Content warnings for this episode include: Abuse (mention), Animal cruelty or animal death (Bert as usual, but unfortunately a fish, some roasted jackalopes, and a quantity of wolves don’t do too well either), Self-harm (questionably a reference), Violence, Kidnapping and abduction, Death + Injury, Blood, Anxiety, Birds, Emotional Manipulation, Drowning, Bugs, Body horror
Intro - One Less Sun
The smell is not unpleasant to you. In some ways it reminds you of the old days, when you first looked on a starless sky and smiled. Who doesn’t appreciate a little nostalgia from time to time? But more than old memories is the present scent of animal, of iron and earth metal, the ever-present hum of blood in veins that sings like a sun in darkness.
You match eyes with him only once, when he first looks up to the saloon doors and sees you dusting the road off of your jacket. His eyes are like fool’s gold, and you smile now as you did then. His scars are the ones you gave him. What can I get you, he asks, but you both already know what you like best.
For a moment you are both still, and then in a second it is all over—he is huge and dark and paralyzed, and you drink ravenously of liquid gold, another sun snuffed out so that the emptiness between worlds may flourish. When the next patrons arrive, they find only a dead man, whose blood drips down the bar to spell Hello From The Hallowoods.
Right now, I’m sitting on top of a large recreational vehicle. The wind rushes as it roars down the highway, surrounded by brown fields that roll out into a horizon of blue mountains. Inside are a few people with a multitude of worries, but up here on the roof there is only one, and he thinks of his father, and of silver scissors, and of a relationship still in a state of confusing twilight.
The theme of tonight’s episode is Courts.
Story 1 - No Burden
In some ways, Percy felt he was permanently alone, although in others he knew he would never be. Riot was his friend, and Diggory was dead, and little Al was even a ghost, but in moments like these he sat above the roof of the RV as it traveled and was unseen even by the nameless birds that pivoted high overhead, unremembered by most, unmissed by anyone.
That, at least, was the way it felt, which in some ways mattered more than if it was true. All that truly remained of him was a little fragment of bone, carried by a person he could never touch for longer than a fleeting moment.
I should be happy, he thought. We made it all the way to Box Andromeda, and none of my friends died. Riot has her mother back, and we have a second Riot that no one asked for, and Danielle whom we did. Percy couldn’t help but see a little of himself in Danielle. The difference, he thought, is that I died, and she is just beginning to live. And she has the benefit of a family, mismatched as we are together.
Valerie had felt up to driving again, and Percy liked her. A determined fire was beginning to shine in her eyes again, which he’d worried had been extinguished by the months spent in unspeakable dream. She also asked if he was around every so often, which he appreciated more than he’d ever really be able to express. When no one was looking, though, she looked impossibly tired.
Quite the opposite was Danielle, who Diggory and Riot had been taking care of in tandem. She seemed so fragile, and every attempted movement a risk, every action a great effort. And yet, she talked constantly, of her life in the Prime Dream, of all she wanted to see, of how she would be running through fields in no time.
Olivier and Riot had scarcely so much as looked at each other all day—at least, not at the same time. Riot had apparently completed her almanac, and fiddled incessantly with a cherry red electric guitar she’d been given by Walt a lifetime ago. Olivier stared out the window a lot, and huge clouds, fluffy and high in the atmosphere, seemed to follow them across the sky as they drove. Percy expected it had something to do with what he’d seen last night, but after a few decades spent as the eyes in the walls, he knew how to keep a secret.
He still hadn’t quite figured out the Other Riot, and he had to do a double take each time he wanted to keep an eye on one—was Other Riot the one in the t-shirt or the vest? The Riots kept each other at arm’s length except for brief, violent clashes where they exchanged blows like dueling tigers.
And, of course, there was Diggory. Diggory, quietly taking care of everyone they could. Diggory, juggling the destinies of everyone else while they ignored their own. Diggory, on whose still chest Percy always rested.
Diggory, who was opening the skylight and climbing up onto the roof.
