T WAS EVENING. Lorraine Graves stood on her front porch and nervously glanced up and down the street.

She feared that her former boyfriend lurked nearby, ready to attack her.

She knew that he was angry at her for filing a protection-from-abuse order against him in Family Court just a day earlier.

She had been dating him for two months when he choked her and broke her nose after he refused to leave her house.

A judge gave her a temporary stay-away order, but when she tried to serve her ex-boyfriend with the order and a summons to come to court for a hearing, he became enraged. He wasn't home when she showed up with the papers. His mother told him she had stopped by with two police officers.

Graves had asked the officers to help her serve the papers because she was afraid to do the task alone. That set him off. How dare she bring the cops to his "mama's house," he fumed in phone messages left at her house while she was at work at a Yeadon day-care center. He also threatened, "I'm gonna do what I gotta do."

Now she couldn't help thinking he was going to kill her, and she still had to confront him with the papers.

This is not working for me. I can't stay here. Not the way he's talking, she thought as she stood outside her West Philly rowhouse.

Forget the paperwork. For now she needed to find a place to stay the night. But where?

She called her sister, who said she was on her way to an evening Bible study at her church. "I'll go with you," Graves quickly told her sister.

Graves packed a few things in a bag. Some clean clothes, a toothbrush, a hairbrush. Her sister picked up Graves and her two youngest children, ages 10 and 12, and drove them to the First Baptist Church of Paschall, at 71st Street and Woodland Avenue, in Southwest Philly. Meanwhile, her oldest daughter, 18, went to stay with Graves' mother, who lived in a residential home for seniors.

Standing in the dark, her sunglasses perched atop her head, Graves leaned against a car parked outside the church and touched her face gingerly.

"It's still like really sore," she said.

She was wounded emotionally, too. She was accustomed to speaking her mind - loudly, sometimes. Suddenly, she felt vulnerable, ashamed, weaker somehow.

"I couldn't breathe," she said. "He was strangling me. He was

really powerful around my neck."

She put her hands around her throat. In her mind, she was back in her bedroom, reliving the moment. "I could be dead . . . if I didn't fight him off."

It was 8:45 p.m. Graves pulled out a list of homeless shelters she'd been given at Family Court. But she couldn't start calling them until after 9 p.m. because she had used up her cell-phone minutes.

"I don't know where I'm going to go," she said. "I can't be living like this."

After Bible study, the kids sat on a low concrete wall along the church's sidewalk in short-sleeve shirts and jeans, shivering and yawning while their mom called shelters. Although they'd had dinner, they complained that they were hungry.

Some shelter numbers didn't work. Others had an answering machine on, or left Graves on hold. Finally, she found one in Center City with open beds. Her sister offered to drive them.

They stood at the shelter's front desk. Graves' kids complained about the people staring at them. They didn't want to be there. Graves' sister reluctantly offered to take them home with her. Her sister felt conflicted: On one hand, her sister had gotten herself into this mess; on the other, Graves was her blood.

Graves had made mistakes in life, particularly when it came to men. She was a single mother of three, each fathered by a different man, none of whom really wanted to be bothered with parenthood. Only her oldest daughter's dad ever paid child support, she said.

But she was used to taking care of herself. Savvy and mouthy, Graves grew up in West Philadelphia, the youngest of four kids. Her father had a drinking problem, so her mother shouldered most of the family burdens, financial and otherwise. As a teen, she smoked marijuana and picked fistfights with other girls, she said.

She graduated from Overbrook High School in 1987 - an accomplishment she's so proud of that she displays her diploma on a metal shelf in her house. She worked at McDonald's all through high school.

At 21, she had her first child. She supported herself doing people's hair and living off welfare.

Graves admitted that her relationship with her sister was complicated, even strained at times, partly because they're so different. Graves described her sister as book-smart, guarded, and annoyingly preachy at times, while she was more street-smart and a bit devil-may-care. Graves was never bashful about hitting up friends and relatives for favors, like loaning her a few bucks or giving her a lift somewhere.

Graves' sister let them stay with her - for one night. They'd have to find someplace else to sleep after that.

What if he tries to break in?

On Thursday morning, two days after filing for a protection order, Graves traveled back to Center City with her two kids. It took all day to get into a homeless shelter. She missed work. Her kids missed school. While waiting to get settled at a shelter, Graves used her cell phone to call the school. She explained to teachers why her kids weren't there.

She had a lot of time to think. What if he tries to break into my house? All the windows are locked . . . except one.

She quickly dialed her 18-year-old daughter and asked if she would stop by the house and remove the air-conditioning unit from the first-floor window.

Their first night in the shelter was miserable, mostly because her 12-year-old son didn't want to be there. He refused to eat the chicken with gravy and string beans the shelter served for dinner.

"It looked nasty to me," the boy said with a shrug.

Graves didn't know they needed to bring their own bed linens and soap. Fortunately, her older daughter stopped by with their pillows and some toiletries.

"I'm putting my kids in a real bad situation, and he still gets to go home and sleep in his bed tonight," she said bitterly of her ex-boyfriend.

