Content Warning: This episode may include themes of violence, death and dying, smoking, body horror, sleep paralysis, sexism, homophobia, abuse, kidnapping, abduction and religious violence.
Intro - Secret Meanings
Your worst dreams have secret meanings. You may dream of being chased through the darkness, unable to escape a terrible fate; this commonly represents your own lack of progress towards your goals. I like the one with the teeth—you know the one. It is your fear of how others see you. You may dream of being naked in a public place; this one is thought to mean you are feeling insecure or vulnerable. And if you dream of walking through a forest that goes on forever, passing under twisted pines and blood red moons, walking until the trees turn black and the sky glows green, and you cannot go back because there is no turning from the realm between life and death, the dream means 'Hello from the Hallowoods'.
Right now I’m under a bed. The person sleeping in it is worried about monsters, but only I dwell in these shadows. He is having a bad dream, and I savor his fear like paper-wrapped candies. It is a pity he is asleep, for this is the time when real monsters are awake. The theme of tonight’s episode is Nightmares.
Story 1 - Blue Shirt Boy
“You can’t be friends with us because you don’t have a blue shirt!” The boy yelled, shoving Mort away. Mort tripped, landing in the playground gravel. They were surrounding him like carrion birds, pecking for strips of meat.
“If I find a blue shirt can we be friends?” Mort asked, trying to get up.
“You can’t even wear a shirt, stupid!” a kid laughed from behind him, swinging a branch into his back. It resounded with a hollow metallic thud, and the branch snapped. Mort looked down in horror. One of his hands was a great big glove, and another was a huge metal claw, and he wasn’t wearing a red shirt - he was all metal and plastic, and it was just painted red. Mort screamed, and reached out helplessly to the laughing boy, but his claw snapped shut and cut the boy in half like construction paper. The boy’s scraps flew in the wind like a kite.
All the other kids were seagulls now, and the gravel was part of a cold white beach met by water black as a permanent marker. The seagulls stared at Mort with their hungry lizard eyes. Beyond them, knee-deep in the ocean, there was a small brown woman watching the horizon.
“This is the end.” She said. Mort stumbled towards her, and she turned to greet him, a red dot between her dead white eyes, and the beach wasn’t gravel, it was bones.
“You’ll be here soon.”
Mort awoke with a start, sitting up and scraping the wall with his lobster-like arm. Mort could not breathe, and that panicked him more, and he held his big claw as he rocked in the dark. A point of dim orange light burned on the other side of the room; the end of a cigarette, glinting in a capricious pair of eyes.
“You’ve been talking in your sleep, Mort.” Polly said, breathing out smoke that curled and whispered around his delicate face. “Is something the matter?”
Mort turned to sit on the side of the bed, which was much too small for his oil drum of a body.
“I had a bad dream.”
Polly nodded, snapping his fingers. On the table next to his recliner, an oil lantern sparked on, casting a warm yellow glow across the dusty residence. Mort found it comforting, and pulled the blanket around his metal shoulders. He could sense its weight, although he could not feel its texture. The silky flowers of Polly’s suit gleamed in the low light.
“I’m sorry about your dream, Mort. Would you like to talk about it?”
Mort’s skull tilted in its glass case. “I dreamed I didn’t have any friends.”
Polly smiled, tapped the ash off his cigarette.“You’re very concerned about having friends, aren’t you? Why is that?”
Mort thought about it, but couldn’t articulate an answer.
“Friends are worse than enemies, Mort. Everyone is going to hurt you, let you down, abandon you. With friends you just never know when.” There was something sinister in Polly’s face in the dim light, something predatory. He looked at Mort the way the blue-shirt boy did.
“But you’re my friend.” Mort grunted.
Polly let another cloud of smoke pour from his nostrils, dissipate in the stale air of the forgotten house. “Go back to sleep, Mort.”
Mort thought about it for a few moments, then rose with a pneumatic hiss. “I want to go for a walk.”
Polly nodded, waving at the door. “Don’t go too far now.”
Mort stepped outside. There was a dim glow from the horizon, but the sun had not yet risen over the identical rows of white houses with yellow trim. They had passed signs on the way through pointing to a school, a shopping center, an unfinished recreation hall, but Mort felt compelled to walk along the road, metal boots clanking on crumbling asphalt. He turned from the identical houses of Riverside Drive and followed an overgrown trail towards the sound of water, and emerged on a rocky shore overlooking the river. He gazed up at the disappearing moon, and across the gravel beach, and noticed a bird standing near him. It was a seagull with ruffled feathers, and it watched him with a wary eye. Mort instinctively held out his big glove, offering his cast-iron fingertips in friendship.
