Chapter 3 – Shock
Erik was sitting up in his bed, leaning on several pillows that Nadir had stuck behind his back, and thinking. Ten days had passed since he had woken up in this room and he knew that his body was healing. He felt a bit stronger every day, he was not in too much pain anymore, he could even open his right eye again. It was obvious that sooner or later he would be well again, except…
Except for his memories. Erik still had absolutely no idea about his past and his life before the accident. He seemed to have retained all his other mental capabilities, he could read and write, understood the meaning of words without having to be told, but he could not remember anything. At first he had not even known his own name or that of Nadir, who obviously was a friend of his. At his request Nadir had told him that his full name was Erik Lavoisier, that he was thirty-five years old and had no living relatives. He supposedly was from a small town near Rouen by the name of Boscherville. His father had died before he was even born, his mother a few years ago.
Erik had absorbed all that information, but it had not really helped. While he now knew that his home town was called Boscherville, he had no memory of growing up there, what the town or his parents' house looked like, or what his parents' first names had been. Whenever he was awake he was racking his brain, trying hard to remember something – anything. Sometimes he had a feeling as if some important memory were lurking at the bottom of his conscious mind and that he would be able to dig it up if only he concentrated hard enough. So far he had not been successful, though, the only result of his brooding being a splitting headache.
"Are you once again trying to remember, Erik?" Nadir sounded worried. "That won't do you any good. It will only weaken you and slow down your recovery. Try to relax. When you expect it least, your memories will surface again, one after the other."
Erik sighed, frustrated. "That's easier said than done," he complained. "Can you imagine, what it is like to feel as if your life started only a few days ago? When you do not remember anything you ever did, anybody you ever met, any place you've ever been to? But there is this nagging feeling that you would remember it all, if only you concentrated hard enough on lifting the veil in your subconscious mind that is hiding those memories from you?"
Nadir had to admit that he had not the slightest idea of what Erik was going through. He was convinced, though, that Erik's best chance at regaining his memories was to relax. By dwelling too much on the problem, Erik only exhausted himself. Nadir understood, though, that Erik was impatient. He wanted his memories now. He did not feel comfortable without them and therefore did not want to wait until one day something might trigger a memory and let him remember his past.
Nadir had cautiously provided Erik with some information on their shared past, had told him what little he himself knew about Erik's family, had mentioned that Erik had travelled around for a while and that they had first met in his own home country of Persia. Erik had memorized it all, but nothing Nadir had told him had sounded even vaguely familiar to him. He did remember the Persian language, though, and had been able to talk to Nadir in Persian.
Nadir was concerned. The longer this condition lasted, the more likely it seemed to him that Erik might never remember. There were some things, though, that his friend needed to know, and soon. One of them was the fact that Erik's face was disfigured, had always been that way, even before his recent head injury. Right now, Erik's head was still bandaged, but the wound was healing nicely and the bandages would have to come off soon. Nadir knew that he should tell Erik the truth about his face before then, yet he was somewhat reluctant to do so. He had witnessed with his own eyes how Erik had been abused and mistreated because of his face, he knew how badly Erik's self-esteem was affected by this birth defect, how much his friend loathed himself and his disfigured face. At the moment, Erik was not burdened by the knowledge of his grotesque features. For the first time in his life Erik thought of himself as of a normal person. How could he possibly remind his friend of this birth defect, which had overshadowed all of Erik's life so far? How could he throw Erik back into the deep despair of seeing himself as something less than human?
If Nadir was hesitant to tell Erik about his deformity he downright feared the moment when he would have to remind his patient of the fact that he was a wanted criminal and presumed dead. How did you tell a convalescent person such a thing? Yet it was important for Erik to know that he would not be able to leave the apartment at will once he would be strong enough to do so. For his own safety it was imperative to make sure Erik understood he could not roam the streets freely and would have to live more or less like a prisoner.
"If only I could spare him this," Nadir thought. "If only I could help him have as normal a life as is possible with his handicap. I do not want to remind him of crimes of which he has no recollection. I do not want to burden his conscience with atrocities he has committed but cannot remember. But how else can I make him understand that he has to lie low and go into hiding for the foreseeable future?" He shook his head in frustration and decided to cross that bridge when they'd reach it. The more urgent problem was to tell Erik about his face. The bandages on Erik's head were not really necessary any longer and would have to come off the next day at the latest. Then Erik would know…
Nadir spent another hour or so summoning all his courage and trying to think of how best to choose his words when telling Erik about the curse he had been carrying with him since the day he was born. Nadir knew that he could not put off that particular revelation any longer. Determined to get it over and done with, he entered the guest room, as if to check if his friend needed something.
