Call of Water, Madame Tan's Freakshow, book 1
“Voila!” Fleur gestured dramatically at the black door in a yellow stucco building with arched windows.
A glowing red sign above it read Le Loup Solitaire (The Lone Wolf).
“Cela me paraît petit (Seems small),” I replied, also in French.
We were in Paris. Fleur was born and raised just outside of the city, and I’d come from Canada for a two-week visit.
According to the rules of our student exchange program back in grade school: when in France, we had to speak French, when in Canada, English. Fleur was a university student now, and it’d been at least a couple of years since I earned my college diploma in Graphic Design. But old habits die hard. Whenever I visited her in Paris, we spoke French, and when she came to Toronto, we automatically switched to English.
“Aren’t we on the same street where Moulin Rouge is located? The famous cabaret?” I turned around, the feeling of déjà vu rushing me. “It’s Boulevard de Clichy? Isn’t it?”
Glancing down the street, I could make out the red façade of the famous burlesque venue. Its lattice windmill sails stood out among the surrounding beige buildings.
“We’ve been to Moulin Rouge already. Twice.” Fleur shook her head, her short, black curls bouncing around her lovely face. “Le Loup Solitaire has been open for decades, and we haven’t been here yet. I’ve heard the show is phenomenal.”
She placed her hand on the polished-brass handle, opening the black door under the sign.
“Bienvenue chez Le Loup Solitaire,” the hostess in a beige shimmering gown rushed to us. “Welcome.”
Our table turned out to be all the way in the front, just to the right of the stage.
“This is way too close,” I half-whispered to Fleur.
Unease prickled down my spine as we came closer to the stage, its lights now flooding us. I felt the idle stares of strangers at other tables on my back as Fleur and I took our seats.
“It’s not like you’re going to be on the stage yourself, scaredy cat,” Fleur teased.
“It almost feels like I am sitting right on it.” I shifted in my seat, casting furtive glances at people around us.
“No one cares about us here.” She patted my hand on the table. “Calm down, silly.”
I would be so much more comfortable sitting farther back in the shadows. Fleur was right, of course. We weren’t the performers here. No one would pay us any attention once the show started.
Forcing my anxiety down, I glanced around.
The room was tastefully decorated in black and cream with just a touch of red here and there. The faint smell of dust and perfume hung in the air, bringing to mind an antique store.
A pretty brunette in a sparkly red dress approached our table.
“Bonjour.” She smiled. “I’m Jaqueline, your waitress. Is it your first visit to Le Loup Solitaire?”
“Yes.” Fleur grinned back.
I just nodded.
“Ooh, I hope you’ll like it here tonight. Zeph is the opening number of the show,” Jaqueline added with pride, as if sharing a Chef’s special with us.
“Who is Zeph?” I leaned across the table toward Fleur after Jaqueline had taken our orders and left.
“According to their website, Zeph is their in-house singer. They change the program, adding and taking out performers. He has been here for years, though. The house specialty?” She giggled with a shrug, excitement of anticipation bouncing in her dark-brown eyes. “He looked cute in the pictures. You’ll see.”
Soft music played as Jaqueline brought us drinks and then food.
People kept streaming in. The tables had filled up fast. More people sat on the chairs along the back wall, and some even stood on each side of the entrance.
“This place is packed.” I twisted around, taking in the room.
Fleur popped a canape in her mouth.
“I told you it must be a good show.”
The light in the aged-bronze chandeliers above us dimmed as the music volume increased.
The shimmering black curtains opened, revealing a lone figure sitting on a barstool in the middle of the stage, a silver microphone in his hand.
I expected an MC to greet the crowd and introduce the first act. Instead of spoken words, however, a hauntingly lyrical voice started singing.
Apparently, Zeph—the first act—did not need an introduction. People shouted his name in greeting. As soon as the first notes of the song Et Si Tu N'Existais Pas (If You Didn’t Exist) floated from his mouth, the room erupted in applause and cheers.
Zeph continued to sing through all the noise, his voice carrying over and calming down the crowd.
Perched casually on the barstool, one foot on the floor, another placed on a higher rung, Zeph had no other props but the soft stage light. It flowed over him in waves of magenta and aquamarine. His voice floated with it, the lyrics weaving a beautiful tale of yearning and love. He sang about not wanting to exist in this world if his lover wasn’t in it.
The song wasn’t sad, the melody light and airy. Yet my heart twisted with longing for something I couldn’t name.
I’d heard this song before. It was one of my mom’s old favorites. Never before, though, had it had the same effect on me as in Zeph’s rendition. He never made eye contact with me, but it felt as though he sang for me alone. Each note reached through to my very soul.
Deep, beautiful feeling flooded me, warming me from the inside. I wanted someone to care about me as much as Zeph made me believe he cared about the woman in the song. I wished to need someone so badly that I, too, would not want a world without them, that their mere existence would make life worth living.
The intensity of that sensation grew with every word of the song, ebbing and swelling along with the music and the waves of the stage lights.
The crowd seemed to disappear. Any awkward feeling from being in a room full of people was now gone completely.
The desire for something grand and wonderful—an amazing adventure or an out-of-this-world love—throbbed in my chest.
As long as he continued to sing, I believed nothing was impossible.
The last note from Zeph’s lips faded into the music as the song ended.
The room erupted into applause, brutally yanking me back into the reality and shredding the magic he had created. The elated feeling was gone, and the void left behind pressed on me from the inside.
The noise felt intrusive. The air around me grew too thick to draw another breath. I scanned the room, needing to get out of there. Even if for a little while.
A side door was open.
“I’ll be right back,” I whispered to Fleur, ignoring her questioning look.
Getting out of my seat, I rushed to the door.
A short hallway behind it led to the kitchen.
“May I help you?” a waitress asked, carrying a round silver tray with small plates above her shoulder.
“I need to get outside...”
“The main exit is that way.” She smiled, gesturing in the direction I had come from.
“That would be too far,” I croaked.
She gave me a concerned glance. I felt blood rushing from my face, giving me the pallor of someone who was about to get sick. “Are you okay?”
“Just need some fresh air,” I begged.
Finally, she tipped her chin behind her shoulder. “The back entrance is that way.”
“Thank you.” I hurried down the corridor toward a metal door.