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(AP Photo/John Raoux)
(AP Photo/John Raoux)

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‘I Shouldn’t Be Here’

The shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub claimed 49 lives and altered countless others. Nine months later, the tragedy still shapes three of those most deeply affected: two survivors and the brother of the youngest victim, Akyra Murray. Their names are Tiara, Patience, and Alex, and they are at once isolated by the individual nature of their suffering and deeply drawn to the only other people who remotely understand: each other.

Tiara Parker is gone. She is standing here, yes, on an August afternoon in a tattoo parlor in West Palm Beach, Florida, but her shoulders have sunk and her eyes have gone still and she is silent, far away. It is strange, she’ll say later, the way this has happened to her since the June 12, 2016, shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub. She was shot once in a bathroom that night, and ever since the memory will grab her at random moments, demanding that she feel nothing and everything all at once. So here Tiara is, standing in a crowded room, staring at nothing, listening to no one.

"Tiara," says the tattoo artist, Lemeir Mitchell.

"Tiara," he says again.

"Tiara!"

She comes to attention, eyes rolling across the room. "Hmm?" she says.

"Get the camera."

Ah. Yes. The video camera is important. She wants this moment to be documented. She grabs it and walks toward the rest of the group. "Where’s Patience?" she asks. "Someone find Patience."

Patience Carter is sitting on a couch in another room, scrolling through her phone. She holds a pair of crutches, which she’s been using in the weeks since the shooting. She hates them. They expose her. Everywhere she goes, the crutches announce her agony. She leans into the right crutch, and then she leans into the left one, and she rises and moves, slowly, into the other room. She approaches the back, where Tiara and a few others are standing around Alex Murray.

"You ready?" Tiara asks, and Alex nods. He sits on a stool, shirt off, exposing his back.

In his hands, he holds a photo of his sister, Akyra Murray. She’s pictured in a basketball jersey and sneakers, her shoulders thick and wide, her expression sharp and focused. This is the way Alex likes to remember her. He can’t remember her last moments. He wasn’t there when Omar Mateen shot and killed her in the club, making her, at 18, the youngest of the 49 people killed in the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history. Alex’s absence from that moment gnaws at him, a steady and ever-present pain. But for now he looks on and allows Lemeir, the tattoo artist and Alex’s friend, to make his final preparations.

Akyra Murray, a thousand-point scorer at West Catholic Prep, was one of Philadelphia’s best high school basketball players during her senior year. (Courtesy Alex Murray) Her brother, Alex, gets a tattoo memorializing his fallen sister. (Jordan Ritte

Akyra Murray, a thousand-point scorer at West Catholic Prep, was one of Philadelphia’s best high school basketball players during her senior year. (Courtesy Alex Murray) Her brother, Alex, gets a tattoo memorializing his fallen sister. (Jordan Ritte

Patience and Tiara carry in their bodies reminders of that night in Orlando. Tiara has a dark scar on her left side. Patience’s crutches will be gone soon, but the metal rod in her right leg will remain. Alex craves a way to imprint that night on his body too. He can’t wait for people to ask him about the tattoo, can’t wait to tell them who his little sister was.

All three of them have been shattered by what happened at Pulse that night. Akyra was Alex’s sister, Tiara’s cousin, and Patience’s new friend. Her absence grates on them in different ways. Sometimes Alex wakes up in the morning, reaches for his phone, and instinctively calls her number. Tiara has sat on her bed, holding Akyra’s clothes, quiet as she runs the fabric through her fingers. Patience didn’t know Akyra well, didn’t love her the way Alex and Tiara did, but she sometimes finds herself wondering: Why her? Why not me instead?

At the tattoo parlor two months after the shooting and in the months to follow, the three find themselves bound to one another, both pulling in and pushing away the two other people who can come closest to understanding their pain. Yet even that understanding reaches limits. Alex’s loss cuts deeper than Patience’s. Patience’s body aches differently than Tiara’s. Tiara’s memories overwhelm in their own ways. They are drawn to each other but restricted by the individual textures of their own traumas. Their stories belong to the world, their vulnerabilities to one another, their suffering only to themselves.

Alex leans forward as Tiara and Patience watch. The needle buzzes and pierces his skin. Minutes later another observer asks if it hurts, and Alex shakes his head. "I’m good," he says.

The needle moves across his back. He can no longer hear his sister, but he feels her in Tiara and Patience’s presence. He can no longer see her body, but now, as ink enters his own, her image slowly forms.

They were on vacation. One week in Orlando visiting theme parks and restaurants and spending lazy afternoons by the pool. It was time to celebrate: Akyra had just graduated from West Catholic Prep, third in her class. She was relaxed and confident and 18. She had landed a basketball scholarship, and she planned to head later that summer to Mercyhurst University, a Division II school in Erie, Pennsylvania, about 400 miles from her family’s home in Philadelphia.

But first, she would return with her family to the site of their first vacation together, back when she and Alex, three and a half years older, had been little kids. On that first trip it had rained all week, and they’d trudged through Magic Kingdom, soaking wet and overjoyed. This trip would feel like the culmination of something: Alex and Akyra were now adults. They had a young sister, Ayon’na, and Alex had a daughter, Arie, and now they would see Disney World through the children’s eyes.

