The Magic Gumball Machine, Part VI
By Wil Forbis
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?
It was normally about a fifteen-minute drive from Tom's ice cream shop to the Honey Bluff police station but the power failure had killed all the traffic lights so Tom had to stop at every intersection and keep an eye out for other cars. Oddly, he didn't see any, but he did catch sight of something that caught his attention. On the corner of Mackinaw Ave. and Caldwell Lane, he came across Stan Hughes. Stan was out walking his dog, a playful pug named Dobie, and when he saw Tom's truck, he waved. What made Tom raise an eyebrow was the fact that Stan Hughes was stark naked. Though the temperature had to be in the mid-fifties, the electrician was ambling along as if everything was right in the world.
In any other situation, Tom would've stopped and asked Stan some questions, but after everything he'd been through, his only goal was to get to the police station. Tom continued driving and within five minutes had pulled up in front of the one-story, stone structure that housed the offices of Sheriff Hewly and his Deputies, as well as the county jail. Tom recognized Hewly's cruiser parked out front. Seeing no lights inside, Tom figured the power outage was in effect here as well. He raced up the steps and entered the building.
Tom had only been in the police headquarters a few times over the years - once to report a vandal, and a few times to complain about speeding tickets - but he generally knew the layout. There was a front desk manned by a former officer, David Lewis, and then a door to the right leading to a large room that housed the desks of Deputies Straw and Morse. Beyond that was Hewly's office, a large room with a large oak desk and the stuffed heads of game animals Hewly had felled over the years. A side door in the Deputies' room led to a stairwell that went down to a concrete basement that served as the county jail.
When Tom didn't see Mr. Lewis sitting at the front desk, he wasn't all that surprised. It did seem odd not to find one of the Deputies filling in. A cup of coffee and a large flashlight were lying on the desk, implying that someone had been there recently. Maybe they were just on a pee break. Tom rang the bell and waited.
A couple minutes passed and he rang the bell again. While waiting, Tom paced and chewed his thumbnail. While he could still feel traces of the morphine in his system, it wasn't doing much to steady his nerves anymore. After a few more minutes, he rang the bell yet again. There was still no reply. Tom looked over at the door to the Deputies' office. It was closed. He walked over to it and knocked. "Hello?" he called out. "Anyone there?" There was no reply.
Tom tried the door. Not surprisingly it was unlocked. Tom opened it and peered inside the office. With no lights on, and the shutters drawn, it was dark. It occurred to Tom that they might all be in Hewly's office so he walked back to the desk, grabbed the flashlight and then entered the room.
Tom fumbled with the flashlight, finally managing to get a dull beam to illuminate his steps. Obviously the flashlight was low on batteries and Tom grimly considered the possibility of it going out halfway to Hewly's door, leaving him stumbling in darkness. Regardless he moved forward, using the light to steer clear of the desk, chairs and tables located about the room. Tom raised the light and ran it against the wall, casting a glow on the series of plaques and photographs than decorated the office.
Suddenly, Tom's leg caught on something and he felt himself losing his balance. He feared that he'd crash down on someone's desk and was relieved when he simply hit the floor. The flashlight rolled out his hand, blinked a couple times, but stayed lit. "Stupid!" Tom muttered to himself. His hand seemed moist and Tom confirmed his fear when he ran it across his mouth and tasted blood. He reached over and grabbed the flashlight, curious to see what had felled him. One of his legs was lying on top of the object he'd tripped on. It was a large and soft like burlap sack.
Tom shone the light and was stunned to see the glow reflecting in the lifeless eyes of Deputy Anthony Morse. It was his body Tom had tripped over, and it was his body that had expelled several gallons of crimson cruor onto the carpet. The blood flowed freely from a gaping puncture in his belly.
"Ghaaahhhhhh!!!" Tom screamed, struggling to get on his feet and back away from the corpse. He was up and taking several flailing steps backwards when he stumbled over something else, and fell right back down on his posterior. He almost didn't have to look this time, he knew what he'd see. It was Deputy Straw. He was lying there, folded up like the legs of an ironing board, his feet directly behind his head. The man's spine had clearly been snapped and the pained expression on his face showed that it wasn't as easy way to go.
