Portrait by Kelly Bjork
A graduate student with a polished voice, Laura moved to Texas and studies business and global policy. She was in her bedroom when we spoke, getting dressed up to go to a dance club with a big group of friends. Laura’s night hadn’t yet begun, though it was already a little late, and she had plenty to do the next day. Her tone was brisk though not unfriendly, in the way of a young and forward-moving professional. As we talked about the shooting at the Twilight Exit, Laura began by describing her schedule. It was similarly loaded with people and activities. She’d gotten off work late, around nine, she said. At the time, she was a behavior specialist at a treatment facility for foster disorders, and she was scheduled to work a double the next day. Some of her buddies were already at the bar when she arrived. “We sat at the table closest to the door. I was with friends, coworkers, roommates, roommates’ friends. There were eight of us. All women. It was karaoke night. That was my night. I always went. I lived very close to the bar. I’d been there many times,” she said.
“Did you pick out a song to sing?” I said.
“No. I never sing,” said Laura. “I’m never singing in public again. I sang one time when the bar was empty. It was bad. I’m a terrible singer, and it was very, very embarrassing,” she said. I asked what song she’d picked, and she acted like she wasn’t thrilled to answer, but I kept asking anyway. “It was Sir Mix-a-Lot’s ‘Baby Got Back,’” she said.
“It’s a great jam,” I said, and meant it. Before we went on, Laura asked me where I was in the bar when James walked in. “I was backed into a dead end, huddled on the floor with four other women, and then he was standing over us with the gun. The girlfriend he’d come for was right next to me, kind of pressed up against me. I got up and ran out before he shot her,” I said. Then we talked about some other stuff, and what happened after. I’ll go into my night later.
“Wow. Our stories are a lot different,” she said. Laura didn’t leave a police statement, so I have no idea what to expect. I asked her to describe what she remembered after the first shot fired. “I was pretty sure the karaoke stopped. In my mind everything froze. Just froze. Everyone turned and looked towards the door, but we couldn’t see anything. We heard a woman scream. I believe she said, ‘He has a gun,’ and then, ‘He’s coming inside.’ That’s when he came in, though I don’t know if I fully realized what was happening, that there was a man there with a gun. My visual memory is very blurry. The whole experience was more auditory for me,” she said.
“My friend grabbed our table and threw it to the ground. Basically kicked it over. Maybe it wasn’t as Hulk-like as it sounds, but that’s what it felt like at the time. We barricaded behind it. I called 911, and I covered my head and put my face to the floor. What felt like a long time passed, though it probably wasn’t that long. I heard him shoot again. All I could think about was that shooting in a movie theater that had happened like a year before. I felt so trapped. I thought I was about to become another statistic, just another news sensation, just another person that died in another shooting in America. It was like: ‘This is how I die. I die in a bar shooting.’ I was wondering how much it was gonna hurt to get shot and how long it would take for me to die,” she said.
“Somehow I made eye contact with Karaoke Steve. He was across the room. Steve was like our savior, like our godfather. He saved my life that night. Steve mouthed to me, ‘There’s a back door.’ Which I didn’t realize, or I’d never noticed, or whatever. I’d somehow never absorbed the fact that there was another door. Steve tilted his head to it. I have so much love and trust for him. I looked over and I saw the door, and then I looked back and kind of nodded to him. He looked up, looked around. Then he mouthed to me: ‘Go now.’”
“I remember thinking, ‘No one else is gonna stand. I’m gonna get shot. As soon as I stand up, I’m gonna get shot.’ But I was also like, ‘I’m gonna do it. If this moment passes, I’m gonna regret it.’ I felt like it was my one and only chance to be a survivor,” said Laura. “So I stood up and ran to the door, and I pushed it open.”
