In the months following the Las Vegas shooting, Nick and Alicia Johnston, a couple from Sultan, Wash., have struggled to break free from the fallout of that night — battling anxiety and painful memories at a coffee shop, at their daughter's school concert, at her seventh birthday party.
Day 189, April 7, 2018:
On the day of her daughter’s seventh birthday party, Alicia Johnston got out of bed late and didn’t shower. Normally, she spent weeks planning a party, matching the cake and goody bags to a theme. One year was “Frozen.” But this year she passed out candy necklaces and Nerds-filled gumballs in brown paper bags. Two guests beat her to the Snohomish Aquatic Center. And her back hurt, worse than ever, 189 days after she was shot at a concert in Las Vegas.
Fifty-eight people were killed there on Oct. 1 last year, the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. In the crowd of 22,000, Alicia was one of 422 injured by gunfire. Did that make her lucky or unlucky? She read about the flashbacks and nightmares of other survivors but couldn’t relate.
“What’s wrong with me?” she wondered aloud. Everything in her life felt numb, as if the shooting had drained her of motivation.
At the party, noise echoed across the water. Her daughter splashed with friends. Alicia’s husband, Nick, scanned the pool nervously. Crowds could drop him back in Vegas, the fear and lack of control enough to chatter his teeth. He was at her side when the shooting started and lay on top of her after she was hit. They’ve known each other since sixth grade.
This, they had come to realize, was the life of survivors: moments of normalcy broken by the fallout from that night.
There are thousands of others like Alicia, Nick and their family members: Direct and indirect mass-shooting survivors, a uniquely American class of people. The aftermath of the violence unfolds in a familiar pattern — thoughts and prayers, a search for answers, angered calls for change — but long after attention turns elsewhere, survivors confront the simple act of living.
Some days Alicia can’t find the energy to change out of her pajamas. Other days she feels she isn’t suffering enough. All the while, her two daughters need dinner, ask about Disneyland and expect birthday parties.
What is normal anymore?
Day 1: Oct. 1, 2017
They had come to Vegas for escape in the land of sin and sun. Alicia and Nick, both 29, had just sold their house in North Bend and were getting ready to move into a new one in Sultan. But tonight they had no worries. Their daughters were staying with grandma, and they had big plans for the final day of the Route 91 Harvest Festival.
Around 7 p.m., they looked over the glittering Strip from an all-you-can-drink pod on the High Roller Ferris wheel. Alicia, an accounts-receivable supervisor, downed four vodka cranberries during the 30-minute ride; Nick, a water technician for the city of Snoqualmie, drained six Jack and Cokes, plus two Coors Lights, as they walked to the concert.
“Cloud nine,” Nick remembered.
Once there, Nick went to the bathroom. Alicia saw an opportunity.
“I moved up,” she texted Nick at 8:53.
“Lol,” he replied.
Alicia and Nick had gone to other festivals, but for one reason or another, they’d always left before the final act. Now they were here, 15 feet from the catwalk, the closest they’d ever been.
At 9:40, Alicia cheered as Jason Aldean ran across the stage. Six minutes later, a 64-year-old man deadbolted the door to a corner suite on the 32nd floor of Mandalay Bay.
At 10:05, Alicia and Nick heard two distant pops — fireworks, they thought. Then the man next to Nick dropped.
At 10:18, Alicia sent two texts.
“Mom I love you there has been a shooting and I got hit!!”
“tell the girls I love them very much!!!”
Day 5: Oct. 5, 2017:
Sitting next to Alicia’s hospital bed, Zach Elmore typed stream-of-consciousness on his phone. “My sister was shot in Las Vegas,” he began. “I’ve never been more afraid, more angry, in my entire life.”
Zach turned 31 that weekend. On the day of the shooting, he watched his favorite team, the Seahawks, beat the Colts. That night, he stood in his underwear and thought about the good people in his life. As he got into bed, his phone rang.
“The problem with shootings around the country is that unless you know someone directly affected, it’s easy to say ‘what a tragedy!’ and move on with your daily life,” he continued. “It’s not so easy when you’re getting ready for bed and one of your sisters calls inconsolably crying…It’s not so easy when you call your mother and she’s terrified…It’s not so easy to see your brother-in-law with blood still on his hands from doing whatever he could to keep your sister alive. It’s not so easy to see your sister in a hospital bed.”
He flew to Vegas with his mom the day after Alicia was shot in the back, and helped her walk to the bathroom. The hallways were no longer covered in blood.
“There is never a wrong time to stand up for what you think is right,” he posted to Facebook, never thinking it would lead anywhere.
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Day 33: Nov. 2, 2017:
Back in Sultan, Alicia’s alarm went off. Time for her antibiotics; an infection had landed her in the hospital one day after returning home, and required a second surgery to remove bullet fragments from her thigh. It was hard to fall back asleep.
