2/25/14 - Big news! I've rewritten the original draft after making a few changes...nothing major, and I didn't mess with the plot or anything, but some things like paragraph structure and phrasing needed a little work. I also extended a few scenes and added a couple new ones to get the most out of the story. I'll be replacing the chapters as I get them typed. Yours truly, A-P. :)
"Don't come back until you've earned enough for a decent meal!"
My uncle's voice chased me out of the house, his angry shouts echoing in my ears, but I didn't leave yet. I waited for my aunt to appear at the door with the bundle I took with me whenever I was forced to go scrounge for money. Inside, I heard more yelling and the sound of a bottle smashing against a wall, and I sighed heavily.
Life wasn't always like this. Uncle used to be a violist in the orchestra at the Opera Garnier, and I myself used to be a ballerina. The fire that destroyed the Opera House two years ago turned our world upside down. Already rather too attached to his liquor and too proud to fall from a musician to a laborer, Uncle started drinking to hide from his woes, and he was no longer the kind, jovial man who had taken me in after my parents died under the Commune. He was bitter, angry, and abusive towards my aunt and me; he never raised a hand to us, but he made my aunt take in laundry for money and hurt her with cruel words, and he made me go out into the streets to earn whatever I could in whatever manner.
My aunt, however, didn't sink so low. She put up with his mistreatment of her, but she would smuggle me out some boy's clothes and Uncle's viola when I left. It was a risk, taking the instrument without his knowledge, but I refused to become a prostitute, and my aunt didn't expect me to. With her help, I was able to disguise myself and play for spare coins. We didn't have to starve, and I didn't have to sell myself.
The front door opened and my aunt appeared. She handed me the clothes and the viola, safe in its case. Back in a happier time, Uncle had taught me to play a little, and those sweet memories came back as I took the case.
"Be very careful, Vivienne," my aunt warned. "You know how angry he would be if something happened to it."
"I know," I replied, growing somber. "It's the only thing he cares about anymore, his viola and drink."
"Oh, my dear, you know that's not true. He loves us and cares for us; now that he can't take care of himself anymore, we need to take care of him."
I sighed, yearning for the days that were lost to us now. I kissed my aunt goodbye, then hurried off. If I was lucky, I could make enough to be back home before dark.
I found somewhere out of sight to change out of my dress, tucking my long auburn hair up under a cap and using long strips of linen to bind down my breasts. When I first started doing this, I had been terrified someone would see through me and my disguise, but I had learned since that people only see what they expect to. If I looked the part, no one would suspect that the small boy was really a young woman.
Appropriately attired, I took the viola and found a corner that was reasonably busy. The secret was getting a place where people were sure to hear me, but where I ran the least risk of being shooed off by a policeman or of being robbed by some ruffian. I tuned the instrument, rosined the bow, set it to the strings and began to play. I was by no means talented, but I had enough skill that every now and then someone would stop and listen, occasionally throwing some coins into the open case at my feet. I always smiled at them, then kept playing; if I encouraged them enough with my smile, they gave me more money. I had learned how to work a crowd long ago in the corps de ballet, and my experience served me well as a street musician.
I stood on the corner all day, until the sun began to set and I guessed I had taken enough to pay for our dinner. I put the viola back in case, scooping the money out and storing it in a pouch in my pocket. Then I headed off for home, taking my usual detour past the burnt-out Opera House.
The building looked ghostly in the gloom, a fitting kingdom for the phantom who had been said to live there. I had never given credence to the stories the other ballet girls loved to share like the truffles in the dressing rooms they insisted would ruin their figures, but on the night of the fire I had seen him for myself from my place in the wings. He had snuck onstage to join Christine Daaé in a duet destined to bring the house down—literally. When my former ballet comrade ripped away the mask he wore, the auditorium had filled with screams at the sight of his face, though from my position backstage I never caught a glimpse of it. It must have been terrible by the way everyone shrieked and gasped, yet they soon forgot all about it as the chandelier plunged from the ceiling, the gas lamps that lit it exploded, and the body of the lead tenor Ubaldo Piangi was discovered backstage. When the fire broke out, my only thoughts were of finding my uncle and getting out alive. We joined the stampede for the exits, Uncle still clutching his precious viola, and we stood out on the street and watched our world burn, fearing what the future would hold in store.
It holds this, I told myself. Masquerading every day and practically begging on a street corner. It could have been much worse for us, but I was still...discontent, perhaps? I understood why Uncle drank, and in a way this walk past the Opera was a similar vice. We both longed for the days that would never come again and railed against our miserable lot.
Well, at least we weren't starving...and at least I wasn't forced to the indignity of selling myself to survive. I had prided myself on being one of the few ballet rats who didn't flirt with the stagehands or fornicate with the subscribers, and it was one of the only things I still had to be proud of. I might have been a lowly dancer reduced to a street performer, but I still had my self-respect.
I sighed and turned away from the Opera House. It was getting darker, and I still had to buy food for the night before going home. I fished the money pouch out of my pocket and began to count my earnings.
"I'll take that, my good son."
I gasped at the sudden, gruff voice and the hand that snatched the money from me. "Give that back!" I demanded.
The man just chuckled, his grimy hands closing over the little pouch. He was taller than me, broader, and much stronger. I couldn't hope to take my money back from him. His eyes darted down to the case in my hand and he asked, "Now, what's in here, boy?" I tried to hold it away from him, but he yanked it out of my grip.
If I went home without that viola, Uncle would turn me out of the house. "Give it back!" I cried. "It's mine! Give it back!" I kicked at him and swung wildly, but one blow from his fist knocked me to the ground and my cap fell off, my long hair tumbling down onto my shoulders.
