(6 minute read)
by Linda McMullen
Jonah – community college dropout and fourth-most-senior associate at the big-box store – slid three quarters into the vending machine. He flashed through several possibilities:
- He could get George a Coke.
Jonah’s derelict better angel supported this option. George operated from a constant caffeine deficit due to his insomnia, his team video-gaming habit and his sideline in online poker. It might persuade him to overlook the still-packaged Haven game he’d located in Jonah’s interior coat pocket during the morning spot-check. George had fingered his brand new plastic Assistant Manager badge, his promotion still rendering him occasionally insufferable (even if he did still play video games with Jonah after work). Upon discovery, George had manifested ‘Serious Concern’, because other associates were lingering within earshot: Tabitha and Ashley – Ash. She’d asked him to call her Ash.
- He could simply purchase a Cherry Coke for himself.
That, and escaping from Tabitha’s holier-than-everyone-but-thou-in-particular glare, had been his initial quest. (He imagined a cartoon demon on his shoulder urging this option). He’d developed a taste for it when he’d been visiting his mom. The hospice vending machine had routinely sold out of the other acceptable choices, Coke and Sprite. And when they had Sprite, he saved them for her. It had gone down easier than anything else.
- He could press the fickle gray button and hope to get the quarters back.
With 75 cents and the coins left in his pocket, he could afford to get eggs on the way home, which would enliven his ramen cups for days to come. But that button resembled a slot machine more than a coin return.
“Still here, huh?” said Ash, but Jonah heard just that lilt in her voice. The one that reduced him to rubble every time she walked into the break room. Or any room. That girl – woman, he meant woman – he knew was decidedly too smart to last here, to waste her time in this linoleum-and-fluorescent break room. Yes, too smart, and too –
Jonah’s mom had always taken him to church. During his initial outing as an altar boy – over a decade before – he’d tripped over his own shoelace and had sent the Communion wafers airborne, strewing them like confetti from the altar to the foot of the Cross. And that blush had nothing on the one he felt rising to his face now.
“They haven’t fired me yet,” he managed, trying to will the blood back down his neck. He mashed the Fanta button, and handed her the orange can without turning toward her.
“Aw, thanks!” she said. “Fanta’s my favorite.”
He mumbled something indistinct. As if he’d never noticed that.
“Jonah,” a voice barked from the doorway – the sort of voice that had long since traded a plastic name tag for an off-the-rack suit. Geoff.
Jonah half-waved to Ash, “See you later, maybe.”
Ash held up a hand: “Oh wait, Geoff – I need you to unlock the case for me, and approve an exchange, first.”
That gave Jonah a few minutes to collect himself, and slouch into Geoff-the-Real-Manager’s office.
Jonah endured the shaming, the cold disappointment, the criminalization of acquiring a crumb of joy from a thirty-one-and-a-half hour per week, no health insurance, $7.50 an hour job, working for a multi-billion-dollar corporation. George, the rat, nodded along with Geoff’s lecture. Jonah wondered how someone could look so… what was that word his mother used about the casserole-toting, pity-patttering church ladies…? Sanctimonious.
Especially since Jonah suspected that George’s indifferent success at 3 a.m. Texas Hold ‘Em games had not paid for his copy of Halo: The Master Chief Collection last year.
Geoff gave him fifteen paid minutes to clean out his locker. Ash was still in the break room, and obligingly dragged over a trash can.
George poked his head in. “Hey, I’m sorry, man. Do you still want to come over tonight? Halo?”
Jonah dug in the back of his locker, unearthed a forgotten fiver – then he looked George fully in the eye. “Get lost.”
George paused, as if considering a retort, but merely adjusted his badge, and left.
Ash gave him a wry look. “You do things the stupid way, you know that.”
“Let me walk you out,” she said, pulling on her coat.
When they had reached the parking lot, Ash, with a magician’s flourish, produced a brand-new copy of Haven.
“Easy,” she said. “I went back in the system and reprinted a receipt for a guy who had bought a copy a few days ago. I told Geoff that the guy had said the disc was defective, that I had trashed that copy, and that I needed to give the customer a replacement. And then I had Geoff get one out of the case for me, and I scanned it out. The guy still has his copy, the store inventory comes out right, and –” she grinned – “you might have a more enjoyable evening.”
Jonah had difficulty righting his jaw.
“Shhh,” she said, putting a playful finger to his lips.
He fingered the lucky bill in his pocket. “Do you like ramen with a fried egg and vegetables?”
Copyright © 2021 – Linda McMullen. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Linda McMullen is a wife, mother, diplomat, and homesick Wisconsinite. Her short stories and the occasional poem have appeared in over one hundred literary magazines. She received Pushcart and Best of the Net nominations in 2020. She may be found on Twitter: @LindaCMcMullen.
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