Content warnings for this episode include: Ableism, Animal death (Heidi, Big Mikey’s favorite recipes), Birds, Gun Mention, Emotional Manipulation, Body horror
Intro - What Else To Lose
What else do you have to lose, you ask yourself? For the longest time the answer was nothing. You had long lost your autonomy and your flesh and your body. Your mother, your home, your friends. You have lost the shell you were given, and each of your splintered bones, and your hollow father. There is so little left of you, that surely there is no more cause for worry. If that final silver thread were to snap, how easily you would drift into the sky.
And yet, you have also gained. Silver fingers that can hold a stitched hand in yours. Friends who would notice if you were gone. One who might even miss you. Is it foolish, now, to hope that you will ever be able to keep them, to stop them from slipping like everything else? The forest is a black ocean around the little island of light that is your camp, and you hope its boughs will not rise to drown them, that it will lie still and silent, do nothing more than bid you Hello From The Hallowoods.
Right now I’m standing in front of a closed door, although to call it a door implies that it exists in a firm sense, and that is a matter of perspective. The hall beyond it has many doors, not all of them so apparent, and the tokens that mark their entrance shift with each pair of eyes, are altered with each imagination.
That is the problem with these indescribable places; you each find your own way to interpret them. On one side of the door is one who knocks, although she is not sure she wishes for the other side to answer. The theme of tonight’s episode is Apprehensions.
Story 1 - The Other Side
Victoria Tepiani knocked a second time, and a rustle from the other side of the door told her what she already knew—that Clara was inside. The faded gold patterns of the wallpaper in the hall spiraled towards distant windows like spiderwebs, and black wooden doors punctuated the distance every so often. It was not close to her own dormitory, or at least, it didn’t feel so—did anyone live up in this wing besides the Director’s new favorite?
“Who’s there?” Clara said, muffled from the other side of the door.
“It’s Victoria,” she replied, and pulled a loose strand of hair away from her eyes, found it a place behind her golden comb. “Can I come in?”
“Victoria?” Clara said, and sounded far-off for a moment, confused. “Is… hold on.”
There was a thudding of footsteps, objects moved and rustled, and a rattle of the doorknob. The door swung open just a few inches; enough that Victoria could see a few twists of Clara’s curly hair and a dark eye watching her.
“Is Friday back?” Clara said. “Did they find her?”
Victoria frowned. Old cliques die hard, she supposed. “No, sorry. It’s not that. I wanted to talk to you.”
Clara might have frowned in turn; the gap of the door grew a little narrower. “Well that’s a first since the summer program.”
Victoria breathed out a long breath. She could not let Clara under her skin, not when so much lived there already. She put her hands on her hips, and repeated her question. “Can I come in?”
“I’m busy,” Clara said, and the door almost closed completely. “But we can talk after class sometime…”
“I’m busy too,” Victoria said, and stuck the toe of her boot in the door to stop that last half-inch of opportunity from vanishing. “And I’ll be honest, you’re not the first person I’d pick for a pleasant conversation. So if I’m coming to talk to you, don’t brush me off.”
Clara squinted at her from the sliver of the room beyond, and after a moment sighed, opened the door off of Victoria’s toe, and let her in. “Sure. If it’s quick. Sorry about the mess. I’ve been a little preoccupied.”
“I’ve noticed,” Victoria said, and although the room beyond was dark, she could make it out well. The floor vanished a few feet beyond the door, buried beneath a sea of scattered papers and half-finished notes. The grotesque patterns of the wallpaper were almost invisible, so plastered were they with illustrations—faces in various distortions, with more eyes, more mouths, more teeth in needlepoint rows. More grotesque than Olivier’s sketches, more precise. Letters in languages that probably only Laurence Abbott knew. The room smelled heavily of dog, and a different scent too—charcoal, maybe, or sulfur.
“Well?” Clara said, and moved to sit in the nest of blankets on her bed; her eyes were bloodshot as if studying for finals, although that was a few months off yet. “What can I help you with, Victoria?”
“I’m not the one who needs help,” Victoria said, and crossed her arms, hoped that the smell of the room would someday come out of her embroidered dress. “What’s she doing to you?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” Clara said, brows furrowed. Her hand moved to the bed; there was a book beneath the covers, Victoria was sure.
