It’s early December and the ECC members have not experienced any further dropouts or harm since Bill’s passing. Little D and Gemini can think more about their jobs, their lives, and how they want their post-ECC futures to differ from their pasts.

“I want a mentor,” Little D tells me in one of the few undisturbed moments she, Gemini, and I get when we meet. Young men passing by every few minutes try to catch their eye. One offers a phone number. All of them crack up Little D and Gemini. “I want a mentor for a lot of things.”

I ask if she can describe the ideal coach and Little D shrugs.

“She just wants one, to try it out,” Gemini offers. “And then she can tell you. She’s got to have one first to know her likes and dislikes.”

Another young man walks by, grinning as he looks over. Little D and Gemini sink down in their seats, laughing. “He better not come up to us,” they say, even as they look to see where he’s gone. Then they crack up all over again.

Gemini and Little D, like Elaya, want to move into their own places as soon as possible. They live with family. No one’s pushing them out. No one ever has. But leaving home is something they’ve done, in one form or another, for most of their lives.

Gemini was 11 the first time she ran away. “The first time? I don’t know why,” she tells me. “I guess we were just right there and we went along. After that, [I did it] on and on … He [my father] kept bringing all these other women around.”

The first time Little D ran away, she was 9 years old, it was a cold December night, and she was following Gemini.

“I made sure she was warm, though,” Gemini assures me.

“We ran through the woods and went to her school. No money on us. We were in those one-piece pajamas with the footies,” Little D says.

“We got caught because she wanted to take food out of their refrigerator,” Gemini explains.

“I didn’t want to get hungry,” Little D says.

After this episode, Gemini kept running away from home, then from correctional facilities. Little D sees her own subsequent departures differently. “I left home other times, but I never ran away [again]. My mother considered it running away. But I don’t think it’s running if you’re walking.”

This same night, on the other side of D.C., Elaya is checking out of a hospital and making her way home, alone. She, too, entered December with plans to move out soon. Then life took a number of sudden, unexpected turns.

The restaurant where she’d been working fired her over the phone, and refused to give her an explanation. Elaya would go talk to the manager in person were it not for the increasingly violent stomach pains she’s experienced for several days. She’s staying with the family of her “sister” / best friend during this time. But when the pain grows unbearable, she takes a taxi to the emergency room rather than ask them to drive her.

When I find her in a hospital bed 36 hours later, she’s on the phone, tearing into a friend for not visiting her. Despite the pain medication and her resulting slurred speech, she curses with admirable sharpness. She hangs up, smiles, and assures me she’s just playing with him. She has let almost no one know of her condition. Other than the nurses and the confused patient on the curtain’s other side, I’m the only person she’s seen since being checked in.

Elaya swears she doesn’t need visitors and that her blood relatives don’t need to know she’s in the hospital. Everyone’s busy, and they can’t do anything for her, anyway. This may be true, but, for an 18-year-old with friends and family so nearby, Elaya will spend a surprising percentage of her hospital stay alone.

Back by the river, Gemini discusses her one experience enrolling for college courses, and how the paperwork related to enrollment and loans confused her. I think of Elaya, who could use a family member demanding answers for why she still needs constant pain medication for an undiagnosed condition. Had Gemini ever considered asking a relative to help with the college paperwork?

“We don’t tell them our business,” she explains. “So that [not getting the paperwork right] is on us. You’ve got to find out things the hard way, because someone can tell you something, but you can’t never see it unless you do it. It’s like someone telling you the stove’s hot … They might be trying to hide something from you, so you have to go and touch the stove to see if it’s hot for real.”

“What if there’s a person who never tricks you?” I ask. “Would you believe them if they say to not jump off a cliff?”

“I’d go ahead and believe them,” Gemini says.

“I might,” Little D adds.

Gemini is schooling Little D on who Sallie Mae is and how Gemini still owes her for the college loans. Elaya is taking a taxi home rather than ask anyone to pick her up from the hospital. Guys continue trying to catch the eye of these young women, who know more stories of cheating boyfriends and absent fathers than this dispatch column can hold. But Little D holds my gaze until I nod that, yes, I see her point.

As the month goes on, something—the holiday spirit, perhaps—starts to work on us all. In those quiet hours in a hospital bed, Elaya decided she does need to begin college now, even if it means loans. During the same week, Elaya’s guardian angel located a laptop computer and college information for her. Now at home, Elaya begins to divide her efforts equally between job applications and college research.

Charles reconnects mid-December. He is living with his mother full time. “I’m just going to stay with her, stick with her, and she’ll keep me clean,” he says. His mother has lived drug-free for two years and invites Charles to all her recovery-group meetings. “I’m going with her to one of her meetings tomorrow … She’s my inspiration.”

In another move that is bringing him great comfort and support, Charles has converted to Islam. “I’ve got a lot of friends who are Muslim. I just took my shahada,” he tells me. Along with making this statement of faith, Charles is contemplating changing his name. He shares with me the new names he is considering and asks if I know how he can go about filing for a name change. “Charles is my slave name. I want to be purified.”

But even with these changes, Charles still remains Charles in many ways. He’s reading whatever he can get his hands on and has just completed another crossword puzzle. Dreams of completing high school or obtaining a GED have not been swept away with old beliefs and a name, either. He’s mailing off for information on a program that would allow him to complete the course work for either from home. He prefers this to sitting in a classroom.

The day after Christmas, Elaya gets what she considers the best Christmas present ever. A local college offers her a combination grant/loan package and admission to their winter semester, starting January 14. “I feel like I just got awarded something, like I need to do an acceptance speech and all my thank-yous … I was on the bus telling people I didn’t even know that I was going to college. I was telling everyone, ‘Guess what? Happy New Year and I’m going to college!’ If you’d been on the B bus with me, you would have thought I was crazy.”

The only people who might have considered Elaya strange for being too happy to stay quiet would have been those who had never struggled for something and finally achieved it. Though I wasn’t on the bus that cold December morning, I can’t imagine anyone calling this 18-year-old finally on her way again crazy.

On the last day of the year, Elaya goes to church with family while Gemini and Little D celebrate New Year’s Eve with friends. Gemini can name her New Year’s resolutions without a second’s hesitation: “Save money, go to the gym, and get on top of my business.” She has already begun to set these in motion by enrolling in training courses and applying for jobs. Elaya resolves to do well in school, find a new job, and, eventually, move into her own place. For now, though, she’s trying not to sing too loud on the bus. But if she can’t contain herself the world won’t come to an end. D.C. buses might, in fact, be a little better for it.