A Strange Encounter

A Strange Encounter

The air was crisp and cool as I set out across the cemetery. It normally wasn't quite this chilly in early September, but to-day the wind whipped across me and caused me to shiver. The leaves, which had already begun to fall from the trees, crunched underneath my feet, sending up their strange perfume to tease my senses.

It was time for my yearly visit to Erik's grave. Three years, it was so hard to believe. The events on the roof of the opera house had taken place an entire three years ago. It still seemed like yesterday. Many people working at the opera house whispered about me, that I was stuck in the past. And yet, I couldn't help it. My mind replayed those terrible events over and over again every night.

The duet had been beautiful. None had ever sung like Erik and I did that night. We had proclaimed our love for each other in front of all of Paris. The audience knew it, and I finally did as well. I gave my heart to Erik in that moment. The words still rang in my head, and in my heart..."Oui, c'est toi, je t'aime"..."Yes, it is you, I love you." I had sung it for him, to him, and he had come out of hiding to take over Faust's part. He had thrown caution to the wind and for that I had fallen completely in love with him.

But then the shots rang out, the marksman I had not known about had raised his gun and shot at Erik. I screamed. They couldn't shoot at him, not with everyone having witnessed his, no our, triumph. But they had, and Erik had suddenly leaped onto stage, nowhere else to go, scooped me up in his arms, and run. If he hadn't been carrying me in the beginning, I think he might have escaped. I tried to leap out of his arms, to give him that chance, but he held me tightly, his face very near mine, as if I were his lifeline.

He had finally put me back on my feet when we were surrounded, and then grabbed my hand and pulled me up countless stairs until we exited onto the roof of the opera house. Philippe was there, too. He was determined, poor man that he was, to get me away from Erik. In a way, he succeeded, but not in the way he thought he would.

"She sang for me, to-night! She's mine!" Erik shouted at Philippe and brandished his sword. Frantically, almost clumsy now in his anger and fright, he swung it at Philippe several times.

"Erik! No!" I shrieked at him. From there, everything catapulted forward in a blur. Shapes and noises moved about me, as if I weren't part of their action, as if I weren't really there. I remember Erik almost killing Philippe. Something must have occurred, for Erik pulled Philippe up from the ledge, thus saving his rival's life.

And then he turned to me, everything suddenly grinding to a halt. Those grey-green eyes rested on my face, and for a moment, the smile he had during our duet returned to his lips. I tried to smile back, but I'm sure it must have looked like a grimace.

Erik was surrounded. I knew he was, and I wasn't sure what to do. I stood perfectly still, the wind whipping through my hair, Philippe holding onto my arm. "Erik," I whispered as he shot up the dome and turned around.

His cape flew out about him and his body suddenly stiffened in what I was sure was shock. "Hold your fire! We can take him alive!" Ledoux, you idiot, I thought. And then I knew. I knew. It was all over for Erik. He couldn't be taken alive, to allow the multitudes to stare at his ravaged face, to mock him and to point and jeer. Erik was a strong man, his dignity profound, but even he could not bear such horror.

A shot rang out, from M. Carriere. His own father had shot him and I watched as Erik's body fell some 3 or more meters to the ground. I shoved Philippe away. I had to reach Erik, I had to see what had become of him. Was he dead already? Could I say one more thing to him, hear that melodious voice one more time?

"Stay back!" I shouted at the Surreté, pushing the men out of my way in my haste to reach that poor, fallen and broken man. Carriere was cradling him in his arms, and I knew Erik was still alive.

I bent over him, clasped his cold hand in mine, and looked into his eyes. They were glazed with pain, with the prospect of his looming death. I whispered his name and I think he tried to smile at me. I knew what I had to do, then, the one thing that would allow him to die in peace. I reached forward with both hands and drew the mask from his face.

