The Magic Gumball Machine, Pt XIV
By Wil Forbis
"WHAT THE HELL DID YOU DO?!" screamed a stunned Reginald Washington. He shrieked and grabbed at Tom Humphries only to be held back by a burly but also baffled Duke Haffert. Brian Thompson, barely hanging on to the yellow bulldozer as it shot away from the army of mutant zombies, stayed silent.
Amidst all the action, Tom could barely keep control of the vehicle. "She was one of them!" Tom called out. "She was going to turn!"
Reginald was breathing hard and felt his face getting hot. "What are you talking about, Tom?" he demanded.
"He's right," interrupted Haffert. "You saw that black blood that came outta her nose. I just don't get how Tom knew?"
"Elvira was in the shop," Tom explained. "Days ago. She ordered some glazed almonds. But before she left she had a gumball. It didn't occur to me 'til just a few seconds ago."
"But you shot her?" Reginald steamed. "Is that our plan now? We just shoot anyone who ever ate a gumball?"
"Sounds good to me," shouted Haffert above the roar of the bulldozer's engine. "Tom was right to do it. She could have turned right then and there. We were risking our necks trying to save someone who was going to become one of them!"
Reginald fumed, but was unable to counter Haffert's logic. He'd been in the thick of it, trying to save a beautiful woman. But it wasn't like the movies. Here, there was no one that could be trusted.
After thirty odd seconds of silence Reginald spoke. "I shouldn't have gotten mad at you, Tom. I apologize. But you picked a lousy time to remember. Is there anyone else we need to know about? Anyone here?"
Tom looked away from the controls of the Bulldozer and glanced at the men next to him. First Reginald. Then Haffert. Then Brian. He paused. "No," he said. "Nobody here. But you have to understand. A lot of people were in the shop since I got the gumball machine. I can't remember everyone who-"
"Raaarrrwwww!!!" came an unholy scream as a new clot of attackers leapt out of the darkness and threw themselves atop the vehicle. A swift kick from Brian Thompson instantly loosened one who fell to the ground. Haffert swung his rifle down and fired off several shots, knocking down a crazed, blood spattered women whom Tom recognized as the mother of Zack Iverson. Two more creatures, one male, one female, held on to the front of the bulldozer and tried to inch their way along side the vehicle to the cab. Tom veered off the street and up to the sidewalk, sideswiping a telephone pole and effectively dismembering the man. The impact caused the woman to lose her grip and fall backwards. As the vehicle left her behind, she shot off into the darkness, unscathed.
"Christ," Haffert said, unable to hide the trembling of his voice. "It just don't end. They're everywhere!"
"It's true, "Brian Thompson added. "I don't think we really understand how many people have been changed. We could be going up against a whole town here."
"And it doesn't help that we're driving around in something that sounds like a tank from World War II," Reginald added. "We're attracting attention."
Tom came up on the cross street of Main. Seeing no one around he brought the vehicle to a halt. "So what should we do? Do we stay with the bulldozer or go back out on foot?"
"How we doing on gas?" asked Haffert.
"It's getting low," admitted Tom. "But I'm not sure what the mileage is on these things. We might make it to the highway."
"And then what?" Reginald interjected. "If we break down out there we may not see another car for miles. We've got to find something here."
Haffert stroked his beard. "He's right. We're right in downtown. There's gotta be something we can steal."
"But where's there's cars, there's people," said Brian. "Or what once were people."
Tom was torn. He liked the security of the bulldozer. But there was no denying it drew attention to itself. It might be able to get them through a group of twenty of the mutants, but a hundred? A thousand?
Tom shut of the engine. "You're right. Let's go on foot. Maybe we can scrounge up something faster."
Tentatively, the four men exited the bulldozer and started walking. They were right on Main, not far from the ice cream store.
Haffert removed the cartridge from his rifle and took stock. "I'm running low on ammo," he announced. "How bout the rest of you?"
Reginald removed the police pistol from the back of is belt, and peered through the cylinder. "I've got two shots left. Not looking good."
"I'm down to five," said Tom. Then a thought occurred to him. "At the shop I've got a few rifle cartridges. Ted Rully left them there a couple months back. He was loading up for a hunting trip and got sidetracked. I stuck them in the storeroom to keep 'em away from customers."
"Hot damn," effused Haffert. "Humphries, I could kiss you!"
"I don't think I'd survive the experience," replied Tom. "Let's head over there and refill. Then we can get to work on finding a car."
