The first time she stayed at My Sister's House for abused women, Laura Nelson had just turned 7, a scared little girl with curly blonde hair, hazel eyes and a battered mother.
She is 22 now as she arrives at the emergency shelter with her face bruised, right wrist fractured, eyes swollen from crying and a deep fear for her future. It's late, nearing 11 p.m., when she steps back through the door.
Yet, she is luckier than many abuse victims in South Carolina, the nation's second-deadliest for women killed by men. The boyfriend who beat her is locked in jail. And she is alive.
Just hours after enduring a vicious beating, Laura arrives under warm spring darkness with her three little kids and her abuser's name tattooed on her right forearm. She remembers loving the playground. She remembers not liking the food, especially not the frozen chicken nuggets. At first, she doesn't recognize the cramped bedroom they are assigned. It's laid out differently now. As the shock ebbs, she realizes it is the room she stayed in with her mom and siblings back when she was a child. She swore then that she wouldn't follow in her mother's footsteps.
But now she's back. The shelter will provide her a safe place to stay for 60 days, the amount of time abused women get to start their new lives - or, as many do, return to their abusers.
There is no going back for Laura. Her boyfriend is charged with criminal domestic violence of a high and aggravated nature and three counts of kidnapping. He could face 10 years in prison. He's also banned from contacting her or her children from a prior relationship who call him Daddy.
So Laura must move on without him, although she has no high school diploma, no place to live, few job skills and little income. She has no idea how they will survive.
He had hit her before, a few months earlier, late on New Year's Eve. He'd seen texts on her phone from someone he didn't know.
He broke her nose, and she blacked out. He apologized immediately; she didn't go to the police. Instead, Laura stayed in her room for days grappling to understand the violence that seemed so out of character for him.
"We were trying to make better lives for ourselves," Laura says. But her boyfriend started doing drugs and grew more suspicious and controlling.
Then, in April, came the brutality that would send him to jail - and her back to the shelter. It happened on his birthday.
Her 2-year-old, Noel, was in the backseat. Her other two kids were at his mom's house. As she drove in downtown Charleston, someone honked. Her boyfriend thought it was a guy honking at Laura.
"You're cheating on me!" he hollered over and over, demanding she turn down side streets with few people outside.
Then, he hit her. And hit her again. Screaming, he slugged her over and over in the head, face and stomach in the tight space of her Corolla, with Noel watching in the backseat. Laura raised her arm to block the blows, her wrist absorbing some of his fury. When she pulled over, witnesses saw him pounding on her. They rushed over. But her boyfriend leapt out, jerked Laura from the driver's seat and threatened to kill her. He also threatened to crash her car - with her kids inside. As Laura tried to grab Noel, her boyfriend sped off.
When officers arrived, they saw severe swelling above both of Laura's eyes, on the side of her face and on her wrist.
At the hospital, scans showed a broken wrist and several facial fractures. But Laura didn't care. She just wanted her kids back. Her boyfriend had picked up the other two from his mom's and taken all three. Police found them unharmed at his grandmother's house.
She arrives at My Sister's House with no car, no home, an eighth-grade education, a part-time job in fast food and two abusive relationships already behind her. Her children are 2, 4 and 5.
The shelter offers them immediate safety and guidance. One day, it even gives the women living there tickets to a big theater show in town. Laura longs to look nice for it, to feel normal, just for a night. But she has no money. So she shoplifts a dress, sandals and sunglasses - and gets caught, adding huge guilt and a criminal charge to a daunting list of challenges she faces.
Atop that list? Housing.
So one morning, she and the other women rise at 2:45 a.m. to head downtown ?to the Charleston Housing Authority. It's a day when people apply for public housing vouchers. The group gets in line at 4 a.m.
Nearly 700 people show up.
Laura is No. 40. It could take a year for her to receive a voucher to help pay rent, which she cannot come close to affording.
But Laura must leave My Sister's House in a matter of days. The emergency shelter provides an immediate place for victims to live - not longer-term transitional housing.
So many local women live in danger of violence that demand runs high for the shelter's space.
With a harsh realization that she and her children are about to become homeless, Laura steps out of the shelter's door one morning and into the sticky June air. She walks to a place she knows only by name, Tricounty Family Ministries.
