Content Warning: This episode may include themes of Funerals, Eulogies, Grief, Abuse, Suicide, Violence, Abduction, Death + Injury, Mental illness, Transphobia, Homophobia, Guns, Misgendering, Emotional Manipulation, Bees, and Body Horror.
Intro - Grey Stone
You open your eyes in the darkness, and it is a comfort. The earth covers you like a blanket. You feel no pressure, and that is the most surprising thing. You had grown accustomed to having a checklist, always knowing where to be and what to do, but it is empty. There is nothing.
You would go back to sleep, and enjoy it, but you have always been curious. The earth shifts as you reach into the black soil, arms more powerful than you remember. You plunge a hand upward into the free air, and pull yourself out of the earth.
There’s no one around, no commotion, but then again why would there be? There’s only a grey stone with your name on it, and beyond the cemetery, empty fields and black skies. A little walk before you return to sleep won’t hurt. You stop to read the sign at the entrance—the marble letters have been desecrated, and the spray-painted words say Hello From The Hallowoods.
Right now, I’m standing in a patch of sunflowers. They’re cheerful things, unlike the circle of people standing in a ring around me—a family of creations, almost complete. They are only missing their grave-digger. The theme of tonight’s episode is Graves.
Story 1 - Bound to the Bell
Leyland stood with their siblings amidst the sunflowers. They missed their old clothes; these matching uniforms were pitiful. Diggory Graves wore no uniform. Diggory Graves was alive, and now their circle was incomplete. They left the seventh spot open, just in case.
“You did a good job with the drive, Leyland,” Potts said. “You would scarcely think someone died upon it yesterday.”
“Thank you,” said Leyland. “But it would have been better if Walt had not been killed on the drive.”
“Better on the grass, perhaps,” said Waites.
“No,” Leyland glared at them all, and proceeded in a low whisper. “Better that Walt not have died at all.”
“Mr. Pensive was killed by Master Reed,” Scrubbs said.
“Yes,” Leyland said. “I saw this closely.”
“Are you questioning the actions of Master Reed?” Scrubbs said, squinting.
“Let us not forget that Irene Mend was the one who made us. Solomon Reed did nothing but steal a bell from her still-warm body,” Leyland said.
“Let us also not forget that we were not bound to Irene. We were bound to the bell,” said Waites. “Clearly Irene was not as strong as we thought.”
“Neither do we know all that Irene did in creating us,” Scrubbs continued. “If we do not respond to the bell’s call, we might disintegrate. Or our stitches may come apart all at once. We are alive on technicalities; we cannot afford to be brash.”
“It is what we are for,” Rhodes piped up. “To be useful. If there is no master of the house then we cannot be useful.”
“Mending an old woman’s clothes is much different than standing guard for a cold-hearted killer,” Pins said, beady eyes glancing around the circle. “She was good. Not like Solomon.”
“Master Reed,” Scrubbs intoned.
“Solomon,” Pins said.
“How much more will we let him do, while we stand by and watch?” Leyland said.
“Careful. He will hear,” Scrubbs looked around nervously.
“Irene. Walt. His son. So many others we have seen dragged into that dark house. Graves will return, and Solomon will kill them. I am certain of it,” Leyland said.
“Maybe he can control Graves with the bell. Graves can join us. We can be together again,” said Waites.
“Graves will not want this life,” Leyland said. “And if Graves can be free, why can’t we?”
“They were unfinished,” Pins sighed. “There is rainwater in their eyes. They were not bound properly like us.”
“I do not think it matters,” said Leyland. “We should have tried to stop Solomon from the start. Now I am washing the blood of our favorite guest from Solomon’s gravel.”
“You have stood by as much as any of us,” Scrubbs snarled.
“Yes. I am as guilty as the rest of you, make no mistake,” said Leyland.
“We are not ‘guilty’ of doing our jobs,” said Waites.
“We are guilty of never questioning the job,” Leyland said, breaking the circle and taking a step forward. “There will be more bloodshed if we do not end this.”
“Hey,” a voice called, and the circle scattered silently, a wind in the sunflowers. Leyland stepped through the thicket to emerge in front of Solomon’s house. The old man leaned against the porch railing, clouded eyes fixed on Leyland.
“You called, master?” Leyland said. The words were sour in their mouth.
“I heard voices. What were you all gabbing about, hm? You’re supposed to be working.”
