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Empty spaces, broken hearts in a Texas town gutted by loss

May 31, 2022 GMT
A heart-shaped balloon flies, decorating a memorial site outside Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. In a town as small as Uvalde, even those who didn't lose their own child lost someone. Some say now that closeness is both their blessing and their curse: they can lean on each other to grieve. But every single one of them is grieving. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
A heart-shaped balloon flies, decorating a memorial site outside Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. In a town as small as Uvalde, even those who didn't lose their own child lost someone. Some say now that closeness is both their blessing and their curse: they can lean on each other to grieve. But every single one of them is grieving. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
A heart-shaped balloon flies, decorating a memorial site outside Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. In a town as small as Uvalde, even those who didn't lose their own child lost someone. Some say now that closeness is both their blessing and their curse: they can lean on each other to grieve. But every single one of them is grieving. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
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A heart-shaped balloon flies, decorating a memorial site outside Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. In a town as small as Uvalde, even those who didn't lose their own child lost someone. Some say now that closeness is both their blessing and their curse: they can lean on each other to grieve. But every single one of them is grieving. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
1 of 31
A heart-shaped balloon flies, decorating a memorial site outside Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. In a town as small as Uvalde, even those who didn't lose their own child lost someone. Some say now that closeness is both their blessing and their curse: they can lean on each other to grieve. But every single one of them is grieving. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

UVALDE, Texas (AP) — Josie Albrecht drove frantically from house to house, retracing the school bus route she drives twice a day, delivering Uvalde’s children safely to and from school.

When she’d picked them up, hours earlier, they wore giddy grins, excited for summer break just days away: soccer, softball, freedom. She’d planned a pizza party to celebrate that afternoon. But before she could pick them up and drive them home, a gunman walked into their school and started shooting.

Now, days later, she was drawn to the town square and the 21 white crosses erected there, one for each of the 19 children and two teachers whose deaths left gaping holes in the marrow of a small town.

“It’s my job to take them home. I didn’t take my babies home,” Albrecht wailed, over and over.

In a town this small, 15,000 people, even those who didn’t lose their own child lost someone -- their best friend, the little boy down the road who dribbled his basketball in the driveway, the kid who stood on the curb, backpack in hand, waiting for the bus. They see the empty spaces they left behind everywhere. The bus seats they won’t sit in. A baseball glove they won’t wear. Front doors they won’t skip from to join the neighborhood game of tag. Rivers they won’t fish in.

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The town’s rhythms have always centered around their children. Before the shooting shattered their world, “what’s your son up to?” or “your daughter played a great game” were the most common exchanges when they run into people they knew, which was all the time because everyone knows everyone. If one of Albrecht’s riders misbehaved, she’d remind them that she knew their parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles.

Some say now that closeness is both their blessing and their curse: They can lean on each other to grieve. But every single one of them is grieving.

Albrecht calls her little riders “my kids,” and in the chaotic hours after the rampage, she was desperate to know if they’d made it home safe. She drove house to house. She reached the one where 10-year-old Rojelio Torres every morning waited at the curb with his little brother and sister. As he’d climb on, he’d always asked to sit in the back because that’s where the “visiting” happens and he liked to visit. He was “like a bull,” she said -- charismatic, funny. He loved hot Takis. But he wasn’t home. His family stood shocked and weeping on the lawn. She knew.

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A few days later, she brought a toy school bus to place at his cross at the memorial. “I love you and will miss you,” she wrote on it, and drew a broken heart at the place where he used to sit, in the back.

She wept, agonizing that she couldn’t save him, and a local doctor hugged her. “There was nothing you could do,” said John Preddy, a family practitioner, who delivered two of these dead children and cared for them all their short lives, their scraped knees and runny noses.

“You spend your life trying to keep them healthy and to watch these kids grow,” he said. “He took away in a matter of second what their mothers and their fathers and their grandparents and I and everyone has done to try to make their lives good and make them healthy and move them ahead and make them successful in the world. That literally got snuffed out in a matter of seconds.”

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He looked around the square, which used to be a sleepy park, ringed by antique shops, the town’s theater, a barber. And now it’s the heart of their mourning: The mounds of flowers and gifts at the foot of the crosses are 2 feet tall.

“This destroys lives,” said Preddy, who’s been a doctor here for 30 years. “It’s our lives, these kids are our lives.”

He tried to do the math: 19 children, each with parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles.

“When you start adding that up and you spread it out, there’s thousands of connections that those kids have: teachers, bus drivers, people that cut their hair. All of that is interconnected,” he said. “So they touch thousands of people’s lives, these kids, pretty much everybody in town.”

The mourners left things these children had cherished and will never touch again: a flower made from pipe cleaners, a wreath of crayons, Hot Wheels, a princess crown, a baseball on which someone had written “good game,” a bag of chocolate-covered pretzels.

The white crosses are covered in messages written in Sharpie.

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“Mommy loves you.”

“I will eat a smore just for you.”

“I will take care of your grandma.”

As people arrived at the square, they hugged and pleaded: “Why? Why? Why? Why?”

They need answers, Preddy said. The police have changed the account of their response many times, finally admitting days after the shooting that officers gathered in the hallway of the school waited more than an hour to storm the classrooms where the gunman was holed up, as children inside called 911 over and over, whispering pleas to save them.

The political questions are also thundering through town: How could a troubled young man walk out of a gun shop with a weapon made for war days after his 18th birthday, asked Preddy and many others.

Preddy, a gun-owning conservative, also wondered: How could this country have done nothing for a decade after 20 students and six adults were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut?

“Our kids can’t live like this, they can’t. We can’t let my kids, my grandkids live like this for the rest of their lives and for their kids’ lives,” he said. “We just can’t have that.”