The Magic Gumball Machine, Pt IX

By Wil Forbis

Click here for Part VIII

Our Story so far: As the town off Honey Bluff slowly descends into chaos, Tom Humphries joins the burly Duke Haffert and young Reginald Washington to investigate the mystery. But suddenly Reginald's past becomes suspect.

Tom fixed a serious stare at Reginald Washington as the young man shifted uncomfortably, toeing the dirt. He wouldn't be happy if it turned out Reginald had been lying to them - about anything.  But from their first meeting Tom had sensed a deep integrity in Washington and that was enough to make him to suspend judgment until he'd heard what the lad had to say. Perhaps Reginald could even help explain away a few of the many mysteries still hanging in the nighttime air.

Duke Haffert evidently had a similar hope, though he expressed it in a far less forgiving manner. "Ok - Spill it!" he commanded.

"I didn't want to keep secrets from either of you," Reginald began. "But believe me, if I'd said any of what I'm about to say before now, there's no way you would've believed me. Heck, I wasn't even sure I believed it myself. But after seeing what happened to Mr. McDouglas, and all those plants, and those kids..."

"We're prepared to listen to you," Tom said assertively. "But we've all got to trust each other here. And for that, there can't be any secrets."

"Right," sighed Reginald. "OK. Look, I've never been to Honey Bluff before. I lied about being related to... who was it?"

"Sadie Jefferson," answered Tom.

"The truth is, up until last week, I was gainfully employed as a member of the U.S. Army. My unit operated out of Ft. Dunnsworth, two states over."

"Sure, I've driven through there," Haffert interjected. "It's right out of Meadow Springs."

"Yeah, that's it," confirmed Reginald. "I've been signed up for the past three years, spent most of it working as a file clerk. It isn't the most exciting job in the world, but I've got another year to go and then I'm set up for college. Or, at least, I had a year to go. I imagine that's all shot to hell now..."

"Anyway, I always got the impression the top brass hardly even knew we were there. We never got summoned for anything and half of our equipment was broken down. Heck, if we'd just dropped of the face of the earth, I don't think anyone would have noticed. So we were all surprised when we our Sergeant gave word that we were being called up for a training mission. He gave barely six hours notice before we're supposed to leave. Told us to be ready for two chauffeured vans that'd pick us up in the morning."

"Personally, I was excited to, you know, actually be doing something. But my partner in the unit, a white kid named Kirby Lee, well, things didn't sit well with him. He was kind of a natural worrier and the Sarge really set Kirb's radar off when he told us we couldn't tell anybody about the mission. No calls to our parents, no yakking with other fellows on the base. That night, right before we hit the sack he said to me, 'Reggie, I got a bad feeling feeling about this.' I told him it was just his nerves. But I should've taken him more seriously."

"The next morning these vans arrive, we loaded ourselves into the back and already things seemed out of place. There were no windows and the front of the vehicle were closed off as well. I guess these were old police vans for transporting prisoners, and I think we all felt a bit like... like..."

"Like pigs going to slaughter?" Haffert asked helpfully.

"Yeah," exhaled Reginald. "Exactly like that. So we drove a couple hours, not having any idea where we're going, and finally we came to a stop. They let us out and it turned out we were at some type of military installation. But none of us had ever seen anything like it before. This place was state of the art. Cameras were mounted out in the open and recorded everything they saw. Soldiers walked around with little computer  screens hanging off the front of their shirts. Some of the vehicles even droves themselves. It wasn;t like anything I'd ever seen. 'Cept for a science fiction movie."

"Robots," Duke commented. "You're talking bout robots!"

Reginald ignored Haffert. "Anyway, they escort us to our bunker, we start getting settled and a new officer, Sergeant Green, walks in. This guy is right out of the John Wayne movies, short and stumpy like a pit bull. He screams at us for a bit, telling us how he won't take no backtalk and then order us to the infirm report for a medical examination. They had us strip down and line up one by one. A couple medics take our measurements and draw blood. Then they give us a handful of pills saying that we might come into contact with some airborne diseases during our mission and this is the only way to make sure we don't come down with something. There were no ifs ands or buts about it too - they made us wash down the pills with a glass of water right in front of them."

