Darryl slid three quarters into the vending machine and weighed his options.
What snack do you buy for a pregnant woman about to give birth?
He thought he remembered reading in a book that pregnancy makes women crave chocolate, and for a moment hovered his finger over the button for a snickers. But what if this lady had a nut allergy?
Darryl shivered at the thought of accidentally sending the poor girl into an allergic fit just as she was about to go through something so painful he couldn’t wrap his mind around the concept. Rubbing the back of his neck, he walked across the small, rural hospital’s lobby to the receptionist’s desk.
The rain outside ran over the glass of the windows like a river. Not a single pair of headlights cut through the infinite blackness on all sides of the hospital. The only dots of life outside were the perfectly-spaced streetlights cutting in a grid through the parking lot. Far off in the distance, the vague and jagged silhouettes of pine trees separated the black of the sky from the black of the ground.
He wished he was back home at his apartment instead of wherever he was now.
The lobby receptionist kept her blonde hair in a bun on top of her head and a pen balanced precariously between her ear and the temples of her glasses. Her eyes had a suggestion of crows feet as she squinted at the crossword on top of her desk.
“Excuse me,” Darryl said quietly. The receptionist looked up at him, slightly startled, and then smiled wide.
“What can I help you with, hon?”
“This is an odd question, but…” Darryl paused. “What do pregnant women usually snack on? What do they eat?”
The receptionist cocked her head and gave a quizzical smile. “Haha… excuse me, dear?”
Darryl gulped. Tingles danced across the palms of his hands.
“I’m here with a young lady who’s getting ready to give birth, he said. “And I was supposed to go and get her some snacks because we don’t know the last time she’s eaten and she’s only picking at the hospital food they gave her.”
The receptionist’s smile melted away from her face bit by bit as she listened.
“And I was looking at the vending machine, and I…”
Darryl trailed off.
The receptionist cooed out nervous, professional reassurance, “Hon, is it your wife that’s about to have a baby?” Her voice reminded Darryl of his middle school guidance counselor.
“No, she’s not, she’s uh –” Darryl shoved his hands into his jacket pockets and tried to shrug casually but spasmed his shoulders, betraying his accelerating heart rate.
“She’s just some lady! I don’t even know her!” he blurted. His voice was beginning to crack. “She’s, uh–” He felt his face get red and had to blink to keep his eyes clear.
The receptionist stood up and came around the desk to Darryl’s side, putting her hand on his shoulder as he squeezed the tear ducts on either side of his nose with his thumb and forefinger.
The receptionist’s name was Mary, she told Darryl as she walked with him back to the vending machine. And she had four kids of her own and, unfortunately, there wasn’t much you could do to predict what would make an expecting mother gag and what she would inhale.
“But it’s okay, dear,” she said, rubbing his back. She entered the nurses’ break room door near the vending machines and called back, “Just give me one second.”
Thirty seconds later, Mary emerged again with a small ziplock bag full of dollars and quarters.
Walking over to the vending machine, she began sliding quarters back to back into the slot, interspersed with the occasional dollar bill. In a methodical, robotic manner, she pushed each button on the machine from A1 to G6 in alphanumerical order.
“Wha-” Darryl began, his nervous hands running up and down the thighs of his jeans.
“If you don’t know what this little lady likes, let’s just get her one of everything,” Mary soothed. She glanced back at Darryl with a radiant smile, her hands never ceasing to feed coins and push buttons as if this was the most normal process in the world.
“I-. Th-thank you so much,” Darryl said. “I can pay you back,” he continued with a shaky voice as he opened his wallet to remove a twenty dollar bill.
“Don’t even think of it,” Mary cooed. “You have enough to worry about, it seems. Paying for Milky Ways is not something you need to fret over.”
As each candy bar and chip bag clunked to the pick-up slot, a young woman in red scrubs slipped out of the nurses’ room and handed Mary a plastic bag before slipping back inside.
Shoveling all the snacks into the bag, Mary handed Darryl the lot and put her hands on both his shoulders.
“Hon, I know you’re scared and it sounds like you got roped into whatever is happening in there out of nowhere. But you’ll be fine, and the girl will be fine.”
She hugged him, Darryl hugged her back, and suddenly felt a warmth spread from where her bosom touched his chest spread over his entire body. “I promise,” she said.
“Thank you,” Darryl whispered as they separated. He wandered back down the empty hallways of the tiny hospital to the maternity ward.
As he entered, the woman perked, pushing herself to sit up straighter, one hand on her massive belly. She looked to Darryl like a squirrel or chipmunk, frightened but curious, with round, beautiful eyes looking back at him. Her hair was thick but hadn’t been washed. Her face looked soft and pillowy, but was nicked and bespeckled with dirt.
Her meal had barely been touched aside from the carton of milk and the portion of pudding they’d given her.
Pulling a chair from the corner of the room up to the bed and bringing the privacy curtain around them, Darryl sat down and emptied the contents of the bag on the foot of the bed.
The woman’s eyes exploded with light and grew immense as she looked over the potato chips, chocolate bars, pretzels, and pastries. She began to exert herself to reach, but Darryl gently held her back before putting the packaged cupcake she had gestured towards in her hand.
Darryl leaned back in his chair and opened a carton of Milk Duds, chewing as he watched her devour her pastry.
The woman looked at him, her lips touched with a hint of smeared chocolate. “Thank you.”
Darryl nodded. Everything was going to be fine.