Three Years Later
Christine felt Erik's kiss on her forehead and mumbled an incoherent reply to the words she did not hear, still under waves of sleep. She broke surface a few hours later, finding her husband's side of the bed cold. Stretching, she took advantage of the space and lazed on his side for a few more moments. Finally, a peek at the clock told her she should have been up an hour ago.
With a stretch, she poked her toes out from under the heavy covers and quilts. Despite their house being much warmer than the underground rooms beneath the opera house, Erik liked to pile their king-sized bed with as many quilts as he could. Picking her way across the icy floor, Christine quickly padded to the shower, shivering as she turned the faucets on.
Erik had gone a little overboard in everything once he had bought the land on which to create their house two years ago. Without having to mind rock and carving into it for space and electrical wiring, he was free to build a high tech home as wide and airy as he liked. The bathroom that housed a large rain shower, a small glass door shower for quick washes and a tub built into the floor, large enough for four let alone two was only one example of that.
Still, she wasn't about to complain-they had spent many lovely nights laying among the bubbles, especially a certain night last month after Christine had revealed her secret.
Scrubbed pink and wrapped in her fluffy robe, she padded to the bathroom mirror, wiping away the condensation and peered at her reflection. Mirrors. They had mirrors in the house just as he promised. True, they were all a little low, and usually, Erik could only see his chin. His face was hard to look at for him, his gut reaction always shame. But his recent ducking to check his hair had become so annoying that Christine guessed that he'd be raising them soon-nose or no nose. She'd just have to start going on tiptoe.
She didn't look any different-same deep mahogany hair, same pale skin, flushed cheeks. But she felt different.
She gathered up Erik's razor and shaving cream mix he had left out, rinsing off the parts of cream he missed on the brush. Next to it was an orange vial, half full. Lifting it, she read the label-alprazolam-and placed that too into the cabinet. Good, he would need it today, with everything going on.
Erik and Nadir had left earlier that morning to head to the prison. It was one of the many many parole hearings they had been asked to attend over the years. As the damaged party, Erik was allowed to have his say, something he did not relish and had never shown up for before the chandelier crash. It often left him cold and remote for the rest of the day, something Mr. Leroux had told Christine it was normal and did not mean a revert to past behaviors every time.
Mr. Leroux, Erik's therapist, and in Christine's eyes, a God-send. A year into their marriage, while Christine was deep into her first season as a diva, the night terrors had started. They weren't violent, and often Erik had tried to hide them. Perhaps now that he had reconciled himself, the good and bad, instead of locking his horrors away in some closet, treating The Phantom as a psychological boogie man, they surfaced more easily. He would wake, shaking and crying, unable to function or sleep for hours. He had passed it off as something he needed to live with, maybe lessen with time, or with more to distract him.
It had begun right around Esther's sentencing and finally pushed Christine to seek professional help. She had always known her love and understanding wasn't enough to heal him-he needed real medical attention. It had been a bear, not only to get Erik to go but to sit with any therapist for longer than an hour.
He may have mellowed a little, may have reigned in his famous temper, but no amount of fame or accolades or responsibility would make Erik Khan a people person. Mr. Leroux however, who insisted on being called Joseph, was willing to make house calls. Compounded with the fact that he could play the flute and had a deep love of musical theory, he had finally broken Erik's resolve.
Christine did not know much of what they talked about and was glad of it. They would lock themselves in the library, and she could hear the piano and flute, often Erik's violin for a little. Then silence as they dissolved into soft talking, punctuated by the odd laugh until they emerged. It was Erik's to do and Erik's to keep. If he shared whatever they discussed the library room during sessions, she was honored but did not push. She had more than her fill of horror and was happy to let someone trained leech it from her husband. Joseph had not turned to his script pad first, which also gave her confidence in him. The pills were only for extremely severe interactions that could trigger the worst memories or high-stress situations. Christine rubbed her stomach.
She had only seen the vial a few times; before parole hearings and before interviews, but never performances-they had gone on a whole national tour without them. Her eyes fell on the poster that hung on their bedroom wall as she went to the dresser for clothes. Their touring ad, she in white, Erik in black just like their debut. Someone had photoshopped smoky wings on them both against the deep red backdrop. Angels of Music the title boasted. It looked so much more elegant than cruising around across the nation on planes, trains and automobiles had felt.
Checking her phone for the time, her background photo stared back at her, taken during that tour. It was her, lifting her phone to capture the other three people seated in the plane seats next to and behind her. They had just landed in LAX, the official midpoint of their journey. Christine had taken a picture to prove to Meg that they were all, somehow, still alive. Christine in her best hobo-chic, Erik in his usual suit, glancing up from his laptop. Behind them, Jules-plucked from the Maz to be their direct assistant, and Martha, Carlotta's former understudy who had had her fill of the theater and thought to try her hand as a makeup artist and agent.
