The Magic Gumball Machine, Pt XX
By Wil Forbis
Reginald Washington stood tall in the center of Honey Bluff's Main street. His intimidating posture hid the fact that his broken ribs were sending broadcasts of throbbing pain up and down his chest. He drew his 45-caliber handgun and stared into the entrance of Tom Humphries' 'Good Ship Lollipop.' Like every other store on the block, the ice cream shop looked as if it were part of a war zone. Windows were shattered. Furniture was upended or destroyed. Its days of encouraging excited young children to come taste its delights were gone. Instead the store gazed ominously outward, daring folk to enter.
"And why should I?" Reginald wondered. He suspected what it was all leading up to and felt no need to play that game. The flying mutant that had dropped him here was now long gone. He should return to his men several blocks eastward and aid them in their fight against the hoards. Reginald turned away from the ice cream shop and took several steps back down Main.
Then he heard it - a shuffling sound above. He looked up into the night sky. Stars meekly shone through the heavy cloud cover but nothing else was visible. Reginald dropped his night vision goggles in place and then he could see. The flying reptiles - the most evolved version of the mutation - were gathering on the roofs of the building around him. There were dozens of them, peering down at him like gargoyles. And it was clear what they were demanding. Enter the store. We want you to enter the store. Reginald could feel their mantra in his bones.
He sighed, gripped his 45 a little tighter, and turned his gaze back to the broken down ice cream shop. He felt a slight tremble begin to take his legs. Clenching his teeth, he fought the shiver to a standstill. Whatever happened, he'd face it like a man. Slowly but steadily he trudged towards the store.
When he got to the entrance, Reginald paused. The door was off two of its hinges, its windows shattered and its metal skeleton bent. In an act of defiance, Reginald grabbed the door and ripped it off the third hinge, sending it clattering out to the street. With the obstruction removed, Reginald walked through the doorway and stood in the middle of the darkened, damaged shop. Glass and bits of wood were everywhere, unmoved since the military had descended on the shop days earlier, freeing Tom and himself from the freezer room. But much of the destruction was new as well. On one part of the floor, close to Reginald's feet was a pile of children's clothes soaking in a pool of the mutant ooze. A few feet deeper into the store was another pile of fabric, though these were clearly the clothes of an adult. Reginald had observed the overcoat on the mysterious man who been videotaped entering the shop just hours earlier. Once inside he'd disappeared in the shadows. It was to Reginald's deep regret that the his unit had not wired the shop once they'd realized Tom Humphries was the distribution source of the eggs.
Looking on the counter, Reginald caught site of a familiar shape. It was the pistol he'd relinquished to Tom. He'd known Tom was doomed - it was a fate the shopkeeper had chosen for himself - but Reginald had wanted the man to go out fighting. He respected Tom Humphries, though he surmised that at this point Tom must have only felt a deep, stinging hatred in return. Washington walked over and picked up the gun. By weight alone he could tell it was empty. Had Tom already met his fate?
"Humphries?" Reginald called out. "You in here?"
The icy scream of metal scraping against metal rang through the air, dragging on for what seemed like minutes, causing a cold rush to go down Reginald's spine. As he'd been trained, he ducked down low and swung his 45 in the direction from which the sound had emanating. It was the far corner of the shop, near the entrance to the storage room. Reginald squeezed the trigger three times, the muzzle flashes illuminating the darkness. There was no sign of a man or mutation, but the blasts did highlight something Reginald had not noticed. The walls and floor in the corner of the shop were covered with the early stages of purplish, flowering plant growth. Bulbous mushrooms were clinging to the walls and rising up from splinters in the checkerboard floor. Green vines descended from the upper corners of the ceiling trailing down to the floor. There was, of course, no natural way such plants could have grown in such a short time.
Keeping an inky fist wrapped around his gun, Reginald stepped over to the corner. He'd observed these mutations before, both in laboratory conditions and in nature. Plants very similar to these had blocked Tom, Duke and himself from leaving Honey Bluff via the interstate so many nights ago. But these creatures seemed an even more evolved iteration of the mutation. The mushrooms oozed a mucous-like fluid over their furry, quivering skin, looking like a dog's wet nose. The membrane of the vines had the same pattern of toad skin, giving one more example of the animal and plant life of the surrounding area uniting in twisted harmony.
In addition to the mushrooms and vines there was a third plant creature that Reginald had not seen before. It had the look of a large, round salivating eye and was attached horizontally to the wall by means unknown. Reginald raised his gun and lightly prodded one such growth, conforming his suspicion that it was soft to the touch. Like a balloon it pushed inward, giving the impression it was filled air. Reginald was curious enough to raise his night vision goggles and look at the plant up close. Its skin seemed thick enough it would require a knife to cut though.
Suddenly there was a light popping sound and Washington felt a rush of air at his feet. One of the bulbs had burst, sending a blast of dusty air contained within its rotund torso. "What the.?" Reginald muttered, before being interrupted by another pop, then another. Instinctively, he reached for his night vision goggles but it was too late. The bulb just inches from his face burst and Reginald got a head full of the strange powder being expelled from the fruit.
The powder choked him, causing a dry, burning sensation deep in his throat. Worse, the particles seemed to settle in his face and bite into his flesh like tiny mosquitoes. He stumbled back, blinded, and now being deafened by the continued popping sound and each of the hundred or so plant orbs released their spores into the air.
Reginald knew he'd been right to be wary of the shop. It had been a trap and he had little doubt for whom it had been laid. He needed to get out. Biting his lip he squinted open his eyes. He was surrounded by the powdery fumes and could barely make out the shapes around him. He turned in the direction he thought would lead him away from the gas and ran. Within seconds he hit the counter of the shop. The edge bit into his groin and he uttered a gasp. He fell to the floor, moaning. He could feel the particles actively digging into his flesh, burrowing like tiny little gophers. He caught site of one hand and saw what looked like bubbles of flesh expanding and exploding, spattering blood on his jacket.
"Goddamn, motherfucker!!" Reginald screamed. He got up again, raised the pistol and fired. The gunshots provided some illumination and he thought he saw the broken windows of the front of the shop. Towards this he ran.
He fell down twice more, each time causing a dose of panicked adrenaline to rush through his body. Finally he came across a door. He pushed it open and went through it. But even as he did so the thought burst into is head. This couldn't be the door to the entrance - he'd torn that off its hinges just minutes before. This was the storeroom. In his deluded state he'd gone in the wrong direction.
He had little time to flagellate himself. Upon entering the storeroom his boot slide on the viscous fluid covering the floor and he fell for a fourth time. He landed on what felt like a concrete floor covered by an inch high layer of jelly. The smell of the material was overpowering, it crawled up Reginald's nostril and he had to fight back the urge to vomit. With saliva trailing out of his mouth, he rolled over and opened his eyes once more. The room was dark, but at least it was free of the spore gas.
It was the storeroom, just as Reginald had seen it before, but everything - the floor, the walls, the desk, the safe and Tom's various pieces of operational equipment were covered with the transparent gelatinous substance.
Reginald's eyes still hurt but he rose and walked over to the North wall. The goo shook as he approached, making patterns like a helicopter flying above a lake. It sensed his presence. But as he got closer the patterns changed and became recognizable. The strange yolk pushed outward making shapes like a relief map, but instead of geography this map was of. faces? Reginald briefly saw the life-sized head of Mrs. Tricia Dalwood appear. Then that of Danny McDouglas. Then Skeeter. And suddenly Reginald was looking at the enraged face of Duke Haffert. For a half second each, twenty of the faces of Honey Bluff residents who'd fallen prey to the violence of the mutation appeared before his eyes. "Is this real?" Reginald wondered. Or were these hallucinations caused by the strange gas he'd inhaled. He had little time to ponder this question before a spiked, green tentacle dropped from above him and wrapped itself around Reginald's neck and lifted him up.
Reginald turned his eyes in the direction of this new attack. In the darkened corner where the wall met the ceiling was a vaguely human shape though one with what seemed like a thousand, independently moving tentacles stemming from it's chest. The thing pulled Reginald closer, cutting off oxygen to Reginald's throat. Washington raised the pistol in the air one final time and fired. As the room lit up with each flash, Reginald saw the frightening but still human face of his attacker as the final breaths of life left his body.
He felt the heat on his face right before he became aware of the blinding sunlight shining down through his closed eyelids. He raised a hand above his brow and opened his eyes. A clear blue sky and midday sun rushed forth to greet him. Clear air found its way into his lungs and he sat up in a green, grassy field.
Tom Humphries groaned and stretched his arms in the air. He was sitting in Farmer Whitman's field. His body ached the way a body will after it's slept for a long time.
"I found one!" Tom heard a voice call out from behind him. "This guy's alive."
Tom turned. Before him spread out in the field were at least twenty members of the National Guard. They were in full search mode, spread out thirty feet apart, trolling the area. Each officer carried an automatic rifle.
"You okay, sir?" asked a Guardsmen just five feet to Tom's left.
"Sure," Tom replied. "I mean, I think so."
"Do you know how you got here?"
Tom looked into the man's eyes. The Guard was just a kid, couldn't have been more than twenty years old. He looked a bit like Ted Rully.
"I don't remember."