Alex and Akyra shared a closeness rare even among siblings. As children they fought; he was small for his age, and she was big. But as they grew they found in each other mirror images of themselves. Each was athletic and driven, contemplative and self-possessed. Both could command a room’s attention without saying a single word. Their childhood home in Southwest Philly was surrounded by crime and decay. Akyra remained committed to her studies, but early in high school Alex drifted to the streets, fighting and skipping class to hang out with older and more violent friends. As he grew he calmed down and found an outlet for his aggression in football. He played linebacker and earned a scholarship to Division I Saint Francis University.

Before she started high school, Akyra decided she wanted to play basketball. Her parents had both been star players in high school, but now they worked long hours in the food services industry and had no time to teach her the fundamentals. Alex had never played organized ball, but he scoured YouTube for videos of drills and worked with her for hours on end, vowing to make her great. As the months passed, her confidence grew. She ran ballhandling drills in the snow and wandered up to streetball games, calling "next" like she owned the court even though she was often the only girl. She played the point and the wing. She contributed to her team at Bishop McDevitt High School as a freshman and sophomore; as a junior she transferred and became the best player at her new school, West Catholic. By her senior year she became one of the top players in the city, bullying and balletic, James Harden with a ponytail. She could shoot from deep when needed, but she preferred to use her strength to penetrate, Euro-stepping past guards and finishing over bigs. She earned scholarship offers and reached 1,000 career points her senior year. Before relenting, she balked at going to her senior prom, telling Alex, "I ain’t wearing no damn dress. I play ball!"

Akyra and Alex Murray through the years (Courtesy Alex Murray)

Akyra and Alex Murray through the years (Courtesy Alex Murray)

After Alex had left for college, first at Saint Francis and then transferring to Northwood University in Florida, they called each other multiple times every day. They talked about her practices and games, about his daughter and his dreams, about LeBron James and Stephen Curry. Sometimes they imagined a faraway future, moving together to Los Angeles, where she longed to one day play for UCLA.

But that would arrive later. For the moment, she seemed thrilled to be finished with high school, excited about all that would come next. She was thrilled, too, to be with her family on vacation. They had a full house: Akyra’s parents and her 4-year-old sister; her cousin Tiara and Tiara’s mother and brother and best friend, Patience. Alex had to work that night, but afterward he would drive up from his home in West Palm Beach, bringing his daughter and her mother, Hannah. On the first full day, Akyra lounged at the condo while others loaded up on groceries. Sometime in the evening, she started to feel energized. She started to feel restless. She turned to Tiara and Patience and she threw out an idea.

"Yo," she said, smiling. "We should go to a club."

Tiara studies the scene. The needle buzzes and Alex winces. The camera is steady; the frame fixed just right. Before the tattooing began, she’d filmed Alex walking into the tattoo shop and greeting Lemeir. She’d interviewed Mark Moffitt, a local gay rights activist. After the shooting, Moffitt had the names of all 49 Pulse victims tattooed on his leg, and Tiara had invited him to meet her, Patience, and Alex here. By filming this day they’re capturing a piece of their own story.

Sometimes Tiara tells that story to other friends and family, and she’s floored by the gulf between them and herself. Trauma separates. "They can’t understand," she says. "And I don’t even want them to understand, because you can’t understand it if you didn’t go through it." Still, she tells them. She has to.

The telling is what gives the memory shape. Sometimes it can feel like chaos trapped inside her, her own private violence. But when she speaks, fragments of horror organize around her words.

Tiara Parker and Patience Carter at a taping of ‘Today’ in July 2016 (Gilbert Carrasquillo/FilmMagic)

Tiara Parker and Patience Carter at a taping of ‘Today’ in July 2016 (Gilbert Carrasquillo/FilmMagic)

"We should go to a club," Akyra said, and Tiara and Patience immediately agreed. Yes. Of course they should go out. Even as kids, Tiara and Akyra, who was three years Tiara’s junior, had always sought adventure. Roller coasters in the summer, haunted houses at Halloween, indoor skydiving year-round. Now they were adults, hundreds of miles from home and ready for something new. It was the perfect night to go dancing.

They started getting ready. Tiara got started on Akyra’s makeup. She’d worked for a few years as a professional makeup artist, and even though Akyra had always been most comfortable in baggy shorts and a hoodie, she’d also spent countless hours in Tiara’s makeup chair, helping her practice. On this night, Tiara knew exactly what Akyra needed. She painted on red lipstick, and then outlined it with pencil to make it pop. She applied a gel to Akyra’s eyebrows — heavy, heavy, light; heavy, heavy, light — until they were perfectly sharp.

Akyra on the night of the shooting (Courtesy Alex Murray)
Akyra on the night of the shooting (Courtesy Alex Murray)

They got dressed. Akyra wore all black: shorts, sandals, crop top. Patience, Tiara’s close friend since high school and summer roommate in Philly, put on shorts and flats, accessorized with a shoulder bag. Tiara chose a floor-length cardigan on top; on the bottom, ripped jeans, white and pristine.

