The Magic Gumball Machine, Part VI

By Wil Forbis

Click here for Part V

Our story so far: Things have gone officially weird in the small town of Honey Bluff. Young Timmy Thompson dies after a sudden sickness. Town residents go missing, only reappear as deranged lunatics. Ice cream store owner Tom Humphries senses a strange power in the forest. Does he hold the key to it all?

Tom slept deeply and was burdened by strange a dream. It was night, and he was lost in the woods, alone. The foliage was thicker than he remembered it being and when he looked up he could only see a few stars through a heavy overbrush. There was no sound; all animal life had either perished or more likely, was in collusion with strange forces that demanded their silence. While Tom could not see or hear any signs of woodland creatures, he was struck with the same sensation that he'd experienced with Deputy Straw - that of thousand eyes peering at him.

Unnerved, but determined not to show it, Tom doggedly began marching towards the edge of the woods. Ten, twenty, thirty minutes passed, but the natural sprawl did not seem to end. Huge trees with exposed roots thrust upward like skyscrapers rushing towards the heavens. Thick flocks of odd purple flowers and withered leaves trembled from an unknown wind. Mutated moss with foreign fruits and alien berries grew in thick thatches across the landscape. Tom had lived in this area since he was boy, but suddenly even he could not recognize the botanical wonders that slithered about the landscape.

As time passed and he seemed no closer to familiar territory, a knot of panic started to grow in Tom's belly. He'd always had a strong sense of direction; he knew he was walking east which should have led him to Farmer Whitman's property and the highway. But he should have crossed those landmarks eons ago, indeed he should already have walked into town. Tom was just about to give up, to give in to the swell of fear that was crashing against his chest causing his heart to pound and bile to collect at the base of his throat, when he realized something. He was in Honey Bluff.  The town still existed, but it had been completely overtaken by the out-of-control foliage. Skeletal houses were crushed under giant pine trees, cars were buried under tentacle-like vines. And the town seemed devoid of human life. Tom called out the names of friends and neighbors but the only response was the musty smell of decaying greenery.

Instinctively Tom headed for his shop, anticipating a horrifying arrival upon a mauled skeleton of a store, picked clean by mocking vines and cackling fruits. And so, he was quite surprised when he rounded the corner of 4th and Main and was able to look down the way and see his shop. Even from a distance he could tell that it was the one structure untouched by the natural growth. The buildings on either side, Cal Cameron's Deli and the Main Street Plumber, were both mired in bulbous, steaming plant life, but "The Good Ship Lollipop" was exactly as he'd left it. Though it was night, the lights were on, the neon signs advertising a variety of dessert treats shone brightly and the tinkle of jukebox music could be heard to flow outwards from the store's confines.

As he moved closer Tom was able to catch the shape of a small figure, a young child inside the store, pressed against the glass of the front door. He broke into a light run, but by the time he arrived at the front of the "Lollipop," the figure was gone. Tom cautiously opened the door and entered. "Hello?" Tom called out. "T-Timmy?" He received no answer. But he could not help noticing that the swinging doors leading to the storage area were still swaying, as if someone had recently entered or exited that part of the shop. He walked across the shop to and peered through the rotund glass port on the doors. The lights were off but room looked empty. Still, Tom thought he heard the barest hints of children's laughter from within. It was not the sound of one child but three or four. They were the sniggering noises children make when they've prepared an especially devious trick for someone and are anxiously awaiting its unveiling. Tom swung open the doors. Again he called out, but only silence answered him. Then Tom heard a swooshing sound, as if someone was leaping down from above, and he felt a wet, slippery thing around his flesh. It wrapped itself several times around Tom's neck and tensed like a boa constrictor, cutting off air. He reached up and grabbed this mucousy rope, struggling with it while the children's laughter reemerged, now louder than before. As his vision blurred, Tom could see little figures in the corner of the shop dancing about. He struggled with the tentacle around his neck but felt himself going limp, having lost the strength to stand. Stars and light filled Tom's vision and the laughter became intolerably loud. The thing's grip became tighter. tighter.

Tom bolted awake with a rush of adrenaline. It took him a few seconds to realize that it had all simply been a dream. His clothes and bed sheets were drenched in sweat. Tom looked at the clock. It was 3:30 in the afternoon. He'd been asleep for four hours.

Groaning, Tom rolled out of bed. He walked into the bathroom, undressed himself and took a shower. As he felt the warm water wash away the sweat and aches in his limbs he contemplated the dream. What was the thing that wrapped itself around his neck? Who were the children? Was it Timmy, Skeeter and company? Something nagged at Tom's subconscious but he couldn't quite pin it down. Perhaps the dream made perfect sense after all that had happened in the past couple days. Perhaps the children were there in light of Timmy's death. Perhaps the thing around his throat represented a sublimated guilt for tying Danny McDouglas up so tightly. Who could really know what dreams meant?

Exiting the shower, Tom shaved several days of beard growth and twirled his moustache into a more perfect handlebar. He dressed in a pair of jeans, a white undershirt and a long-sleeve plaid. He scratched his chin, wondering what he should do. He could go open the store, but doubted there would be much business. Or he could go back out to Farmer Whitman's field, though he knew Hewly would be unhappy to see him. But, durn it, he wanted to do something!

Then it struck him. Skeeter! Last night, the Sheriff had told him there was no point worrying the boy by telling him that his father had gone missing. But now that Danny had been found and was presumably headed for jail this very moment, it couldn't hurt to stop by and check on the lad. With this mission at hand, Tom grabbed his jacket, walked outside and got in his truck.

The McDouglas residence was a run down, two-story house right behind Duke Haffert's salvage yard. McDouglas' job, insomuch as he had one, was to feed Haffert's kennel of howling, savage mongrels. For this, Haffert let his friend live on his property and gave him enough cash to feed and clothe himself and his child while still having some left over to purchase moonshine from Petey Rodriguez.

Duke Haffert's dogs were almost all bull terriers and had a fearsome reputation in the town of Honey Bluff. Roughly three years previous, one of the dogs had managed to get out while Haffert had customers visiting his yard. The customers, a married couple, had a twelve year old girl who'd been wandering through the yard while her parents haggled with Duke over the price of an old washing machine. The girl had been cornered by the mongrel and her plaintive cries rang shrilly throughout the yard as the dog bared is teeth and oozed foot-long strings of saliva. By the time they found the child she'd already lost her right eye and needed to be ambulanced in to Delsburgh for a blood transfusion. Hewly immediately confiscated the dog and a judge ordered it destroyed. However, Haffert fought the order, actually going as far as to pertain a lawyer. But after the parents of the child testified in court it was clear the judge would not be swayed and the beast, a 120 pound canine named "Churchill," lost his stay of execution.

However, when the day came around that the dog was to be put to death, everyone received quite a shock. Two animal control officers had gone out to the dog's kennel and found him dead. There was never any official explanation, but months later a rumor began circulating in bars all over town. It was said that the night before Churchill was to be killed, Duke Haffert had driven up to Delsburgh and bribed the officer at the police kennel to let him. Armed with a sack, he'd walked up to the chain-linked cage that housed his pet and was greeted by a tail-wagging bundle of joy, happy to see his master. Haffert then removed the contents of the sack, a series of T-bone steaks loaded with enough animal tranquilizers to kill an elephant. With tears in his eyes, Duke had fed them to the animal and watched as the creature fell asleep and, finally, stop breathing

Tom parked his truck in the lot of front of Haffert's yard and got out. The store was, of course, closed, as it had been over the past few days that Haffert had been jailed for fighting with Reginald Washington. Haffert's run-ins with the law were more than occasional, and it wasn't unusual for one of his cronies to sit in front of the yard's office, working their way through a can of chaw and generally keeping and eye on things. But on this day, the yard seemed deserted.

Tom got out of his truck and looked up in the sky. The temperature had warmed up a bit, but it was still a grim, cloudy day. A strong wind was blowing about as well, and Tom zipped up his jacket to fight off a chill. He walked round the right side of Duke's office towards the McDouglas residence.

Directly behind Duke's office was a roofless, ten by twenty foot structure, comprised of a chain link fence reinforced with wooden planks. This was Duke Haffert's kennel. Once the dogs heard Tom coming, they immediately burst into and orgy of snarling and growling. As Tom passed the building, he caught site of their angry snouts poking out from broken boards and holes in the chain link. Being that Haffert had been in jail for the past couple days, and Danny McDouglas had been in the forest since late afternoon, Tom didn't want to contemplate when they'd last been fed. "Nice doggies," Tom mumbled as he hurried past.

