The sullied porcelain pressed hard against the top of his skull. Gushing water coated his glasses like rain on a windshield, running down and chilling his cheeks. He could only purse his mouth into a tight frown, and attempt to gather what little air he could through his nostrils. He almost welcomed the water blurring his vision; at least it obscured the pockmarked, smarmy faces of his tormentors. Above the swirling, splashing waterfall, he still heard their laughter. Husky, high-pitched and cruel. How many others had faced water torture under that urinal? Were they regular practitioners, or was he a pioneer?
He should have just said 'yes'.
His head was pulled out from under the cascade, yet his meagre body was still held tightly by two pairs of sweaty gorilla paws. He was thrust before the pectoral shelf of their leader, who soon leant forward to look him in the eye, grinning wickedly.
'This was just a little reminder of what happens to anyone who doesn't think they deserve the privilege of doing my math homework.'
He nodded to his cronies, who released their grip on their prey. Before the smaller boy could adjust his glasses, the podgy associate sent him tumbling into one of the cubicles. The kiss of solid porcelain came much quicker and sharper, enough to send a wave of burning shock sizzling through his left wrist as it moved to break his fall. He had to stifle a scream; any loud noises would attract even more pain than he was already in. Instead, he clenched his teeth near to shattering. A tear welled in his eye. He gasped quickly for breath, winded by the shock. He could not bring himself to look up at his chuckling assailants.
'If anyone asks,' said the leader, 'you got careless coming down the stairs.'
His only reply was another strained gasp. The simian lackeys made for the door.
'Just have it done by tomorrow, and the rest of this week will go a lot smoother.' Their leader followed them out.
A loud, throbbing deafness filled his ears.
'I'm afraid that arm's going to be in a cast for about six weeks, son.'
'Just what were you doing to hurt your arm like that?'
'I told you, mom, I...I fell down the stairs at school.'
'I always tell you to look where you're going,' chided his mother. 'Get your nose out of those damn comic books.'
He said nothing. It was easier to let her get it out of her system. It wasn't like she was saving her breath for when she had to praise him.
'It's just one accident after another,' she continued.
Right from conception, he thought. Still, he just looked down at the floor. The doctor finished scrawling something on a prescription paper.
'These painkillers should do the trick. Pity they don't stop the casts from itching, too.'
'He'll be fine.'
This was Monday for Vincent Lord.
He always felt like the fish people throw back; never really good enough to be part of the big catch. It didn't help that his mother strove to find fault in everything he did, and his father was about as effectual as a house brick. Now he had bullies splashing toilet water over his head and fracturing his wrist just because he refused to do their homework for them. Or rather, because he was too weak to fight back. Vincent was barely over five feet tall, thin as a rail, with scraggly brown hair that always veiled his eyes. One only noticed his eyes, however, if they looked for two tiny raisins in the middle of his thick-rimmed glasses. He was glad his parents couldn't justify spending a fortune on braces, he didn't need the other half of the stereotype hanging off his face. He dressed very plainly, dark sweaters and jeans, and dragged his feet as if he loathed whatever direction he walked.
Few things gave him pleasure in life. There were his pet mice, his computer games. He was good at math, fascinated by physics and biology. His great love, however, was candy. He loved eating it, he loved making sweets and desserts (which he did in secret, of course). From the bright, shining wrapper to the creamy caramel centre, his sweet tooth was insatiable. He wanted to invent his own new confectionery, things that would give people the same happiness he got from each firework burst of sugar. If only he worked for...the Wonka Candy Company. Nerds, Gobstoppers, Laffy Taffy, they were bordering on the book that spawned the whole concept. He just wished that they were even closer. Imagine if they made Lickable Wallpaper, Fizzy Lifting Drinks, chocolate bars that came to you through the television. Granted, he was just fourteen, but Vincent's mind was anything but a child's. He had a real ambition: to make Roald Dahl's timeless creations a reality.
But was it all down to science, or magic?
He finished both sets of homework in less than an hour; algebra was a momentary distraction compared to what really lay ahead that night. Vincent locked his bedroom door (not that anyone would come to it willingly), and took his equipment out of his closet. Beakers, Bunsen burner, retort, pliers, and most importantly, snacks he'd covertly swiped from the pantry. A simple, rather crude setup, but he had to start somewhere. He'd been at it for the last week of evenings. At the very least, he'd test the possibility of distilling the nutritional value of food. If successful, however, he'd be a step closer to unlocking the secret to one of Dahl's most baffling creations: the Three-Course Chewing Gum Meal. Not only was the concept fascinating in itself, but it also had the potential to be a rather lucrative idea. If he was the one to crack it...the thought sent shivers of joy through every muscle in his body.
Unfortunately, there was only so much one boy could do with one small, battered chemistry set. Blue and green flames gave off whispers of purple smoke. He watched liquids, red, green, yellow course slowly through glass tubing. He sighed as he already recognised another dead end. More perfume that smelled of chips and dip. Red ink marked another failure in his little black book. On the bright side, the dirty white cast hadn't imprisoned his writing hand. He put the book away, and abandoned his desk for his bedroom window. The moon was an unfinished pearl hanging just beyond his reach. He could only grasp the shape in the glass with his fingers, a cold emptiness in the palm of his hand.
'See, now that wasn't so hard, was it?'
'That's a nice cast. What did you tell them?'
'I fell down the stairs.'
'Smart move. We don't want any more little accidents. See ya round.'
He swaggered off, cronies in tow.
This was Tuesday for Jordan Leach.
Sixteen-year-old star quarterback for Rutland High, with every inch of him physical perfection. At least Vincent knew that his mental perfection left something to be desired. Sure, he was six feet tall, buffed, toned, with an angel face and shining golden locks, but every apple has its worm. Jordan was on the path to a football scholarship for college, but he was none too bright, and his pushy parents insisted on him picking up his grades as well. That's where it paid to have brawn and charisma. Vincent wasn't the first helpless...well, geek, to suffer Jordan's wrath. They'd do his homework so his grades would improve, and he'd let them survive high school. This was the law of the jungle in action.
