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“Miss St. Claire. Come in, please.” My boss, Mr. Edwards, waved a hand at the two chairs facing his desk. “Have a seat, Kyrie.” He said it wrong, as always, pronouncing it Kye-ree.
“My name is Keer-ee,” I couldn’t help correcting him for what must have been the eighteen-thousandth time.
Mr. Edwards slid into his modern black leather desk chair and then unbuttoned his suit coat. “Yes. Of course.” He tugged at the cuffs of his pressed white button-down shirt, cleared his throat. “Well, Miss St. Claire, I’ll cut right to the chase. We’re letting you go, I’m afraid. It’s nothing to do with you — it’s simply that we’re streamlining our workflow, and as the newest, and least experienced member of our team…well, your services have become somewhat superfluous.”
I blinked. Twice. Three times. “I’m…what?”
“Superfluous. It means—”
“I know what superfluous means. I just don’t understand why this is happening. Just last week Don said I was next in line for a permanent position—”
Mr. Edwards cut me off with a raised hand. “Don was incorrect, and I do apologize for the misunderstanding. You see, Don had a rather unfortunate habit of making promises he had no authority to make, and no wherewithal to keep them. He, too, has been let go.” A discreet clearing of his throat indicated the subject was closed. He opened a drawer and withdrew an envelope. “Your final paycheck, Miss St. Claire. It includes a two-week severance allowance. You’ll clear out your desk immediately. Should you require a referral, you may submit a request in writing through the appropriate channels.”
I shook my head. “No, please—Mr. Edwards, you can’t do this. I need this job, you don’t even know. I’ve never been late, never failed to do my job better than anyone else in my pool. Please, give me a chance—”
“Miss St. Claire. Begging will not change the facts. The matter is closed. You were assigned to us through a temp agency. Temp, meaning temporary. As I said, this isn’t a punishment. We are not firing you—we are simply letting you go now that your position is no longer necessary. Now, if you don’t mind, I have a conference call in a few moments.” Mr. Edwards arched an eyebrow at me expectantly.
“Fine.” I stood up, smoothing my navy pencil skirt over my hips, turning away. “Prick.”
“Excuse me?” Mr. Edwards rose to his feet, a fist clenched at his side. “What did you say?”
I lifted my chin. “I said, prick.” I used the same condescending tone he so often affected. “It’s a derogatory term meaning penis. Meaning, you…are…a…dick.” I turned away again, and grabbed the doorknob and twisted it.
I was stopped by a hand on my wrist. “Now, now, Miss St. Claire. You don’t want to go name-calling, do you? I can very easily call your temp agency and make sure you never work in their pool again.” His fingers tightened on my wrist, and I felt his breath on my neck. “And…you know, there may be one way you could keep your job. Possibly even get that permanent position you mentioned.”
I felt him press up against me, felt the evidence of what he wanted from me. And, I won’t lie, the thought crossed my mind. Once. Very, very briefly. I needed this job. I was already two months behind on rent, three months behind on my electric bill, barely keeping up with my tuition and my brother’s, plus the ever-mounting costs of caring for Mama. I could do what this doucheknob wanted, and keep my job. It wouldn’t take long. A few unpleasant minutes, if that long. He was old, past sixty, I’d guess. Fit enough for his age, but by no means virile.
But…no matter how desperate I might be, that would never happen. Not like this. Not with this guy. If he was hot, and I wanted to, maybe. It would be one thing if this were a kick-ass job that really paid the bills. But it was a temp job. Hourly, and a shitty hourly rate at that. Barely enough to cover one bill, much less all the bills I had to pay.
I turned, letting him hold on to my wrist. For the moment. I lifted my eyes to his, putting on my best poker face. “Yeah? Just like that? That easy, huh? Suck you off, and you’ll let me keep my job? Let you fuck me over the desk, and I’ll get the permanent position, too, I bet.”
He missed the dangerous calm in my voice. “Now you’re thinking.” He licked his lips, lifted a finger to touch the apex of my cleavage—the little of it that showed in my conservative work outfit. “You’re a very attractive young lady, Miss St. Claire. I’m sure we could come to an agreeable arrangement.”
