Someone wins the lottery every day.
Lily’s grandfather used to tell her this when he would walk her to the corner dime shop for a candy and a ticket.
Thirty years passed while the streets of Philadelphia grew congested and polluted, and grandfathers stopped walking their granddaughters to corner shops for candy. Thirty years, and the stakes of the lottery changed. Technology advanced so that the state could offer an astronomically higher prize – in return for a far more valuable currency: time.
On Tuesday, Lily stood in front of the vending machine and debated the value of her life. She was thirty-six, still paying off loans from the graduate degree that had got her nowhere, and she was about to be the single mother of a child she would someday be promising “was a wonderful surprise”. On Tuesday, that felt like a lie. She hoped, but somehow doubted, that ten or fifteen or twenty years would change that.
On Tuesday, Lily leaned forward and punched her information into the touchscreen. She was only a couple months pregnant, and her thoughts were on vacations to Thailand, romances on the beaches of Mexico, and, more practically, a college fund for her baby.
She was nervous. She had never played the lottery, not since the rules changed, but she comforted herself with the knowledge that the risk was low. She could only gain a few hundred thousand dollars – a pitiful prize compared to some lotteries the state ran – but she could also only lose a couple years of her life.
Two years, she thought to herself. Two years was short, shorter than the time she’d spent as an Undecided major in college. Shorter than the time she’d spent abroad – and she’d thought she would spend so much time abroad. In the grand scheme of a life, two years was not long at all.
On Wednesday, Lily went about her normal routine. She also opened her phone and asked it if you could drink black tea while pregnant. Her boss requested she submit her vacation plans for the year. In the evening, she turned on the news and saw that the lottery sums were growing. Nine hundred thousand dollars. Her heart stuttered. What did that mean in years wagered? The newscaster didn’t say.
On Thursday, Lily debated it over dinner with her two best friends, Loic and Ruby. Ruby, the brilliant redhead who insisted on dying it twice a month in order to be “on theme”, squealed over the prize money.
“One point five million dollars. One point five!” She held a shiny restaurant spoon up to her nose and squinted. “How many wrinkles do you think fifteen years’ll add to my face?”
Loic laughed, but Lily’s stomach dropped. “Fifteen years? Do you think it’s that much?”
“Probably,” Loic said around a mouthful of spaghetti, foreign accent escaping with the pasta. “I’m thinking of buying a ticket.”
“You?” Ruby asked. “What would you do with a million dollars? Lily?” She turned her puppy-round eyes on her friend. “Would you play?”
Lily forced herself to breathe. She hadn’t told either of her friends she was pregnant. She hadn’t told anyone yet, in fact. She opened her mouth to answer, but Loic jumped in.
“Lily wouldn’t do a stupid thing like that,” he said. Ruby pouted at him. “She wouldn’t! She’s too smart, our girl.” He threw a protective arm around Lily. “She’s got actual plans and dreams, unlike the rest of us. She can’t waste time.” Loic leaned in. “Actually, I’m starting to think this whole lottery is a scam: the government’s stealing our lives while their favorites turn young and healthy again. I mean, what the hell else are they doing with our time?”
Lily left that night without telling her friends what she’d done. She felt stupid and greedy. She wanted to take her ticket back, but there was a clause on the back in eight-point font telling her it was unreturnable and nonexchangeable.
On Friday, the news went viral. The lottery was at ten million dollars and climbing. Lily didn’t go to work. She didn’t leave her front door. She didn’t want to know how high the stakes were now.
Ten million. Twenty million. Thirty million, and the lottery was record-breaking. Everyone anyone knew had bought a ticket. What were the odds? They said. They sung it in the streets. In their heads, they wondered. They looked at their children and wondered if they would live to see them walk down the aisle.
On Saturday, the lottery was drawn. Lily hid in her bathroom. She drowned the ticket in the toilet, and it swirled just like the pregnancy test. But the bathroom couldn’t protect her. Her neighbors rang the doorbell. They sung the news through her kitchen window. She was a millionaire.
The state authorities rang her doorbell at three in the afternoon, and she answered it wearing a robe over cactus-print pajamas. They informed her she’d won thirty-two million dollars, officially. Of course, the prize came with terms: she had to spend all the money in her lifetime (lottery winnings could not be transferred), and she had to pay her entrance stake.
Lily didn’t think while they strapped her to a chair. She didn’t think while the machine roved over her body. She barely felt the sharp stab when the needle punched poison into her veins. When the authorities left, she looked at the stopwatch they’d given her. She had twenty-three hours and thirty-seven minutes left to live.
Lily fell to her knees, and the dead weight of her belly crashed against the floor. She clutched her hands to it.
“You were a surprise,” she whispered. She had to get it right because she didn’t have ten or fifteen or twenty years to practice. “You were a wonderful surprise.”