Hello, all! I have for you the last part of the story. As I said, this was not composed in chapters, so it literally picks up where the other part left off. Enjoy!
"A Twist In My Story", continued
Erik did not dare return to my room, and I readied for bed without the impulse to seek him out. But once beneath the covers, rest would not come, as far from my grasp as it could be as I vainly tossed and turned and sought it anyway. An hour went by in that manner, then two, and I felt sure I would go crazy if I continued to lay there much longer. On unsteady legs, I rose and wandered out of my private haven, terrified to find Erik and yet wanting him just the same.
There was a light pouring from the living room, inviting me without an utterance, and I wearily went to it, too tired to fight it. I tried not to make a noise to give my presence away, but he still looked to the doorway in the instant I arrived. It always amused me how he could do that, as if he felt me. He was seated in his chair before the dying embers in the hearth, and that was all. Had he just been staring? Lost in thought and mind perhaps? Reliving our last encounter as I had been? Unable to get it out of his head?
His eyes surveyed me in my nightdress with a slow deliberation before they averted to the hearth, full of so much guilt that I was astounded. I didn't think a murderer the likes of which he was could know guilt. In a hoarse voice that betrayed tears he must have cried, he demanded, "Did I give you the reason you wanted to hate me? Was that the monster you were seeking? …Was that enough, or were you hoping I'd strike you to add to your list of condemnations?"
Shaking my head a bit, I quietly came to join him, taking a seat on the couch near his chair and mimicking his stare. That fire was nearly out; it was as pointless as I felt….
Neither of us broke the silence, this one not holding the discomfort many others had. We just sat and stared in one another's company. At some point, I gathered my legs up on the cushions and rested my head on the armrest, and there with his disconcerting yet necessary presence, rest finally found me with a dreamless state that I did not hesitate to give in to.
When I awoke, I was alone, but at some point, my companion had covered me in a thick quilt, another gentlemanly action from a self-proclaimed monster, but this one did not bring the bitterness others had. This one I could only find endearing, though I could never have explained why.
Dressed and less bleary-eyed, I joined Erik in the dining room, suspect to what his mood would be. What I received was a tentative smile and a broad gesture to a plate of his own homemade crepes. Ridiculous though it was, I almost cried in relief for their very presence. They meant far more than breakfast; they meant peace.
I even smiled a bit myself as I took my seat and lifted my fork eagerly. Under his silent eye, I ate nearly every bite, stifling my inner lady to enjoy such deliciousness, and equally as well, avoiding the questions hanging in the background like bold and ugly scenery.
After my lesson, he once again asked me to remain with him while he composed, and I did not hesitate to agree, taking my seat beside him on the piano's bench as if it was my customary, designated place. For a long time under my curious stare, he worked, and I didn't say anything; I just watched him with rapt admiration. I would have liked to claim that observing his process of musical creation helped me to gain an understanding for his genius, but I grew just as resolutely sure that there was no understanding. Genius didn't need explanation; it just was.
We had been sitting there for a long while; I had willingly lost track of the exact time pieces ago. He added one more chord to a cadence, and I observed him as I had been without his regard, strangely delighting in the look of concentration on that masked face. I was growing accustomed to its image, and yet I felt I could never tire of watching him as he composed. Sometimes he'd grow so excited, almost happy, his eyes glowing as they watched a progression his fingers formed, nodding frantically to himself as he noted it on the manuscript. Sometimes he'd grow frustrated, huffing to himself in irritation as he beat the same passage a dozen times, two dozen times even till he felt it was perfect. And sometimes, my favorite times to watch, he'd play something so glorious, ethereally so, that his eyes would close, his masked face overcome with pure emotion until his body even swayed with its power. Those times I found myself wishing I could be within his head to feel it with him.
Leaning back from the keys with a small nod, his eyes suddenly darted to me, as if he had only just remembered my presence at all. "Oh, Christine, I must be boring you! I'm sorry…. I become engrossed so deeply sometimes that I cannot seem to cease."
