With a frustrated groan Christine turned in her bed again. How dreadfully annoying: try as she might she simply couldn’t get to sleep.
It was long after midnight in the house beyond the lake and the soprano had been in bed for quite some time. Today had been another long and confusing day with her former angel of music, whom she now knew as a deformed masked man called Erik known to most people as the infamous Phantom of the Opera.
That very same Opera was now her home and not just any hone, no she lived in a house hidden inside a wall close to a secret lake.
Her host was both a talented genius and an insecure wreck who had been a recluse for far to long: the man has clearly forgotten how to interact with people normally. Fearing humanity but craving contact at the same time had damaged him greatly. But there were signs that Erik could have been a kind man, a gentle intellectual even, had he been given the chance to live a normal life. Sadly the endless mistreatment he had obviously suffered plus the lack of a normal upbringing had left deep-seated marks of distrust and fear that made him prone to either close off or become paranoid at the slightest confrontation. It was such a shame as in the rare moments they truly conversed Erik could be a delight. Those conversations reminded her of the wonderful hours of speaking with her angel, which made the soul crushing silence that filled most of the days beyond the lake all the more difficult.
Yes, her life right now truly was a roller-coaster and if she were to make it through the strange days she now experienced Christine knew she needed an adequate amount of sleep. Sadly tonight it simply was not forthcoming.
The clock in the hall struck two and with a weary huff Christine sat up.
It is probably because it is night here all the time, the girl thought with a sigh as she brushed her long hair out of her face.
She decided that she would make herself some warm milk and get a book from the library, one of those was bound to make her feel sleepy.
Moments later Christine was huddled in her dressing gown as she padded the hallway on her slippers. As she pottered about it suddenly hit her how at home she was beginning to feel in Erik’s place. She would not have imagined walking around in his house like this a week ago. How could this strange house suddenly feel like a home? Maybe because it wasn’t as strange any more … Every day things seemed slightly more normal. Even Erik; the respect and reference he treated her with had long since convinced her that he would never harm her. Except for the moment he broke down after she removed his mask he had never even as much as touched her. For most of the time it was as if he thought himself to be her lowly servant, except during their singing lessons or when he performed for her in the evenings. She wasn’t certain if she liked it that Erik saw himself as somehow lower than her just because there was something wrong with his face. It worried her that he was working himself beyond exhaustion just to please her. What had happened on the evening of her third day in his domain still haunted her.
After the mask “affair” Erik had changed: his confidence seemed lower and he had grown even more quiet: only speaking to her when she asked him a question. Even when he did speak it was usually while throwing himself at her feet. He would sit there on his knees with his head bowed low, begging for forgiveness or worrying if she needed anything, all this accompanied by desperate moans or weeping. This only helped to make her feel more uncomfortable in his presence. But what was especially unnerving to her was that Erik kept standing next to her chair for hours on end looking at her as if expecting something or if he were pleading with her. When this kept going on relentlessly, Christine had tried to block him out by reading a book. This had worked for some time, until she reached chapter four.
“Christine ...” Erik had suddenly said in a voice that, although kind, sounded strained.
“Erik?” She asked looking up from the book in surprise, not used to him speaking without her initiating the conversation.
“Christine … please …” Erik had sighed, nearly crying. “Erik does not want to upset you … but … please can he sit down …? His … my legs are in so much pain ...”
“What?!!” Christine sat up with a jump, her mouth open in horror. Immediately she looked up at the man in front of her. For the first time in days she truly looked and what she saw hurt: Erik was shaking and it was obvious that the wall he was leaning against was the only thing that kept him from collapsing. “Oh my God!” the girl gasped, feeling horrified.
“No, no, don't be upset.” Erik urged, clearly thinking it was his request that had alarmed her, not the absurdity of the situation. “I … I can remain standing if you prefer, I swear.” The fact that he swayed precariously while saying so was a worrying contradiction.
“No … no!!” Christine breathed. “Please, I beg you Erik, sit down!!”
A look of relieve spread in Erik's yellow eyes, but still he hesitated.
“SIT! ERIK!!” Christine snapped.
