The Magic Gumball Machine, Pt XVII
By Wil Forbis
Tom let out a girlish shriek as he flew out the helicopter door. He tumbled, head over heels, images of sky and ground blurring together. And then.
And then it was over. He hit the earth mere moments after being ejected from the helicopter. He landed on his buttocks and rolled over a few times. The ground was dirt and grass, but forgiving enough on the flesh of an old man. Bones remained intact.
Sitting up and rubbing his back, Tom realized what had happened. The helicopter, immersed in the low cloud cover had only been ten or so feet above ground. It was a variation on the old military trick of threatening to throw captured soldiers to their death when in reality the copter would be hovering just above the surface.
The helicopter was still in the air, floating about twenty-five feet above Tom. Looking up, he could even make out the grinning face of Reginald Washington. Maybe Reggie thought he was doing Tom a favor by not killing him. That would be left to the mutants that prowled the streets of Honey Bluff.
The copter began flying south, back in the direction they'd come from. It got about 100 feet then slowed to a hover again. The vehicle waggled a bit, like a harlot trying to attract a customer and Tom saw something small and black drop out of the window. Then the helicopter renewed its journey southward. Within several seconds it had faded into the murky fog, though Tom could still hear the sound of rotating blades for some time.
Standing tall, Tom began trudging over to area where the mystery item had fallen. He suspected what he would find and his suspicions were confirmed when he spotted an Army issued 45 caliber pistol stuck in the mud. Once again, Reginald was giving him a fighting chance. Tom removed the magazine and counted the rounds. Ten. That might fend off one marauding hoard, but at best it would simply delay the inevitable.
Replacing the magazine, Tom stuck the gun in his belt and looked around. The land appeared familiar, but he couldn't quite place it. It was one of the fields just outside of town. If those were the rumbling hills that ran along Route 15, then Farmer Whitman's land would be that way, and his apartment would be there - due north. He began trudging in that direction.
The low hanging mist stayed in the air limiting Tom's vision to no more than twenty feet in any direction. Floating wisps of fog gave the sense that something was moving just outside the perimeter but Tom was too tired to care. He'd cheated death so many times in the last couple days he was almost willing to accept his due. Still, he kept walking towards his apartment. If he had to die he might as well do it with a fresh change of clothes.
Several minutes into his journey Tom spotted an immobile figure lying in the field. He took the gun from his belt and walked gingerly closer to the figure. As he approached his grip on the 45 loosened. This person was obviously dead. He stood above the corpse, the mutated form of Mrs. Alice McGrawly, a middle aged woman who lived just outside of town with her husband, a retired music professor. Obviously she'd been turned - the blackened crust that covered her face and exposed skin confirmed that. There was still more blood - human blood - covering her flower print dress. But Tom could not ascertain how she'd died. There were no obvious wounds aside from the rippling skin of the mutation. It seemed as if she'd not been felled in battle but rather had expired from other, inexplicable causes.
"Huh," Tom muttered to himself, and kept walking. Within minutes he saw the houses along Grand avenue, including the two-story apartment building he lived in. Despite the fact that it was late afternoon there seemed no signs of movement. The streets were quiet, the normal sounds of traffic, children playing or even the crickets and frogs in the field were gone.
Tom reached asphalt street and crossed over. Up close, the apartment building looked like it'd been hit by a whirlwind. Windows were broken, streaks of blood spattered on the outside walls. His neighbor's Ford truck had a big dent in the side door and its front window was shattered. The tree stump that Tom had used as a resting stool for so many years had been split into several pieces. Tiny bits of flesh and hair were ingrained in its bark.
Tom walked up to the door of his apartment. The knob had been torn off and it was lightly ajar. Tom peered in but saw no sign of movement. Gun drawn he entered.
The living room had been ransacked. His couch was overturned, his kitchen table broken in half. People - things - had been here. But they'd long since left.
Tom walked up to his bird cages. The little fellers were still there, still alive, but different. While they'd normally would have greeted him with a flurry of angry chirps, now they stood huddled together, heads sunk into their necks, making not a sound.
"I bet you guys have had a hell of time," Tom softly spoke. He went to the kitchen and got some feed and placed it in the cage. The birds, timid as they were, could not disguise their hunger. Tentatively, they gathered round the feed and feasted for what was likely the first time in days.
As the birds ate, Tom went into the bedroom. He stripped naked, removing clothing that had been on his body for far too long. Looking himself over in the mirror he could still see bruises and scars from the nights previous. "It's a wonder this old body is doing as well as it is," Tom muttered.
Fumbling through his dresser, Tom found some underwear and a pair of his best slacks. He donned both and put grey T-shirt of top. Finally he slipped on a white dress shirt, buttoned it to the top and tucked it in. The gun went back in his belt. He looked dressed for a wedding. Or a funeral.
Tom walked back into the living room. The birds were done with their feed and eyed him curiously. A few chirped uneasily when he picked up the cage by the top handles. He carried the cage outside to the parking lot in front of the apartment. Sitting it atop the Ford, he opened the cage door. The birds made no move.
