The Magic Gumball Machine, Part III

By Wil Forbis

Click here for Part II

Our story so far: Under odd circumstances, ice-cream store owner Tom Humphries pertains a gumball machine. It's a hit with customers but can't keep Tom's mind off the imminent foreclosure of his store. While driving back from the bank, Tom gives a mysterious hitchhiker a ride into town, only to see him get in a tussle with the local junkyard operator. Slowly Tom's good natured optimism starts to fade.

The following morning, Tom Humphries was awoken at 9:00 A.M. by a deluge of chatter from his canaries, the most petulant of his beaked companions. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes, rolled out of bed and walked into the main room of the apartment where all his  birds sat in their wire cages. He portioned out a fair amount of seed out for each of them and then started boiling a kettle of water on the stove. While the water warmed he dressed himself in formal slacks, a cotton long sleeved shirt, black socks and his pride and joy, a pair of crocodile skin cowboyboots. Once the kettle started to whistle he made himself a cup of coffee and walked outside the apartment. Near the door to his unit lay a large pine log that had been there as long as Tom could remember. The apartment tenants used it as a makeshift bench and often gathered there in the evening to chat about daily goings-ons. Tom sat down, sipped his coffee and looked out across the street to the open field. The leaves on the trees shook gently in the morning wind. Tom caught sight of a field mouse scampering through the grass. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Perhaps his disturbing portent from the night before had all been in his head. His financial woes were troubling, but they needn't convince him that the sky was falling.

As Tom sat on the log, several cars drove by and passengers called out greetings. He knew where they were off to as he would soon be there himself. Like most everybody in Honey Bluff, Tom spent Sunday mornings at the worship service held in Reverend Glen Rully's First Church of Christ the Savior. Tom didn't consider himself a deeply religious man, but he'd made a point to attend church throughout most of his life. It was not due to any interest in answering the grand questions of life, indeed, those were questions Tom was mostly content not to wonder about. But church service did provide him with another outlet for social interaction and allowed him to maintain a sense of kinship with his friends and neighbors.

Tom finished his coffee, grabbed a dress jacket from the apartment and hopped into his truck. He then drove over to the ice cream parlor. It was customary for him to stop by the shop before going to church just long enough to pull the ice cream out of the refrigeration room and placed it in the display bin so it would be ready for the day's customers. After completing that task, Tom walked over to the cash register and popped it open. He rummaged around in his pants pocket and pulled out what remained of the wad of cash he'd removed from the safe before his visit to Aplonski's. He placed the bills in the till and was about to close it when something caught his eye. The financial documents detailing the loan information on the shop were under the till, where he'd left them, but their positioning seemed noticeably different. He had definitely placed them with the manila cover face down, yet it was now face up. Was it possible that Ted Rully had found? Had he read them? If so, the teenager would know about the financial difficulties hanging over the shop. Or was Tom simply being paranoid? The discovery worried Tom, but he knew that there was little he could do about it now, so he closed the till and walked back to his truck.

Soon Tom was pulling up in front of Reverend Rully's First Church of Christ the Savior. The parking lot was already filled with cars belonging to the families of Honey Bluff so Tom parked a on a nearby side street. As he walked towards the entrance of the building he caught glimpse of Sheriff Hewly standing underneath a cottonwood tree, smoking a cigarette. In between taking puffs he was exchanging pleasantries with passing townsfolk. This was Hewly's way off doing things. If he was available to people then when the time came, they'd be available to him. He saved the rough stuff for the unpleasant few whom had the misfortune of falling out of his good graces.

"Sheriff Hewly," Tom called out when he was a few yards from the lawman.

"Well, I'll be, if it ain't Ranger Tom," Hewly replied. "Shouldn't you be out there riding the plains looking for dastardly fellows with top hats and curly moustaches?" Hewly was still smarting from Tom's attempt to interject himself in the incident at Duke Haffert's salvage yard.

Tom blushed. "Look, Sheriff, I didn't mean nothin' by it, I just.."

