Chapter 1: You've wandered too far
A sweet voice drawled from the other end of the receiver, “I just thought you needed a friend.”
“I don’t have any friends,” you shot back venomously.
A gasp! “Well, I could be your friend!”
Tears began to prickle at your eyes.
“No, you can’t. You won’t want to be”
“I’m a freak. A loser. A waste of space.”
He clicked his tongue, “Nonsense! I think you’re the absolute most!”
Most… most of what?
He continued slowly, “Do you want me to come get you? Do you need help?”
Now you’re sobbing. You sit on the chipped asphalt, hand grasping the phone as if it were a lifeline. Your eyes clenched shut as tears flooded down your face. You hiccuped helplessly into the receiver, all while a soothing voice on the other end whispered saccharine praises.
Your head pounded, a terrifying reminder of last night’s escapades. You felt the heat of the sun warming your skin, the brightness of the day begging to be let into your vision.
You squeezed your eyes shut further and rolled to the side, the hard, metal surface pushing into your skin. Few more minutes of sleep, you begged internally. Please.
“Where did they come from?” A cheery, quizzical voice chimed from a direction.
“I don’t know, but what if they’re hurt?” a mother hen chirped in.
“Well, frankly speaking, they’re definitely an outsider. Maybe we should be more cautious.” A nasally voice responded.
Too much talking. You can’t fall back asleep now.
Your lids finally flutter open, cringing at the brightness that invaded your senses. You released an audible groan as your head pulsed. As the world started to focus, you noticed a ring of people surrounding you.
Adrenaline kicked in, churning away the remaining inebriation. You shot up, feet planting on the ground. The crowd, in response, jumped back in surprise.
You could feel your heart hammering in your chest as you stared wide eyed at the people. They didn’t… look human. Each one was vibrantly coloured, adorning fuzzy shapes and cartoon-esque dimensions. This is it, you lost it. You really lost it. You’re in Elmo’s playland now.
You pushed your palms into your eyes, rubbing the remaining sleep from them.
Everything was… loud. Not just the people, but the colours. So many colours.
You dared not to peak from your hand-hiding spot. Your voice creaked out, the scent of alcohol rich on your breath. “Where… am I?”
A different voice from earlier responded. It was a velvety, smooth monotone. The ends of his words tilted in friendliness, “Oh, why, you’re in the neighbourhood of Home! Good morning, neighbour!”
You dared to peak from your haven, stealing a glance at the blue pompadour wearing figure. He smiled softly, his sleepy eyes locking with yours.
This must be a dream. That’s the only thing you can think of.
You decided to play along, your hands finally falling to your lap. “’Home?’”
“Yes,” the gray-coloured … puppet? spoke matter-of-factly, “It’s a small town in the outskirts of a forest.”
You released a noncommittal noise before trying your luck at standing up. You swayed a bit, but you were able to find your balance. A giant bird creature had reached out her wings to try to catch you in case you fell.
“Well,” you started talking to your own ‘delusions’, “I really should get going. To go to my actual home.”
The one with the pompadour and blue cardigan spoke again, starting his statement with a low hum. “That would be really far, friend. It’s a few days trek through the forest to reach the nearest town.”
A coldness pitted in your stomach. You released a nervous laugh, “Th-that’s impossible. How did I even get here then?”
Everyone looked at each other in confusion, a concerned frown marking all of their faces. The puppet with tiny horns spoke softly, “Do you not remember?”
You wracked at your brain to try to remember the events of last night. The memory of desolate city streets and the clank of bottles echo in your mind. You grasp at your forehead to try to remember. Nothing. You cursed your terrible habit for indulging in liquor.
A tightness clenched at your chest as you tried to breath. A dread settled on your senses as reality came crashing down. If this really were a dream, you’d wake up now, right?
You slapped the palm of your hand against your cheek, the sound of flesh on flesh creating a smack. The stinging on your skin confirmed that this was definitely real. The puppets around you simultaneously jumped at the noise
It became harder to breath. Your lungs desperately tried to fill with air, but your throat tightened in defiance. The rainbow characters all crowded you, hands outreached to catch you if you were to fall.
The Mr. Rogers knock-off spoke in his soothing monotone, “H-hey, neighbour. Take it easy. You don’t look so well.”
Your legs wobbled as you sat back down on the metal bench behind you, your hands cusping your cheeks. “This can’t be real…”
“Oh dear,” the Big Bird-adjacent crooned worriedly, “Take deep breathes!”
The cardigan man pushed passed his friends to sit by your side. He leant down to try to reach your gaze. You begrudgingly followed his pupils, your head feeling light, your senses fuzzying.
“Deep breathes,” he instructed slowly, sucking in air, and then slowly exhaling to demonstrate. “In… and out.”
You took in shaky breathes, following his exercises. You willed your throat to ease, the air now filling your lungs easily. The static from your mind was lifting.
He only smiled, eyes never leaving yours. “Better?”
You nodded gratefully, “Much.”
The other puppets released the breath that they were holding.
“How about we settle you with a nice cup of tea?” the feathered one stated sweetly.
The horned monster’s face lit up instantly, her pitched voice grating your ears, “Like a TEA PARTY?”
You stiffened at the suggestion. The man next to you never gave up his eye contact before speaking, “Maybe a bit more low profile. Like a tea picnic?”
“That… I think that sounds good,” you agreed, voice low, your body still tickling from the adrenaline that pumped through your blood.
The four puppets escorted you off of the bench, which was located right outside of a local store. You caught a glimpse of a sign that stated, ‘100% off!’. You scoffed internally at the absurdity.
They made their way to a small hill in the centre of the town. The bird and monster scampered off to get some supplies, leaving you with the gray and yellow puppet men. You awkwardly stood, arms folding across your chest. Suddenly, your shoes were very interesting to watch.
It didn’t help that they were both staring at you like you were an alien.
The gray one cleared his throat, “I don’t believe we caught your name?”
“Oh,” you finally glanced up, cautiously disclosing your name to them. “And… what are your names?”
The cardigan puppet released an audible gasp, offering a kind smile, “Oh my! That’s not very neighbourly of us! I’m Wally.”
The grey one gave Wally a side eye, that defining frown furthering even more. “And I’m Frank.”
“And the others?”
As if on cue, the bird came over with a folded checkered blanket. Frank gestured to her, “That’s Poppy.”
The monster puppet tagged behind, holding a metal tray with a full teapot and cups. She spoke up for herself, a beaming smile gracing her fuzzy features, “I’m Julie!”
Poppy unfurled the blanket and settled everything down neatly, gesturing to you, “It’s so nice to meet you.”
You sat down with the others, reintroducing yourself to Poppy and Julie as they passed around hot cups of herbal tea. You relished in the feeling of heat against your skin, the soothing aroma already calming your frayed senses.
“Does this make you feel a bit better?” Poppy watched you worriedly as she sipped from her cup.
You took a sip of the tea, the sensation warming your exhausted body. It wasn’t McDonalds, but this was the next best hangover remedy. “A bit better now, thank you.”
“So,” Frank started, voice dripping in skepticism, “you really don’t remember how you got here?”
“Last night is really fuzzy right now,” you tried to explain without exposing how you binged. You don’t even know if these cartoons would even know what that is. “But I’m sure it’ll come with some rest.”
He was unsatisfied with the answer, but he decided not to pry, sipping his tea in silence.
Wally interjected, scooting closer to your side, “But it’s good that you stumbled upon this neighbourhood! It would have been bad if you got lost in the forest!”
“That’s true…” you mulled over the thought. That would probably not be ideal.
Out of the corner of your eye, you spotted movement from a towering being with multiple arms. You scrambled back, tea sloshing to the ground as this apron-clad creature approached the group. You held back a yelp as you decided to cower behind the shortest member of the group - Wally.
Wally looked on, amused at your antics. His low voice called out to the intruder, “Oh, hello Howdy! Would you like to join us?”
The multi-limbed creature was huffing, looking absolutely frazzled as he held a paper bag full of goods, motioning to you, “Oh, there you are! I was packing a welcoming bag for you, and you just vanished!”
You peaked out from behind Wally, giving him a squeaky, ‘Huh?’
Howdy bent his legs to sit on the blanket, carefully extending out the bag of goods to you. He offered it to you as if you were a lost animal, trying to coax you out into safety.
You cautiously scooted closer to view the contents. Shifting through the items, you spotted some canned food, a tooth brush, tooth paste, and some bottled water. “B…but why?”
He finally relaxed onto his back legs, a hand rubbing at the back of his neck while the others rested on his knees. “I found you passed out on the doorstep of my bodega! You didn’t look so well, and… as a responsible shop owner, I have to take care of my customers!”
The niceness was overwhelming. You can’t remember when the last time people were this nice to you. You swallowed heavily, forcing down any emotions that were trying to surface. “What do I owe you?”
Howdy offered a smile, “Nothing! But maybe when you’re feeling better, a few jokes would pay off the debt!”
You had no idea how to process this information, agreeing just to nod.
“So,” Julie started, leaning forward a bit, “How can we help you get back?”
“They’d have to prepare for a journey, that’s for certain,” Frank stated matter-of-factly.
“A few days walk,” Poppy hummed sadly, “I suppose I can prepare some food for your journey!”
The group of puppets collaborated with each other, each offering ideas on how to help. You sat back in silence as you watched them, dread settling back into your stomach.
The only one not offering advice was the man next to you.
He was watching you with his droopy eyes, a calming smile gracing his lips. He leaned over to whisper to you, that tone of his sounding even more sedated, “This must be a lot for you.”
You gave him a nod, the hopelessness creeping up into your thoughts. You tried your best to soldier a placid expression.
“Maybe you should rest for the day and think about it?”
“Where would I even stay?” your voice betrayed you as it cracked with fear.
He hummed, letting silence rest between you two for a few beats. Finally turning back to the crowd, he spoke at his normal tone, and everyone seemed to stop to look at him. “Where should they stay in the mean time? We could plan another day, when they’re all rested.”
Everyone looked at each other. Julie started prattling that it should just be a giant sleepover, at which Wally quickly dissuaded.
“Well, I do have a spare room in the bodega,” Howdy started slowly. “It’s not much, but there’s a bed.”
“I can’t let you do that!” you interjected. “You already helped me out!” You gestured to the groceries he gave you.
Howdy gave a sheepish smile and shrugged. “It’s the least I can do for a new customer! Besides, it’s only until you set off, right?”
You gave a glance at the crowd, hoping that someone could help dissuade from the sheer amount of niceness.
Nobody intervened. They all smiled and praised the idea. Your shoulders slumped in response.
“Well, that settles that, then,” Wally leaned back, giving you a relaxed smirk.
A pent up sigh released from your nose. You resigned to the generosity of others.
After some time, everyone helped pack up the picnic supplies, which ended with happy farewells, and until tomorrows. The group dispersed, now it was just you, Howdy, and Wally.
“Are you ready to see the room?” Howdy had leaned down to talk to you.
You shifted the paper bag in your arms as you gave him a hesitant nod.
Howdy started down the hill, his long legs guiding him quickly to his shop. Watching him move, you found it hard to even lift up your feet. The uncertainty of everything was still heavy on your mind.
You sensed a pair of eyes staring at you, which you assumed was the cardigan puppet. What you gathered from today is that he really loved to stare. Perhaps he didn’t realise he was doing it? You dared to give him a shy glance.
Sensing your nervousness, Wally’s voice had dropped down into his pacifying whisper, “If you want, you can give me a ring once you’ve settled in?”
You didn’t answer immediately. You really don’t want to burden anyone else right now.
You thought about how he helped you today, how he was the first to give a helping hand to all your worries.
Maybe… you really did need a friend right now.
A tiny smile played on your lips as you nodded, “What’s your number?”
Wally’s smile furthered at your response.
“And this,” Howdy flicked on some overhead lights, “will be your room.”
He introduced you to his humble bodega. In the back of the shop was a storeroom, hosting shelves of ordered products that needed to be organised. A tiny cot hid in the far corner as well as a mounted wall phone.
“It really isn’t much.”
A warmness spread through your chest at the quaint arrangement. You can imagine him dipping into the back for a nap on slow days. You gave him a thankful smile, “I really appreciate this, Howdy.”
The caterpillar flushed, waving away your compliment. He started to make his way out the door, “The bathroom is upstairs, down the hall, to the left. Let me know if you need anything.”
He closed the door with a click.
You released a full body sigh as you flung yourself onto the bed, the cot creaking under your weight. You relished in the privacy from the chaotic day. Your muscles ached, screamed for any type of solstice from the rampage of events.
So much has happened. And quite frankly, you had no idea how to process any of it. What if this all was just one big hallucination? You played with the thought a bit as you dug into the grocery bag for you tooth brush.
You also really couldn’t wait to scrub every bit of last night’s events off of you.
Once you heard no more movement from Mr. Pillar, you padded your way to the bathroom. You gazed at yourself in the mirror and saw a husk of a human.
Well… you definitely saw better days.
You ran your hands under hot water, scrubbing your face in the sink.
Your mind wandered as you tried to remember last night. Quick snippets were slowly revealing themselves, but nothing to really tell a whole story.
You brushed your teeth and tongue vigorously, freeing yourself from any remaining evidence of alcohol.
Maybe with sleep, you’ll remember more.
Satisfied, you maneuvered back to your makeshift room. You stopped in front of the phone, contemplating whether to give the strange yellow puppet a call. Would Howdy mind if you used his phone this time?
You weighed the options for a few moments.
You decided to pick up the receiver and dial the number.
A nervousness rumbled your stomach as the line rung. After the second ring, that low voice answered.
A frog was in your throat as you tried to speak, “H-hi, Wally?”
You could hear him smile through his voice, “Why, hello there! How are you settling in?”
“Well, it’s definitely a day, alright.”
“Ha ha ha,” Wally gave a bizarre laugh. It caused goosebumps to run down your arm. “It definitely was, wasn’t it?”
You rubbed the back of your neck. “I just wanted to thank you for being so nice today. You didn’t have to be.”
“Nonsense. That’s just what friends do for each other.”
A sourness settled in your mouth. ‘Friend’, huh…?
“Hello~? You still there?”
You pulled yourself from your thought, “Y-yeah, I am.”
“Do you think you will be able to sleep tonight?”
“I hope so. I desperately need it, at this point.”
He hummed in agreement. “Well, if you need anything at all, please feel free to call me.”
This time, a fluttering lifted in your stomach. “Thanks, Wally…”
“I should try to hit the hay,” you paused, rolling your tongue over you lips. “Good night, Wally.”
“Sleep well,” his words sounded like a lullaby. You heard a click on his end as he hung up, and you decided to do the same.
The bed welcomed you for the night. The sheets cradled your body snugly as your eyes got heavy. Your mind didn’t have room for any meandering thoughts as a deep slumber quickly found you.
Chapter 2: You should head back
A low buzz of static hummed throughout your living room.
You were alone again.
It wasn’t new to be alone.
Your mom worked multiple shifts, and your teenage sister was often out late.
Your dad had been out of the picture for a long time.
You sat on the verdant shag rug as you leafed through the spines of old VHS tapes on your entertainment centre. Tempting titles such as Pokemon or Doraemon called for you to pick them, but there was one that you always meandered back to.
There was a worn, yellow plastic tape, the sticker long faded from years of use.
Your mom picked it out at a second-hand shoppe - probably to get you off her back while she shopped for other things.
It quickly became one of your favourite shows.
It felt like a nice little respite from the world. A home away from home.
You also loved the fact that the artist segment changes every time you watch it!
It must be a new feature for VCR players, because none of your other tapes did that!
You popped the VHS into the player, the gears winding the tape.
The rainbow show lit up the room, like a beacon of life in this dreary existence.
The opening title of the show rolled. You hummed to it as you got comfortable on the floor, your tiny legs kicking in the air as you lay on your stomach.
The segment started, the main character behind an easel peaking out, paintbrush in hand.
Your heavy eyelids blinked as consciousness pulled you out of your deep slumber. You sucked in a deep breath of air as you stretched your sore limbs.
What a day, yesterday.
You rolled to your side as the reality of waking up connected in your brain. You tiredly stared at the rows of storeroom shelves, internally cursing yourself.
Guess it was all real.
You fumbled out of your blanket cocoon and wobbled your way to the door. You were greeted with the same towering, multi-limbed creature from yesterday. There was something comforting about him today, though. He felt more realistic. Kind.
He was stocking his shelves dutifully before looking up to you. He held in a chuckle. “Good morning! You look like you slept well.”
You gave him a groggy ‘huh?’
He responded simply by pointing at your hair.
Your hand went up to touch the literal bird’s nest that sat on your scalp. You hurriedly ran your fingers through the locks, flattening out whatever imperfections. An embarrassed blush crossed your features.
He chuckled once again. “If you want, you can use the shower. I can find you a fresh pair of clothes.”
“You sell clothes?” Your sleepy voice cracked in surprise.
“More like I special order clothes for Julie. The only thing is that silly little girl always forgets to pick up her orders.”
You rubbed the sleep from your eyes. “Wouldn’t she be mad if you looked through her orders?”
He gave a dismissive wave of a hand as he moved his way to a few boxes behind the front counter. “If I told her that it was for you, she’d probably assume it was for ‘dress up party’ purposes. So I don’t think she’d mind.”
You tried not to think about the ethical and legal implications of going through your customer’s stuff. Arguing probably wouldn’t help you in this case.
He pulled out a pair of high waisted flare jeans and a muted rainbow top. He offered them with one set of hands, while the others went to seal the boxes back up.
Dang, multitasking to the extreme.
You gratefully accepted the clothes. “You sure this is okay…?”
He gave you a caring smile, dismissing your concern, “Go get washed up.”
You bowed your head in thanks, padding your way to the bathroom.
A shower will help you feel human again in this insane puppet world.
