Roy’Nal spreads his arms to brace himself against the door frame as Roy’Ale gives one final push on this summer evening. His brother slides into the dining area.
The middle-schoolers are home for the night.
Roy’Ale Hill, 12, and Roy’Nal Hill, 13, followed this routine for weeks, until housing officials made it easier by installing a ramp at the entrance to their Clay Terrace townhouse. The city placed the family here after one boy, and weeks later the other, was shot in their old neighborhood.
The boys were close before bullets stole their summer. They and a third brother, Roy, 14, bond under a rap music brand with an acronym they’ve turned into custom necklaces of three gold letters: “BNL.”
It stands for “Brodie Never Left.”
Brodie is their word for brother.
The shootings came 79 days apart in a courtyard where they tossed footballs, rode bikes and hung out with friends. Police say neither brother was an intended target.
Roy’Ale was hit first, struck by one of at least 51 bullets fired on Valentine’s Day evening. He was under a shade tree heading home after buying a $1 pack of gum.
Roy’Nal was shot May 4, while with buddies eating pizza steps from his front door. The bullet — one of at least a dozen fired — lodged in his lower spine, leaving the football fullback paralyzed from the waist down.
They were two bullets out of thousands fired in the District this year, some claiming lives of children and adults, and sending many others into long recoveries from life-changing injuries.
Their stories are often eclipsed by the ones who didn’t make it, tallied in the District’s rising homicide count that has frustrated leaders and residents. A Washington Post poll found that nearly half of residents living in the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods said they or someone they knew had been threatened with a gun or shot in the past five years.
Ten youths have been fatally shot this year in the District, one of them younger than the Hill brothers. He was Karon Brown, 11, slain trying to escape a dispute involving adults outside a fast-food restaurant in Southeast.
The shootings of Roy’Ale and Roy’Nal shocked even the District’s veteran police chief who couldn’t fathom the unlikely probability of two brothers shot weeks apart in random violence.
Neither youth professes to be interested in seeing the gunmen arrested. But the impact is all too real, even as the brothers shrug it off as just another obstacle to overcome.
Roy’Ale is reluctant to venture outside alone; Roy’Nal needs help with everyday living, like climbing the stairs.
“I can’t give up,” Roy’Nal said. “It’s not about me mad at the world.”
'That's my son'
The strawberry-flavored gum Roy’Ale bought at Z-Mart was still in his pants pocket when he thought he heard firecrackers in his Kenilworth Parkside-Gardens neighborhood.
“I stopped and turned around,” he said. A man with a gun ran by him. Then he saw another man starting to shoot. He thinks he was hit by accident or mistaken for the other gunman.
He made it a few steps to the street and fell. The staccato bursts of gunfire rattled inside his home one street over. That sound is common here, but this time it seemed to last forever, with more than 50 trigger pulls in rapid succession.
Concerned about her son, Ebonee Hill rushed into the winter darkness.
In her car, she crisscrossed the alleys cutting through the maze of courtyards, and once she reached Ponds Street she saw someone on the ground. The victim’s boyish face was pressed to the pavement, but she saw the distinctive knots in his hair.
A police officer pushed her away.
“That’s my son,” she screamed.
Hill, a single mother of seven, grew up in Northeast Washington’s Trinidad neighborhood, took college classes and once dreamed of being a homicide detective.
Now she stood on a dark street under the strobe lights of a police car.
“What’s his name?” the cop asked.
“His name is Roy’Ale.”
The sixth-grader had lost consciousness.
Paramedics wouldn’t allow Hill into the ambulance, so she jumped in her car and trailed to Children’s National Hospital, where Roy’Ale would spend the next 22 days.
The bullet had entered his back. It fractured two ribs and collapsed a lung before it exited his chest.
It missed his spinal cord by a fraction of an inch.
Eleven weeks later, another of her sons was not as fortunate.
Roy’Nal was with his friends near his front door when a burst of gunfire claimed the night. He had just turned down a pizza slice when he was shot.
Hill was out running errands when she heard from frantic family. She called her sister Brittney, who was in a car racing her nephew to a hospital.
“Where’s Nal at?” Hill demanded.
“He’s in the back seat,” her sister answered.
“What happened to him?”
“He got shot.”
Brittney passed the phone to Roy’Nal.
“Yeah, Mom,” he answered.
