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Before the Mask
“And now, last but certainly not least . . . the scarred boy!”
I sighed. No normal person had to endure such hardships. While they sat, drinking their tea and chatting about the weather, I had to perform for audiences that saw me as an animal, not a human.
The cage I sat in rolled forwards, and then stopped. My curtain call was seconds away. I sighed again, standing up and grabbing the bars in front of me. As the audience cried and cheered, the cape around my cage was torn away.
The audience gasped. As I gripped the bars and breathed hard, I felt like an animal. Not a human, a low-class animal. Some pointed to the side of my face, and I wished they wouldn’t.
My face, oh my horrible face! Why did it have to curse my wretched life? The right side of my face was paler than the left, with bright red lines streaking through it. The lines jutted out of the skin, making that side look larger. My left eye was slightly smaller than the left, and I couldn’t see much out of it. My hairline was jagged on the right side.
“Gruesome, isn’t he?” Monsieur Johnson, the master of ceremonies, yelled to the audience. They jeered and nodded in agreement.
“Now,” Monsieur Johnson said, “let’s see this beast’s threshold of pain!”
To my horror, a long whip arced in the air and slapped down on my back. I was wearing only patched tan pants, so the whip hit my bare back. I arched my back as pain rocketed through me.
“AHHHRRWWWWHHH!” I screamed. My voice sounded like the agonizing howl of a wolf.
The audience loved me. They laughed at my pain. Oh, if they only knew! But all they did was laugh at me. “How many should I give him?” Monsieur Johnson asked, holding up the bloodied whip.
There were many suggestions, ranging from fifty to one hundred to a thousand. I prayed that it wouldn’t be too many. My back was scarred enough as it was.
“Hmmm . . . let’s do fifteen,” Monsieur Johnson said, and he raised the whip again. Fifteen agonizing times, the whip bit into my back and made blood pour down from large wounds. I screamed, screamed like a dying animal, because I knew if I didn’t keep up with the act, I’d be beaten that night. The audience bought it, laughing at my pain.
“Please, stop it!” a sudden voice cried out. “Can’t you see you’re hurting him?”
I looked towards the audience. They glanced as well. A small, wiry girl had stood up, her face livid with rage. “You call yourselves people? Can’t you see that he’s one of you? He’s just like you and me!”
“No, he isn’t!” another voice rang out. “He’s deformed and we aren’t!”
The verbal fighting continued until M. Johnson called the show off. The slightly disgruntled audience walked out of the small, makeshift tent. The only ones that remained were the little girl that had spoken up, and her parents.
“I’m so sorry,” her mother gushed as she scurried up to Monsieur Johnson. “She doesn’t like seeing things getting hurt.”
“We are going to punish her for this,” her father said, looking down at her. The girl shrunk back.
“Well, would you care to join me for dinner?” Monsieur Johnson asked, gesturing to the back of the tent.
“Why, of course we would,” the woman replied.
As they walked towards the kitchens, one of the handlers unlocked my cage. I stumbled out of it, breathing hard from the multiple wounds I had received.
“Come on, Erik,” the handler said, not politely. “We don’t want you to ruin their dinner.”
The handler guided me to the horses’ stables, where I immediately collapsed in a pile of hay. It stung my mangled back, but I didn’t care.
“Can I get something to eat?” I asked weakly.
“Here,” the handler grumbled, throwing me a piece of stale bread.
“Thank you,” I replied hastily. I stuffed the bread in my mouth, not caring about manners. Who knew when I would be fed again?
After the handler left, I fell asleep. I dreamed of a life where I wasn’t deformed, and it was a cruel reminder of my fate. When I woke up again, I wasn’t alone. That girl that had defended me earlier sat next to me, holding a bundle of cloths.
“Oh, you’re awake,” she said.
I cleared my throat and asked, “What are you doing?”
She chuckled quietly. “Bandaging you wounds, silly.”
“What?” I asked, confused. “But Monsieur Johnson won’t let me.”