God, I hated the arch, faux-formal way he spoke. An agreeable arrangement. I forced down my revulsion for a few more seconds. “What did you have in mind, Mr. Edwards?”
My spine crawled with disgust as his eyes leered and his tongue flicked out over his thin, pale lips. He made short work of his belt, and I heard the telltale zzzzhhrip of his zipper going down. I didn’t look, didn’t want to see what he’d just pulled out.
“Well, let’s just see how you do, and we’ll go from there.” He leaned back against the edge of his desk, a greedy smirk on his face. “And…unbutton the blouse a bit.”
I toyed with the button of my shirt, staring into his sludge-brown eyes. “You want a little show, huh, Mr. Edwards?” I freed the top button, which I would’ve done on the elevator anyway. I felt my breasts loosen a bit, no longer quite so constricted. His eyes devoured the expanse of cleavage. “How’s this?”
“Very nice. But…how about a bit more?”
I nodded, as if this was perfectly reasonable, still refusing to look down at his crotch. And then, without warning, I snapped my head forward, felt my forehead connect with his nose, felt cartilage break. I stepped away as crimson blood sluiced from his nose. “How about fuck you, Mr. Edwards?”
I left him bleeding, sagging against his desk. I shuddered as I caught an accidental glimpse of his wrinkled, veiny, now-flaccid penis hanging over his zipper. God, I could’ve gone the rest of my life without seeing that.
I opened his door and walked out, glanced down at my shirt, and cursed as I realized I had a few droplets of blood on my blouse. I stopped in the women’s room and dabbed cold water onto the stain, then retrieved my belongings from my desk. I didn’t have much to get, a few granola bars, some spare tampons, and—most importantly—my framed photo of Mom, Dad, my younger brother Cal, and me. It was taken several years ago. Before. Before Dad was murdered. Before Mom got sick. Before I went from innocent, naïve, privileged college girl to primary breadwinner for three people, one of whom didn’t even recognize me most days. Before life went completely down the drain, putting all my dreams out of reach, leaving me desperate, exhausted, stressed, and frustrated.
I stuffed my things into my purse and walked with as much dignity as I possessed toward the bank of elevators, hiding my mirth as I saw Mr. Edwards being escorted out by security. His pants were buttoned, but not zipped, and his once-impeccable suit was spattered with blood. Two more security staff members were going from cubicle to cubicle, looking for me, I supposed.
I took the stairs and exited the building.
Since my temp agency never had any parking spots available, I caught the bus over to their offices, hoping I’d be able to find another job right away.
My contact, Sheila, tapped on her computer for several minutes, then turned to me with a slight frown. “I’m sorry, Kyrie, but we just don’t have anything else right now.”
“He sexually assaulted me, Sheila.”
Sheila let out a long breath. “I understand that, Kyrie, and he will be dealt with accordingly, but that doesn’t change the fact that I don’t have any work available at the moment.”
I tried to keep breathing. “Can you check again? I’ll take anything. Literally anything.”
She looked again, and then glanced back up at me with a shrug. “Nothing. I’m so sorry. Maybe try again in a few weeks.”
“I won’t have an apartment in a few weeks.”
“I’m sorry, honey. Things are tight. What can I tell you?” She laid a manicured hand on mine. “Do you need a few bucks? I can spare you—”
I stood up. “No. Thanks.” I did need the money, desperately. I’d skipped lunch today, just to have a bit more cash to go toward the rent. But I wouldn’t take pity charity. “I’ll figure something out.”
Slowly, I walked back to get my car from the parking lot. I started it, and then remembered that, because I’d just been fired, I wouldn’t get my parking slip validated. Shit. There went another fifteen bucks I couldn’t spare.
The drive home was long in more ways than one. I’d been working in an office downtown, but I lived more than forty-five minutes away in the suburbs north of Detroit. My car was running on fumes by the time I got home, and my stomach was empty, rumbling and growling and gurgling.
