IRONDALE, Ala. — They have put it off all spring and summer, but now it’s autumn and they’re out of excuses, so they set out on what should be the most ordinary of chores: to dismantle a trampoline in one back yard and rebuild it in another.
“I love you,” the 4-year-old boy says as they drive through their neighborhood, just after his mother, who awoke with another migraine, told him to “shut up and sit on your butt or else.” “I love you,” he says again, a few seconds later, for what seems like the 10th time today, and now no one says anything. His grandmother stares ahead, dreading where they’re going.
The truck pulls up to a single-story home where, seven months before, a 9-year-old named Kimi Reylander was accidentally shot to death.
The family gets out: Kimi’s mother, her grandmother and, finally, her little brother. In front of them, in Kimi’s great-grandfather’s house, is the bedroom where Kimi died from “a perforating gunshot wound to the head,” according to the autopsy report, and also where, in that instant, the others began a new life defined not only by their suddenly changed relationships with one another but also their suddenly complicated relationships with guns.
Joel Watson, the great-grandfather who left out the gun.
Tina Watson, the grandmother who didn’t see the gun.
Amanda Watson, the mother whose son reached for the gun.
Jaxon, who pulled the trigger.
In a nation where nearly 4 percent of shootings are unintentional and, in a given week, two children die from accidental shootings, according to gun violence research, what happened to Kimi’s family has occurred at least 25 times since January 2015. A child gets hold of a gun and accidentally kills a sibling, and a family is left trying to figure out how to recover. In De Queen, Ark., where a 12-year-old boy shot and killed his 16-year-old brother, one family looked for recovery at church. Another family in Vista, Calif., looked for it in the criminal justice system after a 14-year-old boy shot and killed his 9-year-old brother. In the District, after a 7-year-old boy shot and killed his 3-year-old sister, another family sought it in counseling services. And now a family in Irondale is trying to find it, or at least its beginnings, by taking the trampoline from the house where Kimi used to play on it to the house where Jaxon, they hope, might.
“You going to come here and give me a hug?” Joel, inside on the couch, asks his great-grandson.
“I’m not going in,” Tina says quietly.
“Let’s go take the trampoline down,” Amanda, 27, says. Out back is a trampoline covered in leaves and dust. A swimming pool that Kimi used with friends has a film of green on the bottom and leaves floating on the top.
“Pool ready now?” Jaxon asks.
“No, baby,” Tina says.
“Y’all got that thing loaded that quick?” Joel asks a few minutes later, after the trampoline has been dismantled and put on the truck’s trailer.
“Yeah,” Tina says.
“So fast,” he says and watches them leave with the trampoline.
This is how a mother loses her child:
It was Feb. 6, a Saturday. Amanda was exhausted from another week of work. Jaxon, then 3, was with Tina, and Kimi was at Joel’s house. It was a good day for Amanda. She and her boyfriend had started talking about marrying. She believed, after having two kids before 24, that she was finally getting good at being a parent. Then the phone rang, and a relative was saying, “Kimi’s been shot,” and someone else was saying, “Baby, it’s bad,” and now it’s seven months later, and she’s sitting on her bedroom floor, holding her head in her hands.
“Do you have any Tylenol?” she asks her boyfriend. “Freaking migraines, so damned debilitating, freaking sucks.”
She swallows a pill and lifts her head. She wants to get out of this house, where some days it seems everything reminds her of Kimi. The calendar she uses to count the days since Kimi’s death. The kitchen chair where Kimi ate dinner. Kimi’s bedroom, now dark and stripped of furniture.
Jaxon is with a relative for the morning, so she and her boyfriend go for a drive. She plugs her phone into the car’s stereo, puts on a hard rock song and sets down the phone, reaching past a bottle of sleeping pills the doctor gave her because of the dreams she’d been having of Kimi — Amanda saying to her, “You’re dead,” and Kimi saying, “No, I’m not. I’m right here.”
The pills were supposed to help with nights, but what about the days? Just that morning, she had yelled at Jaxon again when she caught him throwing away his breakfast, and he began to cry.
“No,” she said. “You’re not going to do that.”
He continued to cry.
“Shut your mouth, or I’ll whip you,” she said.
“But I want ice cream,” he said.