I nodded with the very tinge of a smile. It was far more than either of us expected me to give. I suddenly felt compelled to ask, "Is this how you usually spend every day? …At the piano for hours at a time?" There was no hostility in my voice; I was genuinely curious.
"Pathetic, I know," he replied sheepishly. "And without you here to remind me I have a reason for meals in general, I will sometimes go days without food or sleep, living on music alone."
"A part of me envies you for that," I admitted before I could think better of it. "I mean…to let music consume you so completely is…."
"Unhealthy," he finished with a shake of his head. "Don't envy such a thing. It's too easy to shut out the world and life when I get that way, and I'd never want that for you…. Besides that, you are already quite a step above most people because you feel music. Most people only hear it, maybe get a little rush at a crescendo. They don't let it in their blood, but you…. I think that's why I find your presence so inspiring. I see that if I write something, you feel what I did when I created it; you understand it."
What terrified me in that instant went far beyond music because I realized that he was right. I did understand the emotions he employed, and didn't that mean in the same vein that I understood him as well? I couldn't even fathom how to take that.
In a timid whisper, I bid, "Will you play this piece for me in its entirety now that you have finished?"
A flash of hope was slid into his response. "Only if afterward, you will tell me what I was feeling when I wrote it?"
"All right." I so often rose to a challenge, especially when music was concerned, and how well did he know that!
One more held look passed between us before he began to play, casting glances back at me every few bars, sure he would see emotion and nodding when he did. We were sharing a conversation without words, through each note struck on a piano, and it was our most intimate exchange ever. The piece itself was a mirror of our relationship; I had seen it from the broken bits he had worked on earlier. It started with minor chords, a minor melody and open cadences; it meant alone; I was sure of it. The melody transformed into something major, happy and delicate, days of angels and fragile trust. A violent interlude next spoke of the pain we had caused each other, dark, angry chords in fortes and fortissimos that shook the entire instrument with their bellows. The piece ended with fragments of minor and major, uncertainty, and a cadence laden with hope.
As he let the notes fade to nothingness, he met my eye and shook his head. "You don't need to say; I saw what I wanted." That was all; in the next instant he was rising. "I will go and prepare supper."
I only nodded quietly and watched him till he was gone, as emotionally exhausted as if I had indeed lived our entire story with the music. And what did the ending mean? …I didn't yet know.
Before we even sat down at the dining room table, I had a course of action in mind and a determination not to cower in its exertion.
Erik was pouring himself a glass of wine when I suddenly declared, "I want you to eat with me."
He nearly dropped his glass, his eyes darting to mine with urgency and terror as though my demands were inconceivable and heinous. "I…I thought you understood why I don't and can't."
"Understand it, yes; accept it, no. I'm tired of eating alone." I was resolved not to back down until I got my way. "Besides, your reasoning is unjustifiable. I've already seen your face; whether you sit there with a mask on or discard it and eat with me, I already know what's beneath."
"Yes, you've had your scant encounters with it," he replied, the edge of his tone sharp. "Having it exposed blatantly before you is an entirely different situation."
"You want me to accept you so badly; how can I ever if you persist to cower behind your mask?" I knew he was seeking more arguments as I added with my own snapping edge, "This is ridiculous! Take it off and eat a meal with me! You want to be an ordinary man, a gentleman even! Then play the part."
"You were the one to correct my faux pas and remind me that I can never be a gentleman!"
"Well, I take it back," I retorted. "Play the part even if it can never be real. Pretend, Erik. Adopt the façade. I know you can do it better than anyone. And I will adopt my own and treat you as ordinary."
"Please, Erik." Begging was my last resort; I knew that he wouldn't be able to refuse it. "I want us to share a meal together; I can't think that's too much to ask."
He shook his head desperately, but I knew I had won. With a fraction of an encouraging smile, I hurried into the kitchen to collect his plate, returning to find him as stupefied as I had left him, frozen in place, unsure how to do what I asked of him.
