BUFFALO, N.Y. — Bleeding from the chest and stomach, where the knife had ripped her open, 15-year-old Zayra Pagan called the police.
She had been stabbed maybe 10 times—so many that she had lost count.
9-1-1, she dialed. A recording told her to stay on hold. The line was busy.
Frantic, Zayra hung up and tried her brother instead. When she couldn’t get through, she picked another number and reached a friend. She needed to tell someone what was happening: Downstairs, the man who had attacked her was trying to kill her mother.
The call took all of Zayra’s energy. Exhausted, she sat down. Pain came for the first time, overpowering the adrenaline that had kept her numb.
She floated in and out of consciousness. The police arrived. A gunshot rang out. A firefighter gave her oxygen. She continued to bleed. She felt her body lifted onto a stretcher.
“I’m going to die,” she told the paramedics.
When Zayra awoke in the hospital later that day, her mother, Maria Pagan, was dead. Their West Side apartment, once alive with the aroma of Maria’s Puerto Rican cooking, now reeked of blood.
The attacker, Maria’s jealous ex-boyfriend, had survived despite being shot by police when he refused to drop his weapon.
The assault took place on Jan. 17, 2011. The violence unfolded with the force of an avalanche; sudden and ferocious, it erupted, obliterated everything in its path, and was gone. It was over in minutes.
In the long days afterward, Zayra and her brother Emanuel were left to do what all crime victims must: rebuild.
Alone in the world, the siblings assumed the burdens of adulthood. There were bills to pay, groceries to buy. Emanuel, 21, took custody of Zayra. (Their father, an alcoholic, had died in 2006, they said.)
Despite all they had lost, Zayra and Emanuel resolved to make the most of what they had. It’s how their mother would have wanted them to live, they said: The past would not consume them.
The two have moved to a new apartment in a different part of town, and their place has quickly become a hang-out for friends.
Some days, it even smells like home. Emanuel—”Manny” to friends—is a terrible cook, so Zayra has learned some of the recipes her mother knew. She makes rice and beans and baked chicken, filling the kitchen with the aroma of sofrito and sazón.
Zayra, who earned a 95 average on her fall report card from Hutchinson Central Technical High School, said the trauma she and her brother have shared has motivated them to savor every day they have.
Life can slip away in an instant, so why waste time?
Above her bed, Zayra has pasted a decal on her wall. It reads, “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.”
“It’s been a challenge,” said Emanuel, who helped clean up the blood after the stabbing. “But at least I can say that through the hard times, I never gave up.”
Zayra is 5 feet tall, with a round face and frame. Her hair, which falls to her shoulders, is the color of chocolate, brightened with streaks of honey. Her style is casual with a whisper of punk: A zip-up hoodie, a striped tunic, jeans.
Zayra’s dark eyes fill with light when she smiles, and her grin exposes a jewelbox of colorful braces. Nothing about her outward appearance betrays the hell she has survived.
But on Jan. 17, 2011, she lay in a bed at Women & Children’s Hospital of Buffalo, a damaged version of herself with tubes protruding from her body.
She could do little more than count down the minutes until she was allowed to press a button that cued the delivery of morphine.
“She could barely talk,” remembered Emanuel, who visited her in the intensive care unit (ICU) the day of the attack.
Outside the hospital, journalists and TV crews had already begun converging on the Pagan home on the 400 block of Normal Avenue.
The details seemed surreal: A trail of blood marked the snow. A mother was dead, her daughter injured. The killer, Juan Castro, 63, was wielding a samurai sword when police encountered him. (Zayra says while Castro used kitchen knives to stab her, he picked up a sword from Emanuel’s collection before attempting to flee.)
As word of the stabbing spread through Buffalo, the girl at the heart of the story hung on to life.
Zayra received transfusion after transfusion to replace the blood she had lost. She endured multiple surgeries. Bit by bit, the doctors sewed her broken body back together.
But they couldn’t repair her mind. The worst pain was emotional.
“When I first started realizing what was going on, that was probably the worst night I ever had, because that night I had a dream where — a dream where you think you’re dreaming,” Zayra remembered.
“When I woke up, I thought I had dreamt everything,” she said. “And then you look around, and I was in the hospital. And I was like, ‘Oh. Everything did happen.'”
Emanuel didn’t have a car, but he caught rides with friends or took the bus to visit Zayra every day in the hospital. She was the only immediate family he had left.
Once Zayra was lucid, Emanuel prepared to deliver the saddest news of his life. The police were waiting to interview Zayra, and Emanuel wanted to be the one to let her know that their mother had died.
“I started crying because I couldn’t really say it,” Emanuel remembered. Zayra’s biggest fear, in fact, was that Emanuel wouldn’t get custody of her—that the two would be separated.
Emanuel promised he was doing all he could to make sure that didn’t happen.
Alone in the hospital, the siblings found a bit of comfort, a lifeboat in a sea of sorrow. They had lost everything else, but they still had each other.
“My mom always raised us together, and ever since I was young, [Zayra] would always hang out with me and my friends,” Emanuel said. “So she’s not only my little sister—she’s my best friend.”
The nonprofit Hispanics United of Buffalo helped Emanuel secure a new apartment: a two-bedroom flat near Kenmore, far from the neighborhood where the stabbing occurred. The agency paid the deposit.
The landlords would not allow dogs, so Emanuel arranged for a former teacher to help find new families for the four he and Zayra owned.
Before moving, Emanuel returned to the house on Normal Avenue. The attack had left the place a wreck, and someone needed to clean it up.
Though Emanuel insisted on doing the job himself, some friends arrived without asking and got started on the kitchen. The blood was everywhere. Emanuel mopped his room, where Zayra had tried to call the police. He scrubbed the flight of stairs his mother had taken to the first floor as she fought to escape.
“It was heartbreaking, really,” Emanuel said, short on words to describe the horror. “I don’t really know.”
Emanuel is stocky and a few inches taller than Zayra. Legally blind, he wears wire-framed glasses. He is reserved, but his hair is wild—a lion’s mane of dark, dense curls.
Before the stabbing, Zayra had been the more responsible sibling. While she studied and fretted over grades, Emanuel skipped classes. He dropped out altogether, he said, when a local high school wouldn’t accept credits he earned while the Pagans lived in Puerto Rico from 2006 to 2008.
Still, loved ones were not surprised to see Emanuel shoulder enormous burdens after losing his mother.
To the people he cared for in his life, he had always been loyal, reliable. The day of the stabbing, Emanuel tried to buy lunch in the hospital cafeteria for everyone who came to see Zayra, said Andrew Morton, one of the visitors. The generosity was typical.
Morton, 22, has been close with Emanuel since the two met on a school bus maybe 15 years ago. In all that time, Morton had never seen Emanuel break down—not even when the Pagan siblings’ father died.
But Emanuel cried while filling Morton in on what had happened on Normal Avenue.
Maria had always exhorted Emanuel to be more responsible and finish school. With his mother gone, Emanuel knew that the moment had come for him to get his life in order.
He would not let his little sister down. He petitioned successfully for custody of Zayra.
He was all she had left.
In February 2011, Emanuel took Zayra home to their new apartment. It was ordinary but comfortable, with an almond carpet, white walls and coffee-colored trim around the doors. A few large windows let in light.
It wasn’t really home, exactly—not yet. Zayra liked the place, but she missed the house on Normal Avenue, which Maria had sprinkled with statues of dolphins and angels and warmed with baking chicken.
The new apartment was alien, with its blank walls and quiet rooms. Dulce and Lucky, the family’s chihuahuas, were gone. So were Scrappy, the Pagans’ miniature doberman, and Patty, the black cocker spaniel that Zayra especially loved.
The kitchen was empty. Manny tried to cook, but he wasn’t very good at it. “He almost killed me with pepper,” Zayra professed.
But a new home needs new memories, so Zayra and Emanuel went about christening their new space as best they could.
By the back entrance, they hung a colorful portrait of Jesus. It was a relic from their past life—a painting their mother had acquired in Puerto Rico years before—and it made the apartment feel more familiar.
Joan and Gary Crosby, longtime family friends, purchased furniture including a bedroom set for Zayra. The Crosbys were among many benefactors who helped the siblings settle into new surroundings.
Friends began to come over, and when they did, the mood was mostly light. The group watched movies, ordered pizza and just talked. Zayra and Emanuel were thankful for the laughter.
It was the beginning of a long recovery.
“My brother and me started having these little sleepovers with our best friends, so I would look forward to those weekends, and while they were around I could just relax and joke around and stuff,” Zayra said. “But other than those weekends…I constantly had flashbacks, nightmares. I rarely got sleep.”
In her flashbacks, Zayra can’t breathe. She sees his face, the silver blade of the knife. She hears her mother yelling. Her heartbeat quickens.
The pain of the attack has carved itself into her flesh, her bones. Her memories are visceral—not the kind that fade with time. Everything appears perfectly clear:
It is the morning of the attack, and Zayra is in Emanuel’s room watching Maid in Manhattan. She hears a scream around noon and runs to the kitchen. There, she sees Castro with a knife, confronting her mother.
Zayra steps between the two, and suddenly, he is stabbing her. She grabs a knife of her own and drives it into his neck. He stabs her again. Her vision blurs. She is losing too much blood.
Zayra’s memories wield a power over her: She has PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. She feels guilt. Before the stabbing, she had asked Emanuel to go to a friend’s house so she could watch movies in his room. She wonders how things might have turned out if he had been home.
Maybe her mother would have survived, she thinks. She’ll never know.
She wishes she had killed Castro, who plead guilty to charges including second-degree murder and is serving a sentence of 20 years to life in prison.
To dull her recollections, Zayra is undergoing a form of psychotherapy called EMDR, short for eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. She has fewer flashbacks today than before.
But every now and then, something will set her off, remind her of what happened, and she will relive it all again. The nightmare remains alive, latent in her neurons, a virus always ready to reawaken.
Doctors placed a bar in her chest to hold her ribs together, Zayra said. On cold days, it feels like the metal’s freezing, and all her pain comes rushing back.
Zayra felt strong enough to resume her classes at Hutch Tech in April 2011. It felt great to be back.
The bus she took passed by her old home on Normal Avenue, and some days, on the way to school, she would notice, with a pang, that Christmas stickers her mother had put up still clung to the windows.
But once Zayra arrived on campus, it was possible to stop dwelling on the past. Though some students asked about the stabbing, the questions ended after a few weeks.
Friends she hadn’t seen for months swarmed her in the halls.
“I was just so happy to see them, and they were happy to see me, and I had to warn them not to hug me too tightly,” Zayra said. “I’m just like, ‘I love you guys, but just a light hug, OK?'”
Though she was still missing classes to attend counseling and surgical appointments where doctors inspected her scars, almost every one of her teachers understood.
They tried to assign her work that fit her schedule, she said. She reciprocated by taking her education seriously, as she always had.
“It was good to have her back in school,” said Stephen Frazier, Zayra’s Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps teacher. “She got back into her studies, worked hard, tried to show us that she wasn’t going to quit on us.”
Frazier describes Zayra as shy and intellectual—not the most outgoing girl, but definitely bold.
She had weak lungs and limited mobility on the right side of her body even before the stabbing, but never used those ailments as an excuse to slack off during exercises like jogging and push-ups, said Frazier, who has taught Zayra every year since she was a freshman.
“She’s a fighter,” he said.
Frazier was among teachers and students from Hutch Tech who visited Zayra in the hospital. They brought flowers, cards and balloons—small explosions of color and hope that made her sterile surroundings more bearable.
Bored and confined to bed, she read the messages over and over.
“You’ve gotten through tough times before, and I (believe) that you can do it again,” wrote one well-wisher.
“I’m always here if you need anything or anyone to talk to.”
“May god be with you.”
Classmates from Zayra’s Italian class crafted an oversized card from coral-pink paper. It stood more than 2 feet tall, an enormous valentine with red and white hearts festooning its cover.
Curled, white iridescent ribbons held the card together. Inside were dozens of personal greetings. On the front, in huge blue script, someone had written, “Get Well Zayra!”
