The August Editor's Pick Writer is Tony Bowman
Please feel free to email Tony at: email@example.com
SILENT RIVERS OF RED
Anne sang “Come Monday” at the top of her lungs but not even Jimmy Buffett could help her harmonize. The Southwest Texas wind whipped through her hair as she turned up the car stereo. She wasn’t sure if she had turned it up to hear better over the wind or in the hopes Buffett would drown out her own voice.
She had the top down on the rental car and a billion stars filled the sky—far more than she had ever seen in her old life back in Pittsburgh. She had thought traveling Interstate 10 to Los Angeles and seeing the southwest would be fun. Instead, it had been ten hours of sand, rocks, and absolutely nothing else. She didn’t like Texas and she didn’t like the sky that was far too big and deep.
On top of that, she had the shakes. Anne glared at the Dymo label above the missing cigarette lighter: No Smoking. Singing wasn’t helping. She had the shakes like a meth addict going cold turkey but there was no way she was going to pull over onto the yellow sand shoulder and smoke a menthol.
There were things in that sand: bugs, tarantulas, scorpions, snakes, coyotes—she’d just have to shake.
There was nicotine in the goop. She licked it and immediately regretted it. She coughed and wretched—mainlining nicotine goop was a bad idea.
Alcohol…maybe there's rubbing alcohol in the patch, she thought. Ingesting rubbing alcohol could blind you, couldn’t it? She flicked the patch away.
The plastic caught the wind and circled back, splatting goop side first on the upper left corner of the windshield.
Anne sighed. This trip officially sucked. When Osborn-Leighland Corporation had flown her from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles for the interview, it had been first-class each way. She had smoked at the airports at both ends which had made the four-hour flight manageable.
She had been an idiot to request to drive for the relocation. She had been a bigger idiot to opt for the convertible even though it was designated non-smoking.
Interstate 10 was completely empty at 10 PM on a Saturday night—nothing but her and the cactus and the coyotes that winked at her from the shoulder every once in a while. There hadn’t been an exit in over two hours.
When she saw the soft golden glow on the horizon, she laughed like a maniac. A cigarette…she’d have a cigarette soon. Thirty minutes later, the glow was no brighter.
Another harsh lesson about the desert: things were much farther away than they appeared.
She passed a sign announcing Latimer County, Population 8. It was rusted and bullet-riddled. Just beyond, a narrow exit led up a hill to a fenced compound.
And, in the center, was the beautiful red and white vision of a Gas’N’Go convenience store.
She pulled onto the ramp and passed through the open gate at the top of the hill. Two cars and a pickup were parked outside. She looked at the gas pumps and decided to fill up.
She got out and started the pump and then dug into her purse. Menthols and a lighter. She smiled and put the filter against her lips. A sign above the pumps said: No Smoking.
She sighed again. Of course, she couldn’t smoke; she was pumping gas. What kind of moron starts to light up at the gas pumps? She was losing it.
She took a look around. Two outbuildings stood off from the store. They were the kind of pre-fab buildings you got at home stores. The sign above one read: Texas State Police, Latimer County Office. The other said: Latimer County Circuit Court.
Near the back of the store was a ten-foot-tall pile of yellow sand. Either this is what they have to sweep up every day to keep the parking lot clear or this is where they dump the bodies, she thought.
The pump clicked off and she hung the nozzle back on its hook as she closed the gas cap. Anne smiled as she lit the cigarette on her way to the store. She stood outside the front door, letting the mentholated smoke salve her nerves.
Calmer with her dose of nicotine, she noticed something peculiar.
It was dead silent. No Muzak, no complaining children. As a matter of fact, she hadn’t seen a single person, only their vehicles.
Something red ran across the sidewalk on tiny legs. It was an ant almost the size of her thumb. Anne took a step back as the ant skittered away into the night.
She tossed the spent cigarette onto the concrete and dug in her purse for the pack. It was empty. She tossed the pack in a trashcan and stuffed her lighter into her pocket.
She walked into the store and almost jumped when a chime rang. It sounded like thunder in the silent Gas’N’Go.
“Hello?” she called.
The store was empty and she could hear the hum of the flickering fluorescents. She walked to the counter and peered over. A small wooden chair lay on its side.
“Anybody here?” She was trying hard not to spook herself and was failing miserably.
Anne looked at the stacks of cigarettes on the shelf behind the counter. Those menthols were tantalizingly close.
A few minutes later she came out and stood outside the men’s room. She knocked on the door, and again called “Hello?” She pushed the door open. There was nothing but the smell of disinfectant and the ever-present hum of the lights.
Anne walked back into the main part of the store. “Keep it together, Annie. They’re probably out chanting a black mass or something, nothing to worry about,” she whispered to herself.
When she got to the food aisles, she stopped cold. The racks were empty.
Candy bars, chips, beef jerky—every display was empty. There wasn’t so much as a pack of gum. She looked at the refrigerated cases and saw they were full.
They’re restocking, she thought. That’s what’s happening.
But that couldn’t be right. Maybe the cashier was out somewhere getting stock for the shelves, but where were the customers whose cars were parked out front?
She opened her purse and took out a ten dollar bill. She would drop the ten on the counter and take a pack of menthols. And, she would smoke it in the car, rules be damned. She walked past the auto supplies and hardware.
There was a single red ant in the middle of the aisle.
Like the one she had seen outside, this one was enormous, slightly bigger than her thumb. She could clearly see the eyes and the waving antennae. It walked toward her. It didn’t meander like an ant normally did. It walked straight toward her.
Anne froze. She was wearing open-toed shoes, and it was only after she felt the ant’s antennae brush her big toe that she screamed and jumped back.
