Dr. Kevin Hillman
The May Editor's Pick is by Dr. Kevin Hillman
Please feel free to visit Kevin at: firstname.lastname@example.org
THE COLONY MAN
by Dr. Kevin Hillman
The rush of air stopped when Joseph Blackthorn hit the ground.
Pain seared through his body. His ears reeled to a chorus of snapping bones and bursting internal organs. Joseph lay still, staring at the weeds clutching the thin soil among the rocks. The wave of pain broke and receded, leaving no sensation at all.
Movement was denied him. Joseph assumed his neck must be broken, and wondered if anyone would find him before he died. What would it be like, the end of life? Joseph pictured himself in front of some omnipotent God who, leaning forward from on high, laughed at him. “Feeling a little foolish, eh, Mr. Atheist?” Joseph would have smiled but no muscle twitched his lips. In sudden panic, he tried to blink, but could not. The weeds blurred in his drying eyes, the wind’s hum faded from his ears.
Joseph Blackthorn failed to die. It came as a small surprise. He would have expected that, despite the failures that plagued his life, he must surely succeed in this final act. When the last light faded from his vision, Joseph resigned himself to an eternity as an immobile, blind, deaf mute. Not even a ghost, he remained trapped within his own shattered corpse.
Alone in his silent darkness, Joseph cursed the man who had killed him. He was only twenty-three. There was so much more life to live. Admittedly Joseph’s life had consisted almost entirely of disasters so far but it could have improved. Instead, he had found out too soon that there was nothing to die for. This was it, this was death. A mind trapped in a cooling body. Nothing to see, hear, taste, touch or smell. Eventually, even thought must fade. Joseph’s mental laughter echoed in the crypts of his mind. At least he had been right to be an atheist.
Devoid of external stimuli, his mind conjured echoed images and remembered sounds for its own entertainment. The face of his killer loomed large among the dancing pictures, leering, framed against the sky, receding as Joseph fell from the cliff. A question surfaced, trickled among the crevices of his dead brain, probed into the grey matter and shouted itself into his thoughts.
What could Martin have gained from killing him? Joseph had no money, no job, nothing. Just that old camper van and even a scrap metal dealer would turn that thing down. It was supposed to be a weekend camping trip, that was all. Just a bit of fun. Martin bought the food and fuel. He must have planned this all along. Some friend.
Did Martin want Sheila, Joseph’s wife? He only had to ask her and she would have left. Sheila hated Joseph. She reminded him daily of his worthlessness, his inability to provide for her. Sheila’s image appeared against the dark background of his thoughts, her pretty face contorted in disgust. Joseph suppressed her. She must have loved him once, but that was long gone. Dissipated, like smoke in the wind. Did she think he showed promise, did she believe his lies? Heck, why not, he had believed them himself. One day he would make it. One day he would be somebody. One day he would be a rich man. One day.
Not today. Always tomorrow. Now there were no more tomorrows. Why?
Something bit Joseph’s mind, something nipped off a thought as it formed. Joseph winced, a remembered movement, now disembodied. There was another, and another. Imperatives of sugar and protein floated among Joseph’s thoughts. Was this the nature of ending? Not a fade, but a gradual piece-by-piece loss? Beyond terror, Joseph allowed his mind to disassemble.
Light burst into Joseph’s blank world. Touch followed, and smell. Joseph faced a creature that could only be born of Hell. Huge jaws twitched, a hard face stared, and above this, feelers flickered and rubbed against his own. The creature passed him, to be replaced by another. And another.
Feelers? Joseph tested his mind. He had feelers. He ran on six legs. Exerting his will, he turned around.
He faced one of the creatures, and saw himself through that creature’s eyes. Joseph was both, and more. A myriad images flashed before him, creatures on a blue-pink ground, creatures walking among huge grasses, among vast stones. Joseph was them all, each one was a little part of him. All he had to do was find food, tell the other parts of himself where it was, and take it back to his queen.
The bitten parts of his mind reassembled in a million fragments. Each with its own eyes, its own body. Joseph could move. Joseph could see. Joseph could touch.
Martin Newton forced the smile from his face when he arrived at the camper van. Its faded blue awning sagged, its white paint struggled in vain against the rust that gripped the edges of every panel. The door groaned as Sheila emerged. Martin took a deep breath of her perfume. His eyes lingered on her long auburn hair, slim body and long legs, accentuated by the tight shorts she wore. Without the scowl that haunted her face whenever Joe was nearby, she looked beautiful.
