Happy Halloween, everybody! As a treat, I thought I would post something to suit the day. This is one from my library of older stories. It is not a simple love story; it has a bit of horror in it, totally Halloween appropriate. As an extra treat, check out my website's blog. My husband and I did Phantom costumes this year. So cute! And some of you knew I just performed a big recital this weekend. Pics are posted on the Facebook page, and I'll eventually have videos on my website as well.
And my big news: I just signed a contract to publish the first novel of my angel series! Thank you to everyone who has been so supportive with "Opera Macabre" and with my stories in general! Your encouragement has made me so sure of what I want and has kept me going after it. Thank you! :) And have a wonderful day full of pumpkins and trick or treating!
SUMMARY: Erik finds out Christine's plan to leave him and spins her a tale of horror.
"An Act of Contrition"
The streets of Paris were dark, even though it was early in the evening; the shorter days of late fall meant less daylight and more shadows and dead things. It was disconcerting to Christine as she hurried along, casting intent glances to every dark corner and alleyway she crossed. She couldn't help but be on her guard. She knew what hid in the darkness; she had looked upon its very face.
Drawing the hood of her woolen cloak closer to her face, she prayed that it would conceal her identity from one who might be following, watching as he always watched. Was she ever out of his sight? She couldn't be sure that he wasn't the very contour of her own familiar shadow, practically a viable part of her form.
She turned another corner, ducking and rushing from the light of one street lamp to the next. It was foolish to believe that staying out of the darkness would save her from it. It was already inside of her, tarnishing what was her former self, leaving stains on her very soul. She would never be free of it as long as she lived.
Her eyes paused on one particularly threatening alleyway as she scurried past. She could swear that she saw a figure lingering just beyond the glow of the streetlamps, but then before awareness solidified its verity, the vision seemed to vanish from her sight, making her wonder if it had been there at all. A shudder was her only proof, and bearing its cold blatancy through limb and bone, she ran on.
She had every reason to be afraid of the alley and its undisclosed secrets, for there was a figure in its recesses watching her at every motion. Erik had followed her from the opera house as he often did, guardian angel to the end whether she wanted him to be or not. She should know better than to wander the streets after sunset, he reasoned. She could be so foolishly naïve. Knowing he would be in pursuit of her yet venturing out alone anyway…; she was practically requesting his company without words.
Taking footsteps that made no sound despite every brushing upon the ground, he loomed in the dim corners and kept only mere steps behind her. She turned and glanced in his direction but never discerned his shape among the shadows, and as far as he was concerned, she was fortunate that he was the only one following; a woman alone was an easy target for any assailant. It surprised him that her ever-vigilant Vicomte had allowed her to go anywhere without his aggravating presence.
The Vicomte, the bane of Erik's existence. He longed to put him out of his misery; it would be merciful, considering the ending the young boy was on par for if he kept acting upon his infatuation with Christine. Damn him!
With another look into seeming, deceptive darkness as if in some unacknowledged way, she knew that was where he loomed, she abruptly turned to the steep staircase leading up to the tall, stone doorway of a church. An interesting spinning of events, Erik thought to himself. He would never have concluded that that would be her destination. What was she doing there? He waited until she had entered the heavy wooden door before pursuing. It had been years since he had dared enter a church, decades even. He had the lingering fear that the moment he set foot in the door, he would be set ablaze in the devil's condemning fire. Luckily, his imagination far exceeded his reality or so he learned as he snuck unharmed into the building, his nostrils immediately assaulted with the thick, musky scents of incense and candles.
Erik's curious gaze wandered around the sacred building, taking in its standard, rather blasé details: the stained glass art, the lifelike statures, the large cross hanging over the altar. Religion, to him, had always seemed like a ridiculous tradition, an unbelievable collection of fairytale stories that were meant to take away free will from the human race. Ah, to contemplate it: frightening people into living by an absolutely idealistic set of laws and rules. It was a conspiracy.
Christine was the lone figure in the candlelit building. Easing shaking fingers to act, she lowered the hood of her cloak, revealing a loose braid of dark curls, and lifted her blue eyes to the crucifix with reverence. A warm sense of security and safety filled her as though within these walls she could know no harm. No, not with God to watch over her….
Waiting and stalking his prey patiently, Erik lingered in the background. Beautiful seemed an inadequate way to describe her. Beauty was, after all, such a subjective thing. She was more than a beautiful face and a perfectly curved body. She was kindness, innocence, passion, music; she was everything to him. Since the very first day she had walked into his life, she had rewritten every one of his views on the world, on love, on life's very meaning. She couldn't know that; she'd never understand it.