His eyes closed against the sight of me looking upon his poor face. I would not faint this time. He was not so horrible to look upon as I thought. It was his face, nothing more. He did not look as other men, but that was fine. He was Erik, and he was extraordinary. Gifted beyond measure and with the biggest heart I had ever been privileged to know. It was unfair what men did to him in his too-short life. I would make up for that now.

I leaned forward and placed a kiss on his forehead, my tears falling to rest on his scarred skin. Then I kissed each closed eyelid and backed off. His eyes opened, and I could see the wonder and amazement in those beautiful eyes. I smiled at him and replaced the mask, so that no others would see his face. "Oh, Christine," he whispered.

I could barely speak, and so I mouthed the words. "I love you, Erik." And a huge smile lit up his face, his eyes were bright for a moment, his hand reached out to touch my cheek. Then the light faded, and his head lolled to one side, coming to rest on his father's chest. The smile, though, remained on his countenance, a sight I would always remember. For in death, Erik finally found happiness.

And here I was now, remembering all those moments, the memories always haunting me. I could see it in my eyes every morning when I looked into the mirror, the dark circles beneath wide blue eyes, the constant look of pain about my mouth. "Oh, Erik," I murmured. His death had all been my fault. I know others tried to tell me that was not so, but I knew in my heart that it was.

I had sung for Erik that night, and for no other. Of course he had come up. He needed to see me, to hear me once more. Such was my plan. But I never expected him to reveal himself to the world in such a way. How foolish I had been! I had taken so much for granted, and the evening had ended in disaster. Erik's debut had been his ultimate downfall, and the blame lay solely at my feet.

I knelt in the grass over Erik's grave. Those passing by on the way to their loved ones' final resting places must surely think me odd, kneeling on this patch of grass where none seemed to be buried. M. Carriere had marked his dark son's grave with a single sapling, a small seed that had grown in the past three years into a miniature tree. Some day it would be gigantic, dwarfing all the others in the cemetery, just as Erik's genius, his talent, his fragile and loving heart, had dwarfed all other men's. It was a monument to him, and I found it incredibly sad that only two people knew of its existence.

Running my hand over the grass, I murmured my apologies once more to Erik. Everyday I supplicated myself in such a way, going to confession, driving the priests mad. They all knew of the infamous Faust duet, and the events that occurred afterwards. They strove to reassure me that none of it was my doing, that no blame was on my shoulders. But how wrong they were! They would never see Erik as he fell from the dome of the opera, as his body catapulted all that distance to lie, shattered, on the hard concrete below. They would never see the look in his eyes as I confessed my love to him, moments before they shut and he was gone from us for good.

I closed my eyes, feeling the tears, those ever-present tears, begin to leak from the corners of my eyes, to fall down my cheeks and onto the cold grass, absorbing into their roots. It was silly, but I hoped those tears would somehow make it to Erik, to be joined with him as we were never to be joined in life.

"Why do you cry, Mademoiselle?" The voice came from somewhere behind me. I never heard the man approach, but surely he was another mourner, curious about this strange woman who sobbed over a mere patch of grass.

"Why do all mourners cry, Monsieur?" I asked. I didn't intend to be sarcastic. Indeed, it came across as more a sad statement than a sardonic one. "The man I love is buried here."

There was a pause and I thought he left. Instead, I suddenly felt his hands on my shoulders. He pulled me to my feet, ever so gently, and I went with him. I needed this comfort from a stranger. I needed someone to be there for me. Ever since Erik's death, I had been very much alone. M. Carriere left Paris, the memories too horrible for him to bear. And Philippe, well, I wasn't quite sure what had become of him. Last I knew, he had headed to his Chateau in the south of France. We had intended to remain as friends, and yet somehow we had grown apart during the intervening years. There had been no arguments, for Philippe was a kind and understanding man. We just simply, and naturally, went our own ways.

