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The Odds





The Odds

 

Things had gone well, almost perfect. They, with guilty pleasure, behind closed doors, admitted they were happy. Responsible living, good decision-making, and hard work had resulted in robust college funds and retirement accounts. They had satisfying careers, interesting hobbies, close friends, and a rescue dog. However, here he is pushing two crumpled dollars across the sticky counter. “One Powerball, please.”

The clerk, eyes stitched to his phone, asks, “Picking your own numbers or you want the machine to do it?”

“I’ll pick my numbers.”

The clerk stuffs his phone into his pocket and the bills into the register. He runs his fingers through his greasy hair and taps the screen of the digital lottery machine. Celestially, it glows to life. The clerk hovers his hand over the integers, and says, “Shoot.”       

   He closes his eyes, inhales through his nose, and is repulsed by the scent of fried chicken and hot dogs. The winning lottery numbers float through the mire to the surface.

   “Twenty-four.” In a blur of complex medication regimens and frequent vomiting, he and his wife had celebrated twenty-four years of marriage. The scent of two dozen roses wafted through the house triggering her nausea. Holding back her hair, he recalled the first time he saw her striding, head high and shoulders back, across their college campus before she slipped on a patch of ice. He raced to help gather her books and find her glasses. She tucked her loose, brown locks behind her ears and frowned at the scratched lens. Even with her furrowed brow and pinched mouth, he thought she was lovely. He gripped her mittened hands, pulled her to her feet, and never let go.

   “Okay,” the clerk says.

   He opens his eyes, and says, “Sorry. Sixty.” According to the prognosis, she has sixty days to live. The doctor, rubbing his temples, had informed them of the menacing itinerant mass and granted her six months. Within four months, they accrued a debt of sixty thousand dollars in the high cost of hope. She had always been athletic and vibrant; healthy as a horse. A quotidian ritual, rain or shine, she and the rescue dog jogged five miles before breakfast, while he repeatedly hit snooze. If anyone could beat the egregiously unfavorable odds, she could.

   The clerk raises his eyebrows.

   “Three.” She had endured three rounds of chemotherapy and radiation. The exasperated oncologist had reiterated the intention of chemoradiation was exclusively for pain management. After each treatment, between bouts of heaving, she apologized for her diagnosis, abandoning him, and the financial burden. She cursed herself for leaving the kids. He had pressed his palms to his ears and shouted at her—swore at her—to shut up. In stunned alarm, she widened her owl-like eyes, large in her bald head, and stopped. That moment is one of his many regrets. 

   “Twenty-one.” Twenty-one years ago, their son was born. After three years of charting her basal temperature and cervical mucus, they repressed tears of joy until she burst from the bathroom waving the positive pregnancy test. Although difficult to conceive, he was an easy and contented baby with his father’s bright blue eyes and his mother’s natural optimism. Their golden-haired child believes his mother will prevail and live to see him graduate college in the spring. No one has the heart to tell him otherwise.

   A man waiting to pay for his beef burrito and doughnut scratches his beard and sighs.

   The clerk urges him to continue. “And?”

   “Fourteen.” The age of their surprise child: the unexpected and tempestuous daughter. An effortless, yet conflicted, pregnancy provoking tears of frustration after returning to the work force and landing her first corporate account. The relentless morning sickness and fatigue brought her to her knees and to the emergency room for rehydration. After a string of sleepless nights with their screaming newborn, they humorously decided there was an inverse relationship between the ease of conception and the temperament of the baby. Their daughter refuses to accept the diagnosis and rages against the absence of her mother from her future graduation, wedding, and motherhood. He has secretly and regretfully poached her college fund for the experimental, animal-tested treatments. His daughter’s scowl tells him what he already knows; he should be the one fading away, not her mother.

   “And your Powerball number?” the clerk asks, glancing at the line of customers.

   His biggest fear, his worst nightmare, is to be alone. “One.”

 

Paisley Kauffmann 

 

Paisley Kauffmann is a registered nurse and writer. Her work has appeared in The Talking Stick, The Birds We Piled Loosely, The Writing Disorder, Corvus Review, The Indiana Voice Journal, Grey Wolfe Storybook, and The Other Stories Podcast. Believing in the art of practice, she is working on her fourth novel. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with her husband and two pugs.

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