Very day Desiree Phillips gets shot by the world's slowest bullet. The .22 floats around in her leg like a marble in a lava lamp; she never knows where the new ache will land. She tries to forget about it while she is draining threes for Division II Dowling College, dominating the boards at 5'9" and serving out more dishes than Martha Stewart.
But soon enough she is reminded. One night last season the pain was so blinding she accidentally overmedicated herself, and she woke up in an ambulance. Not that a little bullet is going to stop Desiree Phillips. If a mother with drug paraphernalia in the house didn't, if an alcoholic father didn't, if having her baby brother ripped from her arms and taken away didn't, if moving in and out of three foster homes didn't, do you think a little chunk of lead will?
For those years most of Dez's life fit in a plastic trash bag. She'd carry it from foster home to foster home, only to pack it up again within months. Nothing too special in it—no stuffed animals, no hug-worn blankets, no favorite toys—just her clothes and a photo of the mother she was sure would come back to save her. Why do I have to go? she'd ask. Your time is up, the social services people would say.
So she would go. This started when she was 11, and the social services people came at 3 a.m. and took her and her one-year-old brother, Randolf, away. Somebody must have made a call. Somebody must have found out that she was stuck there, feeding and diapering Randolf, wondering when her mom would be coming back.
It was hard to say which was worse for Dez, her mom leaving or her mom coming back, because there was usually a consequence, and that came with a hand or a belt or a broomstick.
"It didn't matter what I'd do, I'd get a whipping," says Dez. "Getting something to eat. Getting something to drink. Not eating what she wanted me to eat. Answering disrespectful. I dreamed of running away, taking Randolf and just going somewhere."
When the social services people came that night, they dropped Dez off at a woman's house, but she noticed that Randolf wasn't being helped out of the car. "I was crying and screaming," Dez recalls. "I was pulling onto Randolf. And this man pulled me away and they drove off. I cried that whole night. They wouldn't tell me anything."
The first foster mother they put Dez with was nice enough, but there were too many other kids with her, and it wasn't exactly The Waltons. "I learned about fake love," Dez says. Within a year Dez packed the trash bag. "They said my time was up," she says.
The next foster mother lived in Roosevelt, N.Y., on Long Island. At the end of that school year Dez was packing the trash bag again. "They said my time was up," she says.
The third mother was her own. Dez was returned to her in an attempt to put her family back together. It didn't work. Her mother couldn't stay straight, lost her apartment, and social services moved Dez again. All that rejection and packing and losing just stacks up on a young girl. "I'd sometimes sit and think what I wanted to be," Dez says. "And I figured, well, I'd just be nothing."