A Safe House Christmas by Christine Duncan

                                                 A Safe House Christmas by Christine Duncan



   The chipped brick steps to the house were littered with kids, and their work weary mothers, all seeming to be watching me approach the house.  The wind felt cold, snow hung in the Colorado December air and I hurried just a little bit to get out of the weather and the scrutiny.  Another day at the battered women's shelter--except that I was working night shift.


       "Kaye, you take Dina's shift?"  Moni, a motherly black woman called out to me.  She had endured years of abuse but then had gone after her man with a skillet after he had beaten her nine year old so badly the kid had ended in the hospital.




       "You gotta do somethin' about this stealing 'round here."  There was a murmur of agreement from the other women on the porch.


     Things had been disappearing out of the shelter, and I doubted that my taking one night shift was going to change that. In fact lately, I had been feeling as though I couldn't fix anything and Christmas wasn't helping. But my blue woven scarf had gone missing just the day before so it wasn't as though I was unaware of what was going on.  Stealing could be a problem in a battered women's shelter, yet this time seemed different.  Usually, money, disposal diapers and valuable items like jewelry or MP3 players went missing. 


        This time the list was odd.  Besides my scarf, a couple of stuffed animals and an old crate that we used to corral books on the bookcase were among the vanished items. All of the paperbacks that used to reside in the little wooden box were still stacked on the shelf. 


      "What else is gone?" I asked.


       Moni took a glance around and seemed to decide if no one else would talk, she would.  "Some Christmas decorations just walked out by themselves.  Ginny and her kids brought them from home and she was hoping it would cheer the kids up if she decorated their room.  They had garland and lights and glittery stars.  It looked amazin'.  They just put them up and then, bam, they're gone."

       Ginny, a thirty-something dishwater blond with the worn smile and stooped shoulders of a much older woman, looked like she was holding back tears but her six year old twins didn't look upset at all.  Still, taking their cue from their mother, they bobbed their flaxen heads.


      I merely grunted and shook my head as I walked past Moni and the rest.  I knew they needed to hear that someone was on it.  Life was hard enough.  They had been abused by their husbands or boyfriends, had little to no money, and were scrambling to figure out what to do next.  Christmas was coming and they wanted to try to make it good for their kids despite all the rest of the garbage going on in their lives.  And here they were in a domestic violence shelter getting their stuff stolen.


     The problem wasn't that the counselors didn't want to catch the thief.  The problem was the thief was good.


      I took off my coat in the little service porch turned counselor's office, making sure to lock my black shoulder bag in the desk.  No point in giving anyone temptation. 


       Then I sighed.  Christmas!  I just wasn't ready.  Not at home--with my problems with my own kids-- and certainly not here.       


       I pushed my worries to the back of my mind.   Then I set about arranging chairs in a circle in the living room so we could be ready for our house meeting. It had been deliberately post-poned until later tonight since we had a surprise for the women and were making it a rule that all the kids had to be upstairs in their bedrooms if not in bed for the night.  Not that I thought for a second we could sneak anything by the kids.  These meetings were always interrupted by one child or another. 


          But I was hoping the meeting would help the mood.  We had a church group coming by with some gift certificates to help the women with Christmas. 


     It was one of the things I loved about Colorado.  The Denver area community was generous and could be counted on to help out like this.  Just this fall, some area small business owners had banded together to donate a set of professional clothing for each woman in the house at the time.  They had been challenged by a woman with a small boutique in Cherry Creek to do something concrete to help and that was what they had come up with. 


      Christmas time was always an especially good time of year.  We got unexpected deliveries of pies or Christmas cookies as well as extra monitary donations to help keep the shelter going.  A tree was always donated by a couple who owned property in the high country. They chopped it down and hauled it in every year around the middle of December.   This year's tree was already up, and gleaming with tinsel and decorations in the corner of the room.


   The shelter itself had a very tight budget but a local woman's group always made sure that each woman and child in the shelter had a small gift and a stocking of their own.  The same group donated household items throughout the year to the women who were going out on their own after graduating the shelter.   I had seen more than one woman in tears on Christmas morning when she saw her children get their gifts.  I sighed as I pushed furniture out of the way for the meeting.


     Of course, a couple of gifts couldn't make up for everything.  I needed to figure out this stealing.  Later, when the meeting was over.


