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Eighteen years later
Dione Williams sat in her small, but neat, afrocentric office, located on the basement level of the four-story brownstone she'd purchased five years earlier in the Clinton Hill section of Brooklyn. Laid out from end to end on the gray metal table she used for a deskpurchased at a discount city auctionwere utility bills, invoices from vendors, taxes due and another pile of rejection letters for the three proposals she'd written for additional funding.
She rubbed a hand across her forehead, then began to massage her temples with the balls of her thumbs.
Chances Are was in trouble. Serious trouble, and according to her accountant if she didn't secure a solid influx of capital within the next four to six months, the ten teen mothers and their babies who'd come to live at the reconverted residence and who depended on her for their survival would be put out onto the street, and her staff would be out of jobs.
All around her, she felt the doors closing, and that old fear underscored by more than a decade of anger resurfaced like a swimmer gasping above the water for air. She looked up and out of the small basement window, catching a glimpse of the near-barren trees, the branches reaching out at her, begging for her help and the grass that was turning a honey brown before disappearing until next spring, were all symbolic of her life.
Sighing, Dione tucked a wayward strand of shoulder-length auburn hair behind her ear, her hand brushing against her damp cheek. There had to be a way to save her dream. Unfortunately, she'd completely run out of original ideas. And the one alternative was too far-fetched and much too risky. Absently she toyed with the tiny gold stud that adorned her lobe. There had to be another way.
The soft tap on the door momentartily drew her attention away from her disturbing thoughts.
Quickly she wiped her tears away.
"Hey, Dione, I had a feeling I'd find you down here." Brenda Frazier, her assistant director, right and left hand, breezed into the room and shut the door. "Do things really look as bad as the expression on your face?" She eased her hip along the edge of the desk.
Dione tried to smile. "I'm afraid so."
"What about the bankcan't we get a loan?"
"The building is mortgaged to the hilt. Without any substantial flow of capital, the bank won't front another loan."
Brenda folded her arms beneath her breasts. "Dee, we may have to go with the documentary thing. I mean if it works and we could get the attention we need and deserve" Brenda's eyebrows rose.
Dione shook her head. "I can't do that to the girls, Brenda. Some of them are here because they've had to get out of abusive situations. There are others who don't want anyone to know where they are, or that they're homeless and living in a shelter."
Brenda threw her hands up in the air in frustration. "I wish I had such hard living. We may be categorized as a shelter, but these apartments are plenty fit for these queens. I wouldn't mind living in one of them myself.You've done miracles with this place and with these girls. People need to know that."
Dione pressed her lips together. "Not at the expense of the girls' privacy, Bren."
If it was one thing that Dione was always adamant about, it was the privacy of the residents, Brenda knew. Dione guarded it as fiercely as a lioness governing her cubs. But even a lioness had to let her cubs out into the world. Dione couldn't protect the girls forever. "Why don't you put it to the girls for a vote? Have a house meeting. We all have a lot to lose if we have to close down. You more than anyone. You put your whole life into this place. And what about Niyah? Your salary pays for her education. And mine keeps a roof over my head. So, I don't know about you, but I'll be damned if I'm leaving without a fight."
Dione grinned. If there was one thing she could depend on Brenda for, it was a challenge. "All right." She blew out a breath. "Set up a house meeting for tomorrow night after dinner. And would you pull out the proposal for me? I want to take another look at it."
"Now you're talking." She patted Dione's hand. "It's going to work out, Dee. This may be just the opportunity we need."
"I hope so. For everyone's sake. What was that producer's name again?"
Slowly, Dione nodded. The last thing she needed was someone taping, and snooping into all of their business. But if it could save Chances Are, and the girls were willing, she'd have to take the risk. She'd just deal with the repercussions when they came, and she was certain they would. She only hoped that this Garrett Lawrence didn't have the sensitivity of a gnat.
Upstairs, the house, as usual, was full of activity for a Monday morning. The young mothers and their babies could be heard in their one-bedroom apartments dashing around in preparation for their day. On each of the four floors were three apartments, except on the ground floor where there were two. One of which was where Ms. Betsy lived, subbing as housemother during the night and child-care worker during the day. Each of the apartments was fully furnished with a small living room/dining room, bedroom, washer/dryer unit and full-sized bathroom. When Dione had purchased the house, she'd had it completely gutted and renovated to accommodate the number of rooms she needed. Although the original sprawling rooms had been cut down substantially, they still maintained a sense of warmth. She'd painstakingly selected every piece of furniture, every crib, bed, dinette set, sheet, towel, pot and pan. When the girls arrived they came into a place that they could immediately feel was home.