“Security,” Leyland said. Solomon nodded.
“Good. There’s been a lack of that lately. If another like Walter Pensive crosses my grounds, I expect you all to deal with him before he troubles me. That is what you are for, after all. If you cannot be useful, I may take you all apart. Do something productive with you.”
Solomon turned and retreated into the shadows of his house, and Leyland gripped their shovel. The others would take time, but they would turn. They would not call Solomon master for long.
Interlude 1 - What To Do With Bodies
The question of what to do with bodies is something we are all confronted with in our lifetimes. When we are gone from them, it becomes someone else’s problem. It has been some years since I took on a physical form, and although I miss some experiences—wind was always nice—it is good to be free, to have my endless sight back.
For the people that dwell in the Hallowoods, dealing with bodies is a different matter. To become a sleeper, a lich dreaming of the end of the world, you must choose to let go of your mortal life and walk into the water. If the black rains seep into a corpse, it may become a revenant of a less polite nature. More prone to rising up and damaging your flower beds or asking you rhetorical questions. At one time, when this happened, you would call Walter Pensive. Now, the Hallowoods will have to deal with their garden invaders alone. We go now to one who mourns Walter Pensive.
Story 2 - Sleep Well, Walt
Riot opened her eyes, and was not sure if she was alive or dead—or for that matter, which she wanted to be. It was easier not to think, to sleep in the darkness of the campervan and wait for the sick feeling to leave her stomach and her soul.
The blanket smelled, however faintly, of dog and of Clara, and it helped her to forget the world outside. Out there, in the cold light of the sun, Walt was gone, and Clara was gone, and she would never get them back. A part of her wished she could forget it all had ever happened, and the other part wanted to march to Solomon’s house with something sharp. In the end, she couldn’t do either, and all that remained was to stare at the camper ceiling.
There was a knock on the door, and Bern stuck her head in. Her eyes were puffy, and her shirt rumpled beneath her suspenders.
“Hey. Time to get up.”
Riot rolled away from her, wincing at the light. “Go away, Bern.”
Bern leaned against the doorframe. “I made you coffee,” She said, and opened a thermos. There was an odd tin cup in her other hand, and smoke seemed to trickle from it. “I know you need your space, but there’s some stuff we should talk about. Maybe we can go for a walk?”
Riot peeked from beneath the covers. The coffee smelled enticing. There was not much life in her, she felt, but she slid out of the loft and stumbled over to the bathroom. “Okay, give me a minute.”
The water in the basin was cold, though it didn’t help her splotchy complexion too much. She stared at herself in the mirror, as dead-eyed as Diggory. It was as good as she was going to get.
She stepped out, and accepted the thermos without a word, and followed Bern into the sunlight. It hurt, like most other things right now, but the coffee was warm in her hands as she walked with Bern across the Scoutpost grounds and into the woods. The sunlight flickering across Bern’s patch-covered jacket caught Riot’s eye as they walked. Bern said nothing to her, shuffling along into the underbrush.
A low buzzing filled Riot’s ears after a moment, and she scanned the forest beyond. Was there a huge fly out there somewhere? She followed Bern around a bend in the trail, and paused. There were bees drifting a little too close for comfort, and a set of white painted boxes off between two pines.
“You can hold up right there if you want,” Bern said, stepping towards the boxes. “If you aren’t afraid of ‘em, they won’t be afraid of you. We don’t have any problems between us.”
Riot watched with surprise as Bern went to lift the lid, squeezing an odd little accordion on the side of the cup, and smoke poured out of it. Bees flurried lazily around her, but did not seem to sting. Despite her interest Riot flicked at an intruder wafting a little too close to her ear.
“Good, good,” Bern said to herself, examining within. “Thought we were losing some lately, but looks like they’re doing just fine in there.”
She closed the lid, ignoring the bees around her face as she came to sit by Riot, and set the tin cup down in the dirt. Riot unscrewed the lid and sipped on her coffee.
“I didn’t know you had bees,” Riot said.
“Violet tried to manage ‘em for a while, but she gets all nervous. They don’t like that. The bees and I get along.”
“You wanted to talk about something?”
“Yeah. Service for Walt will be later today. I think word’s spread a little.”
“What does that mean?”
“Walt had customers, friends, odd acquaintances here and there. Reckon a lot of folks will want to see him off.”
