The long version

Preface: I didn’t plan on writing about this again. Many of you are probably ready to move on; I am too. And as the days pass, I feel a dwindling sense of ownership of this story, as I get back to my normal life while others remain in hospitals or worse.

But I guess I needed to write it. I am taking a fiction workshop right now and each day, as I sat down to prepare my pages for this week’s meeting, I found that I just…couldn’t. I needed to get this story out first before I could return my attention to the trials of my created characters. So this is what I wrote and presented instead.

I’m not sure what to do with it: I’m certainly not going to put it in my in-progress folder to come back to later, but it feels bigger than a journal entry, and too important to be tucked away in a private place and forgotten about. So I’m posting it here, in all of its long, rambly, navel-gazey, photo-and-MSPaint-lacking glory:

My feet had failed me.

And holy shit do they hurt, I thought as I eased my butt down onto the low curb. The cement was cold. I pulled the space blanket tighter across my chest and it crinkled as it curled around me like a giant piece of aluminum foil. My fingers were shaky, but I worked laces loose and pulled my feet out of the shoes that I’d spent the last four hours and seven minutes cursing. I pressed my feet into the cool pavement and wiggled my toes. It felt amazing.

But after a couple of minutes, I put the dreaded shoes back on. Impatience took over and I hauled myself up and continued my shuffle down Newbury Street, then cut back over to Boylston, toward my friend’s apartment. I’d actually just been there; I passed it during the last tenth of a mile of the race, grinning as I veered over to the edge of the crowd to slap Drew’s outstretched hand before making a final push across the finish line.

I was annoyed at how slowly I was walking. All I could think about was sinking my rear into the couch and crossing my ankles on the coffee table. Someone would bring me a beer. And then another beer. I’d be showered with hugs and congratulations – I’d just run the Boston Marathon! – and would do nothing for the rest of the day but sit on my ass. I couldn’t wait. And this walk was taking ages.

Four more blocks.

Three more.

Two more.

The bleachers at the finish line were just ahead of me and I paused for a moment to consider how I was going to navigate around them.

And then, the bleachers were gone, replaced with a plume of white smoke.

Next came the sound, which was deafening, sidewalk-shaking. For a couple of seconds, I saw an ambiguous series of images in my head that involved a piece of elecrical equipment spontaneously combusting. Then the smell came. And although I’ve never (to my knowledge) smelled a bomb before, I knew that’s exactly what this was.

I had barely peeled my feet from the pavement when the second one went off.

Which of course pointed to the very real possibility that there would be a third.

Volunteers from the medical tent, who wore white jackets, were rushing toward the finish; a volunteer in a yellow jacket, just like the ones I’d taken water and Gatorade from on the race course, was running in the opposite direction and telling everyone to follow.

I followed for a block and then ducked in to the doorway of a restaurant where a cluster of young women had gathered. I dont think they were runners; they looked like they’d just been having brunch.

“Can I use your phone to call my husband?” I croaked. Without hesitation, she obliged. My fingers were trembling so hard that I had to have her punch in Drew’s number. Of course, I couldn’t get through. I asked her to send a brief text (“its shelby, im ok”) and then decided to move along, back around to Newbury Street, where hopefully I could walk down past the finish and then cut over to get back to the apartment. Because my husband and friends were all inside that apartment, safe and probably scared but SAFE. They had to be.

I didn’t know at the time that the second bomb has actually gone off on their doorstep. Thank God I didn’t know that at the time.

For the second time that afternoon, I walked down Newbury Street. It was so different the second time. Clusters of people whispering and crying. Cell phones pressed anxiously to ears. Police cars and fire engines screaming through the neighborhood.

Finally, I thought I’d walked far enough to clear the finish area, and I tried to cut back over to Boylston. A policeman told me no way.

“But my friends live right there,” I pleaded.

“Your friends are probably far away by now,” he said.

I shook my head, not understanding. “No, they live right there.”

The cop swallowed, his eyes softening a bit, and said he was sorry.
I forced myself to consider, for the first time, that Drew and our friends might not be curled up safely in that apartment waiting for me to return.

* * *

I had started to walk back the way I’d come when a young girl, barefoot in yoga pants and clutching a coffee mug, stepped down from the stoop of a nearby brownstone and asked me if I knew what had happened.