“Shut your mouth,” she said again, glaring at him.
She knew how she sounded. She didn’t used to snap like this. Now she feels combustible — “busting at the seams,” as Tina puts it — and how does she get past all of this anger? She has told herself countless times that it wasn’t Jaxon’s fault. He’s just a little boy. He said he thought the gun was a toy. But every day she has to work at not being upset at him.
“I know this sounds horrible, but do you know how hard it is not to have ill feelings toward a kid? How hard it is not to be upset at Jaxon? Do you know how hard it is?” she had asked the night before. “I have no one to blame. I can’t blame my kid. I can’t blame God because it’s inappropriate. I have nobody to blame. I have no outlet as far as taking out my anger, so I use my family and my fiance as a punching bag.”
In the car now, she turns the volume up so loud that conversation with her boyfriend becomes impossible. She grips the wheel tightly, looks straight ahead and mouths the words of a song as she steers a car that has, among other things, a loaded gun in the glove box. It’s a 9mm — the same caliber that killed Kimi — but while her anger bothers her, guns don’t. She doesn’t feel nervous around that gun or any other gun. She’s more scared of not having one. She still has a child to raise, and what if there’s an intruder, and that intruder has a gun, and she doesn’t? How would she recover from that? How could she live knowing she could have protected Jaxon but had decided she was too afraid to have a gun?
Her boyfriend reaches for the car stereo and turns the music down.
“Is that loud enough for you?” he asks.
She ignores the question. She flips through a few songs and decides on another heavy metal one. She turns it back up and continues to drive.
It wasn’t the gun’s fault Kimi died, she tells herself. A car wreck could have just as easily killed her. Or a bad fall. Kimi’s death, she has come to believe, was a random accident. So after the burial, after child services searched the house to ensure that every gun was secure, after reading online comments calling for her prosecution and Jaxon’s removal, Amanda had no hesitation about going shooting again. She hoisted a long .22-caliber pistol with a scope that day, took a photograph of herself half-smiling and made it her profile picture on Facebook. “I’m pretty badass,” she wrote after posting the photo. “I feel for the person who even thinks about messing with MY child.” Six weeks after that, she went with Joel to her first marksmanship competition, outshot him, posted a video about it to Facebook and tagged Tina, who she thinks would feel better, too, if she went shooting. Maybe then Tina wouldn’t get upset whenever she sees Amanda’s gun.
“Ready to go now?” her boyfriend asks.
She looks at the time. Jaxon will be back soon. But not yet.
“I’m not in that big of a hurry to go home,” she says, lighting another cigarette.
Only when she’s sure Jaxon will be back does she begin driving toward the house, and now, pulling into the driveway, she sees Jaxon running toward her. She wants to one day teach him about guns, as she was taught herself, so he can protect himself. But for now, whenever he goes inside the car, she opens the glove box, removes the 9mm, ejects the clip, clears the chamber and places the disassembled parts out of reach.
He’s not getting inside now, so there’s one last thing to do. She locks all the doors. Then she follows Jaxon into the house, sits on her bedroom floor, begins to cry and hopes he can’t hear.
Tina, the grandmother who didn’t see the gun, drives home in silence after a morning shift at the bank. Today is Saturday, and Saturday is when she cleans the house she shares with Amanda, Jaxon and her husband, just down the road from where Joel, her father-in-law, lives. She cleans every room, even the one that now makes her most anxious, the bedroom where her husband keeps his guns.
“Let me take a minute,” she says, sitting on the front porch with a sweet tea and a cigarette, and then another. “Oh me,” she sighs. “Oh me, oh me.”
She has spent her entire life around guns, and in those first weeks after Kimi’s death, when she found herself afraid of guns for the first time, she thought she was still in shock, that it wasn’t the guns, it was her. She just needed more time. Guns were all over her childhood home — guns for hunting, guns for protection — and she learned how to shoot at a young age. When she was 19, she married a man who had been raised the same way, and both of her daughters grew up knowing guns, too. Guns were so ordinary she rarely gave them much thought. Now, at 53, she’s always thinking about them. The gun her husband carries, the gun Amanda carries, and, most of all, the gun she didn’t see.