“What are you doing?” said Percy, not sure if he should be concerned. The RV was still moving fast, and the wind flapped in Diggory’s yellow tank top, rattled the crossed-hands locket beneath. Their traditional spiked leather jacket still laid around Danielle’s shoulders.
“I just wanted to spend some time with you,” Diggory said, and sat down cross-legged on the roof, slid the skylight shut. They held on one of the roof rails for support, with unyieldingly sharp fingers, and looked up at them. If it were possible, Percy would have died a little more.
“Everyone’s finally happy and taken care of, huh?” Percy quipped. He hated that, but it was his first resort when he wasn’t sure what to say.
“No,” Diggory said, audible to Percy despite the wind roaring at fifty miles an hour. “I think you are not entirely happy. And I am not at peace either. I feel as though something bad is happening, very far away, so far that even if I run as fast as I can I will not arrive in time to stop it.”
“Yeah, I have anxiety too,” said Percy. “But I’m gonna be honest, it bothers me a little less lately. This will sound really bad—but now that my dad is gone, I. I don’t have to worry about him. Showing up. I’m not trapped in a piano somewhere hoping he never finds me. Obviously we have other stuff to worry about because Botco could show up any second with a hundred marketing drones or whatever, but that’s… we can deal with that. That doesn’t bother me the same.”
“I am surprised we have not encountered more of their drones by now,” said Diggory. “The silence makes me uneasy. But I understand, about your father. You lived in fear of him for years. It is only natural that now this burden is free from your shoulders.”
“It’s just, not how you’re supposed to feel about your dad, you know?” Percy whispered, and brought his flowing head down, laid it in Diggory’s lap as much as he could. He knew he should change to a different topic, but if he went further, he might be able to feel, just for a moment.
“He was awful,” Percy said. “And missing. And I’m pretty sure was a serial killer, not sure how early that started. But I was afraid for so long, and suddenly he’s gone, and so is mom, and I’m alone. The end of my family. And it’s like… I wish I didn’t have to be.”
Angry tears burned on his cheeks, and for a moment he thought he could feel Diggory’s hand in his hair.
“I am here,” Diggory said quietly. “And I care. Deeply. And I will never let you go.”
Percy could not tell if it was a promise or a threat.
“I still hear music,” Percy whispered. “It’s not that I sleep, anymore. But sometimes I’m still and my mind wanders and I can almost hear those cellos. I think he liked cellos. He would have said ‘God’s voice is scary and so are cellos, that’s why they’re my favorite! If only I could levitate a full church organ!”
Diggory smiled, and it sent a rare warmth through Percy.
“I love you,” Diggory said. “I did not know exactly what that meant when I first said it. I am not sure I do now. But wherever this future takes us, I am glad to be by your side for it. This journey would be agony without you. And even if we are busy fighting a large technology company, and rescuing the parents of our friends, and being chased by all manner of phantoms, I want you to know it is still true. As true as anything else.”
“I love you too,” Percy said, as bright as a highbeam in the fading light. He could feel Diggory’s hand on the side of his face, a rare moment of corporeality where the planes of their bodies could meet and not intersect. “And it’s scary to say that, for me. But you should know it. You’ve literally carried me through so much. Out of the Alder’s house. To the fight with my dad. All of this. Thank you for not leaving me alone that first day.”
He stared at the black mark in his palm where he had once cut himself with silver scissors.
“It was no burden,” said Diggory. “It still is not. You are brighter than anything I see, Percy. Before I met you, I wandered in a black mire, in body and spirit. Meeting you has changed me. I think I was always supposed to. It is part of…”
Diggory looked up, then, and Percy followed their gaze. There was a buzz in the air, a deep hum of thrashing metal, and they looked back together to find the gleam of black metal in the sunlight, and a choir of small engines growing loud.
Interlude 1 - Justice
Justice is dead.
