tagRomanceThe Hacker

The Hacker

byDreamCloud©

Author's Note: I haven't written one this short in awhile. It was nice to get it out of my head in in under 20,000 words. Thanks Tim413413 - at least I am starting to make it a little easier to edit.

*****

Mailboxes had been innocuous things most of my life. The last year had made mine something to fear. It was a simple white metal box, sitting atop a crossbeam of white wood. That was, in turn, mounted on a vertical white four-by-four, cemented securely in the ground at the edge of the driveway. Three blooming red roses were painted on the side of the box, tied together with an artistic green vine. I remembered picking it out so many years ago. I thought it was pretty and now I only saw the roses' non-rendered thorns.

My husband's death, a year-and-a-half ago, had removed most of the color from the world. Cancer was the murderer, a fight we took on with money we didn't have. He had beaten it once before, when we were first married, with aggressive radiation and chemo. I thought we would beat it again. When the insurance ran out, we borrowed. When we reached our credit limit, we lied and borrowed more. Tom wasn't here to see the river of financial sludge left in the wake of his illness. He knew it in the end and refused treatment, trying to lessen the burden. I would have assumed the national debt if it meant another day. My arguments fell on loving deaf ears. He died in my arms, at home where he belonged.

I opened the jaws of the mailbox and reached into its throat. I withdrew a small stack of letters, most covered with red ink. My heart constricted as it always did. I was still not used to being dead broke. I had placated the financial leeches for over a year, parsing out the life insurance proceeds in conservative installments. Now, that spigot had run dry. It was my own fault. I had supported Tom through college, never seeking a degree myself. My bookkeeping job, the one I wasn't qualified for, handed to me by a dear friend, didn't come close to providing the funds I needed. Unbidden, a tear ran down my cheek. Life had raped me.

I stood at the end of the driveway, sorting the bills by priority. A past due from the mortgage company caught my breath. I had forgotten I had put that off. I looked up at the small ranch, speckled brown bricks half way up the front with tan siding sitting on top of them to the roof. It was to be our starter home. Now, I would be lucky if it remained my only home. The power and phone bills joined the mortgage at the top of the stack. The three persistent medical bills, MasterCard and the locksmith bill to the bottom.

"Mom, dinner's ready," Natalie yelled from the front door. I snapped the letters to my side, hiding the obnoxious red lettering. Sixteen, with all the problems of high school on her shoulders, she had grown up too fast without her father. She had been Tom's angel, almost to the point of generating my jealousy when she could turn his attention from me by just entering the room. It took me a week to get her back to school after her father's death. Now, he was a cherished memory, and the thought of boys Tom would not approve of had become her world.

"I'm coming, honey," I said with a forced smile. Trying to hide from Natalie how poor we had become was exhausting. She already had enough problems with homework and the cruel right of passage of high school. I wiped my eyes after she ducked back into the house. As I moved up the driveway, I caught, out of the corner of my eye, my new neighbor, Jared Thompson, watching me. I looked over at him on his knees trimming the edge of his lawn with shears. His eyes returned to his work as if I wouldn't notice. The bill of his baseball cap covered any need for him to acknowledge me. A strange man. I had met him briefly when he first moved in two months ago. The conversation was difficult since he never really formed complete sentences. One word answers that disallowed me from politely finding out anything about him. Besides a few hellos and waves, we hadn't spoken since.

Jared was just as cryptic with other neighbors. He was a mystery to the neighborhood. We had deduced he lived alone simply from the lack of seeing others and no additional cars. Some of the furniture he moved in seemed to have a woman's touch, but no woman followed. His distinguished graying sideburns clashed with his youthful face. The guess was that he was in his early forties, possibly divorced. I guessed widower, since I surmised the furniture would have followed the wife in a divorce. There was a shadow of sadness around him that created a barrier to anyone trying to dig deeper. I knew death does that to a person. Jared didn't lift his head again, so I aborted my friendly wave and entered the house.

"Smells good." I smiled at Natalie. She had taken over the dinner duty, I breakfast. It made life easier, and I dearly needed easier. After a full day at work, cooking wasn't exactly a chore I looked forward to. It was Natalie's hunger that made her offer her services. We wouldn't be eating until after six if she waited for me to play chef. She, of course, would starve to death by then.

