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In the Trenches

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Hold the Fort
***

~January 1992~

"Ms. Brennan."

Her head jerked up, eyelids scraping against dry corneas. She blinked slowly, and her stomach dropped as she realized what she'd done.

"Ms. Brennan? We're all waiting for your answer." The arch tone matched the eyebrow rising above horn-rimmed glasses.

Students tittered, and Temperance's chest and throat tightened along with her stomach. "I'm sorry, Mr. Lightfoot," she said softly. "Number seventeen?"

"Eighteen." He frowned.

Her shoulders crept up nearer her ears but she read the answers she had carefully printed on her study guide. She'd done all but two without referencing the book. "In order to determine the fall time of a ball thrown into the air in a frictionless environment," she drew in sharp breath as something narrow was shoved hard between her scapulae. She continued, ignoring the groans from the class as she spoke. "First you must know the vertical displacement, the velocity at which it ascends, the gravitational constant of nine-point-eight-one meters per second squared and the formula y = vt - zero-point-five gt-squared, where Y--"

"Yes, Ms. Brennan, thank you." The sleeve of Mr. Lightfoot's tweed jacket rode up his arm as he pointed to another student. "Mr. Pawlaczyk. Come to the board and draw a graph for a problem where velocity is the unknown variable. Ms. Mendez, while he's doing that, number nineteen."

Temperance ducked back into her notebook, biting her lip. She looked over her calculations for the eight problems she had created for this concept: two leaving out each variable, one set in a frictionless environment, the other set in a real environment. The rest of the class was soon solving Jeremy Pawlaczyk's problem, and Brennan turned the page to the several dozen problems she'd created and solved for balls rolling across flat surfaces (with and without friction), up and down slanted surfaces, for boxes being moved from a stationary position, being pushed along a flat surface steadily, being pushed up an incline. She was constructing an angle-of-ricochet calculation when the bell interrupted the review of question twenty-five.

"All right. Turn in your notes, and remember, semester exams are one week from today. I will supply formulae, but you are responsible for the applying the concepts."

Half the students were out the door before he said the word "exams," and by the time Temperance was dropping her pages of calculations into the in-box the room was nearly empty. Mr. Lightfoot said her name, and she stopped, shouldering her backpack.

"Are you all right? I've never seen you anything other than alert."

She forced her eyes from his bow tie to his face. Adults often called an averted gaze disrespectful. "I was up late studying. Thank you for asking."

He frowned, opened his mouth, closed it.

Temperance blurted, "I need to go to French. We have a unit test."

He nodded, and she rushed to the door, dodging students in the hallway on her way to class.

She couldn't make any more mistakes, she berated herself as she hurried. She couldn't draw attention to herself. No falling asleep. No being late. Nothing to hint that things were not managed and normal. She'd told the social worker who'd called to follow up after her parents disappeared that the situation was resolved. She hadn't lied. She was resolved to wait and manage things, staying in the one place where the police could reach her with information, where her parents or Russ could find her when they came looking. She couldn't afford for the school to get suspicious and call social services.

Heart pounding, she made it to her seat just as French class started.

***

As soon as the final bell rang, Tempe ran for her locker in the far building. She twisted and dodged her way through the halls, but a few of the students she bumped into shouted, "Watch out, freak!" at her.

Ignoring the gibes, she spun her lock and yanked open the locker. She grabbed her coat with one hand and yanked on her hat and scarf with the other. She slammed the locker shut, snapped the lock closed, and snatched up her backpack in one movement. If she could just take her coat to her afternoon classes, she could avoid this mad dash back and forth across campus.

Outside, she did not move her eyes from the yellow bus that was her only way home, even when traction failed and she had to windmill her arms to avoid falling. Heedless of the burst of laughter, she sprinted on, reaching the bus and smacking her gloved palm against the glass just as the driver shifted into gear. He opened the doors and she climbed the three steps and sat behind the him, gasping. The bus pulled away seconds after she sat down, and deposited her on her corner twenty minutes later.

At only 3:30, it was already half dark and she trudged through snow that had drifted onto the sidewalk and along the sections of sidewalk that neighbors had not cleared. Her feet felt heavy but warm in the lined boots she and Mom had shopped for and bought back in November. It was the last afternoon they had spent out together.

