First Friday Fiction Flashback: Rose Thorns

Finally, I was a high school senior: supreme over three quarters of the student body, ready to leave school in less than a year, almost an adult. The first day of school is always fun, but nothing matches the fun of the first day of senior year. Even preparing to study history and science and math seems exciting on the first day of the senior year.

History class looked especially bright that year—I knew nearly every student in the room, and the few I didn’t already know seemed like people I would enjoy knowing. No one, though, glowed with as much promise as the new girl sitting in one of the front-row desks.

She caught my eye the instant I walked through the doorway. I was convinced at first that she must have come from California, or had at least spent the summer there. She fit my Midwestern stereotype of a California girl: slender and graceful, with long straight blond hair, and with a bright cheerful smile. She dazzled each of us entering the room with her dazzling smile, and she charmed us all with her gentle, friendly brown eyes just above her small, pert nose.

The California stereotype vanished during attendance when she answered to the name of Shannon Knight. Her name and her voice were unmistakably southern, and rural southern at that. I wondered what had brought this belle to our northern village.

I knew right away that Shannon was going to be very popular. Her attitude towards her fellow students showed warmth and interest without a hint of vanity or conceit. People like her are never short of friends, so I figured that I had no reason to get to know her. I know this sounds funny, but I prefer friends who are not popular. They can spend more time being my friend because they aren’t busy trying to be the whole world’s friend.

A couple of months passed, and I noticed that Shannon was not surrounded by admirers as I had expected. Perhaps she escaped notice from the crowd because she was quiet. Maybe it’s just that we had already made our friends during the first three years of high school and no one was ready to add her to their group. It struck me that Shannon needed a friend, and I also needed a friend. I was sure that I could get along with a girl who smiled as much as she did.

I should explain that all through high school I was lacking what most high school boys consider a necessity: I didn’t have a girlfriend. I had several friends who were girls, but I had no one to take to movies or to offer gifts or to write long letters. I hadn’t really tried hard to find a girlfriend, because I knew that I hadn’t yet met the “right girl.” At first, I wasn’t thinking of asking Shannon to be my girlfriend. She seemed lonely, and I realized that I felt lonely too.

One day after history class I walked by her side down the hall. I don’t remember how I started the conversation, but I probably said something about the class. As I had hoped, Shannon was easily engaged in conversation. Within days we were seeking each other out in the halls, walking and talking together between classes and after school. By the end of the month we had traded phone numbers, and we began having long conversations after supper as well as in the school halls.

In these conversations, I learned that Shannon had lived in the small town of Acorn, Virginia until that summer. She was exactly one month older than me. She liked people, but she didn’t like crowds. Her favorite settings were forests and mountains. She abhorred cities. She had no great preference in contemporary music, aside from the fact that she hated both disco and hard rock. Her favorite music was written by Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. She liked to read, and she hoped someday to be an author.

“I just read a really neat book,” she told me one day. “It was about a newspaper reporter who falls in love in love with a Russian actress and spends years trying to meet her.”

“What’s the name of the book?” I asked her.

“I don’t remember,” she replied.

“Well, who wrote it?” I asked.

“I don’t remember,” she repeated. “Why worry about the details? The story is what matters, not the title and name on the cover.”

Her entire philosophy seemed to consist of ignoring labels and other unimportant details. Once when I asked her about her religion, she simply answered, “Christian.”

“But what kind of Christian?” I persisted. “Are you Baptist or Lutheran or Catholic or what?”

“Just a Christian,” she shrugged. “That’s enough.”

I was surprised later to learn that she was a devout Catholic. “I didn’t tell you,” she added, “because it’s not important. Christians shouldn’t argue and fight over their differences. There are enough non-Christians in the world who need our attention. As long as we believe in Jesus as our Savior, why fight about the rest?”

Another time I commented, “You know what amazes me? It’s strange that the two of us became such good friends in such a short time.”

“I don’t believe in being half a friend,” she responded. “People say, ‘Let’s just be friends,’ when what they really mean is that they don’t want to be friends at all. There’s no such thing as ‘just friends.’ All friends are good friends.”

On a different day, either before or after that conversation, Shannon said, “I don’t know why so many people who call themselves ‘friends’ feel a need to prove themselves. Friends don’t need proof; they just need to be loved. I don’t mean love like in the movies, but just plain, simple love. You can’t call yourself a friend without love.”

The first time Shannon visited my house was a warm Saturday afternoon at the start of November. We had not yet had a killing frost, and a lot of the flowers in my mother’s garden were still blooming. Shannon had told me that she liked flowers, so I made sure to show her the late blooms. As we strolled around among the plants, Shannon began whistling a light, simple tune. “That’s pretty,” I told her.

“It has words,” she mentioned, and without waiting for me to ask, she sang them to me. “The prettiest flower fades in an hour, dries up, and is blown away. The roses last longer, their perfume is stronger, but thorns take their beauty away.”

“It’s a nice tune,” I remarked, “but it loses something with those words.”

“The words are the thorns on that rose,” she explained. “Every beautiful thing has its own kind of thorns. Personally, I don’t like roses. Roses are hypocrites—they draw you in by their beauty and then stab you when you touch them. You can’t hurt yourself picking a daisy. Besides, there’s more to a plant than its flower.”

Shannon rarely observed the negative side of anything in life, so her attitude about roses surprised me. I also noticed that she never said “Good-bye.” When I mentioned that fact to her she said, “I prefer to end conversations with ‘Have a nice day,’ or ‘See you tomorrow.’ ‘Good-bye’ sounds so final. It sounds as if you expect never to see that person again.”

