Four years ago today, at 9:00am on April 15th, 2013 I let myself into a beautiful brown stone apartment in the South End, just a hop skip and a jump away from the Boston Public Library and the Boston Marathon finish line.
Hazel*, four years old with white silk hair and expressive green eyes looked up from the Boston Globe. “Will you read me the funnies?” she asked.
The day before was Sunday and that meant that the family I had been nannying for six months had received a new issue of comics.
I sat on a big green love seat with Hazel crisscrossed on my lap. Hazel loved reading, especially Frog and Toad and often asked me to read it over and over again. I read the comic strips aloud and Hazel laughed at the appropriate places.
“She doesn’t get them,” chided Mason, her elder brother. He was a precocious nine-year-old and often spoke more like a freshman at Harvard. He loved science, mystery books, and he was obsessed with the movie Avatar. “She just laughs when everyone else laughs.”
“I do not!” Hazel called.
“Kids, please don’t start.” Laura, their mother, was a kind and distracted woman with a beautiful office above the clouds in one of Boston’s most recognizable skyscrapers and was married to Frank, a busy but brilliant software engineer who worked near MIT. “Thanks so much for helping out for a few hours. I just have to take this call from India and I’ll be back up to relieve you. Any plans for the day? It looks beautiful out.”
“I think I might go check out the marathon,” I said, knowing Laura would be thrilled. She loved giving me recommendations of things to do since I was new to the city.
“Oh you must! It’s quite a sight! I’ll relieve you soon as I’m off the phone so you can head over there.” She vanished downstairs to take her call.
I was relieved it would be a short workday. I was tired from staying up past midnight to finish reading Wuthering Heights the night before. I was in my first year of grad school at Emerson College. I didn’t feel like playing referee to Hazel and Mason and dragged them together to the nearby playground where they could bounce and cartwheel until it was time to go.
The morning was crisp as cider beer and heating up fast. It was the first warm day of the year after my first New England winter. The confirmation that I would feel sunshine again after the long winter made my heart melt for the place that was, after seven months, just starting to feel like home.
By eleven o’clock I was walking cheerily towards the finish line with no idea of what to expect. I’d been picking up Hazel and Mason and taking them home from school every day since September. In that time I’d gotten to know the streets in and outside of Copley Square well. Mason had shown me his favorite short cuts where he would ride his bike ahead and hide behind bushes to scare Hazel. I took some of them to avoid the crowds. It was impossible to cross the route so I went around Trinity Church and looped up by Hazel’s preschool where I picked her up every day. It was a darling little preschool with only a few classrooms and a gym tucked away in one of Boston’s historic churches, aptly named Old South Church, with a gothic bell tower you couldn’t miss. I passed the entrance with its community garden where the tulips were in full bloom, and walked alongside the last stretch of the marathon route down Boylston Street.
I passed Sugar Heaven, a candy shop I took Hazel and Mason to on Halloween and other special occasions. In three hours and forty-nine minutes Sugar Heaven would lose $20,000 worth of melted chocolate and dozens of candy bins needing sanitization. The shop would be littered with phones and wallets abandoned in the aftermath of the first bomb. At the same time, the windows of the fitness gear shop next door, Marathon Sports, would be blown out, and employees would go from wrapping running shoes in shopping bags to wrapping tourniquets around injured viewers. Just a few doors down stood the historic Charlesmark Hotel that was hosting a marathon party for 100 people. By the end of the day its patio would be deserted, dozens of plates abandoned, meals half eaten, and the hotel would calculate six figure losses in damage and the hotel lobby would be covered in blood.
The finish line runs perpendicular between the Boston Public Library and Old South Church. I’d walked over the line a hundred times on my way to take Hazel and Mason to the library where we cuddled up in a corner of the children’s room with a big pile of books and read until we had to head home for dinner. I’d never seen Boylston Street, a normally hectic thoroughfare, filled in every nook and cranny with people. Never had I seen the finish line in all its glory, covered in cameras, ribbons, and cheer. It was the marker that over 20,000 runners thought about for months during their training. The stripe that runs through all their dreams, challenging and confronting them, and on Patriot’s Day that line is what every single one of those runners is running toward, the final marker of one of the most physically and mentally challenging accomplishments they will ever endure.
It was still early in the day and most the runners completing the marathon at that point were in the wheelchair division. I was stunned at the amount of participants in wheelchairs, many barreling down the street with fiery eyes and biceps flexed. Others came down two at a time, a wheelchair occupant being pushed by a ride-or-die teammate. As they whirled past the crowd stirred. Shrieks and cheers of encouragement erupted at all angles. Some of the cheers were full of positivity.
