0.02: Voices.

Staring into the bathroom mirror, he slowly cinched his tie with the utmost reverence. The longer he dared to look at himself in the reflective surface the more he came to realize how ridiculous he looked. A sense of shame and embarrassment brought tears to his eyes. He’d never be good enough. He’d never be able to dress this way and be the man he wanted to be. He had to accept that sooner than later. With everything else going on in his life, he couldn’t let his own securities add to his distress. Something had to be forgotten and left behind. It was easiest, he decided, that it be his own dreams of self-actualization. Otherwise, he’d be selfish.

What was that thing called? Some guy’s “Hierarchy of Needs”? Wasn’t self-actualization all the way at the top? Good thing it was that high up, Sylus was desperately afraid of heights.

“Morning, Dad,” a weary voice came from the open bathroom door.

“Dan!” he shrieked, “Oh, oh god…” he was quick to yank the tie from his neck.

“Why are you taking it off?” Daniel wiped the sleep from his eyes.

“Ah, well, it… It doesn’t fit. I-it never will. I just… I…” Sylus visibly slumped. Every ounce of strength this ritual usually gave him was gone. “I was being stupid,” he forced a smile, “that’s all. Gonna go get changed for work. Meet you at the counter for breakfast?”

“Dad… It’s not stupid…”

“Yes it is, Dan. Adults don’t play dress-up.”

“Sure they do, Dad. Every day. They dress up like businessmen, construction workers, chefs and even janitors. Those are all costumes. When they get home, they’re just themselves.” Daniel yawned, “And that’s all that matters.”

Sylus stood agape. His mind struggled to process everything his son had said.

“Don’t look surprised. The internet isn’t all evil. There’s some philosophical stuff on there, too.” Daniel scratched his head as he continued down the hall. “Maybe wear the tie under your work clothes?”

Still frozen in place, Sylus’ gaze slowly drifted to the tie he held in his hand. Though like everything else in the Mist, it was tinted violet, he knew it had been plum purple. Jeron had given it to him for Christmas the first year he was in town. The memory of crying on him for the first time resurfaced. Along with it came embarrassment and a strange, warm sense of comfort.

“Hey, Dan,” Sylus chimed as he joined his son at the island, “What’s for breakfast?

Daniel turned to see his father in his drab white and grey work clothes. Under which he knew was a tank top and under that… Something long going down his chest was barely showing through. Daniel smiled.

“I made lazy eggs,” he pointed across the kitchen to the counter to a paper plate covered with another paper plate.

“Thank you, Dan,” Sylus kissed his son on the forehead before collecting his meal.

“There’s toast sitting in the toaster if you want that, too,” Daniel mumbled through his mouthful of egg.

“You’re too good, Dan,” Sylus placed the toast on his plate. His mind managed to stay in one place as they ate their meals in silence.

“I’m gonna go spend the day with Mr. Miles. He wants to teach me how to roast a ham or something.” Daniel spoke into his glass before drinking its orange contents.

“That’s fantastic, Dan!” Sylus was more than happy to hear that not only would his son not be alone today, but he’d also be kept busy. The pang of guilt for the Miles’ and Daniel being forced into this situation shot through him.

“Dad?”

“Yeah, Dan?”

“Don’t worry. Mr. Miles is a nice guy. He never seems annoyed. He just keeps teaching me new recipes. Some… I’m not sure I’m ever gonna use…”

“Like?”

“Boiled liver.”

“Oh god,” Sylus gagged.

“Yeah…” Daniel sighed as he threw away his plate. “Wanna walk half way?”

“Through the neighbourhood or around it?” Sylus replied with a smile as he threw away his own plate.

La Sombra was a strange little town. It was built along a U-bend that came off a major thoroughfare and ran along a sharp drop into the Pacific. Many of the houses were clumped together in a central cluster on the inside of the bend: The Neighbourhood Others, like the Diner and the Synclaire’s house, were built on the edge of the cliff face. The Riftworks hung partially over the edge as well.

When the Rift tore open, the residents of La Sombra seemed to disappear. Rumours of raging monsters and violent explosions crossed the world faster than the world could reach the Rift itself. Yet no signs of destruction or remains were found. And when the world finally arrived to contain it, all they found, was Henley.

