The hospital became their cocoon, a fluorescent haven where a shaken family huddled away from the crazy world outside -- the baying press, the political candidates jockeying for compassion points, the faceless killers who haunted the nightmares of the boy tethered to his bed by machines breathing for him, feeding him, pumping in powerful drugs to fight infection and relieve the searing pain.
Thirty-six days passed here, autumn's blazing glory unseen from the window with its view of a blank sky. The sniper's youngest victim grew stronger by the day, amazing his doctors, who quietly released the 13-year-old Monday evening, weeks before they had expected to.
And so he left this safe place, his fight for life a small, brilliant victory in a season of sorrow.
Home at last, the Brown family began preparing for the most grateful Thanksgiving they've ever known.
Sitting on the sofa, his young cousins clamoring around him, the boy told his family how good it felt to be there, that he had never realized before how truly blessed he was.
"He's a spiritual child," Lisa Brown says of her son.
Faith, the family believes, is what brought them this far.
The boy tracks the livid scars on his slim body and tells his mother that he remembers everything: the force of the bullet piercing soft flesh, the sensation of something white-hot tunneling through him, the knowledge that he was dying.
They listen to him, his mother, his Uncle Jerome and Aunt Tanya, and they murmur the same assurances they did the day the curly-headed eighth-grader became the sniper's prey: It's all right, you're going to be all right, baby.
He walked on his own from the hospital to the car Monday, though the foot-long surgical incisions and a broken rib still cause him discomfort.
"Each day is a turning point," Lisa Brown says now. "We have a lot of psychological and physical obstacles to overcome. He's still just a child, and there is a psychological part to this, as well. He can remember before, during and after."
Physically, they're still in what his mother calls "the research and discovery stage. He has to sit up a certain way or he has trouble breathing. There's pain from the broken rib. And he still has pancreatitis; we don't know yet if he's going to be insulin-dependent." It's too soon to predict when he will return to school, but the boy has said he wants to go back to Benjamin Tasker Middle School in Bowie.
His family was relieved, too, to find his sense of humor is intact, the impish boy they knew -- family comedian, budding basketball star -- back from death's threshold.
Counting the eight holes in his body where various tubes once invaded, eyeing the two surgical scars, from sternum to navel and crosswise from midsection to his left side, he began singing a lyric from a favorite Christian pop band, Plus One: "I was a mess. . . ."
Despising the doctor-ordered medicinal apple supplement drink that he can get down only as a ginger-ale cocktail, he yearns for his familiar teenage favorites.
"Pizza, pizza, pizza," his uncle reports. "And fried chicken."
For now, though, he must stick to a bland diet. Chicken tenders for his homecoming meal, "and he can't eat anywhere near as much as he normally would. Just small portions," reports his Aunt Tanya. When he's ready, his mother will take him back to Children's Hospital to throw a thank-you pizza party for his caregivers.
The Browns are beyond grateful, their eyes welling with tears when they speak of the compassion they have encountered since the horrific morning when a gunman, crouching in wait outside Tasker, fired the bullet that shattered their world.
The staff at Children's became a protective second family; civil servants donated so much leave time that the boy's mother won't have to work for a year; cards and letters poured in by the hundreds if not thousands, from Africa and Europe, even; schoolchildren and philanthropists alike offered money to help offset staggering medical expenses.
"We could feel the prayers," Jerome Brown asserts. He is 38, a civilian working in the Air Force television department of the Pentagon, the father figure in his nephew's life. The boy had been living with his uncle and aunt for the past year, the strong Christian values of the family taking root. The child had asked to be baptized; the ceremony is planned for next month.
Even though there have been no further attacks since two suspects were arrested Oct. 24, the family still begs that the boy's name not be released, wanting to preserve what little privacy they feel he has left. Fear is also a factor. The boy himself was convinced, irrationally, that the killers had targeted him specifically. "Did they see my face?" he whispered after doctors removed the tubes forcing air into his lungs.
"He told me he was worried that they would 'come back and finish the job,' " says Lisa Brown, 36, a tall, elegant single mother of three. The boy is her only son, her baby. Fearful of bad influence from troublemakers in their apartment complex, she had sent him to live at her older brother's house, 20 minutes away. Thinking she could protect him.
