The boy always had a song in his head.
At mealtimes he would tap his fingers or his knife on the table in an improvised rhythm until Gerard could bear it no longer. During the day, as he played with his toys, he would sing or hum an aria from the operas he heard or perhaps an old folk tune that his guardian had taught him, sometimes improving it with his own harmonies. At night his fingers would tap on the pillow or the counterpane, even while Gerard read to him or tried to engage him in conversation about the people he met in the Opera House.
By the age of twelve he was composing his own music while his guardian looked on in admiration and astonishment.
"You know the de Chagny family?" Gerard asked him one day, as Erik hastily scribbled out several bars of the notation he had just written. He nodded vaguely without even looking up.
"You've heard me talking about their two girls, haven't you? Veronique plays the piano and Marie Louise likes reading, just like you do. They must be ten and eight by now - Erik, are you even listening to me?"
"Sorry Uncle…" he replied distractedly, tapping out yet another rhythm which was refusing to take shape in his head or on the sheet.
"Well, they have a new baby brother! His name is Philippe and he is a fine, healthy child, thank God. M. de Chagny was at the gala dinner last night and he was telling me himself. He is very happy, as you can imagine. That's great news, isn't it?"
"Yes… I suppose…"
"I wonder what the girls will make of him? They seem happy enough at the moment but I hope they don't become jealous."
Erik frowned at his sheet and scribbled out some more notes.
Behind him, Gerard peered over his shoulder, trying to read what his son was writing, but he curled his arm around his work protectively. Sighing, his guardian got up and walked over to the fire to place some more logs on it.
Turning around, he bit on his lip and walked back to Erik with his head down.
"The other reason I'm telling you this is…" Gerard began, sitting beside the child once more. Erik crumpled up the sheet of paper in frustration and looked up.
"Perhaps you could try again later?" Gerard suggested tentatively.
"Maybe," he replied curtly, crossing his arms. It was better than his usual tantrum when he couldn't figure something out, his father supposed.
"Well..." he began again, "What I was trying to tell you was that the de Chagny's will be having a party to welcome their new arrival next Saturday. The christening will be only for family members, you see, and they wanted to have a party for all their friends first. It will be held at their home, of course. And…I've been invited, which is a great honour for me and I feel it would be rude to refuse."
Erik simply looked at him, those eyes peering out impassively from behind the mask.
"The problem is…I have a feeling that it will go on all day. You will be all right on your own, won't you?"
"Of course. I have my music."
"Yes, of course you do. And your books."
"Yes," he replied quietly, "May I please be excused?"
Gerard assented and watched a little anxiously as the boy sat down beside the fire with a book, but he did not have time to linger too long.
There were rehearsals going on today and after he had cleared their dishes away he went to his room to get ready to go above and oversee them. Once he was dressed in his formal attire, he stood before the mirror to inspect himself. His hair was neatly combed, his trademark white bow tie was straight and he was no longer Uncle but Gerard Carriere once more. But he could not shake off that niggling feeling that Erik was already retreating into another world, one that the child could not, or would not, share with him. What went on in that head of his? He was only twelve and already he seemed to know far more than he should. What would the next few years bring?
During that long, lonely day Erik made his way into his "uncle's" room. Standing in front of the mirror, he slowly untied the strings of his new mask and slipped it away from his face. For a moment he fingered the soft leather and thought about how he would make his own masks some day. Steeling himself, he looked into the mirror.
He did not scream or cry any more when he saw his face but his heart still gave a jolt when his eyes beheld those terrible features. Why? He thought to himself once more. Why do I look like this?
Gerard did not know this but a few weeks previously he had sneaked Above to spy on that other world and the perfect looking people that seemed to inhabit it. He had enjoyed listening in on some of the conversations but it infuriated him to hear people with normal faces being described as "plain". What he wouldn't give to be merely plain!
Before he left the room, he stood in front of the portrait of his mother. He no longer remembered her as a human being, merely as a dream, but he loved her nonetheless and liked to look upon her occasionally when he was alone. Gerard rarely spoke of her and so his imagination would try to fill in the yawning gaps in his knowledge of this beautiful woman whose voice still haunted him. As he stood there, he wondered again why Uncle Gerard looked after him. He had explained to him once that sometimes children call their parents friends "Auntie" or "Uncle" but that was because of a character in a book called "Uncle Pierre", not because Erik had asked specifically about his own family. But the moment of wondering passed, as it always did, and he whispered a goodbye to his mother before slipping out of the room.
"Well, you are lucky you were at home and not at that dreadful party", Gerard told his son as he sat by his bedside, something he did not do very often these days.
"Oh, the food was terrible and the musicians they hired were total amateurs; you would have laughed at them. I felt embarrassed for them, really. It was a long day with lots of waiting around, talking to people I didn't really know and with all those noisy children, I could hardly hear myself-"
He stopped, and silently cursed his stupidity.
"There were children there?" Erik asked quietly.
"Well, yes, all Philippe's cousins mainly, and his sisters of course, and a few of their close friends…No-one you would have got along with, I can assure you. Now, tell me what you got up to while I was out."
"Did they play together?"
"Er, yes, they did, the girls' nanny took them outside and they played for a while but then it started raining," he told him truthfully. The boy looked down at the blanket, his face still covered by the mask. He did not say anything for a few moments and Gerard wondered if he should leave him alone. He really would have to stop sitting by Erik's bedside like this.
"I missed you today, Uncle."
"I'm sorry. Sometimes I have to go to these silly things. The de Chagny's spend a lot of time here and they probably thought they had to invite me. But cheer up, Erik. The two of us will go up on the roof tomorrow, how does that sound?"
Erik nodded silently. Pulling the blanket around him, he slowly lay down in his bed and Gerard wished him a good night before leaving the room to allow his son remove his mask.
How much longer can I placate him with treats and baubles? Soon he will no longer be a child…
In his own bed, he thought not only of the half-truths he had told Erik but of the spoilt, noisy children at the party and how they had teased one of their group over his birthmark. And he thought of how Erik would never play among children his own age or go to school with them, and of beautiful little Philippe who was so loved by his family.
And in the darkness, Erik fought back his tears, knowing the lonely future that lay ahead for him.