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HFTH - Episode 107 - Absences



Content warnings for this episode include: Animal death (Heidi, Bert as usual), Birds, Gun Mention, Emotional Manipulation, Drowning, Body horror



Intro - Final Girl


The first one is a shock. Perhaps it always is. A disappearance from your life; a momentary flash of violence before they are gone. That was when the consequences dawned—not everyone will still be here when all this is finished.


The second hurts all the more, for you knew it was coming, and you hoped it would have been anyone else. In a moment gone from a living part of your life to a shadow in the woods of your past.


When the third leaves, you no longer shriek and cry out for them to return. You steel your eyes and your jaw, find a weapon to carry, bandage your wounds with fabric torn from your own shirt. You have made a decision to survive, against all odds, at all costs.


And when the next of your friends and family disappear, you do not hate them, but the shadow that steals them—your enemy, stalking through a forest that calls Hello From The Hallowoods.


Theme.


Right now, I hover over the forest floor. Thin black trunks stretch in every direction, branches barer for the season. Their dark leaves drift past two small travellers, who are just beginning to be missed. The theme of tonight’s episode is Absences.



Story 1 - Two Explorers

Russell McGowan was not scared. Somehow fear did not occur to him; sometimes the wisest thoughts had a way of bypassing his brain. Instead he had two concerns that weighed urgently; one vaguely behind him, and one somewhere ahead. His boots crunched in the quilt of fallen leaves as he walked forward.


Behind him was the Scoutpost, although not in any definite direction that he knew. That should have been a key part of the plan, in retrospect—some means to find his way back home. But that wasn’t his fault, and it might not even be Al’s—the walk had been much longer than either of them thought, much farther than the neck of the woods Russell was familiar with. When Olivier or the raven person talked about the library, they made it sound like it was just a mile or two away—but then again, Russell thought with remorse, I cannot fly.


Which left him one direction: forward—the one that the little copper card in his hands kept telling him to go, with its ever-shifting letters providing guidance each time he veered off its invisible path. Turn around. Go east. Go north. Go north. Go north.


Also ahead of him was Al, who hovered with his skeletal toes hanging off the ground. Drifting leaves passed through the ghost as he floated onwards.


“Are you excited?” Al said, breaking the silence again. The sun was drawing lower than Russell was comfortable with, and the ghost glowed a little more brightly in the dimming light.


“Excited ain’t what I’d call it,” Russell said. “I might be, if we weren’t lost. Can you look again?”


“We’re not lost,” said Al. “We’re explorers. And you’ve got the map that goes to the treasure!”


“There’s no treasure,” Russell grumbled, and looked over the card again. It still said North. “Just a stupid library.”


“Well it’s a library full of treasure then,” Al said, and surged forward into the trees. “Come on! This way!”


“I’m not playing a game right now,” Russell said, and dug his shoe into the dirt. “This isn’t fun anymore. I don’t want to see the library. I want to go home.”


Al was back with him in an instant, lidless eyes wide. “What do you mean? You said we could go see the school…”


“Well the raven-thing made it sound like a shorter trip,” Russell said, and looked up to the sky. “It’s going to get dark soon, and we don’t want to be out here then.”


“Because of the explorer-munching dragon?” Al whispered.


“If that’s what you want to call the Wandering Night-Gaunts and Blinking Cats and Eyeless Owls, sure,” Russell grunted.


“I could handle them,” Al said. “Please can we just go a little further?”


“Oh sure you would,” Russell said. “Why’d they care about a drum? It’s me they’ll be after. I’m the one who’s still alive.”


Al was silent for a moment, all the wind gone from the phantasmal bands of leather that trailed from his ankles into the drum at Russell’s side.


“Fine,” Al said, and looked up to the treetops. “I’ll fly up and see if I can spot the Scoutpost. Maybe it is just a stupid library.”


