Inside the hushed and darkened room, the girl is awake. She does not remember what happened that night outside the library. But she understands that she is now lying in a hospital, in a state of suspended possibility, floating between the life she used to know and whatever awaits her.
Her long black hair flows over her pillow, thick and shiny and meticulously combed by others. She can't speak because of the strokes that followed her attacker's efforts to choke her. But her lips sometimes move as though she is trying to form words. She can't see, either, yet her dark brown eyes are open and alert, and she turns them toward people who stand by her bed.
When her mother jokes in her native Vietnamese about how her daughter used to wear gloves when she cooked, just so she wouldn't have to touch raw shrimp, the girl smiles. When her friends come to see her and talk about taking her to the outlet mall to shop for more shoes, she laughs. When they leave, she cries.
The girl from before is still behind those eyes, alert and aware. Just to make sure, her mother tests her with the question game.
"Is your name … Daisy?" she asks, holding her hand.
Her daughter laughs, but does not squeeze back. Her way of saying no.
"Is your name … Diana?"
Another laugh. No again.
"Is your name …"
This time her mother says her true name. And the daughter squeezes her hand.
"Are you 10 years old?"
"Are you 18 years old?"
The real question — the one that hovers constantly inside this room — is the one that neither the mother nor her daughter can answer. Why did this happen?
In the nights immediately after the attack, the mother would lie in a cot beside her daughter, asking God for some semblance of an explanation. Four months later, the mother says she doesn't bother asking for reasons.
"I don't care about why anymore," she says. "I just want my daughter back."
• • •
On the girl's MySpace page, before the attack, she made a list of traits that best describe her. The list included:
i live where its always sunny
im a senior at east bay.
my favorite color is pink.
i can never make up my mind.
im usually a cup half full type of person
i probably trip or fall down at least once a day.
i like to sing in the shower and in the car when no one is listening.
ill admit to being a huge dork sometimes.
i have many blonde moments.
everything happens for a reason.
On Thursday, April 24, she signed on to her page and listed her mood as "really excited." She had turned 18 earlier in the week, and she and six girlfriends were planning to celebrate by skipping class the next day and heading for a condo at St. Pete Beach.
That day, she and her friends texted each other about shopping for Oreos and peanut butter, pondered which restaurants to eat at and what outfits to wear. They were all honor students heading to college — the girl with the long black hair was going to the University of Florida on a scholarship — so they felt they had earned a free day.
After class that afternoon, the girl drove her Toyota RAV4 to her job at abercrombie at the Westfield Brandon Shopping Centre. Between folding clothes and helping customers, she texted her friends about the beach trip. She was also happy because she was wearing a pearl necklace her mother had given her for her birthday. She loved pearls and seemed to always have them on, even in her senior photo. But until now she had only been able to wear fake ones.
At 9:50 p.m., she clocked out from abercrombie and called one of her girlfriends to say she was on her way to the library to return two books, Cosmetic Surgery For Dummies and Straight Talk About Cosmetic Surgery. Her senior honors English teacher had assigned every student to pick an issue and analyze it in a paper and slide show. The girl had decided to evaluate cosmetic surgery from a feminist perspective. Carrying the books around, she joked with her older sister that people would see the titles and assume she wanted bigger breasts.
That Thursday, the two books were due. A friend told her not to return them that night. It was past 10, and the Bloomingdale Regional public library was closed. But the girl didn't want to owe money. She was on her cell phone, chatting with the friend, when she pulled her car into the library's U-shaped drive, parking about three feet from the drop boxes.
There's a weird guy sitting on the bench, she told her friend. The friend urged her not to get out of the car.
Stay on the phone with me while I drop off my books, she said. She explained that they were out of reach in the backseat and she would have to get out of the car to retrieve them.
The friend heard the pinging sound that meant the girl's car door was open. The girl said the drop box was stuck. Then she screamed, and the phone disconnected.
At first the friend wondered if the hang-up was a practical joke. Sometimes the kids in their circle would call each other, shriek, and hang up, just for laughs. But as the friend kept calling the girl back, and getting no answer, she became frantic. She called another girlfriend, who called another. Soon the kids were jumping in their cars, some accompanied by parents, and heading to the library.
