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June 27, 2022

Winner for Life

By Joe Albanese

Ding-dong.

Dammit. The doorbell.

Maybe it was the neighborhood kids, she thought. Possibly a salesman. At worst, a Jehovah's Witness. Any of those scenarios could wait. This was more important. Later I'll put up a sign, she thought.

Sharon just found out that her husband, Eric, was sleeping with her sister, Michelle. She was angry and out for revenge. Irony rang high considering Sharon was also sleeping with Eric's brother, Nathan. Sharon stomped into the doctor's office where Eric was examining a patient. She brushed past the secretary and headed back to the exam room.

Eric could hear her arguing from the hall and and excused himself from his patient.

When he reached the door he saw his wife in the dark mood lighting. Behind her, Nathan ran in to try to stop Sharon.

It was about to go down.

Ding-dong.

Thank God, a commercial, Maggie thought to herself.

The Den will return after these messages.

She rushed to the door to shoo away the solicitor before the soap opera returned.

Maggie could see several people and balloons out the window before reaching the door. When she did open it, she saw the novelty oversized check and camera crew.

Mega Magazine highlighted the large check, and her name, Margaret Stevens in the center. She could have cried if she fully grasped what was happening, but she did not for several more moments. The rep spoke, but Maggie's confusion coupled with excitement muted everything around her, including the rep's words.

It took the representative's hand on Maggie's shoulder to ease things enough so she could explain to Maggie that she was indeed Mega Magazine's Mega Winner of the "Winner-for-Life" prize for the Spring season.

Maggie had forgotten she even filled out an entry form, months earlier, out of boredom upon seeing an ad during a commercial break during The Den. Back then, Sharon and Eric were happy newlyweds.

Math was not Maggie's best subject back in school, but even she knew the odds were slim of actually winning.

According to the commercial, each season, one lucky winner would be drawn and win their "Winner-For-Life" prize. This season was five-thousand dollars every week of her life.

Maggie was able to do this math soon after she pieced together the random words the rep was saying, only made more difficult in all the excitement of her, the crew, and neighbors coming to see the commotion.

Okay, let's see. Five grand per week. Thats $250,000 a year. (rounded to make the math easier on herself). That's one million dollars every four years! Minus taxes, of course.

Inside, the soap opera returned from commercial, but at that moment Maggie couldn't have cared less about Sharon, Eric, or what's-their-faces?

Maggie gave a brief interview on camera, and a photo was taken of Maggie and the giant check. Mega Magazine's reps advised that she keep her winning as secret as possible to avoid crime and unwanted solicitors and phone calls. All they asked was for an interview that would be be published in a "Where Are They Now?" issue.

She appreciated their candor and accepted the terms.

For the first time in her life, Maggie was a winner.

The first couple months were awkward for Maggie. She only told a few close friends about her winnings and even fewer family members. She did not want to deal with the drama of handouts to family and friends. Charitable donations would come, but were put on hold over the summer so Maggie could get her new life in operational order.

First she bought a new car, a Mercedes Benz, purple, as was her office daydream. The day after her purchase she drove into work in that new car. She arrived early due to her excitement and to quit. But in her excitement she forgot to quit and told her boss to go you-know-what himself. He coworkers believed she had gone mad. Only a lunatic would be smiling after getting the ax.

Not Maggie though. She had a career lined up. In the summer months she was busier than ever creating a catering company, "Maggie Makes." All this while while Sharon was on trial for Eric's murder. Maggie didn't even know Eric was killed. For all she knew the spouses swapped and were living lives as happy as hers.

A new car. A new house in a new neighborhood. A new career. A new life.

Her company started off small with her doing most of the cooking. That was okay, she loved cooking. By the end of Autumn she had ten employees and too many bookings to be able to cater all of them.

So by the start of Spring Maggie doubled her employees and doubled business. Now she could support herself and the months' Mega Magazine's checks went straight to charity.

Winning begets success.

Thirteen months after Mega Magazine knocked on her door, interrupting the now-cancelled soap opera, she received a phone call from those same people. They requested the do the interview, a follow-up she agreed to a year earlier.

Maggie was happy to oblige. She wanted to share her story of how winning changed her life.

Maggie took the Benz to the nearest Mega Magazine offices in the city. She supposed they might want to snap a photo of her with her car, showing off what she spent the money on. They didn't take her photo though, not by the car and not anywhere else. Instead the interview was very formal, the exact opposite of the joyful display to front of her old house. The interviewer asked her about her life. When Maggie explained how happy she was in her new business she expected the interviewer to smile, but only nodded, jotting down notes.

After the interview, Maggie left dissatisfied, she wanted to show off, but could not. The interviewer said a copy of her interview would be mailed later on so that she could check for accuracy before publication.

Maggie thanked them and left, happy to not have to deal with that again.

On her drive home she thought of how she could have better answered the questions, to make them funnier and more informative. She was unhappy with the interview, but happy with her life, and that was all that mattered anymore.

And those were her final thoughts when she was cutoff by a jeep and cranked the wheel, skidding into oncoming traffic.

The driver on the eighteen-wheeler did not know Maggie's history, only the terror on her face moments before he smashed into her shiny, purple Mercedes Benz and ended her life.

* * * *

Frederick wasn't a winner, at least not in the way Maggie was in the best and final year of her life. His days were dark and his nights darker. He lost his family not by his own doing, but did lose his friends that way.

