Every Friday, while co-workers are out for their weekly happy hour, Meg sits in bed, her ticket perched on her keyboard, combing through design ideas on the internet while the local newscaster announces lottery numbers. One at a time, the numbered table-tennis balls appear on the screen.
Nine. She buys a ticket each week, every week since her eighteenth birthday.
Twenty-four. She started playing after the accident.
Six. She was looking for a little luck.
Thirty. She plays the same numbers.
Eleven. She wins three dollars at most, which she uses to buy another ticket.
Powerball— Eighteen. She looks up.
Every number on the screen matches the numbers on her ticket.
Meg lies in bed and clutches the ticket to her chest. One hundred fifty-four point six million dollars, she whispers to herself.
Possibilities flash through her mind like fireworks, bright and otherworldly. When she was a child, Meg fantasized about her dream house. It was meant to be made out of chocolate and would have a separate floor for each thing she loved most—one for cats, dogs, vintage pinball machines, her own restaurant, and her bedroom. Her bedroom was her favorite part. It took up the whole top floor, with access to it from the chocolate elevator. She envisioned a marshmallowy soft bed and a huge movie theater screen. But her favorite part of the bedroom was the slide that went from her room to the outside of the house and into the built-in pool, filled with raspberry jam. But even lottery winnings can’t will a five-story house made out of chocolate and marshmallows and jam into being.
Despite being raised by a mother who is successful in her own right, who taught Meg to prioritize her goals above others, Meg has always pictured her life with a husband, two kids, and a house in the suburbs. At thirty-six, none of that has materialized. People tell her she has plenty of time but that feels too much like a lie that people tell themselves when life isn’t going the way they imagine.
When lottery winners are interviewed, they talk about how they finally are able to buy their partner the wedding ring they deserve or a house for their family or help their neighbors pay off debts. Void of a partner, a home, a family, known neighbors, Meg feels paralyzed by her sudden wealth.
She looks at the grand prize again and her Fremont apartment is rendered comical. Meg can almost touch her kitchen counter from her couch. Her bed is less than ten steps around the corner of a thin wall. The bathroom and her closet are about the same size—small.
It is twenty-seven years earlier and Meg and James are inseparable. He and his family live four houses down from Meg. They are the same age. They met by happenstance—not because their parents noticed and wanted them to be friends.
Meg rides her bike up and down the block between the two stop signs.
Where we can see you, her mom says.
The babysitter repeats her words, even though she’s reading her book in the shade of the open garage.
James comes outside and rides alongside Meg.
Meg pedals faster and they blow past the first stop sign. She looks back to see if the sitter noticed and keeps pedaling. When they reach the second, Meg stops and waves James over. We didn’t decide where to race to, she says. Meg shrugs her shoulders with her hands flat out to the side. They look like they’re sticking out of her ears. Meg faces her bike in the direction of her house. I’ll race you to the second stop sign, she says. She’d be back in the safe zone.
James nods. On your mark.
Go! James’s voice is loud and lingers behind them as they pedal forward.
They are neck and neck the whole way. They share glances with one another as they approach the first stop sign. Meg looks both ways. She doesn’t plan on stopping. She pedals harder through the intersection, like a car could materialize in front of them at any second. Their tires grip the warm tar from the summer asphalt, speeding past their homes. From the side of their eyes, everything is a blur. Meg squeezes the back-tire brake. Her tires squeal across the finish line. James crosses a second later.
That’s so cool, he tells her. I don’t know how to do that yet.
I’ll show you. Meg and James ride back and forth, gaining speed only to pull on their breaks and try and get their tires to drag on the road.
I’m getting hot, Meg says.
We can play pinball in my house, James offers. We have popsicles.
Meg drops her bike in the front yard. I’m going to James’s house, she yells at her sitter as she walks past.
Her sitter waves her hand but Meg thinks she didn’t listen.
Meg and James take turns at the helm of the pinball machine. The paddles clack against the ball and send it into the different traps and bumper until they miss it, and it rolls between the two paddles.
James’s mom interrupts them. Meg’s sitter is looking for her.
Meg runs to the front door.
