Content warnings for this episode include: Needle mention, Animal death (the Pike), Death + Injury, Blood, Gun Mention, Bugs, Worms, Maggots, Body horror, Alcohol Use
Intro - The Old Well
The mathematics of survival are cruel. You want to scream, or to weep, or to call out to the heavens. Instead, you form a fist, and breathe, and try to decide on the best interpretation to share with your wife.
There is no easy way to say that most of your clean water is not here, that they must have missed the extra tanks, that it will run dry long before you planned. You sit back in the shadow of your grim northern house. There is no going back now, no merchants you know of in this isolated forest. After all, you came up here to avoid the rest of the world.
A new equation dawns on you as you glance across the property—on the far side, past the dog house, there is a well. You peer over the edge, and deep below, dark water glistens. What clean water you have would last one small person so much longer. You look down to find your daughter tugging at your hand, asking where you are. You tell her to say hello to her new home. You do not know it, but the forest beyond your gates replies ‘Hello from the Hallowods’.
Right now, I’m in the grate of an unlit furnace. From it, I look out on a house of death. Ash and singed feathers blanket the floor, abandoned books and empty cans of food litter the shelves, and the air reeks of sweat and dead fish. Its last resident scavenges what remains, watched by the hulking shape outside. The theme of tonight’s episode is Provisions.
Story 1 - Vehement
Rick Rounds had a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, and it felt like hell in the middle. Hot and cold shivers ran up his spine in equal turn, but the nightmares and the fever were over, and he could rightfully take stock of his situation.
His hand was the most obvious issue. Where the stump of his missing appendage had been, there was a strange new form. Bones made of thorny branches, veins of creeping vine, a skin of little flowers emerged from his arm, and responded to his thoughts. It paralyzed him to look at it for too long, caused his breath to come in short, reluctant gasps. What kind of power is that, he thought, that would bleed black in a man’s veins and grow him a new hand? A hideous plague, the angel had said. The devil-man had taken his old hand, and cursed him to boot. He watched the limb now warily as it placed canned food into a backpack that smelt of pike innards.
“What does ‘veement’ mean?” a voice said, and Rick looked up to the door. There was a far bigger set of hands than his there, ones that had once torn across his face and shredded his eye and ear.
“Lemme see that,” Rick said, and took the book from Mikey’s claws, squinting. “Where’s it on the page?”
“There,” the face full of gnarled teeth said from above, and a talon the size of a machete tapped the top of the book.
“Ve-hee-ment?” Rick said. “I don’t recall. Might be like, forceful. Angry.”
“Thanks,” Mikey said, taking the book back. “Are you vehement?”
Rick looked at his bare shoulder. Where the blackened veins curled up his arm, little pulses of fire burned beneath his skin, preventing their spread. The angel’s touch.
“Sure am,” Rick said, and pulled on a shirt, and his camo jacket, and a black winter glove over his branched hand. The thorns caught and tore on the lining.
“Mikey?” he said, looking up. The curious face above the door watched him with pinpoint green eyes.
“Thanks,” he said. “For, ah, all the readin’.”
The titanic child beamed, his toothy smile as wide as a canyon.
“Did you like it?”
“Sure did. You read better than I do,” Rick said, tucking what remained of the food into his bags. He’d found his backpack lodged in the needle ribs of the giant pike Mikey had caught, but anything that wasn’t canned or metal was ruined. The bag’s aroma made Rick glad he’d had his nose busted a few times.
“Keep practicing,” Mikey said, and handed him the book. “You’ll be a good reader too.”
“Hope so,” Rick said, and tucked ‘Of The Powers’ into his bag. The pages could make for tinder in a pinch. There’d been no sign of the knife he’d stabbed the pike with, though, and Mrs. Wicker had sent him off without a gun, so the firewood axe he’d found would have to do for personal protection.
“Where are you going now?” said Mikey, moving out of the doorway as Rick walked out into the grey sunlight.
“The devil’s out there,” Rick said. “In human form. He’s been tormenting me. I took something from him once—his weapon, though he’d made it look like an umbrella.”