"Jesus - fucking - shit - Jesus - Goddamit. HELP ME!" Tom screamed. Once again he gathered up the flashlight and got to his feet. He was now right next to the office of Sheriff Hewly. He paused for a microsecond, enough time to gather up his courage, then he grabbed to door to the office and jerked the handle. The door swung open.
"Sheriff.?" Tom's voice quivered. He raised the flashlight in the direction of the Sheriff's desk. He could just barely see the sheaves of papers scattered across it, soiled by ink from a spilled inkwell. The lawman's gun also lay on the desk, turned perpendicular from the angles of the table, as if it had been thrown down.
Tom raised the light to the chair that rest in front of the desk. Even in the dark he could recognize the silhouette of Sheriff Richard Hewly. He was dead all right; Tom could sense this even before he brought the light upon him. The Sheriff was slumped in the chair, head tilted backwards. He had taken what looked like a shotgun blast at chest level, leaving a gaping opening of mash and gore. And when Tom raised the flashlight to look at the face of his old friend, he began to understand what had happened. Someone, something had literally ripped the Sheriff's heart out of his chest and shoved it down his throat.
Tom's first instinct was to run, but that would mean going back into the other room, and he couldn't face what lay there. So he froze, feeling the terror rise up within, generating wave after wave of pinpricks on his flesh. His consciousness split into two distinct streams. One was consumed with animalistic, primal fear, devoid of any intelligent thought. But the second stream kicked into intellectual overdrive and Tom tried to contemplate what had happened. It would take a formidable foe to inflict the sort of damage that thrust upon the Sheriff and his Deputies. Only something with inhuman strength could snap a man in half or literally rip his heart from his chest. And it would have happened after Tom had talked to the Sheriff on the phone only hours ago. Was the attacker still here? Tom fought back his fear and cocked his ear in the air. All he heard was a deathly kind of silence. The assailant seemed long gone.
But what about the jail? Tom knew that at least Duke Haffert, Reginald Washington and Danny McDouglas were being held below. Had they too been dispatched? The only way to find out would be to descend into the concrete tomb and check. It went against every fiber in Tom's being, but as much as he was a slave to fear, he was an even greater slave to charity. Summoning up his courage, he took a few steps to the slumped body of Richard Hewly. Everyone knew Hewly kept a ring of a dozen keys in his right pocket. Shining the flashlight on his friend's corpse, Tom timidly reached over and fumblingly retrieved them. With the keys in hand, Tom walked to the door of the office and placed his hand on the handle. He pause, turned, and grabbed the Sheriff's pistol off his desk. Thus armed, he opened the door and walked out into the Deputies' office. The door leading to the basement jail was on his right - to get to it he had to gingerly step over the folded up body of Deputy Straw, being careful not to look at the contorted expression cast upon the poor man's face.
When he got to the door, Tom was surprised to find that it was already ajar. He pocketed the key set and with flashlight and pistol each in a quivering hand, began to descend the staircase to the basement level. Halfway down his legs near gave out on him but Tom sucked in a deep breath of air and kept going. At the bottom was another door, this one locked. Tom placed the gun on the floor, and fumbled about with several keys before opening the door. Using a foot to hold open the door, he retrieved the gun and went inside.
Being that he was a decent, law-abiding citizen, Tom had never been inside the Honey Bluff jail. But his understanding was that it was small; Honey Bluff was not a town with a large criminal element. Prisoners would be held until the date they were to make a court appearance, in which case they would be brought up Delsburgh where they stayed until they were either sentenced or released. The area Tom found himself in appeared to be a gateway room. His dimming flashlight illuminated enough of the architecture that he was able to locate a door against the far right wall, marked, "County Jail - Secure." The door had three locked bolts going across it and it took several tries with the keys to get them to open.