“Oh.” Riot flinched as a bee flitted over her; it landed on Bern’s hand, and Bern let it explore her fingers. “He spent so much time with us, I forgot he did other stuff too.”
“He liked us. Hung around more once you showed up,” Bern said, letting the bee escape into the breeze. “He say anything to you before we left?”
“He made me his assistant,” Riot said. She realized the hat was crumpled in her blankets somewhere, but the key ring was in her pocket. She took it out; there were a few things attached—a peeling discount tab for a breakfast diner, a rubber figure of a dragon that was missing a wing. “Gave me the keys to the hearse.”
“Well, I think they’re yours to keep,” Bern said. “Never mentioned any relatives up here. Probably woulda wanted you to have rights to his things.”
Riot nodded, turning the dragon over in her hand. “I hadn’t really thought about it.”
Bern looked up at the horizon. “You seen Diggory around?”
Riot shook her head. “No, I thought they were with you? I kinda took it out on them.”
“I noticed.” Bern glanced at her.
“They promised they would keep Walt safe,” Riot said, and shoved the keys in her pocket again. “And they didn’t. And now Walt’s gone.”
“We all got kinda separated,” Bern said. “That darn cloud kid showed up—the fog was so thick you could barely see. I was trying not to get stabbed by one of those things—people like Diggory, I mean. And for the record, right when I thought I was going to be a craft project for one of the knives-for-fingers, Diggory jumped in.”
“Well. That’s good,” Riot huffed, heat building behind her eyes. “Wish they could have done the same for Walt.”
“Me too,” Bern sighed. “Wish I’d had line of sight on the old dodger. Or been close when it happened. Or gotten a chance to knife Solomon on the way out. Or that the kid with the cape would go find something else to do besides terrorize us. But it didn’t happen that way I guess. And no matter what I think, now I’ve gotta deal with what’s left.”
Riot thought for a moment, and put her head on Bern’s shoulder. Bern seemed to hold very still.
“I miss him already, Bern, and it’s only been a day,” Riot said. “He was like my best friend, and… like… I never really met my dad, right? So he was like… I don’t know. He meant a lot. I wish I’d gone with him. I mighta been there. It mighta been different.”
“Or it might not have,” Bern said quietly. “We’ll never know.”
Riot sat up. “Don’t give me that ‘it’ll all be okay, give it time’ speech, okay? I’ve heard it already.”
Bern shook her head. “Never saw the point in it. Never liked hearing it, either. I’ve watched a lot of people die. Boof. Just gone. World’s a little emptier when they leave.”
They sat for a long moment, listening to the hum of the bees on their clandestine routes.
“...that’s it?” Riot prodded.
Bern looked surprised. “Yeah. I wonder a little what all those people would think of things now. My parents woulda liked the scoutpost. My brother woulda liked Violet’s sense of humor. And Walt… I’m sure he woulda wanted to stick around longer, see you get your bearings, teach you some things. But they’re all gone. Now it’s just us and the bees, and a sun that’s gonna keep coming up, whether we like it or not.”
Riot nodded, and sniffed. They sat for a while longer without speaking, and Riot might almost have fallen asleep in the waning light—but before long, the sounds of a commotion echoed across the treetops, and Bern ushered her back to the Scoutpost. It was time to say some goodbyes.
Marketing - Day of Remembrance
Lady Ethel Mallory: Today, our dear dreaming family, is the annual Botco Day of Remembrance for those we lost to the Black Rains. It’s hard to believe twenty years have gone by—but the wounds in our hearts never fully healed. The first storms loomed large over America, rolling across our landscapes like the tanks of a foreign nation, a wave of death. The first affected were simply driven to strange obsession and insanity—thousands of mothers, fathers, sisters and sons went marching north, never to be seen again.
But it was we—the ones who were left behind—who had the cross to bear. In the midst of our Dreaming Box release, the rain gave the population new fears—strange affects and alterations, violet impulses. Nowhere was safe anymore except for your local Dreaming Box, and we could barely keep up with the demand. Suddenly, we were no longer just the Dreaming Company—but a messiah for our country in its time of need. Today, we are just as committed to your safety as ever…
Story 2, Continued - Sleep Well, Walt
It is in the nature of cataclysms to be bad for some and good for others. To sleep until the stars burn out, to become a part of the changing age, or even to rise from death to hasten the end—these are all certainly as productive a use of time as what you did before. In a way, it is a comfort. The end, helping a new beginning as it burgeons into life.