Graves' 10-year-old daughter begged to sleep in the same bed with her. Her son didn't want to wash up alongside strangers in the bathroom. "I don't want somebody peeking at me," he told his mom.

On Friday morning, the shelter gave Graves subway tokens for her kids to get to school. But they didn't know how to get there from Center City. So Graves went with them.

The day turned out to be among the longest and most draining in her life. Up against the clock, she had just three days left to serve her ex-boyfriend with the papers before their Monday-morning court hearing.

But first she needed to go to the doctor's office near her home. She had a midmorning appointment. The doctor wanted to examine her broken nose. She took a bus to the Salzman Medical Group, on Lansdowne Avenue near 59th Street.

Her nose felt stuffed up, but every time she blew it, blood trickled out.

" 'You're not letting it heal if you are going to keep blowing it,' " she said the doctor told her.

She left with a prescription for 800-mg tablets of Motrin, but had no time to fill it.

She stopped at her home to plug her answering machine back in: She wanted to know if he was still calling her house.

The place was cluttered, yet homey. Trash bags filled with laundry sat on the floor. A checkerboard was on the coffee table, next to piles of mail and a dusty stack of JET magazines. A poster of the Lord's Prayer hung on the wall. She paid the Philadelphia Housing Authority $87 a month to live here. She took one last look around.

"I've never been put out of my home," she said. "I don't even like to spend the night out. Just being home, just having a home, is so nice."

The afternoon was rainy and gray. Still wearing sunglasses, she headed for the police district closest to the Coca-Cola bottling plant, determined to track down her ex-boyfriend and serve him with the papers. He had just started working at the plant as a forklift operator, but Graves wasn't sure what time his shift began.

At 12:15 p.m., Graves arrived at 3901 Whitaker Ave., a long, brick building housing both the 24th and 25th Police Districts.

She had a little more than an hour to serve him with the papers and get to work by 1:30 p.m.

"I'm trying to serve some papers," Graves said through a hole in the Plexiglas to a female officer seated at the front desk of the 25th District.

"What location?" the officer asked.

"Coca-Cola," Graves said.

"What part?" the officer said.

Sensing Graves' confusion, the officer explained that half of the Coca-Cola plant is in the 25th District, the other in the 24th.

Graves had no idea. "He operates a forklift," she said.

"That's on the other side," the officer said, pointing to the front desk of the 24th District at the opposite end of the hall.

The officer there instructed Graves to take a seat and wait for a squad car to take her over to Coca-Cola. Then her cell phone rang. It was her sister: Their 72-year-old mother had been taken to the hospital with chest pain.

"I need to get to work, and now I'm concerned about my mom," Graves said, sighing heavily. "Oh, boy! Oh, boy! It's crazy."

More time passed. "Can they hurry up? I'm going to be late for work!" she yelled.

The cop explained that for safety reasons, department policy required two officers to take her to Coca-Cola, and right now only one was free.

"Sometimes people, they get violent," the cop explained.

"And I think he will," Graves replied.

An hour and a half later, officers Ed Ledford and Frank Luca appeared. She slid into the back seat of their squad car.

"You can stay in the car the whole time and you can just give us a nod that it's him," Luca advised her.

In less than a minute, they arrived at Coca-Cola on East Erie Avenue, off G Street. She waited in the police car. Ledford and Luca went inside.

Ten minutes later, the officers exited Coca-Cola's glass doors, still carrying the papers. He wasn't there. His shift didn't start until 7 p.m., they explained.

This kind of thing happens a lot, Ledford offered.

"A lot of times they are not there or they won't answer the door," said Ledford, who has been on the force five years and helps victims serve papers about twice a week.

Graves was visibly vexed. Luca tried to ease her mind. This was the second try. Often, a judge will consider the papers served after three unsuccessful attempts, with the idea that the guy was ducking her, Luca said.

"Make sure you try one more time before Monday," Luca said. "You can't be expected to go all over the city looking for him."

She had just 10 minutes to get to work. She wasn't going to make it. She dialed the day-care center and explained why she'd be a little late.

She felt overwhelmed.

"I need support. I just feel like I don't have it. I don't have somebody who can say, 'Don't be scared.' So I'm not going it alone. Me, by myself, going to court, and he could be outside just sitting there waiting for me," she said. "I want to stop thinking like that."

The third attempt

The day-care center, with its brightly colored walls adorned with kid artwork, seemed more like a respite than work.

In the middle of the room, babies slept soundly in cribs. Toddlers sat around a child-size table with spillproof cups.

She left work. Her plan was to go directly to the 24th Police District. She told her kids to go to a neighbor's house after school. She'd pick them up later to go to the shelter. She called the neighbor to check on them. She felt sick when the neighbor said he hadn't seen her 12-year-old son.

In a panic, she switched gears. She had to go find him. From the day-care center, she took a bus, then a train, then another bus to her home.