“Around. I hate that place. It’s all dark and… Kinda dead looking…”

“You got it,” Sylus nodded. “Gonna go brush my teeth and I’ll be ready to go.”

“I-I should probably brush mine, too,” Daniel sighed as he slid off his stool.

It was another one of those peaceful joyous moments. Sylus stood beside his son as they brushed their teeth. It was a simple affair, brushing one’s teeth, but done with someone he loved? It made it a precious moment he’d cling to for the entirety of his grueling shift at the ‘Works. A sickly sensation filled his gut at the mere thought of that wretched place. Maybe Jeron was right… Maybe he had to get away from there for a while. And maybe Henley would understand it as needing recharge time for his favorite cog. Every machine needed some downtime. Sylus was no different. They both rinsed, spat, and wiped their mouths in unison. A soft knowing laugh between them.

Outside looked and felt exactly the same as inside. The Mist had made the air it tainted look and feel the same no matter where you were: Violet-tinted and a bit cooler than the average regional temperature. Largely inoffensive, just eerie and off-putting, nonetheless. Except for rain.

Rain was deadly now. As the water plummeted through the Mist-stained air, it formed into jagged crystals penetrating almost any surface they came in contact with. The ‘Works was quickly modified to protect itself. Henley had made sure Sylus’ house had the same roofing and siding. The other houses? Torn up. Most of the employees lived at the ‘Works, though. Sylus was the only one with a child, so he was the only one afforded a house of his own.

Walking around the bend, Sylus glanced between the few houses built on the edge of the cliff face that still stood. Were they not there at all, he’d be able to see right out into the ocean. His eyes kept glancing between his son, talking about his interests, and the gaps between derelict buildings that revealed a vastness behind them. All of a sudden, Sylus stopped walking.

“Dad?” Daniel turned back after he’d made a few steps without noticing his father stood rigidly still staring out between the ruins of the once prosperous homes of La Sombra. “Dad?” he approached him, tugging on his sleeve.

“I. See. You.”

The words clearly came from his father’s lips, but the sound… Something about it wasn’t right…

“Dad? No one’s out there. It’s okay.” Daniel tried to pull his father away from his trance.

“What are you…”

Sylus’ vision was locked on a fury of violent tendrils flailing in the raging sea. They towered over him, reaching for the distant sky. Writhing. Tangling. Groaning as if they were tearing the world apart at its seams. The Mist swirled around them. Spiraling like black magic fueling the their demented dance.

It’s not real. It’s not real. It’s not real…

Daniel stood in front of his father; his eyes coated with a violet glaze. “DAD!” Daniel waved his hand in front of him. “DAD PLEASE!”

“I… I can’t… I can’t see…”

“DAD!”

“I…” Sylus began making his way toward the cliff face. A song of distant whispers filled his ears. Promising him everything he could ever dream of. Everything he could ever hope for… The life he’d always wanted. For him. For Daniel. For his family…

Don’t listen… Don’t… It’s lies… All lies…

“DAD NO!”

Daniel tried to hold his father back, but even for as weak as the man usually was, he moved uninhibited by his son’s weight.

“No no no no…” Daniel reached into his pocket and quickly dialed a familiar number.

“Miles’ Diner, how can we…”

“Jeron! Dad’s walking off a cliff and I can’t stop him! Help!”

“I’m coming.”

The line went dead.

Daniel did his best to keep himself in front of his father. It only slowed him slightly. All the while he kept muttering things Daniel didn’t understand. He couldn’t even tell if the sounds were words at all.

A beat-up blue pickup truck shrieked as it came around the bend. Jeron hoped out and, without a word, ran up to Sylus. Digging his heels into the earth, he put his hands on the man’s head. Daniel kept pulling on his father from behind. Between the two of them, they did little to stop him.

“Come back, Sy,” his voice shook, “You’re scaring us. Come back. Please.” Jeron slid his leg between Sylus’; bracing himself the best he could against the immovable force his friend had become.

“I… I can’t… They… They’re… I can hear them…”

“Them?” Jeron looked behind him at the ocean, “There’s no one there, Sy!”

