As we walk down the winding road that narrows into a small driveway, the crisp air meets the warmth of my lungs and I wince in surprise. The fall leaves have enveloped the ground and with each step a crunch echoes. The light shows a glimpse of her hair that mimics the colors still left on the trees. The wind catches it as we walk. With every movement her hair moves, contracting like a chest laboring for a breath. She doesn’t smile often but she looks like a weight has been lifted off her shoulders. With each step she moves further and further away until she is paces ahead and lost in her own world.

Like looking out a window of a speeding train her eyes glaze over with this avid attempt to stay in the moment. She realizes that she has escaped our step and turns around. “I think I must go now. It’s getting colder out.” She scurries away before I give her a response.  The house is only 100 feet ahead with grey siding. It doesn’t look like it belongs in this set back area inside the woods. You can hear the cars whizzing by as the clouds partially block the sun. It has gotten cold.

***

It was a Sunday morning after one of those late Saturday nights. It still felt like summer. We drove up to this industrial park 20 minutes outside of our nation’s capitol. A thin line of newly planted trees outlined the empty street. The gutters are filled with debris and rust outlines the front door.

As we pulled up a row of women sit on old plastic chairs, most just staring off into space. It looked like a doctor’s waiting room, only outside this unwelcoming building. They were waiting for someone or something, in limbo to hear their names called. Some are dressed for the weather but most look as though every item of clothing they own is on their backs. All of their faces have seen so many years, each one looking more and more like your grandmother’s face. Wrinkles are forming around the eyes that have seen so much, lips pinched in discontent. Each face is a different age. These women are black, white, olive, and tan. Some are wearing head scarves, others have no hair. These women are enduring.

Rows of cars have formed the parking lot. It’s barely 9 am and it’s hustling and bustling like a grocery store the day before Thanksgiving, unlike the sleeping giants that surround this dainty structure. The phone rings loud in the car. A whisper comes through the receiver, “Hi, are you here?”

A small olive colored figure appears from a side door behind the line of waiting women. She doesn’t quite fit in. Her hair is the color of Red Hots. Her thin frame barely supports the blazer she is wearing. Her frail legs stick out of a pinstripe pencil skirt. Her face is stern and sorrowful like she just found out something terrible has happened. Her eyes don’t quite fit in with her face, bulging out ever so slightly with an almost surprised expression. She has two moles below her right eye which almost serve as beauty marks like Marilyn Monroe’s. She doesn’t make eye contact, but it’s her.

Each woman sitting and waiting asks her the same question as she walks past them, “Are you headed to work?” She shakes her head no but not a single syllable escapes her lips.

She sits gracefully onto a broken set of once milky white and now ash brown wicker chairs. Looking disconcerted like she just stole something, she whispers, “Hello.” We exchange glances with anxiousness. We know nothing of each other.

With a slight tone in her voice she whispers, “My name is Maya Maskew, I am 19 years old.”

Our conversation is stale at first. It’s a back and forth question and answer session that is lack luster and only spurts the facts.

She restarted with her name and her age again, each question getting easier to ask. She became calmer. Each answer explaining more and more of why she was here, where she had come from, who she was.

As our conversation closed she got up and gave me a hug and asked, “When can I see you again?” Looking around she saw the answer in front of her. What she really wanted to ask was, ‘when can I escape again?

We never meet there again.

***

Often times when you meet someone in Maskew’s situation, you try and understand how they got there, where did they come from, how could this happen?

You think of every stereotype in your head, are they a drug addict, were they a prostitute, or maybe a high school dropout? No one ever really thinks that the people you love would just leave you or kick you out. Often times we hope that the people we cherish the most will always be there. Your friends, your family, your classmates will be there to support you when times get hard. No one ever thinks that at the age of 18 you would have to worry about where your next meal will come from or where you are going to sleep for the night.