It was 6:45 p.m. and already dark. Her son wasn't home. Half-annoyed, half-frightened, she started knocking on doors in the neighborhood. Thirty minutes later she found him hanging out with friends on the street. She tried to convince him to come with her to the police station, but he refused.

Lately, her son had been "giving me a hard way to go," Graves said. All back talk and tough talk, the boy was skipping school, not listening, and generally angry that his father didn't seem to want anything to do with him. He doesn't warm to strangers easily, except when asked about his favorite Cartoon Network TV show, "Dragon Ball Z." He can bubble on and on about the show, and you realize he's still just a kid.

Graves took her 10-year-old daughter to the police station.

"Mom, do you know how to get back to our house from here?" the daughter asked in the parking lot.

"Of course," she replied.

Graves rapped on the Plexiglas window to get the officer's attention.

"This is my third attempt to serve," she said.

"Have a seat," said the officer. "It's going to take a while."

Graves and her daughter sat on a bench near the water fountain. With big, brown eyes and long eyelashes, the thin girl wearing silver hoop earrings had the look of a Benetton model. She stroked her mom's hair.

"You got little bald spots, Mom," she said.

"I know. I worry a lot. Stress," she said. "My neck hurts."

The girl stood up and examined her mom's neck.

"That's where his hands were at: You can still see his hands on there. His fingerprints are still on here," the girl observed.

"C'mon, people! I am really getting tired," Graves shouted about 9:30 p.m.

Graves said she was worried about not getting back to the shelter by the 12:30 a.m. curfew.

An officer appeared. "Are you the one going to Coca-Cola? We got a lot of things going on tonight. You might want to come back tomorrow morning."

No, she'd wait, she said.

Fidgety and bored, her daughter decided to step outside. She stood there and watched a plastic bag blowing in the wind. Under a flapping American flag, the girl began to dance, singing "Crank Dat Soldier Boy," by rapper Soulja Boy. Then she sat down on the concrete steps, pensive.

"This is our first time going to a shelter and walking around with our stuff in bags - embarrassed," the girl said. "It's scary."

She was asleep the night her mom's male friend came over drunk. She awoke to her mom's screams. Then her mom ran into the girl's bedroom.

"Her nose was bleeding and she was crying and I didn't know what was wrong," the girl recalled. "My mom came in the back room. She thought he was going to come back and finish her off but he didn't."

The girl heard him leave, cursing and threatening to have their gas and electricity cut off. He said he was glad he had busted her mother's nose.

"He said, 'You ain't going to look too good tomorrow. You're going to look even uglier,' " the girl said. "He said, 'You watch, do something again and I'm going to beat you worse. Watch what's going to happen tomorrow.' "

She talked with her fourth-grade teacher about it the day after she missed school.

"I was crying because of the situation we've been through," she said. "My teacher said, 'I know it's hard.' "

A judge's decision

At 10 p.m., the police were ready to go to Coca-Cola. Graves and her daughter waited in the car while two officers went inside. Graves leaned back against the seat and closed her eyes. Her daughter yammered on about how much her teacher loves to drink Coke.

Five minutes later, the officers reappeared. One of them handed a signed affidavit to Graves - proof that her ex-boyfriend had been informed of Monday's court date.

"Here you go, Miss. It's a done deal. Sorry you had to wait so long," the officer said.

Graves was quiet for a moment.

"I feel a little bit better," Graves said. "I just got to take some Tylenol or something and lay down."

Then it hit her. "He's probably in there trippin'," she said while looking back at the Coca-Cola plant.

She called her neighbor to talk with her son.

"Want McDonald's?" she asked, hoping to bribe him into going back to the shelter.

The rain was coming down hard. Her son sat on the front porch, waiting. It was nearly 11 p.m.

"Why'd you leave me like this?" he said, all petulance and attitude.

"You're the one who wanted to stay," she said.

Her daughter went inside. She wanted her slippers for the shelter.

They slept at the shelter through the weekend. For the first time in a while, Graves went to church on Sunday.

On Monday morning, she washed up at the shelter and took her kids to school. Then she rode the subway from West Philly back to Center City. She arrived at Family Court on 11th Street at 9 a.m. She was petrified. She went through the metal detectors and took the elevator to the second floor. She peeked into the courtroom waiting area but didn't see him.

She decided not to go in. Instead she walked up to a hulk of a man standing in the hallway. She had never met him but figured he could protect her. She chatted him up, as if he was an old friend.

She waited outside the courtroom all morning. Her ex-boyfriend never showed. She won her case by default. The judge signed her final protection order without a hearing.

The order says he must stay away from her for three years. He can't call her at home or at work or harass her in any way. If he does, a judge could find him guilty of violating the order and could sentence him to up to six months in jail and/or a maximum $1,000 fine.

After leaving Family Court, Graves was somewhat stunned to realize she didn't feel safer. Actually, she feared him more because he'd flouted the court's authority, she said.

"It don't feel right, because he probably feels like, 'They don't got me,' " she said. "I'm dealing with a nut. A nut. I don't want to keep running. I don't want to live like this. I'm going to get me a gun."