The girl's RAV4 was still parked in front of the drop boxes when they arrived. The engine was running, music was playing on the radio, the right turn signal was on, the lights were on, the driver's door was open, and there were drops of blood near the car door. The girl's cell phone was in two pieces on the pavement, under the car, still ringing as a growing number of people tried to reach her.
Her friends called out her name. They called her family. Someone dialed 911.
"Um, my friend … my friend …"
The 911 operator couldn't understand the caller because she was crying so hysterically. So the caller tried again, explaining about the library and the books and the scream. By now the girl's mother and stepfather were there.
After deputies arrived, they found her behind the library, about 100 yards from where she had been grabbed. She was lying on her back in weedy grass near an ant pile, unconscious, gasping for air. Her face was bloodied and swollen. Her skirt was hiked to her waist. Ants swarmed her body. Her underwear was twisted on a bamboo stick. The contents of her purse were strewn on the ground around her. A wallet hung upside-down from a nearby tree. The pearl necklace was gone.
Her friends sobbed as they watched medics load her onto a stretcher and then carry her to a helicopter that flew her to Tampa General Hospital.
Her mother stood expressionless, in shock.
"Are you okay?" one of the friends asked.
"How can I be?" she answered.
At the hospital, her friends were told the girl would be okay, that they should go home. In the emergency room, doctors and nurses assessed the true damage. The attacker had fractured his victim's forehead and nose. He had also choked her, causing swelling in the right side of her brain and making it impossible for her to move the left side of her body.
By now it was early Friday, the same day the girl was supposed to be skipping school with her girlfriends, jumping over waves at the beach to celebrate her birthday. Instead she was unconscious, thrashing violently in her hospital bed. To her mother, it seemed as though her daughter was still fighting off her attacker.
That weekend, the girl regained consciousness and was able to speak a few words. She kept saying she was thirsty. She struggled to make sense of how she had wound up in the hospital. She remembered going to the library and talking on her cell phone. Then nothing.
"Why can't I see?" she tearfully asked a deputy. "Why me?"
That Sunday, the swelling spread to the left side of her brain, making her entire body go limp. Now she could not swallow, could not move, could not talk.
• • •
Today, four months later, the girl has been moved to a rehab hospital in Sarasota. Her friends have adorned the walls of her second-story room with happy pictures and colorful poster boards scribbled with personal messages and private jokes.
Hey … Remember Homecoming? Lol
Today is my first day here, and I'm loving this sweet crib!
Right now you're sleeping like a baby. Probably dreaming about shoes and purses.
Your nurse thinks I'm your sister, and that's totally fine with me cause that's basically the truth!
Before you know it you're going to be back to your gangsta self.
There are more than 1,000 signatures on a scroll wishing her well from a recent fundraiser, one of several attended by strangers.
Her mother remains by her side, wheeling the girl to therapy each morning. She holds her daughter's hand as a therapist dabs a swab dipped in Sprite or lemon-flavored iced tea onto her tongue to teach her to swallow. When her mom needs to go to the bathroom, the girl grips her mom's hand harder, her way of asking her not to leave.
There are days when her daughter is tired and wants to rest. But her mother urges her to push harder, to stand longer, to sit up straighter.
"She can bend her knees now," her mother says proudly. The doctors, she explains, tell her it's too soon to predict how much her daughter will recover. If her brain heals properly, she may regain her sight. Her progress is incremental but undeniable. "Little bit every day. A little bit. Every day."
Her mother sleeps on a cot beside her daughter's bed. She plays Sitting, Waiting, Wishing and Drops of Jupiter for the girl on her pink iPod. She gives her facials every night. She administers a liquid mixture of nutrients and vitamins through a feeding tube in her daughter's stomach. All day, every day, she strokes her daughter's hair and keeps her company with the sound of her voice.
She talks about her own childhood in Vietnam, explains how her family was so poor that they used the same school supplies every year, until the lead wore down on their pencils. That's why she took so much delight in buying her daughter new supplies every fall.
She talks of her escape from Vietnam, how she paid smugglers to take her to freedom, how she ended up in a refugee camp in Malaysia and then made it to the United States, where her daughter was born.
