I’ve asked myself a million times why it happened. Why did it have to be Monica? My Monica?
Okay, I suppose saying My Monica is an inaccurate term, as she never belonged to me, and by that I mean her heart. Though for a time she certainly had mine, in the way that teenage girls will hold the heart of a teenage boy who thought the world revolved solely around them. But we were never a couple. Hell, we were only kids at the time, about to enter high school. We had scarcely begun our hormonal adolescence years, where feelings we didn’t know existed stirred within us, and we certainly had no idea how to handle them.
Like most boys growing up, I have fond memories of the girl next-door. The pretty, seemingly unattainable girl with the most beautiful… well, you have to fill in the blank here because it’s different for everyone. For me, it was her eyes. The most gorgeous pale blue eyes; though it didn’t stop there. She had the face, height and build of a super model. I mean it; she was way prettier than any girl I’d ever met before with her curly blond hair, pouty lips, creamy fair complexion, and long delicate limbs. And her smile; the first time she smiled at me my heart must have accelerated to triple its speed and I saw stars. Yes, I’m pretty sure that smile gave me a mini stroke. And like most girl next-door stories, she was the only one.
I remember when she first moved in; it was during the middle of my ninth-grade year. I was lucky enough to be in Jr. High, where eighth and ninth graders were together, sparing me the awkwardness of officially starting high school for another year. Had ninth graders been included in high school at the time, I’m sure some older guy would have swept in and caught her attention well before I ever crossed her path. I’m sure she probably would have never died; at least not so young.
As it was, I was awkward and unsure of how to approach a girl. This was the year when a lot of the more popular kids in my class were starting to experiment with sex. And there I was, wondering how to get a girl to just hold my hand. So you can imagine how it was, the first day back to school after Christmas break, when this beautiful blonde gets onto the bus, and as she passes my seat, she looks me in the eye and gives me the biggest smile. I’m sure my memory is biased, making that smile into something way more than it actually was, but I distinctly remember her pausing briefly as she did. The fact that she probably smiled like that to everyone on the bus, because she was friendly and new to our school and looking to make some friends, never occurred to me. But this is my story dammit, and I don’t know who else she may have smiled at other than me, I just know that she did smile at me and it was almost more than I could handle.
So yeah, it didn’t take long for me to figure out that she was living in the house right behind mine. We had a chain-link fence separating our yards, so the first strategy my scrambled teenage boy brain came up with, in an effort to see her, or possibly talk to her, was to hang out in my backyard playing fetch with my dog as I waited for a glimpse of her. As if teenage girls liked to hang out in their backyards. Believe it or not though, the strategy did work. Sort of.
So there I was, a few days after I first saw her, playing with my dog, when her sister (who was a few years older and almost equally as pretty) came out of the house and approached the fence.
“Hello!” she said with a polite yet enthusiastic greeting that caught me totally by surprise.
Naturally I panicked. My brain reverted to reptile mode and I lost all ability to speak or do anything remotely human. I looked at her for a brief second, the surge of panic I was feeling surly showing on my face, and I turned away and booked it out of the yard. I mean, she must have thought I was a total freak when I didn’t even stop to open the gate, but simply planted my hands on the top and leapt over in one fluid motion, continuing my run all the way into my house. I’m fortunate I didn’t fall on my face; that would have only added to the humiliation I felt.
The next day on the bus I was the first on, ducking into a seat near the front and planting my face in the window to prevent any chance of eye contact when she boarded, and ensuring a quick exit when we arrived at school.
That afternoon I found myself in the backyard again, though I had planned on not going back there anytime soon, but my dog had to eat and it was my responsibility to feed him. I was dreading that they would see me from inside their house and laugh. I could just envision them, pointing while they scoffed, “there goes the loser who panics when a girl talks to him. Let’s see if we can get him to do it again!”
As humiliating that thought was, I was more terrified that they would never come out and approach me again. I had made it pretty clear that I was not up to talking, and even if I were willing to converse, should they give me a second chance, they were probably afraid I was some type of weird freak that would kill them in their sleep or something.
