The days, golden as sunbeams, slid into weeks and months, and winter gave way to spring. I often come to sit alone in the backyard garden now, breathing the heady scent of roses and rolling my wedding ring back and forth between my withered and twisted fingers. I remember the loving care that Erik lavished upon these flowers. Ah, Erik…
The constriction in my chest is unbearable at the thought of my love. Unwanted tears blur my vision as I wipe them away impatiently. I'm too old for this.
Memories are all that I have now in my old age, like fireflies darting across the surface of my mind, showing me here and there images so sharp and vivid that I catch my breath in wonder before the vignette disappears. Sometimes, I find myself drifting into another world, the falling of a soft gauze curtain which obscures the dividing line between fact and fantasy.
Gustave says that I am losing my faculties and that I should not live alone but I cannot bear to leave this house that has been my home since I returned to France. I hope he is wrong, bless him! I would like to think that I am as sane as anyone else.
At the age of thirty-eight, Gustave is an accomplished concert pianist. Already in France, they are hailing him as a genius and a handsome one at that! Christine and Erik would have been proud of him. Music is in his soul, extending to every fiber of his being each time he plays the piano. Women crowd to his recitals, embarrassing him with their fulsome praise and flirtatious looks, much to his chagrin. He never married despite being one of the country's most eligible bachelors.
"Music is my first love," he once declared to me and I never brought up the subject of marriage again. Perhaps the shock and horror of finding out that Erik is his real father kept him from starting a family of his own. Whatever his reasons may be, he never told me.
A hand on my shoulder jolts me out of my reverie.
"Bon jour, Maman! I thought I would find you here…"
I turn to look up and smile at the sight of this lovely girl who is my first-born, Julia as she swoops down to kiss me. Now happily married to a successful lawyer, Julia is a picture of bygone heroine of romance and the fair lady of our dreams. There is nothing subtle or hidden about her charms; her beauty is all there, flaming and apparent: the spun-gold hair that comb nor confining pin could restrain; the blue eyes that are sapphires; two lips that pouted, so red one can only think of cherries in looking at them. She is growing a little stout, but it does not seem to detract an iota from the grace of every step, pose or gesture.
"I like it here… It is… peaceful," I reply wryly. Julia told me earlier that she would be coming over to visit me but I guess I must have forgotten the time.
"Etienne and Celestine are missing their grandmother so I thought I will take you to Nice for a few days," she says, sliding gracefully into the garden chair beside me. "I know you're a little weary for travel but I promise it will be worth it…besides, the sun will be good for you…"
Wincing at the thought of the long ride, I suddenly remember my appointment with Raoul tomorrow – there will be a public auction at the new and refurbished L'Opera Garnier and he wants to meet me.
"I promised to see the Comte d'Chagny in Paris tomorrow," I tell her.
Julia's eyebrows rise in a faintly puzzled frown. "I suppose I could wait a day or two for you to sort out your schedule."
"Thank you, dear."
She waits with quite patience while I collect myself in slow degrees and prepare to go inside – the wind outside is getting too chilly for my bones.
The little house that I live stands behind a locked gate, and a shallow ornamental garden that is somewhat neglected. There is a small front porch, upon which a long window and the front door opened.
Julia leaves a lamp burning low upon the table. During the time that she stayed with me before her wedding, she had succeeded in making the house look habitable and homelike. There are some books on the table and a lounge near at hand. On the floor is a fresh matting, covered with a rug or two; and on the walls hung a few tasteful pictures – all of Julia's doing. My bedroom is adjoining, and across a small passage are the dining-room and kitchen.
As I return to my room to lie down, I remember quite clearly the dark stormy night in New Orleans, the night Julia was born…
Rain pelted madly on the roof and thunder crashed overhead. It had been a difficult birth, the quadroon midwife was speaking loudly. "Do exactly as I say, Madame…The baby is coming any moment now!"
I nodded and drew a panting breath, clinging to the sheets in the mindless delirium of pain. There was a great bursting, tearing sensation and then peace…and a loud boisterous cry of a baby.
"It's a girl, Madame," said the midwife proudly as I opened my eyes. She cut the cord with a pair of sterilized scissors, wrapped the tiny being in a blanket and passed the muffled bundle in my arms. Struggling to sit up against the damp pillow, I looked down at my baby and my heart warmed with happiness.
So totally engrossed with my little baby that I did not notice Erik had entered the room after the midwife had gone. I was stroking my daughter's arm and staring at her face.
"Meg darling, how are you?"
I looked up at my anxious husband and smiled. "I'm a little weak but other than that, I actually feel quite well!"
Erik was nervous as he stepped up to look at the baby sleeping in my arms.
"...and is she strong and healthy?"
I nodded. "She is perfect, Erik…"
There was an audible sigh of relief from Erik as I allowed him to carry her.
"She is her mother's likeness," said Erik as he looked down upon the child in his arms in wonderment. Then he gently kissed the baby's head, whispering to her, smelling her hair, her skin, her face and breathing her in. There was no rejection, only total acceptance as Julia stretched out one hand to grope uncertainly toward Erik. I saw a tear roll down his cheek.