She finishes her cigarette, exhales slowly and stamps it out. “I’m ready to get at it,” she says.
She collects a bucket of cleaning materials and walks to the other end of the house. She had always been happy here. She raised four kids in this house — two kids, two grandkids — and though she hates the shaggy green carpet, the unfinished cabinets, the faded furniture, she only started considering leaving after Kimi died, when she realized that the guns were staying and that she was the only one who thought they shouldn’t.
The bedroom is a mess. The bed is unmade. Pillows are strewn across the floor. She starts with the dresser. She reaches up and swabs the duster across the surface. On top is where her husband puts his .22-caliber pistol every night when preparing for bed, and it’s where she goes every morning to make sure it’s there and hasn’t been left out where Jaxon could reach it.
Her husband tells her she shouldn’t worry. He’s always careful with his guns. What happened at Joel’s won’t happen here. She wants to believe him, even when she saw a pistol in the driver’s side door while they drove home the other day.
“That gun in that door in that truck,” she said to him after they came inside.
“What about it?” he asked.
“If you’re walking up to the truck and you’re looking inside the truck and Jaxon is behind you, what do you do if he grabs that thing?”
“If he’s behind me?”
“You know he follows you all the time,” she said. “You don’t think he can reach past you?”
“Not without me knowing.”
“Oh, okay,” she said sarcastically with a laugh. “I mean it bothered me is what I’m saying.”
She now unrolls some paper towel, sprays Pledge on the dresser and buffs it. Is she the crazy one? Or are they? Is it that they didn’t see what she saw?
She gets down on her hands and knees. “I don’t see how this place gets so dusty,” she says and moves on to another dresser, where she finds one of Kimi’s tubes of lip gloss. She picks it up, puts it down. She would like to picture Kimi using it in front of her bathroom mirror as she used to, but all she sees is that day: going over to Joel’s house to help do his bills. Kimi watching a show on her iPad on the floor and Jaxon going up on the bed so he could see better. Leaving the room, hearing a pop and thinking it was a balloon. Then the blood and the smell and cradling Kimi until the paramedics arrived, some of whom looked at Tina as if she were to blame. Her thinking she was.
Now she stands before the gun safe. Last week, when she was at a low point, sick of feeling this way and wanting a release, she opened it up, looked at the guns and thought how easy it would be. But the family didn’t need another dead person, so she closed it and went outside to her porch and cigarettes.
She dusts the safe, plugs in the lock’s code, opens it and looks inside.
She sees seven pistols hanging against the door: the Taurus .40 caliber, the Kimber 1911, the Beretta 9mm, the .45 ACP, the .357 magnum, the .380, the .22. She sees five long guns — one .30-06 rifle, four shotguns — leaning against a corner. She sees boxes and boxes of ammunition, red and green shotgun shells, magazines in leather sleeves.
How could she not have seen the gun that day?
How could she have been that negligent?
She stares at the 12 guns. Could one of them kill Jaxon next?
“There are millions of ways that he could die,” Amanda told her the other day when Tina started again with those questions. “Why is a gun any different?”
“Being in that room with Kimi and having to hold her for 20 minutes is what made the difference,” Tina said.
“It could be anything,” Amanda said.
“It could be.”
“Just because it happened to Kimi doesn’t mean it’s going to happen to Jaxon.”
“It doesn’t mean it won’t,” Tina said.
Amanda walked out of the room.
“I just don’t know. I’ve been trying to put the pieces together for months,” Tina said to herself, and then, after Amanda returned, to her, “You can’t ever say that Jaxon killed his sissy. Because he didn’t.”
“But he did,” Amanda said.
“The gun did!” Tina said. “And the negligence of leaving that gun down is what caused that gun to kill Kimi.”
Tina now takes one more look at the guns. More and more, she is feeling like a hypocrite for staying in a house with so many. But unwilling to leave the only man she has ever loved, she closes and locks the gun safe and, without cleaning it, goes on to the next room.
Joel, the great-grandfather who left the gun out, lives at the base of a small hill in a quiet three-bedroom house. “It’s always quiet here,” he says one afternoon, just as a faint sound filters in from outside. He cranes his neck and looks outside. “Did you hear that?” he asks and, seeing it’s only a neighbor, leans back again into the couch.
