The Mist had solidly coated the small town of La Sombra. Everything was stained a deep shade of violet. As far as the Riftworks had determined, the Mist wasn’t a threat to mortal life. Though it was still ill-advised for people to linger in it, with the way it was spreading, Sylus wasn’t sure how long avoiding it was an option.
There was plenty of footage out there showing the straight line of the substance making its way across the Pacific. The eastern countries were in a panic, but the ‘Works was quick to remind them all that one day the entire world would be bathed in the substance. This offered a small sense of hope to the fearful population. The ‘Works also stressed that it was ultimately harmless. Sylus wasn’t 100% sold on that idea. Then again, no one really was.
Meanwhile to the East, across the interior of the US, the Mist had formed a stagnant wall about ten miles outside of La Sombra.
“How strange…” he remembered Henley remarking, “Perhaps something is somehow… stopping it…”
That was the only time Henley acknowledged the Mist’s strange behavior.
Sylus shook his head. He was off for the rest of the evening. It was time to forget about work and try to relax. He could think about it all over again tomorrow.
The sound of his son calling to him as he approached the wooden steps to the porch made him freeze in place. His heart swelled up and ached with a familiar longing.
“DAN!” he cried out as his son flung himself down the steps and into his arms.
A long, blissful silence settled between them. Sylus ran his fingers through his son’s hair.
“Welcome home, Dad,” the boy mumbled into his shirt.
“Thank you,” Sylus breathed, “Thank you,” he fought back the burning sensation in his eyes. After a quick squeeze, he released his son. “You hungry?” he sniffed as he wiped the tears away.
“Starving,” Daniel groaned.
“Jeron’s not feeding you?” Sylus glared at him out of the corner of his eye.
“Well… I’m sure he would, but…” Daniel rubbed the back of his neck, “I don’t like going there alone…”
“Dan…” Sylus put his hands on the boy’s shoulder, “The Riftworks keeps all the monsters away. Don’t worry,” he grinned widely.
Daniel nodded firmly, “Because you fight them all off, right?”
Sylus laughed heartily, “I clean up after the people who do that.”
Daniel wrapped his arms around his father’s neck, “I love you, Dad.”
“Love you, too, kiddo,” he breathed in reply.
Daniel finally pulled away. “To Jeron’s?” he sniffed.
“To Jeron’s.” Sylus smiled.
The Diner was the only attraction the small town had to offer. It was a hub for off-shift employees of the Riftworks. It took Sylus a long time to ever set foot in the place out of sheer intimidation, but eventually, he couldn’t afford to live off the meager rations offered by the ‘Works and he certainly wasn’t going to force his son to do the same.
The neon sign glowed intensely in the thick Mist. The letters were on a kind of marque setting. They lit up one at a time then cascaded until they blinked twice and stayed on for a moment. It was gaudy, but that was how the old man who ran the place liked it.
As the chrome-trimmed door swung open, Sylus felt immediately at home. Sure he had a house of his own, but there was such a sense of life when walking into the bright haven in an otherwise darkened town. The Diner was more his home than anywhere else in the world.
Glancing around inside, he found the place uncharacteristically empty. Even the proprietor himself was missing.
Daniel gave a shrug before making his way to his assigned stool at the counter. Sylus followed slowly glancing into every booth searching for some sign of life beyond his son and himself. Upon finally approaching the counter, he looked over it to the floor behind. Still nothing. A growing sense of unease began clouding his mind. He could feel his eyes glazing over. His mind turning hazy.
Use your voice…
“Jeron?” he called into the back without thinking. He paused a moment after wondering where exactly the word had come from. He had thought about calling into the back, but for some reason, he didn’t remember making the decision to do so. It was a subtly confusing feeling. Had he made the decision to speak? Or… Or hadn’t he…
“SY!” a familiar cheery voice called from deep in the bowels of the kitchen “Hey, buddy!” Jeron burst through the twin swinging doors, taking his apron off as he approached, “It’s been a while!” He leaned on the counter in front of Sylus with an uncontrollable grin on his lips.
“H-hey, Jer,” Sylus was still a bit off-kilter from seemingly losing control of his own thoughts. “Hey, Jer,” he repeated with a gentle grin of his own.
