Burn (Chapter Four)
Jenner stared down at the legal-size sheets of paper in her hand, trying to make sense of what she was reading. She'd just gotten out of the Goose, in the employee parking lot at Harvest Meat Packing, when a nondescript man had approached.
You'd think she'd have learned by now, because the past two weeks, since she'd gone public with the winning ticket, had been filled with people who wanted her to invest in a surefire business proposition, or give to charity, or give to them, or any number of variations on the theme of Give Me the Money. She should have run as fast as she could. Instead, startled, she'd turned and said, "Yeah?"
The man extended a thick envelope to her, and automatically she took it. "You've been served," he said, then the asshole winked at her before turning and hurrying away.
"I don't have a red cent yet!" she yelled furiously at his back.
"Not my problem," he called as he jumped in a white Nissan and drove away.
Jenner tore open the envelope and unfolded the stapled-together sheets of legal-size paper, quickly scanning them. Sheer rage engulfed her, making her literally see red. In that moment, if she'd been able to get her hands on Dylan, she'd have strangled him.
"Trouble?" A coworker sneered at her as he passed. "Who knew being rich would be such a bitch?" He laughed at his own joke as he entered the plant, and everyone in the vicinity laughed, too.
If she'd only known, if she'd had any idea, she'd have set up a blind trust and never gone public. She wouldn't even have told Michelle, not until she actually had the money. Not that Michelle hadn't been great, but these past two weeks had been hell – and now this. Now Dylan was suing her for half the winnings, claiming … whatever it was he was claiming, that they'd lived together and shared expenses and went in on the winning ticket together, along with a bunch of other bullshit.
Hounded to death was a reasonable description of what Jenner's life had been like for the past two weeks. Practically from the minute her name had been released as the jackpot winner, her phone had rung. And rung. And rung. All hours of the day and night, the phone rang, until she had finally unplugged it, more or less permanently. Charities, long-lost relatives – usually so long-lost she hadn't even known she had them – people offering her the opportunity of a lifetime to get in on the ground floor of a great business opportunity, friends who wondered if she could help them out of tight spots … the list was endless. At first she had patiently explained to each and every one that she hadn't received a single dime yet and possibly wouldn't for months, but she'd soon learned that reality hadn't made a dent in their persistence. Most people simply didn't believe her.
She fished out her cell phone and called Al, who had become her voice of sanity, her anchor. "I'm being sued for half," she said baldly when Al answered. "An ex-boyfriend – who I broke up with before the drawing, and I can prove it, because I called a friend and we went out to celebrate."
"Did you live together?" Al asked briskly.
"No. Never. He wore out his welcome pretty fast."
"I know you don't want to do it, but you have to hire a lawyer. The suit has to be answered and dealt with, or he wins by default." Al had been recommending an estate lawyer and Jenner had been resisting, not wanting to take on that expense when getting the money would take so long, but Jenner recognized necessity when she was staring at it.
"All right, one lawyer coming up. Can Dylan win anyway?"
"I doubt it. A lawyer can tell you more about that than I can. He probably just wants you to pay him to go away, because lawyer fees can add up fast. When your lawyer contacts his lawyer, don't be surprised if he makes an offer to settle out of court for, oh, fifty thousand or so."
"I'm not giving him one red cent, no matter how much a lawyer costs," Jenner said between gritted teeth. She glanced at her watch, then at the employees' door. She was going to be late clocking in if she didn't get a move on. "I gotta go, I'm going to be late."
"I keep telling you: quit."
"I have to have something to live on until the money comes through."
"So borrow fifteen, twenty thousand from the bank. They'll gladly give it to you just on your signature alone, no collateral required. Take a vacation, get out of here until everything settles down."
Al had been recommending that from the time Jenner's name went public, but Jenner was still too close to getting by from paycheck to paycheck to be so cavalier about going into debt for that much money. Twenty thousand was a lot of money to her, one fifth of the amount she'd settled on for discretionary cash. To her, that would be money wasted, blown on basically nothing, and she just couldn't make herself do it. Not yet, anyway. Things were getting so uncomfortable at work, she wasn't ruling anything out.
"I'll think about it." That was the first time she'd given in, even a little, on her stance that she had to work. "I don't know how much longer I can take this." She felt guilty for admitting even that much of weakness, as if she had already moved to Wussville. She ended the call and trudged toward the plant entrance.