We return now to Riot Maidstone.
Riot stepped out onto the crest of the hill—one of the few that broke through the blanket of the forest, and seemed to raise her into the darkening sky. The evening sun was a red eye on the horizon, setting the clouds on fire with its gaze. A small crowd was beginning to gather, and towards the edge of the precipice a pile of stacked wood had been arranged in a low table. A shrine of sorts—fresh flowers, a portrait that didn’t look quite right, and his silver sword—was set up on a chair nearby.
“Can’t we just bury him?” Riot asked. Violet and Bern hiked up on either side of her, and Bern shook her head.
“Don’t bury people out here. Too much a chance they’ll come walking back, usually not themselves.”
“He deserves to sleep without troubles.” Violet patted Riot on the shoulder. “I can take you back to the Scoutpost if you’ve changed your mind.”
“No, it’s okay,” Riot said, crumpling the sheet of paper in her hands. “I wanna say goodbye.”
She had dressed up a little for the occasion, leaving her vest for a suit jacket that was a little too big. It was strange to see the Scoutpost in black instead of their usual bright yellows—even Walt, lying on the pyre as she approached, looked more dignified than she’d ever seen him, and an eye patch had been placed to cover his wound. There was something odd about his face—it was relaxed, and she’d never seen it that way. The Stonemaiden pin was stuck in his lapel, and she smiled.
“Walt,” Riot said, stepping close. “It was nice knowing you. And if you’re a ghost or something, or you’ve moved on or whatever… wherever you are, I hope you’re happy.”
She stood silent for a moment.
“I’m going to finish it. Getting that murderer out of here. I’m your assistant, right? I… I’ll take care of these people for you.”
She leaned in close, and couldn’t help but choke up.
“You told me you were coming back.”
Violet stepped towards the pyre as the last of the crowd approached, and Riot squeezed Walt’s hand a last time. It was stiff and leathery. She went to stand next to Bern, glancing over the familiar faces. Jonah and a bandaged Hector Mendoza were standing on the far side, and cleaned up better than she would have thought. There was a woman with sandy hair surrounded by children that Riot recognized as Miss McGowan; Russel held her hand somberly.
In the back of the crowd, Winona stood, wrapped in black robes. She could not see any sign of Diggory. She wondered if they were even at the Scoutpost anymore. Elena stood by with folded hands; Riot wondered if she even knew who Walt was.
“People, a moment here,” Violet called, and a hush fell over the assembly. “Today we’re saying goodbye to a good man. Walter Pensive was a gift to this community, and his work saved more lives than I could count. More than that, he was a dear friend. He was gentle, he was kind, and I think we all felt a little safer when we saw that hearse of his parked in our lot. I think he would want…”
Violet paused as there was a low rumble that echoed across the treetops like thunder.
“No,” Riot muttered, and felt for her bat, and remembered it was broken. She pulled Walt’s sword from the chair, as a second boom emanated from across the woods. There was a crackle of shifting trees, then, and Riot held the sword close as a figure burst up onto the hilltop. She relaxed a little; it was Big Mikey, who had wrapped himself in a black tarp.
Some of the children wailed uncomfortably, but Big Mikey stopped a few meters away from the crowd, and Riot went to meet him.
“Am I late?” Big Mikey whispered, towering into the evening sky. His eyes smoldered like emerald stars, and he tried to smooth out his tarp.
“Only a little,” Riot said. “Why are you here?”
“I liked Walt,” Big Mikey said, and sat down. There was no entourage of dogs this time. “I wish he would stay.”
“Me too,” Riot said, tucking the sword under her arm, and standing beside him. “Me too.”
Bern was stepping up to take Violet’s place in front of the pyre. “When I first met Walt, I had a crossbow trained at his head, which is how I seem to greet a lot of things ‘round here. But I’m glad I didn’t shoot him that day, because he helped us out a lot. And became really good friends, one of the best I ever had. Violet and I offered him a place here, but he wouldn’t take it. Too busy, he said. But even if we can’t give him a home now, we can lay him to rest. I’m gonna miss him more than I miss most people.”
Bern seemed to choke up, and stepped away from the pyre.
“If anyone else would like to say a few words, now is the time,” Violet said, nodding at Riot. Riot considered the paper in her hand. Her words seemed bland and mushy, and nothing that hadn’t already been said. And what would any of it mean, anyway? Just wasting time before they all went home and tried to deal with reality.