“I’m pretty sure it was a bomb,” I heard myself say. I choked on an inappropriate laugh. It sounded absurd.

She asked if I wanted to come in, if I needed a bathroom, water, or food.

A stupidly obvious idea hurled itself at me. “Do you have internet?” I asked.

Of course she did, and minutes later, I made my safe status Facebook official.

But I still didn’t know where my husband and friends were. A wad of nausea bounced around my gut.

We stood by her front window and she tried to reassure me: “I’m sure they’re fine.” I tried to agree: “I mean, they were two blocks away from it. They’re fine.”

Below, an officer paced the sidewalk, trying to get people to leave the area. “If I were you,” he bellowed in his Boston accent, “I’d be far away from here.”

My hostess cast me a nervous glance and I knew she wanted to leave. I didn’t blame her. So I excused myself and, fighting back the urge to vomit, headed back outside.

I hadn’t been out there for a minute when a group of a dozen or so runners passed by, led by a guy in jeans and a sweater who introduced himself as Luke. He seemed to be rounding up runners who needed a place to go. I didn’t know what else to do, so I followed.

I could tell right away that he was a glass-half-full kind of guy. “My money’s on a transformer,” he nodded with authority as he herded us down Commonwealth Avenue, its stately green median crowded with ambulances and pop-up tents and what looked like armored tanks. Where did all of this stuff come from? How had it gotten here so quickly? Nothing about this made sense.

Our little group didn’t converse much while we walked, leaving the rustling of space blankets to fill the silence between whispered curses at non-functioning cell phones. My finisher’s medal thumped uselessly on my chest with each footfall. The pukey feeling continued to gnaw at my insides. My mind, however, had taken on the wrenching task of analyzing every minute between slapping Drew’s hand in front of the apartment just before the finish line and the disappearance of the bleachers into a cloud of acrid smoke. Would he have walked that direction, maybe trying to come find me at the finish? If so, where would he have been? Was he okay? He had to be okay.

I could tell I wasn’t the only one whose brain was weaving through this maze of potential nightmares. We exchanged anxious looks and gently laid our hands on each others’ backs. Everyone would be okay. They had to be okay.

* * *

At Luke’s apartment, I learned two things in quick succession:

(1) From the TV, I saw that the second explosion was not in the same place as the first one, at the finish line bleachers, as I’d assumed. Instead, it was right in front of my friend’s front door, which was right where Drew had been standing when we exhcanged our victory hand slap.

(2) From logging in to my email, I found out that everyone was safe and evacuated, but that Drew was not with them.

As a writer, I try to avoid trite metaphors. Things like my blood ran cold. Or my heart dropped into the pit of my stomach. Or I felt like all of the breath had been knocked out of me. But I can tell you that all of those things happened to me when I read that email, adressed to both Drew and me, asking if “we” were okay. I sat down on the floor, my hands steepled over my nose and mouth, breathing with effort as someone grabbed my hand and someone else squeezed my shoulder, repeating our mantra from the walk over: everything will be okay.

I don’t know how long I sat there in this weird catatonic state paralyzed by these shock-and-grief metaphors which were surprisingly real, but I’m sure it was several minutes, at least. Finally I pulled the computer back on to my lap and began to sort through my email inbox and Facebook notifications for any other scraps of information, and to start the process of trying to figure out where exactly Drew was, if he wasn’t with me and he wasn’t with them.

* * *

In the end, everything was okay. At least for me, my husband, our friends. We were lucky.

They had all been in the apartment when the first bomb exploded. The party had hit its stride; platters of hamburger patties and shrimp skewers were prepped and headed toward the grill, friends who were running had finished the race, others had taken the afternoon off of work and were trickling in from offices to catch the last bit of the action.

Naturally, if naively, they all ran to the front window. They got there just in time to watch the second one fill the space right in front of them.

Drew had been down on the sidewalk in front of the building, cheering on me and the other racers. He had returned to the party less than five minutes before it happened. Within five more, he was gone again, looking for me.

They evacuated the building shortly thereafter. Firefighters escorted them out their front door and across Boylston Street, instructing them to keep their eyes forward and not look down or around. It’s horrible to think about what they would’ve seen if they hadn’t.

