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Shortlist Saturdays: Gumballs by Rene F. Tyo

That toy called to her. It wasn’t anything special: likely only cost four bucks brand new. However, something about this old gumball machine made Nathalie do a double take. Now, a little over a week later, she still couldn’t decide if the thing was a blessing or a curse; and because of it, she had a decision to make.


               It started for Nattie at a local garage sale while hunting for a cheap gift for her soon-to-turn-six niece. Tilda was a wonderful girl, and Nattie wished she could see more of her. Showing up empty-handed like last year wouldn’t go over well. Her older sister, Josie, had torn a strip off her for it, and she still felt the emotional scar. Josie seemed to forget the struggles of post‑secondary education—the meals of ramen noodles or Mac ‘n’ Cheese, running back and forth from waitressing to classes in an effort to make ends meet.  Nattie figured she should probably cut her sister some slack: she did have another daughter, Samantha, who, even now, was in the hospital with a debilitating condition.

               Nattie lifted the bauble in her hand and studied it. There were no openings on the bottom that enabled the gumballs to be deposited inside. No screws evident; it was one solid piece—a red base with a round globe. The sphere’s glass was opaque from age or grime. Inside, she guessed, were twenty or more gumballs. Many split and crumbling. The balls had some sort of print on them, nothing she could read; certainly not English. The front of the machine had a coin slot, turn knob, and a chute for the balls to run out. Nattie was intrigued by her find. As old as it was, she decided she had to have it.

               Nattie walked up the driveway to an older woman who sat in a worn lawn chair watching the shoppers. “I’ll take this off your hands, ma’am, but there’s no price like most of the other items.”

               The old girl regarded Nattie with a surprised expression—almost frightened—by what Nattie had shown her. 

        “That ain’t mine, never seen it ‘fore today. Where’d you get it?” she asked as she scooted back into her chair and shooed Nattie away with a few harsh flicks of her wrist.

               “Uh… right there, ma’am, on the table at the end. I fou—”

               “Take it and be gone would ya? Tol’ ya, it ain’t mine. Now go!”

               “Uh… OK, but at least let me give you a few doll—”

               “I said take it, ya silly tit! Take it and skedaddle.”

               Nattie did as the old woman suggested.


               Back at her modest apartment, Nattie further inspected her acquisition. She didn’t see any way to get into it. She’d tried numerous coins in the slot. A dime disappeared for a brief moment, but the crank didn’t release a gumball. Nattie turned the machine upside down, and the offending coin dropped out. Finally, desperate, she ran to her bedroom and opened the nightstand. Rummaging around, she found four old pennies. Nattie looked at the coin receiver: the pennies looked to be the right size. She slid one in; it fell into place with ease. She turned the crank, and a misshapen gumball loaded into the delivery chute. It rolled over then stopped, lodged in the narrow passage. Nattie made her way to the kitchen, opened her junk drawer and fished out a screwdriver. With the tool, she popped the gumball out.  

                The writing on it wasn’t anything she could read, merely shapes and symbols: 杀死蠕虫. Chinese she guessed.  Perplexed yet exhausted, her weariness won out. Nattie went to bed.


Punctuality wasn’t one of Nattie’s strong suits, so there she was: pulling into the college parking lot, late as usual. She dashed to the doors, the petrichor from the wet morning clinging in the air. As she approached the steps, Nattie noticed the largest earthworm she’d ever seen. It was too late to stop her trajectory; her sneaker-clad foot came down squarely on top of it. Nattie winced in disgust as she felt the animal burst under her weight. She jumped aside and wiped her foot on the damp cement, leaving a considerable smear. She glanced over to see the back half of the worm squirming about in what must have been pain. Nattie went to the offending invertebrate and put it out of its misery.

               Nattie had lunch in the cafeteria. Her PB&J sandwich was satisfying, and inexpensive. However, she’d forgotten to bring a drink; she’d have to buy a grossly overpriced bottle of water from the vending machine. She made her way to the device, plunked in her toonie, and watched as the mechanical arm retrieved her selection. Nattie put her hand around the bottle and pulled it out, noticing that she had encircled a piece of paper that wasn’t the label. A twenty-dollar bill was wrapped around the moist vessel.

               Gas money, must be my lucky day.


               Nattie had all but forgotten the gumball machine until she stumbled over it as she rolled out of bed. She was sure she’d left it on her nightstand. She hopped around holding the toes she’d stubbed on it, cursing the entire time. Nattie set the machine on the stand. She put in a penny and turned the handle. Another ball came out. Nattie rolled it around in her fingers. All she could make out were symbols, some looked similar to that of the first ball she’d extracted: 杀死鸟.


               Between school and work, Nattie barely had time to do anything for herself that day. The one thing she did manage was to visit a 7-11 for an on-the-go burrito. While purchasing it, she noticed a plastic vat filled with Nevada-style tear-open game cards. On a whim, she spent ten dollars on tickets. Sitting in her car scarfing down her over-nuked burrito, she tore open the Nevadas.

               Nattie only had two cards left, when she was startled by a loud thud against her car window. She opened her door and looked down. A large crow was writhing on the ground, its neck bent at an impossible angle. As far as she could tell, the trauma was likely fatal. It sounded like it was pleading for mercy. Nattie delivered it by driving her boot heel onto the bird’s head. Nattie couldn’t comprehend how she was able to be so decisive in her dispatching of the crow. She drove off, the gambling cards forgotten.

               Barely able to think, Nattie lay on her bed, stretched out, fully clothed. With effort, she managed to get up with the intention of readying for sleep. As she stood, the two Nevadas landed on the floor—they’d been stuffed into her jacket pocket. She leaned down to retrieve them and opened the penultimate card as she crossed the room. Under the last slot, the pull tabs revealed three gold bars. She’d won! Nattie turned it over to check the prize legend and saw that the amount was five hundred dollars.

     “My luck is turning!” With a grin on her face, she opened the final card. One of the tabs revealed three more identical symbols: she’d won another hundred bucks.


               Feeling lucky, Nattie cashed in her Nevadas and purchased twenty dollars in Provincial lottery numbers the next day. She sat, captivated by a live lottery feed on her laptop that evening. The balls tumbled in the numbered machines, she could feel a groundswell of excitement rising in her. The first ball dropped: a seven. She scanned the ticket; she had several sevens. The subsequent numbers came out in rapid succession, and Nattie cursed herself for not having a pen and paper handy. There was no way she’d be able to check all the numbers on her ticket without recording them. She dashed to her kitchen counter, where she usually had a scratch pad. In her haste, she tripped over a sneaker, rolling her ankle. A sharp bolt of pain exploded through her foot. Nattie gripped it and massaged her swelling appendage, the lottery forgotten. She limped to her kitchen, grabbed an ice pack, and tried to get comfortable.

             Hours later—foot still throbbing and having gotten little sleep—Nattie rolled over in her bed to see the gumball machine alongside the two balls she’d coined out earlier. She was sure she’d moved it all to the kitchen.

She reached over and plunked in another penny. The first two characters were the same as those on the last gumballs that had come out--only the third was different. Reaching for her laptop, she decided to see if she could find out what they said. She soon discovered that the symbols were Chinese. They read:


              杀死蠕虫, “Kill the worm,”

杀死鸟, “Kill the bird,”

 and, 杀死猫, “Kill the cat.”

              A chill ran down her spine.                 


“Gotta get a grip,” Nattie murmured as she awoke from a vivid nightmare. Her foot felt better than it had the prior evening, but still hampered her, slowing her morning routine. She was running twenty minutes late—she stepped on the gas.

  Nattie didn’t see the streak of black dash in front of her until it was too late. She felt the crunch under her tire and knew she’d hit something. Nattie looked into her rearview mirror. There was an animal on the ground. She was tempted to drive away but couldn’t bring herself to do it. Fearing the worst, she climbed out of her idling vehicle.

               The black cat wasn’t going to survive. Its lower half was ground into the pavement. It was mewling in terrible anguish. As Nattie bent to examine it, the cat lashed out at her. A claw scratched at her open hand, ripping three streaks of blood in the webbing between her index finger and thumb. Nattie looked at her injured hand, and explosive anger welled up in her. She stood up, and brought her foot down on the head of the ailing animal.  She had used her sprained ankle, and her body buckled with a flash of pain. Her body dropped on the stricken animal, which cushioned her blow but flattened the cat obscenely. She hastily made her way back to her car and turned around, heading toward her apartment to clean herself up. There was no way she would get to morning class on time now.


  Nattie was familiar with the electronic noise that indicated a winning ticket—she had bought tickets before—she almost expected to hear it tonight. In the past, the sound was usually followed by the display reading “Free Play.” She looked at the lighted numbers; what she saw must be impossible. Eight thousand, three-hundred and twenty-two dollars were coming her way. 

               Her sleep was fitful, vexed with dreams of sick and injured creatures attacking her, accusing her with their stares. At 4 a.m., she sat bolt upright in her bed. Nattie’s hands shook as she groped for the gumball machine. She knew that this trinket was connected to her odd week. Over the past few days, she’d won more money than she’d earned in four months!  Nattie put in a penny. She turned the gumball to reveal the printed characters: 杀死女孩. Knowing what the first part of the phrase said, she went back to her laptop to translate the rest. She wasn’t surprised at what she discovered.   


               Nattie spent the weekend visiting her family. The only tears shed that weekend had been when the family dwelled on Samantha’s condition—the girl would likely never leave the hospital. There was one stop to make before heading home. Nattie quickened her pace. Digging into her pocket, she extracted the last gumball that had come out. She looked at it, staring at the characters again, though they were burned into her memory.

The gumball spoke to her alone. It said, 杀死女孩: “Kill the girl.”

Rene F. Tyo is an author of horror and thriller stories and an aspiring novelist. He is a jack-of-all-trades, by nature, having used his varied background in everything from business, marketing, and entrepreneurship to manufacturing and hard labour as inspiration for much of his writing, as there is no more thorough research than ingrained personal experience.

He lives in Brockville, Ontario, is married, has two sons and has had one or more dogs by his side most of his life and the occasional cat. He has published one short story collection: The Hostage Chronicles. He is currently working on another that continues the overarching story line presented in that book. Rene is also working on his first novel, as yet untitled. A tale about a small city besieged by evil forces; manmade and otherwise.

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