Now he was a wanderer, moving from state to state, wherever the fates pushed him.

Frederick was stationary for a while, how long exactly he did not know, but the mess in his apartment was growing larger, so it must have been some time since work called. He did not work often, but when he did, he did his job well, and the money he made would last him until the next job. In between, he fed, never served.

Then one day the mail came, not by USPS or even FedEx. It was delivered by hand. Frederick did not recognize the man who handed him the envelope, but knew what was inside nevertheless.

* * * *

Although Maggie had done her diligence in keeping her lottery winnings as secret as possible, she still made national news with her death. "Winner For Life, Loser in Death," one insensitive headline wrote.

Mega Magazine rode this publicity with great success, gaining thousands of new subscriptions, mostly because most did not read the fine print stating "subscription not necessary for entry."

Entrants' mistakes were the magazines' gains. Even though everyone knew of Mega Magazine's lottery, since everyone had seen the commercial featuring the prize vans, very few people followed through with winners. As Maggie was the most recent winner and the news covered her as such, it meant that there was no winner in the three seasonal drawings that followed.

A one in three billion chance, even with daily entries accounts for this, people who who outrage are people rarely do the math, or know how. With the new publicity came thousands of new daily entries to go along with the thousands of people still entering daily, as they always had. Now the odds were catching up, in the next drawing, another lucky winner was announced.

* * * *

Adam and Nancy were different, but not by much. They had been entering daily for nearly two years. Adam would enter in the morning before work while Nancy showered. She always got the first shower since the water was never still hot for the second showerer. She'd come out of the shower, still in her towel and ask, "What are you doing?" Adam would answer, "Winning a million dollars, babe." Nancy would roll her eyes and say something jokingly insulting. Adam would smile back. After the first year Adam created a second account in Nancy's name. She came out of the shower one morning and Adam smiled, "Guess who just doubled our odds at winning, babe? That's right, this guy."

This was Adam's routine for the next two years. Through thick and thin, every morning after their alarm sounded and Nancy showered, he would enter himself, and then his wife. After the second year he stopped dreaming of winning, but the routine was that ... routine, and he continued entering the two of them daily through muscle memory.

There was no knock at the door for them ... not at first. Nancy was cooking dinner and Adam mowed the lawn. He saw the van rolling down the street. At first he did not know what to make of it, not in the heat. Then the van stopped in front of the house and Adam ceased mowing the lawn with half of it still to go.

"Honey get out here!" he shouted into the house. "Quick!"

And that's how it went.

"Congratulations, Nancy!"

Even though Adam had been the person entering them, it was Nancy's account that drew the lucky number. The film crew asked the two of them back inside so that they could do their signature "knock and shock" look for the commercials. So they went back inside.

Alone in the house while the crew set up the shot, Adam whispered to his wife, "Told ya so," and she whispered back, "Careful, remember I'm the rich one here." There was no animosity or actual threat, just the covert joking lovers do.

And then the knock came.

They emerged with their scripted looks of shock. Nancy even managed a few tears. Those are the money maker. Neighbors came out. There were hugs and balloons and congratulations. It was a wonderful scene to all who saw.

Frederick saw. Not on the news later that night, or on the commercials months later. He was there, in person, parked down the block, watching the happy couple.

Observing.

After the small celebration out front, the couple went inside with Mega Magazine's representative to sign the contracts. Nancy did with Adam seated next to her, nudging and poking at her side.

The representative gave the same instructions to Nancy as a different rep had given to Maggie a year earlier. When it was all in writing they walked the woman to the door and gave final "Thank you."

"I just have one piece of advice," the woman said in earnest. "You'll want to celebrate, tell friends and family, advertise. Don't. You'll attract the worst of people. They'll want loans, investments. And when you don't give it to them voluntarily, they'll take it. Try to keep your winning private. Secret even. One of our last winners, I'm sorry to say, didn't take that advice."

"What happened?" Nancy asked, already knowing the answer before she finished her question, then immediately regretting asking it.

"A burglar broke into her house while she was there."

"Oh God."

"Yes, well ..." the rep threw on another smile, "Congratulations again. I'll see you again in a year."

And she was gone.

The year went the way a person would expect, just much slower. Adam and Nancy retained their jobs. Routine got them their winnings, to break them now would be a bad omen. They did cut their hours though, while trying to find life's passion. It was difficult for them as they both had found it years ago in each other. With that they decided marriage was finally in the cards, with a wedding they deserved. In that year they planned it, and on the day to the year of their winnings, they won once again.

Simple blessings make a life worth living.

So they did not go for the extravagant honeymoon. Instead they chose a bed and breakfast in the country. They were winners for life, they had their whole lives to do extravagant things.

Mega Magazine liked their story, so put off their one-year interview until after the wedding. It made for a good story, and good stories are good publicity, they explained to the engaged couple.

In the break between being wed and going off on their honeymoon, Adam and Nancy gave their interview to the magazine. They explained the blessing of freedom that came with the money, as well as the hardships of deciding what to do with it. They did so in joke-and-tease.

After the interview the newlyweds made their way up to Vermont. They could have stayed in a luxurious hotel. They could have rented a house. But Nancy always wanted to stay at a B&B, and she was the official winner after all. "It will be a fun little adventure," she pitched to Adam.

He kissed her cheek and replied, "The first of many."

So it was agreed upon.

