The Magic Gumball Machine, Part IV
By Wil Forbis
Our story so far: Tom Humphries, ice cream store owner and resident of Honey Bluff is saved from the brink of financial ruin, in no small part due to a mysterious gumball machine he has pertained. However, his joy is quashed when the adorable Timmy Thompson dies from a flu like sickness. The next day, Tricia Dalwood, expectant mother has to be rushed to the hospital by Tom's employee, Ted Rully.
(Author's note: Hey gang - while it is true that
acid logic won't be updated til Jan 16, 2004, (Because I need a friggin'
break.) I may post another update to this novella before then. Watch this
space for details.)
Honey Bluff was, by any reasonable assertion, a small town, and it didn't take long for the news of Timmy Thompson's passing to worm its way into the ears and out of the mouths of eager gossipers. Between the time that Ted Rully left to rush Tricia Dalwood to the hospital and late afternoon set in, at least twenty people stopped by 'The Good Ship Lollipop' to confirm the rumor. It got to the point that when Tom saw a curious face walking into the store, he wanted to scream. He wanted to scream that yes, a child had died and horribly so, and these chattering vultures should just go back into their homes and mourn the death of a neighbor as any decent sort would. But he didn't. He confirmed the tale each time, and agreed heartily when folk commented on how awful, or tragic or terrible the death of Timmy Thompson was.
Around 5:00 o'clock in the evening Tom heard the door open yet again and he steeled himself to recount the day's events once more. He intended to keep whatever conversation was about to occur as short as possible, as he wanted to call the hospital and see what had happened with Mrs. Dalwood. Ted had yet to come back, which caused a low rumbling of concern in the back of Tom's mind. But when he saw who had entered the shop, Tom froze.
It was Brian Thompson, or at least a vaguely recognizable rendition of him. Timmy's father was a wreck. His clothes were disheveled, his face unshaven and his eyes red and watery. Tom had always known Brian to be a well kept man - he was some sort of businessman, though Tom had never gotten the full details - but now the man looked about a week from skid row. Not that anyone could blame him. Eight years previous he suffered the greatest - no, second greatest loss a man could endure, the loss of his wife. This morning he had suffered the worst.
Brian staggered in to the shop and sat down. In his right hand was a bagged bottle that ashamedly announced its alcoholic contents through odor alone. The few customers in the store murmured amongst themselves.
"Hel. Hello, Tom," Brian lisped. "How are you?" He was obviously drunk.
Tom tried to speak, but the words stalled somewhere in the back of his throat. What do you tell to a man who had suffered what Brian Thompson had? Finally, he simply said, "I'm so sorry, Brian."
"Yes. Yesh. I know," The man slurred. "Everyone is." He tipped the bottle back and took a long swig.
"You sure you want to be doing that, Brian?" Tom asked, eyeing the bottle. As soon as he asked the question he began to doubt his right to ask it. But he didn't like seeing a man so close the to verge.
"It's. alright," Brian responded. "You know, I haven't had a drink in ten years. My wife made me stop when I became a churchgoing man."
"Maybe that's where you should turn, Brian. Have you. have you talked to Reverend Rully? He might have some words to help you. He might-"
"No one can help me!" shouted Brian. "And no one can save me. And no one can do anyt'ing about it. I'm fucked. I lost my boy, I lost my wife and now I'm just plain ol' fucked. You unnerstand that don't chu, Tom? It was looking like you were fucked for a while there wasn't it? But all the good townsfolk came and saved their ice cream man. I'd like to see what they think they can do to save me."
Silence filled the shop as the other store patrons looked up at Tom, anxious to see how he was going to deal with this unruly patron. Tom poured a cup of coffee into a mug and walked over to Brian. "I'll trade you," he said, placing the cup on the counter in front of Brian and holding his hand out for the bottle. Brian Thompson sighed and poured a few swigs worth of liquor into the coffee mug, filling it to the brim. Then he handed Tom the bottle. Again he spoke. "I don't mean to yell at'chu, Tom. Hell, more'n anybody else in this town you know what I feel like. You practically helped raise Timmy. He loved this shop more'n anyplace in the world."
