A Pair of Days in April

Ashley Wells

Ashley Wells

I stepped out of my apartment at 10:30 in the morning, the warm sun countering the brisk air of early spring. Metal barriers lined Beacon Street at the end of my block, keeping a small number of spectators at bay and keeping me from getting to the coffee shop across the street. Unable to cross, I decided to stand and watch. To lean against the metal gate as the hand-cyclists and wheelchair participants headed for Mile 25 of the Boston Marathon. After an hour, the crowd began to grow, forcing me to stick my neck out to see past towering bodies. Signaling the runners’ approach, police vehicles drove by, lights flashing, followed by a truck displaying the time clock. Squeezing my way between two men, I caught a glimpse of the leading women, running quickly and looking exhausted. Cheers. Clapping. Clanking of cowbells. All loud and full of excitement. When the leading men passed minutes later, they were met with the same fervor from the spectators.

Bright neon sneakers hit the pavement. Bare feet, too. T-shirts with the runner’s name made out in tape or marker urged us on the sideline to cheer them on. Shirtless runners. Dripping sweat. Bib numbers clinging to fabric. Muscles of young and old alike tense and lean with each stride.

And I felt I was witnessing something rather important.

As the crowd thickened, I walked a bit farther down the street to find a spot right against the gate. I crossed my arms to the breeze, imagining that it must be a perfect day for a run. Hypnotized by the flow of runners, I became suddenly distracted by a woman veering off course toward the sideline, toward a police officer just a few feet beyond me. She jogged in place as she spoke fervently to him. Unable to hear over the noise of the crowd, I fixed my attention on her tense mouth seeming to say the words “two  bombs” as she held up two fingers. With the officer’s back to me, I could only see him nodding as if to reassure her of something. Never good at reading lips, I shrugged it off and looked away. She ran on.

Then I met Penny. Barely taller than I. An aged and lovely face beneath a pale pink knit hat and a puffy brown jacket that reached her knees. Bony hands delicately grasped the metal barrier. She shuffled closer to me as I watched alone. Penny liked to point out the runners over fifty. “That’s not a young person,” she’d say. Then, “Good for them!” I smiled, thinking she must be well over fifty herself, perhaps in her late seventies. I liked her.

At 3:11, not long after meeting Penny, I received a text message from a friend asking if I had heard the explosions. Confused,  I asked what he was talking about, my mind tracing back to the woman and the officer and “two bombs.” He sent me back the breaking news story, which I shared with Penny. Police cars and motorcycles sped by, sirens blaring, forcing runners to the outer edges of the course. Penny wanted to know why the Marathon was continuing. Why nobody was informing these runners. Fifteen minutes later, the police cut off the race twenty yards from where we stood. A man in camouflage aggressively ordered us off of the main road, forcing Penny and I to part ways.

With seemingly non-existent cell phone reception, I struggled to respond to the concerned text messages pouring in, asking if I was okay. Asking why my phone was going straight to voicemail. Eventually able to speak with my father, I began to think of Penny. My sweet partner in those frantic moments of uncertainty. Of wailing sirens and hovering helicopters.

And I couldn’t turn off the news. The videos and images of bloodied limbs and shocked faces. First responders frantically pushing wheelchairs amid smoke and debris. Civilians rushing to one another’s aid. Two bombs. Two confirmed dead. 22 injured. Then it was 50. Then it was 100+. They couldn’t even keep count.

I hardly slept.

The next night I lay in bed, tired from carrying the weight of my heart in my chest. Feet blistered and sore from mindlessly walking almost an hour from my Fenway apartment to the memorial at the barrier where Boylston meets Arlington Street. Flowers were propped up against it. Boston t-shirts had been wrapped around the metal bars. A Mickey Mouse balloon blew in the wind and I thought that it might be there for the eight-year-old boy who lost his life, and I looked away.

A man was lifting a bag of trash from its can on the other side of the barrier. Paper cups and plastic bags rolled around Boylston Street, which was empty except for wandering emergency crews and vehicles, but even those were a couple of blocks away. A dozen news vans lined the corner of the Public Garden. I walked past them to the Common. Warmth and sunlight called Bostonians to the park to toss a frisbee or nap in the grass. Marathon participants strolled the paths in their bright blue and yellow jackets, medals hanging from their necks. But the air felt different. Suffocating. Fear and sadness choking the city as it struggled for breath.

I decided my feet were too raw to walk the two miles back to my apartment, so I boarded the nearly-empty train for home. Men in camouflage stood at Arlington Station. Copley Station was completely dark as the train sped through. I didn’t want to look out the windows anymore.

When I got home, I spent the evening cross-legged on the hardwood floor with my eyes fixed to the television as I flipped between the local news, CNN, and MSNBC. Crying. For victims. For the bravery of first responders and civilians. For the city that finally felt like home after eight months. Crying, too, because I hated that I couldn’t stop crying.

Finally, I took my blistered feet and heavy heart to bed. Emotionally and physically exhausted but wide awake. Just after 3:00 in the morning, I heard the whirr of a helicopter. As it persisted, I grew worried, considering the late hour, remembering how I had heard the same sound among wailing sirens the day before. I turned off the fan at my bedside to get a better listen. But the room fell silent as the fan blades stopped spinning. I realized my ears and mind had deceived me.


Ashley Wells is a nonfiction writer and an MFA candidate at Emerson College. Originally from Syracuse, NY, she received her BA in English from State University of New York at Cortland. She is currently a proofreader for Emerson College’s journal Redivider and spends her free time exploring the sights, sounds, and food joints of her new home in Boston.

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