A/N: This was written for the 'Second Morbidity Contest' on PFN. Leroux inspired, the first version tied for sixteenth place (out of forty). I promised I'd rewrite it, and here it is in it's present form. I dedicate it to Cookies because she gently nudged me. Please read & review.
The Inside of Love
'I'm leaving, Raoul,' I call from the gas-lit hallway. 'I should be back before you retire to your rooms.'
'Where are you going?' he says. I know he knows the answer. Raoul seems not to want to hear the answer, but he asks like the concerned financé he has become.
Before this, before Erik, Raoul was my knight in shinning armour. He saved my silk scarf from the sea. Now, he only pretends to be that courtly knight from so long ago. I have not the heart to deny him the ruse, even though I deny him my love every night. I feel he is ashamed of me, but I'm too proud, scared, or confused to do anything more than continue our courtly dance.
The deed that I must do tonight terrifies me more than disappointing Raoul. And to do it alone, that has me pulling at the lace of my gloves and watching as they stretch taut against my fingertips threatening to tear. I sigh, 'You know what the Epoque said this morning. I gave him my word. Remember?'
'Of course,' Raoul goes back to staring into the flames of the fire. He's no warmer than he was an hour ago. I can see him shiver and pull his long legs closer to his body. He blithely adds, 'Do you require any assistance?'
'No, my beloved.' I turn the doorknob and slip out into the dying rays of daylight. The image of Raoul shivering in front of the fire stays with me long after the door blocks my view.
This morning I noticed, with the assistance of the full light of day, that Raoul looks pale, almost akin to the bluish hue of sour milk. His hair's speckled with strands of silver tucked among the sunshine kissed blond, and I wonder how much damage we have sustained these past six months. A pang strikes my gut. He's too young to look so old. There's no blame to be handed out though, or at least that's what he assures me, but I feel that everything's my fault. If only I had run away with him that first night. My first triumph. But it wasn't mine then, and any gifts I have now still belong to the other knight in my childish illusions.
The encroaching darkness inside the alleys reminds me of Erik's eyes. Those seemingly lidless horrors that hold me enthral. Or, at least, they once held me. No unnatural light will shine from them tonight. No power. No sadness. No love. He is dead, but I think I'll only accept that once I've seen him. Once I've buried him by the well as I promised.
The flash of my glove alerts the waiting coachman. He jumps down and opens the door for me. He's staring a little too impertinently. Does he recognise me as the newly christened belle of Parisian society, or simply as Raoul's financée? I notice his eyes travelling to my waist. He's probably heard the rumours involving the poor orphaned Swedish girl in nefarious relationships with two brothers in the upper echelon of society. Finally, he looks at my face. I can see my reflection in the glass of the coach. My eyes are sunken and rimmed in blacks and blues, and if it wasn't so scary I would laugh at my resemblance to Erik.
'To the opera this evening, Mademoiselle?' He offers me his hand, and I do not shy away as with other hands in other times.
'Are you performing tonight, love?'
'Nothing tonight, Monsieur, I'm going to collect my belongings … say goodbye to an old friend … .'
The door shuts behind me and I feel the familiar jostle as the man climbs back into his seat. Leaning my cheek against the cold glass, I stifle back the sobs that have waited there all day. Erik is dead. Raoul is different. And I still don't know if I could choose between them had he lived. Erik made that choice for me with his death, and yet I can't ignore the feeling that he helped me make the wrong choice.
The ride from Raoul's apartments near the Rue Rivoli to the Opéra Populaire feels like a lifetime. My hands stay busy trying to keep my mind from wandering to the possibilities of what could have been had he lived. What should never have been had he lived. The carriage stops and I can't feel my fingers. The fabric of my skirts is twisted around my fingers and wrists. Like cruel fetters they turn my hands purple. Fearful, I release the silk at once.
'Do you wish for me to wait for you, mademoiselle?'
Wearily I force myself to think on the task at hand. 'No, thank you. I'll take another carriage home.' And he disappears down the sloped street.
Rue Scribe bustles with opera patrons, carriages, gaiety, and those selling their wares. No one notices their bourgeois diva, their toast of the week, as I slip beneath the level of the street by means of an iron gate. No one hears my screams of surprise, mixed with terror, either.
o . O . o
The cold envelops me. It taunts the edges of memory with the potential to make the past unfold differently. Long ago rides in a boat can be turned into romantic interludes, if I concentrate hard enough. Even his face disappears in this cold and is replaced by a strong jaw-line and smooth skin. His voice, however, never changes. No matter how many times I will myself to hear something based in reality, or with the rough touch of humanity, it still remains. Haunting me. Pulling me into eternity with false promises of perfection.
It takes every bit of my willpower to push these dreams far from my mind tonight. There's one last lingering thought: I could lay down in the cold and let it bathe me in twisted memories — lay there and never wake.