Brian's comments cause a flood of memories to come back to Tom. He was reminded of the first day he'd met Timmy, then a shy first grader. He recalled the numerous times the boy had showed up with a captured frog or newt, eager to introduce Tom his new pets. He remembered Timmy's delight at the Magic Gumball Machine. The old man leaned over the counter and grasped the younger man at the shoulder. "I loved that boy, Brian. I loved him like he my own." He had to fight back the tears as he spoke.
"I know," Brian replied. He lowered his eyes at the counter and tried to mute the wretched sob that was hanging in his throat. "I know." he repeated.
The front door jingled and Tom looked up. Entering was Mrs. Elvira Doyle, a blonde woman in her late twenties, wife of Charles Doyle, a former steel magnate who now lived in a mansion several miles outside town. Charlie was of ill health and seldom seen in Honey Bluff, but it wasn't uncommon for Mrs. Doyle to drive herself in to pick up odds and ends. Everyone took notice because she was, quite simply, lovely to look at. Always fashionably dressed and immaculately made up, Elvira Doyle had a shapely figure that figured prominently in the late night ruminations of the town's more libidinous residents.
"Ma'am," Tom said with a brief nod. Now was not a time Tom wanted to be entertaining customers.
"Mr. Humphries." Elvira returned the greeting. The corners of her red lips curled in the slightest representation of a smile. It was more than most people in Honey Bluff got from Elvira, but Tom was a nice old guy. Couldn't harm a fly.
As the curvaceous blonde walked past the counter and peered into the bin containing ice cream toppings, Brian Thompson's eyes followed her. As far as Tom knew, the two were not strangers - few long time residents of Honey Bluff were. But Elvira paid Brian no attention and if she was aware of the death of his son, she gave no indication of it. Brian looked away and took a sip of his coffee.
"These glazed almonds," began Elvira, pointing at a sundae topping. "Can you sell them by the bag?"
"I suppose so," said Tom. "I can let go maybe two bags worth. Got to save the rest for the young 'uns."
"Then wrap them up for me, dear," said Elvira. As Tom scooped out the candies she walked round over to the front of the cash register. Brian Thompson returned his attention to her while he took another swig of coffee.
Tom bagged up the candies and walked up behind the register. "Here you go," he said. By punching some buttons on the cash register, Tom calculated the cost and named a number.
However, Mrs. Doyle's attention had been diverted. "Oh, how sweet," she said, looking down. "A gumball machine!"
"Yes, Ma'am," Tom said, just a mite impatiently.
"I'll bet the children love this, don't they Mr. Humphries?"
"I can't say it's unpopular," replied Tom.
"And why shouldn't they? After all, it's says right here, it's a 'Magic Gumball Machine.' Is it really magic Mr. Humphries?"
"That's what it says." Normally Tom wouldn't have minded the small talk, but a grieving man was sitting at his counter on the verge of collapse.
"Well, I must try one," cooed Elvira. She reached in her purse and pulled out a coin. In it went to the slot and seconds later the machine sprang to life as it delivered its bounty. She leaned over and retrieved the candy, a glittering gumball with splotches of blue and green, and popped it into her mouth. Instead of chewing it she started suckling the sweet candy enamel "Mmmm. it's delicious."
"Yes, Ma'am." Tom handed her the bag of almonds and repeated the sum owed. The tycoon's wife rummaged around in her purse for the correct bills.
Brian took a final sip of his coffee and got up. He was all the way to the door before he turned and waved. "I'll see you, Tom. Thanks for talking."
"Brian, no! Stay a bit." Tom called out.
"Sorry, Tom, just don't have the time," Brian replied. What he did next, in the briefest of instants, stunned Tom. Timmy's father was turned away from the exit, facing Tom, while Mrs. Doyle had her back turned to him. Brian's eyes glanced over the nape of her neck, down her back, and settled in on her posterior, drinking in the sight .He looked up at Tom, realized he'd been caught and raised both eyebrows, as if to say, "Ain't that something!" He smiled and walked out the door.
Tom was too taken aback to return the farewell. Even on a regular day, such behavior would have seemed atypical coming from Brian Thompson. But now, after the passing of his only child, it was downright bizarre.
Tom shifted his stunned gaze away from the door and back to Mrs. Doyle. Despite the fact that she hadn't seen Brian she seemed acutely aware of what had happened, as if she had some kind of sixth sense that tracked the male gaze. Her lips, once again, curled up in the barest of smiles. She was still suckling the gumball, pushing it from one side of her mouth to the other with her tongue.
Elvira handed Tom a few bills. He gave her some change and smiled bashfully when she pointed out that he'd given her too much. He thanked her, she said her farewells and walked out of the store.
Tom walked over to the counter and rubbed his moustache while trying to collect his thoughts. Mrs. Doyle was enough to send a man's mind aflutter but Brian ThomPson's curious means of grieving was icing on the cake. Tom looked up at the clock. It was 5:30. Still no word from Ted. Tom walked out from the counter over to the payphone between the bathroom entrances. He put in a coin and rang the county hospital. The woman who greeted him, Nurse Harrish, knew nothing of Mrs. Dalwood delivering a child. After a brief conversation, Tom hung up, puzzled. He dug out another coin and dialed the number for the Rully residence. No answer. The rumbling in Tom's gut was getting fierce.
Tom walked out of the store and looked down the street. There was no logical reason why Ted Rully's Chevrolet would suddenly appear with the red headed teenager behind the wheel, but that's what Tom was hoping for. After two minutes it didn't happen. Tom went back inside, cashed out two of the customers who were ready for with bill and then paced for a few minutes. He walked back outside. Still no Chevy. But he did see the patrol car of Sheriff Hewly heading down the street. Tom walked out into the road and waved the lawman down.
Hewly's vehicle drove up alongside the shopkeeper. His front window was down. "To what do I owe the pleasure?" Hewly asked drolly.
"Listen, Richard, I don't know know how to say this exactly, but, well, I think Ted Rully and Tricia Dalwood have disappeared."
"You don't say," sighed the Sheriff. "You reckon they're having an affair?"
Tom ignored the Sheriff's sarcasm and went into the full story of how Mrs. Dalwood's water had broken while she'd been seated at the counter and how Ted had raced her off to the hospital in his hot rod. As he spoke, Tom watched the expression on Hewly's face change from overt indifference to mild concern.
"Well, I doubt we need to worry," the Sheriff said after Tom finished. "But I'll get Deputy Morse of the horn. He's out on the stretch of Route 15 that heads to the hospital. If there was any sort of accident, he would've seen it."
Tom stepped back from the window and watched Hewly speak into his car radio. The transmissions crackled back and forth for a few minutes. Finally, Tom saw Hewly's mouth the word "Over," and place the microphone in its cradle. Tom leaned in and asked, "Well?"
"Morse hasn't seen no accident," Hewly reported. Tom felt his muscles untense. The Sheriff continued, "But."
"Morse thought he saw something parked several feet off the road in Farmer Whitman's fields. At the time he thought it was an abandoned tractor, but he says it could've been a yellow Chevy. He's going over there now."
A worried expression returned to Tom's face.
"Look, odds are 100 to one nothing's happened," said the Sheriff. "Maybe the nurse at the hospital didn't see them arrive. Maybe Tricia gave birth somewhere else. There's always a reasonable explanation to these things."
"Mmm-hmmm," Tom said disbelievingly.
Hewly's radio crackled back to life. He picked it up and somehow deciphered the buzz of noise that emanated from it. "Uh-huh," he said several times. Then he looked up at Tom. "This sound like Ted's license plate: 04MRU24?"
"That's it" Tom confirmed. He'd seen the plate a million times when Ted's car was parked in front of his shop.
"Morse found it in the field. It looked it'd been driven of the road and came to a stop. No sign of anything funny in the car. But no sign of Ted or Tricia."
"What's that mean? What happened?" asked Tom.
"I dunno. I'm headed over there right now," replied Hewly.
"I'm coming out there!" said Tom.
"Tom, that's not neccess-" began the Sheriff.
"Don't try and stop me, Sheriff," said Tom. "You wouldn't even know about this if not for me. Something's wrong. I can feel it in my bones and I need to be out there!"