That did the trick. Painfully slowly and clearly in a lot of discomfort Erik dragged himself to his chair where he sat down heavily.
“You have got to be kidding me!!” Christine hissed, not knowing if she was upset or angry or both. “You are telling me that you've been standing by my chair for nearly three days just because you were waiting for me to give you permission to sit down … In.Your.Own.Home?!!”
For some time the masked man did not reply, he was leaning the back of his head against the chair and panted a little. It hurt Christine to see that he was clearly utterly drained.
“Erik only does as Christine pleases,” Erik said after some time, his voice broken from exhaustion. “Erik keeps telling Christine … Forgive him please if he did wrong, Erik is so tired.”
Not knowing what to say to this Christine had put her head in her hands, as she did, Erik’s tired voice reached her.
“Would … would Christine allow Erik to close his eyes for a while?”
Looking up Christine nodded. “Yes, please do that ...” she replied. “But please Erik, listen; You don't have to wait for permission to sit down ever again, know that. Not now, not ever.” Saying these words she had looked at Erik imploringly, her voice shaking with all sorts of emotions as her shaking Maestro had looked at her sadly.
“Thank you ...” Erik sighed wearily in answer to her words. “It … is difficult … I was taught …” he sighed again, a quivering breathy sigh. “Later … too tired now ...”
Moments later Erik had fallen asleep and Christine had simply walked out of the room to let him rest. Then in a fit of compassion for her poor, desperate, Maestro she had returned to Erik to put a blanket over him. Seeing him sleep in his chair he had looked so broken and fragile her heart had gone out to him. This was the first time that she realised that although Erik might have taken her to his home, most of the power lay with her. It was a confusing situation.
As Christine pondered on all this during her walk to the kitchen, a soft noise startled her. It was barely a sound, but in the deadly silence of Erik’s house it was as loud as firework. The sound came from the dining room and reminded her of a soft, strangled, sobbing.
Erik! Christine thought with worry. Was something wrong with him?
Softly she tiptoed to the door and listened to make sure: Yes, someone was there. Carefully Christine then opened the door to find the room lit by a single candle while a lone, hunched, figure sat at the table. The figure was, of course, Erik. But what was he doing?
The first thing Christine noticed was that there was a plate of food on the table, the second was that Erik was unmasked and crying. The sudden shock this gave her made her gasp. Hearing the sound Erik flinched then his hand shot out and immediately the mask was back in place.
“Christine!” he breathed. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t aware you were still awake. I swear, I wouldn’t have unmasked if I’d known.”
Oh … Christine bit her lip and her brow furrowed. That wasn’t necessary, she thought. Erik shouldn’t be expected to wear the mask at every given moment. In fact it was probably best if she would get used to his deformity. Seeing his expressions was far preferable to the stillness of a façade that kept her guessing.
“It … It’s al right ...” she muttered unconvincingly, it certainly rang false with Erik who simply shrugged and made no attempt to remove the mask. Deciding to let go of the topic for now, Christine returned to the present.
“Why are you having dinner in the middle of the night?” It was a logical question she figured, as it seemed like an odd thing to do. To Christine’s surprise her shy host lowered his head as if he were utterly mortified.
“I … I was hungry ...” Erik muttered, sounding embarrassed about the situation. “I … It has been a while and there was so much left today …”
Hungry? Christine frowned and looked again at the small plate that graced the giant dinner table and realised: the meagre meal contained her leftovers … and worst of all; they were cold. This didn’t look appetising nor nourishing at all.
“So you do eat?” Christine heard herself ask. What a stupid thing to say, she inwardly berated herself. Of course Erik eats, he is not a real ghost, you fool!
A sound coming from the pit of Erik's stomach answered her. Christine realised she had heard this sound a lot in the last few days, but had never connected it to him.
“Oh my stars ...” Christine exclaimed. “So that's you? You're really hungry? But … when do you eat?”
A dejected looking Erik lowered his gaze to his hands.
“At night …” he confessed, almost sounding like a little boy who got caught doing things that he should not do. “At night, when all work is done. When I am certain you are asleep and … I'm not too tired.”
