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The hot tea had lost enough heat for Aliss to gulp hers down. She poured another cup, her hands steady yet feeling uncooperative, the fingers and palms working together as if by chance. ‘Hows’ weren’t communicating to Aliss at all while the ‘no’ she hadn’t uttered yet agitated the air in her lungs and pressed to get out. She sipped more tea in the silence and imagined ‘no’ expanding wide enough to push back any argument.
Carlene took a mouthful of sweetened tea and swallowed it down in bits. She smacked her lips and raked her fingers through her hair again. “This is the strangest conversation I’ve ever been in,” she said, pushing away from the table and going to look out the front window.
Aliss heard a tinge of laughter in her mother’s voice. She glanced over her shoulder and saw Carlene staring past the porch at something out in the darkness. Turning around, she heard Carlene’s footsteps marching back to her and stopping short.
“Come on, Ali. Fifteen thousand dollars … that gets me out of trouble the minute they put it in my hand.”
“You’ve worked it out well. I show up and do the work … and you get the money.”
“Well, it’s not like you need it. Anybody could use it, I guess. But you know you don’t need it.”
That was true. Aliss hated owing money, preferring her bills whittled down as small as possible, no amounts carrying over, always something saved each week, but she was bothered that Carlene mentioned it. She tried to think of a contingency plan. The one in question wouldn’t work for her, but her mother’s situation was dangerous and called for one.
“You’re acting like you have all the time in the world, Aliss. You need to answer me now,” Carlene said. “What’s the matter with you?”
“I’ve been trying to think. There must be something we can do.” Aliss stood and approached Carlene, wanting to hug her but knowing that she’d need to wait for the right opening and that it might not present itself. “Let me hide you someplace safe while we figure it out.”
Carlene’s instinct backed her away from Aliss inch by inch as her daughter came closer. A wounded dangerous edge, familiar to Aliss, punctuated each word her mother said, and she strung them out as if they needed to be slow enough for an infant. “It’s already figured out. Very simple. What is it that you don’t see?”
Aliss stopped trying. “The part where I should be responsible for something like this. There are things you do for the people you love, but this is my life. I don’t want to do this.”
“You mean you won’t help me.”
“We can think of something else …”
“You are the worst person … why would I ever think I could count on you. I can’t believe I did such a bad job as a mother, but this is how you are. You’ve always resented me for something … nothing that makes any sense. I don’t know why I ever worried about you, but believe me, those days are over.”
Carlene hadn’t raised her voice this time, but her words hit Aliss like fever and sickness — raising welts, spotting her vision, tumbling her insides. She whirled in the direction of her bag so she could escape, hating herself for hurting, wanting to hate Carlene for casting the blow. “That boyfriend of yours … he has money, doesn’t he? Why didn’t you ask him? Because it’s for me?”
Aliss found her satchel and ran for the door.
Carlene shouted. “Does he know about you? What’ll he think?”
Lightheaded, Aliss exhaled, “I hate you.”
“Don’t ever come back.”