After Zayra did get well, she tucked the giant gift away in a safe spot, placing it carefully behind her bed in her new apartment.
The notes were mostly simple, brief “hellos” scrawled in pencil, pen and marker.
But the words meant a lot at a time when Zayra felt so alone. She’ll never forget that—how friends and strangers got behind her when she needed it most.
School was a welcome constant in Zayra’s life.
Her grades gave her confidence. She loved writing and thought about becoming a journalist. Even in her free time, she devoured books, with a taste for serious titles like “The Lovely Bones” and lighter fare like Harry Potter.
As spring melted into summer in 2011, Zayra struggled to stay happy. Her flashbacks were continuing. Without classes to attend, the structure in her life began to dissolve.
The days, hot and balmy, dragged on. She started arguing with a good friend. She missed her mother. She worried about school, concerned that new teachers would be upset when doctor’s appointments took her out of classes.
She swallowed 33 pills of phenobarbital, a pharmaceutical she normally took in much smaller doses to control the epilepsy she was born with.
Zayra hoped she would die. Instead, she drifted in and out of sleep and continued to feel depressed.
“I needed someone to talk to, so I told my friend, who’s a mutual friend of mine and my brother’s,” Zayra said. “So he told my brother, and my brother called the ambulance.”
Help came quickly, and Emanuel rode with Zayra to the hospital. He had tears in his eyes.
Why did you do that? he wondered silently. It wasn’t an accusation. He just couldn’t stand the thought of losing her, his little sister.
“Is she going to be OK?” he asked, pleading, every time the nurse came by.
The rare display of emotion knocked Zayra back to life. Almost immediately, she regretted what she had done and apologized to Manny.
“He was really hurt that I tried that, because he always told me that he doesn’t know what would happen if he lost both me and my mom,” Zayra said. “And I just felt so bad because he was in the ambulance with me, and I could see his…hurt and disappointment.”
Summer ended, school resumed, and she began her junior year. She earned a 94.71 average that quarter. She promised herself that she would never attempt suicide again. She would not abandon her brother.
A tornado of junk and papers covers the living room table in Emanuel and Zayra’s apartment on a February morning after the two hosted a sleepover with friends.
Among the objects: A flashlight, a remote control, a pile of printer paper, two video game controllers, a roll of painter’s tape, a PSAT test booklet, costume jewelry, and a pail-sized bottle of Poland Spring water.
A tower of unwashed dishes rises from the sink. The remains of an enormous pepperoni pizza sit, unrefrigerated, in an open box.
There are heartbreaking moments when it’s apparent just how young Zayra and Emanuel are. Zayra turned 16 last May, and Emanuel 22 in February.
There is no one to wake them up in the morning to go to school, no one to remind them to lock the door at night, no one to keep an eye on things—to make sure they’re making the right decisions.
Frazier, Zayra’s JROTC teacher, said the siblings’ new responsibilities are helping them cultivate important survival skills. But he worries about the lack of supervision.
Frazier lost his own father when he was 10 and remembers what it was like being on his own as a teenager.
“I had people in my life who influenced me at 16 and 17, but they were the wrong people,” he said, pointing out that even well-intentioned friends might lack the life experience to provide the kind of sound advice that comes naturally to many parents.
Some days, Zayra and Emanuel argue over chores—who should wash the dishes, who should clean the litterbox for their kitten, Mittens.
The fights escalate periodically, with Zayra doing most of the shouting. Emanuel, ever the stoic, stays calm through the whirlwind.
Their quarrels are typical of roommates sharing space. Zayra thinks she does more of the housework, and she might be right. But Emanuel takes charge of the family’s paperwork, paying the rent and bills.
The siblings’ income includes social security checks that Emanuel receives because he is legally blind, and survivor’s benefits from the death of their father, who was a janitor.
Emanuel also worked for a few months at a Regal movie theater, but he quit in fall after getting mugged on the way home.
He was riding a bike when a car parked in front of him, he said. Four men jumped out, knocked him to the ground and stole his book bag. All they got was an umbrella, his paycheck and a water bottle, but the experience made him wary of working late nights.
What else could go wrong?