Hewly cut him off. "I'll make you a deal, Tom. I don't tell you how to make ice cream sundaes, you don't tell me how to arrest people. Fair?" Hewly held out his hand to shake on it.

"Fair," said Tom, returning the gesture. But his curiosity was still piqued enough to ask, "What happened with that Washington boy. Do you know where he's at?"

"I sure do," replied Hewly. "He's one cell over from Duke Haffert this very minute. And until I get word back on the registration for that handgun that's where he'll stay."

"Are you sure that's the best way to handle things, Richard?" Tom asked. "Might make sense to just drive him out of town with a stern warning."

"Tom, I've got a spectacular recipe for banana splits that I think you'll take a real liking to. See you take the chocolate fudge and mix in some caramel."

"Okay, okay, I get the message," replied Tom. "I'll mind my own concerns."

"Tom," Hewly said. "I can't stay mad at you because I know you're a big hearted fellow. You always want the best for people, even folks you don't even know. But sometimes you've got to let the law take its course. Some folk aren't always what they appear to be."

"I know, Sheriff," replied Tom. He contemplated telling Hewly that Washington had claimed to be Sadie Jefferson's nephew, and that he'd doubted the veracity of the statement, but he decided to keep quiet. Tom still felt in his gut that Reginald Washington was a decent sort. He said his goodbyes to the Sheriff and walked into the church.

The First Church of Christ was a unusually large and modern building for a small town such as Honey Bluff. It was flat and rectangular with a series of pews that ran from the entrance up to the pulpit Stained glass windows with scenes from the New Testement ran along the left and right sides of the walls. To the left of the platform was a large church organ, manned by Mrs. Shirly Conniff, a septuagenarian who claimed to have studied with one of great European composers of her day. Despite of the fact that Tom had once done the mental math and concluded that said virtuoso had died several years before Mrs. Coniff had been born, he still admired they way her hands were able to travel the keyboard. To the right of the Reverend's podium was a multi-level platform reserved for the church's youth chorus.

Over the years, Tom had realized that that the more religious members of the congregation sat toward the front of the church and being that he had little interest in the Biblical debates that would arise both before and after the service, he liked to sit near the back. On this day he sat next to Petey Rodriguez and his family. Tom complimented Petey on his haircut to which Petey gave a cheerful thanks.

"Hey Tom," called out a whispery voice. Tom looked forward a few pews and saw Timmy Thompson.

Tom cupped his hands around his mouth and whispered back. "How's it going?"

"We're coming by for ice cream after," Timmy replied. "Right Dad?"

Brian Thompson, a moustached man with sandy brown hair was sitting next to his son. He turned around and gave Tom a thumbs up sign. "Right. We'll see you later today."

"Can't wait fellahs," Tom whispered back. He scratched his chin and smiled. He liked both Thompsons and considered Brian something of an inspirational figure. Timmy's mother had died in childbirth and Brian had gone about the task of raising Timmy alone. Despite Timmy's occasional overwhelming exuberance, Tom felt Brian had done a good job.

The hum of the organ interrupted Tom's thoughts as Mrs. Coniff began playing "Glory to the King" signifying that the church service was about to begin.  Reverend Rully, a man in his early fifties who slicked black his blob of dark hair, walked up to his platform and welcomed the roomful of worshippers. Then, he began the service.

Per usual, the Reverend started with a group prayer and then made some announcements about upcoming church events. The youth chorus performed a song and the Reverend launched into his sermon for the day, "The Strength of Humility." He started off reading a Biblical proverb, then offered further illustration of the theme by detailing his experiences as a boy living in Alaska. Tom started to feel himself drifting off on a few occasions but managed to keep his head upright.

Near the end of the service, the Reverend passed the hat as was customary each week. On the final day of each month, the collected monies of the church patrons went to a variety of church approved charities such as building a hospice in Mexico or feeding children in New Guinea. When the plate was passed to Tom, he reached into his pocket and offered a few bills and change. This was the last thing he needed to be doing, but he knew there were people in the world who were in more desperate straights than he. After the plate was passed forward the Reverend led the church assembly in a rousing rendition of "Revive Us O Lord."

At this point it was customary to say a final prayer. However, before the congregation could open their prayer books, Rully raised his hand as if to signal quiet. His wife returned the charity plate to him and he placed it on a table behind him, next to a small tin box. He began speaking.

"Dear friends, you've given graciously once again and shown the Lord the depth of your hearts. And I know at times, it might seem wasteful to take hard earned money from your own wallets only see it to be sent away to somewhere that you'll probably never see with your own eyes. Nonetheless, I feel this form of charity is important. We must never forget that while our times may be good and we may have plenty for ourselves, there are others in the world who suffer. To simply be conscious of this keeps us humble and enables the spirit of giving."

"But as we well know, it is not only those on foreign soil who face trials and tribulations. Even some in our very midst can fall upon hard times. Sometimes, in my anxious yearning to help those abroad, I forgot this obvious fact. And it took someone very close to me to remind me of this."

"After all, some look at Honey Bluff and simply see a dot on a map. We are just one more town in a sea of towns that spread across this land. But we know better than that, don't we, my friends? We know that we are community of people who love and care about each other. We look out for each other. And sometimes the cry of one of our own must hail louder than the cries of those far away."

"A community requires places for its members to fraternize, for it's children to play and for adults to feel that their offspring are being guarded upon. I would like to think this house of worship is one such place, but I would be naive to think it is the only place in our town of Honey Bluff. Many members of our town open the doors of their homes and businesses to offer their friendship and service and strengthen our community. And when those places are in danger of disappearing, the loss will not just be felt by that person, but the entire community as well."

A wave of concerned looks and whispers arose in the Church. Who amongst Honey Bluff's population had fallen prey to misfortune?

"Tom Humphries is such a person. I'm sure you will all agree that it would be hard to find a person in our town who's more agreeable than Tom. It is perhaps his aversion to fuss that has kept him from asking for our help, but he needs it on this day. And that is why I have made the decision that the collection from this past month should go to Tom Humphries to help him preserve his life and keep the doors 'The Good Ship Lollipop' open for years to come!"

Tom was stunned. The Reverend was giving him a Godsend, but he was also exposing Tom's dilemma to the whole town. Tom looked about as the eyes in the church turned to towards where he was seated. People were clearly surprised that Tom had fallen on hard time, but their easy smiles showed that they faulted him none for it. Instead of pitying him or casting him aside, the people of Honey Bluff were standing beside their ice cream man in his hour of need.

"Tom, will you come up here?" the Reverend asked from his post.

Tom rose and ambled down the length of the walkway that ran from the church entrance to Reverend Rully's perch. He could feel the eyes of people upon him, but it was a feeling of warmth and love. He arrived at the pulpit and looked up and the Reverend.

"Tom," the Reverend said. "In the name of the people of Honey Bluff, I want to give you this." He then handed Tom the tin box containing the collected receipts from the past month of charity collection.

"I.I don't know what to say," Tom said. Tears were swelling in his eyes.

Reverend Rully gave a smile. "Just remember. I'll need the box back." The parish erupted into laughter.

"Thank you," Tom said to the Reverend. Then he turned to the seated congregation. "Thank you. Thank you. Thank you with all my heart."

Reverend Rully turned towards the congregation and help out his arms. "Let us pray," he said. The churchgoers looked down. Tom got down on his knees.

"Dear Lord," began the Reverend. "We know that you come to us when we are in need and we strive to follow your example. By ensuring that none of your flock shall leave you we can only make you greater. Amen."

"Amen," said the congregation.

At the completion of the service, Tom left the church amidst a flurry of well-wishers and walked backed to his truck. He clutched the metal tin to his chest. When he got in the truck he placed the collection box on the seat next to him and drove back to the shop. He opened the shop then went into the storage room. In the far left corner was a small desk with a few chairs. He placed the tin on the desk and sat down before it. He did not open it. Instead, he simply stared at it.

After fifteen minutes Tom heard a light rapping against the swinging door that lead to the storage room. The door had a head sized glass window, and Tom was able to make out the face of Ted Rully. He waved for him to come on in. Ted entered the room.

"Hey, Mr. Humphries," he said.

"Hello, Ted," Tom replied.

"Are you mad at me?" the Rully boy asked.

"You read those documents didn't you?" Tom asked, not answering Ted's question. "You knew what was about to happen to the shop?"

"I shouldn't have," Ted replied. "I know that. But, jeepers, Mr. Humphries. My curiosity got the better of me. And I started thinking about what Honey Bluff would be like with no 'Good Ship Lollipop.' It didn't seem fair, Mr. Humphries. I had to do something. So I decided to talk to my Dad. I didn't know he was gonna give you the money. But. I'm glad he did."

"I suppose I should be mad at you, Ted. For snooping into my affairs. But it may turn out to be the nicest thing a person's ever done for me."

"Is it enough?" Ted asked hopefully.

"I dunno." Tom said. "I haven't counted it."

"You haven't counted it, Mr. Humphries? That's crazy? Don't you want to know?"

"Well, you see, Ted. These past couple months, I've been wracking my brain with some way to save the shop. And to be honest, I'd plum given up. I just couldn't see any way out of it. I simply had no hope."

"That's awful," said Ted.

"Yes, I suppose it was. And right now, I don't know how much money is in that box. It may still not be what I need. Or, there may be enough to make everything all right again. I just don't know. And until I open that box and start counting, I have something I ain't had in a while. Hope. I just want to enjoy that for a little bit."

Ted was silent for a spell. Then he spoke, "Gee, Mr. Humphries, you can't sit around hoping forever. At some point you've got to count the money."

"I know," replied Tom.

Suddenly a new voice interjected. "C'mon Uncle Tom! Count it!" Timmy Thompson was peering in through the swinging doors. Behind him were Skeeter, Barthomew, Leroy and Brian Thompson.

"You little dickens," cried out Tom. "How long have you been there?"

"Come on! Count the money!" cried the boys in unison.

"I don't think they're going to let you wait any longer Tom," chimed in Brian. "There's a bunch of people out here wondering if they'll be having ice cream sundaes a week from now."

"All right. All right." Tom said. "I'm coming." He picked up the box and walked out into the main shop area. A number of residents, including Mrs. Dalwood, Jack Browder, Stan Hughes and Harvey Baines were gathered. Tom walked up to the shop counter and sat down. He opened the box and removed the stacks of bill and coins that lay inside. It was definitely a lot of money.

Tom arranged the bills by currency and started counting them out. He used a pen and pad to make sure he didn't miscount in any way. When he'd counted the bills he wrote down the number. Then he added up the change, if which there was planty. Tom grouped the coins by type and started adding them up. When he arrived at the amounted he wrote it down on the pad and then added the two sums. Then he added in the amount of the cash receipts he had on hand in the register and in the safe. Finally he arrived at a number.

"Well," said Jack Browder. "Is it enough?"

Tom turned to the group of customers in his store. He smiled. "You people have done so much for me," he said. "I'll never forget this."

"Goddamn it, Tom," said Stan Hughes. "Is it enough?"

Tom sighed. "I'm afraid not," he said. "I'm still about a thousand dollars short."

A collective groan went throughout the room.

"Are you sure, Tom?" Brian Thompson said. "There's nothing more you can do?"

"I could start selling equipment," Tom said. "But that sort of defeats the point doesn't it?"

"You've counted all the money in the store? There's nothing else?" asked Stan Hughes.

"I've added up everything," Tom said. "I've been running these number in my head for the past month. Gotten to know them real well."

Mrs. Dalwood sat down at a booth table and dabbed at her eyes with a napkin. Jack Browder started musing on how he'd been coming to the 'Lollipop' since he was boy. Harvey Baines muttered incoherently. Then a small voice spoke up.

"What about that?" said Bartholomew His small, outstretched hand was pointing at the gumball machine.

"What about it, Bart?" asked Tom.

"Have you counted up the money in it?" the boy replied.

A few adults chuckled. But Tom leaned in and spoke directly to the child. "Sorry, Bart, but there's no way the gumball machine can have a thousand dollars in it. It wouldn't have that kind of room."