Turning on the faucet, hot steam clouded the tiny washroom. Dipping into the warm waters, you felt your woes and worries wash down the drain.
Your mind wandered to Howdy. He sure helped you a lot. His generosity knows no bounds. Maybe you should help him in some way? Maybe pay back your debt by cleaning up the bodega a bit?
Yeah, that sounds good. It must be hard being the only worker.
You stepped out of the shower, wrapping a spare towel around your body. You swiped a hand across the clouded mirror, giving a good look at yourself.
That husk of a human from last night looked more alive. Colour was back in your face, and the fine lines around your eyes seemed to have lightened.
Those retinol treatments you were doing probably helped a lot with your complexion.
Despite everything, you’re still you!
Tossing on the retro styled clothes, you embarked on the new day.
”What can I do to help?”
“Really, you don’t need to do anything.”
You released a stubborn sigh, arms folding across your chest. You stared at the bug man from across the counter. “I really want to help you, Howdy. I want to help pay off my debt.”
The salesman weighed the options. He gave a resigned sigh. “Alright, but you have to follow the price guides of the bodega!”
You quirked a brow. “Price guides?”
He gestured to the ‘100% off!’ sign on the window pane.
Your brows furrowed as you scoffed. “How does that even work?”
“Well, people pay in jokes, ideas, or observations!” He then pointed to an apple display adjacent to the front counter. A sign on it read ‘1 Apple for 1 Joke’.
There’s no way these silly Muppets live in capitalism-free town. “How does commerce even work, then? How do you pay for goods being imported to your shop?”
Howdy put a finger up to his lips as he smirked. “Trade secrets! Maybe you’ll find out some day, young Grasshopper!”
You released a defeated huff.
“Besides, there’s more to life then pointless currency. Sometimes the most valuable things are your friend’s company and wise words!”
They really did live in a commune. In a sense, you envied them.
The morning tolled on, and he instructed little things on how he ran the bodega. You helped by stocking some shelves and sweeping the floors. Before you knew it, it was midday.
The door chimed as a pair of customers sauntered in. Your breath hitched as you saw a 7 foot, bumbling blue dog plod through the doorway. You were tempted to hide behind a shelf,… that is, until your eyes landed on the shorter man walking behind him.
A smile stretched across your face, “Hello, Wally!”
The cardigan-clad puppet gave you an all-encompassing grin, “Hello, neighbour!”
“Oh, is this the kid you were talking about?” the dog rumbled in a deep baritone.
Your skin prickled at the term ‘kid.’ You were quite obviously not a kid.
Wally regarded the towering puppet with a nod. The giant mock Blue’s Clues character offered a wave, “Welcome to Home! The next Big City this side of the forest! I’m Barnaby, by the way.”
You assuaged the temporary anger and introduced yourself with a little wave. Howdy, who was behind the front counter, called out to the new patrons. “What can I get for you fellas?”
Barnaby put up two fingers, “Two hot dogs, please!”
“Two dogs wrapped in yellow and red bow ties, with all the fixin's, comin’ right up!” The caterpillar’s limbs went to work as he swiveled around to the hot dog machine. He loaded the dogs up with whipped cream, onions, ketchup, mustard, and a cherry.
Imagining the taste made you shiver.
He offered the food to the pair, while another set of hands punched in the order on the cash register. “And how will you be paying today?”
Barnaby gave a smug smile. “Why did the baby cookie cry?”
“Its mother was a wafer so long.”
Howdy erupted in a boisterous laugh, one of his hands going down to slap his knee. Even you smirked at the atrocious dad joke. He rubbed a tear away from his eye as he regarded Wally. “And how about you?”
Wally gave his signature hum as he rolled his head to the side. “What do you call an insect who can’t get out of bed?”
You peered at him expectantly.
Howdy offered a sympathetic chuckle, the joke not landing as hard as Barnaby’s. He punched the jokes on the register, the receipt screeching out as it was printed.
“You tried, fella,” Barnaby put a big paw on Wally’s shoulder.
“Can’t top the town jokester, after all,” the smaller puppet winked up at his friend and they both chuckled.
With hot dogs in hand, they started to make their way out. As Barnaby ducked out of of the tiny doorframe, Wally stood in place for a moment.
It felt like minutes pass until he finally regards you. “Would you like to come with us? We can introduce you to the rest of the neighbours.”
You bit the inside of your cheek as you considered. You still felt guilty about not paying back all of what Howdy has done for you.
“Go meet everyone, Grasshopper,” the voice next to you pulled you out of your thoughts, the new nickname cooling any form of anxiety that you harnessed. “You can’t figure out how to get out of here without friends, right?”
You offered Howdy a kind smile. “Thanks.”
He shooed you off with your new friend, allowing you to step free into the rainbow world of Home.
Wally and you caught up to Barnaby, who was happily snacking on his treat.
The three of you trekked throughout the colour radiant town, making pit stops in front of each of the townsfolk’s homes.
The first person you all ran into was the mailman, Eddie. He curtly greeted himself, but just as quickly excused himself to get back to work.
You watched him run off into the distance before regarding your friends. “You reckon he’d know the roads out of here?”
Wally tilted his head as he observed you, still just casually holding his hot dog. “I think his route takes him further from the City.”
You gave a sad, thoughtful hum before Wally and Barnaby, the persuasive of friends, convinced you to meet with every one of the neighbours.
Poppy, who lived in a barn, was elated to see you again. She gave praises and crooned over how you were a ‘poor lost duckling.’ She vowed to cook for you if you ever needed food for the trip.
The next new person was a literal star who lived in a theatre. Sally was an eccentric puppet who was working on a set for an upcoming play. When you spoke to her about your story, you can tell she was taking internal notes. Please, Sally, don’t make your lost voyage into a Shakespearean tragedy.
Julie was as excited as ever to see you again. She complimented your outfit, stating that it looks ‘oddly familiar.’ Hm. You wonder why. She offered if you needed anymore clothes, she’s always willing to play dress up.
Frank was out in his lawn, taking notes on a butterfly perched on a flower. You all decided not to bother him. Butterfly watching seemed stressful, as is.
Now you all stood in front of Barnaby’s doghouse. He was hungrily staring at Wally’s hot dog, who, to your humour, was carrying the snack around like it was a show and tell specimen.
“You going to finish that, buddy?” Barnaby rumbled.
Wally shook his head and offered the undisturbed snack to his friend. The dog practically wolfed the food down in a blink.
The yellow puppet clapped his hands to get the remaining crumbs off his palms while Barnaby wiped the remnants on his own forearm.
“I think this is a wonderful day to sun bathe,” Barnaby started before dipping into his yard. “You guys comin’?”
Wally hummed at the offer before shaking his head politely, “I still need to show them Home.”
Barnaby gave a carefree shrug, “Suit yourself. Y’know where to find me.” With that, he sauntered into his littered yard and found a nice batch of grass to plop down on.
You regarded Wally with a quirked brow, “’Home’? Isn’t that just the town name?”
He tutted with a tiny smirk, “Silly, silly.” He didn’t explain, instead marched up the hill to the centre of town. A red house sat on the crest, it’s windows watching you.
You stumbled back as you stifled a yelp, the giant windows blinking at your reaction. You tried to scramble behind the short puppet man.
He simply shook his head with a chuckle. He gestures to the sentient house, “This is Home! This is where I live!”
Home made some thumping noises in greeting.
You sucked in a breath as you watched in horror. Your hand came up to grasp your forehead. “Okay, I finally accepted puppets. Houses now? I must be dead. There’s no way this is real.”
“If you’re dead,” Wally looked back at you with sleepy eyes, voice nonchalant, “then this must be heaven!”
You swallowed thickly, not sure how to process his words. You sucked in another big breath to calm your trembling body and forced a weak wave at Home.
Home waved its shutters in greeting.
Well… it’s not trying to eat you like Monster House. Maybe it really isn’t that bad?
Wally broke his barrier between you and Home, making you feel exposed and vulnerable. He maneuvered his way to an easel that sat just outside his home. He placidly began to pack up the art supplies that was left outside. A half painted picture of an apple lay on the canvas, probably abandoned this morning as he opted to hang with Barnaby.
The tension you held in your shoulders ease as you watch his easygoing pace.
There really is a charm about him that can ease your worries.
He briefly glanced back to catch you staring, a soft smile gracing his plush lips. “Penny for your thoughts?”
A blush shot to your face as you looked away, embarrassed. Your heart hammered as you focused on anything but him. You cleared your throat as a thought began tumbling out, “It’s nice here, but I’m wondering if… maybe you have any suggestions on how to leave?”
Wally noticeably tenses. He was quiet for a few beats, his lazy eyes never leaving yours. “I suppose I can paint you a map! But…”
He paused, his expression softening, tone becoming more sympathetic. “It must have been pretty serious for you to get lost like you did. Do you really want to go back? You wouldn’t be a burden here in Home! You’re always welcome.”
It felt like time stood still as his words washed over you.
There was a heaviness to it all, something akin to scratching at a mental scab. A truth that you didn’t want to uncover the band aid of.
You stood in silence as you mulled over the implications.
He watched you as your thoughts clouded your features. He observed the storm in your brain get cloudier before deciding to intervene. He extended a hand out to caress your arm, the felt touch anchoring you back to reality. His voice was low and pleasant, “Take your time. It’s a big decision, and there’s no need to rush. I’ll be here for you if you need it.”
The pressure from your jaw released, the tension that built up now toppled like building blocks.
He really was a good person.
“Thank you, Wally.”
He only offered a cute feline-like smile.
It wasn’t long before the sky became a vibrant array of pinks and blues. The sun was settling just over the horizon as you and Wally decided to part from each other.
You made your way back to Howdy’s Place, giving the caterpillar a quiet greeting. He was starting to close up shop, and you decided to help him - much to his dismay.
With the two of you, the shop was closed and cleaned in record time.
He wiped the sweat off his brow, his face bearing a proud smile. “You really help a lot, young grasshopper.”
You shrugged. “It’s the least I can do.”
He shook his head with a chuckle. “You should eat some food. I think I have a spare salad in the back.”
You blinked at the thought of eating. Come to think of it, you didn’t feel hungry at all today.
You decided to chock it up to stress from a new environment.
You thanked him for his generosity before wishing him a good night. You dipped into the backroom to locate the fresh greens. Chomping on the leaves, your mind wandered to the day.
The day felt… nice. Almost surreal.
You almost felt like you belonged.
But… you really should head home.
… Right … ?
Chapter 3: Try again
“And if you put some white here, you’ll accent the highlights! Look at this happy little apple on a sunny day.” The yellow puppet showed the canvas to the audience. A ripple of static coursed down the screen as you sat on your living room floor, watching your beloved tape.
With a broken crayon, you attempted to copy the meticulous painting. The wax stained your fingernails as you pushed into the paper. Once satisfied, you raised it high to praise your marvelous work of art.
“How’s the apple going along, little artist?”
You regarded the CRT TV with pride. Wordlessly, you flipped the paper to show the screen.
“Wonderful! The colour is all in the lines, too!” the puppet man beamed.
You knew that it was all scripted. All baby shows were scripted - like Barney and Sesame Street. You were just lucky you found a special tape that updates with new episodes! You don’t know why you humoured yourself to show the television, though.
Maybe because nobody really cares.
A fake puppet showering you with love is better than having nothing at all.
You gave a smug smirk before placing the paper on the coffee table.
“Let's wrap up the art session for now. Next time, we’ll paint a happy forest. Doesn’t that sound-”
The front door became unlocked. Heavy footsteps creak the floorboards, a rumbling cough echoing through the dark house.
The puppet’s voice was drowned out as ice flooded your veins. You contemplated whether you had enough time to turn off the TV, or to pretend to be sleeping on the couch.
You decided the former.
You shambled on your knees and extended a hand to reach for the TV knob. Your waxy fingertips just barely reached the dial.
“What the fuck are you doing up so late?”
You sat immobilised, fear pitting like iron in your stomach. You held your breath, too afraid to look at the intruder.
You felt a sharp tug on the collar of your shirt. You were violently forced to gaze up at the adult, their hands gripping tightly on your tiny arms. The grip was enough to cause a burning bruise on your flesh.
The husk of your mom stared at you, cigarette hanging from her lips, breath caked with the smell of old beer and ash.
A plume of smoke barreled out of her nose as she stared you down. You couldn’t find your words. Your lips trembled as you forced back tears.
If you cried now, it’ll only be worse.
“Where the fuck is your sister?”
You tried to form words, but all that came out was a stuttering mess.
Your mom mocked your futile attempt at speaking and scoffed. She released you from her death grip, flicking a few beads of ash off of her cigarette.
Cinder bit at your exposed arms, making you wince. But you dared not to move. Your eyes glued to the shag carpet.
Your mom shambled through the house, calling out your sister’s name.
Her last stop was the kitchen. Without being able to locate your sister, she released a visceral groan. You can hear the sound of a can being popped open.
“You know,” she stood in the doorway, the wall mounted landline now hanging off of her shoulder, “this is all your fault. If you weren’t such a brat, she probably would’ve looked after you.”
She took a swig from her can as she dialed a number, mumbling under her breath, “Hell, your dad would probably still be here if it weren’t for you.”
You felt the weight of the world and its problems all at once. Your shoulders slumped, your body feeling like it's the heaviest thing on the planet. Your gaze became unfocused as your mind began recoiling in on itself.
You stole a glance at the TV, the vibrant rainbow light illuminating your face.
The show wasn’t rolling to the next segment. It was frozen on the artist. You could tell the tape was still running, because tracking lines would occasionally slice through the screen.
The puppet looked as if he was peering right at you. His sleepy eyelids were peeled back to expose the whites, the pupils just tiny dots in the expanse. He still supported a smile, making the analogue visual even more creepy.
A shiver ran down your spine, finding it hard to shake the feeling you were being watched.
The slam of the phone against the wall broke you out of your observation. A hand was at your collar again, forcing your weak legs to stand up.
“Get the fuck to bed, I need to go to the police station.”
You didn’t argue back. Your legs started to move on their own as the world began auto-playing around you.
Your mom clicked off the TV with the remote. The bright visual blipped off, leaving the room blanketed in thick darkness.
Except for one thing.
“What the fuck?”
You dared to glance back at your mom.
“Your stupid fucking show ruined the TV!”
On the screen, you could see the vague outline of two white eyes that burned into glossy glass.
Light filtered through the tiny windows of the storeroom, encroaching on your deep slumber. You blearily blinked the world in, a hand rubbing the sleep away from your eyes.
You desperately tried to remember the details of your dream. Only cloudy snippets came into view, and you could tell it definitely wasn’t pleasant.
You decided to shove it deep down and focus on the now. You swung your legs off of the bed and went to the bathroom to freshen up.
Your morning routine went normal. Teeth, shower, get dressed. Something felt off, though. You stared at yourself in the mirror extra hard to try to pinpoint what it was.
The fine lines around your eyes had almost all but disappeared.
You contemplated its reasoning. Retinol and vitamin C serums aside, maybe the easy-going nature of this place really was doing something good for your health.
If you did decide to stay, maybe you should ask Howdy to special order your skincare products. In a world full of felt and plush, you still wanted to get some selfcare in.
When you made your way down to the store, Howdy was already at the front counter. He was casually leafing through the local newspaper, while one of his hands held a porcelain cup that read ‘Best Bug.’ He took a long slurp of the dark coffee from his cup. A floorboard creaked under your weight, causing him to pull his attention to you.
Eyebags hung from his eyes, but he still gave you a warm smile. “Good morning, grasshopper. Sleep well?”
“Better than you, it seems,” you gave a terse smile at the towering man, gesturing to his exhausted face. “Everything alright?”
A light blush dusted his emerald cheeks. A free hand went up to rub the back of his neck. “Oh, yeah. I was just working on something last night, that’s all.”
You quirked a brow, “Oh?”
He looked like he was debating on telling you or not. Finally, he reached underneath the counter to pull out a yellow apron. On a corner was an embroidered green grasshopper. He offered it to you shyly.
It took you a hot moment to process it. Your hands grasp the rough fabric, gingerly fingering over the delicate stitching. You shook her head in disbelief, “I… I can’t accept this.”
Howdy’s smile was delicate and sincere, “Think of it as a gift to remember Home by, for whenever you decide to leave.”
Emotions threatened to bubble and surface, the generosity overwhelming you. You felt tears burn your eyes, but you forced the feelings down. Instead, you accepted the gift. You pushed your head through the apron loop, tying the back straps into a bow. You gave the caterpillar a little twirl to show off his handiwork. “How does it look?”
He beamed, “You look like a proper worker at Howdy’s Place.”
Warmth spread through your chest. You felt a strange emotion boil in your stomach. Pride? Happiness? All of it was very foreign. All you knew is that a large smile decorated your face and it was near impossible to pry off.
“Thank you, Howdy. This is amazing.”
He waved a hand dismissively. “Anything for the bodega’s first helper.”
The rest of the morning felt like you were walking on cloud nine. You still did chores around the shoppe, like sweeping and stock. But it felt easy and purposeful. Every time you did something right, the caterpillar made sure to praise you for it.
The first customer of the day was the grey puppet, Frank.
The grumpy puppet placed a book on the counter with a thump . His voice drawled out tiredly, “So, is it in yet?”
Howdy gave him a nod, his hands going to work pulling a package out from behind the counter. His hands deftly unwrapped the goods, placing the contents onto the tabletop. It was a series of strings and nets, which you could only assume is for … fishing? Bug catching?
“What do I owe you?” Frank began meticulously collecting the nets, folding them and putting them in a bag.
Howdy hummed. His eyes roamed the shoppe for a moment before landing on yours. He gave you a devilish smile. “I think my assistant will be able to help you with that.”
You swallowed hard and gave the shopkeep a deer-in-headlight stare.