So there I was, in the backyard, when a boy came out of the house and approached the fence. It was as if he had been watching for me or something, which he probably was. He was the younger brother, about three years younger than me and in the same class as my sister Kat. A few minutes later his two sisters came out of the house, saw us talking, and approached the fence. I felt a surge of panic when I saw her smile as she approached but I held my ground. The first time I had been caught off guard, so my running off was understandable from a certain skewed perspective. The second time I had no excuses. If I’d run off that time I would have sealed my fate as the boy who was afraid of the opposite sex.
So the boy was James, his oldest sister was Melanie, and of course the blonde with the angelic blue eyes and beautiful smile was Monica. The three of us must have talked for about two hours, discussing everything from the mild Florida winters to music, and of course, school. James asked about Kat and wasn’t shy to admit his major crush on her; something I definitely admired about him. Monica asked me about certain teachers and students at our school.
I didn’t see it then, blinded by a cloud of anxiety and self-doubt, but Monica looked at me the same way I looked at her. I wouldn’t have believed it at the time, but I would come to realize it later that year, when it was too late, just how much she liked me.
Over the next four months our friendship slowly built. We would chat while we walked to the bus stop and back home again that afternoon and of course in the backyard, while she fed my dog treats and I tossed the old squeaky toy he loved to fetch. She never sat with me on the bus, but instead sat with a friend who lived a few blocks up. Fortunately for me, her friend was already on the bus when it picked us up. Had they boarded at the same stop she probably would have walked with her, though I’m sure I would have been allowed to tag along. It was just nice, having her all to myself for ten minutes or so.
In mid-April our school began advertising the Jr. High Prom, which was kind of lame as no one was old enough to drive without an adult in the car (well, mostly no one, there were a few older kids who had failed a grade or two), so that meant chaperons were needed to drive us around, unless your parents were willing to pay for a limo, and most parents didn’t want their thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen year old kids riding around unsupervised.
Monica began talking about it almost immediately. I remember because this was one of the few conversations we had while walking in the halls at school. I was in the honors classes, and she wasn’t, so our paths rarely crossed while at school. We didn’t even have the same lunch break. So when she approached, part of me knew she had gone out of her way to find me just to talk about the prom.
“Are you going?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I confessed, suspecting where she was going with this but too unconfident to take the hints and run with it. “Are you?”
“Maybe,” she smiled, looking straight ahead, careful not to look at me, “if someone asks me.”
“How much are tickets? I don’t know if I have the money for them,” I said, trying to find an out if I needed one.
“They’re free,” she said, this time turning to look me in the eye. “All ninth graders get up to two tickets if they want them.”
Nodding, I wasn’t sure how to respond but knew I had to say something. “I heard Carl asked you to go.”
Her face flushed and she frowned. “Yes, but I don’t know him that well.”
“Oh, Carl, he’s the best. Funny, and smart,” I explained, all the while my inner voice was begging me to shut up, but of course I was in nervous mode, which means my brain and mouth were, for the moment, disconnected from each other. “I’m sure you’d have a great time with him.”
Her frown deepened and I could see a mixture of confusion and hurt in her face. “Then maybe I’ll think about it,” she said before turning a corner, leaving me to feel as stupid as I surly sounded.
Her hints continued for the next few weeks until the day of the deadline to request tickets arrived. She never said directly that she wanted me to take her, but I knew deep inside she had wanted me to ask her. A lot of guys had asked her to go, but she turned them all down and continued asking me on a regular basis if I was going. Now days a girl would just come out and say it: “Ask me to go with you stupid!” Or “Why don’t you be my date?” But not back then, or at least not in this case. Monica clearly wanted to be old fashioned and have the guy she liked ask her out. Like a moron, I didn’t ask her or get the tickets. Instead, her friend had picked up a few and they were planning to have a girl’s night out.
Two weeks later on prom night, I was hanging out in my backyard when she came out wearing the most gorgeous white dress I’d ever seen. She was stunningly beautiful and I knew she had picked that dress out with the intention of impressing me, assuming I was going to get the hint and eventually ask her to go. She curtsied and did a twirl so I could see how well it would look on the dance floor. Then she smiled a sad smile, waved, and disappeared back into the home.
