BOSTON -- They came as early as 4:30 p.m., hearts heavy but excited, and they came from all directions, forming lines that snaked up and down Causeway Street -- north, south, and around the corner. They came in outfits trimmed in yellow, some from the familiar gold of their faithful Boston Bruins, others from the historic marathon that came to a senseless, tragic conclusion some 48 hours prior.
They came in all sizes and ages up and down the Atlantic coast, from Maine to Connecticut.
They came to sing.
5:34 p.m., Causeway Street
Like a lot of people Wednesday night, Taylor O'Neil had her tickets well in advance. The 21-year-old native of Berwick, Maine, had bought her tickets a month ago, part of a field trip from her school, Plymouth State University, with 24 of her peers. And like virtually everyone gathered here well beforehand, the visage was not nervousness but excitement.
"We're not gonna stop living because somebody wants to terrorize Boston," she said. "It's not going to work that way for us. We're excited that we can have some place that we can all come together as a community."
O'Neil and three of her friends stood in front of the large TD Garden sign that lines Causeway Street, adjacent to the Bobby Orr statue, and posed for pictures in black T-shirts with "Pray 4 Boston" hand-written in large yellow letters down the front.
Across the way at the intersection of Causeway and Haverhill streets, where thousands each day exit the trains, 53-year-old Mary Ellen Cahill proudly displayed her sign to a group of police officers. She had a yellow sign with the words "Thank You Boston Police + Firefighter" written in black.
But she also found herself apologizing on several fronts. For one, the words were off-center, and the sign was missing the final "s" at the end of "firefighter."
For another, she forked out $350 apiece for two seats 15 rows up from the glass at approximately 2 p.m. today, refreshing her Internet browser for nearly 45 minutes before two available tickets popped up. Not only did she use her husband's credit card, she chose to give the second ticket to her daughter, Cathy.
"Can I say to my husband that I am so sorry when you see the Visa bill?" she laughed. "But I wanted to take my daughter and just, we really wanted to come in. It was real, real important for us to come in."
Cahill felt safe as can be traveling to Wednesday night's game, with such dramatically heightened police presence scattered about. And like everyone else, Cahill was expecting an "extremely emotional game."
Sewing it all together for Cahill and many others here before the game was a sense of togetherness.
"We took the Red Line in from Quincy [from Quincy Adams station], switched over to the Orange Line, and everyone's just smiling at one another, 'Can I read your sign?'" she said. Everybody has eye contact with you. It's a real sense of community."
6:04 p.m., Bobby Orr statue
As soon as he saw the carnage, soon as he saw the damage done, Brian Fitzpatrick knew exactly where he had to be on Wednesday night, by any means necessary.
"We had to come out tonight -- HAD to," the 20-year-old Wilmington resident explained as he rehashed his story of shelling out upward of $300 for balcony seats -- 10 rows from the top -- at 5 p.m. Tuesday.
"I knew I had to be here tonight," he began. Trailing off, he continued, "I just had to come tonight and let everyone know that "
His friend Sean Sullivan, 21, finished his sentence: "We're not going to live in fear."
With an American flag draped over his back like a cape, with a native accent as thick as the Boston air, Fitzpatrick found himself marveled at that same sense of community that enveloped the air around the building. Never has he felt so safe. Never has he felt so unified.
"It's just it brings people together that normally wouldn't be together, that normally wouldn't express themselves," he said. "New York and Boston, you don't find us rooting together. I saw somewhere they had on a building down there, 'New York loves Boston,' and it's like, really? That's the day.
"I go to Red Sox and Yankees games and I throw [expletive] at Yankees fans, but not around these times obviously. This is a tragedy, but it's awesome [too]."
A few yards away, 11-year-old Christopher Loranger donned his own American flag cape, this one with hand-written words along the flag's white stripes: "Boston Strong, RIP Martin" -- homage to the 8-year-old Dorchester resident who was one of the three who died following Monday's bombings.