“They… They’re there… I… I can see them… I can hear them… They… They’ll make me whole. Make me better. I won’t…” He shook his head as if fighting something back. “I won’t be a failure anymore…” he cried out as he collapsed to the ground, “I won’t be weak…” he shrieked as a searing pain racked his mind. “I’ll be a better father… A real father… The one… He… Deserves…”

“SYLUS!” Jeron kept his hands firmly planted on the man’s head, “WAKE UP!”

“DAD! Wake up! Please…” Daniel sobbed.

Listen to them.

“I have to be strong… I have… I have to be better…” Sylus groaned as he put his hands over Jeron’s. “I’m not good enough.” He gasped, the glaze still firmly over his gaze.

“Yes you are, Dad! Yes you are!” Daniel ran up beside Jeron. “Please wake up. Please come home. Please…”

“Sy? You’re more than good enough. Come back to us. We miss you…” Jeron was shaking. He did everything in his power to keep his voice firm and level, but the urge to crumble was growing.

“I… I just…” With a gasp, Sylus’ eyes rolled back into his head and he collapsed to the ground.

“Is he dead!?” Daniel shrieked.

It took every ounce of strength he could muter for Jeron to check him for signs of life. A sigh of relief followed.

“He’s alive.”

“Oh god…” Daniel sobbed as he wrapped his arms around his father.

“We need to get him out of here…” Jeron sighed as he stood up, slinging Sylus’ limp arm over his shoulder.

Daniel nodded and helped steady his father’s body as they moved him into the truck.

As they pulled up to the Diner, they found Mr. Miles, Sr. Waiting for them in the doorway. A large, jolly man with deep crows feet in his eyes; the signs of a man who’d lived a happy life.

“He alive?” he muttered in a hush tone as he ran up to the car.

“Yeah, Dad,” Jeron sighed as he did his best to remove Sylus without rolling him out onto the ground.

“Step aside, son,” Mr. Miles gently moved Daniel away, “Stop it, boy!” He gently slapped Jeron on the head. “You pull him that way, I’ll push him from this side. Get him half way and I’ll come around to get his legs.”

Jeron nodded as he gently resumed pulling Sylus across the front bench.

“Stop!” Mr. Miles called as he rounded the car. Gripping Sylus’ legs, he nodded to Jeron as they finally managed to extricate Sylus from the vehicle.

“Booth just inside the door for now,” Mr. Miles directed.

They slid Sylus into the seat, propping him up against the wall.

“Go get some blankets and a pillow, boy,” Mr. Miles pointed toward the kitchen.

With a nod, Jeron once more did as he was told.

“Is… Is he gonna be okay?” Daniel had kept his distance, but the tears were still streaming down his cheeks.

“I do believe he will be, son,” Mr. Miles smiled broadly. It was a warm and comforting smile, much like his son’s. “He just needs some rest.”

Jeron returned with as many pillows and blankets as he could hold.

“Good, boy. Put one behind his head and another on the table in case he rolls that way,” Jeron followed his instructions. “Now wrap him in the blankets.” Jeron did as he was told. “No not like that!” Mr. Miles slapped him away, “Like this,” he proceed to do the job himself while Jeron shrank back wringing his hands together. “There,” Mr. Miles grunted before stepping away from a thoroughly embalmed Sylus.

“He needs something on his head,” Jeron muttered without thinking.

“On his head? Like what?” Mr. Miles laughed.

“Like… I think I have a pair of headphones upstairs. I-I’ll go get them.”

“Boy, you’re not making any sense…”

“Sylus needs pressure on his head when he’s like this. I’ll be right back,” Jeron disappeared into the back again.

Mr. Miles shook his head with a sad laugh, “Sometimes I wonder…” He turned to Daniel, “You ready for your lessons today?”

Daniel stared at him.

“Listen, son,” Mr. Miles’ crouched to Daniel’s level, “Ain’t nothin we can do for your pop right now. Best we keep ourselves busy. He’ll wake up soon,” he smiled, “I promise.”

Daniel pushed past him to reach for his father. “I’m here, Dad,” he placed a hand on his father’s legs. “I’m here, okay?”

“Come on, son. I’ll teach ya something your pop’ll like,” Mr. Miles placed a hand on Daniel’s shoulder.