“Well, he let me.” There was a mischievous glint in her eyes. “Now, sit up.”
I slowly got up from the hay pile, wincing as the healing scars reopened. “Oh, that hurts,” I hissed.
“I bet it does,” the girl muttered, dragging a wet cloth against the ragged skin of my back. When it was finally clean, she wrapped tight bandages around my wounds. It must have had some medicine on it, because first it stung, then it felt much better.
The girl smiled again. “You’re welcome, Erik. Oh, and my name is Katherine. Katherine Giry.”
I managed a smile, although it looked lopsided. “It’s nice to meet you, Katherine.”
Katherine cocked her head and said, “If you weren’t deformed, you’d be very handsome, Erik.”
I blinked. No one had said that in all my fifteen years of existence. “Why thank you,” I said.
“You’re welcome,” she replied. All of a sudden, a large figure stood in the doorway. It was Katherine’s father.
“Come here, young lady,” he growled. Katherine got up and stood next to her father. As he walked out, Katherine waved goodbye. I waved back. When their shapes faded into the distance, I leaned back again on the hay pile.
It was the first time someone had genuinely been nice to me, and I liked it. It was very different from being mocked and ridiculed by hundreds of onlookers. I contemplated my situation. No one should have to endure what I have to almost every night. I was an attraction, not a human. It was a bleak, hopeless life. I found only one solution—run away.
I finally got my chance two years later. It was after an uninteresting show, with no whipping but much discrimination. The audience was to blame, I think. There were less than fifteen people in the audience. Well, it was New Year’s Eve, and most people were celebrating.
I was led to my normal place in the horses’ stables. And to my surprise, I was given a piece of tough, overcooked chicken to eat. This was my New Year’s Eve dinner.
“Be glad you get that,” my handler snapped. He then threw down a crude knife. “You’ll need this, but don’t cut yourself.”
“Thanks,” I muttered sourly. The handler walked out, and I was left to eat my dinner in silence. I ate about half of it, and when I was done, I sang.
Ah, singing. It’s the one thing that kept my spirits up. Otherwise, I’m not sure if I would’ve survived if it wasn’t for the singing. My voice was beautiful, like a river flowing under a beautiful night sky. If I wasn’t deformed, maybe I could have become an amazing opera singer.
After I sang my rendition of “Masquerade,” I got up, pocketing the knife. It would come in handy. Tonight was the night to escape. As I walked through the stables, the horses stared at me. One of them whinnied, and I immediately shushed it. The horses were scared of me, so they were quiet very quickly.
I opened the door, praying it wouldn’t squeak. It didn’t, so I slipped through it. I walked through the moonlight courtyard towards Monsieur Johnson’s trailer. I blended into the shadows, and no one saw me.
Like a shadow, I slunk towards the back door. It was unlocked, thank God, and I went in. I had to grab a few things—provisions, clothes, et cetera. I could hear M. Johnson snoring up a storm, so borrowing a few things probably wouldn’t wake him up.
I went into the pantry and took a few days’ provisions, which included fruit, bread, and water. I was tempted to take Monsieur Johnson’s bottle of whiskey, but the wiser part of me said no. I then headed towards Monsieur Johnson’s room, looking for clothes. I rummaged through his drawers, looking for clothes that would fit me. M. Johnson was the same height as me, but he weighed as much as half a horse.
I decided for a simple white shirt, black pants, and a fancy gray jacket. While I was trying some shoes on, Monsieur Johnson muttered, “Stupid boy.”
I froze in my tracks. If I was found, the punishment would be severe. My breath hitched in my throat. Mr. Johnson continued to snore, so I assumed that he was just talking in his sleep.
Making sure I left no evidence, I quietly padded out of the room, closing the door behind me. The house was as silent as Death. Not even the wind was able to be heard. I slipped out the back door again, and started to head towards the edge of courtyard, towards freedom.