As he watched her intently, to his amusement, she took a well-worn path to the confessional boxes and with a quick sign of the cross, entered the wooden door, closing herself within the small, private confines. So his angel had sins to confess; he couldn't help but be curious. With never a thought to consequence, he stepped to the opposite door beside the one she had entered, meant to be used by the parish priest and supposed mediator to God, and on his whim, he entered it.
The little cubicle was dark, all wood surrounding him except for the small screen that separated him from Christine. Glancing into her side of the box as best he could, he distinguished her shape, following its every gentle line with eager eyes as she knelt reverently with hands folded and eyes downcast. Such an obedient child.
"Bless me, father, for I have sinned," she spoke in hushed tones.
Erik shrank back against the furthest wall, making certain that his identity was hidden lest she peek through the screen, and careful to keep his voice low and unrecognizable, he bid, "What sins have you to confess, my child?"
"A sin I have yet to commit," she replied, and he could detect the grief in her voice, heavy and weighting every consonant. "Oh, father, I need to know that God will understand why I must do what I will."
His heart ached in his chest. He knew instantly that he was involved in this premeditated sin and that its revelation would be unpleasant. The desperation to know ripped through him, but he fought to keep it unperceivable, urging almost gently and never with his candid impatience, "Speak freely here, and know that God is listening."
Christine swallowed hard, hesitating as she collected every bit of courage she possessed. Exhaling a breath that she didn't even realize she had been holding, she closed her eyes and revealed, "There is…a man. He…deceived me and tricked me into believing he was an angel."
"Angels can take mortal form from time to time," he quickly interrupted with the irrepressible need to justify himself and his faults. "How can you be so certain that he isn't an angel?"
"He isn't; he isn't an angel at all. He is a murderer." She said the word as if it was a blasphemy, and even though he did not reply, he felt its harsh sting snap at the surface of his skin. "He has killed so many people without mercy or remorse as if he had the right to decide whether a person should live or die."
"And…do you fear for your own life?" Erik asked softly.
"Every moment of every day," she admitted with a rush of relief. How long had she kept these feelings to herself, locking the thoughts in her mind? "He is in love with me." The disgust was unmasked in her tone, and he felt tears rising in his throat against his control. "He has told me again and again, fallen at my feet with gushings of devotion."
"And…you share no such feelings toward this man?" He knew her answer would tear his heart in two, but he couldn't resist asking. "You must feel something for him."
"Revulsion, anger, …hatred. How could I feel anything else when I know the sorts of crimes he has committed? …And then there is his face…."
Erik cringed, the tears slipping loose to cascade down his cheek and beneath the mask, and he couldn't dare speak for fear he would sob, only listening in his agony.
"I know that I have no right to pass judgment," she was saying, "but he is…horribly disfigured. He wears a mask to hide his face from the world, but I have seen it…. It is the face of the devil himself." When the priest did not say anything to stop her, she continued in a heavy whisper, "But there is another man, a Vicomte, and I am in love with him. Erik, the man in the mask, hates the Vicomte; he suspects my feelings for him and is jealous so much so that I fear for the Vicomte's life."
Christine paused, guilt creeping with a red flush on her cheeks. The truth of her confession was on the tip of her tongue, but she had to force herself to say it and allow it to touch the air. "I am going to run away with the Vicomte. Erik doesn't know. I promised him that I was going to return to him tomorrow night after my performance. He will be waiting for me, expecting me to come as I always do, but I won't. I won't ever again. I know that it is a most horrible sin to lie to him in such a blatant manner, but there is no other way. If we don't leave now, I fear he will never let me go. If he knew, …I am terrified even to consider that."
Pain was tearing at Erik, soul-consuming and poignant, and yet within the moment, it was being replaced with rage, the sort he knew so well, the sort that blinded the pictures before his eyes and blazed redness in its wake. She was afraid; she very well should be. The deceitful chit! The very thought that he would have never known, that he would have ignorantly waited and waited for her, glancing up at every sound thinking it was her approach, wondering if something could be wrong, then eventually realizing her betrayal…. She was naïve to have thought that running away with the Vicomte would save her; had she not even considered that he would pursue them? And then woe to their fate!
"Father?" Christine called softly, concerned by his silence, and Erik was reminded that it hadn't happened yet, that he could stop it from ever happening. "Please tell me if I can be forgiven for this, if there is a penance for me. Please tell me that you understand."
"Did you never consider the feelings of this man you so casually refer to as the devil?" he questioned in return, his voice tightening with the edge of his anger. "Of how your lies would hurt him, would break him in two and leave him without hope or a will to live? Or were you so selfishly concerned with your own happiness that he was only ever an unfeeling monster to you? Not a man, …no, never a man."