"Welcome, welcome," a old woman ran out from the house to greet the couple just as they removed their luggage from the trunk. "Oh don't worry about that, my husband can bring your belongings up."

"It's no trouble for us. My husband can get it," Nancy shot a smirk at Adam who shook his head at her until she smiled fully at him.

"Well, come, let me show you your room." The old woman led them inside. Nothing would separate it from just another house, save for the "Deans Family Bed & Breakfast" sign erected just outside the front door.

The old woman took them up the narrow stairs. The did not make a sound when the old woman took careful steps, but made a noticeable creak when Nancy followed behind. That sound grew three-fold when Adam and the two suitcases' full weight stressed the wooden stairs.

"Careful there," the old woman said, pointing to a step barely hanging on to safety standards. The old woman explained the history of the house, but Nancy and Adam ignored her tale, she smiling at him as she tiptoed the rest of the way up the creaky steps. From that alone they gathered the house was rather old.

"Here is your room. It is simple yet cozy."

"It's so cute," Nancy said.

"Just lovely," Adam said. "Where's the bathroom?"

"At the end of the hall. I believe Mr. Gordon is in there now."

"So it's a shared bathroom. Fantastic."

"Oh, one more thing. We have a no cell phone policy here."

"You're joking," Adam said.

"We believe it takes away from the intimacy. You want to be intimate with your wife, don't you, young man?"

The old woman took away any sexual desire in Adam. "I'm not so sure anymore."

"Come now, hand them over."

Adam and Nancy relinquished their iPhones.

"I'll let you two get settled. I'll be downstairs if you need anything." The old woman left, closing the bedroom door behind her.

Adam stared at his new wife.

"It's quirky," Nancy said.

"Hotels can be quirky," Adam said.

"Sure, but look at this view." Nancy brushed the bedroom curtains aside and pushed the window open. She leaned her elbows on the sill and invited Adam to do the same. They gazed outside, into the autumnal foliage. Brown, yellow, and orange leaves decorated the gravel road out into the woods. At just the perfect angle, they could see through the trees where the leaves had fallen off just right to create a passageway to see the lake. If quiet enough, they could hear it ripple.

Nancy breathed in the air. Adam kissed his wife's shoulder.

They shuttled their week's worth of clothes from their suitcases to the bureau quickly then headed downstairs where they met the other temporary residents of the old home. The old woman introduced them.

"This is my husband, Nathan. If you have any problems with your room, just tell him and he'll fix it for you" He was old and huffed as he replaced a lightbulb. It was never said, but guests often presumed the Bed & Breakfast was the old woman's idea, and her husband was forced to go along with it. This could not be confirmed as the old woman never said anything negative and the old man never said anything at all. "This is Mr. and Mrs. Gordon."

"How do you do?" the masculine half of the couple said to Adam and Nancy. The Gordons pushed fifty, much to the delight of Adam. An age gap between the two couple most likely meant no commonalities between them which meant little communication between them. No one wants to make friends on their honeymoon.

"I believe the Paulsons went into town," the old woman tried to recall. "You'll like them, they are a lovely couple."

"I'm sure we will," Nancy said. "The lake outside. How big is it? My husband and I were thinking about taking a stroll." Nancy hugged her man's arm, still growing accustomed to calling Adam her husband.

"Oh that, well I'm not sure exactly."

"It took us an hour or so to walk around it," Mrs. Gordon spoke up.

Mr. Gordon finished the statement, "Of course we took a break halfway around," and grabbed his wife's behind, who giggled.

Nancy laughed while Adam tried to not vomit. "Maybe we will go, if you don't mind."

"Not at all, dear," the old woman smiled. "Dinner should be just about ready when you return."

The wind brushing through the trees outside signaled Nancy to throw on a hoodie before they left their room. Adam went without, though he would use his new bride to keep warm if need be.

The lake hugged their left side. The reflection of the trees gave it a seasonal border your often find on a computerized picture frame.

"If we find a used condom on this path, we're leaving," Adam said as if he'd never been more serious in his entire life.

The couple strolled, switching off between holding hands and wrapping their arms around one another. Occasionally they did both. Through the trees on their right they could see into town or onto lone roads. They had not passed the main town on the drive up, but the scarcity of cars said the town was small, probably for retirees like the Deans.

A car rolled outside the tree line on such a road seventy feet from their path and some ninety feet behind, which put one-hundred fourteen feet between the car and the couple. Of course neither Adam nor Nancy noticed it. They were lost in the scenery and each other. The only time their head turned towards the car was when it sped off down the road and its roar shot through the woods that separated them.

Adam and Nancy returned to their temporary residence less than an hour from when they left. Of course, there was no hanky-panky between them to delay their walk.

"Well here they are now," the old woman said when they walked into the living room. "We have another guest staying with us. This is Mr. Dall."

Frederick stood like a statue, getting a glimpse of Adam then lingering on Nancy.

"Hello, I'm Nancy Gilb -- I'm sorry, my name is Nancy Boucher. We're newlyweds."

"Well, congratulations to you both," Frederick said, offering his hand.

"This is my husband, Adam."

Frederick shook his hand as well, though his grasp was firmer on his. "You're a very lucky man."

"Thank you. I am."

The seven sat down for dinner at dining room table, the old owners, the Gordons, Frederick, and the Bouchers. Had the Paulsons not retired to their room early, the old man would have had to slide the extra leaf into the dining room table to fit everyone.

The conversation stalled frequently as it would among strangers forced into close proximity.

