FORCES TO RECKON WITH
By Judith Post
Libby stirred her coffee with unnecessary force.
"You spilled some," Caleb told her, pointing to a slosh on the kitchen counter.
Libby forced a smile. "I wasn't being careful, was I?"
"If we spill our drinks in the lunch room, the principal makes us clean it up." Instead of sounding miffed, Caleb's voice held an edge of pride. An adult expected him, a second grader, to be responsible for himself, and he liked it.
Libby glanced down the hallway at Treena's open, bedroom door and scowled. If only her friend cared a little more about being responsible. But then, why was she surprised? Every time Treena couldn't come up with her share of the rent money, she disappeared for a day or two. What part of pooling their resources did Treena not understand? The reason Libby left Dan was because she could never count on him. Treena had the same problem with Brian. Neither man sent child support with any regularity. So, as two single moms, they decided to team up, to work together. Only Treena was missing in action….again. And Andrew was in the bathroom, brushing his teeth, getting ready for school. Thursday was Treena's day to drive the boys, but Treena wasn't here, was she?
Libby swallowed the last of her coffee. Bitter. Just what she needed. "Are you guys ready? We have to move it. I can't be late this morning." Emma had taken the morning off, and Samantha wouldn't be back in the office for another week after her foot surgery. That meant their office was short, but people still had to come in to get their court dates set. And none of them were happy about it. Libby figured she'd been cussed out in just about every way and shape there was. Being a paralegal wasn't the glamour job she'd thought it would be. Of course, if she worked for a lawyer, it might be different, but she took the court position because she wanted to keep regular hours for Caleb. There was always a trade-off, wasn't there?
By the time she grabbed her car keys and stuffed a check in the envelope to drop in their landlord's mail slot, the boys were lined up and ready to go. She raised an eyebrow and inspected them. "Everything in your backpacks?" It had been a mad scramble to get ready this morning.
They saluted. "Yes, ma'am."
It was a morning game they played. She stood at attention. They followed her lead. "Then ready, soldiers? March!"
Caleb and Andrew swung their arms in military fashion as they stomped their feet in unison. They marched down the steps and paused while Libby slid the envelope into the first floor collection box. Then off they went to her mini-van.
Once they were buckled in, Libby handed them each a Pop Tart, not their usual breakfast, but it worked today. Then she started toward their school. Between bites, Andrew asked, "Where did Mommy go?"
"She didn't come home last night."
"I saw her. T.R. was too loud and woke me up. Mommy gave me a glass of water and sent me back to bed."
Libby frowned. The two women had an agreement never to bring men back to the apartment. Not that Libby dated. She didn't have the energy. But Treena found time somehow, even though she worked weekend nights at the nursing home, plus Tuesdays and Fridays.
"Your mom brought T.R. here?" After the boys were in bed, Treena had gone out to meet some friends on her night off.
Caleb shook his head. "She didn't bring him. He kept knocking on the door until she let him in." The boys shared the front bedroom. Libby and Treena's rooms were across from each other at the end of the hallway. She must have slept through all the noise. Mental note to self--don't stay up watching DVDs on weekends. It makes you a slug the rest of the week.
"Do you remember what time it was?"
Andrew shrugged his shoulders. "The big hand was on the two. I haven't learned the other hand yet."
For a first grader, that was a pretty good answer. "When did your mom leave with him?"
The boys looked at each other. "We don't know. We fell asleep."
Great. Libby had met T.R. when he came to take Treena and Andrew on a zoo date. When she'd asked about his initials, in an effort to make small talk, he'd told her they stood for Trustworthy and Responsible.
"Will Mom pick us up tonight after school?" Andrew asked.
"I don't know. I'll try her cell phone, and we'll get something worked out." Libby pulled in front of the building and joined the queue of mothers waiting to drop their children off. When she pulled away, her mind kept fretting over what the boys had told her. Why had Treena come home last night and then left with T.R. after two in the morning? Had they run away to elope? The guy had certainly stuck around longer than most. And when would Treena come back?
The day was every bit as un-wonderful as Libby had thought it would be. Lines formed. People fussed. Some ranted and raved. And all of them got processed whether they liked it or not until finally, office hours were over.
