Two kids, a loaded gun and the man who left a 4-year-old to die
The children will never recover from what happened inside a D.C. apartment. The owner of the illegal gun faces far less serious consequences.
She never wanted to be left out, so My’onna Hinton, who was 4, followed her 7-year-old relative down a hallway and into an unfamiliar apartment in Southeast Washington. Tee was used to that, because My’onna had been trailing after him since she could first walk.
The two of them had been close all her life, despite their differences. She loved Barbies, Disney cartoons and having her toenails painted bright pink, and he was fixated on football, LeBron James and crashing cars in Grand Theft Auto V. But My’onna looked up to him, and Tee looked out for her.
Now the kids were inside the apartment, and the 9-year-old boy who lived there wanted to show Tee something. With no adults home, and My’onna’s mom doing a girl’s hair in the building next door, he took them to a back bedroom and opened a dresser drawer. Inside was a gun.
The boy, Tee said later, handed it to him.
“That’s not real,” Tee responded. “That’s a toy.”
Then his finger squeezed the trigger, Tee recalled in an interview, and he heard a boom. Then he felt the gun’s butt slam against his chest. Then he looked down and saw My’onna on the floor, blood streaming from her neck.
Tee knelt beside her.
“My’onna, are you okay?” he asked.
She opened her mouth to speak, but no words came out. He tried to pick her up, but My’onna, lying on her side and staring blankly ahead, couldn’t move. Tee cradled her head and cried.
It was May 25, 2020, and America had just entered its worst stretch of gun violence in at least two decades. By year’s end, bullets would kill more than 43,000 people, including hundreds of kids. Children have paid an especially brutal price in the nation’s capital, where 95 of them were shot — nine fatally — last year. But even in cities and states with the toughest firearm laws, America has long struggled to hold gun owners accountable when they leave a weapon somewhere a child can find it, a reality that would prove true for the man whose negligence left My’onna bleeding last summer.
As Tee held her, the boy who’d showed him the gun dashed outside to find Juwan T. Ford, the owner of the unregistered, illegal weapon. Ford, 23, had stayed in the apartment off and on for months and, according to court records, was sitting in a car talking to a friend. Although the boy spoke to him, he didn’t move until Tee and another child also ran out. Then Ford sprinted into the building, and all three kids chased after him.
Inside, he found My’onna sprawled in the bedroom’s doorway. Ford, who had a child of his own, stepped past her small body and, a prosecutor later said, ordered Tee to hand him the weapon. As the kids fled, Ford wrapped the gun in a black T-shirt, then he walked out, leaving My’onna to die alone.
‘Get us a helicopter’
Brayonna Hinton, My’onna’s mom, didn’t understand. Tee was standing in front of her, crying, his shirt splotched in red. She feared he’d been hit by a car.
“I didn’t know it was real,” he told her.
“What?” she asked.
“I didn’t mean to do it,” said Tee, who is being identified only by his middle name to protect his privacy. “I’m sorry.”
She rushed outside, and into the neighboring apartment.
When she found her daughter, Brayonna feared she would pass out. Chest pounding, she called 911, then used a towel in the kitchen to press against the side of My’onna’s neck, unaware that the round had traveled through one side and out the other.
“He shot me,” her daughter muttered.
Her eyes were still open, but she wasn’t moving, Brayonna told the operator. She pleaded with them to hurry. The bleeding was getting worse.
“You’ll be okay,” said Brayonna, 23, though she didn’t believe that. Her only child, she thought, was about to die in front of her.
My’onna had been fading for nearly 10 minutes when a pair of D.C. firetrucks pulled up, and Alex Henry and Eric Budd, both paramedics, darted through a chaotic, screaming crowd and into the building.
The bullet might have struck her spine, the men surmised. They debated stabilizing her back before moving her, but there was so much blood — a trail of it now running at least eight feet down the hallway.
“We don’t have time,” said Budd, a father of two. “We gotta go.”
