FREE BIRD - NAOMI JOHNSON
Robin couldn't help hearing the results of the lottery because, while she had to keep her little TV on the kitchen counter turned really low, Carter always kept the volume on the big screen in the living room up full blast. When the announcer called number 13 first, she didn't pause in loading the dishwasher. When the number 25 was called, she thought, 'Huh,' and went on working. Then she heard 'seven,' and she stopped, listening intently now, her gaze fixed on her own TV with its black and white flickering images of Cary Grant carrying a poisoned Ingrid Bergman down a flight of long, elegant steps. But all she heard was the TV in the next room.
'And the next number in the Wealthy Winners drawing is five!'
She caught her breath, and felt a sharp twinge in her bruised ribs. Four numbers. Four numbers was worth something, wasn't it? She wouldn't get all the numbers, the odds were incredible, but four numbers might be worth a thousand dollars or so. A thousand dollars would really boost the amount in her Escape Fund. Right now she had almost five hundred dollars saved against the day when she would walk out the door a free woman. A thousand dollars added to that would almost be enough that she could start packing her suitcase.
The only hitch was that Carter had the lottery ticket. Robin had bought it at the carry-out almost two weeks ago, when he'd sent her in to get more beer. He had laughed when he saw the lottery ticket. “You stupid bitch,” he'd said. “What a waste of money.” But he had slid the ticket into his shirt pocket and she hadn't seen it since.
“Twenty!” And she choked on her own air, coughed deeply. Five numbers now. Five out of six numbers. What would five numbers be worth? Maybe $25,000? Maybe more. Maybe even – a hundred grand? She couldn't even comprehend how much money that was, just that it would be more than enough.
What had Carter done with that ticket? Did he still have it? It hadn't been in the laundry. She always went through his pockets like a crime scene technician looking for trace evidence and she had scrounged a good portion of her Escape Fund that way. She hadn't seen the lottery ticket laying on his dresser or the coffee table either, two of his favorite dumping grounds.
Robin moved like a sleepwalker as she went to the doorway and peered into the dimness of the living room. She looked past Carter lying in his recliner, a bag of Doritos in his lap, beer can tipped to his lips, and stared at the announcer on the big screen. One more number. What if – ?
'And the Magic Number in tonight's Wealthy Winners drawing is 18!'
Blood drained like a whirlpool from her head and she thought she might faint. Her knees wobbled, weakened, and she clung to the door jamb. Carter hadn't moved except to shove a handful of Doritos in his mouth. But then, the numbers wouldn't mean anything to him unless he had the ticket right in front of him. Those numbers meant everything to her, though.
Seven, the month Robin and her brother Danny and their mom had all been born. Five, her mom's birthday. Thirteen, her own birthday. Twenty, the day her mom and dad had married. Twenty-five, Danny's birthday. And the Magic Number, eighteen, maybe the most important number of all, the reason she'd made it the Magic Number and not one of the others: the day she'd finally decided to leave Carter and had begun to save toward that dream.
But first she needed that ticket. Everything would be so much easier with money. Money bought distance, bought new identity, bought shelter and food and transportation and everything she would need to live. Money bought freedom from Carter. She had to have that ticket.
'Didn't we have some of those numbers on that lottery ticket I bought?' she asked.
'What lottery ticket? Have you been pissing away my money on crap like that again?'
'No, Carter, just that one ticket I got that night down to the carry-out. You remember?'
'You fuckin' moron, that ticket's more than a week old; it ain't no good for tonight's drawing.'
No, that wasn't right. She'd paid the clerk for five consecutive draws, and this was only the third one. But Carter hadn't noticed.
'Oh, so you threw it out?' And she thought, I just might have to kill the bastard.
'I guess. How the hell do I know? Hey,' he sat up in his chair, slewed around to look at her, 'did you get those venison steaks out of the freezer like I told you?'
'Carter, you ain't said nothing about no venison steaks. I'm not even sure there's any left in there. We've eaten pretty much all of it.'
'Not from that deer I got last year, you idiot, I know that's all gone. I helped Terry slaughter that buck last week and he let me have some of the steaks. They're in the door of the freezer in brown paper.'
'I didn't know –,' she started to say.
'They're in the door of the freezer, I said. Duh! Jim and Terry are coming over to watch the game tomorrow night, and I want you to fix those deer steaks. And you'd damned well better not burn 'em either, you hear me?'
'Yes, Carter, I hear you.' And she went back to the kitchen, found a brown paper package in the door of the freezer and moved it to the refrigerator to thaw.
Carter's pickup was barely out of the drive the next morning when she began searching for the ticket. She'd hunted as much as she could before going to bed, but she couldn't look like she was searching for something without drawing Carter's attention. She couldn't open and close drawers and cabinets and dump out the garbage and do anything to show how desperate she was to find the ticket.
Not until he had left for work.
She had searched the bathroom the night before because she liked it kept really clean, so clearing the vanity and straightening the linen closet was her usual behavior. Nothing there to attract Carter's notice. She had taken the opportunity then to go through the laundry and search his pockets, too. She'd found a soft, crumpled one-dollar bill but that was all. Yesterday, she would have felt like she'd hit the jackpot but, tonight, finding that dollar felt like being bitch-slapped. She would need at least another 499 of those bills if she didn't find that damned ticket.
Once he'd left for work the next morning, her search became organized. Or it started out that way.