Cautiously, Tom entered the lockup. It was just like the movies - a row of barred cells running along both sides of the wall, each shrouded in darkness. Tom was tempted to call out, to see if any of the prisoners answered, but something stilled his tongue. What if it was here? In his gut, Tom knew he wouldn't stand a chance against what had dispatched the lawmen a floor above him, but saw no point in flirting with disaster.
Slowly, Tom began walking the length of the room, shining his flashlight into each of the cells. The first four were empty and looked as if they hadn't held an occupant in many months. But the fifth cell, located to his left was a different story. The jail bars were torn from their roots, creating an opening large enough for a several men to pass though. And the inside of the cell had traces of spattered blood mixed in with a dark ooze.
"What the heck" Tom started to quietly mutter to himself. Before he could finish he felt a long pair of arms grab him and pull him off balance. He crashed against the bars of the cell to his right and both the flashlight and pistol fell to the floor.
"I got him!" a voice called out. Even in the dark Tom was able to see a large shape amble towards him. Arms flailed out and he felt a pounding blow to his solar plexus. His lungs deflated and bright twinkles of light blurred his vision. He wanted to sink to the floor but the long arms held him up.
"He had a gun - get it!" the voice shouted. Amidst fading consciousness, Tom could not help notice that it seemed familiar. The creature in front of him swayed about him, scouring the floor. Then it approached him again and Tom felt the cold steel of the Sheriff's pistol against his temple.
"End of the line, motherfucker!" a different voice hissed.
With the wind knocked out of him, Tom could barely breathe. For a brief instant, he considered giving into the throbbing waves that called him into unconsciousness. Instead, he fought back, forcing himself to speak. "W-Wait," he whispered.
"Do it!" the voice behind him called out, a voice he finally recognized as belonging to the young, black hitchhiker he picked up many days previous, Reginald Washington. "Shoot him!"
"Hold on," replied the second voice. The shape picked up the flashlight and shined it in Tom's face. "Goddammit!" came the voice of Duke Haffert. "It's Humphries."
"Mr. Humphries!" came the anxious voice of Reginald, the owner of the long arms that were pinning Tom to the jail cell. "Jesus, sir, I'm sorry." The young man released Tom from his grasp.
Tom stumbled it a bit a leaned against the wall to catch his breath. It became clear to him what had happened. Washington, who was locked in the cell across from the one that had been vandalized, had grabbed Tom through his bars. Haffert had been the lumbering shape that had punched him and come just seconds away from blowing open his skull.
"Hello boys," Tom whispered, still to weak to speak normally. "Nice to see you."
"Sorry, Tom," said the mostly unapologetic voice of Haffert. "We thought he'd come back."
"Who came back?" asked Tom. "And where's McDouglas? Didn't they bring him down here?"
"That's who we're talking about, Mr. Humphries," replied Reginald. "Only."
"Only Danny ain't Danny no more," interrupted Haffert. "He's sick, crazy! He's dying of something, but I've never seen a man so strong!"
"He's got those sores." said Tom.
"Damn right! You've seen him?" asked Haffert.
"This morning," replied Tom. "Bill Miller and I found him wandering. We tied him to a tree and told the Sheriff where to find him."
"Well, he's changed since then," said Haffert. "There's no was tying him to a tree would've held Danny now. They brought him in and he was like a kitten, moaning, talking strange, he could barely stand. But about an hour into it he started screaming and he just bent the Goddamned bars! Like an animal! He started shrieking. Straw came in and that's when he did it. He just picked the guy up with one hand. He grabbed his foot and just. bent him over backwards. I never seen anything like it. Then he carried him out of here lickity-split and we were stuck again."
"Wait a second - then how'd you get out of your cell?" Tom asked Haffert.
"Danny wasn't talking no sense. He seemed like a man who drunk some bad moonshine, but it was like, deep down, somewhere, he recognized me. After he broke himself out he bent my bars good enough to let me through. But then he just starting crying, making all these noises. That's what brought Straw in."
