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“Go ahead, take it.”
Aubrey hesitated, embarrassed that the man had caught her fishing in the coin return of the vending machine at the Lamplighter Motel where she lived in with her mom. Aubrey had gone coin-return fishing as soon as she got off the school bus. She was hungry and hoped to find a stray quarter. There were five quarters in her purple backpack from the Goodwill store. Another would be enough for two candy bars. They would be her supper in case her mom didn’t come back until late.
Not only had the man seen her reach into the coin return without putting any coins in, he’d seen her eyeing the candy bar wrapped in pink foil. SWEET TREAT was written across the wrapper in sparkly silver letters. It plopped into the tray, as if by magic, as she approached.
Aubrey never heard of Sweet Treat before, but it was candy, and it was free. She was about to push her hand through the flap and grab it, when the man stepped out from behind the Snak-O-Matic.
Aubrey thought the man could be anywhere between thirty and forty. He was clean-shaven, with neatly trimmed black hair and light brown skin. She thought he might be Hispanic, like Mr. Perez, her math teacher, or possibly Italian, like Gino, who worked in the pizza parlor down the street and who called her mom bella. Gino had a big belly and friendly brown eyes with laugh lines around them.
This man’s eyes were brown and friendly, like Gino’s, but unlike Gino, he looked like he worked out. He wore neatly pressed olive green cotton pants with a matching green shirt – also neatly pressed -- tucked into them. Stitched in white thread over the breast pocket of his shirt was Stranger.
Aubrey considered her options. Should she scoot past or reach in and grab the candy?
As if he’d read her mind, the man pointed to the word that was stitched over his pocket.
“They say, ‘never take candy from strangers,’ and now here’s a guy with ‘Stranger’ on his shirt, offering you candy. You’re thinking, ‘Uh-oh! Run like a bunny!’Am I right?”
“Yeah,” Aubrey said hesitantly. She looked around, hoping to see Sandi Gutierrez or one of the other housekeepers appear pushing a cart filled with dirty sheets and towels and cleaning supplies. No luck. The scratched and dented metal doors on either side of the hallway, many of them tagged with gang graffiti, were all closed. Aubrey and the man were alone.
The man made no move to grab her and throw her in the back of a van, or to unzip his pants and show her his junk, but she still wasn’t sure if she should talk to him. Maybe he was only pretending to be nice and when her guard was down the kidnapping or the unzipping (or both) would commence.
“Stranger’s my name, Ethan Stranger, to be precise. I stock candy in vending machines, like this bad boy here.”
He gave the Snak-O-Matic an affectionate pat, the kind a cowboy would give his horse. “These old fellows go back to the nineteen-seventies, the days of Pac-Man, water beds, and disco. You’ve got a real antique here, a groovy blast from the past.”
Aubrey smiled. Ethan Stranger was funny. He didn’t seem crazy, like the men who hung out at the park where she sometimes played. Those men had straggly beards and wore dirty clothes. Their eyes were either dull, as if they’d checked out of life long ago and were just marking time until they died, or they held a glittering, cagey expression, as if they were in on a secret that the rest of the world didn’t know and they weren’t about to share. Sometimes they shouted about Jesus or space aliens.
Audrey decided Ethan Stranger was like her teachers: a normal grown-up who had a job, an enviable one in this case, putting him in charge of a supply of candy.He jerked his chin at the candy bar lying in the machine’s trough, waiting for someone to claim it. “Go ahead; Snak-O-Matic wants you to have it. It would hurt his feelings if you didn’t take it.”
“Okay, thanks.” Aubrey reached in and scooped up the candy.
“Don’t thank me; thank Snak-O-Matic.”
“Thanks, Snak-O-Matic,” she told it, with a giggle.
“You’re welcome, young lady,” Ethan rumbled in a comically deep voice, making her giggle again.
She put the candy in the pocket of her denim jacket and turned to go. “Bye, I have to do my homework.”
“Aren’t you going to eat your candy?” He raised his eyebrows enquiringly. Aubrey fingered the candy bar in her pocket, feeling the wrapper crackle. She was pretty hungry.
“Okay.” She unwrapped it and took a bite.
Ethan Stranger watched her as she chewed. This was the part he liked best: seeing them change. He never knew what form the change would take. Sometimes the kids who ate Sweet Treats turned into cockroaches, sometimes they turned into spiders. Sometimes they turned into silverfish or earwigs or snails. You never knew what would happen, that was the exciting part.
Grey fur sprouted from Aubrey’s face. Her nose elongated, her eyes turning solid black. She shrank down into her clothes, leaving them lying jumbled on the hallway’s cheap indoor-outdoor carpeting. Seconds later, a mouse darted out from one leg of the jeans and slipped beneath the Snak-O-Matic. There was crunch as a mousetrap snapped shut.
Ethan Strange was undisturbed by Aubrey demise. It was the change he liked; what happened to them afterwards didn’t interest him. He picked up the clothes and sneakers and backpack and tossed them into a canvas-sided bin in the laundry room. Then he set off, whistling, down the hallway. He had time for one more stop before he knocked off for the day. School was out and there would be hungry kids in the mood for candy.