Hewly sighed and drove off. Tom ran back into his shop. Only a few customers were left, and Stan Hughes was one of them. Tom talked the electrician into staying in the ice cream store at least til 8:00 to see if Ted came back. Then Tom jogged the few blocks to his apartment and got in his truck. Soon he was out on Route 15. The sun was setting, but within ten minutes Tom still caught site of the three patrol cars parked of the side of the road. Hewly and his three deputies were standing about 20 feet in from the road, smack dab in Farmer Whitman's field. The elderly farmer himself was there, as well as his two Labrador retrievers, Caesar and Titus II. Nearby was the hulking form of Ted Rully's yellow hot rod.
Tom parked his truck next to the patrol cars and grabbed a flashlight from under his seat. He hopped out and walked through the field where the others were.
"Evening Tom," called out Farmer Dan Whitman. "Looks like we got ourselves a real mystery here."
"Have you seen them?" ask Tom. "Have you seen anything?"
"I didn't notice nothing 'til the boys started yapping and I saw Hewly and his men tromping around my land. Looks like the Rully boy drove his car onto my field and took off."
Tom shined his light into the window of Rully's car. "Is there anything inside there? Some kind of durned clue?"
"Clean as whistle," replied Deputy Straw, the youngest of Hewly's men. He was blonde kid, just a few years out of college. If anything, he seemed excited about the possibility of a real crime in Honey Bluff.
"It looks too clean," Tom reported. "I've seen the inside of Ted's car before. It's usually kind of messy - papers and books thrown about. Looks here like everything stacked in the back seat."
"That might mean something, and it might not," said Hewly. "Lets not get our panties in a bunch just yet."
"Dammit, Sherrif, something's happened!" said Tom. "I know it!" Hewly ignored him.
"What do we do?" said Deputy Morse. He was about ten years older than Straw, with brown hair that was just starting to grey at the temples.
"We look," replied Hewly. "We spread out and look."
"Now?" asked Straw. "Hell, it's getting dark. And this is a big field. And if they ended up over there." Straw motioned to the thick grove of trees that lay past Whitman's field, ". we ain't got a chance."
"So let's get some help," Hewly replied. "Remember when the Gates girl went missing? The whole town turned out to help look. You and Morse head into town and gather folks from Elwood's bar and the Church dinner. That'll get us a healthy bunch of eyes."
"'Cept we never found Mary Gates," Tom said disparagingly.
"Oh, we found her," said Morse. "We just didn't find her in one piece."
"Deputy!" Hewly scolded. He looked over at Tom spoke quietly. "Sometimes I decide it's better for people not to know."
Straw and Morse got back in one patrol car and zipped in to town. Tom wanted to set off looking for Ted and Tricia immediately, but Hewly wouldn't allow it. They had to organize the search, he said, and travel in pairs, or else even more people would go missing. To keep from feeling worthless, Tom waved his flashlight out into the field and shouted out the names of the missing duo. There was no answer. Hewly and Farmer Whitman talked about sports scores while the Labradors hopped about.
Within forty minutes, the deputies had returned with an assembled crew of searchers. Per Hewly's instructions, it was almost all men, split evenly between revelers who'd been drinking at Elwood Rooney's saloon and folk who'd been at Reverend Rully's Church Supper, a weekly feast for the extraordinarily devout. Tom recognized Jack Browder, Bill Miller, Petey Rodriguez and for the first time in his life was even glad to see Danny McDouglas. The only women were Reverend Rullys'wife and daughter, Ted's mother and sister. They were there with the vicar himself, determined to find their kin. Also present was Herman Dalwood, the husband of Tricia and expectant father of her child.
Hewly broke the group into pairs and set them off in several different directions. It was now dark and each set of men was armed with a flashlight. Tom was teamed with Deputy Straw and the two immediately started walk due west from where Ted Rully's car had stopped. They kept a brisk pace, but Tom was heartened to see that the young officer had a keen eye, catching sight of a grey bottle cap that had missed Tom' attention. However they could only conclude it was the leftovers of a hobo camp and by the time the two reached the beginning of the tree grove they'd hadn't found anything of promise.
