When Nick finally got out of the hospital, it was around 6 o'clock in the evening. He looked up at the crimson sky and let a deep breath out. It was a hectic day, not to mention how he felt suffocated every time he came to the hospital. He did not like the hospital environment at all; the white coats of the doctors and nurses, the smell of the medicines, the sight of the patients suffering, made him sick. Especially, the sight of her sick mom, who was once so lively and beautiful, had lost weights to the point she looked like an empty shell of a human, her face had sunken, her eyes ever so gloomy, her skin wrinkled like tissue papers. It was so hard for him to see her mom in such a sorry state. If only father was still around to help him out in such a tough time.
He needed money, a lot of them actually, more than his family could afford. His father had been saving money till the day he got missing, which had helped them till now, but now he was short on cash. His mother used to be a waitress and had very little savings left from her earnings. Nick was in his first-year college, barely managing his expenditures from the student loan. He had applied for a scholarship, second time actually, but yet to hear back from them. He was surprised to not get selected last time and was hoping he would crack it this time. He knew a lot of his batchmates earning the scholarship who did not even need it as much as Nick did. He on the other side was depended on it. The scholarship would definitely help him with the financial burden, but his fate had not been kind to him in the last few years since his father's disappearance to be precise.
Nick was absentmindedly walking towards his home when he heard the familiar voice and stopped in his track.
"Hi, professor Swanson." He managed a forced smile. "I thought your home is in the opposite direction."
"I am actually here to meet someone. It's great that I could meet you on the way. So, how is everything at your end?"
Prof. Melvin Swanson was well aware of his situation, so he had nothing to hide from him.
"I am doing better than I could imagine, I guess."
"Did they at least find out the cause?"
"Nope, they are still working on it. They are saying it's an unknown disease. We can only hope for the best."
Prof. Swanson hesitated a bit and said, "And about the money...."
"I will be able to manage for another month, but after that, I will have to find an alternate solution."
Prof. Swanson gently patted Nick's shoulder and said, "Your attendance has also dropped significantly. At this rate, you might not be allowed for the final exams. It's university policy, you know. In case you have to repeat the semester, it will severely affect your chance of getting the scholarship as well. I know that you are going through a lot and I really admire you for the way you are handling by yourself, but there is very little control I have over your future as a student of Weber university. I wish I could do more for you, Nicholas, but the best I can do right now is to warn you about the potential dangers you will be facing and prepare you for them. The attendance is unfortunately biometric, so you have no other choice but to come to the college every day till the final exams. I am sorry, Nicholas."
Prof. Swanson was the person Nick liked the most in his college, including his batchmates. He shook his head and said, "It's okay, Professor Swanson. You don't have to apologize. You are doing everything you can. I am grateful for that."
The professor glanced at his watch and said, "I really need to get going. See you tomorrow in the class then. Try to make it if possible."
"I will be there, don't worry. Bye then."
Nick used to take bus rides to get home before, but now he was saving money and walked instead. As he walked down the road, he kept examining the digital advertisements displayed on the huge billboards installed at regular intervals along the road.
"Welcome to Megacity: the largest metropolis on the planet."
"Visit the Weber memorial museum, the pride of Megacity."
"The unveiling of the 300 feet giant statue of Denis Weber at the city square: tomorrow, 1700 hours"
Megacity was the brainchild of Denis Weber, a world-famous architect who designed the basic blueprint of the city. He also helped in building most of the important structures across the city, harboring an outstanding 52 million people, making it the largest metropolis in the world. It took them fifty years to build the entire city from scratch that could efficiently accommodate such a huge population, thanks to Denis Weber's excellent city planning. Unfortunately for him, Denis Weber died before he could see the end result.
Nick's family moved into the city when he was just seven years old. Now he was Nineteen. Technically, they lived on the outskirts of the south-east district of the city. In every district, there was a university named after Denis Weber, and he attended the one in the south-east district.
If only he could afford a hospital inside the main city, his mom would be correctly diagnosed and treated properly. But for that to happen, he needed a huge amount of money. The time was running out, and he had no idea how he would gather so much money in such a short time.
As he kept walking, one advertisement, in particular, caught his eyes.
"How would you like to win a million dollars and the once in a lifetime chance to star in the next Mr. Heart movie?
The opportunity is here, right now!
What are you waiting for? Go to www.mrheartcontest.com and know more about it.
Wish you all the best for becoming the next big star!"
He noticed a small gathering of people standing under the billboard and clicking pictures of the ad enthusiastically. "Bullcrap!" Nick murmured and walked away.
