The Magic Gumball Machine, Pt XVIII
By Wil Forbis
The businessman crossed the floor and approached Tom. He wasn't the least bit bothered by the gun that followed him, as if he knew it was empty. Then he stopped about five feet away from Tom and smiled. The businessman looked very different from the night he'd first visited Tom's shop. Some would say ghoulishly different. His clothes - the trench coat, dress shoes and slacks - were the same ones he'd been wearing the night he'd first appeared. But now they were torn, soaking wet and covered in mud. The man looked as if he'd spent the last two weeks lying face down in a swamp.
The state of the businessman's clothing was matched by the state of his graying, decaying flesh. Deep gashes ran along his face, revealing grease-oozing muscle within. One eye was grayed over, blind, making no movement in its socket. Two fingers on his left hand were gnawed to the bone. A small insect, a glassy looking bug, scurried along the side of his face disappearing into what had once been an ear. His body seemed glazed with the dark oil that was the calling card of the mutation.
He spoke. "It's good to see you again, Mr. Humphries."
"Wish I could say the same," replied Tom. "You look terrible."
The man gave a hearty laugh that morphed into a fit of coughing. He expelled several blotches of black mucous onto his coat arm. With a final cough, a small green water snake flew out of his mouth, landed on the floor and slithered away. "Sorry," the man apologized. "I seem to have come down with something."
Tom lowered the gun and placed it on the counter. It was providing little protection and the man hardly seemed a threat. "I'd offer you a seat," Tom said, motioning to the scattered, overturned and broken furniture in the store, "but I'm plum out of chairs."
"S'ok," the man slurred in reply. "I don't mind standing."
"Mm-hmm." Tom scratched his chin, focusing his gaze at the man's good eye. "So," he began, "I figger you owe me and explanation. An' it better be a damn good one."
"Yes," the man sighed. He eyed the still-fresh corpse of Skeeter McDouglas lying not far from where he was standing. "Yes I do. I imagine you've had a hell of a week."
"You imagine right," was Tom's sober reply.
The man staggered, as if one leg had momentarily given out. Then he caught himself and stood up straight. He reached into his coat pocket, removed a mud-encrusted rag that had once been a handkerchief and brought it across his brow. He sopped some of the blackened ooze he'd been perspiring then delicately placed the handkerchief back in his pocket and looked down at the floor. He began slowly rubbing his temples. He looked up again and one eye, his good eye, was swelling with tears.
"I-I'm not sure the best way to explain it to you. I'm not sure I can."
"I ain't going nowhere," replied Tom. "And trust me. I've seen some pretty amazing things these past days. I'm ready for the truth."
The businessman, nodded and sighed. He turned his gaze outside the shop, towards the moonlit hills miles away. "I grew not far from here you know. 'Bout a hundred miles North. Same country, farming country. In fact my Pops had a ranch near Bull Hook. He was a salesman - the apple don't fall far from the tree - but my Ma and me, we spent a lot of time at the ranch. I grew up there mostly, playing in fields, hunting frogs and all."
"Just like boys do around here," Tom added.
"Right. So one day, 'bout the time I was nine or ten, Guinevere, this cat we had, gave birth to a litter of kittens. There were ten or so, and my mother said we'd have to give them away, but she let me pick out one. You know, just to be my special friend. I had a thing for the little guy back then, so I picked out the runt of the litter, the one all the other kits picked on. Well I took good care of that little guy, fed him from the bottle and watched over him, but after a month or so, it was obvious something was wrong. He'd had this cough from birth and it wasn't going away, and he didn't seem to be growing much."
"Uh-huh," Tom replied, dubious as to how this would relate to homicidal mutants that feasted on human flesh.
"My Pops came home one night and said he'd seen this before. The cat had a tear of sorts in his lung and there was no way he'd make it more that a few months. So the next day, my Ma let me say goodbye to the fellah. Then she picked him up and put him in a basket and walked out the door. She didn't tell me what she was going to do, but I watched her from the window, watched her going over the ridge to the creek that ran near our house. And then, about fifteen minutes later I watched her come back, only this time she didn't have the kit with her."
"She drowned him," Tom confirmed. That's how people had always done things in these parts.
"Right," said the businessman. "Or so we thought. A couple days later, Mr. Derbyshire, a neighbor comes driving up the road. He busts in the house with the kitten, barely alive, in his hand. Says he was driving a near ran the guy over, knocked him into the field. He knew the kitten was mine and you could tell he felt plain awful about it. And that little kit, well, he was worse than the ever, being sick, then being drowned, then being hit by a car. My Ma was a shocked as could be - she'd held him under herself - but she told me we'd watch him over him and if he got better I could keep him. This time she wouldn't take him away."
The man paused, and Tom, anxious to fill the space, jumped in. "So what happened?"
