Burn (Page 16)

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?"

Chapter Five

SHE WAS LATE. SHE WAS SUPPOSED TO MEET MICHELLE at seven and it was already eight thirty. Still, though walking the distance to Bird’s would make her even later, Jenner parked her new car a block away from the bar – she didn’t want any dings marring it. So what if it wasn’t a luxury car? It was a Camry – loaded, but still a Camry – because she couldn’t get her mind around paying two years’ worth of her former salary for a car. She’d had the Camry only a couple of weeks, and she was proud of it. She still inhaled deeply every time she got in it, drinking in the delicious new-car smell.

She was tired. She sat in the quiet car for a few minutes, her eyes closed. If she hadn’t promised Michelle she’d meet her tonight, she’d have gone home, which was still the duplex because finding a new place to live was taking much longer than picking out a new car, and crashed. Who knew that managing a shitload of money would turn out to be damn near a full-time job?

Al was great – and was in the process of moving into a better office already – but Jenner insisted on being involved, which meant she spent a lot of time at Payne Echols. She wanted to understand what was going on, why Al was doing what she was doing, and what all the headache-inducing terms meant. She trusted Al, but Al might not always be around, and Jenner didn’t want to be forced to rely on someone else. Her instinct was to get educated, and get control. For too much of the time since she’d picked that winning ticket, she hadn’t had any control over events. Now she did, and the relief was almost staggering.

The money was hers, now. She’d gone through an excruciating ceremony where cameras flashed in her eyes while she smiled until her facial muscles screamed, and her hand cramped from holding one end of a huge cardboard check – which the lottery people had been careful to tell her wasn’t real and couldn’t be cashed, as if she were the village idiot and couldn’t have figured that out on her own – but at last it had been over and the paperwork finished, and she’d begun stepping back into anonymity … she hoped. The media had gone away, of course. Now, if she could just get settled in a new place and get on with life, she’d be a lot happier.