Lisa woke shortly after dawn. To her surprise, she was completely refreshed and absent of any nightmares, dream visitations, and visions. She lazed in bed a while, laughing at herself for how deeply and diligently she studied the night before. She hadn’t looked that hard for scraps of information since the time she was given a second chance for a take-home final.
Inspecting the reflections of the past only brought the duties of the present into vivid focus. Reluctantly, Lisa got out of bed to begin the morning’s usual proceedings. The sleep had done her good as she was able to think further on all she had learned during her late night studies.
Remembering there was no creamer available this morning, Lisa made her coffee at a lighter strength than usual. She gave a silent nod of acknowledgement to Fortune as the coffee brewed. Lisa would be pushing her luck walking into Aunt Helen’s house already on edge from too strong coffee, after all.
Jean had not told her when she was to report to the house to meet with the lawyers and sign the papers declaring her innocence of the fire’s start. She also had not advised her how to present herself. But Lisa knew better. This was Aunt Fucking Helen’s personal abode. If Lisa didn’t dress as a congressional intern, then she might as well not bother. So it was without complaint that she dressed in the same tailored and conservative clothes that she was supposed to have taken the interview in a week ago.
Lisa reviewed the tarot cards that she knew thus far. If she could, she wanted to take the comfort of the Sun, the balance of Temperance, and the wisdom of the Star with her. While her studies alluded to being able to call the powers of the cards from a distance, Lisa had no idea how to do so herself.
She was tempted to bring one of the decks with her as some sort of physical talisman, but it was too risky to do so. Even as a child, Aunt Helen was known to go through her personal items. Sometimes even in front of her mother. Lisa’s memories threatened to drag her into another downward spiral, but upon reflection that her father had many times refused to indulge Aunt Helen’s purity raid gave her a sense of strength that she did not recognize.
“If Dad could stand up to her…”
She pulled out the three cards of the Sun, Temperance, and the Star. “I don’t know how to call you guys, but if… the girl could make an appearance, and if Fortune could not like me, then you are your own kind of spirit. If you have any kindness towards me, please help me stand. Keep me level. Help me make the right decisions and to follow up on them. I know one of the reasons why Aunt Helen has a leash on me is because I’m holding it for her. Help me let go when it’s time to do so.”
As she put the cards back in order and stacked them, she realized that the next ordeal to walk through was the Strength card. The decorated card showed a woman kneeling on the floor of a strange forest. She wore a red and yellow ritual robe. Her face was half covered by the skull of some type of predator.
Behind her and presumably unseen by the entranced figure, a massive beast dominated the image. It took Lisa a few seconds of staring to realize, but the beast was an apparition within the card. The background trees were visible through its semi-transparent body. The mouth of the beast was solid enough. As was the claws of an raised paw that seemed to be adjusting the woman’s ritual gear.
Lisa noted the beast seemed to be taking a protective stance over the entranced woman. The image filled her with feelings of peace, protection, and determination. She remembered what she had learned about the card during last night’s study session and nodded to herself.
“Hi, Jean. Am I taking a rideshare to the house or is Aunt Helen sending a driver? I’m ready to go.” Lisa’s message to Jean was marked as “read” the moment she sent it.
Before Lisa could think of putting the phone down, Jean’s reply buzzed in. “I’m in the garage. Come on down.”
Since Lisa graduated high school, anytime Aunt Helen wanted Lisa to come to her home, she “asked” Jean to play collector and escort. As Lisa rode the elevator to the garage, she thought of all the times that Jean also had to play nurse and butler to get Lisa sober and clean enough to be presentable for whatever ass chewing Aunt Helen wanted to indulge in.
So Lisa was not surprised to see Jean waiting with the patience of the dead. The elder sister didn’t even look in her general direction as Lisa entered the car and announced her readiness. “Okay. All buckled in. Let’s go.”