“You okay, bud?” Jeron pushed himself away from the counter, “Ya seemed a bit dazed there…”
Sylus’ eyes met Jeron’s. A look of real concern on his face.
“I-I’m fine. Really,” he forced the most unconvincing smile he could.
“Not really buying it,” Jeron gave him a narrow glare, “But I’m sure it’s nothing some good home cooking can’t fix!” He leaned across the counter to pat Sylus on the back, “So what’ll it be, you two?” Jeron slid down the counter stopping in front of Daniel. His arms folded casually on the surface.
“Same,” Daniel muttered.
“Two grilled cheeses and a double order of fries?” Jeron placed a finger on his chin as if he actually had to give the order thought.
Daniel smiled at the gesture, “Sounds great!”
Jeron laughed heartily before turning to Sylus who was once more seemingly dazed.
“Sy?” Jeron moved down the counter to stand in front of him again, “SY!” He snapped his fingers to no avail. A thin purple film had formed over Sylus’ eyes. Without a thought, Jeron placed both his hands on either side of his head. “Hey, hey, buddy, come back. Come on. Come back…”
“Jeron…?” Daniel’s voice shook.
“It’s okay, Dan, just stay there,” Jeron spoke without taking his eyes off of Sylus. “Come on back, Sy.” He applied a bit more pressure, “Your son needs you. Come on. Wake up…” Pressing as hard as he was comfortable with, Jeron’s eyes remained trained on Sylus’.
Eventually, Sylus snapped out of his daze. Pupils rolling around aimlessly, sounds that probably should have been words dribbling from his lips.
“Look at me, Sy. Look into my eyes. Come on,” Jeron forced his head to remain facing his direction. “Sy? Come on. Wake up. We’re here. We’re all here and we’re not going anywhere.”
A rattling gasp burst from Sylus’ lungs. Jeron refused to release him as he coughed almost uncontrollably.
“Sy?” he whispered gently, “You back with us?”
Sylus shut his eyes tightly. Tears slowly built up before falling down his cheeks. He sniffed as he nodded his head.
“Open your eyes,” Jeron rubbed his thumbs on Sylus’ temples, “Come on, look at me.”
Finally, their eyes met. A stare of terror met Jeron’s gaze.
“I can’t control it…” Sylus forced the words through shaky breaths, “I can’t control it, Jer…”
“It’s okay, Sy. We’ll figure it out. Together, okay?” Sylus nodded rapidly, “But you’re back with us now, right?” Sylus nodded again. “Good.” Jeron kept his hands on his head a few moments longer.
After a blackout like that, Sylus was grateful for the touch. It was something about the human contact and the bit of pressure Jeron somehow knew to apply that helped him ground himself again. With a few deep breaths, he felt present again. His mind was once more with his body. Where it had gone, he didn’t know.
The glaze cleared as the light of life finally returned to Sylus’ eyes.
“There you are!” Jeron grinned, “Welcome home!”
Sylus smiled weakly.
“Are you staying with us for now?” Jeron asked in an attempt to lighten the mood.
“I think so, yeah,” Sylus nodded before turning to Daniel. “I’m so sorry, Dan…”
“Don’t be, Dad. It’s okay…”
“It really isn’t…”
“Sy?” Jeron interrupted, “Help me make dinner. Please. It’ll ease your mind.”
Sylus turned to Daniel.
“Go on, Dad,” Daniel laughed gently as he took his phone out of his pants pocket, “I’ll have to deal with your overbearing parenting for the rest of the night anyway. Go play with the burning oil. I’ll be here. Remember! I like my fries well done.”
“Yes, sir!” Sylus forced a laugh as he stood up from his stool. His legs were weak and wobbly. Every step was a challenge to stay upright. As he rounded the counter to head into the kitchen he spun around to face Daniel, already fully engrossed in whatever it was he was doing on his phone, “Am I really overbearing?”
Daniel looked up to find genuine concern on Sylus’ face “Noooo! I was kidding! Really, Dad! You’re fine! In fact,” he hopped off his stool and rounded the counter to wrap his arms around his father, “You’re perfect.”
Sylus knew that wasn’t true, but the sentiment meant all the world coming from his son. He hardly saw the boy anymore with all the long demanding shifts at the ‘Works followed by the “bonus” shifts at the Diner. He loved spending time with Jeron in the wee hours of the morning, but running on coffee for 72 hours straight wasn’t doing him any good. Even if it was Jeron’s “secret family recipe”.