It's housed in a plain two-story brick building in Chicora-Cherokee, an impoverished area of North Charleston where people who are homeless, or nearly so, congregate. The ministry runs a huge hot meal program, among many other services.
With Noel on her hip, Laura walks up the brick front steps and rings the doorbell.
Upstairs, CEO Sue Hanshaw toils in her office.
"Miss Sueeeeee...." a worker calls up the stairs, peeking through the railing. After 25 years here, Sue knows the tone. It means someone is at the door, someone in dire need of the ministry's help. She rises and heads down the stairs.
There stands Laura with Noel. The young mother becomes hysterical. "I have no where to go!" she sobs.
The ministry has a furnished apartment, which it offers free to people facing homelessness, often single moms. About one-third arrive after escaping abuse. It happens to be vacant.
Days later, Laura moves in.
Her new temporary home sits on a crime-ridden road, protected by a padlocked gate, tucked into a second-floor corner above the offices of several nonprofits. But it is a home.
Laura trudges up a narrow flight of stairs to the apartment, locks the door behind her and slides a mattress in front of it. She is terrified as her children sleep. It is the first time she has lived alone with them.
She can stay here at no cost for three months. Her journey will require six.
As she settles in, her now ex-boyfriend calls her from jail. She thinks his charges are too severe and hesitates to abandon him completely. "He was an amazing person," she says. "The person who caused us to have problems had become a completely different person."
After all, he had helped to raise her kids. He encouraged her to dress with more respect for herself, to wear things that were less revealing, and to have more confidence, she insists. Her children love him. "Honestly, without him, I don't think I could have made it where I am."
One morning while she waits for a sick Noel to wake up, her cellphone lights up with incoming calls and texts, over and over. It is her ex calling from jail. For an hour, her phone barely quiets, even after she tells him she cannot talk right now.
After moving into the ministry's apartment, Laura lands a job at Wendy's. Even though it's part time, she begins marathon days she never imagined.
She rises at 5:30 a.m. every day to catch a 7 a.m. bus to drop her kids off at a church school in time to catch another bus to work, then repeats that process in the evenings. She spends four hours a day waiting for and riding buses. Luckily, state childcare vouchers for low-income families pay most of the kids' tuition.
However, Laura remains strapped with paying her basic expenses. Even without a car or paying rent, "it's almost impossible to cover," she says.
Then comes news that the childcare vouchers will expire in a matter of days. When she calls to check on an extension, she sits on hold for 45 minutes.
She finally hangs up.
"I don't have enough time to do this. I have to get to work."
It is still dark outside in early September when her 5-year-old, Jordan, buttons his khaki school uniform shorts and ties his own shoes. La'Nyah, who's 4, peeks out from behind the sofa bed with a toothless grin as Laura pulls purple footed jammies onto Noel.
Two bunk beds in another room sit empty, stripped of sheets. Instead, the living room sofa bed, in front of the apartment door, is pulled out. A mattress on the floor where Laura sleeps lies next to it. None of them are ready to sleep alone.
Bookbags hang by the door.
Without a way to pay tuition now that the vouchers have expired, Laura's kids had to leave the church school. Today is their first day at the local North Charleston elementary.
"Got to go!" Laura hollers.
Downstairs, she unlocks a padlock on the front gate.
"We can't go to school. It's dark outside!" Jordan falters. "And it's cold."
The street sits silent at 6:30 a.m. Laura pushes a stroller past boarded-up businesses and abandoned houses. La'Nyah talks nonstop. Jordan stalks pensively to their new bus stop.
As rumbling fills the silence, the kids hide behind Laura and peek out at the giant yellow bus that slows, flashes its lights and lowers a giant arm reading STOP. The doors swing open.
Her mom was 16 and her dad 19 when they had their first child, beginning a tumultuous and abusive marriage that recently ended.
"I don't remember a happy day between them," she recalls. "I grew up thinking I was never going to put myself in that situation."
In College Park, Laura also grew up feeling ugly and unwelcome by the girls, unwanted by the boys. "I never felt I was as beautiful as the other girls."
So she found love where she could. She had her first baby at 16 and her third at 20.
She spent five years with the children's father, a man who called her "nasty," chided her about her weight and hit her. She finally left after she caught him cheating on her. But after staying with her father for a spell, she ended up in another abusive relationship with her latest boyfriend.
To better her family's future, Laura decides to pursue a GED. It will mean working with a tutor several mornings a week before work, then taking classes at night, making an already busy day reach near overload.
One steamy Thursday morning in early September, Laura meets Marty McGee, a volunteer who runs the Trident Literacy Association's branch on Reynolds Avenue.
Laura picks up her first No. 2 pencil in years as Marty goes over her new student's initial test results. "A lot of people start a lot lower, so that's good," Marty assures.
When Laura calls a decimal a "dot," they both laugh.
"I just need to be refreshed," Laura says.
"That's why we're here."
Laura might want to become a manufacturing engineer like her father. Or maybe a nurse. Or a chef.
"You absolutely can," Marty says.
An hour later, with homework to study multiplication, Laura slings a backpack over one shoulder and steps out, alone, into the early morning light, down a destitute street to catch a bus to work.
Several weeks of utter exhaustion later, on a Monday in October, Laura heads to the county courthouse. She wants to check on her shoplifting charge and see how much she still owes.
An employee tells Laura she was supposed to be in court the Friday before. Now, she owes $1,400 and failed to appear before a judge.
"I don't even have $10," she says.
"You need to call someone to get her," the woman says, glancing at Noel.
When Laura turns around, a police officer is waiting for her. She has 45 minutes to find someone to pick up the 2-year-old. If she gets locked up, will the state Department of Social Services take her kids? She calls Sue Hanshaw, terrified.
As an officer takes Laura to a holding area, Sue sits in her office pondering the young mother's predicament. Laura has worked so hard.
So the ministry director puts all $1,400 - the cost of Laura's financial and physical freedom - onto her personal credit card. Then she dispatches an employee to get Laura and Noel.
"God put her in my life for a reason," Laura says.
A few weeks later, Laura gets fired.
It had been a constant struggle to get time off when the kids had dental appointments, when Noel had doctor visits and so on. Then, her Granny died. Laura heard the funeral plans at the last minute and gave her job little notice she would miss work for two days.
Her boss wasn't trying to be harsh. But it's hard to run a business when your employees don't show up.
Depressed, Laura calls Sue to fess up. She is certain that the woman who has been so supportive will kick her out.
Instead, Sue advises Laura not to get another job. Take a couple months with no bills, she says, and do nothing but earn a GED. Then, Laura can move forward on firmer footing.
Meanwhile, between classes, Laura takes their clothes to a laundromat because she's had enough of hand-washing them. She shoves a load of her clothes in first, starts it up and relaxes. No wringing, no scrubbing in a sink. What would it be like to have a washing machine again?
Yet, when she takes a pile out to fold, she notices white splotches on a few things. She takes the rest. The splotches are all over everything.
Someone left bleach in the washer. Most of Laura's day-to-day clothes are ruined.
Over the endless hot days of Charleston's summer and fall, loneliness burrows deep beneath Laura's unending stress like a tick into bare skin. Alone most hours of the days with Noel or all three kids, Laura longs for someone to talk to, someone who really knows her, someone who is older than 5 years old.
"It's hard being here all alone with the kids," she admits. "The thing that makes me nervous is that I'll get into another relationship. I don't want to consider or even think about it."
At times, she thinks of calling her ex, if only for the comfort of his familiar voice. But she doesn't. She hasn't talked to him for a month. Because if she talks to him, then she has to figure out how to stop talking to him. And she knows how hard that is.
She also knows what he is capable of.
"I'm not going back, regardless of if he's changed," she says. Because what if he hasn't really?
After fall arrives, Laura gets great news: She's been approved to receive a public housing voucher. She even finds a two-bedroom apartment near Spruill and Rivers avenues in North Charleston. For a brief moment, she feels relief, or something that reminds her of happiness.
Then the delays begin.
After getting a green light from the housing authority, she'd thought they would be moving a day or two before Thanksgiving. She even had the electricity turned on. Then, Laura's future landlord says she needs a letter from the housing authority confirming the amount of Laura's rent her voucher will cover.
Laura calls the housing authority to see if they have sent the letter. A recording announces they are closed for the holiday.
So Thanksgiving goes by, and Laura tries to remember all that she's thankful for. Like moving on Black Friday.
But on Black Friday, she calls the apartment owner to see if the letter arrived. No dice.
She'll have to wait until Monday to move.
"Agggg!" she hollers.
Laura has had enough.
Enough of the runaround, enough of the kids being home from school, enough of never getting a break for herself, enough of never having money and enough of living in a temporary place. All three kids have been out of school for seven days. Seven days, three kids, no help, no car, one tiny apartment and a neighborhood beyond that doesn't invite kids to come out and burn off steam.
A week ago, the baby decided Laura's new phone needed a drink of juice. Now, it sits in a plastic bag of dry rice.
Laura bathes the kids with dish soap and shampoo because they ran out of soap. She cannot afford to buy more. She has one sweater and one pair of shoes.
In some ways, seven months after the violent assault, the past few weeks have been the hardest of her life. "Aggravated isn't the word," she mutters.
A week later, the apartment is strewn with trash bags filled with Laura's belongings.
It's moving day at long last. Which means moving several mattresses and a TV the ministry is letting her borrow, along with their clothes, toiletries, a few toys and food.
Nate Chisolm, the ministry's operations supervisor, and a volunteer friend arrive to help Laura move. The kids are antsy.
Jordan races around talking. Noel toddles, sippy cup in hand, out the front door and precariously close to the steep staircase. La'Nyah follows her mom around: "There's a bug on you! Ha, tricked you!"
Laura shoves stuff into giant plastic bags. She's antsy too. She's anxious about living alone with the kids, nervous about money, fearful of her ability to make it on her own. Although she just spoke with a McDonald's manager, she's still not working, and her housing authority voucher doesn't cover $51 a month of rent. How will she pay that?
The kids spy their Halloween candy. Laura only lets them have one piece a day.
"No candy," she says.
Nate and his friend tease her for being strict.
"You be raising three kids by yourself all day, and you'd be strict to," she retorts.
"I got two kids," his friend says.
"You raising them on your own?" she asks.
He grins, "no."
"Okay then." Laura grabs another plastic bag.
La'Nyah spins on her toes to show off her ballet skills. Did you know she loves to dance? One more request for candy gets Jordan dispatched to face the wall in time out.
When she arrived in this apartment, Laura could fit everything she had on the couch. Today, Nate has made three trips with donated furniture and her belongings.
Before leaving for good, Laura stands with Noel on her hip, scanning for anything left behind. Saying nothing, she closes the door behind her. Outside, she shuts the gate and locks the heavy padlock.
Her new two-bedroom apartment sits deep in a large complex where Nate and his friend have set up the furniture. Inside, La'Nyah skates in socks on the kitchen floor. Noel climbs up onto a couch donated to the ministry by The Citadel's president and his wife.
Laura yawns with deep exhaustion. But for a brief moment, she smiles.
It's a brilliant mid-December day, sunny and crisp, a breeze brushing the American flag outside of Tricounty Family Ministries. A taupe Ford Taurus sits parked in the lot, waiting.
Laura emerges from the front door, the one whose doorbell she rang nearly six months ago. Jordan hops down the stairs. La'Nyah twirls with her backpack. They're heading to a holiday party at school.
Sue reaches out to Laura holding keys to the donated car.
"I told you we had a surprise!" Sue says.
Laura can use the car for now. It will be hers when she earns her GED.
La'Nyah stops twirling.
"Momma, we're gonna ride in it?" she asks.
"Now we can drive to the party!" Jordan hollers.
Laura hasn't owned a car, with its keys to independence, in seven months. Tearing up, she grips Sue in a long, rib-cracking hug. "No picking up guys in the car!" Sue teases.
"I don't need a man," Laura fires back.
She slips behind the wheel and starts the engine. From the backseat, the kids yell, "Bye!"
As Laura prepares to start her new life, Sue is toiling in her office when a worker calls up to her: "Miss Sueeee....."
She rises and heads down the stairs.
A woman stands in the doorway. She has young kids. She has escaped an abusive relationship. And she desperately needs help.
Sue tells her the ministry has an apartment that's about to become available. The space that gave Laura a second chance soon will open its doors for another victim.
Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563 or follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes.