but my own voice soars above them, and I know I'm not gonna be able to talk by the end of this set. But I don't care. I'd bleed for this music and I have in the past.

Nothing else matters except the music.

And the Charlie.

Fuck I can't drown out that needling voice even when I'm wasted. When did everything get out of control? I didn't always need a spike to give the courage to get onstage. I haven't written anything new in weeks. I feel numb when I'm not high.

Shite.

"My eyes feel like they're gonna bleed
Dried up and bulging out my skull
My mouth is dry
My face is numb
Freaked up and spun out in my room
On my own... here we go"

This ends tomorrow. I'm tired of being stagnate.

Why are you still here?