Daniela Ugaz


I didn't make it a year. The toy-cluttered hallways, five playgrounds, three kitchens and twenty-two bedrooms merely stared back at me. The kids waved goodbye, obediently. I stepped out of that shrieking labyrinthine building and into the calm evening sun and again I said goodbye, which was a hard thing to say even though it was so easy to leave.

Orphanages, that I know of, no longer exist. Not in the States. This place was a “Children Emergency Shelter” where kids go when Child Protective Services takes them from their house due to what's called 4th degree abuse, which is sexual or physical. The kids live at the shelter anywhere from six months to a year before moving into their first foster home. What follows is a series of dream like moves from foster home to foster home for an average of three years, until the kids either turn eighteen or, miraculously, (because even though it happens, and it happens all the time, it's always miraculous) they're adopted or reunified with their biological parents. When I worked there, I thought that for the kids the shelter, with its looping repetitions of bedroom upon bedroom and bathroom upon bathroom was like a dream, no, a nightmare, a house of nightmares.

At three in the morning, in one of the many dim-lit bedrooms, one newly admitted seven-year-old girl looked up from my arms, a stranger's arms, and asked, “Am I dreaming?” Her mother, so the girl's case worker had informed me, had a habit of getting drunk, hitting her with household appliances and kicking her out for the night, forcing her to knock on neighbors' doors until one of them agreed to take her in. This time a neighbor called the police who picked the kid up and dropped her off at CPS. A few hours later, at three in the morning, a case worker dropped her off at our door. I thought of all the different homes she might live in the next few years—those dream-like moves. But no, she wasn't dreaming, I told her, and I thought of the very real, years long hell she had ahead of her, and I thought of the shelter's surveillance cameras, which are set up in every hallway and every room, recording her question, Am I dreaming, and my response, No, keeping this image on file, tucked away for as long as she was “in the system.”

  The other employees and I ceaselessly fought about the surveillance system, those that hated it (like me) and those that felt protected by it. When most of the kids had gone to sleep, this is what we did.

“Girl! Nobody but those cameras will protect us if we ever have to go to court!”

“But don't they make you feel like you're already guilty? Like you've already done whatever thing those cameras are looking for?”

Reminding each other of our liability, the weekly inspections, our every move caught on camera brought us together. When we weren't talking about cameras, we were, though surrounded by kids, alone. Day after day, bathing fifty kids, feeding them, trying to teach them something, rocking them, shushing their screams to sleep.


Gabriel was autistic. Though he was nine years old, he looked five. He had tiny limbs, pale enough so that all the veins on his arms glowed bright blue through his skin. He was good at hiding. My co-workers and I joked (always in a pitch that betrayed our fear) about the countless times we'd suddenly notice that the room was quieter, that someone was missing, that there were no longer nine kids but eight—Gabriel had silently walked off again. He was usually a chatterbox. He'd rub his hands as if he were washing them and rock back and forth, chattering a high-pitched incoherency that was, believe it or not, beautiful, like some perching bird's song. He'd chatter at the edge of a room as the rest of the kids and I raced each other, and the louder we got in our games—the kids screaming Fuck it, I'm the princess, you're too damn fat to be the princess—the louder he chattered. He'd only shut up if he were about to hide. And if I paid enough attention I could seize the moment when Gabriel's bird-like chatter had stopped and so look up from the kid next to me, and from myself (because I've always had that bad habit of slinking into myself) and catch him sneaking off. Gabriel would be fleeing the room on all fours, trying to creep by on only the tips of his toes and fingers. Gabriel! I'd yell and pounce on him and he'd squeal and shake with laughter. But, usually, I wasn't paying enough attention and so I'd notice only too late, when he was already gone.

One day, this happened.

I should confess (it feels like something I should apologize for) that I was twenty-four years old and had just graduated with a Masters in English Literature. This was the only job I'd landed after graduating and, actually, I was happy about it, though the first thing I noticed my first day of work, was how unlike the other co-workers I was—younger, better educated, and far worse at the job. Losing Gabriel became something different when I lost him. Those surveillance cameras would catch a kid looking for a kid. I was twenty-four, arguably an adult. But there was no mistaking it, I was still a girl.

It was dinnertime. A time of many witnesses. I counted my kids again. Eight, not nine. “Wash your hands,” I said to them. Then I looked around. Who and what surrounded me? Who did I need to be afraid of?

