This story of mine was published earlier this year with The Junction, a Medium publication. It ended up getting very little exposure and was one of my last times to use that platform. Medium was an interesting experiment in the democratizing of publishing, for a while. Then, it seemed to become like every other algorithm-driven story platform where controversy, prolific posting, and glomming onto trends became the only means to achieve visibility. I’m terrible at all that. And as this story shows, slavishly following trends of any kind might not always be the best policy…
Change! by Russ Linton.
Darryl slid three quarters into the vending machine and weighed his options. An aging wonder of chrome and glass, the machine held a decidedly limited selection. Darryl liked that. The lack of choice comforted him. Hungry, he would now waste less time deciding.
But which to choose?
The Angel Poofs in their crisp, navy foil gleamed radiantly. Not a substantial meal, but he would feel instant gratification with the sweet goodness melting on his tongue. Darryl though was a Nutty Wafer man. Sandwiched between two hearty slabs of cookie, he felt certain the peanut cream would hit the spot. There’d been times where the gooey mixture hadn’t settled well on his stomach, something about allergies which he repeatedly told his doctor he didn’t have, but it was the best option, no, the only means to sate his growing hunger.
He leveled a finger at the plastic keypad. K8. Or was A8 fresher? The snacks had been arranged in competing columns, a wall of navy foil partitioned from their crimson-logoed cousins. His eyes drifted to the bottom, searching for any sign of the operator’s restocking logic. A yellow wrapper caught his eye.
Interesting. A granola bar.
Different from other granola bars, Darryl saw traces of things he liked. A strawberry paste added sweetness to the wholesome assortment of grains. He loved strawberries. The picture made the bar appear hearty and the wrapper advertised much needed vitamins and minerals. His finger hovered uncertainly.
He’d never seen this snack before. Surely, if it was any good, they’d have stocked more. Likely the wrapper’s claims were lies.
That was it. Fake advertising. Nobody bought those, he could tell. It would be terrible.
He keyed in the code for the Nutty Wafer and watched the corkscrew mechanism release the package. It dropped into the bin with a satisfying thud. Smiling, he tore into the wrapper and went back to his hotel room.
Hours later, Darryl squirmed on his bed. Eyes clenched shut, he held his stomach and passed gas. He’d eaten too fast. Swallowed air. Give it a minute, he thought, it’ll soon be over. Pressure built again in his nethers and he held off. This one felt different. Voluminous. Suddenly afraid, he scrambled toward the bathroom.
Rising from the throne initiated a struggle. His legs had fallen asleep somewhere at the twenty-minute mark but he’d needed to be sure. No good would come of leaving too soon.
He finished and washed up. Emergency over, he wondered how this could’ve happened. He thought again about the vending machine, the arrangement of the packages. Going to the trash, he removed the wrapper and searched for an expiration date. He couldn’t find one. Odd, he must’ve misjudged the operator’s stocking process and gotten a bad one. Already he felt emptied. Hollowed out. Hungry. Again.
Darryl went back to the machine.
This time, he chose from the top. He’d figured out the process. All would be well.
He returned an hour later on wobbling legs.
The granola bar stared at him from the lower corner. Nutrients, fiber — he could certainly use fiber right about now. He felt drained after his ordeal. But why take a risk on the unknown?
Keying in the code for an Angel Poof, he chose from the middle. A safe bet. If they were stale, he’d only have that gritty aftertaste to deal with and not a full-on bathroom emergency.
First bite, he knew he’d made the right choice. The airy wafer exploded in his mouth, coating his tongue with sweetness. He walked to his room ignoring the pins and needles subsiding in his legs. He passed a fellow traveler and raised his sparkling packet of joy in greeting. A toast. A proud acknowledgment of his discernment for the whole world to see.
The man smiled politely but didn’t return the gesture. A goddamn Nutty Wafer lover, Darryl thought. Enjoy your race to the restroom, good sir.
He returned to his room and sat, happily munching. He turned the television on. Halfway into the opening credits of his favorite show, he tipped the open package into his mouth to get at the remaining crumbs. Little sugar sparkles lit on his tongue. He could almost feel them rising to his brain and lifting his mood.
Before the credits ended, his stomach gave a piteous rumble.