Vincent was no fighter, but he wasn't a coward either. He didn't go to bed every night frozen with fear of Jordan. On the contrary, he plotted the ape's downfall with every functioning synapse. He felt like George, only without his Marvellous Medicine, and not much hope of getting it either. Still, the bully was yet another momentary distraction. Vincent was not going to be swayed from his own plans so easily. Besides, he was a strong believer in karma; instinct told him that with all that he'd done, Jordan was going to be in for one hell of a fall.
At lunch, Vincent finally got the chance to open the parcel he'd found on the doorstep that morning. The latest issue of Magnitude, a comic book drama featuring an evil genius who thought he could impress the woman of his dreams by taking control of the planet's tectonic plates and volcanoes. He skimmed through the pages, smiling for the first time today, when one near the middle of the volume made him freeze. His eyes grew wide, his hand even began to tremble. The page was bright purple, with curly white lettering proclaiming:
'WIN A CHANCE TO VISIT WONKA'S FACTORY
Wonka Candy Company (TM) are giving FIVE people the chance to visit their newest factory in Minneapolis. Simply find a Wonka GOLDEN TICKET in specially marked Wonka Candy Company products. The factory opens its doors on October 1st, where the lucky few will be taken on a guided tour of the vast engine of technological wizardry that brings you your favorite Wonka candies. There are just five tickets to be found, so you'd better hurry.'
Vincent blinked his beady brown eyes several times. He flipped the pages of the comic book back and forth. Still, the advertisement remained there. This wasn't a dream. A warm, electric feeling filled him from the feet up. His smile grew until his teeth were bared. This was his chance. The odds were stacked in their thousands against him, but he'd try. Oh God, he'd go to the ends of the Earth to win a chance to see that factory. He could try and persuade them to see his creations, on paper or on a plate. He'd endeavour to get his recipes right, and he'd show them. He'd show the world what one small, unsuspecting boy was capable of. He felt an invisible crown perch on his head. He very nearly stood on the cafeteria table with pride.
'Whatcha doin', Vince?'
It wasn't a crown. Just Lloyd Groen tapping his knuckles on his head. Vincent quickly shook himself out of dreamland before turning to face his friend.
'Oh, nothing,' he blurted out. 'Just...reading the new Magnitude.'
The dark-haired scarecrow of a boy took the adjacent seat. He started slurping down what Vincent took to be macaroni and cheese.
'What happened to your arm?' he asked, not looking up from his lunch.
'I'm supposed to say I fell down the stairs.'
'Supposed to say?'
'But it was Jordan Leach. His goons took me into the bathroom and beat me up. I fractured it when I fell against the edge of the toilet.'
'Tough break. No offence.'
'It's nothing, really.'
'You're brave to take it on the chin. Most kids would wanna change schools.'
'He doesn't scare me.' He set down the comic book on the table. 'I've got karma on my side.'
'Good stuff.' Lloyd burped. 'Hope it works out for you.'
'Just have to have a little patience.'
Vincent ran home that afternoon, eager to unleash the contents of his bag. He tossed aside his homework (and Jordan's), his books and his lunch, and emptied out a dozen Wonka chocolate bars onto his bed. He held one in his hand. He closed his eyes and visualised the glint of gold under the wrapper. He took a deep breath, and without opening his eyes, peeled open the purple wrapper. The aroma of chocolate made his mouth water, but when he did finally open his eyes...he found silver foil. He carefully removed the chocolate bar to check underneath, but still no gold. His bated breath gave birth to a sigh of defeat. He lowered the candy bar, and tapped his fingers on it. His eyes fell upon the pile of its relatives. Each bore the gold flag proclaiming the chance to win, but he began to doubt whether there was any more gold in them than that. Moments later, he stuffed them into his desk drawer. He didn't feel like any more disappointments today. Still, at least the chocolate made up for it. Sort of.
The cast made sleeping awkward, so he was forced to lie on his back and hope he'd eventually drift off. Not tonight. His mind was wide awake, buzzing with questions. Should he have bought from all different stores instead of the same one? Should he have bought all kinds of bars? Was there a system or code to be cracked?
Was he sitting on the prize right now?
As soon as that particular light bulb switched on in his head, Vincent leapt out from under covers and shot over to his desk. He whipped out another Wonka bar, tearing off the wrapper. Dead end. Another bar. Silver. A third. Fail. Bar after bar, still nothing. It was only as he picked up the ninth that he stopped and realised what he was doing. He put on his glasses once more. Beads of sweat were forming on his forehead. His hand quivered as it put down the candy bar, near the pile of refuse building up on his desk. This wasn't him. This was some lunatic, some wild beast, some heat-affected prospector possessed by the temptation of gold. His I.Q. could potentially get him into the twelfth grade, but now he was acting like a kindergartener. All that beautiful chocolate would go to waste now. His heart sank. He took the remaining three bars and stuff them into his bag. The bag went into his closet, defended by his bike lock. He couldn't be trusted, so extreme measures were necessary. He climbed back into bed. Almost three hours passed before he finally nodded off into troubled dreams.
The next day, Vincent was beckoned from the hall into the school psychologist's office. Miss Wainwright was a small, plain woman in her forties, with dark blonde hair always back in a thick ponytail. She dressed impeccably in grey or plum suits, her lips always aglow with bright red lipstick. Vincent knew she meant well, but he often avoided eye contact; something about her deep green eyes made him feel like she could see into his soul. For a moment that morning, he thought it was true.
'I don't think you fell down the stairs, young man.'
'What? Yeah, I did.'
'Vincent, I've known you three years now. You're not the kind of person who breaks their arm falling down a flight of stairs.'
'It's just a fracture.'
'Who's been bullying you?'
A long silence.
'I know the signs, Vincent. I know you think no one's going to help you. That's why I'm here.'
Another pause, before....
'Jordan,' he said slowly and coldly. 'It was Jordan Leach.'
'I see.' Miss Wainwright scribbled it down on her pad. 'And how did this happen?'
'He...wanted me to do his homework for him. I said no, so he...he and two others flushed a...a toilet on my head.'
She looked up from her pad. 'Others?'
'I don't know their names. They looked his age. After that, they pushed me into a cubicle, and I landed hard on my arm.'
'Well, I'm afraid this is quite a serious matter. I'll be speaking to Jordan and any....'
'I beg your pardon?'