At a little past five, she parked at the school building and went in to get the boys. Usually, Treena picked them up at the end of Thursdays, but Libby hadn't been able to reach her. At last, she gave up and called to let the teacher know they'd have to stay in the after-curriculum program tonight. Both boys left the building, wearing smiles. The young teacher-in-training who did after school care had let them carve jack-o-lanterns for their craft—a sign that Halloween would be here soon. Libby sighed. First, it was Halloween costumes. Then it was Thanksgiving. And then it was the mayhem of Christmas. She didn't feel up to it this year.
On the drive home, she called Treena's cell phone number. Again. Again, no answer. Libby decided to buy fast food and skip cooking, and that made the boys even happier. They rarely got take-out. It was too expensive unless she went the cheap route, and her sister, Justine, the nurse, insisted that wasn't healthy. So Libby cooked a week's worth of meals each Saturday instead, and either she or Treena reheated them for weeknight suppers.
The boys chattered happily as they climbed the stairs to the apartment with their jack-o-lanterns and Happy Meals. How could life get any better? Lily smiled, watching them. If only life was that simple for her.
She looked around the apartment when she got inside, knowing Treena wouldn't be there, but hoping for the best. The rooms were empty. They ate their food in front of the TV, something else she rarely let the boys do. Half an hour later, she'd worked herself into a better mood. Treena couldn't stay away much longer. She had to work tomorrow night. She'd have to come home to get her uniform. Libby would see her then.
Dinner finished, Caleb asked, "Mom, will you play a game with us?"
Libby wasn't the fun mother. Treena was. Treena would play one board game after another with the boys. She'd paint their toenails pink to make them giggle or toss a football with them. Libby hedged. "What if we bake instead? We could decorate sugar cookies to look like pumpkins. Or we could make popcorn balls." She could store them for after school snacks.
A few dozen cookies later, they popped a movie in the DVD. It was one of Treena's favorites to watch with the boys--Hocus Pocus. After that, it was kisses and bedtime. Libby poured herself a glass of wine at the end of the day. Tomorrow was Friday, thank God. It would be busier than usual, but it was the last day of the week.
She was heading to her bedroom when the phone rang. "Hello?"
"Is Treena there?" a voice asked.
"No, I haven't seen her."
The girl on the other end of the line hesitated. "She was supposed to meet me at Harvey's Bar. I've been waiting half an hour."
"I'm really sorry. She didn't come home this morning. She must have forgotten."
The girl sounded hurt. "When you do see her, will you tell her that Marcie called?"
"The Marcie who's going into the hospital this weekend for tests?" Treena had told Libby about her. The doctors were hoping to find an ulcer or a tumor, something benign.
"Yes. We work together."
"Treena's told me a lot about you," Libby said. "She wouldn't forget going out with you unless something really important came up at the last minute."
"She's all right, isn't she?"
All of sudden, Libby was worried about that. "I don't know. She didn't leave a note or call me." But that wasn't unusual. When Libby changed her routine and went out, she left careful instructions on how she could be reached if anything happened. She let Treena know whom she was going out with and when she expected to get back. Treena always laughed at her and waved her away. "Just have fun," she'd say.
"She's probably met a new man," Marcie said, interrupting her thoughts. "You know how she is."
Libby wasn't so sure. After she hung up, she dialed the police station. She got to talk to a nice desk sergeant who listened patiently to what she told him.
"She's barely been gone twenty-four hours?" he asked.
"Yes, but this was her day to take care of the boys and get them to and from school."
"But she does this every once in a while when she's too ashamed to face you about rent money?"
Libby took a deep breath. "She'd never stand up a close friend who's worried about cancer."
"Is there anyone you could call to check on her?"
"Not really." Libby saw her sister every Sunday when Justine's husband did EMS duty. They hung out together with their kids. But Treena only saw her family at holidays. They weren't close. Brian wouldn't visit unless he had to. He was afraid she might ask for money. Usually, Treena went out with friends from the nursing home. But Marcie called to find her. Not a good sign.
"Any special guys?" the sergeant asked.
"None that I know of, just the T.R. I told you about, the one who came here to get her."