Christine raised an eyebrow: “Work?” as far as she knew Erik had no job and never left his home, unless it was to collect parcels and shopping that was delivered at the gate by someone he paid to do so. But whatever he was doing, it had clearly left him drained.
“Oh … I am sorry.” Erik stammered. Obviously he had hinted at something she should not know. “Nothing to burden you with. Erik is completely well.” The man sighed as he winced seemingly in pain.
“Erik looks terrible ...” Christine said, shaking her head. He truly did, even with the mask on he looked exhausted.
“Erik always does ...” Erik shrugged.
Questions, so many questions: why was Erik hungry? Did her presence force him to eat all alone in the night, hidden away as if it were a crime? Was it because of his mask? Why did his meal consist of her cold leftovers? Was he in need of money? Was he too tired to look after himself properly? Did he feel this was all he that was worth? Either way, everything about this concept was bad.
Suddenly Christine realised that she might have been silent for too long, as the yellow eyes of her masked companion were searching her for a response and his breathing had started coming noticeably faster.
“Please, don’t be angry with Erik,” Erik panted anxiously. “He will not eat any-more if it upsets Christine. He tried not to for so long, but he was so hungry ...”
Those words triggered a reaction from Christine: “Wait, what?” she blurted out.
As sadness begun to fill the gaze of the man at the dinner table, an awful realisation crept up on Christine: had she been feasting in front of a starving man for days on end?
“Maestro, be honest, when did you last eat, truly?” she asked as she stepped towards him.
“The day before you arrived ...” Erik muttered, bowing his head once more as he swallowed back saliva.
“But … that’s at least a week ago ...” Christine gasped. “Why …?” Every bad thought she might have had about this strange figure who had brought her to his house below the ground melted away at the thought of him starving himself just to spare her from seeing his face.
“As you could see, Erik has to remove his mask to eat and …” Erik was cut short by another gargle from his stomach. For a second he looked at the plate longingly, then he focused his pleading eyes on Christine again. “Please ...” he begged.
Realising that Erik was literally begging her for permission to eat, Christine felt as if she were about to vomit. For a second she begun to wonder who was actually holding who a prisoner. Then she made a decision: as long as she lived with Erik, why not use her time constructively? Maybe, if he started feeling better about himself: if he was fed, if he slept, sensed she did care for him … maybe Erik would grow to trust her. As long as he considered himself a living corpse (and he clearly did his best to live up to the part) he would never believe she would keep her promise of visiting him once she left. Which she knew she would, no-one should be as lonely as Erik was.
But for some reason she could not articulate these thoughts to the hungry figure at the table. The pleading hollow eyes overwhelmed her and Erik’s desperation was so tangible it almost made her feel as if it were chocking her. In the end all she managed was a harsh: “No Erik,” and of course Erik misunderstood: what else could he do, he had no way of knowing what was in her mind.
It was clear that Erik understood her “no” to mean that she would not allow him to eat and the hopeless look that replaced the pleading in Erik’s eyes devastated her. “If Christine wishes ...” Erik muttered darkly. This choked Christine even further: he would, wouldn’t he?! Erik would truly starve himself if he thought it would please her. Worse: he actually thought she would be so cruel as to deny him those sad little shreds he thought consisted a meal?
As her mind whirled Erik was breaking down in front of her and scrambled to his feet with a heartbroken gaze at his plate and a sad lollop from his stomach. I shouldn’t let him leave like this! Christine thought helplessly, but he was already out in the hallway before she found her voice back.
“No, no Erik, wait!! I meant no, as in … You are worth more than a plate of scraps!!” Christine cried out as she dashed after him, only just catching his arm. “Please, Erik …” then she blurted out: “I am making you pancakes!!”
A gasp from Erik as he turned to her. “You … What?” he asked looking absolutely flummoxed.
“Yes.” Christine insisted, twisting his sleeve “I don’t want you to eat scraps, because I am making you pancakes!” Well, she might as well do it now, she figured. It might even be fun … baking pancakes for a Phantom in the middle of the night.