Twenty feet past the kennel was the McDouglas house. With its peeling paint and boarded up windows, a casual observer might presume the residence to be abandoned. But this was the house Skeeter McDouglas had grown up in, the house he called home.

Tom walked up the five steps that led to the front door and knocked. He waited, listening for any sign of movement in the house. None came. He knocked again and again waited for something to happen.

Tom wasn't sure what to do. He certainly wouldn't be within his rights to enter the house, but. he knew there was no chance of running into Duke or Danny. Tom tried the door. It was open, as most doors in the small town of Honey Bluff tended to be. Tentatively, he pushed open the door and peered in.

"Hello?" he called out. "Skeeter."

There was no answer. Tom stepped inside the house. The inside was a mess, exactly as one would suspect. Piles of half eaten food lay about, flies flitting about them. Empty beer cans were scattered on the floor. Tom had partial view of the living room and caught site of a disassembled motorcycle spread out in it, a V-Twin Indian. The kitchen was off to the left from the front door and Tom saw a few of Skeeter's schoolbooks lying on the counter.

Tom loudly rapped his knuckles against the wall. "Hello?" he repeated. "Anyone here?" Again, there was no reply. Tom started chewing on his thumbnail, a nervous habit that had plagued him all his life. He moved back towards the door, intending to leave, then paused in a moment of indecision. Finally he decided to keep exploring the house. He walked into the living room and stepped over the motorcycle parts. At the far corner of the living area was what passed for a dining area complete with a circular table. Upon the table was a tray of melted butter, salt and pepper shakers, a dying Begonia and a pile of men's magazines. Tom paused to thumb through a copy of a periodical titled "Jet Set Honeys" before carefully putting it back where he'd found it.

Rounding a corner Tom came face to face with a row of stairs heading upwards to the second floor of the building. Tom paused. Granted, he was already invading private property but there was something about going into the second level of someone's house that seemed more invasive. "Hello?" Tom called out again. "Skeeter? It's Uncle Tom." A cool breeze ran through the house. Ton ascended the stairs and arrived on the second floor. It seemed to consist of two bedrooms - one for Danny and one for his son - and a bathroom. Tom first peered in Danny's room, taking notice of the assortment of empty beer cans, mud stained clothes and still more pornography. Then Tom looked into Skeeter's room. It was practically bare, aside from a brown stained mattress and some comic books. Tom was aghast. He knew Skeeter didn't enjoy the middle class comforts that Timmy Thompson had, but he had no idea things were this bad.

Then Tom heard it - a muffled, indistinguishable sound, something coming from below. He froze, not sure what to so. If it was Skeeter, then his search would be over, but if it was Danny McDouglas, he could be serving himself up an extra helping of trouble with a cherry on top. Tom stood still and perked his ears up for any additional noise. If someone had actually entered the house, they surely couldn't hide the sounds of their footsteps. But Tom heard nothing more and he reminded himself that McDouglas was in police custody. Gingerly he walked down the stairs and rounded the corner into the kitchen. He walked through it and came to the front door. Then he paused. Directly across from the entrance door was another door, going, Tom presumed, to a basement. This door was solid oak, far heavier than the front door. It had three bolts going across it, all drawn across. McDouglas don't want nobody goin' in his basement, Tom thought, before it dawned on him. The locks were on the outside. The door was designed to keep anyone inside the basement from getting out.

Tom rapped on the door, yet again calling out, Skeeter's name. Again no answer. Before undoing the bolts, Tom tried the doorknob, confirming what he expected to find. It was locked and he didn't have the key. Still, Tom felt a surge of confidence that this was where the noise he'd heard had come from. He had to figure out a way to get in there. While he stood there, stroking his moustache, an idea struck him. The door might be blocking him, but that wasn't necessarily the only way in. Tom rushed outside the house and walked along the edge, eyeing the foundation. Most houses with a basement usually had a set of windows design to let in a modicum of natural light. On the right side of the house, Tom found a small space about three feet deep cut into the earth exposing a shattered window covered with a series of steel bars. It looked like the prison windows folk singers would describe peering through while trying to catch sight of the Midnight Special or another such passing train with which they could plan their escape.

