The carcasses of countless cans cluttered the floor of the shelter.
“Dad didn’t exactly plan for this kind of waste,” Jeron sighed as he scraped a can with a fork.
Most of the MREs remained untouched. Chicken Florentine sounded great, but maybe not rehydrated from a bag…
They had spent much of their time staring at walls and playing every game the shelter had to offer including some they made up on their own. They told stories and got creative with creations like the Leaning Tower of Aluminum, which had only just recently had collapsed.
The voidspawn did its best to play along. It licked their cans clean and did its best to play their games with them. It struggled to understand and felt nothing but shame when it failed, but it it never gave up. Master wanted it to take care of them. Nine would always do his best.
Jeron would find himself idly strumming on his guitar at times. He’d notice the way the mist rippled around the sounds, but wrote if off to the substance simply reacting to sound waves. Eventually, he began playing less and less as his heart just wasn’t in it anymore.
Life trudged on. Every day, they turned the radio on to find out what was going on outside. The news, as always, skirted the issue of the Mist and Void. How they could avoid addressing something so pervasive, Jeron didn’t know, but he did know that the media was seldom honest about anything. As someone who seldom dealt with mainstream media, Daniel was starting to catch on to the deception as well.
“This is bullshit,” Jeron snapped after a news caster made a passing remark about the loss of communication with the Riftworks. “It’s been months since that place exploded and what? No one, NO ONE has gone and taken a look? They all just keep asking Henley to turn himself in…” Jeron spat, “If he hasn’t done it yet, why the FUCK would he do it now…”
Daniel sank into his beanbag chair. He understood Jeron’s frustration. As far as they knew, and their knowledge was largely limited, no one had bothered to investigate the Riftworks. A global initiative that had gone bad and not a single country seemed interested in figuring out why.
“MONTHS!” Jeron bellowed as he sat up, tossing an empty can from his lap, “MONTHS OF THIS! And NO ONE has done a DAMN thing!”
Daniel sighed. Inaction was all they had. Every time they thought they were clear to leave the bunker, they’d hear something crawling or slamming around the kitchen. So the clock would be reset and they’d return to waiting once more.
New strange cries and shrieks filled their days and nights. The Mist above had already obscured a sense of solar time, but in the basement without windows, they’d never know what day it was were it not for the radio telling them every day.
“We can’t stay down here forever…” Daniel muttered, “I mean… I can’t… I mean…” he sighed, “It sounds dumb, but… I can’t do this forever Jeron…”
The older man leaned back into his chair. “I can’t either, Dan, but it’s this or we risk getting torn apart by whatever’s up there.”
“We’re just waiting for Dad, aren’t we…”
Jeron sighed, “Yup. That’s all we can do at this point. As far as I can tell, Henley is watching us. And as long as he’s watching us, that means no one has done anything to stop him. It’s like everyone is just waiting for your dad to show up and fix everything. Well, not your dad specifically, but someone else who isn’t them.”
“Think Dad can beat Henley in a fight?” Daniel mused as he ran his finger over the surface of his long-dead cell phone.
Jeron burst out laughing, “Oh damn I really do hope so…”
“Yeah,” the boy forced a smile, “Me, too…”
Silence returned. They spent a lot of time in their own minds, thinking to themselves. Reminiscing. Guessing. Silence was common and at this point, welcome.
“So let’s say Dad didn’t make it.”
“Seriously, Jeron… We have to think about this!”
“I already told you…”
Jeron sat slouched in his leather chair as he reached for a fresh can of beans. He said a quick prayer before popping the can open.
“We don’t even know if Henley’s still here…”
“Yeah,” Jeron muttered around his mouth full of beans, “But we know they haven’t found him yet.”
They sat in silence as Jeron finished his can.
“That’s it,” he slowly sat upright, “I’m done with this shit.” He pitched the can across the room.
Daniel sighed as he wedged himself deeper into his beanbag chair.
“You dad better be alive because I’m gonna give him shit for taking this long.”
