“Nick the Prick” continued to plague me as I went through school, and was the ringleader in what seemed at times a school-wide hatred of me. By the time I reached middle school, it seemed like everyone was out to get me. I tried to have friends, but even they distanced themselves as it became apparent I was not altogether like them, nor would I be bent to their ways. As puberty descended like a hellish sandstorm of hormones and emotions, my body began to betray me. I sprouted breasts overnight, and one day I rose from a plastic band chair to find a small patch of condensation left behind me. It could have been sweat, or likely a leaky spit-valve on the old instrument for all anyone knew, but from then on, whatever mercy the school held reserved for me was gone.
Boys would tell me they wanted some because they’d heard I was always ready. I was called whore and fuck-bitch, and more creatively, baby beluga. Freak. Fat girl. Flab cunt. For a while it was only the words. Then people began to trip me on my way downstairs, slap books out of my hands, shove me against lockers. For a while, Lask suffered this with me, offering me quiet words and a gentle arm around my shoulders, but I could tell it made him angry, and I learned early that Lask’s temper was not something to trifle with. He simmered with rage the day I returned to my locker to find FREAK scrawled across it in thick black sharpie, but it wasn’t until a year later in the 8th grade that I learned just what his temper was capable of.
I saw Nick the Prick coming down the hall, and busied myself swapping books out in my locker, trying to seem preoccupied and uninteresting. I had hoped he might not notice me, but I should have known better. Nick came up behind me and grabbed me around the neck, pinning me against the lockers. I felt the hard ridge of him through his pants pressing against my back. I struggled and told him to let me go. Passing students saw and did nothing. If they gave any response at all, it was only to laugh. One of Nick’s friends crowed, “Get a room!”
Lask was next to me, snapping, “Strike! Use your elbow. Stomp his foot.” But I was too afraid and mortified to move. Nick was taller than me, and the latch of my locker bit into my sternum as he pinned me there. I could tell Lask was growing more and more agitated. Brief flashes drew my attention to sparks leaping from his fingers. I hadn’t known he could do that, and even in my panic, it intrigued me.
Nick crushed me against the lockers, and his grip tightened until it was difficult for me to breathe. He growled filth into my ear, and roiling feelings of rage and panic fought for dominance inside me. When his arm tightened enough I couldn’t breathe at all, something snapped. It was like having a crimson curtain thrown over my head. A sound like thunder or the roar of fire blared in my mind, deafening me to all other sounds. I could feel Lask moving; it was like he rushed past me, and I felt myself falling. It was like being shoved out of the way.
I saw things happen, and it wasn’t me. My elbow drove backward, hitting Nick square in the stomach, and as his grip loosened, my arm swung up, my fist connecting with his chin. As he staggered backward, I turned, my face masked with some wrathful expression that was not mine. My right arm swung, contacted with his jaw, and was followed by my left, swinging my geography book as if it were a blade instead. The book crashed into the side of Nick’s head and he crumpled under the force of it. Before he could scramble upright, my foot planted in his crotch, holding him pinned to the floor by his pride.
When I spoke, the voice was mine, but it was far removed from how I should have sounded. It was lower and more resonant, and carried a growl I could never replicate.
“If you ever do that again,” Lask snarled through my tongue, “I will destroy you. You are pathetic—” My foot ground Nick’s crotch, drawing a yelp from him, “—and mean nothing to me. It would be my pleasure to end the likes of you. The next time you lay a hand on her, I will maim or kill you, and it will be deservedly written off as self-defense.”
With that, I stepped back, gathered my books, and swept off down the hall. I was halfway to the other end when the force of Lask rushed out of me. I staggered, feeling suddenly weak. Blinking, dazed as if coming out of a deep sleep, I turned and looked back. A ring of students and teachers had converged around Nick. Someone was pulling him to his feet. I glimpsed his bloodied face. A wave horror rushed over me and I ducked into the girls’ bathroom. I threw my books on the counter, and flung myself into the nearest stall. I vomited instantly, my hands shaking as I reached for the handle to flush. I felt hot and feverish. As I wiped my face, Lask’s hand settled on my shoulder. I rounded on him.
“What the hell was that?” I demanded.