Jean finally looked over to inspect Lisa and sat still for a minute in shocked silence. Lisa’s hair was combed, oiled, and pulled back in a demure ponytail. A light dusting of eyeshadow and blush was present on her face but in hues that felt natural to have. Tinted lip gloss made her lips shiny without being distracting. Her linen blouse was spotless and ironed. The hem of the black pencil skirt was above the knee, but Lisa was wearing black tights under the skirt and unblemished mary janes on her feet. Even Lisa’s jewelry was understated and pleasant.
“What the fuck happened to you?”
Lisa laughed to hear Jean be vulgar as a greeting. That was usually her line to inflict on others. “Don’t worry about it. And yes, I’m sober and clean. No headache. All mentally present. For now, anyway. We’ll see what happens once we get to the house. So. Let’s go.”
Jean looked forward, put her hand on the gear shifter, then removed her hand and looked back at Lisa. “No, really. Just what the hell has happened to you? You’ve been a ghost online and no one at your usual places has seen you. Did you find religion or something? Because if you have signed up with a group, any group, Aunt Helen should be–”
“Fuck Aunt Helen.” Lisa’s voice dropped the ambient temperature into a rock that fell into Jean’s gut like piercing shards. The words were the usual expected answer, but the tone was one she had never heard out of her little sister’s mouth before. “When she gets bored of me, she’ll dispose of me like she has everyone else in our family that disappoints her. And we all disappoint her, don’t we.”
Lisa closed her eyes and turned her face forward. When Jean didn’t immediately reply, Lisa began to speak again in a much softer but still chilled tone. “I’m sorry. You don’t deserve that from me. I’m just… tired… of her leash. I want a way out. I know there’s a way out. And I don’t quite see it yet. So I’ll go when she pulls, and stay tied outside the house when she’s mad at me, and play stupid until it’s time not to. But today is not that time. Let’s go, sis. Let’s get this bullshit done and over with.”
Jean faced forward as well, put her hand on the gear shifter, and slowly pulled out of the parking space and eventually, out of the garage. If a person enjoyed driving, then Aunt Helen was a close forty-five minute drive away. If a person disliked driving, the passage would be comparable to crossing a mountain range, during winter, after a wildfire, wearing only a bikini, with a hornet’s nest strapped to one’s back.
Along the way, Jean tried to engage Lisa in conversation. First with dry and interrogative questioning, then with offers of gossip about former coworkers and exes. She admitted that she knew Lisa had been to the club Saturday night and of the strange confrontation that she had after leaving. She knew Lisa had been to the coffee house Sunday afternoon and that her strange friend had been there briefly as well. And, well, didn’t Lisa want to talk about this unusual woman with an unusual hobby that some might take as uncomfortably unusual?
“No, Aunt Helen.” Lisa’s reply was genteel in tone and round in pronunciation. To hear her little sister call her by their aunt’s name made Jean flinch in shame.
Lisa hid the pain that came from winning the point very well. “Look. I know what you expect of me and you are right to do so. I don’t want to fight with you, but… It’s going to be hard enough being around Aunt Helen and having to pretend I’m something I’m not. I’m not going there to start a business. I’m going there to clear my name and sign some forms. So, can we just get there already?”
Jean whispered an okay and completed the drive without speaking another word to Lisa. Each time Jean glanced at her sister, the younger woman sat stiff and tense in the seat with a faraway look on her face. It had been only ten years since they entered the care of Aunt Helen. Jean told herself that their aunt had to be severe to both of them because of how unruly and rebellious they both were as children. Jean felt like the ordeal of being Aunt Helen’s young charge and Lisa’s older sister has aged her for twenty. She missed when they would talk of everything without judgement. Lisa’s distance was a long time coming, Jean accepted.
Because this was not a social affair, the two women entered the semi rural manor from a side entrance. If Lisa was dressed like an intern, then Jean was dressed like a congressional aide and carried herself just the same. The maid greeting them asked Jean for the name of her companion so she could announce their arrival to the Lady of the House. Lisa heard the maid’s formal reference to Aunt Helen and smiled.
