First Friday Fiction: The Faintest Chance of a Ghost

Michelle must have fallen asleep while studying, because the sound of her heavy history book hitting the floor woke her. As she bent down to pick it up, she had an uneasy feeling, as if someone was in the room, watching her. Michelle opened her book to the last page that looked familiar and tried to read, but the feeling would not go away. Glancing up, Michelle saw Mike Kirby sitting on her roommate’s bed. When their eyes met, he smiled at her, the same shy smile she had seen in the halls of high school again and again over the past three years. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I won’t be bothering you anymore.” Michelle blinked her eyes twice, and he was gone. The sheets and blanket were spread tight, unwrinkled, the way Nancy left her bed every morning before breakfast. No one had been sitting there.

Michelle shook her head and tried to return to her reading. Somehow, the French Revolution and Napoleon’s empire could not keep her attention. Why, she asked herself, why should Kirby come to mind just now? She had not so much forgotten him as simply chosen not to think about him. He belonged to her old life, her high school life, and the two or three emails he had sent her every week since she started college had gone mostly unanswered.

Everyone at school had called him Kirby, since so many of the boys were named Michael or Mike. She had been an arrogant sophomore when he was a lost and lonely freshman. For the entire year she had refused all his offers of a date. More than once she told him to “stop following me around like a little puppy.” By the start of her junior year, Michelle had a steady boyfriend, and Frank made sure that Kirby knew he had no chance of separating them. Still, Kirby was always there, and she and Frank and the others calmly counted him as part of the group. All the members of the group were frequently in the same classes, and they always ate at the same table at lunch.

Michelle’s senior year, both she and Kirby were in student council, and they frequently chatted about the business of the council. They always voted the same way. Kirby also wrote for the weekly school newspaper. When Michelle played Emily in Our Town, Kirby wrote a glowing review that praised her performance to the skies. Always he seemed to know the limits of their friendship and sensed just how far he could stretch them. On Valentines’ Day, Frank gave her flowers, but Kirby gave her a box of candy hearts. On her birthday Frank took her out for dinner. The next day, Kirby asked her if she had seen the hidden tribute in the newspaper. She looked at the front page article he had written, but nothing about it seemed different from his usual writing. “Look again,” he urged. “Look at the first letter of each paragraph.” Michelle looked and saw that the first paragraph began with an M, the second with an I, and on through the entire story, spelling out her name. Kirby’s “hidden tribute” remained a secret, something neither of them mentioned to anyone else.

After graduation, as the group of friends handed around their yearbooks for signatures and brief friendly notes, Kirby had taken her book into another room and spent twenty minutes writing. What he had written filled most of a page. Since her mind was more on Kirby than on European history, Michelle set the textbook aside and reached for the yearbook. She had brought it to college with her on a whim, and she kept it with all her schoolbooks. She found the page Kirby where Kirby had written, “Michelle, this school will not be the same without you. I know that you will be great at college, and I wouldn’t stop you from going there for all the world. But school days without you around will be like dark cloudy days with no hope of ever seeing the sun. Best wishes on your college studies and on all the great things you are going to do in the future. I know that whatever you do, it will be spectacular. Please don’t ever forget our friendship. Remember that I told you that I would do anything you ask of me. That hasn’t changed just because you have graduated and are going away to college. If you ever need anything, anything at all, just ask and I will do all that I can to help you. You’re the greatest—always have been, always will be. Your friend forever, Mike Kirby.”

Michelle closed the yearbook and tried to clear her mind. She looked at the clock. It was almost midnight. Nancy would be coming back from the library in a few minutes. Michelle decided that she would just have to take her chances with the professor’s quiz in the morning, because she would not be getting any more history reading done that night. Putting the history textbook on her desk so she would have it ready to take to class, Michelle got herself ready for bed.

When she woke Wednesday morning, Mike Kirby was not in her thoughts. Michelle was far more interested in getting dressed, getting a bite to eat, and getting to her classes. History was first, and she did not do any worse on the quiz than she usually did.  Then came algebra, which demanded all her attention for fifty minutes. On her way to the cafeteria for an early lunch before the afternoon’s acting class, Michelle decided to check her phone for messages. She had more than usual for a Wednesday morning. She decided to open the one from her mother first, since it was labeled “Sad News.” Michelle stopped walking and stared at the phone. She read it a second time, but the words had not changed. “Sorry to tell you, Honey, but your friend Mike Kirby died last night in a car wreck. I don’t know yet when the service is going to be, but I thought you might want to try to come home for it.”

Her other messages were also telling her about Kirby. Two of her friends had even sent the link to a short news story about Kirby’s death. “Michael Kirby, 18, was killed last night at 11:45 p.m. in a one-car wreck on Highway 67. He apparently lost control of the vehicle he was driving and left the road, colliding with a fence and landing upside down in a ditch. No one else was injured. Police state that no alcohol was involved. Services are pending.”

