Content Warning: This episode may include themes of body horror, death + injury, kidnapping + abduction, electrocution, strangulation, violence, blood, and abuse.
Intro - Almost Home
You are almost home - but not quite. You have slept in this bed for years; the dining room table has seen so many heated conversations. But it is not truly your home, because you are not truly yourself. One day something terrible happens, and you say goodbye to your almost home. You do not have any kind of home for a long time. You are separated from your almost family. You never thought they would let you go. In the darkness, you are alone, but you are yourself at last—then one person joins your life, and a second. You are surrounded now by the people you have chosen, people that have chosen you, and as you build a new life, plunging north into the trees, you breathe in the fresh pine air and know that this was always your home, and the welcome mat outside your always front door says Hello from the Hallowoods.
Right now I am waiting in a tunnel of trees. Their dark roots threaten to swallow me like the throat of a devil. The light is faint, but in the open mouth of the tunnel a man is standing with a clipboard. He knows whose house this is, dreamers, but still he approaches. The theme of tonight’s episode is homes.
Story 1 - Being Watched?
Walt felt like he was being watched. In his experience, this typically meant he was, and he made a note of it, checking the box next to ‘Being Watched?’ on his clipboard. He looked back up towards the tunnel.. He had made many notes regarding this part of the woods. The trees were more alive here than in other places, lurching out to hurt travellers they felt threatened by, impaling small animals and pulling bodies down into their gnarled roots. However, Walt had never seen them grow together to consume something so large, forming a dense wall of black spruce and pine, reaching inwards as if to destroy an object of deep hatred.
Walt had circled the mountain of trees, and this tunnel was the only way through that he had found.
He checked a box under ‘Dangerous Environment’, and a sub-box under ‘Potential Traps’. Then, he tucked his pencil behind his ear, pulled a little tin of licorice from his pocket—a gift from Bern—and rolled one in his mouth as he walked into the dark maw of the forest. The trees might have writhed a little in the darkness, but they could not seem to break the shape of the tunnel, as though willed back by a force stronger than their grasping fingers. Or, perhaps, it was just an application of arboreal knowledge that he had not yet discovered. He left the ‘paranormal’ box unchecked for now.
There was a glimpse of daylight at the far end of the tunnel, and he approached it with no particular sense of stealth. He was getting too old to sneak around everywhere, and this was his job anyways. Even the most jarring denizens of these woods were respectful of his work, and none had cut him apart for sewing materials or put his heart in a jar just yet.
Beyond the tunnel, a large lawn spread out in a perfect circle, surrounded by a thick wall of trees, forming a smooth barrier of branch and root. In the center of the perfectly trimmed grass, a large old-fashioned mansion stood. It reminded him of the castle-like houses of the deep south, which he had not seen since childhood visits to distant relatives, and he associated with iced tea and humidity. A rusted red truck was parked in the drive.
He noted these down meticulously under ‘Location Details’, along with the feature that concerned him most. There were tall human figures scattered across the lawn, standing as motionless as scarecrows, and wrapped in red coats that reminded Walt of band uniforms. He squinted in the glare from their gold buttons, and noticed their faces turn in unison towards him.
He checked the box next to ‘Revenant’.
When he looked up from the clipboard they had already surrounded him. They were familiar to him, somehow, and the implications chilled him. The licorice cracked in his teeth, and he held up his hands, backing away slowly.
“Hi there folks. I’m with the groundskeeping, just taking a look around.”
Their milky white eyes stared out from under red caps, faces cut and sewn in quilted patterns. One of them stepped forwards and spoke, a large stitched line between their eyes.
“I am the groundskeeper here. Who are…” They stopped talking as the white eyes met his, and Walt looked up in astonishment. “Walt?” they asked with broken lips.
“Leyland?” Walt stuttered, almost dropping his pencil. “That can’t be you.”
“It isn’t.” Leyland said, eyes staring blankly into the world behind Walt. “Not really, not anymore. We’ve changed since you knew us.” They gestured to the crowd, standing alert and ready, waiting with solemn faces. Walt nodded.
“Does a man live here they call the Instrumentalist?” Walt asked.
Leyland looked back blankly. “This house belongs to Mr. Reed. He looks after us now that Ms. Mend is gone.”
“Reed. Reed, Reed Reed.” Walt muttered, flipping to his Instrumentalist file and jotting it down.
“Walt,” Leyland said, turning to look back at the house, “you need to go now. Visitors are not permitted on the grounds.”
Walt looked to the house, and thought he saw blinds shifting. He retreated into the tunnel, and when he looked back, Leyland and the others stood again, silent in the sun, dispersed evenly across the grass. He did not stop to take his final notes until he was well outside the wall of trees, and sure that no fiddles or flutes were playing in the distance.
