Fran Laughinghouse keeps in her house a 2012 prom photo showing her son, Alex, and three of his friends, Nixon Floyd, Richardson Sells, and Cole Thomason. Cole is the only one in the photo who’s still alive. Alex’s brother, Jackson, is dead too. This is the story of how opioid addiction ravaged a friend group and their families in Greenville, N.C.:

“I hate the saying, ‘Everything happens for a reason,’ or ‘It’ll get easier,’ because it doesn’t,” Ellie said. “It doesn’t get easier. Grief and loss never do. I think they just get different. You learn where some days you’re an emotional wreck and others, you don’t think about them as much. Or you think about them with a smile.”

Oct. 2, 2013, was not the day the drug epidemic reached Greenville. But beginning with Jackson’s death that day, a group of at least 16 young men and women who grew up together in this small, eastern North Carolina city would succumb to overdoses of opioids and other drugs over nine years. More of their peers became addicted or overdosed but managed to survive.

“It was almost like a generation that went to war didn’t come back,” said J.D. Fletcher, whose son died in 2019.