“Was he scared of rain?” said Mikey.
“No idea,” Rick said. “I hate him, Mikey. He took my hand, and got me kicked out of Fort Freedom. That was Mrs. Wicker too, a bit, but she’s next.”
“Where do you go to find the devil?” Mikey said, pinpoint eyes wide.
“That way,” Rick pointed out into the trees. “I told you I met an angel while I was dreaming. He gave me some things. I can see the devil, like a little cigarette light, a hundred miles away. I got some catching up to do.”
“Are you going to push him in the water?” Mikey said.
Rick paused, and he clutched his shoulder for a moment as a hot flash ran through it, leaning against the door.
“It’s different, Mikey,” he gasped. “He’s evil. Pure evil. Who knows, kill him and maybe the end times will be… ended. I’ve lost everything on account of him. I’m going to make sure he regrets it.”
“You should be a lawyer,” Mikey said. “It worked for Daniel Webster.”
“No idea who that is,” Rick said. “But I’ll keep it in mind. Take care of yourself, Mikey.”
“Big Mikey,” Big Mikey said. “You should come to visit. I have lots of nice dogs.”
“If I make it back, sure. Why not,” Rick said, and nodded to the giant, and gave a wave as he walked into the trees.
The devil was moving fast—a light crawling across the horizon, glinting in his vision. I’m coming for you, he thought, and the odds are even this time.
Interlude 1 - Shopping Day
To shop in the United States has become more difficult than it used to be. The Botulus Corporation keeps its supply lines internal, and their swarms of targeted marketing drones advertise only Dreaming Box subscriptions.
Few refineries still remain, technicians and engineers charging a premium to the wilderness for the fuel that still burns in car and motorcycle and generator.
Food can yet be scavenged, but after twenty years the greatest stores are gone. Instead, it is a gift given by the resilient and the resourceful, who can keep a farm to grow in these wastes.
Occasional gatherings, such as the Dry Market and others across America, provide a place for salvagers and crafters alike to sell and trade, if you know the right place and time to be. For those who roam the landscape, though, sometimes desperation sets in, and they take by force what they need to survive.
We go now to a potential customer.
Story 2 - America's Best Donuts
Moth put the strawberry in moth’s mouth; it was the sweet taste of earth and rain and summer.
“Don’t eat too many of those,” said Uncle Gale. “You’ll get sick.”
“There’s worse things to eat than homegrown strawberries,” Moth’s dad said. He still had color in his cheeks, and dark hair a ponytail could not quite contain. “I asked you to stop bringing all that junk food with you.”
“Come on, it’s cereal. Every kid in America loves cereal,” Gale said, and laid back in the lawn chair. The palms helped to provide a little shade from the glaring sun. “You and I ate that stuff and we turned out fine.”
“I don’t know about that,” Bill muttered. “Hey, maybe go easy on those.”
“Just one more,” Moth said, and smiled, and helped mothself to a last one before pushing the half-empty bowl away.
“Travel’s gotten more difficult,” Gale said. “There’s people on the road who I swear don’t know where they’re going. I’m going to get that radio set up for you while I’m here.”
“Don’t those things put off radiation?” Moth’s dad said.
“If they do, you’ve already been zapped,” Gale said. “But it’ll let us stay in touch better once I head back to Chicago.”
Moth listened to the adults’ conversation, and went browsing through the covered expanse of the garden, little green plants blooming in the shadow, glistening red berries and tomatoes.
“How’s it going at the factory?” Moth’s dad said.
“It’s closed down,” Gale said. “Supply lines are out. We’ve got nothing to work with. And with people moving into those darn silver boxes, we keep losing buyers.”
“It can be frustrating when things change so quickly,” Bill said. “But it’s important to remember that people choose what’s best for them. Perhaps rather than fighting a losing battle with the future, you can find a way to adapt and take advantage of new opportunities.”
An earthworm writhed in the soil in one of the pots, and Moth watched it intently.
“That’s a good point,” said Gale. “I’ve been stuck in my ways for so long, it’s made me afraid to change. What if there’s no way for me to prosper in a Dreaming Box? What if I’m out of place?”
The earthworm squirmed oddly, Moth thought, movement in all the wrong ways.
“There’s no need to worry,” Bill said. “Dreaming Boxes contain thousands of people just like you, and the Prime Dream needs skilled workers and older folks to help guide younger generations. You are just as important as any other here.”
Moth’s stomach churned as the worm began to burst, little white maggots burrowing beneath its skin. Moth screamed, and backed away, and looked up. Both Gale and Bill were staring directly at moth, hands on the arms of their lawn chairs, unblinking as they spoke.
“That helps relieve some of my fears,” Gale said. “What’s my next step?”
“The next step is simply to get in touch,” Moth’s dad said, showing his teeth, a smile too wide for his face. “You can travel to your local Dreaming Box, or put in a request at a Botulus Corporation Contact Terminal, or get the attention of one of our pickup request drones. Today could be the start of a wonderful new life for you.”
This is wrong, moth thought, this is all wrong, and moth backed away across the yard, and popped open the back fence. The street beyond seemed to stretch out forever, and every house, every yard was Moth’s own. From every fence, a smiling Bill and Gale were walking, and speaking in unison.
“Find your local Dreaming Box today.”
As they approached, Moth screamed, and opened moth’s eyes.
Moth rubbed at moth’s face. Around Moth was the familiar interior of a classic muscle car, and green lights buzzed on in the dashboard.
“Well look who’s decided to join the land of the living,” Ray said.
“Ray, am I awake?” Moth gasped.
“Sure are. Thank goodness.”
Moth reached forward to feel the dash under moth’s hands, and lay moth’s face against it.
“You came back for me.”
“Couldn’t, ah, really bring myself to leave,” Ray said. “Had a sneaking suspicion that you’d get in trouble again. And sure enough, plenty found you.”
“Did you hit Uncle Gale?” Moth said, rubbing moth’s neck. Why was everything so sore?
“I did indeed,” Ray said. “Sorry about that. Don’t think I clipped him hard enough to make it a fatality though.”
“Where are we now?” Moth said, and looked up. Outside, there was a small diner with a large artificial donut poised on top. A row of vintage gas machines sat in the parking lot, and several figures in the windows behind the glare of the sun.
“We’ve got some new friends,” Ray said. “Listen for a minute. That thing we saw in Chicago? It got you, while you were out. Rammed a bunch of needles in you. I’m not sure what it did, exactly. How do you feel?”
“I’ve been having nightmares,” Moth said. “About everyone. About Botco. It’s frightening. They’re very real.”
“Keep me up to speed on that,” Ray said. “I want to know if it gets worse. In the meantime, you should get some food in you. I think the posse is inside. They’re an odd bunch.”
Moth stepped out of the automobile—the wind was blistering and fresh against moth’s face, and Moth pulled the coat tighter. A huge RV was parked beside Ray, covered in spraypainted designs.
‘Lee’s’, the sign read. ‘America’s Best Donuts’.
Something on the horizon caught Moth’s eye, and moth froze. A billboard, blinking in the tree-speckled distance, looming in the sky—a pair of heart-shaped sunglasses, and a smile that permeated moth’s dreams.
Moth glanced back to Ray, a surge of panic rising for a moment, but nothing happened—no movement, no stalking presence. Moth sighed, and fixed moth’s hair, and stepped into the diner.
Marketing - Scrumptious Experience
An important part of our corporate promise at Botco is the right to dream without interruption. That means no waking up for mundane activities like bodily function. Our Dreaming Pods are supplied with the best intake ingredients by your local Dreaming Box—filtered and purified water, produce from your box’s Dreaming Garden, and supplements supplied naturally by Botulus Industries.
Our automatic health regulators keep an excellent record on your vital signs, and provide needed medications as well as vitamins or mineral supplements whenever a deficiency is detected. Because each Dreaming Pod is hermetically sealed, there is very little risk of infection from outside sources.