"Well, he died. Didn't last more than a few hours. You couldn't expect much else. But the thing I saw that day, is that in the end, everything wants to live. Don't matter how uphappy you are, or how close you are to death. In the end, every creature will do whatever it takes to stay alive!" The man finished his point with finger in the air; as if he'd delivered a great profundity that his audience should take time to ruminate on.
"Goddammit!" exploded Tom. "I'm not asking you about kittens getting run over thirty years ago! I want to know what's happened to my town! To my friends! Right now!"
The man raised his hand, a gesture for Tom to calm down. "I know, I know," he cooed. "But you have to realize, I don't understand it all myself. What's happening here isn't so much something that can be explained, it's something you just have to know."
"That don't make a whole lotta sense, Mister. And makin' sense is something you need to start doing."
"Agreed," said the businessman. "Look, just so you know, the night I first met you, part of what I'd said was true. I had broken down near the swamp. Only it wasn't that night, I'd broken down weeks before. Or had an accident, really. I was driving, late at night, pushing my gumball machines on some folks in Delsburgh and I'd had a little too much to drink, you know? Car went off the road and hit a tree. I got out, stumbled around in the dark and fell - right into the damn swamp. I was knee deep in muck, drunk as a horsefly and passed right out."
"I woke up the next morning, face down in swamp water. I mean, I came up choking, didn't have the slightest idea how I'd survived. Figured I should have drowned but I just thanked my lucky stars, flagged down a ride and got a lift home. Calmed down the wife and went right to sleep. I didn't wake up for damn near twenty hours, but when I did, I'll tell you, I felt right as rain. I went out over the next week and sold damn near a quarter of my yearly average! In seven days!"
"How wonderful for you," Tom said drolly.
"Yep, I was pretty happy about it, I'll tell you that," said the businessman. "I didn't have to sleep, I could drink a liter of gin and feel great. I felt more alive then you'd think possible. But, somewhere, in the back of my head, it was like I could feel something brewing. A voice, but not my voice, you know? A voice speaking in a different language. Or something that didn't use language at all."
"A voice?" Tom asked. "Saying what?"
"Oh, I couldn't tell at that point. And didn't really care. I felt like I was filled with God's energy. Every bite of food tasted better than it ever had before. Every breath of air was like being filled with rocket fuel. And the sex! Let me tell you, me and the Mrs. hadn't been real friendly that way for years, but there we were, four or five times a day! On the kitchen table, in the back of the car. It was like nothing I'd ever seen."
Tom rubbed a hand across his jaw to conceal his smirk. "And then?"
"Then I crashed. Those voices got louder and louder and I grew weak as a kitten. I lay down in bed for two days, finally the wife called in the doctor. He called it some kind of flu, gave me some medicine and told her to call him if it got worse. At least that's that I remember though the fog of it all. But in my head, the voices were screaming, shouting. But worst of all, I was starting to understand what they were saying. It was like I was some sort of newfangled computer, being programmed. And I wanted to be programmed. I wanted to do what they were telling."
"I woke up in the middle of the night, and the voices were gone. My head felt empty, because I didn't have to think anymore. I remember looking up outside the window and seeing the moon shining in. Everything was so peaceful. The only sound was the night air blowing by. Then I heard a frog croaking, you know how they do it. But it was like he was talking to me. And I know what to do. I got up out of the bed and walked down the hallway into the living room. My wife was there, asleep on the sofa. Part of me, the old me, prayed she wouldn't wake up, but she was always a light sleeper. She opened her eyes and even in the dark I could see this smile come across her face. She was happy to see me up and around. But that disappeared when I took my hands and put them around her throat. I started squeezing, Humphries. Like I never have before."
"In the movies," the businessman continued, "They make strangling someone look so easy. They pass out after half a minute or so. But not with the Mrs. She held on a good sixty seconds or so, fighting for her life. Hell, she didn't really give up 'til she felt her throat collapse and all that blood came rushing out of her mouth."
As the man spoke, Tom could see the his fingers - what was left of some of them - tighten into a fist. And he could see the pain on the man's face as the tears flowed freely.
"The next day, we set to work. The company's always got samples of new machines at the factory. I finagled one and store it at the house. Then I hopped in the car and drove out to where I'd had the accident. Where I knew we'd be waiting."
"Waiting?" Tom asked. Waiting for what? Who is 'we'?"
"The whole damn swamp is 'we'!" the man hissed. "That's who was in my head. That's who I had become!"
"I don't reckon follow you," said Tom. "You're saying-"
"I told you it can't be explained," replied the man. "I'm trying the best I can. You just have to know. Look, think about what you saw these past days. When you couldn't get through the foliage on the road. When the Hurley family came at you with the Bulldozer. The way you were blocked off at every turn. Didn't it ever strike you that something alive, something conscious was trying to close you in? Like it knew each move you made as you made it?"
