Burn (Chapter One)
Seven years earlier …
JENNER REDWINE'S CELL PHONE RANG AS SHE WAS TRUDGING across the parking lot to her car. That would be Dylan, she thought with a flash of annoyance as she fished the phone from the bottom of her denim purse; she'd had the phone for just five weeks, and already he'd developed a pattern. She bet she knew what he wanted, too. She thumbed the Talk button, said "Hello," and waited to see if she'd won the bet with herself.
"Hey, babe," he said, as he always did.
"Hey." If he'd had an ounce of sensitivity he'd have noticed the distinct lack of welcome in her voice, but "sensitivity" and "Dylan" were direct opposites.
"You off work yet?"
As if he hadn't been watching the clock, she thought, but didn't say it. "Yeah."
"How about stopping at the Seven-Eleven and picking up a six-pack, okay? I'll pay you for it."
He hadn't yet, she thought grumpily, and she was getting tired of it. His dead-end job paid more than hers, but he was mooching his beer off her. Last time, Jenner promised herself as she said "Okay," and hung up. If he didn't pay her this time, this was her last beer run.
She had just clocked out at the end of second shift at Harvest Meat Packing Company, she was exhausted, and the bottoms of her feet throbbed from standing on the concrete floor for the past eight hours. Dylan's job at a machine shop was first shift, which meant he'd been off work for roughly those same eight hours, but he hadn't bothered to get his own beer. Instead he'd been watching her television and eating her food.
Having a steady guy had seemed like a good deal at first, but Jenner didn't suffer any fool gladly, even when the fool was herself. Unless Dylan pulled off a miraculous recovery, she'd shortly be placing him in the "mistake" column. She'd give him this one last chance – not because she thought he'd come through, but because somehow she needed this one additional bit of evidence to push her past the point of no return. Hanging on to people when she should let go was a character flaw, but she knew herself well enough to accept that she had to give him this one last chance, or uncertainty would eat her alive.
Reaching her battered blue Dodge, she unlocked it and pulled hard on the door handle – the driver's door tended to stick. After initially resisting her effort, the door suddenly gave way with a creak of rusty hinges, and Jenner staggered back. Controlling her irritation, she got in, slammed the door, and stuck the key in the ignition. The engine fired right up. The Blue Goose didn't look like much, but it was reliable, and that was all she asked. At least she had something she could depend on, even if it was just a beat up, rusty car.
The 7-Eleven nearest her duplex was a few blocks out of her way, but certainly close enough that Dylan could have gone there with very little effort. The shop was brightly lit, and the parking lot packed despite the late hour. Jenner wedged the Dodge into a space that was as tight as too-small panty hose, but what the heck; what did another ding matter in a car that was practically one big ding?
She shoved her shoulder against the door and, sure enough, it swung open with too much force and banged the car beside her. Wincing, she contorted herself so she could slide through the small opening, and rubbed her finger over the ding in the other car in an effort to smooth it out – not that the owner was likely to notice one more, considering this car was almost as bad as the Goose.
The combined smells of exhaust, gasoline, and hot asphalt hit her in the face. Typical summer smell, and all in all she kind of liked the smell of gasoline. Kerosene, too. Weird, but not something she wasted time worrying about.
The bottoms of her sneakers stuck to the softened tar of the parking lot as she trudged across it. The air-conditioned coolness of the convenience store washed around her as soon as she made it through the door. She wanted to stand for a moment, just absorbing the cold air. The heat wave that was cooking the Chicago area seemed to suck every bit of endurance out of her. Damn, she was tired. She wanted to be at home where she could kick the shoes off her aching feet, peel out of her sweaty jeans and shirt, and flop across the bed so the breeze from the ceiling fan could blow across her mostly naked body. Instead, she was buying Dylan's beer. So who was the loser? Dylan, or herself?
She glanced at the curiously long line at the counter, and had an aha! moment as suddenly it clicked: lottery. She had to be tired, not to have realized immediately what was going on. A huge jackpot had been building, and the drawing was tomorrow night. That was why the parking lot was full and there was such a long line at the counter. Every now and then she played the numbers, and a couple of times she'd won a few bucks, but for the most part she didn't bother. Tonight, though … hell, why not? Let Dylan wait for his beer.
She grabbed a six-pack, then joined the queue, which wound between two aisles to the back of the store, then snaked halfway up another aisle. She passed the time by examining prices, looking at candy, and trying to decide which numbers to pick. She was sandwiched between two guys, both of whom smelled like stale beer and equally stale sweat, and who both kept making occasional comments to her, which she mostly ignored. Did she have some invisible sign on her head that said, "All losers apply here"?