I struggled to hold back the tears as I checked the mail. I was fumbling through the envelopes, muttering “fuck…fuck…fuck” under my breath at each new bill. There was DTE Energy, Consumers, AT&T cable and Internet, water, gas, Cal’s tuition, my tuition, Mom’s hospice bill…and a plain white envelope with no return address, just my name—Kyrie St. Claire—handwritten in neat black script in the center, along with my address. I tucked the other bills into my purse and stuck the envelope between my lips as I inserted my key in the lock.
That, of course, was when I saw the white notice taped to my apartment door. Eviction Notice: pay rent or quit within 3 days.
I was still a hundred dollars short on rent. Or rather, short of the one month of rent I could scrounge up. I had been hoping to avoid eviction long enough to be able to catch up on the past due amount. But that wasn’t going to happen now. I’d just been fired.
Still holding back tears, I opened my door, closed it behind me, and stifled a sob. I let the envelope fall to the floor at my feet and covered my mouth with my fist, tears hot and salty in my eyes. No. No. No tears, no regret, no self-pity. Figure it the fuck out, Kyrie. Figure it out.
I pushed away from the door, knelt to retrieve the bizarre envelope, and flicked the light switch.
Of course the power had been turned off.
On top of everything, I was starving. I’d had one of my granola bars on the drive home, but I needed something more. The only food I had in the kitchen was one package of ramen, some ketchup, two-week-old Chinese carryout, and a bag of baby carrots. And a single, lonely little cup of black cherry Chobani.
Thank you, Jesus, and all the Greeks for Chobani. And thank you for the fact that the yogurt was still cold.
I took my yogurt from the dark, still-cool fridge, opened it, grabbed a spoon from the drawer, and stirred it up. I opened my blouse all the way, unzipped my skirt, and perched on the counter, eating my yogurt, relishing every bite. Apart from the meager amount of food, I had one paycheck for not quite eight hundred dollars for two weeks of temp office work, plus my severance pay. That was it.
Finally, I couldn’t hold back the sobs any longer. I gave in and let myself cry for a solid ten minutes. I tore off a piece of paper towel—my last roll—and dabbed at my nose and eyes, making myself stop. I’d figure this out. Somehow.
The strange envelope caught my eye. It was sitting where I’d left it on top of the microwave. I reached over and grabbed it, slid my index finger under the flap. Inside was…a check?
Yes, a check. A personal check.
For ten thousand dollars.
Made out to me.
I took a deep breath, put the check face down on my lap, and blinked several times. Hard. Okay, look again. Yep. It said, Pay to the order of Kyrie St. Claire, in the amount of ten thousand dollars and zero cents. At the top left of the check was the payer: VRI Inc., and a P.O. box address in Manhattan.
And there, in the bottom left-hand corner, on the single line opposite the illegible signature, was a single word. YOU. All caps, all in the same bold, neat script that appeared on the envelope. I examined the signature again, but it was little more than a squiggly black line. I thought there might be a “V,” and maybe an “R,” but there was no way to be sure. I guess that would make sense, given the fact that the payer was VRI Incorporated. But that didn’t tell me much.
No note, nothing in the envelope except the check. For ten thousand dollars.
What the hell was I supposed to do? Cash it? Ten thousand dollars would pay current rent due, as well as the past due amount; it would get the electricity turned back on after paying what I owed them…ten thousand dollars would pay all my bills and still leave me enough to get the brakes on my car fixed.
Ten thousand dollars.
From whom? And why? I knew no one. I had no family other than my mom and brother. I mean, yeah, I had Grandma and Grandpa in Florida, but they were living off Social Security, and were about five minutes from moving into a nursing home…that I couldn’t pay for. They’d asked me for money last year. And I’d given it to them.
What if I cashed this, and it was…like, the Mob? And they’d come for what I owed them, and they’d break my kneecaps. Okay, that was stupid. But, for real, who on earth would send me money at all, much less this much? I had one friend, Layla. And she was almost as desperate as I was.
Nonetheless, I called her. She answered on the fourth ring. “Hey, bitch. What’s up?”
“Did you—this is going to sound really dumb, but you didn’t mail me a check? Did you? Like, you didn’t secretly win the lottery?” I laughed, like it was joke. “I mean, you didn’t, right?”
