The sky looked deeper than usual. Somehow.
I walked back from school, looking up at the sky, wondering about the secrets of the universe. I sat in astronomy class earlier and that made me think about the enigmatic mystery of space.
How could anyone have thought what might exist beyond the blueness of the daylight sky? A Renaissance scientist, Nicholaus Copernicus, was the first one to say Earth might not be the center of the universe. That was back in the 1500s. And, back then, it was one crazy idea. It challenged the long-held view that Earth was stationary and located precisely at the center of the universe, so all the other planets, including the sun, could orbit it.
How did such a then-crazy thought ever enter his mind?
I pondered that idea as my feet propelled me forward on autopilot.
There was something so much bigger and beyond our meager existence. Your existence, your life, and everything about you appeared to be at the center of the universe. For you. But it wasn’t. You just had to look at things from different angles. Just as Nicholaus Copernicus did.
By the time I realized it, I was already at the door to my house. I guess I got a little too carried away with my thoughts about the universe. I saw Mom’s car. I didn’t hang out with Sophia and Zoe today, so I got home early. I supposed Mom came home earlier than usual—which was not a big deal, except for Mom. She never changed her shifts unless it was an emergency or other dire circumstances.
I entered the house and found Mom sitting at the kitchen table silently. She was still dressed in her Nancy’s Diner’s uniform. She didn’t move at all but kept herself planted in the chair like a lifeless statue.
I walked around the table to face her. She looked as if she’d just seen a ghost. Her eyes stared at me but they weren’t actually seeing me.
Did she get fired?
It wouldn’t be the end of the world to get fired from a diner, but considering how long she’d worked at that place and how loyal she’d been, I supposed it could have affected her negatively in some respects.
“Are you okay, Mom? Did something happen at work?” I asked as I put down my bag.
She just kept her gaze on me.
“Mom. You’re scaring me. Say something.”
There was a long pause.
She finally opened her mouth. “I… I took off early. Maggie covered for me, so… it was fine.”
“Oh, okay. I thought you got fired. Are you sick?”
“I just… couldn’t function at work this afternoon.”
I began to worry. “Well then, you should go to bed. What are you doing in the kitchen? Here—” I approached her, trying to help her get up.
“Ella,” said Mom as she grabbed my arm. Her hand was shaking. Her eyes tried to tell me something as if the house were bugged or something.
“Mom. What?” I began to feel extremely uneasy. I noticed my voice came out an octave higher than usual.
“I won.” Her voice was almost a whisper.
I paused for a second and said, “Won what…?”
As I watched her face transform with an overwhelming awe that I’d never seen, I began to seriously wonder what she might have been referring to. What could it be…?
There was a small casino thirty miles away, where a lot of people lost the money they didn’t have in the first place. There was less than zero chance that she’d driven thirty miles and gambled.
Then what was it?
Every month, a sweepstakes was drawn for the employees at Nancy’s Diner. But even the top prize was no more than a twenty-five dollar gift certificate to Olive Garden. That would have made Mom’s day but would she be so shocked at winning that? Actually, it was possible, considering she never won anything.
Mom took a couple of deep breaths, which lasted nearly two minutes, or so it seemed. Surprisingly, I waited patiently while she performed her yoga-style breathing.
“Ella,” she said, “Don’t panic, okay?”
“Do I ever panic?” That was a total lie, but I felt it was appropriate for me to say at that moment.
“It’s the… it’s the lottery.” she whispered with her eyes wider open.
“Huh…? But you don’t even play the lottery.”
“I have been. Since you were born.”
Mom told me that she had been buying Powerball tickets at Tesoro Gas Station adjacent to Nancy’s Diner every other week ever since I was born. She’d been using the same exact numbers—Dad’s birthday, Kyle’s, and mine, 11-5-1-25-7-30. It had something to do with a dream she had on the night I was born. It was her own little superstitious pleasure and something she never shared with us. She received a superstitious message in the dream—that if she told anyone, we could no longer maintain our well-being or something. So it had to be kept secret.
However, something didn’t fully click with me.
She always accused me of being obsessed with money. Dream or not, why would she buy lottery tickets if she weren’t secretly hoping to win? And for sixteen years, for God’s sake. Honestly, I didn’t buy her dream story.
I looked at her like she was a total hypocrite. She’d always told me and my brother (mostly me) not to waste money, and that spending money on anything we didn’t really need was a waste. She’d been telling us that while she was out buying lottery tickets for sixteen years?
But, come on, she only played one ticket at a time, bi-weekly, which amounted to only four dollars a month. Okay, for four dollars a month, I really couldn’t call her a hypocrite. Besides, she said she was planning to use the money for our college tuitions if she won some money. Regardless, she’d never expected to win, not even the slightest bit. Just like her other routines that she followed every day, buying lottery tickets twice a month was simply part of it.
My mind was occupied with those thoughts for a good minute or two, and I forgot to ask the most important question.
“Wait. How much did you win?”
I knew it had to be more than a few dollars because there must have been a good reason for her crazed expression. My guess was anywhere from a couple hundred dollars to even a thousand.
Wow, that’d be nice.
Mom took another deep breath and said in a quavering voice, “One hundred two million, one hundred fifty-eight thousand dollars.”
I just stood there, absolutely motionless, as if I’d been shot in the neck by a blowgun with a poisoned dart.
“Ella. We’re rich.”
Now I was the paralyzed one, and Mom was ready to explode with excitement like Kīlauea Volcano on Hawaii’s big island. And with that, my brain finally processed the information.
“One hundred two—w-w-what?!” I thought I heard her say million but I really wasn’t sure. I wasn’t sure if such a number could be real. My heart raced as if I were about to have a heart attack.
“T-T-That’s just… that’s just impossible… You’re joking, right? You know, the odds of winning an Oscar are better than winning the lottery? Or being crushed by a meteor? Or being killed by many other things that fall from the sky? Or dying from flesh-eating bacteria? They say being crushed by a vending machine is less likely though.” My words weren’t making much sense as I stammered on like I had a speech impediment.
“Ella, I’m not joking. It’s real. It really happened.” Mom set her unblinking eyes on me. She seemed to have been expecting that type of reaction from me. I mean, who could react calmly to news like that?
One hundred and two million, one hundred fifty-eight thousand dollars. Even though the government taxed it thirty percent, it was still seventy-one million-something. This wasn’t real. The sun must have begun orbiting Earth.
I took a deep breath as reality began to sink in. “So, what are we going to do? Buy a new house? Convertible cars? Go on a vacation in the Caribbean? Oh, my God. Oh, my Gawd!” I gasped for air, fanning my face with both of my hands like I’d just swallowed a spoonful of wasabi.
I had absolutely no idea what we could or would do with such a large amount of money. I’d never even thought about it. Of course, I always wished we were wealthy, but I was thinking, realistically, like our best bet was to rise from lower class to middle class. I was certainly not thinking one hundred and two million dollars!
“Try not to think about it too much right now,” said Mom to calm me down. “We’ll discuss it when Daddy gets home. He’s coming home tonight.” She said and her shaky fingers played with her name tag on her Nancy’s Diner’s uniform, as if she didn’t know how to relax otherwise.