Bret grunted as he hoisted himself over the last spiny outcrop to his favorite lookout spot atop Mt. Ellis. His shirt was damp despite the usual chill of a mountain morning, and the early sun was just now stroking his face; its sensation, he thought oddly, a bit like a fresh, towel from his home dryer. The thought somehow calmed him, reminded him that, no matter what was to come, the smell and feel of a warm towel would always seem normal, comforting, like man-made sunshine.
He had left at first light because they were looking for him now, hunting him actually. He knew that without a doubt after last night’s newscast where they reported a search using the video recording of the mini-mart, zeroing in on that time when his entire world changed.
“Max, come here,” he called over to his scruffy Airedale, the dog’s nose buried in a small crack in the rock, snuffling loudly as he inhaled a scent which had peaked his canine interest…a cowering squirrel or quivering bunny, or whatever scented remembrance they had left behind. With a final snort, Max jumped atop the table rock and plop-sat at Bret’s feet, looking up expectantly for the treat which was always their custom when they reached what he called “the throne,” a royal vantage of all that lay far below, though today the vista made him feel isolated, more like an outcast or a prisoner.
He wasn’t sure which.
Bret sat down beside Max, rubbing the inside of his ear with one hand, then cupping his hands and clumsily pouring him a drink of water, followed by a chaser of jerky which was big enough to keep him chewing for a bit. He lifted the water bottle and took a long drink, head up, his battered Simms fishing cap teetered back, its beak uplifted to the sky like a bird anxious to take flight.
Wiping his mouth with his sleeve he looked out on the valley he called home. The university field house was clearly visible, basking its gray shell in the rapid rise of morning light. His gaze shifted toward the downtown, which seemed yet peaceful, its location mapped by the tightening of the street grid as his eyes moved from the outskirts of town, sweeping across to the mountainside “M,” the large, white stones forming the character clearly visible across the wide expanse. Even in the welcome stillness atop the mountain the woosh of traffic off the interstate some five miles distant was still audible, a reminder that there were few places left to hide from man, even in Montana.
And he couldn’t hide for much longer; they were bound to find him he knew. That kind of money left a trail, the scent of green which fueled the modern world; a heady mix of survival, opportunity, pleasure; but also rank with greed, corruption and, most would admit, a great deal of evil. He was on the cusp now, everyone might know it was him by tomorrow. He felt trapped, like that critter Max cornered in the crevasse. They would sniff him out sooner or later. It would soon be over.
He would have to reward his accomplice of course, she of the nose ring and matchstick tattoo, the bright red head of it flicking with each blink of her eye. She had stooped just long enough to pick up a bag of chips fallen to the floor to make it happen, to make the timing perfect and...what…magical? Crazy how that could happen.
Unsnapping the chipped pearl button of his shirt pocket, he reached in for the sandwich baggie, cracking the seal and pulling out the ticket, the telling barcode at bottom, numbers at the fold. He had used his mother’s birthday, arbitrarily splitting the digits until he had five total, then adding the day of the month for the power play. Funny part was he had done it on a whim, just an extra buck added to his 99 cent bottle of water. A dollar ninety-nine, the extra penny put into the chipped green dish to balance transaction shortfalls. No idea what had prompted him to buy the ticket, he couldn’t even call it a hunch. It just kind of happened; just pulling two singles from his wallet instead of one, something they called luck, maybe beyond luck, given the odds. How many times had he checked the ticket over the last six months? Hundreds of times at least. The numbers online always perfectly matched his ticket, no matter how often he checked.
Tomorrow he would have to drive to Helena, taking no chances, and turn in the ticket personally to the lottery office. Then it would start. The media circus followed by a noisy parade of phone calls, emails, stark pleas for help, and veiled congratulations, all with the same goal in mind: money for donations, for generosity, for business schemes, for investments, for expert advice, for offers of private jets, yachts, real estate and who knew what else. Relatives would come onto him, somehow in inverse proportion to their genetic distance. He supposed he would buy a new truck, but that was as far as his imagination could take him, knowing that he could buy a boatload of trucks if he wanted to. It was as impossible to comprehend what was to come as if he was scheduled tomorrow for a moon landing.