Christine's entire body went numb, the panic racing through her limbs with a violent flush and tingle. That voice! She recognized it as her widening eyes stared at the screen between them, her entire frame trembling from head to toe, and frozen in her seat, she gasped, "Erik?"
Leaning against the screen to make his presence known, he met her horrified eyes with his own. There was no mistaking his rage and a fire so bright that she knew it would sear her to cinders, and with a muffled cry, she suddenly leapt to her feet and darted out of the confessional. Watching her futile escape, a sinister sneer curved Erik's lips before he followed.
Christine only managed to distance herself a few steps up the aisle when Erik flung his dark cloak over her head, burying her in its thick folds as he caught her in his grasp. Keeping her within the binding material, he threw her small body over his shoulder as she struck frustrated fists against his back, her screams muted and suffocating her with black shadows.
She couldn't think, couldn't wonder about what would happen now; she could only strive to get free. She was struggling against his hold, yelling for anyone who could hear, and yet she feared it wouldn't matter. And all she could consider was that this must be God's punishment for her sins.
Erik was stalking up the aisle, undeterred, but before he could reach the church's large wooden doors, a tall shape stood in his path.
The parish priest had heard a woman's cries, and even as he was shaken by the sheer aura of the masked man and the violence that permeated out of him like a fog, the priest held up a decisive hand. "This is a house of God. Stop this heathen behavior."
"I don't exist to your God," Erik growled with annoyance. "He has forsaken me; I owe Him no allegiance."
"I cannot allow you to pass," the priest steadily replied, defiantly holding Erik's fiery gaze.
"And you can't stop me either." With a fierce growl, Erik pushed the priest to the floor, oddly satisfied to see the man hit his head and not get up again. It certainly served the priest right for interfering in something that wasn't his business. No, no, this was about the workings of the heart, and a man of God could never understand that.
Without even a look at the fallen man, Erik strode out of the church, clutching his prize over his shoulder, unsurprised that she had ceased her pointless struggles and was now a passive victim. He did not slow in his pace and neither did his anger calm in the chilled air of the catacombs, as he stalked the familiar pathways beneath the opera house. She was quiet; she had been quiet for awhile, but that was all about to change. She was about to scream, and when such a concept should be unfathomable to him, it brought a strangely malevolent smile to his lips. The devil she'd called him; the devil she would get.
Carrying her inside, he went straightway to her room, the beautiful sanctuary he had taken such care to decorate just for her. How meticulous he had been in arranging every nuance of its grandeur for her! And she had never even acknowledged his effort. Such gratitude from the undeserving! With a sudden heave upon the impulses of his thoughts, he tossed her into the room, watching without care as she tumbled in a mess of skirts and limbs down to the plush carpet.
As soon as she was free of his grasp, she stumbled to her feet, prepared to attempt to escape, but anticipating such an action, he slammed the door and locked her inside alone before she could dare try.
Christine lunged at the door, desperately fighting to open it with clawing fists. "Erik," she shouted frantically. "Let me out of here!"
Erik did not reply, staring at the closed door apathetically. Let her stew in her thoughts for awhile until he decided the right way to proceed. All he was certain of was that she wasn't leaving and she needed to learn a lesson for thinking that she was.
She was still yelling for release, yet he turned a deaf ear and wandered to his own room to make arrangements. A lesson, he repeated to himself. A lesson indeed….
It was an hour later when he walked back to that locked door. All was quiet; it had been that way for some time now, leaving him to wonder if she had given up or if she had acted drastically and perhaps found some means t taken her own life. No, she was not nearly that dramatic, one of her unconsidered flaws, and besides, she couldn't do that, not with the Vicomte's welfare on the line as well. She was just being obstinate.
On guard lest she attack, he unlocked the door and opened it to his eager eyes, seeking her out. His gaze immediately fell upon her graceful silhouette. She had been seated on the canopy bed, but when she noticed his appearance, she rose on shaky knees, waiting, her hand steadying her on the post of the bed.
"You were going to betray me," he accused bluntly and without pleasantry.
"I'm sorry," she whispered back. He almost could have believed her.
"No, you're not. Your own words spoken from your very mouth are your undoing." Striding in front of her defiant posture, he noticed how she clutched the bedpost with white knuckles as if she dared not let go. "…And yet at the same time as I blame you, I can't help but consider that you acted under the influence of the Vicomte. Perhaps I give you too much credit, but if not for him, I don't think that you would deceive me. I don't think that you would dare. Ironic that you call me the devil, and yet it is he leading you to lies and sin."
