Before the sun rose Tuesday, May 9, Amari Kelly's life forever changed.
The teenager awoke to a volley of gunshots just across the hall of his Bridge Walk Drive home in unincorporated Lawrenceville. Startled from deep sleep, it took him a moment to register what the noises were.
Someone ran down the hall past his door and headed downstairs. He assumed, correctly, it was the shooter.
He instinctively ran across the hall to his mother, Melissa's, bedroom - his father, Alton Kelly, slept in another bedroom deeper down the hallway - and found her on the floor with multiple wounds. Fearing the shooter was still in the house, he locked and barricaded her door, grabbed towels in an attempt to stop the bleeding and called 911.
"She wasn't really communicating," the Meadowcreek High senior said this week during a break in preparations for Saturday's Class AAAAAAA state basketball championship game at Georgia Tech. "I could tell her breathing slowed down. I said, 'Mom, stay strong, stay strong.' I could see by the look on her face she was pushing to breathe, pushing to stay strong."
Kelly didn't know at the time that the shooter was his father, according to police.
After leaving his wife's room, Alton Kelly allegedly headed downstairs to a bedroom occupied by his brother-in-law, sister-in-law and their child, and fired multiple shots into the room before attempting to kill himself. Police found him suffering from gunshot wounds, but he survived.
"(My father) had to walk past my room when he was finished (shooting my mother)," Amari Kelly said. "It's a blessing I'm still here. He could have easily came and got me as well. I'm the only one in my house that wasn't shot at."
Though the scary morning was tough to overcome, Meadowcreek teachers and faculty have been amazed at how the star basketball player has handled the adversity. Instead of being overcome by depression, anger or other emotions, the 6-foot-9, 225-pounder has focused his energy on basketball, a college scholarship and making his late mother proud.
"(How he handled the aftermath) says volumes about him," Meadowcreek boys basketball coach Curtis Gilleylen said. "It says he has integrity. He has a good spirit. Anybody could use it as an excuse to fail, to go the wrong way, to turn left. But he used it as a motivation to get better and get stronger. It says volumes about the kid. When I call him in my office, I always tell him, 'What would your mom want you to do?' That's all I ever have say. All he does is shake his head, 'You're right.' He understands the bigger picture. It's not about right now. It's about five years, 10 years from now.
"I wish him all the best. He's been an inspiration for me in my life. I make sure to tell him that constantly. He inspires me. We've had moments where we went at it. But at the end of the day, the kid's been my inspiration and my hero."
Overcoming a tragedy
That May morning, Kelly and his mother huddled together in her bedroom until Gwinnett police broke into the house and made their way upstairs.
Police rushed Kelly, clad in only his underwear, out of the house and into the street because the scene wasn't secure. Then paramedics took his mother to an ambulance. He wanted to join her at the hospital but had to stay behind to give statements to the police.
Melissa Castle-Kelly, 45, was taken to Gwinnett Medical Center, where she died from her injuries.
"My mom was the life of the party," Kelly said. "She made everyone smile. Just a great person, kind-hearted, down to earth. She passed those along to me. To me, she was a superhero. The greatest person in my life."
Alton Kelly now faces felony murder charges and four counts of aggravated assault, police said. Police already had been called to the residence May 6 for domestic-related issues, which were apparent arguments between Alton Kelly and his in-laws, who he wanted to move out.
Amari Kelly hasn't spoken to his father since the murder and said he doesn't have any interest in a conversation.
"My father was acting kind of strange the day before," Kelly said. "He told me what was going on with him and my mom had nothing to do with me. It touched me in some kind of way. I never spoke up about it. I never questioned him on it. I questioned it in retrospect. I could have spoken up and said something to him."
The Meadowcreek community, still new to Kelly after he played his first two high school seasons at Brookwood, rallied around him in the following days, weeks and months.
Gilleylen said he maintained open dialogue with Kelly about any concerns, as did others at the Norcross high school. Kelly's sister moved immediately from New York to help.
Surprisingly, her brother didn't require much extra attention.
"I was there from Day 1, from where we started, when the tragedy first happened, to where we are now," Meadowcreek athletic and activities director LaShawn Smith said. "I'm amazed by his resilience from Day 1. He handled it when adults couldn't handle it. He switched into business mode, managing things, conversations, communication, all the way down to managing the business affairs he had to manage with (his mother) being gone.
"As a school and as an administration team, we made sure Amari had all the support he needed to get through this thing. He's definitely a pillar of the building. He puts a smile on everyone's face when he walks around the building. You can't help but see him (at 6-9). The kids here, as well as the adults, admire him."
Basketball also helped Kelly cope.
The busy AAU season, critical to his college recruitment, arrived shortly after his mother's death. He worked tirelessly on his game and his conditioning, a welcome distraction from a painful memory.
"Honestly, during summertime, it was prime-time AAU, live periods, and I didn't have time to put my head down," he said. "At that moment, I used my mom to fuel me in the summer, to push hard through AAU, to get me through. It worked. I finished with 30 (scholarship) offers."
His first college offer came the week before his mother was taken from him. He signed with Duquesne University (Pa.) in November over his other top choices, Louisiana Tech and Florida Gulf Coast.
"It was a good moment (to sign), but I wish she would have been there," Kelly said. "That's something she always dreamed of, seeing her son go to college and sign papers, make that official. I'm pretty sure up above she was happy looking down."
Kelly knows his mother has enjoyed what has happened since November with Meadowcreek's basketball team, which is in the deepest playoff run in school history.
Her son has been one of the main reasons why the Mustangs are there, providing exceptional defense around the basket for a team that surrenders just 47 points per game. He had 14 points, 11 rebounds, five blocked shots and three assists in a quarterfinal win over Campbell, then had 10 points seven rebounds and a pair of blocks in a semifinal victory over Grayson. He also had 10 points, 11 rebounds and seven blocks in a second-round win at Lambert that avenged last season's playoff loss.
The Meadowcreek coaches expected those types of efforts from Kelly based on his talent, as well as the attitude he displayed over the summer in a time of grieving and throughout the preseason.
"Amari had a great summer," Gilleylen said. "He came in and killed conditioning. I'm talking about killing the guards out on the track, running hard. That's the moment we knew we were going to go a long way, when we saw him running the way he was running, focused the way he was focused."
He had his mother's memory to keep him going.
"I think always had the ability, so it was more of a mindset," Kelly said. "I guess after this summer I realized I'm college material, that I have to push myself harder. I have to run. I tell myself I've got to keep it up. I made it a goal to keep up with the guards or beat the guards."
Meadowcreek officials also have been impressed with how Kelly, a 3.0 GPA student, didn't let his academics slip, either. He plans to major in sports management at Duquesne.
Before any college plans are made, Kelly and his teammates have an important game Saturday at Georgia Tech, where rival Norcross awaits. The Blue Devils have defeated Meadowcreek three times this season, the last two on buzzer-beating shots.
The game will be almost 10 months to the day Kelly watched his mother's final moments on Earth. She will be heavily in his thoughts Saturday, as well as on the minds of many others in the Mustangs' community.
"You've got a 17-year-old kid on his own, still making great decisions," Gilleylen said of Kelly. "He's still seeing the brighter side of things. He's an inspiration for me, no doubt. This season's been great. A perfect way to hopefully end it will be to hold up that state championship trophy up on Saturday. I know Melissa, Amari's mother, will be reaching down trying to touch that trophy, too."