“It’s salt.” He once told him. “The secret family recipe is salt. In everything. On everything. You can’t eat with the Miles’ without consuming your year’s worth of salt in a single meal. Family tradition.”
A smile crossed his lips as the memory bounced around his mind. It was so long ago that it was before the nightmares. The things that kept him awake at night. The things Henley kept calling dreams. They were far from the pleasantness of what one would call a dream.
“Sy?” Jeron poked out of the back. He motioned with his head for Sylus to join him.
“I’ll leave ya to it,” Daniel returned to his stool, “Just remember: Fries well done, please.”
With a smile and a nod, Sylus followed Jeron into the back.
“It’s the nightmares, isn’t it,” Jeron barely waited for the doors to stop swinging.
Sylus paused mid-step. “I…” he turned to Jeron. The man stood no less than four inches taller than him. Maybe more if he counted the dreadlocks swept up and back under a light brown bandanna. Sylus made it a point not to count the hair.
“Sy,” Jeron placed both hands firmly on his shoulders, “It’s that fucking place, man…”
Sylus sighed, “I-I think I’m just… Working too much…”
“Then take a vacation! You have to have some time saved after all the hours you’ve worked!” Jeron shook him lightly, “Come work with Pops and me for a while. We’ll keep you busy without exhausting you. Pops loves having you around!”
A weak, saddened smile made its way across Sylus’ face. “I wish I could…”
Jeron glanced behind him. Daniel could clearly be seen through the portholes on the doors. He sat nearly motionless at the counter staring at his phone. Tightening his grip on Sylus, he pushed him further into the kitchen.
“Listen to me and listen well. She’s not worth your time. She’s not worth a single. Fucking. Penny. Forget about her. It’s not like you were ever really together…”
“She laughed at me when I proposed…”
“I hate to say it but, good thing!” Jeron threw his hands in the air, “Imagine the magnitude of THAT mistake! She has no legal grounds. You’re safe, Sy,” he placed his hands back on his friend’s shoulders, “You’re safe. And if she is dumb enough to come around here,” he flexed into an Adonis pose showing off his well-defined muscles through the white shirt that clung to his body for dear life. Sylus couldn’t help but chuckle away the warmth growing in his cheeks. “I’ll be more than happy to throw her right back out.” With a grin and a wink, he relaxed his stance. “You’re safe, Sy,” he closed the distance between them. “You’re safe.”
Fire burned behind Sylus’ eyes. It was a terribly familiar feeling. He’d spent so much of his life choking back this exact sensation, but here and now? His heart raced when Jeron took hold of him. Strong arms pulled him close and held him tightly. Arms he could only dream of ever having for himself. The dam broke and the sobbing commenced.
“You’re safe, Sy. You’re safe,” Jeron ran his fingers through Sylus’ hair. “Pops and I won’t let anything bad happen to you,” he leaned away with a huge yet gentle smile on his face, “You’re part of the family, Sy. You’ve been since the first day you stepped into that door.” They both chuckled. “You need to come by more,” he laughed as he rubbed a thumb under Sylus’ eye, wiping the tears from his cheeks, “Can’t let it get this bad. I’m here.”
“Oh, god… I already make you watch Daniel all the time… I feel so horrible for the both of you…” Sylus tried to pull away from Jeron’s grip.
“And I love the kid! He’s becoming quite the young chef! Even Pops likes him! He was talking about sharing the family recipe with him someday,” Jeron gave a short laugh, “Says he’s the grandson I’ll never give him.”
Sylus snorted, “Jer, you could have anyone you wanted. I mean look at you. Buff, healthy… Hell of a kind heart… You cook, too! I hear that’s a desirable trait in men.” Sylus gave him a half-hearted wink.
Jeron’s hold loosened a bit as he sighed, “I could have anyone, I suppose. But I don’t want just anyone…”
Sylus stared into his brilliant brown eyes. A brown so light it was nearly a pool of gold in a sea of white. Gentle, kind, caring… the signs of a happy, yet hard-worked life caught in their gaze. It was a pool Sylus would be more than happy to melt into, but he knew his place. He really was no one’s “type”.
