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Unintended targets

Making changes in a bad neighborhood

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Call me a pussy, but dead children freak me out. First there was the one, who was 18 and I guess you can argue he wasn't a child, but 18 is pretty damn young to be beaten to death with a flashlight.

And I guess you can argue, as many did, that he wasn't beaten to death with a flashlight. Many argue that he would have died anyway, without the beating, on account of the drugs in his system, but I am of the mind that the beating didn't help at all.

And so were a lot of my neighbors, who gathered together and set fire to the house a few doors down from mine, the one owned by the man blamed for the boy's death. He is not the man who gave the boy the drugs or even the person who beat him with the flashlight, but he is the man who called police when the boy was trespassing on his property. The police in turn chased the boy, tackled him and then beat on him with the flashlight. Coincidentally or not, the boy died right after that.

So I guess you could argue, as many did, that that dead kid doesn't count, but that was my first dead kid and my first burned-down house since I'd moved into the southwest Atlanta neighborhood a few months prior, so I personally counted him.

Then there was the next boy, who was in his early teens and you cannot possibly argue that he wasn't a kid. He was shot and killed by yet another kid for cheating at dice. It happened right across the street from the house that burned, and should not be confused with an incident in which a 2-year-old was shot in the parking lot of a nearby apartment complex. That bullet passed through the girl's leg and killed her grandmother, who was holding her at the time. The girl and her grandmother were unintended targets; someone cheating at dice was the target, whereas in the cheating-at-dice case that happened a few doors down from mine, that target was reached.

There would be more burned houses and more dead children, like the teenager who was killed 12 days after my own child was born, shot at a MARTA stop by, police speculate, a jealous boyfriend. And let's not forget the 12-year-old who was shot in the chest that Halloween for throwing eggs in Phoenix Park, which was more in Lary's neighborhood than mine, but Lary lived just three minutes away from me. Lary, though, is not all that freaked out by dead children, even that newborn that was found in a driveway up the way from him. Someone had bashed its head in, tied it up in a plastic sack and tossed it onto a driveway.

"All I know is I didn't have anything to do with it," Lary swore.

He had come to my place to give me tips on how to bulletproof the baby's room, a precaution I was starting to suspect would not matter. First, all I had in terms of materials were cookie sheets and cake pans, and Lary said they were not strong enough to stop a bullet, "but they would probably slow it down," he said in a manner as close to comforting as his crusty barnacle ass could muster. But then he had to ruin that, even, by telling me a bullet doesn't need a window to get inside.

"It could pass right through the wall," he insisted. "Especially this wall," he added, knocking on the new drywall that enclosed the former porch that now made up the nursery. So at that, we went outside to assess any possible trajectories, especially from the north corner of the street, which is where a preponderance of the shootings had occurred. In the end we determined that the safest place for the baby's bed was in front of the bureau right next to my own bed. That way, if a bullet passed through the wall to reach her, it would also have to pass through my underwear drawer, which contained a bunch of bras with so much padding that a skydiver with a faulty parachute could land on them and live. There, I thought, it's the best I could do.

But then I thought again. I read that the mother whose son was killed in the park near Lary had heard the shot the instant it happened. She ran to her son and reached him in time to hold his hand as he died. I'm sure she did the best she could have in the years that led up to that point, and I'm sure she tried hard to change whatever circumstances left her to live with her child in a place where kids are commonly killed. Those changes just didn't happen fast enough is all.

So I put the cake pans in the windows and was mindful of trajectory patterns from the corner where the other kids had been killed, but I also kept thinking about the mother who held her boy's hand as he died, and how her changes didn't happen fast enough. So I made some changes of my own, and you'd be surprised at how quick you can be when you're trying to outrun a bullet on its way to an unintended target.

Hollis Gillespie is the author of Bleachy-Haired Honky Bitch: Tales from a Bad Neighborhood (Harper Collins). She was recently named one of "Seven Breakout Authors of 2004" by Writer's Digest. Her commentaries can be heard on NPR's "All Things Considered."

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