The men hurried down the dark sidewalks, ever wary of any sounds of foreign activity. For the time being, everything seemed quiet in the sleepy little town that would be greeting the first light of dawn in an hour's time. Within a half-minute the group arrived at the front of the Good Ship Lollipop. Tom shuffled through his pockets and retrieved the key, letting them all inside. Then he closed the door and locked it from the inside.
In the shop the men gathered around a grey pool of hardened muck that lay on the floor. In the center of the sticky fluid were the bare remnants of a skeleton.
"This what I think it is?" asked Haffert.
"Yes," Tom affirmed. "It is. or was Timmy Thompson."
Brian Thompson stared at the muddy glop that had been his son. He spoke not a word.
Tom gingerly put a hand on Brian's shoulder. In a low voice he cajoled, "You know I loved that boy, right?"
Thompson turned, gave Tom a steely glance, muttered something under his breath and walked away.
"So how 'bout those bullets, Tom?" Haffert asked.
"Sure thing," said Tom. He walked into the storeroom. To his left was a steel cabinet. He opened the door, rummaged around and found the three boxes containing twenty-five thirty-aught-six shells each. He turned towards the door. Then something caught his eye. In the corner was the rolltop desk. Inside the desk was what he had left of the medical morphine.
Tom had been feeling the urge since falling into the swamp. Normally it was just something to pass the hours, something to keep his mind occupied. But now, dammit, he needed it to keep him sane. But how could he inject himself without the others knowing? How could he-
"Tom?" shouted Haffert from the main room. "You got it?"
"Yeah, I found 'em" mumbled Tom, appearing in the storeroom doorway. "Three boxes."
"Sweet," said Haffert, taking the cartons. He placed both rifles on the ice cream counter and removed the cartridges. One by one he started loading the bullets in.
"There's a couple more things I gotta find in here," Tom said. "Give me a minute." He turned back towards the storeroom.
He wasn't sure what he heard first - Reginald's barely audible gasp or the sound. It was like a dozen eggs being dropped in the kitchen and spattering their thick yolk across the floor. He turned back towards the main area.
Everyone in the room was gaping in the direction of the noise. There was something - someone - crawling on the outside surface of the front window the way a spider or gecko would. But this was the size and shape of a man. Red eyes glared at the inhabitants of the ice cream shop and the creature left a trail of slime as its oozing flesh pressed against the glass.
"What. the. fuck. is that!?" emoted Duke Haffert.
"It's Stan Hughes" said Tom. Even in the dark he could recognize the vague formations of what had been the former electrician's face. He remembered seeing Hughes earlier that night, walking his dog, stark naked.
"Jesus, what happened to him?" wondered Reginald in a low whisper. "He looks different from the others. Like some kind of reptile."
"I'm beginning to think there's no real rules to what happens to a person when they've turned," Tom hoarsely replied.
Stan the snake man slid vertically across the smooth glass surface of the front window propelled by a fish-like wiggling motion. He came to a stop and raised he head back, his necking taking on an impossible arch. Then he opened his mouth and shot out a foot long tongue that stuck to the glass. A weird hissing sound could be heard from the back of his throat.
Haffert tried to gather up the cartons of bullets but instead knocked them over, sending the tiny shells clattering across the store's floor. "Dammit," he muttered and slowly stooped down to pick up the bullets. The hissing got louder and Haffert stopped, interpreting the warning.
"What should we do?" whispered Reginald. "This thing looks mean."
The thing that had once been Stan Hughes retracted its tongue from the glass and pulled its mouth back in a wide grin that ran to the two holes on each side of its head that had once been ears. Several rows of fanglike teeth, some practically on top of each other, shone in the moonlight.
"Oh, Christ." uttered Tom. Reginald raised his pistol.
"Don't!" whispered Tom. "He's still outside. Don't break the glass!"
"You think he can't get in if he wants?" Reginald whispered back.
"I dunno," said Tom. "But so far he hasn't done anything. Let's see."
A creaking sound interrupted Tom, and the group immediately saw a foot-long crack appear in the glass. It was starting to break from the pressure of having a giant snake man attached to it. Haffert hurriedly began collecting bullets again. Brian Thompson knelt down to help him. The crack splintered off in several directions and the pane itself began to curve inward. The snake man pushed himself away from the surface as if he was doing a vertical push up that defied the laws of gravity. As the glass finally gave way he launched himself forward.
Amidst the shattering on the window, Tom heard a cracking sound, once, twice, and saw the muzzle flash as Reginald fired. If the shots connected with the reptilian creature who was projecting himself forward into the shop, he showed no sign of the impact. Instead, he landed midway in the center of the store and knelt down on his knees. A shower of glass rained down around him. Chunks of the pane hit the floor and shattered into even smaller pieces.
