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By Alaa Elassar, CNN Photographs by Matthew Busch for CNN
The four large mirrors on the wall at Town House usually capture the smiles and laughter of families as they gather for a warm meal among neighbors. Tonight, they reflect all angles of heartbreak.
The tan booths and dark wooden tables at this family-style restaurant overflow with diners. It’s hard for servers to squeeze by as they take orders and refill empty glasses. Despite the crowd, it’s uncomfortably quiet.
What’s there to say?
A gunman a day earlier had viciously murdered 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school just a couple miles down the road — and nothing will ever be the same.
“They were just babies,” one woman whispers, her body shifting toward the large television in the center of the dining room.
“Just babies,” the two men sitting beside her echo.
It’s tuned to the evening news, which appears stuck in a merciless loop of dead children’s faces and the gruesome details of a Texas massacre no one is likely to forget.
Juan Martinez, Town House’s co-owner, has served this community for more than 40 years. He’s never seen it so somber, so torn up. People are crying in every corner of the restaurant famous for its comfort food.
“It’s dark and heavy,” waitress Cristy Marsh offers up. “But it’s not always like this; we’re a family here. People are usually happy, coming in to listen to the music and eat together. But right now it’s dark.”
Marsh can’t stop picturing the carnage in her mind. She’s forgetting orders and walking around in a haze. The restaurant is short-staffed because five children related to employees were killed in the slaughter, she says, and her colleagues are out, grieving their dead. Servers who did come in take breaks in the back to cry.
Across the restaurant, a woman sits with her partner, holding a cup of coffee. Her eyes have not moved from the television screen, and tears drop silently. Her drink has surely gone cold, as she hasn’t taken a sip all night.
Hours go by, the sun slowly sets, casting a shadow over Town House. More patrons arrive.
“I can sense sadness from everyone today,” waiter Aaron Gonzalez says, before jumping back into the rush of serving fajitas and country fried steak. “I’m sure every town that had a school shooting said the same thing as us: It’s a small town, we never expected this, why us? It’s been hard to accept.”
One by one, diners stand up and walk over to the register to pay their bills. Tonight, the cashier’s first question isn’t “How do you want to pay?” but rather “How are you feeling?”
Some can’t bear to answer and just shake their heads in disbelief. Others share stories — they know someone who died, someone who was in the building, someone who won’t send their child to that school again.
“I don’t know how I can move on,” one man says as he signs a credit card receipt.
But the world moves on, even here. The servers continue to make their rounds, asking: “Would you like some more tea?” “Ketchup for your fries?”
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