On the morning that it happened, the boy caught a ride to school from his Aunt Tanya. He had been kicked off the school bus for eating a Twizzler, and the family wasn't sure whether his three-day banishment was up that Monday or not. The boy missed the morning prayer session he usually had with a friend across the street, the buddy he rode the bus with.
And even though doctors have, with the family's permission, spoken publicly about the race to save the boy's life Oct. 7, the Browns have never given their own account of that day. Even now, safe, their voices catch when they retell the story.
A Shot and a Scream
Tanya Brown remembers dropping her nephew off in front of Tasker -- he was early and expected to wait outside until the front doors were unlocked. As she pulled out of the circle drive in front of the school, Tanya heard a loud boom, like kids setting off a firecracker. A scream followed, and then her nephew's shout: "Aunt Tanya!"
She backed the car up; the boy was on the ground.
I think I've been shot!
He stood up, and she could see the blood seeping through his white jersey. He walked the few steps to the car, and she remembers, oddly, helping him buckle his seat belt. She fumbled for her cell phone.
"Nine times out of 10, ask my husband, I don't have my cell, because it's at home charging," says Tanya, a 36-year-old nurse. She was on her way to work at Children's Hospital that morning. Still in the school's driveway, she dialed 911.
"The dispatcher said something like, 'Stay right there!' and I said, 'No, I'm going to Bowie Health Center.' I think God just took over my body. I thought it was a dream. I don't remember looking for traffic, just darting into the road." She had been to the urgent-care clinic a mile and a half away just two weeks before when she had fallen ill herself. Somewhere in her nurse's subconscious, she knew the center had resuscitation equipment.
Still talking to the dispatcher, Tanya could see the color draining from her nephew's face and hear the congestion in his lungs as he struggled to breathe. "He was talking, saying how it hurt," she recalls. "I saw a police car, and I was honking my horn. I managed to pull up alongside, and I was honking and waving my arms. She looked at me and drove away. I kept honking my horn."
It hurts, it hurts.
Tanya, the stoic one, the calm professional, sobs when she recounts what happened next, how she knew in that moment that the boy realized he was dying.
"He said, 'Aunt Tanya, I love you,' and I said, 'It's all right, baby, you're going to be okay, nothing is going to happen to you."
She ran a red light. Screeched past the flower bed of pink and white petunias and bolted out of the car into the health center, which had opened its doors for the day only minutes before. It looked deserted.
"I need help!" Tanya yelled. No answer. She screamed again. "I need help RIGHT NOW!" A security guard appeared, then a nurse. They put the boy into a wheelchair and rushed him inside, where physician Tom Lyons immediately called for help from the outpatient surgery center next door and began working furiously to stabilize the boy. The bullet had exploded inside him, shrapnel smashing a lung, demolishing his spleen, ripping open his stomach, tearing holes in his diaphragm and pancreas, shattering a rib. He was bleeding to death internally.
Tanya called her husband, and Jerome reached Lisa at work at the Internal Revenue Service. She was in such shock that she wasn't sure she had heard him right and made a co-worker immediately call him back to verify.
"I fell to the floor. My legs just gave out," Lisa recalls. "My child had been shot. I didn't know what was going on, didn't associate it with the sniper. Just that my child had been shot. Who could have done this? My son is a good child."
Pulling up to the Bowie Health Center, Lisa could see police cars, a helicopter, firetrucks. "I was praying all the way to the hospital, praying that it was just a leg wound, or that he had been grazed accidentally. Then I saw all that and knew it was serious, and I was just losing it."
Lyons and his team had managed to stabilize the boy and were ready to send him by helicopter to Children's. Lisa didn't get to see him. Police began asking the hysterical mother if her child had any enemies.
After more than two hours of surgery at Children's, doctors told the family that the boy was in critical condition. All they could do now was wait. And pray.
"God had His hands in it from the start," Jerome Brown says. "People kept talking luck, luck, luck. It's pretty obvious luck had nothing to do with it. These were blessings, and those blessings became a miracle. All things that lined up to allow this young man to survive -- this is a miracle."
For the next 36 days, his exhausted family took turns staying by his bed. Machines breathed for him, tubes snaked in and out of his slender body. Powerful narcotics kept him in a light coma. There was no way of knowing if the massive blood loss had caused any damage to his oxygen-starved brain. If he lived, would he be the same?
"It was a week before he responded to us," Lisa said. "He'd squeeze our hand or nod. He got frustrated when we couldn't understand what he wanted, and he'd squeeze harder."
