Father is dead. Gone. Forever. It seemed that those thoughts were the only ones that had been on Christine's feverish mind since the funeral. It had only been a few short hours since the burial, and yet, the young girl already felt ready to die herself. Time had never crept by so slowly before, as if it was torturing her purposely, poking fun at her misery and grief.
Christine stared at the crumpled piece of paper in her sweaty hand, and slowly pressed open its creases and folds. She wished she could cry, but somehow, her eyes remained dry, as if she had already shed all the tears she possibly could in the previous hours---as if telling her that no tears could help ease the pain.
Stumbling forward to close the door of her attic—the attic of her father's now-deserted country mansion—she laid a hand on her burning forehead. Then she stumbled a few paces back to her rocking chair--the only object in the tiny, ice-cold , unwanted room—which stood by the window, and threw herself into it. Slowly, almost absently, she stroked the wood from the chair. Memories of her father came flooding back suddenly, and, not for the first time, she wished she had said goodbye.
Fatigue was working on Christine's small, fragile body now, and she knew she wouldn't be able to hold much longer if she didn't sleep now. Madame Giry would come for her tomorrow and take her back to Paris. Perhaps Meg, and her pretty sister Clarabelle would come with her too, and then everything would be all right again. Life would go on, and maybe go on well, and she would forget this terrible ordeal. But a small, squeaky voice inside her nine-year-old mind scolded her wistfully, saying: "No, it'll never be the same again. You will never feel Father's love again, but the Angel of Music will come for you from Heaven." Sighing, and struggling to suppress another sob, Christine wrapped a knit shawl around her thin shoulders. The biting iciness of the night air drilled into her skin. Quietly, she sang herself to sleep. Tears were in her large, hopeful eyes even as she drifted off, exhausted.
It was midnight. There was someone knocking on the wooden attic door. Christine's dropping eyelids snapped open instantly; her heart pounded and thundered with fright in her frail ribcage. With trembling fingers, she clutched the shawl draped around her, and whispered fiercely, "it's only a dream, it's only a dream," until she could speak no more. Her aching throat seemed to explode into fire, and she closed her eyes, longing for water, wishing she had strength enough to go downstairs. Then she heard a voice.
"Christine?" She heard heavy breathing. Every sense froze, and strained. "Are you in there? Christine?" It was a boy's voice, tender yet strong, and then cracked slightly. It came again, a bit louder and more anxious this time. Suddenly, she realized she knew it. "Let me in; I beg you!" Her heart dancing with relief and joy, Christine cast her shawl aside, threw herself on the thin carpet, and dragged herself towards the door. Excitedly, she fumbled inside her gown pocket for a key, then unlocked the door with feeble fingers. Then she backed away, panting with the effort. She heard a gasp come from behind the door.
"Oh…Christine," the voice cried with shuddering sigh. It was Raoul. Gently, he laid a cool palm on her scorching forehead and for a moment, her pain was numbed.
"Raoul," she said. Her throat was swollen and aching. Shakily, she extended her arms o him, and helplessly looked into his face, her swollen eyes threatening to close.
Swiftly, the familiar form bent down and took her in his sturdy arms. Christine stared at his dear, wise, and handsome face, so full of care and protection and understanding. Without knowing it, Christine lifted a finger to touch his features. Her shaking fingers were as cold as ice, and his face was warm and damp.
"There," he said softly as he released her into the rocking chair once again. His voice shook. Concern was written all over his face, and woven into his voice, too. "You're ill, Christine; do you know? Is there no one who knows?" She shook her head, feeling only half-conscious. Without hesitance, he tossed off his wool coat, and laid it over Christine's quivering form. Tenderly, Raoul leaned forward and his lips pressed gently against her burning forehead. Christine took his warm hands in her own.
"Don't go, Raoul. I want you here. Always."
"Silly girl, I won't go. How could I leave you? Why is there no one here to care for you? Does anyone even know? You're so ill—you could die! Oh—my little Christine." Beneath the forced lightness of his voice, Christine heard anxiety and fear. She wished she could comfort him but found herself exhausted by the mere thought.
"Raoul. Water." Her voice was choked, and the words sounded like a dry, rasped cough. He lad his firm hand on her shaking shoulders.
'Yes—just a moment, all right? Oh right---and when is Madame Giry coming for you?"
"Oh good. You need rest," he said, hurrying forward to the stairs.
Five minutes had scarcely passed when Raoul returned with a tea pot and a mug. Hot steam streamed out of the pot. Christine's tired eyes fluttered, then opened.
"Not much left downstairs," he said, amused, as he knelt beside her. Christine watched him intently, silently.
"Raoul, how did you find me here?" she mouthed. Raoul leaned forward to read her lips.
"Find you? There was no need to look. Everyone knew. And besides, I was at the funeral, Christine!" he said, giving her an awkward glace, as if she had gone out of her mind. Then, seeing her eyes begin to water with unstoppable tears, his expression softened. "Désolée—I'm sorry," he apologized, blushing.
"I wanted you, needed you, so much there. There were no friends, and everyone was miserable, and dressed in black, and not one of them would speak to me! Oh Raoul…why didn't you come to me?" she whispered pleadingly, breaking into a fit of coughing. Raoul stared anxiously, and then raised the mug of warm water to her lips.