His mood tumbled from the great heights where it once peered down upon the world. He’d anticipated this. No problem. He’d get another one.
Darryl went to the front desk for more change. The manager smiled and slid four quarters his way. Darryl wanted to smile back, but could only manage a pretentious sneer.
“Do you know the vending machine operator put granola bars in your machine?” he snapped.
The manager went blank. He searched Darryl’s face for the correct answer. “I hadn’t noticed, sir.”
“That’s another space where he could stock fresh snacks. The ones in there are all expired!”
“I’m sorry?” The manager struggled to understand. “The granola bars must be a new addition,” he tried to add helpfully. “Perhaps they’re fresher? I don’t recall them being there.”
“Don’t recall,” Darryl snorted. “Then they’ve always been there because nobody buys them. Nobody! Ever see anybody eating one?”
He stalked off before the flustered manager could answer.
Darryl jammed in the code for another Angel Poof so hard his fingertip prickled with the pain. He tore open the package and devoured the contents right there, leaning against the machine. Cool glass warmed quickly against his head, his jaw furiously moving.
The man he’d passed in the breezeway earlier was crossing the parking lot. He noticed Darryl and offered a smile. Darryl snarled. The man ducked into his car and hurriedly drove away. Darryl’s stomach grumbled.
He slammed his heel into the machine then whirled and crouched, glaring at the granola bar.
“This is your fault! All your fault!”
The cheerful package stared back innocently.
Smacking his palm against the glass, he stalked back into the lobby. “Change!” he demanded.
The manager straightened from where he’d been stooped behind the counter. His eyes went to Darryl then wandered toward the desk phone. Could be he thinks I’m a problem, Darryl thought. But I have every right to demand a satisfying snack. He owes me service! As a customer, I’m always right.
“You’re going to get the money back anyway,” Darryl chided. “You and the machine operator, conspiring with your worthless snacks. I’ve got to eat five just to feel full! It’s a scam!” he shouted, shoving a wad of bills across the counter.
The manager stiffly took the money and retrieved several rolls of quarters, eyes never leaving Darryl as he stormed off to the machine.
Heart shuddering, breathing in short huffs like a rabid beast, Darryl confronted the vending machine.
The sun had set and lights winked on inside the case. A sharply outlined apparition overlaid the contents. He watched his reflection feed the quarters, work the buttons, superimposed over the turning corkscrews and the release of their impaled payload. His pulse quickened with every hollow thud. He crouched to collect his haul, the spectral reflection more solid against the emptiness of the machine.
One bright yellow package remained.
He read the words on the package one more time. Those impossible claims. Futile, now, with the vending machine gutted. He checked his palm where three last quarters shone in the LED glow.
Darryl tossed the change against the wall. “Let some other idiot buy you!”
He mashed the machine’s slot open and shoveled out his snacks, taking little care as he squeezed and crushed armloads through the opening and piled them on the sidewalk. He sat atop the mound, a voracious predator on its kill. Seizing the closest one, he tore in and began to eat.
Darryl woke in the hospital. He realized he was wearing only a paper gown. An IV wormed out from his arm and a steady beep from a nearby monitor filled the room.
He wondered who had undressed him.
Next, he wondered how much all this would cost.
A doctor entered. Maybe a nurse practitioner. How was he supposed to tell the difference anymore? He waited expectantly for her to acknowledge him. She avoided eye contact, examining his chart instead.
“How are you feeling?” she finally asked.
Darryl wasn’t sure how to answer. No energy, a rawness had developed around his buttocks. His throat felt shriveled. He tried to speak and only emitted a dry rattle.
The doctor gave a knowing look and reached for a tray beside his bed. “The EMTs found you passed out in a hotel parking lot. Your clothes…” Her nose wrinkled and she changed the subject. “We had to intubate you. An allergic reaction.” She handed him a glass of water. He gulped it down while she continued. “Diarrhea. Severe dehydration. Hyperglycemia. All critical. You nearly died.”
Darryl waved the empty cup in her direction. She obliged. He had an answer for her earlier question but his ruined throat needed to be cooled. Another gulp and he thought he could finally speak.
“I’m hungry,” he croaked. “Got any Nutty Wafers?”