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HFTH - Episode 17 - Bogs

Content Warning: This episode may include themes of static, suicide, child death, bullying, death + injury, body horror, abuse, homophobia, violence, and drowning.

Intro - Home for Mushrooms

It is morning, and you hate mornings. The angry sun beams over your bed, commanding you to rise, to confront the day, to suffer. You can already feel the anxiety rising as you remember schedules and deadlines and performance evaluations. You begin to get up, you feel you are already falling behind, of the peat, and the dark water and the lilies. You turn, and hide your empty sockets from the gleaming dawn. There is no guilt, no shame. You’re allowed to rest, to sleep forever, until the suns stop rising. The birds and frogs far above you lull you back to sleep with a familiar song. You know it means Hello From The Hallowoods.

Right now I’m sitting in a tree fort. It has long been destroyed, branches snapped and left to rot, the books that it protected have swelled with rain and become a home for mushrooms. One of the covers says ‘Never stop Dreaming’. It overlooks a hungry pool of black water, overgrown with thick moss and reed. The theme of tonight’s episode is Bogs.

Story 1 - Little Mikey

“Ain’t so tough without your boyfriend around, are you?” Rick crowed, as his boys stomped on Mikey’s fort, cracking the sticks like ribs. Mikey screamed, but Rick held him down, kept his head pressed in the dirt.

“He’s not my boyfriend!” Mikey protested, spitting out soil.

“How about you read us a story, Little Mikey?” Buck jeered. With his taped-together glasses and crooked teeth, he was usually the runt of the group, unless Mikey was around. Mikey tried to worm his way out from under Rick, but Rick had gotten strong at sixteen, and Mikey was small even for eleven.

“Don’t you remember, Buck?” Rick played along, grinding his knee into Mikey’s back. “Little Mikey’s dumb folks never taught him how to read. I guess there’s a lot we have to school him on. Isn’t that right, Little Mikey?”

The boys finished demolishing Mikey’s fort, and came jaunting over like wolves on the hunt. Mikey could hear Rick licking his lips, which meant he was feeling thoughtful. His thoughts did not usually mean good things for Mikey. He sank his teeth into Rick’s hand, and scampered up as the bigger boy screamed.

The others were waiting, of course, and one sank a fist into Mikey’s stomach. He collapsed, croaking like a frog. The boys laughed triumphantly, and Rick shook his hand off. There was a peculiar grin on his face, the one reserved for when he was ready to really hurt someone. Rick’s blue eyes darted around the landscape with malicious interest.

“Hey Little Mikey, how about today we teach you how to swim?” he said. The other boys chuckled, and hoisted Mikey to his feet, twisting him to face the jet-black water.

“No, come on guys, I can’t swim!” Mikey shrieked, which seemed to encourage them. They wrestled with him on the edge of the grassy bank, fighting to push him off balance and into the midnight pool.

“It’s easy,” Rick called from behind him. “All you have to do is kick!”

The last comment came with a boot planted square in Mikey’s back, and he toppled into the water. It was shockingly cold, freezing his bones and his head instantly, and he fought to keep above water, but the more he thrashed, the faster he sank. The water was in his eyes then, burning and green, and he screamed.

Instead of air, he was sucking in water thick as maple syrup, spilling into his lungs. He jerked beneath the surface as he fell, the sun fading away into a distant sparkle. There was a horrible convulsion within him, and as his fall slowed to a gentle drift, he realized that his lungs weren’t moving anymore. He tried to move, but the water was heavy and thick, and he couldn’t pull away from its grasp. He stared up at a glimmer of daylight, and could almost hear the sounds of the boys, echoing over the top of the bog. Victorious cheers turned to concerned calls, and finally to hushed whispers, before fading away altogether.

Nobody came to help. Maybe the boys would tell his parents he was stuck beneath the lake—but just as soon, they’d say they hadn’t seen him. He wondered if his parents would miss him at all. They’d always made a point of letting him know he wasn’t wanted. He thought he heard a voice later, the voice of the boy he knew better than anyone, the boy who had held him during the nights when his parents fought.