She sleeps in a layer of silt, and sometimes opens her emerald eyes to watch the sun dance on the surface of the river above. She lies wrapped in a garland of weeds, and her bones are home to little frogs and swimming beetles. When she dreams, it is of the world to come, these final calamities tolling like a bell, resounding over all she once ruled.
Justice is dead, and Democracy with her, and Avarice and Economy and Greed. It is so peaceful here beneath the black tide, and the call of sleep so heavy that she can barely dream of the world that used to be, or will her bones to rise from the lake floor. Why would she? What is left?
No courts. No trials. No prosecution. The only due process is the great transformation of the world above the water, the changing of the age coming again as it always does, hand in glove with eternity.
And yet, sometimes, she pulls herself from the silt, and rises to the edge of the water, so that her skull almost breaches the surface, and looks out for the shore. There is one who has not joined her, there is one who does not yet sleep, and it is Hope.
We go now to one who embodies this sentiment.
Story 2 - Dinner With Destiny
Riot looked up as Diggory slid open the skylight, and poked their head into the RV, black hair streaming in the wind.
“We are being pursued,” said Diggory.
“Yeah we noticed,” Riot replied, and picked up the sheath and belt with her sword.
“Maybe they’re just a friendly motorcycle gang,” a voice whispered in her head. She assumed Percy hung out somewhere above.
“I used to be a biker,” Riot’s mom called from the wheel. “We were all lesbians. It was incredible. That’s where I got that vest you stole!”
“I’ve earned the vest, mom, and this is not the time for your hot biker stories,” Riot called back, and shifted past Olivier and Other Riot to look out the back window. Sure enough, the grey road behind them was blanketed with dozens of motorcycles, growing closer with each passing moment.
She could almost make out the first riders now, black visored helmets and jackets with red patches, surging ahead of the others. One led the pack on a compact vintage bike, the dying light of the sun glittering in its black paint and chrome.
“I don’t want to make assumptions,” Riot called, “but I think the odds of a friendly neighborhood post-apocalyptic bike gang are slim.”
“Hold on, everybody,” Valerie called, and Riot’s stomach lurched as the RV-lution began to accelerate, bouncing over each pot hole with vervor, racing through the crumbling plains. Riot watched as the lead driver came flying ahead of the rest, up and past her on the road, with what appeared to be coat-tails streaming from beneath his jacket.
“Mom! Incoming!” she shouted, and the rest of the pack began to close the gap.
“Guys, is this a lightning situation?” Olivier called from the window, watching as the driver passed her.
“Why does something bad happen to you all every day?” Other Riot shouted to no one in particular, and held on to the RV table for support.
“Mom?” Riot said, and clambered through the RV to reach the front.
“What’re they doing?” Danielle said. “I can’t see. Does it seem like they want to give me a motorcycle? Because I’ll figure it out. I would look great on a motorcycle.”
Valerie looked from the road to the rider who was now keeping pace alongside the driver’s window of the RV. The driver waved their arm, a universal sign to slow down, pull over.
“Hey kids?” Valerie called, still not slowing. The RV rattled as if it was going to break apart, and the engine roared under the strain. “How equipped are we to fight like thirty or forty bikers?”
“Have you seen Diggory?” Riot said.
“Have you seen me?” Olivier called from the back.
Valerie shrugged, and ground her teeth as she eased off the throttle, and began slowing down, but did not stop. The horde of bikes caught up immediately, surrounding them on all sides. The RV wavered a little; Riot could only see more faceless helmets in all the mirrors. Some seemed to wear fur on their shoulders, although from what animal she could not be sure.
At only a few miles per hour, Valerie rolled down the window. The night air smelled like rain and iron, and the motorcycle headlights were bright in the crimson dusk.
“Sorry, but we’re not buying any girl scout cookies,” her mom said.
“Greetings,” the stranger on the bike said, ignoring her. Riot peeked over her mom’s shoulder—the patches on the driver’s arm were little red bats, a swarm that blanketed the black leather. Something was painted on the chassis of his old motorbike—“Denn die Todten reiten schnell.” It was one of those languages she hadn’t understood the subtitles for.