“Well, for your sake, I do hope Mr. or Mrs. right show up someday. You’re too good looking to be alone.” The laugh that was meant to make light of the statement was caught in Sylus’ throat as he realized what he was implying.
“See…” Jeron lifted a hand to rub the back of his neck, “That’s the thing. I’m not alone. In fact,” a coy smile crept across his face. “Life’s been pretty good since you showed up and Sergeant Asshat stopped coming around.” He finally released Sylus completely.
“Ah, yeah…” Sylus rubbed the back of his neck, “He doesn’t, like, stalk the place or something, does he? Because I get a real hunter/killer vibe from him…”
“HA! Not since Dad pumped his shotgun at him. Chicken-shit of a man. We gave him a fair shake. Turned out he was just a racist piece of shit through and through,” Jeron turned some knobs on the fryer, “Really makes ya think.”
“I-I’m so sorry, Jeron…”
“Why the hell are YOU sorry?” Jeron scoffed, “Sy, you’ve been nothing but good to us. Even Dad’s been firm with the ‘judge not lest ye be judged’ thing,” he cupped his hand by his mouth, “That means he gave up trying to understand you, but he likes you anyway,” he hissed across the room.
Sylus laughed dryly as he took his place by the fryer, “You’re the ones I practically begged for food… I felt like a fucking animal coming in here ready to drop to my hands and knees for something to eat…”
A short cough came from the other side of the room.
“That wasn’t entirely out of the question,” Sylus laughed morosely, “But you get it, right?” He glanced over his shoulder as Jeron was preparing some grilled cheese.
“That I do, Sy. That I do,” he dropped a buttered piece of toast into a pan.
“A-and you both…” his eyes were burning again, “You both… Ugh…”
Jeron smiled to himself, “We try to do what’s right. Help the needy and the downtrodden… The Diner has been a shelter for so many people…” his thoughts wandered a moment as he flipped a bread slice in the pan, “As Dad always says, it’s up to the have’s to help the have-not’s. And you, Sy,” he turned to face him, “You were the most catastrophic case of have-not I’ve seen in my life.” He returned to the stove, “I mean that’s not to say there aren’t people worse off in the world, but to come through that door?”
“I don’t know, Pops! I don’t fucking know!” a young man threw himself to the floor to check on the body that had just fallen through their door.
“Ain’t no one died on these floors before and ain’t no one dying on ’em now. Pick ’em up and put ’em in a seat. Come here, son,” an aged hand reached out to a sobbing child, “Your pop’s gonna be alright.”
A long, comfortable silence had settled into the harshly lit room. What were once blindingly white fluorescent bulbs were now tinted violet by the ever-present Mist. Everything was tinged with the stuff. No door or closed window could keep it out. It permeated everywhere and everything.
“You saved my life, you know that, right?”
An unseen smile crossed Jeron’s lips, “Just did what was right.”
“Hm,” Sylus thought to himself as he slowly lowered the fry basket into the oil, “What was right…”
“That,” the sound of a knife sliding across a plate filled the pause, “And you clean up pretty decently.”
Sylus scoffed, “Yeah. Sure.”
“You know,” Jeron spun around on his heels, “I think a beard would help. You’re so damn pale that I don’t see how it wouldn’t.”
Sylus laughed. It was a deep laugh emanating from some joy-starved portion of his soul. “Oh, how I wish I fucking could…”
“Someday,” Jeron’s smile was out of sight once more, “I’ll make a gentleman out of you yet.”
A strange warm sensation coursed its way through Sylus’ veins. Happiness. Comfort. Genuine ease… The stress of the job, the anxiety of his condition, the insomnia of the nightmares… the rumbling of his stomach… It was suddenly all… Gone. At that moment, every ache and pain, every scar and wound stopped hurting. In that moment, he was present. And he was happy. Truly.
After dinner, Jeron gave them both a hug before sending them home with some extra food. He never let them leave without something in their arms.
“Remember, Sy. I don’t sleep anymore. If you ever need anything, call me.”
“I don’t care how much of a sobbing mess you are. Fucking call me,” he gave him a light shove out the door.
“Aye aye, Cappin’,” Sylus saluted him.
Jeron waved back with a laugh as he made his way back into the Diner.
“Home sweet home,” Sylus sighed as they made their way into their house.
Heading into the kitchen with their take-home in his arms, Sylus tripped over some cables on the floor.
