The Magic Gumball Machine, Pt VIII

By Wil Forbis

Click here for Part VII

Our Story so far: As various citizens of the small town of Honey Bluff erupt into homicidal, suicidal fervor, ice cream store operator Tom Humphries tries to escape with the rough and tumble Duke Haffert and quiet hitchhiker Reginald Washington.

Haffert and Tom sat in silence as the blue Dodge raced down Route 15 heading for the interstate highway that would take them to Delsburgh. Reginald Washington was seated in the truck bed behind them, cool night air blowing against his scalp. Tom gripped the steering wheel tightly and stared straight into the white lines of the passing lane that appeared as tiny dots in the horizon only to grow larger as they approached. For the briefest moment it felt as if the trio were piloting a spacecraft out of a Hollywood science fiction movie over a bed stars.

Haffert broke the silence. "God-damn." he muttered, "I've known Danny for going on twenty years, you know that Humphries?"

"Can't say that I did," Tom said in return.

"He was always a little crazy - I mean, not like we saw tonight- but always ready to push things a little over the edge. But he was a good guy. Loyal. You saw how he stood up for me when Hewly dragged me off."

"Mmmmm," Tom murmured in response to Haffert's spontaneous eulogy. Truth is, he'd never like McDouglas. For that matter, he'd never really taken to the gigantic redhead sitting in the cab with him. Tom had spent his years in Honey Bluff trying to keep an eye out for folk, especially young folk. Haffert, McDouglas and company, with their carousing and drinking were what people referred to as a "bad element."

As if he'd read Tom's mind, Duke announced, "Goddamn, I could use a beer."

"No time for that," Tom scolded. "I dunno what's happening around here but we gotta stay sharp."

"Ha!" Haffert snorted. "From what I hear, that exactly your strong suite!"

Tom's eyes took on a curious squint, as if he was clueless to what Haffert was referring to. But he was not bold enough to ask the man for an explanation.

"Don't worry about it, old man," Duke volunteered. "Ain't nobody gonna fault you. We all like different flavors, you know?"

Tom didn't reply, but he understood Haffert's insinuation. Figuring that the less he conceded to Haffert the better, Tom focused his attention back on the road. They were only a mile away from the highway turnoff.

Tom was back to counting white lines when Haffert called his attention again. "What's that?" he asked. He was pointing a burly finger off into the distance, well beyond the stretch of road illuminated by the glare of Tom's headlights.

"I don't see anything," Tom replied.

"Look at the tree line. We're heading straight into it."

Haffert was correct. There was a thick line of foliage on either side of the road, but it had been clearly separating as the truck sped forward. However, as Haffert was pointing out, it wasn't separating anymore. About a hundred yards up the tree line on each side was meeting in the center of the road.

"What the heck?" Tom grunted. He sped up slightly, his curiosity piqued by what could cause such an anomaly. Within seconds, they started to see the creeping plantlike growth that was reaching out onto their path. First it was just the occasional vine or an overreaching brush of berries. Then the trees themselves began to hang over the road, like plant siblings from each side yearning to reunite. Popping sounds were heard as the truck ran over the green organs which were now covering most of the street. Thorny brushes violently clawed the exterior of the vehicle as it drove past. As he pressed forward into the thicket of viney overgrowth and bulbous briar, Tom eased the Dodge into a crawl hoping that a clearing would emerge allowing them to get to the highway. But the foliage only thickened until it finally blocked any attempt at forward movement. Tom shifted the truck into neutral and rolled it to a stop. The headlights illuminated the grove of colorful, oozing plant life directly ahead of them.

"Holy shit!" Haffert said, giving voice to the confused wonder in both their minds. He grabbed his rifle and popped open his door. Tom immediately followed.

"Reginald? You alright?" Tom looked back at the truck bed. The young man athletically hopped over the steel truck rail and landed on the ground.

"This is insane," Reginald exclaimed. "I've never seen anything like this."

The men had driven into what could almost be described as a giant plant cocoon. In every direction but back was a wall of plant life. Some of the vegetation was familiar fauna that Tom and Haffert had seen their whole lives. But mixed in were several species that neither man had come across either in life or books.

"How could. how could.?" Tom stammered.

"How could this happen all of a sudden?" Haffert piped in, finishing the thought. "I was out on this road just last week and none of this was here!"