The sitter is angry. I’ve gone to four different houses. You didn’t tell me where James lived. She takes Meg by the hand and walks towards their house.
See you tomorrow, Meg says to James, unphased.
They go on like this for the rest of the summer. For many summers. When they get to middle school, they start testing nearby bars to see which ones will let them play their pinball machines. Summer weekdays aren’t busy. Most don’t care. Others are strict about their twenty-one and over policies. Others make a game of it—if the two of them can sneak in without the manager noticing at first, the bartenders will pretend they’re not there.
When Meg turns eighteen, they go to a bar that allows eighteen-year-olds to hang out in the bar area. Meg and James compete for the highest score for hours. They let some other people play while they have some food and then claim the machine as soon as it opens up again.
She looks at her watch and shows James the time rather than shout it over the crowd and jukebox. Meg has to be home by midnight. They weave in and out of people standing in line at the bar. The air outside is cool on her skin.
James is calling to her. Let’s go. No cars.
The crosswalk has up an orange hand.
James is in the intersection waving her over. Meg is distracted by a light in the corner of her eye. The background blurs. Tires screech. It’s like they’re racing bikes again. People around her are screaming. Meg can’t look away. Her feet are cemented to the concrete sidewalk. If she moves, it’s all real.
According to hospital records, James died at twelve-oh-two. The next day. Not Meg’s birthday. The heart does not rationalize temporal technicalities.
For three days, Meg doesn’t claim the ticket. Meg always picks the same numbers: Nine. Twenty-four. Six. Thirty. Eleven. Powerball— Eighteen. Meg’s birthday. James’s birthday. Years they were friends. The age James was when he died.
Meg isn’t religious. This isn’t a gift from James as he watches from above. But she wants to savor their moment a little longer.
Newscasters announce that there is a single, unknown winner. For a bit, Meg likes keeping this secret from the world. Each time she meets with her clients to discuss their websites, she knows they don’t know.
Walking home from work, Meg passes by a restaurant that she has wanted to try for years. It’s upscale with plush seating, copper details, expensive floral arrangements. She watches a server bring food to a table—impeccable just like every time she’d seen before. Meg looks at the seasonal menu. Fresh-caught fish and farm-to-table meats and vegetables cover the page. Bitters and liquors are made in-house, aged in miniature barrels above the bar. A couple walks past her and into the bar. They’re dressed nicer than she is. Her bootcut jeans and loose sweatshirt could make her stand out if she sat down at the bar.
Meg finishes her walk home and changes into a fitted black T-shirt and burgundy cardigan. She walks back to the restaurant and takes the last empty seat at the bar between two older men. Maybe in their fifties, both greying. One wears a button-up shirt and a loose tie. He’s talking to the woman on his other side. The other is drinking alone, looking at his phone and checking the door every few minutes. He’s dressed similar to her, jeans and a muted grey Henley that sits over his muscles nicely. She scans him head to toe. Shirt. Belt. Jeans. Shoes. Each item of clothing looks like it costs more than the last. She likes the way he looks in them.
Meg doesn’t usually find older men attractive, though the older men that hang out in places she can afford are old-timers and are still complaining about the problems of their youth. Some of them married, most divorced. None of them talk about their kids if they have any.
At this newly affordable bar, she’s not sure if there are people her own age. It’s hard to tell that sort of thing now. Twenty somethings blend in with thirty somethings who blend in with forty somethings. Standing next to each other, Meg can’t make an accurate guess without worrying she will offend someone, even in the privacy of her own thoughts.
The man in the Henley waits a while longer and orders an Old Fashioned. Meg thinks about what it might be like to be with an older man who drinks Old Fashioneds. She thinks some people might assume he could be her father. He might be the same age as her father but from the looks of it, they don’t have much in common. It is hard to imagine someone his age wanting kids, but maybe. It would certainly be easier to buy a house with someone older, though Meg reminds herself that it’s no longer an issue to do on her own. But maybe someone older would be interested in the responsibility of owning a house. If she can imagine saying yes if he were to ask her out. He doesn’t. His actual date arrives as he finishes the last sip of his drink.
