Torch Ch. 01bysandj©
The torches ignited one by one as she began to descend the stairs, each flaring up as she approached and extinguishing itself as she passed. She felt their warmth against her face and felt the cold stone through her slippers. Her steps did not echo down the narrow passageway, the only sound a cool draft whistling up from the darkness. She stretched her hands out so that they lightly brushed the walls on either side to steady herself until she could calm her rapid pulse. The airy fabric of her white robe and nightgown trailed gracefully behind her, but she didn't feel graceful. Her heart pounded in her chest and behind her eyes as she strained to see farther down the spiraling stairs. But the darkness revealed only the turn immediately ahead, and the shadows danced around her like silent taunts, beckoning her on.
And then she heard it again, still faint but distinct:
Someone was calling her.
A moment earlier she had doubted the voice that had awakened her, but now she did not doubt; she feared, but she did not doubt. Who was drawing her down these stairs? What would she find when she reached the bottom? It was a only a whisper, the slightest breath, but she did not feel safe. Yet she could not turn back; the voice, the shadows, the flames were compelling her forward, propelling her steps without any will of her own. Her awareness of everything around her was heightened. She could hear her breath, see the outline of stone on stone as the darkness gathered around her, taste the dry cold air rush through her full, parted lips, feel the pounding of her heart at her breast, and curiously, smell a scent of rain and smoke. An odd sensation: her senses were thick, but she was no more than a passenger inside her own body.
The cold wind increased as she advanced; its whistle growing harsher. With one hand still brushing limp fingertips along the stone wall, she pulled her thin robe closed, trying to conserve the warmth on her shivering skin. Her breath was shallow and quick, an intoxicating mixture of panic and excitement welling up inside her.
She began to move faster, suppressing her fear, which was now indistinguishable from her desire to find the voice that was calling her so she could know how to answer. The torches kept pace as she raced along the winding passage, heat now rising from her flushed, pale skin and dissipating in the darkness behind her. She didn't know how far she had come, but she did not seem to be getting anywhere; despite the swift flight of stone beneath her feet, every turn looked and felt just like the next. She was gliding now, faster and faster, turning and spinning out of control, round and round, ever farther, always deeper down down down and then she was out, standing breathless on a landing overlooking a vast chamber.
Darkness and shadow dominated the scene before her as well, the flickering of open flames a fiery, seductive dance across the walls, the ceiling, and her hands clutched on the rail at the edge of the landing. As she paused to catch her breath, her long dark hair had fallen around her face, and she brushed the curls away so she could examine the mysterious surroundings. Her eyes were wide and round, peering into the vague shapes of empty space.
Below, she could see water, a small lake that covered the bottom of the chamber. To her right, another flight of steps, open this time, wound down the curved wall to a small dock and an empty boat, its oars crossed neatly over its bow. She was expected.
Her heartbeat had not slowed, and though her breath was calmer, she found herself still too frightened to move. What was she doing here? Why could she not shake the feeling of impending danger, or the excitement that risk engendered? She should go back, run as quickly as she could, escape before she was trapped, consumed. But she stayed where she was, holding the rail, listening, waiting. Her robe was open again and had slipped off one shoulder to expose the smooth skin beneath.
She searched with darting eyes to find the person who spoke her name, the owner of the voice that had penetrated her mind and lured her down a spiral stair into this dungeon world. Out across the lake, she spotted a single lantern, its flame licking the glass and dimly illuminating the slight rise of ground out of water. Her eyes followed the steps carved into the hard earth and rock, moving up and away opposite where she stood. That's when she saw him.
A dark form, at first she thought only a shadow, hunched its back to her, draped in a black cloak that touched the ground, but she could see the broad outline of shoulders and the barest glint of a neck, a hint of flesh between cloak and hairline. Then, an ear came into view, and the side of a face, the outline of a male jaw. Christine saw that his lips were parted and that his breath was heavy; his shoulders heaved under the cloak. His motions were slow and deliberate, and he remained more or less exactly where she had first noticed him.
