Sunday, May 1, 2011


Miguel, 15 and his sister, Ellie,16 are in the playroom on group night.Ellie is in the play area and Miguel is watching her from the window in the social worker's office. A volunteer has told Ellie not to keep going into the hall to take phone calls.

Ellie rolls her eyes, shrugs. Sets a chair in the corner and sits on it. Next call, she turns the chair to the wall and her fingers fly. A couple minutes later, I can tell something’s wrong. She shakes her head, stands up. Flips the phone shut and shoves it in her pocket.

I wonder who’s calling. Maybe her boss at camp. She missed work three days this week. Maybe he fired her. She pulls her phone out again. Sits down and reads. Texts. Reads again. Looks at the ceiling. Closes her eyes and takes a deep breath.

I jump when Pilar says, “Mike, you’re not writing. Are you okay?”
“Sure. Sorry, Pilar.”
Carter makes a “Duh!” face—eyes crossed, tongue hanging out. He needs a good slap.
"Avoid all unnecessary violence” (Miguel remembers his Karate teacher saying).
I shrug, look right at Carter. “Nobody’s perfect.”
Pilar nods. “You are so right, Mike.”

I pick up my pencil. The top of the form reads, “Safety Plan.” Right. The short, easy way to stay safe in your own home.
Sorry, but I don’t think there’s a safety plan on earth that will work when Dad’s in Dictator Mode. When he walks in the door like that, we’re not safe. Period.
I fill out the form anyway.

After group, Ellie and I use the bathroom in the hall. Who knows when they will be available again? The dining and living rooms are already buzzing with women and kids. The babysitters gave us a snack but I’m hungry again.

I grab some cookies from a package on the counter, give a couple to Ellie. She takes one bite, then crumbles them like she’s in a zone. Her eyes never leave the uncovered windows across from her. They’re black now that it’s dark. Behind Ellie’s reflection are streetlights and speeding headlights.I don’t think she sees them.

“Did your boss call tonight?” I ask. Try to sound casual.
Mom sits down. Says nothing, stares at her hands.
A baby cries, two kids fight over a toy. Holly tells Bev, “Group was kind of fun.”
Mom hears nothing. She’s left the planet.

Ellie touches her arm. “How was the women’s group?”
Mom startles, frowns at Ellie like she’s been asleep. Doesn’t answer.
“Is it okay if we go upstairs with Keesh or Bev?” Ellie asks.
Mom stands slowly, like someone’s holding her down. “No, I’ll take you.”

In the room, she kicks off her shoes and crawls into bed. Falls asleep immediately.
We slip off our shoes and slide under the covers, too.
Wouldn’t Dad have a fit if he saw us go to bed completely dressed.
But he’s not here and Mom’s out of it. It feels like no one’s in charge.

Ellie's boyfriend, angry she won't tell him the address of the shelter, is now harassing her with multiple, demanding phone calls. Mom, starting the paperwork to get a restraining order against Dad, is depressed and anxious. That leaves Miguel and Ellie worried about her and feeling adrift.

The first week or two of shelter life are the hardest.
But they usually beat living with someone who thinks he owns you.

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