“I don’t suppose this is your old lesbian bike gang?” Riot whispered.
“Shh,” her mom replied.
“We welcome you,” waved the stranger, rolling slowly forward alongside them, “to the kingdom of the Count.”
“I think Counts are only supposed to get counties,” Danielle whispered.
“Girls. Quiet,” Valerie said, and turned to look out the window again. “Well thanks for the welcome! If it’s alright with you, we’ll take a pamphlet and keep moving.”
“You have nothing to fear,” called the driver, whose voice echoed from his black-visored helm. “You are a guest in my master’s domain, and will receive his hospitality. You will accompany us to his camp and join him for dinner.”
“If only we had the time,” Valerie said, and Riot noticed her bony hands tighten on the wheel. “But you know. Gotta keep rolling on.”
“I would urge you to consider the Count’s hospitality,” the driver called, in a way that was not entirely amiable. “Or we will have to tell him you refused his invitation. He does not often take this news well.”
“Do you think that’s a threat?” her mom whispered.
“Absolutely,” said Riot. Diggory climbed in entirely from the skylight, peering at the leather-clad army through the side windows.
“I count thirty-seven,” said the revenant quietly.
“I can get… at least three of those,” Riot replied, and felt for the handle of her sword.
“If they are only inviting us to dinner,” Diggory said, “perhaps we can oblige them? I have no love of bloodshed.”
“Maybe their food would be decent,” Olivier said. “Let’s be honest, we split the last can of beans last night and nobody enjoyed it.”
“They’re trying to be nice. Just say yes,” groaned the Other Riot, which made Riot reflexively want to say no.
“Alright,” her mother called. “Dinner it is. Got a nice Italian place in mind?”
Riot could see no features beneath the driver’s gleaming helmet, but she felt him smile.
“Simply follow us.”
The driver pulled away, and began to ride slowly ahead, and as Valerie stirred the RV into a faster gait, the other bikers continued to surround them. Immediately, Riot went pushing back past her friends, and found her way into the rear storage of the RV, moved aside Olivier’s books and the empty gas tanks.
She felt a presence behind her, and glanced up to find her double watching her.
“What are you looking at?” muttered Riot.
“What are you looking for?” said Other Riot.
“Just some stuff,” Riot said, and uncovered a beaten wooden crate that she’d packed—an ancient stamp on the side read ‘Walter Pensive’s Groundskeeping’.
“Stuff for what?” said her evil twin.
“You know,” Riot shrugged, and opened the lid, and glanced up with a raised eyebrow. “Just in case we need to kill a vampire.”
Marketing - Lawful Land
There was a time when America was a lawful land. Citizens respected authority, and raised their voices politely to effect change. Sometimes they raised bricks with those voices, and although we cannot condone their violence, we have to admire a lady who gets things done.
But here, even in the Prime Dream, we still see the effects of the last chaotic years of life outside. These Stonemaids have done little to help build our Prime Dream, and are so quick to tear it down. And yet, when I sat in dreaming with Dashiell Spade of the Stonemaids, there was something in his eyes.
Something desperate. Something animal.
And it makes me wonder—are we responsible? We have put so much blame on the Stonemaids for their devastating actions, and they must surely be held accountable—but we at the Botulus Corporation have let this go on too long. Allowed this discontent to fester in our midst. What could have led to this oversight, to so much pain for our happy dreaming family?
I think we must look in the mirror and ask ourselves… is the Botulus Corporation still doing the very best it can? What more could we accomplish? What stands in the way of that change? Know, my dear dreaming family, that whatever it is you wish to see in our mutual future, I will always be staunchly fighting for…
Story 2, Continued - Dinner With Destiny
I wish I could sleep.
I have been contained, confined in small dark spaces, but that was a prison rather than an escape. No, I wish I could dream. Whatever would I dream about? What could I possibly imagine that I have not already seen somewhere across this universe?