"Erik, please." There was such desperation in her eyes. "I will not leave with him; I will return to you as I promised. Just please don't hurt Raoul."
He laughed bitterly. "Your sacrifice is endearing but far too late. We've made it far past the point of making deals. Now we only play things my way." On a thought, he let his eyes drift over her from head to foot, taking in her beauty, drinking it in as it tingled his skin. Another ploy to be sure, beauty with consequence for any man who dared to bask in it …like another Delilah, living and breathing and deceiving with her every word…. "But first," he continued with a modicum of spite attached from internal meditation, "I realize that you must be punished for your deceptive plotting."
"Punished?" she stuttered with terror-stricken eyes, trembling uncontrollably to every locked finger joint with the mere idea.
"I guess it's more of a necessary learning experience than a punishment, if you are willing to open yourself to it, of course."
Her brow was furrowed with confusion, and as she fought to understand his intent, he approached her with fire in his eyes. She did not move, only clung to the bedpost with a small cry of terror, knowing she could not stop him.
It took very little effort on his part to pry her free and lift her very ungracefully into his arms as she weakly struggled against him. He did not relish the feel of her soft body so near or contemplate her beauty this time; no, he remained detached from the scene, no heart, no soul, no fire and consuming desire. He had to if only to follow through with his plan. One regret and he knew he would fall apart.
Carrying her without even a glance, he brought her into his bedchamber, a room he had previously forbidden her to enter, and as she surveyed the scene, she saw why. Everything was dark, black sheets concealing the walls, black carpet on the floor. In place of a bed was a large black coffin with blood red, velvet lining…. A coffin that she could only conclude that he slept in.
As he carried her towards its menacing shape, she began to fight against him with renewed vigor, crying out, "No! No!" with already a vague notion to his plan.
Erik only smiled that viciously evil grin he had been indulging all night, and without a second thought, he practically dumped her as if she was a rag doll into the coffin's confinement. Before she could leap up and escape, he lifted the lid and set it into place, closing her inside.
Christine screamed, her palms shoving desperately at the hard wooden lid above her head, but it was far too heavy to budge. She was closed in on all sides, buried in soft velvet.
"Erik!" she yelled, gasping in terrified gulps of air. "Let me out! Please, Erik, please! I'm sorry! Let me out!"
"I can't do that, my dearest one, not just yet." He sat atop the wooden lid, envisioning her so frantic beneath him. It was perversely satisfying.
"Erik, please! Please! I'll die in here!" Her fists beat as hard as they could on the lid, her knuckles bruising with the exertion.
"Don't be ridiculous," he replied matter of factly. "If you will calm yourself and notice, there are air holes cut into the wood all around you."
Her horrified eyes searched the walls on either side, and indeed there were small slits letting the thinnest and smallest beams of light inside to assuage her. So she would not suffocate, but the anxiety did not quit tightening her limbs and making her heart race with its consumption.
"Erik, please." Her pleas were smaller now, awash in the tears filling her eyes.
"This is your lesson, Christine," he told her, refusing to be moved by her fear. "You yourself said that you were afraid that I would kill you, and so now you will face your own death. You need to realize that it is nothing to fear at all. Every living thing must die. The very day you were born, you were one day nearer to that inevitable fate. It is a part of life, and if you can see that and learn not to be afraid, then maybe you can learn not to fear me as well."
The very idea seemed preposterous to her as she used his voice if only to anchor her senses, convinced she might lose them otherwise. He meant to leave her in this coffin, she realized with a new rising of terror, and God only knew for how long.
In a feeble attempt, she called, "Please, Erik, I'll do whatever you want; I'll think whatever you want. Just let me out of here."
"As tempting an offer as that is, I must decline. It is far more important for you to have this experience. And while you are in there, I want you to think on things, to consider what sort of future you yourself really want and to consider what you were ignorantly about to do. I may have sins on my soul. I may be condemned to an eternity in hell, but I have never been anything but tender with you. I have never given you reason to hate me save for my repulsive face."
"You give me reason right now," she retorted, knowing that if he stood before her, if she saw that mask and those eyes, she would never be so bold.
"What I am doing right now is for your own good," he snapped sharply. "It is a blessing as you will see. Life never seems sweeter than when you face your own demise." His entire manner suddenly shifted, and with a hint of compassion, he asked, "Are you afraid, Christine?"
"Yes," she gasped out, her voice thick with tears.