They looked online for potential destinations. They needed somewhere that was 18-and-up, somewhere relatively inexpensive but still palatial and grand. They scrolled through options until they found one that looked good. It had multiple DJs and multiple rooms, each promising its own experience. They loaded into a car, Tiara drifting off to sleep while Patience and Akyra bounced to the radio. Right around midnight, they pulled up and saw the building. They grabbed each other and squealed. The sign stood high and bright, inviting. This was it. This was perfect. The club was called Pulse.

Two hours passed as a blur of simple joys. Running across the street to withdraw cash at a 7-Eleven, laughing as they raced each other and, Tiara says, "just acting a fool." Walking up to the entrance and getting massive black X’s on their hands to mark them as under 21. Immediately, they rushed to the dance floor, their bodies moving the moment they walked through the door. They had noticed on its website that Pulse was a gay club but had barely given it any thought. Now they danced with random men and women without care, all of them welcoming and energetic and kind. This felt different from the 17-and-up clubs they’d visited as high-schoolers in Philly. Those could be stiff and isolating. Here, it felt like the other clubgoers were their friends. "Oh my goodness," Tiara remembers hearing from strangers, "you girls are so beautiful." She smiled and moved, uninhibited and secure.

They made their way through the club, checking out the different rooms. The Lounge housed the bar and the VIP booths, the Jewel Box the salsa dancing. Finally they settled in the Adonis Room, which featured a smaller dance floor near the back and a DJ playing hip-hop. They kept laughing, kept dancing, until they looked at their phones and saw that it was nearly 2 a.m. They walked to a corner of the room. Patience and Akyra sat together on a chair, and Tiara stood before them, pulling up an Uber on her phone. She nodded along to the beat, lulled into the task of finding a ride home, entering her destination and waiting for a driver and unbothered, at least for a moment, by the sound coming from elsewhere in the club, a series of heavy, staccato blasts.

The terror arrived in slow motion and then all at once. Tiara’s mind went racing past its stimuli, unable to grasp the facts of her world. The blasts continued, and Tiara thought they were part of a song. "Energy" by Drake, perhaps. That one starts with the sound of automatic gunfire, and now it seemed to be blasting over the speakers in the club. Perhaps soon Drake’s voice would come in: "I got enemies / Got a lot of enemies." Heads would nod and bodies would move and she would dance until the Uber arrived to take her home.

It was confusing, though, because now the people around her were screaming. Also confusing: The gunshots continued out of rhythm with the beat. Drake never started rapping. People ran and screamed and the bangs just kept coming, on and on and on, as if the blasts and not the music now controlled the movements of the club.

She felt something. A light pelting, tiny fragments of cement or brick or drywall hitting her skin. It was then, when the sensation of touch matched those of sight and sound, that she realized something had gone horribly wrong.

She froze.

Patience descends the stairs one by one, scooting slowly, unable to walk. It’s late afternoon, and she’s at Alex’s apartment in West Palm Beach. Alex sits in the living room, head nodding to the new Gucci Mane album. Lemeir rummages through the kitchen in search of a snack before returning to Alex’s tattoo. After the shop closed last night, they decided it would be more convenient to finish the tattoo of Akyra at Alex’s home.

Sometimes, Patience insists that she’s fine, that the shooting feels less like her own experience than like something she observed. "I don’t feel like a victim," she says. "I kind of close myself off from the reality of what happened. I’m detached." But the crutches pull her back. Her mind is brought into focus by the force of her body’s pain. Earlier this summer she went to the mall on her crutches, and a woman stopped her to ask what happened. She thought it was a sports injury, Patience imagined. Perhaps a car crash at worst. Then Patience told her that she had been shot in Orlando, and the woman was stunned, clearly shaken, and Patience stood there feeling responsible for this stranger’s discomfort. The crutches force her to confront her own suffering.

She reaches for them now, here in Alex’s apartment. She stumbles, just a little, until rising to her feet. Lemeir laughs. "Moving a little slow?" There is no derision in his voice, only playfulness, but right now Patience does not have a mind for that kind of play. She cuts her eyes in his direction. "If you went through what I went through," she says, "you would be moving slow too."

Alex Murray (Jordan Ritter Conn); the game ball commemorating the night Akyra reached 1,000 points for her high school basketball career (Courtesy Alex Murray)

Alex Murray (Jordan Ritter Conn); the game ball commemorating the night Akyra reached 1,000 points for her high school basketball career (Courtesy Alex Murray)

Patience endured suffering long before she ever arrived in Orlando. When she was a child, her mother would disappear from time to time. Weeks later she would return, as if nothing had gone wrong. But when Patience was 2, her mother vanished. Weeks passed and she didn’t come back. Then months passed. Then years.

With her father floating in and out of the picture, Patience lived with her grandmother, who was caring but strict. During Patience’s early adolescence, her grandmother died of cancer. Patience bounced among the homes of other family members, each one chaotic, she says. She buried herself in schoolwork, dreaming of college and escape. She visited New York on a high school trip and became transfixed by its energy, by the way a person could be anonymous and public all at once. She dreamed of spending four years at NYU.

School counselors advised her to be realistic, to look at Penn State or Temple. Poor kids from Philly did not go to NYU. But Patience applied, and months later the email arrived on her computer screen. She was in. Not only that — she’d gotten a scholarship. She stared at the screen, eyes filling with tears. She would arrive in Manhattan that fall to study journalism. NYU promised the kind of future that she for so long had only dreamed of.