This is just one more way the Botulus Corporation watches out for your safety, security and comfort. With that pesky replenishment out of the way, you’re free to keep on dreaming. In-dream food, on the other hand, is based entirely on memory of flavor, and is an even more scrumptious experience than the real…
Story 2, Continued - America's Best Donuts
How disconcerting it must be to have always to eat, pull matter into your maw and crush it for energy. If I had to, I think I would forget, and perish. It is more convenient to just exist as energy, timeless and impossible.
I have eaten a few people, and I did enjoy it at the time.
We return now to Moth Scarberry.
The diner was quaint—a countertop with glass displays, donuts and bear claws, cinnamon buns and crullers arranged in glistening rows. The smell of coffee hung in the air, and steamed up the windows. In a booth at the end, several people looked up, and waved.
“You’re awake,” a young woman with a buzz cut said over a mouthful of food. “Come get breakfast.”
Moth approached, and received a nod from a man wearing an apron behind the counter. A name tag struggled to cling to his muscular chest read ‘Monty’.
“Care for a coffee?” he said.
“Yes please,” Moth replied, the world spinning in pink and white floor tiles.
“Percy, is it alright if Moth sits there?” the girl was asking as moth approached. She looked up and beckoned Moth to sit. Moth reached the bench, and realized the person sitting next to the empty seat was tall, with swept over black hair, and no pupils in their eyes. Thick black stitches ran across a face of patchwork skin, and they gave a little wave with pointed fingertips.
“That’s Diggory,” the girl said. “They’re very friendly.”
“I am,” Diggory said. “Hello.”
“I’m Riot,” the girl said. “This is Olivier, who’s… Olivier, are you doing ‘she’ pronouns today?”
“Mm.” a person with a shock of blue hair said. Blue light seemed to flicker in her dark irises.
“I like your cloak,” Moth said, almost falling into moth’s seat on the bench.
“Thanks,” Olivier said. “I like your wing coat thing. It’s cool.”
“I sewed the patterns myself,” Moth said.
“And Percy is sitting at the end of the table,” Diggory said, looking past Moth. “He is shy today.”
“Hello Percy,” Moth said, although there was no one sitting when moth turned—only Monty, depositing a mug and a silver bracket of creamer and sugar packets.
“I’m sorry to ask,” Moth said, “but am I dreaming? There have not been shops like this open for years. And none of you seem quite real.”
“Not dreaming,” the server said, pouring into Moth’s cup. “By all rights we should be shut down, like every other place out here, but I think Botco lost my file when they bought out the neighborhood. It’s been ten years and we’re still getting food shipments. Go figure.”
“Do you get much business these days?” Moth said.
“More than you’d think,” he said. “I get orders from Lady Ethel Mallory’s office sometimes.”
“And you’re content to do this?” Olivier said, looking up. “Sit at this counter while the world out there ends?”
Monty glanced up to the window. “Well first of all, you’re eating my food, so a little ‘thank you’ would be nice. Twenty years ago I thought, I’m gonna change things up. Go do what I like to do. So I went to culinary school. Learned how to bake. I love baking. Then everything kind of fell apart, it’s true, but I still get to do what I like doing, and people come in and tell me about what’s going on in the world. A little absurd, maybe, but so is doing anything else at this point, I think. Care for a menu?”
“Thank you,” Moth nodded, and glanced over the options while Monty returned to the kitchen.
“Moth, we were just talking about the plan,” Riot said. “So, long story short… my mom is in a Dreaming Box in California, and I’m going to bust her out.”
Moth looked up, and took a sip of moth’s coffee—trying to banish the thought of sleep. Behind the counter, Monty was removing a tray of cinnamon buns from a sizzling industrial oven.
“I’m sorry, I’m still a little out of it,” Moth said. “Did you just say you’re trying to get someone out of a Dreaming Box?”
“Yeppo,” Riot said. “And Ray’s telling us we need to go way south to avoid getting caught? Which makes this a long trip. But we’re also supposed to take care of you as much as we can.”