"How long has it been?" the man behind me asked, pulling me closer to him. I didn't even think to question his comfort, to wonder who he was and why he was doing such a thing. He must truly be a wonderful man, to offer condolences to one he doesn't know. Perhaps he was a priest or another man of the cloth, one who you expected to be comfortable with doing this. At any rate, I leaned into him without question, feeling his chest beneath my head.

"Three years." I choked on the last syllable, the word coming out in barely a whisper. "Three horrible years. He died this very day." The man's hands tightened on my shoulders, a convulsive gesture, and I heard him sigh.

"You must have loved him very much?" he said, phrasing it as if it were truly a question. He must know how much I loved this man! Three years in this day and age is generally considered far too long to be in mourning, and yet I knew my heart would always belong to Erik. There was to be no other man for me, not in this lifetime.

"Yes, Monsieur. He was my heart, and it died with him." I was not normally so poetic, my mind usually rational. But ever since the events that evening, my temperament had changed. I liked to believe that a little bit of Erik's spirit came into me with his death.

The man sighed again. "Why is he not buried with more distinction?" he asked. I should have known that question would come up. How to explain Erik to a stranger, without letting the truth be known.

"Erik was..." I paused. What was he? He was so much, I didn't even know where to begin. "He was a special man, far too unique for this world. He...did not want to be buried with any sort of ceremony." I couldn't tell this man of the truth about my love, for no one could understand. No one would want to understand.

"No ceremony and no marker, either?" The question was soft, carefully phrased, and I did not understand why.

"No marker. He did not want any to know of his final resting place. There are only two people aware of it." The man's hands stroked down my arms and back up again, returning to my shoulders. Gently, ever so gently, he began to massage my aching neck. "You are very tense, Mademoiselle."

I didn't say a word, for what was there to say. I allowed him the liberty of massaging me, but when it became more like a caress, I attempted to pull away. "I have been tense since his death. I live in constant guilt and pain."

"Guilt?" came the sharp question as he pulled me back against him.

I nodded. "It is because of me, that he is dead." I felt the inevitable question coming on, felt the stiffening in his body, the lack of understanding for that cryptic sentence. "No, do not ask it, for I cannot give the details. Just know that one action, one stupid, silly action on my part brought about the events leading to his death."

I began to shake slightly, trying to keep my sobs in, not wanting this man to know my true sorrow.

"It was not your fault," he said, almost fervently. Again, I tried to pull away from him. Not my fault? How could be possibly know? He had not been there, did not know the occurrences, did not know my Maestro.

"Trust me, Monsieur, this was solely my fault." I could not keep the sobs out of my voice, and I know he heard, for he suddenly wrapped his arms around me, and pulled me very tight against him.

"Mademoiselle, please do not cry," he whispered in my ear, his hot breath fanning across my cheek. I could not help myself, though, and I felt the tears begin to flow more freely, cascading down onto his white shirt-sleeves. I watched as they dampened the cuffs, turning the fine silk into limp and wet material.

He held me as I cried, offering silent support, until the tears began to subside. As they did so, I relaxed fully against him, and his cheek came to rest upon mine.

It was cold, his cheek, unlike the rest of him, and I wondered if it was because of the chill in the air. The rest of his body was so warm, his arms around me, cradling me close to his body, his chest beneath my head and neck, the dark cloak he wrapped around me to keep me warm. "Thank you, Monsieur," I said, bringing my right hand up to touch his cheek briefly.

I stiffened in sudden alarm and spread my hand out over his cheek, encountering not chilled flesh, but supple leather. A mask! In vain, I made the attempt to step out of his arms. Why was this man wearing a mask, one such as my beloved would wear. Did he know the story? Did he know who I was, who Erik was? Surely he must, to be wearing a mask. With a strange feeling of foreboding, I looked down at the arms locked viselike around me. The white, billowy shirt, the cloak wrapped around me. He must know my story! If he did, then why did he come dressed like this on the anniversary of Erik's death? Surely this was the greatest torment my soul had ever known!