"Come on, Come onnnn!" Tom admonished, rattling the cage. With that the birds made for the exit, hopping out and taking flight for the sky. One by one he watched them vanish into the clouds. Tom's eyes watered but the edges of his mouth turned into the barest hint of a smile. "I hope you fellers do all right," he whispered.
With the birds gone, Tom began walking towards Main street. He considered trying to hotwire the Ford, but figured driving around in a rumbling American engine might be asking for trouble. Better travel quietly and not draw attention to himself.
It seemed there was little real attention to be had. The streets, houses, apartments and stores were deserted. Tom had little doubt, were he to enter any of the buildings he was passing by, that he would see unspeakable sights of carnage within. But for now, it was if the fog had descended upon the town and wiped away the horror that had occurred days and nights before. For the briefest of moments he was just and old man going for a stroll in the town of his birth.
Tom hit the corner or Gable and Minecross. He checked both sides out of habit, then crossed over. Just a few more blocks and he would be at the ice cream shop. He was passing the alley right next to Joe Buffalo's Garage when he spotted something. Down at the far end was figure lying against several tires making movements with their hands. A slight moaning could be heard.
"What the hell," Tom muttered, and he turned down the alley. Only a few feet in and he was hit by the smell, like rancid garbage mixed in with rotting meat. Only there was nothing to explain the odor, other than the figure he was approaching.
It was one of them, Tom could tell that from a distance, and it struggled to rise when it saw him coming. But clearly it was too weak and had to settle back against the tires, eyeing Tom with disdain.
When Tom got close, he pulled the pistol out even though this creature could clearly do no harm. He recognized what the thing had once been, a mechanic in his mid forties who'd worked at the adjoining garage. Tom didn't know him by name, but had talked to him once or twice when he'd brought his truck in for some work on his brakes. But any vestige of that person was gone, now this creature was simply one of them - a cadre of flesh hungry, homicidal beasts.
The creature made a hissing sound, not unlike that made by the creature Stan Hughes had turned into. A thin river of dark saliva snaked out of the corner its mouth. The thing could barely move but Tom could see from the look in its eyes that it was hungry. It wanted nothing more than to peel strips of meat off Tom's flank and devour them raw.
"What happened to you, Buster?" Tom asked through gritted teeth. The man-beast only snarled in return. It was in the final stage of its disease; pure rabid animal. Anything human was gone. Tom raised the pistol.
The creature shrieked and floundered in its throne of tires. It recognized the gun and what it could do. It wanted to live, dammit! It wanted to live!
The sound of three gunshots cut through the air. Tom lowered the pistol and gazed at the now mostly headless mutant. As far as he was concerned he'd done the thing a favor.
Tom left the alley and walked further down Gable. He hit Main Street and turned. Within less than a minute he was at the 'Good Ship Lollipop.'
The store was barely recognizable. General Blake and his men had not been delicate when they had rescued Tom and Reginald from the freezer. The front windows were completely shattered, the door torn off and lying in the street. Steeping inside, Tom could see chairs upturned and booths blacked by the soot of gunfire and explosives. The bodies of Duke Haffert and Stan Hughes had been removed, but pools of dried blood stained various spots of the checkerboard patterned floor. It met with rivers of sticky, melted ice cream, occasionally merging into what looked like the designs you'd see on the walls at big city museums.
The gumball machine lay on its side near the cash register. A crack ran down part of the glass, but the machine was still stuffed to the brim with gumballs. Tom knelt down and lifted the candy machine to an upright position. Once vertical, it came to life, flashing lights and playing its music. A single gumball descended to the transparent base of the machine and rolled out the shiny metal door at the bottom. The sparkling orb rolled into the corner and came to a halt.
On a whim Tom tried the light switch with no results. He retrieved a flashlight from a drawer behind the counter and turned it on. Armed with the light he walked into the storeroom and looked about. This room had stayed mostly undisturbed, piles of cleaning supplied were still in place, the rollback desk in the corner was untouched and the safe appeared unmolested. Tom chuckled a bit at the sight of the rolls of quarters lying atop safe. It was the money he'd retrieved from the gumball machine that magical day that the citizens of Honey Bluff had come to his financial rescue. Money had seemed so important that day, but now the quarters were merely sparkling trinkets. Whatever disaster they were meant to prevent had occurred ten times over.
Tom looked over at the rolltop desk. Inside was what was left of his morphine stash. He considered doing a shot but felt no need. He was already as numb as a person could be.
From outside, Tom heard a sound. It was footsteps, someone walking across the shattered glass that was scattered about the entrance of the shop. Perhaps this was it, Tom mused. Whatever remained alive in this town had caught his scent and was zeroing in for the kill. He removed the pistol from his belt, knowing full well the seven shots left would do little to fend of more than a few of the creatures. But at least he would die on his feet, in the shop he had dedicated his life to.
