*update: per a suggestion from my good friend bbd.
Please read to the end.
(whaddaya think Barry? Think that'll keep 'em?)
I live up against our local National Park. When you’re a regular on the trails like I am you get used to seeing many of the same folks over the years.
There’s Dianne, the cool older hippie from the bayous of Louisiana, whose phone I found in the mud about six years ago. I took the time to call the phone company and had them notify her. She and I, when we run into each other while hiking, always finish out the trail walking and talking together. I might even venture to say that over the years Dianne and I have become “acquaint-a-friends.” People, who know each other, sometimes even share intimate details, but don’t socialize in our regular lives.
There’s lots of other folks I see daily on my hikes but don’t know their names or anything about them other than they are walkers or runners. Slow or fast. Serious exercisers or casual strollers. I know which ladies, or groups of ladies, wear eye makeup and push up bras in the woods. Which guys have lost weight over their years of jogging. Who goes with who. Sometimes I’ll see one of a couple and wonder where their mate is that day. My dog knows everyone else’s dog and we stop and say hello a lot.
Today while hiking the four mile loop near my home I saw Katie*. I know Katie by name and there’s good reason. (*not her real name)
Katie was in the same grade as my oldest son. She attended middle school and high school with him. Oldest son is outgoing and friendly and knew just about everyone in school. He and Katie never really hung out with the same kids but they were acquainted. I’m sure they had a few classes here and there together.
I worked at the middle school the kids attended and saw Katie in the halls and she and I always exchanged greetings. Katie is a lovely little strawberry blonde, blue-eyed pixie with a shy smile. In fact, that’s what my son always said about Katie. That she was very shy.
The summer before ninth grade started for Katie and my son I was hiking the loop and ran into a woman who stopped me.
“Did you see a little blonde girl running this way?” she asked, out of breath.
“If you mean Katie, then yes, yes I did,” I answered.
Mom seemed genuinely relieved. She explained that Katie had begun running and wanted to try out for the high school long distance track team. She felt it was necessary to run on the trails where the team practiced. If she could master these trails then Katie would have a really good shot at making the team and impressing the coach. She went on to explain that this was the first time Katie had run these trails. Because there are long isolated stretches in the woods Mom felt it best if she came along.
Katie had left Mom in the dust. By my calculations Mom’s little girl was a good mile or so ahead of her.
Katie made the team that fall. I used to see her running with the pack of girls that made up the elite on the team. They would run past me all long and lean, pony tails bobbing. Nothing jiggling. Just taunt teenage muscles all working together. Running in rhythm. Right, left. Right, left. Katie was always out front. Setting the pace.
“Hey, Mrs. R.”
On the path Katie was all business.
During high school Katie got a job bagging groceries at the local Publix where I shop. She always made an effort to bag my food and help me out to my car. It was during these post-shopping times that Katie and I exchanged sentences. I learned she was doing well in the science and math magnet program at the high school. She was winning with her running. She now had a driver’s license. After loading the trunk of my Taurus wagon Katie always smiled and wished me a nice day.
I got used to seeing Katie on the trails running. She was part of the scenery. No matter the weather. Rain, cold, blazing sunshine. Katie ran every day. Year round. For four years.
The day after high school graduation Katie and I crossed paths again in the woods. I sing-song-ed a “congratulations graduate!” her way and to my surprise Katy stopped. She was excited about being accepted into the freshman class at the University of Georgia. She had a new job for the summer as a swim instructor at the local YMCA. After a few minutes of chit chat, Katie smiled and jogged away. That was five years ago and it was the last conversation of any length we’ve shared.
All summer I passed Katie most days when I hiked. It seemed we had the same exercise schedule. Either very early morning before the Georgia heat hit like blast from a fire hose or late evening, before sunset, when cooler temperatures blessed us. A smile or a wave. A “hello” or a “hi” as she glided by.
Fall arrived. Katie went off to school and I didn’t see her until Thanksgiving break. When she trotted past me I noticed with alarm how thin Katie looked. She had always looked fit and trim. Well muscled. A much smaller girl passed me that day.
Christmas break. Downright skinny. Still running strong but way too thin. One meek, “Merry Christmas, Mrs. R.” No smile. A look of determination. And sadness? Possibly I was imagining things. After all, I didn’t know Katie well. I had no idea, really, who she was. Did she date? Did she have friends? What was her family life like? I had no answers to those questions. I didn’t even know where Katie lived.
Still…I had a bad feeling I just couldn’t shake.
When summer came back to the park so did Katie. The fields were abloom with daisies and blackberry blossoms. The forest green and alive. I was hiking down a long, very steep, hill when I caught sight of Katie making her way up towards me. Her eyes were sunken and dark. Her frame gaunt. She had no curves. Just bones and skin trying hard to cover them. Still, Katie was running.
As we passed I tried to conceal my concern. She made no eye contact. I could hear her labored breathing as she trudged up the hill. “Hi, Katie. Welcome home.” Nothing. Not even a limp wave. So great was her effort to make it up the incline. I’m certain she never even heard, or maybe even noticed, me.
I knew the person who passed me that day. I was that person. That scared, obsessed, compulsive, lonely, sad little girl. I went home and cried for both of us.
If you happened to visit our park in summer, four years ago, chances are good you would’ve noticed Katie. It seemed like she was on the trails everywhere you went. Running. Running. Running. She looked about twelve years old instead of nineteen. She still wore the tiny running bra and nylon shorts of a track star but they drooped and sagged on her emaciated frame. Her knees looked too big. Every rib showed. And most terrifying, you could see both bones in her upper leg.
Fall came again and with it fiery leaves and gusty winds. Katie did not return to school. With the cooler temperatures I began walking mid day. One afternoon I decided when I saw Katie on the trail I was going to stop her and engage her in conversation. She had not acknowledged me in many months. Instead, when encountering me on the path, she would drop her head and pass silently. Because Katie and I had not been close, or anything remotely like that, I tried to pass this brush off as typical “too cool” teen behavior. Although I knew in my heart she was in much deeper, more serious, territory. I wanted her to know I cared.
I never saw Katie again.
This morning was lovely. Clear and blue. Not too hot. The pup and I headed out around nine o’clock to beat the heat. The trails were crowded, everyone with the same idea. As we made our way through the forest on the sometimes narrow trail I had to “pull over” many times to let the groups of youth camp runners pass by.
I had stepped off the trail to let a big pack of kids and their young leaders blow by me. I was watching the dog closely so she didn’t jump out and trip any of them when one of the group sang out, “Morning, Mrs. R.!” I looked up just in time to see Katie, obviously the camp running leader, jog by. I was stunned. She was back. And healthy. Perfectly healthy. Not too thin. Muscled. Strong. Vibrant. Alive.
Katie flashed me a smile, encouraged the kids, and ran off before I could collect myself and say a word. Just before she and her campers turned the bend ahead I managed to shout out, “Good for you, Katie girl! Good for you!”
I look forward to tomorrow’s hike.