Henry, a thick-armed veteran of 12 years, scooped the girl up, cradling her 33-pound frame like an infant’s to keep her head from moving. Budd cleared a path through the crowd until they reached the ambulance.
Frantic, Brayonna chased after them, but the doors swung shut before she caught up.
“I’m the mother,” she shouted, begging to get through, but the first responders kept her away.
Inside the ambulance, her daughter’s heart had stopped beating.
As both men scrambled to change into protective gear — gowns, hair nets, gloves, face shields — Henry placed the base of his right palm on her chest, pumping with only one hand because her body was too small for two. A half-minute later, she started breathing again.
The men knew they had to get her to Children’s National Hospital, but they knew, too, that she probably wouldn’t survive the six-mile drive through D.C. traffic.
“Get us a helicopter if you can,” Budd called over the radio before threading a breathing tube down a dime-sized hole in her swelling throat.
Stay calm, the men told each other. Deep breaths.
A Park Police helicopter was soon on its way to a landing zone on Wheeler Road, less than a mile away. It gave her a chance, the paramedics thought, even after she needed a second round of compressions.
At the landing spot, they loaded her into the helicopter, its rotors churning. She was close now, just three minutes from a hospital equipped with what she needed to stay alive, but as the helicopter neared the roof, the men watched her heart rate plummet on the monitor: 90, 85, 80, 75.
By the time they landed, it had dipped into the 60s. By the time they reached the elevator, it had stopped.
Henry began pressing again, but on the monitor, the number didn’t climb.
Pump. Pump. Pump.
The elevator door opened, and a team of nurses and doctors awaited. Budd told them what he knew: gunshot victim; entry in the neck; exit through the neck; three rounds of CPR.
But the third round wasn’t over. Henry lifted his palm from her chest as a member of the hospital staff pushed one in its place.
Budd and Henry stepped to the side, their gowns soaked with blood and sweat. Combined, the paramedics had treated more than 200 gunshot victims in D.C., and they tried to save every one, but never had the men wanted someone to live more than the 4-year-old whose name they still didn’t know.
Pump. Pump. Pump.
Then, at last, a heartbeat.
‘Why can’t I move?'
She had four choices: red, blue, green and what she called “lellow,” which meant yellow.
“Mommy,” My’onna said. “I’ll be the blue, and you be the red.”
“Okay,” Brayonna replied on that June afternoon, snapping together the plastic pieces to Hungry Hungry Hippos while her daughter watched from an electric wheelchair parked in their apartment’s living room.
Brayonna slid a table over.
“Put your feet up so I can put this right here,” she said, because My’onna’s legs were still dangling off the front of the footrests.
“You do it,” her daughter replied.
“No, you do it,” Brayonna insisted.
It had been 13 months since the day of the shooting, the same day that My’onna walked for the last time. In the “before,” the single word they now used for their old life, she and My’onna disagreed over her daughter’s bedtime or if she could eat another bag of Cheetos. Now, in the “after,” what they often debated was whether My’onna would try to pick up a pencil or hold a spoon or move her foot.
This time, the girl relented. She braced her left hand against the wheelchair’s armrest and pushed back, staring down at her legs, willing them to respond. Teeth clenched, she hoisted the heel of her left foot up a couple inches.
“I see you moving it. Good joooob,” Brayonna said, reaching down to lift her feet the rest of the way.
“Can you feel me holding it?” her mom asked, squeezing her left leg.
My’onna paused to think about it. She wasn’t sure.
Brayonna told her to close her eyes and look up.
“What am I doing?” her mom asked, running a fingernail across her shin.
“Oh, you scratching it,” My’onna said, and now she was feeling confident. “Do it again.”
Her mom smiled. My’onna might have peeked, but it didn’t matter. In the after, Brayonna had learned to become more than a parent to her daughter. She was also her chief encourager, near-constant playmate, at-home therapist and primary caretaker, though most days she got help from her boyfriend and nurses provided through a Medicaid program.