“Mikey!” he was shouting. “Little Mikey!”

The name sounded sweet on his lips. Mikey wanted to scream back, that he was okay, that he was just down here, but no sound escaped from him. The sounds faded away, and later so did the daylight.

Mikey watched the dim dawns turn into pitch-black nights, but gave up on counting past fourteen. He wasn’t sure how much time had passed when he next heard a sound; someone was crying.

He thought he recognized the voice, and for the first time in endless darkness, he was filled with a sense of urgency, to wake up, to rise. Mikey pushed with his hands and felt himself shift, and the sunlight was so much closer than he first remembered. He screamed, and with a mighty shove, broke free of the mire. His eyes burned as he crashed upwards into the light, an explosion of moss and heavy water.

His friend was there, curled in a ball. He was smaller than Mikey remembered, and older. He turned ghastly pale when he looked at Mikey, and let out a terrible scream.

“It’s okay,” Mikey said, “It’s me! It’s Little Mikey!”

Except when he talked, he sounded all cracked and wrong.

“Mikey?” The boy said, looking at him in fear and awe. “If that’s you, you ain’t little no more.”

Mikey looked down at himself in confusion. His hands were spoiled like rotten apples, and he was huge—as he stepped out of the black bog, his head was almost up in the trees.

“I guess I’m big now,” he conceded, and smiled down at the boy. “I’m Big Mikey.”

“Well, Big Mikey,” the smaller boy shuddered, standing up from the dirt, “I think we should give Rick a visit.”

Interlude 1 - Natural Wetlands

Although the Hallowoods has a reputation for its beautiful and deadly forests, this region was first an expansive wetland, with countless pools and peat bogs, stretching in cryptic labyrinths across the cold face of the earth. Snow geese and polar bears still call this region home, though they no longer resemble snow geese or polar bears.

Like much of the world, this stunning natural environment changed with the black rains, and the trees that took root and grew in wild frenzy are not like the trees that came before. These trees hold grudges. Be wary if you go hiking through this wonderland of nature. The black pools are often hidden by moss and lily, and it is easy for one wrong step to be your last. We go now to one who should choose her steps carefully.

Story 2 - Sewn-Up Things

Riot drew the burnt man in sharp charcoal lines, paying attention to the symbol on his chest, the agonized twist of his body. She did not have to work hard to recall the image; she saw it every time she closed her eyes. Walt didn’t take his eyes off the road, and he left the stereo off.

“I’m sorry you had to see that.” he said at length.

“All good,” Riot said quietly, flipping through the previous few pages. The Instrumentalist had many victims, and Walt had drawn up each one. His utilitarian handwriting captured the atrocities neatly. “It looks like you’ve seen plenty.”

“Yeah. I hate to say it, but you do get used to it.” he grimaced, running his hand under his baseball cap. Like his uniform, it proclaimed 'Walter Pensive’s Groundskeeping'. Riot was beginning to understand the toll of the work.

“What did you do, before all this?” she asked, folding the book away and searching for a different topic.

“You know, I used to do tree service. Landscaping. Property management, but, ah, no dead people to deal with,” Walt said. “Seems like a whole lifetime ago.”

“Ever think of going back to that?” Riot reclined her seat, watching the trees on the side of the trail roll by.

“All the time. I’m tired, Riot. I barely wanna wake up these days,” Walt sighed. “But my clients—Scoutpost being the biggest one—they need someone who’s thinking about these things. Monsters come crawling out the woods, frogs start speaking words, a man with an instrument obsession starts killing people. There’s a reason why for everything, and you need to understand those reasons if you’re gonna solve the problem. That’s why I’m working on that book you’re holding.”

Riot brushed the notebook cover with her thumb, contemplating it.

“Yeah. I don’t know if you’ve got a plan for taking him out. I got a couple good swings in, but I caught him off guard last time, you know? I was thinking I’ll try and get tall, dark and scary to help us.”