“Do let her know that her nieces, Jean and Lisa, have arrived.” The maid took a second glance at Lisa after her identification. It was obvious that Lisa was not presenting the way the maid had been told to expect. Lisa nodded with a long practiced affirmation.
The maid led them to the foyer and bid them to sit at will on the overly plush and highly embroidered couches while she informed the Lady of the House. Both women chose to remain standing than risk dirtying one of Aunt Helen’s display pieces. The main returned immediately after to inform Jean that her presence is wanted immediately. “Lisa will be sent for when it is time.”
Lisa, who had approached the maid when she returned, took a deep breath at being referred to in the third person. She turned away before the maid could and walked away from the interior hallway. In doing so, she missed Jean’s lingering gaze that studied her reaction before Jean also turned and followed the maid within.
Just as Lisa thought to sit on one of the couches after all, another set of footsteps reminded her to be attentive. She turned just in time to see a suited man enter the foyer to pass through to the side entrance that she and Jean had entered through.
He glanced at her for a moment before turning his gaze back to his intended target. She watched him until he looked away and then she did as well. His footsteps stopped. Their feet slipped on the polished hardwood floor as they both turned towards each other.
“Excuse me, you seem familiar. Do I know you?” He took a step towards her. She mentally noted where all the room exits were before noting that he seemed familiar to her as well.
“You may have seen me in passing. I’m… related to Aunt Helen.” Lisa meant to say “Miss Helen”, but had used the familial term for so long that there was no other name for her to be used in polite company.
“Aunt? Then you are her niece. One of them anyway, she has so many. I’m sorry, I am being very rude and disingenuous. It’s just that you remind me of someone, and I can’t understand why.”
Lisa identified him first. He would have been her boss if she hadn’t fucked up the interview a week ago. She wasn’t sure what was more astonishing, that she was so fucked up that he couldn’t identify her now, or that the interview was only a week ago.
Lisa decided not to hide herself. Swallowing her fear and feeling a bundle of warmth take up residence where the fear was, she stepped forward with her hand outstretched. “Lisa. Lisa Arroyo. We met last week on Sunday when I completely bombed and destroyed that interview. Hello, and I apologize for wasting your time.”
He took her hand out of politeness but stared at her face. It was clear he was attempting to match her present state with the human incarnation of the flaming dumpster fire that showed up late a week and a day ago. “Yes… Miss Arroyo… Forgive me for not recognizing you. You have recovered well from… whatever had happened that day.”
“Thank you. I’ve taken a start at refreshing myself and I hope to complete it.” Lisa never did well with small talk, but today the words came easy to her throat and flowed out of her mouth as if carried on sunshine. “My world has begun to change and I need to change with it.”
He smiled. It was a warm smile. It was an encouraging smile. It reminded Lisa of the dawn after a night of rain, where things are going to have to get cleaned up, but now they won’t get any worse.
“Well, you are clearly on a good trajectory.” He looked back at the hall he had entered the room from, then back at her. It was clear that he was weighing some options. He took a few steps closer with soft movements, as if he were approaching a skittish deer or a sleeping baby.
“Listen. I may be speaking out of turn, so feel free to ignore me.” He glanced down the hall again as if the shadows were listening. “If you are sincere about changing yourself, then understand that some people may not like what you are changing yourself into. There may be resistance. There may be… hard decisions to make. There are those who feel that they know what is right and good for everyone around them, and will do their best to solidify their ideals. But what is an ideal for one is a cage for another. Some worldviews are just not compatible.”
“I’m not going to guess if this change of yours will last or will lead to a positive outcome. But one thing I have told all who work for me or are in my care is this: You have to decide what you want for yourself. Not what other people want you to want, but what you want for yourself. And then, once you do, do what you can to obtain it. Your goals may change over time, but as long as they are your goals, then they are worthwhile.”
He extended his hand. Lisa took it out of awe and politeness. “I pray there is a star in heaven that can guide you, Miss Lisa Arroyo, into the happiness you want for yourself. Now, if you’ll forgive me, I must be leaving now. It is a pleasure to have met your true acquaintance. Perhaps we shall meet again one day.”