Closer now, no more than seven feet from any of the men, Tom was able to get a closer look at the creature. He was unlike any of the mutations they had seen earlier. He was covered with the same oily viscous fluid all the other zombies bled, but had no visible wounds. Indeed, his flesh had been replaced with the greenish, brick-pattern of snakeskin. Webs ran between his fingers, toes and between his legs. Indeed, his legs gave every indication of wanting to join and turn his entire body into a snakelike muscle.
The thing still had a mostly human face, recognizable as Stan Hughes, though his hair - and ears and nose - were gone. His cheeks had open flaps running through them allowing him to contort his mouth into that horrible, toothy grin.
Haffert stumbled back, holding a handful of bullets and one of the rifles. Brian Thompson picked the other rifle up off the counter and began loading ammunition into it. Reginald clutched his still smoking pistol, now empty.
The thing rose up from its kneeling posture and hunched before the group. It began performing what seemed like a wiggling little dance, waves of flesh passing across its body like tides on the sea.
Duke Haffert, hands shaking, was attempting to load the bullets he had recovered into the rifle in his arms. For the most part, he was simply dropping bullets on the floor as the slipped through his trembling, sweaty hands. The snake creature, sensing Haffert's terror, turned his red eyes to the frightened fat man. Their orbs connected and Haffert gave pause. Try as he might he couldn't pull his gaze away from the terrible creature. The rest of the bullets in his hand fell to the floor, followed by the loud clatter of the rifle.
Tom, a few feet away looked over at his bearded compatriot. Duke was clearly afraid. Beads of sweat cascaded down his face and a noticeable quiver had taken hold of his lower lip. But the rest of his body seemed almost relaxed. Hands lay at his side. Legs stood parallel to each other, slightly bent at the knees.
"Duke! What are you-"
Tom's call came too late to break the burly redhead out of his paralysis. With a sudden, fluid movement, the snake thing spat out a gooey, yellow substance. It arched several feet across the room and then landed right on Haffert's face.
"Auughhh!" shouted Haffert. The demonic saliva stung his eyes and caused his throat to swell, making breathing difficult. He fell to his knees, screaming in agony.
Tom began to rush over to his friend, but caught site of the snake man crouching for a leap. Its legs propelled it straight up into the air, causing it to nearly hit into the ceiling before it returned to earth, atop Duke Haffert, sending them both crashing towards the ground.
Brian Thompson, having loaded ten bullets into the rifle, took aim, struggling not to hit Haffert. Tom ran around the counter of the ice cream shop, looking for something, anything, to use as a weapon.
Haffert's vision clouded. His face was covered with the stinging yellow venom. His back on the floor, like an upturned turtle, he could barely make out the vision of horror that lay before him. He clawed at the hell-beast as the glands in his neck seemed to continually expand, making him choke on what little oxygen made its way through the passage. He felt the paralyzing effects travel down his arms and legs, and cried inside as they went weak. The thing leaned in for the kill.
Brian Thompson squeezed the trigger once and felt the kickback of the rifle against his shoulder. He wasn't experienced with guns, but knew just enough to be dangerous. The snake creature had its back turned to him and Brian saw his bullet make an impact in an area where a normal man might have a liver. The beast made that infernal hissing sound again and spun half way around. It bared its teeth and opened its mouth and Brain knew what was coming next. He leapt to his side just as a spray of mucousy phlegm flew towards the area he had just been standing.
Haffert felt the creature loosen its grip and summoned up a renewed bout of strength to pull the thing off him. It tumbled to his side, And Haffert rolled over halfway while pulling himself forward with his left arm, the only arm he could still feel. He felt an adrenaline burst shoot through him, armed with the hope that he might make it out of this mess after all.
The shadow that appeared in the corner of his blurred vision crushed that hope. The fear became intense when the reptilian face moved just few inches from his and bared its fangs. He felt a renewed jolt of pain as the creature tore into his neck. Warm pulp spattered across Haffert's face, and his throat, which had seemed so dry moments earlier, was filled with fluid. Then there was a sensation of rapid movement, the feeling of rising up into the air, as if on a runaway roller coaster. And the shock of seeing his body on the floor as-
Tom watched in shock as the snake creature beheaded Haffert and tossed the shocked face of his compatriot across the room. Being that the only thing he'd found to be remotely useful as a weapon behind the counter was a mop, he was hard pressed to attack the monster that was disassembling his group in the middle of the store. Reginald was backed against the wall, watching the events with the same terror Tom felt. But Brian.
Brian Thompson, having avoided the paralyzing spittle of the snake man, stood tall. Again he squeezed the trigger. Again. And twice more.