Had she once thought merely performing had been stressful? Now settled into Mazandaran for another season felt like a vacation compared to adapting on a dime to different stages and setups, eating at questionable diners at questionable answers in between running for trains and flights. Fun but chaotic. Whenever Charles hinted at them trying for the international market, it made Christine feel a little dizzy already.
Besides, She thought, looking at herself in the mirror. That will all have to wait a while. She smoothed her top down over her belly and imagined the fabric stretched over a swelling bump. Right now junior was about the size of a peanut, and the most beloved peanut at that, though it had not been easy.
They'd had one pregnancy scare already, last year. It hadn't helped that they had been home from their tour only a month and were still running on fumes, or that Erik's mask had been a large question in every single music magazine that did an article on the up and coming duo. But it had been their first real fight. Erik did not want a child born with his face, and Christine who was also afraid of motherhood asked if he assumed she would follow in his parent's footsteps-had snapped that if he ever wanted children he'd have to take that risk. She'd left the house when he had shouted he never wanted to breed, that it was irresponsible and foolhardy, and did not return for a whole week.
It had been terrible, their first real fight-and no falling off stages or meddling friends was there to break the tension. They had to come back together on their own, somehow after the shouting matches over the phone and the snapping texts back and forth like arrows across a battlefield. Christine had wondered if this was it-the end to a beautiful but short dream. If they had rushed in like fools-who wed without talking about children first, after all?
It was the only time Christine had shared a session with Erik and Joseph, discussing everything from Christine's fear of parenting from the pitfalls in her own upbringing to the fact that Erik did not know if his face was genetic or caused by mistreatment during pregnancy. Seeing how his mother had handled him after he was born, it would not be a stretch to imagine.
Joseph had pointed out that their issues stemmed more from their own pasts than any terror of the future. What followed after was a negative pregnancy test and a week off from the theater and writing to discuss their future. Christine who had never thought much about it before, adamant about her desire for children. She had felt the protectiveness instantly, the care and love over a creature that had, in fact, never been. She knew that she wanted that again-and wanted Erik's child. And if deformities were not the issue, Erik finally relented that the idea was not as irresponsible as he had thought. The thought of a little Christine running about had broken is bitter resolve, as had the possibility of a son who would have Erik's eyes, but Reza's name.
This time around had been less stressful, though she did note Erik had kicked up his visits with Leroux to twice a week. So long as he was handling the stress rather than running from it, that was good enough for her. At least when she took this test, she had not been alone in Meg's bathroom, whispering to the little strip to turn negative. Now, she could tentatively be happy, even though she had nine months of strict diet and even stricter work schedules ahead of her. If Erik's face had been an accident in the womb, they were going to take every precaution against it.
Still, she wished that the only day theirs, Charles', Nadir's and Meg's schedule all worked for dinner hadn't been on a parole day. But there was nothing for it now. "C'mon booger," she told her growing child, "Let's see if daddy left anything in the kitchen for us."
Into the kitchen with its floor-length glass windows, the same windows that made up almost all of the first floor walls. It let in the bright buttery sunshine, making their Easter decorations pop against the white wood and marble of the decor. Christine foraged in the freezer and pulled out a box of frozen waffles, then strawberries, syrup and the can of whipped cream. A little sugar wouldn't hurt the baby, and there was no husband to bemoan the damage to her voice. She'd brew herself a cup of tea with lots of honey to balance it out.
Set up with her meal at the island, Christine pulled the kitchen tablet closer. It was in a thick blue cover to protect it from drops when they carried it from counter to counter either to watch a movie, talk to their friends, or for Erik, to follow a new recipe. On the lock screen-a picture of their first sonogram-Christine saw the overwhelming alerts on all their media accounts. Two sets: one for Music Angels, and the other for the Mazandaran.
Interestingly enough Christine had taken to doing the social outreach for both the opera house and their label. She loved doing video tours of the theater, showing them the behind the scenes for their upcoming productions, the costumes, meeting the staff, their writing rooms and setlists-it was great fun for her and helped ease Erik and Charles' burden. She'd bring in revenue not only with her talent as diva, but in making opera more accessible to a younger generation. She also convinced Erik to let more than two musicals a year onto his beloved stage.
Of course, the questions came, why wasn't her husband and partner in more of the videos. Erik had almost always ducked out of sight, seeing her recording, but his pride had not stopped him from the odd quip off camera. And people loved it, so she had begun to ask him to join her on tours-mainly pointing out the unique structure of his building and stage, adding his vast knowledge of music to the video.