Layla guffawed. “Have you been drinking? Why the hell would I mail you a check? I don’t even have checks. And if I did, and if I had money to give you, why would I mail it to you?”
“Yeah, right. That’s—that’s what I thought.”
Layla caught the tone in my voice. “What’s going on, Key?”
I wasn’t sure what to say. “I. Um. Can I come over? For…a few days?”
“Your electricity got shut off?”
“I also got evicted.”
“No,” she breathed.
“What?” Layla shrieked. “Didn’t you just tell me you were going to get the permanent job?”
“I was sexually propositioned by Mr. Edwards.”
“Shut the fuck up.”
“He said I could keep my job if I sucked his cock. I mean, he didn’t say it in so many words. But he made it clear…by pulling his dick out.”
“Key. You’ve got to be kidding me.” Layla’s voice was flat, disbelieving.
“Wish I was. I’ll never get that mental image out of my head. Ugh.” I didn’t fake the shudder of revulsion. “Know what I did?”
“I head-butted him. Broke his nose.”
“You did not!”
I nodded, and then realized I was on the phone. “I did. I totally did.”
Layla was silent for a minute. Then, “Damn, Kyrie. That’s a hell of a shitty day.” I heard the light bulb go off. “What was that about the check?”
“Can I come over? You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” I had to force my voice to stay calm.
“Of course. Bring your blankie, bitch. Let’s have us a sleepover.”
Layla would never let me down. I mean, she couldn’t pay my rent for me, but she’d let me stay on her couch until doomsday if I needed to. She lived with her boyfriend, Eric, so we couldn’t be roommates anymore, but she’d always welcomed me. I changed, packed my bags—which didn’t take much time—and left my shitty, third-hand furniture where it was. Either I’d be able to come back for it, or I wouldn’t. Nothing to do about it now.
At Layla’s, I kicked off my shoes and accepted the Bud Light she handed me. Layla was half-black, half-Italian, all attitude and curves. Long black hair, dark brown eyes, and flawless mocha skin. We’d been best friends since the first day of college, roommates for two years, until she met Eric and got serious enough to move in with him. Eric was…okay. Smart, good-looking, nice…and a small-time pot dealer. I didn’t actively dislike him, but I didn’t get what Layla saw in him. He wasn’t a bad guy, just not my cup of tea. She knew it, and she didn’t care. She liked him, he liked her, and it worked for them. Whatever.
I sat back on her ratty couch, drained half of my beer, and then handed Layla the envelope. Or, as I thought of it, The Envelope. “I got this in the mail today. Just like that. Out of the blue. Open it.”
Layla frowned at me, then examined the outside. “Nice handwriting.”
“I know. But look inside. And…maybe sit down.” I took another long pull of my beer.
Layla perched her butt on the arm of the couch beside me and withdrew the check. “Holy shit!” She looked at me, her eyes wide. “Key, this is ten thousand dollars. You know what you could do with this?”
“Yeah. I do. But…where did it come from? Who sent it? Why? And more importantly…do I dare cash it?”
Layla sighed. “I get your point. I mean, part of me says ‘duh, cash that bitch!’, but the untrusting part of me says ‘hold on now, sister.’”
“Exactly. I’d never be able to pay this back. Not ever.” I finished my beer, and got up to get another one, found a box of old pizza in the fridge. “Can I?” I lifted the box.
Layla shrugged. “Go for it. So what are you going to do?”
“I don’t know, Layla. I wish I did. I—I’m at the end of my rope. If I didn’t have you, I’d be living in my car right now. Daddy’s life insurance policy ran out six months ago. I’m short on rent, and all my other bills are past due. Cal’s tuition needs paying, and so does mine. Fuck, everything is due. And I don’t have a job. I looked for weeks to find even this temp job. I’ll never find another one. And now…right when I need it most, this” —I snatched the check from Layla and shook it— “shows up. I don’t see how I can not cash it. I’ll just have to hope I don’t end up owing, like, Sal the Sliceror something.”
Layla nodded. “That’s a risk. You don’t know who this is.” She taps the check. “Did you Google this VRI Incorporated?”
“No electricity, remember? I couldn’t use my computer. And I’m out of data on my cell phone plan.”
“Oh.” Layla slumped into the chair in front of her PC, which was almost as old as mine. She brought up Google, typed in the name and address, and scrolled through the results. “Nothing. I mean, there are tons of companies with that name, and the fact that it’s a P.O. box means whoever it is doesn’t want to be found.”
“No shit, Sherlock. Short of hiring a fucking P.I. or something, I don’t see how I can find out who this is.”
“So you cash it.”
“So I cash it.”
We spent the evening drinking. I got blitzed on about eight beers and passed out on the couch, since I didn’t have to be up in the morning. Layla and I both had an afternoon class, so we slept in until almost eleven, which was nice. After breakfast and a shower, Layla and I went together to the bank. I stood in front of the teller, two checks in my hand, shaking like a leaf. Eventually, I managed to hand them to the teller. I asked her to deposit them, and give me back a thousand dollars in cash.
When that was done, the teller handed me a receipt and an envelope full of the cash she’d counted out to me. I put two hundred dollars in twenties in my purse, and left the other eight hundred in the envelope. I stared at the bank balance on the receipt: $9,658.67. We left the bank, got into my car, and drove to the university. True to form, Layla made no mention of the money, no hints at how many bills she had due, how much she could use even a couple hundred bucks. Couple hundred? Shit, to girls in our situation, even twenty bucks would be a godsend. She wouldn’t ask, not ever, no matter how much money I had. Just like I wouldn’t ask her if the situation were reversed. She’d never ask for anything unless she was in dire straits like I was now. Before we got out and went to class, I put the envelope of cash into Layla’s hand.
“Here.” I folded her fingers over the edge. “I know you need it.”
Layla stared at me. “Um. No.”
I nodded. “Um, yes. You didn’t think I wouldn’t share with my best friend, did you?”
“Kyrie. You can’t give this to me. You need it.”
I smiled at her. “You do, too. I have enough now. You’re not just my bestie, Layla. You’re…you’re like family. So just take it and say thank you.”
She sniffled. “You’re gonna make me smear my mascara, hookerface.” Layla took a deep breath, blinked, and visibly forced away the tears. “Thank you, Kyrie. You know I love you, right?”
It was a big deal for her to say that. She’d grown up in a tough household. No abuse, just cold and closed off, not the kind of family that exchanged declarations of love on a regular basis. I knew she loved Eric, but I’d never heard her say it. I was very much the same, growing up in a stable and happy home, but not one where everyone was given to frequent hugs or I-love-you’s. Layla and I had been best friends for more than three years. We’d gone through thick and thin together, faced near-starvation, faced asshole boyfriends and dickhole professors and betraying ex-friends, bar fights and cat fights and apartment break-ins. I’d been there for her when she had been sexually assaulted by a jealous ex-boyfriend, and she’d been there for me when Mom had her breakdown, necessitating long-term hospitalization. Yet, for all that, despite the fact that we’d both take a bullet for each other, we didn’t tell each other we loved one another.
My turn to blink back tears. “I love you, too.”
“Now shut up with the girly bullshit. I’ve gotta get to class.” She leaned over and hugged me, and then left my car, clicking across the parking lot in her three-inch heels.
I sat for a few more minutes. My class was a lecture, so I could easily slip in the back and catch up on what I missed if I needed to. I pulled the bank receipt out of my purse and stared at it, wondering if I’d just made the biggest mistake of my life, taking that money. I mean, I needed it so, so bad. No question about that. I was at the point where I’d have to resort to stripping or hooking pretty soon, and that wasn’t much of an exaggeration. And that’d be just to feed myself, let alone keep a roof over my head. This money was literally a lifesaver.
But the one lesson in life I’d learned was that nothing was ever free. Someday, someone would come looking for what I owed them. I’d just have to accept that, keep it in mind, and try to not be too surprised when my debtor came knocking.