Then again, maybe they just wanted her beer. On a hot summer night, beer had to rate pretty high – maybe even higher than a tired Clairol blonde in an ugly blue shirt with the words "Harvest Meat Packing" embroidered on the pocket. Though when she was on the job she had to wear coveralls and a plastic head-cover, the packing company required that their employees wear the company shirts to and from home, figuring they'd get free advertising. The employees even had to buy the damn shirts – but at least, if she quit, she got to keep the shirts … until she threw them away the first chance she had.
On the other hand, these two bozos maybe looked at the shirt and thought, "Hey, she has a job! And beer!" She hated to think this shirt could be a come-on.
Eventually, the slow shuffle of the line brought her to the counter. She plunked down her money and bought three tickets, mainly because three was supposed to be a lucky number. She chose three sets of numbers at random, thinking of birthdays, telephone numbers, addresses, and anything else that occurred to her. Then, dropping the tickets into her bag, she trudged back out to her car. The vehicle that had been parked beside her was gone, and a pickup truck had taken its place. The truck was parked so close there was no way she could get the driver's side door open. Muttering a curse under her breath, she unlocked the passenger door and managed to wiggle in, then she had to climb over the console. At least she was skinny and limber, otherwise she'd never have managed.
Her cell phone rang as she was wedging herself under the steering wheel. She jumped, banged her head, and cursed again. This time it wasn't under her breath. Digging out the phone, she punched the button and snapped, "What?"
"What's taking you so long?" Dylan demanded.
"Buying the damn beer, that's what's taking so long. There was a line."
"Well, hurry it up, will ya?"
"On my way." If her tone was grim, he completely missed that little detail, but then, Dylan seemed to miss a lot of signals.
Each half of the duplex where she lived had its own tiny drive, a luxury she appreciated as she didn't have to park on the street. At least, normally she didn't. Tonight, Dylan's Mustang was in her drive, so she had to hunt for a space. By the time she found one, trudged back to her place – where every light was on – she was all but breathing fire.
Sure enough, when she went in, the first thing she saw was Dylan sprawled on her couch, his work boots propped on her coffee table, a wrestling show blaring on her television. "Hey, babe," said Dylan with a smile as he got up, half his attention remaining on the television. He took the six-pack from her hand and fished one out of the carton. "Shit, it isn't cold."
She watched as he picked up the opener he'd already fetched from the kitchen – so he wouldn't have to go to the trouble of waiting for his brew – popped the top off the bottle, and lifted the beer to his mouth. He dropped the top onto the coffee table, and settled himself back on the couch.
"How about putting the others in the fridge on your way to change clothes," he suggested. She always changed clothes as soon as she got home because she couldn't stand wearing the ugly polyester shirt one second longer than necessary.
"Sure thing," she said, picking up the carton. She told him how much the beer was.
He gaped at her. "Huh?"
"The beer." She kept her voice very even. "You said you'd pay me for it."
"Oh, yeah. I didn't bring any money with me. I'll pay you tomorrow."
Ding. She heard the little bell that said he'd passed the point of no return. She waited for a sense of being set free, but instead all she felt was tired. "Don't bother," she said. "Just get out, and don't come back."
"Huh?" he said again. Evidently he was having problems with his hearing, along with his problems thinking. Dylan was good-looking – very good-looking – but not nearly good-looking enough to make up for all his shortcomings. Okay so she'd wasted almost four months of her life on him; she'd know better next time. The first sign of mooching, and the guy was out.
"Get out. We're done. You've mooched off me for the last time." She opened the door and stood there, waiting for him to leave.
He heaved himself to his feet, arranging his face in the charming smile that had blinded her at first. "Babe, you're just tired – "
"Damn straight. Tired of you. Come on." She made shooing motions. "Out."
"Jen, come on – "
"No. That was it. You had no intention of paying for the beer, and I have no intention of giving you another chance."
"If it meant that much to you, all you had to do was say so. You don't have to go off the deep end," he charged, the charming smile vanishing and a scowl taking its place.
"Yes, I do. I like the deep end. The water's nice and cold there. Out."
"We can work – "
"No, we can't, Dylan. This was your last chance." She glared at him. "You either walk out this door, or I'm calling the cops."
"All right, all right." He stepped onto the miniscule porch, then turned to face her. "I was getting tired of you, anyway. Bitch."
She closed the door in his face, then jumped as he slammed his fist into the wood. That was evidently his parting gesture, because about ten seconds later she heard his car start, and she watched through a tiny opening in the curtains as he backed out of the drive way and left.