This is the part where I’m supposed to say how torn up I was that we didn’t go together and how I would always regret not asking her out because things changed after that night; she gave up on me. I can’t say any of that though. The truth is I don’t know if I would be alive today had I went out with her that night. By being the world’s biggest wuss I saved my life, or at the very least, prevented the life altering and debilitating condition that came to her friend when the car Monica’s dad was driving was slammed in the rear by a drunk driver. Monica was instantly killed, and her friend was paralyzed from the neck down, fated to live her days in a wheelchair. That could have been me.
That’s not to say her death didn’t affect me. It did in many profound ways that were, from an emotional sense, just as life altering and debilitating. I had never lost a friend to death before, and I certainly never stared death in the eye like I did when I thought that could have been me in that car.
Monica’s dad insisted on driving that night, and surely he would have been just as insistent on driving had I been her date. We would have never danced, or held hands. I wouldn’t have known the awkwardness of telling her goodnight and wondering if we were supposed to kiss or not. I would however have died that night, or been seriously hurt, and she would have died regardless; that I’m sure of.
I’d like to say the experience made me bolder, more capable of trusting my instincts, and not letting shyness or self-doubt prevent me from asking a girl out, or acknowledging obvious hints when they were thrown my way. I’d like to say that, but in truth, I looked at how my instincts had almost cost me my life, and I started doing the opposite of what I felt. This helped in some ways I suppose. Instead of perusing a risky degree in film making, something I showed a talent for during high school, I decided on the safer course and went to law school. In other ways however, doing the opposite of what my guts told me only made my life more lonely and isolated. I never married, and never trusted anyone enough to let them into my life. No close friends, no children, and no real relationships of any kind. I even kept my parents and siblings at bay. I’m an uncle now and I barely know the names of my nieces and nephews.
So it’s no surprise when, 24 years later, I found myself knocking on 40’s door and reflecting on my life choices. My mind constantly went back to that fateful night when Monica was killed. I was just a stupid, mixed up kid when it happened, but the trauma caused by it was enough to totally wreck my life. No relationships, just a career that gave me more than enough money but no one to enjoy it with. True, I could buy a flashy car and probably fill my nights with a different woman every day of the week if I was so inclined, but I am pretty boring for a semi-wealthy guy. I drive a compact, ecofriendly car and live in a two bedroom condo where I play X-box all night, battling kids in the latest war game to hit the market. I don’t have an outward life so I escape inward by playing video games, watching movies, and reading books.
So one night, with Monica heavily on my mind, I decide to go for a walk, but not just anywhere. Thanks to the internet I was able to look up the accident site where she was killed. I wanted to see where it all happened, the event that changed the lives of not only Monica’s family and the life of her friend, but also my life. I was going to drive to that part of town, park my car, and walk on the street where she died. I was going to lay flowers on the spot where the accident occurred, and I was going to do all this on the 24th anniversary of her death.
Now, I had heard the stories most of my life, but I never made a connection, not even when I saw such stories pop up on the search engine when I looked up the cross-section on the internet. I never made a link between the urban legend and the accident until I was confronted with it in person, while walking down the dark and lonely road at night. I mean, even if I had made the connection prior to then, I would have dismissed it. That’s the lawyer in me. Unless there is hard evidence, then I have no interest in it. After all, there’s a myth like this in practically every city within the U.S.
I arrived at the cross section around 8pm; the sun was just starting to sink into the west. Twilight began to break across the sky as a few stars made an early appearance, foreshadowing what promised to be a beautiful night. Parking my car on the side of the street next to a sign that advised it was not okay to park there between the hours of 8am and 6pm, I got out, stretched my back, and looked around.
Up ahead, half a block to the north, was the spot where it happened. I pulled out the bundle of spring flowers I had purchased from the local grocery store, and closed the door, locking it. Hesitating for a few seconds, I took a step, then another, forcing myself forward to the spot that changed my life. I don’t know why I was so nervous. My heart pounded so hard I was sure I would have a heart attack. I broke out in a cold sweat, despite the warmness of the evening.
This was it. I suddenly realized I had been avoiding this moment for over two decades. Sure, I had attended the funeral and had grieved with James and Melanie, as well as some of my classmates. I attended the school mandated counseling sessions where I shared my feelings. I hadn’t yet realized I was about to close myself off from the rest of the world, unable to share my feelings ever again. I had grieved in all the ways that seemed important to others, but then it was over and I moved on. Or at least that’s what I told myself, but the fact is I never moved on. I remained stuck in that time, right after the accident, helpless and alone, afraid to get hurt like that ever again. I refused to talk about it, or visit her grave, and I certainly never visited the site of the accident. This was a pretty common intersection and yet, somehow, I had managed to avoid ever driving on this road. This avoidance had to have been subconscious because, until now, I never realized I was trying to avoid it.