Darkness and light chase each other like eager lovers before my lantern. Sound is muffled, save for the gentle lapping of the lake against the shore. A rhythm in my feet matches my heart, and as I approach the well it grows faster. More and less sure at the same time.
I'm twenty steps from that dark resting place. Fifteen, and the lantern's light is playing games against the wall. Eight steps. The well stands out in bold relief between shadows and light.
I am here.
My legs refuse to move where my brain wishes them to go. The air is still and holds the comfortable numbness the cold brings. I could slip into that other world so easily here. By the time Raoul comes to fetch me … . No, this is my chance to break free and live the life I had only glimpsed when in Raoul's arms.
Setting the lantern down, I notice the spade and a small wooden bucket hidden half-way in the gathered blackness of my nightmares. My stomach turns, and I feel more nervous than I ever did before going onstage. Fear holds me tightly and refuses to release me to my task. My task. I pull ribbons from my dress and tie back the golden light of my hair. Rolling up my sleeves keeps my mind dull in its simplicity.
Right. Nothing left now but to get on with it. Fate must have decided to shine on me, for I see an expensive-looking wooden box in the corner. My curiosity overcomes my fear of the dark and I rush to open it. Inside are a few of his things: a key to his house, a roll of francs, the ring he gave me, and several letters tied with red string. I want to read letters in his hand again, and so I reach into the box to retrieve them. Underneath sits his black silk mask. It frightens me at once, and I can see lights glowing where the eyes should be. I instinctively drop the papers and scream. It echoes a thousand times down a thousand different tunnels and bounces off the wall before me.
Closing my eyes and taking a deep breath calms me, a little. Without giving it another thought the ring sits where it should on the third finger of my left hand. There's magic in that ring. Erik told me that before we parted. I still believe him.
Quickly I wipe my girlish tears from my face. A sparkle from my hand reminds me of why I wear Erik's ring. It's the reason I have not gone to Raoul. I'm still bound to Erik body and soul. Until this night is over and he is buried, I am his lawful wife. I promised.
Focussing on the shifting patterns of light on the wall I realise that I am ready. Somewhere between fear and slipping that ring on my finger, I have found my courage at last. That's when I notice there's no body. I rise and open the lantern to its full potential. The ground looks as though it's been swept recently. Swept. Down here. I nervously laugh, and even more casually swing round to bounce the light behind me. Nothing. Not even the slightest hint that Erik's body might be tucked just out of sight.
Perhaps he's died inside his house, and couldn't make it to the well at all? It's a rational thought, and I follow my instincts back to his house. The key slides easily into the mechanism that stands as his door lock. The concrete gives before me with a slight breath of dust from disuse. The fear returns as the shadows dissolve before my light.
My fears are unfounded. The house is empty. Completely devoid of everything I remember from my time here. My footsteps echo off the walls without the dampening effects of floor coverings. I walk through each room, methodically, like a detective new to a crime scene. And each doorknob I turn brings a fresh rush of butterflies in my stomach. Behind the next door could be the body of a man I might have loved. To my complete relief, there are no bodies — not even of vermin — hiding in the dark recesses of the disarmed torture chamber.
The fear of not finding him replaces the fear of finding him. Are his remains floating now, desecrated, somewhere on the lake? Has someone discovered his secret at last and are they parading down Avenue des Champs-Elysées with the famed Opéra Ghost's head?
Erik, please forgive me for I have failed you.
o . O . o
I don't remember how I got back to Raoul's rented rooms. The devil is in the details, and I am standing before the front door. The knob turns easily beneath my touch. Frustration overwhelms me and I force the door hard against the wall. Equal frustration, and a bit of redemption, sends the door slamming violently closed.
The room is dark. Red embers from the fire barely register as light. My eyes slowly adjust.
'Christine?' My name bursts into the room and startles me with not only its presence, but also its force.
'Oh, Raoul,' I fall into his outstretched arms. 'He's gone. I went. I was terrified. I sang the old songs Papa taught me when I was a child to chase away the dark. I followed Erik's instructions. The well. By the old Communists' road. It was there. Just like I remember. H-he was gone. There was no body. I searched everywhere. I screamed out for him. I screamed and screamed until my throat was raw.'
He pulls me tighter against his rapid pulse, 'My darling, my love. I'm here. I'm here.' Gently, he brushes my hair from my face. He leans in to kiss me, but I turn away and his lips land against my ear. 'Breathe. Let's sit near a newly stoked fire, and you can tell me what has frightened you so.'
He knows exactly what to say to calm me down, and he takes my hand, like the child I still am, and leads me to the edge of the hearth. Meticulously, he stacks logs into the grate and pokes the embers until warmth seeps into my flesh. He sits back into a beautiful red velvet chair. It reminds me suddenly of box five, and I fall to his feet with my skirts billowing like some mad bird. I need to repent my sins.
