When women first arrived at the shelter, I could smell the fear still on them, the sour sweat under their arms, the coppery tang of their skin. They took shallow breaths, gasping when a door slammed or footsteps landed too heavy on the floor upstairs. They’d flinch and flail their arms as if to shield their children from a blow.
Some women welcomed a reassuring pat on the arm, a soft squeeze of the shoulders, but others wanted no hands on them. Touch was dangerous. If anyone swung an arm or raised a hand too close, their eyes flared wide, whites showing all around the iris. They even flinched away from their children when they ran toward them too quickly. These women lived on guard, danger in every moving form.
I’d been hired as a life coach. Three years out of grad school with a Social Work degree, I was determined to help battered women make new lives.
During my interview, Marie, the director, warned me, “It often takes women multiple attempts to leave an abuser for good. Do your best to help, but let them make their own choices.” She gave me a stern look. “And don’t get too attached to residents. Once you get your heart broken a few times, you’ll have some distance.”
I’d nodded, even though I hoped I’d never become detached from others’ pain.
I wasn’t supposed to have any favorite residents, but try as I might to be impartial, I took a few of these women deeper into my heart. Nell and Heidi slipped in right at our first meeting.
Nell’s spirit hadn’t been broken, although she arrived with a face split open and bruised. Still, she smiled shyly at the shelter staff. She nodded at us. She’d bitten through her tongue during the beating and couldn’t form words until it healed. She was tiny, no bigger than a pre-adolescent girl, just skin over her bones. How could her husband have beaten anyone so frail and defenseless?
Once she could speak again, she read aloud to her daughter, Heidi, combing out her long blonde hair with her fingers, Heidi nestled tightly into her side. They looked more like sisters than mother and child. Heidi eyed Nell again and again, scanning her swollen face with worried eyes. Her relief was obvious when Nell’s bruising faded and she looked more human, less of a crime scene. Heidi ran a finger lightly over Nell’s split eyebrow.
“Does it hurt, Mama?”
“Not anymore. It just looks a mess.”
Heidi nodded, blinked. She must have witnessed this process before, the blood and bruises, the purple turning to green, yellow, her mother’s features emerging. She nodded and breathed deeper, relief smoothing the worry from her face. She was one of those preternaturally well-behaved children who’d grown up way too fast, who’d seen too much, who expected too little.
Heidi wouldn’t play with the other kids at the shelter except when Nell was busy with a meeting. She stuck to Nell like a shadow. Nell would cuddle Heidi against her, the two of them drawing comfort from their closeness. They gave each other strength.
I got to know the two of them best during the dinner shifts when I cooked each evening with several shelter residents. Women tended to relax in the kitchen and open up over the familiar mealtime tasks. Nell and Heidi were both deft at prep work like peeling potatoes and chopping the salad vegetables. And Nell cooked up luscious down-home dishes: green beans stewed with fatback, fried catfish, sweet potato pies. Best of all, Nell sang in a sweet, plain soprano voice while she worked. Heidi chimed in on many of the songs. They knew whiny, sad Hank Williams ballads, lots of long hymns, songs from old musicals. Every once in awhile, a song would be familiar enough to me that I could add a strand of alto harmony to the braid of voices. One night Nell started singing “Someone’s in the kitchen with Heidi, someone’s in the kitchen I know oh oh oh, Someone’s in the kitchen with Heidi, strumming on an old banjo” and Heidi laughed until she began to cry. She sobbed and sobbed while Nell patted her back with grease-flecked hands.
“Oh baby girl, I didn’t mean to make you sad. I was just feeling at home and that song came out my mouth.” Nell looked over at me. “That’s her song since she was a baby sitting in the kitchen in her high chair. I’d sing it to her when I cooked. Of course, it makes her think of home.” She clutched Heidi close and kissed her hair. “I didn’t mean to make you so sad, baby girl.”
“Don’t know why I’m crying, Mama,” Heidi wailed. “Felt so good to hear you sing my song. I can’t remember how long ago you stopped singing at home. Felt so good to hear you sing my song again, that’s all, Mama.“
I stepped over and put my arms around both of them and we huddled close for a minute.
