JEFFERSON COUNTY, COLO. -- In the hot midday sun, two women stood alone at the simple stone memorial honoring those lost just across the field at Columbine High School 13 long years ago. Cyd Ovens read the inscriptions honoring the 12 students and one teacher slain, and began to shake, tears stinging her eyes.
In the five years since the memorial opened, the 58-year-old from nearby Lakewood had never visited. But on Saturday, a day after learning of the movie theater massacre 20 miles away in Aurora, she felt drawn to it. “I’m just so heartsick,” she said. And then the tears finally fell.
Her friend, Debbie Ainsworth, felt something much closer to rage.
“When is this going to end?” she asked.
On April 20, 1999, when the shootings at Columbine in suburban Denver captured the world’s horror, Coloradans comforted themselves with the belief it would not, could not ever happen again. The image of terrified children fleeing with hands raised was never to recur. But on Sept. 27, 2006, at West Platte High School, about 40 miles away in Bailey, it did, when student Emily Keyes was killed by a gunman who took six girls hostage. And on Feb. 23, 2010, at Deer Creek Middle School, just a few miles from Columbine, two students were shot by a gunman aiming at crowds of children. And then came Aurora.
A day after Denver awoke to the newest massacre, emotions were raw and conflicted, ranging from anger and disbelief to sadness and fear. But at the core was a nagging feeling expressed in pancake houses and shopping malls across the Denver area: not again.
For some, Aurora flushed out terrible memories that have never fully gone away. Tom Mauser, whose son died at Columbine, heard the phone ring at 5 a.m. Friday but ignored it; irritated anyone would call so early. Later, while he was in the shower, his wife told him what had happened.
He tried to block it out, to not think about what was unfolding nearby, about all of those parents wondering and waiting like he had. But his mind would not cooperate.
“You’re thinking about what it was like in that theater and then it immediately becomes what was it like in that library,” he said of where his son was studying when he was gunned down.
“I dread these days,” said Mauser, who since Columbine has formed his own advocacy group, Colorado Ceasefire.
Morgan Weber, 20, texted her little sister, Reagan, 10 hours after the events in Aurora to tell her she loved her. Reagan, now 16, had been shot as an eighth-grader at Deer Creek. She texted back: “I’m in the movies. I’m terrified.”
She was at a midmorning showing of “The Dark Knight Rises,” the movie that had just started in Aurora when gunfire broke out.
Craig Weber has been watching his daughter closely since the news broke, looking for signs of trauma. He is also wrestling with his own colliding feelings. “It feels odd to do everyday things like mowing the lawn when all this is happening,” he said Saturday. “Yesterday I didn’t know what to do. I looked up places to donate blood. I kept thinking: I’ve been through this. Should I feel more? Should I do more?”
In the end, he decided to just spend the day with Reagan.
Amid the tumble of emotions, some Coloradans felt defiant, angry that their home was being portrayed as a dangerous place.
“This place is beautiful. I find it offensive to try to tie [the Aurora shootings] to Columbine,” Janine Beken said as she and her husband took their daughter on a walk in the park next to Columbine High School.
Her husband, Bob, works in risk management. He said the odds of being caught in a mass shooting are minuscule. But, he added, after hearing about what happened at the Century 16 theater, he is glad he has a permit to carry a concealed gun. He is pretty sure he would be able to protect himself and his family if they were ever faced with danger.
“I just don’t understand it,” said Eric Mendoza, a 22-year-old department store employee who was standing Saturday outside the Aurora mall, where the theater remains roped off with police tape. A small army of television trucks was parked nearby. He was chilled to think that his 19-year-old brother was supposed to go to the midnight showing, but at the last minute skipped it. Mostly what he feels is anger -- at the gunman, the loss of life, the whole situation.
Across from the theater, a makeshift shrine grew by the minute. A steady stream of people gathered Saturday on the corner of the busy street, most silent, some wiping at tears, many taking pictures. They left flowers, teddy bears, candles, even popcorn containers.
Laura Jacobson rubbed the back of her 8-year-old daughter, Chloe, after leaving a bouquet of bright flowers. They have talked about how sometimes bad things happen, even to children: “I feel my kids should learn how to respect life.”
She had friends who had gone to the movie, one in the victimized Theater 9, one next door in Theater 8, also pierced by shots. They’re safe, but she can’t shake her own confused feelings. “What would I have done?” she wondered. “Could I have protected my children?”
She doesn’t think anything about Colorado has made it prone to a disproportionate number of mass shootings. But she can’t stop feeling a little nervous.
“I love Denver very much. But I do wonder if this is a good place to be with my children,” she said. “I am thinking about getting a gun.”
In a cluster of shops near the theater, Kelsey Hancock, 19, said she had planned to see “The Dark Knight Rises” at the Aurora theater -- the one she almost always goes to -- but instead decided to meet friends for the midnight show at another suburban complex. She likes to see movies more than once, but on Saturday she wondered if she will ever want to see it again. How could she enjoy it? Mostly she feels helpless.
“It’s been bothering me all day,” she said. “I am thinking of donating blood. I feel obligated to do something because it could’ve been me.”