But it wasn't just all the people asking for money or even Dylan. It was everything. It was the way her coworkers had celebrated with her, at first – before the snide comments started. They resented her for still being there. What was she doing working when she didn't need the money? She was taking a job from someone who really needed a job – meaning a relative, a friend, whoever they knew who was unemployed. Her explanation about how long it took to get the money was no more than wasted breath, because to them she had options, so therefore she had no excuse. And maybe she didn't. Maybe she'd just do as Al suggested, borrow some money, and get away, which would give her the added bonus of being somewhere Jerry couldn't find her, at least for a little while.
Her dad had shown up almost immediately, as she'd known he would. It had started with a phone call, the morning after her name was in the newspapers. "Hey, baby girl!" he'd boomed, all jovial and loving, as if it hadn't been months – almost a year – since she'd heard from him and had no idea where he was. "Way to go! We gotta go out and celebrate!"
"Where are you?" Jenner asked, not responding to the "celebrate" idea. Too many people wanted to "celebrate" with her, which of course meant she'd pick up the tab. After the first couple of "invitations," that had gotten old fast. Michelle was one thing, because Michelle had picked up the tab for Jenner during bad times, but anyone else? Uh-uh.
"Huh? Oh, nowhere important," Jerry said blithely. "I can be there in a few hours."
"Don't bother. I have to work. And it could be two months before I get any of the money."
"Two months!" The blitheness changed to shock. "What's taking so long?"
Good old Jerry, she thought. At least he didn't pretend he wanted to see her because she was his daughter and he loved her, or any other sentimental sludge. "The claim has to be processed," she said, giving her stock answer.
"Yeah, not to mention the state gets to keep the interest that two hundred and ninety-five million dollars earns while the 'processing' goes on," he groused.
"That, too." By her admittedly rough estimate, in two months the state would earn about a million dollars in interest – and there was nothing she could do about it, so it seemed pointless to waste time fretting that the money could have been in her account and earning her that kind of interest.
"Well, never mind. We can still celebrate."
"Only if you're buying. I'm broke." That should put an end to any celebrating he wanted to do, she thought. In Jerry's world, other people paid for stuff while he went along for the ride.
"Well, you said you had to work, so if you gotta, you gotta. I'll catch you some time tomorrow, okay?"
He had, and every day since then, too. If he wasn't on her front porch in the morning, wanting to have coffee with her – though of course he didn't want to have the instant she had on hand – he was on the phone, showering her with fatherly attention that was all the more disconcerting because he'd never shown any before. She didn't know how to get rid of him, because he ignored the hints that she didn't intend to become Handout Central for him – if you could call blatantly telling him so a "hint." The thing with Jerry was that he was so focused on what he wanted that everything else sort of bounced off him.
She didn't know how to make him go away. She even had to admit to a tiny part of her that still hoped, somehow, this time Jerry would just be happy for her and wouldn't try to relieve her of as much of the money as possible. Faith and hope were two different things: She had no faith at all in him, but she still hoped the leopard would change its larcenous spots.
Regardless of that, she took precautions. She didn't leave her bag where he could get into it. If she had to go to the bathroom while he was in her house, she took the bag with her. Everything related to the lottery, and the financial arrangements she'd made so far and the others she was making, was locked away in a safe-deposit box that she'd spent a hefty chunk of her paycheck to rent. The key was on the ring with her car keys, and they were in her pocket unless she was in bed; then she slipped them inside her pillowcase – just a normal precaution for a daughter to take, to prevent her father from boosting the Goose.
As she entered the plant, a supervisor approached. "Jenner, I need to have a talk with you before you clock in."
"I'll be late," she protested, glancing at the clock.
"Never mind that. Let's go in the office."
A cold, sick feeling coalesced in her stomach as she followed the supervisor, Don Gorski, into his small, shabby office, constructed of white-washed concrete blocks, with an unpainted concrete floor, and occupied by a beat-up metal desk, some metal filing cabinets, and two chairs.
He dropped heavily into the chair behind the beat-up desk, but didn't ask her to be seated. Instead he rubbed his jaw, looking everywhere but at her, and heaved a sigh almost as heavy as his ass was.
"You're a good worker," he finally said, "but you've been causing a lot of disruption around here in the past couple of weeks. People – "
"I'm not causing the disruption," Jenner said, heat edging into her voice. "I'm doing my job the way I always do."
"Then let me put it another way: You're the cause of the disruption. Reporters calling, showing up at the gate, people complaining. I don't know why you're still here. You don't need the job, and there are plenty of people who do. So why don't you do everyone a favor and quit?"
The unfairness of it made her want to beat her head against the wall. Instead she straightened her shoulders and set her jaw. "Because I need to eat and pay my rent and utility bills, just like everyone else," she replied, her tone just short of a snarl. "Believe me, as soon as I get some money to live on, I'm outta here. Until then, what am I supposed to do? Live on the street?"
