This short story started as a submission to The First Line literary journal, a black and white photocopied publication that has been around since 1999. They didn’t want it, but I edited it a bit and submitted to the Leo’s 2022 Literary issue, where it got third prize.
Damon slid three quarters into the vending machine and weighed his options. He leaned forward putting one hand on the machine and stared at his dark reflection in the glass.
“Okay, D.… you’ve fucked this up.” he muttered to himself. “What are we going to do now?”
“I’ll just leave. I’ll just start walking and keep walking and never look back.”
“Okay, what’s the problem - what exactly did we do? How much trouble are we really in?”
“What are our options?” What are you going to say to Chuck?”
Since the beginning of the fall ’96 semester Damon had been picking up his girlfriend, Angel, and driving her to school. Every morning he’d drive the half-mile from his house to hers, staying off the main road, then drive the 3 blocks from her house to the high school parking lot. If they timed it right they’d arrive early enough to get a parking spot by the tennis courts. He’d always back into the spot so as people showed up they could see the two of them sitting together in the front seat.
They’d met in the summer. He’d just turned 16 and had a car that was going to be his when he got his license. To impress Angel, he’d taken her out for a few alley cruises, and when school started, he couldn’t resist being seen with her in the parking lot. Each morning, he’d wait for his mom and his most recent step-dad, Chuck, to leave for work. His mom was an elementary teacher and Chuck worked first shift at the appliance factory, so they left early. As soon as they were gone he’d head out and be careful to make it home before them and park in exactly the same spot.
Damon and Angel would sit in the car, drinking Mountain Dews, smoking Camel Lights, and listening to Damon’s collection of Heavy Metal tapes until it was time for class to start. They had followed this routine every day for 3 months. For 3 months it had been perfect.
This morning was not perfect. After picking up Angel, Damon’s 1987 White Ford Escort was rear-ended at the stop sign on her street. The impact smashed the hatch, pushed the car into the intersection, and rocked Damon and Angel hard against their seatbelts. Damon’s tape cases were in the back. The plastic crunch added to the sounds of the crash. Tapes went flying.
The next sound they heard was the driver of the car that hit them turning around and driving off.
After asking each other repeatedly if they were okay they got out and walked around to the back. The car was probably totaled, but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. Apparently, Ford had improved the rear-end of their hatchbacks since the days of exploding Pintos.
The main casualty was the tape collection. There had been hundreds of tapes in the hatchback, organized alphabetically across three travel cases. Most of them were smashed and destroyed.
Looking down they saw a Slayer tape, Divine Intervention, had landed undamaged, his first thought was “Divine Intervention, that’s funny” and his second thought was “Oh shit, I still don’t have a license.”
That tape surviving the crash could’ve been his Paul on the road to Damascus moment, a sign from a higher power. But, he was more concerned with figuring out just exactly how fucked he, Angel, and his car were.
The cops had shown up quickly and helped them. They insisted that Angel’s mom take them straight to the hospital to get checked out. He’s assuming they are here now to get the rest of the accident report and ask for his license, which he doesn’t have, and his registration, which said the car belonged to Charles “Chuck” Wayne DePauw.
Damon’s forehead rests on the glass, his breath making an expanding circle of fog. He takes a half step back, staring at the dark reflection of the hospital waiting room behind him. He sees himself, two black eyes, a neck brace, and, behind him, in the waiting room was Angel’s worried mom.
So now Damon has to decide what he wants out of the vending machine “Do I get a bag of Doritos or do I turn around, start walking and keep walking past these cops and nurses and get the fuck out of here?”
Leaving with an injury, probably a concussion, might be a bad idea, but the impending interaction with step-dad-of-the-month definitely was. Chuck often reminded him, “You don’t fuck with Chuck.”
Damon needed options. He could stay and talk to the cops. Let them know he didn’t have a license — then deal with that. He could lie and stall — maybe act disoriented — he had just been in a crash…He could try and leave — get past them somehow… He knows he isn’t going home.
Something healthy…Mixed nuts…that’s real food right? Something salty…maybe pretzels…?
Something sweet? Ho-Hos…Giant Cinnamon bun…? That’s more than 75¢.
Staring at the machine, two universes split - one salty, one sweet, one he stays, the other where he runs. The difference between pressing D7 or E5 means a different trajectory, a fork in the road of life leading to a different set of possible futures.
This is all garbage, he thought. There aren’t any good choices. It is going to be a long night, no matter what I decide.
He buys the cupcakes. It’s a two pack. He walks through the waiting room and sits across from Angel’s Mom, offers her one of them, and says, after a pause, “I don’t have a lot of options, I think I’m in trouble, and I’m going to need some help.”