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Burn (Chapter Three)

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HABIT WAS A WEIRD THING. EITHER THAT, OR SHE STILL couldn't quite believe what was happening to her. Whatever the reason, Jenner went in to work her regular shift at Harvest that night; celebrating with Michelle would have to wait until afterward. She didn't make the phone call to begin the process of claiming her winnings, either, even though Al was hard at work getting things ready. She felt almost as if she were prodding a sleeping tiger, and once that tiger woke up, everything would be out of her control and in the tiger's.

She wasn't ready to tell the world yet. She wasn't ready to abandon all the normal aspects of her life. So she put on the ugly polyester shirt once again, went into work, and donned the coveralls and hair covering. She joked with Margo, she ate her usual sandwich, she did her job – and all the while she had the weird sense of being in two worlds at the same time, as well as feeling sharp, unexpected pangs of grief. She might never see these people again, and though she wasn't close friends with any of them, they were still a huge part of her everyday life. As soon as she went public, she probably wouldn't be able to do ordinary things, at least for a while. And really, would she want to work in a meat-packing plant once she had all that money? No, she wouldn't, not for a single minute. But for now, this moment, she didn't have the money and ordinary things felt special, as if she should savor them and commit them to memory.

After work, though, she changed clothes and she and Michelle hit Bird's, where she bought their drinks, they danced almost nonstop, and they laughed at everything and nothing. Happiness fizzed like ginger ale in her veins. She was young, and she was rich! How could life get any better? So what if she was spending most of her cash, and payday was still three days away? She had gas in the Goose, food in the house, and celebrating with Michelle was more important than worrying about money. In a few days, she'd never have to worry about money again.

Morning brought reality with it. Once again, there were calls she had to make and things she had to do.

Jenner took a deep breath and dialed a very important number. When the call was answered, she had to take a second deep breath. "I have the winning ticket," she said baldly. "What do I need to do?"

"Are you the sole ticket holder?" The man who had answered sounded almost disinterested. Maybe they got a lot of calls from people claiming to be the winner. Probably she was something like the fiftieth person to call. Grimly she imagined all those other people trying to claim her winnings. She could just see them sitting at home working on manufacturing a fake lottery ticket, trying to get it just right, hoping they could get the money and disappear before the real winner came forward.

"Yeah. Yes."

"You'll need to bring in the winning ticket, of course, as well as a photo form of identification, and proof of your social security number – if not your actual card, then a pay stub, or something like that, that shows your number."

Jenner tried to think where her social security card might be, but she came up blank. She couldn't remember the last time she'd seen it. Maybe she could find one of her pay stubs, though. What on earth had she done with the last one? She began to panic. If she couldn't find a pay stub, what would she do?

Wait until she got another paycheck, that's what. The common-sense reply loosened the sudden tightness in her chest, let her breathe again. "Okay, what else?"

"That's it. Ticket, identification, social security verification. When will you be coming in?"

"I don't know." That depended on how long it took her to find a pay stub – if she could find one. "Tomorrow morning, probably. Definitely by Friday afternoon. Do I need to make an appointment?"

He gave a little laugh. "No, that isn't necessary. Our office hours are from eight thirty to four thirty." He gave her the address, which was on the seventh floor of a building downtown, close to city hall. She'd never been to city hall, but she bet parking was a bitch. She'd be better off taking the bus, instead of driving.

After thanking the man and hanging up, she began tearing through her closet and old purses, looking for her social security card. She'd always been careless with it, because, hell, she had the number memorized, and it wasn't as if she had anything anyone would want. Well, now she did have something millions of people would want, and she steadily swore under her breath at her own stupidity as she looked in every pocket of every old wallet she could find. She would never, ever again be so careless. If she ever found that damn card, it was going in the safe-deposit box, which she didn't have yet, with the rest of the important stuff she didn't have yet, but soon would.

Finally she gave up. The card was probably long gone, incinerated in some trash dump somewhere. She'd had it when she got her driver's license, obviously, but renewing the license didn't require one, so she hadn't kept track of it – and she'd moved at least three times since getting her license.

That left a pay stub for proof. She didn't keep her pay stubs, either. She usually either dropped them in her bag when she got her checks cashed, or put them in the Goose's glove compartment. She didn't let the Goose get filled with clutter, because the poor thing looked bad enough as it was, but she couldn't remember when she'd last gathered up all the pieces of paper that seemed to accumulate.

She hurried outside, unlocked the passenger door, and leaned in to open the compartment. Napkins from fast-food places practically exploded outward, along with ketchup squirt-packs, little salt and pepper packets, drinking straws, melted peppermints, gum – and two crumpled pay stubs. Jenner grabbed them, closing her eyes as she held them to her chest and sent a silent thank-you upward in case God was listening or something.

She took all of the debris and the pay stubs inside, where she carefully stored one of the stubs in her purse with the ticket. Then she took a pair of scissors and carefully cut the remaining pay stub into tiny bits, which she flushed down the toilet. From now on, she had to be careful with every bit of paperwork.

She checked the time: almost noon. She didn't have enough time now to get downtown and back before going to work, and something in her still wouldn't let her blow off her job. Maybe next week, she thought. Duh! She'd better find out how long it would take to actually get the money, because she had to live until then.

She grabbed the phone and hit Redial. When the same guy answered, she asked, "I called a little while ago. After I bring in the winning ticket, how long does it take to actually get the money?"

"Four to eight weeks," he replied.

"Holy sh – ! You're kidding." She was flabbergasted. Damn good thing she hadn't quit work yesterday!

"No, processing the claims are time-consuming, but we take pains that no mistakes are made."

"Thanks," she said, hanging up. She wanted to kick something. Eight weeks! She couldn't even wait eight weeks to claim it, because the processing wouldn't start until she did so. The sooner she got to the office, the better – and then she'd still have to work at that damn meat-packing plant for maybe two more months.

There was only one person she could call to vent, so she dialed Michelle's number.

"Two months!" she said, incensed, when Michelle answered. "It'll take them almost two months to get the money to me!"

"You're shittin' me."

"I wish."

"How hard can it be? All they have to do is cut a check!"

"Tell me about it. So, no more celebrating for a while," Jenner said glumly. "I blew most of my cash last night, and I have two more months of rent to worry about. Damn it."

"Damn it," Michelle echoed. "Crap. I was looking forward to doing some serious shopping, maybe putting in some vacation time somewhere cool, but if it takes two months to get the money then summer will be over."

"I know." Jenner sighed. The heat was killing her, and getting away sounded great, but it wasn't going to happen. "I guess that plan will change to going somewhere warm this winter. I'm going downtown tomorrow morning to start the ball rolling. The longer I put that off, the longer it'll take to actually get the money."

"I'd love to go with you, just to watch," Michelle said wistfully. "But I can't take off work, so you remember every detail, okay? I want to hear everything."

"Promise."

The next morning she took extra pains with her hair and makeup. Her roots were showing some, but not too bad, so she made a zigzag part on top to hide the darker color. She put on the clothes she wore to funerals – a white, short-sleeve, button-up blouse paired with a dark blue pencil skirt and white strappy sandals – because the weather was just too hot to put on panty hose and high heels. Besides, she had a run in the only pair of panty hose she owned, and thanks to the celebration with Michelle she didn't have any extra cash to buy another pair. She had enough cash for the bus, and that was about all, until she got her next paycheck.

Strange how, in the space of a phone conversation, she could go from quitting work in two days to pinching pennies by not buying a new pair of panty hose.

She used the bus ride to compose herself, and get her thoughts ordered. Another talk with Al had cleared up a few more points. Al said if Jenner wanted, she could set up a blind trust, to keep Jenner's identity secret, but was there really any point? When Jenner Redwine, who didn't even have a bank account, suddenly quit work, bought a new car, and moved to a better place, everyone she knew was bound to figure something was up. Besides, Michelle couldn't keep a secret forever. Jenner loved her, but Michelle tended to talk first and think later. Setting up a blind trust would also mean hiring a lawyer, which would be more delays, besides what the lawyer would charge. She just wanted to get everything started.

She got off at the nearest bus stop, found the correct building, and took the elevator up to the seventh floor. When she opened the door, everyone in the room turned to look at her. Her heartbeat hitched. Did anyone in the room breathe as she approached the long, tall counter? She didn't think so.

Three other people – maybe they'd won some of the smaller payouts – were seated in the small waiting area. One was reading a magazine, but the other two watched her. What were they waiting for? God, was she supposed to sign in and wait her turn? This was nerve-racking enough, without having to wait.

An older woman pasted on a good imitation of a sincere smile when Jenner reached the counter. Swallowing hard, Jenner reached into her bag and took out the winning ticket, as well as her pay stub and driver's license, and placed them all on the counter.

"I won," she half-whispered, trying to keep everyone else in the room from hearing.

The woman picked up the items, looked at the ticket, and a wide grin split her face. "Yes, you certainly did." She nodded to the people in the waiting area behind Jenner, and they all got up from their chairs. Jenner turned, and a flash went off in her face, momentarily blinding her. The woman and two men fired questions at her, talking on top of each other; she couldn't pick out a single question that made sense, everything was jumbled so. She backed up and found herself pinned against the counter, unable to go either left or right.

One of them stepped on her left foot, and abruptly she'd had enough. "Hey!" she said loudly, almost shouting. "Back it up, okay? One of you almost took my toe off." The three reporters momentarily paused, and Jenner took advantage of the brief silence to announce, "My name is Jenner Redwine."

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