NEW PORT RICHEY — The speeding Camaro came out of nowhere and slammed head-on into Tabitha Brooks' young life.
She was just a passenger in a car, a straight-haired jokester of a kid.
Then, the crash — tires shrieking, metal exploding — her 10-year-old friend slumped across her, dead.
Her niece and another child lay dying behind her in the back seat.
When Tabitha woke up days later, she had one thought: "F--- it. I don't care about nothing."
She was all of 14 and giving up on life.
She's 22 now. The years since have borne out that declaration.
She is an addict.
She has attempted suicide and spent time in jail.
When she's out, she doesn't work or go to school.
She just gets wasted.
In that horrific March 2, 2001, collision that took four lives, Tabitha was the young survivor.
Now she's the forgotten victim.
• • •
Her mother can't live with that.
Anna Brooks has picked up her daughter from strange houses where she blacked out. She has saved her from killing herself and had her committed under the Baker Act.
And it all started, she says, with the crash.
Now, she's desperate to get Tabitha help. She thought telling her story might make something happen. She doesn't know what.
"I feel like I lost her," Anna, 49, says. "She's here physically, but I did lose Tabitha, and I want her back."
• • •
That Friday night, the group went to a fish fry at the diner Anna ran in Tarpon Springs.
On the way home, they stopped to explore the brand new Wal-Mart Supercenter that had just opened at State Road 54 and Little Road.
They left the Wal-Mart. Tabitha sat in the front seat. Miqucalena Zorbas, Anna's close friend, was driving. Zorbas' son Anthony, 10, sat between them.
Her other son, Robert, 14, rode in the back seat, along with 4-year-old Deziree Pozzi. Deziree was Tabitha's niece, but she doted on her like a little sister.
The kids all spent so much time together, they grew up thinking of each other as cousins.
Their Chrysler LeBaron headed west on State Road 54 when a Chevy Camaro heading east lost control and spun across the median into their path. Near the intersection of Old County Road 54, where there was no traffic signal yet, the right side of the Camaro slammed head-on into the LeBaron.
Anthony died instantly, practically in Tabitha's lap.
Robert was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital.
Deziree went into a coma and died the next day.
Zorbas would spend five months in a hospital.
Tabitha, who had a broken femur and a concussion, is haunted by the memory of the blaring horn held down by Zorbas' face pinned against the steering wheel.
• • •
Tabitha recuperated for a few months at home. Anna stayed up nights with her because she couldn't sleep.
Tabitha cried all the time but talked little about the accident.
The first day she was able to leave the house, she was arrested for shoplifting with $100 in her pocket.
Soon she was busted for marijuana and more stealing.
She began drinking, hiding bottles of Captain Morgan rum around the house.
"I thought she was getting better. Actually she was drunk all the time," Anna said recently. "I wanted to think she was getting better, and I just missed it."
Anna tried to get her back into school, but it didn't take.
By 16, Tabitha had gotten into enough trouble that she was admitted to a residential school and rehab program.
She stayed 18 months. She was happy there but not healed, and she knew it.
She got high as soon as she got out.
• • •
Tabitha hides her tiny frame under baggy clothes.
She speaks in shrugs and brief answers.
She doesn't know or care what's happening in the world. She doesn't read books or newspapers.
Her $674 Social Security check — disability for several mental illness diagnoses — arrives on the first of every month and is gone by the third.
Most days, she passes the time waiting for her girlfriend, a stripper she met in jail, to get home from work with the money for that day's fix. Their combined habit — marijuana, pain pills and beer — rings up to about $150 a day, Tabitha says.
She takes as much as she needs to pass out but sometimes forgets how much she's had and overdoses.
Anna is desperate to get her help — an intensive, residential, once-and-for-all fix.
Tabitha says she isn't ready.
She just shrugs.
Does she think about the future?
"I do sometimes," she says. "I wonder where I'm going to be at.
"Sometimes I think I'll be in prison for the rest of my life. I don't want to, but that's just the way I think."
"White house with a white picket fence."
• • •
The 53-year-old driver of the Camaro, Nicholas Demerie, escaped uninjured.
The crash killed his wife, Anne Marie, 49.
Investigators said Demerie was drag-racing against a Corvette at speeds near 90 mph. He was sentenced to 35 years in prison.
Tabitha is bothered by this detail: she asked to stop at Blockbuster on the way home. That request, she reasoned, put them in the path of the Camaro.
She never saw a grief counselor.
"I just didn't want it," she says.
She still doesn't think it would help.
She wonders all the time why the accident happened.
"I wonder why God took them, not me," she says. "I think God left me here to make me suffer."
But she doesn't blame. She doesn't think that awful event from her past makes her steal or pop Oxycontin pills.
She calls her mother every day.
"I love her,'' she said, "and I know she's there for me, no matter what.''
• • •
This story has no silver lining, really.
Tabitha got another chance for a fresh start a few weeks ago when she got out of jail. She had served six months for violating probation on domestic violence and alcohol charges.
But she wrote worthless checks to Publix.
Last week, she and her girlfriend got an eviction notice.
Molly Moorhead can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6245.