'They can't find out I told. I don't know what they'll break next. The system can't stop people like them, it never does.'
'Vincent, this is assault. I'll have to report it.'
'Please, ma'am, I'll be fine so long as he doesn't know. I can handle myself.'
He enforced his point by looking her square in the eye. Another silence, before he noticed something cave in deep inside her.
'I'll be keeping an eye on you. And Jordan. If I hear or see any more between the two of you, I won't hesitate to act on it.'
'Thank you, ma'am.'
'I mean it. I don't want you getting dragged down by hooligans. You're too bright a spark.'
'I've always got a plan.' He reached into his bag and produced the three remaining Wonka bars, putting them on Miss Wainwright's desk.
'Vincent, I hope this isn't a bribe,' she said with a little smile.
'No, no, I just.... I bought them for my parents, but they don't really like them. I don't have anyone else to share with so....'
'That's very sweet of you, young man. I do have a bit of a weakness for these.' She scooped up the candy bars and slipped them into her desk drawer. 'You get off to class now. And remember, I'll be watching.'
Vincent began watching, too.
Over the next few days, he followed Jordan in secret, shadowing him in an attempt to try and expose any of his weaknesses. Well, other than his sub-par intellect, of which most of his friends were well aware. He didn't want to let it show in front of the ladies; he wouldn't want them to think he was just an average knuckle-dragging football player. Then again, the girls who'd had the 'privilege' of going out with him were hardly worth a Nobel prize themselves. The only other thing Vincent could tell was that Jordan had an insatiable ego, coupled with a ruthless personality. It was like he always had something to prove to people, that he had to be the best at whatever he put his mind to. From what Vincent saw, he spent plenty of time in the gym, building his physique, often lifting ridiculous amounts if a crowd was present. He'd run length after length of the football field til he was flat on his back, gasping for air. His school locker, and even the pocket of his blue letterman jacket housed mirrors so he could check his appearance at his leisure. This was roughly twenty times a day. Not a hair could be out of place, and God forbid he ever get the tiniest blemish on his cheek or chin. The alpha male of the twenty-first century; not only a brawny caveman, but one whose shopping lists frequently included moisturiser and exfoliating pads.
The only solution Vincent could see would be to humiliate Jordan in public, to expose him as weak and insecure. His appearance and his sporting ability were all he had, anything else was all for show. Even his supposed charisma. His friends and girlfriends were all roughly at the same intellectual level, and most of them natural bullies with a chip on their shoulder. They were united in their insecurity, and took it out on people like Vincent, who actually had the capacity to go far in life. After a fortnight or so, Vincent had all he thought he could gather about Jordan Leach. The trick now was to formulate a plan for revenge. It quickly became an obsession that dwarfed even his quest for the Golden Ticket.
Weeks went by, and eventually, Vincent's wrist was fully mended. He was freed from the cast, which went from beginning to end without a single well-wisher's signature. Not that it really mattered, he had more important things to think about. He'd read on the Internet that two of the Golden Tickets had been found; his chances were now even slimmer. There were a few weeks left, however, before the competition closed. Plenty of time, he thought. He'd been buying Wonka bars in smaller quantities, two or three at a time, once every few days. He didn't want to revert to the drooling, scampering maniac that had arisen when the whole affair had started. There was still a small sector of his brain that told him it was just a regular factory like any other. It wasn't as if they all carried their own Gene Wilder impressionist who'd burst into song every hour or so. Still, at least his experiments were starting to yield success. He'd been able to change the flavour of taffy and chewing gum, sometimes even the colour. The next step would be to see if he could replicate the nutritional value of actual food in the gum. That, of course, would call for some more advanced technology. His search for the ticket was once again building up steam.
'Hey, Vince, they've got those Wonka bars in the vending machine now.'
Lloyd tore open a bag of corn chips and munched loudly beside him. Vincent slammed his locker shut, his eyes bulging behind his glasses.
'I just saw them.' He offered his bag of chips. 'Want some?'
'No way, I'm getting those candy bars. The tickets are still out there.'
He shot off down the hall to the vending machine. Sure enough, there was a row of candy bars in the familiar purple packaging, all boasting the chance of finding gold inside. He went to put some coins in the machine, when he realised his hand was shaking as it delved into his pocket. His other was pressed longingly against the glass. He took a small step back and took a moment to compose himself. He put in his money and pressed the buttons. Two Wonka bars slid down into the collection tray, and he snapped them both up as though the machine was about to have second thoughts about handing them over. He placed one in his bag for later, and held the other one like a sacred treasure in his hand. He'd take it somewhere quieter than the hall, just in case....
'Whatcha got there, squirt?'
Vincent froze. A heavy hand landed on his shoulder and spun him around. That smarmy grin. 'Jordan.'
'Taking a little snack break?'
With little effort, he pulled the candy bar from Vincent's grip. He inspected it, before turning back to Vincent with a look of mock seriousness upon his face.
'These are my favourite.' His voice dripped with sarcasm. 'You really shouldn't spend your money on me.'
Jordan raised an eyebrow. Only now did Vincent realise his own icy tone. Big mistake.
'That's not for you.' He was digging his own grave, but he couldn't stop himself. 'I thought a big-time football star like you would be able to afford his own snacks. Now I'd like my chocolate bar back. Please.'
Jordan exploded into an awkward hyena laugh. He pushed Vincent against the wall; an eagle trapping a snake under its claws.
'Here's how it works.' His voiced lowered to a deep rasp. 'You put the money in the vending machine. I get the candy bar. And you don't get your legs broken.'
Vincent hardened his own expression. He wasn't giving in now.
'Okay, Jordan. You get the candy bar. You can also have this....'
One swift knee to the groin, and Jordan doubled over, red-faced, with a howl. Vincent compounded all the strength in his skinny legs and bolted down the hall.
Right into Mr. Worth. English teacher.
