When Alison arrived, her mom was sitting on the curb in handcuffs. Alison sat down on the curb next to her. She kept her elbows on her knees, her wrists dangling freely – she didn’t want people thinking she’d been arrested too. Sitting on a curb in the flashing blue and red lights made her feel guilty for nothing.
“I think I want to go live with dad,” Alison said.
Her mom turned a drunken head. “It’s okay,” her mom said. “Don’t worry, baby girl.”
A car drove past, slowing. The driver woman looked not at the bent-wheel car mounted over the broken parking meter, but at Alison and her mom. Alison felt like slapping that woman.
“Where’s Micah?” Alison asked.
Her mom raised her eyebrows to blink. “They carted his ass off already. He threw a punch.”
One of the police officers approached. McKee, his nametag said. He tucked a little notepad into his shirt pocket. It bulged over a bulletproof vest. Why he needed to wear a bulletproof vest in Alamosa, Alison didn’t know. Better safe than sorry, maybe. He didn’t look at her mom. He looked at Alison.
“This your ma?” McKee asked.
“She’s alright. Got a little unruly is all. You can get her home?”
“Go to your dad’s,” her mom said, lifting and slamming her heel against the road like a stubborn child in a toy store.
“Your dad live close?” McKee asked. Alison didn’t know what to make of the officer’s genuine concern.
“Denver,” Alison said.
The officer checked his watch. “You have any place to go for the night? A safe place.”
“We live right over there.” Alison pointed far down the street to the patch of mobile homes scattered between trees next to the river. It might be a nice trailer park if the neighbors’ cars weren’t so rusted and the river didn’t smell so bad in the spring. “We can walk.”
“No!” her mom screamed. “Just go to your–” she tried to stand up with her hands still cuffed behind her back. She lost her balance and slammed on her butt, teetered and rolled over her shoulder, mashing her face slowly against the pavement. “No-o,” she screamed at the sidewalk, her voice as off-balance as her body. “Go live with your dad.” She rolled onto her back, her pelvis arching over her cuffed hands. “I know my rights.”
“Tell you what,” Officer Mckee said. “How about I help you walk her home?”
On the phone, her dad sighed, waited a silent moment, and then said Yes, she could come stay with him for a while. That was as much as Alison hoped for. “Just until school starts,” he said. “We have a deal?”
“Deal,” Alison said.
He picked her up that Monday morning. He talked on his cell phone – business stuff – for the entire trip, except the thirty minutes or so when they drove through the canyon and there wasn’t any cell reception. He asked her about School, Friends, Boyfriends, Hobbies, the few people who lived in town that he remembered.
“They’re fine,” she said. She said nothing about a boyfriend. It was complicated.
“How’re grandma and grandpa Sears?”
“They’re good,” Alison said.
“And your mom?”
Her dad never asked questions about her mom. Alison was okay with that. He never made her Marriage Ambassador the way her mom did.
His cell phone rang again, and Alison stared out the window.
He pulled into his driveway, took the house key off the keychain and handed it to her. “I need to get to the office. You can get your bag?” Alison nodded. “Jenna will be over after she’s done with Pilates. Sometime after four.” He pecked at his phone with his thumb. “I’ll be back by dinner.”
Alison tapped the trunk to let him know that she was unloaded, and he drove off.
The house was immaculate. The hardwood floors reflected the ceiling lights. Alison wasn’t accustomed to so much luster. She went to her room. Not her room, her favorite guest room. The house had three.
Alison unpacked her things into the dresser drawers. The drawers were so deep compared to her dresser at her mom’s. What she had overstuffed into her bag fit easily in the top two drawers. She barely needed the second one. Those top two drawers were supposed to be just for socks and underwear and the things people hid underneath them.
She ate raspberries and Oreos for lunch. The hot tub on the back porch was too hot and didn’t feel good in ninety-degree heat. She watched HBO.
Jenna peeked her head through the door, calling out like some nosey neighbor and not the live-in girlfriend. “Hello?” The word had the annoying pitch that shows she’s just a little too excited to be genuine. Or maybe Jenna was genuine. Alison had only high school cheerleaders to compare to.