Once she started Christine decided she would do it properly and go all the way. The strange man would not just get any pancakes; he needed feeding, so Christine would make him her famous Swedish pannkakor. As a true blue Swede she preferred pannkakor over crêpes as they were far thicker and fluffy and more nutritious.
Soon there was a lovely batter mixed to perfection and Christine begun melting butter in the frying pan, when it sizzled she pored some of the batter into it. As she worked Christine was keenly aware of the figure sitting at the kitchen table who was staring at her with ravenous eyes. At first it had unnerved her, as she thought that look was aimed at her, but she was soon reassured that it was truly the food that Erik desired at that moment. The moment the batter was in the pan his eyes were fixed on nothing but the kitchen utensil. As the pancake started to fry and begun to release it’s delicious scent Erik’s stomach responded eagerly and soon the poor starving man was practically salivating. To Christine’s relief the pancake was ready in mere moments and baked to perfection. With a happy smile she put it onto a plate, added some sugar on the top and then placed it before her famished Maestro.
With an impressive willpower Erik did not start eating his pancake immediately, instead he looked up at Christine and choked out: “Can I really?”
“Of course, Erik, I made it for you. Come eat it quickly before it gets cold.”
A small ache went through Christine’s heart when Erik made a sad gesture at his mask.
“I know. You can take it off. It’s al right Erik I promise you. If I feared seeing you eat, would I prepare you a meal?”
A soft sob of gratitude was her answer as Erik’s shaky hands removed the mask, as he did Christine made a point of looking at him with a smile. Relieved by her response there was one last wary glance asking for approval which Christine answered with a friendly permissive nod.
Having received her blessing Erik immediately devoured the first pancake in less than a minute, like the starving man that he was. As he did Christine started work on the next one, which disappeared as swiftly as the one before.
So much for the living corpse, Christine thought as she watched him eat his meal with an almost heartbreaking desperation.
After the second Erik managed one more pancake. At Christine’s insistence he also ate few pieces of cheese from a small cheese platter that she had made, worried that too much sugar could leave him feel queasy after forgoing food for so long.
As Erik ate her pancakes Christine used the opportunity to look at his unmasked face when he was not paying attention. Seeing the man calm and just being Erik was a rather different experience from seeing him upset. After a while she had decided that the deformity was bad, of course, but did that make him a monster? At the moment his thinness was far more disturbing to her, as were the dark circles under his eyes, especially now she knew that this might not be part of his condition, as she’d thought at first. What this man needed was someone to take care of him, instead of the other way around. Well then, as long as she was there, he’d eat and rest.
While she thought about all this Christine finished baking the rest of the pancakes, so they could have them for breakfast the next day. Doing this she noticed from the corner of her eye that Erik seemed a little more calm now that he wasn’t hungry any more and seemed to be dozing at the table. It might be best for both of them to sleep in the next day she thought to herself. Finally finished with the pancakes, Christine cheerfully made two mugs of warm milk and sat herself at the table next to Erik, handing him one.
“Are you feeling a bit better now?” she asked kindly. To her surprise her heart fluttered a little when Erik attempted to give her a grateful smile with his tight, thin, lips. The more she looked at him, the more she could see through the deformity and strangeness and see a man in pain, yearning to be accepted.
“I do. Thank you so much Christine.” Erik replied earnestly. “Do not worry about cleaning anything, I beg you. I will do the washing up when you are back in bed after ...”
As he abruptly cut himself of Christine cocked her head to the side in an askance gesture. “After what …? The work you mentioned?”
He swallowed and nodded silently.
“So, what work is that?”
For some reason Erik curled in on himself in embarrassment as he replied in a soft voice. “Every night I clean my house at least twice, I cut flowers, I prepare the fire and incense, I make a schedule for lessons and leisure to try and keep you entertained, and I prepare your meals. Erik prepares it all as he does not want Christine without comfort. Everything has to be perfect, you deserve nothing less. Only the best for Christine.”
On his last words Erik lifted his head a little, as if he tried to work up the courage to look her in the eye, he quickly looked away again when Christine stared at him in silence.
