It was tough to pass by her best friend's empty locker, tougher still to sit through the two classes she knew they were supposed to share.
Bri Mullinger, 16, returned to Springfield High School Friday nearly three months after she and her best friend, Cody Brown, were struck by a fast-moving Amtrak train they tried to beat on the way to school Dec. 16.
Bri lost her leg.
Cody lost his life.
The first day back to school without her friend was hard, Bri said. Gone was her old routine of walking there with Cody. After her mom dropped her off at the front door, Bri spent the day in a wheelchair, and was accompanied by an adult aide who was there to help if she needed it throughout the day.
"It was all right," she said after school. "It wasn't the best day of my life."
Getting through the day without Cody at her side was the hardest part, she said.
"I came out of the school and just broke down," she said.
She still struggles with nightmares about the accident. She misses her best friend and thinks of him often. She said it helps to keep in close contact with the Brown family, especially Cody's mom, Jodi, who recently surprised the Mullingers with a memorable dinner of chicken sandwiches.
These days, the Mullinger household is filled with laughter more often than tears.
Bri has been at home with her two sisters and little brother since mid-January, and recently returned to Toledo Hospital for a skin graft to close an open wound on her back. The surgery was painful, and it didn't work, she said.
Though her mom, Teri Mullinger, considered the failed surgery a "setback" to the teenager's recovery, the family is hopeful. Doctors will wait a month or two to repeat the surgery to close the wound, and there will be another surgery to prepare her amputation for a prosthesis that could happen as early as the summer.
"Her recovery is still remarkable," Ms. Mullinger said.
Until her return to school yesterday, two of her teachers had been tutoring her at home to help her keep up with her studies.
Ms. Mullinger lauds the school district for helping her daughter keep up with her classmates.
Counselors spent Thursday preparing Bri's classmates for her return by answering their questions and laying down some ground rules.
"It was mostly about giving her some space when she comes back, some space and time. And to let them know physically what she's going through and that she's OK with it," her guidance counselor, Jennifer Kwiatkowski, said.
"What we did explain to students, just to let them know, is that Cody is just not a subject that she wants brought up. That's not something she really wants to talk about," Ms. Kwiatkowski said. "And I think our students, for the most part, are sensitive to that."
Though students are still learning to cope with the reality of Cody's death, Ms. Kwiatkowski said Bri's return to school is giving everyone at Springfield High School something to celebrate.
"I think Bri, even though she may not want to be, she's a positive symbol for people," Ms. Kwiatkowski said. "I think she's kind of uncomfortable with that, but people are just so genuinely happy that she's OK."
Days before her return to school, Bri sat giggling on the hospital bed in her living room with two of her closest pals, Kaitlyn Casper-Mayer, 15, and Annette "Netty" Cardenas, 17.
She was asking her mom to let her get her temporary driving permit when Kaitlyn does in a few days, and was teasing Netty about stories from her first day on a new job.
Before long, the conversation turned to tougher subjects.
"I remember seeing her on the first day when she came out of surgery," Netty recalled. "It was so scary. I didn't know what to think about all those tubes. But I just talked to her and held her hand."
The tragedy also has brought a new friend into Bri's life.
Stevie Beale was a senior at Whitmer High School when her own life was forever changed by an accident.
In June, 2006, Ms. Beale was riding in a car with friends when the driver lost control and struck a tree in Bedford Township after being chased by Randy Krell because one of the teens had thrown a bottle of water at his vehicle.
Ms. Beale was paralyzed from the waist down. Her best friend, Charlie Fackelman, was killed.
Some of Bri's classmates knew Ms. Beale from a church youth group and urged her to talk to Bri. She was still in intensive care at Toledo Hospital when Ms. Beale stopped by on New Year's Eve to introduce herself.
"I just wanted to go up and tell her I'm here if she needed someone to talk to," Ms. Beale said. "Just the tragedy of the whole thing and the loss of her best friend just really hit home with me."
Now 21, Ms. Beale is working toward a degree in psychology and premedicine at Lourdes College and has aspirations to go to medical school to become a psychiatrist.
She recently moved out of her parents' house, into a handicapped-accessible home in Sylvania built by Buckeye Builders that she shares with a roommate. She has physical therapy in Detroit multiple times a week, and has faith that she will walk again someday.
Ms. Beale and Bri hang out often. Ms. Mullinger calls her "part of the family." Bri calls her a "parallelogram," not paraplegic.
"I think we have pretty much the same sense of humor, and we both love sports," Ms. Beale said. "We can just sit and laugh for hours. Everybody needs a friend like that. She's just a lot of fun to be around."
Ms. Beale said she advised Bri to expect - but to ignore - inappropriate questions on her first day back to school.
"Teenagers are curious and they don't have a very good filter," Ms. Beale said.
"As cold as it sounds, it really doesn't matter if you hurt their feelings. Honestly, the last thing on my mind was hurting people's feelings because I was so sad."
So much has changed since Bri and Cody tried to cross the tracks - a site now marked by a single cross.
A memorial of flowers, balloons, and handwritten messages to Cody once stretched the length of the tennis courts. Though that public reminder had disappeared before Bri crossed the tracks to return to school, she said she worried about the dozens of little things at school that might remind her of the tragedy.
Her family continues to assure her that returning to school is a good thing - a milestone in her recovery.
"It's a step closer to…" Ms. Mullinger started to say before her daughter interrupted.
"Don't say normal," Bri said.
Ms. Mullinger smiled.
"It's a step closer to our new normal," Ms. Mullinger said.
Contact Bridget Tharp at: