The Lucky Winner

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Chapter 21

I was pee-pee dancing.

Well, not really.

It wasn’t like I wanted to pee and there were no bathrooms available or anything. So I couldn’t quite say I was pee-pee dancing, but it was certainly similar to that feeling.

Zoe and I were at Sophia’s. Keeping Up with the Kardashians was on TV, but I could hardly sit back and watch it. I kept getting up and pacing around the room several times before I could sit down.

Around the fifth time I did that, Zoe had to say something.

“Okay, enough. Seriously. You’ve got to stop doing that, or I’ll have to throw you out the window.”

“I can’t stop. I’m too jittery.”

“I know you are. You told us.”

I felt like I was an AA. Not just a regular AA. A newbie. Just like they thirsted for a sip of alcohol so badly but had to restrain themselves from reaching for the bottle, I had to ignore my urge to tell my BBFs about all that craziness showcasing in my home.

Crap, should I just screw it and tell them everything?

No, no. I couldn’t do that to Mom. But leaving my girlfriends so unaware, without knowing anything at all about what was happening in my life, was unbearable. We’d been hiding absolutely nothing from each other for our entire friendship. I had to breach the pact with my friends in order to keep one with my family. A lose-lose situation as opposed to win-win. Ugh…

“At least he won’t bother us any more. Or your brother. Right?” Zoe arched her eyebrows.

I’d explained my jitteriness by blaming it on the continuing shock from Jerry’s death.

Actually, that was another thing. Not that I was grieving over his death, but I had a disconcerting hunch about Kyle being involved with it. It made sense. Jerry always bullied him. Kyle’s secret—or not-so-secret now—love of his life was Jerry’s ex-girlfriend and Jerry had bothered her frequently. Also, Kyle’s calmness at hearing the news was odd.

However, he didn’t own a gun and neither did my parents. I would have been very surprised to learn Kyle knew how to fire one. So how in the hell could he have shot Jerry to death?

Well, he could have borrowed one. He could have secretly practiced target shooting. Anything were possible.

Whatever the case, I had to spill that one and get it out. I was on the verge of going insane, myself. “I have a really crazy feeling that Kyle might have killed Jerry.”

“No,” said Sophia as soon as I finished the sentence.

“Wow, you must really hate your brother,” Zoe remarked as she raised her eyebrows.

I looked at the two of them from one to the other. Neither seemed to think Kyle could have been the murderer.

“Why would you think that?” Zoe asked while Sophia kept her gaze on me as if I were the world’s cruelest sibling on the whole planet.

“He’s just been… acting pretty weird. weirder, I guess. He changed his looks and—”

“That doesn’t make someone a murderer!” Cutting me off loudly, Sophia’s voice echoed in the room. That was the thing about Sophia. It never mattered who was being accused, she’d automatically defend that person. She was the type that believed everybody deserved equal opportunity and unbridled championship for their defense. Sometimes. When she felt like it.

I supposed that was how she felt at that moment. I took it as a good thing that she didn’t seem to hate my brother despite knowing that he liked her. She would have, if it were any other nerd, but I assumed she was being nice because he was my brother after all.

“True. It’s just that… I had butterflies in my stomach, you know. Jerry was so nasty and always bothering you. And you know…” I was going to say He’s in love with you, but I couldn’t dare finish that sentence out loud, and I didn’t really have to. It was mutual knowledge. Also, I wanted to describe how suspicious he’d been acting at home, but again, that was something I had to keep to myself.

“That still doesn’t make him a murderer!” Sophia roared. Maybe she should have been a criminal defense attorney.

“Sophia’s right,” said Zoe before pursing her lips into a tight line and looking very thoughtful. “Besides, it’s your brother, El. No matter how nerdy he is.”

She was right. He was my brother. But sometimes, you had to snitch on your brother in order to bring justice. David Kaczynski turned in his when he suspected his brother was The Unabomber.

“Guys, I don’t know how to explain. It’s just my gut instinct.”

“Well, that’s an awfully crazy gut instinct, Ella.” Sophia chuckled as she scooped out some punch and poured it into my glass.

Was it?

“Now let’s just forget about Jerry and have a good time!” Sophia clinked her glass against mine.

That struck me as a bit odd.