"And you don't know the man's full name or how to contact him?"
"No. He drives a black pickup, though." She remembered Andrew getting squashed into a tiny back seat on their way to the zoo. But how lame was that for a clue? How many black pick ups did she pass on the streets every day?
"I'll send out a report for a missing person, but it won’t be a high priority. I’m guessing she’ll come home in a few days after she’s had a good time."
"Thank you." Libby didn't know what else she expected the police to do. Go door to door? She hung up feeling humbled. How could she live with someone for a year and a half and know so little about her? She and Treena shared an apartment and watched each other's kids, but they kept the rest of their lives pretty separate.
Libby went to the living room window and looked out across the parking lot. Was she letting her fears get the better of her? Was Treena in trouble, or was she out somewhere having such a good time she forgot about Marcie? She pushed her biggest fear away. She couldn't face it. Treena had to be all right, somewhere.
Libby shook her head. Treena might dodge rent day if she was short of cash, but she was always there for a friend. Something was wrong. She punched in Treena's cell phone number for the zillionth time. No one answered. Fear settled in the pit of her stomach. She tried to remember anything she could about T.R. Had he ever called the apartment, or only Treena's cell?
She went to the kitchen phone and went through the numbers listed in its directory. No T.R. Libby tried to remember where Treena met him. A bar? At work? Through a friend? She had no idea. Desperate, she flipped through the phone's directory for Marcie's number. When Marcie answered, Libby said, "I know this is going to sound silly, like I'm worrying about nothing, but I'd feel better if I could track down Treena."
"You think something might have happened to her too?"
"I can worry about anything," Libby admitted. "But this one's getting out of control."
"Good, I'm glad I'm not the only one." Marcie sounded as stressed as Libby felt.
"Do you know T.R.'s number? Treena left with him."
"Sorry, I don't have that." There was a minute of silence, then, "He worked at the ice cream company on the north side of town, though. I remember Treena talking about the free ice cream he brought home. And he works nights, like we do."
Libby thought about that. "Could you do me a favor? Could you come to our apartment and watch the two boys so that I can run to the ice cream factory and meet him?"
"Is that safe?" Marcie asked. "The minute he met Treena, he wanted to get serious, but Treena said he was too needy, so they’d just get together as friends. Why don't you call the cops?"
"And sound stupid again? Besides, it they stop him in front of everyone to question him just to find out Treena's spending the night there, she'd kill me."
"He could lie to you anyway. If Treena's at his place, he wouldn't want you to mess things up. Follow him," Marcie said. "And don't let him see you."
"I'll be there in twenty minutes."
Libby couldn't believe what she was about to do. What did the TV shows call it? A stake-out. She pulled on jeans and a sweat shirt, then laced up her old running shoes. If the lights were on in T.R.'s living room and Treena was sitting on the sofa, sipping a beer, Libby might walk to the front door and punch her. Could you go to jail for that? That would look great on a resume' for a paralegal. Arrested for domestic abuse.
She was glad when Marcie knocked on the apartment door. She'd worked herself up into a case of jitters and would have called to cancel in a few more minutes. Marcie hurried through the door and couldn't stop pacing. She was younger than Libby expected her to be, in her mid-twenties with short, dark hair and gray eyes. Too young to have a health scare and too attractive to be single. Libby could see why Treena liked her.
"I've been thinking." Marcie rushed into speech. "When you get to T.R.'s place, call me and let me know where you are. That way, if you disappear too, I can send back-up. If you wait too long, I won't be able to stand it, and I'll call 911 anyway."
Libby liked her style. "I'll call you when T.R. comes out to his truck after work and I'll call you again when I reach his house." That's what she'd want someone to do for her.
"Good, then I'll sit here and wait till I hear from you."
Libby handed her the TV remote. "I hope there's something decent on to watch. And thank you."
"Good luck." Marcie turned the deadbolt lock when Libby left.
Libby spotted half a dozen black trucks in the parking lot of the ice cream company. More people must eat Rich and Creamy than she could imagine. The place was churning out flavors twenty-four hours a day. She turned off her headlights and sat in her dark car, waiting for the second shift to end. She was parked where she could see workers walk out the door, and when T.R. passed through them, she started her car's engine.
