Jackpot - Nic Stone

For Mama. Thank you for your hard work.

Friendship and money: oil and water.

—Mario Puzo

Oh, the irony of counting out change for a fifty-dollar bill while “Mo Money, Mo Problems” plays in the background. “Sir, I’m out of tens and twenties,” I say. “I’ll have to give you fives and singles…is that okay?”

It has to be, obviously.

The man smiles and nods enthusiastically. “Perfectly fine,” he says, dusting off the lapels of his (expensive-looking) suit. “Matter of fact, keep a couple of those singles and give me a Mighty Millions ticket with the Mightyplier thing. I’ll slide a few of the other dollars into the Salvation Army bucket out front.”

Despite my desire to snort—I know one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but based on the Mercedes-Benz key fob lying on the counter, I’d say this guy doesn’t need two hundred and twelve million more dollars—I force the corners of my mouth to lift. “That’s very generous of you, sir.” Barf. “Nothing like a cheerful giver!”

The man takes his $43.74 in change, then grabs his mechanically separated meat stick and bottle of neon-green Powerade. “Thanks so much”—he looks at my name tag—“Rico?”

“That’s me!” I chirp.

“Hmm. Interesting name for a cute girl such as yourself. And what interesting eyes you have…two different browns!” Now he’s winking.

Oh God.

“Thank you, sir. And thank you for shopping at the Gas ’n’ Go.”

He tosses a Merry Christmas! over the checkout counter before rotating on the heel of his fancy shoe and strutting out like he just won the lotto.

Merry Christmas. Pfffft. Not much real “merry” about a ten-hour shift on Christmas Eve. It’ll almost be Christmas when I walk out of this joint…and then I get to spend thirty minutes walking home since the one public bus in this town stopped running hours ago. Good thing the crime rate in (s)Nor(e)cross, GA, is relatively low and it’s not that cold out.

I look at my Loki watch—a birthday gift from my baby brother, Jax, that I never leave home without despite how childish it makes me look. Ninety-seven minutes to freedom.

“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” comes pouring out of the speakers (note to self: ask Mr. Zoughbi who the heck made this playlist), and I drop down onto my stool and put my chin in my hand. Truth be told, the influx of holiday cheer really has been a nice reprieve. Seems like every day there’s a new political scandal or gun attack or government-sanctioned act of inhumanity or threat of nuclear war, but then Thanksgiving hit, and it felt like a collective exhale.

The bell over the door dings, snapping me back, and the cutest little old lady I’ve ever seen makes her way toward the counter. She’s tiny—definitely under five feet and maybe ninety pounds soaking wet—with dark brown skin and a little pouf of white hair. The Christmas tree on her sweater has real lights, and when I smile this time, it’s for real.

“Welcome to Gas ’n’ Go,” I say as she steps up to the counter.

“Why, thank you, dear. Aren’t you just lovely?”

Cheeks are warm. “Well, you’re looking pretty lovely yourself, madam,” I reply.

She giggles.

“I mean it. That’s a gorgeous sweater.”

“Oh, you stop that,” she says. “And anyhow, shouldn’t you be at home with your family? Take it from an old bird: you don’t wanna work your life away, now.”

I smile again. “Yes, ma’am. I’ll be blowing this Popsicle stand in a little over an hour.”

“Good.” She nods approvingly.

“So how can I help you on this cool Christmas Eve?”

She leans forward over the counter a bit, and I’m drawn toward her like a magnet. “Well, I was on my way to church, and between you and me”—she pauses to peek over her shoulder—“I happened to look up as we passed one of those billboards that show the Mighty Millions jackpot. You know what I’m talkin’ about?”

I nod. Drop my voice to a near-whisper so it matches hers. “Two hundred and twelve million, right?”

“That’s what the billboard said. I wasn’t gonna play this time, but then I saw your station loom up on the left, and…well, it felt like a sign. So I decided to stop.”

Now I’m really smiling. This is the kind of person I would love to see win.

“How old are you, sweet pea?” she asks.

“I’m seventeen, ma’am.”

“That’s about what I thought. You remind me of my granddaughter. She’s in her third year at Florida A&M University.”

I feel my smile sag, so