"At 1500 hours, they gave us a breakdown of what the training mission was going to be. To me, it didn't sound like anything special. It was a variation on the standard 'capture-the-flag' type of game. At 0400 the next morning, we'd get broken up into two teams, and each would start off at the one end of a forest area. The goal was to stake claim on a set of coordinates in the middle of the woods before the other group did."

"That night I couldn't sleep at all. I just felt, well, I can't think of any other word to describe other than 'alive.' It was like the blood was racing through my veins and I couldn't turn off the thoughts that were shooting through my brain. And I wasn't the only one. Lots of the other fellows were tossing and turning in their cots. And here's the thing - it wasn't just that we were excited, we were, you know... we had that feeling down below?"

"You were horny?" Duke asked. "You wanted to fuck?"

"Yeah, exactly," blushed Reginald. "I mean, sure, we were a bunch of young guys, it ain't like it's never been heard of. But for it to hit us all at the same time. that was a little strange. Even in the dark, you could tell some guys were making an effort to relieve themselves, you know what I'm saying?"

Tom smiled wryly. "Ok, I think we understand. Lets move it along."

"Before I knew it, it was morning and the Sergeant Green was going through our bunker telling us to get ourselves ready to go. I was practically chomping at the bit. But I looked over at Kirby and I could tell right away he wasn't doing so good. His skin was clammy and his eyes all bloodshot. I called over the Sarge but he didn't show any mercy. He demanded that every one of us gear up and get on the bus that would take us to our starting point. All I could do is tell Kirb I would watch out for him. The guy was my buddy."

"So they split the unit in half, six guys on one team and six on the other. Then it was back in the prison vans and they dropped each of us on one side of a forest area. They didn't tell us where were were, but we had the map to the coordinate we were supposed to capture. Sergeant Green said we'd find a radio there which we could use to call back to the base."

"Kirby and I were on Team A. We had some good guys. two twins, the O'Mally brothers, and then Private Rodriguez and the team leader, Private Donahue. We broke into a line and the O'Mallys marched about 50 feet ahead. Rodriguez had the map and we all had a good idea of what direction the point was in. All of us except Kirby, who was looking worse by the minute. I told him we'd find the coordinate and then he could head back to the camp for some R'n'R."

"It was dawn when we started out. An hour into it and there was daylight, but the forest on the morning is still pretty foggy. And there's a weird kind of calm to the place. The nighttime creatures are just settling down for bed and the day critters are still waking up. Still, none of us spoke because we knew how well sound can travel in the forest and we didn't want the other team to hear. If we had to switch direction Rodriguez would use hand signals to steer us along."

"By 0600, we we're closing in on the coordinate. Obviously our concern was that Team B could might ambush us to keep us from getting there first. Everyone perked up their ears, and it was Donahue who first heard it - some kind of cry off in the distance. It didn't seem right for Team B to announce their presence so clearly, and we all started to wonder if they're might be someone else around. Nonetheless, we kept moving. Within another twenty minutes we were at the coordinate. But there was one problem - no radio, no nothing."

"Now Donahue is usually a pretty together guy, but he doesn't take the turn of events well. He won't talk above a whisper but he starts going off on Rodrigue, telling him he's screwed up the coordinates and all that. But Rodriguez doesn't back down and it starts to look like they're going to tumble. Finally, Dan O'Mally says, 'Maybe the other Team got here first, maybe they took the equipment?' Now it was certainly a possibility, but in the back of our minds we're all starting to think that something doesn't feel right. Us getting called up without notice, driven out in closed off vans, and though no one wants to talk about it, that feeling we got in our bones. This feeling like we'll never have to sleep again, that we could take on a grizzly with our bare hands. And there was something else. Only way I can describe it is as if you were blind since birth and suddenly you could see, you know? Like you had this new sense thrust upon you and you didn't know what to make of it."

"But. what. I mean, what could you 'see' with this sense?" asked Haffert?

"At that point, nothing. I mean, nothing I could recognize. That came later. But we were standing there trying to figure out what's happening and Kirby finally pitches over. I'd been noticing he was looking sluggish, but it was hard to keep my mind on him with everything happening. But all of a sudden he hits the ground. We turn him over and can see he ain't looking too good. He's sweating through his fatigues and his skin is white. well, I mean whiter than usual. He's looking up at me and telling me how his insides are turning over in his belly and he's never felt so much pain in his life. The whole thing sets Donahue off again and he starts calling off into the forest, trying to get some help. But Rodriguez says that without the radio there's going to be no way to contact anyone and we'll have to carry Kirby out the way we came."

