The Magic Gumball Machine, Pt X
By Wil Forbis
"So what now?" queried Tom. The three men were standing in the dirt parking lot belonging to the now deceased owner of Aplonski's Drug Emporium. Each individual clung to his rifle and both Haffert and Tom had pistols stuffed in their belts. Though Reginald Washington had told them everything he knew about the mysteries they faced, there were still many questions.
"If what he's saying is true," pondered Duke Haffert while poking a finger at Washington, "then Honey Bluff don't sound like the safest place in the world to be right now. Whatever took out Reggie's crew could just as well be infecting people 'round here as we speak."
"Only those that ate the gumballs," Tom reminded.
"Whatever," said Duke. "You said yourself people gobbled those things up like hotcakes."
Tom face grew flush and he looked at the ground. There was no way he could've known, yet he still felt responsible for distributing the strange candies to his neighbors and friends.
"Look, we've just got to get out of here," Reginald said. "When I saw what I did on that training mission, heck, I couldn't even believe my own eyes. But now you two have seen things too. You saw what happened to Danny and to Timmy Thompson and the Sheriff. If we get out to Delsburgh we can get the National Guard. We can find people to stop this! "
"I'm starting to wonder," Duke mused, "if this is something even the Guard can handle."
"And what about folks here?" demanded Tom. "We can't just leave without telling people? We've got to warn them!"
Haffert chortled. "Tom, if you wanna be the one running through town like Paul Revere telling folks they're gonna be turning into homicidal maniacs that spew gallons of brown muck, you're on your own. That's bound to attract the wrong type of attention if you know what I mean."
"He's got it, Tom" Reginald added. "The best thing we can do for people is get out of here, get some help."
They were right. Tom knew that. But he couldn't help but feel that to leave would be a betrayal of the town he called home.
"There's another issue," said Haffert. "The truck axel is toast. There ain't no way she's going any further tonight. We need wheels."
As the group contemplated their options, no one spoke. Finally Haffert opened his mouth, about to say something. But an eerie faraway yell cut through the air. The men all instinctively ducked down, though the cry came from at least a quarter mile off. It was followed by a crash and more screams.
"It's happening again," Reginald whispered. "Just like with my squad."
"Shit, shit!"muttered Haffert. "What the hell are we gonna do?"
"Hold on," Tom said hoarsely. "I've got an idea." Crouching low, he walked over to one side of the drugstore and disappeared. After several tense seconds he came back around, waving the others to follow him. While the full moon cast a cool glow upon them, all three men rounded the corners to the area behind the drugstore.
Waiting for them in the back lot was an archaic looking motorcycle with an attached sidecar. It was army green, though rust was claiming parts of its metal skin. The front headlight was scarred by several cracks and one of the mirrors was broken off. There was no telling whether it was functional or not.
"What the hell is this?" thundered Haffert, though still in a low voice.
"It's Bill Miller's restored 1938 BMW R71," Tom answered. "He calls her the 'Green Ghost.' He's kept her parked here in Aplonski's lot for years. Sometimes he takes her out for a spin during his breaks."
Reginald looked dubious. "And this is gonna get us to Delsburgh?"
Tom smiled and threw one leg over the vehicle's seat. "Afraid of getting a little wind in your hair? I used to ride these beasts back in my army days. Duke can sit behind me and you can jump in the sidecar here."
With ano shortage of grumbling the other two men mounted the motorcycle. Tom's handed Duke his rifle and the bearded redhead slung it over his shoulder, right next to his own. Then Haffert timidly grabbed Tom by his shoulders while Reginald crouched down in the sidecar. Once the men were settled, Tom hit the kickstart lever. Instantly, the cycle started up, a healthy purr radiating from its mechanical innards.
Tom revved the engine and the cycle broke forward, causing both Haffert and Washington to fall forward in their seats. "Sorry 'bout that," Tom apologized over the engine's roar. "It'll take a little while for it to come back to me."
