Cody Mulligan was listening.
The 14-year-old heard the crack of the gunshot firing at the closest target, 7 yards away. He caught the sound of the bullet as it sliced through the air and lodged in the side of the low ridge, behind two rows of bright yellow, rectangular signs. He didn't need to look to know what had happened.
"You missed," he told his stepfather. "I can hear a lot of dirt flying."
It was a cloudless, breezy Sunday afternoon in October at the outdoor Baltimore County Game & Fish Rifle Range on Northwind Road in Baltimore, and Cody was waiting for his turn to shoot. It would be one of the last few times the Dundalk resident could practice before the Nov. 15-16 Junior Deer Hunt Days, an annual state-sponsored, two-day event that allows minors to hunt on private and designated public grounds.
Cody already had met the requirements for participation: He passed a hunter-safety course in August and received his hunting license in October. In that way, he is like most of his fellow youth hunters. But the way in which Cody is unlike them, and so many other people, is what makes his hunting trips so extraordinary: He is blind.
No 'easy blow'
Cody wasn't born without his sight. When the teenager was younger, he had learned to read the letters of the alphabet and he could differentiate among the colors of the rainbow.
Then things changed, said his mother, Sarah Hessler.
"He would overreach for things that were right in front of him," she said. "That was pre-K at the time, and his teacher mentioned he was having vision problems."
Concerned, Hessler rushed her son to see a doctor, who returned with a diagnosis: juvenile Batten disease, a rare neurodegenerative disorder that causes affected individuals to lose first their vision, then their acquired developmental skills, motor abilities and cognition.
Cody was 4, and within a year, he had lost his sight.
It was unavoidable. Although Batten affects about 1 in 100,000 individuals worldwide, both Hessler and her ex-husband, Cody's biological father, had carried the recessive gene and passed it along.
"But Cody, he's done well with it. He's resilient," Hessler said. "It was a lot harder for us as parents. … It wasn't an easy blow."
Cody said he can't tell the difference between colors but is able to perceive light. He can, for instance, tell whether the sun is up outside or whether a room's lights are on. He has memorized the layout of his house's interior and exterior, but at school and elsewhere, he uses a 52-inch folding cane to help detect nearby objects and get around.
Cody regularly sees a pediatrician and a neurologist, who track the progression of the disorder, Hessler said. It hasn't affected him quite as harshly as others his age; Cody has retained most of his cognitive abilities, she noted.
He can speak coherently and walk properly. He's bright. He's a 10th-grade environmental-studies magnet student at Sparrows Point, where he is on the wrestling team.
Cody is a lot like any other kid, Hessler said. There was a long pause before she spoke again.
"It's going to get a lot worse."
One by one, Cody removed each component from its compartment and assembled the Ruger Super Redhawk 44M at the outdoors range that Sunday afternoon. He held the gun steady and checked to see whether the safety was on before he loaded the bullets.
"All ready?" asked Jay Hessler, his stepfather. Cody nodded.
With Jay's hand placed gently on his back, Cody adjusted his aim as he listened to his stepfather's instructions, his finger still outside the trigger guard as he waited for the go-ahead. Jay gave it: "Now."
Cody's first hunting trip was three years ago, with his childhood friend, Wayne. The two boys, then 11 and 12, went squirrel hunting, and even though the younger Cody didn't shoot anything, he liked it enough to ask Jay, who also hunts, to help him get a license.
Jay said yes. The sudden interest in hunting wasn't a surprise; Cody always had loved the outdoors, his parents said. Cody played adaptive soccer and baseball growing up, and he often went fishing and dirt-bike riding, too.
"He just wanted to do it all on his own," Jay said. "He pushed me to figure out how to make it happen for him."
Blind hunters are rare but not unheard of, said Pete Jayne, who has worked for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources for 32 years. In 2000, then-13-year-old Danielle Shives, who lost her vision after a brain tumor, also passed a state hunter-safety course and was licensed.
Jayne, however, had not heard of a hunter with Batten disease. Neither had Margie Frazier, executive director of Batten Disease Support and Research Association, the disorder's largest advocacy group in North America.
But Cody's disability did not mean his application for a hunting license was any different. He still had to follow the standard procedure: Complete the hunter-safety course, scoring at least 80 percent on the written test, and pass the field exam. Once he did, he would be eligible to pay the $10.50 fee for a junior hunting license.
