Luis Calvillo has an angel on his shoulder.
The tattoo covers his left arm, the archangel Michael wielding a sword over howling demons. But Calvillo, 33, believes it was an angel he could not see who kept him alive that day in August.
It was a Saturday morning outside a Walmart in El Paso, and the soccer team he leads was selling snacks to raise money for an out-of-state tournament. One moment he was chatting with a fellow coach; the next, a man was spraying the outside of the store with gunfire, and Calvillo was on the ground, blood pouring from his leg. Several soccer parents were also shot. His father, Jorge Calvillo García — his real angel — was killed.
"I never thought about anyone else," Calvillo said. "I was just thinking that it was going to be the last time that I was going to breathe. The last time."
Only later did he have another thought: "My dad's soul stayed there to protect me," he said.
Mass shooting stories are usually told at funerals and candlelight vigils, catalogued by the number of dead left to bury when the gunfire stops. Surviving is a much longer story, often left unrecorded. There are the first chaotic minutes and hours in the paramedics' van and the operating room. And there are the days and weeks of uncertain recovery that follow, the slow-motion coda of mass violence that unfolds painfully and privately. It took Calvillo nearly six weeks to be able to get a haircut, seven weeks to move without a walker for the first time.
The gunfire that day left 22 people dead and two dozen injured. The white gunman wrote that his attack was a response to "the Hispanic invasion of Texas," a hateful motive Calvillo has struggled to understand, having survived combat as a US soldier with the Army's 101st Airborne Division in Iraq.
"We didn't deserve this," he said. "We're good people. We're not bad people. And this dude just came to ruin everything."
The soccer team — the El Paso Fusion, for girls 9 to 12 — and its supporters were spread out that day between the store's main entrance and exit doors, facing the parking lot. Calvillo, an operations manager for a trucking company who founded the Fusion and served as its head coach, was standing near the team's canopy, talking to his friend and fellow coach, Guillermo Garcia. Calvillo's wife and 10-year-old daughter were nearby. His father had just pulled up.
He felt the first bullet before he heard it: "I turned around to find out what was happening and I see him coming toward us, shooting at us."
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Calvillo knew he was losing blood fast. His Army training kicked in: He stopped talking, to preserve energy, and he went into survival mode.
Seven of the people shot August 3 were part of the Fusion family. Two coaches — Calvillo and Garcia — and four parents were wounded, and Calvillo's father was killed. The 10 players who were there managed to escape the gunfire but were affected in unseen ways. One day at school not long ago, a door slammed and Calvillo's daughter, Emylee, started running.
"What did he gain?" Calvillo said of the gunman. "Nothing. What did we gain? Just pain, that's all."
As the hours of recovery have stretched into weeks and then months, he has looked for a way through. The ink on his arm — a tattoo he got years ago, this one on his left wrist — once again seemed to offer a message. Looked at one way, it reads Pain. Looked at another way, it says something else.
Day 35: 180 steps, and counting
Calvillo was shot five times with an AK-47-style rifle — twice in his left leg, and three times on the side of his back.
But as he lay on his bed at the University Medical Center of El Paso in early September, nearly five weeks after the shooting, it was his left foot that was causing him the most anguish. Sometimes his wife, Marcela Martinez, 38, massaged his foot. But other times he grimaced, and asked her not to touch it.
And there was everything else — breathing exercises for his lungs, roughly 30 pills to take a day, an infection that set back his rehabilitation, a bald patch. When he first arrived at the hospital, he was unconscious for days in the intensive-care unit, and the hair where the back of his head rested on the pillow still had not grown back.
Calvillo could get in and out of bed. He had recently showered for the first time ("I was almost crying," he said). But he was still counting the number of steps he could take — slowly, clutching a walker — without giving in to the pain.
"The first week when they got me up, I did 180 steps," he said.
The next time, he pushed himself. He did about 300.
Day 38: An aborted shopping trip
After the 48 staples stitching him together were removed, Calvillo's wife, Martinez, decided to keep them. It was his pain. But it was hers, too.
After August 3, Martinez stopped working as a teacher to be with her husband full time. One day in early September, she spent a rare morning at home and took Emylee, a fifth grader, to school.
When Martinez was by herself, she suddenly felt it was time. She was ready to visit what nearly everyone in El Paso had seen: the memorial outside the Walmart. She pulled into the parking lot and walked over, her eyes filling with tears.
There were thousands of candles, crosses, teddy bears, flowers and American and Mexican flags along a chain-link fence, the trinkets of a border city's binational heartache. She and her husband were born in El Paso but raised by their families in the Mexican city of Ciudad Juárez. They embraced both cultures, both languages.
Until then, Martinez had been unable to get this close to a big-box store. When Emylee had needed a pair of jeans, Martinez had driven to Target but could not bring herself to get out of the car. She sat in the parking lot and then drove away.
The jeans would have to wait until later. She had no idea when.
"I don't think people understand that lives change, and not for good, after all this," she said.