"It's impossible." Tom said. "This sort of thing is just impossible!"

"This seems to be a night of impossibilities," Reginald mused, closely inspecting some of the weird purple berries that poked through the undergrowth. Spattered at his feet was the brownish pitch that the berry leaves were dripping onto the asphalt.

Tom shone his flashlight deep into the depth of intertwining plants ahead of them. "We're stuck," he grimly announced. "There's no way we can get through all this to get on the highway."

Reginald raised an eyebrow. "There's got to be another way to Delsburgh."

"Sure," said Haffert. "But we've got to go all the way back into town."

"He's right," confirmed Tom. "Not my favorite option, but that's what we're gonna have to do."

The group took a final moment to observe the wondrous but alarming agrarian splendor that that lay in front of them and then boarded the truck. Throwing the Dodge into reverse, Tom retreated out of the foliage. Once he was able, he turned the truck around and began driving back in the direction they'd come from.

As Tom drove, Haffert shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "You thinking what I'm thinking, Humphries?" he asked.

"About what?"

"That them plants back there. it almost seemed like they grew up just to stop us. or anybody from leaving town."

"That did occur to me," Tom confirmed.

"And don't that make you wonder why we think we'll be able to find another way out?"

Tom wanted to leave the question unanswered, but Duke wasn't the type to let such a thought like that hang in the air. "Don't it, Tom!" he thundered in a voice half bear, half frightened child.

"It makes a person wonder," Tom wearily agreed. He'd learned that when dealing with life's problems it was best not to think too far in advanced. Things just went smoother if you worked on solving the immediate crisis, then whatever came next and eventually you'd work your way up to tackling the big picture. This was something Tom had first learned in the army, but he'd -

"Look out!" cried Haffert. At that moment, Tom saw something leap out from the side of the road. It clipped the front fender causing a burst of crimson to spurt upwards drenching the windshield. That was followed by a thud as the thing - whatever it was - landed on the hood of the truck, splintering the window and blocking most of Tom's vision. It was brown, hairy and alive; making a horrible series of squealing noises and staring directly into the cab with a pair of screaming eyes. There was a bump and the truck stumbled. Struggling to see through the limited clearing in the windshield Tom spotted a tall shadow arching above them, twenty, fifteen, ten feet in the distance. He dared not stomp on the brakes as he knew that would send Reginald flying out the back. By applying a measured pressure the truck began coming to halt. They were only going ten miles an hour when the Dodge crashed into the telephone pole that had been towering before them. The impact was enough to send the creature flying off the hood and into the street.

The truck engine had stalled, but headlights continued to pierce the nighttime darkness, illuminating the steam rising from underneath the hood. Steam rose out from underneath the hood of the Dodge. Both Tom and Duke jumped out of the truck and Tom ran around to the back. "Reginald, you okay?"

Reginald stood up in the truck bed, holding his head. "Banged my skull up a bit. What the heck happened back there?"

Looking back at his skid marks, Tom was able to get a clearer picture of what had happened. After that creature had leapt atop them, the truck had run up onto the sidewalk. With his vision obscured, Tom had barely had enough time to stop at the telephone pole. All in all, things could have been worse. A lot worse.

"Over here!" Haffert shouted. He'd found the bloody creature lying on the road and was nudging it with the barrel of his rifle. It was emitting hair-raising howls mixed in with spastic wheezing - the sound of lungs filling with fluid. Amidst that disconcerting sound Tom took notice of something else. A light tapping could be heard echoing off in the distance.

Tom and Reginald tentatively joined Haffert around the felled animal. With its crumpled bones and torn limbs they could barely recognize the animal as a deer. Still alive, it was making a convulsive jerking motion every couple of seconds.

"Jesus Christ, I'd swear the thing just jumped out at us," Tom said.

"You ain't kidding," Haffert agreed. "Damned thing was trying to commit suicide!"

The deer snorted and a thin arterial spray of blood misted the air.

"You better put it out of its misery, Duke," Reginald said, eyeing the burly man's rifle.

"Shit - you right," sighed Duke. "This fellah'll be better off. Whaddaya think Tom? Should I get him from behind the neck or between the eyes?"

"Hold on a sec," Tom cautioned. "I've never seen anything like this before." He was pointing to the animal's belly.