If I could sleep, I would be out like a light every time Lady Ethel Mallory’s broadcast came crackling through on the same channel as mine.
We return now to Riot Maidstone.
“Belfy, Montana,” Riot said, staring out the window intently. “Home of the bats. Come on. It’s right there. It’s right there.”
“Vampires are not real,” Olivier sighed. “We’ve been over this.”
“Vampires are real?” said Valerie. “I shouldn’t be surprised.”
“They are not, Mrs. Maidstone,” Olivier said. “Riot thinks you can just call something a vampire. And besides, we haven’t seen anything except a bunch of bikers.”
“But it’s right in Walt’s almanac,” Riot said. “Fangs, check. Sunlight, check. Crazy eyes, check.”
“Kids, not now,” Valerie said. “I’m trying not to run over these stupid biker vampires.”
“I’m not a kid,” said Olivier. “I’m older than Riot.”
“I don’t know how old I am,” said Diggory. “I should choose a birthday.”
“Dibs on becoming a vampire,” said Danielle from the passenger seat, and grinned. “If it comes up.”
“Just be polite, everyone,” Riot said loudly. “Apparently they like their manners. And I need him or her or it or whatever not to suspect anything when I go for the slashy slashy.”
“I’m sorry, I missed the part where my girl who picks the spicy peppers off pizza became a hardened vampire hunter,” her mom said.
“Yeah, I guess you missed a lot,” Riot replied.
They rolled into a small town, then, shambles shadowed by decrepit trees. Blue mountains hemmed them in on the horizon, and twilight fell from above in heavy purples and reds. Crumbling one-story buildings lined the roads, and shadows stood in the windows and darkened doors, watching with interest as the RV rumbled down the street. Riot could see other bikes parked, and dozens of rusty RV’s from all decades. She wondered how many of them were from this community, and how many had been taken from travelers like them.
The bikes ahead of them came to a stop outside of a small bar, crumbling bricks a faded crimson. The driver rolled up beside their window again, and called to her mother.
“Please,” he said. “Step inside. My master will receive you shortly.”
Outside, the other bikers began to dismount, and gathered in a small crowd around the RV. Others streamed out now from the low buildings, and Riot grew more uncomfortable with each new face. Those that did not wear helmets stared with dour frowns and hard eyes, and wore dusty leathers and the odd glint of gold jewelry. Riot got the impression that the road was hard on many people, and tried to glare back intimidatingly as she opened the RV door.
“Hey,” she said, catching sight of the driver as he began to walk away from their RV. “We’ve got someone here who can’t stand too well yet, do you have a chair or something?”
The driver paused, and looked back to her, and made the slightest of bows before vanishing into the buildings beyond. Sure enough, however, a few moments later another biker in a many-spiked jacket wheeled out a chair with one missing handle and a tear in the upholstery. Better than nothing, Riot thought.
Riot kept her sword visible on her side, and tucked her bag of Walt’s gear on her other, and helped Diggory bring Danielle down out of the passenger side as the rest of her group disembarked the RV.
“You okay?” Riot whispered as Danielle got situated in the chair, and Diggory helped her feet gently into the leg rests.
“Wheel me in slow,” Danielle whispered back. “So I seem fancy.”
The crowd parted to provide entrance to the building helpfully labeled ‘Bar’. Riot nodded and said a few howdies as they made for the door. It was awkward being the center of attention when no one was saying anything, and the Count’s legion only nodded in return as she stepped into the darkness.
“Told you vampires were real,” she whispered to Olivier as they walked.
“We haven’t seen any yet,” Olivier muttered.
The room was not large, and remains of chairs and tables were strangled by black weeds that grew through the floorboards. Diggory lifted Danielle’s chair single-handedly up a few steps behind her. Two red lamps stared from above a bar full of dusty bottles, arranged in grand rows like the pipes of a church organ, and antlers clung to the crumbling turquoise walls.