The Guardsmen surrounded Tom and one of them radioed in a helicopter. It flew down and a medical unit jumped out, strapping Tom into a gurney. From there he was flown to hospital in Delsburgh. The doctors noted that he had several cracked ribs, a chipped collarbone and two gunshots wounds in his thigh. After a few days treatment, Tom was transferred to the Fort Wayne Army hospital just outside Washington D.C. Here the doctors drew several ounces of blood and requested several scrapings from the inside of his mouth. Tom passed the time watching television and emptying the contents of the morphine drip into his arm.
A week after being transferred to Fort Wayne, one of the doctors came into Tom's room. "Tom," he said, "We've got a very special visitor for you. I'd like to introduce you to The President of the United States." With that, four burly, dark-suited gentlemen entered the room. Behind them strolled a man that Tom recognized was indeed the supreme commander of the land. Behind him were two more Secret Service officers.
"Tom Humphries," the President said with a smile on his face. "It's good to finally meet you." He offered his hand.
"It's good to meet you too, sir," Tom replied. But I can't imagine what a fellow like me is doing hanging out with the President! Have I done something wrong?"
"No, no - Not at all," the President laughed. But as I understand it, you're a fellow with a story to tell. I imagine you've seen some amazing things."
That I have, sir," Tom replied. "That I have."
The President gently sat of the edge of Tom's bed. "Can you tell me about?" he calmly asked. "From the beginning."
Tom took a deep breath and began his tale. He recounted the first meeting with the businessman in his shop. He told off how the gumballs were instantly popular. And he detailed the horrors that unfolded as more and more residents of Honey Bluff began their terrible metamorphosis. He went into explicit detail of the night of terror he experienced with Duke Haffert, Brain Thompson and Reginald Washington and how he was only saved by the arrival of the troops under command of the mad General Blake.
At this point, the President interrupted. "Tom, I want you to know, General Blake's activities were in no way under the authorization of the United States military. What he was conducting was a clandestine, very, very illegal operation. I'm not quite sure how he got away with it, but it is a subject I will be looking into very deeply during the coming months."
"I appreciate that, sir," Tom said. "The way that man talked, he sounded like he had the run of the Pentagon. But I knew there was no way our fine nation would let someone like that call the shots. He was as batty as a coyote in heat."
The President laughed. "So go on. You said Blake's men dropped you back off in the field. Then what?"
Tom scrunched up his nose. "Well, I don't quite recall anything after that. I suppose I passed out at some point, then I woke up in Farmer Whitman's plot."
"And you've got no idea how you got there. What you did for those two days in between?"
"'Fraid not, sir," Tom replied. "It's just like I told everyone else that asked me about it. It's all a blank."
The briefest look of displeasure crossed the President's face, only to be replaced with a politicians smile. "I see. Well, you did an incredible job, Tom. I can't imagine what it's like to have gone through such an experience." The President stood up fro his sitting position on Tom's bed.
"Sir?" Tom asked.
"Is it true? What they say happened to Honey Bluff?"
The President sighed. "You were the only survivor, Tom. When they got there it was horrible. Bodies everywhere. And those strange broken down corpses from mutation. We still have no idea exactly what it is. But our scientists are looking into it. We'll get to the bottom of it, don't worry."
"I'm sure you will, Mr. President. And it was only Honey Bluff that caught it? Nowhere else?"
"There were a few other pockets, Tom," the President said. "One in a gas station in Texas, and we found some bodies in Florida. But trust me, we're on this now. It's not going to spread."
"That's good to hear," Tom replied solemnly.
The President stepped back a few feet and cocked his head. He noticed a bowl of hospital jellybeans sitting on a desk in the middle of the room. "Mind if I.?" he asked.
"Help yourself," replied Tom. "I haven't tried them myself yet. I'm not supposed to walk on this leg."
"Well here you go, Tom," the President said, offering a orange jellybean to Tom while placing a red one in his mouth. "I love jellybeans."
Tom thanked the President and held the jellybean in his fist. Then the President said his farewells and was accompanied by his Secret Service agents out the door. Tom's doctor told him he's had quite a lot of activity and it might be best to take a nap. Tom assured him he would.
With the doctor gone, Tom raised the jellybean to his face. On close inspection he could see it was not simply orange, but several different colors mixed together on an orange surface. And if you looked closely - yes, there they were - tiny flecks of gold and silver that shown through the surface of the jellybean. These were certainly no run of the mill candies.
Tom sighed and thought about what to do. He looked over at the call button that would summon the nurse to his room. Then he looked over at the morphine drip that fed directly into his arm. He reached up, pressed a button of the device and waited for the next wave of opiate bliss to fill his veins.
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