"You would have thought we had enough on our plate at that point, but then things were just getting started. Suddenly, we hear that same screaming we'd heard before, only this time it's louder and getting closer. It sounds human, but none of us would claim to be completely sure. We crouch down because we can hear him - it - coming out of the forest and we want to be ready. Rodriguez signals straight ahead, but it's pretty obvious - everyone can hear the trees rustling and the trigs snapping as this screaming banshee gets closer. And finally he bursts out of the foliage right into our lap."

"It was one of the guys from our unit who'd been assigned to Team B, named Ron Clover. He was a big guy, well past 6 feet, the kind of guy you didn't mess with. When I'd seen him the night before he was sharpening this bowie knife he kept in his boots. Now, he's covered in blood and black tar and stark naked, carrying that same knife in one hand. And the man has a look of absolute terror in his face as if he's fleeing from something that would strike fear into the devil himself."

"Once he comes through the brush, Donahue jumps up and calls at him. Clover sees him, but keeps on moving, it takes both the O'Mally twins to take him down. They sideswipe him and knock him to the ground, and wrestle the knife away from him but Lord, he's struggling. Once he knocks Pat O'Mally off him and gets half way up before Rodriguez literally has to kick him in the side to take the wind out of him. Finally, with the O'Mally brothers holding him down and Rodriguz sitting on him, we get Clover settled down. Of course nobody's too eager to touch him, the way he's covered with blood and that black oil and all, but that's what soldiers do, ain't it?"

"With the other's holding him down and while I watch over Kirby, Donahue starts questioning Clover. But there's just no getting past the fear that's taken its hold on the guy. He can't talk in complete sentences and just keeps screaming about how they're coming after him, how we're all going to die. Donahue starts getting pushed into a rage like I've never seen him, starts hitting on Clover, slapping him top try and get him to calm down, which is a method I've never actually seen work much. Finally, Donahue takes the butt of his rifle and smacks Clover across the forehead."

"Now I never liked Clover much, but he was like me, you know, and you can't just sit around when someone's beating your own. I get up from watching Kirby and throw myself against Donahue, knocking him against a tree. He starts screaming all over again, talking about a court marshall and this and that, and it's enough to the distract the O'Mally twins so that Clover can wrestle himself free. In a second he's up and running and were all looking at him as he makes for the section of heavy forest we'd just came from. I figure there's no point going after him and the O'Mally's are still picking themselves up off the ground, but Donahue has other ideas. Out of the corner of my eye, I see him pick up Clover's knife. He arches his arm back, the slings it forward, releasing it. Like a damn rocket it flies through the air, nailing Clover right between the shoulders. He topples forward, bounces off a tree and falls to the ground, not making a move."

"You ever had one of those moments where it seems like a whole year passes in one second? That's what it was like right then. I'd never seen anyone killed before, but Donahue had just taken Clover out without a second thought. And as far as I'd known, Donahue was never that handy with a knife. To hit a moving target that was a good thirty feet away seemed more than he was able."

"Donahue steps back and wipes his brow and starts trying to explain it away. 'Clover was crazy,' he tells us. 'He was danger to others and we couldn't let him get away.' But we're all thinking that Donahue just bought himself a world of trouble, not only ending his career but probably landing his ass in jail for a long time. I mean this was just supposed to be a game!"

"The O'Mally brothers are getting themselves up, looking wide eyed at Donahue as he rants. And Rodriguez is leaning against a tree. I head back over to check on Kirby and - surprise - he ain't there. I look up and I see Kirby walking off, just about to head in to the forest grove Clover came out of. 'Kirb!' I call out. He turns and looks at me. He gives me a smile and then trots into the coverage of the forest."

"I'm about to go after him, but Donahue calls at me. 'Let him go,' he orders, and I guess I let that be an excuse to stop me from doing what I should do. Whatever Kirby had in mind he was headed right in the direction that Clover was running from. It wasn't anywhere I wanted to go messing around."