Meg graduates high school and starts college at UW without James. In a class of thousands, she is alone. The bookstore is crowded, everyone searching for the books listed on syllabi. Meg is looking for a book for her political science course. It’s a freshman class, attending only to fulfil gen-ed requirements. She scans the shelves with her eyes. Nothing. She steps back to expand her query surface area and bumps into someone. She mumbles a sorry and continues to search.
Can I help you find something?
Meg looks at the guy. No name tag. He’s not an employee, but he could be with the amount of purple he’s wearing. In his arms, he’s holding the book she’s looking for.
That actually, she says.
He points to a bottom shelf at the end of the aisle. Not sure why it’s there, he says.
What’s got you taking the class? Business or pleasure?
Meg thinks about it. Business, I guess. Gen-eds, more specifically. You?
Pleasure. I’m a poli-sci major. At least that’s what I think I want to do with my life.
Meg nods and starts walking to find her next book. He walks next to her in near lock-step. For a moment, he looks a bit like James. Similar build, endless enthusiasm.
They walk around the store and find their textbooks for advanced first-year English and their only required math course before Meg leads them to the art section to get her textbooks for her graphic design courses. They talk all the way through the check-out line, transferring their finds from their full arms to the counter. Her bag feels heavier than the sum of its parts. Heavier than when she held everything in her arms.
What kind of projects are you working on right now? he asks.
Meg looks at her bag and then back at him.
Want to get coffee? she offers instead.
Meg tells him about how many times she has redesigned her web-portfolio. It’s an ongoing project.
Coffee lasts three cups and turns into dinner as their stomachs disintegrate. He picks a little Greek restaurant nearby. They kiss when they finally decide to part ways. Meg smiles to herself when she’s back in her dorm. She had never kissed someone before. She hadn’t expected to be kissed today.
It becomes a routine over the quarter. Their poli-sci class is every Tuesday and Thursday. They sit on opposite sides of the classroom, debate various topics with one another and the rest of the class, and go do their homework at a coffee shop before they get dinner together. They sleep together a few times. Meg is happy to check another first off her list, though it’s not as life changing as she had expected. When the term comes to an end, their dates fizzle. Maybe there was an initial spark, Meg thinks. It only carried on out of convenience.
Meg doesn’t mourn a relationship that wasn’t. It was all insignificant really, with the exception that no first date ever feels as good as it did then.
She could’ve called her parents but doubted they’d be excited as she’d hope. In theory, Meg comes from money. Both her parents are successful doctors but they are not a ”share the wealth” kind of people. Growing up, they told her the same story time and again—they came from nothing and worked their way to success. Wealth was only significant when earned, not given. When she went to college, Meg took out loans in her own name because they wanted her to understand what it meant to earn success. They might have given money at a hospital charity auction, but giving back was not a common lesson in their house.
There’s a reason airlines tell you to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others, her mom would say.
Instead, her parents hoard their familial millions in the comfort of their urban, single-family home and diversified assets, paying no mind to the rest of the world.
Meg always wanted to support different causes but for one reason or another never has. Hard to say if the barriers are legitimate or perceived. She still owes money on her student loans and car. She rents her apartment and accounts for utilities and groceries and doesn’t go out much. After all that, most months she doesn’t have much to contribute to her own savings. But every month she finds twelve dollars to spare on lotto tickets.
The lottery office has a quiet hum. They’ve been waiting for her but didn’t know it. From the moment Meg turns in her ticket, the world whirls around her. She’s asked how she wants to take her money: lump sum or annuity? Lump sum. Taxes are deducted. A mountain of paper work is presented for her signature. She wonders how many trees she’d have to plant to make up for this antiquated system. By the time she finishes, journalists appear in front of her as if dropped by video game mechanics.
Four reporters stand in front of her with the microphone end of their cell phones pointing at her face waiting. What are you going to do with the money? they ask.
Meg’s stomach knots up. She takes a deep breath and wrangles a soft smile onto her face. Not sure yet. She doesn’t think an honest answer would be so difficult but those three words winded her.