Frank gave you a once over, his frown deepening. “The newcomer is ringing me up?” he sighed and shook his head.
“Don’t be like that, Frank. They’ve been a big help the past few days!”
“But do they even know how things work in Home?”
Howdy motioned for you to speak, his features soft and caring. A nervousness warmed your tummy as you felt their eyes bore into you.
You really hope you didn’t mess this up.
You fidgeted with the hems of your apron before speaking, “Can you give me a fact about nature?”
You mentally prepared for rejection. You hoped you guessed right that he was into nature.
Frank’s eyes widened, impressed. He adjusted his bowtie, a grandiose tone coming to his voice, “Did you know that butterfly wings are transparent ? They actually are covered in scales that reflect light, which is why we can see the colours!”
You released a breath you didn’t know you were holding. You actually… really appreciated that fact. It was definitely something you didn’t know - or maybe something you were taught in primary school and forgot. You beamed at him, “Wow, that’s good to know! Thank you, Frank!”
Howdy gave you a proud grin. He tapped the response into the cash register, causing it to screech out a receipt.
Frank gave you another look over before heading out. “Well, maybe you’re not too bad.”
The door chimed as he exited. It was quiet for a long moment. Then you felt a large hand plop onto your head, ruffling your hair. “You did good.”
You gazed up at the caterpillar in surprise. You were at a loss of words. Despite everything, you didn’t mind the attention. You leaned your head into the pat, appreciating the praise this shop owner gave you.
Midday tolled by once again. You were in the middle of dusting the top shelves when you heard a chime of the door. When you turn to greet the customer, you can feel the air in the bodega get thick.
Howdy was staring ahead at the newcomer, his whole body stiff. For once, you saw the bug hold a tense frown. He pulled out a spray bottle from under the counter and aggressively slammed it onto the table.
“So. Are we going to play nice?”
It felt like a wild west stand off.
In front of you was Wally, resting an elbow on the bushel of apples. He gave Howdy a cat-like grin. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Howdy~.”
“Uh-huh. Are you here to buy some apples this time?”
Wally gave a nonchalant shrug, “Maybe. Or maybe I wanted to steal your helper away.”
Howdy clicked his tongue as he rolled his eyes. “Well, ask them, then.”
The cardigan puppet’s mischievous smirk melted as he looked at you. Adoration sparked in his eyes as he gazed over your features. “Neighbour, that apron fits you so well!”
For some reason, the compliment made your heart race. You don’t know why, but the way he looked at you made your stomach flip. A pink hue warmed your cheeks as you showed off the apron, “Thanks. Howdy made it for me.”
“My, how generous of him.”
A pair of Howdy’s arms crossed against his chest. He was losing patience with the shorter puppet.
Wally took the hint rather fast. “Well, I was wondering if you wanted to go painting with me today? It’s a gorgeous day outside.”
You took a quick glance out the window. The sun was out, and it looked like another beautiful day in paradise. You contemplated whether it was good practice to ditch work. Looking up to Howdy, you nonverbally asked for permission.
Howdy looked down at you, expression tense. It took him a solid moment before he deflated with a sigh. Wally won … this time. “Go enjoy the day, grasshopper.”
You lit up with excitement, hastily untying the apron from your being. You slung it onto a hook next to the counter, hurrying to Wally’s side. “Thanks, Howdy!”
Howdy waved you off, giving the yellow puppet a pointed glare, “Bring them back by supper time!”
Wally gave another dismissive shrug at the fussy shopkeep, opening the door for you, like the gentleman that he is.
You stepped out into the vibrant world, the sun warming your skin. You sucked in a deep breath, feeling more alive than you’ve ever felt.
The pair of you walked side by side, making your way to the crest of the hill to Wally’s home. Something felt… off, though. You kept stealing glances at the puppet, trying to figure out if there was something different about him.
Wally let you do it a few times. About the 6th time, he gave you a sly smirk, deciding to call you out on it. “Admiring something, neighbour?”
You gave him an exasperated huff, heat rising up to your face. “Tch!! No!”
He placed a hand on his chest, feigning pain. “Oh, I’m hurt.”
“It’s not - I mean, you are -” you stumbled over your words as you tried to desperately explain your thoughts. You slapped your forehead with your palm. The puppet just watched you smugly as you tried to recollect yourself.
You started over. “Did you… get taller?”
If he had eyebrows, he’d be raising them at you. “N…no?”
Your eyes bore into him, extracting every fine detail there was. Last you saw him, he was definitely a lot shorter than you. But now, he was almost at eye level. You wracked your brain as to why that might be.
“Maybe you got shorter,” Even in his monotonous tone, you could tell that he was joking.
“Ha. Ha. Very funny.”
“Maybe you’re misremembering something, then?”
“How can you ‘misremember’ someone’s height?”
“You tell me, I’m apparently taller now,” he gave you a devilish smirk.
You rolled your eyes at his antics. Maybe you were misremembering. The pure shock of landing in a puppet dream world would scramble your brain a bit.
It wasn’t long until you reached Home, at which the house waved its shutters to you in greeting. You waved back, partially just to be polite. You’re still not quite used to a sentient house.
His easel and art supplies were all set up outside, with an empty stool on the opposite end of the easel. Wally casually strode to the seat, pulling a shiny red apple out from his pants’ pocket and placing it gently on the chair.
It took you a long moment to process where the hell he got that apple from . You gasped, “W-wait, did you steal ?”
Wally feigned innocence, his smile only widening, “ Noo ~! I borrowed it!”
“So you plan on returning it?”
“One does not simply return an artists’ muse!” he dramatically tilted his head back, gesturing broadly to fruit.
You couldn’t find yourself being mad at this silly man. You hid a smile behind a hand, a giggle billowing out. Wally watched you with his hooded eyes, enamoured by your laugh.
Once your laughter settled, the puppet man began walking to his house. “So, should I get you some supplies? What’s your medium? Paint?” A pause. “Crayons?”
You blinked at the suggestion. Something tapped at your brain - a memory that was trying to resurface. You furrowed your brows as you concentrated on the fleeting memory, but it was futile. It fluttered away like a butterfly deep into your subconscious.
He was staring at you now, making you realise you were taking a bit too long to respond. “I don’t think I’ve painted before.”
He gasped! “Well, that’s no good! Let me get some beginner supplies! I’ll teach you!”
With that, he disappeared into the darkness of his home, leaving you alone with… well, Home.
The house’s eyes stared at you curiously, making your skin crawl. You cleared your throat awkwardly. “Nice guy, ain’t he?”
Home creaked in response, assuming that it was agreeing with you.
A few more long, awkward moments pass until Wally emerges with a spare easel and canvas. He placed it right next to his set up.
Looking at it, his equipment looked professional . He must really know what he was doing.
A pang of self consciousness hit you as you settled next to the art set he provided you. You hoped you didn’t make an ass out of yourself in front of… well, a full-time artist by trade.
When he sat next to you, you realised how he radiated with excitement. He must really enjoy sharing what he loves. The feeling quickly disappeared once his soothing voice reached out to you, “Are you ready to start?”
You nodded in resolve. He picked up a prepped paint brush, and you mirrored his movements.
A gentle quietness rested over the both of you as you concentrated on following Wally’s brush strokes. Occasionally he would sweetly instruct you on how to do certain techniques.
The apple came together nicely. His was a beautiful still-life, while yours… was definitely a kid’s knock off. But you didn’t care. The amount of detail you put into it made you proud. You bubbled happily as you followed his last bit of instructions.
“If you put some white right there, it’ll accent the highlights!” He demonstrated the technique on his meticulous painting.
You put a blot of white on the peak of the apple’s skin. You sat back to admire your work, smiling proudly from ear to ear. Wally watched in absolute delight, clapping his plush hands.
“Wonderful, Darling! Absolutely stunning!”
Your stomach did a flip again at the pet name. You bashfully ran a hand across your heated cheek. “Well, you’re a good teacher.”
“Well, maybe you’re a good student,” He shook his head and chuckled, going back to do some final touch ups on his canvas. “Maybe next time we should paint a forest.”
That dark feeling tapped at your mind again. A long, distant memory that was trying to break free. A heaviness weighed on your head as you stared at the puppet next to you. Your eyes searched him, trying to grasp for any clues.
A sense of desperate dread sank in your core.
Wally didn’t look at you. His permanent smile twitched. “If you stare any longer, my felt will get holes.”
You blinked away, your lap now the most interesting thing to look at. A sense of loss overwhelmed you.
A tender, fuzzy hand reached for yours, the fabric brushing against your knuckles. The man next to you pulled you from your thoughts as he sat closer. Those kind-hearted eyes searched for yours, the darkness of his pupils soothing even the scariest of feelings. His sincere, honeyed words whispered to you, “Talk to me, sweetheart.”
Your chest felt heavy. You sucked in a painful breath as you forced the words out. “Did… did this happen before?”
He cocked his head inquisitively, waiting for you to elaborate.
“This just seems… very familiar.”
He gave you a sweet smile. “Maybe in your dreams? Or maybe,” he tried to land a joke, his tone consoling all the same, “it was in another universe where we were destined to paint together.”
You exhaled a faint chuckle. Your eyes kept in contact with his, feeling yourself getting lost in the dark expanse. Time felt like it stood still as you both gazed into each other’s souls. That dark fog lifted from within you, being replaced with comfort. You didn’t realise it, but you were slowly leaning into his side.
“Will I ever go home?” The words left your lips before you even had time to process them.
He watched silently for a beat, his hand squeezing yours. Your cheek was now resting against his shoulder as you looked up at him expectantly.
“That’s up for you to decide, sweetheart.”
You finally broke eye contact by shoving your face into the fabric of his cardigan. He didn’t flinch away from it. “Why is this the hardest decision ever?”
“Because it’s an important one.”
There was another still moment. He decided to use his free hand to coerce your chin up to look at him again. “If you decide to stay here, you can be Howdy’s apprentice? He’s quite the salesman.”
You internally scoffed. You don’t know about him being a salesman but… it’s definitely an interesting opportunity. He’s definitely integral to the town.
“This can always be a holiday for you. A little Home away from home?” He bartered the idea.
You sighed. “I… have to think about it still.”
“Don’t rush yourself. You don’t want to make hasty decisions.”
You nodded, finally agreeing to push the thought to the side for now.
A purple gradient painted the sky, stars starting to dot the darkening expanse. You didn’t realise how much time passed when you were with Wally.
He broke the comforting closeness, pulling you to your feet. “I think I have to take you back now. I don’t want Howdy on me for being late.”
You puffed out your cheeks in mock pain, tone still joking, “You know, I’m not a kid!”
Wally rolled his eyes, that mischievous grin coming right back. He air quoted with a hand, “Of course, ‘young grasshopper!’”
You released another exasperated huff, bantering with the puppet as you walked hand in hand back to the bodega.
The night was wholesome, and when you parted from him, you felt yourself missing his touch.
Chapter 4: Home
Your sister hadn’t come back home after that night.
The police had done a search of the area. When nothing came up, that’s when the fliers did. A photo of a smiling silhouette of your teen sister, with bold text underneath stating “LOST: IF FOUND…”
After a few months, the search was pulling dead ends. That’s when you started to collect the clippings. You wanted to hold the last bit of evidence of your sister’s existence. If you let it go, she might never come back.
Your mom gave up before you. At 6 months, she decided to host a funeral.
Your mom’s treatment of you only got worse. She blamed you for your sister’s disappearance and everything after that.
Her mental health also started to decline. In the house, she covered every glossy screen, claiming that ‘the eyes are watching.’ The entertainment centre you used to watch every night was now covered by a large sheet. All of your VHSs were smashed and torn apart, only to be eventually burned in the backyard.
The worse thing is, you fully believed you deserved this treatment. You didn’t deserve any amount of happiness life had to offer.
If only you were nicer, your sister wouldn’t have left.
If only you were sweeter, your mom would’ve loved you.
If only if you weren’t born, dad would still be around.
The absence of the puppet artist in your life stung at first, but you figured it was probably for the best.
Soon the memories of the children’s show faded into your subconscious. The years ticked by as you survived the throngs of life. You went to school, you did what you were told, you lived to the next day.
It was rare for you to have a friend - at least, an actual close friend. There were people that kept you around because you were ‘fun.’ But you knew they didn’t actually care about you.
When you became an adult, your mother’s condition became worse. She refused to have anything that resembled a screen. It wasn’t long after your 18th birthday that she had to be admitted for psychiatric help. You remember the tears that stained her face as she screamed about the eyes. Even as the paramedics hauled her away, she was wailing about those eyes.
Those eyes that you would never see, no matter how hard you stared into your phone’s reflection.
Despite how vile she was, her being gone meant you were totally alone in the world.
And the loneliness ate you.
You bounced between one dead end job to the next, trying to support yourself in this hateful world.
The one thing your mother did teach you eventually took over your life.
Your apartment was filled to the brim with empty booze bottles. You realised the pain and loneliness get washed away the more poison you push through your system.
Every Friday, you were a regular at a pub in the city. You always left past 2am, bottle in your hand, stumbling down the vacant city streets as neon lights guided your direction back home.
But were you really “home”?
What even is “home”?
Another new morning in this rainbow wonderland. The routine almost started to feel normal.
Brush teeth, shower, get dressed. You’ve been wearing the same clothes Howdy gave you, but for some reason, they don’t feel soiled. Maybe it’s the fabric they use in this messed up puppet land.
Every time you looked at yourself in the bathroom mirror, something felt… off. You couldn’t place what it was. You look like You!
You slipped into the store and tugged the handmade apron over your head. You took your place next to Howdy behind the counter, head full of contemplation and thought.
The caterpillar glanced up from his newspaper, looking over your shorter stature. “Everything alright, grasshopper?”
Your fingertips gingerly trace the wooden texture of the counter. You didn’t look up at him. “I just feel… weird.”
The puppet leaned down to observe you, concern marking his face. He waited for you to continue.
“Like,” you grasped for words for a feeling you don’t know how to explain. “Something feels wrong!”
“Wrong? How so?”
“Like,...” you tried again, a hand going up to rub your temples. “I don’t know. Were you always tall? Was I always this short? Why don’t I feel hungry anymore?”
Once you finally strung out your thoughts, hunger is the one that sticks out the most. You remember you ate supper last night, but the usual morning pains were gone. It was almost like you ate because you could , not because your body needed it.
You felt a giant hand press against your forehead. You dared to look up at the towering puppet, and the look that he gave you was heart wrenching. His brows were knit in worry, a frown tensing his tired face.
“You don’t have a fever…” he observed aloud.
You didn’t recoil from the attention. You pressed your head into his hand more, noting the heat the felt gave off.
You still had no idea why these … creations gave off heat. They weren’t alive, right? Then why did they sleep? Why did they eat?
You didn’t understand.
“I don’t feel sick…” You sounded like a little kid again.
A long sigh billowed out of Howdy. “Maybe you need to go outside and get some sun.”
He pulled his hand away, while another set of hands went to grab a pastry off of a display. He offered the sweet to you, “Go rest for the day. If you’re still feeling strange, we’ll talk about it this arvo, yeah?”
Maybe he was right. Maybe you just had some awful sleep and woke up over analysing everything.
You begrudgingly accepted the fluffy pastry, discarding the apron you just dawned. You adventured into the neighbourhood without any direction.
The fresh morning air did wonders on your mind. The scent of dew laden flowers, mixed with the intoxicating pine breeze. The chilly air nipped at your exposed skin, but you didn’t mind. It was a reminder that you were real - that This… was real.
Your shoes padded across the yellow cobblestone road as you happily munched on your treat. You watched as the neighbours stirred from their homes, doing their chores, fixing themselves food, living their lives. The town itself was taking a big sleepy yawn, preparing for the day to come.
Before you knew it, your feet guided you to the central haven of the town. You don’t even know why you felt inclined to go to Wally’s place. It just felt… right.
Home’s sleepy eyes watched you, blinking its blinds a few times. It waved a drowsy shutter at you. You decided to wave back, this time without any fear or hesitation. If the house was going to eat you, it would’ve done it already.
You stood outside the front door for a few moments, hand poised to knock. You couldn't find the strength to go through the action, though. You released a heavy sigh, deciding to turn back. A few feet away, you plopped yourself onto the grass, facing the rest of the town.
Since Home was situated at the peak of a grassy knoll, you were able to see almost everyone’s house. You idly plucked a few blades of grass as you watched everyone’s morning routine.
Not even a few minutes pass until you hear footsteps crinkling the ground behind you. You tilt your head up to view the intruder.
Wally’s blue pompadour was nowhere to be found. Instead, wavy azure locks cover half of his face. He wore a dressing gown with multi-coloured sleepwear underneath. Cute little slippers hugged his feet, collecting the morning dew from the ground.
“Good morning, neighbour. Didn’t expect you to stop by so early!” He had a mug in his hand, the warmth steaming out of it. He crouched down to offer it to you, revealing it to be coffee. With a smile, your hand accepts the warm beverage.
The heat seeped into your cold digits, making you hum contently. “Thanks, Wally. To be honest, I didn’t even know I’d be stopping by.”
He released a soft chuckle. “Well, all roads lead to Home. Maybe it was calling to you.” He stood back up to his full height before gesturing to his house. “Come on in. It’s cold outside.”
You tossed the idea around in your head. A sudden sharp breeze brushed through you, causing you to shiver. Deciding inside was probably better, you accepted his invitation. You followed him closely as you stepped inside Home.
Being inside a sentient house was… something. It felt like the walls were pulsing with breath. The floorboards creaked and moved on their own, and the subtle eyes on the wall paper followed you.
You did your best to stifle any fear that threatened to bubble over.
Despite the implications of being eaten by a house, the furniture looked … well, normal .