As he moved, Christine caught a glimpse of something else, another form, lighter in shade and in mass, mostly hidden by the man's cloak. A soft brown flashed into view, then back into darkness. Had she imagined it? She stared without moving, without breathing, hoping for another chance to discern what she had seen. A moment later, a larger swath appeared, glistening even in the shadows. Then it dawned on Christine. That was skin; smooth and not his. Christine watched as more skin was revealed, then withdrawn: A shoulder? A thigh? She couldn't tell, but when she spotted a breast, its brown nipple stiff in the cold, damp air, she knew it was a woman.
A hand wrapped itself around the back of the man's head, fingers threading hair, then trailed down his neck to his shoulder and lowered out of sight. Christine thought she could hear the faint echoes of soft moans across the water (or was it only the lapping of waves at the lake's edge?) and her hands loosened their grip on the rail. She wrapped her arms around her stomach, squeezing herself and feeling the loose nightgown against her body. She could tell now that the woman was lying down, and she could see the woman's head titled back, her neck stretched out, eyes closed, mouth open. Christine could see the curve of her shoulder as clearly as if she were right next to her, and the small indention at the base of her throat where the collarbone crosses the chest. Then the woman opened her eyes, and Christine could see her full face, could see that the woman knew she was watching. Without glancing in Christine's direction, the woman smiled, a quick, lascivious smile, deep lips, lingering just a moment before her mouth opened in a silent shudder of pleasure.
Without warning, the man twisted in Christine's direction, his eyes fixed on her. She saw the mask that covered half of his face and gasped.
Emmy sat up with a start. She was in her own bed, alone, though the vividness of her dream hung in the air for a few seconds. Wow, some dream. Her heart still racing, she laughed at herself, inhaling deeply to calm down.
It had been months since the premier, more than a year since the end of production, but Emmy still had dreams about the Phantom. This one, however, was new. Usually, she dreamed of dancing or singing, a rare kiss, and it was never long before she realized she wasn't really Christine and that it must be a dream. But tonight had been so real, she could still feel the shivers of cold along her shoulders. And the Phantom hadn't been focused on her, as he invariably was in those dreams. She had not been the object of his desire, and Emmy didn't quite know what to make of this.
In the dark of her bedroom, she rubbed her eyes. The woman's smile was still crystal clear in Emmy's mind, but her face was a blur. Who was she? She had looked familiar, as if she were someone Emmy knew, but Emmy couldn't figure it out. The look she had seen, the lustful smile and the sharp shudder that followed, seemed to haunt Emmy. She wanted to feel that shudder, to know what thoughts swooned behind those eyes. Maybe there was still time, she could still find her way back down that passage to the landing overlooking the lake. She lay back down and closed her eyes. Maybe, if she hurried.
Soon, she was asleep again, but no more dreams reached her.
The phone rang late the next morning as Emmy came in from her daily jog. Because she was tired and hot and anxious to change, she decided to let the answering machine pick up.
She peeled off her sweatshirt as she walked through the empty house and the phone rang a second time. She entered her bedroom and opened the curtains to let in the warmth of the sun, casting everything in clear, white light. Her skin shone with sweat. Sitting on the edge of the bed and reaching down to undo the laces of her shoes, she wondered who might be calling. If it was her agent, she would have to answer; might be important, as she had learned only the previous day that she had gotten a great role in a movie scheduled to begin production in two weeks. If it was her mom, well, she would have to leave a message. She called nearly every other day now, trivial things really, just checking in, to see if you need anything, just to say hello, see how you're day is going. Emmy was beginning to resent the calls. She was eighteen, had been living on her own for months now.
The phone rang a fourth time, interrupting her train of thought as the answering machine picked up. Emmy brushed her sweat-damp hair out of her face and sat still, listening. It was a moment before the voice on the other end began to speak, but right away, Emmy's pulse quickened. It was neither her agent nor her mother.
"Hi, Emmy, this is Jessica Alba. I just found out that they gave you the role of Carrie and that we'll be working together, and I wanted to call and congratulate you ..."
"Hi, Jessica?" Emmy had quickly grabbed the phone.
"Emmy? Hello!" Jessica sounded a little surprised, not realizing that anyone was at home.
"Yeah, sorry about that! I was just making sure it was someone I wanted to talk to." She didn't mention who she thought it might have been; she didn't want to seem too much like a child.
