Monday, 18 February 2008

Hollow Men

As I came home from work the sun was setting and fog was just starting to drift in, adding a haze to the air and making everything in the distance seem a little fuzzy. I was just relaxing, slowing my pace and enjoying the sunset, when I saw the hollow man standing at the edge of the kerb, a little way away from a bus stop. He was watching the road as though waiting for a bus, but everytime someone came close to him he tensed, drawing himself up stiffly, waiting to see if they would brush by him, or accidentally touch him. He had that slightly odd sharpness to him that the Hollow Men have, he stood out from the world slightly more than real people do. I shivered.

Other people had noticed him too and were keeping their distance. Mothers pulled their children in close and held their hands, and people nudged each other, nodding towards him. Several people crossed the road to stay away, and the bus-stop was emptying as people decided they'd rather walk than risk the Hollow Man getting on to the same bus as them. He didn't seem to notice though, he just kept staring off into the distance as though waiting for the bus, and tensing if anyone seemed to be getting close.

I'd walked past him when I heard the sudden screech of brakes and, some moments later, a heavy thump. I turned and saw that he'd gone out into the road and been hit by a car. The driver was invisible in the air-bag that had deployed, a woman in a red coat lolled in the passenger seat, and people were stopping and looking. I saw a middle-aged woman put down her shopping, two white plastic carrier bags, looking concerned, and start out into the road to the scene of the accident.

Blood roared in my ears and my heart thumped in my chest. My legs had locked in place and wouldn't move, and there was a thin grey ring around my vision that seemed to getting thicker and cutting out the world around me. I could hear my breathing, suddenly ragged, and then I could hear a little girl's voice screaming in my head, no words, just incoherent yelps of pain and fear. I could do nothing but stare, unable to shout and warn her, as the middle-aged woman reached out a hand to the Hollow Man, thinking to check on him and see if he was ok. I heard a shout from somewhere behind me, someone pushed roughly past me, cursing me, and my insensible legs collapsed beneath me. It was too late though, she'd touched him, and her face went from tired, lined, and concerned, to slack and vacant in the space of a heart-beat.

As the Hollow Man pulled her soul from her body the paralysis that had gripped me released. I clambered shakily back to my feet. My face was cold and wet with sweat and my hands were trembling. I could still hear the screaming in my head; the little girl had been my daughter before the Hollow Men had taken her. I fumbled in the pocket of my coat for the deck of cards, and pulling it out, I forced myself to walk unsteadily across the road to where the Hollow Man was now standing up.

I couldn't tell he was a Hollow Man anymore, now that he had stolen a soul. He looked normal, looked as tired as the woman had just a few moments ago, and a little confused. This, I knew, was because he was trying to assimilate the memories and experiences of a lifetime; it's much easier for them to assimilate a child with their lesser knowledge of the world. I had about thirty seconds or so before he started discarding everything that wasn't obviously useful and would react to protect himself again.

I pulled a single card from the deck, and pushed it into his hand. He looked down at it, it was the three of diamonds. He looked up at me, his mouth forming a question, but I turned away, putting the cards back into my pocket and wiping my fingers on my coat, rubbing them vigorously until they didn't feel greasy any more. The cards were impregnated with Acromycin, a distillate of a fungus that was lethal to the Hollow Men. It was quite slow acting, and needed time to soak through skin, but he wouldn't think to drop the card until he'd finished the assimilation. By which time another one would be as dead as my daughter.

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