You’re awesome! Look at you! You’re doing it!
Others came with tough love.
Don’t you dare stop now! Keep going! You’re almost there!
I was stunned by the amount of support. It was clear by the number of viewers shouting that these were not just friends and family members, but strangers cheering on strangers. I eventually joined in and when I made eye contact with a muscular young man whose head fell back in agony; his arms must have felt on fire. I raised my voice, shouted at him to keep going, the finish line was so close. He heard me loud and clear, met my eyes and nodded, and suddenly his arms began moving faster. He picked up his pace, bared his teeth, and in a few moments he flew through the finish line. When he crossed, I couldn’t help but laugh and was surprised to find tears of joy in my eyes. I’d never seen such spirit, such pure determination.
It was a gorgeous day. My first New England winter had been harsher than I expected, mostly because I was homesick. The winter had been a cold and lonely one for a girl from Southern California where parrots squawked and orange groves scented the air.
Less than a year before I was an undergraduate at UC Santa Barbara. It was a nice place where nice things happened. Once when I was floating on a surfboard in aquamarine water a seal popped his wet smiling face out of the water about ten feet away from me. I smiled back and reached my hand out. He snickered and splashed, disappearing into the deep before popping up further and further away. How I had loved that place where I woke up early, flopped out of bed, put on a bikini then stretched a tight wetsuit up each leg, leaving my torso bare for the bike ride on a beach cruiser with birds painted on it, a surfboard tucked under one arm, to catch some waves before my first class.
That first year in Boston I longed for that quiet verdant paradise where I rode bikes beneath lush trees on my way to English class with a boy I loved but would lose to distance once I moved. Sometimes we held hands and tried to keep the same pace, talking naively about our future when we would be bigshot writers with best-selling novels and how we would secretly incorporate each other into our stories. A secret in plain view. Standing at that finish line in the middle of a bustling city at the edge of another ocean, it seemed so long ago.
At around 11:45am my stomach yowled with hunger and I remembered I still had homework for the next day’s class. I walked home. If footsteps could be traced in layers, you would find that deep, deep beneath the layers of a nine-teen-year-old murderer, I laid my footsteps first upon the ground hours before a bomb would be set down in the same place. I walked from the route exactly one mile down Boylston Street, away from the people and the finish line, towards Boston Common to my tiny studio apartment just off Tremont Street.
After finishing a write-up on Amy Hempel’s “In the Cemetery” and eating a measly lunch of turkey deli meat and provolone slices my stomach still panged. A text from a girl I knew in high school who was in Boston for a graduate program at BU invited me to her side of town at a pub called O’Leary’s at the two-mile marker from the finish line on the marathon route. Needing to get out of my apartment, I threw on my Red Sox hat and jumped on the T.
We split nachos and had a few beers. I knew some very small lunches were in my future that week to make up for the bill, but I didn’t care. I was no longer hungry and I was with people who were happy and cheering. Time sped up then. At 2:08pm the Red Sox had eked out a win against the Tampa Bay Rays and the bar was full of Boston pride. By 2:45pm we were drunk on Sam Adams and sunshine. I felt good. It was a lovely day and I was woozy with drink and surrounded by happy people. On any other day at this moment I’d have been picking up Hazel from school and helping her tie her shoes on the third floor of that pretty old building right by the finish line.
My friend and I were laughing. I can’t remember why. But suddenly, out of the bar chatter, a single shhhh hissed against my ear. The hiss grew into a deeper hush, and as if a giant hand turned down a dial, the bar’s noise at full volume was muted. The fine hair on the back of necks and arms stood on end and all heads turned toward the television. Explosion, smoke, shrapnel, terror, carnage. Eyes searched eyes for answers. Nothing. Phones were pulled out, but no one had service. All networks were down to prevent the detonation of another bomb. Boom. Not one, but two bombs had gone off. One at the finish line and one about 100 yards away. I glanced outside at the runners who had no idea of what they were running to.
All the youthful joy in the room dissipated and fear replaced it.
People ran to stop the runners and redirect them away from the bombs. Some cried. Most just stared at the television, waiting for more news.
“We need to go,” someone said. “What if there’s more?”
Would there be more?
Was the city about to erupt?
I wondered if I would ever go home again. Not to my apartment in Boston, but home.