"No problem. I'm just glad I caught you. I wanted to invite you to lunch today. Or tomorrow, if that's better. Since we'll be working together, as best friends, soon ..." here, she laughed, an easy, playful laugh that made Emmy feel less nervous and made her laugh, too, "... I thought it would be good if we got to know each other a little better."
Emmy beamed so wide, she was sure her excitement was audible in her breathless voice. "That'd be great! I mean, we did meet once, a few months ago, I don't know if you remember ..."
"Of course I remember! At the Oscar after party. God, that was some party, but it was so loud and there were so many people, I couldn't really talk to you as much as I'd wanted. So this will give us a great chance to talk."
"I know, that sounds great!" Emmy didn't know what else to say, and her smile weakened a little as she began to feel like an idiot.
When Jessica spoke again, after the slightest pause, her tone had changed, with a hint of embarrassment. "I hope I didn't interrupt anything by calling. You seem a little out of breath."
Emmy smiled again. "No, not at all. I just came in from a run and was just about to take a shower when you called."
"Oh, good!" The relief was evident in her voice. "I was afraid that maybe, I don't know ... oh, now I'm blushing!" She gave another laugh, and Emmy assured her that she had no reason to be embarrassed. Though she was blushing, too.
They made plans to meet early that afternoon and said goodbye so that Emmy could get ready to leave.
She stood up from the bed and stretched her arms as she pulled her sports bra up over her head. Instantly, her body felt cooler. She slid her running shorts and her underwear off and tossed the dirty clothes into the hamper as she headed for the shower. She stepped in and then turned the water on, which splashed cold against her skin, causing her to shiver and hug herself tightly. As she leaned her head back into the spray, letting it soak her dark, thick hair, she thought about the cold damp air in her dream the night before. It had been so vivid, she could remember it as if it had actually happened. Except for the woman's face; she still couldn't recall what the woman had looked like.
Running her fingers through the tangles of her hair, she began to think about what she would say at lunch with Jessica. What would they talk about? She wanted to make a good impression, not just because they would be working closely over the coming weeks, but also because she wanted Jessica to like her. Jessica was so gorgeous, and in their brief encounter (encounters now, isn't it, since she called me today, right?), she had seemed so fun and sweet and easy to be around that Emmy really wanted to spend more time with her. That's partly why Emmy had wanted this role so much, because she knew it would mean working with Jessica. Emmy wanted Jessica to think highly of her. And maybe it was shallow, but who wouldn't want to be around someone who looks as good as Jessica does? Or was it merely superficial social-status-by-association? Was it something else that attracted her to Jessica?
She stood in the shower running a soapy washcloth over her skin and thought about her dream. It could have been Jessica's face she had seen, couldn't it? The woman in her dream? She could imagine her there, lying back, arms above her head, eyes closed, then opening, then that hint of a wicked smile before the mouth rounded sharply. She didn't know if it had been Jessica, but Emmy wanted it to be Jessica. She came out of her daydream, her skin feeling hot and flushed red. The water had gotten too warm, and the bathroom was filled with steam. Emmy turned the water off and stood dripping, with her arms braced against the wall of the shower.
She was even more nervous now, and even more excited.
When Emmy arrived at the restaurant, Jessica was waiting for her at a table outside. She rose slightly out of her seat as Emmy approached, and the two hugged casually in greeting. The touch of Jessica's hand on Emmy's bare shoulder and the brush of Jessica's cheek against her own sent shivers through her. They both sat back down while the host took Emmy's drink order.
Jessica smiled gently and began. "I'm so glad you could make it. I've been looking forward to getting to meet with you."
"Well, thank you for inviting me. I've been looking forward to it, too."
Instantly, Emmy realized that she had inadvertently let Jessica know she had anticipated this meeting long before the invitation not quite two hours earlier. And from the look Jessica gave her, an appraising gaze with a hint of pleased mischief in her smile, Jessica seemed to register this as well. Emmy's stomach twisted tightly, and she began studying her menu in a distracted manner.
"I don't want to spend all of our time talking business, but ..." Jessica folded her arms, leaning forward on the table as she spoke, "... I'm really excited about working together."
Emmy looked up, trying to appear calm. Their eyes met for a moment before Jessica continued.
"Actually, I don't know how much influence I had, but I told the director I thought you would be great. Of course, she seemed to already think so, too, but, you know ..."