“The Director,” Victoria said. “I hate to be the one to break this to you, but you’re not special. Before you it was Olivier. Blackletter always has a pet project. I, Harrow, Arnold… we all watched Olivier go from the front kid in the class to the kid who was always gone, running missions, doing special tests. Too good to spend time with anyone else. And I’m getting deja vu here.”
“I appreciate the concern,” Clara said, and feigned a smile. “But I’m not Olivier. I know what I’m doing. And I’m not going to make the mistakes they did.”
“What are you doing?” Victoria said, and stepped through the piles of refuse to the windows, slid open the curtains to find that the glass behind them had been papered up. “What is all this?”
“Why do you suddenly care about me or how I’m doing?” said Clara, and Victoria shivered. She could not see the phantom hound, but she knew it was somewhere around her. “Where was all this concern when I was blind in the forest, and our friends were getting ripped apart? How’s Arnold doing these days?”
Victoria felt a twist of emotion in her chest; breathed out to let it free, so it didn’t turn into anything more.
“I wasn’t in control of myself,” Victoria said. “If I had stayed, I was going to hurt someone…”
“I’m getting tired of hearing that,” Clara said, and folded her hands in her lap, glared at Victoria from where she sat. “You left, and people got hurt anyways. So forgive me if I don’t see you as the best authority on what’s safe, or what to do with my powers.”
“Don’t let her destroy you,” Victoria said, and stepped away towards the door; an invisible hound prowling at her heels. “That’s all I came here to say. I’m here at this library to learn. I’m here to get better. And when I’m done, I’m going to go back to my parents in Guatemala, and I’m going to have as much of a normal life as I can. Whatever’s on the other side of this place for you—don’t lose sight of that.”
“I guess that’s the difference between us, then,” Clara said, and put her hands in the dark expanse of her hair, looked at Victoria with an impossible tiredness. “For me, unless I figure this out… unless I fight for it… there is no other side.”
Victoria began to say something else, but Clara flicked her hand and the door slammed shut, left Victoria standing in the hallway again. She stood alone for a moment, and a surge of heat in her face brought tears to her eyes. She hadn’t run away. She had left, yes, but not run away. Was it cowardice to walk away from this door now?
No. Clara had made herself clear, and Victoria was not going to drag her away from the cliff she pursued. If she wants to fall, Victoria thought, let her fall. She turned, and stalked away down the hall, a click of high boots and a flourish of her dress, and left in the shadows behind her only a thin line of orange light flickering from beneath Clara’s door.
Interlude 1 - Safer Now
More than weather, more than resource. More than the many miles or the unknown territory, was the fear of each other. When the black rains fell, and the first of your governments after them, so much of the terror that spread like wildfire was not born of what might fall from the sky, or what the world might look like in the wake of the collapse, but of what your neighbor might now be compelled to do.
If there had been more trust, I wonder, would it have fallen apart all the same? Would your communities have been able to weather the storm? The evil was not in the heart of your fellow man, but in the sky, and in the water, and in your mind.
North, you thought. I will go where no one is, and put together the pieces on my own. I will be the only danger. If only that had been true. But the North already belonged to someone else, and the road was not so scarcely travelled as you might have thought.
Who is safer now, then? Those who never left, and cluster in their fallen cities and face the darkness that creeps in the street gutters at night? Or those who take harbor in the forest at the end of the world, and meet first each new horror born by the water?
We go now to one a long time without water.
Story 2 - Soulmates
Percy sat in his silver shell, which itself sat in the firelight of their expedition’s first campsite. The air was silent, a cold chill that hung over the forest and crept in with the moonlit darkness. They were still far south enough that a fire was permissible in Cindy’s eyes, but she promised a colder night the following evening, when Hector and Riot agreed they would enter Night-Gaunt territory, and a trail of smoke could well be the end of them. Right now though, with Big Mikey’s hulking mass occupying one side of the fire, and Mort’s shiny shell sitting on the other, Percy felt that there was little that could trouble them tonight.
He sat in Diggory’s arms in the roots of a birch tree, just within sight of the fire. Clustered around it were Riot and Olivier, Hector with his dog. Cindy did not sit, but rather paced around the campsite double-checking their inventory and the integrity of the small tents they’d set up. In Percy’s hands there was a cat, an unexpected guest on their journey, and one he sheltered from the curious horde of dogs that accompanied Big Mikey.
