Abruptly, the music stopped. Realizing that I must have said aloud my thoughts, I placed my fingers over my lips. But the words were out there floating into space.
I could not retrieve them but I could repeat them.
"I love you, Erik…I love you…"
There! It was done now…and all I could do was wait…
I could not see his expression as his back was turned to me, yet I was tormented bythe most agonizing silence.
Erik's back shook with immense sobs as he lowered his face into his hands.
"I love you, Angelica…" he cried out. "And…and I am so unworthy of you…I have been such a blackguard…"
I rushed up behind him and wrapped my arms about him in an embrace.
"No...no...Erik...you have not..."
"I have been and you know it! I have been exactly the sort of monster everyone has always accused me of being! I threatened to kill everyone in the opera house. I forced you to marry me against your will...and then I practically raped you..."
"You did not! Erik, please stop this! I mean, well, you were being horrid but you did not hurt me..." I was sure I was blushing furiously at this point. "...In fact, it was rather...well, quite..."
He shook his head and waved his hand.
"That does not excuse my behavior! I told you that it would be like this, remember? That day when I brought you back to the inn from out of the rain. I seem to hurt you time and again whether I want to or not. I have no excuse except that I was deranged with anger over everything that had happened. Even when I knew that Firmin was the one responsible..."
"I should not have blamed you for what you did. I suppose if I had been in your shoes, I would have done the same thing. But I had never felt so low...never...I had expected for us to leave off to get married the next day...just to find myself once more despised and abandoned...once more on the run for my life...once more assuming one disguise after another just to survive the trip to this place..."
"I am sorry, Erik. I am so sorry..."
"And when I saw you for the first time in the Atlanta Opera House, all dressed in your green finery with tears in your eyes, I so wanted to hold you and turn everything back the way it was before..."
"We can be that way again, Erik! I know we can! Love me, Erik, love me…"
I yearned to kiss him, but his mask was in the way. Impatiently, I tore it off and threw it across the room.
"What…? What are you doing?"
I kissed the mottled flesh of his unmasked face. He moaned with distress at my actions, but I would not stop. I could not stop. I covered the forbidden skin with tiny kisses, licking away his salty tears.
"Erik...do not turn away from me..." I pleaded. "Your face does not repulse me for it is part of you. And I love you so…I love you…"
It was as if now that the words had finally been released, I could not stop saying them.
As if something had been unleashed inside of him, Erik pulled my face to his own, frantically kissing me over and over. And he also could not stop saying those sweet new words.
For some time, we simply held each other, reclined on the bed, healing our wounds with kisses. I was sure I had never felt so content in my life. I had never been so happy, my heart feeling as light as a feather.
But there was yet one more dragon to slay...
"Erik, we fight...we forgive...we make love...yet we seem doomed to have the same quarrels over and over. If I had any common sense, I would just let the matter go but I can't. If we are to make a new start, I must know how you feel about Christine."
He inhaled sharply at the sound of her name.
"Your history with Christine is the stuff of legends. People are writing books about it, you know. All about your love for her..."
"Those stories are of horror, Angelica, not of love..."
"She loves you too, Erik. I heard her say so."
"You heard her, you say?"
"That night...after the opera...after I left Madame Giry's...I went to the house to try to find you. And I heard you two together. I heard her say that she loved you. And you said she would always be your Angel of Music."
The silence between us was tense.
"Erik, I shall try to forget and forgive whatever transpired that night. I demand no apologies or explanations. I suspect it was foolish of me to expect you to completely forget about her so soon. But I must be reassured that she is now out of your heart forever."
"Angelica, what else did you hear that night…?"
"Nothing else. I could not bear any more."
"Then there is much you do not know."
Erik took my hand and pressed it to his lips as he recalled that night.
"Angelica, if you only could have seen how frightened she was that night. She could not even look at me, even when she said that she loved me. In truth, she never could bear the sight of me, even with my mask on. I used to think that she was charmingly shy, but perhaps she hated the sight of my mismatched eyes, I cannot say."
"But why would she admit love for you if she felt that way?"
He shook his head.
"She has never been known to be a woman of strong convictions. Perhaps Raoul de Chagny had ceased to be her knight in shining armor. Perhaps her marriage had settled from gallant love to dull domesticity. Perhaps the romance of being once more on stage in an opera carried her away. I do not know. But I do know that I do not love her."
"You don't? But I saw you on the catwalk…the way you looked at her…that night you said she would always be your Angel of Music."
"And so she shall be. Angelica, she was the first accomplishment of my life I could genuinely be proud of. I had made her into an opera star. In that way, we shall always be bonded. Yes, I risked my life to see her sing that night for I had to know if she could do it. I had to see how my creation had turned out. And I shall always love her voice…her artistry. But as for love…I have thought on the matter a great deal. She made me see that I was able to love. And for that, I shall always be grateful to her.
"Yes, I said she was my Angel of Music and always would be. She reached up and kissed me that night, but I was surprised at how I felt absolutely nothing. Nothing at all…except consternation at how scared she was...at how she trembled at my touch and not with desire but fear. I pulled her away and told her that only one woman has my heart...and that is you, my wife. You have forced me to love, truly love, with such tenacity that it is beyond comprehension. Angelica, please say you believe me…for it is the truth, I swear it."
