Hailee Middleton first
noticed the boy with the pink backpack when her mother walked her to
school. She held her mom's hand tightly as she was nervous and
excited to start her kindergarten year. Reaching the crossing guard
clad in florescent orange and yellow, her blue eyes couldn't stop
staring at the odd boy sitting on the bench at the road crossing,
near where she was going to enter the school grounds. She attempted
to look at the tall maple tree next to the bench, but her focus
returned to the boy. All she could think to herself was how strange
it was to see a boy with a pink backpack.
Hailee thought long about the boy as she and her mother walked across the school yard to the building. Soon after arriving at her classroom door, having been greeted by her new teacher, Hailee forgot about the boy and his pink backpack.
Hailee's day was filled with making new friends and learning new things. She played games, had her blond pig tails pulled by a classmate and learned that her teacher was as fun as she had first appeared to be. It wasn't until after school, while crossing the road with her mother to go home that she remembered the boy and the pink backpack. He was there on the bench just like on her morning walk to the school.
Hailee was back to wondering why he would have a pink backpack and why he was still sitting on the bench? Had he been there all day? This time she also noticed that he wore a gray shirt and blue sneakers. Hailee also noticed the sadness in his eyes as he skimmed over every face of the children that passed by.
As Hailee and her mother finished crossing the road and headed down the hill to where they lived, Hailee asked, “Mommy, why does that boy have a pink backpack?”
Her mother shrugged her shoulders as she looked down at her daughter, “I don't know, but maybe his daughter forgot it and he was there to make sure she didn't lose it, or maybe it's not his.”
Hailee thought about her mother's words. The second part was most likely right. He was only sitting beside the pink backpack on the bench.
Hailee had another question for her mother, “Why was he on the bench this morning before school and now after school?”
With patience, Hailee's mother smiled, shook her head and shrugged her shoulders again, “I don't know, but there is a bus stop there, so maybe he's waiting for a bus.”
“Mommy, your so smart,” Hailee giggled even though her mother hadn't really answered her question.
8 years later...
As each school day and year rolled by, Hailee noticed that the boy with the pink backpack was always there on the bench waiting and watching. She also became more observant to the reality of what she would see daily, but sometimes not notice as he was like a fixture to that place.
First of all, he wasn't a boy like her mind had perceived when she was only five and starting school. At that time he must have been at least twenty and of course over her school career had grown older. He had neatly cropped dirty blond hair, kept his face clear of facial hair for the most part and was thin. As for the backpack, it almost appeared stuck in time as it still looked relatively the same as it did the first time she saw it.
Hailee also noticed that the man always wore the same gray shirt, pale blue jeans and what appeared to be the same sneakers in the bright blue. On rainy days, the backpack was in a large, clear garbage bag and he too wore one over his clothes so that you could still see what it was he was wearing. Oddly enough, he covered his feet in clear bags too so the rain stayed out, but you could see their color.
In winter the man was forced to bundle up, however the pink backpack was still with him in the clear garbage bag. During the cold months he was also more active and moving around as he looked at each student crossing his way. Hailee noticed more readily in his brown eyes, the look of both sadness and desperation as they washed over the faces of every student. It was like he was cataloging each one in his mind as he was searching for something no one else was able to find.
Over the years, Hailee had asked first her parents, then some neighbors and even a crossing guard about the man with the pink backpack. For such a small, central Ontario town like Orillia, no one seemed to know anything about him. They had just accepted his presence and never questioned it as he was quiet and never caused any concern to his being at the bench daily. It was like he was a ghost that only Hailee had noticed. He was a person the town had forgotten.
It was late in her eighth grade school year that Hailee was given her opportunity to find out some real answers for herself. Her school teacher, Mr. Taylor had assigned the class an essay project. Each student was to find someone of interest in their community to interview, and present a speech to the class about the individual they had chosen.
Hailee's heart pounded and her mouth became dry as she instantly knew who it was she wanted to interview.
After class Hailee approached her teacher, Mr. Taylor about talking to the man with the pink backpack. At first he frowned and then he cautioned her about the safety of approaching an odd sort like him.
“Maybe,” Hailee began to suggest, “if you were to accompany me to speak to him, he would not be a concern to my safety.”
Mr. Taylor looked at Hailee. He could see her anticipation for the opportunity to interview this man. He smiled a little, “I've often wondered about him myself.”
Hailee did a little leap of joy as she grinned, “Is that a yes?”
Mr. Taylor nodded his head with a smile only to calm a moment later, “Don't get your hopes up, Hailee. He may be nothing more than autistic with a set program or he could be a lunatic.”
“Doesn't matter,” Hailee said excitedly, “I'll have my interview with an interesting individual in our community.”
“I'm sure you will,” Mr. Taylor answered.
Mr. Taylor and Hailee agreed that asking the man with the pink backpack for an interview was best done on a Friday afternoon. So, on the last Friday in May, after Hailee had formulated her interview questions, she and Mr. Taylor left the school room together to speak with her target interviewee.