Teenagers are the largest growing homeless demographic in the United States. Over 1.3 million runaways and homeless youth are living on the streets and in shelters in America. Each year, 5 thousand of those youth die from assault, illness, exposure, and suicide. These children and teenagers are three times more prone to major depression, conduct disorder, and post-traumatic syndrome. These children are the future of our nation.

Maskew still dreams to be a biologist or maybe a social worker. Her high school education can only get her so far. She works at Macy’s maybe once or twice every couple of weeks. She takes two buses and sometimes a cab to a job that barely pays minimum wage. She must pay 30 percent of her wages to the shelter because she uses their address for her paychecks.

Her story starts far before she became homeless.

At the age of 5 Maskew was adopted from Phuoac, Vietnam. She has only seen her biological mother once since then. Her adoptive parents are in their late 40s and she calls them her mother and father. In the last couple of months Maskew was in high school, there where parental conflicts. Her mother claimed that for months Maskew had been poisoning her drinks. She was sick and throwing up constantly. Although Maskew was living at home with other siblings, she was the one blamed.

She came home from the movies one day with her brother and the police were waiting for her. Her mother had called the police to inform them that she felt that she was being poisoned. Maskew said her mother had told the police that for the past couple of months she had been ill and vomiting. She had concluded that Maskew was the one responsible. At that time her mother had also decided that Maskew could no longer stay in the house and along with her father would pay 6 months of rent for a room. Maskew felt betrayed, like it was planned all along.  Maskew frenzied went home to her mother and fought with her. Frightened by her sudden change of fate she fought with her mother for the very last time. Pushing came to shoving and in a heated moment a decorative knife had come loose in the struggle and when Maskew went to reach it her mother startled forced Maskew out of the house stating that she no longer felt comfortable with her living there. She was homeless once again, distraught with the sudden realization that she had nowhere else to go. Her father couldn’t take her in because he was in Tennessee and was having surgery due to complications of his diabetes. Her brother lived only miles away but didn’t want to get involved. In a moment of helplessness she told friends that she didn’t have any hope and talk of committing suicide. For three weeks she lived in the mental ward and from there she moved in the Rockville women’s homeless shelter.

While she was growing up Maskew was not forced to get a job. She hadn’t worked most of her life and suddenly she was faced with the challenge of having to support herself. She was panicked and after 6 months of no work her parents stopped supporting her.

Her family lives nearby. Her mother works for some Department of something. Her father has lived in Tennessee since the divorce. She has 3 siblings, none of which are biological. Her closest relationship is with her brother, and even that is strained. He lives in Bethesda only a couple of miles away from where she currently resides. He too was adopted from Vietnam.

***

The food court smelled of stale fast food. A mother and daughter are sitting at a table having a stern conversation about what the daughter wanted for Christmas. It was the weekend after Thanksgiving and the mall was crowded. People sit with bags as big as toddlers and the Christmas music has already started blasting over the PA system. It is a standard food court with Panda Express, McDonalds, and Sabarros. People watching is her favorite past time so we sit and watch and watch until her job interview at Sears.

Shortly after walking into Sears she walks out with a worried look. “The hiring manager isn’t in. Let’s just go.” Falling quickly into pace behind her we walk back to the food court and grab some westernized Chinese food from Panda Express.

Maskew’s plate is heaping with food that she shifts with her fork around her plate. She glances at her receipt itemizing what’s on the bill. She is annoyed. “How can they charge ten dollars for this?” pointing to what now lays below a napkin she used to wipe her mouth. Rhianna is playing over the PA now.

Trying to change the subject I ask about her Thanksgiving. She spent it working at Macy’s, but then she bought a new laptop and a wireless mouse. Her bank account has dwindled to one hundred dollars, the most she has saved in the year she’s been homeless.

The meal is now over and we step out in the brisk weather while the sun beats down on us. It takes two buses and a twenty minute wait before we reach our final destination. Maskew has fallen asleep twice since getting on the bus. A sudden jerking of the bus wakes her once again. It smells like the back of an old school bus-like old milk and diesel. It’s a relief when the doors open. The heater is on full blast and with every stop comes the jerk and the push closer and closer to each other while more and more passengers enter the bus. She awakes once again, pulls the yellow rope hard and jolts to the doors.

