"But that's not possible! Absolutely not possible. I refuse to believe it." Aria's hands were on her hips, her feet planted firmly on the wooden floorboards. Long waves of red hair tumbled down her back in waves over her sparkling, white dress. It was dark backstage, but Aria's manager could still see her green eyes blazing furiously, the eyes that were normally embers flaring into a forest fire.
"But I'm afraid it is true, Miss Aria. There is nothing I can do about it! You simply cannot perform." His bald spot began to perspire.
"Ahh!" Aria screamed in frustration. "You are useless! Why did I ever hire you? You're fired!" The manager, Mr. Browne, was not particularly distressed by this announcement. He got fired about ten times a day, and he was just contemplating what he could do with his hour or so of freedom when Aria's harsh yell dragged him from his peaceful reverie.
"And who will be playing my part?" she asked coldly. Mr. Browne looked uncomfortably at the ground.
"Well, um, actually--" He was cut off by a loud, raucous voice emanating from a short, squat woman with shoulder length red hair. She was swathed in pink silk and her green eyes were nearly swallowed by rosy, chubby cheeks.
"Sister! It's been too long!" she cried, wrapping her tall, slim sister in a hug.
Aria stood at a loss for words. She opened her mouth, then shut it, then blinked hard. Mr. Browne looked very ill at ease. Finally, Aria found words.
"Pria...will be playing Carlotta...in The Phantom of the Opera, right? I'm still playing Christine? Right?" He grimaced.
"Uhh, no. Pria is playing the role of Christine Daae. You are the understudy to Miss Kya. She will be playing Carlotta." He braced himself.
"Oh, dear," said Aria. Mr. Browne was surprised. He had been expecting an explosion. But he must proceed with caution.
"Miss Aria, you must remove your costume. Alterations will have to be made for Miss Pria."
Pria dimpled. "This is so exciting! My first big production, and I'm the star!" she said happily, oblivious to the fact that her every word pushed Aria closer to strangling her.
Two hours and countless unsuccessful fittings later, the tailor finally conceded that a whole new dress would be needed. Then Mr. Browne took Aria to meet Kya. Kya was an arrogant, florid-faced bottle-blond who seemed to have a special contempt for understudies, even ones that had used to be stars. She was applying makeup when Aria arrived.
"Oh, this is the understudy? That's nice. What's your name, dear, oh, never mind, I don't intend on getting sick. You have fun rehearsing, dear, I must get on." She had a cold, cultured English accent that stood in sharp contrast with the French voices that prevailed at the theater. She began to sing "Prima Donna" as Aria left, seething.
"You idiot! Ugh!" She winced as Kya's voice soared to a pitch too high to keep in tune anymore and continued screaming. "Pria? As Christine? What were you thinking?" She turned on her heel, whipping Mr. Browne in the face with her hair as she stormed down the hall. Aria screamed in pure fury when she passed the sign bearing her sister's name. Walking backward, she began yelling some more.
"What were you thinking?" she repeated. "That fat, old, simpering, stupid...ugh! Carlotta, I could see. Carlotta's supposed to be a self-possessed, stupid brat!" Aria stopped to consider for a moment, nearly making Mr. Browne slam into her. "Actually, Kya fits that pretty well," she said thoughtfully in a normal voice. "ANYWAY!" she shouted, causing Mr. Browne to jump. "Why can't I play Christine? What has changed? I've always played her before!"
"It's a delicate matter, Miss Aria. Perhaps we could go somewhere more private..." he tried.
"NO! NOW!" Aria's voice was now slightly hoarse from the amount of screaming she had done that day.
"Well, a young man, Pria's sweetheart, has told the manager that you are in a...erm...delicate condition," Mr. Browne tried to explain without saying it outright.
"And what is that supposed to mean?"
"Well, um, it means that you're...uhhh...pregnant," he finished in a whisper, hiding his face in shame as Aria stood in shock.
"No. I'm not pregnant. That's impossible. Who is this man?" Aria asked heatedly.
"Name of..." Mr. Browne consulted a card. "Jim Taylor."
"I don't even know who that is!" screeched Aria. "Why does he care who plays Christine?"
"Well, he is Pria's sweetheart..." said Mr. Browne. Aria cursed profusely for a few moments, then took a deep breath. She smiled.
"All right. Jim Taylor, correct? Right. Bye, Mr. Browne. Oh, by the way..." She pressed his pay into his hand. "You're hired again." Mr. Browne sighed.
"Very good, Miss Aria. Have a good evening." She smiled again.
"Oh, I will." His dim brown eyes followed her as she strode purposefully from the theater, wondering what craziness she was going to try this time.
Aria hummed to herself as she walked. She would find this Jim Taylor and he would wish he had never heard of Aria Casadelli. The library would be as good a place as any to start.