‘Guards’, he checked. ‘Hostages’, he checked, and drew a line between them. He checked the world ‘delicate’ and circled it three times. Then, with crumbling charcoal and intent, he filled in a box at the bottom. ‘Confirmed for Removal’.
Interlude 1 - Real Estate
Dreamers, if your existing home does not fly or crawl or mysteriously appear wherever you dream about, then you might be excited by the prospect of an existing home in the beautiful Hallowoods. There are lots of houses that no longer have living inhabitants, and could use a caring new homeowner to spruce up the place and contribute to the greater Hallowoods community.
Notable real estate include the Mend Mansion, which has been partially consumed by the bog, and is full of rare specimens and antique sewing supplies. The Duckworth house may need a temporary housesitter, as the survival of the remaining Duckworths is pending. If you are a ghost who can live in ghost houses, consider the Alder House, whose material form was burned to the ground along with a long-abandoned grand piano.
If you are enchanted by these dreams of expansive northern forest, full of dark trees and fascinating wildlife, and the chance of meeting all these wonderful people we follow, do consider moving north. We go now to a Hallowoods apartment.
Story 2 - The Storm and The Shadow
Riot was homesick, for her mom in the bright bunker, for Clara in their little RV. The feeling made her want to break something. Shatter dishes, tear down the yellow wallpaper, scream until she couldn’t scream any more. She had tried listening to her mom’s music, but it didn’t help—how could it, when she was probably being tortured or killed by some awful man at the Botulus Corporation. Riot had doubted for years that her mom’s music had been that big of a deal, and found it unlikely that anyone still cared decades after her last album. The bunker, the hiding, the paranoia—it all seemed to be part of her mom’s particular delusion of grandeur.
Perhaps that was why Riot had been so eager to break radio silence to talk to Clara through the late nights, and left the bunker so thoughtlessly when she called for help, tearing the covers off the RV and speeding away without a second thought. If she hadn’t left the door open, headlights blazing into the night, perhaps her mom would have been there to welcome her home.
But it wasn’t her fault, she thought, and wanted to attack her pillow, but couldn’t bring herself to do it. Violet had knitted the pillow cover, and Bern had hunted for the feathers. She hugged it instead, and screamed into it.
It wasn’t her fault that her girlfriend stopped waiting for her, it wasn’t her fault that her mom made enemies with the biggest company on earth. It didn’t change the fact that they were both gone now. She had done her best for both of them, and it hadn’t been enough. Hadn’t she survived the Instrumentalist twice to get back to them? Why couldn’t anything ever go her way?
She snatched up her bat and was ready to do something she’d later regret, when a rumble too close and loud to be thunder shook the earth, the Scoutpost creaking in protest. There was a flash of light, and the power flickered and died, leaving Riot in the darkness.
There were cries from elsewhere in the ramshackle fortress, and the sound of barking dogs. Something seemed wrong. Riot rolled out of bed, picked up her bat and shoved open the door.
The wind pushed her back, a driving gale of mad purpose. She was shocked to find that she could not see outside—she could make out the platform ahead of her, but the courtyard below was enveloped in a deep and rolling fog. The backup generators did not switch on, and without the floodlights, it was almost impossible to see.
For a moment, Riot’s heart was in her throat as she listened for orchestral music to swell in the air, and expected splitting violins to announce that death was on its way. But the sounds of the Instrumentalist did not fill her mind, and she was prepared to face anything else. She kicked down the stairs, searching for guidance in the swirling fog that encompassed her like a dark prison. Riot hoped Bern and Violet were alright; she was beginning to think of them as the grandmothers she’d never had.
The wind tore at Riot’s clothes and howled in her ears, pulling the clouds of shadow past her like a river of death. People dashed heedlessly through the fog, but no one stopped to explain what was happening.
Then a flash of light came racing out of the darkness, lightning branching through the courtyard. Riot could not hear herself scream as the white fire seared her eyes and her mind. Her world was burning, afterimages blazing in her vision. She was seeing faces when she blinked, faces that looked like Clara’s.
As if stepping through a curtain, she stumbled through the fog into a clearing, a ring of quiet space where the cloud formed a spinning wall on all sides, surrounded by crackling tongues of lightning.
A stranger in a blue cloak stood inside of it, and shouted something. Riot tried to blink away the light that lingered in her eyes, and held her bat at the ready. She had never seen someone like this at the Scoutpost before, and could barely comprehend the strange behavior of the storm.
“I’m Riot.” She shouted back, hoping he had introduced himself. “What’s going on?”
She stepped forward, and the stranger looked her over, and nodded. The eye of the storm collapsed around Riot, and she was shrouded in darkness and crackling bursts of electricity. She recoiled from a sharp burst of light in front of her eyes, but white fire was crawling across her skin, and the wind was becoming so intense that she couldn’t keep her footing. She felt it lift the weight of her body, the shocks numbing her arms and hands. The bat slipped out of her unfeeling fingers as she was peeled off the face of the earth, and pulled into the darkness of the storm above.