After she’d fed marbles to the blue hippo, My’onna wanted to play in her room, and that meant Brayonna had to go, too. My’onna maneuvered her wheelchair past the list of rehab instructions taped to her door, past the “Smiles Are in Style” sign on the wall, past the pink Minnie Mouse bedspread covered in a pee pad from the last time Brayonna had changed her daughter’s catheter. In the corner of the room, she pulled up to a five-foot Barbie Dreamhouse, studying the current arrangement.
“Mom, let’s play,” she said, motioning her hand, fingers rigidly curled in a ball, toward one of the dolls. “Take that Black girl. Put her in the wheelchair.”
“Oh, she belongs in the wheelchair?”
“Uh huh,” she said.
“Get her in the elevator,” My’onna instructed, and she pointed to the dollhouse’s most remote room, obscured behind two doors in the bottom left corner. “Put her in the basement. And let her lay down.”
A year earlier, Brayonna had been told that her daughter might not ever talk again, might never regain feeling below her neck, might need tubes in her throat to help her eat and breathe for the rest of her life.
After the flight to Children’s, another helicopter had moved My’onna to Baltimore for an operation at Johns Hopkins Hospital. The bullet had burst her C5 vertebra, but, remarkably, the round had tumbled millimeters past her major arteries and narrowly missed severing her spine. Her surgeons cleaned out the shards of bone, replaced it with a graft taken from her pelvis and hoped that her body would begin to heal.
And it did. The doctors discovered that she could breathe and eat on her own, and when they took the tubes out, she could speak, too.
“Mommy,” came the first word, buoying Brayonna, who slept beside her daughter nearly every night at the hospital.
My’onna could move her arms, though her right didn’t work as well, and she struggled to extend her fingers on either hand. To control her Roblox character on an iPad, she used the knuckle on her left pinkie.
“Why can’t I move?” she asked her mom one day. “Is it because the bullet did this to me?”
After more than a month at Johns Hopkins, much of it spent in intensive care, My’onna transferred to the nearby Kennedy Krieger Institute to begin inpatient therapy.
On her first visit to the gym, she threw a tantrum, spitting at her therapists. As her child life specialist Emily Winter-Cronan watched, she realized My’onna was reckoning with what the injury had stripped from her.
My’onna could no longer scoot down waterslides or kick her feet in the pool. She couldn’t bounce around Chuck E. Cheese, collecting tickets to exchange for cotton candy. She couldn’t ride her pink bicycle. She couldn’t dance to TikTok videos. She couldn’t strike elegant poses in a faux fur coat for the Instagram page Brayonna created to help her daughter become a model someday. She couldn’t even pick up a Barbie.
Winter-Cronan began designing “science experiments” that put My’onna entirely in charge. She mixed glue, soap and gardening soil in buckets and let My’onna smear the slime on her hands, face, hair, wherever she wanted. And that was the point.
My’onna studied photos of herself from her time in the ICU and, over and over, asked Winter-Cronan to explain what each piece of equipment had done. She learned to describe what had happened to her — “my spine got hurt” — and obsessed over how other kids’ injuries were different from her own.
One afternoon, My’onna called Winter-Cronan closer to her bed and whispered in her ear:
“I got shot.”
“He didn’t mean to.”
“It was an accident.”
My’onna knew that was true, but when she returned to life in Washington after three months of treatment at Kennedy Krieger, the consequences of that truth became harder to accept.
“Can I go play?” she would ask when her mom drove past kids on swings and slides, knowing that she couldn’t.
The most frequent target of her frustration was Tee, who she still saw all the time.
Sometimes, My’onna demanded that he not join on family outings.
“I can’t walk no more because he shot me,” she once declared.
Another time, when Brayonna bought her ice cream, she asked that he not get any.
When Tee would call to check on her — “What’s she doing? Can I talk to her?” — she’d refuse to speak with him.
It wasn’t his fault, Brayonna reminded her. The person responsible was the man who had left the gun in the drawer.