It was exciting and a challenge to manage such a young family and moving from town to town. We were grateful that our nomadic lifestyle brought some measure of peace to our lives. Erik loved his children and I regretted not being able to give him more. When Julia was six years old, we settled down in a small town in Panama – there, a huge construction project linking the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans was in progress and they needed engineers. With his credentials, Erik had no problem finding work.
One day, Erik returned home with unexpected news.
"The Shah of Persia is dead," he told me.
Dead - I listened incredulously, too stunned to comprehend the impact on our lives. The shah's edict died together with him.
Erik pulled me into a relieved hug, as tears of joy spilled down my cheeks. I had hoped and prayed that someday, we could finally return to France. It was now a reality as the threat on my life was over. In the summer of 1900, we arrived in Paris during the great world fair, the Exposition Universelle. The city of Paris itself had changed so much - towering monuments, a metro system and noisy vehicles greeted us. The romantic old city which I grew up in was gone, swept away in the name of progress.
It was also a memorable year for us as I was pregnant again after two unfortunate miscarriages, our child conceived during our voyage home. We settled in our current home and prepared for the birth of our second child.
My hand instinctively reached for the locket hanging around my neck – its contents was all I have left to remind me of those tragic years that altered my world forever.
My baby… Stefan…
My little boy was so tiny and fragile with his little stick arms and legs, his skin a bluish tinge, born six weeks before his time. It was then that I realized Erik's dread – Stefan was the splitting image of his father; sunken mismatched eyes, grossly malformed lips and a gaping hole where the nose should have been. The terrified midwife told us that the baby didn't look very strong and that it would probably survive at most a few weeks. We were devastated and watched helplessly as the priest baptized the child.
"Stefan, his name is… Stefan," I murmured in tears, leaning against Erik for support. How could this happen to us? My mind could not find the answer…
"He's so small," remarked Julia as she looked down at her little brother one morning.
"You've been that small yourself," retorted Gustave, standing next to her.
"Not that small. Have I, Maman?" Julia turned to me.
I smiled despite my pain. "You have, darling. You've all been small once…"
"See, I told you," Gustave said proudly.
The children loved the baby although their visits were limited. Erik and I hadn't the heart to tell them that little Stefan was not going to be with us for long. Ten days later, I received the worst news of my life. I was watching the older children playing in the garden, the doctor approached me apprehensively and said, "Madame, it is time..."
Rushing into the nursery, I picked up Stefan and cradled him to my breast, feeling his shallow breaths, willing him to live but it was not meant to be. My baby…
Putting Stefan back into his cradle, I took a pair of scissors and with trembling hands, snipped a lock of hair from my baby and put it in a delicate silver locket. I wanted to remember my little boy... Erik and Nadir rushed into the room when they heard the news and stopped abruptly at the pitiful sight before them.
Looking up, I saw Erik, saw his eyes, saw the new lines around his mouth and realized that the loss of the baby was not mine alone. "Oh God, Erik," I sobbed, and pitched forwards.
Erik caught and held me. "Meg," he whispered into my hair.
"How could we lose him? I don't think I can bear it…"
"You will learn to bear it… for Gustave, for Julia…Remember the children! They still need you," said Nadir with his infinite wisdom.
Slowly I sat back in my chair and watched with shocked grief as Erik and Nadir wrapped the child in a blanket and took him away. That night, I did not sleep as I rolled the locket of Stefan's hair back and forth between my fingers, waiting for Erik's return. Erik had taken the child to be buried in a nearby church cemetery. He came back with mud and soil all over his shirt and trousers. "It is done," he said brokenly and wept…
Yes, I have learned to bear the loss of my son just as Nadir said I would for thirty years. I miss my dear old friend. Nadir passed away last year after a bout of illness. He never re-married and was contented to be a bachelor till his dying day.
In a distance, a cock crows, indicating a new dawn. With a sigh, I slowly get up from my bed after another sleepless night and prepare to leave for the city. Julia offers to accompany me but I shake my head.
"Raoul and I will bore you with our conversations," I tell her kindly, withholding the fact that I prefer to be alone for a while.
More memories assail me as my carriage halts in front of the opera house. I haven't been back to Paris in a long time, not since… I shiver not from cold but from the pain that is gripping my heart as I slowly walk up the steps to the event hall.
Erik was as strong as an ox and rarely fell ill. I could count the times he was ill with one hand when we were together. Stefan's death had greatly affected him and I don't think he ever got over it. Within a few weeks after burying Stefan, he succumbed to a heart attack and never recovered.
"You will get well, Erik," I said encouragingly as I fed him his medication dutifully. I could not lose my husband so soon after my baby.
"I'm too old to get well," he answered, chest heaving as he struggled to breathe.
"You cannot give up now!" I cried in panic, "I will call Doctor Binet now… He will help you."
Erik clutched my sleeve, his eyes dark pits of fear. "No… Stay…"
"I won't be long. Just a few minutes…"
"Meg, you can't save me… Doctor Binet can't save me!" he rasped.
