Like that patch of grass with the crickets and the ladybugs hidden between its shady blades, the trees and the hills, the flowers and the children are all things that God made.

But it’s not really as rosy as all that.

If you ask Lenora Nish, she’ll tell you that good and evil, God and Satan, are engaged in a high-stakes mambo, a frantic winner-takes-all dance performed on a tightrope that dips to the depths of hell before bouncing right back up to the heavens. In this dance, figuratively or literally, Lucifer himself bares between his pointed teeth a blade that drips with the blood of the wounds of temptation.

This dance, this battle of wills and philosophies, could just as easily take place on a staircase that winds upward and downward for endless, unseen miles. In this scenario, the players are sword-bearing knights — one in white armor, one in black — battling furiously for control as each seeks to gain higher ground and win the souls of mere mortal men and women.

But, really, the logistics of the battle aren’t as important as the realization that there is one.

Lenora’s heart tells her that Satan surely gained the upper hand the day her five kids were taken from her and whisked away to foster care forever. This wasn’t long after that fight with Junior — the one that was a real fight and not just Junior beating the crap out of her again. That was after she discovered he was shooting heroin, the day her mom came over to help put the kids’ new bikes together for Christmas.

Junior was taking too long in the bathroom, so Lenora finally just opened the door and there he was, sitting on the toilet with a belt wrapped around his arm, where a needle wagged obscenely from the flesh. Normally, she hid everything from Junior, cowered and paced away every second in anticipation of the pain, like a dog waiting for the hard hand of fate to come down. Is his food hot enough? Are the kids quiet enough? Do I smile too much? Do I smile too little? Shrink. Be so little that he can’t see. Hush, Baby, Daddy will hear you.

This time, though, she didn’t hide the shock. She finally knew about the booze and the ’ludes, the crack cocaine and the women, but she didn’t know about the heroin and, when she saw it with her own two big brown eyes, the ones that stared every day at a house filled to bursting with crying babies, dirty diapers and uncertainty, she wasn’t quite sure what it was she was looking at.

“What?” is what she said.

“You’re going to do it with me,” was his answer.

Lenora was so tired back then. Today, she’s a 44-year-old grandmother of 11 who’s learning to live a drug-free life alongside 50 or so other women at Tri-County/Ventura Teen Challenge, a Christian faith-based nine-month rehabilitation program tucked into the hills off state Route 33, between Ojai and Ventura proper. Today, she is less tired than she was 21 years ago, when she found Junior in the bathroom and the things she once thought she could have slipped even further away.

Today, Lenora believes the word and believes the word is God. Lenora believes her four daughters and one son, her grandchildren, the plain rows of cream-colored buildings that make up Teen Challenge, the clean clothes on her back, the kind words in her mouth and the peace of mind she hasn’t had for about as long as she can remember are all things that God made. She had a furtive relationship with God over the years, turned to prayer and scripture in prison when the other inmates couldn’t see her. Her relationship with Junior, on the other hand, which grew more and more twisted as the years wore on — until Lenora didn’t feel anything at all anymore — was not something that God made.

Junior was no longer the mysterious and handsome green-eyed stranger in the jacket with the name of his car club emblazoned on it. She was 15 when they met, a year or so shy of the birth of Monica, their first little girl.

At 17, older and different and so much cooler than the rest, Junior was the best answer to all of the multiple choice questions in Lenora’s life. She was happy and proud at Junior’s side; she’d always have a place to sleep. She’d have babies and a picket fence, and someone who loved her to get old with. In the early days, she had sex with him because she wanted to and not just to avoid the beatings. Later, she would lie in bed and stare at the ceiling, thinking “Ugh, hurry up and get off,” as she waited for him to finish. He made her have sex when she didn’t want to and, when they did, made her do things she didn’t want to do. She also didn’t want her kids to be without a father.

In the days before Junior, she avoided being at home with her family, though now she can’t quite figure out why. Lenora was raised in San Diego by her Mexican mother, a nurse who always kept a clean house. She was a hard worker and a young mom; she had Lenora at 15 and steadily worked her way through nursing school. Lenora was surrounded by aunts and uncles who drank liquor well into the night, and who fought louder and more vehemently as the hours passed; Lenora thought the fighting is what love looked like.

Lenora also had her grandparents, who kept an eye on her and her three younger brothers while her mother worked. Her father, a Native American who lived on a reservation, was not in the picture. Lenora met him for the very first time in 1990, when she was 28. She had a beer in her hand and he had a beer in his hand. She thought, “So that’s who I take after.” But it’s a memory that makes her giggle.