That was the same thing the family had told Tee since the first night, when his mother gave him a bath to wash My’onna’s blood off his skin. Tee told himself that, too. But the assurances couldn’t stop his nightmares, always of the gun, or quiet his fear that My’onna wouldn’t ever forgive him.
Tee never talked to her about what happened.
“If she hear that,” he said, “she get mad.”
‘A slap on the wrist’
Brayonna fidgeted atop a stool at her kitchen counter, waiting for the man responsible for the after to start talking. Juwan T. Ford, inmate No. 358457 at the D.C. jail, sat in a conference room in front of a camera for his live-streamed sentencing. He had a thin mustache and short hair and wore a white shirt beneath his orange jumpsuit.
“I’m sorry for what happened and I apologize to the family and also to my family,” he said, his voice quiet. “There’s not a day that I didn’t think about the situation.”
Ford had been locked up since Sept. 30, four months after My’onna’s shooting and five days before she returned home for the first time.
D.C. police had recovered security footage that revealed what happened in the moments after Ford wrapped his gun in the black T-shirt and walked out.
In the front yard, he spoke to a friend, later claiming he told her to call 911. He also shoved Tee, a gesture that police interpreted as a demand to leave. Then Ford ran up the street to get rid of the evidence, investigators said. They never found the gun.
Detectives interviewed Tee before speaking to the two other children present at the shooting, and both claimed in nearly identical accounts that Tee had brought the gun into the apartment. The kids also denied knowing almost anything about Ford, including his name, despite the fact that he had lived in the home off and on for more than two months. Investigators believed Ford had ordered the two children to lie, the prosecutor later told the judge.
After his arrest, the U.S. attorney’s office decided not to charge him with cruelty to children, a felony that could have sent him to prison for a decade but would have forced Tee and the other kids to testify. Instead, Ford took a plea deal, admitting to carrying a pistol without a license and attempting to tamper with evidence.
Ford later suggested to a probation officer that he’d taken the gun out of the apartment not to protect himself but to protect the other children, a contention he seemed to raise again at his sentencing hearing, as Brayonna watched on her phone.
“I just wanted to help,” he said to D.C. Superior Court Judge Neal E. Kravitz. “All I could do is help.”
He’s a liar, Brayonna thought, because he’d done nothing to help.
To her, it sometimes felt like no one understood how much Ford’s negligence had cost them. Before the shooting, she had envisioned becoming a police officer or enlisting in the Army, but now, all she could do was work nights as a security guard in downtown D.C., because that’s when nurses were typically available to watch My’onna. She didn’t want to depend on the government assistance that helped cover their meals and rent, but how, as a single mom, could she ever pursue a real career when her daughter would need 24-hour care for years, if not forever?
At an earlier virtual hearing, she’d pleaded with the court to hold Ford responsible.
“How could someone be that careless and that uncaring?” she said, before addressing him directly. “Now you want to act like you care. You didn’t care then when that baby was laying on the ground, sitting there bleeding. You walked away. And of course now you care. Now you have remorse because you’re facing jail time.”
This was his third “armed offense,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Emma McArthur had written in a presentencing memo. Although the prosecutor acknowledged Ford’s two previous arrests didn’t lead to convictions, she argued that he already knew the danger of handling illegal firearms.
And yet, two months before the shooting, Ford made a music video in which he gripped a black pistol in one scene. Even after My’onna’s shooting, McArthur noted, Ford posted a video to Instagram in a room with ammunition and what appeared to be a rifle.
“He has gotten a slap on the wrist … for each of his arrests,” McArthur argued to Kravitz. “Mr. Ford has not once learned that his conduct can have consequences.”
Peter Newsham, D.C.’s former police chief, had been making the same argument for years, insisting that the judicial system wasn’t doing enough to hold the city’s gun offenders accountable.
Through July, 49 percent of the people known to have committed a homicide in the District in 2021 had a prior gun arrest, according to a review by D.C. police. In 2020, it was 53 percent.
