MYRTLE CREEK -- Walter Dickens weaved through his mother's boxes to answer a knock at the door.
It was the fourth one that Sunday afternoon, two days since he'd met the president and 10 since he lost his mother, Sarena Moore, in the shootings at Umpqua Community College. Like all the rest, this latest visitor brought something other than answers.
"More dog food," Dickens said, peeking through the blanket that served as blinds. "And trash bags."
Bullet, his mother's service dog, had been in the classroom when a gunman killed Moore and eight others. After the killings, people wanted to help, so Dickens told them to bring Purina. Now the Husky trailed Dickens through the apartment, back to the dark bedroom where Moore used to sleep. Dickens tossed the trash bags and the dog food onto his mother's bed. He already had plenty of both.
The gunshots that echoed through Snyder Hall on Oct. 1 turned Roseburg, briefly, into international news, the latest epicenter in debates over gun control, mental health care and campus security. News reports called the dead "The Umpqua Nine." That meant nine funerals, nine families with nothing but memories left.
Thirty miles from Roseburg, marooned in Myrtle Creek, Dickens barely had those. The scrawny 22-year-old had waited his whole life to live with his mother. They had reunited only six months before. Now all he had left was her stuff, towers of treasures she'd packed away for safe-keeping, movies about horses mixed with the glass art she used to paint.
He snaked back through the boxes to the living room, collapsed on a loveseat and leaned his head against the detritus of her life. His mother's fiancé, laying on the couch a few feet away, sat up.
"Take it day by day," Travis Dow told him.
Dickens closed his eyes and groaned.
"I'm taking it second by second."
Dickens always told people he was wrongly taken from Moore when he was 5 because she didn't have the money to raise him and two younger brothers. The truth was he knew very little about his mother's life and the reasons she lost custody.
While he was in Louisiana foster homes, picking up a bayou Cajun accent, his mother bounced between Nevada, California and Oregon. As a kid, Moore dreamed of joining the Navy, according to brother Rick Goin, but chronic nerve and muscle issues prevented it. She didn't work much, Goin said, but she had an optimistic streak that led her to marry four times and talk "constantly" of starting a new life with Dickens.
Moore started calling Dickens once a month when he was in grade school, said Jill Hadley, the foster mother Dickens lived with from the time he was 11. As he grew older, they talked almost every week about school and religion. She was a committed Seventh Day Adventist, he a Southern Baptist.
Four years ago, Moore began turning her aimless life toward something. She moved to Myrtle Creek and insisted on a long engagement when she met Dow through an online dating service.
Moore suffered from sciatica so severe she eventually used a wheelchair and struggled with undiagnosed cognitive disabilities, she told Dickens, but she still had dreams: She'd start college, then bring Dickens home to live with her and Dow, who moved from McMinnville a few years ago to be with her.
In March, she called to say she had cobbled together the $298 to buy him a one-way bus ticket from New Orleans to Roseburg. She met him at the station, then a friend drove them the 30 minutes south to Myrtle Creek.
"Good afternoon facebookies," Dickens wrote online when he arrived. "I feel good because I could actually spend time with my biological family now. I am officially in Myrtle Creek, Oregon, and will be here for some time."
Moore updated her Facebook page that day, too: "Never will quit smiling now that Walter is home."
Dickens tried finding work as a dishwasher in Myrtle Creek, but the timber town had only four restaurants. He spent most of his time with Dow, who suffered a heart attack last year and spent most days on the couch. They didn't look like family -- Dickens is tall and thin with hair that juts in every direction, Dow short and round with a neatly trimmed beard -- but they bonded quickly.
The bus between Myrtle Creek and Roseburg ran only every few hours, but Moore called between classes to check on her two men. At night, the three of them watched westerns and talked about the future. She wanted to open a ranch for handicapped kids. Dickens wanted to publish a book of his poems about love and God.
He was still asleep when a fellow classmate stormed his mom's "Introduction to Expository Writing" class with a gun on the morning of Oct 1. He took the bus to the Douglas County Fairgrounds, where hundreds of students and families were reunited by police and Red Cross teams.
She never showed up. As night fell, Dickens went into his new bedroom and closed the door, praying to himself that she would call soon.
At 9:30 p.m., Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents knocked on the apartment door. They said they had bad news.