In the center of the room was a long table, with an array of mismatched silver domes concealing plates beneath. Riot sat close to the head of the table, where an ancient wooden chair carved with medieval hunters sat. They appeared to be chasing down engraved wolves. Olivier took a seat beside her, and Danielle, Diggory, the Other Riot and her mother were present in short order.
“I am sorry,” Diggory said to the Other Riot as she went for a seat, “Percy is sitting there.”
“Of course he is,” Other Riot muttered, and found a different chair.
A minute passed, and Riot looked to the rest of the group. There was a smell in the air, delicious despite her better judgment—the scent of smoke and charcoal. There was hushed conversation outside, whispers she could not make out.
“You did lock the RV, right?” Riot said.
“Don’t mother your mom,” said Valerie, and then fished in her pocket. There was a beep from outside.
“How are you all so calm?” the Other Riot whispered, glancing around. “They could kill us. Or worse. I bet there’s medium rare people steaks under these dish things.
“Cloches,” Olivier said. “They’re called cloches.”
“Riot, since we got whipped out of Box Andromeda by a girl with cloud magic, the only thing I’m worried about is going back,” Valerie said.
“Other Riot,” said Riot. “Mom, she’s Other Riot. That’s what we agreed on.”
The Other Riot frowned. “I knew who she was talking to.”
“I mean, let’s be clear,” her mom said, rubbing at her temples. “I see my daughter in both of you a little. How can I not? One of you is sweet and was there for me in Box Andromeda. You kept me sane.”
She looked to Other Riot, and Riot felt heat build in her head that not even the danger of a vampire hunt could create.
“And you,” her mom continued, and looked at her in the dim red light, “I spent twenty years in a bunker with. But you’re not the same girl you used to be either. Because the daughter I knew wasn’t a hero or a cross-country driver or friends with dead people or some kind of monster hunter. You’re both the same, and both so totally different. So this bickering has got to stop.”
“I hope I’m not intruding on anything personal,” said a voice from the far side of the room, and a figure walked from the shadows. There were little red lights in his dark pupils, Riot thought, and a thick black cloak swept from the shoulders of his jacket, and he smiled sharply as he took a seat at the head of the table.
“Let us have no hostilities,” said the Count, raising his palms, “when this is a night to enjoy.”
“I’m guessing you’re Mister Count?” said Valerie.
“Please,” he said, and pushed back the locs from his face, “Mister Count was my father. Count is fine.”
“So what is it?” Riot said, speaking up. She was closest to him on this side, and tried not to fidget too much with the sword beneath the table.
“Do expound on that question,” he said, eyes darting to her.
“You pulled us over and are playing all scary crowd and dramatic dinner and stuff,” Riot said. “But obviously you want something. So let’s be super clear. If this is a nice how-do-you-do, great. Hi. But if you’re stealing our stuff, you won’t find much, except for an electric guitar, and whoever so much as touches that is dead. If you’re going to try and kill us, then the second you touch any of my friends here, also, bam, dead. So. What’s for dinner?”
The count stared for a long moment, as if reading her like a particularly interesting passage in a book, and began to laugh, a gentle chuckle that echoed in the empty bottles and antlers of the room.
“I take it you’re the feisty twin,” he said at length. “I used to have a twin too, you know. Believe it or not, I was the mild one. But the meek shall inherit the earth, they say. I’m sure your mother here is very proud. Aren’t you, Val?”
He beckoned, and a few bikers stepped in from the door, and reached in to pull away the silver cloches, and revealed sights that made Riot turn pale—small creatures, roasted whole. She might have called them rabbits if not for the tiny antlers jutting blackened from their skulls.
“How do you know my name?” Valerie said quietly, which was good because Riot could not muster words safely. She glanced over to Olivier, who was just as blanched as she was, and lingered for a moment with those dark and electric eyes.
“Please,” grinned the Count. “Secrets are my business, and Valerie and the Maidstone girls running free are no secret.”
Riot’s stomach dropped, and she cleared her throat.
“One more time,” Riot said, and gripped her sword tightly, prepared to draw it from beneath the table. From somewhere beyond, somewhere above, she could hear a thin buzz of rotors amidst the desolate winds. “Why are we here?”
“You are here, my dear,” he said, and leaned back with a razor-sharp grin, “to have a little chat about your destiny.”
Interlude 2 - One Court
There is little law to be found in your world today, dreamer, and even less in the stars above you. The universe cannot agree on simple rules like particles existing in one place, let alone guiding principles for living within it. And yet, in your communities and your hearts, there is some sense of justice and fairness still.
There is one court, and it lies north, in the woods without end, the warped world of the Shuddering Peaks and the pale and faceless king. His Faceless Court lies between the towers, over the bridge into darkness, and his fortress holds a gathering of worms. All that crawls, all that rots, all that with enmity judges the living and finds it guilty. It was built long ago, awaiting a king, awaiting a crown. Beware if you enter the Northmost woods, for your presence there is a crime against the court and the heavens, for you walk on hallowed ground.
We go now to one who is still innocent.
Story 3 - There's Always Heartbreak
Mort had used all his powers of direction—of primal intuition, the wisps of memory that came in fevered dreams, all that he knew of the past and future, and he had been able to determine one thing about Polly’s location.
He was not here.
Neither had he been anywhere along the beach so far—not in the garbage heaps or tide pools, not in the wet crumbling buildings or rusted cars. New York City was an ocean of debris, but nowhere could Mort find the demon in his nice floral suit, and he was not at all sure now that he was still going in the direction Yaretzi had pointed.
Ahead of him, Bert hopped and cawed and pointed with his hooked little beak at a fallen billboard. A fancy lady smiled in tatters.
“Under there?” Mort said, and hurried over. He raised his hand and his great pincer claw against the metal, and lifted the whole rusted frame upwards. Bert cried out happily, and darted beneath it, and came out with a dead fish, scales flaking off.
“That’s not Polly,” Mort said, and dropped the billboard again. Bert shrieked at the commotion and flew a few paces beyond, and battered the fish against the ground for amusement. The dead seagull did not need to eat, Mort knew. Mort sighed, and sat down on an iron girder, and put his hand on his dome. He was doing a bad job, and Polly was going to get hurt. He sniffed as well as he could for being a skull in a tank of water, and sat amongst the garbage, and felt like he belonged.
“Fancy seeing you here,” said a voice, and Mort looked up to find someone sitting on top of the billboard’s edge, dangling his feet over the paper lady’s heart-shaped sunglasses.
“Go away, Barb,” Mort said. “I don’t want to see you.”
“Don’t want to see your old friend Barb?” said the liar and cheater. “I thought we were buddies.”
“You’re not my friend,” said Mort. “You got rid of me so the bad man could hurt Polly and Yaretzi. Friends wouldn’t do that.”
“It ain’t that simple, Mort,” Barb said, and slid down the billboard, bounced to his heels. “It’s never that simple.”
“I said go away,” Mort growled.
“Listen, I know how it’s gotta look,” said Barb, and adjusted the bloody bandage over his eyes, “this whole thing. But I don’t have any ill will towards little Polly. Not for the old furball either. And especially not for you, Mort. But this strong-armed guy, well, he strongarms me, he says ‘take me to those nice folks or I’ll kill you dead’. And you know me, Mort, I’m a sucker for life. And I thought I could help you.”
“But you didn’t help,” Mort said. All the thoughts were becoming confusing in his brain, which happened often with Barb. He disliked that. “Now Yaretzi is sleeping and Polly is gone.”
“I’m helping right now, you lug,” Barb said, taking a step closer. “That’s why I’m here. Because I’ve got a secret for you that’ll change everything. Something you should have heard a long time ago.”
“What is that?” Mort said, although he knew he should not have.
