HOMOSASSA — Hunter Ciampa's oldest friend is a yellow bird named Ducky. Ducky is a stuffed animal, void of stuffing. He resembles a novelty slipper matted with dirt. He has disappeared many times and, over the years, lost a wing and a tongue, both since replaced.
Boy and bird have gone through a lot together.
Hunter, who is 6, explains their relationship from his grandparents' back patio in Homosassa. He slouches back on a wicker sofa, with Ducky sprawled across his chest. They have been close since the boy was a baby and still lived with his mother.
This part, about his mother, seems to remind Hunter of something else.
"We don't have to go back to court," he declares. "Mommy have to be in jail forever."
"Not forever," says his cousin, Ashleigh Dukes, sitting a few feet away. "Just a long time."
Hunter's mother is 27-year-old Crystal Jean Ciampa. Last month, she pleaded guilty to nine felonies, including six counts of horrid abuse against her son. She was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Her crimes drew national attention when they were first reported in April 2011. The allegations were nauseating: She beat Hunter, sliced his hands with a cake cutter and seared his skin with cigarette lighters. On freezing winter nights and in driving rainstorms, she locked him outside. The worst was the closet, a 4-by-4-foot cell where she imprisoned him for hours in darkness.
Of Ciampa's five sons, fathered by three different men, she abused only Hunter. She said it was because he reminded her of his father, her ex-husband.
Drooped atop the sofa, Hunter looks much different now. The black rings that long ago swelled around his Pacific blue eyes have receded. The burn that scarred the back of his left hand has faded. The 42 bruises that once discolored his creamy white skin have disappeared.
But on the inside, Hunter has not healed. He still remembers. All of it.
Doctors have diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder and prescribed the same antipsychotic medication given to combat veterans who have witnessed and delivered death.
A little more than a year ago, Hunter and his one full-blooded brother, Tyler, 5, moved in with their paternal grandparents, Pat and Mike Ciampa. The boys' father, Keith, briefly cared for the children after his ex-wife's arrest. He has since been imprisoned on an unrelated charge.
Pat and Mike didn't hesitate to take in the boys, but their care is demanding. It has strained their patience, their health and their marriage.
She is 65. He is 68.
Pat prays that God gives the couple 15 more years on earth. She knows the boys, and especially Hunter, need them. His recovery consumes nearly every hour of their lives.
The violence inflicted by his mother lingers inside Hunter. Sometimes, it comes out.
His grandparents refer to those moments as "episodes." He screams, kicks, hits, bites, scratches, spits and breaks anything he can reach.
He has gone through five counselors, three psychiatrists and two kindergartens.
About a month ago, though, the family moved into a new house with a pool and a bigger yard. Hunter's doctor put him on Ritalin. His nightmares have diminished, and the fits of rage have become less frequent. He makes eye contact more. He tells Pat and Mike — "Mimi" and "Papa" — he loves them.
Sometimes, for entire days, he looks and acts and sounds like a regular boy.
He's doing so well, his grandparents welcomed a reporter to talk to him and a photographer to take his picture. Hunter, Pat says, has nothing of which to be ashamed.
On a recent morning, as Hunter sits on the patio and talks about Ducky and court and his mother, he is having one of his good days.
"Are you happy Mommy is gone?" Ashleigh, 23, asks him.
Hunter hears the question, but doesn't look at her. He wraps both arms around the bird and pulls his friend close.
He nods, yes.
• • •
Hunter bounces off the sofa and tiptoes into the house, searching for something. His room is all boy: a Lightning McQueen bedspread, a Phineas and Ferb toy guitar, a wall clock that blares train noises.
He doesn't have as many toys as he once did. He donated several to Crystal River's Agape House, an organization that helps needy families. He volunteered pickup trucks, painting tools and a wooden rocking horse.
"I wanted to be nice," he says.
He scampers back onto the patio with a book in his hand. On its front are the words: "What we want to be when we grow up …"
Hunter's page is near the middle. On one side he wrote, "I want to be a doctor because I love them." On the other, he crayoned some semblance of a doctor's office and, in the sky above it, a smiley face.
He can't quite explain why he wants to be a doctor. There are many things he can't explain. He makes squeezing and twisting motions with his hands, as if his fingers will say the words for him. The ideas are inside his head, he just doesn't always know how to push them out.
Even when they do come, his speech is often hard to understand. His words smash together, and if he can't untangle them, Hunter just repeats himself.