Al rose through the air, then, a figure of light in the long shadows of the forest, and the spectral tethers grew brighter as he reached the end of his line forty feet up.


“I can’t see it!” Al called down. “Can you lift me up any farther?”


“I’ll try,” Russell sighed, and took the drum from over his shoulder, held it in both hands, as high as he could.


“Higher!” Al called.


“I’m doing my best!” Russell shouted back, and looked around, found a large flat-topped boulder in the undergrowth nearby. He ran to it, and hopped on top, held the drum to the evening sky like a prophet begging for rain.


There was a crack in the forest, all too close to him, and he looked over to see a small figure crouched in a patch of dark ivy at the base of a gnarled tree. She appeared to be a girl, about his age, with twigs tangled in her hair and mud smeared across her face and clothes. Her eyes were small glints of white between the black leaves.


“What are you doing?” he said.


“What are you doing?” she replied.


“I’m…” he began, and realized he was still holding up the drum on his tiptoes; he tucked it under his arm and coughed. He stuck the copper card into his pocket discreetly with the other hand, along with his compass. “Trying to figure out where I am, is all. Do you live out here? What’s your name?”


“Johannah,” she said, and stood up from the ivy a little, like a deer ready to bound away at any moment. “Who are you?”


“My name is Russell. McGowan. I’m a Sapling recruit at the Scoutpost. And this is Al,” he said, and hefted the drum. He did not see Al hovering anywhere nearby, although that was sometimes par for the course; Al was more shy around new folks than he used to be. He hopped down from the rock, looked back to Johannah and found there was a glint of black metal in her hands, a gun that seemed too big for her.


“Don’t come any closer,” she said, and held the firearm squarely in his direction with one hand, and reached out the other. “Toss me your backpack, and your coat. I’m going to need it to get back to Fort Freedom.”



Interlude 1 - Common Destinations

The years have not been kind, but are they ever? Few have made it through to these woods without losing someone along the way, in the turbulent years journeying towards the sanctuary of the north, and in the years after, discovering it was not a sanctuary but the heart of the rot.


Most could tell you of a parent, an uncle, a sibling left behind amidst the chaos of a dissipating world. Most would wonder wistfully if they are still out there now. And I, in all places, know it is rarely as true as one would hope.


But loss is not all this forest has brought. For many the journey has led to new sympathies; crossed paths with fellow travellers with a common destination. Fellow community builders and survivors. Practicers of similar magics. Worshippers of similar gods. Enemies turned to friends turned to families. A single soul who understands. A half-dozen deadly strangers. A great pile of grizzled dogs. They were all, in their own way, I hope, worth the journey.


We go now to one who has left his family.



Story 2 - After The Angry

Mort did not need to eat, and truth be told neither did most of his friends. Yaretzi snacked on odd berries from time to time, and Polly sometimes snacked for comfort, but their wanderings together had been free of lunch breaks. Thus he was not quite sure what to do with himself as the group disembarked, and backpacks and canteens and foodstuffs came out. He found himself drifting over to Percy and Diggory, who sat side by side on the curb of the road.


“How are you holding up, big guy?” Percy said, and roused from under Diggory’s arm as he drew near. Mort paused; he did not think of himself as big—only others as varying degrees of smaller.


“There’s so many people,” Mort said. “Not as many as there were yesterday. But still a lot. And I don’t know all of their names.”


“Well, I am Diggory Graves, and this is Percy,” Diggory said.


“Those ones I know,” Mort said, and sat down on the curbside beside them; the pavement cracked beneath his armor like dry earth. “You’re my friends.”


“Right,” Diggory said, and looked out to the rest of the group. “The two men there are Hector and Jonah. Hector is a man of few words, and Jonah is maybe possessed by the forest. I am a little unclear on what happened while we were gone.”


“He’s got fires in his eyes,” Mort said. “Like me.”