Roy’Nal ended up at Children’s National Hospital, where his brother had been treated. The next day, the teen overheard his mom and a doctor talking in hushed tones.
The bullet damaged the 11th thoracic vertebra, the next to last counting down from the top.
Roy’Nal was paralyzed from his belly button down.
“Am I going to live?” he asked.
“Yes, you’re going to live,” his mom answered.
“Then everything will be all right,” the seventh-grader replied.
Roy’Nal is doing push-ups.
“All the way down,” Sarah Stone urges, holding his legs.
“All the way down, until your nose touches the mat.”
Stone has been a physical therapist at MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital for five years. People with some of the worst injuries to their brains and spinal cords come through here for help moving on with their lives.
Roy’Nal is the youngest patient Stone has had.
He progresses swiftly through the exercises, helped by a combination of his youth and football conditioning. But it is hard to balance when you can’t feel your legs, and the brain doesn’t recognize your feet on the ground.
In one session, a simple game of catch tests whether Roy’Nal can sit up and grab a ball without falling over. At another, he positions his wheelchair under parallel bars, then does pullups to strengthen his arms.
These weekly outings to the rehab sessions are what passed for summer for the Hill family.
Ebonee Hill, who had taken time off her Postal Service job when Roy’Ale was shot, again took unpaid leave to be with Roy’Nal. A planned visit to a relative in Florida did not happen. A family reunion in South Carolina was put on hold. There was no graduation party for their older sister.
The shooters, Hill said, “robbed my kids of their childhood.”
The family of eight also moved, from the boxy apartments and grassy courtyards of Kenilworth to the asphalt cul-de-sacs of Clay Terrace, one notorious housing project exchanged for another.
For a time, their new townhouse had no ramp, making it a struggle for Roy’Nal to get in and out. The only bathroom is upstairs, requiring him to get help climbing the stairs or forcing him into a closet to relieve himself through a catheter.
Since they moved, two men, one of whom the family knew, were shot and killed near the home they left behind. At their new home in Clay Terrace, a makeshift memorial to a slain man is just steps from their front door.
One of the first neighbors to greet Hill was the mother of Makiyah Wilson, a 10-year-old fatally shot last year as she headed to an ice cream truck. She was struck in the heart by one of 76 bullets fired by four gunmen who sprayed a courtyard.
Hill’s youngest daughter joined Makiyah’s Scouts, a group founded by the slain girl’s family to inspire young women.
Roy’Nal passed the time playing with his brothers on an Xbox donated by D.C. police officers and writing and singing his rap songs.
He’s often quiet, preferring to express himself through his music. While at Children’s, he started a song as he gazed out a window, watching cars he surmised were headed for the city’s exits.
Trying to find a way I’m going to escape and get away.
In a rare moment, he shared his confusion over his injury. He said a doctor told him to think of his spinal cord as a television cord. When the cord breaks, the TV goes out.
But a new cord will fix the TV. So why can’t he just get a new spine?
“Sometimes I just don’t get it,” he said. “I want to walk again.”
Roy’Nal rolls his wheelchair down the familiar streets of his old Kenilworth Parkside-Gardens neighborhood. He pops a few wheelies, catches up with friends and scouts the perfect place to record his latest rap video, “Ooooh.”
It’s the first time the brothers have returned since he was shot.
“Ooooh” is about seeking money over girls. Hill envisions her son’s wheelchair moving down the middle of a path. But Roy’Nal chooses a courtyard between two housing blocks, steps from where his brother was shot.
He recorded the lyrics earlier; now they blare from a speaker as he performs. His friends, some strangers and Roy’Ale surround him.
I’m making money, I’m not changing.
I saw you there, but you were taken.
I thought you were real, I was mistaken.
The videographer wants more action. He encourages Roy’Nal to move to the beat, then invites onlookers to dance. His friends dig into their pockets for some bills for the teen to fan out.
Roy’Ale hangs back, almost off camera, clinging to the entourage, silent.
Their summer is over.
Roy’Ale and Roy’Nal are back at Kelly Miller Middle School, now in the 7th and 8th grades, respectively.
Their oldest sister is off to college, maybe to be a defense attorney. Their mother is back to work. And Roy’Nal has new leg braces that help him get around. A family video shows him coming down the stairs, holding the railing with one hand and pressing against the wall with the other. Slowly, he hops from step to step.
At the bottom, he takes a breath, then grabs a walker to cross the living room.