What a waste of a weekend. None of the gashes on her forearm required stitches. She had told the hospital staff that she had seen a wild hawk eating something on the ground and recklessly decided to see how close she could get, much to her detriment. The doctor seemed skeptical and insisted on keeping her overnight due to the lost time. Her blood tests came back negative for any strange chemicals or drugs. She did not appear to have been violated in any way. The cuts had been treated with what seemed to be a mixture of honey and urea, and the medical staff did not like her story that she didn't remember where she got it when she wrapped up her cuts. Her insurance company was going to choke at the number of tests they ran on her while she was there. They released her reluctantly the next day, after badgering her that this was a serious matter and that she needed to follow up with her primary care physician immediately.
After that, Michelle took the solemn man's advice and altered her jogging route. Drastically. She did drive her car through the industrial park, examining the lots from both sides. Absolutely no sign of a run-down little house or orchards. She had to have imagined parts of it. One of her old friends from high school had a dog, and just to satisfy her own curiosity beyond a doubt, Michelle talked her into taking the dog down to the lots to chase jackrabbits. She didn't explain anything else, but she did make sure to follow the dirt track. It just led to the other side of the lot.
She knew she should talk to her doctor about the loss of time, but the last two weeks of school were upon her with lots of preparations and goodbyes. That didn't make her too busy, precisely, but it gave her an excuse not to bring it up. She couldn't shake the feeling that she had gotten any answers she could get from the medical community during her overnight stay at the hospital. Whatever happened didn't have its source in disease or drugs. At least that was the conviction deep in her heart that she couldn't shake. Rationally, Michelle knew that since the blood tests came back negative for drugs, the combination of hallucinations and lost time probably meant a brain tumor or something happy like that. Call it denial, but in her gut she felt it was something else.
Too busy to think about it. Never jogged that way again. A fluke, never to reoccur. This is what she told herself in daylight hours. But at night when she wasn't thinking about anything at all, she would catch herself contemplating the house and the orchards that weren't there, the man without metal or modern trappings. Calculating the patterns of missing time. Ten minutes talking -- an hour missing. One hour getting the bird back, sitting in the house -- ten hours missing.
Michelle found herself paying her bills ahead, enough to cover herself through September. She cancelled her newspaper subscription. When she asked herself why, she simply told herself it was so she could relax and enjoy the summer.
Three months. Roughly ninety days. If the pattern held, that would give her one week, erring on the conservative side.
But that was utterly and completely stupid. So wrong and so idiotic in so very many ways that it wasn't even worth thinking about.
Michelle spent the first week of her summer off catching up on reading. Other teachers worked through the summer, she knew, but she had made it a point to live frugally enough that she could indulge herself. A whole summer to do nothing but read, write a few papers, go down to the beach. There would hardly be enough time. The summer would go by all too fast. Maybe it would only take a week... but once again, that was a chain of thought so deeply beyond stupid that she refused to even admit she was contemplating it.
To stop from thinking along those lines, Michelle started keeping herself busier. She went jogging twice a day (along a radically different, much more public route), running hard. Cleaning the house. Was she putting everything in order as if she was leaving? No! Was she looking in the sky while she was out jogging, watching for a familiar shadow gliding across the sky? Hell, yes, so she could run the other way. Who knows what that pervert did to her. Nothing, that's what, she would scold herself. Because he was the figment of the big, fat brain tumor that was growing in her head.
"Come to the shore with us for a week," her mother offered. Michelle declined. She was waiting. For more symptoms to develop, she told herself. Because she wasn't stupid enough to think that what she had seen had been real.
So when she left the house one morning and saw the hawk sitting under her eucalyptus tree snacking on the remains of the neighbor's cat, she had mixed feelings. Aw, heck. The tumor's getting bigger, was the first thought that crossed her mind. Followed by guess Morris won't be crapping in my flowerbeds any more. Revelation struck like a thunderbolt. She would go inside, wrap her arm with a towel and catch the hawk. Then she would go to the neighbors and let them know -- remorsefully, she would act remorseful -- about their cat. If they saw a dead Morris, too, then she wasn't...