With accentuated cartoonish furnishings, it was straight out of Toon Town . Howdy’s bodega definitely looked more ‘real’ than Wally’s decorating choices.
But you would never say that to his face.
Wally pulled out a seat for you at the kitchen table, which you graciously accepted. You sunk down into the wood, taking a long sip of the hot beverage. Its warmth spread through your body, heating your chilled bones.
You glanced up at the puppet man, seeing a look on his face was something akin to adoration. A heat rose to your cheeks as you looked away bashfully. “S-so, how did you know I was here?”
“Home told me,” He stated flatly, settling into a seat next to you.
“Oh, that… would make sense.”
The house rustled a few handles, causing Wally to chuckle.
“What did it say?”
Wally gave you one of his signature grins. “Just that you looked like a lost puppy.”
“Rude!” You gave a pointed glare at the wallpaper’s eyes.
The walls took a deep breath, causing the interior to shift slightly. You gripped your chair in surprise.
“Home was only teasing,” The puppet rested his chin into his palm as he leaned forward. “So, you’re not working today?”
The ripples in the brown liquid were much more easy to look at suddenly. Your fingers trace the rim of the mug. “Yeah… I was just feeling… I don’t know.”
Wally scooted closer, extending a hand out in case you wanted something to hold.
You decided to take it, relishing in the plush warmth of his palm. The words were easier to find with his encouragement. “Do you feel hunger, Wally?”
There was silence.
The blacks of his eyes were trained on you, pupils slowly dilating. The white of his eyes were being enveloped by the inky darkness.
A fear creeped into your stomach as a chill rolled over your skin.
Then you blinked. His eyes were back to their droopy, sleepy selves.
“I suppose I do, yeah,” he answered nonchalantly.
You took a shaky breath and swallowed hard. Maybe you were losing it. You placed the mug on the table as gently as your hand can allow. Wally’s fingers brushed over your knuckles soothingly.
“You’re shaking,” he stated matter-of-factly.
Your throat strained as you spoke, “Y-yeah…”
“Talk to me,” he implored softly.
“I think I’m going mad.”
The chair squeaked as he scooted even closer to you. He ran his other hand through your hair, scooping a strand behind your ear. “Why is that?”
“I’m seeing things, I don’t feel hunger, I-...” you quivered even more as your throat closed on you. You sucked in shaky breaths as Wally hushed you with soothing words.
“I don’t fully understand ‘human’ things,” he started softly. “But I do know that when humans go into puppet worlds, they feel a little different at first.”
You sputtered incredulously, “Puppet worlds? What does that even mean?”
Wally hummed, tilting his head to the side. He squinted as he wracked his brain for some knowledge. “ Sesame Street ? The Muppets ? I think you’ve heard of those before, right?”
“But those are just shows on a set ! Everything was fake!”
The puppet man tilted his head the opposite direction as he looked you over with a smile. “Are they, now?”
You didn’t know how to process what he was saying. You pulled a hand to rub at your face. “That’s ridiculous! Absurd!”
You felt that soft fabric massage against your fingers again. The texture of his hand sent the point home. You leaned back and exhaled loudly.
“I don’t know about bloody, but this definitely isn’t hell.”
If you didn’t feel like your reality was shaking from beneath your feet, you would’ve laughed at that.
“So what I’m feeling is normal?”
“In the scope of whatever ‘normal’ is, I suppose so.” He gave an indifferent shrug.
You sucked in a breath, the nerves you had bundled in you relaxing. “Well. That's good news.”
Wally had leaned back, a warm smile spreading across his drowsy face. “I’m glad to have helped you.”
A pleasant quietness settled over the both of you. You enjoyed the morning coffee with the sweet company of Wally Darling.
Wally had gone to get ready for the day as you cleaned the dishes.
This gave you time to dwell on your thoughts.
If puppets really did have their own worlds, then you must’ve travelled pretty far. The day you came here was still a fuzzy mess.
The distant memory of a dark, windy night surfaced to the forefront. You remember the frigid wind howling past your ears, the ricochet of waves rumbling underneath you. The distant ring of a phone.
“I think it’s clean, neighbour.”
Wally’s voice jolted you to the present. You have been circling the sponge around the mug countless times now. You released an airy laugh. “Hah, I guess you’re right.”
Rinsing off the suds on the porcelain, you set the cup to dry on a rack. Your attention was brought to the man standing next to you… and what you saw made your mouth go dry.
His hair was in its usual pompadour state, but the familiar cardigan was no longer to be seen. He wore a billowy white button down, but some of the buttons near his collarbone were undone. The sleeves were rolled up, exposing his vibrant yellow forearms. The red ascot lay untied, draped over his shoulders.
“My, that’s a fun look on your face.” He gave you an amused smirk.
You blinked a few times to release the dumbfound expression you were giving him. You swallowed the cotton feeling in your throat.
You can’t believe you’re checking out a puppet.
You also can’t believe that the tiny voice in your brain is screaming how handsome he looks.
Your hand meekly went up to point at the ascot. “It’s undone,” you stated lamely.
“Oh, I haven’t had time to-” he paused as he watched your fingers approach the fabric.
Your eyes gave him an unspoken question as you stopped mere moments before touching him.
He responded by leaning closer, allowing the pads of your fingers to gingerly work on the cloth. His hooded eyes watched your face as you worked on knotting the ascot, unblinking the whole time.
Your hands twitched away as you leaned back, admiring the bow on his neck. He thumbed the silk, giving you a sweet smile.
“Thank you, neighbour. That was awfully nice of you.”
A hot flush burned your cheeks. You swallowed thickly, preparing your dry lips to speak.
Knock, knock, knock!
You jumped in your skin as the both of you stared at the front door.
Unbothered, the puppet man manoeuvred his way to the big red door, “Coming~!”
You exhaled, willing all the pent up feelings to simmer down. You clapped your hands on your face to snap you out of your thoughts. The stinging pain brought you some semblance of sanity. Shortly after, you followed the man to the front.
The mailman, Eddie, stood in the doorway. He was beaming down at both of you. “Good morning! Special delivery!”
He reached into his satchel to reveal a handful of envelopes, offering Wally a crimson one. He did a double take as he noticed you tucked behind Wally.
“Oh! I didn’t expect you to be here! I think I have something for you, too!”
He deftly leafed through the paper stack before pulling out a yellow envelope. On it was a crude crayon drawing of a grasshopper. You warily accepted the envelope, eyeing over the details.
Wally had already peeled it open to view the letter. The more he read the beautiful curly scripture, the more his grin blossomed. He glanced back up to Eddie. “Are you going, Eddie?”
“I reckon so!”
“It’d be a good chance to get to know a certain butterfly loving someone !” Wally wiggled his nonexistent eyebrows.
Eddie flushed an inhumanely crimson colour, his big palms covering his face, “S-stop it!! I know!!”
You decided to peel open the envelope to read the lined paper.
I hope this letter finds you well!
I’ll be hosting a sleepover party tonight, and I think it’ll be mighty great if you can come!
Underneath were unevenly sketched boxes that said ‘Yes’, ‘Definitely’, and ‘ABSOLUTELY.’
You shot Wally a look, your voice going low, “Why is everyone calling me ‘grasshopper’ now…?”
Wally, in return, offered a cheshire smirk, “No clue. It’s a good nickname though~."
You clicked your tongue and rolled your eyes. He definitely started it.
“Are you going?” Eddie looked at you expectedly. The way his eyes sparkled made your heart melt. How could you say no to that?
“I guess so. I don’t have much else to do,” you gave a noncommittal shrug.
You swear you could see little stars in his pupils. He pulled out a pen, offering you to fill out the RSVP.
You checked the ‘Yes’ option, considering the others seem a bit of an overkill.
Both Wally and you gave the letters back to Eddie who giddily accepted them.
“I’ll give them back to Julie. I’ll see you both tonight!”
He was already gone before you could say your goodbyes. He sprinted down the hill with the collection of envelopes in hand.
When you looked back to Wally, you could spot the tiniest bit of mischief in his smile.
You inwardly sighed. By whatever God that might be out there, you pray you won’t regret this.
Chapter 5: Uh-oh!
The rest of the day you spent at Howdy’s, helping him clean and close up shop. Every time there was a spare moment, he made sure that you were okay.
As if you were a fragile kid that will cry at any moment.
Your fears earlier seemed to have made him on edge, and you almost felt bad for all the ruckus you caused.
Once everything was all tidied and in their proper spot, you stood outside the shop with Howdy. He jingled some keys anxiously. “You sure you want to go? We can always stay back, if you want.”
You felt a warm flattery heat your chest. The gesture of him willing to stay back to make sure you’re alright… The love was borderline overbearing.
“No, I’m good! I swear!” you put your hand on your chest while another did a scout salute. “I talked it out with Wally. I was just,... having a moment, I suppose.”
Howdy gave you a relieved smile before nodding in resolve. He locked up the shop for the night before you both made your way to Julie’s place.
“You have your toothbrush?” He tallied off on his fingers.
“Yes,” You patted the small linen bag that was slung over your shoulder.
You shot him a blank look. His face flushed as he ran a hand over the back of his neck in embarrassment.
“You don’t need to dote on me, you know?”
He billowed out a sigh from his nose. “I know. I just feel like I have to look out for you ever since you came here.”
This caused your deadpan to melt into a warm smile. You nudge your shoulder into his arm, which barely made contact with his elbow. “Thank you, Howdy. I appreciate it.”
He offered a small smile as he looked down at you. “Don’t mention it, kiddo.”
“Still not a kid.” You pouted.
“Whatever you say, young grasshopper.”
You playfully swatted one of his arms, laughing and joking for the duration of the walk.
It wasn’t long before you made it to Julie’s. You can already hear the rumble of laughter and music on the other side of the door. The front yard was littered with toys and half-inflated balloons.
You inwardly took a big breath to prepare. Oh, this is going to be chaotic.
Howdy took the initiative to open the gate to the chaotic world of Julie’s home.
The scene before you was already something out of an unsupervised kid’s play date.
Julie, who wore an oversized robe and a cane, stood on top of a sheeted table. Frank was next to her, looking miserable, adorned with a jester hat. They were playing out a scene from a show that you haven’t seen before. Before them was Sally, who dramatically called directions like a theatre director.
Maybe this was her play they were rehearsing?
In the opposite corner, you see Eddie, Barnaby, and Wally doing an arts and crafts project. Eddie was trying his best to teach Wally how to cut snowflakes, but after every round, Wally would flatly ask, “Like this?”
It warranted Eddie to give a defeated sigh and gently coo a dejected, “...No.”
The fragrant aroma of food and sweets wafted through the tiny home. You can spot feathers ruffling behind a corner, which you could only assume was Poppy making something delicious.
Julie was mid-sentence in rehearsing a line before she noticed you next to Howdy. She released a dramatic gasp and tumbled off of the table with a crash . It didn’t seem to have affected her much, because she was barreling towards you hands first.
She launched herself at you in a tumbling hug, knocking you straight on your butt with a thump .
The air got kicked out of you as you tried to speak, “Hi, Julie.”
“I haven’t seen you in FOREVER!” she was nuzzling your stomach, her words only coming out in a muffled mess.
“We saw each other a few days ago.”
“THAT WAS FOREVERRR AGO!”
You chuckled, placing a hand on her head to tousle her blonde locks.
She gasped for air and flung herself back onto her feet. She tugged you up while she excitedly talked.
“We have so much planned for tonight! Like dress up, truth or dare, movies, and maybe even…” she looked over the group of friends with diabolical eyes, “... spin the bottle!”
You hid the growing grin behind your hand. Her excitement was contagious, you’ll give her that.
Right when she was about to drag you off to Gosh knows where, Poppy popped her head out of the kitchen for an announcement, “Food’s done!”
Julie had immediately forgotten what she was about to show you and ran full sprint to the kitchen, giggling all the way. Meanwhile, the rest of the group just casually got up from their position to check out Poppy’s spread.
You followed the group to bear witness a table filled to the brim with different food. You can see some basic foods, like salads, hot dogs, cakes and cookies. But then there were more… stranger concoctions. Was that… jell-o fruit salad? You held back the disgusted look that was tempting to surface.
“Anything catch your eye?”
You jumped in your skin as you faced the blue haired perpetrator that was suddenly next to you. Releasing a huff, you pouted, “Wally! Don’t scare me like that!”
He gave you a cat-like grin, “I was here the entire time!”
“Well, make yourself known!”
“I just did.”
You rolled your eyes and giggled at his nonsense. You could never be mad at this easy-going bastard.
Everyone had queued up and got their fair share, then seated at a dining table to enjoy their meal. Wally sat next to you, while Barnaby sat on the other side. You happily munched on the warm food, humming contently.
Barnaby was off making some abysmal dad jokes in between bites of his hot dog. Everyone was laughing and enjoying themselves. This was almost idyllic. Like… a long lost family get together that you never experienced before.
Was this normality?
Was this what you were missing throughout your whole life?
You stole a glance to the yellow puppet next to you, observing him leaned back in his seat, watching his dog friend with droopy eyes.
However, he didn’t touch anything on his plate.
You gave him a gentle nudge before leaning in to give a concerned whisper, “Are you hungry?”
Without looking at you, he shook his head and whispered back, “Ate before I came here.”
You nodded and went back to your own food. Seemed reasonable enough.
Not long after, Barnaby gestured to Wally’s full plate. “You gonna finish that?”
The shorter man shrugged and offered the heaping plate to the dog, who in seconds just wolfed it down.
“Barnaby’s always hungry for more,” Wally continued muttering back to you.
“So you got it for him?”
That… melted your heart. He’s so considerate of his friends, it made you want to burst.
After helping Poppy clean up, the night’s activities were going into full motion.
Julie and Sally brought out a giant chest, clothes and accessories rupturing out of the sides.
“Guess what time it is,” Julie was practically exploding, hopping in place.
“Oh dear,” Frank hid his face.
“Dress up time!!” Sally squealed.
There were some cheers in the crowd of friends, and a few pointed sighs.
“I will do everyone’s hair,” Julie started, hands flapping as her elation grew.
“I’ll pick out everyone’s clothes!” Sally continued.
The monster puppet looked over to the man. “Wally, did you want to do makeup?”
Wally gave an indifferent shrug, smiling all the same.
The girls cheered at the ‘approval’ he gave them.
The trio went through the members of the community, giving each person their own personal flair. … They weren’t kidding – they really were professionals at this.
Frank was now wearing a baggy sweater with a turtleneck underneath. A pair of large glasses rested on the bridge of his nose, and his hair was parted in the middle. You didn’t want to say it, but he looked like a puppet version of someone in a K-pop boy band.
Eddie had a giant power suit with slicked back hair. His fleece skin practically sparkled with glitter!
Barnaby wanted clown make up and garb, so the trio reluctantly obliged.
Poppy had frilly bows in her fluffy feathers. Her eye makeup was to die for, with dramatic wings and pink and purple eyeshadow.
Howdy’s hair was slicked back as he wore a 1920s pinstripe suit. You dared to call him a gangster at one point, and he shot you a glare. You almost wondered how the girls have a perfectly tailored suit for his limbs, but that’s a question for another day.
“Now you!” Julie was dragging you to the couch.
“O-oh,” you tried to fight her tiny grasp, finding it futile. “You don’t have to! I’m happy as is!”
“Nonsense, you need to feel good too!” She shoved you down into the plush throw pillows. You reluctantly leaned back, glancing at the yellow puppet man next to you.
“Do you trust us?” His words were a low, soothing monotone. Any edge you felt eased down. You gave him a nod.
The monster girl took that as consent, starting to work her fingers through your hair.
Wally organised his pallets, preparing himself to get closer.
Suddenly, you felt a weight on your lap that wasn’t there before.
Wide-eyed and surprised, you are now face-to-face with the pompadour puppet. You scooted even further back in your seat, as if to give you more space from the encroaching man.
“U-uh! H-hey!” you desperately were trying to look away from him, embarrassment burning your cheeks, “You didn’t do this to anyone else!”
He blinked. After a long moment, he leaned back and tilted his head, his lower half pressed against your knees. “Human skin is different. I only wish to get everything right.”
He watched you sweat underneath him before he started speaking again, “May I continue?”
Your heart hammered in your chest as you asked yourself… How did you feel about this?
Although it looks scandalous, it seems like he is taking it from a practical approach. Besides, everyone was chit chattering away, like this was normal behaviour.
You let out the breath you were holding and rested into the pillows, eyes trained on Wally’s sleepy, easy-going gaze. In resolution, you nodded.
He smiled wider, features softening. Before you knew it, you felt the coolness of the brushes on your heated skin.
All while he blended your foundation and contoured your features, you couldn’t help but notice the tiny details about him. When he concentrated, his ‘brows’ would crease and his smile would tense.
The most notable thing about him is his scent. The biggest note you can smell on his clothes was sweet, cinnamony apple spice. It was like he was a walking apple pie! The aroma itself was enough to calm even your worst anxieties.
“Your skin leaks,” he stated matter-of-factly.
“Your skin has gasoline?”
You tried not to giggle at his obliviousness. “No, humans just produce sweat.”
He hummed in consideration before picking up an eyeshadow pallet. You closed your eyes and let him do his work. The tactile feel of your hair being played with, as well as the smooth brushes gliding across your eyelids was enough to lull you into a state of relaxation.
“Do you like eyeliner?”
You didn’t respond, far too at peace. Wally took your silence as compliance.
After he was done with your eyes, he went to ask another question, “How about lipstick?”
This one you were a bit uncertain of. You slowly blinked your eyes opened and hummed in consideration.
Then you felt a sharp tug on your chin, causing your eyes to lock onto Wally’s.
He didn’t wait for you to respond. Differing from his usual laid-back self, this time he took initiation.
