It was only natural that hobbies would arise in the Zone. Once you got past the terror, the malnutrition, the lack of privacy, the cold, and the despair, there was the boredom. There was plenty of all six to go around. A few people tried knitting scarves and sweaters, some played cards, most just shivered around campfires and talked to pass the time. Only Nye played the Lotto.
Tickets were hard to come by, of course. They were one of the first things looted from the convenience stores in the early days of the Panic by people who had since either turned, starved, or frozen. Nye was smart enough to survive short term so that he could survive long term.
Nye savored his cards like a wine connoisseur treated his bottles. They were always arranged in neat stacks hanging in the dispenser that he’d liberated from a Hess gas station. Losing cards were filed by the hundred to “offset the taxes on the big one.” He was on his twenty-sixth stack in the box. That tax deduction would save him $910 one day. He knew he had to be careful: When he’d win, he couldn’t go all crazy like that hick from West Virginia who won the $300 million MegaBall. He’d have a plan.
At first, Nye had to get cards in trade with members of other squads until he had nothing left to trade. He refused to give up his lucky quarter, and no one would have wanted it anyway. Gradually, the other guys either got into the spirit, or just started taking pity.
At the beginning, people were cruel. They mocked him. What are you doing that for? You know Albany’s never going to pay up! What are you going to do, walk to the State Capitol to cash it in? You’re never going to win. Why bother? Those things are a rip off! Can’t you do something more productive?
His answer was always the same. “I just need to hit the big one. When I do, I’ll be set for life.”
Gradually, their scorn evolved into mild interest, then imperceptibly, acceptance, and just as imperceptibly, excitement.
His nightly ritual was as intricate as any religious ceremony. People would start to gather around dusk. He’d have his three cards picked out. Someone would call out, “What have you got tonight?” and he’d hold up the three tickets. There were always two one dollar tickets–he saved the Christmas themed ones for the holidays–and one that cost more. He saved the ten dollar tickets for Friday nights. They would nod their approval at this choices.
The scratching would begin, slow, and meticulous. He removed every grain of the silver acetate from the surface of the ticket. He would talk to himself as he scratched. Two tens. One five. One fifty. Another fifty. C’mon fifty… a hundred. He’d hold up the card and shake his head.
Over the years, he had won $575. He was behind a bit on what the published odds said, but he was still below what he would need to win in order to claim it on his taxes. So far so good.
The second ticket was called Vegas Odds. From the way he never won with them, the odds were more like an Internet casino’s. There were two squares left when he realized he couldn’t win anything. He cleaned the card anyway and held it up. There was a sigh from the crowd.
The last card was a $5 Lotto ATM card. He gritted his teeth and started to scratch. The PIN number he had to match was 74831. His first square was a dollar sign. A good start. Then a two. Nothing there. A four. Another dollar sign. There was just teasing him. No need to get excited. A three.
Ten boxes to go and he only needed four numbers. The odds of that were tiny. Well, not tiny, but smaller than they had been. He wished Calc were around to tell him, but Calc always acted so superior about math, like Nye was stupid or something for liking his tickets.
A zero. A one. Another three. A nine. A six.
Five boxes. Three numbers left. He felt the adrenaline, just like he always did.
A seven. A six. A dollar sign. Holy shit. This was it. Sure enough, the next number didn’t hit. It was a two. But he knew. He knew. He scratched the last number and saw the eight reveal itself slowly. He caressed the rest of the film off the ticket. One hundred fifty grand a year, every year, for the rest of his life.
He took a deep breath and held the ticket up in the air, shaking his head, just as he’d rehearsed. “Nothing.”
“Awww. Tough luck, Marshall. You looked like you were doing well with that last one.”
“Well, you know how it goes. They build you up to break you down.”
The crowd started to disperse. Some went to the fire pits, and others went out looking for booze or love. Nye returned to his bunk and got out the file box with the spent tickets. He put the two losing tickets in with the others but placed the ATM in his back pocket. He lay down on the cot, heart racing, fighting to keep from jumping for joy. He looked up and down the length of the B Concourse at all those poor saps living there, just trying to survive for another day.
Not him. He was different. He was set for life.