A little over 48 hours after her son's death, Cheri Brown voice kept calm and steady over the phone.
"At the moment, I'm being as strong as I can," she said. "We're just trying to function."
Cheri Brown and her husband, Jeff, have opened their home to friends of their son, Aaron Brown, who was shot by an off-duty Alexandria police officer outside an International House of Pancakes restaurant early Saturday morning. Aaron, their only child, was 18 years old, a promising guitarist who chose to attend Northern Virginia Community College after graduating from Annandale High School in June because he didn't want his parents to "spend that kind of money" to send him to college further away.
"My son's friends and all their families have been here since Saturday night," Cheri Brown said. "We've had some pretty horrible crying jags together."
Sitting on her piano are pictures of her son, along with a cowboy hat he loved and a drum cymbal signed by his friends. They provide her comfort, small tokens of a life cut short.
"I haven't been able to bring myself to go into his room yet," she said. "There's been a mix of emotions between being angry and puzzled and aghast. It's all so unreal."
AARON AND A FEW FRIENDS were at the International House of Pancakes early Saturday morning. Reports from Alexandria police indicate that they left the restaurant, possibly without paying for their meals, and got into a 1996 Jeep Cherokee driven by Stephen C. Smith. An off-duty Alexandria police officer, Carl Stowe, was working security at the restaurant that night and allegedly went out after the teenagers. When they tried to drive away, reports indicate Stowe pulled out his police-issued Glock handgun and fired several shots into the vehicle. Aaron, who was sitting in the back seat of the vehicle, was shot and killed.
Cheri Brown said her son's friends have been coming to her house for years to hang out. It was a home they felt welcome in, one in which their parents knew they would not have access to alcohol.
"His friends help me," she said. "All of the boys are about the same shape, tall, skinny kids. When I'm hugging one of them, it helps me."
Sunday night, his friends gathered on the floor of their living room, sharing stories about Aaron.
"He was the kind of guy that would be driving down the street, see someone, get out of the car and give them a hug," Cheri Brown said.
She doubts that her son and his friends would have left the restaurant without paying their bill.
"He would've been able to handle the situation better. If he were driving the car that night, he would've stopped," she said.
However, she thinks Stephen Smith, the driver that night, "was probably in desperation."
While a police investigation continues into what happened Saturday morning continues, Cheri Brown said her anger has been replaced by a deeper feeling.
"The loss is so much stronger," she said. "It's just insurmountable right now."
ON A WOODEN FENCE outside the restaurant and Comfort Inn where Aaron was shot, a memorial has sprung up, filled with pictures and tokens of affection.
His friends have written notes to Aaron, calling him the "epitome of a great human being," "the greatest guitar player." A blue guitar pick has been affixed to the wall with an almost unreadable message in small black letters.
One girl wrote to Aaron: "Hey friend, it didn't take much for anyone to fall in love with you ... You know you'll always have a place in our hearts because your kindness is truly everlasting. P.S., You have taught me how to be a patient and kind person. I'll always remember you for that. We love you Aaron."
The memorial has drawn the attention of people who didn't know Aaron or his family, but felt compelled to stop.
"I was just out for a ride and decided to drop by," said Andy Remson, an Annandale resident who does not know Aaron or his family. "It's a shame this happened. There are no words that I can say that could be appropriate for his family. It's too bad, it's just too bad."
Glen Horning's daughter attended Annandale High School with Aaron, and the two of them used to hang out together in Horning's house after school.
"Aaron was an excellent kid. He was the most gentle, wonderful person you'd ever want to know," he said, approaching the memorial.
Horning said he "can't imagine" Aaron and his friends walking out of the restaurant without paying; the group of friends Aaron and his daughter hung around with frequented that particular IHOP.
"There's something that just doesn't seem right about the whole thing," he said.
Horning said that he was going to miss seeing Aaron around.
"I have two wonderful daughters," he said. "If I would've had a son, I would've picked Aaron."
Aaron Brown is survived by his parents, Jeff and Cheri Brown of Springfield.