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Melody Ross touches the world

Sixteen years. Not long enough.

Not long enough for Melody Ross to get her driver's license. Nor to maneuver the perils and promise of high school, much less college. Not long enough to figure out where life might take her. Nor actually to live it.

She was gunned down on a Long Beach street, in front of her beloved Wilson High School, when the air was still suffused with the frolic of the hauntingly named homecoming game. An alleged gang member fired into a crowd of hundreds. Two men were hit. And a bullet flew into the side of Melody Ross, who until that moment nine days ago was fixed on the trivial excitements of junior year.

Within seconds her beckoning smile was stilled, 16 years and a month after her birth, and that could have been the end of it. But the grief of family and close friends rippled outward last week, unexpected, unforeseen.

In a matter of days, there were candlelight vigils and bake sales to help with the funeral. Songs and raps were written, filmed and sent out to the world, in her honor, via the Internet. Thousands of friends and strangers, kids and parents poured their emotions out to her on a memorial Web page, talking to her as if she were reading their words. Black shirts were worn in her honor in Long Beach. And in Washington. And Pennsylvania. And Canada.

It was not that she was elite, or a superstar, or necessarily headed for international greatness. It was just that she was a normal kid -- friendly, embracing, kind, close to her family, a permanent smile on her face. It was just that her life was not long enough. But it was long enough to matter.

::

Tori Rowles and Melody were inseparable. They conspired to go to college together. They would be fashion designers; the future beckoned. Tori was next to Melody when she fell.

The next day, Tori and a few others went to that spot. A plan arose, to wear black shirts for Melody. A memorial tribute with a rebel twist: It broke the Wilson dress code.

The kids took to their version of Paul Revere's lanterns -- texting on their cellphones. On Monday morning, thousands wore black. Not just at Melody's home school but also at Poly, the crosstown rival that Wilson had played in the homecoming game. And at Lakewood High School, and Millikan. And at the local colleges, where siblings spread word. And further than that.

"It's really strange, though," said Tori, still trying to choke her words out past the sobs. "We were just kidding about doing it. . . . "

Dylan Vassberg was not particularly close to Melody; they had shared a chemistry class. He didn't believe the news at first -- "she was just such a nice girl; she was always smiling" -- but once it sank in he started a Facebook page in her honor. "Just to make a place for people to talk," he said. Within 24 hours there were 1,100 members. By the end of last week the number approached 4,000.

Word spread on Facebook too, of wearing black, and kids signed up. Across the country Emma Barnes wore black at Penn, which she's attended since graduating from Wilson in 2008. Her little sister had a class with Melody.

"High school students just don't die in the arms of their peers on homecoming night," she said. "That is something that will stay with the students forever."

Emily Frake, another Wilson grad, wore black at Gonzaga University in Spokane. Coincidentally, her school was holding a weeklong event called "Random Acts of Kindness" and she was supposed to spend an hour giving out hugs. When the hour was up, she blew off studying and spent a second hour on hugs.

"I realized that these moments are the ones that matter," she said. "After Melody's death, it's pretty clear that this world needs a little more love. . . . Even if I only made a little difference, it's still a difference."

The Facebook page overrun by Melody's fans reads like a high-tech recording of the stages of grief. Despair, anger, compassion, humor -- from her family and friends but also, strikingly, from people she never knew. Thoughts spill out both in text shorthand and perfect grammar, often posted in the night-owl hours kept by teenagers, from the first day through the memorials and, finally, the arrest of her alleged killer. He, like Melody, age 16.

"You're still here. I know it, I can feel it," said one disbelieving friend.

"What is wrong with us? We are killing off all the few good-hearted souls we have left," said another.

"I just wanna send my condolences and prayers to the family of Melody Ross. We all need to unite and quit with all this nonsense of bangin. None of that ain't worth it," said a Poly student.

"You don't know how much everyone loves you! It's ridiculous!" said a Wilson friend.

"He was Melody's age. I can't even believe it," said another.

And from one boy, who did not know Melody: "Your story is a true testament of how love can find its way around, even in the darkest of times."

::

Trying to figure out tragedy is hard enough for adults, much more for kids whose lives are organized on the presumption of immortality. They are making their way.

From Tori, who barely escaped herself: "I feel like I'm not going to be as cautious. It can just happen to anybody at any time. I want to live my life for the both of us. I want to try to make the best of it."

From Dylan, whose memorial continues to grow: "Anybody who ever knew her, even just a little bit, like me, they are going to remember her face. Forever, if you think about it. . . . It's not like it's going to go away. It's everywhere. It's engraved in everybody's hearts."

"Every kid our age -- we don't ever think we're going to die. We never think that. We think we're going to college and we're going to have a long life and die of old age. Not die because someone decided to shoot a gun. We never think of that. It's not something that crosses our mind ever. Not even fathomable, really."

cathleen.decker@latimes.com

Each Sunday, The Week examines implications of major stories. It is archived at latimes.com/theweek.
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