“Red’s going to look really good on you.” He stated flatly as you felt the creamy lipstick roll over your lips. His fuzzy fingertips pulled at your bottom lip, giving him better access.
His assertiveness caught you by surprise. But what you didn’t understand was that pooling warmth in your chest. Your stomach was doing flips of excitement at the simple action.
You must be really losing it.
The weight on your lap alleviated as he stood at his full height.
“Sally’s turn,” he stated nonchalantly as he walked away.
It didn’t give you time to process what he said, or any of your foreign feelings. There was an overexcited star giggling maniacally next to you, pulling you up. She dragged you behind some privacy curtains that were in the corner of the room.
You quickly realised any form of struggle would probably just make the situation last longer.
You let her throw whatever outfit she had in mind on you, her fingers deftly working at the fabrics.
When she was done, she shoved you out into the public, announcing with an overzealous ‘Ta-daaa!’
Everyone in the room gazed at you with wide eyes. Suddenly, there was a rambunctious cheer, the walls practically vibrating from their elation. You self consciously giggled and bowed your head in thanks.
You stole a quick glance at a mirror next to you.
You couldn’t recognise yourself. You looked like you were going to some red carpet event.
You didn’t not like it. They really did your features justice. Every one of your insecurities was hidden away, and all of your strong points were accented.
The trio got ready with the help of each other.
Sally wore a billowy dress with stars and moons, with hair extensions pinned to her shining crest to resemble a fringe.
Julie opted for an 80s inspired look, mirroring a femme version of Frank’s outfit.
When your eyes landed on Wally, your heart fluttered on its own. He wore a crimson suit with a blue necktie. His eyelids were dusted with a shimmery red eyeshadow.
He looked absolutely stunning.
Your mouth had opened to speak praises, compliment, hell, anything. But you were left dumbfounded, staring at the dapper puppet.
Before you can say anything, Julie interjected with the new plan of action. “Truth or dare!!”
Everyone got into a circle, sitting on various bean bags and chairs around the room.
Truth or dare went as well as you expected it to. Everytime it was Frank’s turn, he would try to pressure you into a ‘truth’. Even if you picked ‘dare’, he would still flip the words as if to ‘dare you to tell a truth.’
You had to kindly tell him that’s not how the game worked.
Barnaby always picked dare, and hilarity insured. At one point, he ate a whole bottle of ketchup.
You wished you never saw that.
A turn had landed on Eddie, with Julie being the chosen. She was grinning from ear to ear, rocking back and forth with excitement.
“Eddie, truth or dare!”
Eddie straightened up, putting on his bravest face. “You know what? This time… dare!”
All previous rounds, he only did truths, and most of his answers were pretty mild at that. A dare was definitely stepping it up for him.
Julie’s features bordered on demonic. She squealed, “I dare you to kiss Frank!”
A chorus of ‘oohs’ filled the friend group, with Eddie sitting shell shocked in the middle.
Frank shifted uncomfortably, a deep blush highlighting his grey cheeks. “N-now, hold on a moment.”
He had shuffled on his knees, closing in on the mailman. Frank placed a gentle hand over his large mitts. “You don’t have to be pressured to do anything if you feel uncom–!”
Just like that, Eddie’s mouth was on Frank’s lips.
Frank sighed contently and leaned into the kiss, savouring the closeness.
Barnaby was the first to wolf whistle, the rest of the neighbours celebrating with a round of applause. Julie was howling something along the lines that she got her best friend to kiss someone. It all faded into the rambunctious noise.
You giggled at the scene unfolding, watching Eddie finally pull apart from Frank. Words of adoration and love tumbled out of his lips for the frowny man. Frank, all the while, was a weeping, happy mess, peppering the larger man with kisses.
Watching the sweet moment made your insides soften.
The sweetness reminded you of someone else.
You dared a glance at the suit wearing Wally and noticed something.
He was looking at you too, eyes half-lidded and a lopsided smirk hugging his dashing features.
Your stomach somersaulted with nervousness. How long was he watching you?
While everyone was distracted, you decided to scoot closer to him. “Some event, huh?”
“About time they confessed to each other.”
You placed your chin on your palm as you dreamily looked him over. “Yeah?”
“Every time I hung out with either of them, they were wishy-washy about the other’s feelings.” He shrugged, never losing eye contact with you. “It was sort of obvious how they felt about each other.”
It felt like he was talking about something else then Eddie and Frank debacle.
There was a stillness in the air between you and him, like any misplaced word would ruin the perfectness of the situation. Each second passed and you both leaned closer and closer to each other.
Wally’s hand extended to yours, offering it. He decided to break the silence, “Come with me?”
At that moment, you would follow him to the ends of the world.
You took his hand, and he silently led you away from the boisterous crowd.
You both stepped outside into the night of the neighbourhood. Stars painted the brilliant navy sky like a perfect mural. There was a coldness in the night air, but the exhilaration of being with Wally overridden any of the feelings.
He stood in the centre of a grassy field as the full moon illuminated both of you in a pale limelight. The look he gave you was something close to ethereal.
“Dance with me?”
You held back a giggle, “But there’s no music!”
He eased you closer, holding both of your hands. He started humming for you, aiding you in having the case of the giggles. You caved finally, placing a hand on his shoulder pad while his other hand went to your waist. Both of you swayed to the distant nightly sounds of crickets chirping and frogs croaking.
“You don’t need to have music to dance,” his monotonous voice was barely above a whisper.
“But it does make it easier,” You purred back.
His smile grew before he started to ‘sing’ a song. His singing, although more similar to actually just talking with intonations, was sweet nonetheless.
“You look quite divine tonight,
Here amongst these vibrant lights.
Pure delight surrounds us as we sail,
Signed, yours truly, the whale.”
The closeness was unbearable now. His breath was on your skin, and yours on his.
You let the enchanted melodies of the night sweep you up in the whirlwind of feelings. You let yourself have this ounce of happiness that you deprived yourself for so long.
The feeling of Wally’s felt lips was against yours, moving with you. You hummed contently as you let the blissful feeling envelope you whole.
The thralls of kissing made you unaware of how the time passed. Or how the grass was now tickling your back as you both made your way to the ground. Your arms snaked around the back of his neck while he propped himself up on his palms.
When you both finally separated for air, Wally made sure to do a comically loud ‘mwuah!’
Endless giggles tumbled out of both of you, part nervousness, part exhilaration. As you looked over his shadowed face, you noticed the red lipstick marks you left him.
“Nice lipstick,” you gave a breathy compliment.
“Thanks. Always wanted to try this shade.” He offered another peck, enunciating another ‘mwuah!’
A pleasant quietness lulled over both of you. He opted to rest his head against your chest, ear pressed to your sternum. You gingerly traced circles into his back as you both cuddled under the starlit sky.
“You have a drum in your chest,” he remarked quietly.
“That’s my heart.”
“Can I get closer?”
You glanced down at the man, who’s fuzzy fingers were tugging at the hem of your top, eyes wide with curiosity.
A heat burned your face as it dawned on you what he was suggesting. Your heart thundered in your ribcage, begging to be set free.
You tried to rationalise this. He just wanted to know how a beating heart felt up close. No funny play, at all. Just like the makeup incident.
You decided to reluctantly nod, vision flicking up to the dark sky above you. You couldn’t dare to look down as you felt his downy fingers touch your bare skin. This whole ordeal was embarrassing as is.
Right when his palm was flat on your sternum, a long, tense moment passed between you too. He could probably feel how fast your heart was beating, how your chest rose and fell with each passing breath, the clamminess of your skin.
“Why haven’t you committed yet?” his voice was low.
You swallowed hard, eyes still boring holes into the sky. “What do you mean?”
“I’ve done everything to make it hospitable for you. Yet, you’re still doubting.”
Your brows pressed together in thought. That’s a heavy question, alright.
While you were searching for an answer, you noticed something in the sky. All the beautiful stars had vanished, being replaced with an inky black void. A darkness loomed over the sky, cloaking the valley in darkness.
“Why don’t you want to stay here?”
That’s when you felt a sharp pain intrude on your chest.
Your eyes shot down at the indescribable burning sensation that radiated from your skin.
You wish you never looked down.
Wally’s hands were at your chest, clawing open the seams of your skin.
Your vision burned as you saw the fleshy bits of your own torso being ripped apart, though nylon strings dangled from the ends. Despite the overwhelming agony, you dared to look even further.
You expected to see viscera and gore, but all you were met with was fluffy cotton and wool.
Fear coursed through your veins, leaving the icy feeling of dread pitting in your stomach. You desperately tried to clamber away from the invading force, but found it futile. He weighed far too much, and he was far too deep inside of you.
He was elbows deep into your chest cavity, digging out the residual fluff inside of you. He was rambling nonsense - not that any of this made any sense to you.
“Maybe I should remake you again – ugh, but I want to keep your heart!” Just then, something deep in you was being touched. Your heart thrummed against a soft hand.
“This is the best thing about you! I don’t want to lose it.” he pouted, enjoying the pulsing organ underneath his touch.
You felt your head go light, your vision blurring into an array of colours. You barely managed to whisper a plea. A quiet, desperate, “Why?”
You can barely hear him through your encroaching slumber. A soft, delicate, “Because I love you.”
Chapter 6: You
“Welcome Home Restoration Project, huh?”
You mumbled to yourself, your breath whistling through the near empty glass bottle. You scrolled mindlessly on your phone, the light illuminating your face in the dim pub. You took another shallow sip from your bottle as you kept reading on, feeling a heavy sense of familiarity in your chest.
Did you watch this as a kid?
You scratched at the back of your head, as if scratching at a deep seeded memory.
It hurt, trying to remember.
You don’t remember there being any 70s kid show on the air. Maybe it was something else?
You stared at the blue haired puppet longer, and his dark, vacant eyes just stared back.
Something snapped in your brain. That pain in the back of your head released as a fog lifted.
The artist! You drew to his programs! You remember now!
You nursed your drink more, trying to remember why you stopped watching it.
Ah, of course. The distant memory of the night your sister left stung you. You took a bigger swig.
Looking back, it makes sense why your mom drank. It helps with the pain.
You just wish you weren’t alive when she was doing it, though.
You slapped some more cash onto the bar, almost immediately downing the drink the bartender offered.
It was going to be one of those nights. You just felt it. The more the memories resurfaced, the more the pain did.
The drinks were going down easy. The self-loathing came even easier.
Look at how pathetic you are. Drinking cheap drinks in a dark, pissed stained bar at whatever-o-clock in the morning. No friends. No one cares about you.
If you were to just disappear, would anyone even notice?
Would your shitty, dead-end job care? Probably not. You were just a replaceable grunt in a system that churns through people.
You went to the one bottle-o that’s open late at night.
They know you by name. Every time you came, they looked sympathetic as they gave you your weekly poison.
You shambled through the desolate night streets, fingers drunkenly running across every dew covered car that was in your path. The neon lights glisten off the pavement, guiding you to your next destination.
With each big burning swallow, you convinced yourself more of your uselessness.
Your feet led you to the bridge that connected to the city. The wind whistled past your ears, the chill nipping at your rosy, alcohol flushed cheeks. Your eyes briefly gazed at an outbound phone booth next to the railing. A sign with a phone number was next to it, reading ‘There is Hope. There is Help.’
You scoffed. There is no hope. You were far too gone to get any help.
You stood next to the railing, fingers gripping the rusted metal. You stared down at the hypnotic, dark whirlpools underneath the bridge. Each wave crashed into the support beams, applauding you, beckoning you to join the murky waters.
As a last-ditch effort, you pulled out your phone, staring at the blinking digits on the clock. You flicked back to the rainbow site, the childhood character came back onto the screen.
His smile was sweet. He probably wanted you to get this over with already, too.
The weight of your phone left your hands. You willingly let the electronic tumble down into the dark abyss below you.
There’s no going back now.
Your knees hit the metal, feet propped onto one of the bars. It’s now or never.
You stopped. You slowly blinked back at the phone on the far wall, the receiver vibrating with each ring.
This… shouldn’t accept inbound calls. You knew these phones were designed specifically for people calling out , not in.
Your foot was placed back onto the asphalt as you cautiously watched the phone.
They’re not giving up. You’ll humour them, for now.
You warily picked up the phone and pressed a cheek into the device, “H-hello?”
You swallowed hard at the languid tone. “You got the wrong number.”
“No, I didn’t, silly!”
You huffed incredulously. “What?”
The sweet voice drawled from the other end of the receiver, “I just thought you needed a friend.”
“I don’t have any friends,” you shot back venomously.
A gasp! “Well, I could be your friend!”
Tears began to prickle at your eyes.
“No, you can’t. You won’t want to be”
“I’m a freak. A loser. A waste of space.”
He clicked his tongue, “Nonsense! I think you’re the absolute most!”
Most… most of what?
He continued slowly, “Do you want me to come get you? Do you need help?”
You’re sobbing. You don’t even know why the tears were coming, but you knew you couldn’t stop it. You hated this stranger's niceness, you hated that you still clung onto whatever this life had for you. You sit on the chipped asphalt, hand grasping the phone as if it were a lifeline. Your eyes clenched shut as tears flooded down your face. You hiccuped helplessly into the receiver, all while a soothing voice on the other end whispered saccharine praises.
You woke up in a cold sweat, gasping for air as you jolted up straight. You desperately clawed at your chest, pulling away the shirt that was confined to it. Your fingers felt at your torso, feeling the moist, intact skin. You thumbed over your ribs and a tiny sense of relief washed over you.
You scanned the dark room for any signs of life. Once your eyes adjusted, you released an audible gasp.
Bodies upon bodies. All surrounding you.
Your breathing hitched as you desperately crawled away from the curled up figures, back hugging the far wall.
Air was harder to find suddenly. Your throat constricted as the fear muddled your senses. You couldn’t move. You couldn’t think. All you could do is focus on your blurring vision and how breathing burned your lungs. You hiccuped pathetically as sobs wracked your body.
For once, you begged to go home. Your home. The one filled with empty bottles, water stains and sleepless nights. The one that you were so desperate to die in.
You now know you want to Live.
You saw shuffling in the far corner of the room and you kicked away further, your knees curling up to your face. You hid into the crook of your legs to make yourself smaller, like a scared little animal.
You whimpered pathetically as your arms came up to protect your head. Whatever words came out were desperate pleas to spare you.
“Oh, sweetheart, oh dear.” You felt arms fold around you in an embrace and you stiffened. You wanted to kick. Scream. Fight. The fear kept you in place.
The giant creature started to sway back and forth, shushing you all the while. You dared to look up at the towering being, noticing a familiar green face.
Howdy’s extra set of arms lifted you up and coddled your tiny being. He bounced you like a crying toddler while your head nuzzled into his broad shoulder. All you could do is ride out the waves of tears that fell from your eyes, muzzling each sob into his shirt.
He had stood at his full height, nimbly stepping over the bodies on the floor.
Before you could protest, you could feel the cold night air on your skin.
You dared to look up at the sky, noticing how the stars speckled and shined in the darkness.
“We have to save the others,” you blubbered incomprehensibly.
You could feel him tense. He released a heavy sigh as he continued walking through the night. “They’re going to be fine, grasshopper.”
He was taking you somewhere. The panic bristled through your body as you pushed away from his chest.
But his strength out surpassed yours. With a firm press, he shoved you back into a tighter embrace.
He began muttering to himself as his spare hand jingled some keys and unlocked a door. ”I knew you should’ve stayed home. A sleepover was too much for you too soon.”
He flicked on a light, causing your eyes to flinch at the assault of brightness.
Then the familiar bodega’s shelves came into view.
He plopped your rear onto the counter as he looked you over. Eyebags hugged at the bottom of his eyes, concern marring his fluffy features.
You rubbed away the remaining tears on your swollen face. “Wh-what?”
He was already picking up some bottled water for you, as well as some tissues. He gently got you to take a drink. “The sleepover, grasshopper. Sometimes excitement can be too much.”
“B-but those bodies! I know he did something!”
“They were sleeping. - Wait, he ?”
“Wally!” Desperation cracked through your voice.
Howdy gave you a confused look, encouraging you to continue. You recounted the night, giving even the most embarrassing details. From the kissing, to your chest being ripped open.
The caterpillar had pulled up a chair and sat back, the look of worry never leaving his face. He took in a few deep breaths while he looked for words. Finally, a dejected sigh came out, “Sweetheart, you fell asleep outside.”
“No!” You waved your hands with emphasis. “I KNOW what I felt!”
“Wally brought you in while we all were watching a movie. Julie changed you into your sleepwear.”
You stole a quick glance down at your clothes, noting how you are, indeed, changed.
“Wally’s pretty oblivious. He wouldn’t hurt a fly.” He mumbled softly, “Maybe steal an apple, but I think that’s the worst he can do.”
You bumbled through some words, sputtering a few times as you grabbed your head. “Then… Why did that feel so real?”
Howdy was quiet, that concern melting into sympathy. You felt your lips tremble again as you questioned your own sanity.
“Look, I may not know you too well yet. But I can gather that you have been through some rough stuff.” He extended a hand cautiously, opening the opportunity for you to take it. Once you did, your hand felt so tiny in his big emerald paws.
He continued slowly, “People don’t just wake up on my shop’s doorsteps. People don’t just go through a night in the woods and not remember it. You must’ve been running from something serious.”
Another big hand pressed against your forehead. “Sometimes this stuff leaves scars up here.”
You hiccuped, more tears threatening to tumble over your lashes. “How do you know so much about this? This place is perfect. I doubt anyone gets hurt.”
Howdy let out a dry chuckle. “Oh, grasshopper. I don't even know how I know this. It’s like,” he pressed a finger to his temple. “A memory in the back of my mind is telling me this stuff. But I can’t remember it.”
He gave a shrug, offering the weakest smile, “That’s just how things are in Home. Memories become fuzzy after a while, but you heal.”