“You have been asleep all morning,” Diggory added.
All morning, Moth thought. Was that all? Moth looked up to find Monty again.
“Can I have the Vegas waffle?” Moth said.
“Good choice,” Monty said. “Gonna take a minute. And, uh, something wrong with your food?”
Diggory looked down at their plate, which seemed to Moth untouched, pancakes and bacon in neat rows.
“No, it is lovely. I like the way the brown thing moves.”
“Syrup,” Monty said. “That would be syrup. Well, if you’re happy.”
“What’s your story, Moth?” Riot said, leaning onto the table, and reaching out to steal a piece of bacon from Diggory’s plate. “Do you and Ray fight crime together or something?”
“Nothing that exciting,” Moth said. “Ray found me in a bad place. And gave me a ride up to Toledo. I hoped to find a new home with my uncle there, but… it was not quite the right fit.”
“Was he the one who hit you?” Diggory asked, and Moth rubbed at moth’s shoulder.
“Glad he wasn’t in the car then,” Olivier muttered.
“Yeah,” Moth said. “I guess so. What’s that you’re working on?”
Riot had a book on the table, and in one of its last pages was sketching Ray, studying him from the window.
“It’s an almanac,” Riot said. “Of weird creatures and supernatural stuff. I think the talking car qualifies.”
“Automobile,” Moth said.
“Do you have any weird powers we should know about?” Olivier said.
“That’s an odd question,” Moth said.
“We have weird luck with that,” Riot said. “How do you feel, by the way? I don’t mean to scare you, but a helicopter gave you a mystery injection and flew away.”
“A little uneasy,” Moth said. “But coffee is helping.”
“Okay,” Riot said. “We’re not like, the most medically proficient people ever.”
“I can sew my arm back on,” Diggory said.
“I can heal myself,” Olivier said.
“I’m just trying to say,” Riot continued, “that I know it’s probably super overwhelming, and weird to be here. But we’re here to help. Just let us know what you need.”
“Thank you,” Moth said, and squinted at Riot. “Are those my glasses in your pocket?”
“Oh, right,” Riot said, and slid out a pair of little red spectacles from her vest, and handed them over as Monty slid back beside the table and deposited a plate. Moth looked down to find a waffle drizzled with chocolate, and a single ripe strawberry sitting on top.
“I guess we’ll just have to see what the road brings us from here,” Riot said.
“Yes,” Moth said, and bit into the strawberry. Rows of crawling teeth, the flash of a smile, a silver box nestled in the roots of a strawberry plant flashed in moth’s mind for a moment. “Better than the past, I hope.”
Interlude 2 - Starving Gods
Do gods starve, you may wonder? It depends on the god. I am invisible and all-seeing, nowhere and everywhere at once. My home is in the quiet shadow and the eyes of all who see. I require nothing, although I do like to be heard.
Others are more ambitious. Certainly there are indescribable things across the cosmos who feast on flesh like devouring animals, or dissolve or absorb their food in peculiar fashions. Still others require more expansive meals. Great Destroyers love to dine on suns, and parasites and scavengers are drawn to the fire of souls, spinning elaborate webs to snare bright spirits.
Few are more guilty of this, of course, than the Reclaimer of Fire himself, and the industry that burns in his belly has created a monopoly on that particular source of sustenance over countless centuries. He is countless, lost to time and eternity, a colony dedicated to furthering his swollen hoard.
We go now to a former employee of the Industry.
Story 3 - Here's To You, Kid
“Dimes, babe,” Barb said, raising his hands in welcome. It was dinner service at the Resting Place, and with the jukebox casting classics into the air, the hustle of the card and pool tables, and the chortle of the gambling machines, he was feeling as cheeky as a magician’s rabbit.
“Hello, Barb,” the crystalline bartender said, skin glinting like a vodka bottle. “The usual this evening?”
“I’m going to need a favor, actually,” Barb said. “A little shop talk.”
