Sylus, that was utter madness and chaos,” a familiar voice came from the arcade room, “For fucks sake you were this close to eating the goddamned servers! What is wrong with you?! What happened to no humans?!”
“Well I didn’t did I?”
“Of for the love of Christ…”
“You had fun, though, didn’t you?”
There was a pause, “Fuck you.”
“Hey Dad,” Daniel called halfheartedly from the eatery.
Sylus leaned into the opening to the eating area, “Hey guys! How’d it go?”
“You both had dinner again?” Daniel diverted the conversation.
Jeron appeared rubbing his temples, “Your father is an insatiable monster.”
“It’s true,” Sylus smiled sheepishly.
“We’re banned from the buffet now! Maybe exercise some restraint next time? Pretend to be civil? Hm?!”
“I was hungry, Jeron. When’s the last time either of us had anything good to eat?”
“That doesn’t mean you can pick up and walk away with an entire tray of food! Pretend you have some restraint!”
“I showed restraint!”
“By what?! Not eating people?!”
“Yes! No! Yes! No! I didn’t eat everything on the line!”
Jeron glared at him, “Is this how it’s gonna be, Sy?”
“I don’t understand what you mean,” Sylus pressed his index fingers together innocently.
“You’re just gonna eat everything all the time?”
“Well until I figure out how to not do that, yes. That’s exactly how things are going to be!”
“You’re a fat fuck you know that, right?”
“I’ll take that as a glowing compliment,” he bowed slightly, “Thank you, Jeron.”
“I’m not sure how I feel about this ‘new you’ anymore…”
With that, the mood was dead and everyone knew it. Sylus rubbed the back of his neck as he stepped away from Jeron who was rubbing his eyes in frustration.
“You two don’t look so hot,” he said quietly as he sat down beside Saari, “Is everything okay?”
Daniel sighed. “Everything was okay… Then some creep tried to mess with Saari’s antlers.”
Saari turned away in shame.
“You should have called us, Dan…”
“It just happened, Dad…”
They all turned to the completely uneaten pizzas on the table. Sylus sighed as he leaned back in his chair.
“Want me to make someone disappear?”
“No.” Saari barked. Her voice shook through the single syllable.
“Saari…” Sylus leaned forward, putting a hand on her shoulder, “No one has the right to lay a hand on you for any reason…”
“I am an abomination. I will never fit in with your people. I want to return home and never leave the Mist again.”
“But Saari…” Daniel grabbed her arm, “Everyone else liked you! What you did was really cool! You heard the owner, he wants you to come back and do it again!”
Saari turned away again.
“What exactly did she do?” Jeron sat down beside Daniel.
“She made the arcade game like real! She pulled the image out of the machine and made it so people could control their characters with their bodies! It was so cool! Everyone had tons of fun!”
Saari’s chin sank to her chest.
“Then some asshole went and ruined everything,” Daniel sighed.
“I’m sorry to interrupt, but are you the young woman’s parents?” the owner had returned.
“Sort of?” Sylus stood up.
“Look, I know now’s not a good time, but I really need to talk to you about something and I’m really sorry because it’s gonna sound real bad.”
Sylus sighed, “Guess we’re all banned from everything in the strip mall besides the grocery store,” he chuckled.
“No not at all! What your girl did was amazing! I’d really like to have her come back some time like as a scheduled event. The kids had such a blast playing with her and she really made this place stand out. You can’t get entertainment like that at home!”
“Paid work. No exposure or whatever. Real honest work. I’d like to hire her on.”
Sylus sighed again, “Saari isn’t human and after whatever happened today, it’s gonna take her a while to come back around.”
The woman sighed, “I know… I really do. But the boy’s right. Everyone else really liked her. There’s always bad apples who take pleasure in messing with people like us because we’re ‘different’ or whatever.” She scoffed. “Listen, I’ll leave it like this. Your girl is welcome here any time she wants. Horns or no. She made a lot of people happy today and I want her to feel safe where she can be happy, too.”
Sylus cringed a bit as his eyes lit up. The four points of Qaitax replaced his irises.
“Why are you so kind? What do you stand to gain?” Qaitax stood almost on top of her, a flurry of tentacles writhing around him.
The owner was quick to pick up on the new voice.
“Why shouldn’t I be?” she kept a straight face devoid of any fear.
“People have taken advantage of Saari her entire life and I will NOT allow that to happen again! Human or not, why should I trust anything you say?”
The woman sighed. She didn’t seem at all disturbed by any of this.
“You want the honest answer?”
She looked toward the Mist wall. “Someone I cared about very much died in that shit. And I know I should be angry and upset and hateful and resentful and spiteful and every other vengeful feeling, but I’m not. I can’t be. I won’t waste your time with the details, but I told someone a long time ago that I’d open my home to whoever needed it no matter who they loved or what they looked like. I’ve been there.”
“Saari is not merely a different melanin shade…”
The owner nodded, “She’s very different. But like I said, she made a lot of people happy. No one really questioned it. They just had fun. That’s the beauty of kids,” she nodded toward Daniel, “They don’t see a reason to be angry or hateful because someone’s different.”
“She does not have eyes. She has antlers…”
“And here you are focusing on what makes her different and not on what makes her like everyone else! Different’s good, but if that’s all you can see in a person, then it really doesn’t matter, now, does it?”
Qaitax stepped back.
“She seems like a really sweet person. She played so well with all the other kids. They loved her. They really did.”
“You seem like a good father. You care a lot about her and you don’t want her getting hurt anymore, but if you want her to live a better life and be happy, you have to let her try new and different things. It won’t all go well and more jerks’ll come out of the woodwork, but I think with some time she could learn to not let that get to her anymore.”