Meg eases her way past the journalists to her car with questions still being tossed at her. From inside, she can still hear their muffled voices wondering if she’ll come outside again. Not likely.
Most people would’ve turned it in as soon as they realized they had the winning ticket, she is sure. Maybe they don’t follow the lotto like she does and they wouldn’t find out until they scan their ticket at the convenience store, bringing them a very public surprise. Meg tries to comprehend what that much money looks like. At no point had she thought she’d see one million dollars in her lifetime let alone one hundred fifty-four.
What will she do with the money—the magic question. Anything is possible. She can move. Buy a nicer car. Pay off student loans. For the first time in her life, she does not have to choose. She can do all of them at once if she decides. But somehow, everything feels small and insignificant. Like a finger trap, the more Meg thinks about her options the more overwhelming it all feels.
The next day, Meg requests time off work. Just two weeks, she tells her boss.
Are you sure you don’t want to quit altogether? he asks. It’s what I would do. The second I found out I won, I would’ve strolled in here and quit.
And then what?
He thinks about it for a second. I would have a lot of time to figure that out.
Meg could do that, but she likes having somewhere to be during the day.
He tells her to go home and take a few weeks.
The first day is sedentary. Meg queues up a show she had been wanting to watch, and it plays from breakfast to dinner while she searches the internet for houses. There are too many options when a budget doesn’t have to be followed. Meg looks at the houses on the map in a small neighborhood cluster. She adds the numbers in her head. I could buy all of these, if I wanted to, she thinks.
Her dad’s voice is quick to respond: always look out for number one.
Meg pushes aside all voices other than her own. She could give away several million-dollar homes and not be any worse for wear.
Each house she looks at she imagines how a family might fit in it. How kids might do their homework at a kitchen table while their parents cook dinner. How dogs and cats might make a jungle gym out of the furniture. The memories that would hang on the walls next to their bookshelves of stories, read and yet to be told. Meg zooms out to the full map and looks at a home listed nearby to the last. They might be friends; she thinks of the imaginary families. I could be friends with them.
She imagines working on her house nearby, making a new dream house, surrounded by a community.
All the ones she likes need work of varying degrees. In theory, Meg knows she could take her boss’s advice and quit and learn how to do all of the work herself, but all she pictures is her failed attempts several Christmases in a row to build her dream house out of gingerbread.
During their time off of school, Meg had become an architect with spiced cookies. She learned how to bake gingerbread, make royal icing, temper chocolate, and assemble a load-bearing, edible house. Each night her parents would get home and argue with her about how much room she was taking up in the kitchen while they tried to make dinner. Each year she was determined to make it work but something always went wrong. The cookies were fine but the icing was too runny. The next year the icing was stiff and strong but the cookies were crumbly and didn’t hold the weight of one level stacked on top let alone multiples. The third year, she managed to get the cookies and icing right but then decided to pour melted chocolate on top of some of the cookies to give it the illusion of her original vision which in turn ruined the once strong cookies. Meg didn’t try a fourth year. She built her dream house in The SIMS on her computer over winter break and left the baking to someone else.
Meg imagines renovating a house to be a more painful endeavor than baking, if left to her own devices.
Looking for contractors never takes just a day. Or the two weeks Meg is off work. During her second week of vacation, Meg has interviews set up with five renovation teams. Interviews quickly turn into lessons about what she doesn’t want. Meg had looked closely at each of the team portfolios but paid less attention to the people executing them. Consequentially, five older men sit across from her for five days and tell her what she does and doesn’t want and do not listen to the ideas she has of the things she actually wants and needs. They don’t see her vision. A tight- knit community—first chances and second chances alike.
You don’t want to spend all your winnings on other people, one of them tells her.
Meg doesn’t ask for more time off. Instead she spends her off-hours researching and interviewing new teams, pulling together more cohesive ideas of what she wants. It’s a second job.
After three months of interviewing, Meg finds Sophie and Karen, a real estate-contractor duo who take all of Meg’s questions and ideas and ask for a second meeting in which they pitch an option that was better than Meg had contrived on her own.
