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'There's No Handbook On This'

After the deaths of 17 of their own, the family, friends and teachers of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School attempted to answer the question: "What now?"

Editor's note: This story contains graphic content and explicit language.

In the long, inconsolable days before spring, Gena Hoyer searched for a sweatshirt. It was black or it was gray, she didn't know, but her 15-year-old son was dead, and these are the things she clung to -- the clothes he was wearing.

Gena drove her son Luke to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School every morning, and she was certain he was wearing a black Florida State sweatshirt the last time she dropped him off on Feb. 14. She was struck that morning by how the cross around his neck shined against it. But then one of his friends said no, he was wearing a gray sweatshirt, and then she had to know. She sent her sister and her daughter down to the school to retrieve everything in his locker because there was no way she could go.

Assistant athletic director Marilyn Rule grabbed a 3x5 card with Luke's combination and headed toward the gym lockers. Rule taught Luke in a health and P.E. class, and she always made a point to know all of her students.

He'd sat in the second row, fourth seat, of the 7:40 a.m. class. Like most freshmen, he didn't talk much at first, but he smiled every time you looked at him.

His body grew faster than his nerve -- almost 6 feet tall and 185 pounds, Luke was already bigger than his dad. He had just started noticing girls, just started liking his new high-and-tight haircut that accentuated his curly brown locks. In a few months, he'd be old enough to get his driver's license.

But the biggest thing on Luke's mind was football. He decided to try out for the team at Stoneman Douglas and already knew what position he wanted to play: quarterback. "Buddy," a trainer told him, "you can't be anybody's quarterback whispering. You've got to speak up."

Luke's name was removed from the school's computerized attendance system a few days after the shooting, and that's when it hit Rule that he wasn't coming back to class. She had no idea what she'd say when some of his family came to look for his sweatshirt. She found a grocery bag in his locker and filled it with his belongings -- reminders of the games he'd never play, the girls he'd never kiss, the huddle he'd never command.

She decided to tell them a story. It was January, and Luke was coming into his own. Their health class shared a portable classroom with the football coach, and one day Rule suggested Luke take a cup of coffee to coach Willis May so he could collect some brownie points.

When Luke returned, Rule asked whether coach May knew who he was.

"Yep," Luke said with a wide grin.

"He knows my name now."

Luke Hoyer, seated in the middle, with his parents, Tom and Gena, his sister, Abby, and his brother, Jake. Courtesy Hoyer Family

They lost 17 people in the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School on that Wednesday, and if you count Luke, more than a fourth of them were student-athletes or coaches. Another 17 people were injured.

Nick Dworet, captain of the swim team, was killed. Just a few days earlier, he'd signed a letter of intent to swim in college.

Aaron Feis and Scott Beigel were also gone. Feis was an assistant football coach; Beigel taught ninth-grade geography and coached the cross country teams.

There was no official meeting to address how the Eagles' athletic department would handle all of the losses, probably because the athletic director, Chris Hixon, was among the dead. School eventually reopened, games eventually were played, and the news trucks camped outside the school eventually left. But the community of Parkland, Florida, still had to finish a school year. They protested and came together and promised that things would be different.

And they were right. Everything was different.

Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook and now Parkland became political battlegrounds in the national debate over gun control and mental health issues. But for those living in the middle of it, the questions are different. How do you get up in the morning? What do you do with the empty desks? The empty place at the dinner table? What do you do on birthdays? For graduation? When will it ever be OK to watch the news, watch a football game or smile again?

Five months in, the Hoyers and Hixons and Dworets are just trying to hang on. So let's start with Marilyn Rule. She was connected to all of them. Feis drove the bus for her girls' basketball team. Hixon was her boss. Two years ago, she had Nick Dworet in an honors history class.

Rule went to six funerals in a week and woke up in a panic some nights, wondering where she was needed.

She wanted to do something special for Luke, so she bought a candle and a journal, and another teacher stenciled his name on the fluorescent green cover. She placed them on his desk and asked her students to write down their memories of Luke. When the school year ended, she'd deliver it to the Hoyers. Maybe by then, they'd be ready to read it.

"Everyone keeps saying there's no handbook on this," Rule says. "Heck, we should probably start writing one because it keeps happening."