"So what do you two do for a living?" Frederick asked the newlyweds.

Adam and Nancy exchanged a glance. Both had quit their previous jobs after months of lingering in them. Of course they did not want to say that, especially not why. Mega Magazine's warning stayed with them. Neither of them told anyone, save for their closest family and friends, so they certainly were not going to let on to a table of strangers.

Nancy took lead and provided their resumes, not current occupations. "I'm a receptionist at a car dealership and Adam is in I.T."

Nancy noticed that Frederick's fork rested in his hand and on his plate during his response, not in a polite way either. She then looked beside her to Adam, whose eyes wandered in any direction not of a person's.

"And what about you, Mr. Dall?" the old woman asked. "What do you do?"

Frederick shifted his eyes towards her but lingered on Nancy, not pleased the conversation shifted from her to him. "I'm a writer."

"A writer, how lovely. Have you written anything I've read?"

"No. Which is precisely why I'm here. I needed out of the distraction of the big city to write."

"Well, we will certainly leave you your privacy to get your work done." The old woman was impressed and the Gordons were less so, but still intrigued enough that all three looked at Frederick to speak more. But Frederick returned his gaze to Nancy who had already avoided eye contact before he could reestablish it.

"I don't like the way he was looking at me," Nancy said when she and Adam returned to their bedroom. "He's here by himself, which means he voluntarily wanted to stay at a Bed and Breakfast. So yeah, I agree he's weird." Adam had an epiphany and smirked. "Maybe we should hide out in the bedroom the rest of the week." He bit his exposed tongue and raised his eyebrows.

"I'm serious."

"So was I." Adam wrapped is arms around his wife and tackled he onto the bed.

"Shhh ..." Nancy whispered. "I think there are people on the other side of this wall."

"Yeah, 'cause I'm gonna be the one that's loud." Adam kissed her, officially starting the first night of their honeymoon.

* * * *

Nancy's foot slipped and she smacked into the wall down the stairs. The broken step popped up more than before. She made a mental note of where it was so when she came down at night she would not kill herself. Eight, she thought. Nancy was pleased that when she reached downstairs that morning, the old woman said that the other guests had gone out for the day, which included Frederick. She was then invited to have breakfast, even though it was much later than the old woman had grown accustomed to cooking breakfast, but Nancy politely declined, knowing Adam would agree.

Nancy did not tell Adam where they were driving to and of course, Adam was skeptical of the destination's excitement value, but a smile grew on his face when he saw the Magic Hat Brewing Company sign. His smile put an even bigger one on Nancy.

Similar smiles shone on their faces at their next stop, the Burlington Brewery Tour. Nancy knew Adam loved his beer, and free beer (albeit part of the tour's fee) was definitely a win.

But mainly they had fun in each other's company on the long drive from one place to another where they could be alone with the scenery. Even Adam pointed out old colonial buildings and beautiful autumn views for Nancy to see. They made a few extra stops to fully appreciate them.

It was getting late on their drive back and Adam volunteered to drive so Nancy could rest her head on the window. She slept for most of the ride back to the Bed and Breakfast. She woke fifteen minutes before returning. Had someone looked in their car the final ten minutes of their drive, they would have only seen Adam, and an empty seat next to him.

They tried to conceal their smiles from the walk to the home. Nancy looked up at the window on the second floor. There was only a silhouette behind the handmade curtains, but Nancy could tell who it was looking down at them, and she no longer had to try to conceal a smile.

Nancy and Adam had sex for second time that day and then relaxed in their room. Adam of course was too tempted by the exotic beers available only through tours that he needed a taste. Then another.

Nancy only had two beers since that was not her go-to alcohol and it dried her out too much. Neither of them knew the time when they eventually fell asleep.

She woke up less than two hours later and immediately regretted the booze. Not that she was sick or hungover, but felt a thirst to the same extent a vampire might after too much time without blood.

She didn't want to creak down the stairs and wake another guest or their hosts, so she tip-toed to the bathroom where she drank three cups of water from the sink.

Nancy flipped off the light before opening the bathroom door to leave to not let any light sneak out. Upon opening the door to leave, a shadow of a man towered over her that she gasped, still in a haze of midnight waking and booze.

"You scared me."

"I'm sorry," Frederick said. He stayed put in the middle of the hall, not choosing a side to allow Nancy to pass.

"Can't sleep either?" she asked, trying to be polite while her back hugged the wall to pass him.

"Just getting work done."

"Right. Peak hours for writers, I hear."

"Something of the sort."

"Well, goodnight."

"Goodnight."

Nancy walked back down the hall to her room, waiting to hear the click of the bathroom door behind her. It eventually did, but far longer than it should have taken. She could only imagine Frederick watching her walk back. She forced herself to look back to make sure he had gone.

Her hand went to turn the nob on the bedroom door, but it squeaked open on its own. Nancy had to think. She closed the door, right? She made sure so no noise would wake Adam. She made sure of it. Or was she too tired to remember? She stayed awake in bed for over an hour worrying about it.

* * * *

The aroma of freshly-baked cinnamon rolls wafted through the house and tickled the noses of the newlyweds before they even opened their eyes. Again, Nancy was first to shower so she was first to get dressed and head downstairs. Her shower was quick since it followed several other residents and warm water ran scarce. She hurried her routine to give her husband what remained of the hot water. Adam felt empty in those minutes he waited for her, no longer a slave to routine of entering them both in the Mega Magazine lottery. Of course he could, but felt selfish to try to win twice.