"Learn fast!" Haffert demanded.
Tom drove out of the parking space and took a left onto Route 15. At first he dared not go any more than a few miles over the speed limit for fear of being pulled over in a stolen vehicle. Then he remembered that the three lawmen of Honey Bluff had been dead for several hours and decided he was afforded more leeway. He gunned the engine and took it up a notch. He looked down at Reginald riding in the side car. The black youth had a wide smile across his face as the wind blew through his closely cropped hair. Nothing like a motorcycle ride to relieve the weight of the world from your shoulders.
As they got closer to town, the group hit several stops signs. Tom slowed the bike at each one, keeping an eye for cross traffic. The streets were empty of both vehicles and people. The cries they'd heard earlier had made Tom wary that whatever had happened to McDouglas and Skeeter's gang was now happening all over Honey Bluff. He imagines hoardes of citizens feeling that first swell of madness followed by the cracking of skin. But the surrounding silence seemed to insinuate that if people were turning into deranged mutants, they were doing so in the privacy of their own homes. There was not a soul around, and Tom decided he preferred it that way.
As if on cue, Tom caught sight of a pair of headlights in the rear view mirror. There was a car, far behind them, but approaching steadily. "Uh-oh!" Tom yelled above the roar of the bike.
"What is it?" Haffert asked.
"Back there," Tom replied, thumbing behind them.
Reginald turned around best he could in the sidecar and squinted. "Whoever they are, they're coming up fast."
Tom felt his pulse quicken. "I know. I don't like this. I'm going to turn off at Mudd Way up ahead. Let's hope they don't follow."
It was twenty seconds to the turnoff and in that time the car halved the distance between them. Keeping one eye on the mirror, Tom began to make out the vehicle type, some type of hot rod painted in glimmering red. He knew he'd seen it before and racked his mind for the owner, but the came up empty. It could just be a town resident out for an innocent drive, in which case they should stop and deliver a warning. But.
Tom made the turn onto Mudd Way and accelerated. An offshoot of Route 15, Mudd Way led away from the center of town, over the Howard Taft bridge and towards a series of farmhouses in the Southern outskirts of Honey Bluff. It was precisely the direction they didn't want to be going as it did not junction with Highway 54, the road that would take them to Delsburgh. But a bit of time lost would be worthwhile if they avoided a confrontation with the car driver.
Reginald and Duke had their heads turned back and Tom watched the mirror, anxiously waiting for the car to pass the turnoff and keep going. The motorcycle began to ascend the Taft Bride, a concrete structure that went over a crevice between two hills. In the light of the full moon they were able to see the glimmer of the train tracks used by the commercial freight that ran underneath the overpass. Halfway across the bridge they saw the red hot rod stop at the intersection, blinked its lights twice and turned on to Mudd Way. It was in obvious pursuit.
"Goddammit!" yelled Haffert. "This don't look good!"
Tom gunned the motorcycle knowing full well that the restored cycle engine could never outrace a modern vehicle. As the car behind them approached Tom noticed it was weaving back and forth between the two highway lanes and the sounds of excited voices could be heard in the wind. Then it dawned on him who the vehicle's owner was. Troy McCalister was a classmate of Ted Rully, well known in Honey Bluff for his exploits on the high school football field. His proficiency with the pigskin had guaranteed him a bright future with a sports scholarship at the state university.
Within seconds the driver's identity occurred to Haffert as well. "It's that damn McCalister kid!" he shouted. "Out driving his birthday present. Do you think he.?"
"I don't know." Tom replied. He comes around the shop a lot. I don't know if he ever bought a gumball."
Now the red car was twenty feet behind them and closing. Crazed teenage screams and laughter emanated from the vehicle, sending nervous chills down the spines of the motorbike's passengers. Haffert, rifles slung across his shoulder, used a free hand to retrieve the police pistol from his belt. The car continued bearing down on them and the bearded man turned, waving the gun in the air. He steadied his arm best he could and pointed it directly at the vehicle's driver.