There are other memories not quite so giggle-worthy. As a girl, Lenora, who has the dress and gait, the short, styled ’do and ready, calming smile of a young grandmother — but a grandmother, nonetheless — blamed her mother for a lot of things. By Lenora’s own account, though, her mother is all but blameless. If she had an undeniable character flaw, like so many tragic heroes before her, it was that she worked long hours to put food on the table. The family didn’t live extravagantly by any means, but wanted for little. Still, Lenora wanted to make her absent, working mother proud. Her mother, tired from the long shifts and caring for four children, never made her daughter’s baseball games. Lenora understood, mostly, but she yearned to be special.

Puberty was rough. No one told her what was going on or that she should evade the advances of the older boys. She wanted to be respected; she wanted to be somebody. She thought that, if she let the boys into her heart and into her body, she would be loved. And being loved meant that she was someone. It was proof, like a big gold star on an “A” paper, that she was cherished. She lost her virginity at 13 and thought, “He must really love me.” She didn’t know she was being used, or that she was being used every time she had sex with a boy who then turned away and acted like he didn’t know her anymore.

The search for good feelings, feelings that drowned out the daily uncertainties and confusing rejections, first led Lenora to huffing paint and walking around with rings of unnatural color on her mouth, stoned silly and dull, and cool. She was cooler for hanging out with the older girls, sleeping with the boys, running away from home only to sneak back in for food and fresh changes of clothes. She slept on the bedroom floors and couches of friends, not realizing until years later that their parents must have wondered why Lenora always wore the same clothes.

There were times — she’s sure of it now — when her mother didn’t know if she was dead or alive. With the late-night parties and the attention, her eyes were opened to a whole new world, but she still felt like no one understood her. She did have friends like Patty, who had a chola look that Lenora admired and who died years later of AIDS.

She was sent to juvenile hall for the first time at 13 and flourished under the airtight regimen. It was in and out of juvi for two years, some time spent in a 24-hour school, which was a place much like Teen Challenge (which is a bit of a misnomer since the women who participate in the live-in program are 18 and up) and a lot of going nowhere fast. Every time she was discharged from juvi or the 24-hour school, she got bored and went back to the old neighborhood, where she hooked up with the wrong people time and again.

Until the day that one of those wrong people was Junior.

Ever after

At first, it really was like the fairytale, except that LSD, paint and booze took the place of the glass slipper and Lenora never had to wait until midnight before the cloud she was riding on turned back into a pumpkin.

It wasn’t long before her knight in shining car-club wear rode up in his father’s car and whisked Lenora off to Houston, where Junior took a job as a roofer. Junior had always been controlling and possessive to the point of crazed paranoia, but Lenora knew he meant business the first time he knocked the air out of her for smiling at another man. “He’s the man,” Lenora thought. “I stay home and do what he says.” She liked the structure of her new life. She knew what to expect.

Years later, she was shocked when a male friend showed up to meet her with roses in his arms. “Roses?” she thought. “Where’s the beer?” Junior gave her bruises, not flowers.

Junior never married Lenora, but he doled out the abuse in spades. He was often absent, drinking his paychecks away with his friends. He hit harder when he was drunk and tended to be a little nicer on paydays, when he took Lenora out for a nice dinner before disappearing until the money was gone.

He showed her off at family gatherings, bruises and all, though she’d rather have sunk into the earth and disappeared with her shame. He worked sporadically, sometimes as a roofer, sometimes as a sanitation worker, a parking attendant or cement layer. Lenora drank the occasional beer when she was pregnant because Junior would have beaten her otherwise. He hated drinking alone and, later, would hate smoking crack cocaine alone.

They returned to California, to Chula Vista, when Lenora was ready to have the baby. After Monica was born, Junior and the family mostly lived off Lenora’s welfare checks. Lenora worked sporadically, at places like Kmart and Burger King and as a maid in motels — she liked that she worked and enjoyed her jobs, but Junior didn’t. Years later, she’d be fired from a job at Baskin Robbins for not opening a cash register during an armed robbery, therefore, according to her boss, endangering fellow employees. “His gun was rusty,” she says, rolling her eyes. “It looked like a gun from the movies where you pull the trigger and a little flag comes out.”

Lenora hated the beatings, but not as much as she hated being ignored. At those times, when she needed that gold star or a spot on center stage, she flirted with other men while Junior watched. It was a thrilling game and one she could play well. It wasn’t the beating she sought, but those heady proclamations of love in the moments afterward, when Junior, like always, held her and told her how sorry he was, how much he loved her and needed her. Then the beatings — which, over time, became little more distraction than flies buzzing around her head on a hot summer night — were worth every bruise.