Two years passed, thrilling and challenging in all the right ways. In the summer of 2016 she went back to Philadelphia to intern at a local news station. She lived with Tiara for the summer. When Tiara invited Patience to join her family vacation, Patience was thrilled.

She was awed by the palm trees and intoxicated by Florida’s heat, but her greatest joy on that first day came from the simple act of joining Tiara’s family. She knew Tiara and her mother well, but had spent little time with Akyra, Alex, and their parents. On the plane, she watched Tiara and her brother James pull out their neck pillows and fix them behind their heads. This was a family where neck pillows were a routine purchase. This was a family well acquainted with plane travel. She watched Tiara and her mom, always teasing each other over something. She wondered what that was like, to have a mother in your life who knew and loved you. Just being close to them, sitting in the same room, brought Patience a new and soothing warmth.

She was thrilled to be visiting Pulse. She walked in, dripping excitement, intoxicated by the noise and the movement, by how foreign everything felt. Tonight, she thought to herself, is going to be a great night. She melted into the crowd, dancing for hours. She told Akyra and Tiara, "This is our spot." They would be back. Maybe the next night, or maybe later in the week. Either way, they now had a home in Orlando.

When the shooting started hours later, Patience instinctively dropped to the ground. She heard the blasts and the screams and she lay on the floor, looking up at Tiara, who was standing still, and at others, all running around her, chaotic and afraid. She began crawling backward, not entirely sure where she was headed, her body moving apart from her mind. Finally she stopped. She felt her hands beneath her. They were clutching grass. She turned to look above her. She saw sky. She’d made it out. Inside, the shooting continued. Out here, the world held an eerie calm.

She looked straight ahead and saw Akyra running, frantic. She reached Patience and crouched above her, unsure of what to do. "Where’s Tiara?" Patience asked. "She’s still inside," Akyra said. Patience’s next words escaped her mouth as a reflex, as certain as if she’d been asked her own name. "We have to go get her." Akyra nodded. Patience stood. Together, they ran.

Tiara was inside, crouching by the bar, footsteps from the spot where she’d frozen. Patience and Akyra rushed to her. The moment overwhelmed their senses. Muscles fired apart from conscious thought, and now they found themselves moving, not back to the exit, but deeper into the club, to a bathroom.

They burst through the door and went straight to the handicapped stall, where bodies had poured in as everyone pressed together in the corner of the room. Confusion mounted. Voices scattered.

"There’s a gun!" someone shouted.

"What?!?!" Tiara asked.

"Someone’s shooting!" yelled another voice.

And then another: "Shhhhhhh!"

Patience sat in the corner of the stall, still unsure of what was going on. In the chaos of the moment, a strange notion struck her. A BB gun. Yes. That must be it. The club was closing at two, and they needed everyone to leave. Maybe they cleared the club by shooting BBs around the dance floor. This was a big club in a faraway city. Maybe things were just different down here.

Then the bathroom door opened and a gun sprayed. Blast, thunk, scream, blast, thunk, scream, all of it at once, bodies hot and then throbbing. After a few seconds, the blasts stopped. Patience heard metal jamming. She surmised this was the sound of Mateen’s Sig Sauer MCX .223 assault rifle malfunctioning. Then she heard footsteps, just outside the stall door, moving closer and closer. The door to the stall slid open, just barely, and a pistol poked through. Patience watched and realized: Oh. A man is shooting us. Only then did it dawn on her that she already had a bullet in her leg.

Alex leans forward in a chair in his living room, and he keeps his body still as Lemeir continues to work. Just a few more details. A little shading on the shorts, some definition in the muscles and hair.

She looks exactly like herself — stout and tough and unbothered by the world. The last drops of ink enter Alex’s skin, bringing his sister fully into form. His back aches, a steady throbbing. But the pain brings comfort. Alex admits that he’s still searching for the proper ways to grieve. All around him is catastrophe — parents devastated by loss, a 5-year-old sister too confused to understand.

Alex’s tattoo honoring his sister (Courtesy Alex Murray)
Alex’s tattoo honoring his sister (Courtesy Alex Murray)

The buzzing stops. All goes quiet. "All right, bro," says Lemeir. "Done." Lemeir flew in from Los Angeles just to give his friend this tattoo. He understands the desire to imprint the memory of the dead on your own skin. He wears a T-shirt and a forehead tattoo with the letters "CBK," which stands for the nickname of his late brother, "College Boy Kev." Alex stands, and Lemeir takes a picture of his back. The swelling needs to go down, but the tat is finished. Alex takes a look, and he nods. He says nothing. Patience and Tiara both approach him to take long looks at his back. They each smile, and Alex smiles too.

He craves their presence. Both remind him of his sister. Tiara punctuates her sentences with the word "yo," just like Akyra, in that same Southwest Philly accent, aggressive and inquisitive all at once. Patience moves through the world at Akyra’s speed, observant and intense. But it’s not just that their personalities remind him of Akyra. Tiara and Patience also serve as his only connection to the last moments of his sister’s life. Here, trauma binds. "Those are the last two people to see my sister smile," Alex says later. "They’re also the last two people to see my sister cry."