You became quiet as you thought it over. Maybe the whole ‘Puppet world’ theory that Wally was going on about is true? What if the world’s physics here is just… different? Maybe it affects memories the same way?
“Do you want to go back to Julie’s, or do you want to stay here for the night?”
You blinked away the remaining tears, taking a tissue to rub away the moisture. You thought about seeing people in this state, and your stomach felt heavy.
“Can we stay here for the night?”
Howdy’s features warmed at the ‘we’. He ruffled your hair affectionately. “Of course. I’ll get our stuff in the morning.”
You appreciate how hard working he was. He managed a shop, and took care of your ass. He truly was like a family member you never had.
He had tucked you into bed, promising to fix up the room if you ever committed to staying. As you nuzzled into the sheets, he quietly offered, “If you ever want to be my apprentice, I would gladly take you under my arms.”
You smiled at the suggestion, your eyes becoming heavier by the second. It wasn’t long before he flicked off the lights and whispered goodnights.
Sleep took you again, and for once, it was without any nightmares.
Another morning dawned.
And you’re not dead.
You examined the spaces between your fingers as you lay in your cot.
Maybe the whole Wally debacle was just a nightmare.
Resigned, you got out of bed and got ready for the day. You dared not to look at yourself in the mirror, because you knew you looked like a fresh piece of work .
You took note of how all of your belongings were neatly placed in the bathroom. Howdy truly was a gem.
You plodded into the shoppe, throwing on your custom apron. You smiled at the lumbering man who sipped his coffee and flipped through the newspaper.
He regarded you with his usual smiles. He also looked like something fresh out of hell. “G’morning, grasshopper. ‘Nother day, huh?”
You released a dry chuckle. You liked how he kept his spirits high. You liked this normality that he provided.
How Home provided.
The morning went on with the usual tasks. It helped distract your mind from the fear from last night, giving you purpose.
Few of the neighbours popped in throughout the day, showing concern how you left the sleepover early and missed some juicy gossip.
Also Poppy’s pancakes. That one you definitely had FOMO for.
You laughed it off, saying that the fear of bedbugs kept you up. Most just chuckled, giving condolences that bed bugs were a scary thing for puppets.
Julie, however, took it too seriously and vowed to deep clean her home. Poor, sweet woman.
The day kept going, though. You watched Howdy work his magic, selling the best experience to his customers. You admired his tenacity and his thoughtfulness. How did he know that Barnaby would also want a nail file with his nail polish?
He truly was an amazing businessman.
An hour or so after noon, a short man approached the shop, standing guard at his usual apple bushel.
And your blood became cold.
You hid behind the caterpillar in defence, just barely peeking out to observe the yellow puppet. Howdy had gotten in position, spray bottle in hand wild-west style.
“Good afternoon, Wally.”
“Good afternoon, Howdy~”
“You gonna play nice, pal?”
Wally feigned hurt. “Whatever do you mean?”
“You stole an apple last time,” Howdy’s voice came out on edge.
“Nonsense! You could just ask–” Wally’s playful demeanour dropped. A sense of worry clouded his tone as he looked around. “H-hey. Where are they?”
You didn’t move. Your body trembled at his appearance, ice freezing your veins in dread.
Howdy took note of you cowering behind him, immediately dropping the Tough Sheriff act. He whispered soothingly to you, “Grasshopper?”
You could only whimper pathetically. The blue haired man noticed, his sleepy eyes widening. For once, his usual laid back nature snapped to worry. You have never seen him move so fast as he crowded the counter. He beckoned out your name sweetly, begging you to talk.
Howdy released a long exhale. He coaxed you out of hiding with gentle hands and kind words.
“Maybe you should talk to him. Tell him what’s buggin’ ya?”
You didn’t move. You were glued to his side.
He now purposefully peeled you off, his arms effortlessly lifting you up and plopping you on the other side of the counter. You desperately raked your hands on his shirt sleeve, exhausting your energy for Howdy’s comfort.
Once you were next to the yellow puppet, you hugged yourself. Despite how Wally’s lips were upturned, you could tell by his eyes how hurt this made him.
“I’ll watch from the window. If he pulls any funny business,...” Howdy’s hands were at a spare apple that was on the counter. He effortlessly crushed the red delicious with a loud crack in between his fingers, the juices splattering down his sleeve. He held that sweet, protective smile as he looked over Wally.
Wally stared at the apple murder in horror. He gave a nervous laugh as he tried to usher you out of the store. “Ha. Ha. Understandable. Yes, sir.”
You caved and followed him. As you walked into the colourful world, you kept stealing glances back at the shopkeep.
Howdy stood with the brutalised fruit, eyes boring into Wally’s back.
Your shoulders sunk as you felt an ease. You were safe.
Wally brought you to the crest of the hill, making sure that you were still in Howdy’s sight. He rested down onto the plush green grass, extending a hand to help you down.
For once, you didn’t accept it.
You plopped yourself down across from him, drawing into yourself. He only leaned forward on his heels as he watched you. Whatever voice came out of him, was sugary, caramelising even your toughest nerves.
“Please,” he begged, eyes looking at you, never blinking, “talk to me.”
When he stared, he never blinked. You knew this. When he did this, you used to feel comfort. This time? It felt like daggers scraping into your skin.
“Wh… what happened last night?” your voice was small.
“What do you mean?”
“L-like, we were dancing, then what?” you played at a blade of grass, trying to distract your mind.
He canted his head to the side quizzically. “We kissed.” His tone was very blunt. Pleasant, but to the point.
“We were laying down.”
“Then?” you implored, your emotions building up.
“You fell asleep. I was lying on your chest.”
His sweet, innocent voice stung you. You ran a hand through your hair. “Did you… go under my clothes?”
He sputtered this time, eyes growing wide with disbelief. “Wh-what?”
“Did you or did you not go under my clothes?”
“ No .”
It hurt. It hurt so much. How certain his voice was, how sincere he sounded. You gripped at your face, burying it deep into your palms. You muffled out a response, “So it was a dream?”
You could hear him rustling to get closer. You dared not to look up at him. He whispered, so gingerly that you could hear hurt in his tone. “What do you think happened?”
You took a few breaths to calm yourself, to recheck your sanity.
“You tore into my chest to touch my heart.”
He was quiet. This is it, he probably thought you were crazy. Maybe you were crazy. Just as loony as your mum.
“May I touch you?” His voice was small, desperate. You dared to look at him this time and see a tiny puppet man, pain deep within his dark pupils.
You resigned and nodded.
His felt hands were on your face immediately, cupping your downtrodden cheeks. He eased you to look into his eyes, his face now mere inches from you. You could feel the downy texture of his forehead on yours. He smelled like apple spice and dried paint, your favourite scents in this weird Puppet World.
“I would never hurt you, you know that?”
You didn’t respond.
“I’m sorry you dreamed that I would. But please know, I am here for you.” He freed his hand to find yours, guiding it up to his cardigan clad chest. He placed it firm into his sternum. He repeated his statement with more emphasis. “I am here for you .”
You felt tears build up in your eyes for the umpteenth time. You caved, finally encasing him into a hug. He went limp in your embrace almost instantly.
“Why is this happening?”
He shushed you soothingly, swaying his body a bit. “You’re adjusting. It’s hard being here, at first.”
“Will it stop?” you cried into the blue material.
“Soon,” he promised quietly, “soon.”
Chapter 7: Stay Stay Stay
Night rapidly approached Home. You helped Howdy close up shoppe and ate supper with him.
You noticed that he really liked his greens. Practically every meal had one heaping dish of salad. If you decided to stay, you knew you’d at least be eating healthy.
If you decided to stay. The phrase was like a mantra at this point.
Once you got to your tiny space in the storeroom, you began dusting off pieces of furniture. You manoeuvred some of the stock so that it was on the opposite side, giving you more room.
You rummaged through some of the crudely labelled boxes that were scattered around, finding some more bedding. You slung up a spare sheet, dividing the little home you carved yourself. If you got yourself a room divider, maybe some fairy lights? It would look like a proper room!
If you decided to stay .
You sat on the edge of your bed, the springs creaking. Maybe you could get a new mattress, too.
If you decided to stay .
The time spent here felt like a new normal. You made friends, you got a job, and possibly a … lover? You tried not to think too much about the last one. What would be driving you back?
The nightmare from the other night? Even then, the pros outweigh the cons right now.
You’d have to go back to your job that didn’t appreciate you, handle the loneliness of adulthood in a big city, deal with rent and taxes. This list goes on, really.
But here? Here you can be yourself. Improve yourself. Feel loved.
Before you knew it, your feet started to pad out of your room, stumbling through the darkened store. You ascended the stairs and stood right outside of Howdy’s room.
You’re going to accept the apprenticeship. You’re going to stay in Home. An excitement blossomed in your core. A thrill of newness, of certainty drove you.
Your knuckles knocked on the wood. You waited a few beats, hearing nothing.
He mustn’t already be in bed, right? It wasn’t that late.
You knocked again, a bit louder. Your voice cracked out, “Howdy?”
You weighed the options. Tell him tomorrow, or break it to him tonight? It must be a little bit rude to barge into someone’s private quarters. But…
Tonight would be ideal. That way there would be no going back. You’d have to commit to it.
Your hands cautiously jiggled at the door knob, finding it unlocked. You tugged open the door carefully to peek inside. You called out the caterpillar’s name one last time before your eyes fell on him.
A chill ran down your spine.
You couldn’t process what you’re seeing.
Your pupils contracted in the dimly lit room. Before you was Howdy. But it was a Howdy that you’ve never seen before.
He was strung up to the ceiling by string, each of his ligaments being held up by long cables. You dared a step inside, the floorboard’s creaking under your weight.
No response still.
You raised a shaky hand up, taking any last bit of courage in your feeble body. You bravely placed a hand against his felt arm. It was cold. Any warmth you felt previously was gone. You tilted your head to look up at his face, only to see lifeless eyes staring back.
It was like he was an actual puppet, suspended in the air, waiting for a puppeteer to pilot him.
You leaned forward a bit more to get a better look. However, you misjudged the amount of pressure you put on him. His wires became slack, causing his immobile body to tumble down onto the floor with a crash .
A shrill yelp screeched from your throat as you jumped back, escaping from the falling body. You watched in horror as his limbs scattered across the floor like a jigsaw puzzle. His head rolled across, stopping just shy of your foot.
You scrambled away, helpless screams echoing out of you. You couldn’t stop the violent noises coming out of you. Adrenaline was now pumping through your body, forcing you to flee. You barrelled down the stairs – away. Away from this. Away from the puppet decapitation. This had to be another dream. Your eyes stung as you thought of wonderful, faithful Howdy – your protector, your family. He was now a pile of parts, strewn in a lifeless heap on the floor.
You shoved open the doors of the bodega, only to be greeted by a dark, gloomy neighbourhood. An inky blackness cloaked the town, similar to the previous night.
You weren’t thinking. On pure instinct, your shoes pounded against the grass as you ran. You ran to the only other person that would give you comfort.
The blinds of his Home were down. But you didn’t care. Your hands pummelled the doorframe desperately, pathetic pleas for Wally to answer tumbling from your lips.
It wasn’t long before a dishevelled man appeared before you. Wally stood, looking tired, a few strands popping out of his usually perfect pompadour. His tone was quiet. Kind. He spoke your name as though you were a lost child.
Maybe you were at this moment.
You flung yourself into his arms, rambling nonsense into his shoulder. You barely breathed between sentences as you explained what happened to Howdy.
Wally swayed back and forth, letting your anxious story unfold. He guided you inside gently, a warm hand soothing your back, “There, there. You’re here now.”
Once you were inside, you were finally able to pull yourself away. He took a few steps back, his hands behind his back. He spoke somber and low, quite different from the usual calm monotone. “Would you like some tea?”
You sighed heavily, running a hand behind your neck. When you were about to answer, something deep within your instincts clawed at the back of your mind. Your hair stood on its ends.
Something was wrong.
The inside of Home was dark, much like the shadow that blanketed outside. You could only see a few metres ahead, before the hallways tapered off into complete darkness. The ceiling looked like a limitless sky of black void. In the dim light, you could see the shimmer of silver strands dangling from the emptiness, burying deep into the wooden framework of Home.
There were hundreds to thousands. It was like a spiderweb, waiting for the next victim to land into it.
You swallowed hard.
“W-Wally… what is this?”
“Whatever do you mean?” he asked sweetly.
“Wh-what is happening? What is,” you gestured broadly, “this?”
He clicked his tongue, glancing up at the strings with half lidded eyes. “Must be another nightmare.”
You didn’t believe him. Your heart hammered in your chest. Your mind telling you to run. Run.
You swivelled on your heels to dart out the door, only to be violently yanked away. The wind got knocked out of you as your body convulsed against your will. Before you knew it, you were dangling mid air, shimmering cords wrapping around your limbs.
You would expect the feeling to be painful. But it wasn’t. It felt natural. That this was Normal.
You attempted to struggle against the confines, only for them to tighten against your skin, holding you rigid into position. A scared little voice slipped from you, your mind frazzling by the second. “Wh…why?”
“To be fair, this is my fault. I thought you were asleep.” The man watched with sad eyes. He approached your suspended body slowly.
As the clicking of his oxfords got louder, you did everything you could, forcing the last bit of energy in your muscles to kick, to flail. It was futile, though. The strings seeped into your skin, embedding into your muscle, pulling away your last sense of autonomy.
“Keeping them awake is pretty tiring, you must understand. I never wanted to let you see Howdy in his natural state.”
“What did you do to Howdy?!”
Wally visibly deflated. He sighed, “Nothing. He is always like that.”
“No! He isn’t!” Your voice trembled, eyes straining as you held back tears.
He rubbed a cloth hand over his face. “Please, let me explain.”
“Why should I let you? You did this! You murdered Howdy!”
Wally mouthed the word. ‘Murder.’ That is a new word.
He waved a hand, the strings easing you down until your feet touched the wooden floor. The cords relaxed, letting the control flow back to you. You tempted the new freedom, jerking an arm, only to have it constrict you again. You realised if you were calm, he allowed you freedom.
He allowed you the freedom. He was definitely the one in control here.
The thought made your hands shake, a sick sourness settling in your mouth.
“He really isn’t hurt. Please, believe me.”
You didn’t respond. You stared at him in contempt.
“All the neighbours are puppets. They only have life because Home wills it.”
“Then, what are you?” You spat venomously.
“Also a puppet, but,” his hand went to stroke the house’s wallpaper. “I serve Home.”
You blinked away from him, eyes finding their way to the wall closest to you. The eyes in the pattern bore into you. Staring.
You felt tired. You felt hopeless. Everything was too much all too sudden. You were thinking about living here just an hour ago, but now you wanted to flee. The anger toppled to fear – desperation. “Wh-what do you want with me?”
The shoes tapped closer to you. You dared not to look at him. The feeling of felt tugged at your chin. “Please look at me,” his words were like warm milk on a sleepless night.
You hated him right now.
But you knew you couldn’t fight him.
Your eyes find their way to his, staring into the pools of darkness that were his pupils.
“I really meant that I would never hurt you. I’m here to protect you.”
Your voice barely came out, “How?”
“I saved you, remember?”
You tilted your head a bit in confusion.
“You were on the bridge. You looked at me.” His voice was so sad, it almost hurt you, “You were so lost, neighbour.”
A pain sprung forth in your skull, bringing the memory to the surface. The violent wind and chorus of waves beneath you. Yes. You remember.
“You… brought me here?”
“Home is where the heart is and,” he paused, rubbing circles into your chin, “your heart really wanted a Home.”
You didn’t have the energy to look up at him anymore. He pulled you into this. Was this really your reality now?
“Yes, it is.”
You sharply tugged back up, a new wave of fear broiling into your core. Did he just–
“I can read your mind,” he answered cautiously. “But don’t worry! I really try not to read it all the time!”
You choked back a sob, a sickness bubbling deep in your stomach. Nothing was safe from him, not even your own mind.
“Do you control everything here?”
“Me and Home do, yes.”
“Wh… how,” you stumbled, trying to grasp at the flood of thoughts as you tried to piece together your existence in this messed up Puppet World. “Then how am I still me?”
Wally bloomed at the question, his eyes sparkling. “I’m glad you asked! You’re not fully a puppet!”
He nodded, pride now replacing that sadness he held earlier.
“What do you mean fully ?” You edged back into anger territory.
“Well, humans can’t exist fully at Home! So we figured a way to keep you safe!” He trailed a finger up to the strings bound to your wrists. “So we made you part puppet!”
Your head was spinning. Your legs felt weak. It wasn’t long before you were sitting on the floor, head cusped into your hands.
“B-but… puppet worlds. The night of the sleepover… Were those… lies?”
Wally was slow to answer. He descended, squatting next to you. A sigh escaped out, “I think it’s time to be completely honest with you. I’m sorry, I had to lie. If I didn’t make you feel safe - if I didn’t make it so you wanted to stay, your body wouldn’t adjust to the process.”
“You really did go through my chest?”
He was playing with the tips of his fingers, ashamed. “I’m sorry.”
Sorry . You scoffed. Like that was going to somehow ‘fix’ this situation. Like that was going to repair how fucked this whole thing was.
“‘Adjust to the process’? What process?”
“Of changing you to a puppet!”
That didn’t answer anything.
So he continued. “We found that the more someone willingly wants to stay, the more the body accepts Home!”
The idea that other people were test subjects to this treatment made you feel sick. Wally answered the thoughts, “I’m sorry, this all must be a lot.”
You sucked in a few breaths, trying to ease down the sickness in your stomach. Did you even have a stomach anymore? What part of you was real and what was just fluff? Your skin crawled at the thought of these puppets violating your flesh, filling you like a Build-a-Bear with stuffing.
