Hello, everyone! This is something a bit different from the depths of my twisted mind. Hopefully, it won't be quite like anything you've ever read.
Some things are going to annoy phans from the beginning. Please read to the end before informing me the Phantom's name is Erik or that someone is OOC. Only at the end will this all make any sense.
Thanks to MadLizzy for editing.
Disclaimer: I do not own The Phantom of the Opera. Everything belongs to Gaston Leroux and ALW.
Ethan went to the same restaurant nearly every night, the Campus Diner on West Pheasant Street. The sports bars and clubs that many of the other graduate students visited on weekday nights were too noisy and crowded—too many new faces. He wanted to go where people generally recognized him…and didn't stare at him.
Lisa, the middle-aged waitress with blonde streaks in her dyed-black hair, always served him with a non-judgmental smile. He alternated between the chicken strip dinner and the pork chop platter with mashed potatoes. It wasn't exactly healthy, but he had a college boy's enviable metabolism. Too bad he didn't have an enviable face to match.
Most people didn't actually make comments or stare for too long. Once in a while, a child would point at him, only to be quickly shushed by a parent. During a trip to New York City, an old homeless lady with wild green eyes started laughing and screaming at him. Save for a few close friends and his supportive mother, though, most people completely left him alone. He liked that, and he didn't.
Ethan munched on a French-fry as he sleepily read over the latest class notes. The words and numbers were beginning to blur on the page.
"Going to have another late night?" asked Lisa, standing over him with a pitcher of iced tea.
"Yeah," he muttered, rubbing his eyes as he looked upwards. "Two papers due next week. I've got to get back to the library."
"Mm." She shook her head and clicked her tongue. "I couldn't do what you kids do. After high school, I was outta there."
"It keeps me busy," he replied, glancing back down again. "I like to stay busy."
"Hm." She stood there for a few more seconds before turning to walk toward another customer. Lisa paused and then rested a hand on his arm. "One of these days, you'll find a woman to keep you occupied."
His head shot up. "What makes you think I want one? I'm busy enough as it is. I don't have time for that."
"Oh, honey. I didn't mean anything by it. You know that. I just want you to be happy. I've known you for three years, and I hate seeing you alone in here four times a week."
"I'm fine." He left a twenty percent tip on the counter and left. He hated it whenever she got motherly, which had been more often over the past few months.
Truth be told, the large volume of work was starting to aggravate him. He thought he'd like staying within the campus setting—studying and assisting professors with biochemistry research. University students, at least seniors and graduates, were generally accepting. Their liberal education had taught them to tolerate people of all races, religions, and even sexual orientations. Why not accept a guy whose entire face looked like it had been scalded with an iron and then squeezed like silly putty? Most of them stared at him for a couple of seconds, swallowed, and then got over it.
He was butt-ugly, but, so far, no one had thrown up at the sight of him. Still, most people kept their distance.
That evening, Ethan went through the same rituals that he did every Tuesday night—the diner, followed by three hours at the library, followed by a cable medical drama, followed by bed. Depending what was on television, most other nights were the same. Sometimes he'd catch a movie by himself to shake things up.
His mother would call on Sunday evenings. Like with Lisa, she always wanted to know if he'd found friends or a girlfriend. "I have friends at the lab," he'd always reply. "You know. Scott and Chris."
"But a girlfriend?" she gently pressed. "What about Daphne?"
He rolled his eyes. "Daphne's married. I told you that three months ago. And we were just colleagues." That wasn't exactly true.
"Oh." Her voice got softer like it always did when she was trying not to hurt his feelings. "Well, I'm sure someone else will come along. There's lots of fish in the sea, right?"
If he'd been attractive, they all would have assumed he was living the bachelor lifestyle. Attractive men were allowed—apparently by some unstated social rules--to stay single into their forties. Ugly men, however, were expected to be married as quickly as possible—maybe before they got even uglier/fatter/balder.
Ethan didn't think it was physically possible for him to get much uglier; his mother and Lisa should stop worrying.
It was only when he was by himself that he mentally acknowledged his loneliness. He wasn't intensely depressed or suicidal. He'd done well in school and was on the road to a decent job. He had a life. But, especially on the weekends and evenings when he didn't have enough homework to bury himself under, Ethan would start wishing that some girl would come along.
Girls were nice to him. Too nice, really. Their voices would get sticky sweet as they attempted to be extra kind to the deformed guy. But they always kept their distance when it came to dating or even being friends.