“Dan, come on, man. Clean up,” his exhaustion was more evident in his tone than he liked.
“Sorry… We just left all of a sudden,” Daniel was quick to start putting his consoles away.
“Don’t be sorry and thank you,” Sylus smiled as he put their food into the refrigerator.
“Yeah, Dan?” Sylus looked up over the island that divided the kitchen from the living room.
“I know we usually watch some TV before bed, but…”
A massive yawn escaped the boy. “Yeah,” he replied wearily.
“Good. Go get yourself ready for bed. Do you want me to come in?”
Daniel thought a moment. He was at a strange age where he wasn’t sure how close he should be to his father. He didn’t know any other kids his age so he had nothing to go on, but he did use the internet and something he’d noticed was how a lot of kids his age had seemed to reject their parents’ existences. Daniel only had his father. He never wanted to push him away, but he did wonder how old was too old to ask your dad to tuck you in at night…
“Moral dilemma?” his father’s voice broke his train of thought.
“When did you stop asking your parents to say good night?”
Sylus felt every fiber of his being sink into a very dark place, “My parents… Your grandparents… They… They weren’t exactly the ‘good night’ kind of people…” he closed the refrigerator door, “We…” he sighed, “Ah… It was… I don’t really know how to say it…”
“You can come in when I’m ready for bed, if you want,” Daniel wrung his hands together.
“Hey, I’ll stop whenever you tell me to,” Sylus chuckled.
“It’s not like we’re doing bedtime stories anymore. Just good night. That’s cool, right?”
An uncontrollable grin filled Sylus’ every feature, “I think it’s really cool that you still let me be an annoying parent sometimes.”
“You’re not annoying, Dad…”
“You sure about that?” Sylus winked.
“The almighty internet hasn’t told you otherwise?”
“Dad, it’s just us. You and me. We…” Daniel visibly deflated, “We’re all we have… We’re not like everyone else. We have to stick together, right? That’s what you said at the airport. That we’d be okay as long as we stuck together.”
Hearing his own words turned on him sent that still foreign calming warmth through his body.
“So… we should probably do that. Stick together…”
Sylus nearly ran around the bar before dropping to his knees and taking his son in his arms.
“Dan…” he breathed.
“I love you, Dad,” Daniel wrapped his arms around his father, “That’s never gonna change.”
“Thank you…” Sylus was nearly sobbing.
The moment seemed to last a lifetime. An eternity of peace. Something Sylus knew he’d have to cling to if he was going to survive the days ahead. Every day was a trial. Every day broke him down. Every day… He kept himself sane by waiting for the moment he could be with his son again.
“Yeah, Dan?” Sylus sniffed as he leaned away to face the boy.
“I have to pee.”
“Oh god!” Sylus released him, “Go go go! I’m sorry!”
“Don’t be sorry!” Daniel slapped him gently on the shoulder, “I’ll be ready in a minute.”
Sylus sat quietly on the couch staring at a blank television screen. His mind placid and at peace. Empty and calm. A rare state to be in. Jeron was right. He needed a vacation. Maybe if he asked Henley nicely… Who was he kidding. Henley was a nice enough guy on the surface, but he was all about efficiency. As many concessions as he gave him, Sylus knew full well that he was just doing it to keep one of the many cogs in his machine working. Leaning back, he rested his arms on the back of the couch.
“Please leave me alone tonight,” he whispered to whatever was waiting for him on the edge of his consciousness, “I just want to sleep. Please…”
Sylus was quick to sit up. Daniel was standing at the top of the short flight of stairs that lead back into the rest of the house. He had put on a matching set of pajamas bearing the image of his favorite superheroes.
“Ready for bed, then?” Sylus smiled as he stood up.
“I think so,” Daniel yawned.
With a grin on his face, Sylus followed his son into his room. It was lit as warmly as possible in the face of the Mist’s tint. The walls were lined with drawings and pages torn from comic books. It truly warmed Sylus’ heart to see his son showing his passions so openly.
“Hey, you made your bed!” he was genuinely surprised to find the room in such good condition.
“Yup! And I started an essay on the impact of social media on popular culture, too.”
“You said that as if it’s something I should think is common…”
Daniel sighed as he got under his covers, “Just trying to keep my brain working.”