At first these thoughts had struck him as problematic, annoying; but now that the time was at hand his mood had changed to apprehension, even fright at the burden bearing down on him like one of those ominously dark coal trains heading west to the ports of Seattle. Yes, that was it, an unknown, coal-dark burden, a crushing weight of uncertain consequences. Try as he might not to change, the world around him certainly would, which is why he had chosen not to tell his wife yet. The divorce litigation was in its third year, and he couldn’t imagine the added legal grief over this bit of ill-timed news. And, as much as he loved his daughter, Callie, he had kept it from her and, naturally, from all her teen friends, well-armed with smartphones and wildfire social media. Yet she suspected something.
Hey dad, what’s bothering you?
Nothing, just thinking.
Thinking about what?
Well, let me know if you want me to do something.
What would this do to her?
These were only the first of many deceptions, both small and large he supposed; and it gave him a sobering dread for what was to come, the hangover after the party. Would he have to move from his house to avoid unwelcome visitors? Maybe he would even have to move from Bozeman, maybe even from Montana. With only some tens of thousands of people in mere thousands of square miles he would never really escape their notice and intrusion. He imagined walking down the sunny side of Main Street toward The Cannery for a cold pint; people nudging, pointing, staring, lips moving to form his name, to whisper “luck,” “millions” and “unbelievable.” It gave him a creepy sensation, like walking alone among shadows at twilight; and he knew at some level that he probably could never really go into his favorite bar again. He guessed the same would happen with his volunteer fireman job, and his fishing buddies. The money avalanche would simply bury his past. All gone...just like that.
He had already had an inkling of what the change might look like. The only person he had told, sworn to secrecy on pain of lost investment, was his financial advisor. When it was just his paltry IRAs Fred was always courteous and responsive; but when he told Fred that maybe, just maybe, he had won “the big one,” the man’s jaw dropped, quite literally dropped, and standard-issue courtesy morphed immediately to the realm of deference, then an outright solicitousness which he found unsettling. Fred had addressed him as “Mr.” when he left. He had never before done that.
Bret looked down again at the ticket, noticing the slight tear across “Mega Millions” where he had first pulled it from the tight pocket of his jeans. Mindlessly he finished the rip, tearing the top of the ticket off, then watching it flutter across the escarpment and drift downwind among the lodgepole pines. He suspected that wouldn’t really invalidate the ticket, as the numbers and bar code were still in place. They didn’t need both, did they? The bar code was probably enough, he figured, making another tear, bisecting the numbers in a jagged edge. Unreadable now…the bar code still intact…still ok, maybe… he whispered into the wind.
A sharp yelp brought him back to the now bright blue sky and the hard reality of the weathered granite which had now numbed his rear end. Early morning shadows were rapidly retreating from the town, and a faint sense of bustle sighed upward from streets far distant. Max was looking at him expectantly, head cocked as dogs do, as if asking “what next?”
Yes, what next, Bret considered, looking at Max, then at the remainder of his winning ticket…what next? Crazy how this could happen, really crazy. Everything would change, everything. Was that what he wanted? Yes, of course! Who wouldn’t want that kind of wealth? Think of all the good it might do. Think of friends, family, people in need. He could help them now, yes he could help them all, every last one of them. But could he help himself? Would he ever be the same? His apprehension morphed to dread, his stomach chewed away at its newfound anxiety.
Holding the ticket to the bright blue sky he squinted into the light before letting it go, the breeze taking it down into the pines, a flicker of white for only moments before disappearing into the dark green shade, like a moth taken to cover.
Max yelped again, impatient now…let’s get going. Bret gave the dog a quick two-handed rubdown, watching his tail stop mid-wag in focused pleasure at the unexpected attention. He started down, whistling a pop-tune from the 70s, and thought about that first ice-cold beer he would have at The Cannery that very afternoon.
It was a fine day, he thought, a fine day indeed.