"Erik," I bid gently as I set the plate before him and watched him slowly meet my eye, gazing up at me with a certain amount of trepidation. "Supper, ange."
Angel…. I knew that would rattle him, but I also knew his hope. He would want to take such a term as a potential repair of broken bridges, and I gave him no denial as he hesitantly reached for the mask with hands that violently shook. I waited patiently, taking my seat again, knowing why he suddenly refused to meet my stare.
And then the mask was gone, and that ravaged face was left behind, his terror and desolation so much more vivid and intense as it was out in the open. He did not say a word and would not look at me as he shook incessantly in his place, so I attempted to shatter the tension.
"Much better. And now may we eat?"
He slowly dragged his eyes to me, but I gave nothing away, no revulsion or disgust, no morbid and disturbing intrigue. Most of those emotions had faded after the initial shock. Yes, his face was twisted and ugly; yes, it was more corpse-like than human. When in combination with his temper, it was a monster's visage, but shaken and unsure as it was now, it was instead something I pitied and had a surge of compassion for.
It wasn't until I lifted my fork and began to eat that he did the same, though I felt his eyes constantly on me even as I put my own concentration to the food.
Only once did I return his stare, asking with a seemingly cordial air, "Isn't this better than watching me eat on my own?"
He swallowed with lingering awkwardness and hesitantly replied, "If you enjoy sharing a meal with a monster."
"I'm not," I corrected him. "I'm sharing a meal with a gentleman." As much as I wanted him to play a role, I was doing the same. Pretending all of this was normal, pretending Erik wasn't who he was…, not the phantom ghost. No, I would never share a meal with the phantom ghost. With my internal insistence, this was just a man.
Most of our supper was spent quietly. I did not regard him as my curiosity wanted, mainly because his eyes were always on me, waiting for me to give in and show him the disgust he was so sure I felt; only occasional shared glances and half-smiles did I grant, nothing he could misconstrue. The air between us was settled, though tentative; one wrong move, one wrong word, and it would snap into two irreparable halves.
After our meal, I excused myself to my bath, and only then did my shoulders sag, my countenance crumble. I was disgusted, and oddly enough not with Erik; no, I was only disgusted with myself. I felt as if my heart was betraying my mind, as if a war was raging within my body, the outcome of which was indiscernible. Which to follow? Which to believe? When my heart was eager for Erik's presence, remembering that kiss from the previous night with desire rather than outrage, it held a fraction of sway over the angrier pulsations of my mind that insisted on vengeance and resentful retaliations.
I wasn't sure if it was under the guide of head or heart that I sought him out after my bath. No, I only grew sure when I cast a look at that masked face lifting with such hope upon my entrance, with unhidden admiration, with reigned desire. He was seated before the fireplace, the blaze within tonight leaping in oranges and yellows, and I again took a seat on the couch near him, holding his eye without considering consequence in the eagerness of a heart.
"You put your mask back on." I stated the fact with a shake of my head.
"I do not usually go about without it."
"Even when you are here alone?"
He gave a slow nod, eyes penetrating mine. "Last night you said that you wanted me to remember exactly what I am; the truth is I never forget."
There was guilt; I didn't want its presence, but it was there in the form of prickling sensations on my insides. Every letter of every word I had said became its own pinch until I was cringing and had to look away, concentrating on the flames.
"I have been sitting here, …thinking," he continued softly, "trying to understand…. I treated you last night like the monster you expected. You were baiting me; you wanted proof that your fears were qualified, and I fell into your trap and gave it to you…. And yet here we are. You didn't run from me as I expected; you didn't force more walls between us, curse me, blight me; all of which you had the right to do. And I…I cannot reason why."
I threw a side glance at that masked face, only one, any more would have broken me, and I whispered, "I have no answer for you, Erik. It's bittersweet, isn't it? To play a role, feign emotions that part of you thinks are real…and then wonder if they are…. I had convinced myself so completely that I hated you; I couldn't imagine feeling anything else…. But your blackest crimes have always been your own, not mine. Last night I tried to get you to inflict them on me,…." I wouldn't look at him, not with the contents of my inner sanctuary pouring out. Shaking my head, I insisted, "I may not hate you, …but I can't forgive you."