She seemed to be taking Jerry’s death rather calmly. Well, happily might have been a better word. It was true that Jerry bothered her and she hated him, but she wasn’t the type to celebrate someone’s death under any circumstances. As long as I’d known her, I knew her to be compassionate.

Sophia downed her punch, and made ahh sounds like they did on beer commercials. Then she looked up at me, touching my cheek comfortingly like she was my big sister. “How’s your mom, sweetie? By the way.”

“Oh, yeah, her head. I forgot about that,” said Zoe.

“Oh, um… she’s good. Like I said.” I wished she were. Really. “I think,” I added as I sighed weakly.

The two of them studied my shadowed face.

“Oh, Ella,” Zoe put her arm around my shoulder.

Sophia joined in, stroking my hair.

“But the doctor said everything was fine, right?” asked Zoe.

“Yeah, yeah. She’s fine. Really.” I felt uneasy saying anymore about Mom. Or the fake head injury. “Can we talk about something else?”

Sophia suddenly checked her clock and said, “Um… girls, I actually have to go to my parents’ store now. They need my help for… something.”

“Since when did you start working there? You haven’t hung out there in like, ages,” said Zoe.

“I know. I just have to go,” said Sophia, getting up. “Jumping in the shower now.”

We exchanged kisses on both cheeks like the French did—our usual ritual—then Zoe and I left Sophia’s house.

During the three-block walk after Zoe and I split up, I saw Kyle riding his bike on the other side of the road.

Is he going to the geek store? Again?

At this point, he was a true addict. He needed serious rehab. Urgently. But the problem was: there was no such thing as a video game addiction rehabilitation center.

In any case, I decide to be polite by raising my hand hello. But he didn’t see me. He had headphones on and was lost in his own world. Or he saw me, and he pretended he didn’t—in other words, he ignored me.

Whatever.

I came home, expecting to hear that Dad had left for work but he was still at home. I assumed he was too worried about Mom and took another day off.

“I thought you’d be on the road by now. Well, I guess that’s good,” I said. By good, I meant, it was good that somebody could take care of Mom, which meant, one thing less I needed to worry about.

“Ella. Dad won’t be going to work any longer,” said Mom.

Feeling strangely relieved, I looked up, and one corner of my mouth tilted. “Oh, yeah?” I supposed any change would have pleased me somewhat at that point, when all I’d heard for the past month in this house was, Everything has to stay exactly the same.

As if I asked Mom the reason why, she added, “The company’s downsizing, and Dad was laid off.”

“Well, we can certainly still eat, can’t we?” I raised my eyebrows. “If you quit too, you can both relax together.”

Mom shot me a wide-eyed look at me as if I were the most troubled fifth grader at home on suspension. “Ella. You know very well why we are trying to keep the things the way they are. Dad’s fine not working because it’s not like he quit. People get laid off all the time. Nobody’s going to suspect anything. But it’d be different if I just quit—”

“I know. I know.” I repeated it twice, holding up my hands in surrender. As if saying it twice wasn’t enough, I said it once more. “I know.”

Mom gave me a look, Then why do you have to say such a thing?

I shifted my eyes to the TV so I didn’t have to watch Mom looking at me.

The news reporter was talking about the lady whose body was discovered downriver. A purse was recovered that belonged to her, and they identified her from her Nevada-issued driver’s license. They were all puzzled how a woman from Nevada could have ended up a corpse in North Dakota. Her name was Misty Anderson. One of Sophia’s cats was named Misty and I always liked that name.

“What do you say about moving somewhere else?” asked Dad as he turned off the TV.

I looked up, surprised and dumbfounded.

Two reasons: one, it popped up suddenly and straight out of nowhere, and two, never, not even in a trillion years, could I imagine him say something like that.

It didn’t look like I was the only one who felt that way. Mom was staring at him as if she were physically incapable of understanding what he’d just said. Which was a bit of a surprise since they always consulted each other privately before saying anything to me or Kyle—especially something as big as that.

“Really?”

“Yeah. Because, think about it. Then we don’t have to be nervous about people finding out about our winning. We just don’t tell anyone where we’re moving and we leave town. It happens all the time. Or maybe say I got a new job offer and we don’t know where I’ll be assigned yet. Yeah, that sounds like a great idea. I think it’d be ideal. To start over, you know.” Dad nodded multiple times as if he were reassuring and convincing himself of that decision.

Although this should have been my absolute dream-come-true, I was surprised when I didn’t jump up through the roof. Maybe because it was so strange how he brought it up. Or maybe I was sad about leaving Sophia and Zoe. We’d been best friends all our lives. If I had to lie about where we were moving, that meant I couldn’t keep in contact with them, which meant the end of our lifelong friendship. Could I cope with that? Could I make new friends in a new place? Could I ever find friends like them?

I noticed Mom’s silent stare was still fastened on him. Evidently, she couldn’t believe what had come out of his mouth. I knew she was pretty confident that they were always on the same page with everything, so for him to announce such a thing—without consulting her beforehand—was as crazy as the Trump presidency.

She opened her mouth but didn’t say anything. She probably thought his unusual suggestion originated from all the strange things that were happening at our house. How could anyone blame him if he felt like escaping from it all? Although, I wasn’t sure starting over were the appropriate words. It wasn’t like we did anything wrong. The way he said it sounded almost like we were being punished for something we’d done.

“I… I’m sorry I didn’t talk to you about it beforehand,” he said to Mom as if he were too distracted to observe her fixed gaze on him until that moment.

She made a weak, confused nod.

“I just think it’s the smartest thing to do,” he pressed.

She kept her eyes downward. “I need time to think…”

Her response surprised me. I knew her. Leaving Littleside, the place where her parents slept peacefully, was like leaving newborn puppies to fend for themselves on the street.

But again, who wouldn’t want to escape from all that craziness?

There was no doubt that it sounded like the most sensible idea. In a new place, we no longer needed to pretend or practice the old lifestyle as we had before winning. We could live like normal wealthy people, and fit in with society, without anyone suspecting we had millions of dollars deposited in the bank. Criminals wouldn’t even target us because nobody would ever know anything about that winning ticket that was purchased in a gas station next to a diner in Littleside, North Dakota. We would just go on as one normal family living in an upscale neighborhood.

We could buy a big house, nice cars, and maybe even a boat if we moved near the water. We could dine at all the stylish restaurants, buy the prettiest outfits, go to spas and salons, and enjoy our lives finally. If we could move to Los Angeles, I could start going to auditions to become a movie star.

It sounded incredibly, amazingly, fabulously awesome. And exactly like what I’d been dreaming about for a very long time. That thought would have launched me into space from excitement like a space shuttle. But I remained as calm as a Buddhist monk. It was almost as if I could predict the future and I knew that wasn’t going to happen. I couldn’t explain why I felt that way, however.

The front door opened and Kyle entered.

All eyes shifted toward him. He nodded curtly for greeting. I thought Dad would tell him to join us if only to discuss the new idea that had just popped up, but he didn’t. Mom still seemed too lost in thought to say anything.

Urged by my conscience and responsibility to explain, I said, “We were discussing the possibility of moving.”

Kyle stopped and looked up.

“To get away from all this mess. So we don’t have to be nervous about the money anymore—”

“No,” he said, cutting me off at once.

“What?” I had to ask if only to make sure I heard him correctly. I wasn’t finished and he talked over me.

“No,” he repeated.

I stared at him. He was never quick to answer anything when it came to making decisions. Maybe, I don’t know, or Yeah, were his usual answers. Never a sharp and clear yes or no.

This time, it was as keen as a razor blade.

I wondered why. Well, I actually knew—Sophia. But the whole town doubted he would ever get to date her. So what point would there be to remain near her if he couldn’t have her? Wasn’t it more like torture? Like putting a starving rat in a little cage surrounded by delicious food kept just out of reach?

Or did he actually like our small town? Certainly, Nerd It was there.

Since Jerry was—conveniently—gone now, he wouldn’t be bullied at school anymore. But it wasn’t like he had any friends, either.

A thought crossed my mind. If he really were the one who killed Jerry, wouldn’t he want to move far away from here before the police could discover he did it? Well, if they did, his picture would be plastered all over the news, and unless he fled across the border to Mexico, they’d most likely track him down no matter where we relocated. But still, would you want to stay in the same town where you committed a cold-blooded murder? I wouldn’t.

So maybe he didn’t kill Jerry.

Abruptly, Dad’s stern voice, one that I’d never heard in all my sixteen years, echoed through our little house.

“We are moving. Period.”

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