"It was weird, but for a while, I didn't want to be around any teenagers anymore," their mother said.
Marquis was too young to remember his older brother and sister, but Charles had vivid memories of Rodney taking him to the circus, of Volante pouring his milk. After the slayings, Charles would hear an occasional gunshot outside and say, matter-of-factly, "Somebody's dying."
"I have to protect the ones I have left," says Shanda Smith, with sons Charles, left, and Marquis, who were 4 and 2 when their siblings were killed.
(Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
"I would say, 'Child, that doesn't necessarily mean somebody's dying,' " Smith said, "and he would look at me real hard -- he was 4 years old! -- and say, 'Ma, I know what gunshots are.' "
Charles, at 15, is tall and lean, a football player like Rodney, but at Dunbar Senior High School. He is "pickier" than Marquis, his mother said, more inclined to challenge things. Marquis is round-faced and good-natured, a tuba player in the Shaw Junior High School band. "The baby's bigger than everybody," Smith said about her youngest.
After the shootings, the family moved from Southeast to a neighborhood near Eighth and H streets NE, hoping it might be safer, Smith said. "But I just jumped right back into the frying pan."
Her new neighborhood, she soon discovered, was the home of Murder Inc., a violent drug gang linked to a long string of homicides. On the way to the boys' schools, she counted three drug markets, she said. Her appeal to school officials to allow the boys to transfer to schools that were along a safer route, but in a different district, fell on deaf ears, she said.
She was scared to walk by herself when it was dark. When Charles got older and taller, he would wake up before dawn to accompany her to the bus stop when she had to leave early for a job in a far-off suburb. Nervously, she would watch him sprint back toward home. She once asked him whether he was frightened, and he said no.
Sometimes, as the boys grew older, Smith was sure her desperation was showing. She begged them "to stick together" -- it seemed safer, the brothers looking out for each other after school. "Come straight home," was her warning whenever they went to the nearby Sherwood Recreation Center to play basketball. As they made new friends, she eyed them with suspicion.
"I'll tell Charles, 'You have Marquis -- you should just hang out with Marquis,' " she said. "Because I don't trust anybody. Because most of these killings now are kids that have parents at home -- kids, they went to school together, they know one another."
She wonders how much pain her sons are feeling, how much fear they push back. She got an inkling two years ago when Charles wrote a poem, "I Don't Want to Die -- I Want to Live," that he ended up reading at church services and youth violence meetings until he became embarrassed about it and grumbled that he should be paid. In it, he says he does not want to die like his siblings, "murdered on the streets in cold blood."
"I don't want to die, for who would carry out the trash? It is my duty. I am the little man around the house," he recited on a recent evening, after his mother had begged him. "I don't want to die, for who will protect my family?. . . . "
Shanda Smith always cries when she hears it, cries for him and his brother and "the big kids" she lost. The boys are silent for a moment. But then their teenage world calls them again. Basketball game at Sherwood, can't they go? It is not that late.
Shanda Smith frowned, wishing that they were little boys again, wishing that they were already safely grown up and on their way. "Come straight home," she called as they hurried out the door. "Don't y'all dillydally out there. I mean it."