After everyone passes along their compliments, Alex takes some time for himself and his sister’s memory. He wanders off to another corner of the apartment, and there, for a moment, he’s alone.

He was driving east on Interstate 4 the last time he heard Akyra’s voice. He’d worked a shift that night, valet parking near his home in West Palm Beach, and now he was headed up to meet the family in Orlando. As he approached the rental condo, the phone rang. Alex answered. Akyra sounded frightened and confused.

She whispered, "Where’s mom?"

Alex didn’t understand. "What?" he asked. "Why are you whispering?"

"Call the cops," she said. "They’re shooting in the club."

Alex hung up, frantic and confused. He didn’t even know where his sister was — in the chaos, she never mentioned the name of the club — but he sped toward downtown Orlando. He saw police cars and fire trucks, heard sirens blaring, and he followed as fast as he could. He called Akyra back and heard her scream, disconsolate for several seconds, before the call disconnected. He called back. No answer. He never spoke to his sister again.

Orlando police officers talk to family members of people trapped inside Pulse nightclub the night of the shooting (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Orlando police officers talk to family members of people trapped inside Pulse nightclub the night of the shooting (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

After the shooting, police released the 911 call logs from that night. Akyra called at half past two in the morning. She told the dispatcher she was losing her eyesight. She said she was losing feeling in her body. At 2:32 a.m., the dispatcher wrote that Akyra repeated the same sentence multiple times on the call: "I don’t want to die today."

Tiara and Patience fight. This is nothing new — they are less friends than sisters — but in the weeks after the shooting their agitation multiplies. They live together back in Philly for the rest of the summer. Each carries a slow-burning fire inside her, and at times they serve as each other’s gasoline. The smallest things grate. Patience loses her hair dryer and Tiara can’t help her find it. Patience stews. Tiara tries to sleep and Patience closes a door too loudly. Tiara seethes.

One day Tiara is sitting on the couch, face blank, numb to the world. Patience walks by, still on her crutches but smiling, and the very presence of joy in their home is too much for Tiara to bear. "Bitch," she later remembers thinking to herself. "What the fuck are you so happy for?"

For Tiara, happiness can sometimes feel like an insult to Akyra’s memory. How dare she feel good weeks after her little cousin died? Better to be numb than to smile. She can be in agony or she can be insensate. There’s little room for anything in between.

Over time, Patience reckons with the reality of her experience. Sometimes she wakes up in the middle of the night and she emits a foreign noise — "my squeal," she calls it — and sometimes crowds and activity rip her away from the present and back to the club. Yet she and Tiara both feel a certain distance from the other’s experience. Both were shot. Both prepared for death. But in Akyra, Patience lost only a new friend. Tiara lost a cousin who was closer to her than almost anyone else on earth. Sometimes Patience wonders if Tiara wishes that she and not Akyra had been the one who died. "I feel bad," Patience tells her one day, "for not being able to feel bad." Later Tiara describes the distance. "It’s crazy," she says, "how you can be in the same room, in the same stall, shot by the same person, watching the same people die, and yet your experience is still somehow different."

Patience and Tiara at Florida Hospital Orlando in June 2016 before they meet President Obama (Red Huber/Orlando Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images); Tiara and President Obama (Courtesy Alex Murray)

Patience and Tiara at Florida Hospital Orlando in June 2016 before they meet President Obama (Red Huber/Orlando Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images); Tiara and President Obama (Courtesy Alex Murray)

For both, though, memories intrude and push them together. On the Fourth of July, Patience goes with a large group from Tiara’s immediate and extended family to a cookout at Fairmount Park in Philadelphia. They are sitting together in Tiara’s uncle’s RV, alongside several of Tiara’s cousins, when they hear a series of bangs just outside. Patience panics. So does Tiara. They scream and they shake and they cover their ears and they cry. They sit near each other, each feeling the same thing: They’re back and they’re in danger; someone is shooting in the club.

But wait. No. In a matter of seconds, they begin to realize that they’re safe. It’s just fireworks, set off by a group of nearby children. Tiara and Patience are together, hundreds of miles from Pulse, surrounded by people they love. The moment passes and they reach for each other. Even amid a summer of bickering, they recognize that in their arms they hold the one person who almost understands.

They were together that night in the bathroom, alongside Akyra, watching Mateen’s gun poke through the door of the stall. Patience sat near the toilet; Tiara and Akyra huddled together, right next to the door. A man motioned for Tiara to slam it. She did. In the moment, this seemed wise. Only later would she begin to wonder whether this might have provoked Mateen.

But Mateen did nothing. He went quiet. It was odd, sitting in a room with your would-be killer. He seemed smaller somehow. From the other side of the stall, he asked if there were any black people in the room. Patience, Akyra, and Tiara all remained silent, scared of what might come next. But a man, also black, responded: "Yes."

Mateen kept talking. "I don’t have a problem with black people," Patience remembers him saying. "This is about my country. You guys suffered enough." In his voice they heard jitters and confusion.

Hours passed. Their bodies’ numbness turned to agony. Patience had been shot in the leg, which was pinned underneath the person who sat beside her, and any time Patience moved she was shattered by pressure and pain. Tiara’s bullet had entered through her abdominal region. Now even shallow breaths proved excruciating.

