My throat closed up at the sight of the old house. It looked exactly as it had so many years ago, save for several spidery cracks on the gray exterior, new, perfectly manicured flowers and shrubs that lined the pristine walkway, and chips in the paint. It was a lovely home, sturdy and well built, the picture of flawless living.

It was a ridiculous lie.

A very large part of me screamed in protest at my choice. Indeed, I could hardly believe that I was standing here, a prisoner to my past once again.

Antoinette Giry had accosted me earlier in the week with "urgent news." I'd reluctantly met with her in her office. She'd hesitated for some time before pulling out an envelope from her sash and laying it on the table between us.

"It's your mother, Erik," she'd told me.

I'd immediately stiffened. My mother and I hadn't been in contact since I was nine years old, and frankly, I wished to keep it that way.

"What about her?"

"She's ill."

"And?"

Antoinette glared at me stonily.

"She's dying, Erik."

I'd pondered this for a moment, and then stood to leave.

"Splendid. Don't send her my regards."

"Erik!" Antoinette gasped, "How dare you say such a thing! Do you know what this is?" She waved the envelope. "It is a letter from your mother. She sent it to me, she must have known somehow that the two of us are in contact. She knows that you're here and wishes to see you before..."

"She dies?" I'd finished coolly. "How touching. I imagine that she wishes to throw in some final insults, for old time's sake. Nothing like good old emotional abuse, I always say."

Antoinette knew little to nothing about my history, but on one occasion, I'd let slip several facts about my childhood and, being the sharp woman that she was, she was able to figure out the rest for herself.

"Please," she'd said quietly, "Even if the pair of you argue the entire time, even if you simply let her catch a glimpse of you...she's dying, Erik. She wants to see her son."

Right on cue, my mother's shrill words from decades past echoed in my mind...

"You are no son of mine!"

And yet, here I stood before the slightly rusted iron gate, staring up grimly at the place where everything had begun. I was insane. I was willingly returning to the first person who had introduced me to the sheer cruelty of the human race. Perhaps I had jumped the precipice that separates madness from stability. I was utterly out of my mind, yet I was fiercely determined to finally end one part of my life that haunted me still. Closure would come, one way or another.

So, with a trembling hand, I opened the gate and walked dreamlike up the pathway, stopping in front of the wooden door. Heart ramming against my ribcage, I knocked twice and waited.

xxxXXXxxx

An unfamiliar woman answered the door, and I assumed that she was a nurse. Short and squat with broad features, wiry copper hair and warm brown eyes; she blanched at the sight of the specter in the doorway.

"Good day, Madame. Is the lady of the house at home?" I inquired, dread lacing my every word.

Understanding lit her eyes and she nodded hastily, her gaze lingering on the mask.

"You must be the son," she said, "Yes, Madame is expecting you. Do come in."

I entered, and upon seeing the interior, was immediately hit with a tidal wave of memories...

A woman sitting in the rocking chair, her beautiful face cradled in her hands as she sobs...

A cacophony of screams, angry voices rising in fury, one a small child's and the other, an adult's...

An ornate mirror, shattered by bloody little hands...

"Erik, come away from that front window at once!"

"Are those drawings on the wallpaper?! You little wretch!"

"You are forbidden to sing, do you hear me? I won't have it, I won't!"

"What are you doing?! Put that mask back on! For God's sake! Put that mask back on or I'll give you something to cry about!"

"It hurts, Maman, it hurts me!"

"Shut up! Just shut up, you horrid little-"

"Monsieur?"

I gasped sharply and turned to face the nurse. She eyed me nervously, clearing her throat.

"Monsieur, is everything alright?"

"Yes...thank you."

"Shall I take your cloak?"

"No, thank you."

"Your mother is upstairs." She quite obviously mistook my silence for grief and offered a sympathetic smile. "Would you kindly follow me?"

I do not remember walking up the stairs and down the hallway, but the next thing I knew, I stood before her bedroom door, biting my lip like a child once more. To my utter surprise, the nurse put a fat hand on my arm. I flinched involuntarily.

"It's all right, dear. She wants to see you...go on, then."

And like a child once more, I obeyed.

xxxXXXxxx

It was scarcely the same woman that I remembered.

Traces of her regal beauty remained, but the ravages of time and illness shadowed it. Her skin was withered and sallow, stretching taut over high cheekbones. Her once striking green eyes were sunken and rheumy, draped by a spider web of lines. Thin, wrinkled lips were set in a tight line beneath her pointed nose. The thick curtain of inky black hair that I used to admire was now a dull gray and pulled away from her face in a loose bun. She was dwarfed by the massive bed and thick blankets that covered her, but surveyed me with a look a mighty queen might bestow upon one of her subjects.