Much to my surprise, I was able to sneak around the performing tent without anyone noticing me leave.
Finally! The real world! It has been seventeen lonely years for me, and now, I get to experience it for the first time. I felt like the world was full of possibilities.
Two hours later, I was walking down the streets of Paris, drenched and freezing. The rain had started shortly after I escaped, and I had no umbrella. Bad planning on my part.
The streets were empty. I was the only one walking the streets. Most likely, everyone else would be drinking and partying for the new year to come. I sighed, wallowing in my loneliness. If I knew how lonely it would’ve been, I would not have run away. But the past is the past, and I can’t change it.
“Well,” I muttered to myself, “at least it’s better than being in a cage.”
I turned a corner, and came face-to-face with a dead end. There were a few partiers here, all of them drunk. All of them were wearing those bright, colorful masquerade masks.
“Come here, boy,” a woman wearing a bright pink mask drawled.
“No, I . . .” A sudden flash of lightning lit up the alley, including me. I must’ve been horrifying, with the disfigured face and all.
All the partygoers screamed. My eyes widened and my mouth opened in a plea as they ran past me. I turned towards the road, but they were already gone.
My vision blurred with tears, and I stumbled towards the end of the alley. I was just about to lean against the wall when my foot brushed something.
I lifted it up, and saw a pure white mask. It was one of those ones that covered the whole face. I turned it around in my hands, and an idea formed in my head.
I grabbed the knife from my pocket, and held it close to the mask. I was just going to make the first cut when I thought that it should fit my face.
I brought the mask up to my face and traced a line through the mask. It only covered the mangled side of my face, and I liked it.
Since the mask was made out of flimsy plastic, it was cut easily. I sawed through it, making sure to keep on the line I had traced earlier. After the unwanted side of the mask fell to the ground, I worked on smoothing out the edges so that it looked like it was made that way.
When I was finally done, I looked in a puddle and admired my craftwork. The lines were flawless and they covered my horrible deformity. With the ugly part gone, I could see that I was handsome, like Katherine had said all those years ago.
I got up and smiled to myself. I was a new man. I was no longer the deformed boy in the cage. I glanced at my reflection again. Little did I know that my masked face would someday mark me as . . .
. . . The Phantom of the Opera.
Eight years passed since I escaped my freak show prison. Even though I was not an attraction anymore, I was discontent. It always seemed like I needed to do something, but I wasn’t sure what. I traveled the world, looking for some human comfort that escaped me.
I learned many things while I was abroad. For example, in India, I helped to design their ingenious “torture room” that tricked the eyes using fake trees and many mirrors. And in Persia, I mastered the Punjab lasso, which is pretty much like a noose on a string. I also learned how to read and write in multiple languages. My handwriting wasn’t the best, but it was eligible to most people.
When I returned to my favorite city in the world, Paris, I found out that I was an amazing ventriloquist, able to “throw” my voice wherever I wanted it to.
Even with all these amazing skills, it was hard to keep a job. Most of my jobs were the ones that most people didn’t want, but my employers didn’t want a worker who wore half of a masquerade mask. When I was let go, I would always politely say, “Thank you. It was a pleasure working with you.”
While I was working as a stage hand at the Paris Opera House, I overheard a hushed conversation that really caught my attention. I was sweeping the stage, but when I first heard it, I glided forwards on silent feet and hid in the shadow of the red velvet curtain. “You know, Monsieur Roux is coming to the show tonight.”
The other person sounded surprised. “Really? The owner of the Opera is coming?”
I could imagine the first speaker nodding. “Yes. I received his letter this morning. He is going to be in Box Five.”
“Who owns Box Five right now?” the second speaker asked.
“The Giry’s.” The Giry’s! Could that be Katherine’s family? I was suddenly very excited to be working at the Opera. Maybe I could sneak off and say hello to Katherine.
“So, have you heard about the rumors about Monsieur Roux’s son?” This was the first speaker.
“He has a son?”