"Hold up a sec, Mr. Humphries," said Straw, as Tom was about to march into the forest. "I just wanna take a final look around."
"Okay," said Tom. He needed a chance to catch his breath.
The Deputy shined his flashlight around immediate area. Off in the distance blips off light representing the other searchers could be seen. The rule was that if anyone found anything they should call out, but there had been nothing so far.
"Damn," said Straw, indicating he'd come up empty. "I wonder what could have happened to them."
"Don't make no sense," replied Tom. "Ted wouldn't just drive his car into a field and take off with Mrs. Dalwood. Especially if she was with child."
"Hmmmm," Straw mused. He reached into his vest pocket and pulled out a small bag. From the bag he pulled out a tiny, circular object. "Gumball?" he offered.
"I. well, I'll be, those are from my shop," Tom said. "I haven't seen you in there."
"These are yours?" Straw replied. "My nephew brought a few home a couple nights ago. He was raving about them. I liked them so much I had him pick me up a bunch more. Want one?"
"No thanks. I don't have no sense of taste you know."
"Man, you're missing out," Straw replied. "These things are great. Gonna rot my teeth right out."
"Lets get moving," said Tom, motioning towards the forest.
"Yeah, though if they did make it that far, we ain't gonna find 'em 'til daylight."
The two trudged onward, into the shadowy murk of the tree grove. Whereas it had been easy to hike through the field, the forest floor was covered with trigs and rocks and one had to step carefully. About twenty feet in both men called out the names of their quarries. No reply was returned, aside from the hoot of an owl and the usual array of mysterious forest sounds.
Having grown up in Honey Bluff, Tom was not unfamiliar with the experience of being woods at night. But it was something he'd never quite gotten used to. Human eyes could not fully acclimate to the weird darkness in which the nocturnal creatures dwelt. Even with a flashlight, one still had the sense that just out of range a curious set of eyes were watching them, formulating plans that boded ill.
Still, Tom and Deputy pressed forward. For a good thirty minutes they trudged through the forest, occasionally shouting out. Finally they came to a rocky ridge which was the beginnings of the hilly country that separated Honey Bluff from Delsburgh. Tom looked up at the climb that lay before them. But Straw grabbed him by the shoulder. "Uh-uh, Mr. Humphries. We can't be going up there, that's a dangerous climb at night. I don't want to have to call in a copter to come and get you if you break a leg."
"But-" Tom protested.
"Ain't gonna happen, sir," said the Deputy. "If they are up there, for whatever reason, we'll find them tomorrow. Beside, the others may have already come across them. Let me radio in." The deputy unhooked his walkie-talkie and spoke into the receiver, issuing what sounded like arcane language in the nomenclature of the police. He waited for a response. None came. "That's kind of weird," he said.
"What?" asked Tom.
"I don't see why I lost the signal. I expect that if we were on the other side of the hill, but we should be fine from here."
The Deputy tried a few more times and then holstered his walkie-talkie. He cocked his ear. "Listen." He commanded.
"What?" said Tom. "I don't hear anything."
"Exactly," replied the Deputy, his voice turning to a hoarse whisper. "What happened to the regular sounds? That owl we heard? The crickets? It's dead quiet."
An uneasy feeling settled in on Tom. "Maybe you're right. Maybe we should get back."
The two men took a different route back, on the faint hope that they might discover something they'd missed before. This time they did not call out the names of the people for whom they were searching, indeed, they hardly spoke at all. Straw spent little time waving the flashlight from side to side and rather marched forward with a determined step though one Tom had no trouble keeping up with. By the time they reached a point where they could see the edge of the tree they were fast approaching a light jog. As the light from the open field appeared, they slowed a bit and finally broke through the clearing. Both men paused, surprised to find themselves panting and sweating. Deputy Straw looked over at Tom, a curious expression on his face.
"Did you.?" he began.
"Yeah," replied Tom.
They did not need to elaborate further. Both men had sensed it and it had been what had hastened their departure from the depth of the woods. It was a feeling, a conscious realization that they were being watched, not by a single set of eyes but by a multitude. Something foreign to the forest had silenced the sounds of the normal creatures and followed Straw and Tom the way a jungle cat tracks its prey, only being content when it was satisfied that the two men had been expelled from its lair.