"Well?" she said. Her commanding voice remained virtually unchanged.

"Well what?" It took all I had not to smack that critical glare off of her face. I was the one in control this time. I was the stronger, more powerful figure here. She would not win this round.

She looked me up and down, a lion stalking her prey. I stared down at her with contempt.

"God, you're thin," she remarked, folding her own bony hands, "I have never seen anyone so thin…and why are you draped in that funereal black? You look like death himself."

"So I've been told."

She let out an impatient huff and arched a thin eyebrow.

"...How was your trip here?"

"No one was maimed, if that is what you mean."

She looked quite pained. My short, cold responses were obviously not what she wanted. Had the woman actually believed that our reunion would be a pleasant one? Did she actually expect me to just brush the nightmarish past under a rug and go on as if nothing had happened?

We surveyed each other for several awkward seconds.

"Please sit," she said politely.

I raised my brows beneath my mask. Never had I heard her use that word.

"I respectfully decline."

"Still as stubborn as always, aren't you?" She gestured to the chair at her bedside impatiently, "Take a seat, I insist."

She's dying, I heard Antoinette say, She wants to see her son.

I walked to the chair slowly and folded myself into it, gritting my teeth. Her eyes never left me for a second. We stared at each other for several minutes. The tension in the air was incredible.

"What is it that you want?" I asked finally, "Money? Believe me when I say that I will not give you a single franc. Or do you simply wish to make a game out of me? Paid for your ticket, so now see the show, is that it?"

She actually looked hurt.

"The things you say...I cannot...I wish to speak with you, that is all. I wish to know what you've done with your life."

"You want to hear a story, do you? Where should I start...before or after you sold me to that gypsy fair?" I whispered with deadly ferocity.

"Oh..." She snapped her eyes shut, hand rising to cover her mouth. "Erik...I..."

"Save your whimpering. You apologize to save your own skin. It means nothing."

"No-"

"It means nothing! I don't want it! Do you hear me? I DON'T WANT IT!"

I rose and knocked the chair over with a swipe of my hand. It slid into a glass vase that promptly shattered into countless pieces. She let out a little yelp.

"I frighten you, don't I?" I snarled, "That was always it, wasn't it? My hideousness was frightening, and you lashed out! Did you think that you could make it go away? You were always crying over what you never had. You were always a spoiled, selfish brat, and God forbid you didn't get what you wanted! Well, you got me! I wasn't exactly what you bargained for, was I? This wasn't what you bargained for, was it?" I ripped off the mask and threw it to the floor, revealing the repulsive sight beneath. She broke out in a wave of sobs and covered her face with her hands.

"Look at me!" I hissed, "Look at me, you spineless, miserable cow!" I seized her head and turned it to face mine. "Did I deserve this? Did I? Answer me!"

"N-n-no, of c-c-course n-n-"

"I did nothing! I did nothing to warrant such punishment! Yet you never taught me otherwise! You forced me to believe that my existence was my fault, that I am this thing because I made some grave error! Blast it all, I believed it! Well, you listen to me, it is not my mistake, it is Nature's pitiful excuse for a joke and your mistake for not ending it when it began-"

"Don't say such things! Don't you dare say such things-!"

"Do not tell such lies, woman, do not pretend to care! I know you wished to permanently silence the monstrous infant from the moment he drew his first breath. That would have been the kindest, most honorable thing you ever did in your pathetic lifetime. Do you know why? It would have spared me from this torture known as life! I would have never known such hell!"

Forty years of suppressed anger were spilling out, and I could do nothing to stop it. My stringy hair was loose about my unmasked face, my emaciated chest heaving. I knew I looked like a corpse fresh from the grave. I knew it, and I wanted her to know it. I wanted her to see the shell of a man she and the rest of the world had created.

"Tell, me, madame...did I fetch a good price?"

"I went back," she rasped suddenly, "I went back the next day."

"You speak nonsense-"

"To the camp. To the gypsy camp. It hardly makes a difference, but I went back."

Her bottom lip was between her teeth, trembling slightly, sunken eyes red-rimmed and still dripping tears. She looked at me desperately, visibly cringing at the sight of my face, but frantically searching it for any sign of compassion or understanding.

"You lie," I said.

"No. I am telling the truth. For once in my life, I am honest with you. I went back before the sunrise the next day after I...after I realized what I had done. I ran like mad to the camp but when I got there, it...it was gone. You-you were...gone."

Silence.