'Now,' his eyes are soft and trusting, 'tell me what happened from the beginning.'
Glancing towards the decanter of brandy across the room, I see him acquiesce without saying a word. He gestures for me to bring it from its place on the silver tray; we both take long draughts straight from the bottle. Neither of us fear the stiff conforms of aristocracy in this house. And really, unless you counted Raoul — and I hardly could after he'd been accused of sweet Philippe's murder and cut off from his inheritance — there were no rich sons or daughters under his roof tonight.
The effects of the liquor and the warmth from the growing fire spreads through my sickly thin limbs. I take one seemingly last breath and begin, 'Before you awoke, the night you came to rescue me, Erik made me promise him I would wear a golden band as a sign of our … marriage. And later, he made me promise I would come back when given the sign to bury his body near the well. This morning we both read the same thing in the paper, and so I went to fulfil my promise.'
I continue my tale and begin to shiver at the thought of that cold, damp, dark place. My lips tremble and I know I'm going to start crying again. Tears gather at the bottom of my vision, causing me to raise my gloveless hands to wipe them away like a plain girl with no common manners. Raoul says nothing and continues to stare at my hands.
'Is that the ring he gave you?' Raoul's voice is thick with brandy and his forcefulness scares me. 'I'm sorry. Please, continue.'
Without the aid of a handkerchief, I continue to clumsily rub the back of my hands under my swollen eyes. The tale spills from my lips quicker than my tears. Raoul's never seen me cry like I do before him. I feel the rush of embarrassment on my neck and ears.
'You were brave to go down there at all,' Raoul whispers against my forehead. 'I would not have done it.'
Pulling away, I force myself to look into his clear blue eyes. 'Yes, you would have dear, if you promised.' Tears run hot down my cheeks and I feel them pool at the base of my neck.
'Raoul, his body has been stolen for God knows what reason. I gave him my word, and now it's broken. I shall never be forgiven for all my life,' I manage to say it all before burying my face into the folds of his shirt. 'I can still smell him. That horrible stench of death. I can smell it on your clothes. It's in my hair. Will I ever escape that smell? Will I ever go a day without hearing his voice reverberate in my head?'
o . O . o
Laying awake in my bed I find it easy to fall into the rhythmic breathing of sleep without the release it affords. Only one wall separates me from Raoul. It seems eerie to know that he's listening to me, and wanting me to come to him, and being held back by some code of honour. Or worse … fear.
Yet, here I am listening to him fall into the tumbles of deep sleep. He screams out, and I do not go to comfort him. I think he calls me by name, and still I am rooted to this spot. Why do I fear and love him at the same time? And then it comes to me, I fear losing Erik when I finally choose Raoul. Like a temple virgin divested of that honour, I will be divested of his presence in my soul.
o . O . o
Days of wedding and secret return-to-my-homeland plans have kept me busy. Raoul sent me a bouquet of flowers and pages of poems yesterday. His words are not beautiful and poetic, but they are honest and true. Last night he asked me to join him in his bed, and I refused him. How much longer will I be able to ignore his need for a loving wife? I am too full of questions of late, but I try to smile more often.
Standing before my looking glass, I practice my best corner to corner smile. It's soft and it cheers me, but I can see the worry and fear that dances just behind my pupils. A knock at my door brings me back from wherever I had gone. There's a servant with a freshly polished tray. It holds a box tied with a white ribbon sitting on a thick envelope. Another token.
With giddy hands I untie the box. Inside sits a delicate gold chain and a tiny porcelain rose pendant. It looks more delicate than it feels, and I clasp it around my neck at once. The pale pink of the rose blends easily into the pale of my skin. A smile spreads across my face; a genuine smile of happiness.
Happiness is fleeting as I scan the pages of Raoul's letter. He wants me to prove that I love him. Prove it by giving him the last secret I have kept so long out of his bed. Tearing the pages to shreds, I pull the chain from my neck and revel at the sound of the clasp breaking.
o . O . o
Doors slam after our fight tonight. He called me a child. I might have thrown something heavy in the vicinity of his head for my arm aches. He's retired, as usual, into his workroom below the main level. For once I am glad of the space that keeps me at bay through terror at its sheer resemblance to the cellars of the Opéra House. Cellars lead to Erik's house. That way leads to my destruction. That way leads to the one thing that hovers outside of my waking thoughts: I have disappointed the one man who loved me. Truly loved me without pretence or reciprocation of that love.
Too mad to fall asleep, and too exhausted to continue to think, I lay down still fully dressed on top of my bed. My mind drifts off … .
Coldness licks at my face and conquers my toes. I wake fully and reach out to pull a blanket over me, but instead notice the absolute silence of the rooms. Listening, I can only make out the growing pace of my heart and the blood rushing past my ears. I feel like something's amiss. And then I perceive that the sound of Raoul's snoring in the next room is absent. He must be in the cellar still too upset to sleep. But if he couldn't sleep, then I won't be able to sleep for worrying I'd displeased him earlier.