Diggory squinted, and shook their head. “Maybe. The woman with the stern voice is Cindy. She is not a stranger to me, although she sometimes seems it. The one with the blue hair is Olivier; he controls the weather, and the one with no hair is Riot.”


“She seems sad,” Mort said.


“Well, she did just say goodbye to all her friends and family,” Percy said. “A little time and I’m sure she…”


Mort looked up as an explosion of sound caught his attention, then; shouting from across the group, a shuddering movement between the tree trunks, snapping branches and the barking of hounds. For a moment he thought that maybe Fort Freedom had arrived, or Rick Rounds was back to hurt him, or even that Yaretzi had come to hunt him down. But it was none of them, he realized; instead a big person with no nose, skin purple and black, more green flames for eyes. At least I’m in good company, Mort thought.


The huge figure loomed through the trees, but the greetings between him and the group were drowned out quickly by Cindy, who had a gun in her hands, silver as Rick Round’s dagger, pointed at the stranger.


“And who is that?” Mort whispered.


“That is Big Mikey,” Diggory said, and rose from the side of the curb, moved towards Cindy swiftly. “He is also a friend.”


“I don’t like being yelled at,” Big Mikey said, and crouched a little, massive bony fingers wrapping around two pine trees. The dogs that clustered at his massive feet snarled at Cindy, a pack focused on one target.


“And I don’t like being attacked by bloody undead ogres,” Cindy called back.


“Big Mikey does not pose a threat,” Diggory said; they were by her side now, and reached a hand carefully for her gun. “He is only—”


“I’ll be the judge of that,” Cindy said calmly, and batted Diggory’s sharp hand away.


The giant with the green coal eyes and the big teeth frowned, and looked very hungry indeed.


“Hi there!” Mort called out, and sat up from the curb. He waved his claw to try and get Big Mikey’s attention. “I’m Mort. Do you want to be friends?”


A pair of glinting eyes flashed up to him, and the yellowed teeth bent into a smile.


“Hi!” the stranger said. “I’m Big Mikey. I don’t have as many friends as I would like. Well, besides the dogs.”


Mort looked down to the horde of animals, dogs that looked like wolves and small rodents and shapeless masses of white fur and brambles. They ran in circles around Hector’s dead dog, which regarded them with low growls and yips.


“Easy girl,” Jonah said. “Big Mikey, I don’t know that we’ve been well acquainted, but the last time I saw you was in a lake. Why’re you coming to see us now?”


“I was just going back to my place,” Mikey said, and pointed off into the forest. Mort did not know where he was referring to, or how far away it was. “And I saw you all and I was fascinilated about what you were doing. And then that lady started screaming at me.”


“Apologize to him,” Diggory whispered. “It will help smooth things over.”


“I will not apologize for keeping this crew safe,” Cindy muttered.


“Well, we’re going on a big walk, all the way north that we can,” Mort said. “Do you want to come with us for a while?”


Cindy shot him a glare, and Mort flinched. Maybe he shouldn’t have been so friendly. But Big Mikey smiled wide, and nodded, and with one gigantic step pulled himself through the last of the trees, and in a ten-foot step strode past Mort, and onto the road ahead of them.


“That sounds nice,” Big Mikey said; a scrabbling pack of dogs followed in tow. “I’m excited to make a new friend!”



Marketing - New Journey

Lady Ethel:

It’s curious, you know, how your whole…


I’m not sure what I’m trying to say. I thought I had a really poignant thought there and then it just disappeared.


Maybe I shouldn’t start with the important things? It’s kind of the hook, though, for the rest of the message… then again, I don’t have to sell you anything right now. This is a journey we’re on together—the journey of… hm.


Of what I’m doing with my life. National icon.


*angry clatter of metal in background*


National disgrace. I’m… no.


Positive. Positive. I am on a new journey, and once I’m there I can figure out exactly where I’m going to go after that.