The deer was covered by a matted coat of hair, as would be expected by any animal that had lived it's life in the Honey Bluff woods. But around the creature's underbelly his fur coat started to mutate into a greenish, speckled membrane, similar to a snakeskin. Further along, even that mysterious growth morphed into something even more improbable. At the base of the creature's stomach appeared to be. flowers. Literally growing out of a live animal.

"What the hell?" Duke exclaimed. "It's like a damned garden." He prodded at the area with his gun, trying to see whether the inflorescence were actually attached to the mammal or merely stuck onto it. The pained whimper the deer gave seemed to allude that these plants were indeed a part of it.

Tom's eyed were wide open in surprise. "I've never. never heard about anything like this. Have you either of you?"

Duke spoke up. "Shit, I heard of one fellah once, he managed to get a plant growing out of his hand. It was in that Ripley book, you know what I'm talking about?"

"Yeah, 'Ripley's Believe It or Not,'" Reginald confirmed. "But I don't think it was anything like this. This guy looks like he's halfway turned into a plant."

The deer gave a spastic jerk, once again letting out an unsettling cry of pain.

"No point dragging it out for the poor guy," Tom advised. "You best finish him off, Duke. Between the eyes."

Duke once again placed the muzzle against the deer's skull. Tom and Reginald looked away and waited for the sharp report of the rifle. Death was instantaneous. Then the three men dragged the creature off to the side of the road and walked back to the truck.

It was Duke who first noticed that the left front wheel seemed to several inches in the air.

"Awwww, no," he muttered.

"Looks like the axle's bent," Reginald observed. "This could be bad."

Tom gave the Dodge a friendly pat on the hood. "Heck, I've had this one for over 15 years. She's still got plenty of life in her."

Duke was leaning down, peering at the undercarriage. "I dunno, Humphries, this don't look good. Must've gotten twisted on impact. Hand me a flashlight."

Reginald retrieved one of the police lamps from the cab and handed it to Haffert who was now lying halfway underneath the truck, tinkering. Tom knew the salvage yard owner was mechanically minded and let him do what he could to assess the situation.

The group hadn't seen another vehicle on the road since they'd left the police station over a hour ago. But Tom still thought it might be worthwhile to step out into the road and see if he could flag down some help. Once he got a few feet away from the truck's piercing light, his eyes started adjusting to the darkness and he realized that they had made it to the outskirts of town. Only thirty feet ahead, across the street was Nell Mosely's home and a dozen yards past that, Aplonski's Barber Shop and Drug Emporium. Squinting his eyes, Tom was able to make out the motion of the door to the druggist's shop fluttering open and closed.

"Queer," Tom thought. He looked back at the other two men, both of whom seemed consumed with the task of appraising the damage to the truck. He walked back over, opened the cab door and retrieved the second flashlight and one of the police pistols, both of which he tucked into his belt. "I'm going to run over to the barbershop," he announced. "If Miller or Neil are there, they might be able to help us out."

"Mr. Humphries, I'm not sure we should be separating," Reginald worriedly replied. "It's been a pretty weird night. Maybe you should wait for us to come with -"

"I'll be fine," Tom retorted with just a hint of nuisance to his voice. "I'll be back in jiffy."

"Let him go," Haffert announced from underneath the truck and it was enough to convince Reginald to cease his protestations.

Flicking on the flashlight, Tom crossed over the street and began walking to the drugstore. From a distance there were no candlelight visible and no signs of life within. The only sound with flapping of the front door as it open and closed in the wind.

It was only a few minutes until Tom was walking up to the porch that served as an entrance to the shop. Bill Miller's chair lean against the wall and next to that, his chaw bucket. Tom caught the door as it fluttered open and peered his head into the shop. "Hello," he called out. "Anyone here?" No reply came forth.

Tom stepped into the barbershop. While the room was basking in a rich moonlight, Tom still felt a need to run the flashlight across the walls for further illumination. Bill Miller kept a clean shop. Towels were neatly stacked in one corner, and his clipping supplies were hung in place. The checkerboard floor was neatly swept and the-  

What was that? Tom's ear caught the barest murmur of sound. It sounded like the quietest of moans coming from somewhere within in the building. The tone caught Tom's attention as much as the noise itself. It sounded less like someone in pain and more like a sexual dalliance. Had he been in almost any other building in town this might not have been a surprise. However, the only resident in this house was Neil Aplonski, a man who was always assumed to have been incapable of claiming partners. It was well known throughout the town that the crocodile that had devoured Aplonski's legs below the knees had also taken what some men viewed as their most important organ.