The clock ticked away the endless minutes of silence. Only the faint scratches of Mr. Worth's pen provided an accompaniment. 4 PM. Jordan sat at a desk on the opposite side of the classroom, though due to its emptiness, he seemed much closer. Especially when he made quiet gestures with his fists. And the obligatory finger dragged across his throat. Vincent tried not to let his fear betray itself on his face, yet his mouth went sandpaper dry. His stomach gurgled, half in terror, half from hunger. He looked to the front of the room. Mr. Worth was busy with his marking, too busy to notice Vincent trying to relieve his anxiety with a surreptitious snack. He slowly reached a hand down into his bag, careful not to make too much of a sound as he withdrew the solitary Wonka bar. He held it in his lap, and with only a moment's hesitation (for prayer), he slid open the wrapper. Silver. Again. He bit his lip in frustration before cracking off a corner of the bar. For a brief moment, he didn't care about any ticket; just the pure, sweet taste of the chocolate was enough.
A loud rustle made him jump. He looked to his right to see Jordan opening the stolen Wonka bar. With much less finesse and tact, obviously. What came next made Vincent's heart stop in his chest. Warm bile seemed to fill his throat, as though the chocolate he'd just eaten was on its way back up. The remainder of the bar began to melt in his hands as they broke out in perspiration. There in Jordan's fingers. Gold. Shining, unmistakable. He took umbrage at the look of casual, almost bored pleasure upon the quarterback's face as he examined his ill-gotten prize. The feeling turned to rage as Jordan turned and gave his trademark smirk. A scream tried to erupt from his lips, but he forced them to remain closed. Instead, he just collapsed on his desk, drained of all his life's worth of joy.
There was no such thing as karma.
The next few weeks dragged by. Vincent shuffled through the long, hard days. He barely ever smiled. What was there to look forward to? Jordan had left him alone for the most part; he was too busy showing off his Golden Ticket to his followers (and his harem). That, and lapping up the spotlight on the football field of course, but that was just business as usual. Vincent tried to put a positive spin on his thoughts; Jordan must have been showing a sort of kindness for Vincent literally handing over his only chance of real happiness. Twisted, yes. He soon scrapped that thought. But the fact remained, with Jordan's ticket, and another found...one more. Just one more Golden Ticket. He felt nauseous every time the phrase entered his head. He didn't eat any chocolate throughout those weeks, that sickened him as well. There wasn't any point in eating it, or even buying it. All his chances had been whisked away by greedy, selfish, brutish, underachieving brats with no sense of --
Knock knock knock.
'Get the door, Vincent!'
He pried himself from the couch and plodded to the front door. Opening it, he was met with a mixture of hope and fear.
'Er...would you like to come in?'
'I won't stay long, I just wanted to...give you something.'
'Is this about that thing with Jordan?'
'Oh no, nothing like that.'
She opened her handbag, pulling out...a Wonka bar?
'Those candy bars you gave me some time ago,' she said. 'I found the last one this afternoon in my desk. I remembered they were yours of course, that's why I thought I'd return it to you. You see, I opened it up and, well....'
She carefully peeled back a corner of the wrapper. As his eyes fell upon it, Vincent went catatonic, as though struck by lightning or poisoned. The joy, the ecstasy was too great to register more than a look of numbness on his face. It was there in front of him.
The chilly morning of October 1st. Vincent barely noticed the cold, as his body was running on pure adrenaline. It had built up from that moment a week ago, and filled him, fuelled him like ambrosia to a mortal's mouth. He'd barely slept last night, and while it might have caught up with him later, there wasn't a cell in his being that felt fatigued.
'You okay, Vincent?' asked Miss Wainwright. 'You've been fidgeting ever since we got here.'
'I'm fine. Just happy to be here.'
His parents, aside from caring very little about his interests, were always busy with their jobs. They couldn't (or wouldn't) even take time off to go with him on the bus ride to Minneapolis. That left him with one option. He managed to convince Miss Wainwright to accompany him, as it was a Saturday after all. She lodged it on her roster as a 'professional development day'. She wasn't the kind of person to say 'no' to visiting a chocolate factory; she felt almost as lucky as Vincent.
Looking around, he gathered he was the youngest ticket finder. The closest to him in terms of age was Jordan, who stood several feet away with his mother. He was trying to look like Rocky in a grey hooded sweater, even occasionally jogging on the spot. Two more, a tall red-headed girl and a chubby guy with light stubble, looked to be about in their freshman year of college. The last was a woman in her early thirties, dressed as though she'd just come from a screening of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Must not be kids buying all the candy, Vincent thought. The five ticket holders (plus two mothers, a husband, a boyfriend and a school psychologist) all stood in the factory courtyard. The crowd behind them was somewhat smaller than what was described in the eponymous novel, but the setup was similar. The factory, too, was not overly grand. It looked just like an office block, a collection of cubes and rectangles, with walls of windows and great chimneys that stretched towards the sky. Nothing particularly odd or even colourful about it. Still, at least he'd made it. At last, he'd get a peek inside what he hoped would become his future career. Maybe it was professional development after all.
The glass double doors swung open, and a slender man in a black pinstripe suit floated out to greet the factory's guests. He looked smart enough to be the CEO, but an earpiece and white gloves betrayed his status as a mere tour guide.
'Alright, where are the...ticket holders?' he asked.
The guests stepped forward, Golden Tickets in hand. The man picked up each ticket delicately, examining each very closely, as though he anticipated them to be forgeries. He soon placed them in his pocket. All must have been genuine.
'If you'd care to step inside, we can begin the tour.'
The man extended an arm towards the doors. The guests headed inside, with Jordan pushing past Vincent and the tall red-haired girl to be the first inside. His mother, naturally, didn't even tell him to apologise. The tour guide sniffed indignantly at his behaviour, but said nothing. They placed their coats on hooks in the foyer. Underneath the Rocky sweater, Jordan painted the complete picture, wearing a dark blue tank top with his black track pants. It was the first time Vincent had seen Miss Wainwright in anything but grey or plum; today's suit was emerald green. Then again, it may have just been her normal weekend attire. The guide, who identified himself as Paul, led them into the next room.
It would have been large enough to house a chocolate river, maybe even a waterfall. Instead, it was all just pipes and vats and grey, dull machinery. Practical, sure, but it was noticeably devoid of the magical imagery one gleaned from the book.
'Here we have the Chocolate Room,' Paul announced. 'This is the nerve centre for the production of Wonka bars, such as the Chocolate Kaboom, the Caramallow Delight, and the Nutty Fudgelicious. Feel free to sample our latest creation, the Jellymint Swirl.'