What if she hadn’t moved so close to the stage?
What if their friends had been next to them?
Alicia shook Nick awake. He told her to stop worrying. But then they heard popping noises like gunshots and sirens.
“They sounded like they were coming down our street,” Nick said.
Nick rushed from bed. He paced the house, grabbed a gun and opened the window. He couldn’t see anything except the streetlight at the end of their 6-acre property. It was their second night in their new home.
The isolation comforted Nick, but had the opposite effect on Alicia. She wanted to buy blinds, and when Nick asked why, given that no neighbor was close enough to see them, she told him about the sniper she imagined in the woods.
Nick looked out the window vigilantly. His spine tingled, just as it had in Vegas.
Alicia stayed in bed.
“His whole face was quivering like when you’re freezing,” Alicia said.
Watching Nick only made her more afraid.
Day 34: Nov. 3, 2017:
Alicia and Nick went to Lowe’s and Tractor Supply and hung curtains on the windows, little touches to make the house a home. And their daughters, Jaelynn and Alyssa, came back after spending the last month at Alicia’s grandparents.
A good day, Alicia thought.
Day 58: Nov. 27, 2017:
She got lunch at Red Robin with Nick, stopped at Fred Meyer and drove Jaelynn to basketball practice.
Day 73: Dec. 12, 2017:
Alicia and Nick went to Alyssa’s concert at school. Nick made sure he and Alicia sat near the exit, at the end of the row. His eyes darted around the room. Since the shooting, Alicia noticed how often he checked in, how tense he was around strangers.
Nick has hardly talked about the shooting. Every time they walked to the car after therapy, he asked, “Did you get anything out of that?”
At his daughter’s concert, Nick kept looking for anyone or anything suspicious.
“I feel like I have to keep an eye out and I always find that one [expletive] that I maybe think could do it,” he said. “He’s dressed crazy, something outstanding, something a little too conspicuous. I find something, and I lock on, and I don’t let that [expletive] out of my eyes.”
Day 115: Jan. 23, 2018
The next month, Alicia walked into the Starbucks near her office without her glasses. She had also forgotten contacts.
Alicia squinted at a woman at the next table hunched over a laptop.
“I’m just blindly out here,” Alicia said. “Even she is a blur. I didn’t take my anxiety pill. I left 15 minutes late. And then on the drive over I was thinking about the events and things that happened and trying to put pictures to them — but I can’t.”
She sighed, the sound of someone utterly exhausted.
“And then feeling like I can’t ask my husband because he’s not open to talking about it or wanting to relive it, but he has the visuals. Maybe he can fill that answer for me, but is that bad of me to expect that from him?”
Alicia pulled out her phone to play a video. Someone sent it to her on Facebook. She pointed to Mandalay Bay in the background, to a man she later learned was killed and to Nick, standing in the crowd. The video was taken at 9:24 p.m., the final half-hour of normalcy.
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“I watch it repeatedly,” Alicia said. “Literally.”
No matter how many times she watches it, she can never find the guy who had been standing next to Nick, always out of her reach.
She stared blankly across the table.
“I feel so insignificant after all of this for some reason,” she said.
Day 118: Jan. 26, 2018
Alicia waited in a Mercer Island parking lot for her brother. She wanted a tattoo commemorating the shooting but hated driving in Seattle, so Zach picked her up.
Alicia told Zach she hadn’t slept much because Nick had been sick, and then her daughter woke up, and so did her cat. She stayed up late watching videos from Vegas, which sometimes bothers Nick.
“I found a new counselor,” she said, perking up. The new therapist specialized in EMDR, which stands for eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. It helps people deal with flashbacks and painful memories. “I think Nick needs it more than I maybe do, but I at least want to do it. He has multiple flashbacks every hour. Sights and smells and the whole nine yards.”
Alicia also told Zach her friend’s husband had just bought an AR-15.
“She says it’s because of the work that we’re doing and he’s afraid he won’t have the right to buy one,” she said.
Zach gripped the steering wheel and mumbled under his breath. He had recently testified in Olympia to support a ban on bump stocks — the device that enabled the Vegas shooter to fire more rapidly. Alicia wiped away tears as her brother retold their story to lawmakers in his allotted two minutes. Before the speech, he sometimes woke up in panic attacks.
“Heart was racing, heavy breathing, sense of urgency or desperation to get people to understand the realities of these shootings,” he wrote on his phone at 1:58 a.m.
Zach never expected to find himself in the thick of the gun-control debate, but when he got back from Vegas, his sister no longer needed his help walking the halls.
He contacted a friend who worked for Pramila Jayapal. The Seattle congresswoman asked if she could read his post on the House floor to mark one month since the shooting. Advocacy groups like Moms Demand Action and Everytown for Gun Safety wanted him to join their ranks and speak.
