Alyssa Dudley stares down a hospital corridor.
She sits in a wheelchair, gripping the arm rests with her purple-lacquered fingertips. A crash helmet protects her head. Her feet are firmly planted.
"You can do it, baby,'' her mother says. "Just get to the door.''
Alyssa is 21. Her task today: Learning again to walk.
• • •
On July 16, Alyssa's former boyfriend stormed into her St. Petersburg apartment and shot her three times, twice in the head. Carlos Crompton, 39, then drove to his family's house on 14th Avenue S. He shot at police officers. They fired back, killing him.
That night, surgeons at Bayfront Health St. Petersburg worked for hours to pull bullet and bone fragments from Alyssa's brain. She woke three days later.
"By that point, we didn't care how we got her back," said Alyssa's mom, Diana Dudley, who now lives in Dover. "We just wanted her back."
At first, Alyssa could only open her eyes, blink and look to the left. Gradually, she began recognizing her family. She started wiggling her left limbs, but struggled to move her right. After doctors removed the tube from her throat, she tried to talk.
"But nothing came out," Diana said. "Until one morning. I asked her how she was doing. I almost cried when she said, 'Good. Good.' "
Alyssa now speaks in short bursts: "yes" or "no" or "see you later." She doesn't seem to remember what happened. She hasn't asked about Crompton, who she had dated for three years.
For now, she eats only pureed foods. Her aunt brings containers of blended spaghetti and mashed potatoes. On Tuesday, her mom noticed chocolate on Alyssa's mouth. The 21-year-old giggled and pulled back her blanket.
"She was hiding two cookies in the hospital bed," Diana said. "Her roommate's visitor had slipped them to her. She thought it was the funniest thing in the world."
Alyssa started rehab at the hospital about two weeks ago, working with physical therapists and speech pathologists.
"She makes progress every day," her mother said. "Every single day."
• • •
Alyssa graduated from Dixie Hollins High School in 2010. She bought a 1996 Honda Accord and moved out of her parents' St. Petersburg house. She smoothed a cling-on quote over her new apartment's door: Go confidently.
Alyssa worked at an assisted living home. She cracked jokes with the elderly residents. She cried when rooms became vacant.
She embellished T-shirts for friends with neon acrylic paint and glitter. Diana suggested she sell them.
"Alyssa said, 'No, Mom. I have to know the person. It has to represent their personality.' That's the kind of girl she is. Caring and creative."
She met Carlos Crompton through friends. He was quiet, respectful and prayed before meals. Her parents worried about the age difference.
"But we knew she was mature, independent and very responsible," her mother said. "We knew she was sick of the games guys her age would play. We wanted to give her space."
Arguments started when Crompton, who was arrested years ago on drug charges and never found steady work, moved in with Alyssa.
"She paid the rent, the bills," Diana said. "He'd contribute here and there, but she was always pulling the weight."
Days before the shooting, Alyssa broke up with Crompton and took back his apartment keys. She asked her mom to change her cellphone number.
On July 16, she was at home with a friend and that woman's 14-year-old daughter.
Around 8:30 p.m., Diana's cellphone started ringing.
"It was the 14-year-old, crying so hard I couldn't understand her at first. She said, 'Alyssa's on the ground. Carlos shot her.' "
• • •
Alyssa's mom and dad, Eddie, left work to stay with her full time. They read her face, sense her moods. They hold her hand, paint her nails, play Usher and Keyshia Cole — her favorite singers. The family's only income now is $350 a week in paid leave from Diana's employer. She dreads the hospital bills. She doesn't know how they'll cover Alyssa's future care.
"We're going to find a way," Diana said. "We have to be here. We want to give her a chance to live the best life possible."
• • •
It's too soon to know how fully Alyssa will recover.
Dr. Steven Scott, a trauma expert at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa, said every brain injury — and every patient's response to treatment — is different.
"Victims of brain trauma do much better when they're surrounded by the love of family," he said. "I believe compassion and caring will do more than what we can do with medicine."
• • •
Alyssa rises from the wheelchair. She grabs the hallway's plastic railing.
"Okay, honey," says a physical therapist, hovering nearby. "Take your time."
She puts weight on her right leg — the one she couldn't move for weeks. She steadies herself. Takes a step forward. Then another, faster. Another.
"Oh my God," her mother says, tearing up. "Alyssa!"
She reaches the door, her finish line.
"Do you want to do that again?"
Alyssa nods yes.