As soon as he reached the apartment, he slumped on the couch. He was too tired to even change his clothes. Then he clumsily reached for the tv remote kept on the nearby table and noticed the notice for paying this month's electricity bill. If only his problems would magically vanish into thin air! Megacity, the city of miracles, where the lives of millions are getting changed every day for the better, why won't his life become less shitty than it was? A miracle for sure!
He looked away from the bill and switched on the tv. The first tv commercial that popped up was of a toothpaste that was capable of magically curing seven different types of gum and teeth problems. He switched to the next channel which was showing a reality show.
"Nonsense! Why do these things exist anyway?" he remarked and moved on.
On the next channel he switched to, there was a huge face filling in the tv screen. The eyes of the giant face were hidden behind a pair of glasses, whose dark-colored lenses were heart-shaped.
"Hello, my fellow citizens of Megacity. I hope you are doing well," came a voice from the tv. "What if I tell you that you can both win a million dollars and be part of my next movie? Unbelievable, isn't it? Well, mark this moment, my friends, because I am going to tell you the secret to achieving the impossible! All you have to do is participate in this online popularity contest and whoever wins in the final round, be it a girl or a boy, will be featured in my next movie. The registration process is very simple too. Just visit the www.mrheartcontest.com and take part in the contest. Did I tell you that the contest is absolutely free! Oh my, it's a huge haul, my friends! Don't let this opportunity go by. Any one of you can become my next costar!
So, what are you waiting for? If your age is between eighteen and thirty, and currently holding a valid citizenship ID, visit the website mentioned below and register right now, for free!
The winner will be decided in one month from now. Can't wait to meet you, yes you, I am talking about the one who is on the other side of this screen, my friend, because you are about to become the next big star of Megacity!
As the giant face disappeared from the screen along with the commercial, Nick switched off the tv in disgust and threw the remote on the table beside him.
He leaned back on the couch and stared blankly at the ceiling.
One million dollars? Just by winning a popularity contest!
He was not interested in appearing for a movie, let alone be the costar of the great Mr. Heart, but the money was an attractive deal for him. The amount would definitely help him with the treatment of his mother and take care of other problems as well. All he had to do was register for the contest, and that also for free.....
What am I even thinking? he thought and got up from the couch. It's nothing but a publicity stunt. There is no such award in reality. It's too good to be true. And even if it is true, my fate is too miserable to win a contest like this. There's no way I can win this, ever. So, no point in participating and getting my hopes high as well. It's plain bullcrap, just like this city, and my life.
After Nick was done showering, the calling bell chimed a few times. He changed into a T-shirt and opened the door.
"Mr. Wilkins?" said Nick, being surprised to see his landlord at such an odd hour.
"Hello Nick, I hope I am not disturbing you."
He was disturbing Nick. In fact, that was the whole point of his appearance.
"No, you are not. How's your knee doing?"
"Better than yesterday. You know, it is very troublesome walking around with these legs of mine. The doctor has advised not to use them a lot, so I try to keep my activities minimum. You know what I mean?"
Nick knew what he meant. After all, this wasn't the first time he visited his apartment that month.
"Mr. Wilkins, I have already told you that there's no way I can pay you the rent before the 20th of this month. No matter how many times you come here before that, things will not change."
"I see, I see. It's because of your mom...."
"Yes, that's the reason. We have always paid our fees on time, but now the situation has changed. You have to understand that I am facing the biggest crisis of my life right now!"
"That you are. I understand," he said, nodding like a mechanical doll. Nick knew well that he did not understand a damn thing!
"I will come later then."
By later, he meant 'tomorrow'. Nick knew that. He was getting tired of Mr. Wilkins and pretty much everything else going on in his life.
For dinner, he was having instant noodles while watching highlights of a basketball game. Although his eyes were fixated on the screen, he wasn't really watching the game. His mind kept reminding him of the little encounter he had earlier that evening with Mr. Wilkins. His mind did not stop there and went further to remind him of all the troubles he had been facing for the past few weeks. He briefly glanced at the electric bill and sighed.
All these shitty problems will go away with one magic cure: money. Money is the only way to happiness.
He pushed the can of noodles away and took out his phone from the trouser pocket. Opening the web browser, he typed www.mrheartcontest.com.
One million dollars! What are the odds that I will win it? It might be a very tiny fraction, but that fraction is the only thing that can transform my life for the better.
It was a small possibility, but as long as there was a possibility, there was hope. Hope is all Nick had.