I tucked the receipt away and went off to class. Afterward, I popped into the tuition office to pay my bill, and then stopped by the rental office on the way home and paid up what I owed, plus next month’s rent. It was an incredible feeling knowing I was caught up through the entire next month. I sent out checks and spent the evening on the phone with utility companies, getting caught up. By the time all my bills were paid, my checkbook ledger said I had a little less than two grand left, including my final paycheck. My brakes would cost a few hundred to replace, which would leave me with a tiny little cushion to live on.
Thank you, whoever sent me that money. I pushed the thought out into the ether, wondering, not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, who was behind the mysterious check. And what he, or she, or they would want in return.
* * *
In the middle of the following month, I was collecting the mail on the way home from work. I’d finally, after weeks of filling out applications for hours every day, found a job. As a hostess at Outback. Yuck. But it paid. Not much, but something. I’d stretched the cushion from that big anonymous check as long as possible, but it was gone already. I was caught up on my bills, and didn’t have to pay rent for another few weeks, but the panic was still there.
So imagine my shock when, tucked between a utility bill and a coupon circular, was The Envelope. Same script, no return address. And inside? Another check for ten grand.
On the notes line, another single word: belong.
Shit. Not good. Not good. Not good at all. I called Layla, and she agreed that the meaning could be ominous, but she also agreed that since I’d cashed the first one, I might as well cash the second one. I was in deep; I already owed whoever it was more money than I’d ever be able to pay back, so why not dig myself in that much deeper? If they came collecting I’d be just as fucked, so I might as well enjoy it while it lasted, right?
So I cashed it. Paid bills. Fixed the AC on my car, and replaced the long-dead radio. I went behind Layla’s back and paid her rent. Attended class, went to work, begged for extra shifts, begged to be trained as a server. And, eventually, I got the server position, which helped a lot. The month passed, and soon it was the middle of the month again. As the days folded one into the other, I tried to ignore the hope that I’d get another Envelope.
And I did.
My hands shook, as they always did, when I opened it. This time, there were two words on the notes line: to me.
You belong to me.
Layla was justifiably freaked out, as was I.
But still, there was no hint as to whom I belonged.
So, with nothing else to do, I kept on living. Paid my bills, tucked away some extra, helped out Layla.
I had a free day—a canceled class, and I wasn’t scheduled to work. So I visited Mom. Which I hated. It was my duty as her daughter to visit her every once in a while, but I didn’t see the point most of the time.
I parked outside the nursing home, made my way past the elderly residents as they listlessly watched TV in the rec room, passed open doors with sick, frail humans in mechanical beds, passed closed doors. I stopped outside Mom’s door, which was always closed. I took a deep breath, girded myself with as much strength as I could summon, and pushed in.
Mom was sitting on her bed, knees drawn up to her chest, hair lank against her skull, unwashed and greasy. She hated showers. They could get to you through the showerhead, Mom claimed. Getting her clean usually took several orderlies and a sedative.
“Hi, Mama.” I took a hesitant step closer, waiting to see how she’d be today before trying to hug her.
Some days, the paranoia made it dangerous to get too close to her.
“They’re laughing at me. They’re closer today. Closer. Coming in through the windows. CLOSE THE BLINDS!” she shrieked suddenly, lunging off the bed and tearing at the window with her fingernails, scrabbling for the nonexistent cord.
I grabbed her wrists and pulled her away. “I’ll close them for you, Mama. It’s okay. Ssshhh. It’s okay.”
She hesitated, peering at me. “Kyrie? Is that you?”
I felt my breath catch. “Yeah—yeah, Mama. It’s me.”
Her eyes narrowed. “How do I know it’s really you? They try to trick me sometimes, you know. They send agents. Lookalikes. Sometimes the nurses in this awful prison you’ve got me in pretend to be you. They dress up like you, and they talk like you. Tell me something only my daughter would know. Tell me!” she hissed, baring her teeth at me.
I tried to stay calm. “I fell off my bike when I was nine, Mama. Remember? I cut my knee open and had to walk four blocks back home. My sock was so full of blood I had to dump my shoe out. You gave me a Popsicle. Grape. Only, I was crying so hard, I dropped the Popsicle into the tub. You made me rinse it off and eat it anyway. Remember that?”