Straw's walkie-talkie crackled to life. "Straw!" came the sizzling voice of Sheriff Hewly.
"Straw here," replied the Deputy into his receiver.
"Get back here," commanded the Sheriff.
"On out way."
Within a few minutes, Tom and Straw were back at the hot rod. Most of the searchers were gathered there. Tom caught the agitated faces of Reverend Rully, his wife and daughter.
"GOD DAMED SHIT FUCKING CUNT FUCKING GODDAMIT MOTHERFUCKER!!!" roared the voice of Hewly.
"What's going on Sheriff?" asked Straw.
"Did you find them?" added Tom.
"Not only didn't we find them," growled the Sheriff. "We lost another man! Danny McDouglas managed to wander off from genius over here." Hewly motioned to the man who'd been McDouglas's partner, an overweight sloth named Finney McGee.
"It wasn't my fault, Sheriff," McGee whined. "I had to take a rest and I told Danny to stick with me. But he was drinking that devil's liquid, cursing and such. He said he didn't want to be chained to no whale like me. He was cruel, he was. But he just never came back"
"Sheriff, where's my son?" pleaded Reverend Rully's wife, Naomi. "I want Ted!"
"What about my wife?" barked back Herman Dalwood, a large man with a construction worker's build. "I'd like to know what your son has done with her."
"Ted is an angel," cried Naomi. "He would never-"
"Oh come off it," retorted Herman. "Everyone in town knows what he does when takes those girls out in this sports car you spoiled him with. Hell, he probably got Laura Smyth preg-"
"Shut the goddamed hell up," interjected the intimidating voice of Bill Miller. "Let the Sheriff do his job!"
The group settled and all eyes turned to Hewly. He lit a cigarette, took a deep puff and began to speak. "We have got to wait til morning before we do any more searching. But I guarantee you, we will find these folk, even if I have to make the Governor send in the National Guard to do it."
"Yes, call them," interjected Naomi. "Call the-"
"I can't do anything 'til they've been missing for 24 hours," continued the Sheriff, talking right over Mrs. Rully. "Now, I'm less worried about Danny McDouglas. He probably lay down out there to sleep it off. He'll show up in the morning. So for now, nobody can't do nothing but go home and get a good night's sleep. Anyone who wants can meet us back here at 7:00 A.M. tomorrow. We can start the search under daylight then."
There was some grumbling, but few could argue with what the Sheriff was saying. Slowly, one by one, people got in their cars and drove off. Soon only the lawmen, Tom, Farmer Whitman and Bill Miller were left. Tom walked over to Hewly.
"You should send someone over to Danny McDouglas's house. To check in on Skeeter."
"Tom," Hewly said with a sigh. "Poor Skeeter McDouglas has spent most nights of his short life not knowing where his father is. One more ain't gonna hurt him. Why make the boy worry?"
"I suppose," said Tom.
"Look," said the Sheriff. "I ain't gonna say that I didn't doubt you when you first told me about this. But you done good tonight, Tom. We don't know what's gonna happen, but it may well turn out that you'll be responsible for saving some lives tonight. Give yourself a break. You don't have to carry the entire town of Honey Bluff on your shoulders."
"But you don't understand Sheriff. The people of this town saved me just a few days ago. I owe them whatever I got."
Hewly sighed again. "Take a breather. I'll leave Straw stationed here tonight. We'll pick it up tomorrow." The Sheriff sauntered over to his men and started a quiet conversation.
Tom walked over to his truck and got in the cab. He sat there for a few minutes, looking up at the sky and then over to the wooded grove that had so daunted he and the Deputy. Tom had always felt a certain safety in his surroundings, the way a child might feel about their favorite blanket. But over the past few days he'd begun to subconsciously sense a transformation in Honey Bluff and its adjacent lands. However, this wasn't what really bothered him. What truly unnerved him was his inability to tell whether the change was being brought about by an element foreign to the town, or from within.
Tom looked at his watch and saw that it was now 2:00 in the morning. He considered driving home, but realized that the night's events had exhausted him. So he lay down in the seat of the cab and went to sleep.
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