He patted her hand with a softness that reminded Lisa of her father. He released her hand, bowed slightly towards her, and left even more quickly than before. Lisa remained standing in the foyer as her hand cooled. Once the door closed between them, she turned away and walked over to one of the art pieces hanging on the wall to give her eyes something to focus on as she reflected on his words and the subtle ways she was recognizing the themes of her chosen tarot cards enveloping her.
Another set of footsteps came down the hall. Jean had come to fetch her. “Lisa. The lawyers and the notary are ready. Time to sign those papers.”
Jean led her from the foyer into an interior room that likely was a repurposed small receiving room. Three large suited men with stern faces watched her enter from across the room. They seemed disappointed in her appearance. A fourth suited man was seated at a small side table tucked against the wall of the room. From his collection of stamps, Lisa guess that he was the notary. Next to the three men was a portable printer and a laptop on another small side table. Lisa thought she saw a voice recorder but it could also have been an oversized pen.
Jean touched her elbow and pushed slightly. Lisa followed the subtle instruction and turned to her right. Aunt Helen, a stately elderly woman dressed in a flurry of floral print and ruffles, was seated on a chaise out of sight of the entryway door. The subtle hiss of her oxygen machine sang a song of apparent vulnerability. But Lisa knew first hand how precisely the dowager could inflict pain with her cane.
“Aunt Helen. Good morning. A pleasure to see you.” Lisa nodded in the same formal greeting as she was greeted with not too many minutes ago. Though there was no warmth to her gesture.
“The bitch can heel. Jean, my dear, you did a masterful job turning the whore into a virgin. Well done.” Helen tapped her cane on the floor for emphasis and obviously gloated in the insult. “If this goes to court, this is the way she must be presented. Anything less will give him something to lean into.”
Jean braced for Lisa to verbally explode in anger at Helen. Lisa’s eye twitched but instead of taking up the freshly floored insult, she turned and addressed the three standing men. “Gentlemen, I understand there is a statement I’m to sign about my behavior?”
Helen blinked (but only once) and Jean’s mouth worked as if to say something yet failing as Lisa turned her back on the seated dowager and approached the lawyers. The men had not reacted to the verbal abuse, but now that Lisa was asking about business, they quickly animated themselves.
One pulled out a chair for her to make herself comfortable with. One took up a bundle of papers and placed the last sheet on the table before her. And one handed her a very stern yet comfortable pen and told her where to sign.
Lisa placed the pen on the table and picked up the signature page. A quick scan was all that was needed to upset the room. “This is page six? My statement is barely six words, how is it six pages? What am I signing? I’d like to read the entire statement before I sign anything.”
Helen tapped her cane on the floor, preventing the lawyers from answering Lisa’s questions. “No! You’ll do as you’re told! Sign that page and be done with it!”
Lisa turned her head towards Aunt Helen. She wanted to quip that she sounded just like Ricardo right now, but something from within calmed her. “You always said that it is prudent to read anything you are asked to sign. I would like to practice that skill, Aunt Helen. Maybe it does take more words to describe my actions in a court of law. What do I know? I am not a lawyer, after all.”
Helen was one part amused that Lisa had found piece of her backbone to challenge her, one part pissed that Lisa had found something worth challenging about, and many parts livid that Lisa still existed in general. “Very well then. Read quickly!”
The lawyers gave Lisa the rest of the papers and Lisa not only read quickly, but carefully. “Aunt Helen, there are statements in here that are not true.”
“Just sign it! That bastard keeps offering to go away only if I pay him money. If I’m going to pay money to make him go away, it will not be to him, that’s for sure! So just sign it so I can bury him!”
Lisa calmly took the pen, laid the papers down, and marked a line from one corner to the next on each one. “I will not sign something that did not happen, Aunt Helen.” Lisa was not sure how her voice was so calm after reading the statement that was prepared for her.
“I did not steal money from the restaurant. I did not steal food from the restaurant. I did not help Ricardo or his dad embezzle money from the restaurant. I did not work as a prostitute out of the restaurant. I did not set the fire nor did I leave any alcoholic beverages in the stockroom of the restaurant.” Lisa pointed to each erroneous paragraph as she spoke.
“Aunt Helen, Ricardo and I had sex in the storeroom. He would sometimes give me food if something was about to expire and we couldn’t serve it. He demanded sex from me in exchange for him not firing me. And the only thing I left in the storeroom were my panties, at his request.” She gestured with the marred bundle of papers. “The rest of this? No. I’m not signing it. I would like the papers remade to reflect what actually happened, please.”
The dowager matriarch of the family, she who must be obeyed, gripped the wax treated ash handle of her cane very tightly. Lisa was fucking up her plan again and Helen was not going to indulge the wanton vixen this time.
“No! A fresh set will be printed and you will sign them as is! What really happened is irrelevant. I need to make a liar out of him and the truth as you perceive it to be is inadequate! You sign the papers, take a little vacation, and in six months, everything will be right as rain and they will be nothing before me!”
Lisa said nothing as the lawyers took the marred papers away from her and replaced them with a freshly printed identical set. As she stared at the creatively written words, she realized what Helen was alluding to.
“Six months? In maximum or minimum security? Will it ever come off my record?”
Helen smiled and nodded. “Minimum, of course. There was no use of violence in the theft. And it would be removed from your record in two years. After all, a child with your… upbringing… at least before I became involved, can’t hardly be expected to have a strong moral compass. But once you mature under my hand, you’ll be forgiven of everything.”
Her warmth left the room. “Now put your head down like you did for the greaser and sign the damn papers, you filthy whore.”
Lisa turned and looked at Jean. Jean’s body posture was forcibly relaxed. She nodded at Lisa as if this was a perfectly reasonable request. She even managed to smile. But only Lisa could recognize the panic in her eyes. Lisa knew then, that Jean had not been told Aunt Helen’s plan beforehand. Jean was innocent in this.
Again the pen was extended towards her. Lisa did not take it. The pen was laid on the table. Lisa did not take it. Lisa kept her cool, looked at Aunt Helen, and with a slow deliberate motion, ripped the papers in two.
Lisa gave the pieces to the closest lawyer. “I will not sign a statement saying what I did not do. Now, if you’ll excuse me. I am going to leave and call a rideshare. Aunt Helen, do have a blessed day and remember to be strong in your faith as you have always exhorted me to be.” Lisa stood but waited for Helen’s response before moving.
Helen rocked slightly on the chaise. “So, not only does the bitch clean up well, but she has discovered how to bark.” She sighed. “Very well, then. I need something signed from you more than I need to correct your abuse of me.” Helen nodded at the lawyers.
A single page was presented to Lisa. She noted the paper was room temperature, as if it had been printed long before her arrival. “Your statement!”, Helen announced. “Precisely as you relayed it to your sister Jean, word for word. At the very least, sign that before you run away, again.”
Lisa took the sheet. It was just as Aunt Helen said. Short and to the point without any room for Ricardo to say he was coerced or Lisa to say that it didn’t happen. Lisa sat down, took the pen, and signed this short statement with her full given name.
She presented the signed statement to the closest lawyer, who presented it to the notary, who stamped it and signed it and recorded it in his book. The notary then returned the statement to the lawyer, who then presented it to the still seated dowager. Helen looked over the page and scowled slightly at Lisa’s full name.
“I shall remind you, girl, that since you go by Lisa so often now, it would be better if your legal name was updated to match. I can arrange that for you, you know.”
Lisa always wondered how Aunt Helen could go from acidic enough to chew a hole in glass to sweet enough to make honeybees jealous in the blink of an eye. “No, thank you, Aunt Helen. The day will come when I use my given name as it should be. That day is just not now.”
Helen scowled again, no longer attempting to hide the hate she stored up for Lisa. “The day may come when your name changes, then. Do not kick against the goads when it comes. Now, leave! There are adult matters to discuss and I don’t want you fouling the matter by your presence!”
Lisa stood and curtsied slightly to Aunt Helen. “By your leave, I go.” What Lisa wanted to say was the same vindictive words that the fake card reader hurled at her outside the bar. “As you gave, receive.” But Lisa had the odd feeling that such a verbal nuke was best reserved for when she had better getaway chances than now. Better to use the words that Aunt Helen had taught her to leave cleanly and quietly.
Lisa was escorted back to the foyer by the maid. “Wow, what’s his name?”
“The guy that made a woman out of you. I didn’t even recognize you! You’re all grown up and such!”
Lisa recognized another ploy to get information out of her. “There’s no guy. I don’t know what suppositions you’re working under, but they’re all false. It’s just me. And I’m going away now. I have a walk in front of me.”
Helen’s estate was set far from the public access road. There was no way she would allow something so pedestrian as a rideshare vehicle to approach the house. Lisa resolved to open the app once she was on public roads to minimize the change of missing the driver.
Before she got to the main front doors, Jean came running up to catch up with her. “Come on, get in the car now, before she comes to her senses!”
“Huh?” Jean did not wait for Lisa to comprehend what she said. Jean grabbed her arm and pulled her away from the maid.
“I’ll explain on the way. Let’s just get in the car and go!”
The two women silently did just that. Neither one spoke until Jean had turned onto the public road.
“I want to yell at you for being disrespectful to Aunt Helen, but I want to yell at Aunt Helen for trying to set you up for a felony! What! The hell! I don’t know what the hell is going on anymore!”
Lisa said nothing as Jean continued to work out her panic by driving and talking. “She said that she had a way for you to work yourself out and still be a part of the family, but at the same time, this statement thing is something she put together without me. And what judge would just take that at face value when there’s all the screenshots you sent me!”
Jean continued to work out how Aunt Helen’s plan could not work. “Goddammit, Lisa, are you just going to sit there?! Say something!”
“I know why Mom left.”
Jean pulled over to the side of the road and brought the car to an immediate halt. “What did you say?”
Lisa’s head was leaning back against the headrest. Tears were drawing perfectly vertical lines on her cheek. “I said.”, she started as her voice cracked from the stress. “I said, I know why Mom left. And, if things don’t change, Jeannie, it will be why I left, too.”
Both women sat still in the running car, unable to see each other and unable to speak to each other because of the breaking grief pouring over their faces and their hearts. They sat for several minutes before Jean added the car’s engine to the silence. After another minute, she softly dropped the weight between them.
“I didn’t know Aunt Helen was going to try that. I have no idea what her end goal was. I can usually guess what she wants out of you, but this came from nowhere. How did you find the courage to stand up to her like that? I can’t imagine how it felt to be betrayed like that. How did you stay so calm?”
“Well…” Lisa chewed on her thoughts and wording carefully. “It wasn’t courage. I wasn’t brave at all, not in the fucking least. But, I knew what was right. I knew I was right. And that gave me the fortitude to stand on that truth and not move an inch from it.”
Lisa looked out of the window. “But I was afraid the whole time. She can’t do much to hurt me, but you’re in her pocket and she’s on your ass.”
Jean leaned back in her seat. “Fortitude, eh.” She made no sign of acknowledging Lisa’s concern. “Here’s a trivia question for you. Did you know that the tarot’s Strength card was originally called ‘Fortitude’?”
Lisa turned her head slowly towards Jean who kept her head at rest with her eyes closed.
Jean waited until she stopped hearing Lisa move before continuing. “I don’t know what you’re wrapped up in, Lisa. But be careful. Where you’re going, I can’t follow and I’m terrified of you disappearing like Mom.”
Lisa faced forward. “I mean to stay. Running away from everyone won’t help. There’s other things that have to change instead. But that may mean stepping away from everyone.”
Jean started the car. “As long as you stay in touch. Hey. We’re both a pair of hot messes. Let’s go find a diner, wash our faces, and get some lunch. I have nothing else to do today.”
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