“Maybe you both feel at home here. Sometimes we cry when we feel safe again.” I stepped back to leave the two of them a moment together. “I’ve got to flip the fish over. I’d never hear the end of it if I let one of your tasty dishes burn!” I turned away to lift the pan off the burner.
I’ll never forget my last conversation with Nell. It was midafternoon, the group session just ended, mothers heading out to gather children from the school bus that stopped down the street.
Nell paused where I was holding open the front door. I looked into her light blue eyes, no fear shadowing them, the bruises just a slight tinge of yellow on her pale skin.
“I want to say goodbye. You’ve been so sweet to me and my girl. And you’ve helped me see my strengths in a way I lost track of.”
I must have startled at her words. I was surprised because Nell had another five months of room, board, and job training at the shelter. Nell dropped her eyes to her scuffed loafers. Then she pushed her shoulders back and raised her gaze to me the way we’d practiced in a workshop on body language and standing up to bullies. Nell’s eyes wavered but I gave her an encouraging smile and she looked straighter into my face.
“I’ve decided to go home to Clarke and try again,” she said. “Heidi’s been on edge since we came here.”
I wanted to say that Heidi was probably anxious because of what her father had done to Nell before she’d run. I wanted to say that Heidi might be more alarmed if they went home to Clarke. But I wasn’t a therapist and it wasn’t my role to argue with Nell. My role was to help her believe in herself and the next steps she could take in her one and only life. I had to trust Nell’s choices, so I just closed my teeth and listened.
“I’ve got to do what’s best for my girl. It was selfish of me to take her away from her dad.”
I caught myself shaking my head and twisting my fingers in frustration. I made myself stand still and keep my face open to Nell’s words.
“So I’ve made up my mind. I understand Clarke may be angry when I come back. I know this may be a risk. But Heidi will be calmer at home.”
I didn’t believe that for a second. I knew Clarke had raped Nell at gunpoint one night when he was high, and then pistol-whipped her cheek when he was done with her. Once he fell asleep, Nell grabbed Heidi and ran. Heidi knew at least part of these details. She was a smart girl and loved her mother. I couldn’t believe she’d ever relax again in that house. Nell was lying to herself, but I had to let her make her own decision.
“Is that gun still in the house?”
“No, ma’am. Clarke gave it to his brother. He promised no more weapons in the house.”
Just fists and feet and belts and bottles, I thought. I pulled Nell close for a good hug. “You take care of Heidi and yourself. Call me anytime. Anytime at all. Got my card with the number? Memorize it so you can call me anytime, anywhere.”
Nell bobbed her head. I squeezed her tight and let her go. “Kiss Heidi for me. She’s one special girl. I’ll sure miss you two.”
Nell’s chin trembled, she chewed her lower lip. She nodded again and whirled away.
That was the last I saw of her.
Ten days later, Marie, the shelter director, called me on my day off to tell me Nell was dead. Clarke had apparently pinned her down and shot her through the heart, then turned the gun and shot himself through the forehead. Heidi found their bodies when she let herself in after school.
I folded to the floor as I pictured the scene. “Where’s Heidi? Could I see her?”
“Social services took her. She may go into foster care if there isn’t family. I know Heidi touched your heart, but we can’t have contact. I’m so sorry Kate.”
I started to weep.
“This is the absolute worst part of the job. It’s god-awful to lose one of our women. Take a few days and grieve. Cry it all out before you come back to work. The women count on us to hold them up, not bring them down further. OK?”
I mumbled something and hung up. I curled around my belly and bawled. Ruby, my red hound, trotted over and nudged me with her wet nose, licked the parts of my face she could reach with her tongue. I cried harder.
Tears leaked from me the next few days. What would Nell’s death, her forever absence, do to Heidi? I kept seeing the careful way that Heidi ran her finger over Nell’s split skin to study the damage, gentle enough not to cause more pain. What eight-year-old knew such delicate concern?