"Oh, Erik, I have been such a fool!" I moaned as I buried my head against his shoulder. "Such a jealous silly fool..."
"As have I. I warned you long ago that I was inept with matters of the heart. And I have proven to be so many times over. It seems all my life I have been on the run, escaping those who have tried to capture me or kill me. But I could not escape you, Angelica. Even when you were no longer in Paris, you were always in my thoughts and my dreams, driving me mad. And I knew I would not rest until I found you again..."
I sighed with remorse for all of the time we had wasted apart.
"I should have known to trust my heart...that you would never hurt me...that you could not be a murderer…"
Erik was eerily silent and then let out a tortured moan.
"I hate to disillusion you, my child," he said. "And so help me, I may curse myself as an idiot for the rest of my days for what I am about to tell you. But I want no more secrets between us. I am a murderer."
I swallowed dryly at his admission.
"I murdered a gypsy man in my youth who had held me captive. I murdered Joseph Buquet, the stagehand who had threatened to expose my secrets. I murdered those innocents with the chandelier. I murdered Piangi. And if there is indeed a hell, I am destined to go there forever. I do not expect redemption of any kind. I am a damned soul, Angelica, and that I cannot change. But thisdoomed soul will happily be your slave and husband for the rest of his days on this earth. Can you live with such a man, Angelica?"
Two years later...
The mad rhythms of voodoo music beat savagely as I swayed back and forth in Erik's embrace, his hips shockingly pressed against my own. Our wild gyrations had caused the shoulder of my gypsy blouse to slip off of my shoulder. And, of course, Erik too full advantage of that situation, nibbling at the exposed flesh.
"There is something about Mardi Gras that sets a man's blood on fire..." he murmured between caresses.
"Mmmm...a woman's, too..."
We kissed lazily in the sultry heat of the night.
"I am sorry that our first Mardi Gras is not exactly as we had envisioned," Erik said.
"You are with me, my love. That makes it perfect."
As we kissed again, the fever between us became as heated and erratic as the drum beats from the New Orleans street.
A whining little cry startled us both into reality.
While we were in New Orleans, we were not savagely making love on the city street but in our modest townhouse. The sights and sounds of Mardi Gras were only those accessible from our window.
"I believe the queen has summoned us..." Erik moaned.
"She is no queen but a little tyrant who is determined to keep her parents apart until she is full grown," I grumbled in frustration.
"Yes, but she is such a dear sweet baby, this tyrant of ours..."
Erik went to the nursery and retrieved little eight-month-old Belle Roxane Leroux and crooned soft words to her in French, rocking her back and forth in his arms.
To our dismay, she was not soothed back to sleep but gave her father a cute toothless grin and kicked excitedly as he held her.
So much for our romantic interlude in the sultry night...
Belle was truly fond of her father. I had never seen or heard of a father and daughter so completely bonded to each other. She often liked to rip off his mask as a game, but the sight of his face never scared her. And she would go off to sleep with all of the innocence of a little angel as he sang lullabies to her. As for Erik, she seemed to fill up a space in his soul with her unconditional trust and love for him. He had such a way with her, always patient and loving no matter what time of day or night. Always willing to play with her. Always there for her. I was truly humbled to see what a natural parent Erik was as I tried to live up to his example.
Our life as a family was a comfortable one. Obviously, once we had decided to live in New Orleans, I was no longer Artistic Director of the Atlanta Opera House. Yet, Erik and I had managed to keep finances afloat with the profits of our operas. Beauty and the Beast, Cyrano de Bergerac and Sleeping Beauty were all major successes in Atlanta. Soon they would be touring the rest of the country.
While our townhouse was not as grand as Erik's hideaway had been, we managed to live with our essential needs. A music room to create our work in. A small but cozy fireplace in the living room. An airy bedroom complete with a balcony and French doors. A nursery for little Belle. And a small room with my sizeable bathtub constructed by the Wilkes Lumber Factory.
This is not to say that we still did not suffer our difficulties. Erik could still only go out at night and hide in shadows. We would still have marital spats about matters so inconsequential that it was ridiculous. As loved a child as Belle was, she still was the source of exhaustion and frustration on many levels. There was never enough time in the day to make love, create opera and be there for Belle.
And yet despite the struggles, I had learned something.
That I could not ask for a better life. That I was as content as I supposed I ever could be.
And that happy endings were indeed possible.
Thank you so much, dear readers, for all of the reviews and encouragement. Writing this story has been a great source of joy for me. In fact, at some points of this story, real life was merely an annoying distraction between bouts of writing. Erik and Angelica have truly become real for me. I suspect at some point I shall take this piece and rework it into a second draft and tinker around with it a bit. Also, I have been inspired to write another Phantom fiction piece, more of a modern comedic piece entitled Sing Songs in My Head. But I shall need some time to organize my thoughts on it before anything is going to get posted on the website.