“How long do you think Mikey will be with us?” Percy said. “If it’s much longer I think Cindy is going to have a nervous breakdown.”
“I do not understand it,” Diggory whispered beside him. “Valerie was frightened after coming to find that she knew one of my old selves, but she bears no ill will towards me now. Cindy has not been so… forgiving.”
“Old habits I guess,” Percy noted, and ran a silver hand over Nimbus’s fur. The cat responded with no particular thanks. “Who knows what she’s seen living down in the states. Not sure it gives her the right to be rude and terrible, though.”
Percy relinquished the cat onto the ground, where it sniffed at him a moment and then padded off towards the fire, tail high. Percy rolled over into Diggory’s shoulder, put his silver face against their jaw. “Hey Diggory?”
“Yes, Percy?” Diggory said, and Percy could hear the metal hum of their sharp fingertips on his shoulder.
“Do you love me?” Percy said.
“Of course I do,” Diggory said, almost too quickly. “I love you very much, Percy.”
“If you didn’t, would you say that just to make me happy?” Percy mused.
Diggory was silent for a moment, although because they were thinking of a response or because it was true, Percy did not know.
“You are the most important person in my life,” Diggory said. “When you are gone I feel your absence as though it is a terrible burden.”
“But do you love me,” Percy said.
“I think I do,” Diggory said, and removed their hand from Percy’s back. “But also…”
“What?” Percy said, and sat up a little from their chest.
“Nothing,” Diggory said. “It is unrelated.”
“What were you going to say?”
Diggory sighed, which interested Percy because they did not need to breathe. “I was going to say that you do not need always to cling to me.”
“I don’t cling,” Percy said.
“I was not trying to say that you do,” Diggory said.
“That’s exactly what you said.”
“It is not what I meant,” Diggory continued. “Only that… you took this body, this metal construction from Mr. Botulus so that you could be present. With the others. So that they would know that you are here, all of the time. And yet you rarely speak to them, you do not spend time with them. You stay as close to me as you did when you were a necklace around my neck. I think the others would appreciate getting to know you. To really know you.”
“What? You don’t want me around anymore?” Percy said, and stood up, adjusted his puppetlike balance on the uneven ground. Riot and Olivier did not look up; they were sufficiently distracted with each other by the fire. “I got this body for you. Because I wanted to be able to hug you. To live in the same world.”
“I am sorry,” Diggory said, and raised their dagger fingertips. “I did not mean to offend you, I was simply curious…”
“Has it occurred to you that maybe I need you right now?” Percy said, and felt bright indeed beneath the shell. “Because I just lost my mom and dad and I made a deal with the worst man on earth and we’re going out to…”
“Made a deal?” Diggory said, and tilted their head; their pale eyes shone with the firelight. “I thought you said he took pity on you.”
Percy shook his head, took a step back. “Listen, if you want space, you can just tell me. How much space do you want, this much? This much?”
Two steps, three steps back, and Diggory looked around helplessly. There were faces watching Percy from beside the fire, now.
“I am not asking for space,” Diggory said quietly. “But maybe sometimes it is good.”
Percy collapsed then, or allowed his shell to fall limp to the ground, at least. It was just a silver doll, sculpted vaguely in his image, lying on the forest floor. He lifted through the haze of black branches, up into the moonlight. You want space, he thought? You can have it.
Marketing - The Long Game
*grunting as she walks*
There’s one rule you always need to remember in marketing. It’s that people are afraid of what is new. That’s no surprise. It’s been baked into all mankind since day one of the human race. And womankind, and all the others. For marketing, it’s vital, because almost everything you do is about introducing people to the new. New products, new product lines. New ideas. New philosophy. And so you’ve got two options.
One moment, I’m—there we are.
You can be direct about it, and make a pitch. You can say, here’s what I am and this is what I’m selling. Here’s what’s good about it. Here’s why it stands out in the market. Here are the benefits it offers. And the sales pitch is fast, it’s direct. You can get people in a single ad if they believe your message. There may be no better tool in your toolbox than the art of the pitch, because even if you’ve got something terrible to sell, you might very well be able to pawn it off and smile until you get out of the door.
