Under a blistering sun, 9-year-old Lakiya Bradford sits on her front steps in East Baltimore and points a chubby finger at a tiny scar, remembering the day blood poured out of her chest.
In the same part of town, William McGowan, 11, proudly shows friends the bumps in the back of his head -- two dozen embedded shotgun pellets.
Meanwhile, an East Baltimore mother, Cynthia Brown, is haunted by thoughts of the day someone pumped a shotgun blast through a front window and injured her two teen-age daughters.
Another mother, Aleta Harrison, whose 16-year-old son was shot in the leg, says the only fortunate people in her East Baltimore neighborhood are those who move out.
You're more likely to leave in a "paddy wagon or a hearse," she says.
In a year thick with violence, residents of some parts of Baltimore have witnessed more and more youngsters felled by gunfire.
Children have been gunned down outside churches, in the protective arms of family friends, in their own homes.
"God forbid you get in the way," says Officer Richard Long 3rd, who investigates shootings in the Eastern District, site of most of the random gunfire.
The bullets have ripped through tiny bodies and young hearts.
In the aftermath, the innocents and their families struggle with fear and anger, with nightmares and pain.
As of Sept. 7, the Johns Hopkins Children's Center in East Baltimore had treated 20 gunshot victims this year who were under age 16, compared with 21 for all of last year.
The Police Department doesn't keep statistics on numbers of young shooting victims, most of whom are innocent bystanders. But officials can't recall as many young gunshot victims in any other year.
"It's happening more and more," says Long.
Drug trafficking is a big factor, he says. "The drug dealers and their enforcers just don't care. They're indiscriminate and they want to send out a message. All they care about is their drugs and their money."
The first fatality came on the first day of summer when Tezara Horsey, 13, was shot in the head while visiting a friend in an East Baltimore house. She died six days later at Johns Hopkins Hospital. A 14-year-old boy, charged as a juvenile with manslaughter, told police he did not think the .22-caliber revolver was loaded when he pointed it at Tezara.
Next came Tiffany Smith, a pretty 6-year-old with pigtails, who died July 9 from a 9mm blast to her head. A stray bullet hit Tiffany as she played in front of a friend's West Baltimore home. Two men had decided to settle a dispute with guns, police said.
A month later, Shanika Day, 3, was killed when two men opened fire on a crowded street corner in Walbrook Junction. A 19-year-old man who tried to shield the child in his arms was shot five times in the back and killed. Two of the bullets passed through his body and killed Shanika. The child's mother also was injured.
For every child killed in a cross-fire, there are many more young survivors of shootings. Their wounds serve as a sort of badge of courage in an urban battleground. Here are some of their stories:
As her 9-year-old daughter, Lakiya, lay in an operating room, Jennifer Queen said a tearful prayer in the solitude of a restroom at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
"I know I'm not perfect, Lord," the mother implored. "I did things in my life. But please, Lord, let my daughter live."
RF Lakiya Bradford did survive -- with a bullet fragment lodged forev
er in her chest.
Outside her home on North Luzerne Avenue the other day, Lakiya pointed at a scar, the size of a pencil eraser, below her right shoulder.
One night in July Lakiya bought a snowball for 60 cents outside a church two blocks from home. She nearly paid with her life.
A stray bullet ripped through her chest and came to rest an inch from her heart. Lakiya remembers her friends laughing when she said it was a bee sting.
"Something went in my chest," Lakiya recalls. "I fell on the ground and it hurt to breathe or talk. People were laughing at me because I thought it was a bee."
Lakiya cried all the way home and a neighbor drove her to Johns Hopkins Hospital. Jennifer Queen thought her daughter was injured by a BB gun. "The hole was so tiny," Queen says.
The mother said a prayer when she heard a doctor say that Lakiya had a bullet wound.
"When she was in the operating room, I didn't know if she was dead or alive," says Queen. "The doctor told me the bullet was an inch from her heart. Every day I'm thankful she's alive."
The girl was out of the hospital in a week. And a few days later she was back out playing with friends. But she stays in front of the house; Lakiya and her sisters are afraid to walk to the snowball stand.
In this East Baltimore neighborhood, ravaged by drugs and controlled by guns, children grow up fast, residents say.
Jennifer Queen, 36, is always wary. She lives here with her six children, ranging from 2 to 17 years. "Six kids and no man around," she says. "I'm always looking back."