For a minute, she was afraid she might lose him when he turned right onto Wells Street to drive home. There were three cars in front of her, but they all went left, and it was easy to spot T.R's taillights ahead of her. She kept a distance since there was little traffic on the roads this time of night. He drove north for twenty minutes before turning left onto a winding road. Libby used that time to call Marcie. "I have him. He's driving home from work. I'll call you when I get there."
Five minutes later, he turned north again; and ten minutes after that, he pulled into a short drive.
T.R.'s house sat on a large lot surrounded by trees. She drove past it, in case he'd seen her behind him. She didn't want to make him suspicious. Then she doubled back, headlights out, and parked on the other side of the road. She, hopefully, was angled far enough away that the trees would block his view of her. Lights were on in the front rooms and there were no drapes at the big, picture window. Libby's breath caught when she saw Treena push herself from the couch, but instead of greeting T.R., she seemed to be confronting him. Her posture was stiff and angry. Her hands flailed in the air. T.R. edged toward the wall and inched his way past her.
Libby frowned. Treena followed him, but didn't go too close. Was there a reason? Was she afraid of him? When T.R. reached the arch that led to the kitchen, Treena strained to grab him, but he backed away from her. Again, she stayed where she was. T.R. walked to the refrigerator and opened it to scan inside. Treena shouted something, but he didn't turn to listen.
Something was wrong with this picture, but Libby couldn't decide what it was. She could tell that Treena and T.R. weren't getting along. If Treena had driven her own car here, she'd be gone by now. She'd be home. But how would T.R. react if Libby waltzed to his door to fetch her? From his actions, Libby decided that he wouldn't be too happy. What should she do?
She called Marcie. "I followed T.R. to his house. Here's the address. Treena's here, but she looks like she doesn't want to be. I'm not sure what to do."
"We need to get him out of the house." Libby was surprised how fast Marcie thought under pressure. It always took her a minute to collect herself. "Then you can go in and get Treena."
"How do we get him out?"
"I'm calling his supervisor at work. I'm going to pretend to be Treena and tell him that I have a flat tire and that T.R. has to come and help me."
"But he's not at work."
"I'm going to pretend I don't know that, and that I tried his cell phone, but couldn't reach him."
"What good will that do?"
Marci sighed. "Either the supervisor will call T.R. and tell him I need my tire changed and I'm at the gas station on the corner of Harrison and Ewing, or he'll give me T.R.'s number and I'll call him myself."
"But he knows you're not Treena. He's with Treena now."
"Yeah, that should make him curious, don't you think?"
Libby smiled. It just might work. "I'll wait for him to leave, then I'll go in."
Fifteen minutes later, T.R. stalked out of his house and pulled out of the driveway. Libby waited until she didn't see his taillights anymore, then ran to knock on his door. Treena jerked her head up to see who was there. Libby ran to the window and waved.
"Help me!" came Treena's voice. "Get me out of here! I can't reach the door."
Libby had never broken and entered in her life, but programs constantly warned that if a burglar really wanted to get in your home, he could. It took her a long time. She tried to push windows open and kick the door in, but she finally had to go to the garage and find a crowbar to pry her way in.
Treena was standing, waiting, tears running down her cheeks, when she finally got inside. Libby shook her head. She couldn't believe what she saw. Treena was tethered in the living room. T.R. had bolted a heavy, dog's chain into his floor and locked it to handcuffs attached to her ankle.
"You've got to get out of here!" Treena said. "Go without me. Call for help. But get away before he comes back."
Too late. Head lights arced into the driveway. Libby flipped open her cell phone and dialed 911. She'd given the location when a hand slapped her so hard, she flew backward. Her head hit the corner of the butcher block in the kitchen, and everything went fuzzy. When she tried to stand, the world spun. She tasted blood and licked her lips. Split. She touched a hand to her temple. It came back sticky. She crawled to a cabinet and pulled herself up, keeping a tight grip on the counter top to steady herself.
"What are you doing?" Treena's voice was shrill, full of fear. "Look what you've done! You could have killed her!"