She would almost rather be hallucinating. But she went through with it anyway. As she got the towel, she found herself checking to make sure she wasn't wearing anything metal. They can't abide cold steel. Her pants tied at the waist. The eyelets in the shoes were plastic.
The hawk -- no, falcon, she corrected herself -- lashed out at her ill temperedly as she approached the eucalyptus and tried to catch the leg leashes. Put a nice slash in the towel, got a talon caught and whacked Michelle around the head several times before she managed to get it perched on her arm.
"Mr. Seager?" she called over the fence. Phil Seager was retired and spent most of his time either puttering in his back yard or napping a hammock out there. "Mr. Seager!"
"Mr. Seager, something got a cat in the front yard. I think it might be Morris."
The gate to his back yard opened and Phil tottered out. "What the hell is that on your arm! You got a hawk or something?"
"Um, yeah, I think it belongs to a... I've seen people flying them in a field not far from here. I'm going to drive it back over there. But I think it got Morris."
"Well, I'll be damned! Morris!" The old man took his hat off and ran his hand across his bald spot in consternation. "Damn it. Can't say as I'm too choked up over it -- damn cat was allus pissin' in my flowerbeds. But the missus is gonna be upset."
"Uh, give her my condolences." This was one hell of a hallucination. Should she be driving if she was going to black out? No. But more importantly, she shouldn't leave her car parked by the field if she was going to be gone. Seventy days -- one week. She set out at a brisk walk, heading for the industrial park.
Serendipitously, she made it there without seeming to be noticed. Pretty impressive with a moody bird of prey sulking on her arm. She expected no less, however. There was something at work here. Brain tumor or otherwise.
The falcon shifted and attempted to stretch its wings as Michelle approached the empty lots, no doubt hoping to be allowed to fly and hunt. If she had any idea how to coax it back, she might have let it -- she was grateful for how cooperative the bird had been so far. But she couldn't risk losing the hawk now. She had seven days to kill... perhaps she could coax its master into teaching her a little bit of falconry.
"You're going to end up a Jane Doe buried somewhere down in Tiajuana," she muttered to herself, heading into the field towards the dirt track. "And it will be seventy days before anyone notices you're missing."
Speaking of missing, there was no familiar form standing in the empty lots. "Your daddy doesn't seem to be out looking for you," she address the bird, then dodged as it tried to snap at her face. "Okay, no teasing the bird. Got it."
There hadn't been anything but dried weeds and a few empty fast food wrappers visible from the sidewalk, but as the dirt track widened, a dilapidated little house was coming into view. Michelle's heart started to pound harder in her chest. No orchards yet, still just the backs of the stores and their dumpsters barely visible through the vines of the chain link fence... but there was a house. She dropped her eyes to watch her feet trudging along the dusty little road, willing whatever magic was working here to continue its process. She didn't look up until she heard the wordless exclamation of surprise.
He was standing there, beside a tall white horse hitched to the split rail fence. Just over the wooden rails, the orchard sat and baked in the sun. It was being flood irrigated, Michelle noted, water pooling darkly under the branches. "I brought your hawk."
"You shouldn't have come." His handsome face looked tormented, not unfriendly.
He let the flap of the saddle settle back over where he had been cinching the girth and came carefully over to her to take the falcon. "You must hurry back."
"No," Michelle looked up at him firmly, trying to catch his eyes as he avoided her gaze. Hallucination, drugs in her water, whatever it was, it wasn't going away and she wasn't going to avoid it simply because it defied sensible explanation. "I want to know about this place. I have seventy days."
That drew a look. His eyes were urgent and bitter. "I said much the same thing once. You have to go now."
"Hey, come on," Michelle tried to lighten the mood, a little shaken by the emotion in his voice. "Don't be so fast to run me off, here. After all, you owe me. I brought your bird back."
"My lady's bird," he corrected faintly, looking at it with much less affection than Michelle would have expected.
"Who's your lady?"
He shook his head and turned to her, squaring his shoulders and pointing firmly back the way she came. "You really must go, young mistress. Away. Now. I will speak to you no further."
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