Nick Dworet's parents, Mitch and Annika Dworet, especially loved being swim parents and following Nick's journey that had landed him a college swim scholarship. Andrew Kaufman

It was Valentine's Day, and they all had plans. Mitch Dworet dropped both of his boys off for school in the morning, told them he loved them and said he'd be back to drop off the car later so Nick could drive to swim practice.

He was always telling them that he loved them. And that he was proud of them. Six years ago, Mitch left a job in corporate America to spend more time with his sons. Mitch and his wife, Annika, could see their time with Nick dwindling. College was coming soon, and he'd just accepted a swimming scholarship at the University of Indianapolis.

Nick wrote his goals on a sheet of notebook paper and hung them on a wall next to his bed.

I want to become a Swedish Olympian and go to Tokyo 2020 ...

I will give all I have in my body and my mind to achieve the goal that I have set ...

Even on my hardest days I swear to give it my all, and I will let nothing stand in my way.

History of the Holocaust was Nick's last class of the day on Feb. 14. Around 2 o'clock, his teacher, Ivy Schamis, saw a tall, young man standing by her desk in her peripheral vision. It was just one of her students handing her a box of Valentine's Day chocolates.

Schamis is one of those teachers you always say you're going to go back and visit -- 50ish but cool enough to captivate an audience a fraction of her age. She wasn't supposed to be working that day because she was closing on a condo with her husband, Jeff, but then there was a problem with the water pressure, and Schamis decided she'd work. Ultimately, she was glad she went in that day, even after everything that happened. She couldn't imagine her students going through that without her.

The class in Room 1214 was studying the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and near the end of the period, Schamis asked whether anyone knew who Adi Dassler was.

Nick eagerly raised his hand.

"'I know,'" Schamis recalled Nick saying. "'He owns that shoe factory that started Adidas.'"

"How did you know that?" Schamis asked, the question hanging in the air as the first boom of the AR-15-style rifle rocked the first floor. There was little time to react and no place to hide. Stoneman Douglas used to have drills in the event of an active shooter, hoping there would never be an active shooter, and Schamis would always tell people that if it were ever for real, good luck. There were no closets -- just open space.

They flew to the corners of the room and huddled together. A boy asked her if they were going to die, and Schamis told him no. But when gunman Nikolas Cruz shot out the glass panel of her classroom door, Schamis figured there was a good chance he'd walk in and kill them all.

"All he had to do was open the door," she says. "I was thinking about what I was going to say to him."

She decided she'd tell him that she loved him. Cruz stuck his gun through the broken window and fired from the hallway. He never came into the classroom.

Schamis lost two students that day: Nick and junior Helena Ramsay. They were 17.

One inch, one flinch, and everything might have been different. Nick wanted to take a day off of school that week to catch up on his homework, and his dad said that was fine. Nick stayed home on Feb. 13.

He was not seated in his normal spot on the 14th. He slid his desk over to a different place.

Nick, right, and his brother, Alex. Andrew Kaufman

Across the hall, Nick's little brother, Alex, had an English class in Room 1216. The 15-year-old looked up to his big brother. They'd get ice cream together, and they'd blast music on the way to school.

Alex was in the first classroom hit with gunfire. He was leaning over to write on a piece of paper when the first round went off. A bullet grazed him in the back of the head. A classmate next to him was mortally wounded.

Alex dove into a corner, just in time before the shooter came back and sprayed the classroom with bullets again. Alex later called his parents from the back of an ambulance to tell them he was on his way to the hospital. Although Annika was, in Mitch's words, "freaking out," she felt a slight sense of relief.

"Somehow," she says, "the mathematical part of you goes, 'OK, there's [about 3,300] kids. What's the odds of two of them [being shot]?'"

In the middle of the night, at a Marriott that served as a waiting area for families to hear the worst possible news, the Dworets learned that Nick was dead.

People close to Nick say the same thing: He was so happy. He'd gone on his recruiting trip to Indianapolis, and when he got there, with the city covered in snow, the Florida boy lay down and made a snow angel. He knew before he left Indianapolis that he wanted to go there, so he just came out and told Indy coach Jason Hite what he was doing, that he was going to commit. He felt surrounded by equally motivated men. He felt at peace.