At first, Akyra seemed fine. She held her hand over her mouth and whispered into her phone, calling police and family. After Mateen confiscated their phones, Akyra and Tiara rested against one another. At one point, Tiara leaned back and lay her head on Akyra’s arm. Her cousin jolted. When Tiara sat up, she touched her hand to the back of her head and felt blood. Akyra, she discovered, had been shot in the arm. As hours passed they were powerless to stop their own bleeding, unable to provide enough pressure to slow it down. They changed positions every few minutes, rarely losing contact. Akyra sat back and Tiara rested her head on Akyra’s belly. Tiara lay on her stomach and Akyra lay down on Tiara’s back. They waited.

After several hours in the bathroom, they heard a blast. This was it. This was the end. Earlier they’d assumed the best, now the worst. Mateen had said that he had enough bombs to blow up a city block, and now they must be detonating and soon they would all be dead.

But perhaps Mateen wasn’t causing the explosions. He was, after all, still right there in the room. He pulled out his pistol and reached into the stall. "Hey, you," he said, and then he shot at someone neither Tiara nor Patience could see. Right then, a young man next to Patience grabbed her and held her tight, positioning himself in front of her, directly between Patience and Mateen. The gun fired again and the man screamed, squeezing her as a bullet entered his flesh.

His name was Jason Benjamin Josaphat. Friends would say later that he was funny and peaceful. He loved computers and photography. He had a mom named Myrlande and a dad named Jackson and a laugh that could boom across an entire room. He died from gunshot wounds in his scalp and his shoulder. He was 19.

Alex walks out of the cold and into the gym. It’s December now, start of basketball season, and he’s back in Philly at West Catholic Prep. He wears a West Catholic hoodie and a Lady Burrs visor, and he walks along the edge of the court, greeting old friends and teachers. He takes a seat on the far side, near his parents. The buzzer sounds and the game begins.

He loves and hates it here. He feels his sister in the gym more than anywhere else. This is where she did her best work, where they fine-tuned her skills and pushed her from a raw talent to someone with the ability to dominate Philadelphia’s Catholic League. Alex used to come with her for workouts, and he would join in on practices, where coach Beulah Osueke would use him as an extra body, throwing him onto the court with the girls during drills.

He loves seeing his parents and Tiara when he’s back home in Philly, and Patience often comes down to visit from New York. After growing close through the summer, he and Patience began dating this fall. Once, Alex and Akyra called each other every few hours, talking through the joys and annoyances and minutiae of each day. Now, he talks to Patience. Though the relationship is vastly different, the sense of closeness feels familiar.

Still, Philly hurts. In West Palm Beach, he has his daughter, job, and friends. Here, he still has family. Mostly, though, this place makes him feel loss. He has felt, all along, the weight of his entire family’s suffering. While his parents grieved, Alex told himself to be strong. Someone needed to keep their eyes dry. Someone needed to handle logistics, to begin the work of honoring Akyra’s memory even before having a chance to mourn her loss.

"Sometimes," he says, "I still expect her to call me back. Or just show up and start playing ball again, like this was all nothing. A part of me still doesn’t believe it was her in that casket." But here, the fact of her absence hangs in the air, thick and brutal. Alex scans the room and looks up at the banner on the wall, where her name hangs alongside other thousand-point scorers. He shakes his head and whispers, "Damn."

The scene outside Pulse nightclub after the shooting (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara; AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

The scene outside Pulse nightclub after the shooting (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara; AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Patience and Tiara heard another explosion and a bathroom wall came crashing down. Police officers fired, and Mateen fired, and bullets ricocheted back and forth. Tiara felt a heat on her neck, something wild and searing, until, in a matter of seconds, the shooting was over and Mateen was dead.

Pipes burst and people screamed. Patience braced herself against the toilet, and when she pulled back, she saw her handprint on the toilet bowl, fingerprints clear and bright red. Water pooled and then rose, and Tiara saw that it was red and brown. They were a tangle of bodies, all washing in each other’s blood. She was still sitting on the floor, and she held Akyra in her lap. Only now did Tiara begin to see her cousin losing strength. Tiara cradled Akyra’s head in her hands. She looked down at her face and saw the makeup that just hours ago she’d painted on. The pencil on the lipstick, the gel on the eyebrows — heavy, heavy, light; heavy, heavy, light. Akyra was beautiful. The makeup smeared and ran and Tiara struggled to keep Akyra’s face above the water as it rose.

Medics grabbed Tiara. They dragged her and others from the bathroom and loaded them into trucks and ambulances. Alex stood outside behind a barricade with the rest of his family, who had driven to the club after Akyra called her mother, Natalie. He’d tried to push past police and rush into the club, but they’d held him back, and now he could only stand and watch. From a distance, he saw medics carrying Patience and then Tiara. He kept watching, kept waiting, but he never saw them carrying Akyra.

She had gunshot wounds in each arm and another in her head. That bullet perforated her skull, causing her brain to hemorrhage. The next day, when Alex heard from the coroner that his little sister was dead, he immediately told his family. They collapsed into him, and he tried right then to feel nothing. This was not the time to cry. Maybe for everyone else, but not for Alex. He wanted to support their anguish with his own strength. He sat still and offered comfort while all around him they screamed and wailed.

Alex rises from the bleachers. It’s halftime. A school administrator takes the microphone and invites him and his entire family onto the court. The administrator is holding a framed jersey. He reads off a list of Akyra’s accomplishments — 1,000 points scored, two district titles, a college scholarship — and he announces that the school is retiring her jersey. He presents it to the family, and Alex takes the frame and holds it. It looks just like the jersey she wears in the tattoo that covers his back. White, no. 20, adorned with the word "West."

He looks down at the frame and in an instant he’s surrounded, all of Akyra’s former teammates reaching out for a massive group hug. He stands in the middle of the crowd, and he looks around at his sister’s friends and then down at her school’s floor. In so many moments he has remained stoic. He has willed himself away from emotion and toward calm. But whenever he’s around basketball, the weight of his loss overtakes him. Her jersey retired, her name on the wall — this is what Alex and Akyra dreamed of all those mornings they hit the blacktop before sunrise. But not like this. Now he drops his head. He trembles and weeps.

Alex, surrounded by family and friends, holds the jersey presented to his family on the night West Catholic Prep retires Akyra’s number in December (Jordan Ritter Conn)
Alex, surrounded by family and friends, holds the jersey presented to his family on the night West Catholic Prep retires Akyra’s number in December (Jordan Ritter Conn)

As the second half begins, Alex walks to the sideline. He sits down, still wiping away tears, and Tiara walks over to him. She wraps herself around her big cousin, a giant hug, and she smiles. "Boy," she says, "you better stop crying."

Alex smiles. "I don’t know what you’re talking about," he says. He points at the court. "I’m just trying to watch the game."

She pulls herself back and looks him in the eyes. Then she hugs him once more, and again he cries.

In the days after the shooting, Patience participated in a press conference alongside another survivor, 32-year-old Angel Santiago, and two doctors from Florida Hospital Orlando. She gave the world one of its earliest glimpses into that bathroom stall. She spoke about the pain and fear, the way her brain couldn’t process the world around her. She talked about Mateen’s stated desire not to harm any black people. She also read a poem.

Video of her reading the poem was broadcast around the world. Her photo was plastered across newspapers and websites. Internet trolls and conspiracy theorists dug into her background, seizing upon her work at a TV station and insisting, falsely, that she was an actor paid to play the victim by colluding forces who’d fabricated the massacre. Along with other survivors, she and Tiara met President Obama and stood onstage at the Teen Choice Awards. She heard from friends and acquaintances and countless strangers, all commending her for her bravery and resolve.

Patience speaks during a press conference a few days after the shooting (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Patience speaks during a press conference a few days after the shooting (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

All the while, she lay in her bed and wondered about the one person who hadn’t called. Her mom. Was she still out there? For her entire life, Patience imagined where she might be and what she might be like. Did she miss Patience? Did she regret leaving? Did she wonder what became of her little girl? Patience knew that her mom wore glasses, and she knew that she loved to sing. They had those two things in common. Besides that, she knew nothing. She didn’t even know if her mother was alive.

Days passed. She watched Tiara and her mother cling to each other ever closer. She watched Akyra’s family struggle through their own grief. She took visits from her brothers and a brief one from her father, who had rarely been involved in her life. He asked, "Did Wanda" — her mom — "ever reach out to you?"

"No," Patience said. She never did.

One December night in Manhattan, Patience pulls up a chair and sits at a table inside a Starbucks at NYU. This city feels different now. New York had once been an escape to wonderland. The city’s chaos intoxicated her. Now it overwhelms. Its blasts and bangs can jolt her upright. Its millions of strangers can seem like millions of potential threats. She can’t believe she’s admitting this, but it’s true: "I miss Philadelphia," she says.

Unlike in the summer, she no longer dissociates from the memory of the shooting. She was there. She felt it. She can’t pretend she was some observer, watching a horror that belonged to someone else. She searches, daily, to find meaning in the way she suffered. Not just in Orlando, but over the course of her entire life. "You know how everyone has a story?" she asks. "Well, I already had a story."

She imagines a future for herself after completing her degree. She loves to sing and to write. She feels she must have some deep purpose, but she hasn’t discerned just what it is. "Why?" she asks. "Why am I alive?" She pauses. Her body shifts to the right, and her head tilts for a moment more. "Seriously. Why are so many people dead? Why is Akyra dead? And I’m still here." She goes quiet again. "I shouldn’t be here," she says. "But I am."

Tiara has to get counseling. She knows it. She has known it for months, but today she feels it in every piece of her body, all of it crying for help. She’ll go soon, but right now it’s December, and she’s sipping tea in Center City Philadelphia. She admits something. "This morning," she says, "I just completely lost it."

She had another interview. The reporter asked her about the moments in the bathroom, and she told him, and afterward she felt her body convulse, and she shook and screamed and cried in her office at Public Health Management Corporation, no one around her sure of what to do. She does not know why she reacted like this. Sometimes she can go there. Sometimes she can talk with Patience or even with strangers about every moment of that night. But sometimes when she talks it’s like the night has begun all over, and her words take her right back to that bathroom.