"I was out of my mind by that time, completely unstable," she said in barely a whisper, "I was unprepared and not strong enough to handle you. You frightened me, Erik. You are right. I was scared to death of you in so many ways. You were...too much. You were stronger, and far more brilliant than I (or anyone else) could ever hope to be. And...I hated you for it. Every night I remember thinking that if it weren't for that face, you could have held the world in your hands." She shook her head. "Was it my fault? Did I do something wrong during the pregnancy? I didn't dare think that I could have had a hand in...that. I shuddered to think that I could have erred so terribly. And so I blamed you.

"You shattered the walls that surrounded my idyllic existence. My good reputation no longer remained. I was singled out as much as you were, the recluse living with a "monster." Here was this genius with an angel's voice and the devil's face who, even at the age of five, was better than me in every way imaginable. You came into my life like a raging storm that both destroyed everything in its path but built better and new things in its wake. I was the real child. I am a fool. I am the monster. You never were. I...I made you that way."

Her head fell back into her hands, and for a while, her shoulders shook as she cried softly. I watched her in silent wonder. This pillar of strength had collapsed exposing the feeble woman that I had always knew existed. She was no longer a booming villain, rather a defeated, superficial figure who had been simply unequipped for motherhood, much less a son such as myself. She had lived in a world of fairy tales and was so suddenly and brutally confronted with reality that she reacted the only way she knew how: by lashing out.

And she scarred me permanently in the process.

"How did you know where to find me?" I asked quietly, "Your letter to Madame Giry..."

She took a deep breath to calm herself and explained, "I was in Paris a few months back, before the cancer had gotten too far along. I wanted to see the city before I died, see the opera house that I knew would have fascinated you. Naturally, rumors of a ghost reached me, but the 'ghost's' tricks and his dark sense of humor were all too familiar: the sound of music playing in the middle of the night, threatening notes, illusions, an ethereal voice that echoed throughout the corridors, angelic and dangerous all at once. It was like reliving that part of my life all over again. By the time I learned that this 'ghost' wore a mask...I knew.

"The little ballerina girls were all too eager to inform me that the phantom was in contact with their instructor and that he left the woman notes in his private box. I did the same, knowing the note would reach you."

I blinked in disbelief. The whole thing was absolutely surreal. My livid temper had abruptly been replaced by an incredulous stupor, and I felt drained.

"You live there, then?" she wanted to know, "in the opera?"

"Yes."

"Where?"

"The cellars." I did not hesitate to tell her anything. She had no time left to spill my secrets.

"The cellars...with your music?"

"Always."

Her eyes closed and she heaved a long-suffering sigh.

I had seen all that I cared to. I bent and retrieved the mask from the floor, replacing it mechanically and turning to face her for the final time. Seeing that I meant to depart, she suddenly reached behind her pillow and extracted a flat, faded red velvet box.

"Take it," she urged, pressing it into my hands, "It is yours, after all."

I took it and walked to the door, emotionally numb. Her quiet voice stopped me before I could touch the handle.

"Erik?"

"...Yes?"

I paused and took in the sight of my mother, her gaunt, proud frame, and the elegance that still shone through her regal features beneath the sickness that was rapidly claiming her. A part of her would remain that condescending queen with little understanding or sympathy for anything straying from the norm. But her eyes were different. They shone with a peace that I had never seen in my short time with her.

"Is there anything else that you wish to discuss before you...go?"

Leave her in peace.

"There is nothing more to say," I said with a tight smile. I tipped my hat and, clutching the velvet box beneath my arm, purposefully strode toward the future, for once, not looking back.

xxxXXXxxx

She died a week later.

I did not attend her funeral, but paid a visit to her grave, bringing along the flat, battered box that she had presented me with.

It was filled with my earliest compositions, artwork and blueprints that I had long since forgotten. She had kept every single piece of mine, from the crudest sketches of an infant to the miniature masterpieces that were slaved over for months at a time but never quite perfected. I examined them with amusement, my first scores filling my head and heralding pleasanter memories. Several of the best works were crinkled and worn, as if someone had looked over them many times. I knew that someone hadn't been me; I wouldn't dare abuse sheet music like that.

I never would understand why she had kept and treasured them all these years. It may be that a small part of her (however miniscule) loved her son, or at least was fascinated by him. It is possible that, had she had strength enough, she would have given her love to me. Nothing of the sort ever took place between us, however. We were alike in many ways, choosing to mask our desperate want to care for each other with a burning hatred. It was all we knew.

And so I left the box propped up against her gravestone. It was a simple gesture, yet it was the only good thing that I could ever-or would ever-give her.