When the breathing tube was removed and he could talk again, his voice was so weak and raspy that it took three days for his family to comprehend that he was asking for water.
"One of the first complete sentences he said was that he was so afraid for all the other children in the world, that he didn't want it to happen to another child," his mother recalls.
He had nightmares, eyes racing frantically behind his flickering lids. Reliving the shooting, he cried out once in the night: "Aunt Tanya!"
After John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo were arrested, the boy's family waited a day before telling him the news, mindful of the previous false hope they'd had when an arrest was made in Virginia. Police called the Browns to tell them that ballistics tests had matched the gun seized from Muhammad and Malvo's blue Caprice to the thumbnail-size fragment removed from the boy's chest wall.
His mother remembers how her son's ravaged body relaxed when they told him the news, how visibly relieved he appeared.
It's all right, baby, they promised him. You're safe.
The nightmares stopped.
Family Shows the Stress
Neither the boy nor his aunt saw the shooter or a getaway car. A psychiatric team at Children's has been working with the boy to help him cope with the emotional trauma, and counseling is expected to continue even now that he has left the hospital. But the bullet that ripped through his small body ricocheted through his family, as well.
Jerome Brown had the locks changed at home; the boy wore a house key on a chain around his neck, but it was never found after the shooting. His uncle also worried about some blinds that didn't properly cover windows looking out over some woods behind the house. Bedsheets were tacked up to block the view from the tree line. The sniper had hidden amid the trees bordering Tasker.
"I couldn't sleep," the uncle says. "Any little sound . . . "
His two sons, ages 6 and 9, started sleeping in their parents' bed.
Only Tanya was able to return to work; she was assigned to the surgical floor at Children's and was able to check on her nephew. Lisa slept every night on the sofa in his room, ducking out when Jerome relieved her for a quick shower.
The stress began wearing on them all. Tanya developed a hacking cough, and her nerves were on edge. Lisa felt the despair of any mother who discovers that ultimately she is powerless to protect her child. She and Jerome found themselves at odds over whether the boy should return to his uncle's house or move back in with his mother and older sisters. Seeing Lisa's deep love and anguish, Tanya feels unentitled to the maternal instincts she, too, feels toward her young nephew. Crisis, in a family, has no choreographer.
"It's a delicate balancing act," admits Jerome. "We don't want anything between us when we need each other so much."
But whatever the strains, Lisa considers her sister-in-law a hero.
"Tanya just happened to hear a sound and look back and see my son. And for her to make that decision to go to Bowie ultimately was a blessing." Minutes, even seconds counted.
Lisa forced herself to visit the school while her son was still in the hospital. "My heart was pounding. There's a picture window in the principal's office overlooking the brushy area where it happened. I was holding my stomach, feeling queasy. A guy walked past the window, and I just jumped out of the chair."
The family kept the television tuned to cartoons or ran videos in the hospital room that became their private fortress. They don't want to say anything about the arrests or the charges filed. Tanya and her nephew may yet find themselves called as witnesses when the case comes to trial.
"I pray for them," Tanya says of the two jailed suspects. "It's the only way through my anger. I feel sorry, especially for the 17-year-old. What happened to his life that he would do that?"
The tarot card with its message "I AM GOD" found in the woods at Tasker is what enrages Jerome Brown.
"When they found that, I really wanted, passionately wanted, to speak out," he says. "To say, 'No, you're not. Because God is up there in that hospital room with him.' "
That room. They clung to each other there. Prayed, cried, watched the nightmares skate across a child's sleeping brow. Lisa, seeking order in a world that suddenly had none, started trying to categorize the hundreds of get-well letters and cards. There were gifts, too. Most everything came addressed simply to "the 13-year-old sniper victim." One of the boy's favorites was a small plush tiger: "We're not even sure where it came from," frets Lisa. "He named it Courage."
She feels a connection to the families of the other sniper victims. "I had just started collecting articles about it before this, because my heart was aching for those families before, and I wanted to do something, but I didn't know what," she says.
"At some point, I've wanted to reach out to them. I don't know what the reception would be. Would they embrace us? Would they be angry because our loved one survived but theirs didn't?"
In a prepared statement yesterday announcing her son's release from Children's, Lisa Brown thanked the hospital and all the well-wishers for their thoughts and countless acts of kindness. And she reached out to those whose loved ones never came home, offering them the greatest gift her family has left to give: