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Cyndi Starratt, seen in Portapique, N.S., on April 28, 2020, owns a property near where a gunman began his rampage through rural Nova Scotia. 'I just know it’s going to be different when I go back down there, that’s for sure,' she says.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Portapique was a serene seaside community where children ran on the mudflats and neighbours gathered on the beach for bonfires. Its 100 or so permanent residents looked out for each other, whether someone needed help with a repair or a shoulder to cry on.

They will need one another more than ever now, as the Nova Scotia RCMP and arson investigators wind down their probe in the community where Canada’s deadliest mass shooting began. But as residents plan to return to their properties amid the wreckage of charred houses and the murder of 13 of their neighbours, they face a difficult question: How do they begin to feel at home here again?

“I just know it’s going to be different when I go back down there, that’s for sure,” said Cyndi Starratt, who owns a property by the beach near where the killings started. She says RCMP told her she can return to her house on Friday, but she has no idea what to expect or what condition her home is in.

Some police officers may remain in Portapique as residents return, but it could take a while before those in the community begin to be at ease again. To help them feel safe, and to prevent gawkers from flooding in, the county has hired security to guard the entrance to Orchard Beach Drive, which leads to a subdivision where most of the killings took place.

“They’ve been under the spotlight and grieving,” said Tom Taggart, a municipal councillor for the area. “They just need to get back in there and get some sense of normality.”

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A heart is silhouetted in the window of a farmhouse on Highway 2 near Portapique on April 24, 2020.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Residents of Portapique who survived say they are just starting to come out of a state of shock. The massacre began after 51-year-old Gabriel Wortman, who owned a home on Portapique Beach Road, violently assaulted his common-law spouse the night of April 18 before she escaped into the woods.

Police say he then started torching houses and killed neighbours as they ran out of their homes to assist other residents. He eluded police by driving a mock RCMP cruiser across a field and remained at large for more than 13 hours as he continued a rampage across rural Nova Scotia that claimed a total of 22 victims.

Ms. Starratt is among those hoping she can begin to rebuild her life in Portapique.

She bought a property by the beach in 2013 and has been a year-round resident there since 2014. She was with her daughter in Truro the night of the killings.

Ms. Starratt knows the tiny community will never be the same. Many of the victims had become friends of hers. People who helped her move furniture, fix up her home, drive her to the store or share some laughs around a bonfire.

Some went beyond just being good neighbours. She said Aaron Tuck, who was killed along with his wife, Jolene, and 17-year-old daughter, Emily, “saved my life” by helping her get sober and into rehab, allowing her to finally kick her addiction to alcohol.

"They were good folks. I'm going to miss them," she said. "They were all very kind. That was a really special place."

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Portapique is surrounded by wild blueberry and carrot fields, red spruce trees and the sound of waves lapping the shoreline of Cobequid Bay. Highway 2 runs through the community and connects to a warren of dirt roads and subdivisions with modest homes on wide wooded lots.

The community’s population swells with cottagers in the summer, but there are no shops or services here.

“There was a sense of freedom there because it was so private. It was beautiful,” said Ms. Starratt, who lives on Cobequid Court, not far from where the gunman owned a large garage close to where many people were killed. “Every weekend, there would be some kind of get-together. That’s just how it was.”

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Scott Paul, left, and Jane Benvie embrace at a memorial in Portapique.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

At least some people who live in the area are already back in their homes. Nancy and John Hudson, who live on Highway 2 not far away, took in an elderly neighbour in the middle of the night during the shooting. That neighbour has since returned home.

“I have never felt scared about where I live, but I do right now,” Ms. Hudson admitted through tears while paying her respects at the growing roadside memorial at the end of Portapique Beach Road.

What started out as a few cut-out hearts and potted lilies at the foot of a telephone pole has now grown into a sprawling rainbow of stuffed animals, flags, spinning pinwheels and bouquets of flowers.

In the midst of a pandemic, when daily life includes physical distancing and self-isolation, pulling up to the memorial has been one of the few safe ways for Nova Scotians to express grief and show support for the victims and their families. People have travelled from all over the province to this small corner, which used to be just the place where locals picked up the post from a communal mailbox.

This week, the Association of Psychologists of Nova Scotia and the provincial government began offering free counselling sessions with clinical psychologists by telephone or online video for people distressed by the rampage.

“A tragedy like this has fragmented people’s lives,” said Dean Perry, a clinical psychologist at St. Martha’s Regional Hospital in Antigonish and one of a roster of 60 offering pro bono long-term counselling to those affected by the massacre.

“It’s important, at some stage, to begin to rebuild and come back, but it’s got to be at a time when people are feeling security, safety and support,” he said.

With a report from Darren Calabrese

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