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Open Features: The Winner

Winning the lottery may not bring the joy you anricipate, as Graeme McLeod's brilliant short story reveals.

The sun slowly climbing to the top of the surrounding mountains caused a tall building to appear reluctantly out of the gloom. There was nothing particular about it, for it was one among many such buildings that clustered untidily in the valley. This particular one contained one-hundred single apartments.

In one of those one-hundred apartments, the clock’s minute hand pointed at twelve and the alarm sounded. The owner’s cat had been sleeping, but now uncurled from its basket and stretched, its profound annoyance inscribed on every line of its lithesome body.

In the single bed, an undistinguished specimen of a man awkwardly moved his hand in the direction of the clock. He swiped at the alarm button as if it were an annoying fly, emitting a loud moan, “I do not want to go to work anymore!” If only he could win the lottery, he would be a happy man.

The cat meowed in hopes of being fed, pitter-pattering across the floor to her bowl, her claws tapping on the hard surface like someone using a toy typewriter. The smell of a recently used kitty litter tray suffused the woebegone area.

“Cat, you sure stink,” Peter grumbled. He kicked at the discarded piles of losing lottery tickets on the floor as though they were autumn leaves as he went to do something about the smell. The kitty litter tray was in the small combined bathroom and toilet cubicle, awkwardly placed under the hand basin.

Peter armed himself with a plastic garbage bag. After taking a fortifying gulp of fresh air, he poured the gross cocktail of cat excreta and clay grains into it.

He then fed the cat, stripped off his jocks and t-shirt and had a quick shower.

After making an obligatory farewell to his cat, took his usual bus to where he worked - a grey, drab building which resembled a headstone more than a place where people would delight in being productive. To make matters worse, he worked in the basement, which was windowless.

After he swiped his security pass, he rode down five storeys. He always thought the descent was like being buried alive, again and again, every morning. He stepped out and walked to his work station, where he was greeted by eight rows of filing cabinets, four fax machines, a telephone and a photocopier.
His task was to collect arriving faxes, photocopy them and file them in the cabinets provided.

He always worked alone, his pale skin a testimony to his seldom chancing into the sunlight. In fact, the only time he was game to venture outside was to buy an instant lottery ticket. Only then was he willing to become part of the hordes of people on the streets at lunchtime. He had to put up with the shoving and pushing as impatient people waited in a long line. They were at every fast-food stall, all these faceless people waiting to be served.

Peter smiled grimly to himself. He never needed to buy lunch. He brought his own from home. A shiny red apple and a small tub of yoghurt satisfied his needs.

He hoped the cute lady who curled her hair with her fingers while she talked would serve him with his lottery tickets. Her name was Pat. He believed she was an angel in disguise who, one day, would give him the winning ticket. Her hair was black as coal and only her giggle could paint a smile on his face.

“Hello, Peter,” she smiled. “Here again to try your luck, I see. I am sure, since you buy twenty tickets a day, you will win a major prize one day soon.” She took the wad of money from his hand. There was that beautiful ripping sound as she tore off the required number of tickets.

Peter reached out his hand, feeling like a thirsty man dying from lack of water. He accepted the tickets, and muttered his thanks, his face flaming red with embarrassment. He hoped she wasn’t able to read his mind.

She winked at him knowingly. “I am sure, this time, you will win,” she remarked encouragingly. She said that to all of her regular customers. It was good for business.

He gasped and knew he was going to be a free man at last. He decided he would celebrate by having a cup of coffee as he tried to find which ticket was the winning one.

Peter walked purposefully to a café and sat in a safe corner, waiting to be served.

While waiting, he retrieved his lucky fifty-cent piece and began furiously scratching his pile of tickets. He held his arm around the tickets like a wall so no prying eyes could see.

“What would you like to drink, sir?”

He jolted his head up and returned the waitress’s smile. He wondered why she smiled so broadly. Could it be because she knew his secret? He looked down quickly and saw the same three numbers on the card he had just scratched. He gazed at her, poker faced. “A white coffee please.” And at the same time, he covered the ticket, which had been momentarily exposed. He watched her spin away from him, with a wiggle of her hips and, laughing, pushed into to the kitchen.

Slowly, so slowly, he uncovered the card, removing one finger at a time. There was the two-million dollar symbol! And it was there three times! He was in heaven! He was now free!
A cough nearby suddenly had everybody’s attention.