His answer was, “We should talk.”
(Side note: Nick never laid a hand on me again.)
It turned out Lask was stronger than he had first led me to believe. We always shared a mental connection; I could feel his presence in the back of my mind, communicate with him through thought, and lend him strength by willing my energy to him. The fact that he could also possess my body came as a shock to me. I was angry at first, and he was apologetic in his usual gentlemanly fashion. That silver-tongued devil could talk his way out of anything. When he had soothed my ire, he explained it was possible because of his strength– most spirits cannot reach their vessel’s conscious awareness, let alone possess a human body at will. Lask was rare in that regard. He apologized my first experience of it had been what it was, and said he had only forced his way forward to defend me. He called it coming to the fore, and explained that in the same way I could sense and track him in my mind, he could sense and track me, and I acted as his vessel on earth: everything I saw, heard, tasted, or otherwise experienced could be shared with him if he focused on my sensations, and I gave him permission to sense them.
At first, this worried me. Lask was not always beside me– sometimes he disappeared to take care of his own life and work– but the idea he could eavesdrop on everything I did struck me as deeply disconcerting. Eventually, I decided I didn’t care. He didn’t seem uncomfortable with anything I did, and I was not uncomfortable being able to sense him, but I was a long time making peace with the inescapable truth of our connectedness. It was a strangely inescapable intimacy– like an arranged marriage of minds. However, as with arranged marriages, sometimes you grow to love them anyway.
As I grew older, we began to practice bringing him to the fore. I would watch in fascination as he moved my limbs, as my hand pushed a pen across a page without my willing it, as my tongue grew accustomed to unfamiliar sounds and words. Lask’s native language was what he called Aetherian, and while I could not understand it, when he inhabited my body, I was able to speak it easily enough. He always spoke English to me, but sometimes at night, I would hear him whispering unfamiliar words by my door; they sounded like prayers.
We never brought Lask to the fore intentionally when there was a chance we might be discovered. While purportedly open-minded, my parents were Baptists, and the last thing I wanted was to be thought crazy or demonic. I knew my relationship with Lask was not normal, and could easily be misconstrued as the symptom of some illness or perversion. It breaks my heart to see him treated like a disease, or be forced into therapies and medications to try to fix something about me that isn’t broken. The older I got, the more I outgrew the age of acceptable invisible friends, and the more important it seemed to keep him a secret. It felt safer for both of us that way.
The only other time Lask jumped forward while I was in school was the night of a homecoming dance when I was 14. There was a boy I had been crushing on (we’ll call this one “Jesse”), and I’d asked him to go with me. He turned me down at first, but then later came back to say he’d changed his mind. At the time, I was too excited to wonder why, lost in the youthful exuberance of dress shopping and fancy make-up. Later, I decided he must have been unable to find better prospects and would rather take his chances with the school freak than spend the night alone.
We danced on the fringes of the room until midnight, while Lask watched from the corner with disapproving eyes. Lask never liked it when I showed interest in boys. There was one, (we’ll call him “Alex”), that I had adored since elementary school, but our class schedule had pushed us apart, and he always seemed to have a girlfriend. Lask tolerated Alex, but it was clear he did not tolerate Jesse. I thought he was jealous, and told him to stay out of it and let me have my fun. He did, but remained on the edge of the hall, keeping a watchful eye on the frenzied scene of young bodies.
At the end of the night, we returned to Jesse’s car, and he asked what I wanted to do. I’d never been to a dance before, let alone on a date, so I had no idea what my options were. I shrugged, and said, “I don’t know. It’s late. I guess I should get home.”
Jesse put the car in gear, but instead of heading for the exit, he circled the school and came to a stop at the dark back corner of the teachers’ lot. I glanced over at him, wary.
“What are we doing out here?” I asked.
“You look pretty,” said Jesse.
I’m sure I blushed. Boys didn’t usually have nice things to say about me.
“Not a bad dancer either.”
I smiled. (I thought I danced like an inebriated circus seal.)
Jesse reached out and brushed my hair back. I went very still, unsure of what to make of the touch, fluttering with faint hope that plunged into sudden terror when he said,
“You got nice tits too.”
