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“And that takes game,” Aliya announced and slapped down a red eleven Rook card.

My partner, Aunt Mina, moaned and set her green ten down. “I swear, I’ve done nothing but feed you points all game.” She huffed. “I really thought we were going to set you.”

Uncle Mark happily dropped his black five on the table over the two other cards. “Good job.” He laughed and patted my sister on the shoulder.

“Good job, Aliya,” I said and dropped my card on the table. “It was a close round.”

Aliya looked down and gasped. “Wait!” She pointed at my red twelve. “Where did you get that?”

I laughed at her shocked expression and swept the cards over to Aunt Mina to join the small pile of Rook cards in front of her. We didn’t take many hands this round, but every hand we took was full of points.

I planted my elbow on the table and rested my chin in my hand. “You didn’t count your cards right. If you had led trump one more round, you would have forced my last trump card out. I bet you would have taken the last couple points if you had. It didn’t help that I was three suited with red being my second strongest suit.”

She moaned and rested her head in her hands.

“Thirty, forty-five,” Aunt Mina counted the points of the cards in front of her outload. Since we had the smaller pile, it was better to count what we had versus Aliya’s and Uncle Mark’s pile. “Fifty-five.” Aunt Mina put down the last card. “That’s a set!” she announced and held up a high-five.

I clapped her hand. “By five points!”

Aliya moaned and collapsed on the table like an emotional teen, letting out a mock-wail.

Uncle Mark tsked in disappointment. “Aw, I thought we had that,” he grumbled, but his lips curled in a smile anyway. He pulled the score paper closer and wrote down the score, then quickly added or subtracted the numbers. “That makes game,” he said in his slow voice. “Jyn and Mina win with 525. Me and Aliya have 325.”

Aliya huffed and looked at me. “I went easy on you because it’s your birthday.”

I laughed.

Aunt Mina looked at the clock. “But it’s getting late. Why don’t we open up presents now?”

I followed her gaze and frowned at the big hand getting closer to the six. It was funny, since becoming an ‘adult,’ my curfew time was more strict than it was when I was a kid. Back then, if I didn’t get back in time I was guilt tripped to death, but that was it. Now, the Hunters’ Association actually slapped a fine on the Hunters, the penalty getting bigger and bigger with each offense.

“I’ll get them!” Aliya jumped up and hurried down the hall. A couple minutes later, she came back with two small boxes wrapped in red paper. She set them on the table then plopped back into her chair.

My family sang happy birthday to me one more time, then Aunt Mina handed me a long, thin rectangle. I opened it and pulled out the maroon shirt inside.

“It’s pretty, thank you,” I said, running my hand over the soft material. It was fancier than all the other plain tees in my closet at the hostel, but not overkill enough to make me awkward.

Aliya beamed. “I thought it would look great on you. When you get a boyfriend, you really should bring him home, you know. I need to make sure he’s good enough, right?”

I choked. “Yeah, right. As if that’s ever going to happen. Out of the very long list of things I need to do, romance it absolutely on the bottom. Let me tell you.” I put the shirt away in my Items Bag. “Why don’t you get a boyfriend, and I’ll check him out to make sure he’s good enough, huh? Choose carefully, cuz I might beat him up if he’s not.”

Aliya jumped, like I touched her with a live wire. “What?” she yelped.

My eyes narrowed. “Is there —”

“No!” she protested and waved her hands in front of her red face.

“Both of you girls are thirty years too early to talk about boys,” Uncle Mark announced over our antics. But he gave Aliya a second glance, lips pursed with suspicion.

Aunt Mina seconded the notion, her eyes peeking at my little sister. Aunt Mina passed me the next package, a small square box.

Inside was a dime-sized circular white magic crystal on a long silver chain.

“Wow,” I whispered and touched the stone, noticing the slight light that it gave off. There wasn’t a doubt that it had a small magic buff on it. When I was growing up, I always wanted something like this. Something elegant and simple enough that I could wear it all the time without worrying about it sticking out too much. I just didn’t think I’d get it now.

“We thought it would look good with the shirt,” Aliya added, beaming. “And it kind of matches Mom’s bracelet that you have. So, you know, you could wear them together.”

I smiled at her and slipped on the necklace right there. It lay over the rough blue fabric of my plain T-shirt. I couldn’t resist rubbing my hand over the clear stone, its smooth surface cool on my skin. It might match with my mother’s bracelet, but they would never be worn together. Not because I hated the idea, but because my mother's bracelet was so precious I couldn’t bring myself to wear it.

But this — I could wear this. Proudly show the world what my family scraped up to get for me. After all, I knew how much they would have spent for a simple necklace like this. And with the budget they lived on, it was a sacrifice.

“Thank you,” I said sincerely, my hand over the necklace. I got up and hugged each one of them in turn. Then I sat down in my seat. “I have something for you too.” I tapped on the middle of the table. A pile of papers appeared, the top most showing a large picture of a handsome building followed by a house layout map.

“What’s this?” Aunt Mina picked up the papers and gasped. “Jyn?”

Uncle Mark and Aliya leaned over her shoulder as they flipped through the pages.

“It’s for a condo about a mile from here,” I explained. “It’s still a two bedroom unit, but there’s over three hundred square feet more space and Aliya would have her own bathroom.” Before they could say anymore, I rushed on. “It’s not the fanciest place, I know. But it’s only fifteen years old and in good shape. And the area it's in is safer than here.”

“We can’t afford something like this,” Uncle Mark said slowly, self-loathing low in his tone. He glanced at Aunt Mina as she slowly put the papers down. With him out of a job and Aunt Mina only working part-time, there was no way they could afford to buy a home.

Aliya bit her lips and didn’t comment. She was in school full time and barely had time to do small odd jobs for the older widows around the apartment complex, just like I did before I became a Hunter.

“I have been earning a lot more lately,” I said. “With what I’ve saved up, I can pay the down payment. In the end, the mortgage would be less than what we’re paying for this place right now, even with all the utilities. It would be a better, safer place for less money a month. I heard that the neighborhood next to it was going to go under construction in the next year. The plans are to really update that area. It would boost the appraisal value of that condo without us lifting a finger.” I tapped on the stack of papers.

Aunt Mina still shook her head, frowning. “A down payment is a lot of money, Jyn. You should use that money for yourself. Buy a place in Eden.”

I shrugged. “I think it would be better to use it like this first. And I can always make more money.”

With the way that I was grinding levels right now, I was making bank especially because I didn’t have to split it with a team. In six more months Aliya would graduate and get tested as a Hunter. That was plenty of time for me to save up another down payment for a place in Eden — an apartment or a condo. Granted, real estate in Eden was forty percent more expensive than in Garden City, but I could make it work. Somehow.

Assuming Earth hadn’t collapsed by then.

But first, I needed to make sure my family was okay. Then I could think about me.

Uncle Mark rested his arms on the table and picked up the papers, looked at them carefully. “I think it’s a good idea,” he said slowly.

“Mark,” Aunt Mina scolded.

I was glad that he agreed, but I was a little surprised. He hated that they had to rely on me to afford to live. It drove his self-esteem down the drain and was a major part of the nearly fatal depression and anxiety that had plagued him for the last year.

He shifted through the papers, his face serious. “I was waiting to tell you after I got my first paycheck, but I got a job in Bill’s Market. It’s actually only a mile and half from here.” He tapped on the paper. “I could walk and save on bus fare.”

Aliya and Aunt Mina gasped, just as surprised as me.

“Wait, when did you get a job?” Aliya asked, cautious excitement on her face.

Uncle Mark set down the papers, his lips twisted in embarrassment. “A week and half ago. It’s nothing big, it’s a part-time day shift, stocking stuff and organizing the back. But Mr. Atwell promised that if I keep up the work, he’d promote me to full time at my two month eval.”

“That’s fantastic,” I piped up, throwing in all the encouragement that I could. Still, there was a bit of concern. “How … do you feel there?” It wasn’t like he hadn’t gotten jobs in the past, it was just that he couldn’t handle the environment. He always felt like running away. Was it going to be the same this time?

He smiled almost shyly. “It’s good. It’s a slow place, and if I feel too pressured, I can slip into the back to breathe.”

Tears pooled in Aunt Mina’s eyes. She got up and hugged him. “That’s wonderful, honey. Really.”

Uncle Mark gave a breathy laugh and patted her arms around his neck. “It will be.” He kissed the side of her head. “But, what I was thinking was, when I get a full-time position, I’ll be able to cover almost eighty percent of the mortgage. With both of us working, we should be able to cover all the costs.” He looked into my eyes. “So you won’t have to worry about us anymore. We’ll be fine.”

I grinned. I loved my necklace, but this had to be the best present I got today. Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay much longer. I stood up and gave another round of hugs then went to the door.

I tactfully paused and looked at my aunt and uncle. “Can I talk to you guys?”

They nodded and followed me to the door. Aliya’s face scrunched up in annoyance that she was left out, but she stayed on the table.

I led them out and shut the door. A second later, I felt Aliya’s presence creep to the other side of the door. I smiled and shook my head then led my aunt and uncle to the top of the dingy stairwell, away from her prying ears. I didn’t want her to hear about this yet.

The parking lot spread out under me, a small collection of cars in various conditions on cracked pavement, hiding under the shade of the trees. It was getting colder, but my enhanced body didn’t feel the fall chill as the sun started to set below the skyline. But Aunt Mina and Uncle Mark didn’t have coats, so I’d keep this short.

“I talked to the hospital and applied for an extension for Mom,” I said bluntly. “If it’s approved, it will only be for another six months — so ten months from now in total — and that time wouldn’t be at the discounted Hunter’s Benefit rate.”

They looked at each other, grief on their faces.

“It would be the same cost as the hospitals on the East Coast. The only difference is we wouldn’t have to pay for moving costs,” I added. “As it is, it sounds like the doctors don’t think,” I paused as my throat suddenly threatened to tighten up. I swallowed and forced the knot down without changing my expression. “They don’t think she’ll last the year.”

“You won’t be able to go with her if she’s moved to a different hospital,” Uncle Mark pointed out.

I shook my head. I had a five year obligation to stay in Eden. A higher ranked Hunter, after that probation period, could apply to be a Guard to the cities without a Gate. But someone with my rank would never be hired outside of Eden. “Neither will Aliya if she tests as Hunter after she graduates. She’ll either have to go to the Quebec Gate or come back to Eden. Both are very far from where Mom would be.”

Aunt Mina pulled me into her arms and hugged me tight. “You do what you think is best,” she said her voice cracking. Even though she was Aunt Mina’s sister, they always let me have the final say on Mom’s medical situations.

I nodded. Today was such a rollercoaster. From low to high and back down to gut-wrenching low. But I couldn’t keep holding onto this alone. “I don’t want Aliya to know yet. Maybe a cure can be made in time. Either way, I don’t want her to get distracted and her grades to suffer. It’s her senior year — she needs all the happy memories she can get.”

God knew, happy memories were few and far between in Eden. And if there was a god, and Aliya somehow didn’t become a Hunter, she needed good grades to get into a good college program. Even if she hated me later for holding out on her, I could handle that. As long as she had a bright future.

Because I was going to do everything to make sure she had a future.

*****

 

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A note from MichelleRReid

In my family, Rook had always been a very important game. It was my grandpa’s favorite game and practically required to learn to marry into the family. The family motto is ‘Play to Win.’ I’m a passive aggressive player -- I’m pretty good at remembering what cards have been played so I can manipulate the game as needed. I’m a pretty chill, happy go lucky person … which is why people always get surprised how competitive I am in games. 


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About the author

MichelleRReid

Bio: I am an author, mother, wife, and jack of all trades. I mean, every mom is, but I’ve found that through my research for different stories, I’ve picked up a lot of random (and sometimes actually useful) knowledge and skills.
I’ve had a vivid imagination since I was a child. And as much as I wish I could actually live in the worlds in my head, the closest I can get is with the words I put on the page. These characters are like real people to me. The funny lines they say, their emotions that make my heart bleed, the amazing things they can do that I physically can’t, the adventures and sights that I can see in my head. I love sharing those things with my readers and hope that they can feel at least a part of what I do.
I do have other works that are published through Amazon. They are not LitPRG, but I'm still really proud of them. Check them out if you have the chance.

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