When I was eight, a mere three weeks after I met Lask, my family went on the biggest vacation of our lives. We were never wealthy. We occasionally drove down to the bay for a few days at the waterside, but we rarely enjoyed the luxury of real travel. My father turned forty that year, and my grandparents gifted us a two-week trip to Disney World– one week at the parks, and one week aboard the newly-built Disney cruise ship, The Magic. As you might imagine, for a fanciful eight-year-old like myself, I was bursting with exuberant anticipation. When I asked Lask where he would be while we were gone, he looked puzzled, almost in the way a puppy looks when someone shouts unfamiliar words in anger.
“Won’t I go with you?” he asked.
“Will you?” I hadn’t thought about it.
“I’d like to. I prefer to look after you.”
“Alright.” And it was done. The first week, he followed me, almost without words through the parks, like a disproportioned shadow. I enjoyed his company, and now and then I would glimpse a genuine smile on his crisp countenance as he leaned on the railing beyond the rides, watching me laugh in glee. His fondness for me puzzled me, but I found I enjoyed his quiet, kind company.
The second week, we boarded the cruise ship– it seemed a long hulking thing in the harbor, and I couldn’t decide it terrified or thrilled me. I knew I didn’t care. I bounded through the halls to our cabin. I wandered the passages, leaning over the rails to glimpse the levels below. I stood on the upper deck as we turned seaward, the ocean seeming to unfold on the horizon, like the whole universe unfurling in undulating foggy blue.
That night, the peaceful waves turned angry, as if they felt the feet of fire on the waves above, and refused to tolerate its audacious intrusion.
I awoke to an odd groaning. At first I imagined it to be the grating rumble of dragon scales, but I realized it was the great iron body of the ship straining against the wind and the bludgeoning waves. I felt my bed toss, my innards seeming to lift in the strangest weightless fashion, as if I too were a wave.
Another layer of sound reached me. It was breathing– raspy, short. It stopped suddenly, gave way to a muffled retching, and then a similarly wretched groan. I heard my father snoring in the suit adjoining my tiny bunk, and peered around the edge of the partition, seeing the shape of my mother asleep there as well. There was a ragged sigh, barely heard above the battering rain against the metal walls.
I turned the other way, rounding the corner to the narrow bathroom. There in the floor, knelt in a pool of black cloak, looking ragged and storm-tinged, Lask clutched the sides of the marble sink, leaning over it in quiet misery. I stood in the doorway in silence a moment, studying my new friend. He didn’t seem as tall knelt there in that cramped space. Though his dark cape spilled across the tiles and rugs, he did not seem the same flaring man I’d seen the last time it stormed.
The ship moaned with a colossal plunge into the trough of a mountainous wave, and Lask’s long fingers slipped on the damp stone, threatening to topple him. In the moment of pitch, his eyes found me. He seemed to flounder, regaining his grip on the sink, his back straightening. His shoulders swelled with breath, and he told me,
“Go back to bed, child. It is just the sea having a nightmare. She will quiet soon enough.”
Instead, I stepped into the room, into the frail glow of the outlet nightlight, branded with the familiar ears in silhouette. Lask looked up at me, his pristine face cast in a sickly pallor, then all at once, he bent over the sink again with a dreadful cough. I reached out and took his hair in my hands. I pulled it back from his face, the way my mother had when I was sick. Lask’s frame seemed thinner than I’d expected, as I stood closer to him, as if he had known hunger, and his vulnerable shoulders quaked with a tremor of fear I had not seen before. I reached out and ran my fingers through his black hair, idly dividing out locks for braiding.
“What are you doing, Sunflower?” he murmured. I knew he worked hard not to sound sour.
“Just braiding. I like braiding.” I plaited a lock of hair near his pale ear, then let it fall over his shoulder. “Should I leave you alone?”
Those eyes glanced sidelong at me. “No,” he confessed. “I enjoy your company.”
He seemed lonesome, so I sat down on the floor, leaning against the wall nearby. He paused by the sink, as to see if his stomach had any gusto left, then settled with his back against the tub. He gazed across the narrow space at me.
“I didn’t know you get seasick,” I remarked.
“I’m not indestructible, dear heart,” he replied. “Fire never mixes too well with water.”
“You going to be ok?” I whispered. The rain was quieting, and worried I might be heard talking to myself in the bathroom.
“Of course,” Lask reassured me. “Just a little seasickness from the tossing. Happens to the best.” He grinned, as if to say that’s me.
I smiled at him, and his face seem to liven, as if he were born from moonlight.
“Why are you here?” I asked, tilting my head– I was trying to line up the mane of his black hair with the ears on the logo shower curtain.
“What do you mean, dearest?”
“Why do you follow me? Why can’t anyone else see you? Are there others like you?”
He smiled a bit, and it rinsed a bit more of the sickness from his face. “I follow you because I care about you,” he said. “I’m here to look after you, and bring you stories. No one else sees me because I don’t belong to them.”
“Belong?” I echoed. “You couldn’t belong to anyone.” The idea that this wild power had any master was inconceivable.
“I belong to you,” he replied, voice soft. He reached out, and cupped my face a moment, gazing at me. I met his eyes without fear, and he smiled. “See?” he said. “Do feel that?”
“I think so.” I wasn’t sure, but it seemed like some invisible thread laced us tighter as he touched me.
He settled back, folding himself to take up less space in the small bathroom.
“And the others?” I asked. “Are there others like you?”
“Of course there’s no one like me,” he answered, as if the very thought were preposterous, “But there are other spirits, if that’s what you mean.”
“A spirit? Is that what you are?”
“Of a fashion.” He smiled, and it seemed to ring with both pride and sorrow.
“What happened to you?” I asked.
The question startled him. He drew up his knees and pulled his cape in tighter around himself. “Whatever do you mean, dear one?” he asked.
“You’re sad,” I said. “You’re often sad. You remind me of a horse I knew once, one that was skittish because someone had beaten it.”
Lask curled his long fingers into the folds of his cape and shook a loose bit of his mane out of his face. “Stories for another night perhaps,” he said at last. “Tales too long and too sobering to make for a good bedtime story.”
“I’m not sleepy,” I protested.
“Nonetheless,” he said. “Some things I would not have haunt your dreams the way they haunt mine.”
I was quiet, not knowing what to say, but reached out and picked up a fold of his cape, holding it, as if I could somehow comfort him vicariously through the cloth.
“Go to bed, dear heart,” he murmured. “The sea quiets. It will be sunny again by morning.”