She was my best friend, even for the briefest of moments in time. Her name was Kirsten Nancy Russell and we met sometime in high school. Although it was a small county we both grew up in, she attended middle school in the southern part of the county while I went to the middle school in the central part, we both came together at Calvert High School.
I’d guess our friendship started sometime in 10th grade when we were both thrown into a very small class of what would now be considered gifted and talented students. In our English class, we had maybe eight students but it was the structure of the class that allowed so many of us to become fast friends.
During the course of a year, two of the quarters were used to cover the required curriculum (kind of like accelerated learning) and the other two quarters were used for independent study and major works projects. We were given more freedom and creativity than you would ever expect in a public school and naturally all became part of the same semi-popular crowd.
If I had to rank myself in terms of social standing, I was never one of the popular ones but I was diverse enough that I could float in and out of the different crowds: drama nerds, jocks and cheerleaders, socially awkward smart people. But I never really fit in. I was the one who went stag to the Homecoming dance (no date for me). I was the one who stayed home when all my friends went to the prom (no date for me).
It didn’t seem to matter to Kirsten. She included me in the crowds of beautiful people that she often hung around with. She invited me to her house for sleepovers. She tolerated my crush on her brother (who she couldn’t stand). And she was there when I has my very first beer at the age of 17.
We applied to many of the same schools. I didn’t plan to follow her but I respected her choices for schools. In fact, we chose not to skip school for an unauthorized senior ski trip to Pennsylvania like many of our friends. Instead, we planned a college visit to Penn State. And then went skiing.
We finished out the school year and as she made plans to head to Virginia Tech and I made plans to head to Case Western Reserve University, we planned a final hurrah during Senior Week at Ocean City, Maryland. Even though I didn’t have enough money for the all of the food, meager lodging, and wine coolers, my friends secretly chipped in so that I could be part of the party.
Long story short, I wasn’t ready for the debauchery of Senior Week and ended up leaving after a few days because I had a terrible stomach issue plague me. I wanted my unspent money back (my family was really short on cash) not knowing that I hadn’t even paid full price for the week.
It took me months before I found out why nobody wanted to refund my money and caused a lot of bad blood after that week. Eventually, we all went our separate ways and started on the path to adulthood.
When I came home for fall break, I popped into Custom Ts, a local t-shirt shop where I knew Kirsten would be working on her break from school. I was so eager to show everyone how confident and grown up I had become. I had a boyfriend! I was going to see Tracy Chapman in concert! But nobody was impressed. We said our polite goodbyes and went back to our respective colleges.
I called Kirsten on December 1st, her birthday. It was easy to remember because it was the day after mine. We had both finally turned 18! The conversation was brief and strained and I figured the friendship must be waning as many do when you go to college.
I ended up staying at school the next summer and it was for the best. I hadn’t stayed in touch with anyone from high school and didn’t want to go back to the small town popularity contest. That summer would have been my chance to catch up to Kirsten and my other friends. Maybe I would have matured. Maybe we would have renewed our friendship. But we never got the chance.
I stayed on campus to take some summer courses and just as I had finished and was gearing up to celebrate with my boyfriend the next day at a local water park, I got a call from my mother.
I don’t remember her exact words but I remember her saying that Kirsten had been shot. It took me a few minutes to realize that she wasn’t just shot, she was fatally shot.
I imagined her out one night in a bad part of DC and running into someone in a dark alley. Being at the wrong place at the wrong time. But that’s not at all what happened.
She was staying at a friend’s house. An acquaintance of her friend’s brother stopped by one night to “return a gun” he had borrowed. It turns out, the voices in his head were telling him to do more than that. When Kirsten and her friend opened the door and realized the state of mind he was in, her friend ran out of the house to seek help. Kirsten, on the other hand, retreated into the house where she was shot four times, including twice in the head at close range.
This was the first time I had ever had to deal with violent death and it scarred me for many many years. I used to try to imagine what that evening was like, what she went through, how she died. I would dream night after night that it was all a mistake and she was really alive somewhere. I didn’t even go home for the funeral because I couldn’t face the reality of it.
When I did finally make it home, I felt in a daze, like it couldn’t be real. And I remember in the many weeks following how everything around me seemed so violent: television, movies, everything. I wanted to hide from the world while changing it at the same time.
I saved those newspaper articles for many, many years because it was what I had left to hold on to. And recently, I starting searching online to find out what became of Kirsten’s convicted killer, Don Ward, a fellow high school student who claimed the devil told him to do it. (He’s not alone: read my article on anger, depression, and guns.)
I wondered if Ward was still in prison or if perhaps he had been released so I started searching online about the case. He is, in fact, still in prison at the Western Correctional Facility in Cumberland, Maryland. I often wonder the kind of person he is now, how he feels about his past, and what his future is like.
But more than that, I think about Kirsten. I think about how she died before the age of digital cameras and Facebook and Google. She died before she could make a digital footprint. In fact, when I search her name online, there’s nothing that comes up except for a few text-based snippets from the archived court proceedings.
Yesterday marked the 27th anniversary of Kirsten’s death and I want her to be remembered somewhere other than in the hearts and minds of the people who loved her. I want people to know that she lived and died. I want them to see her and imagine the life she could have and should have lived.
I miss you, Kirsten.