He waved a hand over a tray lined with neat little dark chocolate squares. Vincent was the first to act this time, snapping up a square and popping it into his mouth. He closed his eyes a moment, as it melted pleasantly in his mouth. The gooey mint centre was smooth and mild, perfectly complementing the bitter chocolate coating. There was delight all around, with the candy putting a smile on even Jordan's face. Vincent thought he'd be more at home with a tray of protein bars, but then again, everyone's full of surprises.
With each subsequent room, Vincent was pleased to note that the confectionery got more and more exotic. Fruit made of taffy with a chocolate centre, teddy-sized gummy bears, candy straws that turned water into soda as you drank, bubblegum with which you could blow bubbles of several different shapes, cupcakes that pumped up to normal size if you left a small bit lying around in the sun. 'Experimental items', they were called. Vincent gave a sly smile. He knew there had to be more to it than just chemicals and machines. It was all too weird to be so easily explicable. The factory itself went on and on, production line after production line It was easy to get lost in such vast, busy rooms, yet even if he did, Vincent felt right at home.
A door squeaked loudly to his right. He turned to see a worker heading into another room, hurrying as if desperate to escape. Yet this wasn't the most curious thing. The worker wore what looked like a white space suit that obscured his face. Vincent didn't get a good look at him, but anyone could have noticed that the worker was only two feet tall. His ears and eyebrows pricked up. He went over to examine the door. Below the large main handle, he found a hidden spot much lower down, which could be turned like the dial of an old phone. By the looks of it, it took very small hands to operate the mechanism, perhaps those of a child. Vincent tried opening the door with the main handle, but it was locked in place. Like that was going to stop him. He checked to make sure no one was looking, and crouched beside the little round panel on the door. His hands were thin enough that he could stick his thumb and forefinger into the dial and turn it. Carefully he turned it, until there was a faint click inside the thick metal door. The latch slid open, and the door swung open a crack. Vincent slipped through, pulling the door gently behind him.
Being of very slight build certainly had its uses.
Beyond the door lay a dark corridor, illuminated only by faint purple lights mounted in the floor. As he walked along, maybe it was designed to trick the eye, but Vincent swore the corridor twisted at odd angles. It almost became a spiral, with the floor on a definite slant. Okay, maybe not a visual trick. But who'd put such a bizarre hallway in a factory? It wasn't exactly practical for carting along heavy loads, plus you could barely see a few feet in front of your face.
Then again, this was the Wonka Candy Company.
Vincent stopped. A light bulb went on in his head. Just a tiny spark at first, but it got him thinking. The tiny well of joy inside him began to grow once more. The Wonka Candy Company. The Factory. A tiny person in a space suit, heading through a secret door, into a topsy turvy hallway. And now...Vincent sniffed. As he neared the far end of the corridor, a peculiar aroma permeated the air. It was...fruity. Spicy, a little bitter. Yet as he sniffed, the bitterness got sweeter. Another smell, earthy, like vegetables. Then another, hot like chilli. Then back to sweet again, mellow and sugary. The door lay just a few feet ahead. It was a large golden rectangle, with a great wheel mounted on the right like a bank vault. He was a moth to a lonely light in the darkness. Before he knew it, his hands were on the cold, golden metal wheel. He swallowed hard. With all the strength in his arms, he turned the wheel. He spun it and spun it until, with the satisfying click of a heavy latch, the door started to budge. Vincent pulled the door until there was a space big enough between it and the doorway to slip inside. The aromas came out stronger now, palpable, almost as coloured vapours through the air. There was a light, glowing softly, emanating from deep within. Vincent stared into it a moment, mesmerised. It was as though a voice called to him, reaching out, beckoning him to enter. He did not resist; he didn't want to.
'Now here's something you might be familiar with,' said Paul. 'Fizzy Lifting Drinks. Carbonated beverages that form so many bubbles inside of you that you become lighter than air. You can float, fly just like a bird.'
He demonstrated, flapping his arms about dramatically.
'Wait, aren't those out of the book or the movie or something?' asked the chubby guy.
'Correct. The Wonka Candy Company has recently come under new management. As such, we have been radically upgrading our output. New products, new methods of manufacturing, all to bring a little more scrumdiddlyumptiousness into every home in America.'
The guests scrunched up their faces, bewildered by Paul's increasingly neurotic behaviour. Miss Wainwright raised her eyebrows and gave a nervous smile. She always tried to see the good in people, even if they were a little...unbalanced. Needing to take her eyes off their strange host, Miss Wainwright looked over at Vincent. Or she would have....
'Umm, excuse me?' she piped up. 'We appear to be missing one of our party. Vincent Lord, he came with me.'
'Oh? Then we'll have to take a moment to look for him. It's quite all right. People get lost in here all the time. I get lost myself. But whoever goes missing is always found, rest assured of that, ma'am.'
Paul's sugary tone did nothing to ease her nerves. She had no children of her own. Instead, she treated the children she was assigned as hers. Very few of them was she quite so fond of as Vincent. She couldn't keep her sanity without him. Not to mention losing him would have serious repercussions from more than one party. Paul called in security guards to begin a search. One would have thought such a well-equipped facility would have the proper security and surveillance measures to deal with a missing child. Perhaps the money spent on all these kooky machines would have been better put towards more practical technology.
Jordan sniggered, leaning nonchalantly against a vat of Fizzy Lifting Drinks.
'Maybe he went off to find his invisible friend,' he said. 'Wouldn't be surprised if they'd keep away from him, too.'
Miss Wainwright was about to reprimand him, when the door from which they'd entered opened with a loud hiss.
'Oh, there he is,' exclaimed Paul, jovially, 'no need for the search party then. I told you they're always found sooner or later.'
'Vincent, thank goodness,' cried Miss Wainwright. She ran to Vincent and hugged him, quite forgetting her capacity. She wasn't surprised when he didn't reciprocate, but there was something else about him. He said nothing, yet...he was smiling. She'd never seen such a wide grin on his face. It was most odd, almost frightening. But at least it was a smile, he must have been happy or even just content. She hoped so.
'Where did you run off to?' she asked.
'I'm sorry, I must have taken a wrong turn a few rooms back,' replied Vincent. 'I ended up...somewhere different.'
