OAKLAND -- Twenty-one-year-old Marquis Jones shoulders a heavier burden than most people ever will.
In 2004, when he was 12, two of his cousins were murdered. Every year since, more close friends and family have died in gun violence, sometimes several in a single year.
Jones sits at the center of a storm of murders, nearly 40, a maelstrom of family and gang-related mayhem that is staggering for any individual -- even in Oakland, where FBI crime data analyzed by this newspaper shows the city had the nation's 10th highest murder rate in 2011 for cities with 100,000 or more residents.
"I know my time is gonna come," Jones said recently. "Will it be by gun violence? We could be talking, and I could be gone the next day. That's not only how I feel. That's just the way it is."
But while the odds seem stacked against him, Jones is trying to escape the fate that has deprived him of many of the people he loves most. His life parallels a theme that tragically plays out in Oakland year after year; 2012 was no different, as this community suffered the loss of 131 people to homicide.
It is a storyline Jones is trying hard to rewrite.
"Marquis is very eager to turn himself away from all the negativity that surrounds him," said Rodney Dunn, an administrator and teacher at Civicorps, a West Oakland work-study charter school for high school dropouts where Jones has excelled as a student since he enrolled last October. He is in the second half of Civicorps curriculum, which includes regular work during the week with the Civicorps Job Training Program.
Jones was born into a world where drug-dealing, gang-related violence and family dysfunction were commonplace. Many of his early life choices reflected the poverty and chaos of his surroundings. Weaning himself from that toxic environment is one of the toughest challenges he's facing.
On days when Jones feels good, he allows himself to dream. He thinks about becoming a lawyer, perhaps, or a sports agent. He has enrolled in a Shakespeare class and made many friends. He wants to be the first person from his family to obtain a college degree.
Some days he settles for just surviving. And then there are the days when he feels nothing at all.
"I can't keep track of everybody who died," he said. "That's how you know I don't care about none of this."
Jones and the teachers and administrators who coach him at Civicorps seem to agree that his best chance at survival lies in graduating. Failure, they agree, is no longer an option. In the six months since he has been enrolled at Civicorps, Jones has attended four funerals and missed others, including one for Eddie Bo Rodriguez, a cousin who was one of four people to die by a gun in one bloody six-hour period in January.
The flurry of funerals was enough to worry Dunn, who barred Jones from attending any more, saying they were interrupting his studies.
"You keep doing this, you ain't gonna live," he told Jones one day. "You just gonna go to funerals."
Harry Williams, an Oakland pastor and youth advocate, said the high number of deaths Jones has experienced is sadly within the norm for a certain subsection of people for whom violence is an everyday occurrence. "Premature deaths in the inner cities have given funerals their own culture," he said. "Forty people over a 10-year period, I hate to say this, is not completely unreasonable if you've lived here all of your life. The toll that Oakland's murder rate has taken on their young psyches is incalculable."
From an early age, Jones -- who stands 4 feet, 7 inches tall -- has struggled to survive. He was born small -- so small he could fit into the palm of a grown man's hand, he said, holding out his own. His mother had a hard time accepting her son's diminutive stature and shuffled him off to a succession of relatives and friends.
"His mom sort of abandoned him," said Myelle-Amzi LeChaux, a relative who took Jones in when he was 7.
"It was very difficult, and he didn't understand what was going on, and I tried to comfort him as much as I could."
He saw his father only sporadically, and does not know his whereabouts these days.
Jones moved on to other homes across West and East Oakland over the next few years, living a dangerous and precarious existence. Kids at school teased him relentlessly, calling him "midget" and beating him up. His close friends taught him how to defend himself by forcing him to fight.
When he was 15, Jones was shot in the arm and wounded during a drive-by. In 2008, one of his sisters, Rachel Green, 19, was shot and killed at a funeral. Amid the constant din of violence around him, his sister's death stood out as particularly bad. In the months before her shooting, the two had been getting closer again, after a period of distance. They were together constantly, going to movies, eating out, talking late into the night.
After she died, Jones dreamed of Rachel constantly and saw visions of her head, covered in blood. He couldn't stop thinking about her murder. Over and over again, he pictured the events as he imagined they happened.
"I imagine her freezing up and someone taking them shots, and as much as it all hurts me to this day, that one hurts me the most," he said.
Eventually, the pain got so bad that Jones dropped out of school. He sunk into depression and anxiety. "I was like, (expletive) it," he said, "I didn't want to show up."
As Jones has grown older, the murder rate in his own life has accelerated dramatically. In 2010, the year he turned 18, Jones lost seven people to gun violence. With barely three months elapsed in 2013, Jones already has lost a cousin and another friend to murder.
"I can't do this no more," he said recently, wiping away tears and looking out the window of a Jack in the Box on Telegraph Avenue, where he was eating a cheeseburger and fries for dinner. "This just ain't right; no one's supposed to live like this."
A new path
In October, Jones decided he was going to try to graduate from high school, no matter what. He is driven by a relentless desire to protect what remains of his family. The best way to do that, he believes, is to find a path out of the violence through education and some measure of stability.
"I still walk around with a smile on my face," he said. "I still go to school, I still take care of business."
But the cycle of violence never seems very far away.
During orientation week last fall, another friend was shot and killed. The killing nearly broke him all over again. The victim, Demariae Coleman, whom Jones knew affectionately as Pooka, was one of the best friends Jones has had. Coleman had insisted that Jones enroll at Civicorps, telling him he needed to dress well, show up on time and be a good student. Coleman told his friend he wanted him to find a way out of the hard life they had shared for so long. On the second day of orientation, Coleman, 24, was shot dead by assailants as he sat in a car -- the city's 99th homicide of 2012. Jones was inconsolable.
Dunn and the other administrators at Civicorps told Jones to take time to grieve and try again in a couple of months. But Jones was adamant about starting school again. Friends and teachers said he was an emotional wreck.
"He made it through but barely," said Natasha Vinakor, a Civicorps case counselor and resident therapist. "It's really hard to change your life, and Marquis couldn't decide if he was mad or sad, and it's totally understandable."
Focused on the future
Every day Jones struggles with the push and pull of the mighty forces at work in his life. He longs to maintain connections to the people around him who are still alive, so much so that he forms close attachments quickly and without hesitation. He has a few "best friends" -- boys and girls. He has told Dunn he sees him as a mentor and inspiration. When he met Vinakor, he told her she was going to be his best friend as well.
Jones believes obtaining his high school diploma will start to change that dynamic in his life.
"I think that if all of my family was still here, I would have had my high school diploma already," he said. "This is what I have to get done, not just for me but for the rest of my family."
There was a time, Jones said, when he had a hard time coming out of his room. The streets were dangerous, and people would beat him up if they saw him. But he says he has left those days behind, as memories and lessons from which he gains strength. Now he's just focused on the future.
"At the end of the day, I'm gonna be the only one to keep my family (three sisters) together," Jones said. "That is my job, that's what I have to focus on."