…I’m going over a rock, here…
But that wasn’t going to work for us. For the Botulus Corporation. I saw that right away. It wasn’t that we didn’t have great things to offer—a chance to escape the drudgery of day-to-day life, to live on the edge of a brand-new technological future, to sleep soundly through the oncoming storms. But there was too much fear to fight.
What if it breaks? What if it doesn’t work? What if I’m giving up my whole life to get scammed? What will it mean to live in a world where my thoughts are public, where my dreams are shared, where the people I hate in this country are one and the same with me?
The other way you get around fear is the long game. That isn’t played by a sales pitch. You lay groundwork. Years of it. You set yourself up as someone to be trusted. You offer content and entertainment for free. And you show them that what you stand for is their world.
And when what is new and terrifying is being shown to them for the first time, it is in your hands. From someone they know by now. Surely you would not lie to them. But really, you’ve been lying the whole time. It was always about the sell. Marketing always is...
Story 2, Continued - Soulmates
*Nikignik tries to keep himself from commenting*
…we return now to Percy Reed.
It had been months, Percy felt, since he had left his metal body, and it was an odd sensation to suddenly not be grounded to the earth, not to plan footsteps or think about how to act as though confined by the bounds of gravity. He tried to dim himself into invisibility, although he wanted to lash out.
Not at Diggory, necessarily. At a stone. At a tree. At anything that would let him get some of the electricity out of his hands and into the world. As it was, he flew through the woods until he drew close to the end of his thread—a single, delicate wire, not at all the manacles that had once bound him again and again to that weighty piano.
He lifted into the treetops, and looked over the moon, the expanse of the forest beyond, and whirled through them in agitation. It wasn’t Diggory’s fault, was it? Not really. They hadn’t done anything out of the ordinary, but they happened to be around. The fault was in Percy, in what lay inside that empty silver shell. Why am I so unhappy, he wondered? Why can’t I just enjoy the journey?
He passed between two trees to spot a figure sitting on a rock ledge, overlooking the forest. The yellow wide-brimmed hat told him it was Jonah. He froze for a moment, before remembering that he was invisible—it had been a long time since he’d been unnoticeable. He drifted down towards the solitary man, almost at the end of the length of his spectral wire.
Jonah sat with his legs crossed, hands folded in his lap. He seemed to breathe in time with the flow of the wind through the distant trees, wisps of his beard lifted by the cold breeze, and he stared out over the forest. Percy hovered alongside him, tried to make out what he was looking at.
“There,” Jonah said suddenly, and Percy almost jumped. Jonah lifted a hand to the horizon. “There they are. I was wondering if they’d show up.”
Are you talking to yourself, old man, Percy wondered. But sure enough, beyond the ring of trees that encircled the world, there was a low ridge of mountain peaks, purple as the night sky, drifting slowly like ducks on a lake.
“The Shuddering Peaks,” Percy said.
“I guess so,” Jonah said. “Never been up there yet. Walt used to mention them though. I feel like I understand them a little better now.”
“You can see me?” Percy said, and had to double-check that he was not wearing his silver body after all. Jonah’s eyes glinted, a green reflection from no apparent source.
“Not exactly,” Jonah said. “But I could… feel the presence, anyways. I’m learning to be a little more in tune with that stuff. Is everything alright?”
“Just out for a nightly stroll,” Percy grunted.
“I also know that that’s a lie,” Jonah said, and raised his eyebrows, watched the Shuddering Peaks travel in the distance. “There’s lots of things I know lately. Don’t worry, you don’t have to explain.”
“What is your deal exactly?” Percy said, and crossed his intangible arms, drew a little closer to the bearded fisherman. “I know you rescued your mom from my dad’s basement. We were trying to help her escape, Al and I. But she couldn’t do it. And then you crawled out of a cabinet. And apparently while we were gone you destroyed the Scoutpost and rebuilt it?”
“Frankly I’m still getting a grasp on things myself,” Jonah said, and rubbed his head, took off his hat and held it in his hands. “I fell into a cabinet, once. And I think I was dead when I came back out of it. I’ve been dead a lot of times, now.
