Under a blistering sun, 9-year-old Lakiya Bradford sits on her front steps in East Baltimore and points a chubby finger at a tiny scar, remembering the day blood poured out of her chest.
In the same part of town, William McGowan, 11, proudly shows friends the bumps in the back of his head -- two dozen embedded shotgun pellets.
Meanwhile, an East Baltimore mother, Cynthia Brown, is haunted by thoughts of the day someone pumped a shotgun blast through a front window and injured her two teen-age daughters.
Another mother, Aleta Harrison, whose 16-year-old son was shot in the leg, says the only fortunate people in her East Baltimore neighborhood are those who move out.
You're more likely to leave in a "paddy wagon or a hearse," she says.
In a year thick with violence, residents of some parts of Baltimore have witnessed more and more youngsters felled by gunfire.
Children have been gunned down outside churches, in the protective arms of family friends, in their own homes.
"God forbid you get in the way," says Officer Richard Long 3rd, who investigates shootings in the Eastern District, site of most of the random gunfire.
The bullets have ripped through tiny bodies and young hearts.
In the aftermath, the innocents and their families struggle with fear and anger, with nightmares and pain.
As of Sept. 7, the Johns Hopkins Children's Center in East Baltimore had treated 20 gunshot victims this year who were under age 16, compared with 21 for all of last year.
The Police Department doesn't keep statistics on numbers of young shooting victims, most of whom are innocent bystanders. But officials can't recall as many young gunshot victims in any other year.
"It's happening more and more," says Long.
Drug trafficking is a big factor, he says. "The drug dealers and their enforcers just don't care. They're indiscriminate and they want to send out a message. All they care about is their drugs and their money."
The first fatality came on the first day of summer when Tezara Horsey, 13, was shot in the head while visiting a friend in an East Baltimore house. She died six days later at Johns Hopkins Hospital. A 14-year-old boy, charged as a juvenile with manslaughter, told police he did not think the .22-caliber revolver was loaded when he pointed it at Tezara.
Next came Tiffany Smith, a pretty 6-year-old with pigtails, who died July 9 from a 9mm blast to her head. A stray bullet hit Tiffany as she played in front of a friend's West Baltimore home. Two men had decided to settle a dispute with guns, police said.
A month later, Shanika Day, 3, was killed when two men opened fire on a crowded street corner in Walbrook Junction. A 19-year-old man who tried to shield the child in his arms was shot five times in the back and killed. Two of the bullets passed through his body and killed Shanika. The child's mother also was injured.
For every child killed in a cross-fire, there are many more young survivors of shootings. Their wounds serve as a sort of badge of courage in an urban battleground. Here are some of their stories:
As her 9-year-old daughter, Lakiya, lay in an operating room, Jennifer Queen said a tearful prayer in the solitude of a restroom at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
"I know I'm not perfect, Lord," the mother implored. "I did things in my life. But please, Lord, let my daughter live."
RF Lakiya Bradford did survive -- with a bullet fragment lodged forev
er in her chest.
Outside her home on North Luzerne Avenue the other day, Lakiya pointed at a scar, the size of a pencil eraser, below her right shoulder.
One night in July Lakiya bought a snowball for 60 cents outside a church two blocks from home. She nearly paid with her life.
A stray bullet ripped through her chest and came to rest an inch from her heart. Lakiya remembers her friends laughing when she said it was a bee sting.
"Something went in my chest," Lakiya recalls. "I fell on the ground and it hurt to breathe or talk. People were laughing at me because I thought it was a bee."
Lakiya cried all the way home and a neighbor drove her to Johns Hopkins Hospital. Jennifer Queen thought her daughter was injured by a BB gun. "The hole was so tiny," Queen says.
The mother said a prayer when she heard a doctor say that Lakiya had a bullet wound.
"When she was in the operating room, I didn't know if she was dead or alive," says Queen. "The doctor told me the bullet was an inch from her heart. Every day I'm thankful she's alive."
The girl was out of the hospital in a week. And a few days later she was back out playing with friends. But she stays in front of the house; Lakiya and her sisters are afraid to walk to the snowball stand.
In this East Baltimore neighborhood, ravaged by drugs and controlled by guns, children grow up fast, residents say.
Jennifer Queen, 36, is always wary. She lives here with her six children, ranging from 2 to 17 years. "Six kids and no man around," she says. "I'm always looking back."
"I've already sat down with the kids and told them that we're not going to be here forever," says Queen, her 2-year-old daughter in her arms. "My kids know that you're here today and gone tomorrow. They know they have to do the right thing in life."
Many parents, witnesses to the senseless shootings of children caught in a seemingly endless hail of gunfire, say fear is constant.
"I'm puzzled," Queen says. "I'm insecure. I'm paranoid. The only thing you can do is ask God to guide you. You just hope and pray that they stop killing our children. It makes you think what life is going to be like for our children if they get to grow old."
In the hospital, Lakiya's room was filled with cards, flowers and stuffed animals sent by strangers. A city firefighter visited Lakiya in the hospital and gave her a gold bumblebee.
The tiny scar on Lakiya's chest opens memories of the events of July 23.
"It still hurts when I push on it," she says. "Sometimes I have trouble breathing."
Something exploded behind him. It felt as if his head had burst into flames, says 11-year-old William McGowan.
As he was leaving a friend's house, a 14-year-old boy allegedly pumped a shotgun blast into the back of his head.
William was thrown onto the pavement in the 1200 block of
Wilcox St. A spray of shotgun pellets penetrated his skull and almost stole his life.
"It felt like my head was on fire," says William, barefoot and shirtless in his Biddle Street home on a hot day recently.
"I thought I was gonna die."
William turns, his hair cropped in a stylish fade, to show the
bumps -- more than two dozen shotgun pellets still in his head.
One pellet lodged near his spine and nearly paralyzed him. For now, doctors have decided to leave the fragments in his body.
A neighbor rushed to tell Cheryl Brown that one of her sons had been shot. "I thought one of the big kids hurt him because he wouldn't sell drugs for them," Brown says.
"I didn't know how I was going to deal with it if he passed away."
Police said children were playing with a shotgun June 1 when it discharged and hit William. The 14-year-old, his name not released because of his age, was charged as a juvenile with reckless endangerment. He was released to the custody of his family. The shotgun belonged to the older boy's mother, police ++ said.
William spent 17 days at Johns Hopkins Hospital. The injuries caused nerve damage; William couldn't move his left side.
"I doubted that he would ever walk again," Brown says.
A regimen of physical therapy at the Kennedy Institute has helped bring back his strength. But the near-tragedy of three months ago would not keep a child home. Relatives say William regularly takes to the streets, playing basketball and hanging out with friends into the evening hours.
The boy, despite frequent nightmares about the shooting, seems undaunted by it all. He shrugs no when asked whether the brush with death has affected him in any way.
William proudly shows curious friends his scars, which he wears like a badge of courage. He doesn't mind showing off the scars, he says, but prefers not talking about it.
"I'm more frightened than he is," his mother says.
Brown, 28, now lives with flashbacks: a splash of light hitting William's head, her son lying in a hospital bed. She worries about her three sons -- ages 8, 9, and 11. She wants to move but doesn't know where to go.
"This is too much," she says. "You sit on the steps and you have to run in the house when you hear the shots."
The fear is not lost on William's grandmother, 63-year-old MamieGoines.
"Only the innocents are getting hurt," she says, "and nothing happens to the ones who deserve it."
Cynthia Brown can't forget the puzzled expression on the face of her 14-year-old daughter, Shantee.
"She said, 'Oh my God, Mommy, I got shot! I got shot!' " Brown recalls.
"When I saw the blood coming out of her I thought this is bad," she says. "Then I saw my oldest daughter had blood everywhere."
Shantee was with a group of boys the night of March 16. Her friends had argued earlier with another group of boys. The police said the other group returned that evening with a shotgun and fired through a window at Shantee's home on Bond Street.
"I kept holding my head and I seen all this blood," says Shantee, pushing back hair to show where the pellets hit. "It happened so quick."
Shantee's 19-year-old sister, Rolanda Thorne, was struck in the chest. She was admitted to Johns Hopkins Hospital overnight. Thorne still has pellets in her chest.
Shantee was treated the same day and released. The pellets were removed three weeks ago from her forehead and under her right eye. She has a few small scars.
The blast left 10 holes in a wall in Cynthia Brown's living room. "I could have two dead children," she says.
And the blast left Shantee, a ninth-grader at Lake Clifton High School, with a case of "bad nerves." She jumps at loud sounds. "I get nervous all the time," she says.
"It bothers me but I try not to think about it too much," she says. "Everybody asks me why my face looks like that. I don't say anything."
When a 15-year-old classmate accidentally shot himself while sitting in class last week, an upset Shantee called her mother and went home.
Cynthia Brown has one question: "Where do teen-agers get these guns? The dope has a lot to do with it."
"Access to a gun for a young person is like going to McDonald's for a hamburger."
"You get out of this neighborhood in one of three ways," Aleta Harrison says. "If you're fortunate, you have the money to move. But you're more likely to go in a paddy wagon or a hearse."
Three months ago, her 16-year-old son, Antonio Davis, was shot in the leg near his girlfriend's East Baltimore home. The police said the bullet was intended for someone else.
Antonio remembers a burst of semiautomatic gunfire. He was hit. He fell down. He got up and ran for his life.
"I was scared to come outside for a while," he says. "You don't stop thinking about it."
Harrison, 37, fears that any of her four children or four grandchildren could be gunned down.
Surrounded by youngsters on the steps of her Patterson Park Avenue rowhouse, Harrison recites the first names of children cut down by bullets in the city this summer. It is like naming her own children.
"All of them touch home," she says. "For anyone who has a child, it touches home."
A sense of despair emerges in conversations with Harrison and other residents of this block of mostly boarded-up homes near North Avenue.
"You live knowing your kids could be shot any time," Harrison says. "Nightly, you hear the shots: Pop, pop, pop, pop! It makes me wish I had some kind of shelter for my kids. But I don't. I hate guns and I hate drugs with a passion."