VALRICO — Danielle James slips on a pink helmet, turns off the garage lights and walks over to the dusty motorcycle.
"Watch this. This is so cool," the 9-year-old says, flipping a switch near the ignition. Bright green beams along the side of the bike glow in the darkness.
She runs her hands across the leather seat where her dad always sat. She points out the nook where she sat behind him.
She turns the garage lights back on.
"No more motorcycle rides," she says. '' 'Cause Daddy died."
No more Sunday afternoon basketball games either. No dad pushing her on the swing set and nobody calling her Chuggabug. This is what 41-year-old David James left behind when he was shot dead last year in front of his daughter, in a neighborhood argument over a skateboarder.
Danielle talks about it often, in a matter-of-fact way. But ask her about it — how she feels about it — and she shrugs an "I dunno," then gets distracted.
Her mom and older brother watch, not sure how or whether to intervene. They're waiting for the moment reality sets in.
"Danielle's coping," Kanina James said. "But I'm worried."
• • •
On Sept. 26, 2010, the day David James died, he and Danielle were shooting baskets.
Sometimes he would yell out "Gonna get it!" as the ball flew toward the hoop. After a while, Danielle started yelling it, too.
They were only using half the court. When a 14-year-old skateboarder asked to use the other half, Danielle's dad said yes.
Then the man came.
Danielle had never seen him before, but now she knows his name.
"Trevor Dooley was mad about the skateboarder," she said.
Her dad stood up for the teen, asking Dooley to point out anything that said NO SKATEBOARDS on the court.
"I was too scared to show my dad the sign," Danielle said. It's on the fence at the park's edge.
What happened next is hard for her to talk about.
There was a gunshot.
"It was loud," Danielle said.
It made her jump, like when the burglar alarm goes off, but sounded more like BOOM!
Danielle's dad was lying on the ground when the sheriff's deputies got there. They let Danielle sit in the back of an ambulance while she waited for her mom.
When Kanina James came, the paramedics started packing up.
"Why aren't they helping Daddy?" Danielle asked.
"Because it's too late," Kanina said. "Daddy went to heaven."
Danielle knew what that meant. A few months earlier, her pet fish, Blue, died, and her mom and dad said it was permanent.
• • •
Witnesses and Hillsborough County sheriff's officials said it happened like this:
Dooley approached the court telling the skateboarder he wasn't allowed. James protested.
Dooley, who had a concealed weapons permit, started to walk away with a gun partially visible in his waistband. James called after him and Dooley turned back. James lunged, and they both tumbled to the ground.
James, a 20-year Air Force veteran, was kneeling on top of Dooley when the gun went off.
Dooley, 70, was charged with manslaughter two days later.
His trial date has not been set.
• • •
In the days after the shooting, Danielle spent a lot of time crying. She didn't want to play with her friends. She had to tell a lady from the Sheriff's Office all about how her dad died.
One day her big brother, Garrett — Kanina's 18-year-old son from another marriage whom David James adopted — asked Danielle if she understood what happened.
Yes, she told him.
Did she understand it wasn't her fault?
Yes, she said.
Then she asked her brother, "How do I get to heaven to be with Daddy?"
Garrett didn't say anything back.
• • •
Sometimes Danielle talks about her father as if he's still here, but then reminds you, "Daddy died."
What does she miss the most?
If she could talk to Daddy, what would she tell him?
"Do you ever feel lonely?" she asks.
• • •
After the shooting, Danielle was scared. She loved the basketball court, but didn't want to go back because if the man came outside again, her dad wouldn't be there to protect her.
Then Danielle found out the man was in jail. She went back to the court. Someone had stuck a bunch of small American flags in the grass where her dad died, and she wanted to take one home. She put it in her front yard.
After a month, Danielle returned to classes at Lithia Springs Elementary.
She started going to a school grief counseling group, where she told other kids that her dad was a hero.
"He saved skateboarders," Danielle said. "Somebody made a bad choice."
Last month, the school held a father-daughter dance. For a week, Danielle practiced her dance moves — dipping and spinning around the house. She decided to wear a brown dress with pink polka dots and white high-heeled shoes.
She went to the dance with a next-door neighbor.
"It was okay," she said.
• • •
In a corner of her room, under a pile of other toys and stuffed animals, Danielle keeps a glued-together puzzle of a forest.
"Me and my dad made it."
She tosses it aside. "Want to see these?" she asks, showing a collection of cat figurines.
Her mom says Danielle acts almost like she did when her dad was deployed with the Air Force.
But Danielle says she knows this is different.
"He used to go away for a long time," she says. "Then he came home."
She wears one of his T-shirts to bed every night. She also keeps his motorcycle vest hanging in her closet, next to her witch costume from Halloween.
The last time she saw him was at the funeral. She looked at his face and told him she'd miss the motorcycle.
Now his ashes sit in a red-white-and-blue urn on an entryway table. The other day, Danielle was playing with a teddy bear that usually sits next to it, throwing the bear in the air and catching it, when the urn's top tipped off.
She stopped, put the bear down and set the lid back.
• • •
Sometimes Danielle sees her mom crying and asks why. "Because I miss Daddy so much," Kanina tells her.
Danielle says, "I miss Daddy, too."
She knows her mom must be really sad, because she cries a lot. And sleeps a lot.
Sometimes her mom talks to pictures of Danielle's dad on the wall. Or cries when she sees the bag of his clothes in the garage, the junk mail addressed to him, the dirty air filter he would have replaced.
The other day Danielle was singing her mom a song she wrote, called, Mother's Day, strumming along with her plastic pink guitar:
"Mother's Day is next week. You know that, right? Good. You need to get your mother something good —
Or she'll be sad. …"
Danielle doesn't know all the things in her mom's head. If she did, she would know Danielle and her brother are the reason her mom bothers to get up in the morning.
She'd know that her mom is lonely. And that she feels guilty. Angry. Helpless.
She would know her mom is afraid that one day Danielle will hurt the same way.
Danielle looks up after the song and then plays another called, It's Time for Bed.
"Just close your eyes and fall asleep. … Have sweet dreams, not nightmares."
Her mom claps, then goes to take a nap.
Danielle grabs her basketball.
• • •
When she gets to the court, Danielle runs to a shaded spot in the grass.
"Wanna see what those flags are for? I'll tell you," she said. "That's where my dad died."
After nearly eight months, two are left. Faded. One is ripped down the middle and missing its plastic pole.
Danielle bends down and gently straightens them up, hooking the tattered one around the other so it won't blow away.
She hums a tune, leans close and whispers:
"Don't leave. You don't leave ever."
Then she skips away.
Reach Kim Wilmath at email@example.com or (813) 226-3337.