Nancy wandered down the stairs, using the smell as her guide to the kitchen where the dish of cinnamon buns sat. "These smell delicious," Nancy said.

The old woman turned to her from scrubbing dishes in the sink. "Thank Mr. Dall, he's the one who made them."

"Really?"

"Yes. Said he couldn't sleep. The other guests ravaged them, but Mr. Dall put aside two especially for you and your husband."

"How sweet," Nancy said, though she actually found it creepy, especially after their encounter the night before.

The creak of stairs turned Nancy's attention to her husband who hopped down the last few steps. "I think the cold water kicked me awake. You wanna go out for breakfast this morning. We passed a cute little diner in town yesterday."

Nancy nodded eagerly, happy the place was growing on him. Secretly she always wanted to move to smaller town and the honeymoon would double as a trial run.

They got outside where Frederick's ass stuck out from under the hood of his car. He turned his head as they passed behind him. "Good morning."

"Mornin'" Adam said back.

"Good morning," Nancy followed. "Thank you for the cinnamon rolls by the way."

"Did you enjoy them?"

"We're actually headed out for breakfast, but they smell lovely."

"Well, they'll be waiting for you when you get back," Frederick smiled. "An afternoon treat perhaps."

Adam and Nancy nodded and headed out. Frederick watched them pull out of the long drive and turn down the street.

* * * *

The couple planned on returning immediately after breakfast, but on their drive back they passed a handwritten wooden sign that read "Apple Picking Next Right" to which Nancy could not resist. Adam made a face as though he wanted to fight, but made the excuse that the turn was immediate, so he had to take it. If not, he would have argued, he argued.

Neither Nancy nor Adam cared much for apples, but gathered some anyway, just for fun. They decided the old couple whose home they were currently occupying would appreciate a gift of thanks, be it a small one.

Only a couple minutes from the house they passed an ambulance screaming by them in the opposite direction. It was one of those things you notice and immediately forget, but later on remember forever.

Upon returning they were greeted at the front door by the Gordons comforting each other.

The newlyweds walked to the house to meet the not-so newlyweds, Adam carrying the freshly-picked apples of course. "Is everything okay?" Nancy asked at seeing the wife's troubled face.

"The old man," the husband answered, "he had a heart attack or something."

"Oh my God."

"They just took him to the hospital. It didn't look good though."

"Where is ... um ..?" Adam asked, not remembering the old woman's name.

"She went with him. Said to make ourselves at home while she was gone. Amazing, husband might die but still a gracious host."

"I see you went apple picking," Mrs. Gordon said, trying lighten the mood. They were all on vacation after all.

"Yes," Nancy replied. "Help yourselves."

"Thank you. Well, we are off, gonna try to make something of this day."

"Have fun," Adam said.

Nancy and Adam went inside where he set the apples down on the table. Nancy almost gasped when he did, since that was where the cinnamon buns were placed earlier that morning. She had completely forgotten about them during their day, but the smell still lingered in the kitchen when they entered and got her back in the mood.

Adam gave her an awkward look. "What?"

Nancy looked around the table and then the kitchen, searching for the source of the aroma.

"What?"

"Nothing," Nancy answered.

"You want to go out, find something to do?" Adam asked.

Now Nancy was the one cautioned. "You WANT to find something to do?"

"Yes."

Nancy thought about it. "I think we should stay close, in case something happened to ... we should be here."

"Funny, that's exactly why I think we should go. I'm bad in these situations, Nancy. You know this. Sympathy. I'm bad at it with people I'm close to. Comforting a strange old woman? Not gonna end well."

Nancy touched her husband's cheek. "Let's just stay until someone else comes back. Pass the buck off. Besides, I know something we can do to pass the time," she smiled.

Adam smiled too when he caught her drift.

* * * *

Only forty-five minutes passed, but they did it twice with a fifteen minute break, so it was getting close to evening when they finally made their way back downstairs.

They came downstairs to rehydrate when they were greeted but two strangers in the living room.

"Hello," Nancy said. At first she thought the two were relatives of the owners, maybe their children. It would have meant the worst for the old man.

"Hi," the woman said. "You must be the newlyweds we heard about."

"We're Paulsons," they practically sang in unison.

"We're two doors down from you," the woman said.

"Oh hi," Nancy laughed. "Nice to meet you. I'm Nancy. Adam."

"Marie. Bill." The four rotated shaking hands. "You two look familiar."

"We do?" Nancy asked then looked at Adam. Her husband looked back, trying to place her.

"You two were on TV," Marie answered.

Nancy and Adam exchanged a look, knowing exactly why they were on TV.

"Oh right ... the lottery winners, right?" Bill asked.

"We're trying to keep that quiet," Adam said. "Don't want too much attention on us."

"Of course, of course," Bill said. "Our lips are sealed." He ran his thumb and index finger across his closed lips.

"We can't blame you," Marie added, "After what happened to that poor woman that won."

"What was that?" Bill asked.

Nancy answered. "A woman about a year ago was burglarized and got killed. She was a winner."

"No," Marie said, "This was different. Only a month ago. She won the lifetime prize too, then got into a car accident. Police said it wasn't an accident. They said they suspected someone she knew since she didn't tell anyone. Must have been trying to get in the will."

