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Chapter Two

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Michelle trailed the fork through her rice, stopping only at her mother's slight huff of disapproval. Of all the things she had not wanted to do the first night of being unemployed, having a dinner with her family while they alternated cloying sympathy and bristling reproach made top of the list.

Bryan sat across from her, happily discussing his business plans, and digging in. "I mean, I haven't talked to him officially, yet, but when we chatted about the idea—"

"Wait," their mother interrupted, half-way serving herself more vegetables. She put down the bowl. "I thought you said you had a business plan."

Bryan blinked. "I do."

"How can you have a business plan if you haven't spoken to this Dwayne person yet?" their father asked, setting down his fork, giving his wife a Significant Glance.

Michelle stared down at her cooling food.

"Derek," Bryan corrected, his grin fading.

"Whatever. If you haven't spoken to him, then..." he trailed off. "You do have a business plan, don't you?"

"Of course," Bryan replied quickly, sounding wounded, but Michelle caught his expression—a quick flash of confusion—that she recognized as his sign of overconfidence: Bryan did not have a business plan, not the way their father meant. Not a capital bee-pee Business Plan. (Mr. Haley liked to speak in Capital Letters. It denoted Importance.)

A comment was on her lips but she concentrated on her food instead as the usual routine played out around her: brother being cornered; finally admitting he didn't the details of what he was talking about; father's standard lecture on Preparation and Ambition; mother's silent, frowning reproach.

"Well?"

She blinked, startled. "Sorry?"

Her mother pursed her lips. "I asked you what your plans are."

"Eat dinner, go home, watch TV, maybe have a bath," Michelle admitted, but the second the words slipped from her mouth she realized she'd misjudged the situation.

Her mother sighed, and put down her fork.

Damn.

"I don't know if that's the right attitude to take, Michelle," her mother chided. "Don't roll your eyes at me—it's a very tough economy right now. I just want what's best for you. How long were you at this job?"

"Three years. Ish."

"Only three years!"

Her father shook her head. "When I was your age..."

She felt herself de-aging: her hair growing out into a shapeless ponytail, her glasses reappearing, her clothes morphing into shapeless tees and baggy jeans. "Dad, things are different now. Three years is a long time in one job, especially in my field."

"That just makes it more important that you have an Exit Strategy." He was huffy at being interrupted mid-lecture.

"Exit strategy?" She fought to keep her voice from squeaking. "Exit—I was laid off. Not retreating from a battlefield. Laid off. With no warning. Today! So no, I don't have a plan. I'm going to go home tonight, throw my desk junk in a drawer, watch Netflix, and go to bed. That's my exit strategy."

"There's no need to raise your voice at the dinner table," her mother replied, very prim, even more pursed. Dinner table etiquette was strictly enforced in the Haley household, which meant retorts only flowed the one way.

With heavy clink, Michelle deposited her knife and fork on her plate, and pushed her chair away from the table.

"You're not eating?" her mother asked, surprised.

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