I love him. In my own way.
The first floor is as quiet and unnerving as the top floor. Shivering, I feel for the candles and matches on the mantel. Candlelight is engulfed by the darkness of the room, and my stomach tightens with growing concern. What if he's left and been robbed, or worse stabbed, out in the city?
I check the door, but the lock is fastened securely. My bare feet make a pitter-patter on the way to the back of the rooms. Unsteady light flickers behind the door to the cellar. Raoul must be working down there still. It explains the eerie silence, but why is he working so late? Had I really caused him this much strife?
Barely touching the door it swings away and open. Locks are never called for in a house we fill with our polite manners. I follow the stairs down to a landing where they change direction and follow the foundation to the earthen floor.
My heart stops at the sight before my blurry eyes.
Raoul. Raoul standing in front of a long table draped in white cloth. On top of the table, stark naked and exposed, rests a human body. A man's body. I try to avert my eyes, but I see the differences easily between the body and myself. I've never seen a naked man before, and my curiosity gets the better of me — again. I return my stare to take in the rest of the room.
Behind the first is another similarly dressed table with another body. Expensive trays sit on stools and tables against the walls. Each hold alien objects, which can only be organs, although they look like nothing I've ever seen. But, I've never seen bodies laid out like these are on display. It's not proper.
Instead of this nightmare, I flash to a vision of Papa lying asleep in his casket. He's wearing a simple suit, but I push the vision away angrily. Memory doesn't belong in the present. Not here.
A desire to see who it is that has been so unjustly violated in this way forces my feet to creep closer towards the bodies. Raoul's back is still facing me, and he's bent close to the second body. The first man's hand dangles from the table, and from this angle I see a familiar flash of gold. It must be a trick of candlelight.
Squinting, I can make out a ring. A gold wedding ring. Bile rises in the back of my mouth when I finally realise that this is Erik's body. Erik's been desecrated and put on display. His nightmare is now my reality. And this unfathomable deed was done by the hand of Raoul!
Fury quakes within my very veins. I stand up to my full height, 'What have you done, Raoul? In Heaven's name, what have you done?'
He spins around. Faster than I've ever seen a human move, or perhaps I'm in shock. In one hand he holds a scalpel, but in the other — the other holds an ugly grey mass. Flecks of foreign substance cling to his face. Shuddering, I can only imagine what it is that sullies the stray strands of hair in front of his eyes.
There is no tenderness in his eyes now. In fact, I don't even recognise the man that stands before me, while I feel horror and pity at recognising Erik's corpse. Raoul's blindingly white shirt is splattered in dark spots of blood. Human blood. Erik's blood. 'Why did you do this? Why?'
Death, in all its wretched glory, rises to my nose. I promised. I broke my promise. Papa, what happens when you lie?
'Why?' he repeats the word, but with none of the horror I had evoked. 'You want to know WHY? I'll tell you, sweet Christine. Beautiful, perfect Christine. I wanted to discover why you loved him. This man with the face of a daemon from hell. You couldn't have chosen his face over mine. You couldn't still love this twisted freak of nature. I wanted to see what was inside of him that forced you to forget me.'
Gasping, I vainly reach for a reply. 'I-I … never … I never said I loved him more than you.' Yes, I'd never said it aloud. Did I mean it now?
'You didn't have to say it,' Raoul spits back. 'I saw it in your eyes. The way you would pine for him when we were together. The way you protected him. You didn't have to say anything! When you came back wearing his wedding ring, I knew you still loved him.'
Tears run down my face again, and I don't even have the decency to wipe them away with my sleeve. His words shock me. I bite my lip to stop from shrieking at him.
'Tell me Raoul, did his body tell you that?'
'It didn't have to,' a triumphant grin spreads across Raoul's face, 'because I have discovered that Erik was no different from anyone else. Inside, that is. His heart is the same as that man's there. His insides match those insides.' He wildly gesticulates and paces before me.
'There's nothing different, except his face. So, I've come to the conclusion that you loved him because of his face,' he drops the grey mass to the floor, lifts the scalpel to his forehead, 'Should I do it, Christine? Should I carve my face to match his? Will you come to me then? Will you love me? WILL YOU?'
The back of my ankle hits the bottom step, 'This is wrong, Raoul. Immoral. You will suffer eternity for this,' but what will I suffer? His words ring true, and I don't want to admit he's right. 'And I will never forgive you. I loved you, I did, but now you are nothing to me.'
Nothing but a maniac with a weapon. Erik never threatened me like this, or have I turned him into the hero of my tale?
Raoul raises the scalpel to strike me, 'Then you shall join him in hell!'