On Tuesday, Fatima Ahmad returned to Franklin Regional High School and found an unwelcome surprise.
The junior from Murrysville traveled familiar hallways to her locker, hoping to grab books so she could study before she and her classmates returned to school today.
When the metal locker door swung open, there it was, she told more than a thousand people at a community rally Tuesday night.
Community turns out to support Franklin Regional students
A number of parents and well-wishers were on hand to show support for Franklin Regional High School students who returned to classes today for the first time since last week's mass knife assault. (Video by Nate Guidry; 4/16/2014)
Her lunch, packed for last Wednesday, sat there, uneaten and decaying.
She threw it out, but the symbolism didn't escape her, she said, as a cold wind whipped a light layer of snow off the pavilion roof behind her.
"We should all open ourselves up, like I did to my locker," Fatima said. "We shouldn't let the bad things -- like my lunch -- stew inside of us and rot."
Numerous churches and community groups gathered more than 1,250 white tapered candles in just 24 hours so the community could rally to send students, staff and teachers back to school today "with love" in Murrysville Community Park as twilight faded to darkness Tuesday. Snow started falling halfway through the gathering, as the temperature continued falling further below freezing.
Community members, parents, alumni and students stood on a grassy hill in the park, bundled in puffy winter coats, Franklin Regional letterman jackets, scarves and gloves, holding each other tight. First responders wore safety green jackets, and toddlers sat in folding chairs, only their eyes and the tops of their hats peeking out from under thick blankets.
The group was subdued, laughing only timidly at the jokes of emcee Bill Rehkopf, a KDKA radio personality and Franklin Regional alumnus.
On-duty Monroeville police Officer James Markel took a break from his shift to address the group, "You have a lot to be thankful for. You went through a tragedy and held your heads high."
He sang "You Raise Me Up," and his voice echoed off the hills behind the group, filling the valley.
Murrysville police Chief Tom Seefeld told parents, "The real heroes were your children and the staff in your school."
The loudest cheers of the night were for the first responders until the mother and brothers of student Jared Boger, who is still in UPMC Presbyterian hospital following the attack, took the microphone.
"Thank you for the outpouring of love and support," Janet Boger said. "He's doing well. As long as they can control the pain, he's goofy, in a good mood.
"He will recover from this," she said.
As she and two of her sons walked away, they shook the hands of school administrators and first responders.
Fatima and other Franklin Regional students also took the microphone, to reflect and look forward. All of them expressed sentiments of thanks -- thanks to teachers and first responders, thanks to each other.
By 8:45 p.m., candles were lit, and slowly a dull glow burst from the crowd. Flames flickered in the frigid wind, and people turned to each other, re-lighting flames that had extinguished, as students and alumni sang the district's alma mater.
"... We will honor and defend thee, Franklin High School Blue and Gold."
Lexi Belculfine: email@example.com, 412-263-1878 or Twitter: @LexiBelc.