Other students calmly walked around Michelle as she stood on the sidewalk, staring at her phone. When she finally started walking again, her feet took her back to her dorm room and not to the cafeteria. Michelle dropped her backpack on the desk, sat down on her chair, and stared at Nancy’s empty bed. “Kirby,” she whispered. “Kirby, why did you do it? Why couldn’t you be more careful?”

The rest of the day passed in a blur. Michelle answered her messages, and she and her friends began sharing memories of Kirby. She told no one about her dream or vision of the night before. Whether it was just a dream, or a premonition, or something more, Michelle was not sure. She did know that, whatever it was, it was something very private, something she could not share with her mother or even with her closest friends.

Between sending and receiving messages, Michelle skimmed through her saved messages to see if she still had any from Kirby. Most of them she had deleted, usually the day she received them. She found three that she had failed to delete. In one of them he had said, “I heard a song on the radio today that made me think of you. No, it wasn’t by the Beatles” (That part made her smile the first time she read it. Michelle liked most of the Beatles’ songs, but she had heard “Michelle” too often in her life, often sung badly by others, and Kirby—like all her friends—knew that she hated that song.) “but the next time we see each other, I’ll tell you what it was.” Kirby was often hinting that they would see each other sometime soon. He wrote how he was looking forward to Thanksgiving and to Christmas, when she would be home from school. He also said that he might come visit her at her college. Michelle had told him a couple of times that college kept her very busy, she was swamped, and even if he drove to visit her she would have no time to spend with him. He kept on hinting about the next time they would be together, and Michelle finally chose to ignore those hints.

Another message that she found went back to the first week of school for them both. “I’ve taken to parking in your old spot,” Kirby had written. “It’s not so much that I want my car to be in that spot, but I just wanted to keep anyone else from taking your favorite spot. It’s one way I have of remembering you every day when I get to school.”

The last message was more recent. “I know that you’re busy and don’t even have time to answer my messages, but I don’t mind. Just writing them and sending them makes me think of you, and that alone makes me happy.  Go ahead and answer me when you can, and please don’t be mad at me for writing you more than you can write me.”

Michelle had never been mad at Kirby. Mostly she had been concerned for Kirby. She never wrote him the words that she wanted to say—she had wanted to say, “Forget about me. Get a life.” But she didn’t write him that message because she did like him enough not to want to hurt his feelings.

She had talked with Nancy about Kirby. “We were friends in high school—just friends. We traveled in the same group. He was always a bit intense around me, but I guess that’s just the way he is. All these messages from him are getting on my nerves, but I don’t really want to tell him to stop. It’s weird. I don’t know what to do about him.”

“Is he one of those nasty boys with thick glasses and bad skin and bad breath? The kind that can’t ever get a date?” Nancy asked.

“No, not really. His clothes are kind of geeky, but he’s not dirty or disgusting. Actually, he’s kind of sweet—very polite, and really smart. I don’t know why he latched on to me. Of all the girls in school, there was nothing special about me. But he treated me like I was special. And he’s still writing me messages all the time.”

“Sounds like a dream. If I had been you, I would’ve dropped Frank and let Kirby take care of me instead.”

Michelle and Frank were going to different schools, and Frank had ended the summer by telling Michelle that he didn’t think they should be steady. He thought they both should date people at their own schools. As a result, Michelle had not said very kind or complimentary things to Nancy about her ex-boyfriend. He had not written, not even once, and Michelle had stopped sending him messages after the first week at school. She still missed him, and she hadn’t dated anyone yet at college, but the emptiness was going away.

That day Michelle had dropped the subject, but it came back again one day when Nancy was in the room. Michelle had been having a hard time with algebra; she had been trying to complete an assignment on line and had needed to restart the same problem again and again because she kept making mistakes. Just when her anger was ready to burst at the next interruption, the blue rectangle of Outlook Express ® appeared in the corner of the screen. “It’s raining today and that made me think of you. Yesterday the sun was shining, and that made me think of you.” Michelle screamed and threw her algebra book across the room. Nancy looked up and said, “Is it really that bad?”

“It’s him, again, telling me that he’s thinking of me. Why doesn’t he just leave me alone?”

“Do you really want him to leave you alone?”

“Yes! I need to do my homework; I can’t stop to deal with his loneliness and heartsickness all the time.”

“Just tell him how you feel, then.”

“I don’t want to hurt his feelings.”

“Why not?” Michelle paused. She didn’t have an answer for that question. Why didn’t she want to hurt Kirby’s feelings?

