MADISON TWP. – He had to fight for the bullets.
The ones that barreled into his lower back when he was 14 and ricocheted around his insides until they lodged into his legs. After surgeons removed them during multiple operations, one lasting four hours, he needed a court order to get them back.
By law, doctors weren’t allowed to give him the bullets.
It took more than a year, but they were eventually returned. And he was proud of them.
Cameron Smith used to look at the two bullets, one smashed in half, as a reminder he could get through anything. A reminder of when his life became a parade of nurses, wheelchair depression and physical-therapy dread.
A reminder that he made it.
It’s harder to look at the bullets now, as an 18-year-old, because they’re also a reminder of all the damage done – and how far he still has to go. Yes, Cameron learned to walk again and ultimately received his GED certificate.
But the bullets are a reminder that Feb. 29, 2016 – and the cafeteria at Madison Schools – will be with him forever.
They’re a reminder of all the ways he will never be normal again.
The first time I met Cameron, his mom was in rehab. And he showed me those bullets within 15 minutes of our first conversation.
In his room at home, the only light comes from a flat-screen television he sits too close to. These days, this is where Cameron spends most of his time. In the winter, because of the cold, it hurts to go outside. And in any weather, it hurts to do much at all.
Cameron was shot during lunch.
At first, he thought it was a paintball gun. He felt something burn and saw red on his clothes. He stepped toward the shooter, thinking this was some type of prank, and collapsed onto the ground.
He broke his hand.
When he looked up, the cafeteria was almost empty. His friend was on the floor beside him screaming. A nurse rolled Cameron onto his back. That’s when he realized the red seeping through his clothes was blood, not paint.
Four years later, Cameron lives life in constant pain – even if you can’t always tell, because he doesn’t want anyone to feel sorry for him. He’s glad he was shot that day, instead of any other terrified students in the lunchroom. He knew he could handle it.
“The shooting wasn’t the worst thing to happen to me,” he says.
Cameron was 4 years old when he found his uncle on the basement floor, dead from a drug overdose. With no father around, this man had been his hero.
He was 12 when he realized his mom used drugs. Living in Clermont County at the time, Cameron missed 80 days of school and failed seventh grade.
During that time, his mom cooked methamphetamine in their home, which he said often made him sick. He would go to his aunt’s house for a few days and start to feel better. Then, he’d return home. He remembers his mom picking up prescriptions for his allergies and nothing else.
Allergy medication, such as Claritin D, can be used to make meth. He remembers he didn’t always get the medication he needed.
Cameron was still in the hospital, after the shooting in 2016, when someone stole his PlayStation from the home where he lived with his grandmother, Mel. He believes his mother stole it. She denies this.
He was 14.
At 17, Cameron went to his dad’s side of the family for Christmas and asked where his father was. The police were probably looking for him, a cousin replied. After all, Cameron’s father owed thousands of dollars in child support.
“It wouldn’t be Christmas without a warrant,” the cousin told him.
After months in a wheelchair, Cameron eventually felt good enough to go to a school dance. The purpose was to raise money for shooting victims at the school.
In the cafeteria, the bullet marks in the lunchroom tables were still visible.
The shooter was someone with deep roots in this rural community, about 40 miles north of Cincinnati. Someone with relatives on the school staff, and a relative who would later run for school board. Someone the community never completely turned their backs on.
Cameron only moved to the area a few months before the shooting.
As time passed, and a new school year started, Cameron and two other students sued the shooter, who pleaded guilty to four counts of attempted murder and was sentenced to juvenile detention until he turns 21.
Twice recently, the boy who was shot called the boy who shot him “the victim.” And that’s what it felt like to Cameron. At some point, he started to feel like the one who did something wrong. Like an outcast who would make the community happier if he just left.
After the lawsuit, some of the very kids who signed the poster wishing him well began mocking him. They clapped near his face when he wasn’t looking, startling him, and he started to think some students had only been nice to him so they could say they knew the kid who got shot.
It’s been almost four years since the shooting, and Cameron is still in physical therapy. He has a service dog, named Honor, that wears a patch: “Not all wounds are visible.”
To this day, Cameron sometimes collapses to the ground because of loud noises. He’s 18 now, with a full beard. The kind of beard his grandmother wishes he would trim.
Cameron often wears a patch on his back, under his clothes. This patch is linked to a machine that transmits small electrical shocks to ease his pain. It shuts off automatically after 30 minutes, but he usually turns it back on.
Before the shooting, Cameron had been diagnosed with scoliosis, a curved spine condition that can cause back pain. The shooting left him with a cracked femur, nerve damage and arthritis. The bullets also struck his tailbone, exacerbating his scoliosis.
Cameron applied for public assistance, because his doctors advise him not to work. It would be too hard on his body, they say. His grandmother, who is 64 and had brain surgery in 2004, cuts their grass.
On a scale from one to 10, Cameron says he usually wakes up at a pain level of three or four. That pain, sometimes an aching, pulling or stabbing in his back, gets worse throughout the day. Even when he’s not doing much.
By the time he goes to bed, it can be an eight or nine.
Cameron used to dream about becoming an entrepreneur or an engineer. Now, he dreams of going to Ohio State for esports – the burgeoning sport of competitive video gaming. But because of his inability to work, and his family’s limited income, even that only seems like a dream.