I’m in an empty house—judging by the road signs, I should be getting close to Sacramento. It’s funny, this one. I just walked up and tried the handle and it was unlocked. Sure, the place has been trashed a little, but not that badly—there’s a hole in the roof upstairs, and the walls are a little creaky, is all. There’s a large sectional sofa that I am doing my best to make myself comfortable on. And the boys are wandering around the kitchen; I found them a little survivor to eat. He was very adamant about not wanting to give up his comfortable sofa privileges. I suppose that’s what you get for not sharing.


It’s curious, you know—I found my thought again—how something can be such a part of you for so long, and then suddenly be taken away. Since losing the Botulus Corporation job, have I stopped being the same Lady Ethel Mallory who would grace business rooms like a goddess, innovate marketing for the most profitable company on earth? Because now I’m just surviving. Taking shelter and food where I can find it, like an animal. Did I change? Or was I always this person? Or have I ever really known myself at all?


I suppose this is a journey of self-discovery. It’s like writing my autobiography all over again. I hope this time I like who I find…



Story 2, Continued - After The Angry


*idle humming*


*ahem*


We now return to Mort.


Mort padded along with Big Mikey at the back of the group; Diggory and Percy walked a few paces ahead. The dogs seemed to find him curious, and often approached to walk alongside his boots before veering off into the forest again. Cindy was not talking to him, or anyone; just leading further on the trail into the woods, with the living people trailing behind her.


“That sounds like a good book,” Mort said. “I would like being beneath the ocean very much. I used to stay down there and watch the fish.”


“I like fish too,” Big Mikey said, and licked his teeth. “Are you reading any books?”


“I know how to read,” Mort said, and moved his foot to avoid stepping on a one-eyed dog as he walked. Bert landed on his shoulder with a clatter, and pecked affectionately at his glass dome. “But I don’t have any books.”


“They have some at the Scoutpost, when you go back,” Big Mikey said, and reached down, scooped up the one-eyed dog in his huge hand; petted it with the other as he walked. “I trade dogs for them sometimes. I’m reading bigger and bigger books each time.”


“I hope I go back then,” Mort said. Bert settled down to sit on his shoulder; ahead of him the group exchanged quiet, if nervous, conversation.


“What do you mean?” Big Mikey said. “It will still be there.”


“I know,” Mort said. “But it’s not my home. I left my family to go on this trip. When I go home I think I’ll be in big trouble. I might be doing a bad thing.”


“Well, why did you go on this trip?” said Big Mikey. It was odd to have to look up to someone for a change, tall as the giant was.


“I wanted to help them out,” Mort grunted. “Like I did the first time. I wanted to try again.”


“Wanting to help isn’t a bad thing,” said Big Mikey. “It’s a good thing.”


“But running away is bad,” Mort said. “So I must be bad.”


Big Mikey sighed, and fixed a ragged burlap hood he wore around his shoulders.


“In books you find out that people aren’t just good or bad,” Big Mikey said. “They’re middle. Like the submarine captain who was scary and mean at first, but turned out to be nice. Or that one.”


Here Big Mikey pointed to Olivier, who looked away immediately.


“That one shocked me all up once, with lightning and fire. So I threw a car at it,” Big Mikey said, and his knobbly finger shifted to Riot. “And her I got in a bag and swapped for books. She didn’t like me at first but now we’re friends and she read me stories. And I was taking care of my friend Rick once, he was super sick and he…”


“Rick?” Mort said, and stopped. The water in his dome bubbled furiously. “Rick Rounds? Rick Rounds is your friend?”


“Do you know him too?” Big Mikey said, surprise on his mottled face.


“He’s awful,” Mort said, and stomped his boot; cracked the ancient pavement. Diggory and Percy glanced back from a few paces ahead. “He hunted me and my family all over the place. He almost killed Yaretzi and he almost killed Polly. He’s bad. He’s very bad.”


“I know,” Big Mikey said, and raised his bloated palms. “He’s the one who drowned me in the swamp.”