There are so many things he could be doing. The pool and garage need cleaning. He has a treadmill he doesn’t use. And a work shed where he has assembled thousands of bullets and where he would like to assemble thousands more. He loves guns so much he sometimes falls asleep thinking of them. But then it’s morning again, and he’s walking past the room where it happened, past all the pictures of Kimi, and sitting on the couch where the thoughts start over again. Was the trigger defective? How much pressure did it take to pull it? How could a little boy have fired a 9mm pistol?
“I’ve been thinking about it and thinking about it,” he says. “I can’t get no peace about it.”
The idea that Jaxon was somehow able to pull that trigger is just about the last mystery guns have for him. He’s been shooting since he was 6, when he lived in a country shack whose floorboards barely hid the ground and his father gave him a pellet gun. In the time since, he has shot nearly every gun he can think of. He has won marksmanship championships. He has taken guns apart and put them back together again. There are guns in his bedroom, living room, kitchen, stairwell and basement, where he keeps a large safe stocked with guns and a closet filled with disassembled gun parts. When he worked as a painter or did drywall, he would think about retirement and see days tinkering with and shooting guns.
And then Kimi. He never had a daughter. She came over so much that he set up the spare room as her playroom and taught her the same way he did his two boys and his father taught him. He took her hunting. He brought her inside his gun workshop. When she picked up the pink .22-caliber rifle he gave her when she was 6, he told her not to touch the trigger, and she never did. He never worried something would happen because it never had before. Even in 2010, when a .25 pistol toppled off a bedroom closet shelf, hit the floor and went off, the bullet grazing his wife’s arm and narrowly missing Kimi, he dismissed it as a freak accident.
“We just put it right back up there in the closet,” he says.
Every night Kimi stayed over, she would help him get ready for bed. He took the spare bedroom while she stayed in the master bedroom with his wife, and she would bring in his glass of water, eye drops and loaded 9mm, which he slept beside. He’d watch her carry it in, gripping it by a mounted light, satisfied that she knew not to touch the trigger. In the mornings, he or Kimi would take it back to his bedroom again.
The morning of Feb. 6, he awoke beside the gun in the spare bedroom, thinking about a marksmanship competition he had that day. He passed Kimi watching cartoons in the living room and eating cereal. He went to the basement and placed a rifle and two pistols inside his traveling case, kissed Kimi and his wife goodbye, drove 20 miles to Hoover Tactical Firearms, won one of three matches, came home, noticed Tina’s car in the driveway, opened his car door and saw one of his sons running outside.
“Kimi got shot.”
“Lord, no,” Joel said. He went upstairs and lay down on the floor beside Tina cradling her and grabbed something — a rag? a towel? — and pressed it against Kimi’s head.
“Don’t let it kill her,” he would remember saying. “Don’t let her die. Lord, I’ll do anything.”
After he told investigators that he hadn’t known Jaxon would be over that day, and it became clear he wouldn’t be charged, he went to the station to retrieve the gun. He wanted to ask the detective who had interviewed him about the trigger. Then he wanted to sell the gun he had never fired and now never wanted to for whatever price the gun shop offered. But the detective wasn’t in, and Joel hasn’t been back.
Seven months later, Joel, 75, is sitting in the living room, thinking about a different 9mm. It’s the one he has used for protection since Kimi’s death, but it stays out of sight, inside a bedroom drawer and atop a folded white towel. He thinks about a day he took it out and shot it years ago. It kicked like a mule. He shot it again. The trigger needed a lot of pressure. He shot it again and again, eight times in all. How was Jaxon able to pull that trigger?
A little later, he looks at his wife, who’s bedridden with arthritis and whom he watches all day. She’s staring out the window at a hummingbird.
“I want to go talk to him,” he says of the detective.
“You don’t even want that gun back, do you?” his wife says.
“No,” he says, shaking his head. “But I just thought about it. I had it in my mind. This is what I was thinking.”
She doesn’t say anything and looks back outside at the hummingbird, and he goes back to thinking about the trigger.
Jaxon, the boy who pulled the trigger, watches a yellow school bus drive by.
“Why isn’t it taking Sissy?” he asks.
“You know why it isn’t,” says Tina, sitting on the porch with another glass of sweet tea.