Marketing - Think Twice
This is an extra-special announcement from Lady Ethel Mallory here at Botco, makers of the Dreaming Box, to whoever keeps interfering with my dream transmissions. Every night when I make my regularly scheduled announcements to dreamers across the world, we find another frequency, another dream in competition.
Don’t think I don’t hear you. Our dreaming box users are protected from such unauthorized programs, but I hear everything. You’ve followed me without my permission. You’ve been in my rooms and in my dreamscapes. You should know who you’re dreaming about, Nikignik.
What is this place you’ve been advertising—the Hallowoods? How convenient that my business leads me here as well. I don’t know what you’re selling, but everyone is selling something, and I will run your product out of the market and I will buy you out just to destroy your little brand.
Cease these transmissions or I will find a way to kill you and do it. Calling you an obstacle would be too much credit. Consider everyone I have destroyed, and think twice before your next broadcast. Sweet dreams, Nikignik. While they last.
Story 2, Continued - The Storm and The Shadow
What was that, Lady Ethel? I’m sorry, you seem to have broken up. Besides, I was here first. We return now to my broadcast, and to Riot Maidstone.
Riot spun wildly in the air a hundred feet above the forest, but instead of plummeting into the trees, she was carried by the wind like a kite. Every time she twisted, she caught a glimpse of the stranger—he wasn’t falling, just leaning gracefully into the air in a way that told her he was in control. She hated that. She also hated being up in the sky, it seemed like she could see the surrounding forest and lakes for miles. His fancy cloak flapped in the wind, and Riot reached out to grab the edge, although it took several swipes to catch a hold of it. Riot yanked with all her strength, and immediately regretted it.
The stranger gasped, clutching his neck, and then he was very far away. Riot realized she was really falling now, the treetops approaching like a bed of obsidian knives. The wind caught around her again, and her stomach lurched as her fall slowed, but not enough. She reached out for the trees as the sharp pine branches streamed past, peeling the skin from her palms. She screamed, but came to a crashing halt in a bed of branches. She was so cold she could barely move, but rolled out onto the forest floor, and struggled to her feet. In the distant treetops, she could see the stranger descending, cloak billowing and their feet wrapped in cloud.
“What the hell is that?” Riot muttered, and began to run, cutting through the spruces, trying to lose herself in the tangle of darkened trees. She could not see the stranger now, but the feeling was returning to her fingers, and she snatched up a thick piece of branch from the forest floor. She didn’t know anything about her opponent, but in her experience, people with nice clothes were afraid to fight dirty. Riot was not. She found a patch of thick undergrowth, and laid down in the dark vegetation.
“Help!” She called in her best pleading voice, and immediately the stranger was between the trees, drifting towards her.
“I think it’s my leg.” She groaned. The stranger looked at her cautiously, and stepped out of the sky onto the ground, tufts of fog vanishing from around him.
“Can you walk?” He asked.
“I don’t know.” Riot groaned, wincing and clasping her leg. The stranger knelt beside her to examine, watching her with eyes as blue as his hair.
“That was stupid.” The stranger said.
“So are you.” Riot grimaced, whipping the branch across his face. He hissed and recoiled, clutching at his eyes, and she swung it again for his exposed ribs. The impact shattered the branch, but seemed to take the wind out of him, and he crumpled to his knees. Riot swung back a foot, ready to plant a combat boot in his face, but he twisted his hand as if opening a door, and suddenly she was in agonizing pain. Electricity crackled across her skin, and she shook uncontrollably, spasming on the forest floor. She watched helplessly as the stranger approached her, glacial eyes glaring from a crimson-streaked face.
There was a shadow standing behind him, then, as though ripped from the cover of an old metal album. It was unnaturally tall, and wrapped in a black leather jacket studded with spikes. Riot would have dug the look if not for the shadow’s face, which appeared to be stitched together. The blue-haired stranger lifted his hand to strike Riot, but the shadow caught his fist, and squeezed.
Riot heard knuckle bones shatter, and the stranger screamed. The electricity stopped coursing through Riot, and she could barely move, but tried to keep her eyes open.
“You’ll regret that.” The stranger promised. He made a fist, and torrents of dark cloud peeled themselves out of the sky, burrowing through the air like worms. Riot was blinded as a crackle of white lightning exploded in the center of the clearing, catching the blue-haired boy off guard, and sending him careening into the underbrush. By the time Riot managed to sit upright, there was no sign of him—only a storm of frightened ravens, pouring up into the daylight.
