The Magic Gumball Machine, Pt XI
By Wil Forbis
Flailing backwards, Tom fell. For the briefest moment he had the sensation of floating, as if gravity had ceased to exist and he was simply hanging in space like a rotating asteroid. Then he caught sight of the jagged cliff jutting out only a few feet to his left. He passed through the first leaves of the foliage that covered the Honey Bluff Marshes. He strained his head to see what was below him but all he could comprehend was an inky blackness. His right leg hit something, a tree limb, slowing his momentum and twisting him so he was now facing downward. He screamed an echoing scream and saw the earth come rushing up to greet him. Tom braced for impact.
When he finally hit the ground, it was a pleasant feeling, like landing on a bed of pillows. The surface was cold and moist, but also soft. Tom lay there for several seconds, stunned not so much by the impact but the experience of falling. Then he rolled over.
Looking around Tom could barely make out the shapes and figures surrounding him. Trees covered the sky and blocked out the moonlight. Slowly, he was able to determine that he had landed on an unusually thick moss bed and its plush texture had broken his fall. Upon close examination he realized that the moss bed wasn't very wide. Had he hit a few feet in one direction or the other and he would have landed on the far less forgiving surface of hard dirt and rock. Fortunately, the old Humphries luck seemed to be holding up.
Tom stood up and peered into the marshland. Several yards ahead of him was 'The Green Ghost', Bill Miller's treasured motorcycle, now a smoldering wreck. He was going to have a hard time explaining this to the angry barber. If Miller was even still alive.
Beyond the motorcycle was the musty darkness of the marshland. Though he could barely see it in the dark, Tom had been here many times in his life. It was a sticky, festering quarter-mile of foot deep mud and steaming swamp. Home to numerous lifeforms of a reptilian or amphibious nature.
Tom turned and walked over to the cliff wall. It was comprised of loose rock and mud. Climbing up would be hard but if attempted cautiously it was not out of the question. Tom found his first foothold and managed to swing his body upward. With a free hand he grabbed a weedy plant that was sticking out of the dirt and held himself in place. He then duplicated the process a few more times, propping his feet against plants and other handholds. Within half a minute he was ten feet up the cliff wall.
Almost as soon as his confidence swelled, a piece of loose shale that Tom had been resting his foot on gave way and he tumbled backwards. This time the landing was far from pleasant. He landed back-first on the gravel-covered base of the cliff. The little rocks pressed into his neck and he felt his ribs strain under the impact.
"Durn," Tom muttered. He lay still for a few seconds, then got up and brushed himself off. He was going to be feeling this in the morning. If he ever saw morning again.
Tom walked around the base of the cliff, looking for a more dependable path upward. About twenty feet from the moss base, Tom came across what looked like a safe bet. The cliff was at less of an angle here and seemed to be comprised more of hard mud than loose rock. It was well within reason to make this the path of his ascent. Tom planted a foot in a pocket in the cliff side and prepared for to climb upward.
Then he heard it. Coming out of the marshes. A low, pained groan. Was it animal? Maybe. Or human. Who? Damien?
Tom pondered what to do. It seemed impossible that even the mutant teenager could have survived both the car crash and the descent over the cliff edge. But this was a night for impossibilities. Tom reached into his belt to retrieve the police pistol only to find it was gone. Somewhere between falling off the motorcycle and falling over the cliff, the gun had escaped his possession. This realization made him more aware of the dull sense of panic that was growing in his belly.
Then, again, another groan. Something was definitely alive out there. This clinched it for Tom. He'd seen enough late night drive-in horror movies to know that people get themselves killed when they went off to investigate strange noises. He wasn't going to fall for this. Tom thrust himself up the muddy cliff face.
Then: "Mr. Hummmphhrieeess..."
It was the same voice coming out of the marsh. Damien. It had to be.
Tom cursed himself as he dismounted from the cliff wall and turned around. He cursed himself as he walked into the dark towards the sounds of the voice. He cursed himself and he squinted his eyes, trying to adjust to the darkness that was obscuring so much of his vision. The fear in his belly flared up, but he forced it back down with his stalwart belief that one should not turn their back to a person in need.