The clouds hung low, and her breath fogged in the damp air. The cold nipped at her cheeks and pinched her forehead and ears where they peeked out from under her hat. The six books in her backpack weighed down on her shoulders and back like the approaching house weighed on her mind.

Today, she had promised herself, she would not hope.

She would simply go home. Either they would be there when she arrived, or the house would be empty, as it had been the day before and the two weeks before that. No amount of hope or mental bargaining would change the outcome.

She collected the mail before heading up the driveway to the side door, but didn't pause to look around. Anticipation would only lead to a longer period of anxiety followed by self-pity. These were the facts. They had been consistent every day since school had begun, just after Russ had driven away and not returned.

She turned the key in the lock, took a breath, and walked in. She set her backpack on her father's kitchen chair, carefully hung her winter gear on its hook, set her boots on the rubber mat beneath her coat, and sorted the mail methodically. Her father's she set at his place at the table, her mother's at that setting, Russ's occasional letter at his. Only those that were clearly household bills had she begun to remove and stack neatly on her mother's desk by the checkbook.

Mom had kept the checkbook as balanced as her accounting books at work, and Tempe knew there was still money for bills. Her methodical search of her mother's desk the previous night had revealed the car and house payment booklets and a calendar of payments. Temperance had already mailed the electric bill, but nothing more was due.

Tonight's study schedule was Physics, Pre-Calc, and French, then a dinner of the last can of Spaghetti-Os, followed by Anatomy, AP U.S. History, and American Lit, a careful perusal of the contents of the filing cabinets in the family office, and only then bed.

Her mother's alarm clock sounded just as Tempe started lit. It was her reminder to watch the weather report. If there was going to be more snow, she'd have to shovel, which meant getting up earlier in order to get to school on time. If the walks weren't shoveled, someone might notice. Everything had to look normal.

She sat with the book on her parents' bed, TV turned to WGN, and watched Tom Skilling's meteorology report. The reception was bad, but it was the only set that got the channel at all since she cancelled their cable. Weather report noted, Temperance flicked the TV off and finished with Eudora Welty and the South. Then she carefully re-packed her backpack and returned it to her father's chair. Her fingers lingered on the wood back as she stared at the piles of mail and the empty seats for a long moment.

It was over two hours later when she climbed into her parents' bed, wrapped her arms around her mother's pillow, and rested her head on her father's, with their blankets pulled up close under her chin.

Her father's alarm clock squawked at 5:30, she shivered under the covers, then she ran in place for a minute before throwing back the blankets and peering out the window. Cold radiated off the glass toward her face and hand. Dad had always trusted Skilling's science, and there, covering the driveway, sidewalk, and road, were the six inches of snow he'd predicted. Just like yesterday and the day before.

Dress, shovel, make sure the house wouldn't attract attention. It was like a litany in her head. She grabbed half a sandwich for breakfast, caught the bus, and was halfway to school before she realized she'd forgotten to make lunch.

***

"Temperance! Where are you going?" The girl grabbed at her sleeve.

Temperance tugged away, biting her lips as she spun her lock. "Home!"

Jodi leaned close to try and see into Tempe's face. "But today's Math Team. We need you there 'cause the next meet is this Saturday!"

"I can't." Tempe slammed her locker closed, grabbed her backpack, and wrapped her scarf around her neck, hurrying for the bus.

Jodi skipped sideways with her, then reached for the red fabric that spilled down Tempe's chest. "Isn't that your mom's scarf?"

"Yeah. Mine was wet." Under the straps of her backpacks, Tempe's shoulders ached from four consecutive days of shoveling snow morning and afternoon. Her homework, household maintenance, and sleep time had all suffered.

"Maybe it'll be dry when she picks you up." Jodi got in front of Tempe, pressing mittened hands together as if in prayer. "Pleeeease say you'll stay? We're up against Hinsdale and Niles this weekend and if you're there we could win."

"Jodi, I can't." Tempe looked over Jodi's shoulder to her bus at the front of the line and dodged around the other girl. "I've got to catch the bus."

