The Magic Gumball Machine, Pt XV
By Wil Forbis
Tom opened his eyes and a flood of white light rushed to fill his field of vision. It momentarily blinded him and only aggravated the intense pounding he felt in his head. He let forth a long groan and raised a hand to block out the light. His thoughts were still muddied, jumbled, but he had some recollection of being shot. Was he dead? Was this heaven? Was the light above the luminescent rays of the Holy Spirit revealing his place in the afterlife?
No, it turned out it was just a florescent bulb. As Tom's vision became clearer he began to develop a better sense of where he was. It was a white room, a hospital area with a row of beds going across it. Tom was lying in one of the beds while several monitoring cables attached his body to a blinking machine that lay next to him. Tom rose from his berth, muttering, and looked at the machine. He couldn't ascertain its purpose, but guessed that it was a standard medical unit for measuring a patient's heart rate, breathing and whatnot. All the other beds were empty. But down at the far end of the room was a section cordoned off with a curtain. Tom could just hear the sound of a steady beeping emanating from this far corner.
Tom rubbed his head and the memories started to return. The horror of watching the citizens of his hometown turn into deranged cannibalistic creatures. The desperate attempts to escape. The deaths of his compatriots. Duke Haffert. Brian Thompson. And then. the explosion outside the freezer room, the military men and getting shot. It didn't make any sense. No sense at all.
And now, waking up here, alone in some hospital room. It dawned on Tom that maybe none of it had ever happened. Maybe he'd gone crazy some point in the past and been assigned to an asylum. All the horrors of the past few weeks were the delusions of a senile old man who'd been lying in a bed, trapped in his mind. And now he was free.
That would be the preferable explanation Tom realized. But the cuts and bruises on his body from the fall off the motorcycle into the swamp were still there. The aches from his battles with the mutants racked his body. Something physical had happened to him over the past couple days.
Tom was dressed differently than before. He was in a white T-shirt and grey pajama bottoms. The electrodes connected to his wrist and neck. Grimacing, he pulled them off. They made a popping sound as they were removed. The machine next to him beeped in irritation. He rolled over and stepped out of the bed, feet touching the cold floor. The chill made Tom's muscles tense but brought more clarity to his brain.
Tom stood and stretched. His back flexed and cracked and some of the stiffness eased its way out of his body. He walked up to the door of the room. There was no handle and Tom wasn't surprised when he pressed against it and found that it wouldn't move. He was locked in.
Tom stepped back from the door, ran his fingers over his moustache, then, suddenly, hurled his body at the door. It shuddered, but still did not give. Twice he pounded on the door with his fist but to little effect. Then it dawned on him that such antics might attract the attention of those outside the door. Any perhaps that wasn't such a wise idea.
Tom stood in the center of the room, feeling the tightness renew in his stomach. Amidst the previous night's adventures he'd had little time to feel much fear. There was too much going on. Whatever you might say about fighting crazed teenagers or Bulldozer charging hillbillies, it didn't leave much time for getting scared. But here, now, trapped in a sterile white room with no idea what was happening, the primal, reptile part of Tom's brain began to flutter.
But the wave of panic was brief. It passed and Tom became more aware of the sounds of the room. The low hum of the air conditioner. The buzz and click of the monitor that had been attached to him. And the steady beep from the curtained area in the corner.
Tom turned and looked in the direction of the beep. Screwing up his nerve, he walked over to area, his bare feet slowing acclimating to the chill of the floor. Standing before the screened bed he paused. Then he drew the drape to one side and peered in.
Inside was a bed, with another person on it. At first Tom could barely make out the figure. They were so covered in white bandages it seemed as if there body merged in with the white sheets. But Tom recognized a head, bundled up like a mummy, lying against the pillow. Two arms lay at the body's side, though the left appendage stopped at the elbow, obviously the result of a surgical amputation. Whoever it was, the person was asleep, breathing heavily. Unlike the single monitor Tom had found beside himself, this patient had a variety of machines sitting next to him. Tall glass cylinders with strange liquids fed their contents into the sleeping patient via long plastic tubes. Multiple monitoring systems flashed and twinkled. A heart rate monitor with an ever undulating diagram gave out the sole beep that had lured Tom from across the way.
