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Page 4 of Alpha (Alpha 1)

“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 ass**le 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.

You 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 f**ked, 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.

Ohshit. Shitohshitohfuckohshit.

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.

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