The vast majority of the time, Newsham said, people caught with illegal firearms in D.C. — among the country’s hardest cities to legally buy a firearm — face less than a year of incarceration, if any. At minimum, he argued, those convicted should face three years.
Kravitz, the judge overseeing Ford’s case, had to decide more than just the length of a potential prison term.
Ford’s defense attorney, Billy Ponds, who didn’t grant a request for an interview with his client, contended in court that he should be sentenced under the Youth Rehabilitation Act, a D.C. law that gives young adults a chance to have their records wiped clean from public view.
The Youth Act, as it’s often called, was created in 1985, long before protests for criminal justice reform swept the country. The law’s supporters say it helps curb mass incarceration by offering young former convicts a better opportunity to get jobs, loans and housing. An analysis done for the D.C. Council found that people who have their criminal records sealed are less likely to commit another crime.
The law’s detractors, including police and prosecutors, have long criticized it for providing a reprieve to violent criminals, because only those guilty of the most heinous crimes — murder and sexual abuse — are barred from consideration. Five years ago, a Washington Post investigation found hundreds sentenced under the Youth Act went on to commit robberies, rapes and homicides.
Despite those findings, the D.C. Council voted unanimously in 2018 to expand the pool of people who qualified, raising the age limit to 24 because of research showing that young minds aren’t fully developed before then.
Without that change, Ford, who was 23 at the time of My’onna’s shooting, wouldn’t have been eligible.
Seldom discussed in the debate over the law is how often it’s extended to gun offenders in a city where more than 1,600 people were shot between 2019 and 2020, leaving 307 of them dead.
Of the 610 convicts sentenced under the act during that same period, according to court data, at least 51 percent had committed a crime with a firearm.
Kravitz wasn’t obligated to add Ford to their numbers, but the defense attorney urged him to, maintaining that his client should be punished only for owning and getting rid of the illegal gun, not for what the children did when they found it. He also detailed Ford’s difficult childhood: Section 8 housing, a mother who witnessed a murder, bouncing between relatives, expulsion from high school.
To McArthur, none of that excused Ford’s callousness. This was a father, she said, who saw a child dying and thought only of himself.
“Rejecting the YRA is the very bare minimum that can happen in this case,” the prosecutor told Kravitz. “This little girl has a permanent lifelong reminder of what Mr. Ford did. She cannot walk into school. She cannot play with her friends. The least that can happen is Mr. Ford has a conviction that tells him that his conduct … is not okay.”
The judge acknowledged Ford’s “chilling” disregard for My’onna, but he compared leaving the loaded gun out to driving drunk. On most nights, the driver would make it home safely, but what if he crashed into another car and hurt someone?
“It depends on how you look at these things, whether you’re punishing the conduct or punishing for the effects of the conduct,” Kravitz said. “That’s a tricky question.”
Ford, he decided, deserved leniency, calling his decisions “the crimes of an immature young person.”
“I think he’s precisely the type of person that the Youth Rehabilitation Act exists for,” concluded Kravitz, who, through his office, declined to be interviewed.
He sentenced Ford to 18 months in prison, with the threat of another 12 if he broke the terms of his plea deal before finishing three years of probation and rehabilitation. That means Ford, who received credit for the nine months he’d already served, is scheduled for release next spring, and his record could be cleared by 2025, just before My’onna’s 10th birthday.
Brayonna cried. More than anything, she wanted Ford to live with what he’d done for the rest of his life, as her daughter would.
About then, the front door to her apartment opened, and a nurse wheeled My’onna inside. She was asleep, exhausted after three hours of rehab in Baltimore and the two-hour round trip spent strapped into the back of a van. Soon, she would need to wake up to have her catheter changed, as she did six times a day, and after that, she would take doses of a laxative, vitamin D to strengthen her weakening bones, a medication to stop her muscles from spasming, melatonin to help her rest and a drug to ease the pain she felt every day, all over her body.
‘Did you feel that?’