"That's dumb," Adam said. "If the person dies, the money stops coming. That's why I'm going to make sure Nancy here eats all her fruits and vegetables. That bushel of apples in there is all for her." He turned to his wife. "No eating whatever the old man ate," he smiled.

Nancy laughed, but the realization that both her life and cashflow were finite things worried her. The previous story creeped her out. This new one scared her.

Adam filled the Paulsons in on what happened to the old man and how the woman was with him. They asked questions, but since his information was only what the Gordons told him, he could not provide more specific answers.

He and Nancy said they'd be going out to dinner, but not sure where. Bill recommended a seafood place. "It's expensive," Bill said, then made a quip about how they could afford it which came off as rude sarcasm to Adam and sent shivers up Nancy.

Nancy headed out to the car while Adam hit the head. She waited for him in the dark and Autumn cold. With season's beauty came the the cold breeze, a reminder of darker winter's looming.

A tap at her window.

Nancy jumped. She could see the body just behind the window, but could not make out who it belonged to. Nancy rolled down her window and leaned down and forward to get the angle. "Oh hello."

"Hello," Frederick said. "Nice evening."

"Good evening," she said as if echoing him, then realized she was incorrect.

"How is everything?" he asked.

"Good. And you?"

Frederick nodded. That served as his answer. He remained there. Nancy had nothing else to say, polite or otherwise.

"My husband and I are just headed out to dinner."

"That's lovely. If you would like dessert, the cinnamon rolls are still here for you."

"Thank you, but I think someone already ate them."

"Oh?"

"I can't blame them, they smelled so good."

"Well, I better be going," Frederick said. He started back up to the house when Nancy rolled her window down farther to shout out to him.

"Just so you know ... The man, the owner. He was taken to the hospital. We don't know how he's doing, but don't expect either of them tonight."

Again, Frederick nodded and went inside.

* * * *

The newlyweds had dinner at the restaurant the Paulsons recommended. Nancy could not take her mind off the bad luck that seemed to follow the previous Mega Magazine winners. When the thought did eventually leave, they transitioned to Frederick and his awkward interest in her. She ought not tell Adam. If he didn't believe her, she'd feel stupid. If he did, it would only be worse.

But Adam dunked lobster meat in butter and reached across the table, feeding his wife. Of course he buttered it too much and it dripped down her chin. This failed attempt at romance made her laugh and kicked her back into the present, the place she always wanted the money to take them.

For the first time since winning, she had to remind herself that they were there.

They drove back late that night. They had to sneak inside, not wanting to wake the others that might be asleep.

"Oh shoot," Nancy said. "I promised my mom I'd call. Where's my phone?"

"Remember," Adam couldn't help himself, "someone had the bright idea to go to a bed and breakfast that forbids cell phones. Have to use the house phone."

"How? I don't know her number."

"You don't know her number?"

"She's out of town and only has her cell. Who remembers phone numbers?"

"Then someone is out of luck. Unless you want to sneak into their room and steal your phone back."

"Maybe."

"Just hope the old man is still alive and his ghost isn't already here haunting this place."

Nancy shot Adam a look, a 'not cool' that spoke to the insensitivity of the old man's possible demise and how scaring your wife is a no-no.

"Sorry," he said.

Even though most of the house was open area, she snuck through the entirety of it until reaching the hosts' bedroom door. Like the rest of the house, the door creaked open, magnified by the irony in wanting to keep quiet.

She looked around, finally spotting a basket on the bureau filled with cell phones. Of course every phone in the basket was a smart phone, so she tapped each one until a background was recognizable.

A selfie of the Gordons. Nope.

Yankee Stadium. That was Adam's. A preview of his friend's text showed up on the screen. "Hope you're having 'fun' don't leave the bedroom haha"

Nancy opened another. A generic background, probably something that came with the phone. She nearly dropped it back in the basket, but something caught her attention. Several text message previews. "is the job done? ... why aren't you answering? ... what are paying you for? get the job done. next paym ..." then disappeared through the screen's border.

The creak of the house startled her enough to suspect someone might be there. Nancy picked another smart phone. Her and Adam's first dance. That was hers.

She ran out.

* * * *

Adam looked at her as if she were crazy. "You took his phone?"

"Did you read it?"

"Oh that could mean anything."

"No one talks like that," Nancy shouted via whisper.

"You think he's what, going to kill us?"

"Not us. Me. I'm the one that won."

"Come on. You really think some dumb magazine company hired someone to kill the winner?"

"How else would you explain the others dying? No one buys magazines anymore. How the hell are they in business if they have to pay dozens of people for a lifetime, sometimes multiple? No business can even pay employees that way."

Adam handed the phone back over to Nancy. "Call it."

"What?"

"Call the number. See who answers."

Nancy took the phone. "It's dead."

"It's an iPhone. Use my charger. In the bag."

Nancy considered she might sound crazy. She sat on the bed to gather herself. Adam sat beside her and wrapped his arm around her. But Nancy had to know. She jumped off the bed and rummaged through Adam's bag. A mess of belongings scattered on the floor. Adam rolled his eyes.

"Got it!"

A pop.

All the lights went out.

"What was that?" Nancy asked.

"Power's out."

"Oh come on!" a voice called from down the hall, but it was as if it were in the room with them. More words came, less audible, but still there.

"Guess we gotta wait till morning," Adam said.

"Shh ..." Nancy crept down, searching. Then found it. A vent. She turned to Adam and mouthed, "He's on the other side."

Adam spoke. "Let's go downstairs." He went and Nancy chased after him into the hall.

Nancy bumped into Marie. "Sorry, I'm --"

"It's okay. Bill went to check the circuit breaker."

"Can't expect much in these old houses," Adam said. He and Marie spoke more, but Nancy wasn't paying attention. Her eyes were down the hall, to the door next to their own. She moved to the opposite side to see inside the opened door. She tip-toed down, nudged the door open.

"What's that smell?" Adam asked.

Nancy smelled it too, but kept moving. No one there in Frederick's room. She turned, then turned back as something was out of place.

The carpet next the dresser. Two shades, as if one wasn't cleaned for years. And the vent just above it.

* * * *

It was several minutes of quiet argument between Nancy and Adam, Marie filling in the blanks when their explanation to her was interrupted by more arguing. When an eventual pause came, Marie pointed out that the power was still out and her husband had not returned. Moreover, she had not heard his cursing echoing throughout the house.

Adam volunteered to go down to the basement. Nancy fought against, citing Adam's lack of circuit breaker knowledge. He said he's just go to see if Bill could use a hand and for Nancy to stay there if scared.

Nancy's loud whispering continued until Adam was down the creaky stairs and out of sight.

Nancy leaned over the railing as far as she could to see down the stairs while still remaining on the landing above. Marie said words of comfort to ease her worry, even though she was scared for her own husband.

Finally a light. Just one.

Marie could not see it from the second floor and Nancy could not see its source from the landing, but she could tell it came from the kitchen.

"Did you fix it?" Nancy asked down.

But there was no answer.

"Adam?" Nancy asked. Nothing.

"Bill, is that you?" Marie asked louder. Still nothing.

Nancy put her foot on the first step down. Then the next. "Stay here," she said up to Marie, but really wanted to say it to herself. With each step, Nancy got better view of the light source. It was from the kitchen. The microwave's light. "Adam?" Nancy asked, holding strong on the last step. No answer prompted her to hit the first floor.

"Who's there?" Marie asked down. Nancy ignored, going into the kitchen. She turned on another light. This one was bright enough for Marie to see.

Nancy tried the lamp in the living room. Darkness remained.

The door down to the basement was open, but blackness could have been a disguise for nowhere to go. "Adam?" she whispered down the stairs. "Bill?" She out her foot down and it slipped, twisting her ankle. Her other foot held strong and she retained her balance. But she could not see the stairs. How Adam and Bill made it down was beyond her. Maybe they slipped, she thought. No, she would have heard the tumble.

Nancy went into the living room and unplugged the lamp.

"Nancy?" Marie called down. But Nancy was too concerned for her husband to answer the call. She plugged the lamp into the outlet in the kitchen closest to the basement door. Nancy tilted the lampshade to amplify the light down the stairs. She could see now, and made her way down step by step.

A tug pulled Nancy backwards and she almost tripped again. The cord was at its limit. Nancy set it down on the step. It was enough that she could see her rest of the way down.

She continued with nothing. "Adam, are you down here?" With each step she fell farther into the darkness of the basement. When her foot hit the concrete bottom she was engulfed in it. When it hit she realized she should have brought something down with her. A knife from the kitchen maybe.

Only remnants of light bounced off the bare walls.

A box. Barely visible but there. Opened. Columns of switches. No one stood near it though. A foot. Maybe.

"Oh my God, Adam." Nancy rushed to his side. Her hands slid from his visible foot up his leg and torso to his head. He didn't move, but she felt his breathing. Nancy adjusted, swinging her body around so she could care for Adam. In the rush she forgot to caution herself to the cause of it. Nancy got up around Adam's head. Her foot hit something. Another body. Bill's body. She kept her left hand on Adam as to not lose him. She checked Bill with her right. His body was larger, enough so that even in the dark she recognized it. Something was wrong. Only her left hand raised up and down. Her right remained still.

Nancy hopped over Bill's body to position herself for CPR. The ball of her palms pressed down once and she stopped. Her foot hit something. It felt the same as when she hit Bill's body, but Adam's was on the other side.

The hand wrapped around her face, covering her mouth. It pulled her back and two legs curled around her body. At first she wriggled and grabbed at the hands. They were too strong. The other hand covered her nose. She was without air. Without light. Without Adam.

"Shhh ..."

Her hands eased off of his. In the dark her palms smacked the floor and it echoed. They slid up and down, wide strokes like when she was a child making a snow angel. She would need one now.

Nothing. Only floor. Only Bill's body. Bill's face. Bill's glasses.

Her hand returned to her mouth and the hand that covered it. She followed it up his arm to his face. His eyes.

She kept her hand there. She could not see, but she could feel and would use that as a target. A thrust, and the temple tip of the glasses shot through the socket of Frederick's eye, separating the eyeball from the border.

Frederick screamed out.

Air. Freedom.

Frederick let go and grabbed for his face. He went for it too quickly and hit the frames, moving the temple and tip, maneuvering his eyeball.

Nancy jumped up, retracing her steps. Body. Adam. Circuit box. Wall. Stairs. Her foot hit the third step and she fell. Frederick's hand on her ankle, pulling her down.

Nancy reached out for the light. She spun, the bulb crashed into Frederick's head and the glasses still in his skull. In a moment the light was out. If it had been on, she would have seen the eyeball pop out completely.

Up the stairs, she thought. Lock the door. There's no lock. A kitchen chair under the nob. Close enough.