The bird twisted suddenly, and Mort could see that it was rotted away, with blank white eyes and feathers peeling from its blackened skin. It shrieked at him, and plucked up a scrap of blue fabric from the ground, and fluttered away into the morning sky.
Interlude 1 - Granny Mend
Do you have trouble falling asleep at night, or tend to wake up standing in your front lawn, with no idea how you arrived there? Fear not, dreamers. If you live in the Northern Hallowoods, help is at hand. Just say ‘Granny Mend’ three times in a mirror before you go to sleep.
You may realize in the night that there is a dark figure sitting in a rocking chair in the corner of your room. She is humming a soothing lullaby, and she is working on embroidery. The music is soft, and her voice is very comforting, and you will sleep well tonight as long as you do not look too closely under her bonnet. You may be surprised at this—you may try to move, and find that you cannot. You are powerless. You are trapped in the bed, and you can barely move your eyes. She rises from her chair to stand above you, and pulls your comforter a little higher to your motionless face. Her hands are pierced through with many needles.
“Quiet”, she whispers, “Go back to sleep.”
We go now to one who is familiar with Granny Mend.
Story 2 - And It Shall Come To Pass
People are quick to trust, and that is one of their redeeming qualities, Solomon thought. It shows that there is a seed of good in the heart of every man, woman and child. There is a song within each person; music in the heart of every living thing. The sun glimmering through the trees lifted his spirits, and the birds filled his heart with song. Little troubled him, except for his leg, and he limped along the roadside in no particular hurry. It was a narrow path, maintained only by the passage of tires killing the grass. He heard the engine grinding behind him only when it was quite close, and he could barely move out of the way as a rusty red truck barrelled past. His heavy tool bag pulled him off balance, and he slipped into the weeds by the roadside. The impact hurt a lot more than it would have as a younger man, and he gasped in the dirt as the truck drove onwards. As he gathered his tools carefully into the leather bag, he looked up and thought the truck was rolling backwards towards him—it was hard to be sure without his glasses. Sure enough, the beaten vehicle approached in reverse until it was alongside him, and as he clambered to his feet, the window rolled down.
“Are you alright there sir? I didn’t see ya!” A woman hollered from the darkness inside. Solomon waved his hand, shaking.
“No, I’m alright!” He steadied himself, waving again, and smiled a toothy grin. The woman remained parked on the road, glancing at him with a look of concern.
“You from around here? I don’t like walking through these woods, you know - gives me the heebie-jeebies. Shotgun goes with me everywhere these days.”
Solomon shook his head in distress, looking off blearily into the horizon. “My daughter, she was supposed to help me—I don’t know where she went.” Tears welled in his eyes. It was hard to remember exactly what had happened. It was hard to remember many things these days.
“Do you need a ride?” the woman asked, almost leaning out the passenger window.
Solomon laughed weakly, shook his head. “I couldn’t trouble you, ma’am, and the truth is I don’t even know where I’m going.”
The woman looked him up and down, and he remembered his coat was all ripped up. It was certainly not his Sunday best. “I’ve got a place not too far from here, if you want to spend a night.”
Solomon thought for a long moment, but shook his head.
“Oh no, I insist.” She said, flinging open the passenger door. “I’m just back from the market, too. I’ll throw on something for lunch.”
Solomon gave in to her asymmetrical smile and raucous good nature, and approached the truck with his bag, climbing up the step into the passenger seat. Her face looked kind, though with his blurry vision it was hard to tell. He held his tool bag in his lap and pulled the door shut.
“It’s still open.” She looked at him. A light was blinking on the dashboard. “Oh, my apologies.” Solomon grumbled, shutting it a second time. The vehicle rolled on into the trees.
“I’m Zelda, by the way.” She said, glancing at the rearview mirror for traffic that didn’t exist.
“Solomon.” He returned. “Solomon Reed. Have you lived in this place long?”
She nodded, and spat out the window. “Been up here twenty years now—before the rains started, even. Had a bad feeling, you know?”
He nodded. “A good intuition is worth far more than rubies.”
She smiled, glancing at Solomon from the corner of her eye. “What do you do, Saul?”
“I work with my hands.” He said, clarity instating itself suddenly. “Woodwork, mostly. I don’t get as much done as I used to.”
She sighed. “The days just fly by, don’t they.” The truck pulled up in front of a weathered house perched on the edge of a dark lake, and Zelda was quick to disembark. Solomon left the vehicle with some difficulty, trying not to rest too long on his bad leg. Zelda noticed him struggling.
“Having some trouble there?” She offered a hand and helped him down. There was blood seeping through the bandages, he realized. He looked up at her, and her gentle eyes were quite close to his, and she put a hand on his face. He winced. “You really got bit up there, eh?”
