The Wraith leans against the cinderblock wall of the Quik-Buy on US Route 29 and scratches off a lotto ticket to determine whether you will live or die. You, of course, do not know this. You pull into one of the self-serve stations and read the sign that says cash only. You un-stick your thighs from the bottom of your Toyota’s seats before gathering your trash, shoving your sunglasses into your sweat-damp hair, and making your way inside. You leave most of your weapons in the car. You don’t think you’ll need them.
You pass the Wraith on the way in. You don’t make eye contact, but you assess him the way you have been trained to assess all men when you are alone. The Wraith is a scrawny thing, with wisps of hair and a once-navy ballcap. His vape smoke smells like pomegranate. Perhaps if you weren’t brain-dead from six hours of driving, the off-ness about him would have registered as supernatural. Maybe you would have remembered your training and seen him for what he was: hunger like a starless sky. Perhaps not. Either way, it wouldn’t have mattered. You have already crossed the border to the temple. You are in a god’s territory now.
You enter and beeline for the restroom.
The Wraith follows you in. He turns to the cashier as the bathroom door shuts behind you. “Hey, Mac,” he wheezes. “Give me another.”
Mac gives what he hopes is a stoic, uninterested nod and reaches behind the counter for a lotto ticket. Mega Millions, Marvel’s Avengers edition. It is, after all, his job. Normal twenty-somethings work in retail or as waitstaff. Mac is maintenance for a half-forgotten god. Not that he had the choice—it was the family business. When he was old enough, Mac’s father had taken him down to the basement to show him the old sigils, the strange altars, the engravings that mark this land as a temple to the God of Odds and Ends.
The Wraith takes the ticket. His fingernail turns to a claw, poised to mar the surface until he hears a shuffle from the restroom. “Coin,” he says, fluttering his hand against the table, light and desperate like the gait of a fleeing creature.
Mac is not in a rush. He tells himself that this is because it is not his job to fetch things for every supernatural creature that passes through the place, only to give out the tickets. He reaches for the keep-a-penny at a painfully slow pace. In the window beside him, a hot dog stand creeks as it rotates, sausages glistening in the yellowed heat lamp. Fake meat perfumes the station, a poor substitute for the real thing.
The Wraith snatches the coin from Mac’s hand and worries at the lotto card. Reveal six Iron Man helmets to win. He clears the first row and finds one, looking up at Mac with hope. “Today could be the day,” he breathes.
You come back out, shaking your hands dry. There were no paper towels. You notice that the strange old man is inside now. Your intuition pricks. Your mother taught you many things about slaying supernatural creatures. She also taught you to avoid lone men like snakes sunning themselves on the asphalt.
As you disappear into the snack aisle, the Wraith resumes scratching. “The odds,” he whispers. Mac doesn’t answer; he just jerks his head at the Mega Millions readout mounted on the wall behind him. The Wraith takes the numbers in, and then scratches off the next row. A second Iron Man. He looks up victoriously. “See, Mac? The odds aren’t always good, but they’re there.”
Mac knows. He leans back on the wall of cigarettes and condoms and watches you mull over Bugles or Sun Chips. At first, this terrified him, but he has gotten used to watching girls make their final decision. Now, the prospect of a meaningless last choice only leaves him slightly nauseous. Kit-Kats or Reese’s, full-calorie Coke or diet. So many cars, parked out in front of Pump 5, like yours is. He used to help his father dispose of them when he was younger. Now, he does it all by himself. He can still remember the day he sold his first winning lottery ticket.
He had screamed. He had cleaned up the girl’s body. Then, he had put the sign in the window: Million-Dollar Ticket Sold Here.
You walk up to the register with the Gatorade and the Bugles—an inferior last choice, Mac can’t help but think.
As Mac makes change, he fights the desire to see you as a person and to, instead, envision you the way he has been taught: as a mosaic of chance, a collection of odds. Pros: You’re alert and awake. Cons: you’re alone, you’re female, it’s almost dusk.
Some would think that a substantial part of the odds against your survival would like in your location—a desolate Quik-Buy on a deserted highway. They would be wrong. There is a university town mere hours away.
The odds of lone girls dying there are much higher.
That’s where you’re headed, after all. Salt and iron in tow to exorcise a demon from the basement of a friend of a friend. Just like Mac, you are keeping up the family business. Just like Mac, none of your friends are aware of what you do. Or even that what you do is a job that exists.
You ask for twenty on pump five. The Wraith lets out a victorious wheeze that he smothers in a cough.