“You think you can?” Walt raised an eyebrow.

“You think I can’t?” Riot raised hers back.

“I worry about putting this Diggory person in with the Instrumentalist,” Walt said. “I’ll have to see them to be sure, but it sounds like Irene’s work.”

“Irene?” Riot asked, opening the book again.

“Yep, there’s a page in there. Irene Mend. Lived up here long before it occurred to most of us. Lovely lady, aside from a hobby of sewing dead things together, making ‘em move again. Was never quite sure how she did that, she kept her secrets. Gave ‘em funny names. Had ‘em do housework and keep the garden. Went to check in on her—about, gosh, ten years back—and she was gone, along with all her, ah, employees. This Mr. Reed, this Instrumentalist—he’s got those sewn-up things she made, all guarding his house. I don’t know what he did with her, but he’s got control of them somehow. I’d worry about your new friend if I were you.”

Riot was quiet the rest of the drive, and fell asleep at some point, dreaming about the burnt body in the cabin. Except instead of an old man she had never met, it was Clara, and her big brown eyes stared into Riot’s soul. She woke up to the car door opening, as Walt disembarked.

They were back at the Scoutpost at last, and Riot shook away the dreams, grabbing her spiked bat on the way out. Violet came hobbling out to meet them, pulling them both in for a quick hug. Riot liked the way she smelled, like dried flowers.

“How is Mr. Kita?” she looked up to Walt with hopeful eyes.

“I’m sorry to say that Mr. Kita is, ah, no longer with us,” Walt grimaced, glancing over his clipboard. “Instrumentalist, I’d be certain.”

Violet shook her head, tears forming in her eyes.

“He was such a nice man. Any sign of Jonah while you were out that way?”

Walt shook his head.

“I wouldn’t worry about Jonah, you know how that mother of his is. She’s probably got him putting up new wallpaper or something. Now, Riot and I are putting together a removal plan for you. Take the Instrumentalist out, down for good. I’d like to start with talking to your new guest.”

He cast a sideways look at Riot.

“Yeah,” Riot said, shouldering her bat. “I’ve got some questions.”

Marketing - Never Stop Dreaming

Hello Dreamers. You know me as Lady Ethel Mallory, Chief Marketing Officer at Botco. I’m here with an excerpt from my first book, Never Stop Dreaming: The Mallory Story. Life is hard. It’s filled with adversity, burden and challenge, with few rewards for all of your hard work. It would be easier, you might think, just to go to sleep and never wake up. If the world is on fire and there’s nothing we can do to change it, why not forget about it? Aren’t you here on Earth to enjoy life?

For the sake of so many people trapped by the walls of reality, I wanted to give them another option—to break free. The chance to explore a world built just for them, to enjoy peace of mind no matter what happens outside, and never worry again about survival. What better way is there to spend your life, than having fun? From an early point in my career, I made it my mission to save as many people as I could from lives of despair and drudgery. And when I first met Oswald, I knew that he shared in my vision. What resulted was a revolution in...

Story 2, Continued - Sewn-Up Things

There are many that have gleefully helped your world into its grave, dreamers. Corrupt governments, bloated corporations, and of course, you, turning a blind eye because action could wait for another day and another person. But few have contributed to the death of the planet, have encouraged sickness to flourish, have fueled the fires of production as cheerfully as marketers. We return now to Riot Maidstone.

Riot found Diggory where Violet had guessed, on a large terrace in the gardens. A pergola lifted above it, holding up arches of trailing vines and trumpet flowers, red as blood. Diggory was surrounded by children, which Riot found surprising. Diggory’s skeletal, sewn-together face would have given her nightmares when she was little. The black spiked jacket lay folded over a chair, and a girl with pigtails was examining a sleeve of tattoos that ran across one of Diggory’s arms. Behind Diggory, a small boy was combing the corpses’ black hair into dramatic styles. The undead guest seemed to tolerate this, and they turned to Riot as she approached, although she couldn’t tell exactly where those pale white eyes were looking.

“Hello Riot,” Diggory said.

“Diggory has forty-two tattoos.” the girl with the pigtails interjected, as though delivering a doctor’s prognosis. The dead arm was covered in small, scattered images, although she guessed they were more colorful before the skin blackened. They seemed familiar, although Riot could not place why.

“That’s cool. Hey, could you leave us alone for a little while, kids?”

The children shrugged, and reluctantly peeled away from their object of their curiosity, finding a new source of interest in one of the Scoutpost dogs. Diggory watched them leave and looked to Riot with interest, a comb still stuck in their damp black hair.

“Hey, I wanted to thank you for helping me out back there, not getting murdered by that cloud weirdo. This is my friend Walt.” Riot said, sitting in one of the rocking chairs. Walt took a similar position across from her, looking Diggory over and jotting down notes on his clipboard.

“Of course,” Diggory said, looking to her and then to Walt, extending a hand. “My name is Diggory Graves.”

“Likewise,” Walt said, wincing with the handshake. “You know, it’s great to meet you. I’m very interested in, ah, your experience, your story.”

“Yeah, so like, let’s dive into that,” Riot said, a little agitated. “When we first met, you said you were going to the Scoutpost. Why did you want to come here?”

“I knew that I had to,” Diggory said, questioningly. “I’m still not sure why. Usually the reason appears more quickly.”

“How can you not know?” Riot said, cutting off a question from Walt.

“I am made of other people, other lives,” Diggory said at length. “I believe they are guiding me, that they want me to do something. But I do not remember what it is. I see their memories through scattered moments.”

“So you’re not always sure why you do things,” Walt queried, pencil poised. “Do you ever get sudden impulses, realize you’re supposed to do something you didn’t think of before?”

“Yes,” Diggory said, glancing at Riot. “Once I find my purpose here I expect a new direction will appear.”

“Mmhm,” Walt scribbled in his clipboard. “See, the reason I’m concerned is, a lot of people seem to mean Riot here some harm. Two big scaries have tried to take her out of here in the last month. Seems an awful coincidence that you come wandering in now. Do you see where I’m going here?”

Riot was distracted, staring at the tattoos. Beetle, skull, anatomically correct heart. Where had she seen these patterns before?

“You are worried,” Diggory processed, “that I will remember something and wish to harm Riot? I find this unlikely. I am not a violent person.”

“Still, you have to admit it’s possible,” Walt conjectured. “See. I don’t know if you know this, but…”

“Oh my god,” Riot said, eyes widening. “Do you know my mom? Valerie Maidstone?”

Diggory’s head turned towards them, and they appeared to slump back in the chair, white eyes flickering. Walt’s hand jumped to an inside pocket of his coveralls, but he calmed as he saw no sign of movement. Diggory remained silent, lost in something that looked like a seizure.

“How the heck would this thing know your mom?” Walt asked.

“My mom has a million pictures with her friend Evie—used to play keyboard for the band. Those are Evie’s tattoos. I’m almost sure.”

Walt stood up from his chair, walking over to examine the patterns traced on Diggory’s leathery skin, glancing nervously at the twitching revenant’s long talons.

“You’re sure about that?” he said.

“Pull up the sleeve a little,” Riot said, gesturing to Diggory’s undershirt.

Walt cautiously slid up the fabric, revealing a line of stitch marks crossing through a symbol they both recognized. A gothic stone angel surrounded by lightning, overlooking tombstone text that said Stonemaiden. The angel was breaking a silver box in her hands.

Walt jumped back as Diggory’s eyes opened wide, and they gasped.

“Riot,” Diggory looked back at her, and she felt suddenly cold. “I’ve waited so long to meet you.”

Interlude 2 - Stardust Sediment

Dreamers, you may look to the cosmos and think of it as little more than a blank slate, a clean surface on which your existence rests. This could not be further from the truth. The universe is a quagmire, and its black depths hold life and death and decay and rebirth in equal measure.

Civilizations are preserved in the silent darkness, cold and blackened, artifacts out of their time. If you sink deep enough between the galaxies, you will find burial grounds for the great ancients, overcome by the twilit waters of space. There are unspeakable things drifting in the abyss, dreamers, sleeping in eternal repose. Don’t be too loud, and don’t dredge them up from the stardust sediment, for they were laid to rest for a reason. You cannot imagine the fires that felled them, or the terror that enveloped the stars before your world was first conceived.

Besides, you really shouldn’t be poking around out there anyway. Space is awfully big for you.

We go now to someone who has had enough of stars.

Story 3 - Southward

Hector did not consider himself a trusting person. In fact, this quality had helped him quite a bit in these parts, and he had come to embrace it. Who would have thought his early traumatic years would come back to make him a better survivor. Still, he kept going out on limbs for people, and this was what happened—you ended up hungry, heartbroken, and a little older. Chief among his distrust was technology he didn’t understand, which was why he’d avoided the Dreaming Boxes when they popped up. Seemed like a waste of time. He also did not hold the copper card in his hand with high regard, because the cut text changed every time he flipped it, and he couldn’t figure it out.

“Stay left through clearing,” it said, “turn right and walk past shattered stone.”

He planned his steps reluctantly. It was the only plan he knew to get out of these awful, crazy-colored, all-consuming woods.

The dogs padded behind him, not quite twins anymore. The German shepherds regarded the trees with apprehension, and Hector gave the glistening ponds and lakes a wide berth. Who knew what lurked beneath those oily waters. He hoped deeply—more than he should have allowed himself—that he wasn’t leaving Jonah behind, that the man hadn’t walked back from the dead to find himself alone in the forest. He couldn’t decide if that was worse than Jonah being gone for good. He recognized, at last, the black pines, and the spring tamaracks beyond them. He sprinted heavily across the needles of the forest floor, and out under the blue sky of the day.

He found himself falling to his knees, weeping uncontrollably. The dogs gathered around him, Heidi pushing her toothy muzzle into his face.

“It’s alright, girls. It’s alright.” He told them, as much as he was reassuring himself. He glanced at the card before putting it away, and realized it still displayed text.

“Veer west, keeping black pines to right side.”

Hector looked at it in disbelief. He was out of the doldrums, wasn’t he? He’d escaped the endless northmost reaches. Where else would he go?

“Return card to Downing Hill. Look for Lions.”

He thumbed it over curiously.

“Hector. Go west.”

It had his name, somehow. He didn’t like that.

He furrowed his brow, and shoved the card back in his travel bags, with the rest of his scavenged goods. That done, he stood up, and checked his compass. It spun and found its direction in an orderly fashion, and he started south. It was best not to trust things you didn’t understand, like a mysterious library card that knew your name.

He knew exactly where he was going. He had been holding on to hope that he would come back to Zelda with her son by his side. But she needed to know that he was gone for good—not all the details, perhaps.

She didn’t need to know that he was torn apart by a faceless king in a forest out of space and time, or that he had come walking back from the dead at least twice. She didn’t need to know about the kiss and the passionate moments they had shared, running on adrenaline and desperation in a deadly wilderness. He would have plenty of time to think about his quiet eulogy on the way back to Zelda’s cabin.

“Come on girls. We’ve got a day ahead of us.” He sniffed, and set off into the morning.

Outro - Bogs

Bogs. I like this feature of earth’s geography. There is peace here, in these ecosystems where the sun shines on moss and weed, concealing deep black water. They preserve secrets about your kind, sleepers dating back thousands of years. Those ones, of course, do not dream, and do not have burning green fires for eyes like the sleepers of recent years. In a way, these words, these nightmares I share with you will follow this path, suspended in the cosmos long after their relevance dies away. Perhaps someday in the distant future, these words too will be pulled from the mire, and examined for secrets about the past. Until we are all exhumed by the future, I am your eternal host Nikignik, waiting inexorably for your Return to the Hallowoods.

The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'Who Lurks Beneath The World', 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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