Tom had to get down of his hands and knees to even see through the window, but once his head was mostly level with the opening he was able to look into the basement. The light was bad but he was able to catch sight of large metal furnace that could be used to heat the house in the winter. Across from that was an array of motorcycle parts and a bookshelf that exclusively contained stacks of - still more - pornographic magazines.

Then the face appeared, damn near causing Tom's heart to jump through his chest. It was Skeeter McDouglas, though Tom could barely recognize the lad, his face was covered in soot, and several bruises lay about his head. He had a black eye, still bleeding and caked with yellow pus. "Tom?" he said in a weakened voice, squinting his eyes against the light.

"Skeeter!" Tom exclaimed. "Good Lord, boy! What happened to you?"

"My paw." Skeeter mumbled, seemingly in a daze. "He left me here. He told me I can't go back to the 'Good Ship Lollipop' after Timmy Thompson died."

"How long have you been down there, Skeeter? Have you had anything to eat?"

"My pa. left some dog food, you know, what he feeds Duke's dogs. But I went through that yesterday. I was calling and yelling, but nobody came. nobody heard. I'm so glad you showed up Uncle Tom."

"I'll get you out of here, Skeeter. Don't worry."

"The door is heavy, Tom. And I heard him nail it shut. He said I was scaring him, Tom. That don't make no sense, does it?"

"Don't worry, you'll get out of there." Tom's mind raced. He had no way of getting through the bars in the windows and if Skeeter was right about the door being nailed shut, he couldn't get through there either. At least not with help.

"Skeeter," Tom began. "I can't get you out myself. I've gotta get help. Can you be real brave and just hang in there while I go in the house a make a phone call. I'm gonna call the Sheriff and they'll come help me get you out, ok?"

"We don't have a phone," Skeeter replied. "Paw says government people use them to read your minds."

"What about Duke's office. Does he have a phone?"

"You don't want to go in there, Tom. Duke always lets a few of the dogs roam the office if he's not around. They're bad news."

"Alright - " Tom paused. "Look, I've got a hacksaw back at the shop. I'm going to drive back there and call the Sheriff. Even if I can't get him I'll come back here and get you out. Is that a deal partner?"

"Can I have some food?" Skeeter replied, ignoring Tom's proposal. "I want some food."

"Sure, hold on. I've got something in the truck." Tom ran over to his truck, reached in through the window and opened the glove compartment. Inside were a few candy bars he kept for emergency breakdowns. He trotted back over to the basement window and handed them to Skeeter. "Here you go. These are real tasty."

Skeeter quickly unwrapped a bar and started devouring it. Then he looked back up. "Do you have any gumballs?" he asked.

"No," Tom chuckled. "No gumballs. But I'll pick one up when I get back to the shop, ok?"

"Get me a bunch, Uncle Tom. I sure like those gumballs." Skeeter replied, smiling for the first time.

"You bet, fellah," Tom said, giving the lad a thumbs up sign. "Hang in there, I'll be right back." With that, Tom ran over to his truck and gunned the engine. In a cloud of dust he backed onto the main street at burst forward, easily going at twice the legal limit. As he raced into town, Tom checked his watch. It was close to 5. The sun was close just starting to disappear over the western horizon.

Tom arrived in front of the shop, parked, and then rushed in. He immediately ran behind the counter and dialed the Honey Bluff Sheriff's office. He wasn't sure whether Hewly would be in, but expected one of the Deputies to be there. He was pleasantly surprised at the voice he heard coming across the line.

"Honey Bluff Police Department. Sheriff Hewly speaking."

"Sheriff," Tom said. "It's Tom Humphries."

"Tom," the Sheriff said. "Why we have talked to each other in over six hours. It's been much too long."

"I've got something to tell you, Sheriff," Tom said. "I found-"

"Yes, I expect you want to know the status of things, eh, Tom?" Hewly intererupted.

"Well, yes, but-"

"We found Danny McDouglas, right were you left him. They're stowing him in a cell next to Haffert right now."

"Good, that's good."

"But the Governor is stalling me on getting the National Guard out here. We've done a complete search of area near where we found the Rully car. I'm starting to think there's some sort of foul play involved. Maybe the car was dumped there to throw us off."

"Allright, but there's a more immediate problem, Sheriff. I found Skeeter McDouglas. He was locked down in the basement of his house, and he'd had a good beating. We gotta get over there, Sheriff. We-"

This time it wasn't Sheriff Hewly that interrupted Tom, but rather a loud rattling sound that came from the other end of the line. Then there was a click and the line went dead.