Nothing bothered her more than a negative person. “Why can’t they see the light?” she wondered. “Every person has at least one good point, and other people should spend their time looking for that good point instead of focusing on the bad. In any case, they ought to keep their observations to themselves. It’s not my business what one person thinks about another person.” Shannon also disliked worriers. “There are so many good things to consider in the world. It’s no use focusing on the bad things that could happen. Worrying improves nothing. Action can solve problems and make the world better, but people who worry never accomplish anything. Worrying is a waste of time and energy.”

Shannon almost never was angry, but when she did lose her temper, her outbursts were generally constructive. One day in January, I came to school discouraged because of clouds, the snow, and the cold. “Nobody should have to get out of bed on a day like today,” I grumbled.

Shannon looked directly at me, and it felt as if sparks were flying from her eyes. “When you can change the weather, go ahead and do it,” she told me. “Until then, keep quiet about it.”

“I have the right to say how I feel,” I insisted.

“Not around me you don’t,” she said firmly, and that was the last word allowed on that subject.

Spring finally came, and Shannon’s family had relatives visiting. That Saturday afternoon, Shannon called me and surprised me with her request. “We’re putting together a baseball game this afternoon, but we’re short one player. Would you like to join us?”

“You play baseball?” I asked her.

“I play first base,” she answered.

“Are you any good?” I dared to ask.

“Last year I hit about .300 in summer league,” she said. “Are you coming or not?”

“Leave second base open for me,” I offered.

The game was good-natured and I enjoyed it, even though our team lost. After the game, Shannon’s father asked me to stay for dinner, and I accepted. We ate a picnic supper of grilled hamburgers with chips and salads and lemonade. When we were done eating, Mr. Knight started a bonfire. Shannon went into the house and came back with a guitar. She played the guitar and led us in singing some songs we all knew. She also sang some songs I had never heard before. Sunday night, as we spoke on the phone, I mentioned my surprise, learning in one day both that she played baseball and that she played the guitar. “I never knew either of those things about you,” I commented. “I thought I knew you better than that.”

“You were wrong,” she teased me. “Nobody knows everything about me. No one ever will know anything about me. I expect to die a mystery to the world.”

The next weekend I offered to return the favor by taking Shannon to a movie. “I’d invite your whole family to come, but I can’t afford to pay for all their tickets.”

“That’s fine,” she assured me. “They’ll be happy enough just to be rid of me for the evening.”

The movie was good, but somehow sitting next to Shannon in the dark seemed awkward. Before and after the movie, everything we said to each other felt stilted and unnatural. I don’t know why taking her to a movie led to such discomfort, but everything about that night seemed wrong. Shannon obviously felt the same way. When I dropped her off at her house, she looked at me and said, “That was an awful evening!” Oddly, I felt better after she said that to me. Fortunately, she never mentioned our movie night again.

Straight, blunt honesty had always been one of Shannon’s traits. I’m unsure whether to call it a virtue or a fault. We talked about what constitutes a virtue once, and it was one of the few times we disagreed. I insisted that a person’s feelings were more important than always telling the truth. “Lies never helped anyone,” Shannon countered.

“In that case, maybe the best thing to do is change the subject, or say nothing at all,” I offered.

“A half-truth is worse than no truth at all,” she insisted, “and saying nothing or changing the subject is only half a truth. Honestly is always the best policy, and that’s a fact.” Although she didn’t convince me to change my mind, our difference of opinion did not threaten our friendship.

Late in April, I offered to take her to a restaurant. “I don’t know,” she demurred. “Perhaps we should do something outdoors, something where we can be natural with each other.” We promised each other that over the summer we would find outings that suited both of us, activities that would not make us feel stilted and awkward. “You’re not going to forget this promise?” she asked me.

“Don’t worry,” I assured her. “No matter what happens, I will never forget you.”

The school year was winding down; graduation was getting closer every day. Our friendship remained stable, although we were slightly competitive when it came to grades. Shannon was earning an A in English, largely because of her skill at creative writing. Although she sought a life that was simple, her mind was not simple. She was very capable of creating and polishing a complicated and interesting story. She also excelled at math, but with less enthusiasm. “I don’t know how I get As in math; I don’t even try hard,” she commented. Shannon was also passing me by in history, another one of her hobbies along with writing. In chemistry and in Physical Education, it looked as though I might have the edge over her, grade-wise.

On the sixteenth of May, I could tell that something was bothering her. She had just come out of math class, but I couldn’t tell if she was thinking about math or about something else. Shannon was very quiet as we walked from her locker down the hall, out the door, and toward the students’ parking lot. Suddenly, on the sidewalk, she turned to me and said, “Some days I get so mad at myself that I can’t even see straight.”

“Do you want to talk about it?” I asked her.

She hesitated, then shook her head. “Not right now,” she said. “Would you like a ride home?”

“Not today,” I replied. “The walk and the fresh air will be good for me.”

“OK,” she said. “Enjoy your walk. Goodbye.”

“Bye,” I said, and I set out for home.

The seventeenth of May was a Saturday, and I didn’t expect to hear from Shannon until evening. I thought about her all morning, wishing I was bold enough to invite myself over to her house, but my parents frowned upon such bad manners. Late that afternoon the telephone rang, and of course my mother shared the news with me right away.

A few days later I was walking through my mother’s garden, and I saw that the buds on her roses were swelling, getting ready to burst into bloom. My eye traced down the stem to the thorns half-hidden among the leaves. Tears came to my eyes and I knelt in the dirt, crying, as I remembered the florist’s roses Shannon had held in her hands as she lay in the coffin.