“Where’s Joe?” The tone of her voice made her feelings clear to Martin. She asked because she was his wife, because she should. Not because she cared.
“There’s been an accident.” Martin forced breathlessness. He should have run back, not walked. “We’d better call an ambulance.”
“Is Joseph hurt?” Sheila’s hand flew to her mouth.
“I think—” Martin licked his dry lips. “I think he’s dead.”
“Dead? How? What happened?” Sheila’s eyes widened.
Martin blinked. She wasn’t putting this on, she was really upset. He thought she’d have been glad to be rid of the worthless bum.
“We were walking along the edge of the ravine.” Martin had rehearsed his words on the long walk back, but still they sounded fake to him. “Joe was fooling around. He slipped on the path and fell over the edge.”
“He might just be hurt.” Sheila’s eyes moved between Martin and the camper van. “We could drive round and pick him up. Get him to a hospital.”
“That old van won’t get round there.” Martin ran his tongue over his lips again. “We’d be better driving somewhere and coming back with help.” There was always the possibility that Joe had not died immediately. The longer they delayed, the better Martin’s chances of success.
“We could phone. You have a cell phone.” Sheila clenched both fists at her chin. She nibbled at one, her eyes wild.
“Battery’s dead.” Martin took the phone from his pocket and showed her the blank screen. “The cigar lighter in Joe’s van is broken so I haven’t been able to charge it.”
“Dead.” Sheila’s eyes glazed. She stumbled towards the space in the trees from which Martin had emerged. He ran after her and grabbed her arm.
“Sheila, where are you going? There’s nothing we can do. Let’s go for help.”
“I have to see him. He needs me.” She pulled away and ran into the woods.
Martin clenched his fists. This was not at all how he had imagined it would be. Sheila should be rejoicing at Joe’s demise. By now, they should be driving away, laughing together and planning their future. A visit to the police to report Joe’s ‘accident’, some crocodile tears, and then they could disappear. After they collected on Joe’s insurance, naturally. Martin bit into his lip. Sheila’s tears were real. Despite the constant fights, despite all the things she had said, she actually loved Joe after all.
Well, he didn’t deserve her. Martin ran into the woods and caught up with Sheila. She was wandering, unsure of which way to go.
“Sheila, wait. You don’t know the way. I don’t want you falling as well.” Martin resigned himself to Sheila’s decision. He would show her Joe’s body, let her grieve, and take it from there. In the end, it would work out okay. He would comfort her, she would come around. Guilt touched Martin’s mind; not for the murder he had committed but for the pain he had caused Sheila. He pushed it away. Sheila must realise, eventually, that Joe’s death was a good thing for her.
Martin led Sheila to the ravine. He put his arm around her waist before he let her peer over the edge. There was no need for him to look. He had already seen Joe’s smashed corpse on the rocks below. It was a sight he would find difficult to forget and he had no wish to reinforce the image.
Sheila shrieked. Martin turned his face away. The volume she produced threatened to split his eardrums. He held onto her waist until she subsided into hysterical sobbing, then put both arms around her and pulled her close.
“I didn’t want you to see this.” Martin whispered the words. He meant it, he would have preferred if Joe had been removed by white-coated doctors. Sheila did not need to see his body until it had been cleaned and prepped on a mortuary slab. Martin pulled away so he could look into Sheila’s eyes.
“Let’s go, Sheila. We can’t do anything. Let’s get some professionals out here.”
“Why?” Martin risked a glance down. It was at least fifty feet to the rocks where Joe lay.
“I just need to see him.” Sheila pulled away and stepped to the edge.
“Hold on.” Martin took her arm. “We can’t get down that way. Let’s try further along.” He led her along the path in silence, thankful for the cool breeze that sprang up. Martin’s sweat was not entirely due to the sunshine.
They reached a point where the side of the ravine formed a grassy embankment, less steep than the sheer drop Joe had taken. A narrow path zig-zagged down the slope, presumably cut by the feet of some of the wild goats that roamed these woods. Martin led the way.
“Are you okay?” Sheila looked Martin over.