She called the place “Therapy,” a tan, six-story building with vaulted ceilings and sprawling walls of windows that overlooked Baltimore. Three mornings a week, she arrived in a van with her mom or a nurse, waving to the receptionists in the lobby who knew her as “MyMy,” passing in her wheelchair by the wall with the cursive inscription: “In my mind, I am full of hope.”
Those same words greet thousands of kids with disabilities treated at Kennedy Krieger each year, including nine children left paralyzed in shootings since the pandemic started.
Among them was a 16-year-old shot in the stomach and a 13-year-old shot in the back, a 14-year-old shot on a hunting trip and a 6-year-old shot through his bedroom window during a drive-by.
The youngest was My’onna.
Their emotional wounds make caring for their physical ones uniquely challenging, said Michelle Melicosta, medical director of Kennedy Krieger’s inpatient rehabilitation unit.
“How hard do you push a kid to keep going when they’ve gone through something like this?” Melicosta asked. “Do you cut them slack? Do you treat them like any other kid?”
Beth Myers, a physical therapist, was wrestling with those questions one morning in June as she strapped My’onna into a harness and pasted electrodes to her body. Irritable after a rough night of sleep, the girl swatted at Myers’s face shield.
“Get off,” she said when Brayonna held her arm down. “I hate y’all.”
“Okay, here we go,” Myers said, her voice calm, scooping My’onna up and carrying her to a custom treadmill, where a rehab technician clipped the girl into a lift that hoisted her up until each foot sat flat on the walking belt.
My’onna hung in silence.
The belt began to move, rotating at 1.2 mph. The technician held her hips and Myers gripped the back of each calf, pushing and pulling her legs to make them simulate walking. The exercise activated her atrophying muscles and stimulated the undamaged portion of her spinal cord below the injury. She needed those neurons and synapses to stay healthy in case of a breakthrough.
“You’re doing a great job, MyMy,” the therapist said.
“Are we almost done?” she asked, 30 seconds after they’d started.
They took a break after 10 minutes, and before they started the next 10, she slumped her head to one side, asking the technician to hold it up for her. This had been a chronic problem when she started rehab because the muscles in her neck were so weak, but she hadn’t struggled with it in months.
“Okay, you going to have to hold your head now,” the technician said.
“No,” My’onna snapped.
“We about to start walking.”
Myers sighed. She realized how unfair this must feel. My’onna was 5. She should have spent that summer morning swimming in a pool or running around a playground, not dangling from a machine like a marionette. Myers understood, too, that no one could predict how much movement My’onna would recover, and that meant all these hours of effort were an investment in a future that might be out of reach.
One morning, though, My’onna had been on the treadmill when she asked to pause.
“My sock is coming off,” she said.
Myers was skeptical, but she checked anyway, and there, inside My’onna’s right shoe, the sock had come off.
“Did you feel that?” Myers asked, realizing that, if she had, My’onna was for the first time sensing something in a place her doctors feared she never would.
“Uh huh,” My’onna responded, and her therapist’s eyes began to well.
‘How’s he doing?’
Tee was playing alone with a red rubber ball in Brayonna’s living room when he heard a knock at the door.
“Who is it?” he shouted.
Brayonna opened it and in walked paramedics Alex Henry, Eric Budd and five other masked firefighters carrying gift bags and balloons, one reading “You’re So Special.”
For months, Brayonna had hoped to meet the men who saved her daughter’s life. My’onna, she explained, was still on her way back from rehab.
They didn’t mind waiting.
“Me and him talk about it an awful lot,” Budd said of that night last year, motioning to Henry, who had carried her to the ambulance.
They exchanged memories. Budd and Henry didn’t know Brayonna had chased them out to the ambulance, and she didn’t know they were resuscitating My’onna in the same moment.
Tee listened from the couch, saying nothing. None of the men knew who he was.
“What you been doing all summer, bud?” asked Lt. Paul Patterson, who’d also responded to the scene. “Staying out of trouble?”