"Sheriff?" Tom said. He clicked the phone cradle several times, but the connection did not return. He redialed the number, but there was no ring tone. The line was dead.

"Durn," Tom muttered to himself as he hung up the phone. Then he walked out from the counter and went into the storage room. He turned on the light and looked about the room. Leaning against the wall was a three-foot long hacksaw, designed for cutting through steel reinforcement bars. Tom picked it up and fingered its teeth. It was a bit rusty, but it could still do the trick.

Suddenly the light in the storage room went dim and the constant, low hum of the refrigeration room went quiet. It seemed, that in addition to the phone going out, the power had now died. "What in Sam Hill.?" Tom exclaimed and he walked out into the main area of the shop. Looking out his window, he could see that the power was out throughout the block; other stores were dim and the even the sole streetlamp on the corner was dead. With no refrigeration, Tom's stock of ice cream stood a good chance of melting. "Jesus Christ! Can things get any worse?"

Tom placed the hacksaw on the counter and sat down on one of the stools. With everything happening so fast, he just needed to take a moment to get his head straight. The knot that had been twisting in his gut ever since he'd broken into the McDouglas house was still there and Tom couldn't help but notice the tremor in his hands. The pressure of it all was finally getting to him. He knew what he could do to get himself out of it, but this wasn't the time. He had to get back over to Skeeter's house to break him free. Then he needed to check in with the Sheriff. People were depending on him.

But Gol' durn it, wouldn't he be better able to help out if his wasn't a trembling, gut-busting wreck? He'd be doing them all a favor if he could just bring himself down, get himself in a state where he could think. And Tom knew what he had to do.

Tom got up from the stool and walked back into the storage room. With the power off, it was dark, and in light of the nightmare he'd had that afternoon, Tom found it unsettling. Still, enough illumination came through the door window to allow Tom to fumble his way over to the safe. He dialed the combination and swung the door open. Then he retrieved the small paper bag he gotten at Aplonnski's a few days previous.

Against one way in the storage room was a small roll-top desk and wooden chair. Tom walked over to it and sat down. He pulled up the desk cover and reached in one of the slots, retrieving a small set of keys. Using the keys he unlocked the main drawer of the desk. He reached into the drawer and pulled out a small felt sack. From the sack he removed a line of rubber hose and a hypodermic needle and a tiny box of cotton swaths.

From the drugstore sack, Tom removed a small bottle containing 100 milligrams of medical morphine. The bottle had a rubber top and Tom poked the needle through it, filling the glass syringe with the clear liquid. Then he placed the needle down on the table and picked up the rubber hose, wrapping it around his left arm. He flexed his muscle, and rubbed his forearm, trying to get a vein to bulge. Whereas it used to take scant seconds for one to pop to the surface, now Tom had to work to fine a suitable vessel for the injection. Finally Tom felt he had something to work with. With his right hand, he picked up the needle and poised it over the willing vein. Tom felt the discomfort as he jabbed the needle in, but he'd long ago learned to associate that prick with the pleasure that would follow, and he paid it no heed.

Tom emptied the contents of the hypodermic into his arm and removed it from the vein. A small spot of blood dotted his arm and Tom dabbed at it with one of the cotton swaths. In half a minute he felt the slow rush of the drug going through his system, causing a swell of pleasure to travel throughout his nervous system. The ball in his stomach unclenched. The tremor of nerves subsided. A dull glaze fell across his face.

Tom wasn't sure how long he sat there. It could have only been a few minutes but in the past, whole hours had passed in what had seemed like the barest splinters of time. After a while, Tom came down from the first rush of the drug and stood up. He was a different man. Despite everything that was happening, he felt happy. A pleasing sensation hummed at the back of his neck, and each deep breath brought about a renewed rush of pleasure. He gathered up the paraphernalia and placed it back in the felt sack. He returned the sack to the drawer and locked it. He still had half a bottle of morphine left, which he placed back in the safe. He rolled down his sleeve, and walked out to the main room.

With the power out, the eating area of 'The Good Ship Lollipop' was dark. Outside the sky was changing from dusk to night. Tom walked over to the hacksaw lying on the counter and picked it. He fumbled around in his pockets and pulled out the keys he'd need to lock up once he left. Once he determined he was ready to go he headed for the door. He was halfway across the room when through the glass door he saw a small figure, standing on the outside of the shop entrance looking in. It was a child, no more than ten years old, with his hands pressed against the glass door as he scanned the shop for any activity. Even in the dim light, Tom could see who it was. It was Timmy Thompson.

