“Ugh, I really don’t like those guys,” she says as Linda pulls to a stop in the narrow alleyway behind her apartment.  Her little sister, looking too grown-up for a fourteen year-old girl, is perched on a trash can, talking to another girl.  Little sister cuts her eyes nervously toward the young men walking four abreast down the alley toward us.  Then she puts on her hard face.  She looks cold and uncaring, like the photo on her Facebook page, the one where she is giving the finger to the camera.

I get out of the back seat and walk around the car to where she is exiting from the front passenger door. The vatos locos arrive at about the same time we do and there is an awkward moment.  Unexpectedly, they pause.  She looks up at me and thanks me for the ride, then moves in to hug me, a brief, shoulder-to-shoulder embrace that catches me by surprise.

The vatos push their way past us in single file.  Three pairs of eyes look at the ground while one set stares a challenge straight at me.  I smile, nod my head, and slip into the front seat as he glares me into the car.

They move on and Linda slowly pulls away as I check the passenger side mirror.  Three young women face one another in a tight huddle as four young men recede casually into the near distance.  They look back at the females, laughing and sharing some private joke.  The whole scene is framed just above the words: “Caution, Objects May Be Closer than They Appear.”

We are nearly to the street now and I hear myself say, “Let’s go back and get her.  Why are we leaving her here?”

“She’ll never leave her sibs.  And we can’t take care of them all. She is their mother, for all intents and purposes.”  Linda is speaking in a strained voice.  I can tell that her mind is racing. 

We aren’t actually having a real discussion at this point.  We are praying in that way that we do sometimes, because each of us knows the familiar lines of dialogue and each of us knows what is going on underneath the words.

No matter what we might say, the prayer is the same.  It is, “please God, please God oh please God in heaven don’t let us let her down.  Take care of her until we see her next time.  Let her be bright and happy like she was in the last few seconds before the “Ugh,” softly erupted from her lips as though someone had hit her in the stomach.

I’m thinking now that sound was her own wordless prayer, deep calling to Deep,  asking for strength from a God who knows what life is like in that alley and up the stairs in an apartment where parents come home raging drunk at two a.m.  I press my fingers to my eyes and pray for courage to match her courage, for God’s sheltering protection for her life, her faith, her dignity.  I pray for God to sustain the thing  that made her smile as we rode down the street, just before the car turned into that alleyway.

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