"But you don't know for sure, do ya, Uncle Tom?" piped in Timmy Thompson.

"Well. no. I haven't actually counted it. But look fellahs, it may seem like we've sold a bunch of gumballs since you guys keep buying 'em. But I've been keeping track. The machine has almost the same amount it had when it arrived. There's just no way it could have anywhere near a thousand dollars."

"I think you should count it," said Skeeter.

"Yeah, Uncle Tom, c'mon! Count the money." enthused Timmy.

"Count the damn quarters to shut these kids up," said Stan Hughes.

"All right, all right," said Tom with a slight irritation to his voice. Tracking down a few extra quarters was the last thing he needed to be doing, but he knew better to than argue with the kids when they were set on something. Tom went behind the cash register and popped open the till. He picked up the small key that had arrived with the gumball machine. Then he walked back around the counter and up to the candy dispenser. He had to give the machine a thorough once over to even find the key slot but he eventually located it on the back. Tom stuck the key and turned it. It made a definitive click.

"Ok, here goes," said. He pulled out the small door unlocked by the key.

As a young man in the military, Tom had once taken a leave to Reno, Nevada. While taking his R&R, he'd walked through the casinos of the town and tried his hand and few card games. While he never made much himself, he did see an elderly woman strike big at one of the slot machines. He'd been walking right past her when she pulled the handle and shrieked as lights flashed and bells rang and money started to pour out of the machine

Tom was reminded of that moment the instant he opened the door to the gumball dispenser. Quarters poured out, not just dozens, not just handfuls, but hundreds. They landed on the floor with a clatter and grew into a steep pile of glittering silver. The stream of money continued for what seemed like a good half minute before it finally receded.

"Holy shit!" said Stan Hughes. Then he looked at the kids and mumbled "Sorry."

"You're rich, Uncle Tom. You're a millionaire!" said Timmy who then began doing a little dance.

Tom was speechless. While he clearly wasn't a millionaire, there was lot of money. He couldn't comprehend how it could all fit in the gumball machine, but at this point he didn't care. With help from the customers he collected up all the quarters and piled them up on the counter. Then he grouped them into stack of four and started counted them up. At $100, he was barely into the pile. $200 still made no dent. $400. $500 looked about halfway there. $700. $800.. Finally Tom had gone through all the money.

"How much," asked Jack Browder.

"$1002 dollars," Tom replied. "Exactly."

"It is a magic gumball machine," Timmy said. "It saved the store."

"It did, Timmy," Tom said, tears welling in his eyes. "I can't believe it, but it did."

"That's amazing," said Brian. "I never would have guessed it,"

"I thought it was a miracle when Reverend Rully gave you the charity box," said Mrs. Dalwood. "But this is two miracles in a single day. We are truly blessed. The town of Honey Bluff is truly blessed"

"The Lord works in mysterious ways," said Stan Hughes, nodding affirmatively.

"Yes, he does," said Tom. "This has been the most joyful day of my life. I want to do what I can to repay you people. Ice cream sundaes for everyone, on the house."

"Yaaayyyyy!" replied the children and a few adults.

"Ted, get behind the counter," Tom ordered. "We've got work to do."

Over the next several hours, Tom and Ted made ice cream treats for everyone who came in the store. Timmy, Bartholomew, Skeeter and Leroy pleaded for seconds and Tom was too overwhelmed to deny their wishes. The jukebox blasted happy music while people danced in the shop. Various townsfolk, attracted by the song and celebration popped in only to be forced to sit down and dine on free banana splits and chocolate malts.

Eventually things tapered off and people went home to Sunday dinner. Tom set out the "Closed" sign then sat down at the counter. He thought about the night less than a week ago  when the strange salesman had come in from the rain to try and convince him to buy the Magic Gumball Machine. He thought about his reluctance to even consider the proposition and he had to laugh at himself. How narrowly he had almost missed that rarest of opportunities, the second chance. Tom wanted to find that man with whom he'd been so abrupt and get down on his knees and thank him over and over. He wanted to thank the town of Honey Bluff for being so good to him. But most of all, he wanted to thank God for showing him that miracles could happen.