“She was once so strong and proud, but all of this change…”
“I can’t say I understand where you’re coming from, but I can say that I know how hard change can be. I’m not her parent and I’m not going to pretend I really have any say in how anyone parents, but consider just letting her try things and maybe even fail a bit. You can’t keep her under your protection forever…”
“But that is what I promised her. I told her nothing bad would ever happen again…”
“Bad things are gonna happen whether you want them to or not. As a parent, you just have to be there to help them pick up the pieces. Kids have to grow and learn. Here,” she handed Qaitax a card, “If she ever shows any interest in coming back in, give me a call. I’d like her to stop by after hours and get to play around a bit without feeling intimidated.”
“All this to meet your desired end of employing her?”
“I’d like that, but she needs to want it herself. She can’t be forced into doing anything she doesn’t want.”
Laila Walker was the name on the card. Business owner. Qaitax sighed again.
“I have protected Saari for thousands of years…”
“I never said it would be easy. Baby steps.”
Qaitax looked down at the card again before offering her his hand.
“I am Qaitax. Saari’s… Father.”
Laila took his hand and shook it firmly, “Laila Walker.”
“Sylus is my host. He may speak on my behalf sometimes. We are both Saari’s fathers.”
“Is that some kind of Void thing?”
Qaitax nodded, “In another life, I was a Voidlord. Now I am merely a backseat driver in our shared body.”
“Huh,” Laila still didn’t seem the least bit phased, “Cool. And this fine gentleman over here?” she nodded to Jeron.
“Jeron is Sylus’ boyfriend.”
“Oh, I seeee,” she snorted, “I’m liking this little family dynamic a lot.”
Jeron crossed his arms over his chest in an attempt to put on a disapproving scowl. It didn’t work.
“He also has custodial authority with Saari.”
“So she has three dads?”
Jeron snorted while Qaitax searched for the correct answer.
“It is… complicated.”
“I get it, I get it. No need to explain. Everyone has their reasons.”
Qaitax was visibly flushing.
“Relax, I’m not judging you. This is all weird. Everything is weird. There’s a wall of monsters like fifty miles away and no one talks about it. Strangest damn thing…”
“So you know this shit’s not right?” Jeron approached them.
Laila nodded, “I do. And while I’ll never set foot in that mess until there’s no choice, I will make sure I always have a place that people from there can come to feel normal.”
Jeron and Qaitax glanced at each other.
“Yeah it’s an arcade slash pizzeria, the pizza part was the wife’s idea… But it’s a welcoming arcade slash pizzeria! Y’all are welcome to come back any time.”
“Thank you,” Qaitax bowed as the light in his eyes faded out.
“Well, you took that surprisingly well,” Sylus stood up.
Laila shrugged. “What was I gonna do? Piss myself and scream?”
“All reasonable options,” Jeron replied.
She snorted, “Nah. Adversity is everywhere. Can’t run from it forever. He seemed decent enough. A bit overprotective, but nothing I wouldn’t expect from a caring parent.”
Sylus and Jeorn exchanged glances.
“We’re not so much alike, are we?” she smiled. “That’s good, but I gotta close this place down and that takes a bit, so why don’t you all head home.”
“Can we help at all?” Sylus volunteered.
“Nah. I have my rituals. It’s a personal thing. Need boxes for your pizzas, kids?”
“One box,” Daniel replied.
“I’ll be right back,” Laila winked before going behind the counter.
“Sh-she seems nice,” Sylus stammered.
Jeron sighed, “I’m just glad there’s someone out there who hasn’t forgotten we exist out there…”
“I’m sure there are a lot more people than her, Jer. It’s just finding them that’ll be a challenge. Especially when the overarching narrative is that we don’t even exist.”
“Well, I think we took a big step in changing that today. And there are more people scattered around in the Mist… We should try to find them. Maybe bring us all together somehow. Create our own resistance force.”
Sylus was enamored by the determination in Jeron’s eyes.
“Here’s your box, kids,” Laila packed their leftovers.
“I like pizza,” Saari announced, “I have never had cheese before…”
“Oh you shoulda said something! If ya don’t eat cheese we’ve got some alternative stuff. Doesn’t melt the same, but the flavor’s pretty good if ya ask me.”
“Really?” Saari turned to her.
“Yeah… Cookin’s the wife’s thing. She stocks all kinds of stuff. I just run the place. I’d ask her to say hi, but she’s a bit of a shut-in. I’m just glad she’s still doing what she loves, though.”
“We’ve got a long ride home, guys,” Jeron groaned as he stretched his arms over his head, “I’d really like to get a move on.”
Saari nodded silently while Daniel carried the pizza.
“Thank you for being patient with me, ma’am,” Saari bowed in Laila’s general direction.
“Ain’t no ma’ams here. Laila,” she offered Saari her hand.
Saari lifted her hand, but it was nowhere near Laila’s. The owner of the arcade moved so their hands connected.
“I am Saari qel’Qax. Emissary of Lord Qaitax and High Priestess of the Amaranthine Brotherhood.”
“That’s quite the list of titles…”
“They all mean nothing now, but that is my name as it would be recorded in the halls of my people.”
“And how do you like to be called?”
She thought a moment. “Simply Saari.”
“Good. Because for one, that’s a lot easier, and for two, you’re your own girl, girl. Not all those titles. You define the title, the title doesn’t define you.”
Saari felt at ease as she shook Laila’s hand again.
“You weirdos are welcome back anytime, especially you, Miss Saari.”
“Th-thank you,” she bowed slightly.
“Now get out of my shop. All of you. I wanna sleep before midnight!”