Nadir's agitated state of mind was so unusual for him that Erik immediately noticed that something was not quite right. He looked at the older man inquisitively. "Why are you so nervous, Nadir?" he asked, "is something troubling you?"
Nadir shook his head and tried to appear calm, though with very little success. "I just thought I might have a look at your head injury again," he muttered.
Erik looked up. "Why?" he asked sharply. "I thought you said the wound was healing nicely?"
Nadir nodded. "Yes, of course, it is indeed. Allah is my witness," he stammered. "In fact, in my opinion you do not need the bandages anymore,…."
Erik's eyes burned into Nadir's. "That would be good news," he said slowly, "if I did not hear a 'but' coming." When Nadir did not answer at once, Erik began to worry. "The scar," he whispered, "it's really bad, is it not? You are afraid how I will react to my own ugliness."
Nadir coughed nervously. "Yes,….no…" he fidgeted, desperately trying to make up his mind how to tell Erik the truth. "It's not the scar," he finally mumbled. "The scar is not too bad," he continued hesitantly. "At least not compared to…" Nadir bit his lip. There was no easy way to make Erik understand his predicament. He could not really prepare his friend for the shock that was awaiting him.
Erik was getting impatient. "Spit it out, Nadir," he hissed. "There is obviously something you are trying to tell me. Something I may have known once but do not remember." Erik closed his eyes in frustration. He knew so little about himself and the life he had lead before the accident. Would he never remember? Would he have to live the rest of his life without ever knowing what he had forgotten?
"Yes." Nadir inhaled deeply. "You are right," he confirmed, "there is something you need to know that right now you do not remember. The fresh scar in your face is not exactly a beauty," Nadir continued, hesitating again.
Erik groaned. "I feared that much," he said. "How bad is it? Will little children run off screaming in horror if they see me?"
Nadir looked directly into Erik's eyes. "The scar is ugly," he confirmed, "but even without it…. Your face…" he paused again.
"Even without it…" Erik repeated slowly, trying to make sense of what he had just heard. "My face," he mumbled, when realization hit him. "There is something wrong with my face?"
Nadir nodded, his hand reaching for that of his young friend. "Erik, please," he pleaded, "try to remain calm. I know this will come to you as a bit of a shock, but keep in mind that this is nobody's fault and that there is nothing you can do about it."
"My face," Erik shouted. "What is wrong with my face and why are you so reluctant to tell me?"
Nadir hesitated for another few seconds before finally uttering the words that would throw his friend into black despair and self-loathing again. "A birth defect," he explained. "The right side of your face is badly disfigured."
Erik suddenly seemed as white as the wall. "Disfigured?" he repeated. "A freak of nature? A monster? Is that what I am? A face that frightens people away, fills them with disgust, makes it impossible for me to interact with others? Is that what you are trying to tell me?"
Nadir squeezed Erik's hand. "Your face does not define you as a person," he tried to comfort the younger man. "I will not deny that your appearance has caused you problems in the past, and I would lie if I told you that it will not affect everybody that you come in contact with, but Erik, you have a lot to offer. Those who shun you because of your face do not know what they are missing out on. You are intelligent, creative, highly talented in many ways, and a reliable, trustworthy friend."
Erik groaned. "God, it must be terrible," he sighed, "since you are trying so hard to convince me otherwise." He suddenly sat up straight. "That's why…" he whispered. "I have been wondering why nobody came by to check on me, nobody asked about my health. That's why, isn't it?"A bitter, mirthless laugh escaped his lips. "Nobody cares for the freak. The monster has no friends. I bet there are a lot of people out there in this big city that would have preferred if I had died in that fire."
Nadir's heart went out to his young friend. Erik had not even seen the mangled flesh of his face yet, and he was already assaulted by despair, hopelessness and self-loathing. How would he react once he'd seen the full extent of his disfigurement? And, even worse, what would he do if he knew just how many people would rather see him dead than alive, and why they felt that way?
"Erik, don't do that to you," Nadir tried to soothe his friend. "You are no monster. You are a human being with the same rights as everybody else, and you have certainly always been a good friend to me."
Erik swallowed hard. "The truth, Nadir," he begged. "Tell me the truth. There is nobody else out there who would care about me, or is there? You and that servant of yours is all the support I have. That's why you did not call a doctor. My face might have scared him away!"
Nadir bit his lip. The scenario Erik had evoked was bad enough, but the truth was even worse. At least Erik still ignored the murders he had committed. "You are close to the truth," Nadir finally admitted.