He has the third Iron Man.
You and Mac look towards him, then back to each other. In that moment, your eyes meet and Mac’s concentration slips; for a second it’s hard for him to separate the person from the odds, hard for him not to notice the chip in your front tooth or the baseball hat from a minor league team in your hometown. He doesn’t want to know the small details, the ones that make you a person, the ones that separate you from every other girl that comes here and dies. But he can’t help it. It comes as easy to him as breathing. It is why he is so much worse at this job than his father.
Your hair stands on end. Because in that split-second, the cashier looks scared for you. Then his face flickers back to boredom. You tense, but there shouldn’t be any supernatural activity, not here…
The Gatorade and Bugles beep through the scanner. Mac wonders if it is even worth giving you the change. At the end of the counter, the Wraith scratches off another iron man. Four now. Two to go.
The Wraith has been playing this game since before your grandfather was born. Seeking out the temples where he could play the odds. After all, it is the twenty-first century, and supernatural creatures can’t go around devouring people like they used to. But here, in the temples of the God of Odds and Ends, the Wraith is allowed to feed at the rate of chance, the possibility that a death would have occurred by mundane means. You, a girl alone, at a rest stop on a vacant highway. The odds are always there.
The Wraith scratches another column. A fifth iron man. The scent of you crowds his nostrils, sweat and cucumber deodorant. He’s on the last row, the last column—his hand is shaking—
Shaking so badly that he drops the coin.
It’s all Mac can do to stifle his groan.
You bend down to pick up the change, offering it to the Wraith. Because it’s a nice thing to do, and you are a nice person, when you aren’t hunting supernatural creatures. But even as you reach out to him, you are struck again by that sense of wrongness.
You hand the coin back to him, and your eyes meet. For a flickering second, you see him as he is. The hunger. Your training kicks in, but it is too late. You left your best weapons in the stupid car. You let your guard down for one idiotic moment—
By instinct, your hand drops to the iron pocketknife at your waist. With the kind of speed only panic can muster, you rip it from your jeans and slide it through the air towards the underside of his ribcage, ready to move it up and into his void where his human heart would have been.
The knife pauses in mid-air. Stopped, by some unseen barrier. Magic.
The Wraith is terrified one moment, then delighted the next. “Look who we got, Maccy boy,” he says. “A huntress! I’m going to get to feed on a huntress.”
He knows what you are. You know what he is. But you still don’t understand what’s happening, still don’t understand why your knife won’t move, no matter how much weight you put behind it.
Mac lets out a small, apologetic ahem and moves a display of Laffy Taffys in front of the register. There, inscribed on the beige plastic of the register is the sigil of the temple, scratched into the paint. Everything falls into place.
You have heard stories about the god of games, but you never thought that you would end up in one. Ever since you entered the station, your life has depended on a game of odds. That is the effect of the temple: you can’t hurt him, and he can’t hurt you. Until the odds rule in someone’s favor.
Slowly, you take the knife and put it back in your pocket, hands shaking. It snaps shut with a click of defeat. Mac almost wants to lay a hand on your shoulder and tell you that he knows.
“Thank you, ma’am,” the Wraith says, holding up the coin. He smiles. He likes when they see. When they know what is coming.
You glare at him, but you can’t disguise your rising panic. You look towards Mac, towards the other human person here, but he just shakes his head from behind the plexiglass barrier, as if to say that this is just the way things are.
Your mind reels, full of the job waiting for you on the other end of the highway, the years of monster-killing you thought you had left, your friends, your family. There is still one unscratched column. Maybe, you think, maybe—
“I’m going to win,” the Wraith whispers to himself. “I am finally going to win.”
Mac reaches out his hand to you. For a second you think that he’s trying to help, to offer you some small comfort, but you realize that he’s handing you your change.
The Wraith leans over the ticket and scratches. The last of the silver covering falls to the ground with quiet snicks, landing in silver flakes, shiny shards like confetti.
He is a Wraith, a man-eating creature borne from demonic curses and ravenous hunger, depending on which stories you believe. Mac is a keeper for a trickster god of odds and ends. You are a huntress who has been studying creatures like this for your entire life. You know all the ways to kill something so that it will stay dead.
But you are not trained for this, because there is no training for places like this, where there are only odds, only luck. You watch the last silver shavings of the lotto ticket fall to the ground to join the thin layer of gas-station scum on the floor. You are a huntress, a murderess, but in this moment, it does not matter.
In this moment, you are just like every other girl.