Daphne had been the most honest when he'd taken her to dinner one night. They had been friends, and he'd been…kind of hoping for more. Looking at him from behind her thick glasses with her freckled fists balled up on the table, she'd said, "I like you, Ethan. But I don't…think we're right for each…."
"Just say it," he interrupted. "Don't lie. I've known you for three years. We're past this crap."
She'd started at his unusually coarse language. "You're right." She took a deep breath, running a hand through her stringy brown hair. "Ethan, I just don't…. I don't think I can accept it all. I can't look at you like I should be able to. I feel like a horrible person saying this. But I--"
"You're not a horrible person," he interrupted.
"Ethan, someone will be able accept it and love you like you deserve," she quickly continued. "I know they will. I'm just so bad with--"
"Don't. I get it. It's fine."
"We'll still be friends?" she meekly asked.
Daphne was the last girl that Ethan thought he might have a chance with. That had been over a year ago, and he had made no more attempts with women. In fact, he'd been keeping to himself more and more, which is probably why Lisa and his mother were getting worried.
At the moment, he was placing all bets on what he called Plan C—earning enough money to get plastic surgery. His mother had been single and poor, and his disfigurement hadn't been debilitating enough to attract the attention of any charity groups. His mom had lost a fight with the insurance company, and that had been the end of it. He'd have to make his own wealth and change his own life.
The next evening, Ethan took the same path to the Campus Diner. Lisa waved at him as he walked inside and scooted into a booth. "Hey there," she said, walking over with a pad to take his order. "What will we be having tonight? Chicken or pork chops?"
He morosely chuckled. "You know me far too well, Lis." He paused. "The pork chops."
She laughed. "Of course. You alternate each time. But someday I'm going to convince you to try the pot pie. It's not as bad as it looks." To his relief, Lisa left without another word. Ethan relaxed into the booth, taking a break from studying and listening to the pop music on the speakers.
Music was his other hobby. He'd taken piano and guitar lessons during his childhood and teen years. Maybe it was his mother's way of making up for not getting him the surgery. In college, he'd continued to take music history and theory as electives. If the biochemistry thing didn't work out, he could always teach music. His teachers had often praised his abilities. Of course, that wouldn't bring in much money but maybe…."
As Ethan drifted into his career thoughts, he was vaguely aware of someone staring at him from the counter area. Blinking back into reality, he turned his head and met a pair of blue eyes. A blonde girl—his age or maybe a few years younger—was watching him. When he looked at her, she smiled widely.
He'd never seen her in there before, but he guessed she was a student. Shifting uncomfortably, Ethan nodded at her and then looked down at the table. When he looked back up, she was still watching him so he quickly glanced back down again. What the hell was her problem? Sometimes people with mental disabilities would stare at him longer than was acceptable. Maybe…?
When he looked back up for a third time, Ethan nearly fell out of the booth. The girl was standing right beside him, still smiling.
"Can I help you?" he managed to choke out. Maybe she was in one of his classes or something. His memory wasn't always the greatest when it came to other faces. No one had a face as memorable as his.
"You just looked kind of lonely over here," she said, her voice soft and sweet. "Am I bothering you?"
"No. Um…do I know you?"
"Well, now you do," she chirped. "I'm Christa. I'm a sophomore here."
"Nice to meet you." He shook her hand, embarrassed that his skin was a little clammy. Nothing like this had ever happened before, and it was making him nervous.
"So what are you studying here?" She slid in across the table and leaned forward.
"Biochemistry. I'm…hoping to eventually get my doctorate."
"Oh. Wow. You must be really smart. That's great." If possible, her smile became even wider.
He felt his ugly face turn red. "Oh. Heh. I just study a lot." Ethan cleared his throat. "What's your major?"
"English," she replied. "I want to be a teacher."
Lisa returned at that moment to give him his soda. As expected, she was practically beaming. "I'll bring your food right where you're sitting," she informed Christa in a tone that left no room for argument.
"Thanks!" Christa replied, taking off her leather coat and making herself comfortable.
Ethan was completely lost. Was she on a dare or a bet? Did she like him because he was older?
Christa continued to smile. "So what else do you like to do?"
"Oh, you know. The usual. Music…some television programs…hockey…."
"I like those things, too," she replied. "Except hockey. I like volleyball."
"Volleyball is cool." He felt like an idiot.