"How'd you get here, Mr. Humphries?" asked Reginald. "How'd you get past the doors."
"That's a long story." Tom began. He relayed everything that had happened the past few days: Ted and Tricia's disappearance. The death and rebirth of Timmy Thompson. The carnage he'd seen upstairs. As he talked he pulled out the key chain and released Reginald from his cell. Like Haffert, the young man was wearing a grey one-piece uniform with sleeves that ended near the elbow. Unlike Haffert, he had a small bruise at the side of his right eye.
"What happened there?" Tom asked.
"Morse got a little rough with me," Reginald replied. "It doesn't hurt much."
"Morse never liked niggers," Haffert added. "Hell, I had my beef with Washington here, but after four days in lock up, we've gotten to be pretty good friends, right Reggie?" The giant redhead gave Reginald a pat on the back."
"You ain't so bad," Reginald told him. "Once a person gets past your looks."
Haffert let loose a hearty laugh. Then he turned to Tom. "Well, shit, let's get out of here, Humphries."
Tom handed the flashlight to Reginald and opened the door. Duke Haffert kept a firm grip on the pistol. The men walked across the entry room and opened the door to the stairwell. Once they were upstairs Reginald knelt down next to the corpses of the two deputies, shining the light down their throat and into the dull white pupils of their eyes.
"Lord." Duke muttered while surveying the carnage. "McDouglas did this? What the hell has happened to him?"
"It's like some sort of sickness," Tom replied. "Timmy had the same thing. Maybe it somehow makes you stronger that normal. You always here stories. women lifting cars with their babies trapped underneath. Maybe the sickness brings something like that on?"
"Sure, I heard of that," confirmed Duke. "It's because of adren. adrenal."
"Adrenaline," finished Reginald. "But you say this Thompson kid. he just fell apart in your shop?"
"Never seen anything like it," said Tom. "It was horrifying. He just. melted away."
"Into that weird fluid - like what McDouglas was bleeding in his cell?" Reginald prodded.
"That's right," said Tom. "It was like his insides had just turned to this tar. His organs and everything."
Haffert sat his bulky frame down atop Deputy Morse's desk. "So.is that what's gonna happen to Danny?"
"Mebbe," said Tom quietly. "I don't rightly know."
"What if it's catching?" asked Haffert. "Hell, what if he gave it to us when he was locked up with us down there?" A slight quiver started to show in his normally boisterous voice.
Reginald spoke calmly. "I don't think we should jump to conclusions. Neither of us has shown any signs of it. And Tom was around the Thompson boy for days and he's fine."
"But how did they get it?" Asked Tom, to nobody in particular. "Is it in our water? The food? The air?"
Those grim questions hung in the air for several seconds and remained unanswered. Finally Reginald offered a question of his own. "What do we do now?"
Haffert was first to reply. "I don't know about you boys, but I'm heading back to my yard. Then I'm gathering up some things and getting out of here. I don't want no-"
"Skeeter!" Tom interrupted. "I left him back at your place. He's locked down in the basement."
"Well, hell, let's go," said Haffert.
"Hold on!" cautioned Reginald. "Look, we don't know exactly what's out there, and we are in a police station. I suggest we make at least some effort to arm ourselves. After all, we've seen what McDouglas can do." The young man motioned to the bodies of the two Deputies.
"That's a damn good idea," said Haffert. He leaned over the body of Morse and grabbed his pistol, then handed it to Tom. Reginald retrieved Straw's revolver from his holster. Haffert went over to a glass rifle case and smashed it open with the pistol butt, then grabbed three shotguns and several packages of shells. "Best to err on the side o' plenty," he said.
The three men left the building and walked over to Tom's truck. Haffert got in the passenger side of the cab while Reginald jumped in the back. Each man was armed with a pistol and a rifle. Tom started the truck and headed over to Haffert's property.