“But ...” Christine said eventually, feeling slightly overwhelmed. “Christine does not want all this fuss. She is not a queen or goddess. She does not want you to drain yourself completely nor does she want you to starve!”
Once again Erik dared to glance in her direction only to hastily avert his eyes again.
“But I have to make up for what I did … for who I am ...” he muttered as if to himself as much as to her.
“Not like this.” Christine said insistently. “I forbid it.”
A strange sound escaped Erik as he sat up to look at her. “If Christine wishes ...” he said, sitting a bit straighter as if her giving him orders somehow brought him a strange comfort. Maybe that was all he knew, Christine thought sadly.
“So Christine can make rules?” she asked in a confused voice.
Erik nodded expectantly. If there was one thing Christine hated it was giving orders, having grown up poor she could not think of seeing anyone as somehow being beneath her. But she knew she had to, if it made the situation more bearable for both of them.
“Very well. Christine wishes for Erik to be like he was when he taught her as an angel. Talk to her like the friend she knew. I … miss that Erik. Christine wishes for him to sit with her and be her companion, perhaps have tea with her as well. She does not want him to be a waiter, butler, footman or anything, she wants a friend. He has to take the time to rest and to eat and sleep. If the house is not cleaned or the fire not lit … It does not matter. If you want me to enjoy being here the company matters more than what anything looks like. And ...” for a second she hesitated, but Christine knew it was now or never: “I also want more freedom than I have now: I want to perform again and I want to attend the masquerade.”
For a second there was silence as Erik considered her words. In this silence the both of them shifted uncomfortably. Then Erik swallowed, this was followed by a sigh and yet another sigh, then it seemed as if he’d made a decision that lay heavy on him.
“Erik would set Christine free at once if she promised to come back to visit Erik once in a while.”
So it was true: Christine thought with relief, Erik did not want to imprison her forever. All he wanted was her company and for her not to fear him. And Christine was now certain that she did not fear him, so what she said next was not a lie:
“If I come back after the masquerade will you believe me then?”
A flicker of confusion went through Erik’s face upon her words.
“The masquerade is days away, I thought Christine wanted to leave Erik soon …? I … don’t understand?”
The combination of confusion and hope that exploded on Erik’s face made him look rather adorable and for a moment Christine could not understand why his countenance had ever frightened her in the first place. She also knew that she much preferred to see him without his mask: the emotion and expression on Erik’s face was so raw and honest, it would make her understand him so much more.
Seeing him like this was the very reason why Christine knew she could not leave him yet.
“I … I can't leave you now. You are ill ...” Christine insisted, even though she was confused by her own behaviour. Erik offered her her freedom, but after all his hard work to please her, leaving him when he was clearly unwell felt too cruel.
Erik stared at her with great puzzlement, he clearly could not believe what he was hearing as much as she could not believe that she had said it.
“Christine … I ...” he begun hesitantly.
“Don't … question me Erik,” Christine cut him off. If he spoke now she might do more things that she’d regret, “go to bed. I will do the washing up in the morning.”
Immediately Erik stood up and gave her a little bow.
“As … you wish.” he said softly as he walked towards the door. Just before he stepped through he turned around to face her. “Goodnight Christine Daaé.” he said warmly. “Thank you for staying with Erik.”
Feeling the weight behind those words deep inside of her, Christine felt her emotions bubble up. So she just nodded her acknowledgement, fearing that speaking might make her cry.
For a long time after Erik had left the kitchen Christine sat at the table to think, confused by herself as much as she was by him. Finally she got up and, with a sigh, she took the empty cups to the sink to let them soak. Then she decided she was not tired in the least and might as well do the washing up.
Doing the washing up and tidying the kitchen was oddly calming. This felt normal, Christine realised. Better than the overwhelming, relentless care taking of Erik. Poor Erik … she thought. In a way she was grateful for her insomnia, as it had brought her a deeper understanding of the unhappy man she lived with. Things might have started rocky but now, perhaps, a foundation off friendship and mutual understanding could be build. All it took to truly get to know someone was talking, listening and some kindness.