He became friends with fellow recruit Jakob Pettit, a swimmer from Illinois, and Pettit decided to become a Greyhound on that trip, too.

"I feel like we connected," Pettit says. "It was really hard to realize we'd only known each other for three weeks."

Nick hadn't always been so focused. As a freshman, he was burned out on swimming, quit the sport for a few months and let his grades slip. But then he joined a new club team, TS Aquatics, and rededicated himself. His GPA rose to 3.1; his swimming reached a different level.

Annika and Mitch loved being swim parents, loved being part of Nick's journey. There's a swim app that tracks teams and times, and Annika downloaded it to keep up. Then Nick was gone, and the app still alerted her to his teammates' triumphs and failures. She couldn't take it and had to delete the app.

The school year went on, and the milestones were unbearable. There was senior prom and all the photos on Facebook of smiling teenagers in their formal wear, living the life that Nick wouldn't.

Graduation was on June 3. The Dworets were invited but had no idea whether they could muster the strength to go. Someone suggested that a relative, maybe his brother, could walk on stage and accept Nick's diploma.

But getting through a day of school was a challenge for Alex. Every classroom he was in, he was always looking for an escape route. He can't stand loud noises but can't take the quiet, either. He sleeps with a nightlight.

"He never really feels safe anywhere," Annika says.

He occasionally goes into Nick's room to get his brother's clothes, but rarely talks about him. 

The boys always loved to eat -- Nick stashed a collection of Oreos in his closet -- but now even dinner is depressing. The table has just three place settings, and one empty chair. The Dworets recently canceled a meal service they'd used for the first few months after the shooting, but the prospect of grocery shopping seemed daunting: They'd buy half the amount of food without Nick.

"It's a broken dream," Mitch says. "I don't want to be like a Hallmark card, but that's what it is. This kid was a dream. He was the best of us."

Mitch Dworet recently got a tattoo of his son swimming. It was Nick's dream to swim in the 2020 Olympics for Sweden, where he has dual citizenship because his mom, Annika, is Swedish. Andrew Kaufman

It seems silly now that the biggest thing weighing on Rule's mind the afternoon of Feb. 14 was a basketball game. Stoneman Douglas had a regional quarterfinal date with Cypress Bay the next night, and Rule was in the locker room, getting ready for a 3 o'clock practice.

The Eagles made a deep run in the playoffs last year, but this postseason didn't look nearly as promising after star player Abbey Hsu tore her ACL on Feb. 7. Realizing that this could be their last practice, Rule wanted to get the team ready for Cypress Bay but also make the workout fun. A dozen things bounced through her mind when the fire alarm went off at 2:22 p.m. She grabbed her walkie-talkie and headed outside, unaware that a gunman, armed with an assault rifle and more than 300 rounds of ammunition, had just opened fire on the first floor of Building 12.

Three-fourths of Rule's family was on campus that afternoon. Over at the baseball field, her husband, Jeff Heinrich, was watering the grass in anticipation of practice. Their son Kevin is one of Stoneman Douglas' best pitchers, sturdily built like his father.

Rule was not particularly worried about the safety of her family when a mass of students poured outside. (Her younger son, Colton, is in middle school). It was supposed to be a fire drill. She was surprised to see Kevin just a few feet away. He'd just gone on a bathroom pass and somehow wound up right next to her. "A miracle," she says now.

When they first heard pops, they figured it was fireworks. But then a "code red" went out on her radio, and the next sounds felt like bullets whizzing over their heads.

They ran and wound up in the culinary room, with 63 others piled into a space roughly the size of three large closets. Student David Hogg -- who became a national activist after the mass shooting and who was falsely accused by conspiracy theorists of being an actor instead of a student -- was among those sheltered in the room.

Heinrich is a sergeant with the Coral Springs Police Department. Two years ago, he was hailed as a hero for thwarting a potential school shooting in Coral Springs, which is near Parkland. He was wearing shorts and a T-shirt on the afternoon of Feb. 14 because he was off duty. He didn't have his gun. He has beaten himself up over not having his gun.