“Dad, I know. You don’t have to say it again.”
“Henley offered to get you textbooks…”
“I can already pirate most of the stuff online. It might be an edition behind, but I don’t think a few typos makes it any less helpful.”
Sylus tucked the edge of his sheets under the mattress.
“Y-you don’t… Think I’m failing you… Do you?”
“DAD!” Daniel sat up so abruptly his head barely missed colliding with his father’s. “Stop! Please!”
“It’s just… Dan… You should have friends…”
“Did you have friends when you were my age?”
Sylus thought a moment before the painful truth surfaced, “N-no… I-I didn’t…”
“See? And you turned out fine.”
“Dan… you’re full of shit, you know that, right?” Sylus chuckled.
“Well informed shit,” Daniel laid back down in his bed. “I’ll make friends, Dad. When all of this is over and the Mist goes away. I’ll make friends then. Okay?”
Sylus smiled weakly. “Okay.”
“Good night, Dad,” the boy shimmied deeper under his covers.
“Good night, Dan,” his father placed a small kiss on his forehead before turning out the light and leaving the room.
At the far end of the hall was the master bedroom. By all accounts it was a gorgeous room. Windows lined the exterior wall beside the bed. Skylights let the moonlight in. A sliding door lead out to a small deck which lead further out to a small plot of land on a sheer precipice. You could look down from the yard and see the ocean slamming against stone. At first, it was a feature Sylus was less than pleased to have, but the sound of the ocean had grown on him. He still kept the door firmly locked and the key as hidden as he could. Daniel was a responsible kid, but the temptation to screw around where he shouldn’t was showing loud and clear. God forbid he fell off the cliff while Sylus was at work… He’d never find him. There mere thought of losing his son wrenched a knot in his gut.
A lone tree stood at the point of the yard. It’s branches swaying in a warm sea breeze. The temptation for him to step outside and feel it for himself was strong. Yet he knew that if he did, he’d want to stay out there. That he’d fall asleep. And that the…The nightmares would walk him off a cliff. Or something… He was too paranoid for his own safety to use the back yard at all so it remained locked to both of them. For the best.
Finally crawling into his own bed, a bed that could easily fit two with incredible comfort, the anxiety started setting in. This was how it was. Every night. He feared falling asleep. What waited for him was something he constantly failed to understand. Maybe if he could figure it out it’d go away, but it was always so horrifyingly upsetting. He kept hoping the day would come when he’d become immune to whatever it was that lurked just behind his consciousness. Instead, every time felt like it was brand new. Like he’d never experienced it before. It was agony. Every time he tried to sleep, it was there. Watching. Groaning. Writhing. He shuddered at the thought. He could never picture it in his waking mind, but there was always a feeling associated with the vague memories. The feeling was probably worse than if he could just remember what the damn thing looked like. But every morning, he’d forget. And every night, he’d be forced to remember. A vicious cycle. Over and over.
Just as the anxiety began edging into a panic attack, a strange placid calm washed over him. It wasn’t like the happiness he’d felt from the evening before. It was… Emptiness. Complete and total emptiness. He’d take it. Now was the window to fall asleep. Maybe he wouldn’t dream. Maybe it would leave him alone. If only for tonight.
He quietly begged the nightmares to stay away. It reached a damn near whimper before the calm took hold of him completely.
The thought wasn’t his own. The thing. It was there. Whatever it was. It was there. He knew his heart should have been racing, but it wasn’t. Why wasn’t it? Why wasn’t he afraid? He remembered the evening he’d just had. How truly happy he’d been. Was that what was keeping the fear away? But the thing… It was still…
“Who are you…” Sylus breathed in the moonlit darkness that filled his room.
“Leave me alone, please…” he pulled the covers over his head.
I will try.
A strange response Sylus had little time to consider. Sleep was quick to take him. His last thought was a silent prayer that he’d make it through the night without some eldritch horror wracking his mind. A prayer for sweet memories and works of gentle fiction to ease his weary mind. A prayer for visions of a life he’d never have…
Woke up, fell out of bed
Dragged a comb across my head
Found my way downstairs and drank a cup
And looking up I noticed I was late
Found my coat and grabbed my hat
Made the bus in seconds flat
Made my way upstairs and had a smoke
And everybody spoke and I went into a dream
The Beatles – A Day in the Life