Sara sat in a booth in the bar of a midtown restaurant with her two best friends. Carrie, Linda and Sara had met freshman year at college and had been inseparable ever since. They got each other through exams, through heartbreaks, through hangovers. They had graduated twelve months ago and none of them had the life they had planned for. Yet. They were all working toward their dreams, but a year out of university they were all tired, overworked, and underpaid.
Carrie had dreamed of being an editor at Harlequin while she wrote historical romances in her free time. The big dream being, of course, to write full time. She did work in publishing, but not at a big house like Harlequin. She was a reader of the slush pile at a not-so-big publishing house. The slush pile is a collection of unsolicited manuscripts, works by writers who haven’t read the submission guidelines and who simply send the entire manuscript directly to the publisher. Most of these manuscripts are trash, but they have to be read in case one of them turns out to be a gem. Carrie read and skimmed through the manuscripts for the gems. In the year she had worked there, she had found no gems at all and only three manuscripts that she thought an editor might want to look at. The pay for a slush pile reader was not high, but Carrie felt she might work her way up to proofreader and then, maybe, editor, so she stayed. In order to pay her bills—New York was expensive—she also worked evenings waiting tables. This left her no time for writing romances.
Linda’s dream job was to be a Classics professor at Columbia. That goal was years away. In the meantime, she worked two part-time jobs at the university; one in the library and the other as a teaching assistant. By day, she was a student in the Classics program at NYU. She still had a Master’s and a PhD to finish before qualifying as a Classics professor at the university level.
Sara had studied art history and had wanted to go on for a Master of Fine Arts degree, but the money had run dry. She worked evenings as a cashier in a drugstore and days washing dogs in a pet salon. In any free time she had, she made earrings out of lacquered origami and sold them on Etsy. This was not the creative life she had imagined.
The three women shared a small apartment, paid their bills, and had some laughs while they felt like hamsters in a wheel, running like crazy and getting nowhere. Was this what life was all about?
The women met this evening for a drink after their day jobs and before heading out to their night jobs.
Carrie said, “Chef is making that eggplant parmesan we all love, so don’t snack too much tonight. I’ll bring some home from the restaurant.”
“Great!” said Linda. “I’m at the library tonight and I’m not allowed to eat at the reference desk, so I’ll be ravenous when I get home. Please bring enough food home for an army.”
Carrie agreed to that, and also to bring arugula salad and lots of garlic bread.
“Okay,” said Sara, “I promise not to gorge on the candy bars at the checkout. It’ll be hard. Those things stare at me all night long.”
The television in the bar caught their attention as the local news anchor read a story about the multi-state lottery reaching a record high.
“Should we buy a ticket?” asked Carrie.
Linda shook her head. “The lottery is a tax on people who can’t do math.”
The others laughed.
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Sara. “When the amount gets up that high, it’s probably worth wasting a dollar. The fantasy of what you’d do with all that money is worth a buck. Tell you what. I’ll buy a ticket on my way to work and we’ll share the winnings.”
“Even with cynical Linda?” asked Carrie.
“Yes,” said Sara, “Even with cynical Linda.”
“I’m not cynical, I’m simply sensible,” said Linda.
“So, if the ticket wins, you don’t want in?” asked Sara.
“Oh, no,” said Linda, “If it wins, I’m all in. I’ll even reimburse you thirty-three and a third cents for my portion of the ticket.”
The women all smiled as they finished up their drinks and went their separate ways.
Linda walked briskly down the street toward the subway entrance. Her thoughts turned toward was Sara said about the fantasy being worth the buck. Linda wondered what she would do if she won the lottery. This week’s prize was so large that one would never have to work again. She wondered if she’d get bored. How much hanging around could a person do before boredom set in? But then she thought of not having to work and go to school. Just having all the money she needed to pay tuition and rent and give all her energy to her studies. That would be heaven. Also, if she had all that money, she could travel during the semester breaks to Greece and Italy.
She was so pleasantly involved in daydreams of sitting in a three-story library, sipping tea and reading The Odyssey in Homeric Greek, that she didn’t notice the muttering drunk until she banged right into him.