"Your mom always gets you, though."

"She..." Tempe's chest and throat tightened. "She can't today."

Jodi spun away and ran alongside. "Well, at least I know you'll be ready for the meet. The bus leaves school at six Saturday morning."

Tempe kept her eyes on the bus. "I can't come Saturday either."

Jodi grabbed her coat sleeve, stopping her. "You have to come! We don't have a chance without you!"

Tempe tried to pull away, avoiding Jodi's eyes. "I don't have a ride. And--"

"My parents will drive you!"

"They can't!" She was not going to cry. It was the cold making her nose start to run. "Please. I'm going to miss my bus." Tempe pulled away again and Jodi's arms fell, the puffy white nylon of her coat whispering against itself as her eyes narrowed. "I'm sorry," Tempe said. "I have to catch my bus." She fled.

The bus started to move, and she ran with it for nearly ten feet, pounding on the door. The driver let her on and she huddled against the window in the seat behind him. Her stomach was knotted, aching with hunger as they drove past the cookie-cutter houses of the subdivisions. She kept her mouth open, breathing through her swollen throat as the edge of her mother's scarf absorbed the tears she couldn't hold back.

***
Hold Your Ground
***

The doorbell woke her. She picked her head up from the nest of her parents' pillows and blankets, looked at the clock, blinked, looked again.

Nine. Nine! She was late. She leapt out of bed, her heart pounding.

Then it hit her. Maybe it was them, and they'd somehow lost their keys. Dad never kept one hidden like some families did, which was logical; most "hiding places" were entirely obvious and thus unsafe.

She dressed frantically, desperate that they see that she was together, that she had kept everything running smoothly while she waited for them to come back. The doorbell rang again as she pulled on her jeans, she ran down the hallway calling, "I'm coming!"

She jerked the door open and felt the smile drain from her face. Her chest and abdomen felt as though gravity had released their hold. She gripped the doorknob until her fingers hurt. Keeping her spine straight through force of will alone, she swallowed hard.

It was a woman and a police officer. The police officer who'd taken the report she and Russ had given after her parents disappeared. He looked...serious or worried or sympathetic, and the woman looked the same.

Temperance licked her lips and forced herself to speak. "Hello, Officer Zukowski."

The officer touched his State Police Stetson and nodded his hello. "Hello, Temperance."

Tempe nodded once. It was about her parents. He had to have come about her parents. Good news, bad news...she couldn't tell from his tone or face. She held herself entirely still while every part of her vibrated inside.

He gestured to the woman next to him. "This is Susan Dougherty from the Department of Child and Family Services. We've received some calls expressing concern--"

"I'm sorry." Tempe planted her feet, her jaw tightening as the officer moved to step into the house. He wasn't there about her parents. He didn't know anything. Not yet. "I'm afraid I'm running late for school. Is there another time we could meet?"

The two exchanged a glance. Their faces had a look that always meant trouble, but Tempe never knew quite why, or what it implied. Susan Dougherty looked at her with the kind of expression that Tempe thought of as being used with very young children. Annoyed, Tempe kept her gaze on the officer.

He removed his hat. "There's no school today, Temperance. It's Saturday."

Saturday. She wasn't late. Saturday. She was missing the Math Team Meet. They were going to lose. She'd have missed it by oversleeping anyway. The driveway. She leaned to peer past the visitors. There were three or four inches of snow to shovel and increasingly little space to pile it. She had to shovel. She had to get them to leave. "I apologize. I misspoke."

Officer Zukowski leaned into the entryway. "Temperance, are your parents here?"

She lifted her chin and looked him straight in the eye, just like her dad had told her to do again and again. It was the way to assert herself, he always said, to demonstrate her authority on and certainty about a subject. "My parents went shopping."

The officer held her gaze and leaned infinitesimally closer to her face. "You and your brother Russell reported that they went shopping on December 23 of last year, and that they didn't return."

Tempe breathed faster. She had to force herself to maintain eye contact.

"I was the one who took your report. I told you your parents' car was found abandoned outside Trenton, New Jersey, on December 26." His voice softened slightly and he leaned in again. "Temperance, have you seen your parents since then?"

