Home > Burn(6)

Author: Linda Howard

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.

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