“I wonder if he even knows how long he’s been gone…” Daniel mused aloud.
Jeron pressed himself against the back of the chair. “Who knows. Who knows anything anymore…” He scoffed.
“You think Henley’ll ever come back?” Daniel idly scratched the top of Nine’s head.
The spawn hadn’t eaten anything since they’d been down here. It remained mostly coiled up somewhere near Daniel, letting loose the tiniest of whimpers from time to time. Daniel knew Nine couldn’t live on beans and MREs. He knew he and Jeron probably couldn’t either.
“If he hasn’t yet, I doubt he will,” Jeron sighed as he read the label on another can of beans, “But that sure as shit hasn’t stopped OTHER things from ruining what’s left of my home…”
“I’m gonna take Nine for a walk,” Daniel stood up abruptly, stretching his arms over his head.
“Excuse me?” Jeron spat as he sat up in his chair.
“Yeah. He needs to eat and stuff. Maybe do voidspawn business. I don’t know, but he needs to get out of here for a bit and to be honest? So do I.” Daniel made his way to the exit.
“You can’t be serious, Dan! We have no idea what’s out there!” Jeron jumped to his feet cutting Daniel off at the passage.
“Maybe we should find out?”
Jeron glared at the boy.
“Fine,” he spat as he reached for the shotgun. He stuffed a few shells into his pockets, “But not completely unprepared. If something’s gonna try to kill us out there, I don’t plan on going down without a fight.”
Daniel smiled broadly.
With a shaky sigh, Jeron opened the hatch to the tunnel they’d come in through. Daniel moved to enter, but Jeron put his arm out to stop him. “I’ll go first.”
Slinging the shotgun behind his back, Jeron slid into the narrow tunnel. Getting out was a bit easier than getting in. His father had carved the tunnel in such a way that it was slightly uphill for anyone going in, and the reverse for people leaving. “Extra line of security.” He called it. Whatever it was, paranoia or good planning, Jeron was grateful to have gravity on his side with the extra weight of the gun on his back.
From the inside, there was a small latch that released the external hatch. With zero room for leverage, it took a few attempts to release it. Jeron was instantly hit with the overwhelming scent of ozone and rot. It was dark inside the kitchen. A violet glow cast a dim light on everything it touched.
The Rift, Jeron thought, Damn thing must be exploding…
“Daniel,” he hissed behind himself, “Bring the lantern!”
“Okay!” Daniel shouted back.
Jeron grit his teeth waiting for something to jump out and rip his head off. The sound of something very strange crept up behind him.
“I gave it to Nine so he could bring it to you!”
Jeron could barely look over his shoulder, but what he could see was a pile of tentacles holding the lantern out to him. In a fit of fear, he flung himself out of the crawl space. Luckily he struggled to take hold of his weapon just long enough for the tendrils to reform into the pet voidspawn, still holding the lantern out to him. With a disgruntled sigh of relief, Jeron lowered his weapon and briskly took the lamp.
“Your turn, Dan,” he called as Daniel appeared beside him.
“Way ahead of you. Wasn’t gonna stay in the dark alone,” he didn’t have to try very hard to conjure a shiver.
Jeron grumbled a bit as he took the lead. They slowly made their way through the kitchen. All of the appliances were dented and damaged in one way or another. Utensils were scattered across the floor. The freezers and refrigerators hung open, their contents strewn across the room.
“That’s where that smell is coming from,” he muttered as he kicked over a defrosted prime rib.
Shaking his head in dismay, he cleared a path through rotten meat and vegetables until they reached the swing door into the Diner proper. Peering through the porthole, Jeron gave an uncontrolled gasp. His eyes on fire, he slowly opened the door.
“Oh god…” he breathed in despair.
Everything was destroyed. Light fixtures, broken on the floor. Tables and chairs, reduced to splinters. The bar itself? Completely missing. Windows? Shattered. Flooring? Torn up and crumbling. Dust fell from the ceiling. A sure sign of structural insecurity. For all Jeron knew, though the walls still stood, the whole place could collapse at any moment.
