Content warnings for this episode include: Animal death (Heidi as usual, two fishes?), Kidnapping and abduction, Death + Injury, Needles, Drowning, Emotional Manipulation, Body horror
Intro - Home Again
You can’t go home again, they say, but that does not stop you. It is rare for you to have a day off, a respite from the burdens of the ever-busy present. But for old times’ sake, you think, you might as well visit the old haunting grounds; the home in which you were haunted.
You are surprised to find that the building is blackened by fire, and the roof sunken in. The door is cracked apart, the windows from which you used to watch the winter snowfall are blackened by soot where not shattered completely.
Time has been almost as kind to the house as it has been to its one-time inhabitants. The floorboards are reduced to ash, the furniture fallen through into the basement below, the wallpaper gone as if kindling for the rest, and your piano is only a memory.
You call out to see if any of the old ghosts still lurk in the shadows, but you are the only specter left now, a phantom in your own childhood. Your words alone echo back, Hello From The Hallowoods.
Right now, I sit amidst a family of flamingoes. They are dead. They are plastic. And like myself, they are watching a man of scales and fins and moss trudge down the road, scanning the forest for threats as he makes his way towards a little house on the far shore, where a light is on in the hallway and the smell of dinner almost done wafts from the kitchen window. The theme of tonight’s episode is Homecomings.
Story 1 - A Breathless Almost-Drowning
Ricou believed in love at first sight, but he was seeing now that he’d lost the opportunity. Then again, maybe he was a creature devoid of love. Maybe it was what he called his vicious attraction, the need that lurked deep in his spirit. If it sparkled in the sunlight, he wanted it. If it was gold, he had to have it. And if it gave him attention, and made him feel loveable, helped him to forget for a moment the depths to which he had sunk, then he could not live without it.
If this is love, it feels like being underwater, he thought. A breathless almost-drowning. Is love a possession? Am I a thief? Perhaps I crave what I will never be given freely.
He looked up from his dour thoughts to find himself in front of a house, the only one nearby where rumors of new ghosts within kept old visitors at bay. A ripped screen over the front door had been patched with thread. Flickering light warmed the curtains; he could see the hot bands of flame through the wall, a woodstove. And inside, as a mass of heat that Ricou knew immediately, was a whisper of a man. Ricou could have almost stopped breathing. He was unharmed. Turning around in the kitchen, working on something that smelled like roast fish.
Ricou reached a hand of webbed claws out to the door, and thought for a moment.
He has built a life here, Ricou thought. As he said he would. Perhaps it would be simpler if I did not knock; returned to dwell in the bog, forgot that for a year I was something more than a hungry animal in the silt. Maybe Barb still needs watchdogs. Nolan would forget about me in time. Perhaps he already has.
A bubble of panic burst from his lake of cynicism, and Ricou knocked with his moss-knuckled hand, rapped on the doorframe.
There was a pause, a clattering of a dish set down. Nolan stepped carefully into the hall, peered towards the door. What have I done, Ricou thought. If I am going to run, this is my last chance.
But Ricou stood on the decaying porch, and Nolan drew near, and the door swung open with a shudder.
Nolan’s heat glowed in the doorway, and a bitter regret speared Ricou’s heart like a harpoon. Ricou opened his mouth, but was frozen like a winter lake, could not find any words to fit this moment. The wind rushed in his fins.
“I was beginning to think you wouldn’t come at all,” said Nolan, face hot. “And to be honest, I wasn’t sure if I wanted you to.”
Ricou nodded, but could not bring himself to look away.
“You have found a home for yourself,” he stuttered. “Good.”
“It’s a work in progress,” Nolan said. “Would be a little faster if it hadn’t gotten scorched by a flaming bird messenger that someone sent after me.”
“So it did find you,” Ricou nodded, and looked up. “Are you alright?”
“You care about that now?” Nolan said, and crossed his arms. “I said I wanted to live down where there are other people. It’s not unreasonable. I offered for you to come with me, and you said no. I can respect that at least. But then you sent someone to drag me back up the mountain to you.”