Passing the test
Eugene "Butch" Janeczek's sister had a neighbor whose son was blind. One day, Janeczek saw the boy ride his bike, and he was befuddled, not knowing that such a thing was possible. It turned out that the boy could sense the fence and rely on the sounds he heard.
"That made me understand that with Cody, his senses are more sensitive in the hearing," said Janeczek, head instructor at the Baltimore County Game & Fish Protective Association, or BCGF, where Cody took his hunter-safety course.
As he sat at the head of a BCGF table in October, Cody held his hands in his lap, eyes cast toward the wooden surface, and listened to his mother and stepfather speak. When it was his turn, he needed a bit of coaxing from his parents before he opened up. Even then, his answers were brief.
"It's a lot," Jay Hessler said. "And not being able to see what's going on and take other people's words for granted, he's got to put lots of faith and trust in other people."
To help Cody prepare for his test in August, Sarah Hessler would read aloud passages of the hunter-safety course textbook to her son. On test day, Cody recited the information to his proctor, who recorded his 50 answers on a paper copy.
Each year, 180 to 200 people pass the BCGF class, but just seven to nine manage a perfect score. Cody was one of them.
"He's like a sponge," Sarah said. "He absorbed it all."
Not everyone who scores well on the written test passes, however. Recently, the BCGF failed a 10-year-old girl because she wasn't able to hold a gun safely.
But Cody's strong performance on the field test reassured the testers, said Terry Crawford, a BCGF board member. They would not have passed Cody if they had not been confident in his ability to handle a gun safely, he said.
"We promote safety. Butch is a part of that. We're a stickler for that, and we harp on that," Crawford said.
Janeczek added: "One of the life lessons taught to me years ago was: 'Sorry' will not get a bullet back."
A 'careful' approach
Maryland law allows people with disabilities, including vision impairment, to hunt from vehicles, Jayne said. It also permits the use of laser sights, which project a dot of light onto the target to allow the mentor in charge — in Cody's case, Jay Hessler — to track the gun's aim.
Dr. Judith Goldstein, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins Wilmer Eye Institute who studies low vision and vision impairment, said the recoil of a gun presents some safety concerns for a sight-and-guide approach. But laser sights make the process safer for the mentor because "a lot of the cues are verbal," she said.
Mentors "don't have to be quite right over the shoulder; they can be slightly to the side," said Goldstein, who is not Cody's doctor. "And the hunters themselves feel a bit more independent, as they feel like they're able to be aiming more themselves."
This is important, she said, because it's not just about shooting a gun.
"I often don't have people coming to me about hunting who have never hunted before, or whose family doesn't hunt," she said. "So it's really about a culture, an activity that people are familiar with and want to maintain. And so what we want to do is make sure people are able to engage in these activities, so their quality of life, from their family perspective and social perspective, is good."
Frazier, the BDSRA executive director, said she applauds families like Cody's "who want to make sure their children have opportunities of all kinds."
But she noted that her greatest concern is with the way Batten disease will manifest when Cody loses some of his cognitive and motor skills, and she recommends that children with the disorder not be left alone with a gun.
"The parents and guardians should be very, very careful," said Frazier, a social worker by training who has worked with people with disabilities for more than 20 years. "We have to be very, very mindful about sight impairment and dementia and having anything of a fatal nature close to a child."
It all boils down to safe habits, Goldstein said. Operating a gun requires sufficient training, even for those fully sighted. "A visually impaired person is no different," she said. "They need to know how to use that gun properly."
Said Jayne: "At a very distant level, it seems illogical to allow a blind person to hunt. But if you understand how this is being done and the challenge to the young man and the responsibility of the mentor, it can be … a real thrill for him to be able to practice it safely and ethically."
A dream not deferred
During the Junior Deer Hunt Days, Cody followed his stepfather to Crawford's private farm for a chance to catch a deer. He did not bring one home; two of the deer he spotted were too far away, and a third was too small.
He went to Green Ridge State Forest earlier this month but also returned empty-handed. He had taken one shot and missed.
Allowing Cody to hunt is not necessarily about catching a deer, though; it's about helping him to realize his dreams, his mother said. Cody's next hunting trip will be in January.
"We are always proud of his goals and achievements," she wrote in a message, "and we hope that this story will inspire others with a disability to go after and achieve their goals no matter what."