I meet the god of small chances in a hospital waiting room, amidst the smell of unwashed bodies and overwashed floors. Chairs in cemetery rows, blue plastic headstones each one of them. I’m reading last week’s papers again and munching on a fried pastry: chicken and potato mashed into a slurry of turmeric-stained mush under crisp dough. Oil has already soaked through the paper bag to my fingertips.
Dad’s inside. Doctors have recommended a scorched earth approach: Once a month, they put napalm in a syringe and hope it kills the rogue cells before the rogue cells kill him. We’re still not sure who’s winning.
The god dresses like you’d least expect: knockoff Adventure Time t-shirt, jeans shredded at the knees, deep denim blue bleached to white thread. They notice me staring—gods love attention—and they settle down next to me. Seven studs down one ear, arranged in the colours of the spectrum; hair shaved close to skin on the side, slicked back on top. Their face is perfectly symmetrical, cheek bones high and sharp, lips a full bow. I almost want to reach out to see how soft they are.
“You don’t seem like the praying type,” they say. Their voice is high and piping like a choirboy’s.
“I’m not, and I didn’t call you.” It is unwise to make enemies of a god, even a minor one, but I’m in the mood to spit in the face of a god. I cross my legs. The early morning heat makes my thighs stick to the chair.
My father used to work in the small temples. Buffered by strong drink and delirious with incense, he would whip his back with a flail of knotted rope, tearing his skin to shreds. In his trances he would soothsay or divine the causes of illness. He channeled the gods.
I just see them. Only the small gods of hearth and threshold, of lost possessions and late homework. Of small chances.
“But you did call me,” the god persists. “This is one of my temples, along with the race track, the exam hall, the MMORPG raidzone. Everybody wants something.”
I think of Dad with his booming laugh. Not so chatty now. I haven’t gone into the ward for weeks, but I’ve racked up a fortune in hospital parking all the same. He used to be a pack-a-day smoker. We thought his lungs would go, but no, it was something in the bone, one in a hundred thousand. The gods used to speak through him, but now he’s got new gods: gods in blister packs and little glass vials, gods with names that have too many Xs and Zs, Ys masquerading as vowels like poison masquerading as medicine.
“It’s not you I called. I want someone to make things right. This isn’t fair.”
The god of small chances sits straight, barely tall enough to look me in the chin. I fear only for a moment.
“You’ll find that there are no gods fairer than I. The incidence rate is only one in a hundred thousand. Where are the ninety-nine thousand rejoicing that they aren’t sick? Or your gratitude for not being struck by lightning or a car on the way here? Good things happen to bad people and vice versa. Every entreaty to other gods is for things to go the other way, in this world or the next. That’s not what I do.”
They’re right; maybe I did call them. Since the diagnosis, my last conscious thought every night has been a hope for a miracle: the impossible, the smallest of chances. But now that they’re right here, I can’t admit it. Before I can go, the god reaches out and catches my chin. Their touch is barely enough to dimple skin; I can’t break free.
“Where will you go? Back to your car? Another waiting room? You can go to him.”
“Will you? You’ve been waiting to go into the ward for weeks. Afraid to see what your father has become. Afraid that anything you do together will be the last time you do it and it won’t be how you want to remember it.”
They’re close enough for their breath to tickle my eyelashes, if they had breath. I wonder if anyone is here to see us—me with my chin upturned, the pulse in my neck hard enough to thrum against skin.
They don’t wait for me to answer.
“I can tell you this. I am the god of the dance of electrons, patron of the asteroid that will pass within a fraction of a degree of your planet in a hundred years. I watch the lottery, the meeting of sperm and egg, and I watch you. You pray every night for him, for yourself, but never for the both of you.”
I blink and they’re gone. My skin takes a little longer to register the loss.
Everybody loves a long shot, no matter whether they’ll admit it or not.
I leave the ward just as the nurses serve breakfast. Looking back, I see my father arguing with a nurse about the food. He’ll eat it eventually—he always does. The smile on my face is a stranger returning home after a long hiatus. There are things to be fixed other than sickness. Then the door swings shut and he’s gone.
My pastry is cold and lasts another two bites. I crunch the oil-stained bag into a ball. My underhand throw is clumsy, its arc just shy of horizontal; the paper strikes the lip of the open-mouthed bin, catching on the edge. It navigates the rim with the grace of a drunken acrobat, teetering at the last moment before falling in, a prayer to the god of small chances.