“I did,” Ricou said, and swallowed; felt his facial fins flex in concern. “And after I asked them to find you I sat, for most of an hour in Walt’s cabin. But I could not stay. I hoped I would reach you before the Omen did, but even for me you are not easy to find.”
“Is that why you’re here, then?” Nolan said. “To drag me back yourself?”
“No,” Ricou said. No winter had chilled him as much as that question; he wavered on the porch steps. “I am here for two reasons. To make sure that you are alright. And to say that I am sorry. For sending the Omen, yes, but more than that for treating you like any other ill-gotten gain from the mire. The things I have taken from pockets I hold close in my hoard and bury so that no one else can treasure them. And I have felt the same for you. But you are not dead metal or broken clockwork. I am sorry that I did not go with you.”
“It would have made things easier,” Nolan said. “If you’d been there. I met people. A junk collector and a witch and a person all filled with fireflies. I would have felt… safer.”
“The last few weeks have been the worst of my life,” Ricou said, and ran his claws against the fins of his cheeks. “Worse than my early days, still growing. Worse than the years spent working for Barb. I have missed you.”
“You’re the only person to blame for that,” Nolan said, and leaned in the doorframe.
“I know,” said Ricou, and looked up, might have met Nolan’s eyes. “And I regret that it has happened this way between us. It was good for a time. Very good.”
Nolan started up, and turned in the hall for a moment.
“I think the fish is done,” he said, and stepped out of the hall for the kitchen, and called out. “You should come inside. We can talk about this over dinner.”
Ricou was paralyzed again, as if lightning had struck the lake surface. It was offered, this time. How easy it would be to step up those desiccated stairs and into that candle-lit home Nolan had made. But a net held him back; an anchor chain tangled around his fins. It would not be the right thing to do. He did not deserve it. Not after he had tried to ruin all of this, for what? To win an argument? For his own pride? If I step into this house, Ricou thought, I will only destroy it.
“I did not intend to stay long,” Ricou called, and stepped down from the porch stairs. The kitchen window lifted open a little more, and Nolan peered out. “I hope this goes well for you, Nolan. I truly do. I believe wherever you look for it, you will find a good life. I will not be a part of it. I am a monster, and it is not because of my gills or fins or claws. It is who I am to others.”
He ground his razor teeth, and stepped quickly away from the porch, walked from the house.
“Ricou?” Nolan called. “Where are you going?”
“I am glad you are alright, Nolan,” Ricou said loudly, and felt he was choking. “Goodbye.”
His eyes were irritated, and he rubbed at them, but then again he was not usually out of the water so long. The forest trail wound away from the lakeside lot, and past a cluster of plastic flamingoes in the undergrowth; he could see the main road ahead. And from there, where would he go? He would seek out a lake, far enough from Nolan that he would not have to worry about disturbing the man’s peace, and he would make a new burrow for the winter, and fill it with reminders that he was only fit to be alone.
There was thud, then, a weight that knocked him off his feet. He looked down to find Nolan with his arms around Ricou’s neck.
“Don’t go,” Nolan said, panting for air.
“I must,” Ricou said, tried to shift him gently away. “I put you in danger.”
“I still want you here,” Nolan said, catching his breath. “You can’t be my whole world, Ricou, but you’re one of my favorite parts of it. I… I made a bed for you in the underwater room. Dinner is for two. You did something awful, but I’m… I’m not a saint either. And I’ve said goodbye to almost every person I’ve ever cared about, when they even knew I existed. I don’t know how we go forward from here, but I know that I don’t want to say goodbye to you.”
“I do not deserve to stay here with you, Nolan,” Ricou said quietly.
“No, you don’t,” Nolan said with a sigh, and moved off Ricou as he sat up. “But nobody deserves anything. And I think if you find something you like in life, you keep it. You don’t have to be good enough or something. If you feel like you could belong here, then stay with me. And if you really don’t care anymore, then leave.”