The sun was almost set in the west, though a purple hue still hung low in the sky. The streets of Honey Bluff seemed empty but most houses had the dancing glimmers of candles alighting the huddle families within. Near as Tom could tell, the power outage had struck the whole town, casting both home and business alike into a muddle of darkness.
Within ten minutes, Tom pulled the truck up to Duke Haffert's salvage yard. He parked next to the kennel and left the headlights on and pointing straight at the McDouglas house. While he grabbed the hacksaw, Haffert hopped out and walked over to his kennel. The dogs barked excitedly, smelling the beefy scent of their master.
"That's right - Daddy's home," Haffert cooed at the snarling creatures. His voice seemed to have a calming effect, but the sounds of the dogs aggressively throwing themselves against the wooden slats held in place by the kennel fence could still be heard. "I bet you haven't been fed in a long time."
Tom ran over to the basement window where he'd left Skeeter. What he saw made his heart sink. The bars were ripped away and the glass shattered. "He's gone," Tom called out. "It looks like McDouglas got here and tore open the bars - just like the jail."
No sooner had Tom finished his sentence when he heard the crackling of leaves come out of the darkness. Someone was out there and they were moving closer. All three men raised their rifles.
"I didn't do nothing!" a voice called out. "He was gone 'for I got here. He let himself out."
Danny McDouglas stumbled into view. Despite the cold, he was wearing only a torn pair of jeans. His lanky body looked like it had been dipped in oil, except for his right arm, which was covered in blood. But the most ghastly thing was his face. Splintering wounds covered his maw and it appeared as if his nose had literally fallen off. Thin whistles of air could be heard coming out the remnants of his nasal passages as he exhaled asthmatically. However, this Danny McDouglas hardly seemed like a deranged maniac with the strength of ten men - he walked like a drunkard and something about his body language insinuated a man weak as a kitten. Still, the trio did not lower their rifles.
"Danny boy!" called out Haffert. "What's happened to you? You don't look so hot."
"I. I don' feel so hot," replied the thin man. "It's been a wild time, Duke." McDouglas smiled weakly and kept stumbling towards the three men who were slowly backing into the kennel wall.
"Well, hold it right there," Duke ordered. "I dunno what'd going on Danny, but we need some answers. What made you this way?"
Danny stopped approaching the men a smiled. "Skeeter's the one. he'll tell ya. He brought the damned things home. After a couple days you feel like you just drank the best liquor around, Duke - and you an' me done our share. But then you start getting sick. You feel you mind jus' slipping away. Skeeter had it worse than me and I had to put him away so I could have some time to think. to work things out. But then. I just sort of lost my head for awhile there."
"Did you kill the Sheriff?" Tom asked. "And the Deputies?"
"I got a lil' crazy there, I did," affirmed Danny. He paused to wipe his bloody hand across his brow. "They make you crazy, they do."
"What?" asked Reginald. "What makes you crazy?"
"He should know," said McDouglas, pointing a bony finger at Tom. "It's them gumballs."
Tom blinked, caught off guard by the accusation. "The gumballs? What are you talking about, McDouglas?"
"That true, Tom?" Haffert asked in a wary voice, making little effort to hide the fact that his rifle was now pointing at the ice cream man. "You putting something funny in your gumballs?"
"I don't know what this fellah's talking about," Tom protested. "Those are just everyday, ordinary gumballs."
McDouglas lurched forward, and everybody repointed their rifles at him. Haffert fired a shot into the air, a few feet above Danny's head.
"Hold it, Danny," Duke called out. But the man kept coming and was soon only a few yards from the men. Reginald and Duke slowly backed off to Danny's left, while Tom inched off to the right. It seemed like McDouglas wasn't so intent on reaching them, but rather wanted to get to the kennel wall. Once he got there, he steadied himself by hooking one hand to the chain-linked fence. The dogs heard him rattle and began barking again.
"You're good puppies, aren't you poochies?" McDouglas asked the dogs in a sugary voice. "You remember your Uncle Danny?"
"What are you doing there, Danny boy?" Duke asked. Clearly, he was thinking the same thing they all were. What if McDouglas used his vaunted strength to tear open the wall and let loose the dogs?
