His whispered plea faded into the darkness, leaving Erik and myself in utter silence. Time seemed to drag by and neither of us said a word. The only sound came from Erik as he brought his emotions under control, his breathing gradually calming. He slowly extended his hand towards me, palm facing up. I looked at his half covered face quizzically.
“My mask, Christine”, he said, his hand extending further. “Please”
I frowned and looked around me, trying to find the article of clothing. Strange. It had been in my hand merely moments ago. “I don’t have it.”
“Don’t play games, Christine,” Erik muttered angrily and clenched his fist. I fought off rising panic at his mounting aggression.
“Please Erik, I don’t have it. I took it off you and when you scared me I-“, I stopped as it all came crashing down onto me.
“You… what?” Erik asked, his voice had suddenly grown very quiet.
I looked towards Erik and felt a nervous smile grow as I attempted to look anywhere but at his eyes.
“Well. You see…Erik.”
A laugh escaped from me as I allowed myself to sink into the hilarity of the situation. Erik scowled and continued to stare at me. Normally, this would have snapped any mirth from the moment, but now, it was all I could do to choke back a frightened giggle.
“I may have done something very stupid.” I muttered, twisting my fingers as I tried to muster any remnants of courage to tell him. Erik continued to prompt me, his voice light, calm… pleasant even.
“Christine, where is my mask?”
“I may have…. It’s quite possible that I…” my arms swung as I tried to control my nerves. I took a deep breath and blurted the next sentence “Ithrewitbehindme.”
“You threw it...”
“Yes. Behind me” I said with a nervous giggle.
Erik’s eyes darted to look just behind me as mounting horror and disbelief grew on his face.
“So it’s in th-“
“The lake, yes…”
“Of all the insufferable, thoughtless-“
I sighed. This was the newest wave of furious mutterings from Erik as we waded through the freezing water, trying to spot a flash of white under the surface. It had been twenty minutes, if that, since I had thrown the damn thing and it seemed I was now entitled to every insult under the sun. We we’re both waist deep in the lake and getting more irritable with each other by the second. This current tirade of his was pushing my normally respectable demeanour out of sight.
“Oh Erik hush.” I snapped, slinging my arm through the water and sending a small wave over his way.
Erik fell silent and set an incredulous stare at me from behind his hand.
I took a deep breath and forced myself to think more positively while I returned to squinting through the water. ‘Maybe the stream carried it away’.
I heard Erik give an exasperated sigh to my right, “Good grief, Christine. We’re in an underground lake, not a river.”
“Well, I don’t know” I retorted, “Maybe, this would go a lot quicker if you would just remove your hand from your face and help me search properly. Hmmm?”
Again, silence…. Before,
“You know I can’t do that. You should not have to look at my monstrous face again.”
I threw up my hands, flinging water everywhere in irritation and whirled to face him.
“Goodness above, it wasn’t even that bad. Honestly, what’s under your hand right now would be infinitely preferable company to the moaning, melodramatic arse I’ve had to put up with for the last half hour. Now uncover your face and help me look, like a gentleman ought to.”
Shock. That was precisely what his face now showed. He just stood blinking at me, his mouth hanging open, while I stood with wet hands on my hips. I shook my head and sighed, turning once more to begin my search again.
Several minutes passed in utter, somewhat awkward silence, but I endeavoured to ignore it. At least his little tirade had blessedly finished. I continued walking through the lake, easing my feet along the bottom to see if I could feel for his mask. At last, my foot brushed against something. I prayed that this was it and not some…. Well I don’t know… some skull. Who really knows what could be in there. I took a deep breath and cautiously lowered one arm in, my whole body feeling suddenly tense. I smoothed my hand over the object – Yes! It was his mask –
“Christine” came a voice directly behind me. I yelped and instinctively plunged forward into the water, completely submerging. I emerged seconds later, spluttering, water dripping from my curls as I glared angrily at Erik, who was looking sheepishly at the water as the smallest grin tugged at his lips.
I huffed and stood up as proudly as possible. I made to walk past Erik, pressing his mask to his chest as I went, when he stopped me. Grabbing my hand,
“Christine, I’m sorry.” I looked back at him and went still. His face was completely uncovered. My eyes scanned his features and Erik stiffened slightly. I met Erik’s eyes as he searched mine for any signs of fear or revulsion. I was determined. He would find none.
“Did you mean it, Christine?” he breathed. His hand tightening slightly around my own. Almost desperately. I tilted my head inquisitively.
He took a deep breath, his whole frame shuddering momentarily.
“Did you mean it when you said that it wasn’t that bad? That it was even preferable?” His eyes slipped down to stare at our hands. “I know you were irritated when you said it. I’m sure you would have said any number of things to make me be quiet but… could it be, even in the smallest of ways, that you meant it?” he whispered, the words barely brushing across the surface of the water.
I stood, all thoughts of discomfort about standing in the lake leaving me. Erik kept his gaze on our hands, hardly daring to look at me. His bloated lip, his warped nose, the red, mottled and bumpy skin creeping across his cheek, it was all there for me to see. I took it all in, feeling my heart shudder at what I saw and I took a deep breath. His eyes darted to meet mine at the sound and I forced myself to focus on his eyes. His face was… different, in the most generous of terms. It was not a handsome face by any means. But his eyes. They were utterly human. In the few days I had known him as a man I had seen them burn with rage, glow warm and glint with happiness, and flare with a beautiful passion when he sung. They were beautiful. Now they were wary as he waited for my answer, and I caught a glimpse of the loneliness plaguing him. These were hardly the eyes of a monster. I slowly raised my hand, his eyes following my movement, and placed it gently on his marred cheek. He gasped and closed his eyes against the sudden flow of tears.
“Yes, Erik. I daresay I could get used to this face very easily.” I said with a slight smile.
He laughed suddenly, a wonderful, strong, musical sound that echoed around the cave and I couldn’t help but smile at his joy. His eyes were shining as they met mine once more and he let go of my hand to pull me into a hug. Unfortunately he was too enthusiastic and we both toppled over, into the lake once more.
I broke the surface, swiping my hair out of my face as I gasped for air. He was already standing up, sopping wet and grinning at me like the happiest man on this Earth. It actually made his face more pleasant to look at. I mock glared at him as I stood and launched a handful of water directly at him. I stifled a laugh as it hit him squarely in the face, making him splutter. He growled as I turned to run, giggling furiously as he gave chase. He caught me almost instantly and easily scooped me up in his arms.
“GAAAH ERIK!” I laughed as he carried me to the bank at last. He set me down and ran into an adjoining room. I smiled when he returned and wrapped me in a fluffy red towel before guiding me towards my room to change.
I emerged from my room with dry clothes and cocooned in a delightfully warm, blue blanket, to see Erik, sitting by the fire in dry clothes. His face was still uncovered, but with his content smile in place I found it hardly mattered to me at all. He gestured to his right, indicating that I sit next to him. He took my hand once more in his own. He stroked it lightly as we gazed into the fire for several minutes. Chuckling lightly, he broke the silence, glancing at me and extending his hand slightly.
“Now, I know I won’t need it so much now, my dear, but I believe you’ve found my mask and I’d very much like to have it back.”
I froze and stared at his hand. In our oh-so-tender embrace… I had dropped the mask.
back into the lake.
I swallowed back a nervous laugh and looked up into his expectant eyes.