Peter looked in the direction of the cough. A man sitting at a nearby table, drinking a short black coffee, was staring at him intently. He gave Peter a cursory nod.

Could those piecing blue eyes have seen his winning ticket, Peter wondered. Quickly, he shoved the card into his wallet, which he then buried deep in a pocket of his trousers. He tried to whistle calmly but his lips had become dry. Instead, he tapped the table with his fingertips to a tune in his head and gazed with studied calm around the shop.

“There you are, sir, one white coffee.” The waitress placed the cup carefully on the table and gave him a seductive wink.

Peter nervously analysed that wink, and decided it was the same as the one Pat, the lady at the newsagents, had given him. It was not a seductive wink, but a knowing wink. He began to sweat as he realised there were already two people, and one angel, who knew that he had won a large amount of money. He gulped his coffee, no longer enjoying being trapped in a room full of eyes that all now knew he had won.

He rushed to the cash register to pay for the coffee.

“Sir is welcome to give us a tip, if he wishes,” said a small balding man who was standing behind the counter.

Peter was sure the man then added under his breath, “Since you have just won so much money.” He irritably shoved five dollars into the donation jar and briskly headed for the safety of the exit.

Outside, he breathed a sigh of relief and quickly walked back to work.

He turned a corner and the hairs of his neck rose. He was being followed! He listened carefully, holding his breath. Yes, he could hear at least four pairs of feet heading his way. He began to sweat again and wondered how he could escape from their clutches. They must have been told of his winning by that nosy waitress, or the man who was drinking at the table beside him, or the man behind the counter...

A taxi suddenly veered towards him. Fortunately, it was free and stopped in response to his frantic waving. He gasped out the address of his workplace as he clambered into the back seat. He looked back and, yes, indeed, there were the four men who had been following him. His angel must have been watching over him, for this taxi had appeared from nowhere!

He desperately wanted to check his winning ticket but he saw that the inquisitive eyes of the taxi driver were watching his every movement in the rear view mirror.

“That will be a total of twenty dollars,” the driver announced as he pulled the cab to a stop. He stared at Peter for a moment, then added, “Yes, of course, since you have so much money, I am prepared to accept a tip.” His face was immediately transformed into a menacing leer.

Peter opened his wallet with trembling hands. The taxi driver had seen his winning ticket, so he had no choice but to give him an extra five dollars. He gave a sigh of relief when the vehicle zoomed off down the street.

For the first time in his life, Peter was happy to be back at his workstation.

After a celebration lunch of the yogurt and crunchy red apple, he began to staple, photocopy and file the papers the fax machine had sent for his expert attention. Glancing up some time later, he observed that it was now time to go home.

Walking to the bus stop was a nightmare. Everybody he passed acknowledged him with a nod and a knowing look. Some smiled, happy he was a winner. Others snarled because they believed it had been their turn to win a major prize.

There was a sudden flash of lightning, followed by a clap of thunder. People rushed to the bus shelter from all directions. Peter knew that everybody in this city would know by now about his win, for gossip spreads faster than a grass fire in a strong gusty wind.

He was worried someone might try to steal his winning ticket. To overcome this problem, he stood alone outside the shelter and permitted the downpour to saturate his body. He noticed that many people who were huddled in the comfort of the shelter were pointing at him and whispering to each other. He had no doubt they were complaining about his luck in winning all that money.

The bus arrived and the dry, warm bodies clambered into it.

Peter, totally drenched, squished into the bus and took his wallet out to display his bus pass to the driver.

The driver quickly scrutinized his pass. And also the winning ticket. He knew that everyone in the bus knew his secret now.

Finally in the safety of his apartment, his cat jumped onto his lap and purred because he was now a winner. Suddenly, Peter screamed in pain as a stabbing spasm shot through his chest. The cat, with a meow of terror, sprang off his lap and dived under the bed.

Peter had trouble breathing, and began to gasp for air. He fell to the floor and crawled to his front door. He pounded with his fist and cried out, “Help me! Please, help me!”

Fortunately, a neighbour heard him and called an ambulance.

Peter felt himself being strapped into a stretcher.
“You’re in good hands now mate,” one of the medics observed comfortingly. “We have everything under control.”

Peter managed to display a smile as he thought to himself, its okay, I am prepared for anything. My winning ticket is safe.

He’d managed to swallow it whole, in one gulp.

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