“I want to go home. My home. Can I please go?”
Wally went stiff, his fidgeting only getting worse. “It wouldn’t be ideal .”
You wanted to go. Internally, you begged to wake up in your mouldy bed in your shitty apartment. This place had a good run, but being made into a living puppet to some fucked up demon’s play space was enough for you.
Wally was rubbing his face with his palm. He finally stood, pacing as he thought. It was a few minutes before he spoke again, “Do you want to see what happens if you reject it now?”
You pulled up to watch the nervous puppet. He was in a rougher state as each moment passed. This interaction stressed him out, even though he was the one in control.
You watched him diligently, giving him space to explain.
He raised a hand, snapping his fingers. In a flash, a dark object plummeted from the ceiling, landing on the floor with a disgusting splat .
Your eyes focused on the figure in the darkened room.
A new feeling emerged. The sheer shock sent you in a panic, your breath hitching in your throat. Bile threatened to hiccup out of your mouth, causing you to hunch over yourself. You heaved a few times, trying to will out the contents of your stomach.
Your body trembled, eyes burning from tears. You wanted this sickness to get out. You wanted everything to just get out .
“She… has seen better days,” He sounded mournful. But how could he be? He did this to her!
You forced your gaze back onto the body. You faced the new fear with blurry vision.
Your sister lay in a crumbled mess on the floor, strings jutting out of her skin painfully. Pieces of her flesh had rotted off, exposing the fatty layer underneath. Chunks of her hair moulted, leaving parts of her scalp exposed. There was a gory hole in her cheek that would’ve exposed her teeth, but a polka dot fabric was sewn into the layer of flesh. Her eyes stared forward, clouded over with a murky whiteness.
Another snap of the puppet’s fingers, and she became animated. She blinked blearily, as if she just woken up from a long nap. Her voice was raspy from disuse, “H-hello?”
You didn’t move. You just stared at her in disbelief. Fear froze you solid as you watched your long lost sister awaken from the dead.
Her hands extended, feeling the floor underneath. Her blinded eyes desperately looked around as she felt. “Devil, I know you’re here somewhere!”
Wally stepped away, her head snapping to the noise. She gritted her blackened teeth, snarling.
The puppet, unphased, sat on a rainbow coloured armchair across the room. He stared over with saddened eyes, that permanent smile on his face tensed. “Friend, I found someone who you might like.”
She growled like a feral beast. This was a side of your sister you never saw before, and it terrified you.
“Someone who I might like ? Fuck you! I want out of here!”
Home creaked, displeased by the cuss. Wally rubbed the space between his brows. “I promise. Talk to them, you’ll see.”
She sat there, twisting her head around to see if she could hear any more movement. “Hello?”
You shifted, the wood creaking beneath you. Her murky eyes were on you now, boring into your soul. Despite her sorry state, she still was brave, “Who’s there?”
You swallowed a few times. You wanted to talk to your sister again, but you always imagined the reunion would have been more…well, joyful than this.
“H-hey,” This was your pathetic attempt at speaking.
“Who are you?” She growled.
“I-it’s me,” you thumbed at the floorboard, feeling the grooves with your finger as you said your name. She immediately sunk back in shock.
It wasn’t long before she was shambling over to you, crawling straight like a zombie from a horror game. You shuffled back, shrieking like a banshee, trying to flee from the corpse’s terror. Your back hit the wall, and you knew it was over.
She was on you, her mottled hands touching your clammy skin. She smelled like the pungent scent of roadkill mixed with mould. You wanted to throw up all over again.
“You don’t sound the same! Are you older? You must be! The devil kept his promise, then!” She smiled, holes showing through her teeth. Her breath smelled like fresh rot.
“Wh-what happened?” you asked helplessly.
“Dickhead tried to make me a puppet!” She scoffed, “But I showed him!”
Oh, you showed him alright.
“How did you get here?”
She was quiet, a sadness coming over her ragged features. “I made a deal with him. But, I was wrong. I tried to stay conscious long enough to warn you! You have to leave, before he turns you into a –”
She was suddenly ripped from you, the strings on her being reeling her back into the dark void.
She was here. And now she’s gone. You grasped at the vacant air in front of you, questioning whether you saw anything. The tears tumbled freely from your lashes as you screamed her name into the ever extending darkness.
Then you stood. You don’t know how you found the strength, but you did. You marched over to the seated man. His elbow was resting on the chair’s arm, cheek leaning into his palm. When he looked up at you, his gaze was unfocused. He was a miserable husk of the usual cheery Wally Darling.
You didn’t care. You didn’t care about him, or any of this fucked up Puppet Land. Pain and anger fueled you. Your hands gripped his collar, knuckles turning white. You aggressively shook him, causing his head to lull back and forth.
He allowed it.
“Where is she?!” You snarled, spit splattering onto his cheek.
“Safe.” He answered flatly.
Your hand flew across his face, leaving a stinging pink mark across his cheek. For once in your time in Home, he didn’t look at you. His gaze was downturned, sorrowful.
He let you hit him. And you knew this. It made you even more angry.
“What the fuck did you do to her?”
“I didn’t do anything.”
Slap! Another one, across his other cheek. A matching pair.
Why does he look so pathetic? Fight! Fight!
His eyes suddenly snapped onto you, the tiny black pin pricks in a sea of white. Something deep in your core warned you, making your hair stand up. You were facing a predator, and you were definitely the prey.
The wires on your wrists snapped you off of him. You found yourself on the floor, grovelling, unable to get up.
But he didn’t touch you. Instead, his face was in his hands, body slumped forward. You could barely see the glistening whites of his eyes through the cracks of his fingers.
“I tried to save her,” you could barely hear him mumble through the fabric of his palms. “This is what happens when you reject Home.”
The realisation sunk into you like a weighted blanket. This was far over your head. Sobs wracked from your pitiful being as you let your forehead press against the floorboards. Tears spilled forth on the wood, pathetic whimpering only coming out.
A silence settled over the both of you as he let you cry. You mourned for your sister, for the life you had. Were you dead? Were you alive? Was this heaven? Hell?
You resigned on this being purgatory.
He waited until your sobs slowed before deciding to speak again. “When humans don’t want to be here, Home takes their life essence. For some reason, your … skin bits? Starts looking like that. Then there’s nothing that I can do to help.”
He’s rubbing a hand over his pained cheek, eyelids drooping again. “I tried changing the stuffing, stitching her back together. But she just kept getting worse .”
Your eyes were swollen and red. You tried to look up at the defeated man, but it was only a blurry aftervision. You tried to reason any bit of this irrational explanation, “Why is she a reanimated corpse? Why do you have control of her conscience?”
Wally mouthed the word ‘corpse.’ Another new word.
“It doesn’t look like she’s enjoying being here. When she’s asleep, she’s not in pain.”
“Why keep her in this sorry state? Why not just kill her?” You couldn’t believe what you were saying. But … anything was better then this torture.
“She wants to stay like this,” he sighed, “to ‘protect’ you. Or something. She still has the will to live.”
“You can’t take someone who wants to live?”
He shook his head, dejected.
That was fucked . This was all fucked. You finally sat up, hands rubbing across your swollen face to wipe away the tears. “How do I know you’re not lying?”
He leaned back and took you in. “You don’t have to trust me. I did a lot of not so nice things. But I have nothing to hide now.”
The only thing you can do is trust him. How would you even get out of here? How could you even save your sister? You were literally bound to this Home with no escape. Even if you did make it to a human world, how would your organs survive with literal cotton in your tubes?
You were doomed here.
You pushed yourself up onto your weak knees. Your legs rattled together like a shambling skeleton as you stood. You found yourself looking at this shell of a puppet, a new sense of resignation settling over you.
“Please. Tell me everything.”
He stared at you for a long moment. You could tell he was weighing the severity of it all. Finally, he nodded. “Let's go for a walk, then.”
The outside was eerie in this state. As you both walked the cobblestone path, the only thing you could hear was the clicking of shoes. The usual commotion and vibrancy of the neighbourhood was muted and grey. The crickets and frogs that sang in the night were replaced with desolate silence. You glanced back at Home, noticing how its eyes were closed in slumber.
You passed by each of the neighbour’s houses, willing a glance into their darkened abode. Every time you saw one of your friends, you’d note how they were strung up silhouettes in the dreariness of their home.
Everyone was a literal puppet.
You wished you knew about it sooner. You wished you listened to your instincts.
“Don’t be so mean to yourself,” Wally scolded sweetly.
You inwardly cringed. Ah, yes. He can read your mind. For a moment, you forgot about that detail.
He led you to the bodega – specifically, the bench that you woke up on when you first came here. You both sat on the metal, letting the silence consume you both.
The quietness of this world was almost maddening.
A few minutes tolled as you collected yourself. You shifted to face the man, resolve boldening you. “How did this all start?”
He told you. He told you everything.
It all started with a greedy showrunner, Ronald Dorelaine. He noticed how popular his TV show, Welcome Home , was. But he wanted more . His greedy hubris ate him alive, and he made a deal with a being . An eternal being. A being that should never be spoken aloud. It promised wealth, fame, longevity. The only condition is that the show had to keep going, no matter the cost.
The man accepted – and the success was instant. Soon there were vinyls, figures, heck, even a phone to call the characters.
But that is how Home gained sentience.
Home fed on eyes that watched it. The more people connected to the show, the more Home was connected to them . It fed on their energies, their being, their souls .
That’s how Wally was born. A servant for the faithful house, to usher in the lost souls that needed guidance.
It was almost biblical.
The creator, scared of the beast he created, shut down production. He did everything to destroy the livelihood of his show, from burning the set, to destroying the beloved merchandise. What he didn’t know is how it would curse everyone whoever associated with Welcome Home .
The souls of the puppeteers were locked into their puppets, cursed to forever play their roles. Ronald lies deep within the belly of Home, where he is birthed and eaten over and over again.
Anyone who found the lost tapes would be greeted by the wonderful Wally Darling, who guided them into the beautiful neighbourhood. They would never be seen again.
It’s been 50 years since the original run of the show. It’s been harder and harder to find the energy to upkeep the lively, colourful neighbourhood. No eyes, no souls – no power. For years, Home would rest, preserving its energy.
For years, Wally was alone. His friends, all strung up by string, only being fueled by life from the moving house. He was alone with his thoughts, brooding. Thinking.
In order to preserve Home and all of its glory, they would need a new strategy. A local ecosystem, for Home to feed off of. That’s when he figured out how to turn humans into puppets! Home doesn’t need the energy to keep their consciousness going, and it could passively feed off of their energy! And new neighbours! A perfect solution!
Every human he tested failed. It was always something that gave the disguise away.
But then there was you and your sister. He knew he had to play the long game to get it to work.
As he watched you and your family, he started to notice a trend. Abuse riddled your childhood, and your sibling only wanted to protect you.
It made him actually feel for the both of you.
So he proposed a deal to your sister. An out from the living situation and a safe place to bring you to. All she would have to do is move to Home! She agreed – it was a no brainer after all.
But she was observant. She was smart. Once she caught on, that’s when the rot started. She made a deal – Wally would not come after you until you were an adult. Let you make the decision. All the while, she will stick around and be his puppet.
He knew how important you were to your sister, so he agreed. He hated watching her fall apart. She didn’t deserve it. She was strong, courageous, and passionate. She was… the most.
Hearing everything made your gut wrench. You didn’t know how to feel about it all, either. Was Wally and Home the text-book definition of evil? You realised there was nuance to it. A grey in the extreme colours. They were products of an evil that can’t be quelled.
But offering a home to lost people? That doesn’t sound entirely too evil. The manipulation was a bit dubious, but what human would willingly become a puppet and escape reality?
Another thing gnawed at your insides. You noticed how he spoke of your sibling. There was so much praise. Admiration . You berated yourself for the feelings. It was nonsensical to feel jealousy in this situation. You flinched as soon as the enquiry left your lips, “Did you love my sister?”
He gave you a curious look, tilting his head to the side. “I love all my neighbours,” he stated nonchalantly.
“No, I mean,” you huffed, letting your hand rub at your forehead, “romantically.”
He blinked dumbly. It then dawned on him what you were insinuating. A flash of emotions cycled through his eyes before he cautiously put a hand on your shoulder. “I-I’m sorry. I… never felt that before.”
For some reason, that stung worse. A deep, cold sadness buried into your being as your forced back tears. Everything he did really was a lie. It was all scripted to make you stay.
He scooted closer, a series of nervous words tumbling from his mouth, “B-but, I still really enjoyed the kiss we shared!”
“You don’t need to justify anything, Wally.” You caught a few tears from falling, brushing them away.
He snatched your hand mid-action, causing you to look him over. He looked desperate, pleading . “If you want me to be with you romantically, I would do that for you. I’d do anything for you.”
You responded quietly, fingers rubbing across his plush palm. “You’re just saying that because you want me to stay.”
His pupils shook, dashing across your features. His breath was hitching as he clung onto your warm hand. His lips trembled as he tried to find the right words to say. The usually composed Wally, now a fearful mess.
“P-please. I don’t want to be alone again.”
It hurt. You wanted to scoop him up and promise him a world of happiness. But you couldn’t. A lot has happened, and you have to learn to trust him again.
But what will you choose? Stay? Or rot?
You pressed your lips against the felt of his knuckles, the action calming down the puppet temporarily.
“Is there a way to save my sibling?”
You both made your way back to Home and settled down at the kitchen table. Wally had eased down the rotting body of your sibling, settling her down onto a nearby chair.
You gave Wally an uncertain look. “So if she agrees for her soul to be transferred to a puppet, she’ll be okay?”
He gave a solemn nod. “But remember, she won’t have as much free will as you do.”
You stared at your sister with determination. Anything is better than her rotting away for 20 some years.
Wally then snapped his fingers, causing your sister to reanimate. She sucked in a deep breath, eyes flashing wildly. Her hands clambered at her surroundings, getting a feel of her environment.
“Hey, hey.” For once, you were calm. You smiled at her, appreciating any bit of time you had left with your sibling.
The former teen’s eyes fall on you, that inky black smile enveloping her face. She praised you, your name coming off her lips like a song.
You extended a hand to grasp at her decayed one. She gripped back, like you were her only lifeline.
“You’re safe,” she mused, “I’m so glad.”
You hummed happily. “I’m glad to see you again. It’s been a hot moment.”
She laughed dryly. “Tell me about it. Do I look prom ready?” She puckered her lips and weakly vogued. You couldn’t help but giggle at her antics.
How she had the strength to be funny was beyond you.
“Yeah, you look hot.”
“I’ll be prom queen before you know it.”
You both giggled at the thought. A half-puppet zombie being prom queen. What a silly idea.
Once the laughter settled, a seriousness took her features. “So, is the devil gone?”
You flashed a glance at Wally, who was now settled down on his chair. He was staring off at the far wall, allowing you the privacy you needed.
“Y-yeah. He’s… gone.”
She visibly relaxed back in her seat. “Thank fuck. Now we just need to find a way out of here.”
You rubbed circles into what remained of her flesh. You opened your mouth, only to shut it a moment later. You repeated the cycle a few times before you found the right words. “What if we found you a new body?”
She blinked. “What?”
“So you wouldn’t be, you know,” your words tapered off.
She huffed and rolled her eyes. “Are you insisting on putting me into a puppet?”
“You wouldn’t feel pain! You’d be alive! With me!”
You could tell she was fuming at the suggestion. She was quiet as her milky white eyes stared forward. You let the silence envelop the both of you as she thought.
She gave a resigned sigh before she leaned forward. “Do you want to stay?”
You didn’t answer. You watched her with wide eyes.
“If you want to stay, then that is your decision. I can respect that.” She closed her eyes, leaning back. Her form visibly deflated. “But that’s not living , sweetie. This is just… escapism.”
Was it that bad? You wondered that yourself.
But you made up your mind.
“Will you stay with me?”
A bittersweet smile tugged on your sibling’s chapped lips. She squeezed your hand soothingly. “No. I’d rather die than to live in a false reality.”
You choked back a breath. Now it was your turn to beg. Both of your hands were on hers, eyes burning. “P-please! I just got you back!”
She shook her head, pulling your hand to meet her lips. A black sludge marked your skin. “I love you. So much.”
You pleaded, begged, bartered. Anything. Your hands tugged on her mottled body, shaking her, clinging onto her last bit of existence. Her eyes became unfocused, breath weakening, until all was left was the deceased body of your sister.
A sparkle of light glistened out from between the teen’s rotted teeth. The orb of brightness ascended to the ceiling, only to be greeted by a black tendril that wrapped the glow in sticky ink, pulling it into the dark maw.
You don’t remember what happened. You knew you screamed until your throat was coarse. Sobs brought you into delirium.
Wally had intervened at some point, laying a white sheet over your sister’s corpse. He had hoisted you up into his arms, bringing you back to his loveseat. He rested you into his lap, your legs resting on one side of the arm rest. You nestled your face into the crook of his neck as he rocked you back and forth. He whispered praises of how strong you were. How you were the most .
You certainly don’t feel strong. You couldn’t even stop the tears from coming.
You don’t know how long it was. Eventually everything calmed. A numbness enveloped your senses. A voice that you weren’t sure was yours came out of your mouth. “I’m scared.”
The puppet had placed a chaste kiss against your temple, exhaling a barely audible ‘mwuah.’
“Will I still be me?”
“Yes,” his voice was barely above a whisper.
“Will I still be in control?”
The man nodded into your cheek, hugging you closer to his form.
“Promise me something?”
He stared at you, features soft. “Anything.”
“Fall for me organically. Take me on a date. Love me.”
He squeezed you into his chest, until you could only see blue and smell apple spice and dried paint.
“Anything for you, my Darling.”