After giving the machinery the once over, Tom turned his attention to the patient. The gauze tape covered most of his body, but in the few areas where it didn't, Tom could see signs of horrible disfigurement. The person's eyelids looked scared or burned, and sections of bright red flesh peeked through the bandages on his arms. This figure was a he, Tom decided, from the shape of his body and posture. A fairly tall man, thin, but with some youthful muscle covering his frame. Tom leaned in to take a closer look at the his face. Covered as he was, it seemed impossible to recognize the man, but perhaps some clue would-
Suddenly the eyes opened and looked directly at Tom. Tom gasped, and stepped from the bed and out of the curtained area. He felt a strange combination of shame and fright. Then he heard it.
The words froze Tom in his tracks. The man had recognized him. And worse, he recognized the voice. Shaking, he walked back towards the bed. Again he peered into the curtains.
"Ted?" he asked. "Ted, is that you?"
The man, eyes still set on Tom, nodded his head slowly.
It was one thing for Tom to see a bandaged and disfigured stranger lying in a hospital room. But it was quite another to recognize that figure as Ted Rully, his teenage assistant from the ice cream store, a boy he'd last seen speeding a pregnant Tricia Dalwood to the hospital. Now Tom knew for sure. He'd not been mad. All the events of the past weeks had happened just as he remembered them.
"Ted! Jesus, boy! What happened to you?" Tom leaned in closer to the lad.
Ted coughed and a bit of saliva hung from his mouth. He raised his left arm to wipe his lip, was reminded that his hand was no longer there and lowered it back onto the bed. "I'm. I'm sorry Mr. Humphries," he said in broken tones. "Mrs. Dalwood is dead."
It was a reality that didn't really surprise Tom. If anything he was amazed to find either of the missing pair still alive. "That's okay Ted. I'm sure you did everything you could." And then a thought struck him. "What about the baby?"
Ted inhaled deeply, as if the act of talking itself was an effort. "The baby wasn't a baby Mr. Humphries. It was some sort of. thing."
It came back to Tom. The amniotic fluid Mrs. Dalwood had expelled when her water burst. It was like the dark mucous spewed by the mutants. She'd already been turning to one of them. Or at least her child was. Tom knew whatever had transpired had been horrible. But he had to know. "Tell me, Ted. Tell me what happened."
Ted Rully blinked, once, twice, as if accessing the memories Tom was asking about required heroic concentration. Then he spoke. "We we're driving along Route 15, you know. And Mrs. Dalwood was in the back seat making a terrible racket. I was getting pretty nervous. Starting to think I'd have to pull over and birth that baby myself."
"We got a ways along and Mrs. Dalwood kept letting out these cries. And then suddenly she stopped. And the first thing I notice is this horrible smell, like fish that's have been left out in the sun for days. I look back and I can just barely see here slumped over in the car. Her face looked like it just didn't have any color left, white as a sheet. And there was this trail of blood coming out of her nose."
"I new if if anything was going to be done, it would have to be done soon. I pulled off to the side of the road. And got out of the car. I opened the rear door and right off I could tell Mrs. Dalwood had passed on. She was lying there and had that look of death, you know?"
"Then I heard some kind of sound. It was like a baby crying, but. different. Like a crying and a hissing. It didn't sound well. I thought maybe the baby was caught coming out, or suufacating on the tube. Her legs were in front of me and I hiked up her dress and." Ted, stopped and made a choking sound that caused Tom to wince.
"And then what, Ted?" Tom prodded.
"I saw that thing there, just sitting under the hood of her dress. Maybe part of it was a human baby, but the rest of it was like some sort of lizard or reptile. Its skin was blotched green and it had these teeth like a dragon. I've never seen anything like it Mr. Humphries. It was like Mrs. Dalwood had given birth to something out of hell."