She reminds her daughter of how the girl used to complain about mosquitoes biting her. In Vietnamese — the mother loved it when her daughter spoke Vietnamese — the girl would say, "Con muô?i này n? ?c qúa. N? c?n con!"
This mosquito is so evil. He bit me!
She tells her daughter how good she is in math. From the time she was little, whenever her mother gave her $20 to spend, she could calculate the sales tax in her head.
Into the night the mother talks, on and on, until the girl falls asleep.
After the attack outside the library, the investigation quickly turned to someone even younger than the victim — a 16-year-old named Kendrick Morris.
He was a freshman at Bloomingdale High, a sprawling school next door to the library. That Thursday night, shortly before the assault, another Bloomingdale student had been dropping off some books and had seen Kendrick sitting on one of the blue benches outside. The other student knew it was him, because the two of them were in the same seventh-period computer class.
Acting on the tip, investigators found Kendrick the very next morning — Friday now — again, at the library. He told them he was skipping school to avoid a test in his Spanish class. He acknowledged he had been at the library Thursday night and said he had worked on a school project until it closed at 9. He had no ride, he said, so he walked to a nearby McDonald's, arriving at 10 — about 15 minutes before the attack — and then had gone to a Wal-Mart next door and called for a cab to take him to his Clair-Mel home, arriving there around 11. No one had been home, he said, so he had borrowed money from a next-door neighbor for the cab fare and then slept at the neighbor's house.
Kendrick's timeline did not add up. Another witness had reported seeing him still sitting in front of the library about 10 p.m. — she had asked him if he was okay because he was alone — and surveillance video at the McDonald's didn't document him entering the restaurant until 11:10, then leaving 20 minutes later. The video at Wal-Mart showed him entering the store at 11:36 and leaving in the cab at 12:30. The cab driver and the neighbor, meanwhile, said the youth hadn't reached home until approximately 1 a.m.
The case against Kendrick grew stronger after investigators reported that his DNA matched evidence taken from the victim at the library and from a second victim, a 61-year-old woman raped in June 2007 at a day care center near Kendrick's home.
Several months later, the case is still making its way through the courts. Despite his age, Kendrick is scheduled to be tried as an adult.
His mother, Lisa Stevens, is tired of hearing him described as a monster. She sees the comments that people make about him online — the verdicts they have already reached, the medieval punishments they openly yearn for him to suffer — and it upsets her. "The public," she says, "has already found my son guilty." She wants his case to be heard before anyone passes judgment.
"Whether it's proven that he did this or not," she says, "we're still talking about a child. We're not talking about a 20-year-old or a 30-year-old."
At the hospital in Sarasota, the mother of the girl goes quiet if anyone mentions Kendrick Morris' name. She doesn't want to talk about him. She doesn't want to waste any energy thinking about him. She has her hands full taking care of her daughter.
One day in late August, several of her daughter's girlfriends stop by to say goodbye. The friends, some of whom were there that night at the library, have been visiting weekly, but now it's time for them to leave for their first semester of college. A couple of them are on their way to Gainesville, just like the girl was before this happened.
The friends hold the girl's hand, play with her hair, lean in close to whisper into her ear. When they leave, the girl cries for two hours.
Afterward, her mother consoles her as best she can.
"Everyone has a path in this world, a job to do," she tells her daughter. "Your friends' job is to go to college. My job is to care for you. Your job is to stay positive and get better."
A week later, the mother does something she has never done before. She pushes her daughter's wheelchair through the automatic double doors and into the sunlight. The girl will get a new wheelchair soon — a custom-made one in hot pink.
The mother slips sunglasses over her daughter's eyes and lets the breeze blow through the girl's hair. They listen to the birds calling, the roar of motorcycles and cars whizzing by.
"There's a lot of things this world wants to give you," she tells her daughter. "There's a lot you can give to this world."
She tells her daughter she has to get better, to venture beyond the walls that now surround her. The world, she says, is waiting for her.
About this story
This story is based on police and court records and on interviews with the girl's family and friends, as well as firsthand reporting at the hospital with the girl and her family. The moment of the friends' farewell and the ending scene where the mother wheels her daughter outside are based on interviews.
Staff writer Colleen Jenkins contributed to this report, along with staff researchers Caryn Baird and John Martin. Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 269-5312.