They had waited until all the other students had left and it appeared that the man with the pink backpack was getting ready to leave too. Mr. Taylor stood about three or four paces behind Hailee as she walked up to the man.
The man had picked up the backpack and was carefully making sure that no damage was done to it. She had witnessed him do this in the past on a few occasions and was leery at first about interrupting his routine.
“Excuse me,” Hailee's voice cracked as she found the courage to talk. She suddenly became aware of the fact she was speaking to this person who had been only in the background of her life for many years. It felt to her as if she had a lump in her throat and she was viewing him like a celebrity.
The man lowered the backpack gently and faced Hailee. He showed no emotion to give any indication about how he felt toward her intrusion on his everyday musings.
Hailee disclosed a nervous, forced smile. Her blue eyes danced as she looked over the man with a type of unexplained awe. “Can I talk to you?” was the shaky question she asked.
He nodded his head once. Mr. Taylor came up from behind Hailee. “My name is David Taylor and this young lady is my student. She would like to interview you for a speech she will be doing for a school presentation.”
The man generously held out his right hand to Mr. Taylor to shake it first, “My name is Nathan St. George.”
Mr. Taylor smiled and shook hands with the man. The mystery man then took Hailee's hand and shook it. Hailee smiled broadly as she realized the man was most likely sane. She proudly announced, “I'm Hailee Middleton.”
Nathan's hand shake suddenly became weak, his hand lost its grip, his arm fell away and his eyes became clouded with tears. His knees appeared to give way as he flopped onto the bench behind him, roughly making him sit down. The backpack thumped onto the bench beside him and he didn't take notice.
Not knowing what to do, Mr. Taylor and Hailee rushed to his side to ensure he was alright. Tears flowed freely down the man's face as he then gave a sad smile. “I would love to talk to you, Hailee.”
10 Years Later...
Over the years Hailee Middleton spoke to auditoriums over and over again about her eighth grade speech and the person of interest, an man named Nathan St. George. Today, she was back in her old school where she had attended from Kindergarten to grade eight, in the familiar gymnasium, and even her old teacher, Mr. Taylor was there, but was now the vice principle of the school as well.
A hush was in the large room that was filled with chairs and students. Hailee took the stage with a few butterflies rolling in her stomach. As she walked across the stage she locked eyes with the easels that were placed around a podium. A montage of photos of a young, blonde, blue eyed girl spanning from infant to about sixteen years old stared back. One of the portraits was out of place to the others and was placed at the end of the gallery of pictures. It was a computer generated composite of the girl as she may appear today with the large print word “Missing” in white on a red banner across the top.
For a moment Hailee paused to look at the close up print that was listed on the photo of the girl's face, as the last snapshot of her. Hailee took in a deep breath so that she could clear the tears from her eyes. She then touched the picture briefly before gathering herself up and standing at the podium where a microphone waited to amplify her words.
A room filled with eyes from every grade stared back at her. They were joined by teachers, parents and a few others in the community including a local news station.
Taking a breath Hailee spoke, “Hello, everyone. My name is Hailee Middleton. I am twenty-three years old and I'm here to speak to you about a man I met from our community about ten years ago named Nathan St. George.”
She could see as she looked upon the faces of the students how they were confused as she was surrounded by pictures of a young girl. Hailee decided to continue with a relaxed demeanor.
“I was asked by my teacher in eighth grade to interview and recite a speech about a person of interest in my community. Many of my classmates chose war veterans, the mayor and even local authors and business people. I chose a man, who I had seen every day of my school career, sitting on a bench, across the road from this school accompanied by a pink backpack.”
Hailee waited as the students whispered to each other. Once calm returned she continued, “The man's name is Nathan St. George and he had a very good reason for sitting on that bench, before and after school every day. He would even dress himself in the same type of clothing and with a pink backpack. His only other consistent companion was the maple tree that still stands there today.”
“When I decided to interview him, I had no idea about his reasons for doing what he did and it was only to satisfy my own curiosity that I even approached him about why he was always there. I had asked others about him, however no one else seemed to know anything about him either. Nathan was a shadow in their lives. He would be there, but without substance and therefore never seen. I'm going to fill you in on Nathan's story and how, this young woman, whose pictures you see behind me, are connected to it.”
“When Nathan was only five years old and his day of school was finished he crossed the street from his school, this school, and he found the pink backpack sitting on the bench. Without questioning why it was there he sat next to it to wait for its owner to return.”
A few of the students giggled and made notions of how crazy the boy must be. Hailee patiently took it all in. At points in her young life she had thought the same thing of him.
Hailee continued, “As it turned out, the backpack had a very important owner.” She paused to watch as everyone in the auditorium waited to hear more.
“It belonged to his sixteen year old sister, Hailey.” Hailee then motioned to the pictures surrounding her on the stage. “Everyone, these pictures are of Hailey.”