I imagined this scrap of a girl standing over the bodies, kneeling down in the blood to take her mother’s hand, to squeeze it and plead with her to wake up. She’d push at her father, thinking if she could just roll him off, maybe Nell could take a deep breath and rouse, maybe he was just too heavy. But she couldn’t move him. I imagined she ran to the phone to dial 911. And sat back beside the bodies, stroking her mama’s pretty hair, now wet with blood. She crooned and cried until the sirens keened down the road and braked in the yard. Then the house filled with voices and a man pulled her out of the way so they could work on the bodies. I couldn’t stop imagining how she must have clung to Nell, clutching her clothes as he pulled her away. She watched as they laid her dad out flat beside her mother. They worked on them, pressing on chests, shocking hearts. But no miracle happened this time, no trip to the hospital to be patched up.
I imagined the last Heidi saw of her mother was Nell strapped to a gurney, a sheet over her still face. Heidi didn’t look at her father. He could go to hell for all she cared. Heidi had begged her mama not to go back home. She’d heard the shelter counselor talking about men becoming more violent, doing worse to their wives. Now she couldn’t stop seeing her mother’s face, her mouth open in a gasp, her eyes desperate.
How would Heidi fare in foster care? I imagined her lying on a strange bed, weeping into her pillow, refusing to come out for meals. I imagined her replaying those moments when she came running into the house. I knew in my heart Heidi would blame herself for not being there to plead with her dad, to shelter her mother from the gun. She was too much a child to understand how little a child could have done to stop him.
I wondered if social services let Heidi bring anything from home to her foster house. Her stuffed black dog named Shadow? Her favorite blue sweater? Or did they carry her away with her hands still red with blood? I couldn’t stop imagining her grief. I thought if I could spend even half an hour cuddling Heidi, combing her hair with my fingers as Nell did, whispering in her ear, I could give her some strengthening words to carry with her. That was my job, after all, helping women find the strength and skills they didn’t realize they possessed.
I thought back to Marie’s warning that working with abused women could break your heart if you got attached. Their lives were full of tragedy we couldn’t prevent. I hadn’t wanted to believe that. Well, my heart was certainly breaking now. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I couldn’t settle. My anxiousness made Ruby nervous. She paced, claws clicking across the wood floor. That sound made shivers run up my back under my skin.
I tried several times to return to work, but whenever I walked through the shelter door I started to leak tears, no matter how hard I worked to control myself. Marie finally pulled me into her office, hugged me, and said she was putting me on compassionate leave with partial pay for the next month. My only responsibility was to go to counseling and deal with my grief and guilt. This forced vacation didn’t restore my equanimity. Actually, it left me with too much empty time on my hands, my mind free to drift into worries about Heidi’s suffering.
I took long walks with Ruby, trying to wear both of us out, trying to keep out of sight of Mr. Dedman, the new owner of my apartment house. Whenever our paths crossed, he reminded me that my large dog and I must move by the end of the month. Ruby was well over the ten-pound pet limit he’d instituted. So we walked in a different neighborhood each day, stretching our legs over the hills, taking in the sights, my eyes peeled for “For Rent” signs posted on properties. So far, I’d found no place hospitable to large animals, but I kept looking. I’d pinned up “apartment wanted” notes at the food co-op and the bookstore, but it was November, not the time of year when most people moved. I told myself we’d find something, but I felt like a bum, out of work and unwanted. There were so many empty spaces around downtown—old houses, old buildings—there must be a place for me and Ruby. That haunting West Side Story duet sounded in my mind. “There’s a place for us, somewhere a place for us,” I sang plaintively to Ruby. She wagged her tail and licked my knee as if to tell me, there, there, my odd human companion.
I found the house on a walk through Montford. A big old Victorian dame with a welcoming porch, lots of tall windows, and a “For Sale” sign stuck in the long grass of the front yard. The most distinguishing feature was a turret rising from the first floor up to the third-floor attic. I imagined looking out the turret windows over the neighborhood houses, perhaps all the way to the taller buildings downtown. A huge old oak tree shaded the left side of the house.
I wrote down the phone number on the sign, then walked close to the house to peer in the windows. No curtains, no furniture in the large front room, a long central hallway painted Pepto-Bismol pink. I walked around the perimeter of the house—the stone foundation solid with no visible cracks, a weedy garden plot out back. I looked up the back wall rising high and promising. I already felt affection for this house—venerable and down at the heels, like most of the neighborhood. I loved these old neglected beauties who’d all seen much better days. This was now a fairly seedy neighborhood, houses divided into apartments full of poor people and students, not the grand families once housed here. Now all sorts of folks could afford Montford—if they had the elbow grease, courage, and cash to fix up these antiques. While middle-class people had fled out to the newer suburbs, people of color, hippies, artists, and students saw the promise of living here on their own terms. I smiled farewell to the house, before I clucked to Ruby to start our walk back home to our apartment. I was a life coach, a professional optimist who could spin dreams into a series of small practical steps toward seemingly impossible goals. I already envisioned myself up on a ladder steaming that horrible pink wallpaper off the hallway, turning over the garden soil for spring crops, creating a home, my own shelter. My heart lifted a notch for the first time in several weeks as I followed Ruby’s lifted tail along the wavy old brick walkway.
I came back two days later with the realtor listed on the For Sale sign. Middle-aged, dressed in a nice blue suit and heels, Mrs. Dalton sniffed as she turned the brass key in the old latch and the door groaned open. The air inside was cold and stale. The floorboards creaked under our feet as we walked through the entryway into the living room with its tall bay windows and fine old wood trim, the small coal fireplace bordered with bottle-green ceramic tile. I looked through the wavy glass of the windows and wondered what stories this old house had to tell—it was going on a hundred years old. Had people died here, been born here in the days before women rushed off to hospitals for that? Had someone built this house for a fine family? Where were they now? Why was it sitting empty?
I walked down the hallway to the dining room. Someone had painted the loose layers of old paper that same too-strong pink as the hallway. My fingers itched to tear the paper off, down to the original heavy plaster. The floor was oak, not too scratched or scuffed. I already longed to make these rooms my own. But I kept that to myself as Mrs. Dalton led me through the funky old kitchen, up the narrow back stairs to the upstairs hall. I took a quiet breath as I looked out the back-bedroom windows, out over the garden and the neighboring rooftops, across the neighborhood to Town Mountain. I fell in love again with the front bedroom, complete with bay windows facing south to downtown, a sweet nook to sit and dream. Mrs. Dalton examined the cracked wallpaper and the dingy paint. She put on a smile when she saw me looking at her.
She shrugged her shoulders and said, “It’s a lot of house for a single woman. A lot of work. I can show you some nice ranch houses north of here.”
“I’m not one to shy away from hard work. I see this house needs lots of love. Does the price take that into account?”
“Yes, the price is extremely reasonable. Most people don’t want these old houses. Too much money for heat and repairs. It’s been on the market six months. I’m sure the owners would consider a low offer, if you’re serious.” She gave me a skeptical glance, as though she thought me foolish to want this house. I imagined my parents giving me the same look.
“Please show me the rest—furnace, electrical, and plumbing.”
She led the way outside the house to the basement door. The walls were rock but the cellar didn’t smell too musty and Mrs. Dalton looked surprised at the modern oil furnace and some new wiring. “Better than I expected,” she told me. “But be sure to get an inspector in here to check everything if you decide to make an offer.”
I’d fallen unexpectedly in love with this house. I already thought of it as mine even before I knew if I could get a mortgage. I was head over heels at the thought of saving this old beauty from neglect. I thought of the house as female, a subdued genteel sort of older woman, a little shaky on her feet and needing a young companion.
“I’m interested. Let’s talk about price and financing,” I declared as we walked alongside the house to Mrs. Dalton’s car.
She gave me a small professional smile, ready to earn a commission from a sentimental fool like me. She didn’t realize how very badly I needed a big project. I hadn’t thought of Nell even once while I toured the house, but I had a flash of Heidi kicking her legs on the swing dangling from the old oak tree in the side yard. Her hair flew behind her as she leaned forward, knees bent, trying to swing up high into the branches. It was the first happy image of her I’d had since the murder. No matter that this vision was only imaginary. Still, it gave me hope.
