It's not easy understanding Brian Milligan with his jaw wired shut.
Watch the way he looks at his girlfriend, Nicola Fletcher -- and she at him -- and neither of the blushing teenagers need say a word. They're smitten with each other.
And, they pledge, this nearly yearlong interracial romance isn't ending anytime soon, whether a dozen or so hateful hoodlums like it or not.
Milligan and Fletcher, both 18, met with reporters for two hours Monday afternoon and said the Aug. 18 beating in a Genesee Street parking lot that nearly cost Milligan his life -- and that many are calling a hate crime -- only galvanized the love they have for each other.
"She loves me, I love her, that's it," Milligan said. "Us staying together, I think that's going to prove a point."
The couple believes Milligan was targeted by the youths, ambushed and repeatedly hit on the head with concrete because he is dating Fletcher, who is black.
Milligan is white.
The only problem is they don't know who did it. And those who do still won't come forward despite pleas from the victims, police and the Rev. Darius G. Pridgen, well-respected clergyman.
"If it was the other way around and it was our son involved, I'd turn him in. I'd have to. It's the right thing to do," said Brian Milligan Sr., Milligan's father. "One of the kids' parents got to know their kid did this."
The attack occurred at about 10:30 p.m. at Genesee and Floss Avenue. Milligan had just walked Fletcher to her home a few blocks away down Genesee Street and was returning home to Humason Avenue where he was a live-in caretaker for his 81-year-old grandmother.
Milligan has no recollection of the beating. The facts of the case have been cobbled together by those who saw him just before and after the incident and a female witness who apparently saw the beating and called 911.
That witness, who lives in a nearby apartment, apparently ran to the scene screaming and broke up the beating in progress, scattering the teenage assailants in all directions, according to reports. Milligan stumbled away bleeding heavily from the head and made it back to his grandmother's house where he washed himself off and collapsed into bed.
Emergency crews were called to the Humason Avenue house after a friend noticed Milligan acting strange and alerted his grandmother to check on him. Milligan was found unconscious in a pool of blood, his family members said.
He had suffered two fractures to his jaw, a broken tooth, a gash to the back of his head that required seven staples to close, as well as swelling and bleeding on his brain. Milligan spent four days in the trauma unit in Erie County Medical Center and then several more days hospitalized before his release Aug. 26.
Milligan has regained his faculties and will meet with a neurosurgeon Thursday. His headaches have subsided. But his jaw will remain wired shut for at least another month as a painful reminder of the price of love and presence of ignorance.
"We can't even kiss," Milligan laments.
The unlikely romantic tale between Milligan, who attended South Park High School, and Fletcher, who graduated last spring from Leonardo da Vinci High School, blossomed at a Walden Avenue McDonald's restaurant where they both worked.
After secretly stealing some glances at each other and playful flirting, Milligan asked her out like any teenager would -- by text message -- at midnight on his birthday, Sept. 29-30, 2008. Their first date was a movie -- Tyler Perry's "The Family That Preys," they recalled.
That began not only a strong liking for each other, but the start of genuine affection and caring, they said.
"He shows he cares about me a lot," said Fletcher, who spent four days and nights at Milligan's bedside in ECMC. "He does everything for me."
Fletcher admitted, at first, her parents were a little apprehensive about Milligan, not because he's white, but that he wasn't going to high school. So started Fletcher's coaxing him to return to school for his General Equivalency Diploma. And Milligan did.
He had enrolled at BOCES and was to begin studying to become a welder just days before the attack. Those plans will have to wait for now during his recovery.
The couple's dreams, however, will not. Fletcher is attending D'Youville College and pursuing a degree in nursing. Milligan says he will finish school and become a welder.
Both say they're serious about staying together for a good long time.
They said most people are accepting of their relationship. There were, however, several times when they became targets of racial animosity when walking through the Genesee Street neighborhood.
Once, Milligan recalled, he was "ready to fight" when some youths began taunting the couple while they walked down the street. "Hey, baby," they called to Fletcher, much to Milligan's chagrin. Fletcher grabbed her beau first, however, and they kept walking.
Another time, Fletcher herself came under attack from youths firing paint balls at her. Milligan intervened and demanded an apology. The gunman responded by firing another at her.
Milligan also said he has been verbally harangued several times by black youths calling him "saltine cracker" and "honky" and told "them girls belong with us." Neither ever worried their relationship would result in the kind of beating suffered by Milligan three weeks ago.
"I never thought it was ever [going to] lead to anything like this," Milligan said.
Since the beating, Fletcher said she has encountered mixed reaction about the incident. She has experienced many people offering their sympathy and support in the black community, but says it's not everyone.
"Certain people, yes. Others, no," Fletcher said. "People are still ignorant, or just don't care."
>The police investigation
Buffalo police said Monday "there has been some progress" in the case, but they wouldn't elaborate.
Meanwhile, Milligan and his family are frustrated with what they believe is a "lack of interest" by law enforcement and City Hall in declaring the case a hate crime and investigating it as such.
"It wasn't a robbery, it was a hate crime," Milligan said, explaining that he had a cell phone, CD player, Jordan sneakers and cash and the assailants took nothing from him. "They tried to kill me."
Milligan's father said he and other family members went to Genesee and Floss the morning after the beating. There, he said, they found a pool of blood, bloody footprints from the scene in different directions along with pieces of concrete covered in blood and Milligan's hair as well as his missing tooth.
Several pizza boxes also were left behind, the elder Milligan said, pointing out that one youth with a slice of pizza in hand visited a nearby corner store not long after Milligan was attacked asking where he was.
"It's been three weeks, they haven't even talked to him," said Leslie Milligan, the victim's mother, of police investigators.
Michael J. DeGeorge, Buffalo police spokesman, said detectives hope to interview Milligan sometime this week.
"They're waiting for him to begin to recover and begin to heal," DeGeorge said, explaining they have to interview Milligan before determining whether it was, in fact, a hate crime.
"We live in a drive-through society," DeGeorge said. "Unfortunately, investigations don't follow that path."
DeGeorge said detectives believe that there were people who witnessed the beating and urged them to come forward by contacting police on the confidential tip line: 847-2255.