A buzz was released from the student body as they spoke. Hailey St. George was a bit of a legend in the small community. Everyone knew she had gone missing in late June just before the school year had ended. She was last seen outside of a nearby corner gas station. There had been no cameras there at the time and the case went cold without any suspects, witnesses and without finding Hailey.
Hailee continued, “Hailey St. George was an active, and out-going sixteen year old girl. Everyday she walked her little brother Nathan to school and would meet him across the road afterward to walk home with him. As she was in high school at the time, her classes were done earlier than his and the bench was a good spot to get together. It was a safe meeting place as it was just across the road from his school and a crossing guard was present.”
“Late, in June, Nathan walked across the street with the crossing guard. He saw Hailey's backpack, a pink backpack, sitting on the end of the bench. He decided to sit down beside it. This was not that unusual an occurrence. Sometimes Hailey would go up to the gas station on the corner to buy a treat or drink and meet him at the bench. She always left her backpack on the bench to let Nathan know she had been there and would return.”
“However,” Hailee said as she took hold of the microphone and moved out from around the podium, “Nathan sat there and waited for a very long time. That day he wore a grey shirt, washed out blue jeans and his favorite blue sneakers so that Hailey would know just what he wore. It was a routine they had. She would write down everything he had on each day in a notebook so that, should Nathan ever go missing, Hailey would be able to tell everyone what he was wearing to help find him more quickly. His big sister had thought of this so that he would know she was always there to look out for him, no matter what happened. They also agreed he would never change what he wore during the time he was missing, this way he would have the same thing on to wear so she could always recognize him.”
“As the minutes ticked by, Nathan waited on the bench for Hailey. It was the crossing guard on duty who noticed he was still there, waiting, beside his sister's pink backpack.”
Hailee choked a little on the last words. She turned and looked at the gallery of Hailey behind her. “Unfortunately,” Hailee said almost at a whisper into the microphone, “Hailey didn't come back for her brother or her backpack. It was Hailey who went missing, not Nathan.”
With tears forming in her eyes, Hailee pressed on, “Nathan, age five, didn't understanding what the words, abduction, kidnapping, missing, or disappeared really meant, but he figured it out quickly. He also was feeling guilty for not knowing what his sister wore to school that day. He was unable to help with the investigation beyond the fact he had her backpack and she had scheduled her events to take him to and from school.”
Hailee moved toward the audience, “Nathan took it upon himself to wait for Hailey, with her backpack, every day, before and after school. As he grew he even wore similar clothing, as they had agreed upon, though he was not the missing person, so she would recognize him when she finally returned. Grey shirt, faded jeans and blue sneakers. Nathan would not give up on finding her. He acquired jobs as he became an adult so that he could continue his vigil for Hailey in the spot they were to part and meet every day after school.”
Hailee paused, “Before my interview with Nathan, he had spent nearly two decades missing Hailey. He spoke openly about what he was doing for the first time with myself and my teacher Mr. Taylor, your vice principle. About how his missing sister took out everything in his life. Nathan spent all of his free time searching for Hailey, not making friends and living in a way that looked after his basic needs with no extra activities. He had stopped in time. Nathan spoke to me about how he never forgave himself for not taking more notice of her.” Hailee held back tears. The memory of the interview was overwhelming her just as it did when she first conducted it.
“None of this was his fault, but in his five year old mind, he felt it was. In many ways, Nathan St. George went missing at the same time as his sister Hailey.”
Hailee sighed, “It wasn't until a few weeks after my interview that he decided to stop waiting for Hailey at the bench with her backpack. Nathan, had finally relieved himself of his responsibility by talking to me. He had freed his five year old self of guilt. Nathan was finally home.”
Hailee's tears began to run down her own face. She wiped away one of the drops with her hand before continuing, “I spoke to him only once more after the interview. Nathan said speaking with me meant he finally had closure because he found Hailey. He said he found her within himself and he found her inside of me.”
Hailee went around the podium and returned the microphone to its place. “We are here today to honor the memory of Hailey St. George and the life of her brother Nathan, as he and his family have had to have courage to continue without her. Nathan still has the pink backpack as a reminder of his sister. Everything else is a faded memory or photograph from when he was small.”
Hailee looked at the pictures on the stage and back to her audience, “Don't let opportunities and moments with someone special just slip away. Take notice of the small things. Someone can leave your life suddenly and leave behind only a memory. Hold on to the ones you love. It will be just like finding your own Hailey. Thank you.”
The applause bothered Hailee a little as she left the podium, tears flowing from her eyes. She had not gone to speak for applause, but from the heart. Her meeting Nathan St. George had truly changed her life and she hoped her story about that meeting would change someone else's.
After school let out, Hailee was sitting on the bench, by the bus stop where Nathan had spent so many years waiting for his sister to just show up again. She smiled a little to herself as she looked over her shoulder. There was the tall maple tree, that had shaded Nathan for the years he spent there looking for his sister. Under the tree, in a garden tended by the city, was a statue made of pink granite. It had been carved to be the shape of a school backpack. On the outside, facing the street was engraved a single name that read: Hailey.
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