I parked my car in the lot of the food co-op in the old Cotton Mill building. The scraggly trees along the French Broad River were fuzzed with leaf buds. I hoisted the box of used canning jars for a jam-making workshop. Brenda had told me just to leave the box outside the door if I came before they opened. As I left the box, I noticed an old dented station wagon at the far end of the lot. Ever the social worker, I walked closer and peered inside. A plaid sleeping bag was spread out in the back, surrounded by piles of clothes and stacks of paperback books. A big bag of dog food leaned against a side door. Just then, I caught sight of a black-haired girl heading up from the river, a spotted puppy gallivanting around her legs. She saw me checking out her car so I waved and smiled. As she walked closer, her face shut down, lips pursed and eyes narrowed in sullen, teenage fashion. She wore old jeans and heavy work boots, a man’s flannel shirt, tails loose. I recognized the flat planes of her cheeks and her sharp blue eyes. She worked at the co-op sometimes and I’d also seen her shelving secondhand books at the newsstand downtown.
“Come here, Petey,” she called to the puppy as he romped away from her. She gave a sharp two- note whistle and held out her hand. Petey perked his ears and galloped to her. She scooped him into her arms and he rooted in her hand, seeking a treat. The girl walked up to me and stopped, legs wide in a challenging stance.
I said, “Hi there, I’m Kate. I’ve seen you around but I don’t know your name.”
“Mona.” She stared at me, chin up, eyes wary.
“Looks like you and Petey are camping in your car down here. It’s not the safest place to sleep. And Petey’s not exactly a watchdog yet.”
She bit her lip, but her eyes didn’t soften. She shrugged. Petey wriggled and worried at the cuff of her flannel shirt.
“You in trouble? No place else to live?”
She shrugged again and studied my face as though wondering if I was friend or foe.
“I’m not going to make trouble. I’m just concerned for your safety.”
She stared at me a beat longer. Petey play growled, his tiny teeth hooked into her shirt cuff. I reached over to scratch his little head, the puppy fur soft on my fingers.
Mona smiled down at my hand. “My parents kicked me out. There aren't a lot of places that’ll rent to a girl with a puppy. My friends can’t take me in. So we’re camping here for now.”
“Yeah, I understand the dog problem. I’ve got my own big mutt.” I scratched Petey under his tiny chin and studied Mona. I didn’t want to ask why her folks threw her out, what she might have done. I knew she worked at the sort of places I frequent. My house was starting to become a kind of way station for people in some sort of life limbo. Mona’s face had softened as I petted her dog. She looked young, forlorn, precarious—just a pup herself.
I took a breath. “I’ve got a big old house in Montford. I might have a space for you and Petey while you get on your feet.” I scuffled inside my bag for a scrap of paper, a pen, then wrote my name and number. “You could come by sometime and check it out.”
Mona stuffed the scrap of paper into a back pocket. She nodded, noncommittal.
I squeezed her arm. “Do call me if you want a place.”
I made myself walk away from this throwaway kid sleeping in the run-down, ghostly section of town, near a river full of car parts and junk. She wasn’t safe here. If someone broke into her car at night, no one would hear her scream. I hoped she’d call.
A few days later she agreed to stop by the house that evening. I sat in one of the porch rockers waiting for her. Ruby sprawled alongside me. We both stood when Mona’s car pulled up. I watched her unfold from the car. I waved and called, “Bring Petey, too. Let him meet my dog, Ruby.”
Mona reached back into the back seat. Petey wiggled and licked her chin while she walked up the steps to the porch.
Ruby wagged her tail in slow arcs and lifted her big head to sniff Mona, raised her nose in Petey’s direction.
“She’s gentle. She’ll play nice.”
When Mona set Petey down he scrabbled right up to Ruby and yipped in his high puppy voice. Ruby lowered her head, which was the size of Petey’s entire body, and sniffed him all over.
“Let’s go around back so we don’t have to worry about the road. Ruby, come girl.”
We sat on the back stoop and watched the dogs romp. Ruby would bow down to Petey's level and stare at him, then give a bark and take off around the yard, Petey running full out to try to keep up. Mona laughed, a real belly laugh. Her face softened and she looked younger, eyes wide, lips soft. With her guard down, she was very pretty, with her blue-black hair and pale skin. Her shoulders relaxed and her fingers played with the loose threads of her shirt cuff.
I told her a bit about buying the house for me and Ruby, renting out rooms. I described the other roomers, each of us in the midst of remaking our lives in one way or another.