Pistol in one hand, flashlight in the other, Tom slowly opened the storage room door. Immediately he could see a figure standing in the doorway to the shop. It was a slumping, weakened child, someone who barely had the strength to stand. Squinting his eyes, Tom recognized the figure. Skeeter McDouglas.
"Tooommmm," Skeeter whined. "I don't feel so gooood." With that the little boy toppled over onto the floor.
Tom's first urge was run up to the boy whom he'd been serving ice cream sundaes to for years. But this was also the child that days earlier had goaded young Bart into trying to shoot him through the skull. There's was no doubt Skeeter had become one of them. So it was with caution Tom approached the panting, sweating form of the little boy lying on his floor.
"What's happening, champ?" Tom asked, pistol obviously pointed at the child's head. "I don't want no trouble."
"You gotta help, me Unca' Tom. I feel so tired. I had so much energy but now I just feel so tired."
"Forgive me for not trusting you buddy. But you might remember trying to kill me a while back. I thought we were pals, Skeeter."
"I'm sorry, Tom," the boy moaned, tears welling in his eyes. "I can't explain it. Something was inside me, making me act all crazy."
"You ain't the only one, pal," Tom replied. Pistol still trained on the boy's head, he knelt down next to him. With a handkerchief he patted the Skeeter's perspiring face.
"Everyone went plain ol' bonkers," Skeeter agreed. "And the ones that didn't - boy, we did some terrible things to them, Tom. I can't believe the things we did. I feel awful about it."
"I know you do, Skeeter. You weren't yourself."
Skeeter coughed and for a few seconds his body spasmed. Snot and dark oil rolled out of his nostrils. "It was like this the first time," he said in a quiet voice. "When I was locked in Paw's basement. I got weaker and weaker and I thought I was a goner. Then I fell asleep and when I woke up, I was stronger than ever."
Tom bit his lip. This was the Skeeter he knew. The boy he loved. He placed the gun on the floor and held Skeeter's head up with one hand while mopping the perspiration of his body with the other.
"I ain't gonna wake this time, am I, Tom?" the boy asked between convulsions. "This is it, ain't it?"
"I." Tom contemplated lying to the child. But he knew that would be a disservice. "I reckon so," he said. "I'm so sorry, Skeeter. I'm so sorry."
Skeeter's body took on a permenant shiver. He eyelids fluttered and remained half open. "Am I gonna go to heaven, Unca' Tom. Am I gonna see Timmy.?"
There was no point answering. The child was gone. And with him, the numbness that had taken Tom's heart. Now it was filled with rage. Rage at a God that would let this happen to a child. Rage at a universe that would allow a town as good and pure and Honey Bluff be destroyed from within. Rage at whomever, whatever had caused this. And indeed, Tom knew what that was.
Tom grabbed the 45 and stood up. He turned and faced the magic gumball machine. "It's you, isn't it?!" he yelled. "You caused this!"
The machine stood silent. Behind the glass orb, some of the gumballs shifted slightly.
"What are you?" Tom screamed. "Where did you come from?"
Still, the machine did nothing.
"Goddamn you to hell!" Tom raged. He raised the pistol and fired. Once. Twice. He did not stop until the magazine was empty.
The bullets first bounced off the strange transparent glass of the machine, but after repeated impact, cracks started to appear. With the final bullet the glass container holding the gumballs burst open, shattering into a million tiny shards. Released, the gumballs rained down onto the floor, rolling in every possible direction. Like a bag of marbles dropped on classroom floor. Their vibrant colors shimmered, filling Tom's vision with a kaleidoscope of tiny moons. Eventually, the gumballs came to rest, scattered across the ice cream shop's surface.
The mount of the gumball machine was still intact, still supporting the base that had just contained the round ball. But what caught Tom's eye was the thing sitting there. Something alive. It was a small creature, perhaps the size of a rabbit, but scaly and reptilian. At a distance, one might mistake it for a very large frog, but up close Tom could see that it was like nothing he'd observed in nature. The thing was wet, grayish-green and had to tiny, sleepy-looking eyes. It stared at Tom as if it had just been rudely awaken by the ruckus. Tiny forearms moved nervously, while a set of much larger hindlegs quivered. This was not a creature designed for movement, but for sedentary, immobile existence.
"Jesus. Christ," Tom breathlessly exclaimed. "What.?" He could not summon the words to finish the sentence.
There was a slurping sound and the creature moved slightly, as if it were releasing gas. It repositioned itself slightly and a gumball rolled forth from between its legs. It was as if the creature were releasing.
"Eggs!" Tom said, astounded. "The gumballs are eggs!"
From behind Tom, came a new voice. "It looks like I arrived at just the right time."
Tom spun, pointing the empty pistol in the direction of the sound. Standing outside, near the shattered window to his store was a new figure, This was a man, tall and wearing a tattered looking raincoat. Lifting up a long leg he stepped over the base of the window into the ice cream shop. And that was when Tom recognized him.
It was the strange businessman who'd come in out of the rain weeks ago and tried to sell Tom the gumball machine!
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