People were just starting to file in. The only other adult in the room, besides the cook, was Rita, an aggressively tall woman in her fifties with a strangely impeccable face, perfectly round and white. She was already sitting with her kids. I could tell she hadn't noticed my missing Gabriel. In total ignorance, making time until my kids had also sat, she played a clapping game with her group. “Wash your hands,” I prodded my kids again. They stood motionless around me, backs curved like half-moons—some attitude-heavy posture they'd recently picked up from I don't know where. I looked at Rita again, half hoping she'd notice, though I knew she'd scream if she did. She was a screamer. “Oh my God!” she'd say. “Gabriel can't still be in the bathroom, can he?! He's been gone for so long!” And what would I say? I'd shrug. Will her scream away. Though I know it would follow me for a long time, making it impossible, I'm sure, for anyone to laugh about this.

Then Marta came in with a group of toddlers. She has big teeth that can't be hidden, no matter how tightly her lips are closed. She smiled and waved. She wouldn't scream, I knew, if she noticed, and as though that were remedy enough, I sat down somewhat more at peace. Three of my kids sat down beside me and immediately started kicking each other under the table. They eyed me between fits of laughter, and I did them the favor of avoiding their gaze. These kids hid pleasure as if they were guilty for it. Instead, they looked for my approval with every swear word. Believe me, I'm miserable, their swearing said, and so effectively, If you see mom, please tell her I miss her.

I had to tell someone. He'd been gone for ten minutes. I looked at Marta. I stared at her—if she would only look at me so that I could mouth the magic words—but she was putting on one last bib for one last kid, bending over him, scrupulously tying a knot and so, losing my breath, I looked toward Rita, the screamer. We locked eyes. I got ready to mouth it. Any words that would ease my burden. He's gone. Her eyes widened when she looked at me. I knew she knew that I wanted to say something—she saw my mouth open—but she only shook her round, white head and averted my eyes. She looked up at the clock and with a nod threw her hands up in the air and started to sing. Then all the kids in the room, even the toddlers, threw their hands up too, and started to sing our evening prayer, a stubborn vestige that few of us liked, left over from when the shelter was a Christian organization.

Reach out and touch

Somebody's hand

Make this a better world

If you can


I stood, resolved to meet Marta, but I wasn't three steps away from her when the dining room doors flung open and in walked another fifteen adults.

It was the shelter director, of all people, circled by a dozen men and women wearing nametags, so thickly surrounded that I could actually only tell it was her in the middle by the sporadic flash of her red hair. Her hand shot out from within the crowd. “Rita, Marta, Katie,” she called out, waving her hand above the crowd. Those surrounding her were, I knew instantly, very moneyed, potential donors. I turned to Marta. I think the blood in my face had drained. My lips were dry. “Please!” I said, “Tell the director I've gone to the bathroom. I absolutely have to go now.”

I ran. Out one door and through another. A dim lit row of bedrooms stretched before me, their wallpaper peeling and pictures of the kids, newly taped up and yet already falling, hanging by a thread. I opened each door and peered into each bedroom, calling out his name, looking in closets and behind each nightstand, getting on my knees to look under beds, so conscious of the red light in the corner of each room, the surveillance camera blinking over me.



One of the bedrooms was littered with broken toys. Barbies with crushed heads and torn-off limbs. Tiny cars with broken windows. Kicked-down Lego towers and plastic dinosaurs whose eyes had been gouged out. I was jumping over these, when I saw something flash out the window. Despite my rush, I remember, I paused and peered outside. It was the donors. And that's when I realized, to my horror, that there must have been two groups of them, the one in the dining room and this one—they'd multiplied. “Shit,” I whispered and instead of resuming my frantic run, as if I'd given up, I slowly pressed my forehead to the window. The glass was thick enough that I couldn't hear anything they said. I remember well how they walked, as though they were strolling through a park. And I remember noticing that they talked and pointed at so many things as though they were surrounded by objects they'd never seen before, as though they were classifying and taking inventory. Let's call that a swing-set, which these kids may use to swing high enough to see beyond these shelter gates. I sighed and turned and carefully stepped over all the broken toys and out of the room. I never got used to how things there broke in a week. Dolls lost their heads. Especially during the summer, when the days endlessly stretched on, when the kids didn't get out very often because there was no school and because we had to make so many phone calls every time we wanted to take them somewhere. We had to make sure whatever place we took them was closed to the public. Behind a tree, around a corner, a desperate, grieving parent might be waiting.

I came in to one of the common play rooms. The lights were off but I could still see darker shadows amongst the shadows, and I could see Gabriel wasn't there. I sat in the middle of the room and searched for the surveillance camera's eye. Hello, I waved. See me struggle. I've lost your child. File this. I guessed five minutes had passed since I'd excused myself from the dining room. I should go back. I closed my eyes, rubbed my temples and wiped away a tear. Faintly, I heard foot steps. Rita, maybe. I'd known her to check on people when their bathroom breaks were too long. I stood, eyes still closed. When I opened them, I saw Marta.

“What the hell?” she said.

My face reddened.