“You can leave,” Barb said, and waved his hands. “Ta-da. That’s the secret. I know you’re all bent on this little gangaroo you’ve slapped together, but look at you. All sad and befuddled. Pathetic. I’ve been there. I’ve sat in your sloshing shoes.
And I wish when I was there, someone had told me, you can dip. You can walk right out. You don’t owe them anything. It’s not your fault if they’re suckers. There’s a big bright future with Mort’s name on it, and there’ll be other people who tolerate you.”
Mort was quiet for a second, stared at the panting demon, who stared back. If Mort had been handed an uncomfortable truth, he wished he could give it back. But Barb seemed pale, then. Fragile. A tremble in his bandaged hands. And Mort felt he saw something he had never seen before.
“I’m not scared,” Mort said. “Of getting hurt. Are you scared, Barb? Is that why you run? The only thing I’m scared of is losing my family. If I can’t keep them safe then I don’t care about anything else. I could go back to the sea floor and watch the fishes. I could get blown apart by Rick Rounds. But I’m not scared.”
Barb spat black mucus on the beach, and took off his hat, wrung it in his hands, and sat down on what remained of a hot dog wagon.
“You’re a better man than me, Mort,” Barb said quietly.
“Do you have a family?” Mort said. “Wouldn’t you do anything for them?”
Barb said nothing, but there was a light over his head—a little fire, two broken stumps above his bandaged eyes, burning away in his greasy hair.
“No,” he said, and winced. “I’ve got customers. I’ve got groupies. But at the end of the day you lose ‘em. That’s what I’m trying to tell you, Mort. They can decide they don’t care about you anymore and throw you out. Or you get fed up and you decide that you can’t stand one more day seein’ their faces. Or sometimes they’re just gone, and you never got to say as much as a goodbye.
So I’m a host. I’m a showboat. I get the party started, but I’m not a part of it, Mort, because I don’t wanna have to deal with the heartbreak when it ends. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. There’s always heartbreak. This is your last chance to walk away scott free. Start Mort’s life. Do something for you.”
Mort sat still, and watched the demon. “I’m not going to do that,” he said. “I care about my family. And I know I can still help them, if I really try.”
Barb shook his head, and Mort was caught with conflicted things—anger, and frustration, and sadness, and something new.
“But if you don’t have a family,” Mort said, “I could share mine with you. It’s nice. We fight sometimes but we make it better. And we do take care of each other. And we don’t run away. Maybe you would like it. Maybe it would be different.”
Black liquid dripped from Barb’s bandages, and Barb smeared his nose on his tattered sleeve.
“That’s kind of you, Mort,” he said, and stood up, and cracked his back and his knuckles and his neck. “Well. If you’re not going to listen to good old fashioned reason, then I’ll help you take out Mister Rickety Rounds. Alright? Will you let me help with that?”
“Okay,” Mort said, and rose. “You can help.”
There was a cry, then, from the seagull overhead.
“Bert’s found something,” Mort said, and went tromping over the next bank of garbage as the seagull descended.
It picked something up from the beach, and cawed, and brought it closer, and dropped Polly’s severed hand among the stones and rubble of the beach.
Outro - Courts
Courts. I told you once, dreamer, to cast out from your court all that displeases you. To tolerate no thing in your presence that brings you undue suffering. But to this, dreamer, I would add, for life is formed of little cycles. Raze your enemies to the earth, yes. Gnaw on their bones. Rid your horizon of ugly hills.
But when all you see has been reclaimed, when you are alone at last in a court of your choosing, what will you fill it with? What will you plant in the ashes of your old life? Will you fill this space with friends or flowers? Will you build a garden in which to hide, or a sanctuary for others?
It is too early yet to know, dreamer, if there is a point to gardening when the sun of your age grows low and red on the horizon, and may never rise again. But I believe it will rise, dreamer. And with luck, and a movement of earth, it may yet rise on a world of flowers.
Waiting at your beck and call, I am your loyal host, Nikignik, waiting cordially for your return to the Hallowoods.
The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'Haunting Grounds', 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!