I twisted in his embrace, hoping to catch a glimpse of this trickster, of the terrible man who would offer me comfort and yet dress as my love did. What did he know of me? I had to know. "Wait, Christine!" the voice rang in my ears and the world ground to a halt.

He was breathing quite heavily now, in his attempts to keep me facing away from him. He knew me somehow! "Before you turn around, please, hear me out!"

I relaxed for the moment, waiting for an explanation. Perhaps it was all very simplistic. Perhaps he had been on his way to a masquerade ball, and had stopped by to visit a relative's grave. "Christine, I had no idea you would be here. I...I've never seen you here before and so I thought it was safe to come here. You never...never told anyone your feelings, never said a word, Christine! How was I to know you would come here this day, and to mourn!"

He paused, and I could hear him catch his breath. "Ever since that fateful day, you disappeared. No one has seen you in Paris, nor even in all of France. You were gone, that's all everyone knew. The talk of the Phantom had ended, and Christine was gone. What did all think? That you had gone off with Philippe as was expected, and that you were living far out in the country, away from all the memories..."

"How do you know all of this?" Somehow, this man knew everything, the whole story. He knew my name, what I looked like. And he knew the name now of the man I was here to mourn.

"I was there, that night." I heard the light mocking tone in his voice. And yet I still did not understand.

I shook my head. "Monsieur, I am afraid I don't understand you. Were you one of the Inspector's men?" That was the only explanation, but he denied it.

"Put it all together, Christine," was all he said. And still, there was something missing, some piece of the puzzle I was overlooking. What was it? "You can figure it out."

"No, I cannot. Please. Monsieur, explain yourself." The laugh that greeted my ears was pleasant and I felt my mind pulling at a memory, trying to drag it out into the light and blow the dust off it.

"Ah, but that wouldn't be right. It would take away all the magic, Christine." Magic? "You are magic too, I think." The words came unbidden into my mind. "Magic is my friend. Magic cannot hide from me." Was it true? Was there some sort of magic involved here? I felt the pieces of the puzzle fall into place, the fog around the mystery clearing to show the complete and utterly impossible truth.

My lips trembled as his name tumbled from them, the question floating in the air between us. I was too afraid of his answer. Could this be? What if I had done the arithmetic wrong and come up with the wrong answer? I would be crushed again, the world falling down around me.

For an eternity, there was silence, deafening silence as his name was repeated in the wind, and in the leaves of the trees around us. "Is this a dream?" I asked. Surely it must be.

"Oh no, dear Christine. This is no dream." "Sometimes dreams can be real." Again, that voice.

I allowed his name to come from my lips again, stronger this time, a hint of hysteria invading the word. I had to know, and now. "Erik?"

His lips very near my ear, his arms around my body holding me tight in this strange embrace, he finally whispered the word I so longed to hear. "Yes." It was like a caress, that one word. So much so that I turned in his embrace and, amazingly, looked into that pair of grey-green eyes I never thought to see again.

He looked down at me, wonder evident in his stance, fear behind his eyes. I knew his thoughts as I knew my own. What will she think? Will she hate me? Does she still fear me? Love me? I could see all the worrisome questions in his gaze, and I knew he was too afraid to ask them all. Indeed, there was a lot that needed to be spoken of between us. But now was not the time for that. Now was the time for actions, not words.

I draped my hands around his neck, barely believing any of this was happening, and drew his mouth to mine. I kissed him softly, chastely, afraid of where this would lead out in the cold cemetery, and rested my head on his chest, tears flowing down my cheeks. "Erik, I love you." The words were heartfelt. Surely no other woman had loved a man as much as I loved this dark angel. He was my life and my heart, just as I had told him.

He suddenly picked me up and swung me around in a dizzying circle. "I know!" he shouted into the wind. And for the first time, I heard laughter, true, happy laughter come from him. I knew this was only the beginning to our lives, for nothing, not even death, could keep Erik and I from each other.