Monica’s birth, in 1977, was followed by the births of Christina in 1979; Stephanie in 1981; Diana in 1982; and Jimmy in 1984. The welfare checks kept coming in, and Lenora made sure the bills were paid as Junior worked off and on and partied late nights. The beatings got worse after Christina was born. Birth control was something neither thought of much. Sometimes Junior would say things like, “These aren’t my kids,” and, “I’m not your father,” but Lenora had never been with anyone else. Junior told her she was fat and ugly, that she was a druggie and a drunk, and accused her of sleeping around. Over time, Lenora believed everything he said. “It got to the point where I thought I deserved it,” she says now.

She got semi-hooked on the crack cocaine that Junior made her smoke because it helped her not to feel. Sometimes, Lenora fantasized about killing Junior, but the fantasy left her white picket fence up in smoke. She started drinking more, smoking more crack, shooting the occasional smack.

Everything changed the day Lenora fought back. Hitting Junior felt so damn good. She hit him in the head with a brick and it made her heart sing. She bit him and knew what satisfaction tasted like. The shock on his face, as the fight moved from the alley to the front of the house, was delicious. He hit her with a phone and she barely staggered. Years of taking the blows had made her the tougher of the fighters, and she wanted the prize more than he did anyway.

Someone called the cops and the couple was taken to the same emergency room. She went to jail for nine days for spousal abuse. Junior went free — and she went back to him. He went out and she stayed home, drinking and smoking crack. She believed she had finally become what Junior had always told her she was: a druggie and a slut. So she left him and started going out with other guys.

Rock bottom

In 1990, Lenora’s kids were taken away for good. Monica, the oldest, was 12. Jimmy, the youngest, was 6. All five were sent to foster homes and Lenora rode the proverbial handbasket straight to hell. There were depths she could never have imagined. “The thing I didn’t want, I turned out to be,” she says.

She admits now that it’s probably a good thing the kids were taken from her. She had stopped taking care of them, never sent them to school. They lived in a party house in which the only thing on their mother’s agenda was the next high. There was seldom any food; the place was dirty and crowded. It was no place for kids. “My kids weren’t OK and people could see it,” she says. “Everything in the dark comes to light sooner or later.”

With her kids gone and seemingly no way to get them back, Lenora looked for a new family, only to find one in her neighborhood Sureño gang. For the gang, she was always down, always ready to do what she needed to do. She carried drugs and guns and whatever else was needed. She asked no questions. She was special again. And then she got busted. Lenora’s never been busted for drugs; it was the burglaries and robberies that landed her in and out of state and federal prisons between 1990 and 2004. Her longest sentence was seven years and she served five of those.

Prison was a piece of cake for Lenora. Beneath the calm exterior and regretful tears is an inner resolve that allows her to go from grandmother to gang banger in 30 seconds. In and out of prison, Lenora took on the role of the tough chola with the pencil-thin eyebrows and the blue homie accessories. She could take care of business and appear fearlessly unbreakable; she took the punches for her fellow gang members, gave them money when they needed it, played mother to a new family. She did it to belong, but her enemies would never have guessed.

Lenora believed the gang was all she had to live for, but it turned out that wasn’t much. “Your friends, you’re just their tool,” she says. “They don’t write you in prison; they don’t put money on your books. You can only roll for so long.”

The prison tattoos are plain to see on Lenora’s neck, framed by her stylishly short hairdo. A couple of the tattoos poke over the edge of the scooped neck of one of Lenora’s shirts. One says “Grant Hills Park,” her old neighborhood; another bears the nicknames of two of her grandchildren, Yesi and Lucky, with a heart between them. This woman bares little resemblance to the tough-as-nails gang chick on the identification she brought with her to Teen Challenge. For one thing, that woman, with the harshly lined lips, skinny brows and slicked-back hair, more closely resembles a man than the soft, funny, tearful woman Lenora has become. “Why am I so busy trying to impress everyone and tell them I’m so big and bad when I’m not?” she asks herself. “It hurts.”

Prison was her comfort zone. As the years went by, the kids started aging out of the foster homes. She wrote them and promised she’d change, but they quit believing her, especially Monica, who is still so angry. While fighting a life sentence in San Bernardino in the mid-1990s — a sentence related to the three-strikes law — Lenora started caring again about what happened to her. She passed a test for her General Educational Development, or GED, in 22 days. She asked God for help and landed a good job in the prison kitchen.