Cameron plays a lot of video games. To do that, he alternates between sitting and standing, because it hurts to stay in one position too long. Still, he says video games take his mind off the situation.
Even the shooting ones.
In many ways, Cameron is stuck. He had to become a man before he became a teenager.
It’s easy to forget he’s just a boy who drinks Mountain Dew out of beer steins he cools in the freezer. A boy who speaks with a lisp and can’t cook much more than macaroni and cheese or TV dinners.
Another boy shot that day, Cooper Caffrey, spoke in court when the shooter was sentenced. In front of a throng of reporters and tearful family members, Cooper forgave the boy who took his own pain out on his peers.
Cooper and Cameron are no longer friends. Some of this was because Cooper didn’t want to be around Cameron’s mom abusing drugs, and some of it was because of their opposing reactions to the shooting.
The shooter told police he was upset about his parents’ broken relationship and resented his father for fighting with him about grades. The teenager said he was always grounded. After being arrested, a police officer asked the boy why he did what he did.
“So I wouldn’t have to go back home,” he said.
Cameron didn’t like school, but still enjoyed it more than living with his mom. He said he started taking anti-depressants before the shooting and even thought about suicide. Still, the shooter’s explanation made him angry.
“At least your father cared enough to get on you,” he said.
More like a sister
When Cameron’s mother completed a court-ordered rehab program in 2018, she visited her son. He retreated to his room. It had been five months since he last saw her.
A part of him wished she’d been sent to jail, and more than a part of him thought she eventually would.
Christina Smith is barely 5 feet tall. She is 36 years old and, despite her flaws, is full of laughter and energy and seems to delight in bothering her son.
Cameron stopped calling her “mom” when his grandmother got custody of him – something he works on in counseling. He says Christina is more like his sister, or “a friend whose name is mom.”
It’s sometime before Christmas, and Cameron is listening to music so loud it rattles the house. His mom says he got that from her.
Christina walks into his room with a piece of cardboard almost as big as she is. A friend in rehab made it for her, and she looks proud. But Cameron laughs at her because only one person signed it.
She smiles and turns off the lights.
His mom returns a half-hour later and hands Cameron a Bible.
“Don’t do drugs,” she says.
Cameron doesn’t respond, so his mom places the Bible in his lap.
“I don’t need this,” he says. “I already know not to do drugs because of you.”
A sweet moment
Cameron’s grandmother is sitting in a dark living room watching “The Price is Right.”
On a winter day in 2018, their living room is covered in boxes.
Christina is staying with Cameron and his grandmother until she can find her own place. She smokes a cigarette by the front door. And when she sits down, after complaining about the lack of seating, she puts her feet on the only chair left as Cameron walks in.
The teenager pulls her feet off and sits down. Christina then rests her head on his shoulder, and he brushes her off.
“I’m barely touching you,” she says.
Cameron is eating a bag of potato chips, and she puts her head on him again. He elbows her away. When he takes another bite, his mom smashes the chips into his face.
She laughs as her son takes a bowl of French onion dip and splatters thick globs of it into her hair. It might not sound like it, but this was a sweet moment.
They looked happy.
Life with mom
For a long time, Cameron didn’t know where his dad was. His father’s name is not on his birth certificate. And when his grandmother got custody of him, he spoke to his dad for the first time in years.
Cameron told him he wanted to live with Mel but gave his phone number to his father. He got a few texts, but that eventually stopped, and he felt abandoned all over again.
Mel gained custody of Cameron because his mother was evicted from her home – a home described in court documents as “deplorable.” It was infested with lice, the kitchen sink didn’t work and cat urine stained the furniture.
Cameron has seen his mom with a needle in her arm and used to get calls from drug dealers demanding to speak with her. Cameron said his mom often begged for money by saying she needed to feed her kid and then used that money for drugs.
In 2015, according to court documents, Christina illegally sold Cameron’s prescription medication and tested positive for heroin. A judge granted his grandmother temporary custody that summer. That’s when Cameron started going to Madison Schools.
When Mel was granted permanent custody on Jan. 11, 2016, Cameron still thought something could go wrong. He’d learned not to trust adults and wanted to see the paperwork himself.
When it finally came in the mail, more than a month later, they celebrated. On Saturday, they went to Kohl’s and Mel bought him new pants, a shirt and Nike shoes.
The paramedics cut those clothes off him on Monday. And he wouldn’t see them again for months, until pictures from the police investigation were released to the media.
Cameron saw his bloody pants on the news.
This January, Cameron and his grandmother drive 45 minutes each way for physical therapy. They use a truck Cameron’s grandfather gave him when he turned 18. He always promised Cameron the truck, as long as he stayed off drugs and didn’t get anyone pregnant.
Today, Cameron’s in the pool. It’s the place he feels the least amount of pain. The water is warm, and there are at least two fans blowing to keep the surrounding area cool.
Cameron wants to live in Hawaii. It’s always warm there, he says, and the people are nice. He’s lived in Hawaii before, when his grandfather had a construction job there. It’s a place where he says his mom only smoked marijuana.
When asked what he wants his future to look like, Cameron responds without hesitation:
“Nothing like it is now.”
“How do you think you’re going to get out?”
“I have no clue,” he says.