Sophie and Karen walk Meg through the mockups lying on the table in front of her. Sophie had found a large property in Bothell that can be subdivided to make five smaller properties. Meg looks at the five miniature houses and attempts to process the idea. She imagines kids riding their bikes around in loops, racing each other.
They offer to give Meg time to think it all over, but by the end of their pitch she’s ready to start work with them.
Meg hands over all of her design ideas that she had meticulously gathered and organized over the past months. Karen thanks Meg for the extra window into her mind.
If we went to your apartment and looked around, what wouldn’t we know about you based on how your house is currently set up?
Karen’s question is unsettling. The first thing that comes to Meg is “play pinball” but the words don’t sit right on her tongue. I read a lot, Meg says. More of an aspirational truth. And I work from home quite a bit. My entire apartment is pulling double shifts.
Karen keeps a roll of papers tucked under her arm when they visit the Bothell property. Plans for later, she says to Meg.
The papers are ready if you decide to make an offer, Sophie says.
The original house is an old farm house at the edge of the property. The two-story house is weathered with flaking beige paint. On the front is a covered porch which Karen uses as a table to unroll her plans.
The kitchen alone looks bigger than her current apartment. The first floor would have her master bedroom and bathroom, a library and office, the apartment-sized kitchen, and another half bath.
Upstairs we’ll build spare bedrooms and bathrooms for guests and family, Karen says.
Can this be done to all of the properties or just this one? Meg tries not to get too attached like she did to Sophie and Karen within instants of meeting them.
In a manner of speaking, Karen says. The layout might change a bit, but the components will be the same.
Meg knows that even if all the houses are built identically, they would never be the same.
After thirty-six years begins a year of unexpected firsts. For the next few months, Meg watches dollars leave her account. She goes back and forth on whether or not it bothers her. Meg nears the threshold of spending her first million. Somedays it feels like a drop in the bucket. Other days guilt over irresponsible decisions rests on her mind.
Over time, Meg finds a new routine. Mondays through Thursdays Meg works with clients, building them their dream websites while Karen renovates Meg’s dream house. Fridays are for picking out paint colors or furniture or helping with an occasional, non-structural task.
Meg picks finishes for the kitchen true to the original Farmhouse look, but ventures to Cape Cod beach houses for her bedroom to Mid-Century Modern for the living room, and to a cozy Bohemian for the office and library.
This house won’t look like any other, Karen keeps saying.
Good, Meg says. It is far from her imagined chocolate residence, but it is turning into something magical.
One Friday, Karen and Meg look at paint samples for the office. Meg picks up paint chips in no order or pattern.
Soon we’ll have to start making decisions on the other houses, Karen says. Sophie completed all the paperwork to make them separate lots.
How about you design them, Meg says. You said that you never get to work on projects like this one.
Karen’s eyes are bright.
Meg goes back to looking at paint samples. All I ask is that they all look different. I don’t want one of those cookie-cutter neighborhoods.
It certainly won’t be that, Karen says.
Meg holds up a swatch full of plums. I think chocolate raspberry for the office.
Meg gets the call at the grocery store—the house is done. Meg runs around with her cart and searches for the last ingredients for their dinner. They’d shared several dinners over the last seven months, most of them from grease-soaked bags.
Sophie and Karen are waiting on the front porch of the house. What was once a bland, beige house with darker beige shutters, is now a deep blue edged in white trim with bright cedar doors. Sophie takes the shopping bags from Meg as she walks through the front door and Karen guides her through the house, showing her closets and hidden features. Meg’s fingertips brush along the countertops and bookshelves, tracing the edges of her new home.
It’s not quite the house you imagined as a child, Sophie says.
Meg stops in the kitchen. The bottom cabinets are a Craftsman cut with deep navy finish and brass Farmhouse handles. Meg smiles at the melding of the two styles. It’s already better, she says.
Sophie shows off the flatware and cook pans they had picked out. The plates were a simple white with black rims, silver cutlery, and a set of cast-iron pans. They looked right in the new cupboards.
They walk through the rest of the house while Karen explains the inner workings of her design.