There’s something on the other side. Something I haven’t met. But he built that place, the cabinets, all of it. He’s the reason I can’t die. He’s the reason this forest is the way it is. And maybe it’s by total accident, or maybe it was all part of a plan, but I have… jurisdiction. I can see the truth of things. And when I speak, they listen.”
He gestured out past the rock ledge, and Percy peeked over the precipice. Twenty feet beneath them, the forest floor was a host of little green eyes—twisted squirrels and racoons and four-winged birds, congregated in silent reverence.
“So what is that heart to you?” Percy said. “Something you’re supposed to destroy? Or to protect?”
“I don’t know what I’m supposed to do,” Jonah mused, and looked over the edge, tossed a bit of a sandwich crust over the edge of the cliff to a waiting rodent. “I know what I’m going to do. Which is take that thing apart for good. It’s like you and your friends have been saying. It’s got to go. And maybe if it stops, I’ll stop getting worse.”
“You seem very calm about it,” Percy said. “But I guess if you can’t die, you’re like me. Only worried about other people.”
“Very worried about other people,” Jonah said, and put his hands in his pockets. “I’m sorry about your pa.”
“He had it coming,” Percy said. “He was as awful to me as he was to anyone else.”
“I can understand that,” Jonah said.
“Can I ask you a question?” Percy said, and wondered if the animals could see him hovering over the forest, or if they were watching the stars.
“Sure,” Jonah said.
“Do you believe in soulmates?”
“If that was a joke, I can’t tell,” Jonah said. “I don’t think I do. I hope there aren’t, because I’d probably have missed them my whole life, unless they happened to be on a fishing boat. But I like Hector. I think we’re good together, and the more we spend time together the more I hope we get to keep spending time together. So. I think it’s about who is there for you. You get to choose that. Does that help at all?”
“Yeah,” Percy said. “Thanks.”
He was not sure that it really did.
“I’m going to head back,” Jonah said, standing up with some effort. “Let them know that the mountains are moving. I think they’re avoiding us, which is good… but on the other hand, that means going through the Northmost woods.”
Percy remained still until Jonah had tromped back into the trees, stared off into the forest, listened to the wind move through him. What do I want, he wondered? Who do I want? And what does the future look like if we come back alive?
The forest said nothing in response; only the cloud-streaked sky offered a gift—a first few flakes of white snow, drifting down to earth like stars.
Interlude 2 - What Gods Fear
Great are those that sleep in the stars, that make their beds in the void and nestle between universal expanses. Mighty and vast is the life indescribable, manifested and varied our impossible powers, glorious in our stellar arrays.
And yet, we are not devoid of fears. I have my fair share, and I feel some of my fellow beings harbor all the more. But, you ask, what could a veritable god be afraid of? You are life beyond comprehension, you need not food or water, a physical form is only a necessity for special occasions.
The answer largely is that you do not want to know. The things that trouble us on a daily basis might be incomprehensible for you, given that we dwell on different planes of life, different matters of scale. Try to explain to an ant a missing paycheck or a bad credit score or an insurance deductible. But certain things, you could explain to even an ant.
That some indescribable beings hoard power because they are afraid they will need it. That some guard suns because they fear what can a sun extinguish. And some preserve the order of things because they have seen the darkness that dwells beyond the order, and hope the light will keep it at bay.
We go now to one who distrusts the light.
Story 3 - A Lot Of Her Left
“I refuse to sleep in the company of that creature,” Cindy said, and stamped on the stake of her tent for good measure. “It could lift one of you into its mouth and bite you in half without a second thought.”
“Big Mikey would only do that if he didn’t like you,” Riot said, and gestured towards the bloated corpse with its mouth of jagged teeth. It regarded Cindy with a kind of patience she associated with stalking cats and other hunting predators. If it smiled, it did so to establish its dominance.
“People aren’t my favorite food,” Big Mikey said. “I like fish best, and spider eggs.”
“Regardless. I’m glad you’ve had a nice catch-up with your horrifying friend. Now it is time for him to depart.”
“But he’s my friend,” said the armored suit that held the corpse of Bartholomew Chum, although not his personality or his softspoken intellect. “I don’t want him to go.”
“Yeah. You’re being a jerk,” Riot said, and shoved rations in her mouth.
“You’re not going to eat me, are you?” Olivier said nervously to the giant.