Heinrich heard people screaming and ran toward the parking lot. He saw a kid with a hole in his right leg. Heinrich helped get 15-year-old Kyle Laman to the baseball clubhouse, grabbed a first-aid kit and stuffed the wound with gauze and bandages. He got a good description of the shooter from Kyle and called it in. A police captain from Coral Springs handed him a gun and a bulletproof vest. He headed toward Building 12.

At some point, he called his wife.

"Where's Kevin?" he asked Rule. She told Heinrich that Kevin was with her, he was safe, and she could feel her husband exhale through the phone.

"This is the real deal," he told her. "There's an active shooter on campus."

Rule never worried about Heinrich. When you're married to a cop, you eventually figure out that your spouse has chosen this life and you can't spend your time worrying. She focused on keeping the kids quiet and calm.

They huddled close for more than an hour, watching their school implode on a computer screen. Nobody knew how bad it was. Heinrich eventually arranged for them to get a ride, and they got home around 7 that night. Rule had left her purse inside the school, and she had nothing -- no keys, no money, no ID.

But a neighbor had a key to their house. When Rule knocked on the door, the neighbor was crying. She wrapped Rule and Kevin in a hug.

Their regional game was postponed a week, but it wasn't enough time. One of Rule's players, Maddy Wilford, had been shot at least three times. Wilford's injuries were so bad that first responders initially thought she was dead.

How could they possibly set foot in a gym? Everyone was mourning someone. Rule eventually decided that Stoneman Douglas would forfeit its girls' basketball game. She couldn't fathom doing it. She had spent her whole life telling her teams to never quit. In 25 years of coaching, she'd never forfeited anything -- not a scrimmage, not a rec league game.

A week after the shooting, Rule sits in a diner near her house, staring at a plate of eggs and tomatoes. Above the counter, a TV plays nonstop coverage. In her scant amount of free time, she tries to watch and read everything: stories of the dead, stories of when school will start again, even some of the conspiracy stuff.

Throughout the breakfast, the only time she perks up is when she talks about Abbey Hsu. As a junior, the kid could grab the rim. Twenty-five years of coaching, and Hsu's the best she's ever had, and ...

She is interrupted when a police officer approaches the table. He'd noticed her Stoneman Douglas polo shirt.

"So," he says, "is that Hogg kid a student, or is he ..."

Rule stops him. "He was in the closet with me," she says. "He's in my son's math class. Don't listen to that bullshit."

The cop says it still wouldn't surprise him, and the conversation eventually shifts to building border walls and possibly arming teachers. Rule says she isn't a fan of that.

"Here's the thing that I think is amazing," Rule tells him. "[People say,] 'Why did this happen at Douglas? It's the safest city in all of Florida.' And the response is that Stoneman Douglas is the only place that can make change happen. If Stoneman Douglas can't, nobody can."

She thanks the cop for being a police officer.

"Thank you for what you do," he says. "You kept your kids safe."

Chris Hixon, left, with his wife, Debbi, and son Corey. Courtesy Hixon Family

The last night of his life, Chris Hixon was supposed to be home early. It was curriculum night at Stoneman Douglas, sort of an orientation for new students. How long could that possibly take?

A massive line of parents formed in front of him, armed with questions about their kids playing sports, and Hixon wound up staying longer than anyone because he couldn't just leave if people needed him.

His wife, Debbi, used to get frustrated that he spent so much time at a job that forced him to drive about 45 minutes one way and paid a little more than half of what she made as a magnet program coordinator at South Broward High. Chris was never one to delegate. He wanted to be at every football game and pep rally. When a coach would leave unexpectedly, he'd often take over for a season, without pay.

He was rarely home in time for dinner and ate most of his meals out of the microwave.

But late nights, after 10:30, was their time. He and Debbi would crawl into bed, TV on, and talk about their days. "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" would be playing in the background, until Kimmel started criticizing Donald Trump, and Chris would groan and say, "Why do we have to watch this shit?" and they'd turn it to "M*A*S*H" instead.

They met at a wedding. She was the maid of honor, and he was a 20-year-old in the Navy who didn't know anybody but the groom. She felt sorry for him, sitting there all alone, and they talked. It was such an easy conversation. They got a six-pack after the reception and drank it on the beach.

He reminded her of her dad, kind and strong. "I would've married him the next day," she says.

Oh, they weren't perfect. You can't be married to someone for almost three decades without occasionally getting annoyed. The Ed Sheeran song "Shape of You" brings her to mush now, but it used to be downright grating. Chris would sing it -- badly -- and rub up against her during the part of the song that goes, "Grab on my waist and put that body on me." She didn't think about it, then, that Chris made her feel beautiful.

He had this shirt that she always hoped would wind up in the trash, the infamous yellow shirt. Every married man has one of these shirts, which is both comfortable and grotesque. They'll have a closet full of clothes but somehow always manage to gravitate back to the shirt, which is often worn with a regrettable pair of cargo shorts.

When Chris died, nearly every photo on every TV and in every newspaper featured him in that yellow shirt. Now all she sees is that damn shirt.

What he lacked in fashion sense he made up for as a father to Tommy and Corey, who has special needs. On Saturdays, he'd run to Dandee Donuts with Corey, scarfing down the doughnuts on the walk home and always returning with a pistachio muffin for Debbi.

The families of the 17 who died formed a group that meets at least once a month. It's a diverse collection of Republicans and Democrats who have bonded over shared grief. Although it's comforting to be around a group of people who know exactly what she's going through, sometimes Debbi feels out of place.

They lost their babies. She lost her husband, her best friend, her confidant.

She wonders what he'd think about how she's handling things without him. Like the lawn. He took such pride in that lawn. Her mowing skills are choppy, and she still can't figure out how to use half of the lawn equipment.

"I have a really hard time going to bed," she says. "I think I'm just still waiting to see if maybe he'll come. I have the messages he left on my phone, and he always says 'I love you' before he hangs up."

She listens to them every night before she falls asleep.

A police detective told her that her husband was a hero, that he charged at the gunman and tried to disarm him. (An official narrative from the Broward County Sheriff's Office has yet to be released). Jeff Morford, an assistant principal at Stoneman Douglas who was friends with Chris, has watched surveillance video and will say only this: "He was the only one who ran into the building to save kids."

When the Columbine shootings happened in 1999, Chris and Debbi watched in disbelief. They were working together in South Broward then. Their kids were young; the world was becoming more terrifying; and they decided to write out a will.

"We were really cognizant of the fact that that could be us," she says. "But you don't ever think it's going to be you. Now I'm sitting here like, 'Shit, it's us.' How, all these years later, is this still happening?"

Now Corey gets scared when his mom goes to work. He worries that she won't come home.

Valeria Ochoa, the mother of Stoneman Douglas wrestler Sara Ochoa, attended a district wrestling match wearing a T-shirt remembering Hixon, whose funeral was earlier that day. Andrew Kaufman

The girls' basketball banquet was held on a Sunday in April at a strip mall wings joint. Marilyn Rule decorated the back room and kept a nervous eye on the door. It was the first time the whole team had been together since Feb. 14. She'd made the decision to forfeit the last game without a vote, and for more than a month, the players' uniforms still hung in closets. Would anyone show up?

Around 2 o'clock, Maddy Wilford walked in with her brother. Maddy was shot in the chest and abdomen, and her arm was so badly mangled it looked like "something from a butcher shop," said her dad, David.

But she was out of the hospital in a week and back in school by March. When she got tired at school, Rule let her lie down in her office. She and Jeff helped get Maddy a service dog, a German shepherd-Malinois mix named Annya.

"I don't know, man," David Wilford says. "It's a miracle. There's no other explanation for it. To get shot through your ribs and your lung and your abdomen and not have your liver and your spleen and your spine ripped out ... . It's like a God-directed miracle."

The afternoon unfolded like most sports banquets, filled with awards and a slideshow of smiling faces playing basketball -- moments that captured the last days they felt like teenagers. When the banquet ended, their goodbyes seemed awkward, kind of like a band that isn't sure whether it's breaking up.

Rule was too tired to overanalyze anything. With Hixon gone, she was spending much of her time as the administrator at Stoneman Douglas' spring games. Her days started at 7 a.m. and didn't end until around 9:30 p.m.

In May, open-gym sessions began for the girls' basketball team. The sessions were voluntary, but Rule was disappointed in the number of no-shows. One of her young up-and-comers had Scott Beigel as a teacher. She told Rule that every time she went to the class, it made her feel sad and that she just couldn't get herself back into the gym.

