The air before me had a lonely scent, quite contrasting with my surroundings, and when I closed my eyes I knew the Phantom. Its voice? As it ever was, I think – a ponderous melody not entirely unlike my own tremulous cords. The notes thrummed inside my head, awakening in somber neurons, and a bit of my hatred and sorrow ebbed from thoughts of Her and marched soldier-like to this new intruder.
“I told you not to return.” Fear shook my resolve, and was met with a fiery grin.
“I do not obey you. I obey only myself. And though I am, in a fashion, you, you most certainly are not me.”
“I wouldn’t wish such a thing upon anyone.” The wretch had no shape save the one I gave him. In contrast with the soft shades of the dusk, his pelt tonight was an unctuous roil of blasphemous tints. Coming alongside, he closed his hands behind his back, imitating my fashion, and looked at me with irises of cold magenta.
“Wouldn’t you? How odd. I myself would prefer it, to being so lowly and miserable a creature as yourself.” Its laugh held no warmth, even for so old a companion as I. “You’ve made quite a mess.”
“Yes,” I admitted. “Yes. But you are not wanted; nothing changes that fact. Begone, and leave me to my thoughts!”
“Ah, me…” it said, “how quite insane you do drive yourself… perhaps you’d forgotten? I am that which you seek to banish. You may so well stab at the moon, or play cricket with the stars, with greater effect than this.”
The path I walked tonight wound deep into tall fields of meadow-grass, and above the stars were indeed bright and clear enough, that a man could fancy a game, with those bright orbs his only tools of trade. Ahead came pine trees, girdled spears of nettled menace.
“You have caused me nothing but pain.” And then, because tonight was a night of particularly ill sentiment, a venomous strain of melodrama entered my tone. “Not one man on this earth has caused me anything but pain.”
“Then tonight is no place for men.”
My eyes widened.
“You wouldn’t – not now…”
The boiling smoke was gone, the figure now distinct, the outlines condensed into a form I knew all too well. She blinked at me in the sleepy gloom, fast shrinking into abject darkness, with eyes so glimmering like the Baltic Sea.
“Please. Don’t do this.”
Somehow, its previous laugh had been kinder. No more were the edges of refined steel and glass, the cold edge like icicles made old in December death. In its place, this jingling wonder of a laugh, surpassing all mortal warmth and slapping my heart like a branding iron. In person, it was a sound like no other, capable of such kindness, such instant kinship, as to melt the bones of a man and fuse them to his aching chest. But this was not Her. This was the Phantom, the Devil, and the Phantom’s only craft was torture and misery. It grated upon me with the unrelenting cacophony of forks dragged down a tin bucket, until I was driven to cry out.
“No more! No more! I’ve had enough of this devilry. No more, I say!” A tear strayed down my cheek. More threatened at the lips of the eyes. “Stay if you wish, make what merry havoc you will, but cease that noise at once!”
And it was gone, replaced at once with the music of nightingales, the quiet violin of the crickets, and my own heaving sobs. The humiliation I felt then was quite incongruous with my solitude. It watched, of course, ruby lips turned upwards in a half-smile, but somewhere deep within me the last of my sanity resurfaced. “Not real,” I whispered. The smile disappeared.
“How silly of you to say. If it counts for anything,” It leaned in, eyes bright, revolting in their unreality, tempting in their resemblance, and breathed gently upon my face. “I think I’m real. And so do you.” It dismissed my protests with a gesture. “Else, why do you think I am here? You foolish boy. How quickly did you expect Her trust?”
The questions had begun. Long ago had I learned not to resist them, for such a thing would cause me only greater consternation. Better to answer. Better to end it. Yet still the abruptness of it caught me ever so slightly off guard, and all thoughts were scattered from me.
“I don’t think I quite under” –
“Yes, you do.”
“Yes, I do.”
Another hesitation! For it was a matter of great importance, we both knew. But what sort? Of what unknowable weight? I did not comprehend. It obviously did, for even its masterful attempt at nonchalance betrayed a glimmer of excitement. “I… I thought She would love me.”
“In time!” It gave me no rest, the shadow of Her shape, while the harsh blade of it drove me deeper and deeper into unhappiness. It was not Her, and yet that haunting resemblance… “In time,” I muttered again. “Y – Her, that is, She always seemed so… so reachable.”
“No,” I agreed. “But… yes.” I looked up from my palms just as the last of the light faded, my only illumination now the faint glow of the Phantom’s eyes, and the emotion within me seemed to feel that my next comment would somehow free me of burdens. “I have always loved Her.”
“You, and all those other boys who so frolic at Her feet. You may as well accept it: you never stood half a chance.” The eyes weren’t simply taunting me – they held a real intelligence that I somehow hated even more. “You never will. Why linger, then? Don’t tell me it is for honor. All you believe is not by any means true, and your naivete is best enjoyed on nights not so dull with melancholy.”
“I love Her,” I tried again. “Truly! Who else can say that, and not be cursed in the final judgement for the telling of a heinous lie?”