She realized the shadow’s milky white eyes were fixed on her. It approached with stilted steps, and stooped down to offer her a hand. She noticed with concern that an embroidered seam ran across its palm. She was reminded of Walt’s words—the dead don’t always move on peaceful-like, he’d said. Hallowed means holy.
“Hello.” The creature said, a skeletal, patched-up face peering down. “My name is Diggory Graves.”
“Riot.” She grunted in return. Her days could not get much stranger, or more painful, then they had already become. It seemed likely that Diggory might try to eat her, or steal her skin. Nevertheless, her legs were not responding to her commands, and she forced herself to ask for help. “Can you get me back to the Scoutpost?”
“Yes.” Diggory said, wrapping a large cold hand around her wrist and pulling her effortlessly to her feet, supporting her. “I was just walking there myself.”
Diggory helped her—carried her, really—into the forest, gliding between the trees like a marionette. She sighed. Violet and Bern were just going to love this. But even though it was with the help of a disturbing and probably dead stranger, she felt a strange sense of relief. She felt, for the first time in a long time, that she was going home.
Interlude 2 - Comforts of Home
There comes a point in everyone’s life, I think, when they miss the comforts of home. You may lie awake, staring at an unfamiliar ceiling, a strange orientation of stars, and wonder if you made the right decision. A blanket of fear weighs on your chest. In the morning, however, it is less frightening—it is your ceiling, and they are your stars, for better or worse. You come to know the flaws and imperfections of your new home, and you may even love them, for although it is not perfect, it is yours.
I feel this way about this lowly planet. I never thought I would visit a world like this, or ever come to love it. But, for all of the ways it is broken, it is my home, and it will be until you leave it, dreamer. I don’t see much point in sticking around after that. I never much liked frogs. We go now to someone who has never left her home.
Story 3 - Stop
Stop, Danielle thought. And the world stopped.
There was most certainly a scream in the background, a faint discordant sound interrupting her dinner. The dining room was hazy, like most dreamscapes built from memories—the food on the plates was a beige blur, an amalgamation of meat loafs and chicken alfredos she had never tasted. It only was a dining room at all if you didn’t look too closely, and Danielle had never even seen the original, because she’d been born in Box Andromeda.
While the world was stopped, her parents and brothers sat frozen like a TV dinner. Her father was always rendered in black-and-white, the author he believed he was. Whichever face her brothers chose, they always wore the same one—she had not matched them since she transitioned, knew that her mother always resented her just a little for breaking up the triplets. Her mother was supposed to look like a 50’s movie star, but something was dreadfully wrong with her appearance—her head reminded Danielle of a wasp.
And in the distance, someone was still screaming. Danielle extruded herself out of the dining room, out of the layer of dream itself. It was easy to do it if you knew how, but she had not met anyone else who could break the world like she could. In the infinite and invisible space outside of the Prime Dream, she could see a million static moments frozen in place. Romances and memories long burned out, rooftop flights and storybook quests, surreal emotional dramas and unlikely erotic scenarios. Some poor soul was having a nightmare—the one with the teeth.
The scream was outside of all of them, and Danielle panned through the multitude in disbelief. It was coming from somewhere far below, in the darkness. She didn’t know anything could exist down there, in the emptiness beyond the lights. She descended, farther than she had ever dared to explore before, and reached a barrier that would not let her pass. She clicked her fingers, and willed a door out of the darkness.
She twisted the knob, and peeked in.
She didn’t like what she saw. It unsettled her deeply, more than the nightmares she watched strangers have. There was a chilling sense of wrong that made her want to vomit, strip out her veins and peel up her fingernails. Nevertheless, she watched.
A woman was strapped down to a hospital gurney, the kind that only existed in horror movies. Her skin was covered in black flies, biting and crawling and buzzing in her. They wove tunnels in her skin and peeled away her flesh. Her eyes stared, wide in terror, right at Danielle. Danielle stared back.
Even with the swarm of insects, even with her hair cut ragged and short, even thirty years older than her magazine covers, Danielle knew immediately who the woman was. Barely daring to breathe, Danielle closed the door on Valerie Maidstone, and willed it back into nothingness.
Go, she thought. I have to go.
Outro - Homes
Homes. Not having one is more common than you think. Homes can be bus stations, supermarket parking lots, or the couch of a relative whose generosity might run out at any moment. Homes can be forests, filled with death and horror, and silver boxes where everyone dreams of the daylight. Homes can be a little planet made of carbon, full of little people made of carbon. Homes can be full of warmth and light. Or they may be empty, completely empty. Homes can be nowhere at all. Nevertheless, if you ever find yourself in need of a home, go North. These trees will always welcome you, and these dark pools are home to many dreamers now. Now and always, I am your loyal host, Nikignik, and I will be waiting with an open door for your return to the Hallowoods.
The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'Polaris', 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!