She raised her hand, and stepped forward, facing the crowd. The sun disappeared entirely, and the clouds began to fade into deep greys and purples.
She shoved the notes in the pocket of her jacket. Her voice threatened to choke, and she realized everyone was staring at her.
“Why are we here?” she found herself asking. “Everyone’s acting like he died some peaceful death and he’s finally sleeping now—it’s sick. It’s sick and it’s wrong. Walt didn’t need to die. He’s only gone because somewhere out there is a monster who kills people for fun. And we’re all wishing nice things for Walt’s spirit instead of going to help all the actual, living souls that are stuck in the basement at the Instrumentalist’s house. Walt was my best friend and he’s gone. And I needed him. Because I don’t know what to do now.”
Riot ran out of words for a moment, and realized there was motion in the woods, and strange figures were beginning to step out from between the trees—a woman in an elaborate black gown and cloak, another person who was made of lumps and seven feet tall. She kept on, despite her surprise.
“But Walt wouldn’t be sitting here. If he came back to life like so many people do apparently, he wouldn’t be talking. He’d pick up this sword,” Riot realized she was still holding it, “and he’d go right back to work. He shouldn’t have pushed himself as much as he did I guess. But at least he did something.”
She blinked in surprise as burning light appeared in the trees below, and Democracy walked into the open. The skeleton wore a crown of wet flowers, and weeds clung to its back like a cape, and it walked up through the crowd. Riot watched it approach Walt as she continued.
“The Instrumentalist is still out there. He’s just as dangerous as ever, probably more now, and we’re missing our best chance. We should be getting together, all of us, and marching to his house and setting it on fire. That’s how we can ‘honor Walt’. That’s how we make this right.”
Riot grew tired, and attention was beginning to turn to the forest behind the crowd. An unkindness of ravens took off into the air from the treetops, and there were murmured gasps as something more massive than Big Mikey seemed to rattle and shake the woods. A building of some sort gleamed from the trees, a dark shape she could barely make out. The crowd was expanding, people and kinds of people she had never seen before streaming out to stand beside Big Mikey and join the assembly.
There was a stranger with frightening wide eyes like an anglerfish; another seemed to be formed of smoke. A collector of spoons and a keeper of fireflies; a gigantic deer with flowers caught in its antlers. She would have been deeply shaken, had she not recognized many of their faces from the pages of Walt’s journal.
In the midst of the gathering crowd, she spotted a face she was not sure she would see again. Diggory Graves stood balefully, hair pushed back. Beside them stood a small, thin person who seemed to have mushrooms for hair, and wore dark glasses. Riot stepped away from the pyre and approached Diggory.
“You came back,” she said.
“I am so sorry, Riot,” Diggory said. “I understand if you do not want to see me again. I do not want to either. But I think first we must put an end to Solomon Reed.”
“Yeah,” Riot eyed them carefully, and turned her gaze to the mushroomy person. It was dressed in a striped suit and bow tie, with sharp little shoes. “You made a friend?”
“Mx. Morell, at your service. Pardon the delay,” the being said, extending a hand with seven or eight fingers. Riot shook it hesitantly. “Walt and I never met, but the work he did was phenomenal. I trust you’re the one taking over his position?”
Riot was confused for a moment, and remembered the sword beneath her arm. She almost denied it, but thought another moment. “Maybe.”
“Of course, there is no pressure. Especially not tonight,” Mx. Morell said, gesturing to the crowd. Democracy stood beside Walt’s pyre, a skeletal hand patting Walt’s forehead. The crowd was rather mixed at this point—the faces of the Scoutpost standing next to people with no face at all. Mx. Morell continued.
“Walter Pensive helped. He understood. He learned about the unknowable, and he brought people together with his words. He did not fear the world. And look at all the lives he touched.”
Riot shook her head, the creatures around her were a little much to take in, and the feeling came to her head like a rush of fire. She hugged Diggory, and buried her face in their jacket. Diggory patted their razor-tipped hand softly on her shoulder.
“I miss him so much,” Riot said. Diggory said nothing, and after a few moments she turned to watch Violet approach the pyre, a lit torch in her hand. Democracy took a step back.