“You speak of trifles and white nothings. If what you said held truth, where would you be tonight?”
“Not… not here.”
“Ha! Very good. No. Not here.”
“I expected, I suppose, to hold Her hand, to talk so quietly along these boulevards… She does understand, you know.”
The Phantom smiled. It was not always entirely cold, and between its regard for the owner of its current form and the pleasant features of same, it was almost possible to mistake its pleasure for real sympathy. “She is certainly an intelligent woman. But you mistake a universal intelligence, I think, for a real and specific interest.”
“I mistake nothing, demon.” I forced a snort of derision, and whether out of hysterical desperation or bare cosmic chance the final product held a semblance of authenticity. “You know this, ‘old friend’. Whatever happened to being a part of me, eh?”
“Then, pray, tell the truth.”
“I…” I perceived the trap. Too late, of course, but it had been masterfully laid. The Phantom traced one silken hand down my left arm, the chilling sensation a blaspheme to Her sweet memory. “I simply love Her. But isn’t that enough?” I was pleading now – a beggar scrounging for a scrap of recognition, of merit. “Is it not enough, to watch in silence Her beauty, to do all I can in Her service? I love Her, I love Her, it is all my world simply saying it! How is it never enough?!”
The silence stretched on in darkness, until a soft hand took a match from my coat and lit a caged lantern in my hand. I did not recall bringing it out, but took it gratefully all the same.
“It is enough,” it said. The voice was just soft enough not to mask the sound of my renewed sobs. “And, yet, it will never…”
“Do not touch me! Do not dare touch me with those hands! They do not belong to you.”
“Nor do they to you. I shall do as I wish, just as you do. I follow no orders save my own.”
We walked upon browned needles, moths fluttering before us in fearful worship of the light.
“Tonight, I should have been dancing under these boughs. I fully expected it.”
“This I know.”
“Why does She not see? I would be so very good to Her.”
“What will She ever know, but the pain and disappointment of their poor company?” The light blazed erratically, and the features of the Phantom danced in wicked solemnity in the orange illumination.
“Maybe nothing,” it said. An owl made muted agreement in the trees, calling into the silence in loving tones. “But all people have their fates, boy, and maybe Hers shall be pain and strife and missed chances. Must that dictate your own path?”
“What do you mean?” I had paused, and the night rallied about us.
“You will always be lonesome, you know. That cavity”- it jabbed pointedly at my heart, the green eyes sharp and heartbreakingly bright –“It will never fully heal. Would you be defined, then, by the fate of another, who you would never have? Is that wisdom? Is that the philosophy that has guided you thus far? Then you are only the fool I make you; never and nothing more.”
“A lie,” I countered, but felt the shriveling shame overtake me. “A wicked and shameful lie.”
“Men are so very good, at believing whatever they like.” The form pulsed once, twice, in the black orange of gaslit darkness. She was gone. In Her place, the baleful miasma. “Yet for one who privileges himself with my company, I would have expected… a less generic outlook.” The edges now, were blurred and smoky, like the memory of a long-ago deceased. Its point made, it intended, I knew, to depart.
“What am I to do?” I murmured. “What would you have me do?”
But it was gone. My only answer was the chilling dryness of autumn through the willows, and the twinkling silence of my stars. Crickets preened sleepily in nearby reeds that seemed so very far away. A rattling breath crossed my lungs, and now completely alone I wandered down the beaten paths of the hills, feeling both glad for the disappearance of the Phantom, yet also the lonelier for the absence.
At length, I reached the crest of the tallest of the mounds, and around me on all sides was the enclosing darkness, the forbidding night. I extinguished the lantern, thinking to look upon it and, like my forefathers, lose myself in the twinkling aroma of solitary wilderness. Not half a minute had passed from the making of this resolution, and the scant beginnings of a grand railroad of thought, when my train was promptly derailed by a chance observation, far, far in the distance.
The house shimmered like gold. The lights had all been lit, and the patio was full of shapes and laughter and music that drifted across the great expanse like souls over the Styx. The strings seemed so wistful, now, the cheerful waltz a dirge. My heart ached simply to hear it, and I wondered what the Phantom would say.
And there – just there! – in one dizzy moment and of the greatest surprise to I who beheld her! For who save Her could move with such feline grace, such arcing steps which moved all who saw Her then into passionate applause and admiring exclamation? It was Her, and that boorish silhouette, then, was Bruel. Oh, the clenching of my fists to imagine his smug, swarthy face, so undeserving of beauty and love!
In my heart, a burning.
In my mind, a storm.
In pain I turned away, and in the last notes of the waltz, the laughter, the fading applause, the words of the enemy in my chest like a railroad spike, I turned my steps away, towards home. In the distance, the ball was dying, replaced by the last few notes of early morning, and as I walked away the sun came up, and in my heart I knew what I must do. The first muggy stains of pain were lightening, and when I left the looming hills I held my head a little higher in the light, where my drying tears would finally die.