Brennan's gaze dropped to the worn spot on the seam of her sock. "No."

"What about your brother Russell? Is he home?"

"No," she whispered.

"Do you know where he is?"

She shook her head. She felt unsteady, like time had sped up and slowed down simultaneously. She had done everything right. She'd kept the house perfect. She'd made sure that no one would notice anything was different. She'd done all that work so she could stay here. Somehow they'd found out, somehow she'd gotten caught anyway, and she felt like things were falling apart around her. All she had left was the familiarity of the house, and if Russ or her parents came back, and she wasn't here.... She tried to even her breathing. The officer was asking something else.

"Temperance? How long has it been since you've seen him?"

"Sixteen days," she murmured. The officer wore solid duty boots, while the woman wore fluffy white boots over nylon stockings. Those boots wouldn't stay white for long. They would prove an unwise choice as snow turned to black slush in the gutters and on roadsides.

"Then I'm afraid we're going to have to insist on coming in," the officer was saying. "And Temperance?"

She stepped out of the way then closed the door behind them.

"Temperance."

She looked up.

"I'm going to have to insist that you not lie to us again."

"I didn't lie!"

Officer Zukowski sighed. "You have to tell us the whole truth, Temperance. We're here on official government business. Do you understand?" His voice was firm, but not unkind. Susan Dougherty just watched from his side, her expression unreadable.

"I understand."

"Temperance, is there somewhere we can put our coats?" Ms. Dougherty asked.

Tempe kept her back against the door and pointed. "There are hooks on the wall next to my coat."

"Let's sit down," Officer Zukowski said.

"You're not going to be staying that long." Tempe swallowed and blinked hard, still looking the two in the eye as much as possible. They studied the kitchen, peering through the door to the front room. Everything was in order. She wondered what they were seeing as they examined her as well, looking her up and down and frowning. The way they stared, it felt as if they could see right through her to where she quaked with fear.

"Actually, we have a number of questions. It may take a while," Mrs. Dougherty said. "Can we sit here?"

Temperance positioned herself between the visitors and the kitchen table. "No! You're not sitting at our table!"

"Listen, young lady--" Officer Zukowski began.

Mrs. Dougherty placed a hand on his arm. "Maybe we'd be more comfortable sitting on the sofa."

"That's possible," Tempe said. There was a long silence as the two adults looked at her. She had no idea what they were waiting for.

"So where is it?"

"Where is what?" she asked.

"The sofa."

"Oh," Temperance said, her voice very quiet again. "It's in the front room." She looked back and forth between the two for a long moment. "I'll show you."

They settled in, Temperance in her father's recliner, and Officer Zukowski and Mrs. Dougherty on opposite ends of the couch. Tempe remembered that her mother always offered tea or coffee and whatever cookies or crackers--with or without cheese--were in the cupboards when unexpected guests showed up. She couldn't for the life of her, however, remember how to make coffee or tea, nor could she remember if there was anything in the house suitable to serve.

"Temperance," the officer began, "we got three calls from a neighbor just this week worried about your safety. They reported you've been up before 5:30 every day to shovel snow, and there hasn't been a car on the premises since Christmas. They were concerned you might be in danger."

"What's dangerous about shoveling snow? It's the law to shovel the walks. Nothing looked amiss. I kept normal hours! No one was inconvenienced! I went to school, and I came home, and--"

"Temperance," he continued, "we also got a call from DCFS expressing concern that they had not been able to follow up with you and your brother after your parents' disappearance."

Tempe frowned. "But they did follow up. A Mrs. Walker called on January fifth, and I informed her that there was no longer a need for their services."

"But Temperance," Ms. Dougherty said, "your brother had agreed to discuss allowing you to be placed in foster care, but he never returned our calls. I came to the house to attempt a visit, but it was always quiet and empty. When I went to your school, the school said you had been attending regularly, and that you are an exemplary student, but your teachers were concerned about what they've seen as increased exhaustion and distraction since the break."

Tempe shook her head. Russ had been going to give her away. Even before he left, he'd already given up. Her hands were shaking. Her shoulders sagged. Her chest and belly felt empty. "I've been waiting for them to come back...." She trailed off as the two faces shifted into matching expressions. She was fairly certain it was pity, and she hated that she wanted their sympathy. She hated herself for the tears that coursed down her cheeks.

"Russ planned to send me to foster care," she whispered, trying it as a fact.

The only result of saying it aloud was that the sobs she had controlled so tightly for almost a month now began to batter their way past her taught throat muscles. Her chest and throat and stomach and cheeks hurt, and she fought for control, but though she kept the humiliating whimpers relatively quiet, she couldn't stop them.

She looked at her lap, trapped by the knowledge that these two strangers were watching her, seeing her fall apart, and the fear that they'd stop her if she tried to leave.

A tissue was pressed into one hand and a glass into the other. She didn't know who had stood or how they'd gotten the glass without her noticing. As she wiped her nose, she stared at the clear liquid in the glass. Water, the most plenteous compound on the planet, and yet the one that showed peculiar traits when compared to the expectations of the physical properties of other compounds in their different states. Perhaps it was the other compounds that didn't fall into a normal pattern, and water's properties that were--

"Temperance?" Mrs. Dougherty said quietly.

Tempe wiped her nose and took several very deliberate breaths before glancing up. She dropped her gaze immediately back to the damp tissue she was folding into careful squares. "Why would Russ give me away?"

"Well," Mrs. Dougherty said, "I admit that was my recommendation when I met with him."

Tempe's head shot up, and she met the woman's eyes. "You told him to leave me?" she demanded.

The woman seemed to jerk back an inch, and Tempe wondered if she'd been too loud again. "No, Temperance. We would never tell anyone's family to leave them."

Her gaze slipped away from the woman's face and back to the rug. "But he did leave."

"We encouraged him to allow you to be placed in foster care where you would be cared for and protected. Russell is only nineteen himself. He had a part time job in...something with cars, I think--"

"He was working at the local shop, doing oil changes and tire rotations. They were about to start training him on larger repairs," Tempe said. "He'd been working there since he was fifteen, and he knew quite a bit, so they were going to help him get some professional certifications."

There was utter silence in the room.

"I had no idea," Mrs. Dougherty finally said. "He didn't tell me."

"That's Russ." Tempe smiled, just a bit. "He never brags about himself."

"I told him that it was unlikely that he could support you both in this house, and that although we had no services we could provide to him at his age, he would be doing his best for you if he let us make sure you were cared for so that any financial problems didn't affect your chances of finishing high school, especially if your parents weren't found."

Tempe turned to the police officer. "Officer Zukowski, has there been any new information about my parents' disappearance?"

"No, I'm afraid not. Not since their car was found."

"I would like to speak to the investigator in charge of their case."

"Temperance, I'm afraid there is no investigator. There is no case. We have no leads, no information. There are no indications of foul play--"

"What about the blood in the car? The report said there was blood in the car. One of them...both of them...might have been...." She took a short breath. "They might have been...hurt."

"Ms. Brennan, any injury could have caused that...a cut finger, a bloody nose...nothing in the case indicates any kind of assault. There's no evidence that a crime has been committed other than their abandonment of you."

"Wait. You're telling me that you think my parents abandoned me on purpose and that there's no reason to keep looking for them. And you," she looked at Mrs. Dougherty, "told my brother he couldn't take care of me?"

The adults glanced at each other.

Tempe felt suddenly cold. "This is my fault. I'm the one who insisted to Russ that we call the police. He'd still be here if I hadn't. We trusted you to try and find our parents!" She turned on Mrs. Dougherty. "We would have made it, the two of us, until our parents came back."

"Temperance, you need to calm down," Mrs. Dougherty said.

"Calm down? You told my brother he wasn't good enough to take care of me. You told him he wasn't worth your help. He left."

"Temperance--"

"Stop using my name like I'm a child who needs calming down!"

"Then calm down," Mrs. Dougherty said briskly. "We're going to need to pack soon so that we can process you into the system. Saturdays are always busy."

"Pack?" She looked at them, and the pit of her stomach knotted. "Pack for what?"

"You're fifteen years old. We can't let you stay here alone."