What about Hazel and Mason?
My stomach twisted into knots. I tried to text Laura.
Are you guys okay?
New Text. Send again.
I watched the television again. Footage of the bomb exploding replayed again and again. I couldn’t tear my eyes away. Every time I watched the footage I saw it, like a beacon of light. Hazel’s school. The Old South Church bell tower stood in the center of the screen staring down at me.
I wanted to go home. My apartment was only two and a half miles away. But at the two-mile marker, blocking me from safe passage, was the destruction from two bombs, unfathomable chaos and bloodshed, and a million questions. I had no choice but to stick with the group. Having learned that the trains had been stopped and after watching several buses packed to the windows with fearful people we had no option but to walk to my friend’s apartment. Outside we were exposed and wary. Smoke and fear coursed through the air like electricity in water.
We stayed inside for hours and did what everyone else was doing. Watched, waited, felt guilty and yet grateful we hadn’t been closer to the carnage. We drank whiskey to numb the shock. I must have watched those bombs blow up a thousand times that day. Every time I searched for something new, some piece, some clue that might reveal all the answers I needed. I found nothing. Nothing but the same image of Hazel’s bell clock towering over me. I couldn’t stop thinking, If this had been any other day.
Any other day at that exact time I would have walked out of that church with a four-year-old girl and I would have been responsible for her. I pictured Hazel and I, her head just below my hip, hand in my hand standing outside the preschool. I imagined a hundred different scenarios of the bomb detonating beside us. Would we have been strewn along the ground, bodies sparkling with embedded glass from blown-out storefronts? Would I have carried a bloodied four-year-old out crying for help? Would my limbs have been blown off? Would I be lying dead next to Hazel, leaving her by herself in the aftermath? Or worse…I didn’t want to think about that. My throat tightened like a rope.
Where the hell was Laura?
I tried texting her again.
Are you all okay?
Are the kids okay?
I hit send again and again.
Imagine a place that you consider safe. Your house. Your office. Your place of worship. Imagine what it looks like from the outside. Now imagine watching it blow up. Over and over and over again without reprieve. Someone’s hands clutch your head forward, keeping your eyes open, and replays the footage again and again so that even when you close your eyes you see it. Seeing something like that does something to you. It gets inside of you and clenches, like a fist holding something so tightly it breaks.
Finally, two hours after the attack, I received a text from Laura.
Are you okay? Everyone here is fine. We fell asleep during the kids’ nap and when we woke up everything had happened. Are you all right?
The group I had been with was sitting around a pub next to the apartment. We’d left the house for sustenance and for a change of environment and found that dozens of others needed the same thing. We still had no answers.
As the evening passed, slow and meandering in torment and confusion, the bar commenced with their usual Monday night trivia, a welcome distraction. It helped pass the time and distracted us from our bewilderment by focusing on things that we knew.
Around 9:30pm on April 15th, 2013, I peeled myself off of my friend’s couch to go home. The trains were running again and I had to get back. Despite the day’s events I would still have class and work tomorrow if the world went on. And what if it didn’t? I tried not to think about that.
The sky was a black hole. All the light and sunshine from earlier that day had been sucked away and in its absence left an untrustworthy darkness. It was cold as I waited for the lone train to scrape down the hill and stop to pick me up. I boarded cautiously and found a seat at the front near the driver, who I watched carefully and studied his face. The driver’s stops were short and deliberate, frantic even. I put on my sunglasses to hide my bloodshot eyes, though the train lights were dim, and scanned the face of every passenger getting on and off the train at every stop. When the silver trolley passed through the underground of Copley Station, the station nearest the finish line, I was devastated to find it closed, lights out, and silent as a grave.
I could not have breathed easier than when I let myself in my building that night. Finally out of the cold and into a small safe place, hidden from the chaotic world I no longer trusted. But I was alone. I pushed my bed into the corner of the room, crawled into it and cried myself to sleep like I’ve never cried before.
It was the darkest time of my life. I was in my early twenties, far from home, unsure of myself and now of the world. I felt completely alone in a dangerous city.
Overnight, the FBI, National Guard, SWAT, and thousands of military personnel infiltrated the city.
Emerson College was closed.
Berklee College of Music was closed.
Suffolk University, Simmons College, and the Boston Conservatory urged students to remain indoors.
The Boston Public Library in Copley Square.
The Shops at the Prudential Center.
The Copley Mall.
Hynes Convention Center.
The NBA cancelled the Celtics-Pacers basketball game scheduled for Tuesday April 16th, 2013.
The IRS announced late Monday that it would provide “individual tax filing and payment extensions for those affected by the Boston tragedy.”
The last block of the marathon route and everything in about a quarter mile radius was completely barricaded off. One of the busiest metropolitan areas of Boston was eerily silent. Every inch of the horrific scene was left untouched while the FBI investigation took full force. From the barricade on Massachusetts Avenue I wasn’t sure if I could see or if I imagined the dried blood on the road.
For weeks afterward, even after the Tsarnaev brothers were caught, I dreamt of nothing but sirens. Every noise in my apartment echoed tenfold.
Mornings I awoke, my sheets heavy and warm, drenched in sweat.
Hazel’s school was steps away from where the first bomb detonated in the heart of the crime scene, and it was closed indefinitely. Mason’s school, only a half mile away, was also closed until further notice due to its close proximity.
Tuesday morning Laura checked in with me over the phone.
“I just can’t believe it,” she said. “We were thinking of going right when the kids got up. Thank God, they slept in. Mason knows there was an explosion but he thinks it was a construction accident. We haven’t told Hazel anything. I called her doctor and she said not to say anything until we have more answers. I don’t even want to think about what this will do to her. You know how sensitive she is.”
When Hazel was a baby Frank and Laura struggled with her refusal of most food and a slew of other unusual behaviors led her to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and she’d been seeing an occupational therapist ever since. Just a few flecks of mud on her pants could spiral into a total meltdown. Her tantrums were more explosive and long lasting than most four-year-olds and they were not infrequent. She was a real challenge for me initially, but we’d come far in those first six months I was with her.
“My office is closed so I’ll be working from home this week.”
Laura’s office building, like so many within the barricaded Back Bay, was completely inaccessible, forcing thousands of people to work from home while the investigation was underway.
“Would you be open to helping us out some this week?” Laura asked. “You certainly don’t have to but we could use some help, if you’re open to it. Some routine might be good for you, too.”
“I’d like to,” I said hurriedly. The last thing I wanted was to stay a minute longer in my empty apartment with tall faceless walls staring back at me without any consolation. She offered to pay for my cab ride and I hustled over.
From the back of the taxi I watched the dozens of military Humvees rolling down the street like giant beetles. I’d never seen so many soldiers in person, all trained to kill with guns at the ready. How strange it was to see the place I’d just started to call home filled with machines for warfare. It was the stuff of nightmares and gave the landscape a sinister quality. I tried to tell myself they were there to keep us safe. But why did it feel like I’d never been in more danger?
The children were a welcome distraction. Their innocence of what had happened kept the mood light, and their constant need for stimulation forced me to stay present.
One afternoon after work that week I went on a walk with a friend who also worked nearby. She’d been in an ice cream shop when the second bomb went off and had seen a slew of people fleeing the scene. We walked along the periphery, trying to get closer in search of answers. We stood quietly with dozens of others, decorating every barricade as a memorial to those injured and lost.
On our way back, I looked up and was stunned by a tree on Newbury Street. The roots and all its natural beauty were so intact, so untouched by the violence nearby. I was moved by it, and asked Hazel and Mason to recreate it with tissue paper the next day.
By the time Thursday rolled around the children were going stir crazy. Mason read Hazel the funnies for the hundredth time while Laura and I discussed in the kitchen in hushed voices where we could go that would be safe. Is anyone safe right now? I wondered. Four days had passed and we still had no idea who had done this.
We decided to go to the New England Aquarium, an unlikely target. Laura reassured me that we could stay, but that given the amount of military personnel in the city it was the safest time to be out. I insisted we leave as long as they felt comfortable. I was equally stir crazy and desperate to get out of the house. But as soon as we crossed the brownstone steps I felt the nearness to the explosions.
One half mile away. Boom, smoke, screaming, shrapnel, the Old South bell tower. I felt a pressure coming at me from all sides.
I had always been responsible for Hazel and Mason when we were out in public, but that week I was their guardian in a way that I had never felt before. If the terrorist should reveal himself what would I do? How would I protect them?
Hazel and Mason skipped down the street happily while I had these dark thoughts, Hazel’s white hair bouncing in the breeze.
I was relieved to find Back Bay Station bustling. Despite the attack, people were trying to continue with their lives. Routine is one of grief’s best friends.