Each blast hit the monster in its torso or lower extremities. Bursts of black fluid flowed forth from the wounds. The hissing/screaming rose to a high pitch in the air. Then, with lighting speed, it again attacked, launching itself in the air straight at Brian Thompson.
Brian held his ground as the thing came at him. He fired one more shot which tore through the webbing in the creature's groin. Then he felt the full body of the beast hit him in the solar plexus, knocking him to the ground. They both landed, tumbling, and the rifle was knocked from Brian's grip. He screamed and the thing sank its teeth into his shoulder. With his free hand he struck the creature's head, forcing it to release its jaws from his flesh.
Reginald, saw the rifle slide across the floor and dove after it. As he took it in his hands he knew there were only four shots left, and he had to make them count. Taking aim as he'd done so many times in the military he fired directly at the thing's skull.
The shot connected at the base of the snake-thing's neck, causing it to get knocked to one side. Thompson, in the process of wrestling with the creature saw its red eyes shine brighter. Then there was a crack and one of the eyes disappeared, replaced by a gaping wound. The thing fell over and lay still.
Brain, clutching his shoulder, skittered away from where the thing lay.
"Damn," said Reginald in between hard breaths. "I guess it takes a head shot."
Tom came out from behind the counter with the mop. "Good job. We'd have been done for otherwise. Like Duke."
Reginald and Tom turned to the headless, body of the fallen comrade. Even in the dark, the gory site was unsettling. Reaching into a cupboard against the wall, Tom found a tablecloth and lay it atop the bleeding torso of their friend. Brian Thompson leaned against the back wall.
"Brian," Tom called out. "I've got a medical kit in the bathroom. Let's take a look at that wound."
"It's ok," replied Brian from the shadows. "I'll be-"
He was interrupted by a high pitched, squeal, reminding Tom of the sound a kettle makes when boiling on the stove. Each man, looked around the room for the source, until coming to the frightening realization. The snake creature which had been lying in the middle of the floor was moving again, an angry reptilian hiss emanating from whatever passed for a throat. What's more, it seemed to be growing. As they watched, its flesh was expanding, greenish muscle piling atop itself. Within several seconds the creature's girth seemed twice what it had originally had been. Its legs were now joined as one and when the creature rose it had the image of a giant merman with a long snake tail. Its one red eye gaped at them, seething.
Tom and Reginald were near the counter of the shop, while Thompson was in the corner, separated from them by this mutating creature that had its back to them. The group was down to their last two bullets.
"I don't know about you guys," Tom began. "But I'd like to live to fight another day."
Reginald tore his gaze away from the snake beast to eye Tom questioningly. He understood when Tom looked over to the freezer room in the hallway to their right.
Reginald raised the rifle and fired, again at the creature's head. It snapped back as if being hit by a very large bee. But it was enough of a distraction for Tom to yell, "Brian, C'MON!"
Brian leapt past the screaming beast and was now alongside his compatriots. The three of them took several bounding steps to the freezer door. Tom threw it open and ran inside. Reginald and Brian followed. They caught site of the beast rounding the corner and slithering right at them. Together, Reginald and Brian slammed the door shut and turned the interior lock.
With the electricity off, the freezer room was dark as a tomb. The men stood there panting, and jumped collectively when the snake man began pounding on the metal freezer door
"Think it'll hold?" asked Reginald.
"Let's hope so," replied Tom.
"Is there any other way in here?"
Tom fumbled along the right wall. His hands encountered the moist sticky goo of melted ice cream. He was going to have to order a complete stock if he ever got out of this.
"What are you doing, Tom?" asked Reginald.
"I left a flashlight in here just for power outages like this one," Tom replied. "I'm trying to find it. Ah. Here we go." Tom's hand closed in on the small lantern he'd stowed away years before. He clicked on the device and a warm glow bathed the room. "Everyone ok?" he asked.
Reginald, who was standing directly in the light, leaned his rifle on the wall and rubbed his aching muscles. "All parts are accounted for," he replied.
"Brian, how 'bout you?"
Thompson was further back in the freezer room, kneeling against the wall. "I'm fine," he muttered.
"You took a nasty bite there, pal" Tom replied. "You sure that-"
With renewed force the lizard creature hit the door from outside. The entire room shook.
"Geez, I hope he gets tired soon," said Reginald.
"Agreed," replied Tom. "Does it strike you that Stan Hughes is a bit like that deer we saw?"
Reginald nodded his head. "I noticed that. It's like he's conjoined with the creatures in the surrounding area. The deer had become part plant. Hughes is part reptile."
Brian Thompson stood up and walked closer to the group. But he made no attempt to contribute to the conversation.