'Yes, well now that you're back from your little adventure, we can --'
'From his face, it looks like he just walked into the room where they keep all the porn,' said Jordan. 'You guys keep porn here? In the back maybe?'
'It was better than that,' said Vincent. 'Much better.'
'Okay, we really must be --'
'Now I'm curious. Just where the hell DID you go?'
'Jordan, that's enough,' Miss Wainwright interjected.
'Tell me, squirt!'
'Why? Scared I might know about something you don't? Can't have that. Jordan Leach has to be ahead of everyone. He has to be the brains of the operation. Man, I'd hate to be in that operation.'
'You just shut your mouth right now, young man,' chided Mrs. Leach.
'Don't speak for me, mom!'
Jordan grabbed Vincent by the front of his shirt. He looked the kid straight in the eye, but he kept that smile on his face.
'You always wanna be a big man,' said Vincent. 'Picking on someone half your size. Yeah, that's REALLY the way to go about it.'
'Remember when I said I'd break your legs? Today's your lucky day.'
He threw Vincent to the floor. Miss Wainwright gasped in horror. The college students just chuckled; perhaps it was the smaller boy's awkward appearance, or the bigger one's apparent need to assert himself. Jordan lifted his foot, poised to bring it down hard on Vincent's chest, when one of the summoned security guards finally made himself useful. He grabbed Jordan's shoulder hard enough to make him wince.
'That'll do, son. Nobody wants any trouble.'
Jordan slowly lowered his leg. He looked down at the still-smiling Vincent. He delivered a small, swift kick to his side, and picked up a strip of chewing gum that had fallen out of the younger boy's pocket. Clearly he was willing to sink that low.
'Jordan, I'm going to be issuing a report to the principal,' cried Miss Wainwright. 'Your conduct here today has been disgusting.'
'Whatever.' Jordan popped the stick of gum into his mouth.
'His conduct?' wailed his mother. 'What about the way that boy insulted my son?'
'Mrs. Leach, your son beat Vincent Lord to a pulp. He even fractured Vincent's wrist.'
Jordan stopped a moment, then turned back to face Vincent, who was picking himself up off the ground. The smile hadn't faded.
'Is that what you do? If something doesn't go your way, you squeal like a pig?'
'I don't have the advantage of big, burly muscles,' Vincent said calmly. 'I use whatever weapons are available.'
'I told you what would happen if you opened your mouth.'
'Right now, I don't really care.'
'Oh, you don't really care, huh? Well right now, I'm gonna....'
His voice broke off. It was replaced by a loud, obnoxious chewing sound. Jordan grimaced in confusion.
'Tomato soup? I'm not eating tomato soup....'
'Jordan, honey, what are you talking about?'
'There's tomato soup in my mouth.'
'But...all you just had was a piece of gum, sweetheart.'
'I can feel it in my mouth and down my throat. I keep chewing and it keeps.... It's changing.'
'Jordan, what on Earth are you talking about?'
Vincent bared his teeth. He rubbed his hands together behind his back. It was if he was waiting for...no, willing something to happen. Whatever it was, it was right on schedule.
'It's changing, it's changing flavours,' cried Jordan, newly enraptured by this mysterious stick of gum. 'Tastes like...roast beef. Gravy. Baked potatoes....'
'Umm, sir?' Paul interjected. 'Just a suggestion. I think you should maybe spit that out right about now. You don't know wh--'
'Shut up, man, I'm trying to concentrate! This is like...food. It's like I'm eating. I can feel it going down my throat and into my stomach. Holy crap! This is so weird, it's like I'm eating dinner just by chewing this stuff!'
Vincent tilted his head, grinning dreamily. It takes such simple things to amuse simple minds, he thought. Jordan was like a dog with a new toy. Any minute now, he'd find the --
'Blueberries! Warm blueberry pie! With ice cream! Aww man, this is fantastic! Hey, chief, does this place make this stuff? What is it?'
'What you appear to be chewing, sir,' Paul began icily, 'is a prototype product of the Wonka Candy Company. It is the Three-Course Chewing Gum Meal. It's meant to be the world's most efficient meal, as it contains the nutritional content of a three-course meal, and is chewed like any other piece of gum. It has, however, proven difficult to get the formula right. Particularly with the dessert.'
'Why? What happens with the dessert?'
'Sweetheart, your nose has gone blue!'
'You're not a big reader, are you sir?' Paul rubbed his eyes with his thumb and forefinger.
'What are you talking about?'
'Jordan, your face is turning blue! Bright blue!'
He took his security mirror out of his pants pocket and gazed into it a moment. Sure enough, his nose, his cheeks, his whole face, even his hair had turned blue as a peacock. He rubbed at it, as though it were just paint, like some kind of prank. It didn't come out. He started to panic.
'No.... No, no, no, this isn't happening! What's going on? What did you do to me?'
'Me, sir?' said Paul indignantly. 'It was you who started chewing the gum. I even tried to stop you.'
'I still taste blueberries....'
'Jordan, it's not just your face. Look, you're turning blue all over!'
He looked down at himself. The bright blue tinge was spreading, down his next, across his chest, to his arms, all the way to his hands. He lifted his tank top; his midriff was quickly turning blue as well. It worked its way down his legs. Within a few moments, his whole body had turned a brilliant purplish shade of blue. If he was anxious before, he looked on the verge of a nervous breakdown now. He clawed at his face, his chest, practically hyperventilating as his eyes darted around the room.
'What's wrong with me? Why am I blue? Why does it feel like there's goddamn blueberry juice in my mouth?'
'You're even dumber than I thought,' said Vincent.
'Yeah, kid,' the tall girl piped up, 'don't you remember what happened in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?'
'Dude, that chick turned into a blueberry when she ate the gum.'
'You mean...I'm turning into a...a blueberry? For real?'
'It would appear that way, sir.' Paul glanced at his pocket watch.
'Isn't there any way to stop it?' asked a frantic Mrs. Leach.
Jordan suddenly doubled over, moaning in discomfort.
'I doubt it.' Paul snapped the watch shut.
As Jordan straightened up, a loud gurgling emanated from his stomach. His abdomen had started to bulge under his clothes. It wasn't just bloated, it was growing before his eyes. It stuck out like a soccer ball, then larger, and larger still with every passing moment. It was soon large enough to create a rift between his tank top and his track pants, exposing his navel. His belly was a flawless blue sphere, now nearing the size of a beach ball.
'My abs!' cried Jordan. 'What happened to my abs?'
He grabbed at his large blue stomach, trying to fathom the mystery of his disappearing definition. Vincent shook his head, chuckling. Jordan's rear end groaned as it began to fill up like a water balloon. It quickly filled out his pants so that both cheeks were traceable against the material. His backside ballooned until it was large enough to cover a two-seater couch by itself. With both front and reverse sides of his body so swollen and distorted, it gave his body a distinct pear shape. His hips alone would have hindered his escape through a double doorway, let alone a regular one. His bottom-heavy figure put him off balance, he began to sway uneasily. His legs fattened, further restricting his movement, and rendering his baggy pants skin tight. It was a miracle that they didn't burst at the seams.
He looked around at the others. Vincent could see the genuine fear in his eyes, he relished it. It very nearly excited him. The embodiment of all self-obsessed jocks was now at his mercy, and the dimwit didn't even realise the true nature of his predicament. Nor was it over. A low gurgle, louder than before, echoed in the pit of Jordan's now enormous stomach. The small crowd slowly took a few steps backward, just in case. Their eyes remained glued to the gigantic blue boy, as though mesmerised by his panicked twitching and swaying. Jordan was now over seven feet tall, with his body the vague shape of a water balloon, freakishly distended and swollen from the chest down. His belly would have dwarfed his bed, and an adult man's fist would have rested comfortably in his navel. The tank top had given up trying to cover it, now resembling something from his infancy he'd tried to wear now. His butt could have very nearly crushed a car, with his track pants pulled to the consistency of a leotard across his thunderous thighs. Even the laces of his sneakers were coming undone as his feet bulged a couple of sizes too large for them. Still, he continued to grow. It was spreading upwards now. His chest pumped up, his pectorals resembling a pair of blue airbags. He lost the luxury of trying (in vain) to hold the growth spurt back with his arms. They followed the path of his legs, plumping up like great, thick blue sausages. He could barely move them, they stuck out rigid from his body. His hands grew chubby, larger than baseball mitts, and useless for anything but waving about. His pecs may have almost covered it as they blew up, but his face, too, became soft and podgy. His groans were muffled as his cheeks puffed out, as though he was smuggling coconuts in his mouth. Mrs. Leach screamed; she barely recognised her big, handsome son now. His poor face was ruined, it was worse than if he'd been obese. Worse than when he was....
Jordan's body gurgled and sloshed and groaned and creaked all over. It was as though whatever lay inside of him was multiplying at an accelerated rate. It filled him to the maximum, filling him out, rounding him out into a perfect sphere. His upper and lower hemispheres now grew in tandem, swelling evenly, giving him the unmistakable appearance of a giant blue fruit. His clothes were barely holding together, stretched tight and sparse across his round surface. He surged upwards and outwards, exceeding ten, even twelve feet in diameter. The speed of his expansion caused him to rock slightly from side to side. He had very little left to try and keep his balance, as his limbs had grown too fat retain their usual shape and structure. Instead, they were absorbed into the central mass, leaving his hands and feet to poke out like blemishes on the fruit's shining blue skin. His head sat atop the great sphere, although his sheer size prevented him seeing much more than a vast, quivering horizon of blue. His body began to feel taut, as though he were so full his skin had reached its limit. A wave of nausea passed over him. He couldn't...could he? They wouldn't let him...explode, would they? The creaking of overtaxed flesh grew louder and deeper. He wasn't stopping, his body just kept growing. It didn't know its own limits. He was powerless; all the strength and stamina in the world counted for nothing if there was something inside you trying to pop you like a balloon. Larger and larger, wider and wider, rounder and rounder. The fruit was ripe, too ripe. No signs of slowing down. He flapped his fingers, clenched his fists, wiggled his head, all in feeble protest against his dilemma. But his body wouldn't listen. It only responded with another spurt; bigger, bigger, bigger. Eighteen, nineteen, twenty feet across. Red hot pain shot through him; a sickening squelch sound. He tilted forward, unable to fight his own enormous mass. It choked all the screams out of him. He shut his eyes tight. He could only sit in agonising silence as he grew so big that he....
All was quiet. Still as stone.
No creaking, no groaning, no sloshing, no rocking, no swelling.
Jordan slowly opened his eyes. Much to his dismay, it wasn't all a dream. All he saw was the same great blue expanse as moments before. He felt full. Heavy. Tight. Sore. Tears of exhaustion, of relief, of terror all welled in his eyes at once. Hot, bitter tears that cleansed the eyes of the salt of fear. He couldn't move a muscle, it was a struggle to try. Any struggling might have brought him closer to bursting, so he dared not. He was big, too big. And blue. And full of...he didn't even want to imagine. What was he now?
'I said we'd been having some trouble getting the formula right,' said Paul, finally breaking the stunned silence.
'Getting the formula.... Just look what it's done to my son!'
'He was told to spit it out.'
'What sort of person makes...chewing gum that does this to people?' Mrs. Leach was practically hysterical.
'All experiments have to start somewhere. They all involve a little trial and error. This trial just happened to end in...error.'
Mrs. Leach's face went almost as purple as Jordan's.
'Is that what you think my son is? An experiment? Do you have any idea of the influence my husband holds back home? We will not stop until we've brought your...ridiculous establishment to its knees!'
'I'm afraid that may be difficult, ma'am. We're a registered, respectable company, with a great many assets at our disposal,' Paul retorted in a sing-song voice. 'You know what they say about trying to fight the system....'
'Well, I demand that you at least...remedy the situation by fixing my son!'
Paul checked his pocket watch once more.
'But of course. We'd be more than happy to provide some assistance.' He gave it a quick polish with his handkerchief before replacing it in his pocket.
'Some...assistance? You will turn Jordan back to the way he was this instant! Or I'll bring the full force of the law down on you so fast, your rainbow suspenders will spin!'
Paul raised an eyebrow.
'Quite. Well, he'll have to be conveyed to the industrial juicer.'