He glanced around—the Countess was not to be found in the crowd, but she could be anywhere, really. The Quilt stared at him from across the room, if staring was the right word for its eyeless, stitched-together gaze.
“Shall we speak in the stock fridge?” Dimes said.
“Bingo,” Barb said, and followed the graceful angel or who-knows-what through the back of the bar and past the huge steel door of the walk-in fridge. The chill was a little unreasonable on his skin. There was a scattering of beer bottles—one case dated back to the civil war—and kegs like steel barrels, yellowed draught lines spiraling in all directions towards the bar outside. There was also a good portion of the hotel’s food stock, stored next to the hanging bodies of several of the Countess’s leftover meals.
“Jesus,” Barb said. “We need to clean up in here. But later, later. I need you to make a run for me.”
“I retrieved fire for you a week ago,” Dimes said. “Have you gone through all that already?”
“Not a withdrawal this time,” Barb said, and produced the Ace of Spades and King of Diamonds with a flick of his fingers. “A deposit.”
Dimes’ stony eyes widened as they took the cards into their hands—through their glass fingers, Barb caught a glint of a truer nature, a hundred thousand souls refracted through a prism. Wish I still had my eyes, Barb thought, I bet that color is like heaven itself.
“Where did you get these?” Dimes said.
“Little business transaction,” Barb said. “Gotta look out for keeping this place open, and stealing souls from tourists won’t keep the lights on and the beer cold.”
“I am glad,” Dimes said. “I was worried for you.”
“Very kind,” Barb said. “Hey listen. The King goes to my account. The Ace is stored separately. At least for now, it belongs to Polly—remember the industry kid? Yeah. He needs a little long-term storage.”
“Will I need to visit him? For withdrawals?” Dimes said, looking up.
“Eh, don’t trouble yourself,” Barb said. “I’ll let you know if it needs to be touched.”
“Was there a reason this is a hushed conversation?” Dimes said, glistening.
“You kidding? That’s a treasure trove right there,” Barb said. “You don’t count cash in front of customers. But yeah, let’s keep this on the down low. Some of our friend group have odd attitudes about business.”
“You are worried they would think you stole all this?” Dimes said.
“Steal? Me? What do you take me for, a fish in water?” Barb said. “Get those to your little outer dimensional hidey-hole quick though. It’s shining like a beacon. Every idiot with soul sight in a hundred miles can see where we’re at right now.”
“I’ll be back shortly,” Dimes said. “Also, we are out of mint for mojitos.”
“Mint?” Barb said. “The salvation of the Resting Place Hotel has arrived, and you’re thinking about mint? Take the night off after this, we can get some drinks.”
“I have to make the drinks. I am the bartender,” Dimes said.
“Right,” Barb sighed, and snapped his fingers. With a sputtering of fire, a bushel of mint appeared beside the frozen body of a barren warlord. “Well, I’ll be keeping the bar warm when you get back.”
Dimes slipped out through the lobby into the lot—travel by diamond hound seemed inconvenient on so many levels, Barb thought—and he returned to the parlor. Glorious, this. The crowd, the music, the neon lights. It was going to shine for years to come. He stepped behind the counter and poured himself a bourbon, and raised it to the chandelier.
“Here’s to you, kid. Here’s to you.”
Outro - Provisions
Provisions. I feel, like many of you who sleep, some concern when faced with the prospect of future endeavors. Do I have what I require? Am I good enough yet to try? What if it does not work?
Our fears, I think, are born in our perception more than our stock. You can prepare for your journey—gather skills and supplies, the tools you will need to survive. But it will not make stepping through the door for the first time any less frightening, and you will never feel ready.
There is no one to tell you that you are worthy enough, or prepared enough, to begin living the life you seek. Life itself is not formed of rules, neither is it fair in its rewards. The world waits with curiosity to see what you will do, and as you walk you will learn, and you will only ever be prepared for the journey by the time that it is over. Until crops turn to ash, and bread to dust, until your journey is complete, I am your loyal host Nikignik, waiting substantially for your return to the Hallowoods.
The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'Back On Track', 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!