She began with the spare room where Carter kept his computer, a device created solely for the purpose of playing games and spreading porn, as far as she could tell. But that's also where the bills were paid, and the insurance policies were kept for the house and car, along with other odd bits of paper necessary to the modern American household.
She emptied the drawers out, went diligently through folder after folder of things marked 'Water,' 'Light bill,' 'Cable.' She was surprised to find that Carter had a passport. She wasn't surprised to find there were no stamps indicating he'd ever left the country. She even took the drawers out of the desk and turned them upside down, and looked to make sure the ticket had not fallen behind a drawer into the no-man's land between the drawers and the desk. Behind the desk, under it. No ticket.
She had a horrifying thought. Maybe Carter got the passport because he also had the lottery ticket and was planning on leaving the country with all that money. She went back and looked at the passport again. The expiration date was almost ten years off, so Carter must have just applied for the passport recently.
She went through the papers again, not looking for the lottery ticket this time but for something else. And she found it: An airline booking for two tickets to Jamaica for this coming Friday. Two tickets, one for Carter and one for Eloise Chambers, of all people. So Carter was screwing around with that slutty little barmaid. Good for him; maybe he'd catch a terminal disease. But the printout showed the tickets had been booked three weeks ago, before Robin had even bought the lottery ticket. And they were round-trip tickets. Too bad, one-way would have solved most of her problems. She still had to find that Wealthy Winners ticket.
As her patience thinned, her search gradually became less organized, more frantic. The bastard couldn't have thrown it out. He wouldn't even put his own beer bottles in the trash can, and his pickup truck looked like a mobile aluminum recycling center. He couldn't even be bothered to litter the highway if it meant having to roll down a window.
She searched his dresser drawers, turning out his socks. His clothes in the closet; every pocket was checked, even in her own clothes. She looked inside his shoes, pulled up the insoles if they were loose. Behind and under all the furniture. Every waste basket in every room. Behind pictures. Under doilies and scarves. She pulled out all of Carter's CDs and looked in the jewel cases. Flipped through the few books, paying special attention to the family Bible. And everything, everything had to be put back the way it had been so that he wouldn't notice.
Under the mattress, in the tool chest in the garage, the odds-and-ends drawer in the kitchen. The cloth bag that held all the leftover plastic bags from grocery shopping, that was just the kind of place a receipt or a ticket would hide. But it wasn't there. The ticket wasn't anywhere.
Frustration formed a hard knot in her throat. Escape had seemed so close last night. Although today was really no different than yesterday, freedom seemed farther away than ever.
At five-thirty, when she heard the rumble of his truck coming up the drive, she fled to the kitchen, trying to remember what she should be doing when he came through the door. Her TV should be on, it was always on. She flipped the switch and Humphrey Bogart suddenly appeared on the screen with whats-her-name, Mary somebody. Yeah, she recognized it; she'd seen this one before. She heard the garage door opening, and reached for the bag of potatoes, found a paring knife to peel them with, and then was struck by a thought.
What about the truck? The ticket could be in the truck. It could be in the glove box, or maybe it was just laying on the floorboards, right out in the open. She would have to make an excuse after dinner to get the keys and search. Dinner. Oh, shit, those damned deer steaks.
She tossed the potatoes onto the counter, opened the fridge and pulled the package out. They still felt partly frozen. She would have to nuke them or maybe soak them in water before she could cook them. What time would Carter's friends show up? She broke the tape on the package and began to unwrap it. She froze just as Carter came through the door from the garage, bringing the cold air with him, the ever-present beer in one hand.
'Hi, honey, how was work today?' Robin was careful not to look at him, he might see something in her face that would give her away. He grunted a response, put the bottle to his lips and tilted his head back. When the bottle came away, it was empty, and he belched and said, 'There better be some beer left.'
'In the fridge,' she replied, as she stared down at the deer steaks cradled in the brown butcher paper. She felt strangely dizzy and she had to try to remember how to breathe, the same way she'd felt last night when she heard the lottery numbers on TV. She heard Carter open and close the refrigerator but she never looked up until he said, 'What are you looking at?'
She gave a nervous start, looked up at him and tried not to let him see her excitement. But he wasn't looking at her, he was staring at the little television.
'What did you say?' she asked.
'Clean the shit out of your ears. I said, what are you watching?'
She looked at the television. Humphrey Bogart had given a fat man a package wrapped in tattered newspaper and a bunch of people were crowded around a statue of a black bird. She looked back at the contents of the package in her own hands, saw the partially thawed slab of meat pasted with a perfectly preserved lottery ticket. Beat the living hell out of any USDA Prime stamp she'd ever seen.
'Robin? Are you so fuckin' stupid you don't even know what you're watching?'
But she was listening to Humphrey Bogart saying something about the bird and she repeated it to herself, then dared to say it aloud.
'It's the stuff that dreams are made of.'
'Never heard of it,' Carter sneered, and he disappeared into the living room.
Robin carefully peeled the lottery ticket off the meat. She thought about calling the slutty barmaid's husband. If he were the jealous type, the violently jealous type, then who knows might happen? Being a rich widow sounded a lot better than just being rich. Maybe she should be thinking about getting her own passport.
BIO: Naomi Johnson is a retired financial analyst with an unused degree in Criminology, She lives in Columbus, Ohio. Her friends deny all responsibility.
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