Tee shook his head, no, and the guys laughed.
He tossed the ball to Henry, and Henry tossed it back.
“He’s the one who accidentally did it,” Brayonna said from the kitchen, her voice low.
“What’s that?” Budd replied.
“He’s the one who accidentally, umm —”
“Oh, okay. All right.”
“How’s he doing?” Patterson asked.
Okay, Brayonna said.
The room went quiet. Tee, they knew, was a victim of gun violence, too, just not the kind people brought gifts and balloons to. The third-grader still hadn’t gone to therapy but said that his mom wouldn’t let him play with toy guns anymore. When anyone talked in front of him about what he’d done, Tee tried not to pay attention.
He tossed the ball back to Henry.
Five, 10, then 15 minutes passed, and Brayonna worried that My’onna wouldn’t make it back before they had to leave for the next emergency.
At last, the door opened.
“Hi, My’onna,” Patterson said. “You have some visitors.”
“I do?” she said, surprised.
Brayonna took her wheelchair from the nurse and moved the girl to the middle of the living room.
“Hey, My’onna,” Tee said, waving from the couch, but she didn’t respond so he said it again. “Hi, My’onna.”
Her eyes remained on the strangers towering in front of her.
“We got you some cool stuff,” Henry said, and her mom started to unpack the bags: kinetic sand, slime, a pair of gift cards to buy whatever she wanted.
“Jelly fruit!” she said, immediately settling on the popular candy.
“You say ‘thank you’?” Brayonna asked.
“Thank you,” My’onna said.
“Of course,” Budd told her. “We’re so glad we got to see you.”
“You want to show them that you can wiggle your feet?” Brayonna asked.
She looked down at her purple toenails and tensed her body, raising her left heel off its footrest for a half-second.
“Awesome,” Budd said.
“If you want, we could take a picture with her?” Patterson suggested, and as the men gathered around, Tee tried to get her attention again.
“My’onna,” Tee whispered, and she glanced over. “I wanna take a picture with you.”
She looked back at her mom and smiled for the photograph, revealing the bottom tooth she’d lost the night before.
Afterward, Patterson turned to Tee, who was curled up on the couch holding a pillow.
“Do you want to take a picture with us?” he asked.
Tee hadn’t expected that. He eased over.
“You can get right here,” Budd told him, pointing to a spot beside My’onna. Tee knelt down, resting his arm on her chair’s wheel. He grinned.
As the firefighters said goodbye, Tee darted back into My’onna’s room to retrieve the red ball.
“Myonna, let’s see if you can catch it,” he said.
He gently lobbed it into her lap, and she corralled it with both hands.
“You catch it, My’onna!” Tee said.
They kept playing with the ball until he bounced it, loudly, and Brayonna asked him to stop. Then he started squeezing one of My’onna’s balloons, and Brayonna told him not to do that either. Tee got a bag of Doritos but dropped a few on the floor, irking Brayonna again. Afterward, he retrieved the ball once more and the kids played with it until, this time, he started throwing it too hard and too high.
“You going home,” Brayonna said, annoyed.
“Why?” he asked.
“Because you too hyped,” she said.
He promised to settle down and tried to enlist My’onna’s help in staving off exile. She was scrolling on her iPad, considering what else she might use her gift cards to buy just a few weeks before her sixth birthday.
Tee could still remember My’onna from before he pulled the trigger and heard the boom, when she didn’t struggle to catch a ball or type on an iPad. Sometimes, he felt nervous around her. She got mad at him a lot, and he understood why, but he wished she didn’t. He wished things were the way they used to be.
Now he stood and walked over, waiting beside her while she fiddled with the tablet.
“My’onna,” he said, but she ignored him.
“MyMy,” he continued. “My'onna. MyMy. MyMy.”
Finally, she looked over.
“You want me to stay?” he asked. “You want me to stay or leave?”
My’onna turned her head away, pausing to think about it.
“Stay,” she said.