The next morning, Timmy Thompson died. After spending most of their Sunday at the ice cream shop, Brian Thompson and his son had gone home to their comfortable home a few miles outside of town. At 9:15 Timmy said that he had a sore throat and that he was exceedingly tired. Brian checked his temperature and noticed that he was running a little hot so he tucked him in and said goodnight. Brian awoke at 2:30 in the morning to the pained cries of his son calling out from his room. He rushed in and found Timmy in tears with blood running out of his nose and ears. Vomit and diarrhea stained his bedsheets and he was complaining of a deep pain in the pit of his stomach. Panicked, Brian drove his child to a 24 four hour clinic that lay in the center of Honey Bluff. The on-call physician, Dr. Hubert Ford, rushed the boy into intensive care and tried desperately to restore Timmy's vital signs. His pulse was erratic and his temperature would drop to near lethal levels then suddenly rise again. As the hours passed the vomit he expelled grew darker in color and had clear specks of red arterial blood. His body convulsed on the hospital gurney and he would occasionally arch his back to such a degree it seemed as if his spine would snap.

Worst of all, Timmy seemed fully conscious throughout the ordeal. His eyes showed a fear that could only come from being aware of the abnormality of what was happening to him. His screams tormented his father who waited outside the emergency room while doctors tried to save the child's life. Then, at 8:30 Monday morning, Timmy Thompson stopped screaming. His face took on a stoic, quiet expression and he looked straight into the eyes of Dr. Ford. His body spasmed twice and he threw up more of the murky liquid of which he seemed to have an endless supply of. His eyes closed. And he was gone.

Tom Humphries was informed of the passing of Timmy at 10:00 A.M. when Jack Browder came into the shop. Browder's wife, Luella was a night nurse at the medical clinic and she had been on call when the Timmy had been brought in. The horrifying sight of the child in such a state of physical collapse had driven her to call her husband as he lay in bed. She called him several more times during the night and into the morning with updates of the tragedy, until she finally passed on word of Timmy's demise.

As Browder passed on the sequence of events to Tom, the ice cream proprietor was shaken. His heart seemed to climb into his throat and he leaned against the mirrored walled that faced patrons seated at the counter.

"Jesus, Jack. Are you sure? Are you sure it was Timmy." Tom asked.

"Tom" Jack Browder said gently. "My wife was there when Susan Thompson gave birth to Timmy. She's known him his whole life. She couldn't mistake him."

"Jesus," Tom repeated. "I just can't. I can't." A choked sob came out of Tom's throat. He put his elbows on the counter and covered his face in his hands.

Jack Browder was seated in one of the seats at the counter. He leaned forward and put his hand on the shoulder of the grieving store owner. He'd known this would be difficult. Everyone in town knew Tom was close to Timmy.

"Tom wiped his hand across his eyes and straightened up. "What about. what about Brian?" he asked.

"I imagine he's a mess," said Browder. "Luella said that they had to give him some medication to calm him down, then Sheriff Hewly came and drove him home. This is a terrible blow. First his wife and now."

"His only child," Tom completed the sentence. "The poor man." Tom's gaze wandered off in the direction of the jukebox as he contemplated what grief must be like for a man who'd suddenly lost everything important to him.

Jack Browder slid off his seat and stood up. He grabbed the suitcase that had been lying at his feet. "I've got to get to the office Tom," he said. "I just thought I should tell you what happened."

"Yes, yes, thank you," Tom said. "I'm glad it was you."

Jack was at the exit when Tom spoke again. "Jack?"


"Two days ago I was as low as a man could get. I thought I was about to lose everything I'd worked for."

"But you won't, Tom," Jack said. "That gumball machine was loaded to the top with change. You."

"I'd give anything in the world to go back to two days ago," interrupted Tom.

Jack sighed, looked at the ground and walked out of the shop.

