The cruelest of reminders can come in the smallest of packages, as Marie Parker learned yesterday when she checked her mail and found football recruiting correspondence addressed to her son James, whose ambition to play college football was cut down over the weekend in a fatal shooting in Dale City.

"I have so many letters from different schools, and I kept every last one of them," Parker said. "So many that wanted my son. That was his dream."

An all-state junior linebacker at Hylton High, Parker, 17, was the passenger in a parked car Friday night in the Mapledale section of Dale City when a 16-year-old friend approached with a handgun that he wanted to show to Parker and the car's driver, Jamie Guidry. According to the Prince William County police report, the gun accidentally discharged, shooting Parker in the upper body.

"They were friends," Marie Parker said of the three teenagers. "That's why I don't understand what went wrong."

Guidry last night said that Parker went to "tap" the gun away, when it discharged "instantly," striking Parker in the upper body.

"I just looked over as quickly as I could to see what happened, and I first thought [the friend with the gun] just shot it into the air and was just messing around, and then I looked over at [Parker] and he just looked at me, his eyes were real wide," said Guidry, 16, a junior at Woodbridge High who formerly attended Hylton. "He leaned toward me, and I grabbed him and leaned him against the console of the car so he had someplace to lean on."

According to the police report, Guidry ran from the car after the shooting. Guidry said he jumped out of the 2002 Honda Accord to ask a friend in a nearby car to call 911, because his own cell phone was in the door pocket on Parker's side of the car. Police said the 16-year-old, whose name has not been released, then jumped into the driver's seat and drove Parker to the Hillendale Fire Station.

Dale City fire chief Ken Glufling said Parker arrived at the station at approximately 8:17 p.m.

"It was a very chaotic situation the way the individual was delivered to us at the station," Glufling said. "He was extremely critical. Everything humanly possible was administered, but with the extent of the injury, there was nothing else that could be done."

Parker was pronounced dead at about 8:28 p.m.

Some of Parker's friends were across the street from the shooting site and they called his home, and word eventually reached Marie Parker at a friend's house. She said she was first instructed to drive to a police station and only later was told to head to the fire station. When she arrived around 9:15 p.m., she said her son, nicknamed "Bear" as a youngster because of his chunky frame at the time, had already died.

"I have a lot of questions, [and] no answers, really," Parker said. "I'm trying to figure out what happened, why it happened. . . . Nobody has told me anything. I have this big open spot in my heart that is not filled. I've heard so many stories. I want to hear the right story.

"There's nothing I can say about what happened that night because I don't know. I have no idea whatsoever. I have no clue at all."

The 16-year-old has been charged with involuntary manslaughter, reckless handling of a firearm and possession of a handgun by a person under 18 years of age, according to a Prince William County police spokesman.

Hylton players and coaches assembled for more than two hours yesterday morning in the school auditorium, talking through their feelings and coming up with ways to memorialize Parker. The players signed footballs for Parker's family, and several students wore custom-made T-shirts emblazoned with Parker's likeness.

"I think [meeting] was a good idea because it brought everybody together and it was a time for us to talk and be with each other instead of being alone and dealing with it yourself," said Hylton defensive back Deon Butler, who had known Parker since fourth grade and often compared recruiting mail with his fellow junior. "You got to talk it out with other kids who felt the same thing and everybody left feeling a little bit better."

"We got our guys together and talked a little bit, grieved a little bit, cried a little bit and laughed a little bit," Hylton Coach Lou Sorrentino said. "It's not something you're going to get through in one day, but I thought today was a positive step."

To try to help his players deal with Parker's death, Sorrentino referred to a coined word he had used during the team's Virginia AAA Division 6 state title-winning season -- "response-ability." For football, it meant bouncing back from a turnover or defensive lapse. In this case, it referred to how to deal with the tragedy of losing a popular teammate known for his easy smile, good-natured manner and recent heightened interest in academics.

"We really can't control what happens to us, but we talked about the ability to respond, and we talked about appropriate ways to honor James, to stay in touch with his family, not look for vengeance, and to rely on the team," Sorrentino said. "We're not talking about a football game or a test, we're talking about a very serious situation. Hopefully the kids could relate to it. They seemed to."

Word of the 8:15 p.m. shooting Friday quickly spread with a flurry of cell phone calls.

"Something that shocking, you had to call somebody because you couldn't take one person's word for it," said Butler, who learned of the shooting when he contacted distraught friends while traveling home from AAU basketball practice.

Soon after, about 200 mourners, some from rival high schools, turned out at the fire station for an impromptu vigil led by Vicky and Jackie Watkins, ministers at Mount Olive Baptist Church in Centreville and the parents of Hylton junior linebacker Jackie Watkins.

"When I got there, I never expected to see those many kids there, just weeping and crying and hugging each other," Vicky Watkins said. "Some people were sitting in chairs not going anywhere until they got some kind of comfort, some kind of relief."

A prayer service is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Dale City Christian Church. The funeral service is at 1 p.m. Friday at Hylton Memorial Chapel in Woodbridge, after an 11 a.m. viewing. For the funeral, Marie Parker has requested that the Hylton players wear blue jeans and football jerseys, her son's favorite attire.

Guidry said that other than football, there was nothing Parker liked better than riding around in the front seat of the car with him.

"Bear loved to just ride," Guidry said. "He didn't care what we were doing if we were in a car just riding. It didn't matter who called shotgun, he was in the front no matter what. He waited for the day I got my license because he knew no matter what he'd have the front seat."

"So many [colleges] wanted my son. That was his dream," Marie Parker said of her 17-year-old son, James.