He was staggering as he walked back and forth on the platform and muttering about how “she” had mistreated him, how “she” was a bitch and got what was coming to her. His trench coat has stains on the sides which looked suspiciously like blood and his eyes were wild. People were backing away from him and a few had left the station. One person was whispering to a 911 operator on his cell phone, telling them to send the transit police. Linda, unseeing in her daydream, had banged his shoulder with hers as she walked around the corner and past him.
He pulled a knife from his pocket and lunged at her, screaming, “I thought you were dead! I thought I killed you!” He thrust his knife into Linda’s back. She fell and lay unmoving on the platform.
Sara strolled down the street, visions of what she’d do if they won the lottery. She had told the others that the fantasy was worth a buck and she believed that. Being an artist, Sara had a vivid imagination and what she imagined now was a large, light-filled loft in Soho. She saw herself standing before an easel and canvas, paint flecks on her face and in her hair. A pottery wheel stood in one corner with shelves behind it filled with her creations. She saw herself on an around-the-world tour of all the best art galleries and museums.
She stopped at the newsstand at the corner and bought a quick pick lottery ticket for tonight’s drawing before continuing on to her job as a cashier. She enjoyed working for Mr. Pugsley, the store’s owner and head pharmacist. He paid her extra to do the seasonal store decorations and design the flyers and posters for sales and other promotions. He praised her artistic talents. She enjoyed chatting with the customers and helping them find what they needed. It was nice to have a two-way conversation after talking to dogs all day as she took them out to do their business in the park or on the little patches of green around the trees planted on the city’s sidewalks.
She walked to the back of the store when she arrived to change into her Pug’s Drugs smock, with the embroidered smiling pug dog on the pocket. Sara had designed this patch, too, after telling Mr. Pugsley that she could do it for a third of what the marketing company wanted. She smoothed her hair in the mirror of the break room, turned and walked out into a robbery in progress.
The robber was a drug addict looking for opioids. He wasn’t even interested in the cash in the register. He was shaking and the gun he held in his right hand was wobbling around. The sound of Sara coming out of the break room startled him, and the gun went off. Mr. Pugsley yelled in pain and clutched his upper arm. He fell back into the dispensing counter and sank to the floor. The robber dropped the gun, turned and ran toward the front door of the shop.
Sara looked at Mr. Pugsley, who was white-faced and breathing raggedly, but otherwise seemed to be okay. She yelled to the stock boy, Ralph, crouched on the floor by the cough syrup to call an ambulance and the police and then took off after the robber. Sara caught up with him in the greeting card aisle and tackled him to the floor. She was a bit bigger than he, his body wasted from the drug use, but he had the strength of a cornered animal and he fought back.
He kicked out at her, catching her on the side of her head and knocking her into the corner of the bottom shelf of an end cap display of laundry detergent on sale. A puddle of blood pooled around her head as she lay there, still.
Carrie sighed as she looked at the paltry tip that table twelve had left her. It had been a bad tip night, so far. Some nights were like that. Carrie was going to have to do better if she was going to make her share of the rent this month. Perhaps her mind wasn’t really on the job tonight. Sara’s statement that the fantasy of what you’d do with your lottery winnings had been interrupting her thoughts all night. At the beginning of the evening, while she prepped sides and checked table settings, she’d thought about what she would do if she had money. She’d write, of course, because she’d have the time. That’s what money really buys you. It buys the time and the freedom to do the things you want to do. During the mid-evening dinner rush, she hadn’t had a chance to elaborate on her fantasies. She’d just imagined a cabin in the woods with a cosy fire and a laptop and, maybe, some hot chocolate for inspiration. The couple at table sixteen brought her mind back to the present. Something about them was tugging at the back of her mind. They were acting weird, looking around furtively. Oh, no. They weren’t. This was an upscale restaurant. They weren’t really going to dine and dash, were they? But, just as Carrie decided it couldn’t be possible, the couple jumped up and ran toward the door. Carrie sprang after them, weaving around tables as they scurried out the door and turned right. She turned right at the door and saw them at the corner waiting for the light to turn green. Perhaps they thought no one would try to follow them, but Carrie was angry. She would have to cover their meal and she didn’t have the money for that. The light turned green, and the couple crossed the street. Carrie barreled down the sidewalk in pursuit, and into the street, not noticing that the light was no longer green. An SUV, its driver impatient, revved its engine and took off in haste the second the light turned. Carrie ran right in front of the car. The driver reacted quickly, but not quickly enough. The SUV clipped her, and she spun around twice before falling sideways into the path of a bus, whose front bumper was at the perfect height to rupture her spleen.