“Yes, he does. But the thing is that he was deformed.”
“Deformed how?” My blood turned to ice. Was it possible that I was the one they were talking about?
“His face. They said that it looked like Death had cursed him. I have not seen him in person, but I’ve heard it was horrible.” My heart dropped to my stomach. They were talking about me.
“And where is this ‘deformed son of Monsieur Roux’ now?” The speaker sounded suspicious.
“No one knows. He disappeared over three years ago. Many say he’s dead. Others say he roams the backstreets of Paris.”
“That sounds like a bunch of feathers and smoke.” The conversation ended there. I let go of the breath I didn’t know I was holding. I was scared. If they thought I was Monsieur’s Roux’s son, my fate was in jeopardy. If they dared to try to take off my mask . . . The thought was too painful.
After I finished my pre-show duties, I walked up to the manager. He looked quite surprised at my hurried gait.
“I’m taking the night off,” I said. My voice sounded irritated.
“Bu—but we’re set to go on if twenty minutes!” the manager cried. “We need you! You can’t go now!”
“I’m sorry, but I have to. When was the last time I took off?” I was using the charm that I had developed over my years of freedom. It was good for convincing . . . and bribing when it came to it.
“Well . . .” The manager was at a loss of words. “You haven’t taken much time off. Fine, take the night off.”
I smiled. “Thank you, monsieur.” I then walked to an abandoned dressing-room that the manager had set aside for me. As I sang a song under my breath, I rummaged through my meager clothing, looking for the best-looking clothes.
The best things I had were the things that I had taken from Monsieur Johnson. After I checked my reflection in the hanging mirror on the wall, I snuck out the back of the Opera by a series of hidden tunnels. The tunnels were something that I had discovered shortly after I came here, and they were quite useful.
I walked around the block, heading towards the front entrance of the theatre. I blended into the crowd who were waiting to get their tickets. The Opera House was doing the ancient Greek tragedy, “Medea,” and all of Paris was buzzing about the new soprano who got the role of the witch Medea.
I bought a ticket on the third tier of the House, but I wasn’t planning to watch it. I had much more diabolical thoughts on my mind. The beating of my heart echoed with one word—revenge.
After I had entered the theatre, I walked up the beautiful marble stairs. Halfway up, I bumped into someone.
“Oh, I’m very sorry,” I said, apologizing.
“No, no, it’s fine,” the woman in front of me said. She was wearing a muted silver dress, and it was a big contrast with her dark, ebony hair. She looked oddly familiar.
“Do I know you?” I asked.
The woman looked confused. “I . . . I’m not sure.” Her green eyes narrowed, taking in the frayed clothes, the thin build, and most of all, the masquerade mask on my face.
“Well,” I said. “It was nice meeting you, mademoiselle.” She held out her hand, and I kissed it. After I stood up straight, it clicked in her eyes.
“Erik?” she asked hesitantly.
I smiled widely. “It is I, Katherine.” Even though eight years had passed, that strange bond forged between us had not disappeared.
Katherine smiled widely and enveloped me in a bone-crushing hug. “Oh, it’s been too long!”
“I know,” I said, breaking her embrace. The lights suddenly dimmed, and I said, “House warning. The show starts in ten minutes. You’d better go.”
Katherine nodded. “I should. It’s good to see you again.” I watched as she hurried up to Box Five. After her form disappeared, I proceeded to my own seat. It wasn’t the best vantage point, but I wasn’t interested much in the performance. As the story unfolded, I plotted.
I needed my father to feel the same way that I did. But how? I needed something quick, yet painful. I needed to do it in the course of the night because I knew that I may not have the chance again. The idea finally dawned on me as the first act came to a close.
When the intermission came around, I got up with everyone else. But I wasn’t just stretching. I was on a mission. I walked to Box Five, acting like I came to it every Saturday night.
The box was empty except for a man sitting in a plush, velvet chair. From the expensive clothing and air of dignity, I could plainly tell he was Monsieur Roux, my father. I waited in the corner of the box until he got up and stretched. Then I made my move.
“Hello,” I said, making Monsieur Roux jump. He turned around sharply. There I was, the masked shadow.
“Who are you?” he spluttered.
“Who am I?” I kept my tone light and airy, like we were discussing the weather. “You don’t know?”
“No . . . I don’t.” Monsieur Roux looked confused.
Now, the real malice crept into my voice. “You were the one that gave to that wretched freak show twenty five years ago.”
“Bu—but you’re supposed to be dead!”
I chuckled quietly. “Well, phantoms don’t die that easily.” Phantom. I liked the sound of that word.
“Why are you here?” Monsieur Roux asked quickly, taking a step back. I took the advantage to take a step forwards. Now, I could tell we both had the same eyes and the same tall, wiry build.
“I work here,” I replied simply.
“Oh . . .” My father’s voice faded away. He took another step back, and I advanced on him. This continued until he gripped the velvet banister behind him. An idea slowly formed in my head.
“You should feel the pain that I felt,” I snarled.
“What . . . what does that mean?” Monsieur Roux asked. He was petrified, and I was basking in his fear.
I slowly reached for the mask and tore it off. My father gasped at my horrible deformity. “When you die, the last thing you should see is the mangled face of your son!”
“I’m s-sorry, Erik,” Monsieur Roux cried. “Please, forgive me!”
I walked up to him. We were face to face when I whispered in his ear, “The hell I will!” Then I pushed his shoulders, making him fall out of Box Five.
I watched as my father’s body flew down to the floor. The other people, who were entranced by the new soprano only a few moments ago, screamed and panicked. When Monsieur Roux’s body hit the ground, it made a sickening WHUNK. It had most likely snapped his spine, so he wasn’t in pain for too long.
I glanced back one last time at my father’s dead body and then walked out of Box Five. Instead of returning to the seat that I had bought, I slipped through one of the hidden doors in the wall. The labyrinth came in handy, especially in the years to come.
After the death—or should I say murder?—of my father, I took up permanent residence in the tunnels under the Opera. I lived in a small house next to the lake that sat under the theatre. It must have been there for the workers while they were building this grand theatre.
I continued my job at the Opera House, and I was still paid my usual twenty-thousand francs. Instead of talking to the manager myself, I used the tunnels to deliver the note to his office. He understood, and I did my work under the cover of darkness. I also kept in contact with Katherine. She would reserve Box Five for me, and when I came, it would be empty. Sometimes she graced me with her presence, but those became less frequent after she was married.
While I wasted my days in near-darkness, something inside me said, “what are you, Erik? A human? An animal? You are a creature apart from all the rest.” And I listened to it. I became a shadow of a person, restless and unhappy. Nothing and no one could bring me out of this rut of despair.
After the manager left, I still worked at the Opera, but my presence became more and more suspicious. I was soon called “the Opera Ghost.” But I didn’t give a damn to what they called me. And I actually played their game, signing my letters with the initials “O.G.” It was fun when I would spook them, using my amazing ventriloquist talents and the hidden tunnels. I would laugh at their reactions. It soon became a game to me. A few of the girls from the ballet corps started to call me “The Phantom of the Opera,” and I have to say I liked that title. It struck more fear into the hearts of superstitious mortals that “ghost.”
About ten years after I first disappeared into the maze of tunnels under the Opera House, Christine Daae came. She was still mourning the loss of the father, and she had no real drive to do anything. She had a good voice, but I knew she could do so much better. The current prima donna, Carlotta, was a good singer, but she was much too pitchy for me.
That is, until I—or more correctly, my voice—said to her, “I’ll teach you to sing like the angels.” She agreed, and I became her Angel of Music. She also became mine, because that was when I got the idea of my spectacular opera, “Juan Don Triumphant.”
Well . . . I don’t think I need to go on from here. You know the rest of my story, don’t you?