He nodded. He’d almost forgotten about the scratches, but he could feel the scars under her gentle touch. “I suppose I did.”
She invited him in, and he stepped around a large pile of boxes in the hallway. He took a seat at a small table in the kitchen, almost falling into the chair.
“Don’t you worry bout a thing now,” Zelda said, unloading the groceries she’d procured and jumping right into preparations for lunch. “Do you like watercress?”
She began talking quickly and excitedly, and Solomon swam in her words, unable to fully focus on their meaning. He reached into the breast pocket of his long red coat, and retrieved a pair of thick round glasses. One lens was bent out of shape, and the other shattered completely, and he set them down on the table. They flashed in the sunlight as he did, like a great white eye opening.
Marketing - Terrorist Organization
I am Lady Ethel Mallory, with an important announcement for all Dreaming Box users. The group of rioters and violent activists connected with Valerie Maidstone have been labelled a terrorist organization as defined by the Botulus Industries terms of service. We cannot allow the safe, loving, peaceful environment of the Dreaming Box to be contaminated with such hateful content. These self-proclaimed ‘Stonemaids’ are dangerous only to themselves, and they deserve love and rehabilitation. If you know anyone with connections to this movement, please report them to a Botulus Industries Contact Terminal. Valerie Maidstone has been placed in special care, and will return to the Prime Dream as soon as this conflict...
Story 2, Continued - And It Shall Come To Pass
This interruption in my broadcast piques my interest, dreamers, as much as it concerns me. We shall dwell more closely on this soon enough. We return now to Solomon Reed.
Zelda laughed like the springtime; wild and full of life. Mostly at her own jokes, but they were each fresh to Solomon, and the sandwiches were refreshing.
“And you live alone out here? That must be difficult for you.” Solomon gestured to the house incredulously.
Zelda sniffed with pride, gluing the shards of glass back into the frames of Solomon’s glasses. “Since Dex—my husband—passed on, it’s just been me, fighting off the world. My son’s been out to help me lately; wants me to move in at the scout shack or whatever they call it. Truth be told I don’t want to go and leave behind all my little memories.”
Struck by a thought, he pulled out a locket with hands crossed in prayer engraved on the front. Clicking it open, two faces peered out—one with pigtails and one with cold eyes.
“That your daughter?” Zelda asked, peering over his shoulder.
“Yes.” Solomon choked back tears. “And that was my wife, there.”
Zelda put a hand on his knee, patting it comfortingly. “It’s not easy to let ‘em go, is it?”
Solomon shook his head, and rubbed at his weary eyes with a handkerchief. “I’ll see them again one day, that I know.”
Zelda nodded solemnly, and slid Solomon’s glasses across the table. He picked them up, and put them on. He could see clearly now, and her wild hair was more unkempt than he’d thought, and he glanced around at the photographs plastered haphazardly to the walls, the boxes that spilled in from the hallway. Zelda rose to do the dishes.
“Do you ever have strange dreams, Zelda?”
Zelda nodded curiously. “Sometimes. Last night I dreamed my son Jonah was down in that basement, all filled with water. But I’ve got a good man looking for him. He’s gonna be okay.”
Solomon smiled. “The Lord speaks through dreams. He gives me visions, instructions. I don’t always understand, but I carry them through.”
Zelda nodded, scrubbing off a plate. “Well, if it brings you peace.”
Solomon retrieved a slender tube from his inner jacket, a polished wooden fife with bone trim inset. He cupped it in his hands, raising it to his lips.
“Oh, you got a little flute?” Zelda glanced at him, smiling in confusion.
Solomon stared into her wise grey eyes, and blew a low, whistling note that seemed to shake the house and the earth beneath it. Standing behind Zelda was Solomon’s wife, her cold eyes shining in a holy green body. Her hands seized Zelda’s head, piercing it without leaving a mark, and Zelda’s plate and sponge fell out of her hands. Zelda collapsed to the ground, and his wife was staring at him then, drifting towards him. “Thank you, my angel.” Solomon whispered, and sent her off with a high note.
People are quick to trust, and that is one of their redeeming qualities, Solomon thought. Everyone wants someone to praise their disfigurements; make them feel better about their sins. He knelt over the fallen woman, and examined a tuft of her sandy hair. She wasn’t of much quality, he thought. No apparent standard of beauty, poor housekeeping, an affinity for material things—and yet, the lord sometimes works best with a blunt instrument. He stood, and picked up the truck keys from the table, and his bag of carving tools. There is song within each of us; music is stored up in the heart of every living thing. Sometimes it takes a good craftsman to set it free.