'Did you think there was air in there?' He pointed at Jordan. 'He's a blueberry. He's full of juice. If you want it removed, we'll need the industrial juicer. Understand?'
'Yes, but...surely that's not --'
'It's the only way. Undignified, perhaps. Embarrassing, most likely. But safe and efficient. If you want your son back to the way he was, he'll have to be juiced. Unless you want him to spend the rest of his life as a giant blueberry.'
'What kind of a thing is that to say? Of course I don't want that!'
'Then we shall have him...rolled to the Beverages Wing as soon as possible.'
Miss Wainwright crept over to Vincent. He was still looking quite pleased with himself, he was beginning to disturb her. He'd just seen a person transform into a giant blueberry, and he didn't even seem fazed. It was as if someone was whispering jokes into his ear. She was beginning to wonder about the validity of Jordan's statement about invisible friends. It was then she remembered the gum. The very gum that had put Jordan in this situation in the first place. It had fallen out of Vincent's pocket when he was pushed to the floor. Could it be that.... No. It was too fantastic. Too unbelievable. Then again, Vincent wasn't exactly...the most average sort of kid. Who knew what had been going on inside that brilliant mind of his? Miss Wainwright thought she'd at least try to find out.
'Are you...all right, Vincent?'
'Of course. Just happy to be here.'
'But...you saw what happened to Jordan?'
A moment's silence.
'That...gum he took from you. It was yours...wasn't it?'
'What do you mean?'
He turned to look her straight in the eye.
'I got the gum from some new friends of mine.'
Stares. Giggles. Whispered remarks. This was the welcome Jordan Leach received on Monday morning when he walked through the doors of Rutland High. He walked slowly, tentatively at first, but as the whispering grew in volume and frequency, he quickened his step. He just wanted to be out of their sight. This wasn't easy for a tall, muscular young man.
It was even harder for a tall, muscular, blue young man.
He had spent his Saturday morning in a candy factory with his mother and several other guests. His Saturday afternoon was spent with a massive vice-like contraption pressed tightly against his twenty-foot-wide, spherical, blue body. For five hours, he had been filled like a bladder with hundreds of gallons of viscous, purple juice; a giant blueberry. Four burly security guards had rolled him out of the vast chamber where Fizzy Lifting Drinks were stored and tested; not carried, rolled, like a bowling ball. All the juice inside of him sloshed and swirled like an ocean, while the constant spinning had made him feel quite ill. The 'industrial juicer' looked more like a torture device, and that's just what it felt like. A hose was shoved unceremoniously into his mouth. Several great metal prongs were clamped onto his swollen body, mechanically tightened until a torrent of juice came flowing out of his mouth, to be carried away by the hose.
Five long hours, until finally, the last tangible drop had passed from his body. He'd lain there amidst the juicer's prongs, stark naked, as his clothes had been ridiculously overstretched; no use to anyone who weighed less than three thousand pounds. He'd tried to cover himself with the curtain his tank top had become, but the garments were swiftly disposed of. The enigmatic Paul had brought him new clothes for the trip home, along with 'the company's sincerest apologies'. Mrs. Leach was livid. They might have removed all the juice and shrunk him back to size, but Jordan's skin still bore a purplish blue tinge. Paul explained that the juice had stained Jordan's cells to the point of altering his skin's pigmentation. Unfortunate, but not serious. It'd just be something he'd have to live with. Jordan left the factory that evening, with his mother still threatening Paul and any other staff member she saw with legal action. He'd bathed and gone to bed, with the hope in both instances that the blueness would somehow wash away. In both instances he was sorely disappointed. He'd spent Sunday indoors, away from prying eyes where possible.
He couldn't escape going back to school.
He spun around, startled by the voice. A chill went down his spine when he found Vincent Lord standing behind him, smiling a little too pleasantly.
'How are you today?' asked Vincent.
'You...' hissed Jordan. 'You did this to me. You gave me that stupid gum!'
'I didn't give it to you. You took it. Like you always did with my snacks. Like you did with whatever you wanted. Not anymore.'
'You little freak....'
'Are we really going to resort to name calling?'
Jordan assumed his usual stance, holding Vincent against the lockers by the front of his shirt. A furious fire burned his eyes, bright, piercing despite his face's new colouration.
'I am gonna make you sorry you were ever born.'
'But then I won't be able to show people the photos.'
Jordan's face went blank.
Reaching into his jeans pocket, Vincent withdraw a small satchel of photographs and waved them in front of Jordan's eyes. Jordan relaxed his grip and seized the photos. His heart sank. The memories of Saturday came flooding back. Not memories, images. These were physical photographic proof. The factory, the gum, the blowing up, the...juicing. Oh God, how did he get these? He wasn't even there for the juicing. He looked back at Vincent.
'What are you trying to pull, you little ass?'
'I made some new friends in Minneapolis. They're very resourceful, very friendly. They loved some of my ideas for new candy and stuff. We became real pals at the factory. So after they let me take a sample of their Three-Course Chewing Gum Meal, they agreed to take some...souvenir photos.'
'The hell are you --'
'I thought people here might wanted to see some snaps of our little trip. Your goons, your girl, maybe Coach Parker....'
The tightness in Jordan's chest increased. He grabbed Vincent once more, ready to knock him out cold. He dropped the photos on the floor.
'You can kill me now, but those photos will be around forever.'
'If anything happens to me...my friends have access to Facebook. Among other things.'
Jordan released Vincent, with the latter quickly picking up the scattered photos. He stood up straight, right up close to his assailant.
'Here's how it works,' Vincent whispered. 'I do my homework. You do yours. You don't beat me up. No one has to know about your appointment with Mr. Juicer.'
Jordan stared down at his prey, his jaw set in anger. A moment's silence, until Jordan turned and headed down the hall.
This was the new Monday for Vincent Lord.
He couldn't help but chuckle as he glanced over the photos once more. He shoved them into his bag and headed for his own locker. He waved to Miss Wainwright as he saw her across the hall. She responded in kind, albeit with a nervous smile. It had been a weekend they wouldn't soon forget. They'd recall it every time they passed the world's only blue quarterback in the hall. Vincent would pass him, but nothing more.
Karma was sweet.
Sweet as blueberry pie.