“That bastard,” he hissed, fists clenched at his sides. “It’s all gone…” He could feel his knees growing weak. “Everything. Everything my parents died for… Everything I gave up my childhood for… Gone… Gone…” A loud sob filled the silence. “BASTARD!” Jeron Miles screamed into the abyss between himself and the Riftworks where he knew Henley was waiting. In a fit of rage, Jeron waded through the rubble and debris of his home, muttering words of revenge under his breath.
“Jeron?” Daniel called from behind him, “Jeron, stop. Please…”
Somehow, the small voice managed to pierce his blinding rage.
“You know you can’t stop him, Jer. He’ll kill you…”
Fists clenched and unclenced at his sides.
“Don’t get yourself killed over this. We can fix it!” Daniel tried his best to sound positive, though he knew the state of the building was probably unrecoverable.
“Fix it?” Jeron scoffed, “Fix it… How?” He turned to the boy, “With what? With who? Us? You and me?”
“When Dad gets back he’ll-“
Jeron couldn’t control the return of his rage. “He’ll what? Kill Henley? Rebuild the Diner? Daniel, it’s been months. MONTHS! He’s not coming back, Dan.”
“You can’t say that…” Daniel’s voice shook.
“Dan,” Jeron dropped to his knee to look the boy in his eyes, “Let me tell you something about life. It’s far better to assume the worst than to get your hopes up. Disappointment hurts. Coming to terms with reality sucks. Just accept that reality is awful, and you won’t ever be hurt by it.”
“But what?” Jeron snorted as he stood back up, “What do you even know?”
“I’ve spent the last I don’t know many months in a small room with you and you always sounded like there was a chance everything would be okay… what changed?”
Jeron spread his arms out, motioning towards his ruined home and livelihood.
“Yeah but, like, it’s been this way for months. We just didn’t realize it. Besides, Jer… We knew Henley wrecked the place…”
Heated rage fell back to a sense of shame and embarrassment. The kid was right. And he hated that.
“Hey, we’re in this together, now, right?”
“We have to be.”
“I-” Jeron gave a defeated sigh, “You’re right…”
“And,” Daniel shrugged, “Whether Dad comes back or not, we should hope for the best, but keep planning for the worse.”
Jeron narrowed his gaze, “That sounds a bit too sagely for a thirteen year old…”
Daniel bowed deeply, “The Internet has taught me well.”
A short laugh shook Jeron’s stiff body as the last of his anger faded away.
Daniel struggled to get through the debris to stand beside him. “But if I know Dad,” his voice was lowered to a murmur, “If he’s not coming back, no one is.” He looked up to Jeron, “If Dad doesn’t come back, I know we won’t have to deal with Qaitax.”
Jeron guffawed. “You think Sylus can kill a god?”
“You’ve never seen him angry and in a defensive position.”
Jeron paused a moment as his gaze drifted out the destroyed wall and down into the Riftworks. From this angle, they had a clear line of sight to the Rift itself. The damnable thing pulsed with an unholy, ever-present light.
With a sigh, he rested an arm on Daniel’s shoulder. “Whelp. My old man planned for about five years worth of rations in that dungeon. Think we can wait that long?”
Daniel whined a bit, “I’ll give my dad two years. If he’s not back by then, I’m out. I can’t live on that crap forever.”
“Two years in the dungeon?!” Jeron gasped.
“Maybe we can learn how to hunt spawns and cook them?”
“What the hell, Daniel?!” Jeron balked with disgust
“Well, isn’t that how humans started hunting? They killed a thing and didn’t die when they ate it?”
“And what if spawns are poisonous?!”
“Then we die on the frontier of culinary knowledge,” Daniel gave a mock salute. “Come on, Jer, that’s how you wanna go, right?”
Jeron ran a hand over his face, “I’d really rather not go at all. Not yet anyway…”
“But if you had to?”
Jeron rolled his eyes.
Nine cowering away from them caught both their attention.
“Not you, Nine!” Daniel laughed as he dropped to his knees to pet the spawn. “We’re not gonna eat you.” Nine’s stumpy tail began to wag uncontrollably.
Shaking his head, Jeron made his way back onto what remained of the linoleum flooring, patting the spawn between his “ears”.
“Let’s take a walk,” he smiled softly.
As soon as they stepped outside, Jeron was quick to notice his truck was actually in one piece. It had moved off the parking lot and onto the grassy knoll behind the Diner, but at a glance it seemed to be just as he left it. He narrowed his eyes in distrust before catching up with Daniel.
The Mist-stained town of La Sombra looked and felt no different. The shadows of ruined businesses and homes dappled the once prosperous coastal town. It was never a rich place, but it was a happy place. Long had La Sombra been a sort of beacon for the casual and serious paranormal investigators alike. Its name came from the bizarre attribute of the town that couldn’t be ignored, but at the same time, no one saw it as a threat.
La Sombra was an ancient, yet modern town. Its records dated back to long before the founding of America, but at the same time, old maps of the town showed structures existing then exactly as they do now. Sans, of course, the Miles’ Diner. They residents paid their taxes and the town existed legally, but it was perplexing that an entire town could just exist forever yet never change.
But that wasn’t the main source of La Sombra’s allure. As the name suggests, the shadows of anyone who entered the town behaved strangely. It didn’t matter where you were in relation to the sun or any other source of light, but your shadow was always cast in the same direction. That direction happened to be away from where the Rift eventually tore open.
As weird as all this was, it could hardly deter the Miles’ from settling down. The people welcomed them with open arms and all quickly became regulars of their establishment. The kindness of La Sombra vastly contrasted the strange resentment the inland suburbs held for them. Diners were tacky. Certain “folk” were like to ruin the quiet area. While La Sombra never fought the Diner, there were many on the outside who did.
“Middle-class Suburbia,” Jeron’s father called them. “Ignorant and stuck in their ways. Pay them no mind, Jeron, because they’d rather see you homeless and on the street than succeeding in ways they could only ever dream of.“
It brought Jeron a strange sense of joy to think of all those Vinyl Vickie homes now lying vacant on the edge of the Mist.
“Good riddance,” he muttered aloud.
“Hm?” Daniel looked up to him as they made their way toward the street.
“Oh, nothing,” Jeron grinned, “Just thinking.”
They didn’t want to wander far from the Diner especially considering how close they were to the Riftworks. Jeron remained on edge, ready to break into a sprint back inside should anything come their way. Nine ran off into the empty houses across the street. Daniel called after him desperately. Jeron put a hand on his shoulder.
“I’m sure he just got a whiff of something, Dan. He’ll come back if he wants,” he patted the boy gently.
“Y-yeah…. I guess… But what if he doesn’t come back? Do you think Dad’ll be upset?”
“Dan, they’re monsters. They do whatever they do. If Nine doesn’t come back that’s neither of our faults and I’m sure your dad will understand.”
Daniel stared into the dark silhouettes of the ruined buildings. It felt quieter than usual. Still like air had ceased to flow through this shadow of a town. Musty, stifling…
“I don’t like it…” Jeron murmured as if coming to the same uncomfortable realization as Daniel. “Give your dog a few more minutes, try to call him, then we’re going inside with or without him. This place reeks of death.”
Daniel nodded slowly hoping Nine would turn up on his own.
Somehow, the stillness became even more still. It was as though time itself had come to a grinding halt. Jeron and Daniel looked around nervously.
“We need to get back inside, Dan.”
“What about Nine?”
“He’ll be okay. I’m sure of it.”
As Jeron turned the boy to enter the diner, they were met with a pair of perfectly round glowing yellow eyes. They stared at them, unblinking on a pure white face. It opened it’s long, curved beak as though it were a snake unhinging its jaw. A long, tendril-like tong slithered out followed by a shrill, ear-piercing scream.