“Tell me about the hike.”
She stared into the coffee cup but suddenly, as if on cue when hearing the word “hike”, she jerked upright in her chair nearly spilling her coffee.
“I don’t think I can,” Mandy stammered. Her hands shook when she attempted to put her cup on the desk. She glanced up but only briefly, her eyes unable to focus on any one object. She shook her head. “No, I just can’t.”
“But Mandy,” Dr. Jenkins said in a gentle tone to ease her panic. “I’m here to help you work through this. We’ll take it slow.” He handed her a tissue. “Tell me something about that morning. Were the birds singing? Was it sunny?”
Mandy wrapped and unwrapped the tissue around her fingers.
“Where were you going?”
Mandy wrinkled her face as if she were actually feeling physical pain. “We shouldn’t have gone. We shouldn’t have gon…” her voice broke and tears followed.
Dr. Jenkins handed her another tissue. “It’s okay. Go ahead.”
* * * * * *
“Oh, Richie, it’s a wonderful morning for a hike.” Mandy stretched as she stepped out of the car inhaling the fresh mountain air. “I smell honeysuckle.”
Richie handed her the walking stick and adjusted his backpack. “Honeysuckle Trail it is, Mandy. Are you ready?” He pointed to the trailhead sign and she nodded. “Then let’s start.”
It was the perfect morning for a hike. The sun was out, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and it was still cool.
“We’ll start on a gradual climb for about a mile,” Richie shared, pointing to some mountain laurel along the path. “There are several places where we’ll have to cross a stream, but the trail book says large rocks are strategically placed and it hasn’t rained for a while so there shouldn’t be much water in the stream.”
Mandy wrinkled her nose. She wasn’t fond of crossing streams.
The trail wound around the mountain continuing the gradual ascent as their hiking sticks dug into the dirt occasionally clicking on a rock buried on the path.
* * * * * *
“Tell me about Richie. He was all-American in college wasn’t he?” Dr. Jenkins typed a few key words on his laptop. “Did he have any health-related problems?”
Mandy shook her head. “No. He worked out everyday and loved to hike. That’s how we met…through the Happy Trails Club in college.”
Dr. Jenkins nodded, keying in more information. “Tell me more about the hike.”
“The trail we were on was an 4.5-mile loop. We had probably gone 1.5 miles and decided to take a little break, drink some water, and rest for a few minutes. It was such a beautiful area. The birds were singing. It was very peaceful until….” Mandy slammed her hand down on the desk. She shot a look at Dr. Jenkins. “We shouldn’t have gone that day!”
* * * * *
“Mandy, look out over there.” Richie pointed to the mountains in the distance across the valley.
Mandy enjoyed the breathtaking view while they took a short break and drank some water.With sticks in hand they once again headed along the trail continuing to ascend the mountain. Before long they had reached the ridgeline.
“Richie, what’s out there?” Mandy pointed to the next ridge of mountains to their left. “Maybe there’s a cabin over there. I see smoke rising….see…there’s more smoke coming from that same area.”
Richie pulled out the binoculars from his pack. Adjusting the focus he studied the view carefully. “Mandy,” he began. “That’s probably at least 5 miles from here, and the trail doesn’t go over there. The trail book doesn’t say anything about cabins in this area. It’s a national park so you can’t build here.” He adjusted the binoculars. “I think it could be a fire.”
Mandy gasped and grabbed the binoculars. “Let me see.” Bringing the suspected area into view she watched small puffs of smoke rising from the tree tops. “Are we safe, Richie? Should we head back?”
Richie had already pulled his hiking map out. “I think we’re right about here,” he pointed to map. “It could be a fire over on this mountain ridge.” He drew his finger over a half-inch to the left. “That’s probably more than 10 miles from us.” He licked his finger and held it up. “The wind’s blowing right to left so it’s not coming towards us, Mandy.”
“I don’t like it, Richie. I’m scared. I think we should head back now. We should report it to the Ranger Station, too.”
Richie checked the trail map again. “Look,” he pointed on the map. “If we go another three-fourths of a mile and take the trail to the right, it will lead us back to the where we started. That should take us less than 20 minutes. We should be fine then.” Richie rolled the map back up, stuffed it in his backpack, and they continued.
* * * * *
“When did you encounter problems?”
Mandy’s lip quivered. She closed her eyes. “I can’t go back anymore, Dr. Jenkins, I just can’t.”
“I’ll go back with you, Mandy. You’ll be okay.”
* * * * *
“Come on, Mandy,” Richie hollered as he briskly dug his hiking stick into the dirt path pulling himself up the steep and narrow trail. “Don’t give up. This is just a short sprint to the top and then it’s down the other side about a quarter of a mile back to the car.”
Mandy quickened her pace keeping within three feet behind Richie.
“I guess we scared the birds away, Richie. I don’t hear them singing anymore.” Mandy stopped briefly to rub her eyes. She glanced up. “Why is it so cloudy? I didn’t notice the clouds before.” She coughed. “Oh, Richie. Is it the fi—re?”
“Come on, Mandy! It’s just a little farther.” Richie reached a large oak tree and stopped to catch his breath. His eyes stung. “We’re just about there, Mandy.”
* * * * *
“That’s the last thing I heard Richie tell me.”
“What did you do next, Mandy?” Dr. Jenkins leaned forward and took her hand.
“I reached for Richie’s hand and felt his fingers grab mine and we started, then suddenly he let go! I couldn’t see where he was. I called for him, but I couldn’t hear his voice. I didn’t know what to do and my eyes hurt so much.” Mandy buried her head in her hands and sobbed.
“What did you do next, Mandy?”
Mandy shook her head wanting to clear the incident her mind replayed. “I don’t know, Dr. Jenkins.” She blew her nose with the shredded tissue she’d been holding. “I kept calling Richie’s name as I continued on the trail, but I didn’t hear anything and I could hardly see where I was going. I stumbled back down the trail and realized I’d gotten back to the where we started at the trailhead, but I didn’t see Rich—–“
Dr. Jenkins put the box of tissues in front of Mandy. “You did everything you could, Mandy. It wasn’t your fault.”
“But, I could have —-”
“You did what Richie wanted you to do, Mandy. And you called for help when you got back to the car. It wasn’t your fault.”
* * * * *
Mandy had difficulty sleeping that night. Each time she began to doze all she could see were vivid images of Richie’s hand reaching out for her in the midst of the smoke. She woke herself up briefly several times with coughing attacks. Eventually she fell asleep.
* * * * *
The warmth of the morning sunlight invaded her bedroom. She turned over and tried to focus on the light coming through the window. She rubbed her eyes, still unable to focus. Then she smelt it. Smoke. She coughed.
“Hi, Honey. I’m glad you’re finally awake. I’ve made breakfast for us, but I’m afraid I burnt the toast. Hurry up, sleepy head. We need to get our hike in early today.”
“A hike?…What?…Where’s Dr. Jenkins?” Mandy sat up in bed shaking her head trying to make sense of what she’d been through. She rubbed her eyes again. ‘Richie?”
“Come on, Mandy. Don’t you remember? We’re hiking on the Honeysuckle Trail today.”