I hesitated about writing this prequel but sadly it's likely that a scenario like this took place and I wanted to explore it. Hopefully you will enjoy this piece and perhaps it will add something to the original story. A better summary will follow soon!
Gerard woke with a start. He'd had that dream again; the same one he'd had the previous night where Belladora was slipping from his grasp into darkness and he could not save her.
Then, as he lay there trembling, he remembered it was true. She was gone from him now and he could not reach out to her any more or stroke her hair or watch her as she slept. He was alone. Alone apart from the child, of course.
The child. Erik. The boy with the monstrous face who had been left in his care.
Now that the shock of his nightmare was over he rubbed his eyes, lit a candle and looked over at the little bed in the corner with the snoozing lump under the blanket. All that was visible was a mop of untidy red hair, the red hair that reminded him of his own mother, long ago. Gerard sighed. In a few hours it would be morning, and there would be breakfast to prepare, household chores to perform and tasks to delegate up above, not to mention all the attention that Erik would need. What on earth was he going to do?
Five days had passed since Bella had died in his arms. Five days since a bewildered looking undertaker had taken her from here and now she lay in another dark place beneath the earth where he could not go to her. She had known everything about that child; how to comfort him, how to make him laugh and smile, what toys he liked. What did he know about that kind of thing? Moreover, how much had Erik really seen of him while he was training for the manager's job, constantly going up and down between two worlds? She was the one who sang to him as though he were the only person in the world. It was his mother, never his father, that Erik used to run to when he was hurt and it was his mother he reached out to when he needed affection.
With a lump in his throat, he thought of the mornings when he would stand at the bottom of the stone steps and look back at his little family. Without fail, Erik would be in his mother's arms, smiling up at her.
"Look Erik, Papa's off to work upstairs at the Opera House! Wave goodbye to him!"
She had always sounded as though she were waving off her husband from a neat little apartment on a leafy boulevard, as though their domestic arrangements were just like everyone else's. As though their son was like everyone else's. And that was what had irritated him above all else. How could she not have noticed?
"Look at him, Gerard. Isn't he beautiful? And he's ours…"
"Bella, I'm tired, I've had a long day…"
"But why won't you look at him?"
"For heaven's sake, I don't want to look at him! Haven't you realised that yet? Can't you see what he looks like? Why do you keep pretending like this?"
He had apologised, again and again, but the hurt in her eyes would live with him for a long time. Later that night, when they had both calmed down, she admitted for the first and only time in those three years that Erik's appearance was not what either of them had expected.
"Yes, I know his face is not what most people consider handsome. But just let me explain, darling. When I met you first I knew there was goodness inside you behind your smug facade, and I came to love you for that goodness. And with Erik, there is beauty inside him, I can see it. Please, try and look for that…"
And he had tried. When Erik took his first steps he had tried to share his sweetheart's excitement, despite being anxious to leave for work upstairs. He brought them for walks at night, or up to the roof, or out on the lagoon in the boat, even when he was tired. He had done all he could to make them both happy, knowing that Bella would more than compensate for his shortcomings. But now she was gone, and she had entrusted her most precious treasure to him. How could he bring Erik up without her?
"Love him, Gerard, please, try and love him for me…promise me…"
Sleep would not come. The gentle lapping of the water seemed to keep him from drifting off and the constant flow of thoughts did not help either. In the end he lay awake in the darkness, thinking of the times before Erik's arrival when he'd had Belladora all to himself and wishing those days could have lasted forever.
He jolted up his bed at the sound of the tiny, frightened voice from the bed beside his. A small figure in a white nightshirt climbed out and padded over to him with soft footsteps.
"Papa, where is Mama?"
He almost cursed Belladora for teaching the boy that wretched word. But in that moment he knew what he needed to do and he could not think about it for too long or he would change his mind. The fever which had claimed his mother had not yet claimed the boy. Surely it would in time? Surely there would be an end to this bizarre situation and it would be a mercy for both of them?
But if not, there would be many years ahead of them and he would spend many of them living here, taking care of his son, just as Belladora had begged him to do as she lay dying.
Gently he put his hands on Erik's shoulders and forced himself to look at that face.
"No," he told the boy firmly, "Not Papa. You understand?" He pointed to his chest. "Uncle Gerard. You understand that? Not Papa. Uncle Gerard. Say it."
Erik's marred forehead creased into a puzzled frown.
"Say it. Uncle. Gerard." he repeated firmly, keeping his finger on his chest.