I heard his motion, but would not look to watch his approach. Not until he knelt at my feet and forcibly met my gaze did I regard him. There was the sheen of tears in those brilliant eyes. "What if I begged forgiveness?" he hoarsely asked. "What if I bow before you, kiss the ground you tread, become your most humble servant in penance? …Could you forgive me then, Christine? Could you look past all of the pain I've caused you to the man beneath it and the heart that is so blatantly yours? …Could you ever love me?…"
I could feel the frown my lips were stuck in, the furrow creasing my brow, and I hurt…. I hurt so deeply, to my very core. "I can't love the man who broke my heart," I whispered passionately, "who destroyed me with one deception…. I loved an angel, and he left me and gave me a monster to love in his stead." My fingers slowly shook as they reached for his mask, and he did not stop me, crying silently as I drew the barrier away and exposed that deformity again. "Am I to love this? …Am I to love this monster now? …How could I ever?…"
"Christine," he gasped from those misshapen lips. "You are shattering me to pieces…. This may be the face of the monster, but with the mask, I can be the gentleman. I can be something worth loving."
"And that would be as much of a lie as the angel was," I stated back, emotionless from my head's determined detachment. "I can't love you, Erik…. I can't forgive you, not as you are."
Lowering his head, he suddenly buried his deformed face in my lap, rubbings its scars against the softness of my nightgown. I knew he was crying without a sound, and my own tears coursed down my cheeks, inspired to life by his. Tentative and afraid, my fingers extended to hesitantly weave in his thin hair on the back of his head, my palm cupping its crown. And he took it as encouragement, his arms coming around my legs to hug himself to me, sharing tears, sharing pain, sharing a persistent flicker of hope.
For a long time, we stayed that way, even after the tears passed, my fingers stroking his hair idly, my eyes contemplating that dark head, knowing whose it was, both terrified to accept such a fact and at the same time terrified not to. My heart wanted to dwell on its fear that this might be our only moment, our only chance at something beyond.
"Erik," I softly called and waited till he lifted that deformed face, emerald green and sapphire blue eyes red-rimmed and yet sparkling vibrantly as they met mine. "This is what you are," I breathed. "This face, unmasked and unhidden, this monster so blatantly put before me."
"And this monster loves you so completely," he insisted vehemently. "Would kill for you and die for you…. Only you, Christine…. Always you. Can you never look past this face? Can you never see the love and how it is my very reason for breathing?"
I did see it; he made it so prominently on display. And it swept over me and made every bit of my body tingle. Softly, I bid, "Kiss me, Erik, as you are, …the monster that you are. Kiss me like that."
"The monster I am," he repeated as he raised himself up on his knees and approached.
I knew he was out to alter my perception before our lips even met. I asked for the monster. What I got was the most tender of kisses, a gentle graze of those misshapen lips to mine before a kiss soft and delicate. He was moving his mouth against mine, coaxing a response he got in full from my eager swelling heart. I felt my body trembling, felt delicious sensation all the way down my spine. My arms weaved around his neck, keeping him captive in my embrace for fear he would end a moment I yearned to continue eternally. I knew who kissed me, what kissed me, and I wanted it all the more because of it! Everything I longed to hate stole my breath away in that one act.
He was desperate for just that, his mouth moving in unceasing fervency against mine, his tongue daring to slide between my already parting lips to tantalize me further, to taste me and make me squirm and draw him tighter to me. His hands were in my hair, combing through my loose curls before they came to cup my face, to press to my cheeks and extend fingertips to my brow.
One kiss, another, another, I was so sure I would never have enough, and when he finally drew away, it was to my moan of disappointment. When I opened my eyes to regard him again, I felt the spell break, the desire chill over with a rush of my head's apprehensions.