“So you’re dead too?” Mort said. None of the thoughts in his skull made any sense together.


“I think so,” Big Mikey said, and looked down at the ground, and at Mort. “Rick is what I’m talking about. I hated him for years and years. I went back and I clawed his head up. I was a kid when he kicked me in but I wasn’t one when I swam out. Or maybe I was, and everyone else was just grown up faster.


But when I saw him again, I didn’t feel like how I thought I would feel. He was so… pathetic. And I thought then that maybe he was the same, deep down. Maybe he wasn’t sorry. Maybe he was still as mean as he always was. But I wasn’t. I was different. And I wasn't going to leave him to die the way he left me.”


“I hope I never see him again,” Mort grumbled; the weight of the armor felt like too much pressure on his bones. “Because if I did, I don’t think I would be that nice. I think I would kill him.”


“It’s good to be angry,” Big Mikey said.


“Yeah,” Mort said. “Is it?”


“Yeah,” Big Mikey said, and crossed his swollen arms. “But you don’t stay angry forever. Maybe you think you will. But you won’t. And when the angry is done, you still have to figure out what you’re going to do with yourself. That’s the hard part. That’s the part I’m still figuring out.”


“Mort!” Riot called from the far distance; the group was almost gone into the woods out of sight ahead of them. “Big Mikey! What’s the holdup?”


“We’re coming!” Mort said, and nodded his skull within the glass. “I guess I have a long ways to go.”


“That’s alright,” said Big Mikey, and sighed, and rubbed his nothing-nose with his arm. “Let me tell you about what else I’ve been reading.”



Interlude 2 - Not As Loud

The silence is not as loud as it used to be.


When it first began, I could scarcely think of anything else, except how deathly, impossibly quiet it was. Not to hear his voice, or his little songs as he worked on his creation echoing across this universe, or the weight of his movements for he was great in the heavens. Nothing. Not even a heartbeat, at that time.


I tried to drown it out with anything. I did not have many friends, and their voices were no good as a distraction anyways. And then I abandoned them entirely, but the silence was no lesser on my own. And in time, I sought out your kind. A little noise to break up the infinite quiet. And among you I have dwelt for a while, now.


And it has not been that long. Less than a century, since I have been free to travel across your earth. But I feel it differently now. The silence is still there. But it is not as loud as it once was, and entire days go by, sometimes several, where I do not even remember that it is there, so caught am I in this web of story, in these crisscrossed lives we watch each night. Does it take you away from your nightmares, dreamers? It takes me away from mine.


We go now to one living her worst nightmare.



Story 3 - One More Ride

“My grandson is missing,” Zelda said, and folded her hands on the table, looked around at the blank faces of the Scoutpost management team, and the tearstained face of Mrs. McGowan. “I don’t know how I can make it any more clear or urgent. He is missing and he needs to be found right now.”


“Missus Duckworth, believe me, we understand,” Violet said. “That’s what we’re here to do. We just need any information you can give us, anything at all.”


“I don’t understand,” Mrs. McGowan said, and rubbed at her face, pushed wet locks of ginger hair out of her eyes. “Russell wouldn’t run off. He’s been through all the scout programs for his age, he’s smart… he knows what’s out there. He was almost eaten by Mr. Friendly for god’s sakes.”


“Maybe the ghost is taking him somewhere,” Bern mused, hands folded beneath her dimple of a chin.


“The ghost?” Zelda snapped. “‘The ghost’ has a name and it is Al. He is missing too. He’s just as real as any other boy.”


“Although it may be harder to locate a toy drum than a whole child,” the young man from Fort Freedom spoke up from the end of the table, where he sat wrapped in a yellow jacket a bit too large for him.


“A toy drum also ain’t subject to the same dangers as a whole child,” said Virgil. His hair was down around his shoulders today, and made him look like a silver wizard, or one of the old geezers that hung around the skate park when Zelda was younger. “Russell is going to attract wildlife. He’s also going to run out of food and water. So it’s imperative we get him tracked down as soon as possible.”


