Inside her mother’s house in the town of Tonner, Jena moved across the bedroom with the phone pressed tightly against her ear. With small persuasive sounds, the stranger speaking through the receiver coaxed her to take a seat on the bed.
"Are you sitting now? Fine. I’ll start at the beginning." Andrew cleared his throat. "I met your mother through a nonprofit organization. I was her counselor."
"Nonprofit organization?" Jena asked. She searched the bundle of mail on the bed looking for evidence that would confirm this man’s words.
"Debt consolidation. Your mother had mountains of debt when she called our office for help. I handled her case."
Finding an interesting envelope, Jena ripped it open with her teeth. She snorted into the phone at the talking man. "You handled her case? Then why did I find a letter which says that you couldn’t help her?"
"The company could not help her, because of false and incomplete information." Andrew admitted above the static in the line. "When your mother contacted us, she was already going by your name, Jena. She used you as an escape to get away from the creditors."
"My mother never talked about bill problems. Not once," Jena grumbled.
Andrew chuckled sadly. "No parent ever wants to admit that they are going through problems, especially when their children think the world of them. Your mom was both proud and stubborn, but you already knew that."
Jena wrapped one arm around her waist to comfort herself. She wasn’t sure what she knew anymore. "What happened to her, Andrew?"
A fumbling noise came through the handset, maybe the man switching the phone between hands. Jena could swear she heard a car door shut, as she rushed to the window and lifted the shade to glance outside. She didn’t find any vehicle in the driveway except her own, and a row of evergreens blocked her view of the road.
"I can only tell you what she told me," Andrew replied, huffing. "So here’s the gist of it. After your father passed away, your mother came to find herself in a lot of insurance money and with a lot of time on her hands. Like any normal person, she did the only thing she could do in such a situation. She splurged on the finer things in life."
That would explain those Christmas presents, Jena mused to herself. The items had been a little too pricey, and way too frou-frou, compared to the normal gifts her reserved mother would give.
Sniffling, the man sneezed away from the phone before continuing to speak. "The bills began racking up and your mother lost track of things. One missed payment, then another, and that was the end of it. People wanted their money, and the dollar signs were quickly flying away from the insurance windfall. So your mother paid the bills with credit cards, and then she started paying off the credit card bills with other credit cards. It’s a vicious cycle I’ve seen often in my line of work, but this was the first time I’ve ever heard of a woman swiping her daughter’s identity."
"Why?" Jena asked softly. "What good did it do for her?"
Andrew gave a long sigh. "She opened an account under your name and transferred over her dwindling funds. Then she stalled the companies into thinking that Jena Reese had taken over the debts. Bit by bit, your mother tried to repay everyone while cleaning up the bad reputation under her real name. Unfortunately, she fell right back into the same old trap. She filed for a line of credit using your name. I don’t understand why you never figured it out, Jena."
"I don’t use credit cards. I’m a cash-and-carry type of person, so I never thought to check out such things." Curling up her legs on the bed, Jena rocked her body like an impatient child waiting for the rest of a bedtime story. "Where do you fit in?"
There was a long moment of silence. When Andrew finally answered her, his tone had lowered into a whisper. "I felt sorry for her. Your mother sounded so helpless when telling me about her problems, and I became quite taken in with her sincerity about making things right. So I asked her to meet me on private terms, since the organization had washed their hands off concerning her case. I came to the town of Tonner, went through all her paperwork as your mother explained the whole situation, and decided to help. I spoke directly with the businesses to arrange payment plans. Then, to make good on my promises, I paid all the bills myself."
His harsh laughter suddenly erupted from the receiver as Jena held the phone away from her face. Faintly, she could hear similar laughter blowing in the wind outside the house. "You won’t believe how gullible billing departments can be, Jena. They’ll never ask any questions so long as they have a signed check in their hands that clears with the bank. They went so far into believing that we were married although our last names didn’t match and we lived in different cities. The companies didn’t care about any scam."
"Neither did you, it seems." Jena sat up from the bed. She rushed toward the bedroom door and stared down the hall at the front door. Relieved to see that Tim had locked it before leaving, she hurried through the livingroom and drew the chain latch across the doorjamb. "My credit gets screwed up just because no one can admit that what they are doing is wrong. Some counselor you turned out to be, Andrew. Besides, you’re lying. You didn’t pay off everything because I found notices in my mother’s dresser."
"They’re old bills. I mailed them to your mother so she would know that I took care of them," Andrew explained. His attitude turned chilly. "You could be a little more grateful for what I did, Jena. Not only did I straighten out all the debts, but I allowed your mother to keep her dignity."
In anger, Jena clicked her teeth. "I didn’t ask you to do this, and I’m still finding it hard to believe that a complete stranger would go out of his way to help someone like this for no reason."
"I was in love with her."
Gasping, Jena dropped the phone. She stared at it as if it were a snake that had bit her earlobe. When her surprise settled, she knelt to retrieve the phone from the carpet. "Hello? Andrew?"
"I’m still here, Jena."
Secretly, she wasn’t happy about that. "It’s funny, Andrew. You don’t sound like a 59-year-old."
"Because I’m not," Andrew acknowledged easily. "I’m probably closer to your age, my wife."
"Drop the wife act. It’s getting boring. How do I know you weren’t taking advantage of an old woman just so you could get your jollies off?" Jena asked bluntly. She walked about the house double-checking all the locks on the windows.
"You . . . ungrateful . . . little," the man seethed. His breath rolled through the line in agitated puffs. "It doesn’t matter now. Your mother passed away and I’m here to settle things with the real Jena."
"Freak!" Jena screamed at the phone in her hand. "I’m not giving you one dime!"
"You owe me!" Something slammed into the front door, startling Jena, as Andrew’s voice faded in and out through the receiver. "I know your coming into a lot of money. When your mother showed me all the bills, I saw the letter from the developer who wants to purchase the farmland. I know how much he wants to give you for it. I want that money!"
The developer? Jena wanted to laugh, but instead tears dripped from her eyes. Fearfully, she watched a dark shadow pass in front of one curtained window and then the other. Outside, someone paced along the length of the porch. "Listen to me, Andrew. The deal never happened. My mother forgot to throw away the letter. There is no money."
"Now who’s the liar?" Andrew screamed at the house. He slammed his body against the door. "You’re not fooling me anymore, Jena! I’m taking that money!"
Now able to hear the man’s ranting through the door’s wood, Jena cleared the phone line. She fumbled at the keypad, about to call the police, when she heard a thump come from outside. It became quiet along the front of the house, then a shadow appeared at the window as someone tapped at the glass.
"Jena, are you okay in there?"
"Tim?" With tears streaming down her cheeks, Jena sobbed gratefully. She raced to the door and unlocked it as she threw herself into his arms. Before burying her face into his shoulder, she noticed a strange man lying unconscious against the porch rail.
"Jena, what’s going on? I came back to see if you were still here and saw someone pounding against the door. I called the police on my cell phone, then snuck up behind the man and knocked him out." Tim hugged her tightly.
Wiping her wet eyes on his shoulder, Jena listened to the sound of sirens approaching. "I’ll explain everything when the police get here. I owe you one, Tim."
Tim chuckled lightly, "How about going out on a date with me sometime? I promise that I’ll get you back home at nine o’clock sharp."