"Suggi's Pizza offered me a job," Natalie said, not looking at me. I sucked in my breath, putting the letters face down on the kitchen counter. The school year had barely started. A summer job was one thing, but this could hurt her grades. She knew I wouldn't approve. That was why she was concentrating on stirring the noodles.

"Honey, I don't think that..."

"I'm going to accept," Natalie interrupted. She turned to me, almost a woman. "I know what's in those letters you try to hide. I can at least buy my own clothes and gasoline." My throat swelled up.

"These aren't your problem," I choked out, pointing at the letters. "Your job is to get good grades and build a future." She turned back to the noodles. I realized I hadn't said no.

"It's Friday night and eight hours on Saturday; possibly one other night if someone calls in sick," Natalie continued, "I'm old enough now, so it's done." My eyes began to feel misty.

"I don't want that for you," I said firmly, with a mother's authority.

"And I didn't want Daddy to die either," Natalie said softly. I saw her shoulders jerk as she said it. I went to her as I lost control of my tears. She turned to me, her own tears just beginning. I held her, my daughter, my life, a woman in all but age.

"It will help," I conceded between sobs. We had a long-needed cry. Some of the noodles burnt to the bottom of the pan.

Natalie insisted on knowing how deep underwater we were. I spent dinner telling her half of it, which was twice as much as I should have told her. At her age, the sums seemed astronomical. She must have been thinking thousands, not hundreds of thousands. I was making daily calls to forestall a bankruptcy that would see us lose our house. I teetered constantly on giving in and moving to some decrepit apartment, but Natalie had enough disruption in her life.

"Why didn't you tell me sooner?" Natalie asked. Her eyes were wider than a sixteen-year-old's should be.

"I'm your mother," I answered, as if that explained everything. I fell back on the useless cliché. "You'll understand when you have children of your own." She would, but that was, hopefully, many years away.

"But you bought that stupid magazine subscription," Natalie said incredulously. It was for a fundraiser for her school.

"I didn't want you to be the only one who didn't sell one," I answered weakly. It was stupid vanity. Some idea that Natalie would be lessened if she didn't sell a subscription.

"That's silly...," Natalie said, then tilted her head slightly, "thanks." I smiled. It was the thought that counted. "Are we going to have to move?"

"Maybe," I said quietly. In time, the answer would be yes. I wasn't sure how much longer I could hold off the inevitable. It was actually better to have it out in the open. I felt like a failure, but I didn't see it in Natalie's eyes. "I'm sorry," I added weakly. She hugged me again. At least the truth had the benefit of us seeing eye to eye for once.

==========

I listened to the recording and decided to continue in English. The menu was rattled off, and I chose three for customer service. A year of paying things late, and you learn the systems. Not all late payment penalties are the same. You can get most removed with only a simple phone call. TriDeed Mortgage was such a company. This call would be fairly embarrassing since it would be my third attempt at getting a penalty removed. I had the depressed real estate market working in my favor. Foreclosing wasn't a profitable endeavor for mortgage companies when a mortgagor's equity was almost nonexistent. Mine was in that category.

"TriDeed Mortgage, this is Monica. How may I help you?" The voice was pleasant. They always were. I decided the truth was in order. They can't squeeze blood from a stone.

"Hi Monica, this is Linda Henderson," I started, returning the friendly tone. "I received a late payment notice with a $78 penalty yesterday."

"May I have your address, please?" Monica interrupted before I started my begging. I rattled it off and waited as I heard her typing it into the keyboard. Not a good sign. My payment history will come up on the screen before I could plead my case. "One moment, please," she said before putting me on hold. Generic background music started. I waited a couple of minutes and, thinking I was lost in their phone system, almost hung up to try calling back,.

"Mrs. Henderson?" Monica came back.

"Yes." A long wait is never a good sign.

"It seems there was a timing error. The bill was generated before your payment was processed. You may destroy that bill with our apologies." Monica sounded contrite. I was dumbfounded.

"Ah...I'm sorry," I stuttered, "I'm a little confused. I was calling to get the penalty removed."

"As I said, Mrs. Henderson," Monica repeated, "the computers get ahead of us sometimes and bill erroneously. We apologize. The title department is clearing the mortgage, and you can expect to receive the deed in a day or so." I dropped the phone. Betty, my cubicle mate, looked over. I quickly picked up the receiver.

"My deed?" I asked stupidly.

"Yes," Monica continued, "we received the balance of the loan on April 7th. It takes up to ten days to be cleared and verified by our title department. Again, we apologize for the error. I know how a bill like that can make you feel - especially when it's unwarranted." I almost hung up. I was about ten years old playing Monopoly the last time I had a bank error in my favor. My moral fiber kicked in. I had to force it out.

"Ah..there...I didn't," I took a deep breath and started again. "Monica, I didn't pay off the loan." Honesty is painful sometimes.

"Oh." Monica paused for a second. "One moment please." Back to the background music. Betty looked over at me. She knew something of my money problems. The half conversation intrigued her. I covered the receiver with my hand.

"They say my mortgage is paid off," I told Betty quietly.

"And you're arguing?" Betty returned. I shrugged my shoulders and nodded. Betty laughed. "Honesty is not always the best policy." I smiled at her humor.

"They will find the error eventually," I countered. If anything, they would feel obliged to remove my penalty for my honesty.

"Mrs. Henderson?" This time it was a male voice.

"Yes." I turned away from Betty.

"I'm Rick Carlson in the title department. I understand you believe we have made an error."

"Yes," I chuckled, "it seems you think I paid off my mortgage. As lovely as that sounds, I'm afraid I don't have that kind of money."

"I rechecked the application of funds, and everything seems in order. "I'm looking at an image of the check. It was accompanied by a letter which explicitly names your mortgage by number and address." My face was flushing and I was beginning to sweat. I didn't know anyone with that kind of money.

"Um...Whose name is on the check?" I asked. I fanned myself with a folder on my desk.

"Its a certified bank check; no name given" I was feeling dizzy. This had to be some kind of joke. "Just the sum of $127,356.23, which was your outstanding balance."

"I...I didn't send it." My voice was shaking. Euphoria mixed with an unknown fear.

"The check has cleared, Mrs. Henderson." I think he could hear my reservations. "Everything is in order. Someone must have given you a gift." He chuckled. "I certainly wouldn't fight it."

"Of course...no...what does this mean?"

"It means your house is free and clear, I have already authorized the deed to be sent." My emotions got the best of me. The strain of the last few years flooded my eyes. Betty wheeled her chair close to mine.

"Someone paid off my house," I mumbled to Betty, my mouth separated from the receiver. She handed me a tissue off the desk. I wiped my eyes.

"Mrs. Henderson?" Rick asked, thinking he had lost me. A horrible thought struck me.

"Can they take it back?" I asked. My voice more solid.

"Well, I suppose anything is possible," Rick responded, "it would be awfully difficult at this point. Maybe through a court order." He paused for a moment. "If you truly didn't send the money, then I suppose there might be tax implications."

"Taxes?" I asked. No one ever gave me money like that before.

"I'm guessing, I'm not a tax guy" Rick replied, "you would have to talk with a CPA to find out."

"So I don't have to send you any more money?" I wanted verification. I wanted it written in stone. I wanted to make sure I wasn't dreaming.

"No," Rick answered clearly, "your loan is repaid." I concluded the call there, thanking him, while I wondered if I was dreaming.

"Who paid off your mortgage?" Betty asked, when the receiver was back in the cradle.

"I have no idea," I responded. "Whoever they are, they are lovely and wonderful." I looked at Betty, "I was near bankruptcy - hell, I was bankrupt."

"Do you think they want something from you?" Betty continued.

"I don't know," I sighed longingly, allowing my mind to realize my paycheck would go much, much farther. There was a light, a blessed light, at the end of my debt-ridden tunnel. "I have nothing of value."

"Sex," Betty joked.

"I'm sure I wouldn't command that much," I laughed. I hadn't been with anyone since Tom's death - too much debt and all the stress that goes with it. Dating wasn't high in my thoughts, not that I could imagine replacing Tom anyway.

"Your organs then," Betty continued.

"That's it," I laughed, "they want my kidney."

"I'm happy for you," Betty said as a friend, "you deserve a break." I nodded then pointed at Mr. Brewster who was coming down the aisle. We quickly returned to our terminals and began processing accounts receivables. I had trouble not smiling. I had no idea why someone would do such a thing for me and I realized I didn't care. It was the best thing to happen to me in years. I was going to wallow in it while I could.

I spent my lunch with Betty trying to guess who would have done such a thing. The only people we knew with that kind of money, didn't really know me. The owner of the company I worked for, Franklin Construction, was one. I had only met him once. He was a nice guy with a nice wife and a whole litter of kids. There was no way I was on his radar. I had no close relatives left in the world. I believed there might be a great aunt, by marriage, still living. I only knew her by an old picture. I met her once when I was five. She had to be in her nineties. I couldn't imagine, if she did have the money, she would have given it to me anonymously. I doubt she even remembered me.

In time, I would find out. I promised Betty she would be the first to know. Everything felt lighter. I would be able to pay off a few things and begin to catch up on the medical bills. I owed someone big. It was a different type of debt - one without dollar signs.

==========

I stopped off at the locksmith's on my way home. It was a one-man shop. Randy was that man. His wife, or at least I assumed she was, was behind the counter with him. They looked like they were getting ready to close.

"Good evening, Mrs. Henderson," Randy announced when I walked up to them. How he remembered my name, I had no idea.

"Hi," I smiled, my new-found wealth spilling out in happiness, "I'm here to bring my account up to date. I'm sorry about the slow payment." His wife gave me a forced smile. I sensed she found slow payments to be a very bad thing. Randy just shrugged it off.

"How is that new lock holding up?" Randy asked, "they ever catch the person?" He was speaking about the break-in. Someone had taken a crowbar to my back door four months ago, damaging the old lock. It happened while Natalie was at school and I was at work. It scared us for a few weeks, but we got over it.

"The deadbolt makes us feel safe, thank you" I answered, "they never caught anyone, and we still can't find anything missing. I guess they tried to rob the wrong house." I really didn't have anything of great value. Yard sale items at best. I brought out my checkbook. "I left the bill at home. How much do I owe you?"

"$168.50," his wife rattled off from memory. I could tell she wasn't pleased with me.

"I'm sorry it took so long," I repeated to his wife. She softened a little in her eyes. I filled out the check and handed it to her. She accepted it gracefully. It felt wonderful to clear another debt even if it was one of the smaller ones. Yesterday, it was as insurmountable as the Himalayas.

==========

I pulled into the driveway and got out to raise the garage door. The opener broke about six months ago, taunting my weak arm strength. I smiled, thinking I might be able to afford getting it fixed soon. I could always stall the medical bills longer. They understood as along as I continued to make small payments. I was still swimming in debt, but now I had a good set of flippers to keep me on the surface.

"Mrs. Henderson?" Jared Thompson surprised me by appearing out of his landscaping. His jeans had wet stains on the knees, his gloves were smudged with green. He must have been pulling weeds.

"Evening, Jared, please call me Linda."

"Linda," he started again. It sounded nice coming from his mouth. Almost like he enjoyed saying it. "I feel awkward, never being a parent, but I thought I should say something. I know I would want to know, if I was a parent." I could see he was uncomfortable, almost shying away from his intent. This had something to do with Natalie. I wasn't sure I wanted to hear what he had to say.

"What is it?" I asked. With my smile gone, he looked even less confident. He looked at his hands for a moment, then looked back up. There was determination in his eyes when they returned to mine.

"Your daughter, Natalie is it?" Jared started. I nodded and crossed my arms under my chest. "She has a visitor every day after school." I remained expressionless, wondering where this was heading. I wasn't sure if anger was appropriate. I know I wasn't enamored with him sticking his nose where it didn't belong. He must have seen it in my face. "I'm sorry, it's not my place. I'm invading your family's privacy." Jared turned with full intention of walking away.

"What is it, Jared?" I asked, trying to keep my venom under control. He was right, it wasn't any of his business, but now that he had started, he had to finish. He turned back, his lips pursed. I could tell he regretted starting the conversation.

"He's an older boy," Jared continued, "I don't mean to say that anything is happening, but he always leaves before you get home." He shook his head, looking disgusted with himself. I, on the other hand, was now interested. "It's just that...I thought you should know. The kid drives a Lexus. A rich kid... every day...I just felt...look, I was young once. If I had been a rich kid, I suspect I would have...I'm sorry, I guess I am really out of line here."

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