Jenna’s feet danced a bit as she wrapped Alison in a hug. “It’s been so long! I was thrilled when Danny told me that you were coming!” Her dad’s name was Daniel. Not Danny. Not even Dan. Jenna always persisted with those kind of stupid things. “I hope you’ve already made yourself at home.”
Jenna asked the same questions as her dad. School, Friends, Boyfriends, Hobbies. But then she leaned in and softened, like somehow she was bonding through gossip. “And how’s your mom?”
“Fine,” Alison said.
“She’s okay after… you know, getting arrested?”
Alison shrugged. “Probably she’s just drinking with Micah again.”
“That’s her boyfriend?”
“You could say that.”
Alison felt the moment she’d only seen in movies, where upper-class dignity suddenly realizes they’re talking to white trash. That moment when the stripper reveals her occupation to the First Lady. That moment when the hired assassin admits that he’s a hired assassin and everyone laughs because that job is so obviously not real. Except it wasn’t funny for Alison.
“Well, I’m glad you’re here.” Jenna clapped stiff hands and squealed a little. “It’ll be nice to have some company around the house. Danny’s so busy all the time.”
“Yeah,” Alison said. “I remember.”
Alison first met Jenna at eighth grade graduation. Her dad handed Alison a card with money in it and a flower and said congratulations. Jenna stood over his shoulder smiling awkwardly. “This is Jenna,” her dad said. “She’s my girlfriend.”
Alison’s mom shook Jenna’s hand.
Then her dad added, “We’re living together.”
Her mom swallowed. “Good for you,” she said. “I’m glad you’ve both found someone.” But her mom’s tone was the same tone Alison used to congratulate the girl that got the part in the play that Alison wanted. It was the line her mom was supposed to say even though everyone knew she didn’t mean it. Because, really, who doesn’t hate the ex’s new lover?
Her mom suggested they all go to dinner together to celebrate. “And to get to know each other,” she added.
“I don’t want to,” Alison said.
“If she doesn’t want to…” her dad said.
“I think it’d be nice,” Jenna said. The first thing she ever said to Alison.
“Let’s go then,” her mom said.
Her mom ordered a bottle of wine and, after her first glass she started in on Jenna with small remarks. “I like your necklace. Did my husband buy it for you?” By the second glass, she moved into disguised questions. “So, Jenna did you two meet in a bar or one of those cheesy online dating sites?” Then she gave backhanded compliments. “Jenna, you look so mature for a girl so young.” And as the third glass ended, so did her mom’s inhibitions. “Jenna, have you seen that scar at the base of Daniel’s penis or did he grow his pubes out to cover it again? He told you that story, right?”
Her dad excused himself and Jenna. He left a stack of twenties on the table, and they left.
“Why do you have to be rude like that, mom?” Alison said.
“I wasn’t rude. You want a woman like that around?”
“No,” Alison said. It was the truth. “I just want you and dad.”
“It would have been just what you wanted if she wasn’t around.”
Alison only saw Jenna once more when she visited her dad over Christmas break freshman year. All Alison’s gifts were “from Daddy and Jenna” and written in Jenna’s handwriting. Alison said thank you to them both, but only hugged her dad. For the rest of that break, whenever her dad went to work, Alison occupied herself in her room or sat at the computer in his home office pretending to be busy. Jenna asked several times if she’d like to do something together. Alison always declined.
That next spring her mom started dating Micah, and Alison thought the scales would balance again. Each parent found their significant other, their real soul mate. When her mom went out on the first-ish date with Micah, Alison imagined her mom laughing at his dinnertime jokes and later cuddling with him in front of the television. She pictured him moving in, and him answering the door when her nervous homecoming date picked her up. Really, her mom and Micah just drank. They laughed in maniacal ways, like the way the villain laughs at the heroine’s public embarrassment. Their affection was never visual, only audible through the walls of the trailer.
Micah was just okay. Only once did Micah speak harshly to Alison. She didn’t even hear the comment. She had been watching TV with dinner on her lap, had not been paying attention to anything her mom and he said. Then suddenly her mom screamed, “Don’t you ever fucking say that about my girl.” Alison turned up the volume on the TV. Her mom and Micah screamed at each other and, with more power and conviction than Alison had ever seen in her mom, her mom threw Micah out of the trailer. She rushed back to Alison, who still sat with a paper plate on her knees and the remote control in her hand.
Her mom hugged her. “Everything’s alright, baby girl. I love you so much.”
“Yeah, I know,” Alison said.
It wasn’t until the next morning that Alison noticed all the empty wine bottles on the table. That was when her mother still bought bottles. She soon moved to boxed wine because it cost less and she got more.
About two weeks later, Micah moved back in.
Each morning, Alison and Jenna sat down to a leisurely breakfast while her dad rushed sips and bites as he and Jenna negotiated their day.
“Dinner at six?” Jenna asked.
“Make it eight,” her dad said.
“Seven,” Jenna said.
Then her father hustled out the door. He moved like he was perpetually late, like the White Rabbit on a weekday.
Jenna taught Alison how to make an egg-white omelet. “Less cholesterol,” Jenna said. “So much healthier and tastes the same.” Alison thought Jenna’s omelets tasted worse. She never said anything though.
Jenna read magazines while she ate. She blurted out comments like the middle of a conversation or as if Alison was also reading the same article at the same time. Alison never had anything to say in response. Jenna rarely looked up or stopped reading. Alison heard everything from, “I know that everyone loves Jennifer Aniston, but enough already. How many boys have to break her heart before we stop caring?” to “It’s pure incompetence that the Senatorial Labor Committee cannot figure that out. I can’t believe I almost voted for Bennet.”
They exercised three days a week – Pilates – and Alison hated it until she stopped feeling sore after the workouts. Her dad took them shopping every Saturday. And every once in a while they laid out blankets and sunbathed at The Reservoir. Jenna started calling her “Allie” which Alison grew to accept despite her initial hatred. “Allie” stopped sounding like a name for a second grader that tried too hard to be pretty and started sounding like an inside joke they shared.
Eventually, Alison said, “You know, you don’t have to babysit me all day.”
“I’m not babysitting.” Jenna almost laughed, saw Alison’s face, and stopped.
“Then how come you’re always around?”
Jenna crossed her arms. Her eyebrows dropped like she was confused. “I want to hang out with you. Has it ever occurred to you that I like hanging out with you?”
“I like hanging with you too,” Alison said, surprised at how genuine the words felt.
Jenna still chattered more than Alison liked, volunteering information Alison didn’t ask for. When Alison said that she wanted to be an actress after she graduated, Jenna said, “When I was your age, I wanted to be an actress too. My sophomore year, I was so nervous to try out for the play. Everyone had to watch me do my monologue. I almost threw up. But I did it. I didn’t get a speaking part, but it was still fun. I did get a part the next year though.”
That helped. Knowing a beautiful woman like Jenna was nervous at a tryout made Alison feel better about her audition coming in the fall.
Another time, Kevin – a hot senior who may or may not have considered Alison his girlfriend – sent Alison several text messages. Alison failed to hide her annoyance, and Jenna asked if everything was all right. “Here,” Alison said, handing over her phone.
From Kevin: U should come ovr. Well hve fun.
From Alison: R u drunk again? Ne way, I cant. 4 hours away. No car.
From Kevin: Hes rich. Make him buy u a car.
From Alison: Not that rich.
From Kevin: Whatev. Whats the point if u r there not here.
Jenna handed back the phone. “My first high school boyfriend was a real jerk,” she said, and listed off several of his faults. “But he was nice to me when we were alone. And I thought that meant something. I thought that meant I was making him a better person. Then I realized that if he was acting two different ways, he had to be lying to at least one person. And I didn’t want to date a liar at all.”
Alison called her mom about once a week just to check in. Neither her mom nor Alison ever said, “I miss you” or “I can’t wait to see you.” The just asked, “How are things?” and said, “Things are good here too.” Alison never told her that she and Jenna were getting along okay, that she sometimes took Jenna’s advice, that she had seen Jenna make her dad laugh. And she outright avoided saying that her dad and Jenna cuddled up on the couch when they all watched movies together, and the cuddling made Alison both happy and mad at the exact same time. She never mentioned Jenna at all. The one time she did, her mom said, “Yeah, well, that’s to be expected from golddiggers like her” and then got off the phone soon after.
When her dad wasn’t around, Jenna and Alison told stories about him or laughed at his quirks. The fact that he said “Negative” instead of No or Wrong. The way he had always missed the turn off to her friend Kimmy’s house, even though he drove her home like every weekend, until he got promoted and left. The single flower Jenna found on her desk the first month they dated. The way her dad always told anyone willing to listen about catching a Mark McGuire homerun ball.
When her dad was around, he was their captive audience for their shared performances.
“We found a rat in the hot tub today,” Jenna started.
“It wasn’t really in the hot tub,” Alison added. “It was under the hot tub.”
“And it chewed the wires,” Jenna said.
“I was about to get in earlier, and I hit the button for the bubbles and then the whole thing just turned off. Jets stopped. Bubbles stopped. Even the control screen went dark. I thought I broke it.”
“So I came to take a look at it, and like I know what I’m doing, right? And we can’t figure it out.”
“Of course, I’m freaking out, thinking I broke it.”
“And I call a repair man, who comes to look at it and he tells us there’s a rat under there.”
“Except it’s dead,” Alison said.
“It was chewing on the wires and got electrocuted,” Jenna said.
“Electrocuted! How gross is that?”
“So, the repair man fixed the wires and took away the rat for us, too.”
“Wow,” her dad said. “Sounds like you two had a big day.”
On their Saturday shopping trips, Jenna made him leave his cell phone at home, and her dad actually asked real questions and really answered when Jenna asked what he thought. Jenna held a shirt against her torso and he said, “I like the color, but those gauntlet cuffs don’t work.” Jenna held up two different shirts and he said, “You have a beautiful clavicle. The décolleté looks better than the plunging neckline.”
Alison didn’t buy any clothes. The first few weekends, Alison only looked. “Window shopping,” Jenna called it, as if imagining owning some object was just as good as actually having it. As if Alison hadn’t been doing that for everything her entire life.
Jenna inevitably bought something. Alison acted interested, like reading a menu even though she’s not hungry. Her dad asked Alison all the time if she wanted anything, and Alison always declined. She never felt comfortable spending money. She never had enough to spend. Her dad offered to pay for it all, but he was just being nice. Who wants to spend seventy-five dollars on a pair of jeans for a girl he’s not going to see for a year?
One Saturday, Jenna encouraged Alison to try on a few tank tops. “It’ll be fun,” Jenna said, and Alison rolled her eyes. But Alison did have fun turning in the dressing room mirrors. She saw that she had nice shoulders. She looked good in summer colors.
After she changed back into her clothes, she found Jenna and her dad buying the shirts at the register. “Dad, what are you doing?”
“Why are you buying those shirts?” Alison said, almost under her breath.
“Did you not want them?” he asked, genuinely confused.
The cashier looked between father and daughter, leaned back from the register.
“No,” Alison said.
“Yes, she does,” Jenna said. She grabbed the shirts from her dad and put them on the counter. She smiled at the cashier and pushed the shirts closer. She turned to Alison. “You’ve worn the same four shirts for the past two weeks. We’re buying you new ones.” She said it the same way Alison’s mom told her she was not allowed to go out with her friends that night. Except this same demand was to accept a gift. The acceptance of the clothes felt like a punishment.
“Fine,” Alison said.
The next Saturday, Jenna sat down next to Alison on her bed. She cupped Alison’s hand in hers. “We’re going shopping,” she said, like she told Alison her puppy just died. “And I want you to let your father buy you something without any fuss.” Jenna tried to explain something about Acceptance and Gratitude and only confused Alison even more. Finally, she said, “This is how he shows he cares. Time, talents or treasure, right? He’s busy all the time, so he can’t give us his time. His talents wouldn’t impress women like us. So he gives us his treasure. You have to let him buy you things. It’s his language. It’s how he says he loves you.”
Alison picked out a cute sundress. She didn’t feel as awkward as she expected when her dad swiped his credit card.
By the first week in August, her clothes filled the fourth drawer.
Her dad refilled his glass of red wine and he wiggled the bottle at Alison. “Want some?”
“No,” she said. “Thanks, though.”
Her dad topped off Jenna’s glass and set the empty bottle back on the table. “Have you given any thought to your junior year?”
Alison heard the meaning buried in the question. School started in two weeks. The clothes and the breakfasts and the Pilates – it was all too good to last. Just like her mom’s moods after winning at Keno. “I can leave tomorrow.”
Her dad sighed. “That’s not what I’m saying, Alison. I don’t want you to leave, but I do think school and friendships are important. And both of those things are not here.” He tapped his fingers against the stem of his wine glass.
There was a silence. Jenna laid her fork and knife on her plate like she, not Alison, was being sent away. Jenna looked guilty.
“We had a deal,” her dad said. “Until the school year.”
“Fine,” Alison said.
“It’s not that we don’t want you around,” Jenna said.
“I said it’s fine,” Alison said.
“I’m glad you understand,” her dad said.
“Do you really understand,” Jenna asked, “or are you just acting?”
Alison cut into her chicken. “I said I’d leave when the school year started.” She kept her eyes to her food. “The school year’s starting.” Her knife squeaked against her plate.
“Here’s what I want to do,” her dad said. “I’m going to take you on a shopping spree this weekend. I’ll buy you whatever you want. New clothes, school supplies, anything. And I was even thinking about looking into buying you a car. We’ll make it an event. How about that?”
That sounded perfect. It sounded like exactly what she wanted. Except for what it meant. Like her dad was giving Alison a severance package. Like he was letting the little girl score a touchdown so she didn’t feel left out of a game clearly not meant for her.
“Fine,” she said.
“But then,” her dad said, “It’ll be time for you to go home. Jenna and I –” he stopped to look to Jenna. Jenna nodded. Her dad said nothing.
Jenna smiled like she wanted Alison to share in her excitement. “We’re going on a vacation,” Jenna said. “Playa del Carmen. In Mexico.” She offered her hand and Alison’s dad laid his in hers.
“Sounds fun,” Alison said. She tried to be cheerful. Really, she did.
Alison didn’t feel her face shift, but it must have because Jenna said, “It’s okay to be disappointed. You don’t have to act brave.”
“I’m not acting anything.”
“I know you’re disappointed.”
“She’s fine, Jenna.” Her dad squeezed Jenna’s hand. “Right, Alison?”
Alison drove the new-to-her used car straight to Kevin’s house. He didn’t notice that she was wearing new clothes. He only said, “You look hot.” As he fell into the passenger seat, he said, “Nice wheels. I told you he was rich enough.”
“It’s not what you think,” Alison said.
At Steak-n-Shake, with milkshakes between them, Kevin asked, “What’s it like living with your dad?”
“Fine,” Alison said.
“Yeah, my dad’s a jerk too,” he said, and then talked about his summer, looking from her eyes to his phone to her cleavage and back to his phone. When their milkshakes were empty, he asked, “Want to park behind the Municipal Building?” His eyebrows lifted.
“No,” she said. “Thanks, though.”
“You can just drop me off at home then,” he said. In his driveway, he slammed the car door so hard the window rattled.
Her mom and Micah were sitting in lawn chairs when Alison pulled into the carpark. Her mom stood, cocked a hip, and crossed her arms. Alison showed off the cruise control and power windows. “He would, wouldn’t he?” her mom said.
“Does buying love work on you?” Micah asked.
“It’s not like that,” Alison said.
“Oh, trust me,” Micah said. “It’s like that.”
“How’s his golddigger?” her mom asked.
“She would be,” her mom said.
She unpacked her new clothes from her new luggage, filling every drawer and using all the hangers in her closet. She stuffed all her old clothes into garbage bags and pushed them down to fit them in the bin at the end of the driveway.
Later that night, she flipped through channels and fell asleep on the couch. The couch didn’t smell like home. She woke at three in the morning to the jangling fumble of keys and her mom’s and Micah’s drunken giggles.
“Shhh!” her mom said. Alison faked sleep. “Wake my daughter and you ain’t getting any tonight.” Her mom shut off the TV, pulled the blanket over Alison’s shoulders, and kissed her forehead. “Missed you, baby girl.”
Christopher Cervelloni earned his bachelor’s in Education from Butler University and his MFA from Rutgers. He is a full-time English teacher and the Executive Editor at Blue Square Writers Studio. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in SixFold, The MacGuffin, The Barcelona Review, Metaphorosis, and Crab Orchard Review, among others.