The incoherent dream rips itself to shreds and he wakes, gasping and clawing for purchase on something, anything. He feels like he is tied down and freefalling at the same time. A cool touch against his face startles him but gives him focus, too.
“Easy, Billy,” rumbles a dark voice. “Easy now. You are safe.”
Panting and shivering, he struggles to sit up, see where he is. White ceiling, white walls, a desk: the Ship’s cabin. Thank heavens! His breathing is calming a little when a touch on his arm makes him look up.
“Billy?” It’s James, his Captain. “What happened?”
Good question. He tries to recall, but the last thing he remembers is… The image escapes him, like a whisp of smoke. Again he focuses, yet again he draws a blank. Literally.
“You were below deck, clearing out the aft compartment,” James prompts. “Suddenly you screamed and ran out. You couldn’t tell us what was going on. In fact, you got so frantic that some of the men had to hold you down while the surgeon sedated you. That is when we brought you here.”
Now shards of memory come back. The compartment, the old crates stacked in there, and—
“It was nothing,” he blurts, stumbling over his own words. “In the dark, shadows take on shapes, y’know? A thought derailed and…” He shivers. “It was nothing.”
James’s gaze tells him his Captain sees far beyond the lies, as he can see through almost anything. “What you saw wasn’t a trick of the shadows, Billy. You know that. So, what was it?”
“I’m not sure… I only know that I was terrified. Of something.”
A comforting hand on his shoulder silently encourages him to dig deeper. As deep as he dares.
“There is…something I can’t face. It doesn’t have a shape. To be honest, I’m not sure it has one, but in that darkness, I thought I saw it. And I panicked.” He feels his heart racing and the cold sweat beading on his skin. “I’ve no idea what it is. I only know that it terrifies me, but I can’t say why.”
James nods slowly. “Would you be willing to go down there again, with me, and see what we can find?”
“No!” Hearing his own yelp, Billy quickly collects himself. “I mean, what’s the point? I probably just imagined it, right?”
“Probably, yes, since imagination is part of your job description.” James smirks. “I believe that you truly saw something, and it terrified you. However, revisiting that image now that you are prepared for it, it’s likely to be far less impressive.”
Billy scoffs. “And if it’s not less impressive?”
“Then we will at least know what we are dealing with. Shall we?”
Solemnly and more than a little reluctant, Billy leads the way to the aft compartment. He needs to do this, because otherwise he’ll never dare to go in there again. The crew makes way for him, their concern visible. James follows with calm determination.
The compartment is a dark space without portholes. The only light comes from the lantern in the main hold casting a few shadows beyond the door. Billy shudders, but steps inside.
He feels his mind bracing, determined not to see anything but what is actually here. To block out what frightened him so. But, that isn’t what he came here to do. And this time, he isn’t alone. If there truly is a terrifying presence here, James will help him handle it. So Billy stops resisting and lets in the images that caught him unawares before.
There. Those shadows in the corner behind the crates. There is what triggered his panic. Biting his lip, he takes two steps forward, so he has a clear view into that nook.
He is not prepared to see two red beads staring back at him. His vision goes black for a moment, but then he feels his Captain’s hand on his back, supporting him. With renewed courage, Billy looks into the shadows that surround the red eyes.
Now he doesn’t look away, the shadows take on a shape. A small goblin sits crouched between the crates and the hull. Somehow Billy knows that it’s not a living creature, but an echo from the past. Something he is so scared of that it took on this horrific shape.
Billy gulps. “Captain?”
The goblin continues to look directly at him, while James peers at where Billy is pointing. “Oh.”
“You see it?” Billy whispers.
James hums a confirmation. “It seems to be a particularly tenacious and destructive belief you hold,” the Captain explains at an even tone. “A negation that you don’t want to be true, but that you dread to be true all the same.”
As James speaks, the goblin becomes more clearly defined, but it still stares at Billy with devious red eyes and a vicious grin.
“If I’m not mistaken, recently you busied yourself with coming to terms with some old memories, yes?”
Billy lets out a soft whimper.
“Likely this little bugger is a limiting belief born from the events in those memories. The last remnant, fighting eviction. Does that make sense?”
“Yes,” Billy hisses. “More than I like. But what do I do? You make it sound so simple, but that thing is dangerous! Not to the Ship, maybe, but to me!”
“I know,” says James. “My dispassionate tone is intentional. Meant to keep you calm, while preventing that thing from getting a hold over me, too.”
Billy senses it’s true. He’s scared, but his Captain takes that fear – and the situation – seriously.
“Can you grab hold of it?” James asks.
“What? It’ll bite me!”
“That is likely, but for your sake, it cannot be permitted to stay here. I can see it, but only through your eyes. I cannot touch it or remove it for you. As you surmised, this creature indeed exists solely in your imagination.”
Again, every word is true. Billy knows it, but he’s still trembling when he reaches into the narrow nook and grabs the goblin by its throat. Immediately the creature lashes out, sinking razor-sharp teeth deep into the flesh of Billy’s hand while claws tear open the skin and muscles of his arm.
“Do not panic,” James intones sternly. “It can only hurt you as much as you let it. Focus beyond the pain and see what it is. What makes it able to hurt you, and why is it so vicious?”
“…I know my place,” Billy grinds out.
James arches an eyebrow. “Which is?”
“…second to everything.” Panic is creeping up Billy’s chest and lodging in his throat. Don’t speak up, don’t speak your mind. Know your place and step down. Play second fiddle, take a backseat. Make space for others.
“You should’ve called me,” a new voice growls. It’s Ben, the Deckhand, who pushes James aside, grabs the little monster that is tormenting Billy, and squeezes its neck until its head pops clean off with an audible noise.
“I determine our place,” Ben states. “Our place is first place. Always. Before everything and everyone else. Others who have a problem with that, let them find their own space! But not over our backs!”
Billy looks down, shaking all over and his arm still bleeding heavily from the deep gashes. The monster is gone, its body and decapitated head dissolved into thin air. But the wounds it caused didn’t. Billy knows that’s because he feels weak, and he hates himself for his weakness.
He hates that Ben had to step in and save him. He hates that he is dependent on his Captain and Deckhand for safety. As if he is a damsel who needs rescuing.
“Only this time,” says Ben curtly.
“You have saved the Ship, and us, on numerous occasions,” James elaborates. “This time, I helped you face your fear, and Ben helped you conquer it by taking a responsibility that is his from your hands. Defending the Ship, defending our space in the world, that is his job. So he could touch the creature, where I could not.”
“So did I!” Billy exclaimed, showing his bleeding arm. “I should have dealt with it myself! That goblin was my scar, born from my memories! I should have been able to kill it!”
As Billy’s voice resonates in the small room, an other echo resounds. James’s voice from long ago. Just as upset, just as frustrated at having needed help. Times when the Ship had been in dire straits and he had been too injured to save her. Times when all that had kept him hanging on, all that had kept their Ship afloat, had been Billy’s loving care and faith in his crew mates.
“You are not weak, Billy. On the contrary. But your strengths are different strengths than Ben’s or mine. Today, Ben’s strength was required. Tomorrow, it may well be yours.”