Erik found he had a ready audience vying for his presence and opinions. They had all been concerned at first. After all, the internet was dark and full of terrors. But he seemed to like being able to reach out and communicate with the world without having to truly be in the world. The mask now was incidental-just something that made Erik, Erik, totally overshadowed by his talent and occasional hidden charm.
He was not big on leaking bits and parts of their new songs, saying that music should be consumed whole and complete. But he did like talking about the technical aspects of their writing, their influences, and inspirations. There was even a desire for him to talk about other things like history and cooking from their Music Angels audience-they had a whole series on their separate channel with just his cooking tutorials. He was a good teacher still, and good at pushing Christine's hands away as they crept in off frame from trying to sneak pieces of the meal in motion, saying with some regularity, "You act as if Erik doesn't feed you!"
The most fun they had, however, were simply streaming conversations together. Their most popular video besides their songs was Let's Eat and Argue About Cinderella, where they had ordered Japanese and discussed the value of Rodger and Hammerstein musicals at this very kitchen island for two hours.
Never did Christine think that they, as a couple rather than performers, would be beloved by an audience. But more often than not she saw clips of their conversations and jokes floating out in the great unknown. Her favorite was a clip where she had informed her husband You know honey, you were worried about your mask alienating people, but really it's your opinions on Sondheim. To which he had taken a vicious bite of rice and simply stated Good.
Christine amused herself in the TV room until her husband finally returned home. She heard the door open, the drop of keys onto the hook and the thump of his mask against the little table by the front door. Erik appeared, looking tired but nice in his turtleneck and blazer. He passed the couch, then doubled back, remembering to drop a kiss on his wife's mouth in greeting.
He disappeared into the library, and Christine heard the first strains of Paganini's Caprice No. 24. Beethoven followed, ending in Debussy. By that time Christine was onto losing her fifth game of online racing, and her sixth by the time Erik joined her.
Laying on the couch with his head against her thigh, she spared his hair one pass before returning to the controller.
"You're not very good at this game," he murmured softly, watching a red shell upend her cart for the third time that lap.
"I'm better offline." At least she didn't quit in rage, only after she placed eleventh. Then she devoted her whole attention to her husband. "Everything...okay?"
He nodded, catching a caressing hand and bringing it to his lips. "I didn't say anything. Alexander was young. Barely eighteen when they caught him. I couldn't say let him go, but I wouldn't stop them if they thought he was reformed." He looked up at her.
"If you think that was best, then it probably was," she encouraged. So many lives ruined by a few greedy people, by one vile woman. So many young minds abused and tortured and hurt. Christine rubbed her free hand over her belly. Erik did this to keep his presence known, to remind them all to keep on the straight and narrow. He did this now so that their children would not have to live in fear. And as much as she wished she could help, it was something he'd have to do on his own.
"When are they supposed to arrive?"
"Not until six, we've got some time, and we can always order out."
"No, Erik will cook." He stretched and peeled himself up from the cushions. "Well then, how have you been faring this morning besides eating all our whipped cream?"
Christine ran her tongue over her teeth. "How can you possibly smell that?"
"I can't. It's a pleasant flavor to taste when Erik kisses you."
Christine trailed behind, choosing music for him to cook too. She sang along, proving that the sugar hadn't harmed her, and after a rousing rendition of Love is Strange, matching Miss Chenowith with her high notes, Erik's mood finally began to lift. Taking her by the waist, he put her on the counter while he chopped vegetables, not complaining too much when she stole a portion here or there. Soon the troupe would be wandering in, and Christine couldn't wait to see their faces when they announced. The god-parents, Nadir and Meg were going to be the first to know, with Charles there as the only person guaranteed not to cry.
They'd all toast and laugh and revel in all the possible futures, in the good they had snatched back from the edge of calamity. Christine patted her belly. She'd teach her child every wonderment her father had given her, but this time tempered with the worldly knowledge Erik had introduced. They couldn't protect their babe from everything, but they would prepare them as best as they could. Their child would not know the aching void where affection was meant to be, nor would they be blinded to the hardships happiness demanded.
But they would be loved-oh so loved. And they would live the fullest lives Erik and Christine could provide.
They would teach them how.
And here we are, at the end of-not all things-but of this novel. Thank you, thank you, thank you all. You're support and excitement for this story which started out as nothing more than something to kill time between my barista shifts and rides home has truly touched my heart. This project and those of you who've enjoyed have followed me through so much: a career change, and the passing of a beloved father figure, and I cannot say thank you enough for your kind words and loyalty.
If you want to see more about this story such as fan art from some truly, spectacularly, talented artists and face casting, please check out donttouchthekeyboard on tumblr, or my main blog donttouchthefigs.
So, until the next one, remember,
Don't touch the figs.