“I thought I should look for you,” she said.

He's gone, I mouthed

Marta tended to lick her two front teeth when she suddenly had something to concentrate on or to be stressed about. He's gone, she mouthed back.

I nodded.

She looked behind her, then said, “Go. I'll take over your group.”

Gabriel trusted Marta as much as I did. Most of those kids did. Her nephew had been picked up by CPS when both her brother and sister-in-law were thrown in jail for a reason she never revealed. Not to me. Marta went to Juvenile Court in her free time to take notes and learn how CPS cases were carried out. She looked as though she didn't have time to exercise, as though she hardly slept, as though she worked two jobs. And something about the combination of those things must have given her a sort of glow, because despite her youth (something that I think reminded the kids of their own unreliable families) the kids were calm around her. They didn't feel it necessary to hide their pleasure as they did around me no matter how much I said, I love it when you're happy.

I ran out, dodged the dining room, and came to the playground where I'd watched the donors through the window. To my horrified surprise, they'd multiplied again. There were three groups outside and I could see at least one more in the doorway of another building. I remember this one donor woman well. She tapped me on the shoulder and introduced herself. I'm so and so. She somehow looked like a cartoon, with white frizzing hair and these impressive purple rings under her eyes that made her look bruised.

“Hi,” I said. And, noticeably, I'm sure, I shifted uncomfortably on my feet. Half a minute had passed since I'd left Marta. Maybe seven minutes had passed since I'd left the dining room whose windows stood facing me right behind this moneyed donor.

“It shows,” she said. “that you guys are doing such a good job.”

I wondered if Rita or the shelter director could see me through the window.

“I know how these places can be,” she said. “I was in and out of foster shelters when I was a kid. And I can see how good they've got it here.”

So maybe she wasn't moneyed, I thought. I didn't know what to say and so I thanked her, though really I felt so impatient that my chest and thighs burned, literally burned, and I wanted to itch them and I wanted to call out his name or even to tell this woman that I'd lost him. He's gone, I wanted to say, but I was too much of a coward to actually do it, to ask for help. Believe it or not, I've never found out why this was so hard for me. Was I scared others would attack or blame me? Was I afraid of being unveiled as the girl that I was or, simply, of being fired? I'd never been fired.

The minutes ticked and the glare from the window behind the woman flashed in my eyes. The woman said, “This shelter offers so much more than any of the shelters I lived in.” And she said, “This shelter has so much staff.” And she said, “The kids must get a lot of one-on-one time.” I've always been the type people tell things to. The kids never told, but wailed out their stories to me in a way I'd never seen them do with others. I think there's something about me that has always made anyone with a story feel like a victim.

“In those shelters I was a punk kid,” she said. “I had a mouth like no other and I liked to bite anyone near me. I'd secretly bite other kids and none of the employees at those shelters ever found out. I especially liked to bite the youngest ones.” She laughed, softly. “Oh, poor kids. I had a good jaw.”

I'd no idea what my face said—that I understood, commiserated, that I was surprised by her stories or only impatient to leave. Whatever lawless place she spoke of, where adults walk blind and kids' fear or pleasure comes out so violently from their tiny bodies, sounded just like this shelter. 

“What a story,” I said.

She looked at me as if expecting me to say something smart. There was no way to be polite now.“Thanks for the honesty,” I added. “But I really have to go.” I didn't wait for a reaction.

A group of kids had trickled out and were playing in a nearby pile of sand. I remembered my self pity—I bet close to twenty minutes had passed since I'd first noticed him gone. “Gabriel,”  I whispered and walked into another of the shelter buildings, where to my surprise I found Marta with her group of toddlers. She winked at me and said, “Everyone's helping you look for him.”

But he wasn't in any of the playgrounds.

And he wasn't in any of the bathrooms.

And he wasn't in the Rainbow room.

And he wasn't in the TV room.

Co-workers winked at me as I passed them. “We're looking for him,” they whispered to keep their kids from hearing. “He's not in the office,” they told me. “He's not in his bedroom,” they said. They silently, quickly, slinked out of view from the donors and the director and even from their own groups of kids to secretly look under counters and behind piles of toys and in cupboards and closets and bathrooms. If those surveillance cameras caught any coherent story at all, I thought, tearfully, it'd be a story about safety nets.

Sometimes Gabriel could talk. This happened rarely, usually when we were alone. His face would get pink as though whatever thought he had were boiling inside him, prying his mouth open with its pressure. The funny thing is that it was then, when I could tell, and maybe even he could tell, that he needed my attention, that we could never connect.