Tom had no desire to embarrass anyone so he rapped loudly against wall and again called out. "Anyone here? Neil?" Still, there was no reply. And whatever sounds Tom thought he'd heard ceased.

Tom made his way though the barbering area and through the swinging doors that guarded the hallway leading to Aplonski's office. The doors creaked as he passed through, clearly announcing his movement. Still Tom heard no repeat of the moans. He walked down the hall and arrived at the door to druggist's office. It was closed but not locked. Tom opened the door and peered inside. In opposition to Bill Miller's tidiness, Aplonski's office was a mess. Files lay scattered across his large wooden desk, intermixed with magazines and several pens. Behind the desk was Aplonski's stock. Tom's eyes scanned the names of the medicines, curious as to whether he'd come across something he recognizance.

Then again! That sound, an undeniable moan. This time Tom could not ascertain whether it was pain or pleasure that caused the noise to emanate from its owner's throat. Was Neil in the building? Hurt? Dying? Tom wrapped five clammy fingers around the handle of the pistol and pulled it out of his belt. The sound - whatever it was - had come from behind him. He turned and quietly walked out to the hallway. Across from the entrance to Aplonski's office was another doorway, one that Tom assumed led to the Aplonski's bedroom. The door was closed. Placing an ear close to the surface, Tom listened for any sound emanating from within. Silence. He pondered whether he should knock but decided against it. In the events of the past few days losing the element of surprise had always been a mistake.

Using his gun hand, Tom grabbed the doorknob, turned it and thrust the door open. The room was cast in a luminescent white glow from the moon. It was indeed a bedroom. Three of the fours wall had bookshelves against them, filled with volumes of medical text. Crumpled pieces of paper were scattered across the wooden floor. A black and white television was seated on a stand in one corner, next to a desk that was piled high with the leftover packaging of old TV dinners.

Casting the flashlight around the room Tom looked for signs of life. It didn't take long. Neil Aplonski was seated in his wheelchair with a squirming, struggling child in his lap. It was young Bartholomew Henderson. The boy was completely naked in Aplonski's clutches. Neil's left hand was over the boy's mouth while his right covered the child's groin. And nothing could hide the look of shock Aplonski wore across his face.

Tom's mind reeled at the sight. Time slow to a crawl as he tried to comprehend what he was seeing. Then he acted.

"Bastard!" Tom screamed and lurched at the man and his captive child. With two steps he was across the room and approaching the cripple. Aplonski  removed his hands from the child and Bartholomew leaped of the man's lap. Tom grabbed the muzzle of the pistol and raised it above him like a club.

"They. they made me." the bearded druggist pleaded.

Tom brought the pistol handle down hard against the man's skull. A three-inch split appeared on his scalp and rosy cruor started to flow down his face. Aplonski screamed, and begged Tom not to strike him again.

Tom swung the bludgeoning weapon a second time, this time across Aplonski's jaw. There was a sharp cracking sound. Two teeth leapt into the darkness.

The rage that had filled Tom subsided ever so slightly. He raised the pistol again, then paused. Half of Aplonski's face was covered in blood. It only parted where the tears he was crying flowed forth. With his head hanging to one side, he looked up at Tom. "Th-they came here. They wanted this!"

The rage again filled Tom's heart. He'd heard of people like this - child molesters with their perverse desires. But to realize that one had been right underneath his nose all this time was too much to take. He prepared to take another swing at Aplonski.

Suddenly Tom received a jarring blow to his solar plexus. He crumpled, cursing himself for assuming Aplonski to be so defenseless. Had the druggist kicked him? No, that didn't make sense. Then someone else? Tom didn't have much time to consider the thought before another crushing blow took him on the side of the head.

He lay on the floor for an instant, fighting off unconsciousness before regaining his senses. He quickly rolled over, struggling to get himself out of the range of his legless attacker. Sitting up, he was able to locate the flashlight, but the pistol was no longer in his possession. Pulling himself upright, he shone the light at the shape of Neil Aplonski who was sitting, unmoving in the center of the room.

The druggist's arms lay by his side and a trickle of blood was pooling on the Southwestern style blanket he kept on his lap, covering his missing appendages. At first Tom thought the blood was from the wounds he had inflicted, but then he realized better. A pair of hypodermic needles were sticking out of Aplonski's face, one in each eye. He was dead.

"Bart?" Tom called out. "You okay, fellah?" No one could possible blame the child for what he had done. Not after he'd fallen prey to Aplonski's sickening whims.

But the child was nowhere to be seen. Had he run past Tom to the outer hallway? Or gone out the side window that so grandly let the moon shine into Aplonski's disheveled apartment? Tom was still feeling the effects of the blows and steadied himself by gripping the bedroom's doorframe. As he directed the flashlight beam over the oak flooring something caught his eye. Aplonski had bled enough that a puddle of blood had gathered at the base of his wheelchair. And only a few inches away from that pool were the clear red footprints of a child's feet. Tom ran the light across the floor and was able to literally track Bart's movement across the room. He'd walked past the window and arrived at the wall separating Aplonski's bedroom from the outer barbershop. And then what? Gone through it? No, gone up it! The bloody footprints literally ran up the wall and headed towards the top right-hand corner of the ceiling, and area that was missed by the moon glow and shrouded in shadow. Tom aimed his flashlight directly towards it.

The sight before him was one that defied explanation. Hidden in the corner were three children: Bartholomew, Skeeter and Leroy. Each child was naked and seemed at first to be literally sticking to the wall and ceiling but Tom quickly realized that they were holding themselves in place with a superhuman strength. They three of them were meshed together and had the appearance of a tangle of small fleshy limbs and torsos locked together in an orgiastic fury. 

"Aw, shit," said Leroy. "Unka Tom saw us."

"Goddamit, Uncle Tom," admonished Skeeter. "Why'd you have to look up here?"

"Yeah," added Bart. "Just when we was having so much fun!"

"Oh well," Skeeter sighed. "Guess we'll have to kill you."

The voices the children spoke in had a mucousy, guttural quality - perverse parodies of their normal intonation. And with each word spoken, is dark mist of spittle would be ejected from the speakers mouth and disappear into the night air.

Tom felt his legs weaken and had to lean back on the bedroom wall to hold himself upright. His mind was wracked with a thousand questions but he dared not give them voice. It was clear that the children had attacked him and killed Neil Aplonski. And they too had been struck with the same sickness that had corrupted Timmy Thompson and Danny McDouglas. But while Timmy and Danny had seemed unsteady in their conversion, Skeeter, Leroy and Bartholomew had readily adapted to their new state.

"Hey, Tom," Bart called out from his corner perch. The child opened his mouth and a projected forth a three-foot long tongue. It sliced through the air and then returned to the soggy confines of the child's mouth.

"That's no fair," pouted Leroy. "I didn't get no tongue!"

"Shuddup Leroy," admonished Skeeter. "Wouldn't be no fun if we was all the same. Hey, Bart, since you get the tongue, you be the one you gets rid of Uncle Tom!"

"Okie-Dokie," Bart agreed. He unraveled himself from the other youths and flexed his leg and arm muscles. Then he shot forward, arching across the room and bounding off the opposing wall, like a flying wrestler gathering momentum in the ring. In mid air he rolled into a ball and landed squarely on Tom's chest.

Tom felt his ribs groan upon the impact and saw the flashlight fly out of his hand. The air in his lungs was immediately expelled and he slid down the wall, legs askew. He felt like a deflated balloon gasping for the air it needed to keep its shape. Any sort of movement causes a dry pain to light his lungs on fire.

After impact, Bart bounced backed into the air, did a reverse summersault and landed on Neil Aplonski's queen sized bed. Once there he commenced leaping up and down on the mattress, lost in childlike ecstasy.

"Yay," Bart said and then turned a dark stare toward the old man lying against the wall holding his stomach. "You shouldn't have stopped us, Tom. Uncle Neil was showing us all sorts of things. We was having a good ol' time."

"Yeah," agreed Leroy, still mounted with Skeeter in the corner ceiling. "A good ol' time!"

"My pa used to have me play with Uncle Neil all the time," said Skeeter. "That's why Uncle Neil would give him his medicines. But I never liked it like I did tonight."

"B-but you killed him," Tom gasped, pointing a finger at the skewered eyes of the druggist.

"Playtime was over," Bart said. "We gots work to do."

"That's right, work to do," repeated Leroy.

"Shuddup, Leroy," said Skeeter. "Bart, stop kidding around."

Bart cast an angry look up at the child who had clearly become the leader of the group in Timmy's absence. He stopped jumping on the bed and hopped onto the floor. Once there he spied something of interest on the ground and picked it up. It was the police pistol that had been knocked from Tom's grip and skittered across the floor. Bart took the weapon in both of his tiny hands and pointed it at Tom's head.

"Hey, Tom, wanna play cowboys and injuns?" the child asked, taking aim at the crumpled man lying against the wall. "You can be an injun!"

"Bart. no." Tom wheezed, though even the effort of talking caused the fire to return to his lungs.  Tears began to well up in his eyes.

"C'mon, Tom," whined the gun-toting ten year old. "Injuns are supposed to cry." He cocked the hammer on the revolver.

"Quit foolin'" commanded Skeeter. "Do it!"

Tom honed in on the face of the child, a face without sympathy or concern. Bart appeared to regard the unrolling events as a game to be played. Tom had thought about how he might go - heck, who hasn't? But he'd never imagined it would be at the hands of a child. And certainly not one he'd watched grow up and considered a friend.

Tom's stomach tightened as he heard the gunshot, followed by the sound of splintering wood. He waited for a sensation of pain to rise up and inform him where he'd been hit. It never came and he realized the shot had missed him but struck the wall two feet away from his head.

"Sheeeiiitt" cackled Skeeter. "That's the worst shot I ever seen. Boy, Bart, you aim like a girl."

"Shut up!" fumed Bart, holding the smoking gun in one hand. "I'm gonna do this!" He took a few steps forward and again raised the pistol. This time he was right in front of the bedroom window and the cold, sweet moonlight cast his body in stark black and white. Bart closed one eye and focused on lining the sight with the damp spot right above Tom's nose.

Tom knew he had to gather the strength to move; his life literally depended on it. He was sitting only a few feet from the door. If he could somehow get through before Bart fired another shot, then he could. what? They would easily get him in the hallway and finish him off like a cat tired of torturing his mouse. Still Tom propped both arms against the floor and tensed his muscles. Through his tear stained vision he watched Bart's trigger finger. With one simple movement, Bart had the ability to end Tom's life. The quivering digit was lightly wrapped around the trigger as Bart lined up the shot. One simple move. One simple move.

The finger squeezed! Tom push out with his right arm, launching himself sideways.

This time the shot seemed louder and Tom was again heard the splintering of wood as the bullet went through the wall where his head had been.

"Dammit, he ducked! That not fair, Tom, injuns ain't suppose to do that." Bart fumed about missing the second shot.

"Oh, 'fer Jesus's sake!" said an exasperated Skeeter. "Do I have to do everything?" He released his hold on the wall and fell to the floor, landing with the grace of a jungle cat. "Here, gimme the gun."

"No!" shouted Bart, eyes watering with rage. "It's me! I'm gonna do this!" He took a few more steps forward and raised the pistol. This time the muzzle was only a foot away from Tom's skull. Even a bad shot like Bart couldn't miss.

Tom looked up at the boy, searching for any sign of the child he'd once known. He saw only a petulant brat who was angry about losing a game Once again, Bart cocked the hammer and Tom realized the game was up. The sobs crawled up his throat and erupted in a disgraceful mix of snot and spittle. What would happen now? Would he go to heaven? Was there a heaven? Or had he somehow failed to satisfy the arcane rules of the creator and was now destined to a much worse fate? Tom closed his eyes, waiting for the fateful shot. Would he even hear it or would his brain be spattered across the wall before his ears even had the chance register the sound?

That question was seemingly answered when Tom heard the loud report of a weapon followed by the shattering of glass. He felt a warm pulpy liquid spatter across his face and hair. But it was followed by no pain. If this was dying, Tom decided, it wasn't so bad.

One second passed. Then another. A third. Tom, eyes still closed, felt no signs of fading consciousness. He was debating opening his eyes when he heard a far off voice.

"Tom! Are you all right?"

It wasn't one of the children. But it was familiar. Who?

"Tom?" the voice again called out, closer.

Dagnabbit! Tom's curiosity got the better of him. He opened his eyes and found himself looking into a brilliant white light. Was this it? Was he in heaven?

No, Tom realized. He was still in Aplonski's bedroom. The light was simply the moon shining through the shattered bedroom window. On the floor, just a few feet from him, lay the body of Bartholomew. He still clutched the pistol on one hand, but most the upper half of his head was gone. In its place was an open skull exposing brain matter and an oily slime.

Reginald appeared at the window. "He was going to shoot you, Tom. I had to take him out."

"W-what?" Tom stammered.

"We heard the shots, Tom. We came running across the field. I could see him clear as day aiming the pistol at you Tom. I had to do it."

Tom struggled to stand, finding that the air had finally returned to his lungs. "You saved my life," he said and then staggered over to the window, taking pains not to step in the goopy mire that had once been Bartholomew's head.

"Yeah," replied Reginald with a smile. "I guess I did. What happened in there?"

Tom didn't answer. He carefully looked about the room, a look of grave concern on his face.

"What is it?" asked Reginald. "What's wrong."

"They're gone," muttered Tom.


"C'mon. Meet me in the front." Tom walked out of the bedroom, down the hall and out onto the porch of the Emporium. Reginald was waiting and they were soon joined by the puffing figure of Duke Haffert.

"Everything all right?" Haffert gasped.

"Not really," Tom replied. He then recounted to the other men what he had experienced, taking care to clearly note the extraordinary abilities of the children.

"It's going around." Haffert concluded. "Whatever it is that got to McDouglas is spreading - it's making people crazy."

"But it was different with these boys," Tom added. "They didn't seem sick at all. They were strong."

"Remember what Danny was like before we saw him at the yard," Haffert reminded. "He broke out of the jail with his bare hands, killed Hewly and his boys without even trying. It could be Skeeter and his gang just haven't hit the bad part yet."

"So what do we do?" Reginald interjected. "I mean, about the bodies?"

"I'm staying as far away as I can from any one those fellahs." Haffert stated. "We don't know how this spreads and we shouldn't be taken no chances. In fact," Haffert paused and gave an intense look at his companions. "We need to be watching each other. One of us could start to turn."

The grim truth hung in air for several seconds, while each man considered his own scenarios of what it could mean. Finally Tom mumbled, "Let's go back to the truck."

Haffert stepped in front of the others. "Hold it. There's one more thing." He turned to Reginald, placing a hand on his shoulder "I saw you drop shoot that boy through the window from a good fifty feet. That was pretty impressive."

"Thanks," replied Reginald, a bashful look across his face.

"Reginald saved my life," Tom added.

"It was a mite too impressive, if you asked me," continued Haffert. "And it gets me thinking that you got something you ain't telling us." His grip on the young man's shoulder tightened.

Tom blanched at Haffert's suggestion. "Duke, there ain't no call for this."

"I never did understand why you was even here, Washington." Haffert said. "And I'm beginning to think I want to know."

Reginald swept his hand upward and brushed off Haffert's burly paw. Haffert grabbed at the boy with his other arm, but Reginald easily knocked it aside. Finally, Haffert all out swung at the man. Reginald caught his fist, turned and heaved Haffert into the air, sending him head over heels out into the dirt lot of the drug store.

Haffert landed and lay still for few seconds while making a series of animal-like groans. Finally, he rolled over, dusted himself off and got up. "I thought you'd do that," he announced. "And I think I've made my point. You ain't just some traveling dingleberry."

Tom had to agree that Haffert was on to something. Even during his years in the military he'd had never seen a fight play out in the manner he'd just witnessed. Reginald had dispatched his much larger attacker with a skill that bespoke of serious training.

Reginald, realizing he'd been tricked, took on a look of hurt anger, refusing to eye either of the men.

Tom stepped forth. "Reginald, you saved my life back there. I ain't gonna fault you for nothing, But if there's something you ain't telling us, something that could help us out in the long run, now's the time to speak up."

"I. I don't know," muttered Reginald.

Haffert ambled back over to the group. "Look, we gotta be able to trust each other. The truth is, we've gotten out of the scrapes so far by luck mostly. We don't have time to fool around. If you know something about what's going on, we need to know, now!"

Reginald signed. "Okay."

"For starters," Haffert said, "who are you?"

"Reginald Washington Cleghorn. Officer United States Air Force."

"I figgered something like that," Haffert said. "What else? You know anything about what's happening here?"

"Yes." Reginald said. "And no. It's all pretty confusing. Even after all this time I'm still not sure I can believe it myself. But I'll tell you what I know."

Click here for Part IX

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