"Hold on a sec," said Tom. "How do you know about that? You danged sure-"
"I was there, Tom," replied the businessman. "WE were there."
Tom drew a breath, more confused than ever. "Once again. What is 'we'?"
The businessman smiled. "The truth is, I don't know. We don't know. Maybe we came from the stars a thousand years ago. Or maybe, somehow we just came to be in the percolating primordial swamps of Honey Bluff. It's like asking a man whether he remembers being born. Of course he doesn't, he can't. But he can remember being a child, growing into a man. We're the same way. At some point we joined with the basic creatures of the swamps, the algae, the plant life. Then as we were consumed by the simple animals, the bugs and fish, we joined with them. They were consumed by the larger creatures and we joined with them. That's the nature of how we evolve, Tom. This is what we must do to survive. We have to move up the food chain. We need to be consumed to be alive. You eat to live, we need to be eaten to live!"
Tom felt a quiver begin to take hold of his arm. "This is insane. What you're saying is impossible."
The man took a few steps closer. He was no longer a bumbling rural candy machine salesman. He was someone else, something else, articulate and menacing. "Then the reverse hunger took us further. We moved past the swamp. To the forest. The deer, the coyotes. And then, one of us was feasted upon by a human. And we realized the ecstasy, the primal fucking bliss of conjoining our consciousness with a creature that had a self awareness. The hunger was fulfilled. It was like becoming God, Tom. Being aware of every sense in nature, from the flight of a tiny fly to the intellect of the human being. It was the purest joy imaginable."
"But then we ran into a little problem. We realized, you see, that we'd reached the top of the food chain. There was nowhere else to go. What creature on earth makes fodder of human being? None. Man reigns supreme." The businessman sighed.
Tom swallowed hard, attempting to digest what he was hearing. He didn't want to believe it. And yet, it followed a strange, twisted kind of logic. "So. what. did you do?"
"What could we do? What can you realize there's nowhere else to go but down. We went a little crazy I suppose. The few of that were human went mad. We were caged by police or killed ourselves. But those of us who still inhabited creatures below had felt what it was like. We had shared the experience. We wanted to climb to the top. WE wanted to feel directly what we'd felt through our brothers. And once they got into my head we came up with a way to spread, to be consumed by humans en masse."
"The. gumball. machine." stammered Tom.
The businessman shrugged. "Of course. We could merge with the best parts of all the life around us, and change it if needed. Amphibious creatures lay eggs, not far off from your gumballs. The day after I killed my wife I returned to the swamp and found our queen. Something that could breed the next generation of our human form. Delicious orbs that would let as many of us as possible leap up to the human experience."
"BUT YOU KNEW THAT WOULD KILL US!!!" Tom shrieked. "You betrayed your people! You betrayed the human race!"
The businessman's face contorted into a snarl. "What did I tell you earlier, Tom? Everything wants to stay alive. We did what we had to survive. Would you have done anything different?"
Tom stared into the man's face, unable to answer. The businessman relaxed his threatening posture and stepped back. He brushed and straightened his coat as if he'd regained some sense of human dignity. "Besides," he continued. "You humans had your chance. Some of you saw what we were doing. You could have stopped us. But you wanted to turn us into some kind of. weapon." He said the last word churlishly, as if he found the whole idea distasteful.
"We're not all like that," Tom said. "Some of us are good people. We care about our friends. We care about our neighbors. That's what this town was like. That's what you destroyed. Don't you remember what it was like to be human?"
The businessman gave Tom a sour glare indicating he had no intention of answering the question.
Tom leaned back against the counter, unsure what to say. What happened now? Would the rest of the creatures come for him? Had the businessman merely showed up to satiate Tom's curiosity before letting him expire in an orgy of cannibalism? Or was there some way out?
As if he could read Tom's mind, the man spoke. "You need to make a decision now, Tom. Those people, your military are coming back here. We can see them off in the distance in their helicopters and in their jeeps. They are going to finish of those of us that are left. You can face them as a man. You won't survive, but you can do so if you chose. Or you can face them as something more. And extract your vengeance for their part in all this. You can make them pay."
"You mean.?" Tom started, wide eyed.
"Of course," came the reply. "It takes days with just one gumball. But you've got dozens here. The transformation would be quick. You become the strongest of them all. You could hurt them in ways they could never anticipate."
Tom Humphries looked about the shop. Scattered across the floor were the remaining gumball/eggs, glistening in the moonlight. He could just leave them be and walk out to the coming onslaught. Or he could taste the power, merge with what had consumed his townsfolk and defend their honor. No doubt each path would end the same, but one at least let him go down fighting.
"But you have to decide quickly," said the businessman. "What will it be?"
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