The abuse, doctors say, has set him back years. He sees therapists for his speech and motor skills.
He played basketball and soccer last year, but he could barely kick or toss or even run without falling.
Hunter will try sports again next year.
The book about growing up reminds him of school, which reminds him that he's embarrassed to talk about it. He began kindergarten at Inverness Christian Academy and had trouble from the start.
One day around December, he attacked a physical education teacher. The cold, his grandparents explain, is a trigger. It reminds him of all those winter evenings on the porch outside his mother's mobile home.
Weeks later, the school was locked down after a nearby bank was robbed. When Hunter realized the doors were locked and he couldn't get out, he snapped and struck a receptionist.
Hunter left Inverness Christian for another school in January.
"I could not stop my 'havior," Hunter says of why he changed schools.
"Like I can't hold. I can't. I can't. I can't," he pauses. "I hit somebody or something like that."
Hunter doesn't think he'll hit people in first grade.
• • •
It's lunchtime. Hunter's turn to pick the place.
"Home Depot," he decides. His dimples punctuate both sides of a satisfied grin. He likes the hotdogs the man sells at the stand near the front entrance.
Pat talks him into the Sugarmill Family Restaurant, a mostly breakfast place just down the road. Hunter relents.
The boys squeeze into a booth, bookended by their grandparents. Tyler orders chocolate milk and pancakes drowned in syrup. Hunter gets orange juice, apple sauce and a grilled cheese sandwich.
At this moment, Hunter seems no different than any other child.
He latches onto the straw and downs half the juice in one draw. He pokes the tip of his finger into the applesauce, then licks it. He cuts the crust off his toast with a butter knife.
"We got angel kisses coming," Pat says, leaning over him. "What are angel kisses?"
"Freckles," he says.
As lunch nears its end, something changes.
He lays his head down on Pat's lap and studies the ceiling. He pops back up and scans the room. His eyes jump from one person to the next. He begins to talk to himself and motion with his hands.
He looks detached.
Pat has seen this look. She glances at her watch and picks a pill from her purse.
Hunter opens his mouth.
• • •
Back in the family's Honda Pilot, Hunter is feeling better. Like a tour guide, he points out notable locations as they pass.
That's the way home. That's where I learned to swim. That's where our friend's house burned down.
The next stop is Fancy's Pets, one of the kids' favorite spots in town.
Tyler immediately makes a friend, a stubble-headed boy in flip-flops. They run around the store, pressing their noses to fish tanks and poking their fingers through bird cages. Hunter hangs back, clutching Ducky, and reminds his brother not to touch anything.
When an employee pulls an albino ferret named Gandolf from a glass tank, Tyler holds out his hands and carries it like a football.
"Go see him," Mike says to Hunter.
"I see him."
"You want to go see him?"
"I see him."
Hunter shakes his head and tiptoes backward. He walks on his toes almost all the time now, as if he doesn't want anyone to notice him. Doctors have told his grandparents the extreme cruelty he experienced likely makes him do that.
Hunter walks with Mike to a row of dog collars. The boy thinks about Poochie, the mutt that lived with him at his mother's house. On those awful nights, the dog used to sleep outside on the porch with Hunter and Ducky.
Poochie was hit by a car just before Hunter left the mobile home.
Hunter still prays about it. He wonders if the dog will come back.
• • •
The last and most important stop of the day is Walmart.
All week, Hunter has wanted a camera. It's finally time.
He picks up a $549 Nikon. Pat pulls a disposable off a nearby hook. The two-pack, one for both boys, costs $8.42.
Later, in his room, Hunter crawls beneath the desk.
He flicks on the flash and photographs a crude blue and yellow wooden plane, then a construction paper gingerbread man, then a pile of colored feathers. Hunter is planning a yard sale and needs to catalog his inventory.
His grandparents took him to a recreational vehicle show a few weeks ago, and he has been saving to buy one ever since. He already has $47 stowed in a red and green candy tin.
He wants to go camping.
"It's my favorite thing to do," Hunter says. He knows because he went once with his cousins.
He plans to fish and swim and roast marshmallows on a stick. He needs the RV so his whole family can come.
Hunter, Tyler, Mimi, Papa and, of course, Ducky.
Times photographer Will Vragovic contributed to this report. John Woodrow Cox can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8472. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnWoodrowCox.