It’s been more than a week now since 19-year-old Reed Parlier was killed by a gunman on the campus at UNC Charlotte, and his family is still trying to feel their way through the thick fog of grief.
For instance, if you gently broach the subject of what Julie Parlier and her husband Brian plan to do with their son’s cremains, she shrugs her shoulders as she stands in their Midland home, surrounded by floral arrangements, oversized photographs of Reed and sadness. She has no idea — it’s just not something she would have ever thought to have discussed with a teenager.
Or, if you ask if and when they might be emotionally ready to handle going back to work, it’s Brian this time who shrugs. “Probably try Monday.”
Earlier Wednesday morning, their daughter — Reed’s younger sister, Mallory, a junior at Piedmont High School in Monroe — was sitting on the sofa between her parents, her face still looking freshly ashen. After several minutes, she leaned over and took a tight hug from her mom, then shifted the other way to get one from Dad, before rising to leave.
“Let me know if you need me to come get you,” Brian said to her, quietly. Then, to their visitor: “She’s going to school for the first time today. Gonna go try class and see how it goes.”
Maybe 90 minutes later, Julie briefly excuses herself from the conversation after seeing a message on her phone. It’s Mallory, she says, and things aren’t going well.
In short, the Parliers don’t know how to do this just yet. They don’t know how, exactly, to handle all of the grief and the sadness and the hurt. On top of that, they’ve been trying to mostly shield themselves from the intense and unique kind of media attention that comes with having a child killed in a mass school shooting.
It’s all been so overwhelming, and so very, very painful.
But on this day, they’re ready to try. Because while that fog hasn’t lifted yet, Brian and Julie Parlier are clear about this: They want people to know what made Reed so special to them, and why they will miss him so much.
‘Have y’all left this room?’
Though he was born in Charlotte on Oct. 2, 1999, as Ellis Reed Parlier — his name a nod to Brian’s mother’s maiden name (Ellis) and Julie’s maiden name (Reed) — his family has never referred to him as Ellis.
It was a little bit of an inside joke: Brian, whose given first name is Johnie, has spent his entire life being called Brian by family and friends and Johnie by strangers; so they found humor in knowing Reed would go through the same hassle.
As an infant, meanwhile, Reed was no hassle at all.
“If you weren’t holding him, you didn’t know he was there,” Brian says.
“As long as he was fed and dry,” Julie adds, “he was amazing. ... He was just kind of quiet and observant to what was going on.”
But he could also fill a room — or a whole Target store, for that matter — with laughter: Julie recalls a time when her toddler was with his kindergarten-age cousin Henry on a school-supply shopping trip, and Henry kept making noises and faces that sent Reed into such adorable howls that other shoppers started forming a small fan club around their carts.
Around the same time, maybe even earlier, Reed was developing a deep affection for video games.
“When he was 1, 1-1/2,” Brian says, “I hurt my back to the point where I couldn’t move. So I would lay on the floor and play Zelda on Nintendo, and he would sit beside me and have a controller (that wasn’t hooked up), and he thought he was in control. .... He really thought he was playing.”
In fact, if you ask his family to tell stories about him, they always come back to gaming.
Mallory, on her earliest memories of her brother, with a soft smile: “I remember one time he was playing the Wii, and he wouldn’t let me play, so I sat by the couch and turned it off with the other remote.”
Julie, shaking her head and laughing gently, her memory jogged by Mallory’s story: “One Thanksgiving I went shopping all day, and when I left, the three of them were playing ‘Guitar Hero,’ and when I came home (about 12 hours later, Brian says), they were still playing ‘Guitar Hero.’ I was like, ‘Have y’all left this room?’ And they were like, ‘Not really.’”
Reed built his own powerful gaming computer early on in high school, and as a teenager, many of his closest friends were fellow gamers he met while spending long hours holed up in his room playing online PC games like “World of Warcraft.” He learned to write code, studied in the information systems program at Central Academy of Technology and Arts in Monroe, and dreamed of a career as a video game developer.
But while some may have a general impression of young gamers as being addicted or antisocial, Reed was equally happy away from the screen.
He would wander down from his room at random times to give big hugs to his mom, and when he hugged her, this genuine look of love and warmth would wash over his face.
“She couldn’t see it,” says Julie’s sister, Lisa Reed, smiling, “because his head was over her shoulder. But I got to see it.”
Though he was indeed quiet in a group setting even into his later teenage years, his parents say it was a thoughtful quiet.
“He would sit back and watch, and then when he had enough information, he would make some statement,” Brian says. “Me and a couple of my friends go on political rants, and he would always turn it to a positive thing. I never remember him ever saying anything negative about anyone.”
And while anyone with teenagers knows it can be tough to engage them in actual human interaction in this social media age, conversation came easily to Reed around his dad.
“We had seen all the Marvel movies leading up to this last one, so we sat for about an hour rehashing all of them last Monday night,” Brian says. “We had already bought tickets. We were supposed to go Wednesday night. So we were just having fun, talking about those movies, what we liked about them, what we didn’t, and how we thought it was gonna end. He was very excited about that.”
Twenty-four hours later, Reed was gone.
‘I just needed to be alone’
As a sophomore at UNCC studying computer science, Reed was back living in his old bedroom again. He had spent his freshman year in a residence hall on campus, but he just felt more at home ... at home.
Last Monday night, after the pre-“Avengers” chat with his dad, he texted his mom asking her to make sure he was awake when she left for work in the morning, and she obliged. Reed was still struggling to pull himself out of bed Tuesday morning, though, when Brian checked in on him again before heading out to catch the bus to his Wells Fargo job uptown.
It was a pretty typical morning in the Parlier household.
But around dinnertime, Julie had the TV on when the news broke that there had been a shooting on her son’s campus, and she immediately started texting Reed. He wasn’t answering, but even on the best of days sometimes — like lots of teens — he was slow to reply to texts from mom and dad.
She called Brian, who was on the bus coming back out of the city, and told him to get to the school as soon as he could. Since Reed was a commuter, they decided Julie would stay put in case he was on his way home, surmising that Reed could have dropped his phone or that his phone wasn’t working because the network was overloaded.
Brian got to the command center on campus at about 6:20 p.m. Over the next several hours, the group of parents he was with who hadn’t yet heard from their kids grew smaller and smaller, until it was him and only him. He knew before they ever told him.
“They (the police) wanted to drive me home,” Brian says, “but I just needed to be alone. So they followed me ... to make sure I got here OK.”
Julie was, of course, still awake when the headlights appeared at the foot of the driveway around midnight and made their way up the nearly 100-yard stretch of asphalt to the house off Cabarrus Station Road.
She ran outside and, right before bursting into sobs, could only get out the words “Where is he??”
‘We don’t want him forgotten’
There were five other victims, all students in the same class that Reed was sitting in last Tuesday afternoon.
Those injured: Drew Pescaro, Rami Al-Ramadhan, Emily Houpt and Sean DeHart. The other young man who was killed: Riley Howell.
All of those families — but particularly the Parliers and the Howells — were quickly inundated with calls or knocks on the door from reporters with questions about their children. Brian and Julie had other family members politely turn everyone away.
“I know there was a report saying that we were barricaded inside our house,” Julie says. “But we didn’t want to talk to media. We weren’t ready.”
“We weren’t barricaded in,” Brian adds. “We just had nothing to say at the time.”
“We had to collect our thoughts, and be with the people that we loved and loved us,” Julie says.
Meanwhile, as the larger-picture story developed via the mass media, it became clear that Howell had demonstrated extraordinary bravery after the shooting began, tackling the gunman and — police confirmed — saving lives. As such, stories about the victims of the attack have had a tendency to focus more on Howell and his heroism, often leaving Reed Parlier as a footnote mentioned to indicate that someone else did die.
It’s clear in Julie’s eyes: There’s no trace of bitterness, just a whole lot of pain.
“I am so sorry for the Howell family, and I think that their son is definitely a hero,” she says. “I don’t want to take anything away from Riley and his parents. ... But I’m not gonna lie: At night, I sometimes pull up the news and I read the articles and, you know, I see this much about the one student” — she holds one hand above the other, palms facing, about a foot apart — “and then this much about Reed,” she says, closing the gap between her palms to about 2 inches.
“My friends are upset. And family’s upset. Not that Riley’s getting attention, because he definitely deserves it. But what about our son? We don’t want him forgotten.”
Julie pauses for a moment, unsuccessfully trying to swallow a lump in her throat before continuing: “A friend yesterday told me that they feel like Reed is the silent hero. Because we don’t know that he ever got a chance.”
‘Where’s your other sock?’
Riley Howell’s memorial service, held on Sunday afternoon on the shore of Lake Junaluska near Howell’s hometown of Waynesville, was open to the public and welcomed more than a thousand mourners, including many reporters and press photographers. The service was simulcast live by an Asheville television station.
On the same day, the Parliers had a celebration of life service for Reed at Pine Lake Country Club in Mint Hill — but they withheld all of the details about the event from the media. Roughly 500 people attended, Brian guesses, and Julie says they recognized every single face. The service was quietly streamed online, to some extent for the benefit of Reed’s gaming friends.
“We wanted Sunday to be completely about Reed, not about what happened to Reed, and it was,” Julie says. “It was exactly that.”
They respectfully declined to share photos from the memorial service, maintaining their desire after the fact to keep it out of the view of the media. And before meeting with the Observer, they expressed discomfort about the idea of a photographer being present for the interview.
“I don’t have a problem with giving you pictures of Reed, but I didn’t want a camera on us showing our grief to the world,” Julie explains deep into the conversation.
It’s fitting, in a way: Even now — even though they have come out of their collective shell to share more about their son, cautiously — the family is trying to respect the privacy, and the peace, and the quiet, and the inward turn toward family comfort that they know Reed would have wanted.
One of the things they do share about the service is the fact that they all each held onto a single sock, an homage to the fact that as a young boy Reed started walking around the house wearing just one sock. It’s a quirky habit he continued into adulthood, and no one in the family is quite sure of the exact origins or the specific rationale.
As she tells this story, Julie briefly unfurls the white ball of cloth she’d been clutching tightly for the last hour and using to dab at tears, revealing that it is in fact a sock of Reed’s.
Then she segues into a related story, about how her late mother had Alzheimer’s, and about how her son was so patient and good with her.
“My mom was here, and she’d go, ‘Where’s your other sock?’ He would make up a story about how he mailed it to China, and she would believe him and go, ‘OK.’ Then two minutes later, she’d turn around and ask, ‘Where’s your other sock?’ And he’d make up another story. I’d be like, ‘Reed, can you please put one sock on or take that sock off, because Nana is driving me crazy.’ And he wouldn’t.”
Brian, and Julie, and Julie’s sister Lisa all do the same thing at the thought of this memory. They laugh.
And for those few seconds, at least — amid all of the grief and the sadness and the hurt and the feeling of not being sure how to handle all this — the Parlier family gets a glimpse of what it’s like to feel happy again.