The closer I got to spot of the accident the quieter the night became, the air growing still. No crickets or frogs singing their loud and relentless tune. No birds chirping or cars passing in the distance. The closer I came to the accident the further the rest of the world seemed to be. I hadn’t realized I was crying until I tasted the salt from a stray tear rolling into my mouth. Pausing at the sight I looked around, dazed and hurting. My heart ached.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered, my throat constricting, smothering my voice. “I’m so, so sorry, about everything. It should have been me with you. I should have been there…”
I broke down at that point, falling to my knees, wailing in terrible sobs that drenched my face and made my head ache as badly as my heart. I don’t know how long I sat there, the concept of time having lost all meaning to me. I let everything out, all my anguish, all my hurt, all my fears and hesitations. I was 15 again, lost and confused and unsure how I would ever go on without her in my life.
The sound of an approaching car caught my attention and I looked up. The approaching headlights created a glare in my watery eyes and I had to blink out the tears that welled in them. If the car saw me they didn’t seem to take notice as they didn’t slow down, though they were not going that fast. The speed limit was 30 on this road and I doubt they were going a mile over it. I frowned at the familiarity of the car, an older model sedan, maybe even late eighties.
As it approached I heard the squeal of another car rounding the corner behind them, running through the stop sign and approaching at what seemed to be double the first car’s speed. Frowning, I could see it also was a late eighties model vehicle, though its shape and the roar of its engine screamed sports car. Figuring they were going to pass the first car right at the spot I was kneeling, I immediately jumped up and backed into the grass on the side of the road for fear that they were going to run me over.
Only the second car wasn’t getting over to pass them. They seemed to not realize the first car was there until it was too late. I uttered a scream as the two cars collided a few dozen yards from where I stood. The first car was shoved into a spin that eventually turned into a roll as the sounds of crunching metal and braking glass filled the night. I backed further as I realized the car was rolling right for me. I jumped just as it came to a stop on the exact spot I had been standing.
The second car had careened into the grass on the other side of the road but was otherwise okay. They slowly pulled back into the road and approached the first vehicle that had by then started to smoke. I ran over to it and waved for the second car, hoping they could help me check on the people in the first car. As they reached the car I could see a man, maybe in his mid-twenties, and I was certain I recognized him. His eyes were wide with terror and I could see what he was going to do a split second before he did it. His engine roared as he tore away, leaving the scene of the accident. I looked at his tag as he sped away, committing the number to memory. It was only later that night when I realized the outdated plates on the back were as old as the vehicle itself.
All this took place in the space of a few seconds. I ran to the vehicle and dropped do my knees, looking inside to see if there was anything I could do. To my horror the car was empty, save a lone girl in the back of the car, sitting upside down in the seat, held there by her seat belt. A tangle of long blond hair covered her face and I couldn’t tell if she was okay.
Where was the driver? I was certain they must have been thrown out of the car when it rolled though I don’t know how I could have missed it. I would look for them later, because I was certain no one could have survived being thrown out like that, but I could maybe help this girl. I needed to move fast as the car was smoking even worse, and while I know cars don’t explode in great billowing balls of flame like you see in the movies, there was the very real possibility that the gas tank could ignite and that this girl could burn to death.
Running around the car, I pulled open the passenger door and looked inside. The girl was gone. Confused, I surveyed the area. She was nowhere to be seen. Worse than that, my hyper alert brain had picked up on something else strange. There were no signs of the accident in the road. No broken glass or pieces of the car that had dislodged when it rolled. No tire marks made from the other vehicle when it ran off the road. Turning back to the car, it was gone; in its place were the flowers I had brought.
Movement in my peripheral caught my attention. Turning, I could see a woman walking down the road, their back to me, in a white dress. Her dress.
“Monica?” I gasped, my knees beginning to buckle for the second time that night.
Slowly she turned towards me and gave me a sad smile. It was her.