"About this time, you would've figured it was getting light, but since dawn things hadn't changed much. This heavy fog had been coming in and now it had settled just above the trees, blocking off the sunlight. Heck, you'd think it would've been cold, but we were all warm, like we were stuck in some jungle down south. And the heat only makes Donahue worse - he starts mumbling to himself and intermittedly barking orders that don't make much sense. Finally, he comes up with a solution. He orders me to pair of with Pat O'Mally and head due north, the same direction Team A should be coming from. Tells us that we need to tell them that the games have been called off and that we need to either find that radio or all get the hell out of this place, fast. Now, or course, I didn't want to head into the same place Clover had just run from, but by looking at O'Mally I could tell we had the same idea. Once we got out of earshot we could double back and get out of here. So without question, Pat and I head into the foliage."

"Once we got out of earshot, O'Mally and I sit down and try and make sense of everything that's happening. We both got this feeling running through us, like our brain has geared up to overdrive and we got this fleeting sense of sights and sounds running through our head. We both decided it was those drugs they gave us back at the base. That's why everybody was feeling these reactions. The drugs. And me, I feel. itchy. Like there was some kind of bugs all over my body taking tiny bites out of me. Of course there ain't nothing there."

"Both the O'Mally's were kind of hillbilly sorts, always had a mouthful of chaw and all that, but of the two, Pat was definitely the smarter one. He had horse sense - wasn't about to get himself killed for following orders. So we both figure we can doubleback the way we came and find our way back to the road they dropped us off at, then maybe hitchhike from there."

"We start traveling quiet, and that lets all the forest sounds come through to our ears, even ones that seem like the must be miles away. We can hear the animals starting to scamper about, the trees branches shaking in their roots. We'd see some bird flying off and for a second - we're there - like we're were flying ourselves. Then both me and Pat start to hear something - this pounding, over and over. It's a real sound, but we do more than hear it, we feel the thud, right in our skull. It's coming straight ahead of us and we know they only way to make it stop is by shutting it off ourselves."

"Within a minute, we come across the source of the noise. It's Private Deedle, one of Team A. He's twenty feet ahead of us, on his knees, banging his head against a tree  with enough force to knock your average man senseless."

"We both move up close to the guy - we get about five feet away and take a long look. Deedle's jacket is torn down the back and we can see his skin. He's got those cuts, those wounds, just like you saw on your friend Danny, and they're oozing that black saliva. It's on his arms, his feet, everything we can see."

"I call out, 'Deedle!' Once, a second time, and suddenly he stops. And with that, the banging in our heads stops too. Deedle's still facing the tree but we can hear him breathing hard, but funny, like with this heavy wheeze. O'Mally screws up some courage and puts his hand on Deedle's shoulder. Deedle turns, and we see what happened to him. His face, his skin is literally falling apart, broken open with cracks and crevices oozing that dark go. He looks at us and says, 'Why.. why can't I die?'"

"I thought O'Mally and I had been holding thing together pretty well up to that point, but then we just lost it. Both of us take off running, and a couple dozen seconds into it that beating starts up again, like some kind of jungle drum. We both know what it means."

"Finally after a couple minutes of crazed running through the jungle, my nerves start to settle and I come to a halt. But looking around I realize that I've lost O'Mally and I don't have any idea what direction I've been going in. Even more, that tingling on my skin is getting worse. I got it all over my body and I even got this feeling like little bugs are crawling into my mouth, my nose, my ears. But still, I knew there wasn't anything really on me."

"I get walking for a couple more minutes, trying to fight off the panic of not knowing where I was. The heat and the itching gets me to strip of my jacket down to my undershirt. And while it's happening, I start seeing the craziest things. The leaves on the trees start looking like they're moving on their own. The fogs starts making faces in the air. I can hear the movement of little insects as the crawl up the trees. And while I know, what I'm seeing ain't really happening, it seems real just the same."

"Then, something just hits me. I just get this sense that Kirby Lee is nearby, I can't explain it, but I can't explain most of what I've seen at that point. So I starting looking around, trying to get some pinpoint of where his was. The fog has lowered even further so know it's hard to see too far ahead. But it's like I got this compass in my head, something that'll lead me to him. And I even start to sense what he's feeling, it's like this bliss running through his body, as if the sickness he's feeling is gone and he's all right."