“Mrs. Duckworth—Zelda—is there anything you can tell us that would help?” Violet said, and tried to lock eyes with her in that placating way that desk agents at hotels did. Zelda glared back imperiously, matched her gaze for a second, and then looked down. There was something, but to share it would only give Bern’s skepticism fuel. Even so, if it could possibly help Al…


“It’s the damn library,” Zelda said, and sat back, crossed her arms. “My husband Dex worked there all his life. Before it moved up here. It’s the same place that blue-haired punk who tried to drag me back to Solomon is from. They do that, you know, they get their hooks in children and they take them away and make them into horrible little monsters. I made sure that Jonah never laid eyes on that place. But Al’s got it into his head that he’ll be happier there than he is at your school.”


Here she glared at Bern and Violet decisively, and raised an eyebrow at Virgil.


“So I’m going to go there, and get him back,” Zelda nodded to herself. Bern and Violet both jumped into motion at the same time, stumbled over simultaneous words. In the end it was Virgil that ended up composing a sentence first.


“If you don’t mind my saying so, Missus Duckworth,” he said, “we’ve got capable people who can track through the wilderness and are comfortable with the dangers of the wild.”


“Are you calling me old?” Zelda said. “Or inexperienced?”


“He’s not trying to say either such thing,” Violet said, and shot Bern a look of exasperation. “Only that we have people who will find Russell and Al and bring them both back safe.”


“Oh? Who’s it going to be?” Zelda said, and looked across the room. “I don’t know where the library is. I doubt any of you do. And the electric child is gone as of this morning.”


“I’ll volunteer for that particular duty,” Virgil said, and tipped his cowboy hat. “Again, Trailblazer Scout, I think I’ve got the skills it takes to find your boy, Mrs. McGowan. Missus Duckworth. So if we’re done here, I’ll put together what we’ve got and see if I can find a trail—get us started in the right direction.”


“I still think—” Zelda began, but was cut off by Bern.


“Miss Duckworth,” Bern said. “We will find Al. Give us a day or two and he’ll be back. Alright? Virgil here has done this thing plenty of times. He’s never let anyone stay lost yet.”


Everyone at the table nodded, as if that were the end of the matter. Zelda stood up from her chair ahead of the rest, and stomped towards the door.


“Alright then,” she said. “Have it your way. And Virgil?”


He looked up to her expectantly, somewhere between a smirk and a frown.


“Bring him home safe,” she said, with as much sincerity as she could muster. He tipped his hat to her.


“Will do, Missus Duckworth. Will do.”


She turned, and left then, made for her room on the ground floor. That little gesture should throw off suspicions for a little while—long enough for her to grab her shotgun, and slip under the tarp of his rickety little truck. One day, she thought, I’ll be too old to get involved in these things. One day. But not today. Today, I get my grandson back.



Outro - Absences

Absences.


They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. I think they assume, when this is said, that there will be an end to the absence. Sometimes absence makes you question the intensity of that fondness. Whether you were thinking clearly then, when you would have done anything to be by their side, risked all that you were for a mote of their affection.


Whether you are thinking clearly now, when the distance between you has grown cold, and you smile a little less each time you remember them, and the years pass like sand in an hourglass. The absence has lasted a long time, indeed, and I am filled up with fondness.


But I wonder, in these memories now, if I should look back on him so fondly. Whether missing anyone this much is good. And someday, I hope that the fondness that accumulates endlessly in my heart finds some other purpose, some new place to belong.


Until the death of time brings an end to absence entirely, I am your loyal host Nikignik, waiting fondly for your return to the Hallowoods.




The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'Missing Someone', and is available on the Hello From The Hallowoods Patreon. Consider joining for access to all the show's bonus stories, behind-the-scenes and more!


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