All right. Finally. She was boyfriendless, and it felt good. Better than good. The sense of relief and freedom finally showed up and she took a deep breath, feeling as if a ton had been lifted from her shoulders. She should have stood up for herself sooner, saved herself some grief. Another lesson learned.
First things first. She walked back down to where she'd parked the Goose, and pulled it into her driveway where it belonged. Then, as soon as she was safely inside her place and the doors were locked, the curtains snugly pulled, she called her best friend, Michelle, as she went back to the bedroom and began stripping out of her clothes. Breaking up with a boyfriend was definitely something a best friend should hear immediately.
"Dylan's history," she said as soon as Michelle answered. "I just gave him the boot."
"What happened?" Michelle sounded shocked. "Was he cheating on you?"
"Not that I know of, but that doesn't mean he wasn't. I got tired of him mooching."
"Damn. He's so good-looking, too." The shock faded into regret, and a sigh came down the phone line.
Jenner sat down on the bed to peel off her sweaty jeans, holding the phone cradled between her head and shoulders. "Yeah, but stupid. Let's not leave out stupid."
Michelle was quiet for a moment – barely – then her voice picked up enthusiasm. "So! The night's young, and you're free. Want to go out?"
That was why she'd called Michelle, Jenner thought. Michelle was always up for a party, and she needed to get out of the Dylan rut she'd let herself sink into. She forgot about her aching feet. She was twenty-three, she had just dumped a loser, and she'd get over being tired. She wanted to celebrate. "Sure. Give me time to shower. I'll meet you at the Bird," she said, naming their pre-Dylan favorite bar.
"Woo hoo!" Michelle shouted. "Bird, watch out! We're back!"
She and Michelle made a pretty hot team, if she did say so herself. Michelle was barely over five feet tall, with a mass of curly black hair, big brown eyes, and curves in all the right places. Jenner herself was of medium height and on the skinny side, but when she took time with her hair and makeup and put on something short and tight, she held her own. An hour later, they hit the door at Bird's, whooping with delight and singing "Hit the Road, Jack," inviting all the women present to sing along in the chorus. Jenner changed "Jack" to "Dylan," which didn't work quite as well, but who cared? She was having fun, and there was no shortage of guys wanting to dance with her.
She ended up stumbling home at dawn, thankful for the first time that she worked second shift and could get in some sleep. She hadn't drunk that much, just a couple of beers over the past five hours, but fatigue had sucker-punched her. Maybe twenty-three wasn't as young as she'd thought it was, because while she'd bounced back for a while, the bounce hadn't been all that high and now she could barely put one foot in front of the other.
She did remember to set the alarm clock, fell facedown across her bed, and didn't move until the alarm went off eight hours later. She lay in bed blinking at the ceiling and trying to remember what day it was. Finally everything clicked – oh, yeah, it was Friday – and the first thought that followed was that Dylan was gone, gone, gone. The second thought was that she had to go to work. She jumped up and hit the shower, humming a happy little song in honor of her freedom, and with remarkable good humor put on a clean ugly blue shirt. Not even the shirt could depress her today.
Why hadn't she realized before how over she and Dylan were? Why had she let him keep hanging around? Sure, it hadn't actually been that long, but she'd let the situation go on a good four or five weeks longer than she should have, kind of hoping it would improve when she knew damn good and well it wouldn't. It never did. She had to learn to see around that big blind spot she had. Well, not quite a blind spot. She'd known Dylan wasn't what she'd wanted him to be, just like her dad wasn't the dad she wanted. She'd given up on good old dad a long time ago, but at first, for a couple of weeks, Dylan had shown real promise. Then reality had set in, and it hadn't been pretty.
She got through her shift at work, and faced the weekend off with the same sense of lightheartedness. She could do what she wanted, when she wanted. And what she wanted was to go out again with Michelle, so they made another night of it and closed down Bird's again.
It wasn't until dinner break at work on Monday that she heard about the lottery. She was in the dingy break room with her coworkers, unenthusiastically chewing on a ham sandwich and chasing it with a Pepsi, listening to them talk about how there'd been a jackpot winner this time, but no one had come forward with the winning ticket. "It was sold over at that convenience store on Twenty-seventh," said Margo Russell. "What if the ticket was lost? I'd shoot myself if I lost a ticket worth three hundred million!"
"Two hundred and ninety-five million," someone corrected.
"Close enough. What's five million, one way or another?" Margo joked.
Jenner almost choked. She sat frozen, unable to swallow the bite of sandwich in her mouth. Her throat felt paralyzed, along with the rest of her. The convenience store on Twenty-seventh Street? That was the store where she bought the beer.
The thought, the possibility, could barely form itself. Could she have …? Sheer terror, the sense of standing on the edge of a cliff and teetering back and forth, made sweat form along her hairline.
Then common sense asserted itself, and the world around her swam back into normal focus. She chewed and swallowed. Nah, things like that didn't happen to people like her. She doubted she'd won even five bucks. There had been a lot of people in there buying lottery tickets. The odds against her winning had to be at least a thousand to one, maybe two or three thousand to one. She hadn't paid any attention to the drawing on Friday night, hadn't checked the newspapers, hadn't watched any news, because she'd been too busy having fun with Michelle. The lottery tickets were still right where she'd dropped them, in the bottom of her denim bag.
Several issues of that day's newspapers were scattered around the break room. She picked one up and began flipping through it, looking for the lottery numbers. Finally she found the notice and tore it out. A glance at the clock on the wall told her she had five minutes before they had to be back to work.
Her heart was pounding as she hurried to her locker and with shaking hands spun the dial on the padlock. Don't get excited, she scolded herself. Getting her hopes up just meant a bigger letdown. The odds were heavily against her. This was just to make sure, so she wouldn't spend the rest of her shift wondering about it – kind of like making sure Dylan was a loser and a jerk so she wouldn't spend the rest of her life wondering if she'd made a mistake in dumping him. After she'd checked the tickets and satisfied herself that she hadn't won, she'd joke about it with Margo and the others, just like she'd joked about Dylan with Michelle.
Grabbing her bag, she dumped it upside down in the locker, completely emptying it. Two lottery tickets fell free, and she grabbed them. Where was the third one? What if she couldn't find the third one? What if she never found it and no one claimed the jackpot? She would go the rest of her life knowing she'd probably missed the chance to have two hundred and ninety-five million dollars.
Calm down. You didn't win. She never expected to win when she bought a ticket, she just bought them because the possibility gave her a little buzz, a little moment of "what if."
She took a deep breath and scrabbled through the pile of stuff, heaving a big sigh of relief when the missing ticket was finally in her hand. She compared the numbers to the numbers on the scrap she'd torn from the newspaper, and almost laughed when reality smacked her in the face. None of the numbers matched. So much for her panic over not immediately seeing the ticket.
She looked at the next ticket, and looked again. 7, 11, 23, 47 … Her vision wavered; she couldn't see the remaining numbers. She heard herself gasping for breath. Her knees went weak, and she leaned against the open locker. The lottery ticket dropped from her suddenly nerveless fingers, and absolute panic washed over her even though the ticket had gone no farther than the floor. Sinking to her knees, she grabbed up the ticket and once again began comparing the numbers, laboriously concentrating on each one: 7, 11, 23, 47, 53, 67.
She checked the scrap of newspaper again, then again, looking back and forth between it and the ticket. The numbers didn't change.
"Holy shit," she whispered. "Holy shit."
Carefully she slipped the ticket and the scrap of newspaper into her front jeans pocket, climbed to her feet, closed her locker, and clicked the padlock, then numbly went back to work putting on the ugly coveralls, the white cap that covered her hair. What if she was wrong? What if this was some joke? She'd look like a fool if she told anyone.
She'd check it out tomorrow. Maybe she'd turn on the news in the morning and find the jackpot had been claimed, and when she looked at the ticket again she'd see that she'd read one of the numbers wrong.
"Are you okay?" Margo asked as Jenner slipped into place. "You look kinda green."
"I just got too hot." The instinct to keep everything quiet was too strong for her to ignore, even with a good-hearted soul like Margo.
"Yeah, this heat is miserable. You need to drink more water."
Somehow she made it through the rest of her shift, somehow she managed to drive home, though she gripped the steering wheel of the Blue Goose so tightly her hands ached. She was breathing too fast, gulping in air, and her lips were numb, her head swimming. She blew out a big sigh of relief when she finally steered the Goose into her driveway, cut the headlights, killed the engine. Just as if her heart wasn't galloping a hundred miles an hour, she got out and carefully locked the Goose's doors, went up the steps to her creaky little porch, unlocked her own door, and stepped inside the safety of home. It wasn't until then, after re-locking the door behind her and she was safe, that she pulled the ticket and the piece of newsprint from her front jeans pocket, laid them side by side on the coffee table, and forced herself to look at the numbers again.
7, 11, 23, 47, 53, 67.
They were the same on both pieces of paper.
She checked them one more time, then did it again. She got a pencil, wrote down the numbers on the ticket, then checked that against the piece of newspaper. Nothing changed. Her heart began to race again.
"Holy shit." She swallowed hard. "I've won the lottery."