By Bill Hewitt
May 24, 1999 12:00 PM

She had been primping all week for the May 7 prom at Heath High School in Paducah, Ky. First, Missy Jenkins, 17, and her twin sister, Mandy, had paid a visit to Hollywood Nails in the Kentucky Oaks Mall for a French manicure. Then the two juniors had their eyebrows waxed, followed by a hairstyling session at Head Lights, where owner Shana Colson patterned Missy’s do after Jennifer Love Hewitt’s in a recent Seventeen magazine. By 6 p.m. Friday, Missy was in her purple crepe dress, with a corsage from date Barrett Glastetter, 17, and heading for the prom when she discovered a problem. “Mom, I just rolled over my dress,” said Missy matter-of-factly, discovering the difficulty of wearing a floor-length gown in a wheelchair. “It’s going to drag.”

All the same, 17 months after she was shot and paralyzed from the chest down by 14-year-old Michael Carneal, who killed three Heath students and wounded five others at the school, Missy was feeling grateful she was even able to go to the prom. As best she can, she has tried to rebuild the life she had before the shooting. She still attends a morning prayer group and makes it a point to park her wheelchair “in the exact same spot” where she was hit by the bullet fired by Carneal, who last December was sentenced to life in prison. Last summer her father, Ray, 61, a retired utility worker, bought her a black Mustang customized with hand-controlled pedals that allow her to drive. Yet each necessary adjustment sometimes feels bittersweet. “I’m getting used to being in a chair,” she says. “I don’t want to get used to it, but l am.”

Missy wanted her prom experience to be as typical as possible. First, of course, she needed a date. At the time of the shooting, Missy had been going out with Barrett for three months. But during the three months Missy spent getting physical therapy at a hospital in Lexington, they grew apart, and last July they broke up. When it came time to line up an escort for the prom, Missy had other possibilities, but she decided to ask Barrett, who was happy to oblige.

Around Paducah, where coverage of her recovery has made her something of a local celebrity, nearly everyone is willing to help. At a pre-prom dinner at a seafood restaurant, Whaler’s Catch, staffers helped carry Missy to her table on the second floor. (“When we made the reservation, we forgot to tell them we had a wheelchair,” she says sheepishly.) Then she was off to the dance at the local civic center. In the weeks before the prom, Missy had fretted about how hard it would be to slow-dance. At the event, she and Barrett made do. “We just held hands and kind of swayed,” says Missy.

All that evening, as she had since the shooting, Mandy, who is two minutes older than her sister, served as her fraternal twin’s tireless helper. “When they were babies, they had their own language,” says their mother, Joyce, 56, a homemaker who herself relies on a wheelchair as the result of rheumatoid arthritis. “They say they’re going to live with each other forever.” Despite their mother’s offer to get them their own beds, the two still sleep together. Even when Missy was in the hospital, Mandy would sometimes spend the night. “They’re just like puppies,” says Joyce, “right on top of each other.”

Mandy feels some sense of guilt over her sister’s wounding, wondering why Missy was hit and she was not—though a bullet did brush her hair. And both girls were deeply disturbed by the shootings in Littleton, Colo., which renewed all the anxieties they had tried hard to banish. “It sort of set me back,” says Missy. “Usually I’m happy, but then we have another shooting and my happy part pushes off.”

The night of the prom, Missy got home at 2:30 a.m., then sat up for another two hours reliving the evening with Mandy and a friend. “It was okay,” she said the next day. “I thought it was going to be really fun, but it was just like any other dance, only you got dressed up.” Given all she has been through, she is surely entitled to be a bit jaded. Her main goal now is to be walking by the age of 21. (At the moment the only movement she has below the chest is the ability to wiggle her toes slightly.) Doctors aren’t promising anything, but recent advances in the treatment of such injuries suggest that her hopes are not entirely far-fetched. In the meantime, Missy knows that optimism will be her most important ally. “I always wonder what I’d be doing if I wasn’t in a wheelchair,” she says. “But I think of my life as a lot more precious now.”

Bill Hewitt

Kate Klise in Paducah