Three fruitless hours later, Aria was ready to give up when the ridiculously easy solution hit her. She got up, slamming the chair into the table.
"Of course!" she exclaimed, earning her several dirty looks from the library's patrons. She blithely ignored them. Minutes later, she had hailed a cab and was stalking up to Mr. Browne's door. She haughtily bypassed the doorman and burst into Mr. Browne's room.
"That Taylor man. Give me his card," she snapped.
"Yas'm..." he slurred sleepily. It was nearly eleven and he was in blue-and-white striped pajamas. His wispy brown hair was in disarray..
"And don't call me ma'am. It makes me feel old."
"I 'pologize. Miss Aria." The unfortunate manager trudged into the bedroom to dig through his suit pockets. He handed Aria the gilt-edged business card and hoped that was all she wanted.
"Good night, Mr. Browne," she said crisply without so much as a thank-you. He nodded and collapsed onto the sofa the minute the door clicked shut.
"Jim Taylor, Cleaning and Restoration of Fine Fabrics. 12 Cormorant Place, Paris." she read. "Cormorant Place. I know where that is." She set off down the dark street with purpose.
Aria knocked on the door of 12 Cormorant Place with a cold smile on her face and a look of triumph in her eyes. Mr. Taylor answered the door sleepily.
"Whut?" he asked brusquely.
Aria stepped forward and gave him such a look of rage that it was a miracle he didn't burn up right there. As it was, he cowered back warily. He was a thin, short little man with black eyes and black hair. His pale complexion and gauntness gave him the emaciated look of a vampire.
"W-who are you?" he quavered. "What do you want?"
"My name is Aria Casadelli. I believe you know my sister?" He nodded nervously.
"Why did you tell them I was pregnant?" she screamed. "Never mind, I already know the answer. You luuuuuve my sister soooo much. All you want is for her dreams to be realized." Her voice began to rise in volume "Hah! But you don't care if you take my dreams away, no." She delivered a resounding slap to his bony face and yanked him up by the collar so only his toes brushed the floor.
"You have until five tomorrow to tell them that you lied... or something terrible will happen to Pria during the play. I will be Christine, one way or the other. You can choose if this will be easy or hard," she hissed into his ear. She opened her hands, letting the terrified man drop to the floor.
Aria paced impatiently backstage, trying not to explode as Pria blathered on breathlessly, asking stupid questions and making inane remarks.
"Does this dress make me look short?"
"The stage is so big!"
"Have you seen Yolen? He plays Raoul. He's soo handsome!"
"Oh my! The scar for the Phantom is utterly repulsive! I hope I don't shudder when I touch it!" Aria heard the clock chime five. That's it. Taylor was going to pay.
The opening music swelled and Kya marched out, singing Hannibal. Aria waited calmly by the levers that controlled the many trapdoors and elevators in the stage. Ugh, she thought. Kya's French accent is horrible. But Pria was surprisingly good at showing the ready emotion that Christine was supposed to convey. Kya was unsurprisingly good at acting spoiled, demeaning, and rude.
Aria watched as Pria danced across the stage with Yolen, singing "All I Ask of You." She knew that, near the end of the song, Pria would cross a trapdoor. At the perfect moment, Aria would pull the lever. She smiled to herself.
"Break a leg," she hissed as the lever came down.
"Oh!" Pria cried as she fell with a comical look of shock on her face. There was a thud and a yell when she hit the rock floor at the bottom. Yolen peered into the darkness.
"Pria? You all right?" A groan was his only answer. Aria rushed on stage, a look of bewilderment plastered on her face.
"What happened? Where's Pria?" Yolen gestured down the hole.
"Oh no!" Aria gasped. She rushed backstage and down the iron stairs to Pria .
"Are you all right?" she asked in a voice laden with concern. Pria was crumpled on the floor, her leg bent at a strange angle under the blue velvet cloak. She could hear the sounds of panic above her.
"I think my leg's broken." She winced. "I landed wrong."
"Well, come on. Let's get you up." Aria heaved her sister's ample weight slowly up the stairs.
They finally emerged into a worried crowd, where Aria told them the diagnosis and sent them into pandemonium. People rushed for doctors and the press tried to get close enough for a photo. Jim Taylor was there too, staring at Aria in horror.
"Darling!" cried Pria at the sight of her sallow lover. Taylor ran to her and gave her a hug. Aria watched this exchange in frustration.
"Are you going to tell them?" she demanded. Taylor swallowed.
"Yes, ma'am." Aria scowled at his "ma'am," but let it pass. Taylor went over to the stage manager and whispered something to him.
"Right. Aria! You're back!" he yelled. Aria struggled to hide her grin. Sometimes she was so diabolical she impressed even herself.