“Like what?” Daniel hitched, “He doesn’t really eat…”

“Hmm… How about… A roast ham?”

Daniel laughed a bit nervously, “Weren’t we gonna make that anyway…”

“Helps your pop likes it, right? You’ll do your best to learn it for him, won’t you?”

Daniel nodded slowly, wiping the tears from his eyes, “I’ll do my best.”

“That’s all I ask, son.”

Daniel finally allowed Mr. Miles to lead him back into the kitchen. On their way, they collided with Jeron as he came running out of the back, a pair of headphones locked in a white-knuckled grip.

“I-I’m sorry, Dad, sorry…” he pushed past to avoid his father’s remarks.

“I really do wonder…” Mr. Miles shook his head.

“Here, Sy,” Jeron placed two smaller pillows on either side of Sylus’ head and placed the headphones over them to keep them in place, “I really hope this helps…”

Sylus made no signs of consciousness.

“Please come back, Sy…” Jeron fought back the tears. He knew if he started crying his father would never forgive him. “Be a real man,” he muttered as a strange sensation came over him. He wanted so badly to reach out and… and… No. No he couldn’t even think that way. Instead he opted to caress his cheek with a smile. “If you need anything, we’re all here.” With a light tap, he pulled away to join Daniel and his father in the kitchen.

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2 thoughts on “0.02: Voices.”

  1. Brace yourself for a long comment.
    I love the beginning to this chapter, and I’m going to tell you why! In these sorts of genres (the speculativey kind – yes, that’s now a word!) it becomes very easy for the worldbuilding and plot to overshadow the character. This is brilliant because it’s putting the main character up close and personal from the start. It says ‘this story might have a lot of stuff going on but the most important person here is Sylus’.
    The characterisation in that opening is profound and it’s not shaken off at any point in the chapter. Often writers will drop some characterisation, put it on the backburner while they deal with some plot, then go back to the character etc. Not here. Here, we watch this character unravel through the experiences and BECAUSE of the experiences. Everything ties back to Sylus – the other characters, the settings, the worldbuilding. It’s like watching planets align themselves around the main character and it’s done artfully.
    Then there’s the side characters. This story already has a cast that owns the stage for every minute of reading. There’s no dead weight with these characters – all of them are unique, and all of them boost the weight of Sylus as a character.
    While we’re speaking of that: let’s talk Henley. Bravo on producing a character that I full on loathe with a deep set hatred in the space of two chapters. That happens rarely for me and is a sign that the characterisation is not only strong but the writing as a whole is strong. I don’t particularly hate Henley purely for the things he says and does: actually, if I was only judging him on his own behaviour, he wouldn’t come across that badly. I hate him for how he makes Sylus feel and only strong writers can produce that level of emotion in a reader. I genuinely got upset over Number Nine – I may have to go write fluffy fan fiction to make myself feel better about it.
    Then we should talk about the LGBTQ+ rep here. It’s raw and powerful and beautiful. It’s a huge part of Sylus character – coming to terms with himself and the image of himself, of who he wants to be. I have no issues relating with that character because it’s written in such a human way, and in such an emotive, thoughtful way. Most importantly, I adore how the other characters react. They are all on his side, providing that support, viewing him in the way he wished he could view himself and that is SUCH an important message to send out because the hardest thing a person can ever do is finally accept who they are – they don’t need the people around them to make that harder.
    The mental sharing between Sylus and Qaitax is done well. It’s a very believable dialogue, it’s got me hooked, and I’m honestly not terrified by Qaitax which is fairly amazing given the fact we’re talking about a creature within his mind.
    I love Jeron. He’s a cute cinnammon bun. I love the symbolism of the tie. I could keep writing about this but my fangirl levels are already so high… >.>

    1. This… This is probably the most amazing thing I’ve ever read relating to my work. Thank you so much for your incredibly thoughtful and detailed response. It really means a lot that I’m hitting some notes just right. This is my first time writing something this grand, and I do worry that I’m not following the right formula at times, but this was very validating. I think I just found the strength to stay the course! I really am left complete in awe… Thank you. From the bottom of my heart, thank you 💜🦑🐙

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