She thought about this for a couple more days. Finally, it occurred to her that ignoring his messages probably hurt his feelings more than it would to tell him how she felt.  So one evening she replied to another of Kirby’s many notes. “Kirby, I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and I’m not sure that I’m going to say it right, but I wish you would stop writing to me. I’m busy here and you have a lot to do there, and I just don’t have the time or the energy to give to you right now. I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is.”

His answer was rapid and short. “As you wish,” he wrote. Then the days started to pass, and he sent her no more messages.

The next weekend, Nancy asked about Kirby out of the blue. “Are you still hearing from that boy back home?” she asked.

“No,” Michelle said. “I told him how I felt and he seems to understand. He just sent one brief message, ‘As you wish,’ and that’s the last I heard from him.”

Nancy gave a theatrical sigh. “As you wish,” she repeated. “How romantic!”

Michelle shook her head. “It’s just the way he writes,” she said. “He can be a little formal, even stilted at times, but you always know what he means.”

“Don’t you get it, you ninny? Haven’t you ever seen The Princess Bride? Remember how the farmboy, Wesley, says those words to Buttercup? And when he says, ‘As you wish,’ what it really means is, ‘I love you.’”

Michelle was stunned. She hadn’t thought of The Princess Bride when she read his message. The association was just the sort of thing Kirby was likely to make. She thought about writing back to him to ask him about it, but she knew that would break the whole point of asking him not to write to her. Knowing Kirby, that was exactly what he had planned with his message.

Nancy shook her head. “No boy has ever said, ‘As you wish,’ to me. You are so lucky. You don’t know how lucky you are.”

Now, two weeks later, Kirby was dead. Michelle still didn’t know what to think about the dream or vision of him she had received the night he died. She sat and thought about that eerie sense that someone had been in the room watching her. She sat and thought about how natural Kirby had looked sitting on Nancy’s bad. She vividly remembered Kirby’s voice saying, “I won’t be bothering you anymore.” Michelle did not get any homework done that night. She slept poorly, waking up at every sound in the room, but none of the sounds were caused by a ghost. If she had any dreams that night, she did not remember them, but when she got out of bed in the morning, she was exhausted.

Walking across campus to class, Michelle thought she saw Kirby walking toward her on the sidewalk. When the man got closer, though, it turned out that he was one of the other students at the college. In fact, up close he didn’t look much like Kirby at all. Then, at lunch, Michelle saw another student who, from behind, looked just like Kirby. Feeling a bit foolish, Michelle took a detour around the table, only to see that, from in front, he didn’t resemble Kirby in the slightest way. Three more times that afternoon, Michelle thought briefly that she caught a glimpse of Kirby. Each time, the man she saw was someone else.

Michelle caught herself wondering if Kirby might have faked his death just to get her attention focused on him. But Michelle knew that Kirby could not have faked the news article that was online, nor could he have persuaded Dilinger Funeral Home to post the obituary that was now also online. His funeral was scheduled for Saturday, and Michelle argued with herself about whether or not she should attend. On the one hand, she really wanted to be there, to pay her respects, to share her condolences with his mother and his younger brother, and to hug her friends from high school and cry with them over Kirby’s death. On the other hand, Michelle had a vivid picture of herself walking into the church, only to have someone stand up and accuse her of causing Kirby’s death. She tried to remind herself that she had done nothing at all to lead to his death. Then another part of her mind said that by doing nothing at all she had made herself guilty. Kirby would be alive today if she had just been a better friend to him.

Thursday night Michelle dreamed about Kirby. The two of them, with a group of friends from high school, were walking together down the streets of their home town.  They walked past the Baptist Church and past the bank, and they were approaching the fire station. Kirby was talking passionately about something, but after she awoke Michelle could not remember what he had been saying. For the first time that week, her grief burst through her sense of shock, and she cried for several minutes, alone in her room. Fortunately, Nancy was taking a shower at the time.

Friday was much like Thursday for Michelle, with a student here or there looking like Kirby from a distance, bringing him to mind again and again. Somehow she got through classes and meals and managed to make it back to her room. Nancy had already left for the weekend. Michelle planned to get up early Saturday morning and drive back home for the funeral. The dorm was quiet, with most of the students heading home or partying somewhere in town.

Michelle picked up her history book and opened it. Then she closed it again. She looked across the room at Nancy’s bed, but no one was sitting there. “Kirby,” Michelle whispered. “Why aren’t you here? Why did you visit me only once?” No one answered.

“Haunt me, Kirby,” Michelle implored. “Haunt me like Catherine haunted Heathcliff. I know I deserve it. Kirby, I’d like to see you again, at least one more time.” But still she received no answer. The one chance that Kirby had wanted for years, the one chance for which he had earnestly yearned, was a chance he did not take. For his one and only chance to win Michelle’s heart came too late for Kirby.

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