The little girl in the hospital bed put on a brave face.
She said "cheese" when a photographer asked to take her picture yesterday. She tucked into a slice of pizza delivered by a nurse. When asked how she felt, she said, "Fine," in that guarded, sing-song voice small children use with adults they don't know.
But whenever Talayha Mable, who will be 4 years old on July 4, moved her right leg, she twisted her face and cried out as pain seared the spot where a bullet had torn through her calf in a drive-by shooting Monday. Close to tears, her mother kissed her forehead and told her to breathe deeply.
"She has a big gash - you can see the bone," a sleepless Tyria Reid said after stepping outside the hospital room at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center. "But she was very brave. She kept telling me after it happened, 'Mommy, you have to be brave - I'm not crying so you don't cry.'"
Talayha's 2-year-old neighbor Steven Cole Jr., who was also injured in the shooting in West Baltimore's Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, was in the same ward, suffering from a bullet wound in the torso. Both children were listed in serious condition but described as stable.
The shootings of a pair of toddlers on a sweltering night in what Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III said was a "cowardly" and "indiscriminate" gang-related act brought bursts of anger from residents of the rundown Warwick Apartments complex where the kids live, as well as from neighbors nearby.
The shootings, they said, illustrated the callousness of young criminals who fire randomly on civilians, regardless of their age.
"It's the innocent people who get hurt," said Theadora Powell, who moved into an apartment down the street in December with her 14-year-old son, Alex, and plans to leave as soon as her one-year lease is up. "What was the shooting for? It's just messed up. It's mainly the drug dealers. I wish I hadn't moved here. I ain't staying - it's ridiculous."
At a news conference yesterday, Bealefeld described the community as rife with tension from Bloods and Crips. He said a group of men in a dark-colored sedan drove up to the 2400 block of Winchester St. about 10 p.m. Monday and had words with a second group hanging out at the apartment complex. They exchanged gang signs, he said, and someone in the car opened fire with a .45-caliber semi-automatic handgun.
The only people injured were the two children, who had been playing with others in an inflatable pool behind the building and had gone to the front of the building, overlooking the street, when the shots rang out.
Bealefeld said he believes that residents of the block know who is responsible for what he called the "dastardly deed," and he urged them not be afraid of cooperating with the police.
No one saw who fired the shots, said Teneia Wells, a Warwick Apartments resident for four years, because the car had its lights turned off and the street lamps were too dim.
Wells said police had tried to retrieve video from surveillance cameras on the building but were unsuccessful. Bealefeld confirmed that police did not get video of the incident.
"Shooting innocent babies - they've got to be crazy," said Eugene Patterson, a 70-year-old retired truck driver who was mowing his small lawn across the street from the apartment complex. "This is the way the world is - what are you going to do? I hope they catch those guys."
As he spoke, Patterson pointed to a passing white Jeep Cherokee with Virginia plates whose driver, he said, was a regular customer of some of the drug dealers who ply their trade on the block.
Patterson, who said he keeps several weapons in his house for protection, recently gave one - a .22-caliber handgun - to the woman next door. "The police can't do it all," he said, "so the neighborhood has to take up the slack."
The Warwick Apartments complex, between St. Peter's Cemetery to the north and James Mosher Elementary School to the south, has more than 200 units, many occupied by low-income tenants who receive federal Section 8 housing subsidies. Some residents said they have not had working air conditioners in four of five years. Some were outside Monday trying to keep cool before the shootings took place.
The complex was purchased earlier this year by Blue Ocean Realty, which, residents said, is in the process of evicting most of the tenants so that it can refurbish some units. Among those set to leave are Talayha, the little girl who was shot, her two siblings and her parents.
"If they fix 'em up, they'll still shoot 'em up," said Tania Turner, 21, who had brought out the inflatable pool for the kids and whose 3 1/2 -year-old daughter, Genirah, was playing with Talayha when the shooting began.
"Thank God she didn't get hurt," said Turner, who sent Genirah to her grandmother's house yesterday "because of what happened."