The girls were taught how to take care of their apartments, do laundry, shop on a budget, and cook and clean. All in preparation for them eventually leaving and moving out on their own. Dione's vision was to provide the girls with an environment that they wanted to aspire to. So many of them had come from places that only nightmares were made of. They hadn't been taught how to do anything, and even though they balked at the cooking classes, parenting and permanent housing workshops, she knew they appreciated itappre-ciated the fact that someone had finally taken enough time to care about them and about their future.
Dione went up to the second floor and knocked on apartment 2B. Gina, their newest resident, was notorious for oversleeping, which always made her late for her GED classes at the local high school.
Ms. Betsy, "mother in spirit" to Dione, refused to coddle Gina by giving her a personal wake-up call every morning. It was Dione and Betsy's biggest bone of contention. So Dione had to sneak upstairs every morning and do it herself. There was no way she would sit back and let Gina sleep through opportunity. Maybe Gina did need some tough love, but Dione painfully remembered how desperately she'd needed love and nurturing and how she was turned out into the street. She couldn't let that happen to anyone else.
She pressed the bell that sat like a wad in the center of the heavy wood door and listened to the chime echo against the stillness inside, a sure sign that Gina was still asleep. Dione looked from side to side and peered over the railing while she waited, crossing her fingers and toes that Gina would get to the door before Ms. Betsy spotted her.
"Yes?" came a very groggy voice.
"Gina, it's me, Ms. Williams."
Gina cracked the door open, her micro-braided extensions that nearly reached her waist, shadowed her seventeen-year-old turning twenty-five face like a black veil, but couldn't hide the spark of intelligence in her brown eyes.
"It's past time to get up, sleepyhead. Where's Brandy?"
"She's still asleep," Gina mumbled, rubbing sleep from her world-weary eyes.
"Get her up and downstairs to day care, and you hurry up. I don't want to hear any excuses about you being late for class. I expect to see you downstairs in a half hour. Understood?"
"Yes, Ms. Williams."
"Good. Now get moving before Ms. Betsy catches me."
Gina giggled. "Okay."
Dione turned away, smiling. Gina had potential. She could see it in her schoolwork, in her conversation. Gina had a future that Dione didn't want to see her lose because of having a baby too young. She just needed someone to remind her that she was worthy and worthwhile. They all did.
Walking down the hall and then upstairs to the third floor, Denise and her two-year-old son Mahlik were on their way down, followed by Kisha who carried her six-month-old daughter Anayshia in her arms.
From the moment Kisha moved into the residence, three months earlier, she and Denise were inseparable. It was like watching a modern-day miracle. The once recalcitrant and hostile Denise began to bloom, watered and fed by Kisha's friendship and outgoing personality.
"Good morning ladies, and gentleman," Dione greeted, bending to give Mahlik a quick kiss on the cheek.
"Mornin', Ms. Williams," they chorused.
Dione took a peek inside the pink bundle in Kisha's arms. "How is Anayshia feeling?"
"Much better. I took her to the doctor like you said and I've been giving her the new formula."
"So it was the formula that was making her sick?"
Kisha nodded. "Just like you said, Ms. Williams." She grinned. "You should have been a doctor."
"I don't think so." She smiled. "But I've seen the symptoms enough. My daughter was allergic to her formula when she was a baby, too."
"I didn't know you had a daughter, Ms. Williams."
"Sure do. Almost eighteen years old. She's away at college."
"Wow. How old does that make you?" Kisha quizzed.
Dione put her hand on her hip. "Old enough not to have to answer. Now get moving all four of you."
"Bye, Ms. Williams," they chimed as they brushed by her and down the stairs.
Dione shook her head and smiled. "How old am I? Ha."
She continued up to the top floor, making certain that everyone was up and about, then headed back downstairs. It was her regular routine and she had yet to grow tired of it.
Brenda was right, she thought, making her way down. This was hers, her baby. She'd given birth to Chances Are as sure as she'd given birth to Niyah. She loved and nurtured the girls and their children who came through her doors seeking help, the same way she'd finally found the love she'd needed.