“I do care,” Ricou said, and sat forward with concern, flared his fins. “Of course I care. But I have made an irreparable mistake.”
“Absolutely you have,” Nolan said, and got to his feet, and cracked his back. “That happens, once in a while, I think. Dinner’s getting cold.”
Nolan turned, and began walking back for the house. Ricou sat for a moment, glared at the flamingoes. They stared back with mud-battered eyes.
“You saw none of this,” Ricou growled, and stood up, dusted off his fins, and followed Nolan towards the house on the edge of the lake, and held close a feeling like happiness.
Interlude 1 - Almost Quiet
High over the forest canopy, watching. The ravens are gone now, and no one knows that we are here. The wind shifts in great currents, washes over the trees below—spruce and pine, birch and willow swaying in welcome.
From here, one would barely notice the speck of the old Duckworth house on the lake, or miles away, Scoutpost Two, where they are putting up banners and flags, stringing together scraps of fabric and flowers. From here one cannot hear the hum of activity, of clothes and friends being mended, lights repaired and kitchen fires nurtured to a blaze.
Up here it is almost quiet, save for one sound, growing louder by the moment, disrupting the songs of sharpwing crickets and great toads. It is the catastrophic roar of a helicopter far past its prime, black and spraypainted in red murals—chief among them, the word ‘Stonemaids’, and a crowd of hands clamoring for change.
We go now to one who has been on a helicopter for the first time.
Story 2 - Freefall
A helicopter is a terrible way to fly, thought Olivier. The wind rushing in your ears as you lift yourself into the air with hurricane winds is loud, but the beat of rotors overhead for hours at a time is unbearable. The sound still echoed in her ears as she disembarked into the clearing.
Entire states had passed beneath her feet while she slept—Montana and North Dakota and Minnesota, distant mountains passing beneath the tiny windows of the chopper. Every part of her ached from the ride.
Behind her, Diggory helped Danielle to get down from the helicopter door, and Percy, wrapped in silver, held her other hand. It was strange to have the ghost so… present. And if the metal face was a little uncanny, Olivier wasn’t going to say anything. Percy seemed happy.
The Riots were both stretching and grunting dramatically, and for a moment Olivier was hard-pressed to tell which was which. And beyond the original members of their road trip, there were four adults—Marco and Brooklyn, who talked in hushed giggly whispers to each other and apparently were directly responsible for a great amount of their discomfort over the last many months, and a woman named Cindy who flew helicopters and didn’t offer personal details, and worse for wear but still standing, Valerie Maidstone.
The flight had been largely quiet, because it was impossible to hear anything inside of the helicopter, but also Olivier had been exhausted, and it was enough to bask in the fact that they had all escaped successfully, and now she walked in fresh air and deep black pine trees again. When did I start to think of this wretched forest as home, she wondered?
“Welcome home everyone!” Riot crowed, as Danielle settled into her chair. The wheels were maybe not the best for the forest floor; Percy deposited Nimbus into her lap, where the cat stayed and purred.
“It’s strange being down here,” Brooklyn said, shouldering a bag as Cindy handed out luggage. “Not from behind a screen in Box Polaris.”
“This forest wasn’t like this when we went into the bunker,” Valerie added, glancing around at the treeline.
“Well, ecological disaster will do that for you,” Marco quipped, hands on his hips. His Botulus Corporation greys were too drab for his smile.
“It’s nothing to joke about,” frowned Cindy, and shuddered, and shouldered her black backpack. “This place is the end of the human race if it’s left to its own devices.”
“Does it have to be?” said Diggory, and they looked up from Danielle. “I am not sure what category I belong to. I have been a friend of Valerie’s, and a wife of Cindy’s, but I am also… new. Connected, in some way, to this place. But I live among you without trouble.”
“Rizwana had one goal, and she would have done anything for it,” said Cindy, looking grave. “It was to end this, so that people can survive. Living people. And if this forest keeps spreading, they will not. You have to remember that, deep down, somewhere.”
Diggory looked down at the blanket of black needles beneath their feet. “I believe I do.”
“Hey,” said Percy, stepping out beside Diggory, metal shoes crunching in the underbrush. “There will be time to worry about this later. Let’s just get back to the Scoutpost, okay?”
“Please,” said Danielle, as Diggory helped guide her chair through the tangle of weeds and low shrubs. “After carrying you all for like three crazy rescues, I’m ready for a rest.”
Olivier kicked up into the air. The weather was familiar here; the sky she had grown up beneath, the storms she had first learned to speak to. The wind carried her high over the trees, enough to scout out the road to the Scoutpost, with all its little flags and tied branches.
“This way,” Olivier pointed, and called down. The group began to trundle through the underbrush, and she descended again, leaves stirring in her wake as she caught up with Riot towards the back of the crowd.
“Sorry if I wore out your shoulder on the way here,” Olivier said quietly. “I didn’t even realize I fell asleep until we were landing.”
“It’s okay,” Riot said, and pulled on her sword; she had the belt looped around her shoulder. “I’m glad you got some rest after that… horrible place.”
“I do feel better,” Olivier said, and glanced up to the rest of the group ahead. “Is everything okay with you and Other Riot?”
“I’m not sure,” Riot said, and watched the identical girl ahead of her. Riot came in a little closer to Olivier, talked in a confidential whisper. “I was so angry at her for like, existing. And maybe I still should be, because she totally ratted us out to Botco. But. I don’t know. What do you think, Ollie?”
“I…” Olivier sighed. “Maybe I’m biased, but when I was in Downing Hill, they made me want to be there so bad. It was the only kind of… attention, love I guess, that I knew. And you know more than anyone that I did awful things to try and get that back. And once it was gone for good, I felt like I didn’t know who I was anymore. Like everything I thought I was going to be was gone with it. And when I look at her right now, that’s kind of what I see.”
“But you’re fine now,” said Riot. “Maybe a little stuck up sometimes, but not trying to kidnap me. And you’ve got so much that’s cool about you.”
Olivier blushed, and looked down. Riot was quiet for a few moments, and sighed.
“Ugh,” she said. “I really need to stop making nice with the people who try to kill me.”
She jogged ahead a few paces to catch up with Other Riot.
“Hey,” Riot said; Olivier couldn’t help but listen in, following a few paces behind. “I just wanted to say… I’m sorry for all the possessive stuff earlier. You don’t have to be Other Riot. You can be Also Riot, if you want.”
“Thanks,” said her reflection at length, stepping over a fallen trunk towards the road. “I appreciate the sentiment, you know? But—no offense—I don’t want to be you. I’m not you. I’m just made of the same stuff. I want to be something of my own. I don’t know yet what that is.”
“That’s okay too,” said Riot, and nodded. “That’s good. But, um. Because people are going to ask, and frankly I’m not sure how to explain how you exist… do you want to just be sisters?”
Also Riot stopped, and Olivier and Riot held up as well, watched the group walk ahead a few moments.
“Jeez. You’ve got to stop making me cry,” said Also Riot, and rubbed at her face. “Yeah. I can live with ‘sisters’.”
Also Riot took a few paces to catch up with Valerie, and Riot fell behind beside Olivier.
“Well?” she muttered. “Happy?”
“I didn’t ask you to do that,” Olivier shrugged. “That’s all you.”
“In so many ways,” Riot said, and with a last step, they cleared the last of the brush and arrived on the road to the Scoutpost. It was a muddied path off the Northern Artery, winding through the woods towards a large clearing. But what occupied the clearing was not familiar to her.
The Scoutpost was once a haphazard fortress of sheet metal and raw lumber, parked in the middle of a clearing of tree stumps and makeshift gardens. But now, a building encompassed almost the whole clearing, with walls grown of a great thicket of tree roots, occasional patches of windows or metal sealed together by the arborial wall. The Scoutpost’s doors were set in a new frame of twisted branches, and the lookout towers loomed high over the tallest pines.