“I didn’t grab anyone and take them with me. I didn’t do anything like that,” added Laura. “That’s the truth of my story, and it is so disheartening for me. I just ran. I still have guilty feelings about that to this day. It’s hard to talk about. It gave me an identity crisis. We all want to believe we’ll be the hero when a day like that comes. I believed that about myself. I believed I was different. It was a really naive belief, but I’ve had it my whole life. As someone who’s committed to public service and has traveled to the poorest parts of the world to try to help and save people, I really believed I could, like, surmount insurmountable feats in the name of righteousness. But in that moment when I thought I was about to die, I didn’t stop and think about the bouncer who’d been shot or anything like that. I was so selfish. I just ran for my own life.”
Laura and her friends spilled from the bar and onto the street. “One had a bloody nose and a black eye. Someone had crawled over her and kicked her in the face as we were all rushing to get out. I was thinking there were gonna be more shooters outside. There I was, wearing this bright blue flannel. I’d brought my phone with me, and I was screaming the address into it. I told them, ‘He’s shooting everybody.’ I was running my fastest, but my friends were way faster than me. I’m really short and slow. Everyone was passing me. I’m just running, thinking, ‘I’m gonna get shot in the back. If that guy comes out and shoots at us I am totally fucked.’”
“We made it to our apartment. It was less than two blocks away. Some friends of ours were in the courtyard, smoking cigarettes. As we ran up, we were shouting at everybody to get inside. We heard the sirens hauling ass past us and then it was like a fucking firefight. We heard what sounded like a hundred shots in like ten seconds. It was just so many shots. We thought he was shooting everyone in the bar. It was just pure terror,” said Laura. “And that’s when we realized Jessica wasn’t there.”
“We thought we’d left our friend to die. We all went inside, and then we just sat in silence. One of my friends is a nurse, she was trying to get everyone water. I had a glass of vodka. Straight vodka. We heard that a woman was shot, and she wasn’t doing well. The media came and tried to talk to us. I have no idea how they found us. All of us were like, ‘Tell them to fuck off.’ It was so insensitive to ask that early. I didn’t know where Jessica was. I just wanted to be alone with my friends, and here’s someone, banging at the door to get breaking coverage. It felt selfish to me. It felt wrong. I felt like anyone who goes on the news is just trying to become a fifteen-minute celebrity,” she said.
“I was debating with one of my neighbors about whether we should go back. I wanted to see if Jessica had been shot. But also I really didn’t want to leave. We were in this secluded complex, and at the time it felt like: the guy with the gun could be on the loose, he could come up here, he could try to get into the apartment. So we decided to just stay.”
“Then Jessica’s husband walks into our apartment. It was all women. He hadn’t been out with us that night. He doesn’t say a goddamn word to us. Doesn’t say a goddamn word. He sits down. I hand him my glass of vodka, and he drinks the whole fucking thing. We all sit silently. It felt like forever. Finally, I ask him, ‘Have you heard from Jessica?’ and he says very slowly — he’s a slower talker anyway, he’s a quiet guy. He’s like, ‘She’s downtown with the cops giving her statement.’ I was like, ‘God damnit! Why didn’t you say so! All of us are having half a heart attack! None of us have heard from her! Jesus!’”
“It was a huge relief. We were all like, ‘Oh God. We can live with ourselves now. We left our friend in a shooting. Thank God she lived.’ We ended up staying up that night. Some of our neighbors stayed with us too. None of us really talked about it. Mostly we were silent. I got up and for a long time, I paced.”
“The very next day I went with my two closest friends, and we all got tattoos. I was so nervous to get my first tattoo. My friend got ‘This too shall pass,’ written in white on her collar bone. My other friend got a big Romanian flower on her ribcage. We picked stuff that was very important and special to us. I got a pair of mushrooms. A small one and a large one, inside my right ankle. It’s because of my stepmom. Her thing was mushrooms and as I grew up it was like our thing. It wasn’t a drug reference as far as I could tell. She liked to hunt them and cook them and knew about them and had all these posters and this beautiful necklace that I still have. After she passed, my dad gave it to me. She committed suicide when I was 11. It just became kind of an obsession for me. I was young, and it was an impressionable time to lose someone who was a mother figure. I knew I’d wanted to get the tattoo for a long time, but I hadn’t really thought about the colors or the shape. Right after that whole experience though, it was like: ‘I’m doing this.’”