Rule asked the girl what Coach Beigel would think if he knew she was missing workouts because she was still mourning him.

"I'm just trying to get her to turn the page," Rule says, "and stop reliving it. ... We need her out there."

Her husband, the cop, and her son, the baseball pitcher, seemed fine. But deep down, Rule wasn't. One weekend, she went to a counseling session and just lost it, bawling uncontrollably. It shocked her that she had all that inside of her but didn't have time to let it out.

Stoneman Douglas' seniors had their last day of school in late May. Rule's two seniors never stopped by to say goodbye, and it upset her. She wondered whether her decision to forfeit fractured the relationships she valued. But maybe it wasn't about her at all.

Marilyn Rule, left, hugs Maddy Wilford at the girls' basketball team banquet. Wilford was shot at least three times. Andrew Kaufman

Luke Hoyer's fluorescent green journal sat mostly empty for months, which shouldn't have been much of a surprise. The class was full of freshmen with the same sort of inhibitions as 15-year-old Luke.

But as the school year began to wind down, the words slowly came. The pages started filling up.

Luke was a surprise baby. He came five years after his brother, Jake, and about eight years after Abby. Gena Hoyer was two months along before she suspected she might be pregnant, and when the store-bought test revealed she was, her husband, Tom, thought she was joking.

But Luke was such an easy baby, so easy to please. "Gosh, Tom, what would we do without him?" Gena used to ask her husband, never imagining that someday they'd have to answer that question.

With Jake in college at UCF and Abby living in Denver, Gena and Luke were together a lot. People called him a mama's boy, and that was just fine with Luke. He liked being the only kid in the house. He barely winced at the nickname his mom gave him -- Lukey Bear -- even when the women in her book club called him that. 

Gena has been told that Luke was probably the first person shot that day. The first official account of what happened in Building 12 was released in late April in the form of a graphic animated video. It was presented by a state commission investigating what went wrong that day, and it covers the nearly 7 minutes that Cruz was in the building. The people are represented by dots. Students are green dots. Staff members are blue. The shooter appears as a black dot with a line through it to represent his assault rifle. When a person is shot and injured, the dot turns yellow. When he or she dies, the dot becomes purple.

It's almost surreal, watching their son's life boil down to a dot. The video shows his dot turning yellow in the hallway, and eventually the ominous black dot returns, making him purple.

"I remember when the detective came," Gena says. "I said, 'I have one question for you. You've seen [the shooter]. You've talked to him. Is he remorseful?' He said, 'No.'"

One of the hardest things for Gena to do is look at Luke's handwriting. His books and pens and paper are in a backpack with a tag that says "Evidence" on it.

Gena once made him watch a YouTube video of a Navy SEAL admiral giving a commencement speech about the importance of making your bed, but she is glad he didn't do it on his last day. It lets her go in his bedroom without disrupting anything and dream of Luke.

"I go up there and sit sometimes," Gena says. "No, I go up there all the time.

"It's comforting."

Although their house is in a gated community near a golf course, Luke was a minimalist. Tom and Gena wanted to buy him a laptop for Christmas. All he asked for was the necklace with a cross on it. Gena now wears the cross every day.

Luke used to talk to his personal trainer, Chris Kerr, about God and girls and just about everything he couldn't say to his parents.

Kerr gave him three pointers for dealing with girls: Be respectful; be nice to her friends; and make sure you smell good. Around that time, Tom Hoyer noticed that his son was showering more. He figured it was for a girl.

It wasn't until after Luke's funeral, when his friends gathered at the Hoyer house, that Gena and Tom realized how much their son had been starting to open up.

"He was like my brother," childhood friend Vinny Caronna says. "I could talk to him about anything."

On Mother's Day, Jack O'Keeffe, one of Luke's close friends, brought Gena flowers. Jack is the one who persuaded Luke to play football. Gena, a Southerner who grew up in SEC country, couldn't wait to see her boy play. Now she hopes to someday watch Jack.