"Un-kill Ger-ard..." Erik replied, enunciating the unfamiliar words carefully.
"That's right. Good boy. Uncle. Gerard."
"No, not Papa. You must call me Uncle Gerard."
He won't remember this Gerard thought to himself. He is too young….
The boy lowered his eyes. "I want Mama," he whispered, the sadness and confusion becoming too much for him.
How on earth can I explain this to a three year old?
"Erik, don't you remember that I told you Mama is gone away now? She loves you but she is not here anymore," he began, as gently as he could.
"Where is she? I want her."
"She is... she is with God now... Do you remember how she used to sing to you? Well, she is still singing but in a different place, a very special place. She has gone to be with the angels in Heaven and she will sing with them from now on. But…she loves you and…and she will watch over you always, I promise you."
Tears welled in the little boy's eyes. He did not want his mother to sing with the angels. He wanted her back here, singing to him, with the beautiful voice that would haunt him all his life. He could not comprehend the idea of "forever" and did not know why she was not in the big bed where she usually was, or why she would not come to him and hold him. This man in front of him was not enough. He was not Papa any more, he was someone called Uncle Gerard and the child did not understand why. In any case both titles were merely words with no solid meaning for him. "Mama", "mother" – he knew what those words were and the person they represented would not come.
Perhaps Erik remembered this night deep down, even years later, somewhere in the furthest recesses of his memory. Perhaps he believed that he had dreamt that his mother had called this man Papa or that she made a mistake. Who knows? But before he ever truly understood that she was lost to him he knew that there was only one person who could comfort him now, regardless of his name.
Gerard flinched as the candlelight illuminated Erik's face, a face made even more contorted by tears and grief.
The new form of address was already comfortable, already making itself at home in Gerard's mind. Now he would not be constantly reminded that there was a blood tie between him and this deformed child whose face continued to repulse him. There would be a little distance between them, just enough that the boy would not grow too attached to him in the years ahead, before he could finally leave him here to fend for himself. And by then he would have become simply "Gerard"; no special title, just the same name that friends and acquaintances called him by.
"Can I get in beside you?"
His innocent question would have been endearing in any other child but it made Gerard freeze in shock. He would never allow Erik to share his and Belladora's bed; indeed, when she occasionally insisted on their child joining them he had slept elsewhere. But things were different now.
"Y-yes, you can, Erik…"
Swallowing, he helped the child to climb into the bed and placed the covers over his small body before blowing the candle out. Grateful for the darkness, he winced as Erik snuggled against him and laid his head on his chest. But even the thought of that face pressed against his nightshirt made him shudder and he could feel that horrible nose press on his skin, which only added to his discomfort. Remorse ate at his conscience as he remembered the child's tears, but try as he might he could not help thinking of those scars, and those hideous boils and that place where the skull was exposed…
He loosened his hold on Erik and tried to move away slightly but his son shifted himself to snuggle against Gerard once more, only this time he laid his head on his "uncle's" shoulder. As a result, the face was lying in even closer proximity to his own and the reluctant father spent most of the night trying to avert his gaze. When he finally slept, he dreamt that the gargoyles on the Opera House had come to life and were closing in on him with terrifying growls and pointed talons, a dream which would recur at various times over the next three decades. Relief swept through him when he woke, not just because he was safe in his own bed but because Erik was now lying a few inches away from him, having loosened his grip while he slumbered. Turning over, Gerard finally found respite in a dreamless sleep.
The next day Gerard measured his son's face while he took his midday nap and slipped away to the costume department where he found some pieces of discarded leather which he knew would not be missed. For the next few hours, while Erik played on the rug in their living area, he sat at the table and experimented with different shapes and sizes until the article was completed, and not once did he think of it as anything other than a creative project for the simple reason that he could not allow himself to.
After dinner that evening Erik's eyes widened in surprise as Uncle Gerard held up a small package.
"I have a present for you, Erik," his guardian said cheerfully,"Come and open it with me. It's something for you to wear, something of your very own."
Even though he had never even laid eyes on his face, when his "uncle" put the piece of leather over his features and tied it firmly into place he understood. Whatever this strange new thing was, Uncle Gerard could look at him properly now. He could smile at him and not be afraid.
And that was how Erik received his first mask…
Believe me, even I didn't like Gerard while I was writing this story... But, if it helps, take a look at the unmasking scene from Chapter 16 - I think it feels far more powerful now.