We are off.

We enter the evening air at dusk. Kiddy corner to the bus stop is a high school. You can hear the whistle of a game going on just past the trees. All the leaves haven’t quite fallen off the trees yet and it smells musty. We walk past the high school down an asphalt trail sandwiched between the road and the dense woods. We walk in silence. This would be her home for the next year. Step by step headlights pass us and we look towards the light quickly fading behind the woods. We continue down the path until she stops and points. There it was, her house. We walk past the mailbox with baby blue plastic flowers hanging from the back, dirty from the traffic and the woods, barely stirring as another set of headlights illuminates them.

The house has one shining window. With each step we see more and more. This house is encompassed by the darkness of the woods. A stream is close by. She stands at the front door next to a broken doorbell with masking tape over it reading “knock.” You can hear yelling from the outside as though someone is trying to communicate to someone in a separate room. She knocks meekly at first but after no response pounds the door like a police officer you see in a movie. You can see where the light is coming from now. The kitchen has every light on and a large square table is in the middle. The hallway leading from the front door to the kitchen has one or two pictures in frames. Two women well into their 40s are sitting at the table as we walk in. I was a stranger in their home. All curious to know who I am I say, “I am Kaitlynn. I am Maya’s photographer friend.” And with those simple words each of them turned around and continued what they were doing. One woman is eating cereal while another makes deviled eggs, all of them gossiping on what the day entailed.

Maskew wasn’t comfortable here but it was better than the shelter she was in, in Rockville. Instead of 30 women and a strict curfew she has freedom here. She shares a room with one woman. Her time spent inside and outside of the house is fluid instead of the rigid 7:45 am out-time and 7 p.m. in-time, no exceptions. This was her new home, but she was the youngest by decades. She feels no connection so once again she looks inward, constantly wandering in her head and out in the world. She has this wanderlust about her.

***

It's foggy out with a slight mist. It's eerie on the street with no decorations for the holiday. It's just warm enough that you can't see your breath.

A train must have just arrived at the station. It's more crowded than usual with the beeping of the cards swiping through the stalls.

The Red line isn't too crowded like it often is in the morning. Walking into the 2nd to last car in the 2nd to last door of the train, there is water dripping from the ceiling. When in motion it's a drop here, a drop there. Once the train comes to a halt a waterfall comes bursting down the width of the train car. It smells of wet socks after a long walk.  The train empties just a little bit every time it stops. As it reaches the surface high rise apartment buildings and parking garages erupt from the ground surrounding us.

Drip drip drip.

I notice I've become the last one on the train. This will be the last time I take this trip. I hope that this will only be a small bump in her life. To become homeless is hard for anyone in her situation. Being 19 and homeless is a feat on its own. Holding a minimum wage job and working 40 hours a week would not solve all of her problems, it would only make her independent financially. Like most graduating high schoolers who choose not to go to college, she has a hard time surviving without outside support. While most people in this situation have a parental safety net, Maskew is relying on state-funded transitional housing. It’s a physical safety net-she’s not living on the street-but there is no emotional support in her life. She expects to wake up one day to find her cell phone service turned off-the last link she has to her adoptive mother severed. Although her future is unsure her hope to further her education relies on her capability to be financially independent

***
As we sat on a log in the middle woods behind her new home in Gaithersburg, Maryland, it was warm enough that we didn’t have to wear jackets. She walks with one toe in front of another along this long white log holding a can of sprite in one hand and her aqua blue notebook in another. In that moment she smiles as she looks up towards the sun. I have never seen her smile in the 6 months I have spent time with her. With the sun behind her head and her fire engine red hair glowing she looks fearless. In that moment I believed her when she said she would help the world. She was far away from everything and everyone who had hurt her. There was nothing in this place to be afraid of.