David Jenkins Jr. 4, David Jenkins Sr., and Catherine Jenkins, 8, walk up to school for the first time since the death of Sherdavia Jenkins, 9, who was killed by a stray bullet July 1, 2006 while playing on her porch. (C.W. Griffin/Miami Herald Staff)

Living without a sister

By Audra D.S. Burch
aburch@MiamiHerald.com

Just over six weeks after Sherdavia Jenkins was killed playing outside her Liberty City home, her best friends returned to class -- and her family continued trying to heal.

The little boy skips past Catherine Jenkins on the very first day of school, wanting nothing more than to say he is sorry. The middle of the summer vacation had brought him the news that Catherine's sister Sherdavia, the promising 9-year-old chess champion who aced her latest FCAT at Lillie C. Evans Elementary School, was dead.

''Hey, I am sorry about your sister,'' the boy says, never really making eye contact, and then scooting on to the fourth-grade classes where Sherdavia would have been a student.

Catherine lays her head on a metal rail, covering her face, retreating.

This is the moment she has feared most -- six weeks and two days after her big sister and best friend was shot in the neck while playing outside their home. More than anything, Catherine wants to be back in school, starting third grade, back to something that feels normal, dressed in her favorite plaid pinafore and bright white tennis shoes. And holding tight to her daddy's huge, enveloping hand, she has gotten past the stares, the nods, the awkward hugs. But now, the little boy's words shake her.

''I am happy and sad to be back at school,'' she says. ``I will get to see all my friends, but I am here without my sister. I miss her being with me. I think about her every day.''

Catherine misses how the pair dressed together, rode the Miami-Dade Transit bus together, played together before homeroom and after school.

''We would see each other in the hallways and speak to each other then start laughing, or sometimes we would make faces at each other,'' she says.

In the weeks after Sherdavia's death, Catherine has become a quiet little girl who speaks mostly to ask questions about why July 1 ended with her sister dead. Her parents, David and Sherrone Jenkins, don't have the answers.

''She wants to know the same things I want to know,'' David Jenkins says.

His wife says she has watched her child become empty of personality and appetite. The sisters, who looked and sounded alike, were just 14 months apart. They were roommates, sharing nighttime games under matching Barbie sheets. During the first week after the Jenkinses moved to a safer neighborhood 20 blocks north of the Liberty Square apartment where Sherdavia was killed, Catherine had nightmares: The family is outside the apartment and there are four moons, two suns, giant footsteps, and Shay is still alive.

Not long after Sherdavia died, family members discovered a recording of her voice that was to be used for an uncle's advertisement. Now, they can make a phone call and listen to Sherdavia's tiny, musical voice pitching a book.

''Catherine and Shay were so close. Catherine is so lonely without her. Sometimes I call the number so she can hear her sister's voice,'' says Shirley Williams, the girls' grandmother. ``It makes her happy, brings back good memories.''

AFTERMATH

So much has happened since Sherdavia died that Saturday afternoon. Her parents have moved their four surviving children to a neighborhood with quiet nights and, so far, not one gunshot.

Since Sherdavia's death, three teenagers have been gunned down in Miami-Dade County; authorities report that at least 24 people under 18 have died violently since June 2005. An 18-year-old man murdered Monday in Lauderhill became the 10th teenager shot to death in Broward County since January.

On Aug. 1, exactly a month after Sherdavia died, David and Sherrone rose before dawn, put on their Sunday best and headed for the Miami-Dade criminal courthouse. They went to courtroom 7-2, a plain gray place with harsh, fluorescent lighting, and waited to face the two men -- Leroy ''Yellow Man'' LaRose and Damon ''Red Rock'' Darling -- who stand accused of gunning down their daughter. As a whirl of men in dark suits spoke to the judge, the couple, sitting in the third row, took the most serious vow since their marriage eight years ago -- to attend every court session, routine or extraordinary, until the trial, due to start in November, ends.

''Nothing will stop me from being here. Absolutely nothing,'' Sherrone whispered in the courtroom.

After the hearing, the Jenkinses stood with prosecutors discussing the case, not more than 20 feet from the families of LaRose and Darling. The groups nervously peeked at each other but never spoke. They left in separate elevators.

THERAPY

Back home, the Jenkins family has settled in. Sheronda, 15, and Daryel, 14, Sherdavia's half sister and brother, are at a new high school. They had already been considering transferring from Northwestern before everything changed on that Saturday afternoon, but now neither wants to be so close to the place where Sherdavia died. These days, Sheronda is getting ready for a beauty pageant in Orlando, Daryel escapes into video games, and David Jr., 4, is in kindergarten at Lillie C. Evans.

David regularly attends alcohol-counseling sessions, and last week, for the first time, the family participated in grief therapy.

''Each of us has tried to deal with this in our own way,'' says Sheronda.

But it is Catherine, the baby girl of the family, who seems to feel the loss most acutely.

''Catherine is very expressive of what she feels. She is angry, sad and scared,'' says the grief counselor with the mobile crisis-counseling center. ``All of those feelings are OK. Healing is a long process.''

LOST FRIEND

On Friday, Carol Kniseley, a preschool teacher at St. Thomas Episcopal School, brought flowers to Lillie C. Evans to be planted in a butterfly garden dedicated to Sherdavia. She wanted something beautiful to blossom in the atrium of the elementary school that Shay had attended since kindergarten.

''This was a little girl that died, and I saw the the picture of her mother and father, and I knew what they were feeling. My own son, David, died suddenly two years ago, so I had instant compassion for the parents,'' Kniseley says. ``Then I thought, it wasn't just the parents so I wanted something to do for [her brother and sister at Lillie C. Evans] and the school.''

Three days later, Larry Pye and Sachin Balgobin are outside talking about the loss of their best friend. The three had been in the same class since first grade, sitting together, playing chess and basketball. Teachers called them three peas in a pod.

''She was so nice and great to play with,'' says Larry. ``It's not the same without her.''

''We never got into fights, we played as a team every day,'' says Sachin.

''Inseparable. The three of them were inseparable,'' says Principal Reginald Johnson.

FATHER'S HOPES

David Jenkins wishes for the first day of school to be better than these last days of summer, wishes for Catherine, his precious little girl once full of giggles, to come back.

The pair, hand in hand, walks to her homeroom. Catherine reads the names of some of her classmates from a list posted outside.

''I see I have friends in here. That's good,'' she says, relieved.

They go in, and Catherine finds her seat. She begins coloring her name on a desk sign in shades of blue. Daddy stands next to her until she finally gives him the signal it is OK to leave.

And then, something sweet and perhaps, unexpected: She smiles.