Sylus sat on the side of his bed with Aria perched on a stool dragged in from the kitchen. He nervously pulled at the fabric of his pants while she pulled out a pen and pad.
“Not digital?” he forced a laugh.
“Nope. Not yet, at least. I’ll type it up later, but I like having the ability to make lots of side notes and really abuse the paper,” she laughed.
“I respect that.”
He nodded, “I mean, I can’t even use my phone right,” he laughed, “I think I embarrass Daniel sometimes…”
“You really care about him…”
Sylus balked. “Of course I do! He’s my son! H-he’s…” he took a deep breath, “He means everything to me… Everything, all of this,” he motioned to himself, “I did it for him. I… I can protect him now. Well,” he forced a laugh, “Better than I ever could before.”
“Protect him? From what?”
Sylus snorted, “Look at this place! The Mist the monsters… I-I…” there was a momentary crack in his facade before he choked it back and continued, “I put him in this situation. I did this to him. I-I had to, but that means that I have to make up for it. I have to be able to handle the adversity that comes with being here. Some frail waif can’t handle any of that, but now? Look at me! I’m a fucking tank! I mean I have to get better at being a tank, but I’ve got the tools now.”
Aria smiled as she put on her gloves.
“Open wide,” Aria held up a tongue depressor.
“How wide?” Sylus bit his lip.
“Uh… Normal wide?”
“Stop me when it looks normal…”
Sylus’ gaze darted around the room. “Well, it turns out I can open my mouth all the way.”
“All the way?”
Once more, his eyes drifted away from her, “Like a snake or something.”
“Ohhh,” Aria backed up a bit, “Proceed, then.”
“I’m here to learn, Sylus. Just open your mouth.”
After a moment’s hesitation and a roll of Aria’s eyes, Sylus did as he was told. His face tore open into a gaping, salivating maw.
“Huh,” Aria leaned in with her depressor, “Your tongue is a tentacle.” She gently lifted the appendage and moved it a bit. “Do the suckers taste things?”
Sylus made a grotesque attempt to speak.
“Nevermind,” Aria chuckled before continuing her examination. “Teeth look impractically jagged but hooked… Like a shark, I think… Not great with animals…” she moved the depressor around his mouth, “Interior looks like a normal mouth, feels like a normal mouth… No uvula…” She pulled back. Picking up a notebook she wrote down her findings.
Sylus remained sitting with his mouth gaping open looking around nervously.
“Oh, I’m done there. I might ask an orthodontist to take a look some other time, but right now, I have what I need.”
He did as he was told. Sitting in silence, waiting for Aria to finish with her notes, Sylus began nervously tapping his foot on the floor.
“Okay, so questions,” she began slowly, “One, did opening that wide hurt?”
He shook his head.
“Besides your teeth and tongue, the rest looked pretty normal.”
“The suckers are still a bit weird, but… It’ll get used to it.”
“It’s an interesting mutation,” she muttered, “But the whole thing leads me to believe you’re some kind of apex predator.”
Sylus’ eyes widened. She spoke so matter-of-factly like it didn’t even matter.
“More swallowing than chewing,” she muttered as she took more notes.
“I-I really wouldn’t know… I’ve just been picking on what we have around the house.”
“Is it enough?” she was still writing.
“Do you eat enough with what’s available to you?”
“Uh… Y-n-yeee-no. No, I don’t. I’m hungry. Almost always hungry. Like I was before…”
“Oh…” he rubbed the back of his neck, “Before I left. I was hungry then. Ravenously.” He laughed to himself, “Eating everything whole without a second thought…”
“I see…” Aria wrote a bit more before setting her pad aside and picked up another tool.
A hard tap hit his knee. No response. Aria glared at him before tapping again.
“The knees are aesthetic.”
She sat up and stared him directly in the eyes.
“My entire physical body is aesthetic,” he laughed nervously as a strangely familiar sense of discomfort tingled at the back of his mind.
She raised an eyebrow.
“Nothing about it is actually real,” his voice was beginning to shake.
She balked a bit.
“Wait, I really shouldn’t be surprised,” Aria shook her head, “You mentioned something like that when I sewed you up. But that helped right? So clearly your surface layer is more than purely aesthetic.”
“Ah, you would be correct. There is a relatively thick film around my innards. Qaitax and I molded it to look this way.”
“Do you have any other appearances?” Aria retrieved her notebook.
“Well, if this is a guise, then is there some… other way you can look?”
Sylus thought a moment.
Technically, under extreme circumstances, we could devolve into a sort of tentacle creature like I was before.
“But what happened with Haurex, that wasn’t stressful enough?”
Perhaps it wasn’t…
Sylus scoffed, “How much worse could it have… No wait, don’t answer…”
If the barrier that holds us together would have to be severely compromised. I would suspect a 90% failure would result in us deforming. Otherwise, it would be a part by part failure. A big enough failure could lead to increased failures leading to a complete failure of our…
“I get it. Thank you, Qai.”
You are welcome.
“What did he say?” Aria folded her legs and leaned her notebook on her knee.
“He said that under extreme circumstances, we could become compromised and devolve into some kind of tentacle monster.”
“What kind of compromise?”
She raised an eyebrow.
“Of that film stuff between the tentacle innards and the flesh-looking outside.”
“And how can it be compromised?”
Sylus’ sat upright with his fists clenched. It took Aria a moment to notice the increased tension in his posture.
“Oh, I…” she closed her notebook, “I’m sorry I didn’t mean…”
With a deep sigh, Sylus settled a bit, “I-I know… I…” he cleared his throat, “If enough of me is damaged, the whole film could fail.”
Leaning in, she placed a hand on his knee, “Thank you. That’s all I needed to hear.” She patted him gently before returning to her notebook.
“What parts of you are real?”
“That’s such a weird question to hear, but I get it. Uh, my eyes, teeth, those are bones? No, cartilage. Sorry, uh… My stomach and… I think… I think that’s it.”
“Tentacles, but specialized and woven a specifically for that purpose.”
Aria nodded as she continued with her notes.
“While we’re on that topic, would you be able to volunteer some fluid samples?”
Sylus laughed, “I’m pretty sure you won’t be able to actually test it.”
“Well, one, alien substances, two, I’m under the impression it might be too potent to leave my body.”
“Fair enough, but what about saliva and blood?”
Sylus thought a moment, “That should be fine.”
“Do you perspire?”
“I know, but I…” he thought a moment, “I don’t think so? Haven’t really noticed, if I’m being honest.” He forced a nervous laugh.
“We can worry about that later,” she smiled, “What about the hair?” she pointed to the top of his head with her pen.
Sylus ran his fingers through it, “Real enough, no?”
“It’s an illusion like the rest of me…” the words slowed down as he spoke.
The words swirled around in his mind. An illusion… Was that really all he was? A fake? Again? Just another fake? All over again? An old familiar sense of anxiety and dread welled up inside of him. His eyes widened as he slowly began to tremble. From the inside out, every fiber of his being began vibrating with a shameful heat.
I can’t lose it… I can’t lose it… No… I-I can’t… Not in front of…
Erratic breathing, quivering lips, he took a deep shaking breath and held it.
I can’t… I can’t… I can’t…
Closing his eyes, he began the usual process of pushing his feelings back, but it went far from unnoticed.
“I CAN’T STOP! IT HURTS!” Sylus groaned as he slowly leaned forwards, eyes bulging from their sockets.
Sylus stop. Please. I-I don’t like this…
“YOU THINK I DO?!” he choked. “MAKE IT STOP QAITAX! MAKE IT STOP!”
“Sylus?” Aria backed away a bit.
“I CAN’T!” he began hyperventilating uncontrollably. “Why… why why why… I thought everything would be better… why… Oh god why…”
“Sylus, what’s going on?” Aria tried to reach out to him, but he pulled away, recoiling onto the bed.
“I thought this would go away… Why…”
“Sylus?” Aria stood up. “It’s okay Sylus. Everything is okay, breathe.”
“Why couldn’t I have stayed dead…”
“Breathe, Sylus. Breathe. Everything’s going to be okay. Your son, Sylus. Think about your son. He needs you.”
“No one needs me… No one needs a fake… A fraud… No one needs someone who doesn’t even exist…”
“Sylus, you exist,” she forced a laugh, “I’m looking right at you.”
“No I don’t… This is all a lie. I’m a lie. I’ve always been a lie… I’ll always be a lie… I… I can’t… I don’t…” he stood up abruptly before falling to his knees.
“SYLUS!” Aria yelled as she knelt down beside him.
“I should have died… It would have been better for everyone…”
The door to the bedroom burst open.
“Jeron!” Aria turned to him, “I-I don’t… I don’t know what’s happening…”
Jeron rushed in and gently pushed her aside. Dropping to his knees he placed his hands on either side of Sylus’ head.
“Sylus? Hey, it’s okay…” he cooed, “It’s okay, Sylus.”
“N-no… I-it isn’t…” he could hardly catch his breath, “I-I’m… I didn’t change…” he looked up to Jeron with tears in his eyes, “I’m exactly the same…”
Jeron slid his arms around Sylus’ shoulders and pulled him close. “Of course you are, Sy. Of course you’re the same.”
“But… All of this…” tears streamed down his cheeks, “All of this was supposed to fix it…”
Jeron sighed, “I can’t say I really understand your situation, Sy, but… It was more than that, you know that. You know that, Sy.” he began rocking gently, “Changing how you look won’t entirely change how you feel…”
“But it was supposed to!” Sylus barked, “It was supposed to cure me so I wouldn’t end up like this… Hurting everyone… That’s all I can do, isn’t it?”
“Do you know how many times I’ve regretted surviving?”
“I haven’t changed…”
“I’m still a fucking disgusting mess… I’m broken… And I’ll never be fixed…”
Jeron closed his eyes tightly and took a deep breath before pulling Sylus into a full-on embrace.
“You’re not a mess, Sylus.”
Sylus looked him in the eyes.
“Okay yeah,” Jeron wiped his eyes with his sleeve, “You’re a bit of a mess, but you’re not broken.”
“How am I not? Look at me?”
“And what am I looking at?”
“ME! I-I-I’m gross! I’m disgusting! I’m ugly!” he let loose a hellish scream, “Worthless, worthless… worthless…”
“You’re not Sylus… You’re not worthless…”
Memories came flooding back. Hateful, angry memories. Ones Sylus was so certain he’d gotten over or, at the very least, was strong enough to continue to suppress.
What am I seeing, Sylus?
“Nothing. It’s nothing…”
Sylus… What is all of this?
“It’s nothing, Qai… Please, leave me alone…”
“What’s going on, Sylus?” Jeron forced him to look into his eyes.
“I don’t want to think about it.”
You’re thinking about it…
“I can’t stop…”
“Sy?” Jeron’s grip tightened.
Sylus… what is all of this?
Sylus we have to stop this…
“Sylus, answer me…
We’re going to crash, Sylus…
He couldn’t breathe. Everyone screaming his name. Inside and outside of his head. Their voices crashed like waves against his consciousness drowning his own thoughts. Everything began fading away.
With that last thought, Sylus fell unconscious.