For the second time that week, my eyes scavenged every face in the busy station, searching every area for the nearest exit, for columns and heavy structures we could seek shelter behind should something occur. Everything looked normal, except for the national guard soldier at the front standing with his assault rifle perked and pointing at Mason and I. Startled, I reached for the children, pulling them closer to me.
Mason was fascinated with military rankings and immediately noticed the presence of the guard. He knitted his eyebrows in concern, reached for my elbow and tugged.
“Why is the national guard here?” he asked. For once he did not hide his feelings from me and it made me feel sick to my stomach. Children are incredibly aware, even if they cannot verbalize what they’re aware of. I knew then he too could sense the danger in the air.
I looked into the pools of his blue eyes. How could I explain it to him? Someone you don’t know tried to harm you in an unforgivable way. The little boy, one of three who were killed on April 15th, 2013, was named Martin. He was eight years old. Mason had turned nine that last February.
I wished so badly to tell Mason the truth. Pretending that everything was normal and that a terrible but meaningful event had never happened just steps away was exhausting. But I remembered that in every interview I’d ever had with families that the most important thing was always the safety and protection of the children. Children are not prepared to bear this weight, I reminded myself. Hazel couldn’t even know about it, and would not even find out the details of what happened for years. Since then I’ve wondered how we talk to children about such hateful acts. How can we begin to explain senseless violence to them? Remembering Laura’s plea for my discretion, I had no option then but to say nothing.
I shrugged and said, “I don’t know. I wouldn’t worry about it,” and squeezed his shoulder closer to me, feeling guilty that I could not offer more comfort.
We went to the aquarium and put our hands into the touch tanks and stroked the soft backs of baby manta rays. We counted the jellyfish, watching their graceful dance. For a moment, I forgot what had happened. On the train ride home, the kids leaned against me on either side, Hazel occasionally closing her eyes.
When I left work for home that night I went back to Back Bay Station to take the train. When I reached Dartmouth Street I turned, looking toward the barricaded Copley Square. Blocking my view of Old South Church was a news crew and there, only a few feet away, stood Wolf Blitzer reporting. No new findings released since the twin bombings on Monday.
News crews are the proof that something bad has happened. In those days after, at every turn there was another alarm ringing a constant sense of danger.
After three sleepless nights and no new information, I invited a friend to sleepover. It was a girl I’d befriended from my writing program with curly hair and a knack for writing magical realism. Thursday evening we got dinner and talked about the eeriness of that week and with her company I fell asleep easily. In the morning she woke up early to go to work. I awoke to her tremulous voice.
“Courtney, wake up. Something’s happened.”
I turned on the news to learn of the manhunt that had ensued overnight. My friend left for work, and shortly thereafter Governor Patrick ordered a “shelter in place,” locking in thousands of residences while police officers pursued the living Tsarnaev brother responsible for the attack.
I opened the fridge to find nothing but a takeout box holding the remnants of an old cheeseburger. I boiled some water for ramen and turned up the news.
I sat alone on my bed with the television on for hours, feeling as I had on Marathon Monday when I had nothing to do but sit and wait and hope for it all to end.
By the evening the younger of the Boston marathon bombers was in custody. It felt like the whole city had been holding a very long breath and could finally exhale. Boston Strong was born. It was over.
I took Hazel and Mason across the finish line many more times after that day. On the last day of school, my last day working with them as well, I let them fill bags of candy from Sugar Heaven and we raced across the street to go home and open my farewell presents. Despite the attack, they never showed the deep ache I felt every time our feet safely passed over the gold stripe where every year something so wonderful occurred. Maybe time is needed for its meaning to take full effect. Maybe Mason or Hazel will read what happened in a history book and know. Or maybe, in this uncertain world, it will be some other tragedy in their future that will help them understand what it was like for those of us who protected them during our week of terror.
Exactly a year after the bombings, I was late picking up Hazel from school. The trains were packed with people filing into the city. The weather could not have been more different from the year before. It was a cold soggy day that froze your hands, with a wet mist that got into your ears and on the back of your neck. And yet thousands gathered, walking steadily through rain puddles and dragging windswept umbrellas to stand and pay their respects.
I wasn’t far from Hazel. Just outside the entrance to her school I stood with thousands of others in commemoration of what happened there.
During the moment of silence at 2:49pm when two bombs were detonated on Boylston Street, the city stood in communal solace. Only the sound of raindrops dripping down umbrellas could be heard. Then church bells rang. An American flag was raised. Bagpipes sang a song of peace and remembrance.
*All names have been changed for the privacy of the family.