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We were all connected on some level to the tragic events at the Columbia mall [Column]

You get a call from someplace else, and the caller asks what on earth is happening in your town? And you answer, what?

Don't you know that somebody at your mall is shooting up the place? the caller asks. And you say, what are you talking about, while clicking on CNN, and you see your mall with cops in full gear.

You tell your friend you'll call them back.

You sit there, trying to make sense of the senseless, leaning forward with your elbows on your knees and your hands under your chin, watching a scene that's more anyplace-else-in-America than your home. And your stomach hurts, but not because it's empty. Rather, it's full of anguish and hurt and fear, and a tear falls.

And the phone rings some more with caring folks you know from across the country wanting to know, "Are you OK?"

I tell them, yes. No. I don't know if I am.

And later, drips and drabs of information come out, and you wonder what is so wrong with people that they take other people's lives. Three kids dead. Who, why?

You get more tense.

You need to know if you have any connection at all to this craziness — and you do. Anyone who has ever gone to the Columbia mall has a connection.

Anyone human has a connection.

And then I realize that I know a kid and his mom who were at Zumiez, the shooting site, a week before Christmas, looking at snowboards, his big prize of the season, for a ski trip he takes with his father every year in Pennsylvania.

The young lady lived in College Park, the anchor says. I went to the University of Maryland years ago — a connection.

The shooter lived not far from her, on Hollywood Road? I know that place.

I used to teach adults how to read on that street when I was a student. My last student was 50, and I was 21. I remember. Hollywood was unpaved at the time. A connection.

And the male employee who was killed was the youngest board member at the Serenity Center. I know that place.

A friend who received help and support for her alcohol addiction went there. She took me to a clothing exchange there. If you saw something you liked, it was yours for free.

I look at the pictures of three lives gone, all so beautiful and full of life. Brianna Benlolo, 21, a mother of a 2-year-old, gone. Tyler Johnson, 25, a Centennial High grad who attended Howard Community College, was a former chef and volunteer helping young people at the Serenity Center, gone. Darion Aguilar, 19, who bought a shotgun in Maryland one month before, and for reasons unknown, shot them and himself, gone.

Entries in Aguilar's journal said he hated people and that he, himself, was ready to die, not realizing he had barely started to live. Aguilar's mother gave the journal to a police officer after filing a missing person report when Aguilar did not report to work that Saturday morning, Jan. 25.

The officer tracked Aguilar's cellphone to the Mall in Columbia, which is known for its Poinsettia Tree, safety and good shops.

It's also known for people coming together: Last Thursday evening, the mall held a vigil.

Set up as a trust, the Brianna Benlolo Memorial Fund will help secure her young son's future. Donations may be made at any Wells Fargo Bank. Checks may be sent to the Brianna Benlolo Memorial Fund, P.O. Box 1353, Lynnwood, WA 98046.

Johnson's family has requested that contributions in his memory be made to the Community Foundation of Howard County's Tyler Johnson Memorial Fund. Donations may be sent online at http://www.cfhoco.org/give/donate/foundation or to Community Foundation of Howard County, 10630 Little Patuxent Parkway, Suite 315, Columbia, MD 21044.

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