The hacksaw clattered to the floor as Tom stood, stunned, looking into the eyes of the child that had reportedly died two nights previous. The synapses of his brain fired wildly causing a random quotation to rise to the surface: Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated! Even under the influence of an opiate, Tom could not doubt that what he was seeing was real. This was the same boy who'd spent so many hours in the shop dining on ice cream and gumballs. This was the same child whose father had been in the store a day earlier, driven half mad with grief.

Tom felt his legs go weak and he leaned against the counter to support himself. He could not turn his stare from the child standing outside the shop. And he could not help feel an icy dread slowly drip down his spine as he looked at the expression the boy wore. The Timmy Thompson he'd known had always been a happy child who seldom let anything short of a smile cross his face. But the boy in front of him wore a solemn expression. He seemed to express no joy at seeing the man he'd so often referred to as "Uncle Tom."

Timmy Thompson slowly raised a small hand a pressed it against the handle of the door. It easily swung open and the lad walk into the store. He paused a step or two beyond the entrance. "Hello Tom," He said.

The boy was dressed in clothes a few sizes to large, clearly not his own. And as he got closer, Tom noticed something else. Like Danny McDouglas, the boy was covered with a series of facial welts, dark oozing wounds that speckled his young flesh. But if these wounds caused any sort of aggravation, Timmy paid them no heed.

"Dear.Lord. Jesus." Tom stumbled on the words. "Timmy. you're supposed to be dead!"

"Do I look dead to you, Tom?" the boy asked in an unusually deep and throaty voice. The boy took a few steps forward so that he was adjunct to the beginning of the counter.

"But.but your father was in here. He said you were dead! So did Jack Browder. I don't understand-"

"Don't you believe your own eyes Tom? Am I not here before you?"

"Yes. yes." Tom said quietly. In his head, he questioned his own sanity. In fact, better to be insane that to try and comprehend this turn of events. "Do you. need a help? Do you need a hospital?"

"Not at all. I've never been better," the boy replied, though the gaping sores on his skin belied his words.

"But.why are you here, Timmy? What do you want?"

A thin smile finally crossed Timmy's face. "My usual. A chocolate fudge banana split." He then hopped up on one of the stools and sat down, playfully rotating himself in the swiveling chair.

"Jesus, Timmy," Tom said. "If. you're back. we've got to get your father. We've got to tell him."

"I'll visit my father later. Right now I want a chocolate fudge banana split. Make it for me."

All right." Tom said. "All right. I need to get some ice cream out of the refrigerator." Tom turned and walked into the refrigeration room. Though it was getting warmer up because of the power failure, most of the stock was still frozen. He pulled out a bucket of vanilla ice cream. He brought it back out and went behind the counter. On the griddle, he began warming the hot fudge as he sliced a banana in half, lengthwise. "Would you like any nuts?" he asked.

"I've never liked nuts. Why would I start now?" asked the child.

"I dunno," replied Tom. "It's just that you seem different."

"I've grown up a lot," said Timmy. "But I still like ice cream."

Tom scooped three scoops of vanilla into a bowl and added the banana halves. He poured the warmed fudge on top and added a dollop of whip cream. Then he placed the desert in front of the child.

"I need a spoon," Timmy said.

"R-right," Tom replied.  He fetched one from a silverware container and handed it to the child.

Timmy smacked his lips and hungrily began devouring the dessert. "This is terrific, Uncle Tom," the boy complimented. "This is the best banana split ever!"

"Th-thank you," Tom responded, a look of astonishment still planted on his face. He watched as Timmy finished the desert in less that a minute. Timmy placed the spoon back and pushed the bowl away.

"I'm stuffed!" he announced.

Tom took the dish and placed it into the sink behind the counter. "Are you sure?" he asked. "Nothing else?"

"No thanks," the child replied. He seemed different now, a bit more like his old self. A childlike exuberance was returning to his face. A good banana split could do that to a person.

"Would you. would you like a gumball?" Tom asked.