“Excuse me?” I frowned at him.
“I said they’re nice.” With that, he reached down and gave one a squeeze. I slapped his hand away.
“What’s the matter with you?” he said. “I took you to the dance like you wanted.”
“And?” I demanded.
“Don’t I at least get a blowjob for the trouble?”
“Piss off, Jesse,” I spat, and reached for the door handle. He grabbed the strap of my dress and hauled me back toward him. I struggled, but in the close quarters of the car it was hard to move in an acre of crinoline. He shoved his hand down the front of my dress, and suddenly the wave of roaring crimson broke over me again.
Lask rounded on the boy, and snapped at his face like a wild dog, lashing back with my left arm to smash my knuckles into Jesse’s nose.
“What the fuck?” Jesse yelled.
“Unhand me this instant!” Lask roared.
I don’t know what Jesse saw in my face, but he instantly complied, releasing his grip on me as if he had been burned. Lask flung open the car door and rolled out of it with surprising grace in such a huge dress, and took of at a run across the parking lot, the heels of my shoes sounding like the clatter of hooves in the stillness. He released me in a rush, my momentum carrying me onward, and suddenly he was loping beside me.
“Run!” he commanded.
I didn’t question or look back. I fled toward the lights of the sidewalk and didn’t slow down until I reached the other side of the school, where the crowds were still filing out into the parking lot. I stopped at the edge of the sidewalk, panting, feeling sweat trickling down the back of my hose. A minivan coasted by, the window rolling down to reveal the face of Alex’s mother.
“Hey, Em,” she said. “You need a ride?”
“Yes, please, if it’s not too much trouble,” I answered, trying not to seem too flustered.
I piled into the back of the van next to Alex and his younger sister. Alex gave me a curious look, but I offered no explanation. I lived only a mile or two from the school, so the ride was short and prevented much awkward silence. When I got home, I let myself in, and found my parents waiting for me in the family room.
“Have a good time?” my mom asked.
“Yeah, it was fun.”
“Where’s Jesse?” asked my dad.
“Headed home, I think.”
“You look tired,” my mom noted.
“I’m beat,” I confessed. “I’m gonna go crash.”
“Do you need help with your dress?”
“Nah, I got it. Thanks, though.”
“Night, punkin! You looked beautiful tonight.”
I smiled at my parents, then retreated up to my room. I closed the door, and leaned back against it with a tired sigh. Lask materialized next to me.
“What happened tonight?” I whispered.
“The world is a dangerous place,” he replied, “Especially for beautiful young women.”
I said nothing, but looked at the floor, hardly able to contemplate the possibilities of where my night could have gone.
“Are you alright?” Lask asked.
“I’m not sure. He didn’t hurt me, if that’s what you mean.”
Lask stepped closer, and offered his arms to me. I folded myself into his embrace, feeling his cape wrap around me. The empty air in my room offered little warmth, but I could feel the smooth gold satin lining of the cape against my bare arms. He had dressed to match me that night, or perhaps I had selected my black and gold dress to match him.
“It’s late,” said Lask. “I should let you get to bed.”
“Stay,” I said, unwilling to let him go.
He nodded, then stepped into the study adjoining my bedroom to let me undress. I didn’t know why he never watched me change (he bore witness to all of my life, so I wouldn’t have minded), but that night I felt somehow safer for it. When I had pulled on my nightshirt, I went to retrieve him from the next room. He, too, had changed into more comfortable clothes. He followed me back, and went to settle into his customary place in the corner, but I held up the covers, and motioned for him to come be next to me.
Lask smiled a little and slipped into bed beside to me. I immediately curled myself into his arms. It wasn’t the first time he had held me at night; sometimes he would cradle me after bad dreams until I went back to sleep, and the one night I had thought about ending my life, he stayed awake with me until morning. I didn’t know how long he planned to stay this time, so I asked,
“Stay with me tonight?”
“Of course, Sunflower.”
I nestled my head into the crook of his neck, feeling his strong arms fold around me in the darkness. For a moment, I lay there with my head on his chest (or perhaps just the lifeless pillow in the space where he should have been), listening to the steady beat of his heart beneath my ear, until I whispered through the darkness, “Thank you.”