Tom wanted more than anything to close up the 'Good Ship' and go home. But he couldn't. Not the day after the people of Honey Bluff had come forward and helped save his shop. After Jack Browder left, a few teenagers came in and ordered milkshakes, then retired to a corner booth. Two elderly ladies sat down at the counter and started gossiping. A somber faced Ted Rully arrived for his noon shift. His father had been called to the hospital to perform Timmy's last rites so he was already aware of the situation. He seemed relieved that he wasn't the one who would have to tell Tom of the child's death. While Tom manned the counter Ted set himself to work unstocking plastic silverware in the storage room.

At 12:30, Tricia Dalwood arrived. "Hello, Tom," she said, seating herself on her usual counter perch.

"Hey, darling," Tom replied. He was unsure whether she'd heard the news and more unsure whether he wanted to be the one to tell her.

Fortunately, Tricia didn't keep her silence. "I talked to Luella Browder, Tom. I know you heard about this terrible thing."

"God, yes," said Tom. "I can't believe this is happening."

"It's such a tragedy," replied the pregnant woman. "Why it was only last night that I saw Timmy in this shop, squealing and hopping about. But you know the Lord works in mysterious ways, don't you Tom? Ours is not the place to question why he would call young Timothy into his arms."

Tom was silent for a moment as if contemplating a response to the woman's proclamations. Then he said, "Your usual, Trish?"

"Yes, thank you," Mrs. Dalwood replied. She got out a small make up case and checked her face, applying a few dabs of powder where needed.

Tom made the sundae and placed it in front of Mrs. Dalwood. "That looks delightful," she said approvingly.

"Do you. Have you seen Brian?" Tom asked?

"Oh goodness, no!" Mrs. Dalwood replied. "This is going to be a terrible time for him. My aunt, my father's sister you know, lost two of her children to pneumonia back when I was a little girl. She had seven all together, but she was never quite the same after the last one went. It was as if she'd lost all hope that good things happen in the world. I just remember her as an old woman in the care home, sitting in a rocking chair, never smiling. I was a terrible sight, Tom. It was."

Tricia Dalwood stopped talking when she realized Tom Humphries was no longer listening to her. He was staring at the person who had just entered the parlor.  Bartholomew walked over and hopped onto a seat just one away from the matronly speaker. "Oh dear," said Mrs. Dalwood.

Tom leaned in and looked at the little boy. "How's it going, champ?" he asked.

"Allright," said Bartholomew. He seemed his usual self. Quiet and restrained, not eager to draw attention to himself. Tom couldn't tell whether he was aware of the death of one of his closest friends.

"Listen, Bart," Tom began. "There's something you should know. But before I tell you I want you to know that everything's going to be."

"Timmy's dead," Bartholomew said matter-of-factly.

"Yes, he is," confirmed Tom.

"Can I have an ice cream cone?"

Tom took and uneasy step back and examined the boy. As usual, Bart's eyes would not meet his. But he did not seem in any way upset.

"Sure," Tom replied. "Vanilla?"

"Yes, please," replied the boy.

Tom grabbed a sugar cone and walked down to the ice cream bin. While he plopped several scoops of ice cream onto the cone Bart got up and walked over to the gumball machine. He pulled two quarters out of his pockets and stuck them in the machine, one after the other. Two gumballs rolled down the chute and came out the bottom.

"Here you go, Bart," Tom said, handing the ice cream cone.

"Hey, Mr. Humphries," Bartholomew said, taking the gumballs and placing one in front of each eye. "Look at me, I'm Timmy! My eyeballs are poppin' right out of my head. Ahhhh. help me cuz' I'm dying. My eyeballs are turning red." The boy giggled impishly.

Tom was momentarily stunned. Then he threw down the ice cream cone, reached over and grabbed the gumballs out of Bartholomew's hands. "Stop that!" Tom yelled fiercely. "That's not funny!"

Barthlomew's face became somber "I'm only playing around, Mr. Humphries."

"That sort of thing isn't something you play around with, Bart. Do you understand that Timmy is gone? Your friend is not coming back. He's."

"Tom!" interjected Mrs. Dalwood. She put one hand beside her mouth so Timmy couldn't see her lips and then spoke in a loud enough voice that the boy would have no trouble hearing her. "He doesn't understand about these things. He's just a little boy."

