The silver scratch-panel was already half rubbed off, perhaps by my thumb as I drank the soda. I twirled the empty bottle in my hands, debating whether or not to bother scratching the rest. I hated the way that silver stuff got jammed under my thumbnail. And I never won anything anyway. The yellow banner across the top of the label read “over one million dollars in prizes to give away! Just scratch the panel to win instant prizes”.
I scraped my thumbnail over the remaining silver. All I’ll win is another soda or something, I thought. Probably not worth it. I stood up, about to toss the bottle into the recycling bin across from the bench where I sat. As I wandered across the path, face tilted upward to absorb as much of the warm spring sunshine as I could before returning to my desk, I stumbled into something.
“Excuse me!” The voice was hoarse, as if the speaker had not used it much recently.
“I’m so sorry!” I looked at the man I’d run into. He was tall and thin, stooped over as if to disguise his height. A thick, matted beard covered his face, making it impossible to gauge his age. He was dressed in a too-large grey raincoat, despite the day’s warmth.
“You should look where you’re going!”
“I know.” I ducked my head. “Are you all right? I didn’t hurt you did I?”
“I’ll live.” I sensed a note of humour in his reply and looked up, my eyes meeting his. They were extraordinary eyes, dark blue and fringed with the longest, darkest eyelashes I’d ever seen.
The man started walking away, the torn hem of his coat dragging on the ground behind him. He had an odd hitching gait, as if one leg was longer than the other. I watched until he rounded the bend in the path and was out of sight. Glancing down at my watch I started. It was well past the end of my lunchbreak. I turned and hurried across the park, back to my office and the columns of figures that awaited me.
Breathless, I flung myself in my chair. I realised I was still holding the empty bottle and put it next to my computer, promising myself I’d recycle it on the way out. I turned to the screen and was soon immersed in accounts.
Two hours later, I returned from the break room, a steaming cup of coffee cradled in my hands. As I set it down on my desk, the empty bottle rolled off and bounced under the desk. I picked it up and set it back on the desk. As I did, the scratched off part of the panel caught my eye. “000” was all that was visible, the rest still hidden beneath the silver coating. I started, so I might as well finish I told myself, pulling the bottle towards me. I slid my nail across the panel, revealing another zero.
“Probably just a whole row of naughts” I whispered as I slid my nail over the last sliver of silver, revealing a solid number one and a dollar sign.
I sat staring at the bottle, figures and sums crashing through by head. My husband’s loan: $3 800.00 remaining. My credit card, maxed out at $2 500.00. The growing pile of bills beside my desk at home, red “overdue” stamps on them. The $150.00 my son needed to go on school camp. This empty soda bottle was the answer.
In a daze I switched off my computer and grabbed my purse.
“I’ve got to go, Lindsay!” I called as I passed the reception desk, empty bottle clutched in my hands.
The headquarters of the soda company were in a huge building at the outskirts of town. Vending machines lined the foyer, bathing it in a weird muddy coloured glow. The receptionist was dwarfed by the enormous desk she sat behind, telephone glued to her ear.
“Be with you in a second,” she mumbled as I walked up to the mammoth construction. I didn’t answer, just held out the empty bottle, pointing at the bold type proclaiming my $10 000 win.
“Congratulations!” The woman who had been summoned to the foyer had a huge smile, revealing a lot of very white teeth. “You’re the first winner in the region! You must be thrilled! I’m Kitty Larsen.”
“I am,” I managed. “Kind of overwhelmed, but thrilled.”
“So.” She sat down on one of the oversized sofas, pulling a pen from her upswept hairdo. “Which charity are you going to donate the money to?”
“Charity?” I stared at her. “I wasn’t going to donate it. My husband’s been out of work for six months. We need this money!”
“The terms and conditions state that the money must be given to someone else. Didn’t you read the fine print?” Kitty held out the bottle to me once more, pointing at the rows of tiny lettering printed on the backside of the label. I squinted at it, alarmed when I saw the line “To promote generosity and the spirit of giving, instant cash prize winners are required to give their winnings to a third party, preferably the charitable organization of their choice.”
My heart sank into my stomach as my dream of financial solvency, for at least a month, were crushed.
“I can’t give it to my husband, can I?” I asked without hope.
Kitty shook her head. “I’m afraid not. This promotion has been designed to promote sharing, and giving. Is there anyone you would like the money to go to? A hospice? Halfway house…” A pair of blue eyes suddenly floated before me and I remembered the stooped man at the park. If I hadn’t crashed into him, I would have thrown the bottle into the recycling without even looking under the panel.
“I know who I want the money to go to,” I said quietly. “But I’m not sure how to find him.”