Then I asked, “What’s going on with you, Mona? Can you tell me more?”
She kept her eyes on the dogs, now flopped down together on the grass. Petey was rolling around on his back, rubbing his fur against the patchy lawn. He yawned big and then fell instantly asleep with his legs pointed every which way into the air.
Mona laughed. “He’s so trusting. I found him a few weeks ago down on the riverbank. He was tiny, curled up and shivering, whining to himself. Someone probably dumped him there, just another piece of trash. I couldn’t leave him out there, such a sweet little guy. So here we are, two outcasts. I can’t take him to the pound, so we’re living in my car.”
“Could you tell me why your folks kicked you out?”
Her face hardened and tears sheened her eyes. She flicked the tears away with her fingers and stared at me, as though weighing what little she knew of me so far. “Some busy-body told my parents she’d seen me downtown with my arms around a girl, walking real close.” She looked at me for a reaction but I just nodded. “My parents are church people. Now they think I’m an aberration. They’re praying for me but I can’t live at home if I’m gay.”
She hung her head, her fingers worrying at her shirt cuff where Petey’s teeth had torn threads loose. Her wrist was bony and she looked very thin under her loose clothes. I wondered if she’d been getting enough to eat. She was a wisp of a girl, still only a child, really.
The social worker part of me wanted to feed her up, take her in, help her thrive. “Oh Mona, that’s awful. I’m so sorry your parents don’t accept who you are. I hope they’ll come to see that love is just love, gay or straight. But in the meantime, want to see the house?”
I walked Mona up the front stairs to the little sleeping porch off the landing. Diamond panel windows lined two of the walls—no closet—but room for a bed and dresser and bookshelves, if she wanted them. Mona slowly pivoted, taking in the space, the views out the windows. She hugged herself, thin arms crossed over her belly, holding herself together. Emotions swam across her face—surprise, hope, doubt, sadness. She didn’t know me well enough to fully trust me yet, but here she stood in a small room of my house, considering.
“It’s small but it’s better than a car. I’d charge you half price for this half-sized room. You’ll be safe here while you figure out what comes next.” Mona still seemed uncertain if it was a good idea to move in with a strange woman from a parking lot. I was glad to see her being cautious.
I said, “Let’s have tea in the kitchen and talk a bit more.”
She nodded and pivoted around, examining the room again, perhaps imagining herself and Petey here. Then she followed me down the old servants' hallway to the kitchen and we whistled for the dogs to come in from the yard. Ruby loped up the stairs and Petey just looked puzzled and whined until Mona carried him inside. We sat on mismatched old chairs around the chestnut table that I’d rescued from the side of the road and refinished. The dogs flopped together between our feet, Petey curled in between Ruby’s long legs. We sipped peppermint tea and I told Mona about the other folks living in the house. I pointed out the calendar that listed house chores we each signed up for, showed her the shelves where we each kept staple food. I chatted about group living, weekly dinners, singing on the porch, and meandering conversations in the living room.
I asked Mona about her day-to-day life, her dreams and plans.
“Well, I couldn’t cope with school after I got kicked out. I’ve got the job at the co-op during the day, then the bookstore on the weekends. And Petey. That’s pretty much my life for now. And sleeping. I don’t sleep well in the car, honestly. I’m too nervous and exposed. It’d be a relief to sleep indoors again. And there’s Lonnie, she’s the girl I like, but I haven’t seen much of her since I’ve been out of school.”
“Do you want to go back to school?”
“Nah, I like working. I want to get my GED. Then I’ll think on what comes next.” Tears ran down her cheeks. “Everything is different without my family, you know?”
I nodded. I did know. I thought of my inability to help Heidi when she lost her mom. But here was another girl I might help. And I had the skills to coach her through her next steps, whenever she might feel ready. “So, do you want to move in here? Only thirty-five dollars a month, including utilities.”
Mona gave a tiny nod and started to cry in earnest, bent over, forehead down on the table, weeping. Petey stirred under the table. He woke and whimpered until Mona picked him up and held him under her chin, crooning to him.
She looked up at me through her black bangs. “I’d love to live in the porch room. When can I move in?”
“Anytime, kiddo. Anytime. I’ll make you a set of keys.”