“Nothing broken.” Martin smiled, but suppressed it quickly. He knew what must be going through Sheila’s mind at this moment. If only Joe had fallen here. Martin led the way along the ravine, back to the rocky area where Joe’s corpse lay. He hoped no wild animals had found it first.
The grassed area blended into rocks. Sheila stumbled, and Martin held her arm. He was glad of the excuse to keep his eyes on the ground. Seeing Joe close up held no appeal for him.
he last thing Martin wanted was to watch the corpse as they approached, to see it loom larger and larger, in increasing detail, with every step forward.
“There he is.” Sheila pulled away from Martin and half-ran, half-clambered over and between the rocks.
Martin drew a deep breath. He had not expected to have to face what he had done, not like this. Sure, he knew he might have to identify the body, but in the stainless steel environment of a mortuary. Joe would be cleaned up, his body covered with a sheet. Someone would lift the sheet just enough to show Joe’s face. There would be no blood.
There could be no blood, because all the blood Joe possessed was currently sinking into the soil around his body or drying on the rocks. Martin forced back rising bile and moved to stand over Sheila, who knelt beside Joe.
“Is he. . . ” Martin knew the answer. There could not be an unbroken bone in Joe’s body. The sharp rocks had torn him open, his head was cracked to reveal its contents. Martin turned away, nauseated at the abattoir stench that filled his nostrils, even in the open air.
“Joe.” Sheila spoke through sobs. “We argued all the time, but I never stopped loving him.”
Martin could not bear to look at her face, swollen with tears from red eyes. He glanced at Joe but found no solace there. Joe’s eyes stared like rubber imitations beneath motionless lids. Something moved on Joe’s blue-pink face, below his nose. Martin blinked.
“Oh, God, no.” Sheila surged to her feet, her hand over her mouth. Martin, fascinated by the tiny movements, bent closer to Joe’s face.
A line of ants marched into Joe’s nostril, and another line followed the same route out. Each ant, on its way from Joe’s nose, carried a small piece of fatty meat. Other lines roamed through Joe’s blood-caked hair, into and out of the hole in his skull. One walked across Joe’s open eye.
Martin fell to his knees and emptied his stomach onto the rocks. He had never faced death, never thought of the true consequences of his actions. All he wanted was to be rid of Joe, to have Sheila to himself. Faced with the reality of Joe’s horrific ending, Martin wished to turn back time. Time, however, is a one way street, and a narrow one at that. It’s difficult enough to look back. It’s not possible to turn around.
That long narrow street faced Martin now, its forks and options visible in clear detail. Turn this way, and be with Sheila; turn that way and go to jail. Though his eyes blurred with tears, his mouth and nostrils burned with vomit, Martin’s options were clear. Confess his guilt, lose both Sheila and his freedom, or live with Joe’s murder on his conscience forever. Martin pressed his hands into the ground to push himself upright. Conscience be damned. There would be dreams, bad ones, but they must surely fade with time. The images in his mind could not last forever. Martin raised his hand to wipe his mouth.
A single ant ran across his skin. Martin slapped at it with his other hand. He shook the debris away. Behind him, Sheila gasped.
“What’s wrong?” Martin followed Sheila’s gaze to Joe’s face. The ants stood perfectly still.
“They just stopped.” Sheila backed away from the body. “I was going to brush them off him. They all stopped moving, all at once.”
A shiver rippled through Martin’s body. “Let’s get back to the camper. We have to get someone. We have to report this.”
“No. Those insects are eating my Joe. We can’t just leave.”
“Come on, Sheila. There’s nothing we can do on our own.” Martin took Sheila’s arm and pulled her away from Joe’s corpse. She struggled at first, but finally gave in and let him lead her from the sight and stench of Joe’s gradual decomposition.
It was Martin. Joseph knew it was Martin who had crushed a part of him. Martin wanted him dead. Did he know how Joseph had changed? Was Martin trying to kill him again? Joseph pressed his will against the primitive instincts of his new bodies. They succumbed easily.
oseph gave new directions. The ants left the remains of Joseph’s brain and formed an orderly line towards the sheer rocks, a line that travelled vertically up the face of the ravine. Joseph gritted imaginary teeth. It was time for payback.
Finding a way back up the ravine side had proved more difficult than getting down. By the time Martin and Sheila reached the camper van, the sky’s blue had darkened. The chill of the night air cut through their thin clothes.
Sheila’s tears had dried. She had leaned on Martin for most of the way back, and he had enjoyed having her close. It would have been perfect, but for the stink of his own sick in his nose and the images of Joe that insisted on flashing onto his eyelids whenever he blinked. The ant on Joe’s eye was going to be a difficult memory to lose, but Martin determined to forget it. This was his and Sheila’s time. Joe was dead and gone. Eventually he would be forgotten. Eventually Sheila Blackthorn would realise just how useless her dead husband had been. Then she might just become Sheila Newton.
Martin helped Sheila into the camper and laid her on a bunk. She was exhausted, as was he, but he still had to get the awning down and drive to the nearest town. Martin worked with haste, checking the surrounding woods at every hoot, or crack of a twig. He knew little about nature, but he knew enough to realise the woods weren’t safe at night.
With the threadbare awning stowed, Martin checked on Sheila. She lay still with her eyes open.
“Sheila. How are you doing?” Martin took her hand in his. She felt cold.
“We have to get help for Joe.” Sheila spoke without moving her eyes from the ceiling. Martin stiffened. Sheila might be losing her grip on reality. He pulled a blanket over her and stood up.
“Okay. We’re leaving now.” Martin took one last look at Sheila’s still form. He headed forward and sat in the driver’s seat, still wondering if Sheila had accepted Joe’s death.
The worn seat sagged under Martin’s weight. He started the engine and turned on the lights. They were maybe a hundred yards off the road, but he could remember no potholes or other problems from the drive into this clearing. That had been in daytime though. Best take it slowly in the dark. Martin put his hand on the long gear lever.
An ant ran across the top of the dashboard. Martin stared at it, unmoving. Sweat trickled from his brow, despite the cool air in the van. The ant stopped moving, just above the speedometer, and faced Martin. Tiny antennae waved in the air.
Martin slapped at the ant. It left a small wet patch on the plastic dashboard. Martin grated the van into gear and drove for the road.
The cold slowed Joseph’s metabolism, but the engine’s heat soon filled the van. Invigorated, Joseph flexed his chitinous bodies. The one he had sent to the dashboard confirmed that Martin was driving. Sheila watched several of Joseph’s bodies on the ceiling above her, but she made no move to attack.
Most of Joseph hid in the air vents and in the many crevices between rusted panels. Some of him had an important task to complete. The ant brains protested, but Joseph pushed harder until they capitulated.
Where the brake pipes met the wheels, tiny mandibles chewed at the rubber.
The camper van lurched over the grass. It swayed and tilted with every dip in the ground. Martin forced himself to slow. Afraid of ants. How stupid could he get? It was that memory of the ants crawling on Joe’s face, eating Joe’s brain. That’s what ants do. They scavenge dead meat. Martin drove with caution until he reached the road, then he accelerated.
There was no hurry, but Martin pressed the accelerator to the floor. Joe was dead. Martin knew it for sure. Nobody could accuse him of murder. Joe’s death was an accident. If he said it enough times, Martin felt sure he could even convince himself. The reasonable part of Martin’s mind told him to slow down. The emotional part, the old part, told him to run. Speed away from here. Drive faster than ants can travel. Martin choked a laugh. Ants can’t travel all that fast. He forced his foot to slacken its pressure on the pedal.
Bitter, acrid fluid splashed into Joseph’s faces. It killed several of him, blinded others. Joseph pulled back. Every ant that died cost him a little. He felt none of their pain, but he lost a little more of himself with each piece that fell, crushed or poisoned by the work he ordered. There was a sense of loss, of distance from home among the insect minds he occupied. Joseph understood. Part of himself was still there, back at the ant’s nest, feeding pieces of brain to the queen and to the new bodies emerging from the eggs. When his work was complete, he would take his army home.
Brake fluid spurted from holed pipes. Joseph rallied his troops. It was time to finish the job.
Just as the van crested a hill, the dashboard came alive.
Martin’s eyes widened so far it hurt. The dashboard lights faded, obliterated by the swarm of little bodies that flowed from the air vents. The mass climbed the windscreen to obscure his view of the road. Ants swirled and danced on the glass, forming shapes, breaking and reforming until they made a recognisable image.
Joe’s face grinned at Martin from the seething insects on the windscreen. Martin hit the brakes.
Nothing happened. The camper van sped downhill, its headlights illuminating perils Martin could not see. Martin pumped the brake pedal, with no effect. Joe’s ant-face mouthed words. Mesmerised, Martin tried to work out what the ants were saying. His knuckles whitened, his hands gripped the steering wheel through a layer of sweat.
“Martin? What’s happening?” Sheila spoke from behind. Martin caught her reflection in the windscreen beside the ant-constructed image of Joe. Her face changed from blank denial to the shock of recognition. “Joe! It’s Joe, Martin. He’s alive.”
It’s not Joe. Martin wanted to scream the words, but his throat was as tight as his fingers on the wheel. Ants. Coincidence. Must be. Surely.
Sheila stretched her hand forward to touch the ants. Joe smiled. The van missed a turning and collided with a tree. Sheila shot forward, her face meeting Joe’s. Martin’s scream went unheard, muffled by the airbag that swamped him.
It took a few moments for Joseph to compose himself. He was scattered and broken, and had lost a large part of himself. The ants fought his control. He clung to a tree, picked his way among broken glass, clambered over steaming steel, shifted in tall grass, hung from torn fabric. Ant imperatives flooded Joseph’s mind. His army wanted to feed.
Martin had crashed. Satisfaction surged in Joseph. That had been his intention and it had worked. He revelled in the blood spattered over the tree, the twisted limbs of the body at its base, the white cloth draped from the smashed windscreen.
Joseph paused. The body was female. The cloth was a deflated airbag. Over the cloth came a groan, the sound of someone in pain but alive. A male sound.
The body was Sheila. With no ability to scream, Joseph filled the night with the sound of clacking mandibles. He had killed the wrong one. Joseph shifted to Sheila’s body, saw her head cracked against the torn bark, and climbed inside. Each of his bodies tore a thought from Sheila’s brain. They could still be together, in a way they could never have been before. More intimate than in their wildest dreams. Mingled and perfected. Even though their bodies had died, they could continue.
Martin kicked at the door until its twisted lock gave way. The buckled metal screeched its protest at being forced against the bent frame. Martin struggled out among the smell of petrol and steam. The short front end of the camper van was folded around the trunk of a tree, and lying on top of this rusted concertina was Sheila.
Her head rested against the tree while her arms embraced its bark. Martin moved around the tree to where Sheila’s face stared at nothing. Her blood dripped to the ground, where it mixed with the hot fluids pouring from the camper van’s remains. Martin reached out one trembling hand to touch Sheila’s hair.
He pulled back at the movement of her scalp. Beneath her skin, small creatures tunnelled. They flowed from her ears, nose and mouth and from the gash in her forehead. Martin backed away, praying this was a trick of the light, an illusion brought on by the hanging headlamp’s reflection, the van’s interior glow and his own disorientation.
The darkness spread over Sheila’s face. Her features shifted with the movements into a soft smile. For a second, she looked like Joe, that awful parody on the windscreen just before the crash. Then Sheila, a caricature made from living ants. Then both at once.
Martin fell to his knees, sobbing. He knew he should run, but the dance of the ants mesmerised him. Martin clutched his chest. The ants streamed from Sheila’s face, across the wreckage of the van and disappeared into the grass. Her hair fell in blood-soaked clumps from the remains of her face.
Martin giggled. The giggle built into laughter, a laugh he would roar for a very long time. So much for his options. He had none, now. Sheila was gone, and Martin knew where. Joe had come for her, and had taken her back.
For the first time in his life, Joe had won.
Dr. Kevin Hillman has a PhD that allows him to play with deadly bacteria without supervision. Someone once thought it was a good idea to teach him this stuff, but he's dead now.
In between, Kevin writes and appears online as anyone but himself. His multiple personalities include the sensible and restrained Gutbugs and the sensible but volatile Romulus Crowe, as well as the militant Leg-iron and the utterly deranged Phineas Dume. That last incarnation writes articles forAlienSkin magazineand takes the credit for most of the stories.
He has completed and is attempting to shift a novel called Samuel's Girl, an undersize novel called Jessica's Trap, and is also working on others.
Kevin's short stories have appeared in From The Asylum, AlienSkin, and other online venues. So far fame eludes him, which he doesn't mind. So does fortune, which he does mind. Money is the root of all evil so horror writers naturally require a lot of it. You know it makes sense.