"Drink some," he instructed. His expression grew serious. Christine watched as his handsome face scrunch tight with though and his dark eyes close with concern, and suddenly had an impulse to kiss his eyelashes. "I desperately wanted to find you, Christine. Don't think I didn't try. But Father wouldn't let me. He doesn't understand; not one bit. Once I broke away, but a sober old woman growled at me to leave. It was dreadful, and the whole time I thought I'd burst into tears. I can only imagine how you felt. But I loved your father too, Little Lotte. He was my father in spirit too. He loved me because he knew I cared for you. He knew you were my best friend and always would be. He knew, and understood so very well." He placed a hand on hers and let a tear fall from his eyes. "Silly me---crying now," he said, suddenly embarrassed by his boyishness. Christine's tiny hand stroked his silky locks. "Then after the funeral, and after a long, dreary dinner with the other adults, my uncle told me to quickly come see you. He loves me well, the way my father never would." He bent his head, helping her lift the mug. "Rest," he told her, pushing her bangs back from her sweaty forehead. "Rest easily, my little girl."
"Not so little anymore,'' she mumbled, leaning back against her pillow. "Raoul, will you stay with me tonight?" she whispered after some time. He let out a quiet laugh.
"Don't worry. I'll stay." He lay a hand on her satiny, burning cheek, and Christine rested her aching head on his sturdy, slightly muscular shoulder. Comfort washed through her. Gently, Raoul breathed upon her face and let her crawl into his arms like a child and relax into his arms. Warmth settled through her as he wrapped his arms around her body protectively.
"I miss Father," she whispered sadly. Raoul grew tense. Christine could hear his heart pounding against his chest, and when he spoke again, his voice was tight, as if he was struggling to hold back tears and sorrow.
"Yes, I know. I do too. Very very much." He held her hand and closed his eyes.
Suddenly, Christine heard a sweet, angelic voice in her mind. It was a humming a beautiful melody, heartrending, but healing at the same time. For a moment, a feeling of strange desperation crossed through her as she tried to grasp it, hold it, draw it nearer, preserve it, but soon she quieted to listen. The hum was so soft, so mellow, but so beautiful with quiet, discreet vibration and a tiny measure of melancholy. She longed to let it carry her away. The melody held the slightest amount of sadness, and yet, at the same time, embodied such tranquility.
"What is it?" Raoul's reserved voice conveyed unease as he watched her transfixed. Still in his arms, Christine lifted her head slightly off his chest to let the music circle through her…dance through her veins, and when she parted her lips, the voice weaved its way into her own and she hummed the silk-like, honey-sweet tune. She knew she was in a trance, yet did not want to break away from it. She sang softly, without thought or conscious effort, letting her own voice bathe her exhausted, weary mind in peace.
Dawn had barely ridden into the sky, and thick, crystal flakes from the night past were still falling from the sky when Christine woke. She was leaning against Raoul who was resting against the wall. Carefully, deliberately, she lifted her head to avoid pain. Her eyes instantly found the pearl-colored scene outside. The magic of the silver-white world held the small girl spellbound. She scarcely even noticed when Raoul stirred.
"Christine," he said as she slipped from his arms. He reached a hand to her, and as she took it, light brightened his serious eyes. She smiled, then laughed shyly. "Feeling better, then?" His voice seemed caressed by relief.
"Yes; very much," she said happily. Her delicate voice was laced with affection and gratitude. "Thank you Raoul. I might have died if you hadn't come. Yesterday night was the most frightening one of my life."
"I know; I was afraid too, Little Lotte." His eyes were sad even as he spoke the name. Memories of Christine's father came pouring through him. "I miss your Papa too." Christine knew he was going to cry. Yearning swelled through her own throat and she sniffed back tears.
"Is it better to be sad, Raoul, or to not? Do you think I should forget about Father, or think about him?" The girl let the tears pressed against her full eyelids fall. Raoul stared at the door, trying to sort through the endless emotions pounding in his blood.
"It's all right to be sad. It's harder to pretend you're not, when you know you truly are. We can be sad together, Christine. It's all right to miss him and want him back, for he was the best father a child could have. And he loved us both.'' He spoke slowly, almost calmly, and Christine cried silently into his shoulder.
For an hour, they sat, and Raoul held her against him, as if longing to dissolve her grief into his own.
At last, he realized he couldn't stay much longer. The sun had risen well above the sparkling horizon.
"My little Christine, I must go soon. Oh. I'm so sorry." He closed his arms around her again, as if she were his own dear sister. "I don't want to leave you either, but my Papa is plenty angry at me already. And Madame Giry will be coming soon for you too." He looked pleadingly out the window. Christine nodded solemnly. There was nothing left to do, or say.
Moments later, a knock came on the door. Raoul helped her into her coat, took her bag of clothes, and walked her down the stairs.
At the door, he turned for one more gaze at his dear friend.
"Remember, you're never alone. Never. Wherever you are, I am there too. Oh….do take care, my dearest Christine, the gem of my life." His leaned down to kiss her cheek lightly, conveying thousands of locked emotions.
The rapid knocking came again, interrupting them. Raoul turned the knob, and a stern, beautiful woman dressed in dark violet was at the door.
"Goodbye, my beloved. Don't forget to write," he told her gently.
"Oh…I won't," she said, turning away to hide rising tears. He lifted his hand to touch her face one last time.
"Come child," Madame Giry instructed, her sharp gaze focused on Raoul. He bowed lightly.
"Never alone," Christine mouthed to Raoul as she stepped into the carriage, and as the side door closed, she saw him mouth the same words back.