“Not unless you set me on fire with the lightning again,” Big Mikey growled.
Cindy was about to open her mouth and deliver an ultimatum, but Hector was beside her, set a hand on her shoulder. She seized his wrist on reflex, twisted it back before she realized it was his wooden hand, and the bark fingers felt no pain. She took a step back and turned to him.
“Miss Lockheart,” he said. “Can I talk with you. Privately.”
“Do not let that thing into our rations,” Cindy said, and waved a hand before following Hector around the row of tents, into the low light of the trees around them. Hector’s dog with its dead eyes sat by the tents, but did not follow.
“What can I do for you, mister Mendoza?” Cindy said, hands on her hips, looking down at him.
“What you’re trying to do… it’s not going to work,” Hector said plainly.
“Thank you for that input,” Cindy said. “I appreciate when strange men give me vague advice. I find it most enlightening.”
“I’m not telling you what to do,” Hector said, and raised his hands; one flesh, one cursed wood sculpture. “I’m just saying. What you are doing, right now, is not going to work.”
“What do you think I am doing right now?” Cindy said, and crossed her arms, shivered. It was getting colder than it had been the last few nights.
“I think you’re at war with this place,” Hector said, and glanced to the black branches above them. “And I can understand that. It’s taken my dogs. My arm. Several times, it’s taken Jonah away from me. But it isn’t evil. It’s like an animal. And animals have rules, boundaries. They decide on their territory and they stay there. They protect their young. They protect themselves. And if you learn how they work, you can stay out of their way.”
“With respect, mister Mendoza, I have heard more than my fair share of forest-loving speeches from your Scoutpost leaders,” Cindy said. “And every time they talk about how in love with nature they are I am reminded of all of the friends I’ve had to put in the ground as a result of this year’s surprising wildlife.”
“Before I met Jonah, most of my job was scraping up the dead,” Hector said, and inspected his hands. “Trust me, I got familiar with the kind of dead things that wake up and want to use your bones for toothpicks. But I’ve also come to find that they can help, sometimes. Diggory’s not going to hurt anyone unless you ask them to.
Neither is my Heidi. There’s a lot of her left, in there, even if it’s not all that’s living in her now. And even in that one they call Big Mikey, I reckon he ain’t a danger. These folks want to help. Use them to get to your real enemy. Because that’s the distance, and the time, and the weather. That’s the journey. That’s what we’ve got to survive.”
Cindy thought of several ways to start a reply, and Hector stood there expectantly. There was no animosity on his weathered face, no righteousness. Only his scars and his wrinkles and an eyebrow half raised, and a few specks of wood in the surface of his neck that ran down into the rest of him.
There’s no point in arguing, she thought. Of course he’s here to defend the forest’s honor. He’s part of it already.
“Thank you for your perspective, mister Mendoza,” Cindy said, and nodded. “I’ll take it into consideration as I continue to lead this expedition.”
There was a stir, then, from the camp, whispered voices and the voice of the giant which was never a whisper. She dashed back over the meters of forest quickly, emerged from the row of tents.
“I’m here,” she said, and put a hand on the pistol beneath her jacket. “What’s wrong?”
“Well,” Olivier said, and lifted a hand to catch a tiny point of white light out of the air, before it disappeared on their fingertip. “It’s the first snow of the season.”
Outro - Apprehensions
So many worries in such a small frame. What will the future hold? Will it be kind? Will there be enough to get by, will everything work out alright, will they still be there for me? They are all valid questions, dreamer. And I would like to say yes. There is nothing to worry about, and it will all be fine, and rest easy knowing there will be peace.
But you would know it is a lie, for I am not omniscient, and I do not see the future.
But what I can tell you is that many of these questions will be answered by time alone, and it will not yield its secrets before then. What to do, then, while we awkwardly wait for the future to make up its mind about what will become the present. I suggest you do not spend that time in worry.
Take a walk. Do whatever you do for fun. Set a few things in motion as though things are going to go well, because more often than not, they will. And when the terrible future arrives, and is past, you will still be here, one more day spent living, one more night spent dreaming, listening to the thoughts of your loyal host Nikignik, waiting apprehensively for your return to the Hallowoods.
The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'New Hands, 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!