"I keep stumbling around and finally I can see him up ahead. He's lying, face down on a mossy bank, right underneath a Hedge Maple. 'Kirb!' I call out. And I hear him answer, but it's not out loud, it's in my head. 'Reggie,' he says. 'It feels so good'"

"As I get closer I'm trying to see if he's moving, but I can't get any sense of it. Finally I'm standing over Kirby and I notice something. He's covered with ants, they're swarming all over him, in his neck, his hair, and marching in and out of his jacket and clothes. I reach over and turn him over, knowing what I'm going to see. The ants are eating him one little bite at a time. They'd pretty much worked the first layer of skin off his face, I can't really recognize him any more. But I see them moving in and out of his nose, his ears, carry what look like. little pieces of brain out of his head."

"'Reggie..' He says agains. 'It feels so goooooooodddd..'"

"Well, at that point, I had about enough. My brain had taken all it could for day and I just fell right over, passed out. There's only so much you can handle, you know."

"But as I'm lying there, well, that's when the dreams hit me. Suddenly it's like I'm in the heads of everyone other man. I see Donahue go crazy, pulling the knife from Clover's body and go after Rodriguez and David O'Mally, killing them both before gutting himself and falling over. I can see Deedle as he finally cracks his skull open and the senses go dull. I can just barely touch into the minds of the rest of the other Team, lying there, barely alive from whatever they've done to each other. It's only a matter of time, I figure, before I go as well."

"But then, suddenly the visions take me to a whole different place. Then I'm not in the forest at all, suddenly I'm watching flashes of people, faces, signs, buildings. all racing past me like slide projector."

"Faces of who?" Tom asked.

"Of you!" Reginald replied. "And you," he added, pointing to Haffert. "And I knew, somehow I knew you were all in Honey Bluff. And that I had to get there."

"Well, that don't make no sense," interjected Haffert. "You'd never heard of this place."

"You're right," Reginald agreed. "But not much of what had happened made much sense at that point. I don't know how long I was out, but after a while the visions, everything in my head just faded away. When I woke up, I wasn't in the forest any more, I was lying in a hospital bed. My vision was blurry, but I could hear people talking and they stuck needles in me and watched their computers. They couldn't understand why I was alive, why I'd survived. And then I could feel everything slowing down again and I faded out. When I came to again, at first I had no idea where I was. My arms and legs wouldn't move and I was covered with some kind of plastic sheet. It took a couple moments til I realized I was in a body bag."

"I could tell I was moving -  like I was in one of the vans again. After awhile, everything stopped. I hear voices and these two guys get out and drag me out. A blade pops through the sheet and the cut the bag open. I just no they ain't gonna be top happy to find me alive, so I keep my eyes shut and do the best I can to fake it. I feel them swing me, and then release, and I'm flying through the air. It seemed like forever, but it must have been only a few seconds or so. I hit the ground hard and tumble down a hill, finally stopping short at a small creek. But even then I make sure not to look like I'm still alive. At leats not il I hear the sound of that truck drive off."

Tom spoke up. "So they took you for dead, you figure?'

"That's the only way I can explain it," Reginald said. "I must've come really close. But something about what they gave us. just like it amped us up, it brought us down too."

"And these pills you talk about. You kow what they are?"

"Can't say that I do," replied Reginald. "Nothing I'd ever felt before."

Duke Haffert stroked his beard. "You thinking something, Tom?"

"I imagine what we're all thining," the ice cream purveyor answered. "McDouglas said it was the gumballs. What if my gumballs are the same things they gave to Reginald and his crew."

"It makes sense," said Reginald. "We both had the same reactions. Some of us got sick, like Kirby-"

"And Timmy Thompson," Tom added.

".And some of us went crazy."

"Like Danny!" added Haffert.

"But they all died," said Tom. "Why didn't you?" he asked Reginald.

"I dunno," he replied. "I'm not sure I want to think about it. I expect I came pretty close. But I never fought with what was in me, you know? I just let it run it's course."

"But," Haffert said. "If it's in them gumballs. How'd it get there?"

"That," replied Tom. "Is the question of the year."


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