Interlude 2 - Silver Boxes
Dreamers, as you have noticed my broadcasts have been interrupted regularly by marketing from the Botulus Corporation, or Botco. This development concerns me greatly. Dreams are my domain, and have been for a thousand years. To see them harnessed by advertisers frightens me, although I suppose that is what Botco does. It spreads like an illness and corrupts like a disease, and no realm is sacred where there is profit to be made, and their silver boxes fester across the world like boils. We go now to a Dreaming Box.
Story 3 - Cosmos In Paradise
Valerie laid on a lawn chair overlooking a pool with serene blue water. The water lapped at the yellow tiles, and condensation dripped from the cosmopolitan on the stand next to her. Beyond the pool the tiles fell off into space, and constellations drifted slowly across the expanse. Planets rippled in the void, birthed in convulsions of flame and fading into embers. She realized she was holding a tanning reflector, and let it fall out of her hands. What was this, the fifties?
A woman took a seat in the chair beside her, with smooth tan legs and a white bathrobe. She wore heart-shaped sunglasses with red frames, and smiled with all of her teeth.
“Enjoying the view?” Lady Ethel Mallory asked.
“This is a coffin,” Valerie said, “with a painted ceiling.”
Ethel’s face was touched up like a model in a swimsuit catalog, and she laughed. Her gleaming teeth flashed in the starlight.
“You always did have a delightful way with words, Valerie. It’s so good to have you as part of the Dreaming Box family.”
Valerie said nothing, watched the light ripple on the aquamarine water.
“Oh, but I shouldn’t talk of families when you’re missing your little girl. Whatever happened to Riot?”
Valerie glanced at Ethel, shot her a look of cold loathing. Ethel’s smile was on, but all the pretense had gone out, and it was just her teeth showing now.
“Don’t you worry about her, darling. Our Reunion Organizers are working very hard to find her, but the more you help us, the faster she’ll be with you. Do you remember anything at all?”
“What are you, really?” Valerie looked Ethel up and down. “You don’t look like that.”
Ethel’s lips closed over her teeth, and she looked at Valerie thoughtfully. “Look around you, Val—can I call you Val?—this is paradise.” She gestured to the universe before them. “You can be anything, do anything, experience anything you want. It can be very good to you. Or it can be very bad.”
She snapped her fingers, and Valerie’s lawn chair was a hospital gurney, and she was strapped down, and men with faces like flies were cutting into her skin. The sky above was a yawning void, a visceral darkness that came racing down to pour into Valerie’s eyes and throat. The pain was real. She hadn’t expected the pain to be real, and she screamed, and hoped she could forgive herself for it. The skin from her hands was peeled back to show all the little bones squirming. Then they were back at the pool, and Ethel took a sip of her cosmopolitan. It was red, Valerie noticed, and thick. Valerie said nothing.
“Your brand,” Ethel said, “I like it. Very hard-edge. Rough. Stoic. A freedom fighter, a rock and roll outcast. It’s admirable, you know, the loyalty you’ve built up in your followers. You could sell them anything.”
She drained the rest of her drink, set it on the table, beads of red liquid dripping down the clean glass. It stained her lips as red as her heart-shaped frames.
“I’m going to acquire you. I don’t care what it takes. You’re not an idiot, Val. I know idiots, and you’re not one of them. You don’t care how much I hurt you. But you’re not heartless, either, and when I find that daughter of yours, I’ll have you on a leash, do you understand?”
She waved her hands, and faceless pool attendants were taking away her glass. Her robe was gone, and she was wearing a suit now, but the glasses remained.
“Believe it or not, I’m not in charge of your time here—someone higher up than me is overseeing you personally. I’m sure he has lots of lovely afternoon plans in store from you.”
There was a wink, although Valerie could not see it. She tried not to show anything, be anything. She wondered if, in real life, in the coffin, if she still had skin on her hands. Lady Ethel turned, and walked out, disappearing into the unfolding universe.
“I’m going to be busy finding your daughter.”
Outro - Nightmares
Nightmares. I have received complaints from some of you regarding why I interrupt your dreams with these disturbing thoughts. The answer is simple: we carry our dreams into the day. They cause us to reflect on who we are, and wonder what is changing in us that we do not understand. We have awful nightmares and wonder ‘is this who I am, behind the smile I show my loved ones?’ Dreams are a universal language, for all things dream that sleep. There are many things that sleep in this universe, resting for moments or for millennia. In their turning minds, I whisper, so that they alone can hear, and my whispers will one day become a triumphant shout of victory. Until then, I wait, with hope for the morning, for your return to the Hallowoods.