The Woman in the Park

I find her there on walks at dawn. Underneath the big oak in the park, sitting quietly, immersed in something—a book or with pencil and paper—there she is. In the time that I've been taking this route, not once has she looked my way. Of course, I have never said a word to her myself, not wanting to disturb her deep concentration. I presume she must live nearby, but I've only ever seen her sitting by that oak. On my walk home, the park is always empty. It was a little secret, our morning almost meetings. At that brief moment, the world is silent, and only we exist, sharing that small bubble of grass and branches. Lately, I've been walking slightly closer to her hoping for a reaction. A glance, a movement. Nothing. Recently, one of my coworkers has been wanting to take my path instead of his usual way by bus. We live in the same apartment complex, and his attempts to befriend me have been nonstop for months now. I've started leaving even earlier to avoid him. It's not entirely about the woman in the park, though I do not wish for him to ever interfere with that part of my morning either. My usual routine is a scenic one, as much a secret for me as the crossing in the park. I cut through the thick woods past the road just beyond the park. There's an old trail there that goes past an empty house. Perhaps it's because of the house's rundown state and the thickness of these woods, but I never see anyone else on my trail. I'm grateful for that. Here among the trees, my thoughts are at ease. I don't want him coming here. This is my domain. At some point, I contemplated scaring him a little to keep him away. The corner of the road in between the trail and the park has a bit of a dark history. There's a blind spot on that road, and it's caused at least one accident on it every year without fail. That road's edge is lined with decaying wooden crosses and forgotten bouquets. The display has never stopped me from coming this way. I've been sneaking around here since I was a child, but my coworker is originally from another town. Many of the people who move here for work are terrified of that little patch. I resigned to keep it a secret as well for now, but if his pestering continues I may use that. As I approach the park, I slow down my pace. Underneath that giant oak, she's sitting as always. Today, she has a book in hand. Yesterday was the same, but a different book. Out of place for the season, yesterday's book was A Christmas Carol. Today's book is The Secret Garden again. I've memorized her favorites. She seems to love the holiday season. Most of her favorites are Christmas-themed stories, and the rest are a mix of natural magic and tragic romances. Her tastes in titles are a little old, but I take her to be one who is simply very fond of classics. I shared that sentiment. When she brings her sketchbook, her drawings are mostly of flowers. They're quite beautiful. Fitting creations for someone so pretty. I've never stared directly into her face, as I wouldn't dare disturb her. But I have caught glimpses of her in passing, quick glances that she wouldn't notice. I couldn't quite tell if her eyes were green or blue, but they were light, framed by long eyelashes. Her perfectly cut brown hair hangs off her shoulders, curling at the ends. Straight bangs rest just above her eyes with not a stray hair in sight. Her skin has a glow about it, warm in a way I can't explain. Her attire is classical as well, and suits her wonderfully. There's nothing about her and everything she touches that does not demand admiration. At times, I've wanted to ask her if I could sketch her. Of course, I could never say this to her. One cannot ask something like that if they've never spoken before. Perhaps we'll never speak. A few feet before her, I walk even slower, discretely watching her. For the first time ever, she looks at me. I freeze, unable to speak. Her eyes match the sky, a shade too bright to be real. Something about them is nostalgic to me, and her face suddenly stirs something in me. A memory hangs there at the edge of my mind, but I cannot grasp it. I notice she is not looking at me, but something behind me. The expression on her face twists into horror. "Hey, wait up!" A familiar voice yells out behind me. Turning, I see my coworker who's been bothering me all this time. He must have followed me here. "What are you doing here?" I ask before I glance back to the old oak. The woman is gone. Nothing of her presence remains there. Even the grass appears untouched. The birds in the trees sing louder than I could bear as cars speed by on the road further down. "Where did she go?" "Who?" He stands too close beside me. "The woman who was sitting by the oak tree." I pace around the tree, frantically looking for signs of her or where she had run off to. "What are you talking about? There was no one else." He stares at me strangely. "Yes, she was here! She's always here." My voice is louder than I expect. I've never yelled at him before. "She's always here." "Are you okay?" He reaches his hand out towards me. I don't allow him to make contact. "You've ruined everything! Leave me alone!" I know I'm overreacting. As far as he knows, he hasn't done anything wrong. For me, the perfect barrier that existed in this place is gone. The branches above me no longer give comfort. They reach out ominously like barbed wires ready to cage me in. The soft grass crunches underneath my feet. I can't be here. Like a child, I ran. I don't care what he thinks of me. My mind's only one track looped a single word. Run. Across the street, I dash into the sacred space of mine that still remained untouched--the deep woods. Something about this place stirs me in the same way as her eyes. Briefly, my mind flashes towards another day running through up this trail by the empty house. The memory sits out of place and time. I cannot tell if I am a child or an adult. There is only running in my mind. My feet move faster. Before I know it, I'm on the other side in front of our company. At the front door, he's there. I don't know how he beat me here, but I meet his glance with a glare. We both quietly go into the building. The disruption of my quiet morning routine doesn't leave me well into the day. I can think of nothing but her face, that look of fear, and then the emptiness. There's no chance for me to mellow. The reminder of this morning sits beside me, my annoying colleague who shares this office room with me. He doesn't speak to me inside the office. I presume he's mad at me for running off, but I'm glad for the silence. I never understood why the company saddled me with this idiot. Up until six months ago, in all my years of working, I had never shared this space with anyone. He came with the lights, as I remember it. For a long time, the lights in this room wouldn't come on and I had to move my desk closer to the window to get any work done. When it was fixed, there he was. The lights always came always, as he always managed to arrive before me. To me, he suits this sort of space as much as the bus he always takes. He belonged to the realm of artificial and manufactured things. He had no place entering our quiet space. The lights could stay off forever and that would be fine with me. When it was time to leave, I saw my coworker in the hall. It was strange to see him still in the building at this hour. He is talking to someone from another department. Awkwardly, our eyes meet. There is a paleness about him. He looks back at the other man and points at me. Had I done something that offended him? Surely not. He's the one who offended me. The other man shook his head and walks off. My coworker cautiously approaches me. I tilt my head. "Is something wrong?" His expression is the same as hers. A look of fear, as if he saw something terrible. Why is he looking at me like that? "Nothing. I forgot something at my desk. Good day." His voice is full of nervousness. "See you tomorrow." I reply out of courtesy. "Ah, right...tomorrow..." He picks up his pace and runs past me. I linger in my walking to see what he was doing. He never enters the room, only standing in the doorway. He backs away from it and stares at me again, that same expression. Keeping professional, I stop to smile and wave at him. He halfheartedly returns my wave but doesn't move from the door. What ever is bothering him, he doesn't seem to want to tell me about it. I carry on my way with my usual routine, wondering if she'll still be there waiting in the morning.