His hope was undimmed, his hands still holding my face so delicate, so reverent, making me feel like a treasure; to him, I think I was. "Love the monster, Christine," he whispered, his voice husky with desire, "and he will become the man you want."
Tears fell from my eyes again, fresh, alive with the desperation of my soul. "…The man doesn't even exist.…"
"But he will," he declared adamantly. "He will exist; your love would transform any monster, would steal away any blackness in this tattered soul, would heal scars. I could be anything you wanted. Just say you can love me, …forgive me my flaws. Say it, and I will give you everything I am." He captured one of my hands and lifted it to those misshapen lips to place a lingering kiss to each finger and then my knuckle and my palm. "I lay my heart in your hands, my soul, my essence. Form me as you will. Make me something worthy of your love."
Timid and scared even, he guided the hand he held to his scarred cheek, giving me plenty of time to refuse him, but I was too mesmerized, watching the scene unfold as if I gazed on it from afar. My palm cupped and cradled those twisted features, learning their oddly smooth texture, their ridges and bends, their abnormalities without reserve. I wasn't disgusted, the way I had always presumed I would be to share such a contact; I was intrigued, amazed, and admittedly thrilled to my core. I wanted more; the confession shook my sense of judgment. Slowly drawing my hand away, I dared to lean forward and press my kiss to that cheek, lingering there in that intimacy, daring to part my lips and taste the salt of his tears, fresh as my own as his shoulders shook again in a silent sob.
Erik made no move, did not gather me to him or touch me in return; I wondered if he was afraid that if he tried, I would pull away. He just knelt there, quietly crying and accepted kiss after kiss from me and a gentle nuzzling of my nose, all caresses I gave freely and fully. When I drew back again, it was with a reluctance I knew as acutely as he did.
"Forgive me, Christine," he whispered amidst tears. "Forgive me my sins, and stay with me. Love me. Oh, please, Christine, love me."
I stared at that face. Did I dare admit to him what I could not even admit to myself? That I did love him…. My head screamed indignation even to consider such a reality. It shouted, 'Murderer! Monster!', reminding me with a twist of a knife in my gut that this man before me, at my feet crying for acceptance, was in his very essence the phantom….
It was my head that gave my answer beneath tears from my heart. "I can't…. I don't…."
I saw his heart crushed at that moment, but just as suddenly as it broke, he insisted, "Lie to us both, but you will see the truth. You will believe. No matter what I must do. I will make you see it if I must. You love me, and I won't let you destroy us both because you are afraid. I can't…."
He rose with an abruptness that startled me and replaced his mask, becoming the gentleman again, a persona he could fully hide behind, and in a gruff tone, he commanded, "Go to bed, Christine."
I stood on unstable legs, but before I complied, I dared to add, "I'm sorry, Erik…. Forgive this weak heart; it can never love you as you want…."
He did not reply; he only shook his head and strode to the fire, focusing on the flames in the hearth as if I no longer existed to him.
I doubt either of us slept that night, and on the wings of the daylight, he returned me to my world, to rehearsals and sunshine and no shadows with monsters in their corners.
He had not spoken to me for our entire journey through the underground, everything still so raw from the previous night, but as he left me behind my mirror's glass, he said sharply, "I won't give up, you realize. I mean to have you, Christine, and the lengths to which I will go will hang on your head for your obstinacy. You thought I was a monster lacking a reason to; you'll have your reasons now."
"Phantom to the end," I muttered more to myself, but I was pleased he overheard and seemed stung.
"No, you don't yet know what the phantom is, but you will see…. You will see…." With that, he left me, stalking back into the darkness before I could reconsider.
We were at odds now; I knew that. I was weak and naïve enough to believe he would never actually go as far as he eventually did. I thought if I broke our hearts that his retaliation would be with the intention of proving he was not the monster I dubbed him. I thought he would want to gain my heart and show me that he could be something more. Once his revenge began, I did know regret, but I also knew it was far too late to alter what was already set in stone. And he fell and became exactly the monster I feared he would. And I couldn't love that; and I couldn't forgive that. I never would….