Day 43: "I know you can do it"
His foot was bothering him again. But he ignored it.
"You got elected to student council?" he asked Emylee.
It was mid-September, several weeks after the start of school, and his daughter was visiting him at Kindred Hospital, where he had been transferred for wound-care treatment. They talked as he sat in a wheelchair, pumping an arm bike.
"Yes, but I didn't want to do it," Emylee said.
"If you have the opportunity, do it," he told her. "I know you can do it."
Regaining the use of his leg was one thing; being a hospital-bound father and coach was another challenge entirely. With the onset of the school year, he had started a new team for older girls and was constantly texting with Fusion parents, keeping his phone on the bed beside him or on his chest.
Getting out of the hospital was about recovering, but it was about grief, too. His father had been cremated but his mother postponed the funeral, wanting her son to be there.
Emylee came up to him, smiling big.
"You know what I dreamed?" she asked. In her dream, she was wearing a blue dress that sparkled at the quinceañera that would happen on her 15th birthday. And her grandfather was there, too.
"Your grandpa is going to visit you a lot in your dreams," he told her. "He didn't get a chance to say goodbye."
Day 49: Soccer therapy
The sound of a referee's whistle filled Room 1001.
The shrill noise was coming out of Calvillo's phone. The girls had a game. His wife was on the sideline, livestreaming the action as he watched from the hospital.
"If they push you, push them back," a Fusion girl told another player.
"Hey!" Calvillo shouted. That was not the way they played ball.
The Fusion ended up losing. The nurses came in periodically to take his temperature and blood pressure, but his eyes stayed riveted on the phone.
"There are so many things that I had already worked on that they're not doing, and it frustrates me," he said.
Soccer, once a weekend pastime, had transformed into a devotion that was as closely tied to his rehabilitation as the arm bike down the hall. It had happened before. After serving in Iraq, Calvillo had started experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder. It became so severe he had suicidal thoughts. But the Fusion had helped pull him out of it.
Now he was relying on them again, just as they were counting on him, coaching from his hospital bed.
"When I started the team, I found a lot of comfort," he said. "So that's why I take so much pride and I take it too serious. Because that's my getaway."
Day 56: The return of Coach Luis
He held his wife's hand as she drove him home. It was September 27. He had spent nearly two months in two hospitals, undergone five operations and lost about 18kg.
He did not stay home for long. He had something to do. Hours after he was released from the hospital, he was sitting in his wheelchair on the grass at a Fusion game.
"Talk to each other, ladies!" Calvillo yelled into a megaphone.
Garcia, the other Fusion coach who was wounded, remained in a hospital, but his wife, Jessica Garcia, was at the game, cheering their daughter, Karina. The field and sidelines were crowded with men, women and children who had fled or were struck by gunfire only a few weeks before. But that went largely unspoken. The gunman had forever changed their lives, but he would have no place on this green field at dusk.
Day 78: Home in time to say goodbye
Calvillo sat in the front pew of St. Mark Catholic Church, staring at the stone box holding his father's urn. It was mid-October, more than two months since the shooting, but the passage of time did not make the funeral any easier.
His father had been his lifelong mentor. Jorge Calvillo García, an accountant and business executive, had been born in Mexico but lived in El Paso with his wife, Eva Calvillo, 61. They would have celebrated their 38th anniversary in December, but their children and grandchildren had been the real center of their lives.
Martinez recalled a day years ago when she was pregnant with Emylee and there was an unexpected knock on her door. "I open the door, and it was both of them, Eva and Jorge, with everything you can think a baby can need — the car seats, stroller, the crib," she said. "They bought everything for us."
At the church that day, Calvillo was very much a grieving son — he wore the St. Jude chain his father had been wearing when he was killed — but for the family gathered there, his mere presence in the pews was a kind of miracle. After the Mass, the hugs he received from the long line of relatives and friends had some sadness in them, but a touch of welcome home, too.
One life lost. One life broken, but found.
"I just think I got a second chance at life," Calvillo said. "I can't change things. I got to just keep on going."
Day 88: A life divided by gunfire
Calvillo keeps the wheelchair and walker in the garage. He walks on his own now. At home in late October, nearly three months after the attack, he revved up his new toy: a three-wheeled motorcycle.
Martinez was preparing to return to her fourth grade class in December. She fought her fear and took Emylee to Target to buy supplies for a science project.
"Our lives are going to be before and after — before Walmart and after Walmart," Martinez said.
Calvillo went back to work at the trucking company. One of the first things he did after getting out of the hospital was buy a .40-calibre Smith & Wesson. "It's just for protection," he said. "I'm not going to experience the same thing again."
As he ate a late dinner with his wife and daughter, Calvillo hardly looked at his new tattoo. It was on his right arm, opposite the angels and demons. It read El Paso Strong. In the centre was the Fusion.
Written by: Manny Fernandez and Tamir Kalifa
Photographs by: Tamir Kalifa
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES