“So, Madison,” Jenny started, shortly after everyone’s mouth was full.

Madison immediately started to catalog in her mind all the things that might have resulted in the lecture she was about to receive. Her mother definitely had that kind of a tone.

“I was looking at the Northwestern student portal,” she continued. “And there’s something in the numbers I don’t understand.”

Madison took another bite of her chicken, figuring that having a full mouth might spare her from having to answer. She didn’t see how the college portal could lead to her being in trouble, but that was clearly coming. She looked at her mother and raised her eyebrows.

“I was trying to find out when the deposit is due, but when I looked, it appears the enrollment and housing deposits are already paid. Except it doesn’t show where that came from. And I certainly didn’t pay it.”

Madison glanced toward Phil, whose eyes were fixed on the meal in front of him. He was slightly hunched over his plate, as though he were defending it from being snatched away. She looked back to her mother and shrugged.

“Phil?” Jenny asked. “Do you know anything about this?”

Phil looked at her as though he had not been paying attention and had no idea what was being discussed. It was a strategy Madison saw him attempt often, despite it never working. “Hmph?” he said, without opening his mouth.

“This isn’t that complicated, Phil,” Jenny said. “Did you or did you not pay Madison’s enrollment and housing deposits?”

He raised his eyebrows, smirked, and continued eating. Madison laughed, which earned her a death glare from her mother.

“Phillip! We discussed this! Madison’s education is my responsibility.”

Phil finished chewing, took a drink of water, and tapped his napkin to the corners of his mouth. “And I said I was going to help,” he said calmly.

“I never agreed to that,” Jenny objected.

“I thought you did,” Phil countered.

“I thought so, too,” Madison chimed in, and then immediately regretted it when her mother’s withering stare hit her.

“Phil, that was never our deal. You and I split household expenses, but I pay anything related to Madison,” Jenny said. “You know this. Rent is due next week. After paying the college stuff, are you going to be able to cover your share?”

“It’s fine,” Phil said. “This week’s paycheck will cover my part of the rent.”

“So you spent your entire savings?” Jenny snapped.

“Well, yeah. But we’ve got time now. That deposit holds it until next year. That gives us both time to set some money aside. Maybe we scrimp a little at Christmas this year,” he suggested.

“Phil. This is not okay. You cannot just do something like that without talking to me about it first.”

“I thought we did talk about it,” he said.

“We never finished that discussion,” she said.

“I didn’t want Madison to lose her spot,” he said. “And what does it matter? It’s just the deposit. The real bill doesn’t come until next year.”

Jenny scowled. “Madison, did you know about this?”

Madison looked up at her mother, shook her head a little, and then returned to her meal. Everyone ate in silence for a few minutes, until Jenny started speaking again.

“Okay, look,” she said calmly. “Here’s the deal going forward. Madison’s education is my responsibility. We’ve already applied for a private loan in Madison’s name, with me as the cosign. If that gets rejected because of my credit, I’ll add you as a second cosign, Phil, but not until then.”

“Okay,” Phil said.

“If you manage to set some money aside to help, Phil, that’s great. But when the time comes, you and I will look at your finances together and decide what to do.”

“Umm,” he said.

“This is that phone thing all over again. You’re a middle-aged man with a job and a family, and yet you have no savings at all, Phil. That’s because you spend money as soon as you have it. And it’s sweet that you want to spend some of that on my daughter. I really appreciate it. But for God’s sake, Phil, you do not know how to live within your means. If you actually manage to set aside money by next year—which I will not believe until I see it happen—that money is probably better put into a Roth IRA. Do you really plan on living off just your Social Security when you retire?”

“Umm,” Phil reiterated.

“You know there’s a website where you can go see how much you’re going to get from Social Security. Reality check, Phil—it’s not a lot.”

“Maybe after Mads goes to college, she can take care of us,” Phil joked.

Madison glanced up when she heard her name, but then she immediately sought shelter by gazing at her empty dinner plate.

“Seriously?” Jenny snapped.

“I was kidding,” Phil said sheepishly. “It was just a joke.”

“Not funny,” Jenny said coldly. “So is everyone clear on this?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Madison said.

“Yeah,” Phil replied.

“How’s the chicken?” Jenny asked.

“It was good,” Madison said.

“Really good,” Phil agreed.

Jenny shook her head and returned to her meal.

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