The early morning tragedy comes back to Eugene C. Prowant Jr. and his wife Pamela each time their 2-year-old son looks at his 26-year-old mother, who is forever bound to a wheelchair, and asks whether she will walk again.

The horror of Nov. 1 comes back each time the Prowants talk about taking custody of her two children from a previous marriage.

That morning, about 3:30 a.m., a masked intruder wearing a dark-colored martial arts outfit awakened the Prowants in their apartment near Laurel and critically shot each of them as they sat up in bed. Their son, who had been sleeping between them, was slightly bruised.

The assailant shot Eugene Prowant, 30, three times, twice in the abdomen and once in the left shoulder; Pamela Prowant was shot twice in the abdomen and her right wrist was slashed, requiring a dozen stitches. One of the bullets damaged her spine, paralyzing her.

Fifteen weeks later, Pamela Prowant is confined to a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down. Eugene Prowant, who had worked in the roofing business, has been unable to return to work. They moved out of their old apartment, a unit the couple had waited to get for half a year because its windows allowed them to watch their son on the complex's playground.

Since January, home for the Prowants has been a motel and a family shelter in Howard County. They finally moved in with Eugene Prowant's parents, a decision that instantly doubled the number of occupants in the three-bedroom home in Laurel near I-95.

Pamela Prowant asks only one question about the shooting, over and over and over again: "Why?"

The shootings initially baffled Prince George's County police. The intruder broke into the Prowants' first-floor apartment through a sliding-glass door, but nothing was taken. The armed intruder fled the apartment without touching expensive stereo equipment, Pamela Prowant's wallet or $600 in cash that Eugene Prowant had left in plain sight in their bedroom.

"If he had just reached his arm out from where he was standing when he shot me, he could have taken the money," Eugene Prowant said.

After interviewing dozens of neighbors and relatives, police developed a motive and a suspect.

James Wallace Watson III, Pamela Prowant's ex-husband, was charged with three counts of attempted murder in connection with the shooting. In papers filed in Prince George's District Court, police said that Watson, of Brentwood, allegedly shot the Prowants because he did not want them to have custody of the two children that he and Pamela Prowant had had together. Watson, however, did not want custody of the 11-year-old boy and 7-year-old girl, the court papers said.

But the charges against Watson were dropped for lack of evidence at a preliminary hearing, police and prosecutors said.

The probe is continuing, police said.

The Prowants said they believe that the shootings are related to a child custody battle they have waged with Pamela Prowant's parents, who live near Jessup, Md., and have been caring for the children.

Her parents became legal guardians of the two children after her divorce from Watson 7 1/2 years ago. She initiated court proceedings to regain the children a year ago and was awarded custody by a Howard County judge in August. She was scheduled to pick them up from her parents' home about 12 hours after the shootings.

"It just doesn't make sense," Pamela Prowant said. "Why? Why, on the day I was supposed to pick up my children, would somebody come in and try to kill us? And nothing else was touched."

Members of Pamela Prowant's family say they think that the shootings and the custody dispute are unrelated. Her 24-year-old sister Teresa, who did not want her last name used to protect the privacy of her husband and child, called the incident "a freak accident."

"None of us thinks it had anything to do with the custody battle," Teresa said. "It really was quite a shock to everyone."

The Prowants still discuss whether they should take custody of the two children. Sometimes, Pamela Prowant said, she thinks she should give up the idea. Eugene Prowant never does. He said he wants his wife to have what is legally hers.

After the shootings, the couple spent weeks at Prince George's General Hospital, with police guarding their rooms most of the time. Although Eugene Prowant said he does not remember writing them, he sent Pamela several notes telling her he loved and missed her.

Eugene Prowant was released from the hospital just before Christmas. Pamela Prowant left Prince George's General before her husband, but she spent a few months in rehabilitation at Mount Vernon Hospital in Fairfax County, where she learned that she was permanently paralyzed from the waist down.

"They told her the day before Thanksgiving," Eugene Prowant said. "I thought I would never forgive the doctor for that. But she was being straight with us, I understand that now."

After Pamela Prowant's release Jan. 16, the couple was unable to return to their apartment because it was not suited for a wheelchair. And the couple feared that the intruder might return.

The Howard County Citizens Service Bureau put the couple in a motel for two weeks. The Prowants then moved to a Howard County family shelter, where they stayed until they found their son playing with a box of rodent poison. That is when the couple decided to move in with Eugene Prowant's parents.

"I didn't want to push my problems on them," Eugene Prowant said. "I'm 30 years old -- I didn't want to move back home."

While the Prowants wait to get an apartment in Howard County that is equipped for the handicapped, they accept the narrow doorways in his parents' home that make it difficult for Pamela Prowant to maneuver in her wheelchair. She is preparing to return to work in the payroll department of Toys 'R' Us. Medical insurance will cover almost all of the $200,000 in medical bills.

Now they just want their assailant brought to justice. "They might think that they've gotten away," Pamela Prowant said. "But if the police don't catch up with them, the good Lord will do it in His own way."