"Goddamitt, Duke! We don't know-" Tom started.
Less than five feet from the cycle's bumper, the hot rod suddenly switched one lane over. Then gradually, the car cruised up along side the cycle and matched speed.
"Hey Mr. Humphries!" a voice called out. Tom looked over. Troy McCalister's gleaming red hot rod was a top down convertible with yellow cartoon flames running along its side. Inside the vehicle were four local teenagers. In the front seat, maniacally gripping the wheel, was dark haired Damien Stoddard, the high school wide receiver and Troy McCalister's best friend. The lad wore a football jersey with the number 74, McCalister's number. Three other teens sat in the back. On the far right was Zack Iverson, a blonde haired teammate of Troy and Damien. He was stripped to the waist and drinking eagerly from a bottle of clear liquor. Next to him was Luella Wood, a redheaded sophomore at the local high school, whom Tom had more than once evacuated from the ice cream shop for smoking cigarettes. She too was stripped to her skirt, her bare teenage bosom feeling the effects of the chill night air. Finally, on the left side of the car was the slumped, immobile form of Troy McCalister. All four had been regulars of the 'Good Ship Lollipop' since they'd been children. Indeed, Tom could remember the day Mrs. Iverson had brought a day old Zack into the shop to show off what she called her "little man."
But what seemed most noticeable about Damien and Zack and Luella was not their demeanor or nakedness, it was their skin. A series of dark rashes and bruises ran across their flesh, some blistering and bursting forth with the slick oil that signaled their infection. Damien had it worse with a series of oozing wounds near his yes that gave a garish rendition of the eye paint football players used to protection themselves from the sun.
"Hey, Mr. Humphries!" Damien repeated. "Wanna race?"
Tom was well aware of the danger of the situation. With Damien alongside him it would taken a simple turn of the lad's wheel for to knock the motorcycle into the farmland that ran alongside the road. In an attempt to alleviate that threat, Tom slowed the cycle down, hoping he could simply let the red car pass. But it was not to be. Damien slowed his car as well, remaining alongside the motorcycle. "C'mon, old man," he yelled. "Let's play chicken!"
The bare-chested Zack joined in with his taunts. "Man, this is the greatest, Mr. H!" His grin bore white teeth that gleamed in the moonlight and he took another swig of liquor. With his left hand he grabbed one of Luella's breasts and screamed, "I never knew life could be so good!"
"Whoo-hooo!" Luella added with girlish glee.
"Screw this!" Haffert yelled. With both vehicles doing well past 50 miles per hour, he swung his pistol around and pointed it directly at Damien. As the lad looked over and smiled, Haffert squeezed the trigger. But even before the bullet left the chamber Damien tapped the brake, causing the car to slow slightly. The bullet whizzed a few inches ahead of him, where his head should have been.
Haffert fumed and fired the gun again. This time, Damien merely crouched down with inhuman speed as the bullet again missed his target.
Haffert swore, bitterly acknowledging that the abilities of these supercharged teenagers allowed them to react with hyper-human speed. However, while it may have been true that the youths could dodge bullets, perhaps their tires would not be so lucky. Haffert brought the pistol down, pointing at the fat whitewall rotating in the front wheelwell.
This time it was Zack who responded with lightning speed. He reached across the lane and grabbed Haffert fist. There was a sick crackling sound as several of Haffert's fingers snapped and the gun fell out of his grip, bouncing off the roadway behind them.
"Yarrgh!" cried out Duke. Zack maintained his grip on Haffert's fist for a few more seconds then let go, a scornful look across his face.
"You shouldn't have tried that, fatty," the muscular teenager said. "I could have taken your paw right off.
Duke grabbed his crumpled fist in pain and cursed while he wept.
At forty miles per hour with the night wind blowing through his snowy hair, Tom contemplated the situation. It was clear that Damien had the upper hand. They could not unseat him with gunfire, and he was in command of a more powerful engine. The teenagers were obviously toying with them, just as Skeeter's gang of prepubescent attackers had done earlier. But while Skeeter and his friends were just children, their current opponents were predators in their prime, hungry for a delicious kill.