My eyes glistened as a tear trickled. Erik's fingers touched the tear, traced its passage down my cheek.
"Let me go…"
Unable to speak, I held his hand, remembering their smooth, gentle warmth, their ability to please, love and hurt.
"Hold me, Meg…"
I nodded and climbed into bed beside him. I wrapped my arms around Erik, cradling him, making his strangled fight for breath become mine.
"Promise me, Meg… that when I die, you will bury me next to Stefan…"
"Oh, Erik!" I began to weep.
"It will be all right… You know I love you, Meg."
"I love you too…"
Erik slipped away sometime in the middle of the night and when I awoke in the morning, he was dead. It was worse that then death of my baby, Stefan. I had lost someone who was worth more than life itself to me. When Stefan died, my heart was broken. But now that Erik was gone, I wanted nothing more than my heart to cease beating.
The sound of the auctioneer's gavel interrupts my thoughts as I look up at the people who are there and the various items on sale. I did not recognize anyone familiar and Raoul, as usual, is late. I don't have to tell him it is extremely rude for a gentleman to keep a lady waiting - bouts of alcoholism and excessive smoking had eroded his health and confined him to a wheelchair. A few minutes later, Raoul arrives with his personal driver and nurse. We exchange greetings and turn our attention to the auction block.
The reason for Raoul's presence is a music box which once belonged to Erik. I'm surprised by its appearance after all those years. I thought it had been destroyed by the mob. Raoul outbid me for the item and I let him as I know the reason he bought it. It is for Christine and Raoul does not want anyone else to have it.
Next, is a chandelier in pieces…
I have no interest in re-living the horror that Erik had created and turn to leave.
"Meg, wait!" Raoul's voice stops me. "Would you like to join me for some tea?" he asks cheerfully.
"Thank you," I reply. "It will be my pleasure…"
We sit in a posh salon, drinking tea and eating cakes like old friends, each enquiring about the children and reminiscing the old days.
Raoul studies the music box closely. "A collector's piece indeed, every detail exactly as she said… Christine often spoke of the music box, the velvet lining and figurine of lead…" he murmurs and turns to me. "I am going to visit Christine today. Would you like to come?"
I have been to the grand mausoleum that Raoul had erected for his beloved wife but today is not the day. I politely decline and thank him for the invitation. There is another place I wanted to go…
The gates leading to the cemetery creaks as I open them. It has been a while since I stepped foot into the cemetery grounds and look upon the gravestones of Stefan and Erik. In a mix of anger and sadness, I push away the vines already covering the stones and touch the inscription reverently, blinking back tears. Exhausted, I sink unto the grass.
"Hello Erik, I know I haven't been here for quite a while," I murmur and begin to tell him about Gustave, Julia and the grandchildren.
"Everyone else seems to be moving on, everyone but me…
Si tu savais…
Time seems to have gone on without you, and I'm still stuck here. I feel sick, Erik. Sick and tired. I sometimes just want to go to sleep, and I dream that I'm in your arms again, that nothing else matters, that you weren't taken by the harsh realities of this world… that we would have many more years together…
Don't be angry with me. I remember what you told me, and I won't break my promise to you. I'll keep on going, even if it kills me to see another sunrise without you.
I think I have to go now. The driver's getting a bit annoyed. I'll be back soon, I promise and Erik?
I love you. I won't ever stop…"
Wiping away my tears, I get up with a sigh and leave. Upon my return, I tell Julia that I wish to remain here and postpone my trip to Nice. Julia is a little concerned about my erratic behavior but I assure her it is nothing. "Go back to Nice and give my love to the grandchildren for me," I say.
Julia leaves the next morning and I am alone once more as I tell the maid to take the day off.
The covers are pulled protectively up around me but I am restless, tossing in a light, uneasy sleep.
Suddenly, a slight breeze moves across the room as I awaken. Slowly, I sit up and said, "It's you, isn't it? You've come to kill me…"
From the shadows, a heavily accented voice answers, "Yes…"
Tears begin to streak my face as the figure floats on the edge of the room's shadows, a dark angel.
"Are you afraid?"
I shake my head. "No, no. I thought I would be, but I'm not. I'm – relieved."
With a shuddering sigh, I look at the masked intruder and say with a sob, "Oh God, all these years, I thought it was over… All this waiting... and somehow I always knew you'd come back. You are going to kill me now?"
"Is there any pain?" I ask, a little nervous.
"No. No pain…"
Nodding my head, I lie back on the pillow and a curious calm descends upon me as my vision blurs and my whole body growing limp. In my dreams the stage at the Opera Populaire comes alive again, the sweeping orchestral music, Maman and my beloved Erik... it is beautiful!
Author's Note: To all my loyal readers who have followed this story, thank you! I've always wanted to write a Phantom of the Opera fanfic and it took me almost a year to complete it after settling on a plot that satisfied my over-imaginative mind. I've received many favorite story alerts and it is indeed encouraging. Please, please review and let me know what you think of the story. xoxo