Adam.

"What's going on?" Marie shouted from up the stairs.

Nancy raced up the stairs, the kitchen lights blew out and she tripped. Her knee smacked on the edge of the step and she grunted out.

It was completely dark again, and the lamp and kitchen light in her eye made her need minutes of adjustment once again.

"Where's Bill?"

"Get out of the house," Nancy shouted.

"What?"

"Get out! Go to the next house." Nancy felt her way down the hall, back to the old couple's room. There was no light to guide her, but she remembered where the basket was. On the dresser. There. She pressed on a phone. No battery. She tried another. Nothing. Another. Light. The battery a red sliver. 9-1-shit.

A sound from outside the room.

"Marie, we need to go next door and call the cops."

Another noise.

"Marie?"

Nancy poked her head out. Down Marie went -- first to the floor, then down the steps.

Nancy turned, but something near her chest kept her down. In the dark she only saw the outline of the man. Her eyes were adjusting and started to see Fredrick's face. Just vague features. The shadows made his left eye seemed larger, magnified, when in reality it was missing entirely.

A spark.

Then a flame.

A torch of lighter. Then the curtain went up and Frederick's face became clear, the streaming blood down his face popped in the fiery light.

The curtains went up fast. Faster than they should under normal circumstances.

Doused. The smell.

Then a knife to Nancy's throat. "An old house like this goes up pretty fast. Bad wiring maybe. By the time they figure it out I'll be long gone. Come with me."

"Why?" Nancy choked out. "You're just going to kill me."

"Your husband doesn't need to."

"You won't let him go."

"Why not? I only need you. He doesn't know what happened. Just a quick blow to the head. But I need it to look like an accident to buy time."

Nancy had no answer.

"Let's go." Frederick lifted her up, the knife drawing blood from her neck. He walked her down, his body wrapped around hers. Nancy counted. Two. Four. Six.

Her foot stopped short, in the blaze behind and its only a single eye, Frederick could not see clearly. His foot hit hers and fell to the step, the broken one, and he went down, taking Nancy with him. Nancy sucked in. Her stomach aching through a gash. Her own blood glowed in the fire above them. Frederick's head rested against the wall next to Marie's, out cold.

Nancy searched for the knife. Somewhere. Nowhere.

She pulled herself up and stumbled to the kitchen. The chair still held the basement door shut. She tossed it away and went inside. She sat down, her ass on the top step. With a breath she pushed forward, hitting her ass on every step on the way down. It was not graceful, but better than stumbling down while standing.

The moon shone through from the outside storm cellar entrance enough to see the bodies on the floor. Just the outline. Two of them. Bill's at the bottom of the steps leading to the outside entrance.

Adam. He was still out. Still breathing. Nancy hoisted him up with her arms under his armpits, dragging him towards autumn's moonlight. When she got to the man's body she checked. But like his wife, he was gone.

It took twice the energy to lift Adam up each step. But she had no choice, and that gave her strength. She got up the final step with her husband and fell backwards on the grass. She wanted to rest while sucking in air, but the fire above them told her to regroup.

She stood and squared to grab Adam once more.

Frederick dove at her, taking her to the grass. He rolled on top of her, putting the knife into her side. She screamed out. Frederick pulled back and went for a kill stab. Nancy held his arm. He put his weight on it fully. Nancy's hold weakened, the knife getting closer. She'd be dead in inches.

Instead she forced the knife downward, using momentum to drive it to her side. It penetrated her shoulder. Frederick's weight betrayed him and he had no angle to lift him or the knife out to stab again. Nancy held her index and middle fingers out, jabbing them into the blank socket that stared down at her.

Frederick screamed. Nancy curled her fingers inside his skull and pulled down.

The knife came loose and he rolled off her.

The fire above them raged. Nancy tore the knife from her body, but Fredrick punched her and she dropped it. He straddled her. She reached for his socket again, but his reach extended farther than hers. He choked her as she reached for nothing. She stared up at him, the fire raging behind and above Fredrick's eclipsing body. Another body.

Who was the other body?

And the knife went in.

And again. And Frederick fell to nothing, forever staring up at the flames with only one eye watching.

Adam stood above Nancy.

He helped her to her feet and them stumbled to the front yard, away from the fire, where the fire engines' light could be seen down the block, and the siren heard.

"How are we going to explain this?" Adam asked.

Nancy reached in her pocket and pulled out Frederick's phone.

* * * *

The following Autumn looked the same, but felt very different. There was no traveling back. Their home was already here.

Adam woke up and lay in bed, waiting for Nancy to finish up in the bathroom. These days it wasn't for her showering, but for her vomiting each morning. Adam scrolled though his phone. Out of habit that still lingered, he went to the Mega Magazine website. A message of "this website does not exist" popped onto his phone.

By late morning both he and Nancy headed out, only needing to walk a few doors from them to see the bed and breakfast they bought and built. They didn't need to work, not with the money made in court. None of the previous winners did. Not those gone too soon from the magazine's hired deeds, nor the families of the survivors, guaranteed ten times what should have been awarded.

But the bed and breakfast was not for them. It was for the old couple whose previous house burnt down.

Moreover, it was for other couples such as them, those from the city that needed to get away from it all, to find a small town, a simpler life. One they didn't even know they needed.






THE END

Article © Joe Albanese. All rights reserved.
Published on 2018-06-25
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