The group headed to another friend’s house a few blocks away; meanwhile, Drew, having received that first frantic text I sent from the stranger’s phone in the foyer of the restaurant, combed the neighborhood for me. In hindsight, we probably were never more than a block or two apart, but we never crossed paths. Eventually, via a complicated series of third-party emails and Facebook comments, we connected; his phone battery dead, he’d been hunkered down in the home of another generous stranger just a few blocks away. Two hours after the first explosion, I gave my husband the tightest hug I’ve ever given.

I’m not much of an emotional person, but I’ve felt many things in the aftermath of this.

Guilt: over being one of the lucky ones. Over running away from the cloud of smoke rather than toward it. Over living in a place in the world and a time in history where something like this is the big huge deal that it is.

Confusion: over why. Even though in the most basic sense, the rational part of me understands why (it was a big group of people at a huge sporting event with zero real-time security). But still: why?

Gratitude: to the brave officers, race volunteers, EMTs, doctors, and everyone else that risked their own safety to deal with this mess – both the immediate aftermath and the violent manhunt that followed. To yoga pants girl and Luke and the other strangers who opened their homes and offered cell phones and computers and comfort to those who needed it.

Sadness: above all, that four people lost their lives and hundreds suffered injuries, many of them life-altering.

Relief: that I didn’t. It really could have been me. (And then we cycle back to guilt again…)

I saw so many people cry that day and the next. But for some reason, I couldn’t. In fact, a week and a half later, I still haven’t. The ball of nausea in my stomach, however, and the inability to sleep, and the constant exploration of what-ifs…this isn’t over yet, I know. Everyone deals with this stuff differently.

* * *

I think often of the moment that the bomb went off. Although I know that it all happened at once, it’s always sight that dominates the memory: sight, then sound, then smell, these three in a tidy row. Perhaps oddly, it makes me think of working track meets in high school, our fingers hovering over stopwatch start buttons, squinting across the field at the tip of the starter’s gun and waiting to see the little puff of white smoke a split second before we heard the bang. It didn’t seem like much of a difference, but if you started your watch on sound instead of sight, you’d throw off the results of the race.

Sometimes, timing is everything.

* * *

After a marathon, runners tend to overanalyze every moment of the race and think about whether there’s something they could have done differently to improve the outcome. You know, things like: did I really need that extra walk break? Could I have done without that stop to adjust my shoelace tension? What if I’d stuck with that chatty chick in the zebra skirt – what was her time? If I hadn’t blown off my last long training run would I have finished a few minutes faster?

I can’t count how many times I’ve gone down this path and ended up in a labyrinth of dark hypotheticals. Four hours and seven minutes may be one of my slowest marathon performances ever, but it was the perfect time for me to run last Monday.

If I’d had known that as I crossed the finish line, collected my space blanket and medal, and began that first walk down Newbury, I wouldn’t have cursed my aching feet at all. My feet didn’t fail me. Somehow, they did exactly what they needed to do.

51 responses to “The long version

  1. Wow…You are quite the writer, Shelby. This was so compelling, it practically read as fiction. And it’s just completely heartbreaking that it’s not a made-up tale at all.

    I am SO glad you, your husband and all of your friends are OK. I just can’t grasp this all, and I can’t imagine having been in your situation. What really gave me chills reading your account of the day was Luke leading you and the other runners to safety. That’s just incredible and a true testament to the good in people.

    There’s nothing else I can add other than to say I, too, am so happy for your 4:07. And thank you for sharing this. It really was a gripping account of something so scary. (Blah, I know I sound like an asshole because my words make no sense, especially after your thoughtful ones, but I was so into reading this and just wanted to commend you on a well-told, harrowing story. So there you go.)

    • Your words do make sense, and thank you. I tried to write it as if I were telling someone else’s story in light of the original audience. I wish it were fiction!

  2. This is beautifully written.

  3. Thanks for sharing your story Shelby. You always have such a great writing voice — even, or especially — with the tough stuff. I’ve been wondering how you are doing and dealing with the aftermath. It sounds like you are strong & thoughtful as ever.

  4. Thank you so much for sharing this! You are an amazing writer, this is by far the most emotional and touching recap of the day that I have read.

    I cannot imagine the emotions you were dealing with that day, not being able to find Drew for so long. You do an amazing job of portraying what you were feeling and the chaos. Thank you again!