He sighed again. "Look, I'm just doing my job, too. The guys up front want you to go."
Frustrated, infuriated, she threw her hands up. "Fine. Then fire me, so I can collect unemployment until the money comes through."
"They don't want – "
"I don't care what 'they' want. I care about being able to live." She leaned forward and planted her hands on the desk, anger evident in every line of her body. "I've paid unemployment taxes since I was sixteen, and never collected a dime. If you want me gone – without a lawsuit being filed, and believe me when I say that very shortly I'll be able to afford a lawyer good enough to keep this company tied up in court for years, and will cost way more than a few weeks of unemployment benefits – then that's the deal. Fire me, okay the unemployment, and I'm out of here. Mess with me in any way, and the legal fees will bankrupt this company. Are we clear on this? Take the deal to the guys up front, and get back to me."
She stalked out of the office, changed into the ugly coveralls and hair cap, and clocked in. She was late for the shift, but so what? She didn't give a damn. In fact, with fury still running through her veins, she felt pretty good. Okay, so she didn't have any money yet, but what she did have were options, and she'd just exercised one.
None of the people around her spoke or made contact, not even Margo. Jenner ignored them as studiously as they ignored her. Several of them had gone to management to complain about her, she figured, exaggerating how much of a distraction her presence had been, blowing up the case for asking her to leave. Maybe she should have brought boxes of doughnuts every day, treated everyone, but, damn it, she didn't have the money! What was so hard about that to understand?
Because that wasn't how they wanted things to be, she realized. In their fantasy of making it big – maybe by winning the lottery – a win brought instant wealth, an end to all problems and money worries. They'd have been happier if she'd bought a new car, regaled them with tales of big new condos and houses she was thinking of buying, letting them live vicariously through her. Instead she had remained the same: broke. She'd let them down, discredited their fantasies, and now they didn't want her around.
Within an hour, though, Don Gorski approached her. "I have papers for you to sign," he said, and she followed him, not to his office, but to a larger office up front, one occupied by two men she'd seen around but whose names she didn't know.
"We agree to your offer," one of the men said, putting his finger on a single sheet of paper and pushing it across the desk toward her.
Jenner picked up the sheet and carefully read every word. In exchange for her promise not to file any lawsuits against Harvest Meat Packing or them personally, her unemployment compensation would be approved. There was a place for her signature.
"Two things," she said. "Actually, three. There's only one copy, which I assume you'll want to keep. I'll need a copy, too. Also, there's no date specified for where you'd approve the unemployment, so you could hold out a few weeks, figuring I'd get the lottery money before the claim went through, and then it would be denied. The third thing is, there's no place for your signatures. I'm not going to be the only one signing this."
Al had drummed it into her head that she didn't sign anything without reading it, and especially not unless she understood every word. She'd told Jenner some things to look out for, but Jenner's own street smarts, plus a lifetime of dealing with Jerry, who took advantage of every loophole he could find or invent, made it tough to put anything over on her. She'd picked up some of Al's jargon, too, so she could speak these guys' language. She saw in their eyes that she'd sprung all their little traps.
She handed the paper back to the man who'd pushed it toward her. "I'll have those changes made," he said without a hint of argument, and stepped out of the office.
They stood in silence, waiting for his return. Almost fifteen minutes lapsed. When he did come back, there were two sheets of paper in his hand. Jenner took them, carefully read them and saw that places for their signatures had been added – in fact, one signature, that of the the owner and president of Harvest Meat Packing, was already present – and that her unemployment claim was to be approved effective that very day. She took that to mean they wanted her to clock out and leave. Fine.
Silently she scrawled her name on both sheets, watched as they signed in the appointed places, then she took one of the sheets and carefully folded it.
Gorski escorted her back to her locker, where she stripped out of the coveralls and plastic cap, handed them to him, gathered her stuff – there wasn't much – and walked out the door for the last time.
The sun was still shining. She checked her watch; less than an hour had passed since she'd clocked in. Even though she'd left her window rolled down a little, when she opened the Goose's door, heat rolled out and punched her in the face, so she stood there a minute and fished out her cell phone while she waited. First she called Al. "I've been fired. Looks like I'll be borrowing some money after all. I've never done this before, so tell me how I go about it."
After Al finished explaining the process and what she should do, Jenner climbed into the Goose and cranked it. As she rumbled out of the parking lot, she called Michelle.
"Hey, want to go on vacation?"