"What do you want?" Tom called over to the Damien.
It was Zack who replied first. "We want a thrill man! You know? Haw Haw Haw Haw." his laughter trailed off.
"Shut up, Zack," ordered Damien. He fixed a steely eye on Tom. "Pull over. Let's talk."
"Don't do it," Haffert coarsely whispered.
"I don't think we have much of a choice," Tom muttered. He slowed the bike, and came to a stop on the rocky bank of the road.
Damien swerved the wheel of the hot rod sharply and skidded round to a halt. His car was blocking both lanes. The smell of burnt rubber filled the air and Damien hopped out of the vehicle. The youth rounded the car and stood before the passengers of the motorcycle.
"So?" asked Tom. "What do you want."
Damien reached in his back pocket and removed a cigarette. He placed it in his mouth, lit it, then expelled and long line of tobacco smoke into the night air. He took a second drag and breathed deeply as he gorged himself on the nicotine. Then he let out a longer stream of smoke. Tom recognized the behavior for what it was - teenage posturing - an attempt to be "cool."
"Here's what I don't understand," said Damien. "Why didn't you adults ever tell us it could be like this, man? That it could be such a rush?"
"I don't know what you're talking about, Damien," Tom sternly replied.
"Growing up, man! My whole life I've had to hear from old farts like you about what I'm supposed to do with my life, you know. Go to college, get a job, get married. And you fuckers never seemed to give a damn what I felt."
"I have no idea what-"
"SHUT UP!... Shut up, old man. My point being that, we get it now. We get what it's like to turn into an adult. And man, it's the greatest feeling. I almost dig why you hid it from us."
Zack concurred, "It's the greatest, man. The greatest! HAW HAW HAW!"
Tom sighed. He was beginning to decipher what he could from Damien's ramblings. He tried to explain. "Damien, what you're going through isn't normal. We don't fully understand it yet, but it has to do with the gumballs. They did something."
Damien's eye lit up. "Yeah, that's it. The gumballs, man. They triggered something. They made me realize I didn't have to take your shit anymore. I didn't have to listen to what the adults kept saying. And I could get out of his shadow, you know. I could start playing by my rules!"
"What? Whose shadow, Damien? What do you mean?"
Damien, paused and took another drag on his cigarette. Then he walked around the car and opened the back door. With one hand he grabbed Troy McCalister by the scruff of his neck and raised his motionless body in the air. McCalister eyes rolled back in his head and a line of blood trickled out of his mouth. The boy was obviously dead.
"This is who, man! I spent my whole life playing second fiddle to this fucker." Damien spat in the corpse's face. Then he lowered the body down enough that its feet touched the ground. He grabbed McCalister's jaw and began to move it up and down while he mimicked the football star's speech in a high-pitched squeal. "Look at me. I've got a fancy car. I've got all the grades and I don't even have to work at it. I get to be the star quarterback and everybody loves me. Oh, aren't I just the greatest. Whoo-eee!"
Zack, again, cracked up. "Oh man, that's it. That's hilarious. You sound exactly like him."
Damien stopped his mimicking and wrapped his right arm around Troy's back, assuming the position of a formal dance. Then, swaying to a badly hummed melody, he danced with the corpse back around to the front of the car while Zack and Luella guffawed. He stopped a few feet away from Tom, Duke and Reginald.
"Yep, ol' Troy was a good dancer, you know. I guess that's why he always got the girls. But did you ever think, Troy." Damien turned to face his deceased dance partner, ". that maybe I didn't like girls." With that, Damien took a deep suck on his cigarette and brought his mouth towards Troy's in a passionate kiss. With lips locked together Damien exhaled causing dirty smoke came out of the corpses nose.