  5. Beautiful. Thank you.

  6. You are such a strong writer and I’m sitting here with tears running down my cheeks. First I don’t know you personally, but I’m so glad you are safe. I’ve been wanting to write about the events that happened but I can’t find the words… yet. I’ve never missed the Boston Marathon, I’ve lived right off the course my whole life and what happened breaks my heart in a million pieces. Thank you for sharing your story and I’m happy you are ok.

    • I wasn’t sure I’d find the words, but I was surprised that they came out easily once I let them. Keep trying! If or no other reason than to get them out. It doesn’t have to be perfect. When I wrote the first draft of this, I never thought I’d be actually sharing it.

  7. I’m glad you wrote this, incredibly glad you’re okay, and even though we don’t see you around the internet as much, I’m glad you’re still writing because you’re damn good at it.

  8. As a testament to the power of these words….I had to stop halfway through and run to the toilet because I was dry heaving. It literally makes me feel sick. There’s no other way to put it. Speaking of trite metaphors.

    I read Katherine’s account from the medical tent this morning and felt equally sick. If that’s the power of words, I know that physically being there and seeing it must have been truly traumatic. I hope you are able to feel more relaxed soon so you can sleep and have some normalcy. Keep hugging your love tight.

  9. Carol Stanley

    Bless you….

  10. I think sometimes that the only way to make sense of things is to put it in writing. Thanks for sharing your story, thanks for making me cry into my coffee, and thanks for being okay. <3

  11. this gave me chills. thank you for sharing this with us, shelby, and i’m glad it could help you in your process – emotionally, as a writer, in life. sending you love and warmth!

  12. Urgh girl- i can’t even imagine. It was difficult just reading this & re-living the story with you, but i think it’s a story worth sharing & I’m so glad you took the time to write it & I hope it was helpful in healing & coping for you. Just watching everything has had such a profound impact on my mood and tension and anxiety- I’m amazed at how much I’m traumatized even though I’m so far removed from it. I’m really glad you are safe & everything worked out just perfect. {{hugs}}

  13. This is really a thoughtful and beautiful piece Shelby. I felt like I was there with you through all of it while I was reading it. I can’t imagine the range of emotions you and Drew must be feeling.

  14. You always have an amazing way with words. Thank you for sharing your story.

  15. God, Shelby. I don’t even really have words for this. Chills. Just chills. That’s all.

    I’m so glad that you and Drew and your friends are safe.

  16. Given the palpable sense of panic I had as I looked at your race times and looked at the explosion time, and the palpable sense of relief I had as soon as I learned that you and Drew were ok, I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to be on the scene, or to be for instance frantically looking for a lost husband. Tremendously glad you and yours are ok.

  17. Incredible writing. I wish it were fiction. I really can’t imagine what you went through. So glad you are all safe. So sad for all who were not safe :(

  18. This post brought me to tears, Shelby, more than any other account that has been written. It’s so well written, and heart wrenching to know that it was all too real. This may sound weird, since I don’t know you apart from reading your blog, but I would like to kiss those feet that brought you to safety. And to express my relief that you and your husband and friends are ok. I hope you are all doing well. :-)

  19. Thank you for writing what you did. SO glad you, your husband, and your friends are okay.

  20. This is the best, most heartfelt and honest post on Boston I’ve read. I’m so glad you are ok and your friends and family got out safely. I cannot even begin to imagine what it must feel like to just miss such a catastrophic event. Give yourself plenty of time to recover.

  21. Thank you for sharing this – it’s beautifully written. You have a real gift in your ability to write so compellingly. I said it before, but I am so, so glad you and Drew are ok and I have been praying almost incessantly for those who weren’t as lucky. But to echo your sentiment, thank goodness that we live in a time and place where this IS newsworthy. It’s hard to imagine that this is a frighteningly common occurrence in parts of the world.

  22. I’ve read your blog for a while, and I was really hoping that Boston would be a joyous victory lap for you. And instead it was this – with all the fear and pain and sorrow. I’m sorry. I’m glad you are OK, and I’m sorry you had to go through this.

  23. I’ll ditto others on the powerful, well-done writing and voice. I hope you find some peace. Everyone reacts and deals differently. It is OK to move on. It is OK to keep writing. Or whatever you need to do. Be well, and take care.

