Holly found the squalid little theatre during one of her urban exploration trips. She loved sneaking into houses in her free time; the more decrepit the building, the better. She had a particular fondness for attics and cellars – to her they felt like the secret heart of a house. Such ventures helped her get away from her life a bit, they offered a welcome variety to the drudgery of a dead-end job, the loneliness and the uniform days.
Broken furniture cluttered the stalls. A tattered script with some of the letters missing hung in front of the mouldy velvet curtains, that read ‘Ope a Garn r‘. The colourful panes were mostly missing from the stained glass ceiling lights, so the patterns didn’t make sense anymore. Spiderwebs fluttered in the air current coming through the holes. It was the decaying carcass of a once majestic building.
“Hello?” Her voice echoed in the dusty void. Holly had been a fan of the Phantom of the Opera as a child, and this place fit the fancies of that long gone eleven year old perfectly. How many times had she and her best friend at the time daydreamed about being Christine, the object of the Phantom’s obsession, of being whisked away into his lair? They’d even planned a visit to Paris for the sole purpose of finding him. Holly let that child take the reins once more.
“It’s Christine,” she trilled, “oh Phantom, are you here?”
Here… here… the echo replied. It had a weird hissing quality that Holly ascribed to the haphazard forms the sound bounced off, that messed with the acoustics. The dust motes swirled in a stray sunbeam. She went on a discovery tour, but the doors leading into the bowels of the building were locked. Holly left disappointed.
Even so, she kept returning to the Paris Opera (she couldn’t think of it in any other way) in the following weeks. It inspired her in a way she couldn’t quite explain. It was almost like the gateway of another world, one that was probably messier, yet much more interesting than her own.
“Oh Phantom, come save me from my sad life,” she called out in a breathy voice.
Life… life… life…
She was lounging in box 5, reserved for the Phantom in the original story. Her fingertips left marks in the dusty velvet cover of the parapet.
“Take me to wild adventures.”
Ress… ress… yess…
Holly sat up with a start. She searched the gloom. Did something move in the depths of the stage? She kept listening for some minutes with breath held, then decided it was just the building’s atmosphere and the peculiar acoustics playing tricks on her. Nonetheless she kept standing, her eyes darting from dark nook to odd shaped shadow, ready to bolt. “Hello?”
Hello… hello… hello…
Nothing moved apart from the cobwebs.
“Is anybody there?”
There… there… there…
“I’m Holly, nice to meetcha.”
Cha… cha… cha…
A cloud swam in front of the sun and the auditorium darkened. Noises she didn’t notice before reached her ears; the rustle of some small creature burrowing under the debris, pigeons cooing outside the ceiling windows, creaks and groans, as the old building breathed around her.
Hello… hello… Holly…
She nearly fell off the gallery. Holly turned her head, trying to see all of the theatre at the same time, eyes so wide the white was visible all around her irises, heartbeat thundering in her ears. “Is anybody there?”
There… there… there…
The silence felt deafening. There was something, someone else here; she felt it in the prickling of her skin, in the hair that stood on edge on the nape of her neck. Holly didn’t know what has gotten into her; perhaps it was the predictability of her antiseptic, risk-free life, but she decided to play with it a little, whatever it was. On her best coquettish voice she called out. “Care for a dance?”
Dance… dance… yes…
It all happened too fast; before she could react in any way she was flying towards the rickety stage in the arms of a black-clad stranger. He held on to a rope and even through the clothes sack he was wearing, Holly could feel how thin he was. She held on for dear life, too frightened to scream.
Before she knew it they were waltzing on the stage twisting, turning, the whole theatre spinning around them, colours she never saw before flashing in a crazy kaleidoscope, the other guiding her with a steady hand, sunlight glinting on the featureless mirror mask he was wearing.
Once it ended Holly stood on the stage quivering, breathless, staring up at her own wide-eyed, distorted reflection.
“Wh… who are you?” she finally managed.
“I am who I am. Who are you?”
She couldn’t be absolutely sure it was a man judging from the voice alone. She decided to think of him as a ‘he’, but only for the lack of a better option.
She stretched out a shaky hand. “Uh, name’s Holly. Sorry about the noise earlier, I didn’t think there was anybody here.”
Her reflection moved as the mask lowered a little, the person behind it contemplating her hand, then a pale, slender hand stretched out and grabbed hers. It was much stronger than it looked.
“So, um, what can I call you?”
The other made a barely perceptible shrug. “Whatever you like.”
“You don’t have a name?”
Seemingly losing interest he was watching the auditorium, arms akimbo.
Holly thought for a minute. She didn’t know if it was going too far, but she had to try; after all it was the Phantom’s real name in the novel. “Can I call you Erik?”
The minute she uttered the question she knew it was a bad idea. The mask turned back to her; Holly didn’t know how she knew, but she was sure the other was bristling against her suggestion. “Is that the best you can come up with?”
“Okay, how about, um,” she remembered some fanfic she’d read online. “Kian?”
Holly cleared her throat. “So, Kian, what are you doing here?”
“I’m an artist.”
“What kind of artist?”
The mask tilted to the side the slightest bit. “Just artist. I live here with the others.”
She glanced at the auditorium, then at the catwalk above them. It was just as empty as before. “Others?”
He was already heading towards the wings; now he stopped and turned back to her. “Do you want to come see?”
Holly considered. Did she really want to follow this stranger into whatever lunatic asylum he was about to lure her into? That was exactly how women ended up in some psycho’s torture chamber. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea actually.” She uttered a nervous snicker. “I mean what if you lock me up for the police to find my skeleton twenty five years later?”
He gave her a long look. At least she guessed that was what he was doing; he was just standing there motionless. She suppressed the urge to fidget under his gaze. “I said I was an artist, not a serial killer. But if you don’t want to see, it’s fine; doesn’t make a difference to me.”
“Alright, show me then,” Holly offered, hoping she wasn’t making a mistake.