The muddy ground turned softer as Tom got further away from the cliff wall. Soon it would become the boggy diarrhea of the marsh. The roots and fallen limbs of the area's Hammock trees lined the area, and Tom was able to keep dry by gingerly walking atop them. After a couple minutes of tentatively mucking about in the dark mire of the swamp, Tom had not encountered not another soul. He was about to turn back when he heard it again, the groan. It was close, sounding just a few yards to his left. He turned, walked a few steps and stopped. There was a break in the trees above him and moonlight shone down, offering a puddle of light in the blackness. In the middle of this fluorescent glow was Damien Stoddard. He lay atop the pile of dry growth, face up to the moon. His arms were covered with even more dark blisters than before and white foam drained out of his mouth. When he heard Tom approaching, he turned his head. A weak smile crept across his lips.
Warily Tom approached the young man. What if he was simply playing dead? Everyone who'd been affected by the gumballs so far still had physical limits, though exaggerated by the standards of normal humans. What if Damien, for some reason, was stronger than the rest?
Tom's concerns were alleviated a bit when he saw what had happened to the lad. Upon landing, Damien had been impaled on one of the thin bamboo-like reeds that were found in the area. The crimson spear now thrust upward through his football jersey. Tom leaned down next to him.
"Can you. can you feel it?" Tom asked.
Damien's mouth opened and closed twice before he could summon the strength to reply. "Only when I laugh," he said with light chuckle that causes blood to bubble up out of the hole in his chest.
"I don't. I don't." Tom stumbled on his words. "Things don't look good, kiddo," he finally stated.
Again, Damien let out a curt laugh. "That's the understatement of the year Mr. Humphries. But you won the game, fair and square. I never woulda in a million years figured someone would've driven out into my lane when they did. It's like you got someone upstairs looking out for you."
"Shucks, just a bout of bad luck for you," Tom smiled. "You would've won any other day of the week."
Damien coughed, and red cruor mixed in with the foamy saliva dribbling out of his mouth. He raised a trembling and outstretched hand.
Tom took the boys palm in his. He knew the teenager wasn't long for the earth and wanted to do what he could make his passing as comfortable as possible.
Damien's eyes started to water and snot dribbled from his nose. "I. can feel. so much. It's like I'm not here anymore."
Tom's mental machinery seized on the comment. This was similar to what Reginald experienced in his drugged state. "You mean, it's like you can see through the eyes of others?"
Damien nodded. "I can see your friends above. They're looking down the cliff, trying to find you. And I see. you, me, but not with my eyes. It's like a million eyes in the swamp, looking at both of us."
Tom nervously glanced about. "There's no one here. No one I can see."
"They're here," Damien said, a tinge of malice bleeding into his voice. "They're here. And we're not happy. You can't stop us, Humphries."
And then Damien began to convulse. He shook and the white foam in his mouth began to flow freely, pouring forth like a lava flow. Tom struggled to free his hand from the boy's death grip, but Damien would not let go. The blisters on his flesh began to tear, opening like rivers that meandered across his arms and face. Tom recognized what was happening to the lad. Just as Timmy Thompson had, the teenager was dying, in the strange, peculiar way creatures who'd been infected by the gumballs died. Only when Damien's oily palm disintegrated was Tom able to pull back his hand. Slowly, Damien turned to a dark molten soup, the mire of his body sliding between the Hammock limbs and eagerly merging with the muddy ground. When the process was finished all that was left was the football jersey and Damien's jeans wrapped around a vaguely recognizable blackened human skeleton.
Tom wiped the black residue of Damien's flesh off on his pants. He wasn't particularly upset to see the boy go, but it was still an eerie experience. He steadied himself against a tree and -
A frog's croak. It dawned on Tom that the marshland had been unusually quiet since he'd arrived. Normally one could catch the sounds of nocturnal creatures going about their business.
Tom squinted his eyes, trying to catch sight of the croaker. Outside of the moonlight's glow he caught sight of a few shapes moving in the darkness.
Then the croaks continued. But it was not just a few or a dozen frogs. It was a chorus of mucousy baritones, their voices swelling in the night. As Tom watched, wide eyed, the creatures emerged into the swatch of moonlight. Hopping, crawling amphibians, no bigger than a man's fist, but hundreds, thousands of them. A blob of tiny, writhing green monsters. Each one focusing their impassive, membrane-covered eyes upon the panicking, beleaguered form of Tom Humphries.