  24. It’s a testament to your writing skills that even though I knew the short version, I still felt myself getting anxious and in tears by the end. I hate that you have this story to tell — and that there are so many stories from that day with similar outcomes and other with much more terrible outcomes — but I’m glad you shared it. Thanks.

  25. Thanks for sharing. Brought tears to my eyes. So glad you are both lucky. See you soon.

  26. Shelby, this gave me goosebumps. Such a real account of what happened, and so well-written. It’s nice to hear that even in this day and age when people can be so unfriendly that they come together seamlessly in such a tragedy and time of need. I still can’t believe this happened, and only wish your story were fiction. So glad you’re ok and that you chose to share your experience. Hope you are doing ok and getting back to normal (that’s all we can really do, eh?)

  27. Wow. I don’t even know what to say–both at how beautifully written this is and at how you must have felt and must be feeling. Silly as it sounds, I’m honored that you shared this with us.

  28. This was absolutely, albeit tragically, beautiful. It’s refreshing to hear a “happy” recount of that day. I am so glad that you and your loved ones are ok. What’s scary is that this read a LOT like fiction. In fact it reminded me of a few books I’ve read (ok…nerd alert…but hunger games. I apologize for cheapening your post – but it instantly popped into my head). That part where you talked about keeping your eyes to the ground to avoid seeing those horrible things was what connected for me. It’s almost unthinkable that those things can happen in real life.

    We all have questions, fears, confusion over these horrible acts we’ve witnessed in our lives, but most of us experience them from the safety of our homes, watching on CNN. What you and your husband went through; what EVERYONE in Boston went through; I can’t even start to wrap my head around it. Continued thoughts and prayers as you try to get back to “normal”…. whatever that means.

    Thank you for putting your experiences from that day out there for us all to share. And I join the group of readers who are very grateful that you finished exactly when you did.

  29. Thank you for writing this. I am still struggling with the whole event. I grew up in Boston and it’s always been a goal for me to qualify and finish The Marathon. I had friends and racing team members running, but thankfully all were unhurt. I still want to run this race, but it will be different of course. I’m so glad you and your husband are alright.

  30. This is amazing, Shelby. I was three blocks from the WTC on 9/11. I was 20 years old, living in NYC for an internship as a junior in college, and barely knew anyone. I wasn’t able to speak with my family for four hours. I never wrote down what happened that day, but this makes me wish I would have. Keep writing.

  31. Thank you for sharing this story.

  32. Beautifully written – very moving. Thank you for sharing this.

  33. Beautifully done and very evocative. Amy and I used to live and work in and around Boston and knew that area well; this event and its impact on you and Drew moved us more than 9/11. In fact, we’re going to be there for a couple of days before seeing you in Chicago.

  34. Wow, this was so powerful. I am so glad yo shared your experience and that you and your loved ones are safe.

  35. You are an excellent writer, Shelby. Thank you for sharing your experience with all of us. I’m so glad that you, Drew and your friends are all okay (for lack of a better word….because really, you’re never OKAY after experiencing something like that).

  36. “My feet didn’t fail me. Somehow, they did exactly what they needed to do.”

    This line gave me chills.

    This was beautifully written. It’s hard to separate the information coming from unreliable news sources and what actually happened, and this paints such a real, and heart wrenching picture.

  37. I’ve had this open since you posted it trying to figure out the right comment, but I’m giving up on ever coming up with that and just saying it’s beautifully written, and thank you for sharing, and I’m still really, really angry that this happened at all.

  38. I agree with Kimra….and still not done with this.

  39. Shelby – You know I’ve been reading your stuff for years. You’re a kick ass writer. This is hands down the best written piece you’ve created. It should be published somewhere in addition to your blog. I couldn’t stop reading, and afterward, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I miss you so much and I am so thankful you are OK.

  40. Incredible writing about something so tragic and real. I am glad you and your husband made it home safely.

  41. Stacie Mullins

    Thank you so much for sharing your poignant tale!

    While we’ve never met, I feel as if we’ve been introduced through your words. My husband works with Drew and told me what had happened. I immediately took to the web to find out the happenings and stumbled upon your blog.

    What a traumatic experience you’ve been through and you shared your story so purely and honestly. . .