BRANDON — The rain pelted her as she left flowers and balloons for her dead son.
Michelle Bragg wiped the mascara running down her cheek and spoke warmly of her 15-year-old son who was struck by a car and killed as he walked to school nearly seven years ago.
Still, she finds a way to smile.
"It's Camden laughing his butt off at us," Bragg said of the rain.
As she worked, the colors on the newly installed stoplight above her changed from red to green to yellow and back to red again.
The light wasn't there in December 2006. Neither were the signs or the flashing yellow lights farther down the road. Just a faded crosswalk, cracked and worn, barely visible.
On that overcast Monday years ago, Camden set out to start his 30th day of school at Brandon High School. Camden, who had attention deficit and bipolar disorders, previously attended Tampa Bay Academy. But his teachers urged Bragg to integrate Camden into the high school. He'd thrive there, they said. It would be good for him.
Camden fit in immediately, Bragg said. He joined Junior ROTC and made friends with classmates. That weekend, he went on his first date.
On Friday night, the girl's mother drove them to the movie theater to see Happy Feet. As the penguins danced on screen, the teens kissed in the reclining seats. Camden would return home with a hand over his neck, hiding a hickey. He'd tell his mom he had fun before dashing to his room to cover the mark with a Band-Aid.
He woke up before dawn Monday to walk to school, where he would see the girl for the first time since their date. An SUV stopped when he approached the intersection of Victoria and Meade streets. Near the middle of the street, Camden paused and tipped his hat to the driver. He took two more steps before an Oldsmobile struck him. The hit launched his body above the SUV and down onto the windshield of the car behind it. He died on impact.
"It killed him instantly," his mom said. "There was no reviving him."
The woman who hit him, a 22-year-old substitute teacher on her way to Colson Elementary School, was issued a traffic citation: failure to use due care under special hazards.
Each year, Bragg and her family decorate the intersection before the start of school and at different holidays. The balloons and flowers help her family remember. They also warn drivers and children of the danger there. Or so Bragg hopes.
"As they say, things happen for a reason," Bragg said. "The reason why we came here was because he was to be taken and so they would make sure all the kids that come to school in the future would be safer."
For Bragg, it's the only way to look at it. If she turns to darker thoughts or questions of why, the mornings become unbearable.
Returning to the intersection where her son died is emotional. In the months after his death, the pain was overpowering. Within the year, she and her family moved to Thonotosassa.
But Bragg hopes her 10-year-old daughter, Mystina Marty, will attend Brandon High School when she's older. Maybe she'll even join the Junior ROTC, just like her brother.
For now, the fifth-grader enjoys cheerleading and volunteering on the school safety patrol. Her fluorescent patrol belt gleams as she presses the button for the crosswalk. When the blinking white stick figure flashes, her mom takes her hand.
"That's one thing I'm neurotic about," Bragg said as they walked across the intersection. "She doesn't cross this road without me."
Caitlin Johnston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2443.