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to. She was calling… You'd get free…"
"T.R., this won't work. You know it won't. What about Andrew? Don't you care about him? You've taken away his mother."
"He can come too. We can all live together."
"Chained to the floor? What kind of life is that for me?"
"You wouldn't stay any other way."
"You can't make someone love you. And I really like you."
"I saw you! I saw you in the bar with that other man! He had his arm around you."
"Mark is married. I told you that. We're just friends."
"They all say that! They all tell me how nice I am, how much they like me, and then they fall for some scum and leave me. I'm sick of being nice!"
"But this is wrong. You know that."
T.R. put his hands over his face. He rocked back and forth. He turned frightened eyes on Libby. "What have I done? They'll take me away, lock me up. I'll lose Treena." He began to pace. "I can't. I just can't." He walked to the closet and pulled out a shot gun.
Libby could feel the blood drain from her face. Her hands shook. "We won't press charges, will we, Treena? But I was worried about her. I came to see if she was all right."
"I'll take care of Treena. She's mine."
Libby couldn't swallow. Her breath caught in her throat, and she couldn't breathe. He was going to shoot her. Who'd raise Caleb? Not his father.
Sirens screeched in the distance. Lights bounced off the front yard, and squad cars slammed to a stop. Cops ran toward the house. They could see T.R. holding the gun in the front room. The picture window framed the three people inside.
Treena tried again. "T.R., I care about you, and I care about Libby. I don't want to see either of you hurt."
"Too late," T.R. said. "I ruined everything. I can't go to jail. I can't." Before either of them could move, he put the gun barrel in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
The blast was deafening. Blood and pieces of flesh splattered everywhere. Treena was crying and screaming at the same time. Libby felt numb with shock. On TV, a person gets shot and slumps to the floor. Usually with no mess and just enough blood for effect. The real thing was sickening. She tried not to vomit. Her legs gave and she slumped to the floor.
Strong arms supported her. "You're going to be all right," a cop said.
"Get me out of here. I can't breathe. It stinks in here. It's a mess."
He helped her to her feet and led her outdoors.
Libby sucked in deep gulps of air. Another cop brought Treena. Libby wrapped her arms around her friend and the sobs started. She wasn't sure which were hers and which were Treena's, and it didn't matter.
There were lots of questions and forms to fill out before Libby got in her car and drove Treena home. The cops would have taken them, but Libby didn't think she could stand sitting in the back seat while one of them drove. She needed to be on her own. She needed to have her own thoughts with no intrusions. Treena called Marcie on their way, but kept the account of the evening short and blunt. Neither of them wanted to relive it.
It was almost time to get the boys up for school when they walked inside their apartment. Marcie looked from one of them to the other. "You can catch me up on things some other time. I need some sleep. I'm going home. I work tonight. So do you," she told Treena, "unless you call in. I wouldn't blame you."
Treena blinked, dazed. "You're working when you have surgery on Saturday?"
"It's better that way. I need to keep busy." She stopped to give Treena a quick hug. "Glad you're back, and glad you're okay."
Treena sank onto a kitchen chair. Libby sank onto one opposite hers.
"I didn't think anyone would come looking for me," Treena finally said. "I thought you'd think I was just being me, typical Treena."
"I did at first until Marcie called."
"I'm so sorry…"
But Libby cut her off. "I'm one of the most responsible people in the world, almost to the point of being a killjoy, and it could have happened to me. It could happen to anyone. No one expects it. It wasn't your fault."
Treena pressed her lips together, trying to stay calm. "All those lists you made, the ones I laughed at, they're not such a bad idea."
"Quit it, will you? Neither one of us is perfect. We balance each other out. But don't leave the apartment at two in the morning ever again, will you?"
Just then, the boys' bedroom door opened and Andrew padded into the hallway. He saw his mother and flew into Treena's arms. After a fierce hug, he pulled back to look at her. "Have you been crying?"
Caleb followed him and stared at Libby. "Did you yell at Treena like you do us? Did you make her cry?"
"Boys," Treena told them, "your mother turned into a bad ass tonight and saved my life."
Caleb laughed. "You're always funny!"
Treena and Libby locked eyes. Libby wouldn't have believed that story either.