“Before I die,” he wondered one day, “will this change?”
The tattoo on Alicia’s shoulder took four hours. Over angels’ wings and the concert logo, it read, “With pain comes strength.”
“I survived,” she said when it was over.
On the drive home, Nick called to say he could pick up the girls from a friend’s. Their daughters are 9 and 7. Alicia had promised them a trip to Disneyland, but now the thought of the Happiest Place on Earth terrified her. If a mass shooting could happen at a concert or a church, couldn’t it happen at an amusement park?
And yet, she wondered, should her daughters suffer as well?
Zach settled into rush-hour traffic on the highway.
“One time I was driving in mild traffic right around here and a bunch of people were going slow in this lane,” he said, filling the silence. “So I got over, and this car pulls right up on my ass, hits the brakes and zips around me, stares me down. I must have passed them, and they’re looking at me, and as I passed them, I flipped them off. They slow down and this like 80-year-old woman in the passenger seat mimes as though she’s shooting me with a machine gun.”
“Wow,” Alicia said, shaking her head.
“Terrifying. I thought I was going to die.”
Drake played in the background. Zach’s windshield wipers squeaked every few seconds.
“OK, I can’t explain it, but I’m getting emotional,” Alicia said.
Her phone lit up her face. Zach had posted a picture of Alicia’s tattoo on Facebook, and she read the comments.
“Lots of nice people out there,” Zach said. “Did that feel like closure at all?”
“I think ultimately it will be a part of it,” she said. “But I don’t think I can get closure without answers and going back to Vegas. I feel like that’s important for me, and Nick and I are on totally different pages about that.”
“I’ll go with you,” Zach said.
Day 138: Feb. 15, 2018
Zach plunged deeper into activism, but the stress of it overwhelmed him before bed.
He read an email Alicia had sent a state representative before the vote to ban bump stocks: “At one point, the man next to me reached out to hold my hand with his blood covered hand as I sobbed.”
Zach also found a video on Twitter from Parkland, Florida. The day before, a 19-year-old had used an AR-15 to kill 17 people in six minutes. Zach saw the bodies and blood.
“I woke up in tears,” he wrote in his online diary. “I had my first nightmare since Las Vegas. I was watching children die in a school and I couldn’t do anything.”
Day 155: March 4, 2018
Alicia stretched on a couch with Nick and her mom, Teresa Elmore. Dogs roamed the yard, along with nine chickens. Four bunnies slept in pens in the kitchen. Wooden signs made the living room look like something on Pinterest: “Home sweet home.” “This home is filled with love and laughter.”
For months, Alicia insisted she was fine. If anything, she wasn’t experiencing enough trauma — she felt like she wasn’t experiencing anything at all. Lately she has questioned that. She wakes up in the middle of the night to popping sounds from the attic. But Nick never hears them.
“When we got home from Vegas, more than once, you’d fall asleep and wake up startled,” her mom said, wrapped in a blanket.
“Oh yeah,” Nick said. “You did that for a while.”
“Yeah,” Alicia said, quieter than normal.
Something fell in the kitchen.
“Jeez,” Alicia said.
“God damn it,” Nick said, getting up.
When Nick heard the first shots in Vegas, he thought they came from the ground, maybe gang-related. But the gunshots cracked across the night in rapid bursts, people started running, the guy to Nick’s right slumped, and Nick shook him, confused, until he saw the blood and looked in his eyes. Every moment after became about processing his next move to save his wife. As Nick shielded Alicia with his body, his spine tingled. He looked up and saw a guy holding a beer.
“DUDE, GET THE [EXPLETIVE] DOWN,” Nick screamed. But the guy just stood there, staring.
When he got Alicia to the hospital, Nick looked down the halls. “Like a slaughterhouse,” he said, and called Alicia’s mom.
“I did it, Mom, I did it, I got her here, I got her to the hospital, I did it, I did it.”
Their younger daughter, Alyssa, stood quietly by the fireplace. She listened to their stories from Vegas, but she also heard them mention a magical land, somewhere far away with rides and costumes and delicious treats.
“Speaking of Disneyland,” she whispered, leaning in to Alicia, “are we going to go?”
Day 190: April 8, 2018
Alyssa ripped open her presents. Nick watched from the corner. Zach sat next to his girlfriend. Wind and rain lashed the windows, but a fire warmed the living room.
Alyssa barely slowed to read the cards. Alicia reminded her to say thank you.
“Take a moment to appreciate it,” Alicia said.
They ate leftover cake from the pool party, which bothered Alicia, and she had rushed to buy more food for the family get-together. But Zach cracked jokes at her expense, Nick made pulled pork, and Alicia took pictures of Alyssa’s presents. Hardly anyone talked about the shooting.
It all felt very normal.