Is this all written down somewhere? Meg feels her brain reaching capacity for new information.
They all laugh, but Meg knows she’ll have to take a second and third and fourth tour.
Meg unpacks the grocery bags. On the menu is sautéed chicken with roasted vegetables. A simple meal but soon the new house would smell like home. Sophie cuts carrots and broccoli, Karen sets the table and pours wine for everyone, while Meg tends the chicken, keeping the skin side down until it was good and crispy before flipping it over.
Karen and Sophie leave after dinner. The house is silent save Meg’s footsteps as she walks through the pristine hallways. The walls, though covered in calming neutrals, are barren. She sees herself all over the house but not at all. This can be anyone’s house.
In the living room there is an alcove with a large potted plant. Meg is surprised to find that it’s real and tries to remember a time where she managed to keep an indoor plant alive. There are no survivors at her Fremont apartment. She measures the opening with the space between her hands and wonders if James would like her new house.
For the next year, Sophie and Karen come over for dinner once a week while the other four houses are built and decorated. When it comes time to list them, Meg gives Sophie a list of applicant requirements: first-time home buyers, low-income families, no offers over asking, and an asking price that freezes Sophie’s face.
These are worth way more than a hundred grand, Sophie says almost yelling.
That’s not what it’s about though, Meg says. She stays steadfast in her requirements. I’ll pay you a commission based on what they would usually sell for, not to worry.
Sophie posts the listings.
Meg thinks about the summers riding her bike with James up and down the street. The careless years. Every kid should have those years.
The offers flood in. Almost one hundred applicants in the first weekend. Only four houses for sale and too many families in need. Sophie and Meg spread them out on her kitchen island.
Let’s take out those that aren’t low-income, Sophie says. There are always people that try to get a deal that isn’t theirs.
There’s a stack of seventeen that are automatic nos.
How do you want to choose the rest of them? Sophie asks.
Meg straightens the pile and counts through, flagging four applications.
Sophie looks at Meg, eyes wide. Just like that?
Six. Nine. Twenty-four. Thirty. The first four numbers on my lotto ticket.
Meg watches from her desk as moving trucks appear in front of the distinct houses. Karen had followed through on her promise. Each home lines the cul-de-sac with their own style, mimicking rooms in Meg’s home. One Craftsman, one Mid-Century, one Farmhouse, and Cape Cod with her own home in the middle of the apex of them all.
I considered making one bright and Boho, but I figured this would be easier to sell in the future, Karen had said when she was taking Meg on a tour of the four homes. Like when she first daydreamed about giving houses away, Meg can see families making the spaces their own.
In the days that follow, Meg watches families shuffle furniture from trucks to different rooms in their respective homes. Some of it is off a moving truck with love marks nicked into the legs of chairs and memories woven into the fibers of the couches. Some of it is wrapped in plastic fresh from a store warehouse.
Meg gets a knock on the door for her own delivery. The movers carry the bulk through the house wrapped in moving blankets and tape. In the living room they strip it off all the protective layers and slide the Jurassic Park pinball machine into the alcove where Sophie’s plant had long ago died. Meg plugs in the machine but doesn’t play.
The Puget Sound made the spring air feel like summer. Dust kicked up by moving trucks settled, and the families took a break from unpacking and shared pizza in the middle of the street. Meg joins them and introduces herself. She does not mention that she won the lottery last year, that she is the seller of the houses, the founder of this small community. She does not tell them that she longs for what they have. She is just Meg.
She watches kids play and talk to the adults about where they lived before they moved—what they looked forward to now that they live here. Hopes for the children are shared by all.
Meg’s parents come to visit for the first time. She didn’t want them to see it until all of the houses were done. She hopes they would be able to appreciate it more as a finished product rather than a concept. They walk through the house.
Good choice for the pinball machine, her Dad says.
She doesn’t tell them that she hasn’t played it yet or admit that when she finally does, it will be the first game in over twenty years. The first game since James.
Her Mom admires the finishes Meg chose for her house.
All of the other houses have similar finishes, Meg says.
I still can’t believe how much money you gave away, her Mom says.
It doesn’t feel like enough.