AIKEN - The Carpenter family celebrated Jessica Carpenter's birthday this month.
Her parents, two sisters and other family members gathered at Lake Murray near Lexington, S.C., on July 9. The parents of the slain 17-year-old blew out the 18 candles on a cake - decorated with a picture of the teen.
Her mother, Judy, says the family will continue to celebrate all the important dates that were in store for the teen "as if she was among us."
"We're getting through the first milestones of everything," Mrs. Carpenter said.
For her and her husband, Charlie, remembering how Jessica lived helps fill the void.
Jessica was killed Aug. 4 - her body found by her mother in their Crosland Park home. No one has been charged with the crime. The taking of her life has stolen peace from her parents, friends and a piece of the community.
Nearly one year after the slaying, the family is still struggling with their loss.
"For me, I get up every morning praying God gives me the comfort and strength," Mr. Carpenter said. "I didn't think I could live through this."
The Carpenters say it is their belief in God, one shared by Jessica, that sustains them. Her sister Amy said God's plan, however tragic, included Jessica's death.
"At first, there were a lot of questions of why," said Miss Carpenter, 21. "I've come to think that was all in her plan, her blueprint. Regardless of how it happened, it was going to happen."
The Carpenters hope one day they will be reunited with Jessica.
"I want to get there (to Heaven) for her, more than for anybody," Mrs. Carpenter said.
This weekend, the Carpenters are gathered in Kentucky for an annual family reunion.
There, they will talk of Miss Carpenter's September wedding and of Jessica - who would have been her maid of honor.
They also will talk of what Jessica might have become.
Jessica would have been a college freshman this fall, although no one is sure where. Miss Carpenter said her sister had considered attending the College of Charleston and the University of North Carolina.
She also thought of attending Johnson & Wales, a school that offers a degree in culinary arts.
Her cousin Sally Kallies said Jessica dreamed of becoming a chef.
Jessica had wanted to learn how to make her grandmother's special chicken and dumplings recipe, then open a restaurant in New York.
"She wanted to bring (New Yorkers) Southern food," Ms. Kallies said from her home in Zion, Ill.
Jessica also thought of becoming a pediatrician, a model or a mom with many children. Her parents said she considered numerous possibilities for her future.
Before her death, Jessica worked as a hostess at a Red Lobster. She also baby-sat children and drove the elderly to her church, Millbrook Baptist.
More than 300 people attended her Aug. 8 funeral. Her family received about 150 letters expressing sympathy and condolences.
"We knew people thought a lot of her," said Jessica's oldest sister, Heather Kirby, 23. "But by this happening to her, we were surprised. I had no idea that many people felt that way."
Since the slaying, Jessica's parents seldom enter the house where Jessica's body was found.
Neighbors still cut the grass at the vacant house, and a ceramic angel stands next to a vase of blue, red and white flowers near the front door. Inside are most of Jessica's clothes and belongings.
The Carpenters say they will try to sell the house. They're not sure what they will do with with all that remains in the house.
The light above the front door stays on - keeping vigil.
"We keep it on as a memory and so it isn't so dark and dreary," Miss Carpenter said.
The Carpenters have been through emotional turmoil as new theories and possible suspects have brought hope of solving the case.
"It's so back and forth. There's probably a good handful of times we thought it was (close to solved) and it wasn't," Miss Carpenter said. "So who's to say? One day they might pop up with something that once again we are like 'Oh my God! There's no way' and it could be. I really can't say. It could be this year. Or 10 years."
She said the emotions undoubtedly will return with new leads.
Mr. Carpenter says at times he can almost picture how the killing of his youngest daughter played out and who is responsible.
"That's the most selfish act anyone can do," he said.
Family members say they have worked this year to learn to control frustration when it comes, to appreciate people more and to focus their minds on more positive thoughts when vengeful feelings set in.
But they know the first anniversary of her death will be tough.
"It's her not being there or seeing her spray her perfume and walking through it," Mr. Carpenter said. "It's the memories I miss."
Reach Matthew Boedy at (803) 648-1395 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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