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Carlene stirred sugar into her tea. Aliss braced herself during the lull, out of habit, considering how to ask the logical questions her mother would perceive as challenges. She soon accepted that Carlene’s reaction would be the same no matter what she said or how. “First of all,” she began, “I don’t know when I’d do it. You know I work a forty hour week.”
“So do I. You think that makes you special?” Carlene eyed the tea service pieces that didn’t match, gifts Aliss had given her long before — the celadon stoneware teapot (set over a linen dishtowel) and creamy porcelain cups and saucers embossed with the shapes of berries. The rosy Eiffel Tower woven into the linen caught her attention. Her fingernails picked at its edge. “Why did you come? It doesn’t seem to be for my welfare. Maybe you should’ve stayed home and waited to hear what happens to a person who can’t pay her debts.”
Gambling debts, Aliss thought. “Who do you owe the money to again?”
“Does it matter? Illegal lenders don’t have many differences when it comes to how they intimidate or how they collect.” She turned to her daughter. “I’ll never borrow from anyone like that again. And after all I’ve done for you — all I’ve done without and given up … after every ridiculous thing you’ve ever asked me for or expected from me in your snug little life — you don’t have the right to say anything about it. What you can do is behave like the world doesn’t revolve around you and do something for me for a change. You’re young. What’s six months in the scheme of your life? And you love to do it. It’s obviously no skin off your nose.”
“Why’re you sure they’ll only study me for six months?”
“Because that’s what they asked for.”
“How’d they find me?”
“You asked me that before. I told you. You slipped up in front of the wrong person but they couldn’t find you again. They found me.” Carlene dropped the spoon alongside her cup and turned her body toward Aliss. Her expression remained hard, but a deceptive calm lowered her voice. “You may think I didn’t know what you were doing all those years after you figured it out, but I did. I tried to make you stop before you got hurt, or worse, but what was I supposed to do? I finally thought it might teach you a lesson if you did hurt yourself. Maybe you’d get yourself into trouble and learn to listen to me. But I guess you didn’t. Why you’d walk into something like that, I’ll never know. I wouldn’t.”
Part of Aliss was shocked. “You’ve never gone in? You never explored it?”
“Explored? Why the hell would I do that? I’ve always had enough trouble right here. Why would I do something strange that doesn’t make any sense? That’s obviously your kind of thing, not mine.”
Aliss could’ve screamed. If Carlene had been versed in the merits of visiting other worlds, she’d know she could escape into one, instead of trying to force her daughter to submit to scientific tests in return for the money to pay her loan shark. “Why are you so sure nothing bad will happen to me?”
“Ali, it’s not the military. They’re scientists — like NASA. They’re paying. They don’t want to hurt you.”
Aliss knew her mother believed this, that she wasn’t trying to be malicious. This was her way of forgetting, willing away unpleasant facts to gain breathing room. Her truth became elastic out of necessity. She supported her sanity this way, not by slipping into dreams, but by constructing them with all the precision her lies would allow.