Despite the hazards, Emanuel says life is getting better as he and Zayra learn to negotiate the world on their own. They are fighting less and smiling more.
For the first time, Emanuel is seriously considering a higher education.
When he maps out his life, it looks something like this: He’ll take the General Educational Development test (G.E.D.), enroll for classes at Erie Community College, and transfer to Buffalo State College.
He sees himself pursuing a career in criminal justice, a field that appeals to his logical nature.
It’s a wonderful feeling, really—to be able to think about tomorrow.
A Beautiful Life
Emanuel and Zayra have become “sadder” people as a result of the attack, said Morton, the Pagans’ childhood friend.
“It’s something I can see in the look on Zayra’s face when it gets quiet,” Morton explained. It’s an observation other friends share.
In January 2012, days before the anniversary of her mother’s murder, Zayra hosted a Q&A on the website Reddit, where users interview one another about uncommon experiences.
She talked about her regrets—like how she coped with her father’s death by picking frivolous fights with her mom.
She discussed her brother, saying that while Emanuel tries to stay strong, she catches glimpses of how much he misses their old life, too.
“Example: he posted I miss you on our mom’s facebook wall,” Zayra told Reddit.
Day to day, Zayra and Emanuel are a joy to be around. The atmosphere they’ve cultivated at their apartment is lighthearted. One favored diversion is Nerf gun wars, a game that involves exchanging volleys of foam darts.
But when it comes to the larger questions in life, the siblings speak with a seriousness borne from their losses.
Zayra said she is sharing her story in part to raise awareness about the fact that violence can happen to anyone: “Be careful of who you trust,” she cautions.
Mostly, however, her philosophy is upbeat. Life should be jubilant, extraordinary, filled with love.
“You live every day not knowing what can happen, so you should make the best of it,” she said. “Not saying you should do crazy things, [but] know that if it was your last day, you wouldn’t regret it being your last day.”
“I feel that way because both of my parents died at 40-something, and that’s pretty young,” she continued. “So I want to make sure I don’t let my negative emotions affect [my] life.”
She is following her own advice.
When she thinks of her mother, Zayra focuses not on the stabbing, but on the best times.
A smile lights her face as she describes her quinceañera, a Latin American celebration that marks a girl’s transition to womanhood at the age of 15.
Maria planned the whole affair, buying balloons and a layered cake that bloomed with pink frosting roses. The priest from the family’s church led prayers.
Zayra wore a tiara and a new pink dress that sparkled with beads.
“I was so nervous because so many people were coming to the point where our apartment was full,” Zayra remembered.
There is excitement in her voice, as if she is reliving the day again.
Zayra can’t resurrect the dead, but she can build the kind of life for herself that her mother would have expected.
Though Zayra’s grades fell in the first quarter of 2012—she got a 59 in physics and a 71 in math—she is determined to bring her scores up this term. She did well in all other subjects, earning 100 in programming and 96 in Italian.
Donors including First Niagara bank have promised to help Zayra pay for college through a fund that the siblings’ family friends, the Crosbys, helped start.
Zayra is torn between studying journalism or criminal justice. Whatever major she chooses, she will stay in Buffalo to be close to Emanuel.
She can’t imagine life without him, and she points out that he needs her, too: She is, after all, the one who cooks the meals.
She demonstrates her skills on a Saturday afternoon, stirring green pigeon peas into a pot of long-grain rice, sofrito, oregano and black pepper.
It’s her mother’s food—one of several dishes that Zayra asked a family friend to teach her after the attack, as soon as she had the strength to stand up on her own.
The concoction bubbles, an earthy orange, the color of curry. Steam pours into the kitchen. It smells like home.
Emanuel walks over and gives Zayra a hug. For the moment, everything is fine.
You can help Zayra pay for college by donating to the trust for Zayra Pagan at any First Niagara branch. For a gratuitous photo of Zayra’s kitten, Mittens, click here.
Robert Salonga, a crime and public safety reporter for the Contra Costa Times in the San Francisco Bay Area, edited this story. Thanks, also, to Kelly Rayburn and Brian Eckhouse for giving the lead a read and offering good and honest advice.