Three-year-old Meg Ruopp isn't one of them.

Meg drops her mother's hand when she catches sight of Brannock in a crowded hallway as parents and children tour the school on Cheverly Road north of Towson. The child motions for Brannock to pick her up, and without hesitating, starts to crawl into Brannock's lap.

Meg's mother, Maureen van Stone, says the child, whom Brannock taught last year at a Towson preschool, has seen Brannock a few times since the bombing. The bandaged leg and wheelchair don't faze the little girl.

"She's been more concerned about [Brannock's] haircut, who polished her fingernails and toenails, her new bracelets," van Stone says. Meg is "totally connected to her and so she sees completely past the injuries."

From the Boston hospital, Brannock sent a photo of her hair in Princess Leia-style buns to Meg — recalling the way Brannock would style the girl's golden brown ringlets. The message was typical of Brannock, who often sends quick updates to the parents of her preschool students, such as a photo during nap time.

"She's a force of spirit for all of us, and hope. We have a very close relationship with Ms. Brannock," van Stone says, echoing a sentiment expressed by parents throughout the day.

Many of the families at the orientation knew Brannock when she taught at Trinity Episcopal Children's Center in Towson. She and several other teachers from Trinity moved to Davenport, which shares a single-story brick building with ChurchONE, a nondenominational Christian church pastored by Ed DeYoung.

Just as the church and school brought life to a building that sat empty for years, DeYoung says, he can see God working through Brannock.

"I think God redeems all things," DeYoung says. "God is redeeming his creation and humanity. That's the macro story.

"The micro story is the story of Erika and how God uses a really difficult and challenging and evil thing like that and brings redemption and restoration, and that enlivens the community and culture."

Brannock expects to teach full time at the preschool when she completes her Towson University graduate degree in early childhood education, which was delayed by her recovery. She expects to finish in May after a semester of student teaching at a local public school.

But first, Brannock, Downing and Nicole and Michael Gross plan to participate in Saturday's running festival in Charlotte, N.C., where the Grosses live. Downing is scheduled to run the half-marathon and Michael Gross is expected to push Brannock in her wheelchair as he runs a 5K. Nicole Gross, whose injuries still prevent her from running, will meet them at the end of the race.

The four will cross the finish line, together.

'Criss-cross applesauce'

Brannock tells Mark Hopkins, the CEO of a Linthicum prostethics supplier, that the kids at school want to know whether she'll be able to sit on the carpet with them, "criss-cross applesauce" style. It's early October, and she's at Dankmeyer Inc. for the final fitting before she gets to take her new prosthetic leg home

The leg, manufactured by a German company, Ottobock, will allow her to jog, ride a bike or sit cross-legged on the floor with preschoolers.

Brannock is standing on a ramp about to take her first steps. She's wearing black athletic shorts, a purple Ravens T-shirt, and the New Balance athletic shoes, her first pair of shoes since the bombing.

She's uncharacteristically quiet and looks down at her feet.

Her mother is texting Nicole Gross. Her father, visiting from Florida, isn't saying a word. Her aunt and uncle, Debbie and Ronnie Atkinson of Laurel, point their cellphone cameras toward her.

A computer synchronized to the prosthetic leg is measuring the horizontal force and the pressure from Brannock's weight on the knee and foot.

The room is silent. Brannock slowly takes a step. Then another. She's leaning heavily on the poles to her left and right.

She walks to the end of the ramp and turns around. She walks back to her wheelchair and sits down. She's crying.

She's come a long way in six months — through grueling medical treatments, nightmares and anxiety. Little by little, she is putting the pieces of her life back together, moving from victim to survivor.

She looks over at her mother and smiles. And exhales.

"Does this call for another glass of wine?" her uncle asks her.

"Yes, two," Brannock says.

She smiles and laughs again.

ywenger@baltsun.com

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