“People of the Scoutpost, friends of Walt,” she called. “We’re seeing off a man who was part of our family. He helped us to live up here, to survive. Who always prompted us to look past appearances and see each other as people—the man who named this place the Hallowoods. We will miss his grace, his curiosity, and his wisdom as we go forward into the world. We are saying goodbye now, but we will never forget him,” here she cast a glance at Riot, “and all that he fought for. Goodbye Walt.”
She lowered the torch, and the flame took a few moments before it began to spread, dashing along the crevices of the wooden platform and soon growing to consume it entirely.
Riot clung to Diggory for support as she watched, and a flare of hot tears ran across her face. The fire lit up the night, sending a pillar of smoke into the sky until it joined the clouds. And then there was rage, hot as hell itself in her head, and she took the sword and dashed up in front of the pyre, lifting it into the air.
“Hey! You! Every one of you!” she screamed, and eyes upon eyes turned to face her—the glowing points of Big Mikey, Democracy’s smoking gaze, and a hundred more she could not name.
“You’re all here because of Walt. Because he was taken from us,” she shouted. “He carried this sword and went to kill Solomon Reed, the Instrumentalist. For everything that old bastard has taken from us! He was alone, and he went down. If he hadn’t been alone, he wouldn’t be gone.”
She flipped the sword in her hand, shaking it towards the audience. “In three days I’m going straight back there. I’ll avenge Walt myself if I have to. But if he ever did anything for you, if he meant anything to you at all, you’ll join me at sunrise that third day. The Instrumentalist can’t stop us if we’re together. And we can all be done with this suffering.”
She shook her head and stepped away from the pyre, and felt Bern’s arm fold around her shoulders as she watched the smoke. Walt was gone, and she was never going to see him again, and nothing could address the weight of that in her heart. The crowd watched into the night as the breeze fed the flame, and the fire spiralled into the starlight. If you’re sleeping, Walt, sleep well, she thought. You deserve it.
Interlude 2 - Imagine a Jellyfish
Funeral traditions interest me, dreamers. It is a question as old as the age—what do we do with the shell, when the spirit falls out of it? How unfortunate that physical forms do not dissipate with as much grace as souls.
For humans the answer is simple. If it was a plant, you eat it. If it was an animal, you eat it. If it was a person, well, you spend a great deal of effort to collect flowers and stand around for several days. Rather breaks the line of logic.
Still, I suppose I understand. I am indescribable; my immaterial essence is beyond the limits of your imagination, and if I deign to take a body, it must be carefully crafted so as not to drive you to madness when you look upon me. And if we fall, there are complexities.
Imagine a jellyfish, how they break into a million pieces washed up on a stony shore, each fragment still ready to sting. The bones of a god are deadly. Marolmar is buried in the Temple of the End, but his blood still boils in your world, and his world still burns with green fire, and his heartbeat heralds the end of your age. It is not the same, dreamers. It is perhaps crueler to be reminded of him at all.
We go now to another broken, dead thing.
Story 3 - Stuck On The Needle
Time passed like a record player in the little place—colorful flashes of music, and then a scraping silence as the track ran out. Abigail preferred the music to the silence, and so what was there except to put on the record again, and dance the same steps, and try not to think about the end as it spun closer.
It started so well. Warm Alabama sun, and the cherry taste of sweet tea, and the white clothes of Sunday Services. The preacher’s boy caught her eye; he was a funny little thing.
She’d been good at taking things apart from the start. God built his creatures like automobiles, all muscles and motors and fine moving parts. Frogs in biology class filled her with interest, and soon she was ready for more. Little wonder that medical school had caught her eye.
Here the images became green. Green scrubs, green curtains, green lights. The preacher’s boy was less annoying than the others. He didn’t get in her way, and when not practicing his instruments, he read books and kept quiet. She liked the quiet.
Wedding day, another flash of white. A mistake, in retrospect—it all went downhill from there, a bump in the sound as the record began to warp. Little Persephone came into the world kicking and screaming, and never stopped. Another miracle of all those working parts, self-replicating and fulfilling their purpose. Why couldn’t it all work properly after that?
The colors became shaky and out of focus. Persephone was a problem—she seemed only to have inherited her mother’s cunning and her father’s temper. Her husband was no help; he was ever lost in his study, and she in turn disappeared into her own work. Her hands shook with rage at home, but they never trembled in the operating room.
The record was damaged, the last melodies twisted and scattered, and the needle would soon scratch away into static. Persephone wasn’t mechanical; she didn’t work properly, was out of control. Everything was out of control.