Emmy was completely disarmed. The tension in her stomach melted away, and she broke into a wide grin. Stunned, she could do little more than stammer "thank you." They looked at each other, and Emmy felt totally at ease, yet full of energy. She could hardly believe that Jessica had taken enough of an interest in her to actually request to work with her.
She spoke quickly, wanting to avoid looking like a gapping idiot. "When I found out you had already signed to play Anna, I knew I wanted to be Carrie. I mean, I didn't audition for anything else for weeks, I really wanted to get it right."
They both laughed, the same easy laugh as before, when they had spoken on the phone, and Emmy felt a natural chemistry between them. Becoming friends with Jessica was going to be easy.
They talked for the better part of an hour, the conversation breezy and unforced, covering their common interests, their childhoods, families, romantic histories, all the basics of biography that comprise the foundation for understanding who a person is.
When they had finished their meal, they both rose. Jessica took Emmy's hand in hers, pressing Emmy's palm gently, affectionately between her fingers and thumb. Emmy felt her skin tingle. Jessica's tireless smile beamed at her.
"Call me sometime. Maybe we can go out. Or you could come over to my place."
"I'd like that. I will."
As they left the restaurant, they said their goodbyes and drove off in different directions.
Yes, Emmy thought, becoming friends would be easy. Staying friends? That would be the hard part.
The surroundings were familiar, the darkness, the cold damp air, the lapping of the waves at the lakeshore. Emmy realized at once that she was dreaming, now in the Phantom's lair opposite the spiral stairs she had descended the night before. She looked around, squinting in the torchlight. Ahead of her, stone steps lead up from the lake to some sort of landing. She listened for any indication of movement, the scuff of feet, rustle of cloth, but heard nothing except for water. Cautiously, she ascended the steps and reached the landing, half hoping to find herself alone, half fearing she would.
Once on the landing, she could see farther back, through an open archway, beyond which a series of candelabras burned, the glow dim and inviting. Emmy began to walk toward the arch and the chamber beyond. To her left, she noticed a larger rectangular stone protruding about waist-high from the landing, an altar almost, surely the spot where she had seen the Phantom the night before. She ran her palm across the flat surface of the stone. He was near. She was certain of it.
Emmy stepped through the arch and into a chamber, smaller than the cavern with the lake, but expansive nonetheless. Candles burned throughout the room, more than she could count. On the far wall, she could see the massive pipe organ, reaching up to the domed ceiling of the chamber, filling the whole room with its presence. Through the shadows, she noticed the walls were covered in a thick layer of moss, and in the center of the room was a table, spread with the remains of a meal, empty plates and goblets, an open bottle of wine. And draped over the back of one of the chairs were a dress and a corset.
Emmy's heart raced. Where were they now? How long had they been gone? For a moment she stood still, just inside the archway, her eyes flitting back and forth around the room, pausing briefly first on the table and the dress, then on the organ, and in turn, each set of candles and each shadow through which she could not see. Why was she alone now? Had she just missed them? She had to find this woman. She hoped to find the phantom as well. This was her dream; could she not make them reappear?
Then she spotted another doorway, small and easily overlooked, covered by a thin curtain that fluttered lightly as if from a breeze within. Emmy crossed the room, weaving around and through the candelabras as she made her way toward the curtained door. She stopped a few feet away, startled. Had she heard the sound of footsteps beyond the curtain, or the echoes of her own? Or was it movement of another kind?
With shaking hand, she reached out and slowly pulled the curtain aside. The room inside was much smaller. A single candle sat on a nightstand between a wardrobe and a bed. And on the bed, one lithe leg protruding from under a blanket, Jessica lay facing Emmy, that sly, lascivious smile spread across her whole face. Without a word, Jessica sat up, the blanket sliding down her bare chest, revealing full breasts. She reached out a hand to Emmy, beckoning her forward. As Emmy stepped fully inside the room and approached the bed, Jessica lay back and lifted the blanket for Emmy to slide underneath. Emmy could see the perfectly formed hips, firm thighs, and the dark curls of hair that hinted at, no, promised the sweetness Emmy longed to taste. Around her waist, Jessica wore a thin gold chain looped through a navel ring, which Emmy reached out to fondle with her fingers. Jessica gave a slight moan at her touch.