"It gets me thinking," said Tom. "Maybe the swamp is where this all started. When I was down there, the creatures seemed further moved along the path of mutation that they people up here. Maybe something's been. festering there for a long time."
"But how'd that disease come to afflict your gumballs?" asked Reginald.
Tom scratched his head. "That I don't know. They definitely didn't come from the swamp. They were delivered."
"Well, hang tight," said Reginald. "I've got a feeling that mystery is going to be solved for you soon enough."
Tom let the puzzling comment stand. He turned to Brian. He opened his mouth to speak and then paused. Thompson was holding the rifle, pointing it in the general direction of Tom and Reginald.
"Don't get any closer to me," he said. "I don't know what I may do."
"Brian - what the hell?" said a stupefied Reginald. "Put that thing down, man! You're going to get us killed." He made a move towards Thompson.
"No!" shouted. "Stay there. You don't understand."
Tom spoke in a calmer, controlled voice. "Brian," he said. "What's gotten into you?"
For the first time in the night, Brian chuckled. "What's getting into everybody?"
"You mean-?" Reginald said.
Thompson took a step closer into the light, illuminating his wounded shoulder. A steady stream of oily tar was drooling out of the wound. Brian's skin look raw and pasty. "It was a week ago," he said. "Timmy kept talking about the gumballs. Finally he brought one home and insisted I try it. It was delicious."
"Look, Brian, maybe." Tom started, while fighting of the realization that he and Reginald were now stuck in the freezer room with one of them! And it had the gun.
"Don't bother trying to talk me out of this Tom," Brian interrupted. "Maybe it should end this way. It's the best for all of us."
"Thompson, we can-" Reginald shouted.
Brian Thompson swung the rifle barrel upward, placing it just under his chin. "I miss Timmy," he said, tears welling in his eyes. He squeezed the trigger and his body fell backwards into the darkness.
The smoky residue of the exploded shell filled the room. Tom and Reginald lay silent. An hour ago there had been four of them, now they were down to two. Tom really wanted an injection of the morphine. His sweet mistress who could take away the pain.
The pounding on the door continued, though both men noticed that the impact was less and less. Reginald gave voice to the thought. "He's getting tired," he said.
But another sound concerned them. There was the sound of the window being shattered outside, and a collection of low moans and clattering feet. "There's more of them," Tom said. "They know we're in here and they're going to wait until we come out."
"Maybe," replied Reginald. "Let's wait and see.
The minutes drew on, marked by the pounding drum beat of the snake creature against the door and the impotent scratching of its zombie compatriots. What would be a worse way to go, Tom wondered. Slowly staving to death here in the freezer room? Or being torn apart within minutes by the things outside? He began to wish Thompson hadn't used up the last bullet.
Sunlight must be starting to cover the town of Honey Bluff, he mused. But what would this new day bring. Was anyone. normal, still left alive? Or would they encounter the same siege of horror he had spent the previous night wrestling with? Why hadn't help come? Where was the National Guard? Did anyone know what was happening? Had this demonic disease moved past his town and taken over the surrounding area? The country? The world?
The flashlight flickered. Tom was afraid of this. He hadn't changed the batteries in years. How much light was left? Reginald paced the room, military style.
Suddenly they heard it. A sound from the outside of the building. Like a washing machine. It was a sound that both men, having had army careers were familiar with. Helicopters. Not just one. Many of them.
They could hear the bullhorn orders of military command. Automatic weapons fired. Gumball mutants shrieked in agony. Explosions resounded throughout the air.
The sounds grew closer. The soldiers were in the shop. Gunfire sprayed the area and Tom could hear his neon lights shatter, his walls speckle with the impact of bullets. There was a horrible hissing sounding and the smell of burnt flesh.
"A flamethrower," Reginald said excitedly. "Hughes couldn't stand up to that."
Then the sounds of stomping feet were right out side the door. Gloved hands patted the walls beside the door to the freezer room.
"Stand back" Reginald advised.
There was an explosion and the very air moved. Smoke shot under the door filling the freezer room with a cloudy aura. Then the freezer door fell back and streams of light, both natural and man-made flowed into the area. A formation of several bodies, led but a stout but commanding figure filled the room.
"Commander Washington?" a voiced called out. "Are you here?"
Reginald stepped forward and performed a military salute. "Present and accounted for sir," he bellowed.
The short man stepped forward. He looked Tom directly in the eyes. "And you must be Tom Humphries," he said.
"Y-yes," stammered Tom, baffled at what was happening. "I am."
With that, the short man pulled a small pistol from his side and shot Tom in the chest.
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