Deep down, Tom knew Tricia Dalwood was right. He turned his attention back to Bart. "Well, I'm sorry, chum, but this isn't the time for games. You'll understand when you get older."

"Mr. Humphries?" said the boy.


"Can I have my ice cream cone?"

Tom sighed. "Sure," he said. He cleaned the old one off the floor and made a new one for the child. Bart started happily licking away.

"Have you seen, Skeeter today?" Tom asked once Bartholomew was finished with his cone. "Does he know what's happened?"

"His paw wouldn't let him come outside. He said he didn't want Skeeter hanging around the 'Good Ship Lollipop' no more."

"That Danny McDouglas," Mrs. Dalwood exclaimed. "He is a blight on this town."

"I know better that to argue with Skeeter's paw," Bartholomew continued. "I've seen what he's done to Skeeter."

"Oh my," whispered Mrs. Dalwood.

"Blast it," said Tom. "I need to talk to the Sheriff about that man."

"Oh my," repeated Mrs. Dalwood, this time with a greater sense of urgency.

"Uhhh, something wrong, Tricia?" Tom asked. He'd originally assumed that she was reacting to the reported brutality of Danny McDouglas, but now he wasn't as sure.

Mrs. Dalwood once again covered one side of her face with her hand. "My water! It's broken."

"Errr, what?" Tom said.

Mrs. Dalwood leaned back in her seat and placed one hand on her protruding belly. "I'm going to give birth, you nincompoop!" she shouted.

"Oh Christ!" exclaimed Tom, running from behind the counter. "We've got to. your husband. how do we contact Mr. Dalwood?"

"There isn't time," the woman shouted. "It's not supposed to be happening now! I've got to get to the clinic! I've got to get to the hospital!"

The two elderly ladies in the store looked over and started chattering. The teenagers in the corner booth stared with wide eyes.

"Okay, okay, breath in deep," said Tom, frantically looking about. "Ted," he called out. "Get in here."

Ted walked in from the storage room. "What's the matter?"

"Mrs. Dalwood's baby's coming out," said Barthlomew.

"We've got to get her into your car," Tom added. "And we've got to get her to the hospital."

"Jeepers, let's go!" said Ted. He tore off his smock and walked over to the woman. Together, he and Tom lifted the Mrs. Dalwood to her feet and held her upright and as the three of them went out the door. Ted's Chevy was parked right out front and they carefully lifted Mrs. Dalwood into the vehicle. She groaned aloud.

Ted ran around to the driver's side and got in. Tom opened the passenger door, but Ted put his hand up. "Mr. Humphries, if you go, who's going to watch the store?"

"Durn the store!" Tom said. "We've got to help this lady to the hospital!"

"But Tom," the Rully boy said. "You've got all that money the storeroom. Is it gonna be safe?"

Tom's mind whirred. For the most part he trusted the people of Honey Bluff. But he had a thousand dollars in quarters sitting unguarded plus the collection money in the safe. That would be a pretty inviting cache for some people.

"Good Lord Jesus!" cried out Mrs. Dalwood. "Why aren't we moving?"

Tom slammed the door closed and waved Ted onward. The yellow hot rod took off towards the hospital.

Tom walked back into the shop. The teenagers were gone and the old ladies were in front of the cash register, bill in hand. Tom walked behind the counter and up to the register then quickly cashed them out and gave them their change. "You better clean that up," said one woman on her way out.

At first Tom wasn't sure what she meant. Then it dawned on him that Mrs. Dalwood's amniotic sac had burst and the contents probably weren't to shy about spilling all over where'd she'd been sitting. Tom grabbed a mop and walked out from the counter to her seat. The seat was wet and on the floor below was pool of liquid. That's odd, Tom thought. Being that he had no children of his own, he hadn't much experience with the process of birthing babies. But he was surprised at the dark, murky color of the amniotic fluid. Nonetheless he cleaned off the seat, mopped up the floor and didn't give it a second thought.

Click here for Part IV


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