How it hurt him to do this, but it must be done! In a gentle tone, he bid, "Close your eyes. Let your mind wander. Imagine that this is your fate, and if it is, what are your regrets? What have you left unfinished in this life? What sort of joy and pain have you brought others? And if this is the end, realize that life will go on even without you. The Vicomte's life will go on, and he'll find another pretty face to love. But my life, …my life will end with yours…. Without you, I am nothing…. And yet, you fear me…." There were tears in his eyes as well as he pondered his own words. Swallowing hard, he attempted to remain aloof as he stood up and headed to the door. "I leave you to your thoughts."
She did not pose another argument, did not say a word even as she heard his retreating footsteps and the click of the closed door.
And then she was alone…. Her first thoughts were of possible escapes, of ways to get out of this coffin and away from this madman, but as the minutes ticked by, reality began to settle in. She realized that this was exactly what he had wanted, to trap her alone with her thoughts and to scare her into wondering over both of their actions. She concluded that he wasn't going to leave her to die; it was odd that she trusted him enough to know that. But she couldn't be certain if he would ever let her leave him again. Her confession had been heard not by God, but by the devil; it hardly seemed fair.
Raoul's dear face flashed in her head. He would be worried about her, expecting her to meet him soon for supper. It was with many assurances on her part that he had let her leave him at all to go to church. It had been foolish to assume that she would be safe in God's house. She wondered if Raoul would search for her, having little idea where to look, or if as Erik presumed, he would move on to someone else. She wanted to believe in the Vicomte's devotion, but she knew that there had been others before her; would there be others after?
Her mind drifted to Erik. It wasn't a lie that he had only ever been good to her aside from his abrupt mood changes and quick rising anger. But he had never struck her in a rage or been unreasonably cruel…, aside from trapping her in a coffin, of course. He said if she died, his life would be over…. She knew it was the truth….
Erik was seated in his living room before the fire in the hearth, wondering about Christine and her frame of mind. She wasn't screaming or begging as he had assumed she would be; she was stronger than he gave her credit for. But he planned to break her before this experience was over if only to get her to see truths that she was always so eager to deny.
Hours dragged by, and Erik continued to stare unseeing at the dying flames. Night faded to day and faded to night again, and still he sat in the same seat, having not slept or eaten as he was sure she hadn't either.
Finally, well past sunset, he returned to his room, opening the door with a creak. Before his eyes even looked on the coffin, soft sobs met his ears, muffled and incessant. How long had she been victim to them? The very sound made his heart ache.
On silent feet, he approached the coffin, and with a heave, lifted the lid.
Christine cringed as candlelight hit her light-deprived eyes, but without a thought, she sat up abruptly, gasping in deep gulps of air as if she hadn't breathed in hours. Her entire body was stiff, and to her surprise, Erik suddenly gathered her to himself, hugging her rigid body tightly to his chest as he stood beside her.
He couldn't help himself. It was an unspoken apology buried in a desperate embrace, one of his hands brushing back tangled curls from her face. She did not return the embrace, but she did not push him away either.
"Christine, Christine," he fervently bid.
"Please," she whispered desperately, "get me out of here."
Erik did not hesitate, scooping her trembling body up into his arms and carrying her out of the room. He brought her to her own bedroom and to her bed, laying her delicately atop the mattress and drawing the covers over her.
Leaning over her and stroking her brow, he told her, "I do not enjoy being cruel to you, but it had to be done. You had to see."
His words barely registered in her head as she curled in a tight ball, hugging her knees.
"Close your eyes," he gently said. "Rest."
She tried to comply, but every time her lids closed, all she could see in her mind's eye was the lid of a coffin. Her hand suddenly darted out and caught his in a tight grasp as she gasped out, "Don't leave me."
Erik smiled. He concluded to himself that his actions, cruel as they had been, had proved to have the desired effect on her. Slow in his movements in case she refused him, he climbed into the bed beside her and curled up behind her, tentatively wrapping his arms around her body.
"I…I can't stop shaking," she stuttered out, her entire body violently trembling in his arms.
"Sshh," he crooned. Despite her current state, he could not help but revel in the sensation of her body against his. "I will always keep you safe, ange."
Gradually, Christine relaxed against him, and a long delayed sleep overwhelmed her. At the present, she could not associate him with being the same man who had locked her in the coffin. To her, he wasn't Erik now; he was a human being, and she needed to feel someone, anyone close to her. She was terrified to be alone. In the back of her drifting mind was the urgent need to flee from here and from him. Once she was rested, she would find a way to get to Raoul, and together, they would leave this place and this monster. Together, they would be free.
Beside her, Erik could not quell his excitement at the prospect of the future before him. She would stay with him always now, and he would never be alone again.
Pressing a tender kiss to the crown of her head, he slipped into a blissful sleep, happier than he had ever been in all his life.