Will Barton steps cautiously along the concrete pathway, counting the benches he passes, always cognizant of how many he reached in his last visit, always pushing himself to reach the next one.
For Barton, who turned 23 last month, those pier benches are a measure of the progress he continues to make nearly three years after a deranged fugitive shot him three times and left him to die on a street near Balboa Park.
With one of the bullets still lodged in his brain, Barton, a 2010 graduate of Point Loma High School, has defied the predictions of doctors who gave him less than a 1 percent chance of survival the night he was rushed to a trauma center.
Not only has he survived, he has undergone extensive therapy and those frequent walks on the pier are just one indicator of how far he has come.
"I walked halfway down the OB pier the other day," Barton revealed. "I often use the pier to mark progress."
As he nears the unpleasant anniversary of the October 2012 shooting, Barton is anything but sullen.
Instead, his quick smile and upbeat personality radiate as he reels off some of his most recent accomplishments.
"One milestone I've achieved very recently is that I don't need any ankle support, meaning I can wear any shoe, Barton said. "My type of brain injury decreases motion/sensation and stability on my left side. It's called hemiplegia, and lately I noticed my left ankle became so strong I can wear low-top shoes, which is my style."
With this new ability, Barton was able to happily discard a brace he wore on his leg for years.
That brace "really severely hurt my outfit," Barton said with a smile. "Now I"m able to choose what I'll wear."
And, several other major changes have lifted Barton's spirits.
"I am now away from my family in an apartment (Sherman Heights) with a caregiver," he said. "I definitely feel far, far more independent. I'm finally in my own environment with a work space and an area to hang out with my friends. and play my music loud. I can go have lunch with my mom or my family can come see me."
Barton recently enjoyed walking, with his caregiver mainly observing, from his new home to a nearby taco shop where he relaxed and enjoyed his favorite drink (Jamaica) before walking back to his apartment.
And, he has found a girlfriend.
While at a surprise party for his cousin, Barton met Kayleb, and the two "hit it off really well."
"She's helping me regain my actual self, my actual Will Barton. She's helping re-immerse myself into the world, and she's also an artist. We go to the beach a lot and she walks on the pier with me."
A current focus for doctors is Barton's right arm, which for some time "I couldn't lift against gravity," he recalls.
He struggles with a proposed surgery specialists feel may free his right hand from its current state, locked in an awkward position.
"I've undergone vast therapy efforts with my right arm," Barton said. "Initially, (medical personnel) were expecting it to have no mobility whatsoever nor regular blood flow and become a degenerative limb that would eventually turn black and be a candidate for amputation."
But his arm largely recovered and "I'm able to lift it over my head."
While Barton has been told that damaged nerves stop healing after a three-year period, he has doubts about the proposed procedure doctors say would allow him to effectively grasp objects.
"I've been trying to steer clear of surgery," Barton said, "because I don't think it's natural. Maybe by connecting some muscle to a tendon I could have some active grasp, but I don't have any knowledge of the outcome, so it's fearful for me. I would love to reach out to the medical community and check the history on nerve/tendon surgery so when I make my decision, it's one I won't regret."
Barton, who continues to produce paintings while holding the brush in his mouth, is excited about a new relationship with a company in Germany that pays mouth-painters and markets their work around the world.
"There are 800 American members," he said, "and I just signed a three-year contract to become a student member. They will evaluate all my work and progression as an artist. I'm trying to give my work a modern Southern California view, a lifestyle coveted by everyone."
While Barton's achievements and recovery continue, costs mount daily for medical treatments, therapy and caregivers. The account originally opened in 2012 by supporters (Friends of Will Barton) at Chase Bank, 1740 Rosecrans St. in Point Loma, remains open and donations are greatly appreciated.