He says something, but it comes out unintelligible.
“Come here,” Tina says. “I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
“I’m going to make Sissy come home,” he says.
“You can’t make Sissy come home,” she says.
Tina starts to cry, and Jaxon screams. He whacks both palms against his head twice, throws open the front door and slams it shut. He goes to his bedroom and sits at a small table covered with puzzle pieces. A cartoon plays on the television. Alone, he tries to fit some pieces together but quickly stops.
“Where’s Mommy?” he asks and goes to Amanda’s room, where she is sitting on the floor with the lights turned off.
“Out,” Amanda says. “Out for a minute.”
“But why?” he asks.
“Jaxon, just get out for a minute.”
He starts to cry and walks into her room anyway, and Amanda hugs and kisses him and sends him out, where he sees Tina walking up to the doorway.
“I know you’re upset,” she tells Amanda. “And he is, too. And he needs to know you’re okay.”
“I just told him that I was okay,” Amanda says. “I just gave him a hug. I just gave him a kiss. And now I just need a minute.”
“When is Mommy going to come out?” Jaxon asks.
Tina takes him out to the front porch, where they sit, and he asks, “Why is Mommy sad?”
“She’s sad over Sissy, baby. The same reason you were sad just a minute ago. You know we talked about this, right?” she says. “It may be a long time before Mommy feels better.”
“Sissy,” he says. “Long, long, long, long time.”
“Baby, Sissy is not going to feel better,” she says. “We talked about this.”
“Not at all?”
“You tell me.”
Jaxon doesn’t say anything. He keeps looking at Tina.
“Why is Sissy not going to feel better?” she asks.
“Tell me why,” he says.
“Because Sissy died.”
“Sissy don’t live here anymore?”
“No, Sissy died.”
“Sissy live over there?” he asks, pointing at a nearby house.
“But why did Sissy die?”
Tina is quiet for a moment. She sighs.
“It was an accident, baby,” she says.
Kimi, the girl who died by accident, was 9 years old and had “unremarkable” blue eyes, according to the autopsy report. She had unremarkable ears. The soles of her feet were unremarkable. Her nose, neck, tongue, lungs and heart were unremarkable. Her body carried no “significant trauma or natural disease.” She was 55.5 inches tall and weighed 85 pounds, and when the gun went off, she was wearing a green elastic hair tie.
The bullet struck the right side of her head and made an oval-shaped wound 1.4 inches wide. It passed through the right cerebral hemisphere and the cortical ribbon, caused an “extensive hemorrhage” and exited 2.7 inches below the top of her head.
Three days later, police tested the gun’s trigger three times with a bench vice. It had a 6.5-pound pull — about average.
Two weeks after that, following interviews with Tina, Joel and Jaxon and a review of research that said one-fourth of 3- and 4-year-olds can pull a 10-pound trigger, police closed the case. They sent a form to the family distilling the investigation into one word: accident.
And now, on an autumn afternoon, Joel is in his living room, amid his guns, watching television; Tina is down the road, sitting alone on her porch, lighting a cigarette; and Amanda has her phone in her hands, looking at a picture of Kimi.
She scrolls through her Facebook feed and clicks on a page she follows called “Daily Attitude Adjustment.” She sees a post about grief, shares it without comment and glances up to see Jaxon. He’s climbing a small ladder up onto the trampoline.
Rebuilding it had been quick, silent and joyless. At one point, Tina quietly cried. At another, Jaxon asked, “Where are you going, Mommy?” when Amanda walked toward the house for water. At another, Tina asked Jaxon, “Whose trampoline was that?” and he didn’t know. She said, “It was Sissy’s,” and he said, “It’s mine now.”
Now, up on his trampoline for the first time, he turns, sees Amanda and calls out, “I love you, Mommy.”
There it is again.
“I love you,” she says this time and watches him teeter on the trampoline’s edge.
“Get back in there or sit down,” she yells.
Alone, he begins to jump, and Amanda watches the son she loves, who killed the daughter she loved. Then she puts down the phone with the picture of Kimi, walks over and climbs onto the trampoline. She lies down in the middle. She folds her hands together. Jaxon lies down beside her. They’re quiet for a while. He rests his head against her chest.