The entire evening was nearly surreal. They ate together and continued their conversation. Christa always grinned and kept eye contact, never once glancing at his disfigurements. By the time the meal was over, Ethan was half-expecting some television personality to jump out and tell him he was on hidden camera. Or maybe he'd fallen asleep in the booth and was dreaming; he hadn't been getting much sleep lately.
But he was awake. And he wasn't on hidden camera. And, before he got up to leave, Christa asked, "Can I have your number?"
"Um…yeah. Sure." His heart was thudding quickly as he jotted it down on a napkin. He double-checked the digits to make sure he didn't give her the wrong one.
"Many thanks!" she exclaimed.
"Sure," he replied. He rushed out the door and into the cold night air, wanting to clear his mind. What had just happened? Had Lisa set that up? Surely she wouldn't humiliate him like that, though…. Plus, Lisa was too busy with her kids and grandchildren to go around playing matchmaker.
Ethan stressed over the events for the entire night, wondering if he would ever hear from Christa again. Fortunately, he didn't have to wonder for long. She called the next evening at six, sounding just as friendly as the previous day. "Hi there!" she said.
"Hey," he replied, trying to keep the tone of his voice calm. It'd been ages since he spoke with a girl on the phone. "What's up?"
"Not much. I was wondering if you'd want to go to a movie."
"Sure…." He replied. Ethan swallowed. "Hey…Christa. I was wondering…."
"Is this…did someone ask you to go out with me?"
She laughed. "Why in the world would you think that?"
"No real reason. You came up to me like you knew me last night."
"Like I said, you looked lonely. And you were really interesting to talk to. I'd like to get to know you."
"Oh." He cleared his throat. "Okay. That's…cool. I shouldn't have asked. Heh."
"It's fine. So do you want to meet at seven?"
"Great!" she exclaimed. "See ya, Ethan."
To put it mildly, the next months were completely amazing. They went on dates three or four times a week, everywhere from the movies to concerts to nice restaurants. More often than not, she wanted to simply be alone with him. It always shocked him that she didn't already have a boyfriend.
His schoolwork nearly suffered due to the time spent with her, but he didn't care. How could he care when Christa let him kiss her during their fourth date, even resting a hand on his cheek during the moment? How could he care when he no longer spent weekend after weekend trapped in his lonely apartment?
Ethan even phoned his mother and told her the news. She was nearly in tears with happiness. "That's wonderful! Absolutely lovely! Oh, honey! I knew you'd find a nice girl. I can't wait to meet her."
"You'll love her, Mom."
He never quite understood what Christa saw in him. She was fairly attractive and seemed to be from an upper middleclass background. Why would she randomly choose an ugly, poor guy at a diner? Still…he tried to ignore the fact that it didn't completely make sense.
And he especially didn't care after she allowed him to be intimate with her for the first time—his first time ever, actually. She was warm and soft and smelled like flowers. He was in love, and nothing else mattered.
Christa did have a few stranger traits. For example, she strongly preferred it when he wore black clothing. She also had this room in her apartment that she wouldn't let him go inside. "It's my personal, girly stuff," she'd told him with a blush. Ethan could easily overlook those little quirks, though. After all, nobody was perfect.
"I love you," he finally told her one April evening. A warm spring breeze brushed against their cheeks as the sun set on the horizon. "More than anything."
Her face lit up. "I love you, too! Oh, Ethan. I love you so much!"
"I want to spend the rest of my life with you. It's good not being alone anymore. And you've never even commented on…well, never mind. I love you." He got onto one knee and presented a ring. "I want to marry you."
Christa embraced him, nearly bouncing with joy. "Yes! Of course I'll marry you. We'll be together and have a nice house by ourselves and everything. It'll just be us."
He laughed at her weird way of putting it. "Sure. Why not?" After placing the ring on her finger, Ethan stood.
She continued to hug and kiss him. "I can't wait to tell everyone."
Ethan's heart warmed. She was proud to have him as a husband. Nothing had ever felt so good.
It was unbelievable.
Almost…too good to be true.
They planned the wedding for late September, a moderately-sized affair with close friends and family invited. She'd have more people there than he would, of course. A few of his friends and family would show up, and he was planning on asking Lisa to come, too.
In mid-August, they drove to her apartment to finish cleaning things out. She was moving in with him until they graduated, and then they'd head for a townhouse in the suburbs. For some reason, Christa had wanted to move away from everything and everyone, but they didn't have the money to build some big house out in the country. She seemed to accept this for the time being.
Christa told him that she needed to run inside her apartment and grab a few items, instructing him to wait in the car. Ethan hadn't been in her upscale two-bedroom apartment very often. Usually, at her request, they stayed at his place. He'd been keeping his living space cleaner ever since dating her; giving up his sloppy bachelor ways was entirely worth it, though.
Ethan yawned and impatiently shifted in the front seat as he waited. She'd said it would only take five minutes. Ten minutes had passed, though. After fifteen minutes, he cracked open the car door to let some air inside. The hotter weather always made his face itch. Someday, he'd consider asking Christa what she thought about plastic surgery. He could count on her to give him an honest opinion.
Twenty minutes passed. After twenty-five minutes, he finally climbed out, starting to become a little worried about her. After stretching his stiff muscles, he walked toward the concrete stairs and climbed them to the second floor. He opened the door to apartment number two-sixteen and poked his head inside. "Hello? Christa?" There was no answer.
Ethan looked around, first in the living room and then in her bedroom. She had fairly good decorating tastes, her dark wood furniture matching in all the rooms. Her curtains and bedspread had the same blue and gold designs. "Christa? Are you in here?"
He started to head for the kitchen, thinking he'd heard her pretty voice. Maybe she was on the phone. Another closed door caught his attention, though. It was the other bedroom in her house—the one she didn't want him to go inside. Ethan shrugged to himself and started to head for the kitchen again. It probably had women's lingerie in it or something; maybe she'd have a surprise for him on their wedding night.
Something made him pause in his steps, and his gaze turned back toward the door. It couldn't hurt to look, right? It wasn't like she was keeping bodies in there. He nearly laughed at the thought. Curiosity finally got the better of him.
Ethan walked toward the door and twisted the cool, sliver knob. Slowly, he opened it, causing the hinge to make a soft squeaking noise. The room was dark and windowless so he flipped on the nearest light switch. The brightness caused him to blink as the interior came into focus. At first…it didn't look that abnormal.
There were posters, music boxes, key chains, a mask collection, figurines…every type of merchandise. A mask collection?
Ethan continued to look around. And suddenly his heart stopped.
But it wasn't the Phantom of the Opera merchandise that scared the holy hell out of him. After all, everyone had collections and hobbies. His mother even had one corner of her room devoted to Elvis Presley.
No. Something else terrified him.
On the left side of the room, near the giant mirror on the wall, she had taped pictures of Ethan to the plaster. My Phantom was written along the bottom part of one photograph. In another, she had pasted a white half-mask onto the right side of his face. On another picture of Ethan was a black mask. Christa had pasted her face on the body of the female character in the story and glued his face on the Phantom's body. Dozens of photographs had similar themes.
Ethan stared at it all in horror for several long seconds, feeling his stomach tighten. He blinked several times, trying to make the images go away. But they wouldn't.
He understood. He'd only seen the play once in New York, but it was enough to understand.
He didn't want to understand, but he did.
Christa didn't love him despite the fact that he was disfigured.
And she wasn't the kind who simply loved him for who he was.
Christa loved him because he was disfigured. She wanted him to be disfigured so that he would fit the role for her twisted fantasy.
"Oh, God," he whispered to himself, putting a hand to his forehead. His heart pounded wildly in his chest. "Oh, God."
"Ethan?" Her voice came from the doorway, trembling slightly. "What are you doing in here? I thought you were waiting outside."
He ignored that question. "What is all this?" he asked, voice hoarse.
"That…oh!" She laughed nervously. "That's just my collection. I'm a fan of it. Obviously." She giggled again. "But let's get out of here. I'm sorry I took so long. I was on the phone with my mom, and she was telling me about their new dog."
He wasn't going to let her avoid the subject. "Why is my picture up there with all of it?"
"I just…. I love you. I wanted your picture on my wall." She was a bad liar. He could hear the crack in her voice and knew that his suspicions were correct. A feeling of dread continued to gnaw at his chest.
"You…what….Was I part of your stupid fantasy?"
"No. No," she protested. She took several steps closer to him, and he dodged away from her. "It was just…It was nothing. Let's forget it. Let's leave and get married, love."
He shook his head. "I want to know what this is about. You-you were looking for a deformed guy? Is that it?"
"You weren't even supposed to come into this room," she protested. "This is my apartment. Why are you in here?"
"Is that it?" he nearly growled. "You were looking for an ugly guy that night?"
"No! No! You're so beautiful. And I wanted to…Oh, can't we forget about this? It's so silly. We'll leave and never come back here." She tried to come near him again.
"Get away from me!" he exclaimed, stepping backward.
"Erik, stop it--"
"Who the hell is Erik?"
"No one. Never mind. Please. Ethan. Please! Listen to me. I've searched everywhere for someone like you." She reached out to touch his left cheek, but he again stepped away from her.
"What?" He shook his head in disgust, the feeling in his stomach threatening to rise up to his throat. "You're sick," he stated, wanting to vomit. "This is sick. I don't want to see you again."
She lunged forward and grabbed onto him. "You're not listening!" she exclaimed. "You can't leave me! You're perfect for me! You can't leave!" She tightened her grip on his arm and tried to pull him toward her. "Listen to me! Please don't go!"
"Let go of me!" He tried to shake her off of him. Her shouts and the stuffy room were starting to take away his sanity. "Get off! Get away!" Ethan shrugged her off his arm and made a dash for the door, desperate to get out of the apartment. He ran out of the room and continued to the exit, yanking it open and nearly diving outside. The beautiful night air met him, offering freedom from the madness. Later he would dwell on the heartache. Now, he simply needed to escape.
"Come back! You can't leave me!" She managed to grab onto his shoulder as he reached the top of the stairs, trying to pull him back into the apartment with her. He stumbled. "We're so perfect. You don't understand what this could be! It could be so beautiful, Erik! Ethan!"
"Get the hell away from me!" As anger and panic bubbled within him, pushing him over the edge, Ethan jerked away from her as hard as he could. Christa was violently flung forward in the process. With her mouth in the shape of a wide "o," she started to fall backward and over the edge of the landing. He tried to grab her, but it was simply too late.
Her skull first slammed into the metal railing at the top of the stairs with an ugly crackling noise. Unconscious now, she tumbled down the concrete stairs and finally stopped rolling in the middle of the steps. Her body remained in a broken, twisted heap as blood continued to ooze from the back of her head. She was still and silent.
All was silent.
For several seconds, he stood there staring at her body in frozen shock. The events of the last several moments refused to register in his mind, and he wondered if he was in some kind of nightmare. Red splashed along the steps from her head wound, shiny and sticky.
He ran down to her and searched for some sign of life. Two blank blue eyes stared up at him, her jaw slack. He grabbed her wrist and felt around for a pulse. There was nothing. She was dead.
The word resounded in his mind.
He looked up. Most of the students hadn't returned yet, and no one else was around. No one else had seen what had happened. Yet.
No one would ever believe than an ugly freak like him was innocent. No one would believe it was an accident. His face would be flashed on television screens across the state, maybe the nation. He would be the monster who viciously killed the beautiful, young girl at her own home. No one would believe the truth. No one would understand that'd she'd done this to him.
Dread twisted his stomach, and a thick gunk formed in the back of his throat. He leaned against the railing as dizziness overcame him and a coat of cold perspiration layered his face.
He had to get away before anyone saw, before the police arrived and dragged his hideous carcass to prison. As the feeling of nauseous worsened, his mind worked to figure out the best course of action.
First, after checking to make sure no one was watching, he dragged her limp body back up the steps and into the apartment, shutting the door behind them. It would take the authorities longer to find it.
This wasn't his fault! It wasn't! It wasn't! It was her fault!
He tried to clear his mind again; he needed to focus before he went completely insane.
Ethan ran into the dreaded room and grabbed one of the plastic black masks out of her collection. He slipped it on and adjusted the strings around the back of his head. It would help to conceal him at night. Luckily, he was wearing the black clothing that Christa loved so much. He needed to be invisible.
Where would he go? Not his mom's house; that'd be the first place that the cops would look. He'd have to hide somewhere, only going out at night for basic necessities.
He glanced at himself in the mirror, his two eyes staring at him from behind the mask. Yes. Good. He was nice and hidden now.
Maybe he needed a new name. He'd think about that later.
Without a glance at the mangled body of his former fiancée, he ran down the stairs and into his car.
Ethan was able to blend in with the shadows of night by the time he reached Pheasant Street. He noticed Lisa's beat up Ford sitting outside the front of the diner and silently bid her goodbye. At least she'd been good to him; he'd always have that.
And then Ethan disappeared, more a ghost than a man now.
All because of her.