But after her release, she started up all over gain: dealing, using, transporting illegal immigrants across the Mexican border. “My joy was when we crossed the border and these people were so happy,” she says. She was the lady with all the answers again, but then her connection cut her loose. He was getting hot. Lenora was hurt. He’s doing 22 years.

And then Lenora’s mother told her about Teen Challenge. After one false start, Lenora made it to the organization’s induction center in Bakersfield, where she stayed for three months. Teen Challenge isn’t easy, but Lenora — who, like the other women enrolled in the program, must be substance-free from Day One — believes the program has taught her how to be patient, humble and obedient. She pulls weeds and memorizes scripture. She believes God is calling her to be a leader. “People are going to mock you because now you’re a Christian — but I don’t care anymore.” She wants to talk to kids and young adults in gangs, in the California Youth Authority and in prison. She wants to show them how she can morph into one of them with a snap of her fingers. She wants them to know that there’s a better way, and she wants to be redeemed. “I couldn’t take care of my kids, but maybe I can take care of someone else’s kids,” she says, crying. “Maybe I can save them.”

Likewise, Lenora believes she can help the younger girls at Teen Challenge.

She also wants to win her family back. Her 6-year-old grandson, David, Monica’s son, has cancer. He’s been through chemo and lost an eye to the disease. Doctors may take one of his cheeks next. Lenora plans to be there, looking like a grandma, for his next surgery. “His spirit is what keeps me going,” she says. “My daughter is angry at me and angry at God.”

The last time Lenora saw Junior, he tried to kiss her. He’s still using and still in and out of prison. Back home, everyone is still living the lifestyle, still dinking and fighting. When Lenora thinks of leaving her structured existence at Teen Challenge, she remembers the endless dance and that good can win. “God’s preparing me,” she says, “because nothing has changed.”

Divine intervention

“Things aren’t what they used to be/Missing one inside of me/Deathly lost, this can’t be real/Cannot stand this hell I feel/Emptiness is filling me/To the point of agony/Growing darkness taking dawn/I was me, but now he’s gone …”

— Metallica, “Fade to Black”

At the top of the hill is a circle of women with heads bowed in prayer. This is a morning ritual at Teen Challenge, where the women eat in silence, learn scripture, sing hymns and make prayer requests like clockwork. Most in the circle ask that the group pray for their families and friends.

In the room where choir practice takes place hangs a framed picture of Jesus looking to the heavens, and another of a tiger. Written on a dry-erase board on one of the walls is a list of preferences for foods. Under “sweet” are names like Anna, Stephanie and Kristen. Under “non-sweet” are names like Kelly, Bobbi and Rachael.

The floors are plated with terra cotta-colored tile and lined with cream-colored, folding plastic chairs. The women — many of them very young women — chatter a little as they settle in for practice. Among them is 26-year-old Wendy Markely, who looks 20, tops.

Like the others, Wendy rises at 5:45 a.m., when she starts thinking about her day and asks God to give her the strength to accomplish her tasks, to watch over her family, to protect her sister and brother, and to help her mother come to the Lord. She worries about her 15-year-old brother, who’s halfway through a two-year Teen Challenge program in New Mexico. He’d gotten drunk one night, driven a car into the side of someone’s house, gone to the hospital, had his stomach pumped and been sent to Teen Challenge. Unlike the local chapter, her brother’s program isn’t free, so her father pays $1,000 per month to keep him there.

Wendy’s been here for 11 months and awaits the day she’ll start her internship, hopefully at the Teen Challenge Ministry Institute in South Gate, where she plans to attend Bible college. She can’t date until her third quarter, but looks forward to learning how to have a healthy relationship with a Christian man. Her last relationship ended when her boyfriend tried to kill her.

Her ex was a paranoid schizophrenic and Wendy thought only someone with a mental illness would understand her. Wendy thinks there are two types of crazy people: One group is composed of those whose brains aren’t functioning properly. The other group is composed of those who are spiritually bankrupt. But some suffer from both deficits.

Her ex tried to strangle her because he thought she was a demon. He still has her cat, Callie; the mention of the cat’s name brings instant tears to Wendy’s eyes. “When no one else was around, she was there for me,” she says. “I hope she can be there for him.”

It was a little over a year ago that Wendy tried to kill herself, twice. The first time, she got really drunk and tried to cut her wrist with a serrated knife, but the blade wouldn’t break the skin. Wendy believes it was divine intervention. The second time, she swallowed a deadly cocktail of pills and landed in a mental institution. She was living with her ex in Anaheim at the time. She remembers little of the institution, including exactly how long she was there. She does remember watching Star Wars and the orderlies not letting her sleep all day. She doesn’t remember her father’s visits or being strapped down for throwing a table and chair across the room. “I was not myself,” she says.