“What happened here?” said Riot, and blinked. “It wasn’t like this when we left it, was it?”
“I have no idea,” said Olivier. “It definitely wasn’t.”
“This is your home sweet home?” said Cindy, as the group came to a halt a few paces from the great doors.
“Not exactly,” said Riot, and held her sword close. She could not help but be reminded of the wall of trees that had once surrounded the house of the Instrumentalist.
“Diggory, are you sure you should…” Olivier began, but the revenant was already at the door, and gave it a knock with their knife-edged hand.
A moment of stillness passed.
And then the door swung open, and Bern was on the other side with her arm in a sling, and Violet sat in a rocking chair beside her, and the Scoutpost beyond was full of faces that Olivier knew, revenants and scouts and children, and the air smelled of soup and fresh flowers, and banners strung across the vast central courtyard read ‘Welcome Home’.
The Empty Space Where Marketing Used To Go
Did you feel that, dreamer?
That is the moment where one or another of Lady Ethel Mallory’s broadcasts grow loud and interrupt my narrative, and I wait for the disruption to quiet so that I may continue.
But there is none. The dreaming transmissions are dead, for there is no one to order their schedule.
It is strange to have this silence. It has become such a part of the routine, after all. Almost every night I have spoken to you, she has chimed in to irritate me.
Do not think by reflecting on the absence that I am complaining. The night has finally come when I do not have to hear her blathering on about cost benefit analyses and profit margins and lifetime value. That alone is a cause for celebration.
We return now to Olivier Song.
Story 2, Continued - Freefall
Olivier had never been to a party.
There were little celebrations in Downing Hill, of course, at the end of the school term. Typically quite tired and formal things, quickly escaped. A friend might bring you a gift on your birthday—Friday would hurt someone Olivier disliked, for instance. But after that, even after the death of the Instrumentalist, the celebrations were fraught with mourning, and a somber remembrance of the many lives that Solomon Reed so violently dismembered.
So it was, in a sense, her first real party, and there was much to celebrate beneath its banners. The commemoration of Scoutpost Two—Olivier was still a little unclear on what had happened, except that they had repelled an attack from Fort Freedom and the Froglins in the same night, and this somehow upset the forest, and Jonah Duckworth (whose terrible visage Olivier was familiar with) was involved.
No matter what the specifics were, it was true that the Scoutpost was bigger, with more space for gardens and more rooms for guests, its walls and towers taller, and its construction was largely of bark that seemed grown from the forest floor itself, like the roots of some vast and ancient tree.
“We’d like to propose a toast,” Violet said, standing with some difficulty in front of the bonfire, and Bern glanced around the gathered crowd, which hushed quickly. “To our brand new Scoutpost Two. And we are happy to welcome some new members to our Scoutpost family. Please treat them kindly, as we were all newcomers at one time or another. Riot’s mother, Valerie Maidstone, and her sister… yes.
Buck Silver, here, has escaped from Fort Freedom, and Danielle and Marco and Brooklyn have come all the way from California. We’ve traveled miles to be here together; we’ve fought off people who wished to destroy us, and we’ve made a very good soup. Enjoy the night.”
Violet returned to a bench by the tables of food, and the crowd began to filter into groups of conversation and, increasingly, began to dance. The ogre that had once thrown a car at Olivier sat in a far corner, eating whole squashes. Nimbus kept to the upper walkways, avoiding the dogs that the giant had brought. A sandy-haired boy darted through the crowd with a toy drum under one arm.
Percy kept close to Diggory, the light of the fire glinting in his silver face. Diggory was deluged by the other sewn-together creations that had once haunted Solomon’s lawn—some seemed to carry more stitches than Olivier remembered. In the firelight, one could almost mistake them for human, a far cry from the uniformed scarecrows Olivier had first met.
Zelda watched from her chair beyond the dancers, the firelight glowing in her eyes. Olivier felt a familiar pang of guilt for once trying to steal her away. For what, Olivier wondered? For nothing. Solomon would not so much as thanked me. And for all that Downing Hill had represented in Olivier’s thoughts, was it really worth ruining a life the way Olivier had tried to do?
Beside her was Jonah, talking in loud conversation. Olivier avoided his green-tinged glance, just in case he could read thoughts. The man in the chair beside Jonah seemed to have some changes of his own—an arm grown of the same black bark as the Scoutpost walls, german shepherds laying like lions at his feet.
Riot stayed close to her mother the first hour or so, and Also Riot disappeared entirely. Olivier could not blame her; she needed space to process things too. As the moon rose over the Scoutpost celebration, Olivier could not help but wonder—was Friday out there still? Was she alright? Perhaps without Olivier around, she’d opened up, made other friends. Olivier hoped so, rather than her being alone at Downing Hill with only faceless librarians and scatterbrained archivists for company.
“Hey,” Riot said, suddenly close to Olivier’s ear, and she jumped. Riot laughed. “Someone’s letting their guard down, huh?”
“Maybe a little more than I used to,” Olivier said, and crossed her arms. “How’s your mom?”
“Well, she’s complaining a lot about the helicopter seats being uncomfortable, and that the RV-lution got blown up, but I told her it was better than being in a Dreaming Pod.”
“It does suck that the RV is gone,” said Olivier. Riot extended a bowl of soup, and Olivier accepted it. “Seemed like it had a lot of old memories for her. Do you have a spoon?”
“It had memories for me too,” Riot said, and drank from the bowl like a cup, and smacked her lips. “There was stuff in there I wanted to save. A guitar from Walt—I don’t know why I packed it, I didn’t get a chance to play. His tools and stuff. And some of my Scoutpost things. And all your books.”
“It’s okay,” Olivier said, and reluctantly took a sip of the soup. It felt wrong without utensils. “I read all of them. I don’t know if it’s a consolation or not, but the RV was getting robbed by the Count’s folks when it was blown up. So who knows where our stuff is.”
“But it’s just stuff,” Riot said, as if reminding herself. “Nobody died. And we rescued my mom, and Danielle, and… even people we weren’t planning on rescuing. So I’m thankful for that. And I’ve got my sword and the almanac; those count the most for me.”
“And the almanac’s done, right?” said Olivier. Riot sat down beside her on a picnic blanket. “What will you draw now?”
“Well, I’ll have to start a volume two, obviously,” said Riot, and gulped down the last of her soup without chewing. She watched the crowd twist and lunge in time with the music.
“We should dance,” Riot announced.
“It’s square dancing. I only know how to waltz,” Olivier said, but by the time she finished speaking, Riot had dragged her to her feet and was pulling her into the crowd. The instructions for the next dance were given—confusing and counterintuitive, and Olivier could not get her feet in the right places, and was no more the wiser by the time the explanation was done and the dance was about to start.
“Ollie,” Riot whispered. “Stop being in your head so much. Just follow my lead.”
Just like falling, Olivier thought. There’s no controlling how you fall. She tumbled from one Scoutpost face to the next, a whirlwind of hands and trades and spins, but by the end of each verse, she was back to holding Riot’s sweaty hands in hers. Olivier laughed, and did not worry about the wildness of her hair, the wrinkles in her collar, the occasional trip over the corner of her cloak.
And in time, the music slowed, and Riot had a hand on her hip, and Olivier’s hand was on Riot’s shoulder, and they turned in the firelight beneath the moon, carried by a wind ushered by pitch-black pines. Riot’s face was closer than usual, but Olivier was already familiar with the reflections of her grey-blue eyes and each acne spot and freckle.
She pressed her face up to Riot and kissed her, and was met with one in return, and many more before the fire dwindled.
I’m falling, Olivier thought, and I’m free to fall.
Interlude 2 - Light Has No Home
I am not supposed to have a home. If this aggrieves you, then you do not understand what I am. I am supposed to be impartial, for one must be in order to narrate an impartial universe. It is a delicate thing, when you are a hurricane who has taken to watching butterflies. I am not telling you a story, I am telling you the story. I am the voice, but ironically enough for me, not the vision.