"It saw me and it bared its fangs. I'd swear the thing smiled at me and then it spit something out at me. You know, like mucous, or phlegm. It hit me in the neck and it was like getting stung by a man-o-war or something. Like getting shocked with a car battery. I fell back and I could feel my body seizing up. My arms and legs were going weak and numb and I could feel my throat tightening up. But I could still feel enough to know that thing had gotten out of the car and was crawling on my body. I could hear it making those noises, that awful hissing. I had just enough sensation to feel the pain when it started tearing into my arm, knawing at me like a chicken bone."
Tom's eyes grew wide as he contemplated the horror of what the boy was telling him. He wanted to say something, anything, to ease the lad's burden, but what?
Ted Rully's eyes grew moist and he continued. "After a couple minutes I heard the sound of engines, lots of them, pulling up next to where I'd stopped. I couldn't move my neck to look around, but I could see the shadows of people moving around. And then one of them leans down next to me. He looked like a military man or a police officer. But all in black, dressed in black. I saw him pull out a needle, a hypodermic you know, and stick it in me. It knocked me out right away."
"After that, I woke up here. Sometimes these men come in, doctors, but they never talk to me. They just play with these machines and take blood. I might as well not be alive as far they're concerned." At that, Ted closed his eyes for a few seconds and let out a deep sigh.
Now it was Tom's turn to speak. "We went looking for you Ted. The whole town did. We found your car out in Farmer Whitman's field. Hewly broke us up into search parties and we went through the whole area. But it sounds like we never had a chance. These people, whoever they are, must have spirited you and Tricia away somewhere. Here. Wherever here is."
"I bet my mom's a wreck," said Ted, solemnly.
"Yep, well there's been a lot of craziness in town Ted. I don't know where to begin."
Tom was about to relate the past day's activities to the boy. He deserved to know, to have some inkling of what was happened. But before Tom could speak a clattering sound came from behind them. Someone was opening the door.
First, eight men, dressed in black military-looking attire entered the room and lined themselves up against the wall. There were followed by three other men. Of the second group, Tom recognized one as the short, authoritative looking man who had shot him in the chest. The other two, one positioned on each side, appeared to be bodyguards or assistants.
All of them were armed with a holstered handgun at their side.
Immediately upon entering, the short man fixed his intimidating stare on Tom. The barest hint of a smile crossed his lips. He approached, his two assistants at his side. "Well, well, I see you two have met," he commented.
Neither Tom nor Ted answered, though Tom gave off an angry glare. He'd develop a strong dislike for this height-impaired tyrant the moment the man had pointed a gun at him and pulled the trigger.
"Or perhaps." the fellow continued. "Perhaps you already know each other. I imagine that's the case isn't it. Being from a small town and all."
Up close, Tom was able to take a closer look. The speaker was clean-shaven with short-cropped hair covered in a black beret. He looked middle aged, but the lines on his face were etched in concrete. A strong jaw jutted out of his neck, looking like it could take a beating. His body mass was formidable, reminding Tom of country wrestlers he'd seen in his youth.
The man grinned, showing a set of almost perfectly white teeth, Almost, except for one front incisor covered by a gold cap. He continued. "I grew up in a small town myself. I know how it goes. Everyone smiles hello at whoever they pass going to market. Always willing to drop what they're doing to help out a neighbor. Hell, it's a wonderful life."
Still, Tom and Ted held their tongue. They know this man was not their friend. It was best to let him fill the silence with blather and see if he let anything slip.
"I'm General Blake," the man continued. "And you are here under my command." He approached Tom and held out his hand.
Tom considered his options. He could spit in the General's face, or perhaps knee him in the groin. But he'd seen enough movies to know what would happen next. Blake's bodyguards would grab Tom by the arms and the General would reclaim his honor by pounding Tom's face in. As such, Tom chose to shake the man's hand.
The General had a firm grip, but Tom returned in kind. Blake winced, smiled, then spoke. "That's the handshake of a military man. We're you in the Army Mr. Humphries?"
"Once," Tom replied. "A long time ago."
"I know," retorted the General. "I know quite a bit about you actually. You see, I'm doing God's work here, my friend. We've got quite an interesting experiment going on. But you're the one piece of the puzzle I can't quite figure out."
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