In reply, McDouglas only sighed. He hooked another hand into the fence and then a foot. Hoisting himself up, he began to scale the fence.
"Danny. Christ, stop!" called out Haffert.
"Careful." Reginald warned. "If you get to the top.."
"I wanna live!" McDouglas called out. "Don't you understand? I WANNA LIVE!" The skinny man kept climbing and soon he was at the crest of the roofless structure. With a surprising agility he hopped up and balanced himself like a trapeze artist along the top of the fence. It was a feat no normal man could perform, and certainly not one who seemed as sickly as McDouglas.
"Goddamit, Danny!" Duke yelled, his eyes moistening as he watched his old friend gingerly steadying himself atop his perch. "What are you doing? The dogs will go crazy!"
Danny looked down at the sight of a dozen hungry hounds, all leaping upward in hunger driven frenzy. Again he spoke in a baby-talk voice. "Yes, you boys are starving aren't you? You haven't been fed in so long. You want Uncle Danny to feed you, don' you?"
Haffert ran to the fence and looked up at McDouglas. "Danny, for Lord's sake, stop!"
"Don't do this, McDouglas," Tom called out. "Not this way."
Briefly, Danny McDouglas turned his attention away from the baying dogs. He looked over at the three men beneath them and smiled. He raised both of his arms up and for the briefest instant seemed to mimic the appearance of the crucifixion. Then his body went limp and he toppled over into the kennel.
There was a pronounced thud as he hit the ground and then a moment of silence. Then the dogs, the hungry, salivating dogs, fell into an orgy of consumption over the new piece of meat that had been tossed their way. Tom, Reginald and Duke cringed as they heard the sounds of flesh ripping, bones cracking and Danny McDouglas crying out in unimaginable pain. No man had the courage to approach the cage and look between the wooden slats to view the slaughter. After several minutes, the sounds of the feast were replaced with canine yelps and growls as the dogs scuffled over the leftover pieces of what had just recently been a human being.
Duke wiped tears out of his eyes, "Why?" he asked. "Why would he do that?"
"I don't get it," said Reginald. "He said he wanted to live. and then he just killed himself. It doesn't make any sense."
"None of this makes any sense," Tom said forlornly. "Timmy falls to pieces but Danny kills himself. Ain't no rhyme or reason to what's happening."
"Tom," Reginald began, trying to limit any note of accusation in his voice. "Why did he think it was the gumballs?"
"I don't know, I swear I don't! As much as I know they're just ordinary gumballs."
"I believe you," Reginald replied. "But, if. there is something wrong with them.well, how many people are we talking about?"
"You m-mean.?" Tom stuttered.
"How many people ate them?" Reginald clarified.
"Everybody ate the damn gumballs!" Duke interjected. "Everyone loved 'em!"
"Did you?" asked Reginald
"Hell no, boy!" spat out Haffert. "I ain't some gumball chewing fairy! Besides, I been locked with you for the past four days. You know that."
"Right, ok," Reginald replied, trying to calm down the angry redhead.
For a minute, the three men stood in the glare of Tom's headlights, not speaking. Finally Tom piped up. "What do we do now?"
"We need help," Reginald said. "We can't handle this alone."
"But the phones are down," Tom replied. "We can't call nobody."
"You're right," said Reginald. "We need to get out of town. We need to get to Delsburgh."
"But what about people here?" Haffert asked. "They got this. sickness going round, and they don't even know it."
"There's nothing we can do for them," Reginald said. "I think what we just saw proves that. We need the police, the National Guard, something!"
"The Guard!" Tom interjected. "They're supposed to be coming here to help look for Tricia and Ted."
"Well, they ain't showed up yet, have they?" thundered Haffert.
"No," Tom replied. "I guess we need to get them. Someone's got to understand what's happening here."
With that the three men walked over to Tom's truck and boarded it. He backed up out of the driveway of Haffert's salvage yard and pulled out into the night.
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