      But the meeting went surprisingly well without a single interruption except for the gasps of appreciation from the women when they realized what was going on.  And when the meeting was over, and the church group had been sent on its way with heartfelt hugs and thanks ringing in their ears, there were a couple of women who needed to talk.  Ginny was one of them.  She was thinking about going home.


     "What is it?" I asked, thinking I already knew.  "Is it the kids?"


     "No, not really,"  Ginny sank into the chair opposite the battered counselor's desk.  "They haven't said anything anyway.  It's just things shouldn't be like this, you know?  It's Christmas and we should be home--with our own tree and our decorations and stuff.  And I know they miss their friends."  Ginny raised her blue eyes from her lap to scan my face.


     I nodded.  "It's hard." I said.  "But will things be any better there?"


     Her eyes flashed.  "No one there will steal their Christmas decorations."


     I nodded again and said softly, "But you left there for a reason, Ginny.  Do you think the problem is solved?"


    She dropped her eyes to her lap again, biting her lip.  "Mike says he won't hit me again.  He's sorry."


    "That isn't what I asked.  We've talked about the cycle of violence.  You know that after a violent incident, the abuser is likely to be sorry and to make promises.  Do you think the problem is solved?"


     Ginny was about to answer when a shout stopped her and the rest of the about to settle safe house.


      "I can't find my kids!"   It was Moni and from the sound of her voice she was more than slightly hysterical.    

     Most safe house residents quickly became used to a lot of noise and chaos.  Normally, life in the house just went on around the ruckus.  But those words were guaranteed to strike fear into the hearts of the women living there.  The whole house held its breath collectively before breaking out into an uproar.  The search was on.


    First all of the mothers called for their own children as every light in the house went on.  Then every woman ran around the house calling the names of Moni's nine year old son and seven year old daughter. For a wonder, all the kids did as they were told and stayed put in bed as the mothers yelled,  "Mariah!   Jackson!"


      Oh my God!" said Ginny, looking under the table in the kitchen as I stepped into the big walk-in pantry to see if they were playing in there..  "Do you think...?"  Her voice trailed off as though what she was thinking was too horrible to contemplate.


     "What?  What?" said Moni as she tried to peer out the back window.  She held onto the kitchen sink as though she needed the support. Her voice was shaking but she answered the unasked question.  "I ain't never told him where I was.  They aren't with their daddy."


     I came out of the pantry after making sure there was not a child behind the door.  "It's okay, Moni.  We know you didn't do anything."  I put my arms around her.  "They're here somewhere."


       "Mama?"  a small scared voice said.  "Are you crying?"  Jackson, his right arm still in a sling from his confrontation with his father, asked.  Mariah, clutching a well worn doll was in the doorway behind him,  watched silently, tears already beginning to glisten in her round, brown eyes as she watched her mother.


      Moni swooped on both children with a scream that could be heard in the farthest corner of the house.  "Where were you?  I've been looking everywhere."


      "We were just playing." Jackson said, as Mariah nodded.


      "Where were you?" 


       "We hid good." Mariah said. 


       "Is that it?  You were playing hide and seek?"  Moni's voice was incredulous.


        The children exchanged glances and nodded. 


         Moni folded them in for another hug, scolding all the while.


         So where had they been?  Downstairs?  Beginnings' basement was often used for overflow residents but at the moment, we were dealing with some plumbing problems down there.  I thought it was locked.  But the door was right there next to the kids with the back door opposite.  Surely, they couldn't have been outside?  At least not for long.  Neither one had on a coat. 


        It didn't matter.  I would just have to make sure that basement was kept locked.  I sighed, relieved and went out to make sure that all of the other residents knew so we could settle the house down for the night.  It was only later, when the house was quiet and I was getting ready for the intern who would take the graveyard shift that I went over the scene in my mind, wondering if I was imagining that I had seen a flash of glitter on Mariah's sleeve.    


      The next day was a day off for me and I had a chance to think.  I bustled around a snowy city, doing a few of the shopping, baking, cleaning chores that came with the season, trying to get in the Christmas mood. It wasn't happening. Instead my thoughts focused on the shelter.


    Something was going on with those kids.  Not just Moni's kids--all the kids.  I didn't remember too many meetings that hadn't had a child come charging into the middle of them.  Yet last night's meeting was uninterrupted.  And why weren't the kids looking for Jackson and Mariah?  You would have thought they'd be upset too.  