The ant immediately turned and scurried away toward the front of the store.
Screw the cigarettes, she thought as she headed for the door.
Before she reached it, the door chime went off and Anne froze. She saw the top of the door as it opened, but there was a rack in the way and she couldn’t see who had come in.
“Hello?” she asked.
The door stayed open, but no one answered.
Suddenly a river of red insects came around the corner. Hundreds of ants like the one she had just seen, and a few almost as big as her hand with swollen abdomens and long mandibles. They surrounded her in an instant and one of the giants lumbered toward her.
She brought her foot down and crushed it.
Yellow liquid spread across the floor, and then a second giant ant jumped onto her foot. She felt a sharp pain as the ant drove a long stinger between two of her toes on her left foot.
The pain died instantly along with all the feeling in her left leg. Her leg collapsed under her and she fell backward, her head striking the tile floor.
The world went black.
She was in the hospital lying on a gurney. She watched the overhead fluorescents pass by one by one. The bed moved slowly.
“Are you taking me to surgery?” she whispered. Her head was swimming.
There was no reply.
She looked to her right, but instead of seeing a hospital wall, she saw bottles of antifreeze and windshield-washer fluid.
She was still inside the Gas’N’Go.
Hundreds of ants were under her, carrying her through the store.
Anne screamed. She looked down at her feet. A steady stream of the giant red ants was moving, carrying her along. The larger soldier ants kept watch. They seemed unfazed by her screaming.
She reached out with her right hand, knocking over a can of motor oil. Her hand closed on a tall metal cylinder.
It was a can of bug spray.
She grabbed the can and pointed it toward her feet. She pressed the button on top. Nothing happened.
There was a plastic safety tab keeping the button from going down and she ripped it away with her other hand. She pointed the can at her feet and sprayed the ants.
They slowed. A few of them raised their antennae as if not quite comprehending the meaning of the chemicals—chemicals that should be killing them, but were not. They lowered their heads and carried her along faster.
Anne screamed in terror and rage.
Ahead she could see an engineering marvel: thousands of ants bracing their bodies against one another, holding the front door open. The river of ants stretched through the door and veered to the side.
Anne remembered the pile of sand in the parking lot. It wasn’t a pile of sand at all. It was an anthill.
She reached into her pocket and pulled out the cheap lighter. She sat up, dragging a few hundred confused ants with her. They bit through her blouse.
She felt only a pinching pain. The workers evidently had no venom like the soldiers did.
She held the lighter in front of the can and a tongue of flame sprayed out on the floor in front of her.
She sprayed the floor with flame.
The workers ran away, but the soldiers ran toward her. She turned the flame on them and smiled as their bodies blackened and exploded.
The can felt light. She grabbed another can of the bug spray as she stood up and dropped the first can.
The door shut as the ants scattered.
The feeling had come back into her left leg and, with it, a dull ache in her foot. The remaining soldier ants ran toward the counter and she rained down a shower of death with the bug spray flamethrower.
When they were dead, she grabbed a book of matches off the counter and a few more lighters. She started to drop down. Instead, she turned and grabbed two packs of menthols off the shelf and stuffed them in her hip pockets.
She walked back to the automotive section and retrieved her purse, dancing backward when she discovered a lone worker ant had been trapped under it. She stomped down, crushing it.
Anne stood in front of the door. In the parking lot, the ants were making their way back to the sand anthill. She opened the door and stepped out into the cool night air. She kept her flamethrower pointed toward the ground as she walked to the car.
She could see the ants moving on the anthill, their red bodies contrasting against the yellow sand.
They’re in there, she thought as she stared at the anthill. The store clerk, the customers—they had all been carried into the anthill. It was impossible to tell how far under the desert floor it might stretch.
Despite her instincts to run, Anne got out of the car. She walked to the pump nearest the anthill.
The soldier ants were looking at her from the top of the hill.
She put her credit card in the slot. The pump beeped and she typed in her zipcode using the keypad. Anne pushed the button for ‘Premium.’
She pulled out the nozzle and laid it on the ground. She squeezed the handle and locked it as a river of noxious gasoline spread out.
Anne ran back to her car and jumped in. She drove toward the gate.
She lit the pack of matches and tossed them into the gas as she sped past. Anne didn’t look back as the flames spread.
A few seconds later the desert silence was split with a deafening explosion as the pumps went up taking the store and anthill with it.
She drove for hours, unable to get a signal on her cell phone. She passed exits for towns like Tomillo and Fabens. She saw no cars on the roads, but there were lights in the houses. She did not stop.
The sun came up just as she reached the outskirts of El Paso. She slammed on her brakes as she saw the skyscrapers in the distance, heat mirages wafting up in the morning sun.
Anne stopped dead in the empty Interstate.
She looked at the buildings, and, in front of them, the hundred foot-high anthills. Anne watched the lifeless bodies being dragged up the silent rivers of red.
Tony Bowman writes horror, science fiction, and thrillers from his home near Raleigh, North Carolina. He lives there with his beautiful wife, Laurie, their wonderful daughter, Saralain, and a hundred pound Catahoula Leopard dog. He is a native of Butcherknife, Virginia, a small community deep in the Appalachian Mountains. He is an active member of the Horror Writers Association and the Holly Springs Writers Guild.
Tony is the author of numerous short stories, including the collection Morgue Dreams and Curiouser Things. He has also written four novels: Vales Hollow, Turning the Darkness, Nine Fingers, and Valkyrie: The Road. He is currently writing Lawman, a post-apocalyptic thriller, as well as sequels to Nine Fingers and Valkyrie.