The idea is the brainchild of his father, Christopher Sr., who bought tickets in the balcony for $60 at the beginning of the season.
"That building is going to be out of control," he said. "I can't wait to be in that atmosphere an hour from now."
Still an hour before the puck drop, and the elder Loranger was already proclaiming this one of the best moments in his life, after the birth of his children and his wedding day.
"Absolutely," he said. "The birth of my children, that euphoria that I expect to approach I will never say that they are even, but it will be in that arena. I've never been to an event with such energy around it."
6:46 p.m., North Station lobby
Jeff Tully was hoping to pull the Boston Patriots Day trifecta: Red Sox, Marathon, Bruins. After watching the walk-off win at Fenway, the Middleton, Mass., native wandered down to Kenmore Square with family in tow before heading back home. He was able to secure tickets again for Wednesday's game through his work. His date was his daughter Hope. They stood, hand in hand, outside the pro shop.
Tully viewed Wednesday night as a chance for the city, collectively, to breathe. Two days after the attack, the city was still on edge, particularly after a "Code Red" was declared at the Moakley Federal Courthouse and an evacuation ensued. Tully speculated what the pregame atmosphere might look and sound like.
"I think it'll be typical Rene [Rancourt], he brings it every time," Tully said of the iconic national anthem singer. "I think the crowd will be really, really into it, kind of like the Blackhawks had the other night. I think people will be cheering from the first note until the end."
Meanwhile, up in the nosebleeds, Cristina Sluhocki was ready for her first-ever Bruins game. She wore black-and-gold argyle knee socks. She traveled in with Jeff Reid from Southbridge, Mass., and had waited outside the Garden since about 5 o'clock. The couple took the day to enjoy the city.
"Being in Boston today, I have so much pride for my city!" Sluhocki said.
The pair arrived early in anticipation. Security was tight and thorough. Cars entering the North Station parking garage beneath the Garden were subject to random searches. Armed guards from the Department of Homeland Security cradled M16s in their arms, fingers near the trigger, outside the "Tip" O'Neill Federal Building, which faces the Garden on the west end. Shuhocki and Reid were among the first in line, so they were in their seats just past 6 p.m., when the turnstiles opened.
Sluhocki, for one, didn't mind the additional searches initiated at the gate.
"They went through my bag pretty good, which I think is a good thing," she said. "I don't feel like anything bad is going to happen -- knock on wood."
7:04 p.m., TD Garden, loge level
When the Bruins took the ice for pregame warm-ups, season-ticket holder Mike Adler of Framingham was at his usual seat in Section 16. His seats are one section away from the entryway from which Rancourt emerges. Adler was standing, hands over head with an American flag outstretched as the Bruins swirled around and around the cage.
"I think it's highly representative of what all Bostonians are feeling, a sense of unity," Adler said of the flag. "It's who we are and shows how resilient we're going to be."
Before the teams re-emerged from the dressing room, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' "I Won't Back Down" blared on the PA. The house lights dimmed. The officials got in their pregame strides; the noise of the crowd intensified.
The Bruins took the ice at 7:36 p.m. for a moment of silence. A blue and yellow ribbon, commemorating the colors of the 117th Marathon, shone down near each team's blue line. A montage of photos rolled over Phillip Phillips' "Home" -- images of selfless valor featuring police officers, firemen, paramedics, runners, former professional football players, everyday people. The segment closed with a slate reading, "We Are Boston We Are Strong."
Rancourt was introduced at 7:39 p.m. He sang one bar and then motioned to the crowd, flicking his wrist like a maestro, inviting them to join in "The Star-Spangled Banner."
At 7:41, the first "U-S-A" chant rang down. Soon after, Craig Jennings walked on crutches through the 300 level. A U.S. Army veteran, Jennings served a 10-month deployment in Iraq in 2007.
"Aside from returning home from overseas and my son being born, this is right up there."