  I deliberately changed shifts with Dina again just two nights later.  The stealing was still going on.  But I finally thought I knew where to look..


     I hurried through the house meeting's routine business--a hodgepodge of sign up sheets for house chores and reminders about various rules of the house.  Then as the women were expecting the real meat of the meeting, I paused, looking around the quiet group and listening for any murmur in the house. Was I right?


     I put a finger to my lips and motioned for the women to lean in towards me.  Then I whispered, "Have you noticed how quiet the house has been during our meetings lately?"


     A few of the women narrowed their eyes.  Any experienced mother knows that quiet means trouble.


     "I think" I continued, "that we should look for the kids." 


      As chairs started to move back noisily, I gestured again for quiet and the women nodded and hurried from the room.


     None of the kids were in their rooms.  They weren't in the kitchen, or the basement which really was locked.  They weren't in the bathrooms or anywhere in the house. Were they outside?  A group of us paused by the backdoor, considering.


     "They can't be far," said Moni.  "Whatever they're doing, they get back by the time the meeting is over."


    "You think they're all right, Kaye?" said Ginny.


    "They're just fine." Moni answered for me.  "They did this the other nights, the little imps.  We just gotta figure out what it is."


     I peered out the back window to the backyard.  The yard lights lit up the empty snow covered expanse.  There were no kids there.  There was only one place left to search.


     I don't know what I thought we would see.  I  had been wondering if the kids had been getting together to steal stuff so they could have something to give to their moms.  I never imagined this.


   We found them in the back outbuilding where we held the safe house graduate meetings.  Like the basement it was supposed to be kept locked but its lock was stiff and sometimes didn't turn or could be jiggled open.  I wondered idly which one of the kids had figured that out.  The building had probably been a garage at one time, but it had two stories.  The upper story was used to store things not in current use in the shelter--like the Christmas decorations and I knew my boss, Liz, had probably trooped out here with the kids to retrieve the boxes of stuff to decorate the tree.


.  The bottom level of the building was a huge room that could be subdivided by one of those accordion type things.   The kids were in the back huddled under the stairs.


      There was Mariah,  eyes shining brightly, my blue woven scarf draped over her head and shoulders as she bent over her much loved baby doll cradled in the little wooded crate from the bookshelf.  Her brother Jackson had the cane that my boss Liz had used for a while after her knee surgery last year.  Last I'd seen of that thing, it had been behind the door in the counselor's office.  None of us had even missed it.  He was in his bathrobe and surrounded by the missing stuffed animals. 


      Ginny's little boy, Brad, was also in a robe, kneeling across from Mariah by the crate that held the little baby doll.  His sister, was dressed in a long white nightdress and she had a taped circlet of silvery garland slipping off  her tiny blond  head. The whole scene was lit by what I assumed were Ginny's Christmas lights and a big glittery star hung crookedly over them suspended from one of the stairs.   Three of the other kids wore gold paper crowns from some fast food restaurant and carried little gifts  


      One child was sweeping up hay toward a bale that I recognized as part of the previous fall's Halloween decorations..


        The kids were doing a nativity play and not one mother in the search group broke the stillness--all of us silenced by our awe.  More than one woman wiped away a tear.  I know I did.  I think it was the sniffling that finally broke through to the kids and it was no surprise when Mariah, Moni's daughter, started crying too.  "I'm sorry, Mama," she said, removing my scarf from her head and moving toward me.  "We were just borrowing this stuff.  We were gonna put it back." she said.


        I knelt down and  handed the scarf back to her, my heart full.  "Honey, you can borrow that as long as you want."


      A few days later, Ginny knocked on the door of the counselor's office wanting to talk.  I gestured her in, a little nervously.  I didn't think she was ready to leave and I said so.


      She sank down into the chair in front of me and nodded.  "I think you're right, Kaye.  I only wanted to leave because you know, " her voice cracked.  "This is so hard. And I kept thinking it wasn't right that we were here for Christmas--that it would be too hard on the kids."


      "And now?" I asked carefully, handing her the tissue box from the desk.


      "The kids are fine, " She smiled ruefully and wiped at her eyes..  "I'm the one who has to get my ducks in a huddle.  Christmas will still be Christmas wherever we are,"


        I still wasn't done with the shopping.  My kids were still giving me grief.  But my eyes misted at the thought of the little nativity play we had witnessed and I nodded.  I knew what she meant.

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