She decided Mrs. Dougherty could not be reasoned with and turned to the other adult. "Officer Zukowski, I've been here alone for nearly three weeks, and I've been fine. This is my home, my family's home. I've paid bills. The items here belong to me and to my family. More important, semester exams begin on Monday, and I can't miss them."

"I'm sympathetic to the points you're making," he said, "but I have no choice but to take you into protective custody. You're an unattended minor, and legally we can't leave you here alone."

"Perhaps if you have family you could call?" Mrs. Dougherty suggested.

Tempe bit her lip, looking down again as she shook her head. "It's just us. We don't have any family." I don't have any family at all now.

"We'll do our best to keep you in your school for the upcoming semester. We try to cause as little disruption as possible to children's lives."

Tempe just stared at her. She turned to the policeman. "Officer Zukowski, what will happen to my family's house? Who will pay the bills so it doesn't go into foreclosure? What about our belongings?"

It was the officer's turn to look away. "Typically the bank will assume ownership of the house, sell the contents, and any monies that remain after the note is paid are put into a trust for the children, er, for you."

"But...what about Russ? This is our house. These things belong to us! What happens when my parents come back?" She pushed aside the idea of them injured or in some terrible situation that was keeping them away, and forced words past her fear. "What then?"

"Well, depending on the circumstances, the most likely outcome would be that they would be charged with child abandonment, making the condition of the house and its contents the least of their worries." Officer Zukowski looked sympathetic, she thought. Or angry. She wasn't sure what she'd done wrong now.

Mrs. Dougherty stood up. "Temperance, you need to pack. You may bring two bags. Do you need help?"

Tempe stood as well. She was taller than the social worker, a fact that gave her a modicum of comfort. "I can do it." She went to her mother's desk and gathered the manila folder into which she'd put the family birth certificates, social security numbers, and photographs. She slid the folder into her backpack.

In her parents' room, she grabbed the pair of earrings and two rings that lay undisturbed next to the jewelry box. She couldn't help a quick glance in the mirror. Her mother was so beautiful wearing these and she just looked...like plain Temperance.

She carefully made the bed, then dragged the suitcases from the top of their closet. She picked up Mom's robe and her favorite cardigan. Mom wouldn't have left either of those behind if she'd had a choice. They were her favorites.

She walked across the hall and plopped the suitcase onto her own bed. She carefully set the still-wrapped gifts into the suitcase, lingering over them with a light touch. Russ had done this for her and she hadn't spoken to him, not that entire week after Christmas. He'd left and hadn't said goodbye...and she hadn't said goodbye either.

She turned away and yanked open drawers, lifting neatly-folded pants and shirts, handfuls of underwear and socks, piles of sweaters and sweatshirts, and stacking them all in the suitcases. She threw in some of her nice clothes and shoes from her closet. She added a photo from her nightstand, her alarm clock, and finally began pulling down books from her shelves. The suitcases were bulging when she clicked one closed and zipped the other, and she wrestled them down the hallway one by one. As she walked out of her room for the last time, she looked back at it and realized that for all that she'd taken, her room still looked the same. It was like her departure had no impact on the world she'd lived in.

"Are we ready?" Mrs. Dougherty asked when Tempe set the suitcases at the bottom of the stairs.

"You remember I have semester exams this week, right, Mrs. Dougherty?" Tempe said. "I need to take my exams to get my final grades."

Mrs. Dougherty set a hand on Tempe's shoulder. "We'll do our best, but we can't make any promises."

Tempe moved away from the woman's touch, picked up her suitcases, and dragged them to the kitchen. She put on her coat, boots, hat, her mother's scarf, and her backpack. Then she saw the shovel.

"I didn't shovel yet today. I need to shovel the drive and the sidewalk."

"Don't worry about that, Temperance," Officer Zukowski said. "Just come with us." He reached for her larger suitcase. "Let me get that for you."

She yanked it away. "No. I can do it." She dragged the suitcases out the door herself and put them in the back of the squad car. They opened the back car door for her and closed her in like she was a criminal.

On the way to the DCFS office she read Howard Zinn's history of the tens of thousands of children sent from New York City to the Midwest on orphan trains.

***
***