Their house is quiet now, except for the sounds of their two dogs rustling about. Gena watches episodes of "Friends" over and over on her iPad. She doesn't watch the news. She doesn't want to hear about Cruz, who faces 17 counts of first-degree murder. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. 

She's going to therapy with Tom, and she says it's helpful, but some weeks are harder than others. The first week of June was one of them. Maybe it was because school had just gotten out. Gena and Tom decided to drive to Hollywood, Florida, to see Debbi Hixon, who still hadn't figured out how to use the weed wacker or the edger.

Tom gave her some pointers, then the women went inside to talk while he did most of the yardwork. They talked about Luke and Chris and all the things they were both feeling. The Hoyers went home, and by Monday, Gena was feeling a little better.

They didn't know each other before Feb. 14. Now, they need each other.

Marilyn Rule's husband, Jeff Heinrich, left, was watering the grass on the baseball field in anticipation of practice on Feb. 14. Their son Kevin is one of Stoneman Douglas' best pitchers. Rule and her son hid that day in the culinary room. Andrew Kaufman

After a lot of agonizing, the Dworets decided they would go to graduation. One of Nick's childhood friends, Alexandra Greenwald, would walk to the stage and get his diploma. Alexandra and Nick had been friends since kindergarten. They had class together earlier in the day on Feb. 14, and when they parted ways, he said, "See you tomorrow."

Alexandra is going to the University of Iowa in the fall on a gymnastics scholarship.

Graduation was held at the BB&T Center, home of the Florida Panthers, and the Dworets were given a suite to sit in during the ceremony. The seniors who lost their lives would have their names announced first, which was good because Mitch couldn't wait to get out of there.

Nick's name was called, and Mitch could envision his blond-haired, All-American son beaming, taking his first steps toward the future. A woman arrived in the suite a few minutes later with Nick's diploma. Mitch couldn't lift his arms to take it.

"I just looked at her with a blank stare," he says. "I couldn't take it. I was dead inside. It was torture. It was lovely that she brought it to us and wanted to hand it to me. I just couldn't. I couldn't look at it until I got home a little later in the night. I don't know, man. It's hard."

Mitch will not get to see Nick swim in college or in the Olympics. But Ryan Lochte met the family this spring and said he wanted to dedicate his run to the 2020 Olympics to Nick. The six-time gold medalist is swimming for Nick. If Lochte makes it to Tokyo, Mitch says, they will be there, cheering him on. They'll cross it off Nick's list.

Nick spelled out his goals on a sheet of notebook paper and hung them on a wall next to his bed. Andrew Kaufman

The school year was ending, and Abbey Hsu stopped by to visit Rule in the locker room. Hsu is normally reserved, and on this day, she struggled even more. She told Rule that she was transferring to St. Thomas Aquinas.

Aquinas is a private school in Fort Lauderdale. She'll get top-notch rehab care for her knee there; she'll get a scholarship; and the team at Aquinas is loaded.

As much as it hurt, Rule really couldn't blame her. Those smiling faces from the slideshow are gone, and rebuilding the program is going to be hard. Hsu is going to be a senior, and this is her last chance. Maybe she can win the state championship that eluded Stoneman Douglas the past two years.

"I truly and honestly wish her the best," Rule says. "I will be one of her biggest cheerleaders."

On June 3, Rule met up with her seniors at graduation. They took smiling selfies and expressed hopes they'd keep in touch.

The next day, Rule resigned as girls' basketball coach and assistant athletic director. She says she has been assigned to run the health sciences program at Stoneman Douglas and needs to learn about bones and muscles and a whole new curriculum. She had to give something up.

She says she wants to spend more time with her family. Her son Kevin is going to be a senior, and she wants to see him play his final year of high school baseball. She wants to be home to make dinner.

She says she isn't finished coaching. But she doesn't know when she'll go back.

"My main focus, for three months [and] beyond, was trying to take care of everybody else," she says. "I really need time for me, to decompress and make sure I'm OK."

On June 7, Rule turned her keys in, finally saying goodbye to the longest school year of their lives.

Elizabeth MerrillMerrill is a senior writer in ESPN's features and enterprise unit. Before joining ESPN in 2007, she covered the NFL and wrote features for The Kansas City Star. She is based in the Midwest and can be reached at Elizabeth.Merrill@espn.com.

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