STERLING – In the history of Sterling, Mass., Dec. 12, 2013, will go down as the day that six numbers turned the town into chaos.
Here are the facts: Appletown Market on Main Street sold one of the two winning tickets in Wednesday night's $122.9 million Powerball jackpot.
And that's the end of the facts.
Because once the news hit this small Central Massachusetts town of 7,800 people Thursday morning, it launched an epic game of "Who won?" No rumor was too small, no lie too large.
For a while, the word running through town was that it was a woman in her 30s. Of course no one seemed to know the woman's name or where that information had come from, but you cannot stop a town on a good gossip run.
By late morning that information had become rock-solid, according to everyone who had no idea where it came from.
Then, in the blink of an eye, the rumor mill turned. And this time, people swore they had the gospel truth, because a 24-year-old guy named Mike Naze had announced on Facebook that
he was heading down to Appletown Market to cash in his winning ticket. "Craziest day of my life," he wrote.
Seventy-seven congratulatory comments and a few awfully nice text messages from long-lost friends later, a Globe reporter arrived in Naze's driveway in Sterling to find his mother shaking her head. "I wish he'd won," she said as she got her son on the phone and told him his little joke had gone too far.
"I'm nervous to go home," Naze said later by phone from his job in Waltham. "I think I'm in a little bit of trouble."
With the Naze craze over — and Naze bragging on Facebook about his epic prank — and the real winner yet to come forward, the town went into a theoretical mode: Maybe the winner was just passing through when he or she bought the ticket? Maybe the winner did not know he or she had won? Maybe the winner had a heart attack after finding out?
"The first thing I'd have to buy with that money is a pacemaker," Beth Douglas said as she stood behind the counter at the Honey Farms convenience store, a swirl of gossip around her. "There are more cows than people in this town, so we'd definitely know them," one woman said as she and her friend made important decisions about how the winner should spend the money and wondered if that would make him or her the richest person in town. (They thought it would.)
At Appletown Market, where the winning ticket was sold, there was an endless stream of people coming in the door to buzz, to make jokes, and to talk about the very strange fact that someone had pulled a ticket from the blue machine on the counter that would make the winner very rich.
"I'm here to collect my money," Mary Gaffney, a lottery regular at Appletown, said as she strode in the door to laughter from Chirag and Sanket Patel, the brothers who co-own the family business. They will take home $50,000 for selling the ticket, which is nice because there is a new baby in the family. "We'll have a nice Christmas," Sanket Patel said.
But Gaffney, like many, was also there to buy lottery tickets from that lucky blue machine .
"You're going to be back on the news again because I'm going to win the $400 million," Mike King said as he bought a ticket for Friday's huge Mega Millions jackpot.
Then Jill Sargent walked in, bought a gallon of milk, and said she had two Powerball tickets at home that she had not yet checked.
"Go check them," King said emphatically, as Sargent nervously joined in the gossip. She kept saying she was trying not to get too excited, but she allowed herself a brief moment to think "what if?" (She would go to Hawaii, she said, but she will not go crazy.)
As night fell, the rumor mill continued to swirl, and this time the gossip returned to the woman in her 30s.
But this time, there was new information. Iron-clad.
"I heard she works at Town Hall," Michelle Boyer told people as they pulled up to her drive-through window at the local Dunkin' Donuts.
Or at least that is what she heard from a customer at the drive-through who heard it from someone else.