SOUTH CHICAGO — Before leaving for work Tuesday, Jeannette Whitehead put out her grandson's lunch and gave him a stern warning: Make sure you go to school.
"I'll see you when I get home," she said as she left their South Chicago home.
That was the last time she saw her grandson Melvin James alive.
He got up and washed up, but never made it to the first day of school at an alternative high school in Calumet Park.
At 5:02 p.m., the teen was walking in the 8000 block of South Manistee Avenue when someone he knew walked up to him and shot him, police said.
"He was with his friends, and there was a fight. A gun came out. He didn't know what to do, so he ran," said his cousin Benjamin James, one of a dozen family members gathered Wednesday on the family's porch in the 2700 block of East 78th Street.
Whitehead said she returned home from work and got a call alerting her of the shooting.
"I dropped my bag and hopped in my car. I drove real fast. Made it in like five to six minutes. The police were all around. He was in an ambulance," she said.
Melvin was hit in his stomach and left leg and taken to Comer Children's Hospital in critical condition, police said. He was pronounced dead at 2 a.m. Wednesday.
No one was in custody for the shooting, which a police source said was gang-related. But Melvin's family adamantly denied he was involved with gangs. Instead, they painted a complex portrait of adolescent life in Chicago.
A cousin who was at Melvin's home Wednesday admitted that he himself was in a gang, pulling off his sunglasses to reveal a group of tattoos around his eyes.
But Melvin was "no gang member," he said.
"Shorty got A's and B's. I don't want them documenting him like that," said the cousin, who refused to give his name.
Whitehead said that Melvin did have problems with gang members, who were after him.
"He would protect you. He would do anything he could for you," said Whitehead, but "he's not a gang member. Some gang members came after him, and he got a gun. He was protecting himself."
Melvin and Benjamin grew up together in the same home and considered each other brothers. Melvin was fun-loving, happy and lovable, relatives said. He was brave, they said.
"He was never scared of dying. He never had fear in his eyes," Benjamin said.
Melvin had a soft spot for dogs — stray dogs. He liked catching them and taking care of them, family said.
He also was a "hustler," who sold water and candy on 79th Street and collected a few bucks cleaning up the pizza place around the corner, Margarita's Pizzeria, they said.
Next month, Melvin would have turned 15 years old. His grandmother said she hadn't thought yet about how to celebrate as she had been too busy trying to move the family out of the neighborhood, she said.
"I live life one day at a time," she said.
Now, she's just trying to figure out other details — like if he'll need a belt for his funeral.