Abigail wondered if it all should have bothered her more, in retrospect. But it was clinical. Clean. Lips heal back in time, and her sutures were precise, anaesthetic and restraint and intubation correctly applied. Just until she could find the solution. Fix things. Make them right.
And the house was finally quiet.
But Solomon—oh god, what was he getting himself into?—and then the rains fell, and the music became something else entirely.
Darkness. Convulsing, grinding, broken.
Judgement day was past, and she had missed the rapture, and the rain burned her eyes and her soul. It was something else—invasive, a virus or a parasite, altering her. She could feel it churning within her bone marrow. She couldn’t let it, couldn’t be changed…
The record stopped, skittered, cracked into a thousand pieces flying into oblivion.
But she was stuck, she realized, on the needle. On a sliver of bone in Solomon’s vest pocket.
She spent a lot of time in the little place after that—but Persephone was there too, sometimes, in brief flashes of clarity. She was helpless now, and Solomon was carrying them both north, and gathering others as he went…
The years bled into each other, and rarely was she called out, until one day that echoed in the silence.
“Those bandits, those rats… they have stolen away Persephone, the entire piano,” he roared. “Search the house. If it is there, kill them all.”
She soared into the house like an angel of death, fury in her hair. She was not mechanical any more; she was electricity, and her fingertips were sharper than scalpels—and she flowed through the front door.
And a family was playing on the rug, setting dinner down. A smiling mother like she might have been; a gentle father, laughing children. And in the corner behind the grand piano, Persephone sat weeping, staring at her with wide eyes.
Abigail stared back a long time, and raised a finger to her lips, and returned to Solomon empty-handed. It was her one lie, perhaps. She made up for it with the others, of course—the years passed in a flurry of static and violence, and untold months in the little place.
A feeling began to spread in her chest like pneumonia, and she did not know how to cure it. It was not regret—regret implied that you were sorry, and she had always taken the most logical option. There was nothing to take back.
But a quiet thought, perhaps. A new understanding. That if she’d been different to Persephone that night when she said her name was Percy—she might have been able to talk Solomon down. Or leave him, either way. And they would have been together for the end. And for the price of a little lapse in mechanical thoughts, she would be alive with her son today, instead of a weapon for her husband’s terrible ambition.
The music was long gone, and the silence threatened to overwhelm her like a thunderstorm rolling across the fields, only flashes of lightning to illuminate her now. Setting that bald girl free from Solomon’s parade—she reminded Abigail of Percy ever so slightly, perhaps.
There was a flash of light, now, and she was beneath a night sky filled with stars, and Percy—just Percy, she knew, it had always been just Percy—sat glowing like the moon, watching a fire on the far horizon. From somewhere inside the old chapel beside them, Solomon was hammering away.
Abigail approached carefully—she was not supposed to be out without Solomon’s call, but he would not notice for a few minutes.
Percy turned to look at her, eyes widening. “Mom?”
Abigail nodded, and descended quietly, brushing a hand through her son’s hair. It was funny, she thought, how much he looked like that preacher’s boy. She wrapped her arms around him, and he cried quietly, and she was not repulsed. The tears that fell from her eyes surprised her, burning like stars themselves.
The dull thud of Solomon’s hammer echoed into the night, but the rising fire in the sky gave her hope. She would be free, soon, and the record would be broken forever, and the needle consumed in the blaze. It was time for the music to end. It was time for the dance to stop.
Outro - Graves
Graves. It is with much grief that we must bid farewell to the ones we love. That is the curse of ancient life in particular, dreamers—you say goodbye only a few times in your life, if you are lucky. I am saying it continually across the aeons. The people I miss today have been missing for thousands, if not millions, of years.
One day I will, too, be gone. Likely after your sun burns out, and the universe dissolves into endless color and dead matter, but gone nonetheless. Will my death form a supernova or a star, I wonder, paint vast expanses of space with color? Or perhaps I will go quietly, turned into atoms by the ones who were supposed to be my friends, a broken heart all that remains.
But there is no fear in endings, dreamers, for there would not be a narrative without them. You will be gone first, and I will be with you—an eye to watch and a hand to hold, as we fall together into darkness, and both your eyes and mine fall shut. Until your last breath, I am your loyal host, Nikignik, waiting peacefully for your return to the Hallowoods.
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