It's like a million eyes in the swamp, looking at both of us.
Part of what the frogs were saying was clear. "Get out. We don't want you here." But there was something else.
You can't stop us, Tom.
Suddenly one of the closest frogs leapt into the air. Five feet up, he opened his mouth and spat out a grayish goo. It arched several feet and hit Tom squarely in the neck, causing a stinging sensation. Instinctively Tom grabbed at his throat, feeling the tingling on his hands. Like a spitting cobra, the frogs seemed able to expectorate some sort of venom. One blast seemed harmless. But there were thousands of them.
Tom turned and ran. This time he made no effort to keep dry by walking on the Hammock limbs. He leapt into the mud, his feet sinking several inches in before being yanked out as he took another step. He ran toward the cliff and began to climb. He could hear the angry croakers behind him, giving chase. There was a terrible, deafening sound of croaking, and webbed feet pushed green bodies off the earth's surface sending them flying into the air. The edges of Tom's peripheral vision filled with bouncing animals. The terror in his belly arose and Tom's mental state reverted to that of prey. He dared not look back. One hand over the other as he ascended the cliff face.
Twenty feet up and he hit and drier, dirt section of the cliff. It was also steeper, presenting a serious block in continuing his climb. But he could see the cliff edge only four yards above him. "Help," he wheezed out in a panicked voiced. Reginald appeared, looking over the precipice.
"It's Tom. He's alive!"
"Help me! I can't go up any further. It's too steep."
"Hold on," replied Reginald. His body disappeared. Seconds later he was back, unwinding a length of rope. When it was within reach Tom grasped the nylon strand as his life depended on it.
"Pull me!" he yelled. "Are they behind me?"
A look of confusion crossed the black man's face but he did not reply. His toned arms tensed and he pulled Tom up the cliff face. Tom's feet gave way and slid on the cliff face. Finally Tom was back on solid ground, rolling away from the cliff edge. He lay in the dust, coughing and sputtering but feeling the fear in his belly subside.
The bruised, bleeding figure of Duke Haffert approached. "Is who behind you?" he asked.
"Frogs," Tom gasped. "Frogs."
Haffert burst out laughing. "Christ, we thought you had the devil himself on your tail. You were running from frogs?"
Tom felt his chest tighten in anger. "You don't understand! They had some kind of venom. There were thousands of them."
Haffert grunted a hint of an apology, but it was clear he still found the situation amusing.
Tom stood up and looked down the length of Zephyr road. The 'Green Ghost's' sidecar was stopped parallel to the left guardrail of the road, it's front end dented inward. Down in the distance, Tom spied the car that had hit Damien Stoddard. Even with just moonlight, Tom could see a figured crouched in the driver's seat, unmoving. It didn't look good.
"Any idea who?" Tom pointed.
Reginald walked over. "Didn't check.We figured he was a goner. And we were looking for you. But." The youth started to walk over to the vehicle. Tom followed closely. Haffert, who was still hurting from the night's activities stayed behind.
As they got closer to the vehicle, Tom squinted his eyes, trying to identify the driver. There were few inhabitants of Honey Bluff he wouldn't recognize, but this man might have been an out-of-towner. And this was a man, that much was clear.
Reginald walked around to the driver's side and opened the car. The driver was lying face first against the steering wheel, blood matting his hair. Reginald leaned him back and then Tom saw his face.
"Brian Thompson!" Tom exclaimed.
"You know this guy?" Reginald asked.
"It's Timmy Thompson's father," Tom said. "Is he alive?"
As if to answer, the form of Brian Thompson rolled slightly and groaned. Reginald leaned in and helped the man lie back against his seat. Tom rushed up to the passenger door and opened it. He peered in.
Brian Thompson's had a large gash across his brow that had bled significant amounts of blood down his face. But consciousness seemed to be returning to his bruised form. He opened one eye.
"You're alright, Brian. There was an accident. But you saved our shoes, lemme tell ya."
Brian leaned forward and staggered out of the vehicle. He was wearing a long grey trenchcoat over a blue shirt and black slacks. The trenchcoat's right pocket contained a bagged bottle of bourbon. Presumably this was the source of Brian's lack of driving abilities.
"What happened?" Brian Thompson asked.
Tom laughed. "You want the long or the short version?"
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