I began walking towards her but she turned and continued on her way.
“Wait!” I shouted and began to run. Though she seemed to merely walk, she remained ahead of me no matter how fast I pushed myself.
I stopped and watched has she continued further down the road. “Don’t leave me, not again…”
She paused, turning around.
“I should have been there with you,” I explained. “I don’t deserve to be standing here today.”
Her sad smile returned.
“You were with me,” she sighed, “and you’ve never left. Go, live your life. Then I can move on. Then we both can.”
“Monica, I don’t know how,” I began, confused. “That’s why I’m here.”
She seemed to drift towards me though she didn’t move. “You must figure it out or I’ll remain here, at this spot, forced to relive this accident night after night, year after year, decade after decade. I can’t move on until you let me go.”
As she got closer I could see a mixture of frustration and anger brimming in her expression.
“But, Monica, I didn’t know; how could I? I just didn’t know how to feel. It was supposed to be me with you that night.”
“I didn’t even like you,” she spat. “I just felt sorry for you. You so obviously liked me, and I was into older guys who wouldn’t have been caught dead at a Jr High prom. I was just trying to give you some confidence and look where that has gotten me; stuck here reliving my death over and over because you have it in your head that we were supposed to have what, some type of cosmic connection? Star crossed lovers that should have died together? We were just two stupid kids who were supposed to go to a dance that we would have forgotten about a year later. LET ME GO!”
“Fine!” I erupted. “Go! Leave me like everyone else has! I’m just some messed up middle-aged man, what the hell do I need a 15 year old ghost for? Do you really think I wanted to keep you here? I didn’t even know I was holding on to all this until recently. I’ve spent years trying to forget you, trying to convince myself that not going with you to that stupid dance was a blessing that saved my life.”
“Your life?” she laughed. “What life? You haven’t lived. You’re right, you should have died that night and I should have stayed home and lived. I could have been married with kids. Even Sandra, my friend that was paralyzed that night, found someone who loved her; they got married, and she went to college. She’s given lectures and written books. She has more of a life that you ever did.”
“Wow, really? She did all that?” I was stunned.
“Yes. Something you would have known had you checked in on her, or with my family even. They could have told you, and also let you know how well they have moved on, learning to appreciate life. My death helped unite my family. My parents were going to divorce but my death pulled them together. My dad, he tried to blame himself but my mom wouldn’t let him. He wasn’t the drunk driver who killed me; he was a victim just like I was. He moved on, my mom, my siblings, all moved on. Only you have kept me here. Only you, the one I’ve been tied to all these years, though I never wanted that. I felt sorry for you at first, when I saw how you grieved, but after a while I just became so angry.”
“Monica, I’m so sorry. You’re right,” I conceded. “I haven’t let you go. I haven’t moved on. I died that night just as much as you did. But I’m not sure how to let you go.”
“Promise me you’ll try to live. Be bold, put yourself out there. Make friends. Ask a woman out on a date. Try to feel something for someone. Take a risk. Don’t worry if you get hurt. You’ll survive.”
“I’ve already been hurt,” I admitted with a weak smile. “I promise I’ll begin to live. I don’t want to keep you here. I never wanted that.”
She smiled warmly. “Thank you.”
She leaned in and I closed my eyes, unsure if we were about to kiss or if that were even possible. Instead, she whispered in my ear.
“I lied. I did like you; a lot. I was just trying to get you angry, push you away. I’m sorry.”
I opened my eyes and found myself kneeling on the spot over the flowers where I had collapsed when I first arrived. My face was wet and I was completely alone.
My legs stung with pins and needles as I stood. How long had I been kneeling there? Had any of that really happened?
I slowly made my way back to my car, trembling from emotion, my head replaying the encounter. I determined I must have passed out crying and dreamed it all. As I got back into my car and started the engine I could see the visage of a girl in white walking down the road.
The girl in white, the famous urban legend I must have heard a million times. The girl in white, seen by random passerby’s since the early 90’s. The girl in white, sought after by ghost hunters and enthusiast, and scoffed at by non-believers. Monica; my beloved girl in white.
As I watched, she turned to me and waved once more, a genuine smile on her face. A moment later she vanished.
“Goodbye Monica,” I whispered. It was time to start my life.