Both Zack and Luella engaged erupted into a series of catcalls, egging Damien on. The dark haired football player finished the kiss and let the body of Troy McCalister slump in his arms.
"Yeah, everybody loved Troy," mused Damien. "Everybody..."
With that he let the body drop onto the cool asphalt.
"Goddamn," hissed, Duke Haffert. "The gumballs. It turns them queer."
"I don't think it was the gumballs," Tom whispered back. He turned his attention to Damien. "We've got important business to attend to. So I'll ask again, what do you want?"
"I already told you," replied Damien. "I want to play chicken."
"What?" said Tom and Duke in unison. Reginald shifted uneasily in his seat.
"Kids have been doing it out here since forever." Damien began. "Remember when Dave Little hit a boulder a couple years and everybody thought it was an accident. What do you think happened to him?"
"You want to p lay chicken?" Tom said incredulously. "Right here?"
"No, up there. Where Mudd Way turns onto Zephyr Boulevard. We start at the intersection and get going towards the overpass where Zephyr ends. First person to brake loses."
"But if we go off the overpass we'd be killed," noted Tom.
"Well, if you don't play, I'll kill you right now. Real slow. How'd you like them apples?"
Haffert gave a sad chuckle. "At least you gave us a choice."
"All right," said Tom, feeling a rush of youthful energy. "Let's do it."
Damien got back in the car and gunned the engine. Side by side with the motorcycle, he eased up to the intersection where Zephyr met Mudd Way. Each vehicle turned and pointed east down the Boulevard, the motorcycle on the left, and the hot rod on the right. At the very end, about a half-mile in the distance, they could see where Zephyr came to an intersection with Lincoln Lane. Immediately beyond that and the street came to an abrupt halt at a cliff that overlooked the marshes of Honey Bluff. To go over would not be good.
"What if we just let you win?" asked Tom. "And let you go over?"
"Well, you better give me one hell of a race. 'Cuz if you stop to early I won't have any reservations of running you flat on the road." Damien then nodded at Luella. "Get out. You can flag us to start."
"Uh, I'll get out too, Damien," Zack said. "Just to keep her company."
"No, you stay," said Damien. "I want you in the car."
"NO!" The dark haired youth shot a burning gaze at the bare-chested blonde. "I said you stay."
Both vehicles lines up in front of an imaginary starting line. Luella Wood got out and stood between the two vehicles, raising her hand in the air. There were dark circles under her eyes, further sign of the infection, and her across bare breasts were several oozing wounds. Tom could not help notice that she was on the cusp of turning into a beautiful young woman, and quietly bemoaned what she would now never be. Soon the changes ravaging her body would take their course, driving her insane or breaking her down into a pool of molten char.
"Got a plan?" asked Haffert from the back seat.
"I thought you had one," said Tom quietly joked. "I only know this is a race I don't want to win. But if we don't give it our all, we're dead too."
"Maybe, at the last minute, you can fake him out," Reginald offered. "Stop right before he's about to go over the edge."
"Maybe," replied Tom dubiously.
"Five," shouted Luella out loud. "Four, three, two." Her arms quivered in the air. Her gaze turned to Tom Humphries, an old man on a motorcycle and she winked and blew him a kiss.
Tom gunned his engine. Damien did the same. With a jolt, both vehicles shot forward, accelerating at equal speed. Tom watched as the odometer went past 40 miles per hour. Then 50. Then 60. The cold night air went into his mouth and ears, blowing his white hair flat against his skull. He looked over to his right, to Damien in his hot rod.
"You're doing good, old man," said the teenager. "Don't chicken out."
Reginald reached out and touched Tom's arm. "This is crazy. He wants to die!"
"Maybe," replied Tom. "But I'm not so sure Zack does. He eyed the blond sitting in the right front sat of the hot rod. Zach looked nervous. What was going through his mind? He'd been feeling so alive and was now stuck with a homosexual maniac determined to end this new phase of their lives right before they'd began. Tom could see the first tabs of tears welling up in Zack's eyes. It wouldn't take long.