She wants to be OK. For so long she has wanted nothing more than to be OK. But Tiara has also wanted to surround herself with memories of Akyra — memories of her own pain and loss. The jeans Tiara had worn that night — all white, pristine — had been caked with dried blood. The cardigan she’d worn — floor length, gorgeous — had nine bullet holes in it, even though her body was hit only once. Her mom gathered those clothes and threw them away. Tiara tells the story and she lets a smile creep across her face. "Sometimes," she says, "I want to go diving in all of the dumpsters in all of Philadelphia until I find them. I just want to look at them. Hold ’em. You know?" She lets her shoulders relax. She shrugs, shyly.

"My cousin’s blood was on those clothes."

She keeps a picture of Akyra from a cruise, the last vacation the family took before Orlando. She keeps her cousin’s rosary beads, and sometimes she runs them through her fingers and thinks or prays. She keeps Akyra’s jeans, an old pair that she once borrowed, and she lets them rest on her bed, rarely touched and never worn.

And on her side, she keeps a mark, a scar. As months have passed she has healed and the scar has begun to fade. Now she’s thinking of getting a tattoo around it, perhaps of a koi fish, which represents the overcoming of adversity in Japanese culture.

But that’s for later. For now, sometimes, she sits at home alone, and when she takes off her shirt she looks at her scar and stares, just for a little while. Then she picks at it. She runs her fingers over it and she irritates the skin. As she picks, over time, the scar grows darker. She looks away and smiles as she describes it, as if admitting a secret. She says, "I don’t want it to go away."

After Tiara left the hospital and flew back home to Philadelphia, while she prepared to bury her cousin and move forward from her own horror, in between interview requests and comments from well-wishers, she fixated on one aspect of Akyra’s funeral: her makeup. Tiara had to do it. She couldn’t bear the thought of ceding that job to someone else.

One morning she met Alex in a room at a Philadelphia funeral home. She needed him there, just to stand and to watch. She walked up to the casket and peered inside at Akyra’s body.

"Get up," she said, and there was silence.

"Get up."

Tiara cried.

"Girl, please," she said, sobbing now. "Please just get up."

Tiara trembled, and Alex stood behind her and rubbed his cousin’s shoulders as she cried. "This isn’t her," he said. "I don’t believe it." But Tiara did. She encountered Akyra in death the same way she had so many times in life: By touching and transforming her cousin’s face. She reached into her makeup bag and got to work. "You going out of here like you had life," Tiara told her. No pale foundation. No colors that looked cold. She added foundation that looked clean and bright, and she painted on a wing eyeliner, accented by bright eye shadow. Every so often she stopped, and she reached for Alex and braced herself against him as she cried. He cracked jokes and she laughed and then she hugged him and cried some more. When it came time to do her eyebrows, Tiara applied gel the same way she had that night in Orlando — heavy, heavy, light; heavy, heavy, light — until they were perfectly sharp, on point.

At one moment, Tiara asked Alex to leave the room. She needed Akyra all to herself. She peered into the casket. Memories flooded her mind — of them running together through haunted houses in Philadelphia, of sitting on each other’s beds and laughing until they could barely breathe. Of that night in Orlando — dancing and gunshots and the moment, just after the terror began, when Akyra ran and Tiara froze.

"I’m sorry," she said, and again she cried. "I’m sorry I didn’t protect us. I’m sorry I didn’t do more."

She thought of Akyra rushing back into the club alongside Patience, desperate to find Tiara so that all three of them could be together, be safe.

"You’re my hero," she told Akyra. "You saved my life."

The world makes the most sense when the three of them are together. They do not have to tell each other their stories. They each lived them. They do not have to apologize for their emotions. They all know a similar pain. After retiring Akyra’s jersey they gather at a recording studio in Philadelphia. Patience loves to sing, Alex likes to rap, and Tiara is at her best when she’s coordinating others, running the show. Together, they write a song about Orlando and about Akyra. They’ve been working on the lyrics for months and have plans to record a video with families and survivors, a full tribute to all affected by the shooting.

Alex steps to the microphone and recites a poem. "Dear beloved 49 / It’s a love that’s unshaken / Our hearts continuously breakin’ / As you dance your feet away / We cry in pain as we pray." Patience takes the mic and sings. "Touched down in Orlando / I almost died / Three-hour hostage / Lord I cried / Begging you to take my soul / Take my soul."

Afterward they sit together. Alex wraps his arms around Patience. They are comfortable here, together. Sometimes she flies down to Florida or he goes up to New York or they meet right here in Philly. They also dream of a life together in L.A., far from the memories of their pain and loss. They talk often of the future and feel secure in each other’s sense of their own past. Tiara sits across the room, smiling, watching her big cousin and her friend.

On Alex’s shoulder, he reveals another tattoo. It’s of three crosses, interlocking, to symbolize moments in his life that felt like death and rebirth. He got it back in June, three days before the shooting, and Akyra wanted one just like it. Now he thinks of its meaning in a new way. One cross for each of them — Tiara, Patience, Akyra — all of their wounds represented on his skin.

It’s getting late. The room goes quiet. They push play on the song they’ve just recorded. The beat thumps, and the lyrics begin, and their voices tell a story about one night in Orlando, so loud they drown out all other sound.

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