"No friends," Erik murmured. Having no relatives was sad, but no friends either? Was he condemned to loneliness? Realization sank in that if he did not even have friends, there would be absolutely no chance at ever finding love. For a fleeting moment he felt as if he almost remembered something, a distant memory of a discreet perfume, the sound of a young woman's laughter briefly passed through his mind and made his heart ache with longing, then it was gone.
Nadir looked down. "I am afraid so," he whispered. He did not feel entirely comfortable at these words, though. For the first time since his friend's injury he was not entirely truthful with Erik. There was this woman, the former ballet mistress, he had never met her in person, but from what Erik had told him about her, Nadir thought she must care about his disfigured friend as well. Not for the first time he asked himself if he had done the right thing by keeping the information from her that Erik was still alive and on the way to recovery. What if she was mourning Erik's death? What if it hurt her that she had lost her protégé? But she was so close to the young woman who had been Erik's undoing, the young soprano turned Vicomtesse. For Erik's safety it was probably better that Antoinette Giry thought him dead. That way, there was no risk that a slip of tongue on her part might alert the wrong people to the fact that the Opera Ghost was nowhere near as dead as rumor had him.
"I need to see for myself." Erik's voice interrupted Nadir's thoughts. "I need to know how bad it is. Remove the bandages and then hand me a mirror."
Nadir squirmed. Erik was way too agitated for his own good. He was still convalescing and needed rest. "Not right now," Nadir said. "Calm down first. I know this must have come to you as a bit of a shock, but…"
Erik grasped Nadir's hand and held it in a vise-like grip. "Now," he commanded. "You have already told me too much. I cannot relax now until I have seen my face, until I can fully understand the fate which awaits me thanks to this birth defect."
Nadir sighed. There was no use delaying the inevitable. Erik had to be made aware of the effect his face had on others, he needed to accept this and take it into consideration when he made plans for his future.
"By Allah, so be it," Nadir muttered resignedly, "but don't say that I did not warn you. It did not look too great before, now with the scar,…" He slowly began to remove Erik's bandages, careful not to hurt the patient. The wound had healed, but the scar was still an aggressive blood-red color. It would fade a bit over time, but remain visible for the rest of Erik's life.
Nadir looked at Erik's ugly face, trying hard not to flinch. "A mirror," Erik commanded. "Where is a mirror?" Nadir nervously produced a small pocket mirror and handed it to him.
Erik held the mirror in front of his face and froze. Whatever he had imagined, this was worse. The right side of his face, temple, cheek, half of his nose, looked just barely human. His flesh was mangled, there were bumps and wrinkles, his right eye was drooping, the skin was very thin in places, almost translucent, and one could see the veins through it. A long red scar passed right through all this ugliness, and on top of it all there barely was any hair on the right side of his head either.
"A monster," Erik gasped. "Ugly does not even begin to describe my face. It is loathsome, repulsive, disgusting. No gargoyle on a medieval cathedral could look more grotesque than I do." He raised his right hand to cover the deformed part of his face. "How can you bear looking at me?" he asked Nadir, his voice sounding tortured. "How can anybody? Not even I myself…" Erik's chest shook with heavy sobs.
Nadir took the mirror out of Erik's hand and put it aside. "I can understand that you are self-conscious about your face," he said calmly. "And I know how cruel people can be when confronted with something they do not understand. I am not trying to tell you that things are easy for you, for they are not. Never have been and probably won't be too easy from now on either, but…" he paused for emphasis. "There are ways to deal with this situation. For instance you can go out early in the morning or late at night, when the poor light won't allow others to see you too clearly. You can wear wide-brimmed hats that you pull into your face or a hood, or even a mask…"
Erik nodded. "I guess I can do that," he said resignedly. "But how can one live that way, what kind of profession…" He stopped, staring at Nadir. "How do I earn my living?" he rasped. "With a face like that, who would employ me? How have I been able to support myself so far?"
Nadir winced. He was not going to tell his friend that he had been harassing the managers of the Opera Populaire, extorting a salary from them. "You have been doing a lot of different things over the years," he said vaguely, thinking that travelling with a group of gypsies, building torture chambers, running an opera house by proxy and teaching a young girl how to sing definitely could be summed up as "a lot of different things".
Erik nodded. "Apparently I had to change jobs fairly often," he stated, before facing his friend again. "What about now? Am I employed somewhere?"
Nadir shook his head. "No," he said, before adding cautiously, "the Opéra Populaire burned down. You are therefore out of a job like many others."