Light has no home. It is everywhere except the shadow. Dream is also everywhere except the waking. They are neither tools for love or hate, for temptation or salvation. They only are, and are nowhere and everywhere at once, and their influence is scarcely remembered by the dawn.
So too is my mentor Zazzlezazz, Dreaming All That Is, for it is his domain to begin with. And as a student gifted with it, I must not misuse my power—I may orate, but not effect, may speak but lay no head or claw or needle upon the tapestry as it is woven.
I have come far with these little people. And I see goodness, and love, and all that I have longed for in them. And in the embrace of these pines, I am held by the memory of their maker.
I am ruined. My purpose corrupted.
And I will lay my needle and add a stitch here, a knot there, put eyes into the backing where no one can see them.
I will keep fire and worm and moth from their canvas. And we will see together whose portrait is being created.
We go now to a portrait.
Story 3 - Sometimes Clementine
“More soup?” said an old woman, and Also Riot froze. Her bowl was empty, and the stew of boiled meat and celery and potato and carrot was better than all the packaged meals she’d eaten at Box Andromeda, but she hesitated. There were so many new people to meet, more than she’d ever been surrounded by, and she didn’t want to come across as greedy.
“Take it,” said the woman; she had a kind wrinkled face, but a sharpness in her eyes, and flowers in her hair. “I’m sorry I didn’t say your name at the speech, but your mother mentioned it was under consideration, something like that?”
Also Riot sat down beside the woman on the bench, held the bowl in her lap. Dances were beginning by the fire ahead of them.
“She’s not my mother,” she said quietly. “Not really. It’s complicated, but… I don’t really belong with anyone.”
“Oh I’m sure Valerie wouldn’t agree,” said the woman.
“I’m sure she wouldn’t either,” said Also Riot. “But it’s the truth.”
The woman was quiet for a moment, and Riot had a few spoonfuls of her soup, and shivered—the breeze was much colder here than the placid halls of a dreaming box.
“Well, while you think about your name, I’m Violet. It’s nice to have you here.”
It occurred to Riot that she’d never heard those words quite in that order, and as Violet spoke, she put a coat around Riot’s shoulders. Riot might have objected, but the coat was warm, and she pulled it around her shoulders gratefully.
“Thank you,” she said. “I hope it’s not a bother. It seems like there’s already so many people to take care of here.”
“We take care of each other,” said Violet. “Everyone has a place. Everyone contributes in their own way. Some people peel vegetables, some cook, some forage. Some teach. Some people fill our lives with art and music. That’s Virgil there on the fiddle. A real talent.”
“What if you’re not good for anything?” said Also Riot. “If everything you’re for is already taken?”
“Hasn’t happened yet,” Violet sniffed. “Everyone has something, and if you’re not sure what it is, we’ll give you the chance to try things out. Riot found a place eventually, working with Walt. I never knew I liked gardening until my 50’s, you know. People are full of surprises. I’m sure you’re good at something, more than anyone else in the Scoutpost. But it’s alright to take some time to find where you fit.”
“I wish you were my mom,” Riot said, and then looked down, and her cheeks burned as she realized she’d said it out loud. “Sorry. That came out wrong.”
“I never got the chance to have a daughter,” Violet said, and smiled briefly. “I think about what she’d be like, from time to time. Sometimes a Lucille, sometimes a Clementine. But if she was like you, I’d be happy. Keep your chin up, and enjoy the night. And if you need anything, anything at all, you let me know.”
“Do you want your coat back?” Also Riot said.
“Hang onto it for me,” Violet said. Riot nodded politely, and finished her soup, and escaped through the crowd so she could be embarrassed someplace without people. There were parapets, walkways at the tops of the walls, but they seemed to be home to clusters of stargazers or romantic couples.
She looked up higher—the lookout nests seemed empty. She approached the tallest, and began to climb a sheer ladder of wooden rungs and knotted rope that stretched up a tree trunk into the night sky.
She might have been sixty feet up by the time she pulled herself up through a trapdoor and into the lookout’s nest, and the night wind picked up around her. She was thankful she had the jacket now, and nestled inside of it. It was a sunny yellow, with embroidered patches on the shoulders and back.
Peaking over the edge, she could see the dancers far below, the people who had carried her away from Box Atlas scattered in the crowd. The forest beyond was a new view, though, and she felt as though the host of pines beyond the Scoutpost wall was watching her. Two can play at that game, she thought.
There was a thud, then, as a huge dark shape descended from the sky, came over the guard rail onto the lookout platform with her. It had arrived in an instant, and Also Riot darted back, looked up to find a girl staring at her from the edge of the platform. She had dark skin, and the firelight reflected in her round glasses, and brown eyes watched her expectantly.
“Hello?” said Also Riot, and looked around—the girl had practically fallen onto the platform, but there was only a broom in her hands, and no helicopter or drone to be seen.
“You don’t exactly look happy to see me,” the other girl remarked, a flicker of confusion on her face.
“I’m sorry, I don’t… oh,” Riot stuttered.
“I think I might have made a mistake,” said the girl, pushing back her fluffy hair in exasperation.
“They’re out of control. And they’re giving me a chance now, a real chance to help mom and dad, but it’s a carrot on a string, right? I’m not stupid. They won’t give me things unless I prove how much of a good soldier I can be, and…” the other girl trailed off. “Riot? Are you okay?”
“That’s not me,” said Also Riot slowly. “I’m sorry. I wish I was. I’m… not Riot.”
“What do you mean?” the girl said, and shook her head in confusion. “Is this like, a ‘you’re changing your name’ thing? Or a ‘you don’t want to see me’ thing?”
“Neither,” said Also Riot, and raised her hands. “I look like her. I am just literally not who you’re looking for. I mean… she’s down there. Look.”
Also Riot leaned over the edge and pointed, picked out Riot in the crowd below, dancing with Olivier in slow circles. She felt the flying girl lean over as well.
Far below them, Riot and Olivier kissed, and continued to do so as they danced.
“Oh,” said the stranger.
“I’m sorry,” said Also Riot. “Um. You could go down and tell her whatever it is? Or… I could give her a message?”
“No, it’s… okay,” said the girl with the glasses. Also Riot smelled something distinct for a moment; like wet animal.
“Are you sure?” said Riot; the stranger set her broom in the air beyond the platform, and with casual grace leaped onto it.
“Can you do me a favor?” the stranger called back over her shoulder.
“Anything,” said Also Riot, and kicked herself internally.
“Don’t tell her I came by,” the stranger said. “It’ll just be easier that way.”
Also Riot began to speak, but the stranger’s broom seemed to bristle and crack, and then she was gone, sailing far past the moonlight into the darkness.
Also Riot shook her head, and watched until the girl was gone, and turned her gaze down to the party below.
She was a world away from the Botulus Corporation, a world away from Lady Ethel Mallory, from her father, from Melanie’s warm smiles, from Anderson Faust and his probing needles.
She was a world away from Riot Maidstone, up here, a world of her own.
Whose world is it, she wondered? Maybe Clementine’s, she thought. Maybe mine.
Outro - Homecomings
Long the journey, long the road, long the path that winds and wends.
Harsh the fires and the suns and the winds. Cruel thee thickets and the grasping claws of winter and the teeth of the beast beyond the road.
But kind are the strangers, and the ocean breeze, and the signs that guide your way through strange towns, lead you with uncertain steps back past every milestone until you begin to recognize the landscape, until the streets are familiar as old friends, until the numbers of the houses come to the one you know by heart.
It will be the same, when you walk in again, and slough off your bags and your boots, but it will not feel like it. Everything is where you left it, but the feeling persists that something is different.
That thing is you, for you never return home unchanged by the world beyond it. Until you step in through the front door, I am your loyal host Nikignik, waiting like a key beneath the doormat for your return to the Hallowoods.
The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'What To Pack', 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!