With that, whatever happiness had returned to Timmy face vanished. His brow furrowed and his lips formed an angry pout. He hopped off the stool and walked over to the "magic" gumball machine, glaring at it. He pressed his face up close as if he was peering inside for a trophy lost amongst the gumballs.

"It never gets empty, does it Uncle Tom?" Timmy asked.

"Now that you mention it, no. It's the durndest thing. I've been meaning to take a look and-"

"Things are going to be changing around here, Uncle Tom." Timmy interrupted.

"Changing? How so? I can't imagine-"

"And when they do, people are going to want to say that it was your fault. But I want you to know, there's nothing you could have done to stop it. Don't feel bad."

"Feel bad? Timmy, this is a bit much to take. First you come walking in after everybody says you're dead. Then you start talking funny. I'm not sure what to make of it all."

Timmy turned away from the machine and took a few steps to the center of the shop. He paused, as if her were about to deliver a great oration. Then he looked down at the checkerboard pattern on the floor, seemingly intent on keeping his thoughts to himself. Tom barely heard him mutter, "I can't fight it off any longer."

From behind the counter, Tom shifted uneasily. He couldn't help notice that the sores on Timmy face seemed to bet getting worse, oozing even more of their festering, dark broth.

Timmy looked back up, staring directly at Tom. He was weeping. One of his wounds, had now become a large gash running across one cheek, three inches wide. The rest of his skin seemed to be turning rough and craggy, like the craquelure of a dried African desert roasting in the summer sun. "You know why I came back here, Uncle Tom?" the boy asked.

"Timmy! Lord we've got to get you to a hosp-"

"I wanted to have one last banana split." Weakly, the boy smiled. And then a transformation came about him. The tears on his flesh came alive, ripping open, letting forth a sea of the muddy liquid contained within. His skin began to crinkle up like a piece of paper cast into flame, and was carried away in the flow of bile. As his face dissipated, so, too, did his hands, skin melting off dark sticks that had once been bone. The change was clearly ravaging Timmy's entire body as the liquid morass seeped through his clothing and emptied out in waves at the bottoms of his trousers.

The boy stumbled, fell to his knees, and his jaw popped open. Tom watched as teeth ejected from their hollows and fell to the floor. One eye was released from its socket and was carried forth in the torrent of black mire. Then the child's blackened, liquefying body pitched over, and he fell, ungracefully, face down to the floor.

Tom rushed out from behind the counter to the horror that had occurred in the center of his shop. He stopped mouth agape, and the grim puddle of what had once been Timmy Thompson. Now there was nothing solid left of the child other than the clothes he'd been wearing and a black murky stew of oozing froth and the occasional hunk of what had once been human flesh.

While in the military, Tom had seen a fellow soldier accidentally shoot himself in the chest during a training exercise. A medical officer had attempted CPR, but it was to no avail; the soldier died within minutes of the bullet penetrating his flesh. Face to face with his first dead body, Tom did the only thing he could think of, he held the man in his arms, rocking him gently, and he smiled when he felt the soldier's body slightly stiffen, a moment Tom felt sure signified the soul leaving the body. A few years later, when Tom had been at the deathbed of his mother, he'd held her hand and talked to her. He wasn't aware of the exact moment of her passing, but he was happy to know that he'd been in physical contact when it had happened.

These events came rushing back to Tom as he stopped short at the muddy waste of what had once been a human child. He wanted to hold Timmy, to comfort him in death, but what was there to touch? The body had dissipated into a mysterious goo. Even his bones had dissolved. And though Tom was shaken by the events, he wisely decided to avoid contact.

Tom's mind raced as to what he should do. He had to rebuke the urge that struck him, born of years of ice cream spills across his tiled floor, to simply find a mop and sop up what remained of Timmy Thompson. But he knew that some would want to examine Timmy's remains. Had he been afflicted by some disease that first mimicked the symptoms of death, only to return to actually claim its victim? If so how had he gotten this sickness? Did Tom have it himself? These questions stabbed at Tom's brain, but he knew he didn't have the answers. All he knew was that he had to get out of the shop. He needed to find help. So Tom grabbed both the hacksaw and his truck keys and ran to out the door to his truck. He got in the cab, gunned the engine and headed over to the police department headed by Sheriff Richard Hewly.

Click here for Part VII


Columns - Features - Interviews - Fiction - Acid Radio - GuestBook Sign/View - Blogs
View for more sin and wackiness!

Email Publisher