Wendy has been clinically depressed since she was 15 years old, but was not diagnosed with depression and bipolar disorder until years later. She’s also had chronic health problems — migraine headaches, endometriosis and, most notably, kidney stones that have often left her incapacitated — since the age of 9. She started drinking heavily at 14, when she began having flashbacks of being molested by an uncle, but slowed down when she met a boyfriend — who eventually raped her. Her parents didn’t know about the molestation until she was 24, when they also discovered she’d been raped by the boyfriend at the age of 15. Almost 80 percent of females in Teen Challenge of Southern California have suffered from sexual abuse, as have 50 percent of male students.

As radical as she knows it sounds, Wendy admits she believes it’s a spirit that has been attacking her family. She can remember something lurking just outside her window — and maybe it’s the something that caused the sexual abuse and steered her and her younger brother toward depression and drugs, broke up her parents marriage, made her father lose his house and gave her older brother multiple sclerosis.

Wendy’s a consummate performer who’s always been passionate about singing and dancing; she was on Star Search when she was 11 years old. She was in the color guard, chamber singers and theater in high school in Riverside, but she missed so many days of school that she can’t quite fathom how she managed to graduate. She got mad at God because she had several talents to build her up and several health issues to knock her down. In high school, she sold her vicodin, prescribed for the kidney pain, for acid and other drugs. She also met her long-term boyfriend, the one who would become her fiance, not schizophrenic or a rapist, when she was 16.

With her hair pulled back in a ponytail and in a gray sweatshirt with a picture of the little black girl cat from the Warner Brothers’ cartoons and the words “On the Prowl” written on the front, Wendy looks about 12. Her face is line-free, her cheeks like soft little pillows. Her vocabulary is striking in its comprehensiveness. The word “exacerbate” rolls across her tongue as easily as the words “Satan” and “God.” She is unguarded and quick to smile, much like Lenora, whom she counts among her friends, and she is acutely aware of the constant dance between good and evil. For her, the battle is very real.

Wendy believes it’s just tempting fate to immerse oneself in the dark. Metallica’s “Sanitarium” and “Fade to Black” used to be her favorite songs. Not anymore. She avoids bands like Rammstein, Ouija boards — even if they are made by Parker Brothers — and tarot cards, and thinks people like Timothy Leary and Allister Crowley were up to no good. She thinks she’s probably supposed to avoid TV shows like Charmed and Harry Potter films because they focus on magic, but she has a fine eye for entertainment and a strong Christian background. “They say a wolf arrives in sheep’s clothing.”

After high school, Wendy enrolled in the dental hygiene program at Riverside Community College, from which she ultimately dropped out to work full time for the Riverside County Health Department to help her mother pay bills. Her parents had recently been divorced and her mother was devastated.

By then, the MS had left her older brother unable to work. When Wendy was 22, she started using meth with her older brother’s girlfriend; Wendy felt the drug normalized her. She had also begun taking prescription medication for her bipolar disorder. The combination of drugs put Wendy in a crazed state, and that’s when everything started falling apart. “I went weeks without taking a shower or leaving the house,” she says. “I had so much anxiety over just going to the store. I knew I was capable of so much more — that I’m intelligent and outgoing — and that made the depression so much worse.”

Wendy and her ex-fiance became a pair of codependent addicts; the drugs ruined their relationship. She thinks it’s possible they could reunite, but she won’t force it. If God wants them to be together, her ex-fiance will find her phone number. She doesn’t want a relationship that doesn’t have God at its center. “I don’t know if my life means I will be the pastor of a church, but I may be the wife of a pastor, or I may be a prayer leader.”

At Teen Challenge, Wendy and the others sit quietly alone in prayer for 20 minutes each day before prayer group and a silent breakfast. God is in the silence. Wendy believes the ability to focus on peace has been her saving grace. “Knowing that I am in a place where all I can do is focus on me changed me so much,” she says. “People think the answer to all the world’s problems is to give you a pill or put you in group therapy for a while, but when you’re in a situation where you handle it yourself, it’s good for your self esteem.”

After Bible college, she may resume her studies to become a dental hygienist, but she knows that her place, if not on a pulpit, will be somewhere near one. “I want to talk to people to get them to accept Jesus and realize they can do whatever they want,” she says. “It’s weird that I say that because I feel like I’m a radical — but it’s what my spirit believes.”