Time is getting away from me today. Busy, busy, busy. The life of a worker bee. So, today I thought I would paste a short story I wrote in grad school. I won’t say anything else here.
I sat tucked away in my usual corner of the college’s cafeteria, hoodie pulled low, face shoved in a book. Which one it was, I don’t remember, and it’s not important. The cafeteria was nearly deserted already, and I could hear the staff preparing for the next morning’s breakfast. Standing, I noted the page number in my book before making it disappear into the sweatshirt’s massive pocket, and picked up the tray. Only when I turned to walk the length of the table did I finally notice the girl.
Her face was hidden by dark, chin-length hair that fell across her cheeks, and she didn’t react when I moved past her with my tray. Something about her seemed familiar, and I glanced in her direction again before leaving the building, but she was gone.
Night after night, she was in the same spot. After two weeks, she spoke as I passed her.
“Walk with me.” Her voice was deeper, richer than I’d expected.
Now, I’m not what you would call an outgoing person. Spur of the moment conversations don’t come easily, and I blame the stutter for that. This is why I prefer the solitude of pen on paper or the blue glow of a computer monitor and click of the keyboard. Words needed thought before being uttered, but I found myself responding to her anyway.
It was colder outside than I’d expected, and I thought about offering her my sweatshirt, but she just started walking. Taking a few large steps, I caught up with her and we walked in silence. She seemed to be enjoying the night air, but jumped at the slightest sounds. It was almost a wince, like a skittish cat that’s been beaten before and is waiting for the next blow.
A few minutes later, we were at the edge of The Grove, an open grassy area of campus where students came to sunbathe and study or toss a Frisbee. The girl stayed under the huge oak trees that ringed the well-manicured grass and sat down beneath one.
“You’ve seen it, too,” she said, her words more melancholy than anything else. “You have, haven’t you?”
“Seen what,” I asked, forcing myself not to gulp as I swallowed. A lamppost flickered to life and just as quickly winked out again, but she must have seen the traitor muscles of my face.
“It’s all right,” she tried to smile, one end of her mouth turned up slightly. “You don’t have to be afraid anymore. I’ve seen it, too.”
There was no doubt in my mind that what she said was true. I just had to hear her say it.
“When you’ve faced death the way you and I have, you can just see it in others.” She started to reach a hand to me, but stopped and returned it to her lap. “I have to tell you something.”
“You—” I hesitated, searching for the right words. “You don’t have to, if you don’t want to. We can just sit here.”
She tried to smile, but something was causing her pain. “Right after high school graduation, my classmates and I were at a party near Corpus Christi. We’d loaded up some vans and cars with people and beer, and went to celebrate in an out-of-the-way field. Someone invited their cousin who went to Texas A&M, he brought his friends and their friends and all the drinks they could get their hands on. It was a pretty big thing. When we arrived, it was already in full swing; loud music, kegs pumping, general hedonistic activities and such. We partied into the night. This was in the middle of nowhere, and we didn’t have to worry about the police just happening by or someone calling them because we were loud or on their property.
“Someone got the idea to drive around in a Jeep with the top and doors off. Eight of us, myself included, piled in. We were wasted; there was no common sense at this point. And he took off, slowly at first, bouncing through the field, kicking up dirt and grass. A cheer went up from the crowd gathered as he turned back toward them. He sped up too fast and bounced too much. The driver cut the wheel too fast and he flew out the side. I tried to bail out with everyone else, but I hit my head on the roll bar and blacked out.
“When I came to, everything sounded hollow, like when you listen into a shell at the beach. Everything was hollow and slow and bathed in red and blue flashing lights. A paramedic stopped and knelt beside me. His voice sounded distant despite being right above me, but I couldn’t make it out I barely felt them place me on the board or put the collar around my neck. The last thing I saw before everything went black again was the Jeep driver being zipped into a bag.
“I woke up to pain. My stomach hurt like a hot knife twisting in my gut and I couldn’t move. Something beeped loudly near me and kept speeding up. A nurse arrived, slapping the machine into silence, and pressed a few more buttons. She called out for a doctor, but my vision began to swirl and my eyelids were heavy. A white coat leaned over me and spoke, but her words were lost as sleep took me again.
“The next time I woke, my mom was leaning over me. I could tell she hadn’t slept as she told me the extent of my injuries. Four crushed vertebrae, six broken ribs, punctured lung, broken collarbone, and the six main bones from both legs broken. I’d already had three surgeries while I was unconscious to reset things. Everyone just kept telling me to rest.
“I started losing track of time. There were infections and more surgeries. Velcro straps were stitched into my sides to hold me closed, making it easier to open me up and scrape out the infection again and again. The world was always spinning and hot from the drugs they kept using to sedate me.
“When I could open my eyes, I just kept staring toward the window, wishing I could see the stars twinkling away without a care in the world. In those times, I knew there were no ghosts or angels or saints or gods to comfort me, or sit with me in my loneliness. I was alone and angry.
“Until I saw you.”
I shivered when she reached her hand out again and placed it on mine. A bright light blinded me suddenly, and I shielded my eyes from the beam.
“It’s getting late,” the campus police officer barked. “What are you doing out here by yourself?”
I looked to my side, but the girl was gone.
“Have you been drinking, son?”
“No,” I said. “I don’t drink anymore.”
“Well,” he said, finally lowering his flashlight. “It’s time for you to be getting home.”
Standing, I started walking toward my dorm room. I rubbed the scars on my right hand where I’d lost those fingers. They still felt icy from her touch.
Probably the only time I can remember ever writing anything with a ghost.
So…rip it up, folks.