"Stop!" exploded Zack. "Damien, stop this," he cried. He jumped forward in the car seat grabbing at the wheel.
The red hot rod veered several feet to the right as its passengers struggled for control. Tom could hear Damien cursing his weak will friend, using one hand to stay the course and his other to fight off the onslaught of his blonde compatriot.
"Come on. Come on!" muttered Tom under his breath.
Suddenly Damien clocked Zack with his elbow, causing the boy to spit bloody tar and exude a stunned expression. Damien switched hands on the steering wheel, taking control with his right while reaching over with his left. Taking advantage of his former friend's dazed state, Damien used his superhuman strength to lift Zack up out of the car and down onto the asphalt the car was riding on. Upon impact the boy's body immediately shed several layers of skin as blood and muscle spattered onto both vehicles. Zack howled in unrelenting agony as Damien kept his grip, forcing more and more of his teammate's body against the ground. Tom looked over just in time to see one of Zack's legs rip off. A few seconds later, the other went, and Damien was left hold the still living upper torso of the boy against the pavement. Zack continued his pained screams until Damien let go of the body, letting it fly under his rear wheel, ably separating Zack's head from the rest of what was left of his body.
Tom was flying down the roadway at 70 miles and hour and the aged motorcycle was starting to shake. Reginald's sidecar in particular was shimmying dangerously; it's fastenings making a clicking sound that didn't bode well. But Tom knew he was running out of options. Looking ahead, he guessed ten seconds until they went over the edge of the overpass into the black depths.
He looked over at Damien. The youth's left hand was covered in the blood of Zack Iverson.
"You're looking good old man!"
Tom eased back on the gas a bit, starting to consider the option of slowing down.
"Uh-oh, old man," Damien said, slowing as well. "We're going over together."
The sidecar was shimmying wildly, and several of the bolts attaching it to the cycle had come free. Tom looked up ahead. And saw the answer to his prayers. "Damien!" he called out.
Damien turned his head towards Tom. "Any last words?"
Tom smiled, raised his hand and extended his middle finger to the dark haired youth. Then he slammed on the brakes of the motorcycle.
The car Tom had seen speeding down Lincoln Lane towards the intersection of Zephyr honked its horn. Damien turned his head just in time to see the vehicle's nose jut out in front of him. He screamed and slammed on his breaks but it was too late. The sharo sound of metal scraping against metal filled the night as the impact carried both vehicles forward and verring off the road. The force of the crash lifted Damien's body out of the car and into the air. He rose, upward and over, arching towards the cliff that broke over the marshes.
Despite having hit the breaks, Tom was still moving forward at a consederable rate. Suddenly, he sidecar containing Reginald broke free, veering leftward and running parallel into the steel guardrail. Bright sparks danced in the air as the rail began to slow Reginald's inertia. The split of the sidecar caused bike to tip over. Both Tom and Duke tumbled on the ground. The bike continued sliding towards the overpass edge, Tom's rolling body not far behind it.
Damien flailing form hit the dirt pull off a few feet before the cliff. Bones shattered upon impact and Damien uttered an ungentlemanly, "Urf!" His body continued forward, skidding on the dirt and then went over the cliff, falling many feet into the marshes. Seconds later the 'Green Ghost' did the same.
Tom himself was still tumbling forward, but by extending his hands he was able to slow his movement. Finally, just a few feet before the cliff, he came to a stop. "Uhhhhhh...." he groaned. Tentively, painfully, he rose, checking his body for anything broken. Aside from several bruises and some light cuts he seemed fine. He looked back down Zephyr. Reginald was excavating himself from the sidecar and Duke sat in the road, hurting, but clearly alive.
"Everyone ok?" Tom called out. "Is every-"
Suddenly, the muddy perch overlooking the marshes that Tom had been standing on crumbled, unsettled by the impact of Damien's body and the motorcycle. Tom felt himself staggering back, back, over the edge.
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