For almost a year, he couldn’t go back.
The flowers, candles, photos and beads piled up like the heartbreak of those who left them at the makeshift shrine outside Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, but Demetrice Naulings didn’t want to see them.
He and his best friend, Eddie Justice, had been inside that morning.
They’d stopped by just before last call at 2 a.m.
Just before the shooting started.
Just before the screams. The sobbing and the terrible silences.
Naulings stops for a moment, shaking his head, tears welling over.
“I’ve been afraid to go back,” he says. “I feel like I left a part of me there.”
He and Eddie were dancing when they heard the first shots, sounding like an ominous new beat over the blaring music.
The lights went out. The music stopped.
The shooting went on.
They hid in the women’s bathroom, but Naulings, who had worked at Pulse, knew they would be trapped if the shooter followed them.
Amid panic and chaos, Naulings headed down a dark passage to a side door he remembered bartenders using, believing Eddie was close behind.
“The shots were coming closer and closer,” said Naulings.
At first, he was pulling Eddie by the hand.
In the narrow corridor, where people were trampled as they fought to get to safety outside, the two were separated.
“I got out,” he whispers, choking on the words, “but Eddie didn’t.”
Moments later, he got a Snapchat message from Eddie.
“I’ve been shot. I’m going into shock. Please tell them to hurry up. Call the police.”
Eddie also texted his mother: “Mommy, I love you. In the club they shooting.”
And later, “Now. He’s coming. I’m gonna die.”
The body of the 30-year-old accountant wasn’t identified until nearly 24 hours later.
“Eddie was sunshine,” said Naulings, 35, a hairstylist. “You could have a bad day and he would brighten it up. He always had a positive spirit, always wanted you to be better. He was just full of joy.”
As Monday’s one-year anniversary of the Pulse shooting approached, Naulings felt it was finally time to venture back, before the official vigils and tributes begin this week.
“I didn’t want to go there (during a ceremony) and be broke down,” said Naulings. “I want to be able to be strong.”
After seeing the site of the massacre again, he’s still not sure he can be.
“I feel like I’m replaying it all over in my head,” he said.
A year after the massacre that turned Orlando into a weeping small town, where everyone seemed to have a connection to someone killed or injured and no one was afraid to cry in public, Orlando residents seem determined never to forget Eddie Justice and all the people killed and maimed that morning.
Handmade yard signs reading “#Orlando United” and “Orlando, we love you” sprout at many downtown intersections and in local neighborhoods.
Ground zero for grieving is the memorial that grows daily in front of the security fence on two sides of the large, black Pulse building, which has been barricaded since the murders.
At almost every daylight hour, people, including families who look as if they’ve come straight from Disney World, arrive to bear witness to what happened behind the rainbow artwork.
This chainlink wailing wall forms a background for small shrines dedicated to individual victims, rising from what’s become sacred ground in Orlando. A large sign reads, “We will not be defeated.”
“There’s never an hour there’s not someone here,” said Leslie Frazier, who works in a building behind Pulse and frequently stops by during her lunch hour. “It shows our love and support and that we will never forget.”
Her co-worker, Linda Crane said, “It’s touching that in a country so divided, you can have a city come together like this.”
Andy Sutton of Fort Lauderdale stopped by with friends at the end of Orlando’s Gay Days weekend.
“The shooting brought us all together,” said Sutton. “The level of support from the straight community surprised us. We saw so many people at the vigils who are straight.”
Ann Marie Shutts, a retiree from Davenport spent a few minutes at the memorial after visiting a friend in a nearby hospital.
“What happened here was all about hate,” she said,”but I think the community dedication to the victims and their families is beautiful.”
Glory Rodriguez of Orlando, brought her parents, visiting from New Jersey, who wanted to see the spot where 23 fellow Puerto Ricans died. Of the 49 victims, 90 percent were Hispanic or of Hispanic descent, from countries including the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Colombia.
“It’s so, so sad,” she said, watching her parents read stories about the victims, several written in Spanish.
The outpouring of support has helped LGBT people across the country feel less excluded from American society, contends Mikey Almeida, from Fall River, Mass., taking time from his Orlando vacation to visit the Pulse site.
“A lot of people are no longer afraid to be who they are,” he said, “and it allowed others to say, ‘I can help you.’”
Others, straight and gay, say the shooting has made them more wary in public places.
Nanette Nerson belongs to an Orlando mom’s group, whose members have been taking self-defense classes.
“The world has changed. You can’t just go out and enjoy yourself anymore,” said Nerson, who recently took part in an active shooter drill in which the instructor turned out the lights and had the women try to find their way out of the room.
Jay Davis of Fort Lauderdale, wiping his eyes after touring the Pulse memorial, acknowledged new caution when going out to bars and clubs.
“Now, you look over your shoulders. You think about where the exits are,” he said.
At the Terrace Art Gallery on the ground floor of Orlando’s gleaming white city hall, Shelley Klein last week arrived to view a display of portraits of Pulse victims, created by 49 artists across the country.
Wearing socks bearing a NASA insignia, she strode straight to a sketch of a young man wearing sunglasses.
“That’s Cory Connell. I was his middle school science teacher,” said Klein, gazing at the portrait. “It looks just like him.”
Connell was a 21-year-old coach of the Orlando Anarchy women’s football team, who’d gone to Pulse with his girlfriend to dance during Latin Night. Klein said he was studying to become a firefighter.
“Everybody here knew somebody who died or was injured,” said Klein. “In many ways, this part of Orlando is still a small town. It’s a very accepting community, but maybe we are more so that way now.”
In the best possible way, Orlando hasn’t moved on from the Pulse shooting, said Terry DeCarlo, executive director of The Center, an Orlando LGBT organization. People still seem as united and supportive of each other as they were immediately after the horror of that morning.
“And we have not seen that change,” said DeCarlo. “Everybody is still standing together, as one unit.”
He said he regularly receives calls from cities around the world, asking for advice on how to respond to crises in the way Orlando has.
“We’ve become a model city for dealing with a tragedy of this nature. People are looking to use for guidance as to what we did to get through this,” said DeCarlo.
Days after the shooting, he remembers seeing international landmarks, including the Eiffel Tower and the Sydney, Australia Opera House, lit like rainbows in memory of the Pulse victims.
He hopes Monday’s tributes do the same.
“For a moment, it turned the world rainbow,” DeCarlo said. “I’m hoping on June 12th, that the world will turn rainbow again.”