Linda, Carrie, and Sara all woke up with a start. They were sitting on a couch in a waiting room. The furniture was beige upholstery and metal tubing. There were bland prints in plain frames on the walls. The light was unnaturally bright.
Linda said, “Where are we? Oh! I remember. A guy stabbed me.”
Carrie looked over at her friend and asked, “Someone stabbed you tonight? That is so weird. A bus hit me.”
Sara said, “Big night for us. A guy tried to rob the store. I fought with him and hit my head.”
“Yes,” said Linda, “But, where are we? I feel like I was just in the subway, closed my eyes for a second and now I’m here. Where is here? Why are we all here?”
“Me, too,” said Carrie, “Bus. Smack. Here. Weird.”
“Weird is right,” said Sara. “I tackled the robber, hit my head and now I’m here.”
They all stared at one another and came to the same conclusion at the same time.
“We’re dead!” they said.
A door they hadn’t noticed before opened and a man carrying a clipboard came in.
“You’re not dead,” he said. “Well, not all the way dead, anyway. This is not that place. This is a different place. I’m Ted, by the way.”
He flipped through the papers on his clipboard, mumbling to himself.
“What place is it?” asked Sara.
“What’s it called?” asked Carrie.
“Can we go home?” asked Linda.
Ted looked at them awkwardly. “This place doesn’t really have a name. People don’t come here often. Only when their fates get mixed up. We have to figure out how we’re going to fix this.”
“How are our fates mixed up?” asked Linda, “Were we not supposed to die tonight? Because I’m pretty sure I died when that guy stabbed me. And yet, here I am, Ted. So, what the hell is going on?”
Linda looked annoyed. Ted looked confused.
“Do you want to be dead?” he asked.
“No! Of course, I don’t want to be dead, Ted. I want to go home and have a good night’s sleep and wake up in the morning to find that this is all a terrible dream.”
“Oh, I see,” said Ted, “You don’t like not knowing things. You’re the academic. Okay. I’ll tell you. Although, it’s odd, even for this place.”
Ted put his clipboard down on a side table that seemed to just appear when he needed it. Or, rather, it wasn’t there until he needed it and then it had always been there. Time, in this place, didn’t follow the same rules as time in other places.
“It’s okay, Ted,” said Carrie. “Just tell us the story.”
“Yes,” said Sara, “we’re really curious to know what’s going on.”
Ted smiled and looked at Carrie. “And you’re the storyteller.”
He turned to Sara. “And you’re the artist. It’s the curiosity that gives you away.”
The women stared at him, waiting for him to get to the point.
Ted cleared his throat. “Well, it’s really all your fault, Sara. Well, not fault, really, but your doing. There’s a difference between fault and doing. You see, none of you were supposed to die tonight, but Sara set some things into motion and the odds of any of these events happening at all were pretty rare. The odds of them all happening were astronomical and when you add in the fact that you won the lottery, it was all way too much and so we brought you here to figure out a solution.”
“So, we did all die!” said Linda.
“What did I do to cause this?” asked Sara.
“We won the lottery?” asked Carrie.
Ted held up his hand in a stop motion. “Let me start at the beginning. Sara said that the fantasy of winning the lottery was worth the price of a ticket. This made you all start wondering what you’d do with the money if you won. That made you all less aware of your surroundings. Linda walked right into a deranged man with a knife because she didn’t see the clues she would have noticed had she been paying attention. Carrie was so distracted during work that she got bad tips, which made her angry and fearful that she wouldn’t make rent this month when the couple in her restaurant did a dine and dash. She was so blind with anger, she ran out into traffic. Sara didn’t hear the robber in the store. He was loud enough for her to have heard him had she not been dreaming of an art studio. Her guilt at startling the robber so that he shot Mr. Pugsley was so strong that she ran after the guy and tackled him. Her guilt was strong, but she was no physical match for the man and she lost the fight. So, you all day-dreamed your way into danger. What was supposed to happen was for you to win the lottery. There have been lots of different ideas about how to deal with this. The purists say that things fall where they fall. You should all die with the winning ticket still in Sara’s pocket.”
Ted sighed and said, “Personally, I think the purists are sadistic.”
The noise of rolling thunder filled the room, startling them all.
“Oh, shut up,” mumbled Ted, under his breath.
He cleared his throat again and continued, “Most of us wanted you all to live, but to give you back your lives requires a price. We’ll take the lottery from you for that. I hope that’s okay with you all.”
All three women assured Ted that their lives were worth the lottery win to them. No problem. All great. Could they go home now?
Ted smiled, “See? I knew by the fantasies you’d had that you wouldn’t be greedy and want your lives and the money. So, I negotiated a little something for you. I call it Enough.”
“Enough?” asked Linda. “What’s that?”
“Enough,” said Ted, “Is what you all wished for in your fantasies. Linda wanted enough money to pay her tuition and enough time to study, so that she could become a Classics professor. Sara wished for enough space for a studio, so she could become the artist she wants to be. Carrie wished for enough time to write. None of you showed any avarice. Your wishes were for just enough. So, here’s the deal. You will all miraculously survive your accidents tonight. The lottery money will not be yours. You will all spend four hours a day doing volunteer work that is helpful to humans. Soup kitchens, literacy programs, scholarship grants, whatever fits your style. And in return for this, whenever you reach into your pocket for money to pay for groceries, rent, tuition, art supplies, a cord of wood for that blazing fire in the cabin in the woods, the money will be there. Enough. Don’t get greedy and don’t shirk your volunteer work and enough will be there for the rest of your lives. Now go.”
Linda came to on the subway platform. Her hands and head hurt. Her back stung, too. She sat up as a paramedic came running toward her. “It’s okay. Stay still. Let me just check you out,” he said.
Linda had scrapes on her hands and forehead from falling. She also had a tiny prick on her back where the knife had barely pierced her flesh after having been thrust through her backpack and her copy of The Complete Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid. The paramedic said it was a good thing she liked the classics. Linda laughed. She refused to go to the hospital and after the police took her statement; she went on to the university library, quit her job and went to look at the bulletin board to find a nice volunteer literacy program.
Sara rolled over and groaned. “Ouch!” she said, aloud. The robber had gotten away. She jumped up and ran back toward the dispensary to check on Mr. Pugsley. Ralph had called the police, and they were on their way, but Mr. Pugsley had vetoed the ambulance and was coaching Ralph on how much antibiotic ointment to put on his upper arm and which bandages to get from the shelves to wrap it. The bullet had grazed his arm, causing some burns and bleeding, but was not serious.
“Thanks, Ted,” said Sara.
“Who’s Ted?” asked Mr. Pugsley.
Sara shook her head to clear it.
“Just a friend,” she said.
Mr. Pugsley turned to Ralph.
“Put the closed sign on the door and lock it up,” he said. “I think we’ve had enough excitement for one night.”
Sara smiled. “Mr. Pugsley, if it’s okay with you, I need to go over to the soup kitchen across the street for a bit. I’ll be right back.”
Carrie stumbled sideways and then righted herself to find that she was standing one inch in front of a stopped bus. She looked up and saw the driver, wide-eyed, mouth open. She patted the front windshield of the bus as if to calm the driver and said, “It’s okay. I’m fine.”
The police insisted she go to the hospital, even though she only had a bruised hip from the SUV spinning her around. At the hospital, the doctors were all amazed how trivial her injuries were. She assured them she was feeling just fine as she asked where the information desk was. She needed to look into volunteer work.
Sara, Carrie, and Linda were all sitting on the couch in their tiny apartment. Each had a glass of wine and they were comparing notes.
“I bought a coffee in a bodega,” said Sara. “Did you two try it out, too?”
“I picked up a textbook for next semester at the university bookstore,” said Linda.
“I got pizza for us on the way home from the hospital,” said Carrie, “since I promised to bring home dinner.”
As they sat down to eat their pizza, Sara turned on the television.
“Tonight’s winning lottery numbers are…”
“Turn it off!” shouted Linda and Carrie.
© 2018 Liza Cameron Wasser