So many nights I rocked him before bed and felt his body go stiff. I knew he wanted me to rock him because he'd say so. He'd look around the room, as if to make sure we were alone (we hardly ever were), and whisper, “Rock me.” A command. But in my arms he'd go tense, his tiny legs jutting out of his body like pieces of wood. I'd reposition him—his chin on my shoulder or his head in the crook of my elbow or his head on my chest, but he'd go on, limbs like boards, chattering incoherently and only once in a while interrupting himself to whisper, “Don't rock me that way, rock me this way,” but no matter how much I asked what this way was, he wouldn't or couldn't specify. I often thought about how I must remind him of his parents—clueless, desperately needing help. I'd heard his mother was happy when Child Protective Services took Gabriel. I'd heard she said, “The only, but the only time I got any help was when CPS come to my door.”

I was with him the day before I lost him. I'd been having a tough day, I remember, and I was distracted. I'd been trying to publish a book I'd written as an undergrad and had gotten one more of many rejections that day. At bath time one of my girl's wouldn't quit screaming. I had seven naked children running around me, Gabriel chattering in the corner and this girl screaming and screaming. This time no one was around to watch us—bathrooms are the only place without surveillance cameras. I knelt beside her, patted her back, asked what was wrong. I asked her to stop. I stuttered and told her there was nothing in the room to be scared of. I asked her to stop again, to use her words. Then Gabriel suddenly screamed, “It's my fault! It's all my fault! It's my fault!”

“No,” I told him, “right now it's never your fault.”  And I let go of the girl and put my arms around Gabriel, while the seven other naked children continued in their endless run around us. In my mind I was hugging him, though I still don't understand how he took it. He pushed his body away from my arms as if trying to get away, and he widened his eyes and gave me a strange, stoney look, so full of anger, and said again, “It's my fault,” before punching me in the face. The girl's scream wavered on.

There's a loneliness to guilt. The lonely weight of your sad situation on your shoulders. The lonely weight of your parents' sad situation on your shoulders. It's mistaken, of course. The fault could never be Gabriel's, and maybe it could never be his parents' either, but being mistaken doesn't alleviate that loneliness. If anything, I think it makes it worse. Guilt, believe me, I know, takes hours of self-convincing, of telling yourself you're guilty. Hours of circular thoughts, of telling yourself a story. And then, you can never share your guilt. I mean, you can never really talk about it, or point to it, because it's not true, it's not really there, there's no fault to point to. Every time I got hit or bit in that shelter, I tried to soothe myself by imagining that the kids were making a fault they could point to. The boy punched me. Gabriel, whose responsibility to find was mine, punched me. He was guilty, just as he was guilty of hiding, and he must be so lonely in his hiding, I thought, as I and so many of my co-workers continued to look for him.

I knew he had to be in the building. There were too many gates, too many locks and bars for him to get out. It could only be a matter of time before I found him. But as I walked on, looking under toys, clothes, furniture, more distracted by the minute, I truly thought the moment might not end. I wondered, what would happen if I didn't find him by midnight, when my shift was over? How much longer would I have to stay? Police would come and how long would I be interrogated, reliving the moment by retracing my steps, by dissecting it from so many angles and in front of so many scrutinizing people? Overtaken by these questions, I was blind to my getting closer to him. I didn't hear his breaths or his chatter, even when he was only steps away from me.

He was in one of the three kitchens, under a counter, behind a row of empty pots the size of boulders, rocking back and forth. I was alone when I found him. Without startling, before I even realized it was Gabriel in front me, I touched him on the shoulder. He lifted his pale, blue-veined face at me and laughed. A sweet sound. I laughed too. The whole ordeal suddenly felt light, especially because I realized then that I wouldn't stick with the job very long, just as everyone else, it seemed, also knew I wouldn't stick around very long. When I landed an opportunity to do a small linguistic research project in Argentina, so many of my co-workers said, “I was wondering when this day would come.” Not everyone meant it cruelly. A few women said I was too good for the job. “A Masters in English. What the hell are you doing here?” they asked. Gabriel had a different response. “Take me,” he screamed. Another command.

I remember I thought his words so honest and beautiful. “First,” I teased, “you have to learn Spanish.”

He nodded as if he understood that Spanish is spoken in Argentina, as if he were indeed going to study Spanish so that he could join me. And as I made my way out of the shelter, down its looping hallways, past the kids who were prodded into obediently waiving goodbye, out the door and into the silent evening sunshine, I thought, what a stupid, heartless thing I just said to that boy, who I've now lost again.


Daniela Ugaz worked at a children's emergency shelter for two years. She is currently working on a Spanish to English translation of the Salvadoran book on Central American migration through Mexico, Migrants Don't Matter. She is also co-editing and translating a book of short stories about migration, Anthology of Migrating Stories. She graduated with an MFA in fiction from the University of Arizona in 2012. danielamaria56@gmail.com