Chapter 8: Beautiful Dreamer
The melodious birdsong could be heard humming outside of your window . You stretched your weary body, feeling the hug of a plush duvet wrapping your figure. You groaned, wishing that you could sleep for five more minutes.
But you knew you couldn’t be late for your opening shift!
You peeled your eyes open, flinching at the light that filtered through the tiny window of the spare room. The dull sparkle of fairy lights twinkled above your head, reminding you that you forgot to turn them off last night.
You sat up and stretched your back, a few juicy pops emanating from your spine. Another day in paradise, eh?
Your feet land on the plush throw rug as you go to your dresser. You pulled out a comfortable outfit that you wouldn’t mind working in.
You made your way through the closed store and up the stairs, hearing the gentle bustle of your dad, Howdy Pillar, waking up. You did your usual morning routine in the bathroom.
Teeth, shower, and then get dressed. You stared at yourself in the mirror extra long today. Something was off, but you couldn’t quite place it.
Your hand went up to straighten the rainbow antennas that were prevalent on your forehead. One was bent in a bizarre direction from the way you slept. Must have been knocked out really good!
You smoothed over your clothes, making sure to cup the sleeves of your shirt behind your elbow. You hated the sensation of fabric on your spines! You gingerly fingered the tiny bumps that poked out of your skin on your forearm, making sure that they were accessible.
When you adjusted the shirt on your back, you popped your translucent wings into the little slits sewn in your clothes.
You plodded down to the shoppe, taking extra care to tug on your apron. You’ve done this so much that it was almost a ritual.
You stood next to a towering, multi-limbed being behind the counter, watching him take a long sip out of his ‘Best Bug Dad’ mug.
“Mornin’, Grasshopper. ‘Nother day, huh?”
You smiled up at him. Every time you saw him, a wave of appreciation floods you. Your heart is full of love for this caterpillar, and you don’t know how you can love him any more.
He found you on his doorstep when you were just a little nymph. You had run away from your abusive parents from deep in the woods, so he decided to adopt you.
It hasn’t always been sunshine and rainbows. Working can be tough, but he made it as accommodating as possible! He’s a wonderful businessman, and you hope to make him proud someday!
It’s a good thing Home is such a nice place to live. All the neighbours were sweet and inviting. There was even a guy that took your fancy! He was kind, smelled of apples, and an absolute darling!
“Buh, what a freeloader!” Howdy groaned at the paper. There was an article on the front highlighting Wally Darling’s art show. You were so proud of him at that moment! It must have been a big deal for an artist to showcase their art!
“C’mon, he worked hard for that!”
“He just sits and paints! What about us hardworkin’ folks, bustin’ our backs for the community?”
You gave the caterpillar a cat-like grin, “You’re just being hyper critical of him.”
He huffed proudly, “Am not!”
“Literally everyone in this town just sits around and lollygags.”
He waved a spare hand. “He’s different!”
You shook your head and chuckled. Howdy used to love Wally – thought he was a stand up guy! The absolute most of a man! That is, until he found out that you liked him. Then he criticised everything he did.
It was endearing. But also annoying.
You both went about the day, doing stock take and resupplying the shelves. Once midday ticked on, a familiar duo squeezed through the bodega’s doors.
The big fuzzy dog, Barnaby, gave the shopkeeper a toothy canine grin, “Wow, it’s a real bugdega in here, innit?”
Howdy guffawed at the joke, slapping his knee. “That never gets old!”
Barnaby looked smug.
But you were focused on someone else. Next to the lumbering dog was a man. A man with a prominent pompadour, fuzzy cardigan, and a dreamy smile. You could feel your tummy doing somersaults as you thought of the night you shared a kiss with him. The whole scene was bliss.
However, after the night of the sleepover, you both never addressed the elephant in the room. Were you dating? Just friends? It left an air of uncertainty whenever you spoke to him.
“H-hey, Wally,” Your voice shyly called to him.
He was his usual calm, collected self. But his tone matched yours with soft and sweet cadence. “Hey, neighbour.”
“H-how are you doing today?”
“The usual! Just stopped by to get some - as Barnaby would call it - grub. ”
You sighed and shook your head. Bloody Barnaby and his insect jokes! One of these days, you’re gonna tell him how it really bugs you!
… Ugh, you hated how influential he was!
Wally gave a lazy glance at his friend and the shopkeep, observing how they were knees deep in jokes and laughter. He leaned closer to you, voice low. “I have something to ask you. Do you have a minute?”
Butterflies fluttered around your core. You could feel a heat rise to your cheeks. You nodded, giving a cautious glance to your dad, making sure he was properly distracted.
You guided Wally a few aisles away, landing deep within the art section. You casually started fixing up a paintbrush display, “What did you need to talk about?”
He started thumbing the different brushes, rubbing so the bristles would flick against his fingers. “I was wondering if you wanted to go on a date with me?”
You stopped what you were doing. You swallowed thickly as you felt your heart hammer in your chest. A bit too eagerly, you responded. “Y-yes! I’d love to!”
The smile reached up to his eyes. “Wonderful. Can I pick you up after work?”
You didn’t even know what the date entailed. You just nodded as excitement bubbled in your chest.
Wally had picked up a brush, dusting the tip of your nose playfully. “I’ll see you then.”
Then he sauntered away, twirling the artist's tool casually in his hand. It wasn’t long before he was out of sight, joined with his friend at the front of the store.
You pumped your fist to the ceiling and released a silent scream. You couldn’t believe this! He really wanted to go on a date with you! That means the moment you shared at the sleepover was mutual!
Then a heaviness settled on your shoulders. Oh no.
You’d have to tell your dad.
“And how will you pay for that?” Howdy asked the shorter man, his fingers drumming against the counter impatiently. Another pair of arms crossed against his chest as he gave Wally a pointed look.
Wally hummed, looking over the tool. Finally, he spoke with certainty, “Did you know if you mix yellow and blue pigments, it’ll make green? Green can be quite the creative colour if used properly! But it is very difficult to work with.”
Everyone was staring at Wally in disbelief. He actually disclosed useful information for once! It wasn’t a half-baked joke or a nonchalant remark.
It makes sense, though. He was a professional painter, after all. He was probably being humble most of the time.
Howdy grumbled, punching the fact into the cash register, having it screech out a receipt. He mumbled something along the lines of ‘well, I guess that was good.’
You giggled at how stubborn he was being.
It wasn’t long before Barnaby and Wally, now holding two heaping hot dogs and a paintbrush, were walking out of the bodega. As Wally left, he held your gaze for a moment longer, before slipping out into the vibrant neighbourhood.
You released a dreamy sigh, which was immediately caught by the tall caterpillar.
“So, what did you guys talk about?”
You stiffened. “Oh, nothing. He needed a brush,” you fibbed.
A long moment drawn out between you two. You could hear his index finger tapping against his clothed forearm. You cautiously gave him a glance, noticing how he was waiting, staring. He looked so stern with his arms folded and his lips tucked into a thin line.
You caved, exhaling, “He asked me on a date.”
He huffed dramatically, throwing up another pair of arms. “I knew it! And he didn’t even ask for permission!”
You rolled your eyes at him as he continued to prattle about ‘what good neighbours should do’.
You were done with him making decisions for you.
You swivelled to face him, your voice raising, “He doesn’t need to ask for your permission, dad! I’m a grown adult! I can do whatever I want!”
Your tone caught him off guard. The look he gave you made your heart twist in little sad knots. It was so dejected that you almost wanted to apologise for raising your voice.
He sighed, kneeling down on a pair of legs. One hand was up, rubbing circles on his temple, while another pair was at your shoulders. “I’m sorry, grasshopper. I just…”
He was looking for words as he gripped you. He touched you like you were a fragile, defenceless creature, about to break. You leaned your cheek into the warmth of his hand, your fingers coiling around his clothed forearm. The fuzzy scruff of his fur tickled your nose.
Your tone was more gentle now, full of love and appreciation. “He’s not asking for my hand, dad. He just wants a date. When and if we become serious, you’ll have the final say, alright?”
He scooped you into a big caterpillar hug, the wind getting pushed out of you.
“I just worry, y’know? Remember the night you had the nightmare?” he rocked you back and forth, “I don’t want anything bad happening to you, little one. Ever since you landed at the bodega, I vowed to protect you.”
You loved the way Howdy hugged you. His arms wrapped around you like a boa constrictor, and the firm muscles barricaded you from the outside world. You were in an impenetrable cocoon – a safe haven that’s known as your dad. You melted into his fuzzy embrace, hugging him back.
You don’t quite remember the nightmare all too much. It was a fuzzy mess. But you did know it scared Howdy to bits. You mumbled into his apron, “I’ll be fine, dad. I’ll come straight back after the date.”
He pulled away just enough to press a big smooch against your forehead. You groaned as you rubbed away the saliva. “Daaad!”
“You grew up so fast.”
“I’ve been an adult for a while now, y’know.”
He landed another wet smooch. “So fast!”
You released a series of ‘yuck!’s as you scrambled to get away from him.
Once he finally let you go, you both giggled away the worries. Family quarrels happen. You’re just glad that it was healthy.
You both went back to work, catering to each passing customer. As the day ticked on by, you anxiously watched the clock. Nerves tickled at your gut as it got closer to closing time.
Howdy begrudgingly noticed. He practically ordered you to go get ready for the date an hour before he closed up shoppe.
You skittered off before he could change his mind.
As you burrowed through your drawers of clothes, you flipped between several different outfits. Was it going to be formal? Casual? Physical? Ugh! You had no idea what to go with!
You decided on the most comfortable, fashion forward one. You still wanted to look good, but practical!
When you ducked back into the shop to show Howdy, he practically dropped his broom in disbelief. The way his smile lit up, his eyes glistening with prideful tears, it made you feel all warm and tingly. He reached down to tuck a stray strand of hair behind your ear. “You look marvellous, grasshopper.”
You beamed up at his acceptance.
The jingle of the front door disrupted the perfect family moment. You both gazed at the intruder, only to see the one and only Wally Darling.
His hair was in that immaculate updo and his clothes were in pristine order. This time, he didn’t wear his usual deep blue cardigan. Instead, it was a rainbow patterned knitted sleeveless vest. The sleeves of his white undershirt were rolled up to his elbows, exposing his felt yellow forearms.
He looked perfect. Divine, even.
But you’d probably always think that, no matter the situation.
Howdy’s soft exterior hardened immediately. One set of arms went to cross against his broad chest, while the others propped on his hips. He glared down at the little man.
“So,” his tone threatening, “what do you plan on doing?”
“A date, sir,” Wally responded flatly, that impish smile broad on his face.
He clicked his tongue. “Obviously! What are you planning on doing on the date ?”
Wally tilted his head and hummed. He was definitely tossed between answering sarcastically or honestly.
He went with the safe route. “A picnic.”
“And you plan on taking them back here after?”
Wally placed a hand on the flat of his chest. “I wouldn’t dream of doing anything else.”
The caterpillar exhaled out of his nose. He glanced back at you, giving the most uncertain of looks.
You took this opportunity to spring up with your grasshopper legs, making a cartoonish boing noise as you planted a kiss against Howdy’s cheek. Upon landing back down, you skipped off to Wally, hooking your arm with his, “I’ll see you later, dad!”
Howdy watched you and Wally saunter carelessly out the doors of his bodega. He ran a hand over the kiss mark on his cheek. Shaking his head, he went back to sweeping the store, “They grow up so fast…”
Wally guided you to the crest of the hill, just outside of his Home. A picnic blanket was meticulously laid out with a few candle lit lanterns holding the edges. There was a spread of different kinds of pastries – all of which were your favourite.
Dusk was settling over the scene, an orange tangerine mixing with the purple of the night. It casted an etherealness on the picnic that you couldn’t describe. It makes your heart fill to the brim with happiness.
Wally had helped you down, settling on one end of the blanket. From behind his back, he pulled out two glasses and a dark bottle. Inside sloshed a violet liquid. As he uncorked and poured the drink, you got a familiar feeling tugging at your stomach.
For some reason, it made you nervous.
He offered you the drink, clinking the glass with his, stating a casual, “Cheers.”
Then he watched expectantly.
You swirled the drink in your hand warily. You don’t even know why you’re being so cautious.
You finally caved, “Cheers.” With that, you looked away, gambling a quick taste.
It was tart. It was…
Oh, it was just grape juice.
Why did you assume it would be anything other?
You internally mused at your silly emotion. You glanced back at Wally, seeing half of his drink gone.
He must really like it!
“This is really beautiful, Wally,” you found your words after a moment.
He leaned back a bit, his smile softening. “I got some help. I wanted to show how much you mean to me.”
You bit your lower lip to hide that growing smile.
“I didn’t realise how much you liked me.”
“Silly, silly.” He had scooted closer to your side. You could feel the fuzzy felt of his face pressed against your cheek. You practically melted from the touch. The hotness of his breath was against your ear. “You have no idea.”
You two chatted throughout the evening, all while you snacked on the pastries. The sun had nestled deep into the horizon, the silver shine of the stars now coming out to play. You both had laid down, watching the faraway glimmer of constellations all while your fingers entwined. You rubbed your thumb against his soft knuckles, lavishing in the heat.
Somewhere along the line, you both decided to do twenty questions.
“How did you get into painting?”
“I ‘unno, just felt right.”
“That’s a lame answer.”
He gave his usual monotone laugh. “Ha ha. What can I say? Colours are pretty.”
You shook your head and rolled your eyes.
He hummed thoughtfully. He turned his head so that he could watch you.
“Do you have any siblings?”
You blinked. That seems like a basic question, but you don’t know why it made you feel uncertain. Your eyes locked on his. “Nope!”
You swear you could see a flash of sadness pass through his features. Maybe you were seeing things.
“How about you?”
“Nah. Could you imagine two of me?” he shook his head, “Quite confusing, indeed.”
“I think I’d have a hard time choosing which Wally to like!”
He briefly looked shocked. That is, until you place a quick peck against his cheek. “Kidding!”
His face was turning a bright red. You caught him off guard!
“You know, you deserve punishment for that,” he stated matter of factly, his smirk inching into mischief.
“Yeah?” You mimicked his smile. “And what are you gonna do?”
You didn’t expect the guy to have so much speed. His hands were on you in seconds flat, fingers tickling your most delicate spots. You squealed in bouts of laughter, flailing to get him off. But he was dexterous! He guessed your every move, and prepared even more tickles!
You had to think fast in the Tickle War! Your hand jabbed up to his underarm, tickling in retaliation!
Wally gasped in surprise, jerking off of you as he erupted in his own set of giggles.
You both tumbled around in the grass until you were both gasping for air. He laid on his side, and you took the opportunity to snuggle up close, eyes never breaking contact. You were too afraid to look away, in case this moment would vanish into the night air.
He placed a gentle kiss against your forehead, exhaling a barely audible ‘mwuah.’
He was so goofy. Your insides were going into mush just being around him.
“This was fun,” he mumbled into your skin.
“Yeah,” You sighed dreamily into his sweater vest.
“Would you like to go on a date again?”
You pulled away, your smile encompassing your face. “I’d love that!”
You couldn’t help yourself but pepper quick little kisses against his cheeks. He chuckled at the attention.
“Is this what Barnaby meant by ‘going steady?’”
You stopped momentarily, nuzzling your nose into the soft fabric of his cheek. “Are you asking me to … be in a relationship?”
“Would you like that?”
This time, your lips found his. He reciprocated, humming contently at the texture. When you pulled away, you answered with the most certainty you’ve ever felt in your life. “I’d love to date you, Wally Darling.”
You wish you could take a picture of his expression. His eyes were half-lidded, filled with the most love you’ve ever seen. “Then you’re mine, my Darling.”
You placed another firm kiss against him, embracing him so tight that you could pop his stuffing. Your tummy was filled with butterflies, and a heat warmed your face.
You have a feeling you’re going to love being his Darling.
Wally had dropped you off at Howdy’s Place, making sure that the caterpillar was satiated.
He wouldn't be, however, considering how many lipstick marks were covering Wally’s felt face.
But Wally didn’t care. He sort of enjoyed watching Howdy get all ruffled. It was different from his usual character.
You certainly were changing people. It was a good change of pace from the usual lifeless void.
After so many years, there was finally life.
But there still needed to be more work done. More souls to be drawn in, more energy to feed Home.
But this was a good start.
He made his way to the sentient house, ducking into the crimson door. Almost immediately, Home rapped a few panels of wood.
It was excited!
How was the date?
Wally tugged his ascot off before neatly folding it and placing it on a side table.
“I think it went well!”
It looked very nice .
The man sunk into his usual rainbow striped chair, hands folding over his stomach. “Julie gave the suggestion. Poppy helped bake the sweets.”
Such nice friends! Home knocked a bit too happily, it made the walls sway.
Wally gave a low laugh at the house’s excitement.
Home settled a bit. The next taps were slow, almost somber sounding. Keeping them awake is tiring, Wally.
His smile went tense. He reached a hand to touch the wallpaper. “I know, sweet Home. Soon we’ll have more friends!”
Yay! The house’s walls clamoured, the panelling clicking together in excitement. The website is working!
He chuckled dryly. “I barely even know what an ‘inner net’ is, but I’m glad I was able to reach some people on the Outside.”
It’s ‘internet’, Wally.
They let a quietness lull over them. Wally picked at the fuzzy bits off his finger tips. It took him a while to formulate the question he had bubbling in him.
“Did they have to forget about their sister?”
The house creaked sadly.
Sorry. I thought it would be easier for them.
Wally sighed, sinking deeper into his loveseat. “You’re probably right.”
She has a good soul.
The man peeked up at the wallpaper’s eyes. “Do you feel her?”
The eyes stared back, crinkling in happiness. She’s very sweet. She dreams of high school and crushes, and making awful food for her sibling.
Wally chuckled at the thought. “What a beautiful dreamer.”