I heard his surprised exclamation with a thrill of horror. My worst fear, realized. Someone had seen me for the fraud that I was.
"Well, now," he said, his voice amused, "what have we here? A girl?"
I scrambled to my feet, abandoning the viola and the money without hesitation. I tried to run but he chuckled again and seized my arm in a vice-like grip, bending low and breathing into my ear, "What kind of strumpet tries to pass herself off as a boy? There are so many more profitable things you could do with your time, my sweet."
"Let me go!" I screamed. "Please, let me go!"
"How much for a bit of fun, eh? A franc since you're so pretty?"
I spat in his face and he slapped me, dropping the viola and the money and clapping a hand over my mouth. He dragged me over to a shadowy recess at the feet of the Opera House where no one could see us and forced me up against the wall. Keeping his hand over my mouth so I couldn't cry for help, he tore at the waist of my boy's trousers. I fought tooth and nail to get free, but he was so much stronger than I was...with no hope of escape I closed my eyes tightly and tried to take my mind away from this dark street, but the tears still forced themselves from beneath my eyelids. Nineteen years with nothing but my virtue to my name, and now even that would be stolen from me.
There was a terrible pain between my legs, and through it I could feel my attacker inside me. I couldn't breathe, I was so choked by stifled sobs, and on my lips I could taste the salt from my tears and dirt from his hand. I could hear him breathing, grunting, laughing to himself. He thrust more forcefully, and I let out a muffled cry. Please, God, let it be over soon, I prayed. I beg You, please let it be over.
Finally, he pulled away from me. My legs buckled beneath me and I fell in a heap to the ground. His words sounded so distant in my ears as he said, "There, now, that wasn't so bad, was it?" He spat at me, and I watched him return to the fallen money and Uncle's viola, pick them up, and walk away.
I was shaking so badly I could hardly stand, and the pain was so great I only just managed to get my trousers up again before I collapsed. The shock of it wasn't enough to numb the shame and despair, and all I could think was What will Uncle say when he finds I lost his viola?
The sobs burst from me at last. I couldn't go home. I couldn't face my aunt and uncle and tell them what happened. I only wanted to disappear and never be seen again.
I crawled to a gate in the foundations of the Opera and pushed on it, and it swung open with an earsplitting whine. I pulled myself through into the darkness beyond and gave myself over to my tears.
I sat staring at the music before me, but I couldn't bring myself to play. What was the use, I asked myself, when the heart and soul had been stolen away from me, when the music itself no longer held any comfort? She had taken it with her when she left me that night. Had it only been two years? It seemed more like lifetimes, spent in agony that would never end.
I sighed, then swept my hand out and sent the music fluttering to the floor. There was no use in playing, no use in breathing, no use at all. Why I had let myself go on this long was beyond me, telling myself that perhaps the music would save me again like it had in the past. Only now did I see the truth: music couldn't save me this time any more than it could make me beautiful, transforming the face that had driven her away from me. I hung my head wearily. "Christine," I whispered. "Christine..."
I stayed there, her name still frozen on my lips, when a new sound reached me-the electric bell that served as an alarm. That only meant one thing. Someone was in the Opera.
Getting to my feet, I crept through my house and went to the edge of the lake. Cursing softly, I climbed into the boat I had recovered after Christine and her vicomte left and began to row. Since the fire, people had been sneaking into my Opera House, curious and eager to see where the notorious Phantom had made his empire. A few simple tricks were enough to scare most of them away: a disembodied voice in the darkness, a falling backdrop for the ones who made it backstage, and a glimpse of movement in the shadows for those who still weren't convinced they had anything to fear from ghosts. Only a handful had ever penetrated to the lake, forcing the lock on the gate from the Rue Scribe, and I had to be harsh with them. The siren had sung on several occasions, and the Punjab lasso had seen some work. I knew exactly how to deal with this new intruder.
Anger stirred a fire in my veins as I approached the far shore. I only wanted to be left alone, to die at last with all of my broken dreams and let my shattered heart bleed itself dry, and still they wanted to rout me out. Wasn't it enough that I squatted down here in the bowels of the earth with my misery, but that they had to come and torment me further? There was no salvation for me in this eternal darkness, and there would be none for any who dared invade it.
I lit on the bank without a sound and leaped from the boat, readying the lasso in my hands, when I paused in my tracks. A sound assaulted me from the gloom...the helpless weeping of a heart lost to sorrow. A fog obscured my senses, stilling all thought; it could almost have been the weeping of my own soul that I heard, but I could see a figure ahead, facedown on the ground and sobbing as though the world had ended. It was the sound that filled my mind during my waking hours, and even my dreams when I could bear to sleep. Almost against my will, my hands slackened their grip on the rope...
No, no mercy. It was mercy that had let Christine leave me in this hell. I was done with mercy.
I stepped forward and stopped again. In the darkness I saw a long mane of red hair, like a cascade of fire. This intruder was a woman, and she lay at my feet heedless that her end was approaching, defenseless like my other victims, and by her tears she was probably past caring. I had never seen such pain with my own eyes before, but I had felt it and I was only too familiar with its sting.
I lowered the rope again. What was the matter with me? She was an intruder, violating the sanctity of my chosen tomb, and she needed to be taken care of!
She slowly lifted her head to gaze around her, finally sensing my presence, and her eyes fell on me for a moment before she lost consciousness. I stood watching her, indecisive. I should kill her and get it over with right now, but something in the way she cried seemed to bind her to me. I didn't even know her name, but I knew something more significant. She had known suffering like mine; only one who had felt such utter heartbreak could recognize it in another.
Erik, you're losing your grip, I told myself, yet I knelt down and scooped her into my arms, carrying her to the boat and taking her back to my house. The lasso I left lying on the bank where I found her.