There was a knock at the door, two taps, that was all, and the door opened.

Maddy’s Place is a fictional shelter, but there are real shelters serving as havens for single homeless parents. These minor characters are also fictional, but they reflect real kids I knew when volunteering at the Open Door in Chicago.

“Not allowed to have the door closed during the daytime.” A girl around Lily’s age with skin shining like brown satin stepped one foot into the room and looked around. “Don’t make no sense. Might’s well play with yourself during the day as at night. But them’s the rules irregardless. Come on, then. Supper time soon. How about bring the little one down to meet the crew? She look like she needs something to do anyways.”

Then the stranger turned and walked off down the hall, leaving Lily’s door wide open.

Sure enough, Rosie was awake, looking around the small crib like she, too, wondered where she was and what was going to happen from here.

When Lily and Rose went downstairs, however, the only thing that happened is she interrupted an argument over what TV show they should be watching.

“Lay off, you two,” said the girl who’d opened Lily’s door. “Let the new girl decide. You wanna watch?” She scooted over on the couch to make room for Lily. A toddler, about one maybe, scooted with her, watching Lily with wide, white eyes, two fingers plugged tight in his mouth.

“What’s your name?” The girl asked when Lily sat. “I’m Sugar and this here little ragamuffin—” She teased the little boy at her side by tickling his ribs until he pushed her away, giggling. “This is Ty-baby. My little Tyrone. It’s his birthday tomorrow. He be two years old soon, won’t you Ty Ty? Huh?”

The toddler nodded then hid his face against his mother’s boobs. He turned enough to peek one shy eye at Lily, then buried himself deeper.

“I’m Lily.” She glanced down at the squirming bundle of baby in her arms. “This here’s Rosie.”

I deliberately picked Heather as a name because most people would suspect that to be an unusual one for a homeless woman, but throwaway teens come in all colors and from a variety of backgrounds.

“Lord, she cute. Hey, Heather, this one’s even littler than Popo. Come see. How old she?”

“Her name’s Pauline, Sugar,” a girl sitting on the floor said just as Lily answered with “She was born Friday.”

“I told you don’t call her Popo,” Heather finished, then added as she got up to coo over Rosie. “Three days? This little one is only three days old? Man, I don’t think Po— Pauline was ever this small.”

“Pauline ain’t no kind of name for a baby,” Sugar said. “Who names their baby Pauline?”

“It’s my grandma’s name, I told you. Now leave off.” Heather gently touched Rosie’s soft hair and then let the baby grab the tip of her finger. “Pauline’s five months. Been eating rice cereal for a week now, greedy little thing.” She smiled when she said it, though.

Lily looked for Pauline, but the only other people in the room were a young girl in an arm chair staring at Judge Judy on the television, and a three-year-old playing with blocks in a corner.

“She’s with her Daddy right now,” Heather said when she saw Lily looking. “They’re supposed to be back by now, though.” She glanced at the clock above the doorway and straightened up, clasping her hands.

“It’s only five after, girl, stop worrying so much.” Sugar turned to Lily. “Her ex is one jumped-up bastard, you ask me. Hit her so hard she lost a tooth. That’s why she here. He got supervised visits, though, once a week with the little one.”

She turned her attention to Tyrone, who had wiggled down from the couch to walk stiff legged over to the toys in the corner. The little girl playing there swatted at him and said, “No.”

“She yours, too?” Lily pointed to the three-year-old, who was trying to keep Tyrone from knocking down her block tower.

“No, that one’s Jessie’s. Jessie, mind your little one, ’fore she— Oh no, you don’t, you little cannibal.” She jumped up to grab Tyrone just as the little girl tried to sink her teeth into his arm.

She slapped the girl, who started bawling, which brought Jessie, finally, into the conversation. An argument broke out between the two mothers.

“That’s Jessie’s little girl?” Lily whispered to Heather, who was pacing now and still watching the clock. Jessie didn’t look old enough to have a three-year-old.

“Yep,” Heather said, then leaned down to hiss in Lily’s ear. “She had Eva when she was only fourteen. She was raped, I heard, or molested. Something like that.”

The woman who had let Lily and Jo into the house stepped into the open doorway and looked over at the screaming match while she wiped her hands with a towel.

“If you think you can stop arguing long enough to eat,” she said, “supper’s ready. And, Heather, the social worker called. The Kennedy’s backed up by an accident. They should be here in a half hour, though. Nothing to worry about, okay? Come on now, y’all. Food’s getting cold.”

Heather followed the woman out into the hallway, trailed by Sugar and a protesting Tyrone. Jessie grabbed her daughter by the hand and practically dragged her across the room toward the door, muttering. As she passed, she gave Lily a dirty look, like the argument had all been her fault or something. Her words didn’t have anything to do with the fight, however.

“Whole place can go to hell. Go to hell like all you all’s. Only one bathroom upstairs for five girls and their babies. What’s up with that, huh?” She said bathroom like the “th” was an f.

Then she stopped in the doorway and looked back at Lily, her voice clearer, her dark pimpled face creased with hatred. “Don’t you think you’re safe now, hear? Ain’t nowhere safe in this fucked up world.”

And then she left Lily alone, alone and shaking as if the words had been uttered as a prophesy from God himself.

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