College was supposed to have been the ticket out of the boring little burg she had grown up in. During high school, all she and her friends had ever talked about was escaping to a place that had more of a choice on Friday nights than watching the jocks get drunk at an orchard party or watching the hicks kick goat droppings down the street. At some point during her six years away at school, however, Butterton had been 'discovered'. People had fled from the big city in droves, in search of new lands to colonize into suburbs. In a sick sort of codependency, they had ended up bringing the big city with them. By the time Michelle was ready to find a stable job and start paying off college loans, Butterton had developed a booming economy, a decent nightlife, and handy access to the leftovers in Mom's refrigerator. Generous starting pay for new teachers, a club that played swing music on Thursday nights, and two-day-old lasagna. That's how Michelle Liciardi found herself back in Butterton with a job and a mortgage.
With her return to Butterton had come the return of that old sense of restlessness, and so Michelle had taken up jogging again. When she was a girl she would go out roaming for hours, running as far as she could and then walking until the stitches in her side subsided. She had known every fruit tree that hung over an alley fence in her side of town and when they would come into season. In high school, she had joined the track team, expanding her territory and sometimes pacing the length of the town while waiting for escape in the form of assorted track meets. In college, Michelle had stopped jogging every day and had put on fifteen pounds. Now she was back in Butterton, which had also put on a figurative fifteen pounds. Although it had grown too big for her to jog the whole way across, she could still see the Sameness under all the new growth, like a pile of desiccated cat turds under a mound of sand. The fifteen pounds didn't bother her, but that Sameness did, and she found herself jogging again, every day after work.
What am I looking for? She asked herself this question often as she trotted past the old pastures and dusty lots of her youth, now clad with shiny new shopping centers and freshly paved asphalt. Whatever it was, she hadn't found it in the museums and parties of the university town, and she only felt compelled to look for it here. Was she looking for a way out? Dirt on her neighbors? Was it a kind of small-town insanity? Was she looking for some sort of parallel to herself, an allegory for how someone can change and yet still stay the same in the expensive, new tracts of housing that catered to commuters springing up everywhere? She was never sure what the question was, but always there was a sense that the answer lay somewhere on those streets, if only she looked thoroughly enough.
Her afternoon route took her past the old industrial park where Michelle's father had worked when she was in grade school. Back then it had been a few small sheet metal shops, a cannery and the carpet manufacturer that employed her dad. Now there were ten or fifteen monumental buildings with professional landscaping and huge parking lots that sprawled across the park. Jogging past, she had to shake her head. They used to bring the family dog down here to chase jackrabbits in the open fields, letting him sprint futilely after his much faster quarry until he was exhausted and content to sleep peacefully on a cool floor the rest of the day. There were still open lots where squirrels, jackrabbits and the occasional burrowing owl poked its head up over the dry summer grasses to watch her as she ran, but they were few and far between.
The lot she was jogging past now appeared to be the only double parcel left uninhabited in the park, perhaps out of respect to the owls. The ground squirrels had grown fairly accustomed to her over the last few months, usually sitting brazenly astride the mounds outside their burrows and making rude little sounds at her as she passed. As she ran by today, however, one of them sounded a whistle of alarm and they all vanished into their holes with a flick of their tails. She slowed to a halt and looked around for what could have spooked them - was she having a bad hair day, or was there a stray dog nearby? A shadow gliding over the ground solved the mystery.
Michelle shielded her eyes and peered up into the clear blue summer sky. There he was! A hawk cruising over the field for his dinner. Something seemed to be trailing from his leg -- had the bird entangled itself in some debris, or was it carrying a small snake? Wheeling in the sky, the hawk abruptly folded its wings and plummeted down to strike, flapping heavily off with something small and furry in its talons. Michelle watched it go with a sigh of appreciation, then abruptly caught her breath in surprise. The hawk was returning to a tall figure, holding up what looked like a leather-encased forearm. With much flapping, the hawk had landed on the outstretched arm to accept a treat.
"Someone hawking in Butterton?" Michelle couldn't believe it. Even with the influx of new blood, that sounded like far too interesting a hobby for this area. Far too interesting to pass up an opportunity to learn more, too. She looked around to make sure the place was public enough to approach a strange man. Hmm. A bit of a long shot. The forklift driver loading pallets at the plant across the field might be able to see her, if he was looking, which he most likely wouldn't be. He certainly wouldn't be able to hear any shrieks above the noise of the plant. Still, it was broad daylight and people might drive by at any time. There was no van anywhere for her to be dragged into. And really, it wasn't likely the guy would risk losing his hawk to abduct a passerby. Good enough for Michelle. She set off across the field.
Her hesitation had cost her, however, for the man had turned away and was walking toward the far side of the field. Michelle couldn't let the chance pass her by, however. She might find out if there was a local club, or if there were public demonstrations or volunteer opportunities. Finding a dirt track through the dried weeds, she struck up a jog, keeping the man in view.
Deep in the field, she caught up to him. The dirt track had widened into a little dirt road, and it seemed to lead to a small house with a few dusty trees in front that she had never noticed before. She was a little surprised to see it abutting the industrial park. Must be holding out for a higher price before selling. At this point, however, the man had turned. He seemed startled that she was approaching him.
"Hi," Michelle gave a friendly smile, a little out of breath. "Hey, I'm sorry to bother you, but I noticed you were out hawking. I've never seen anyone hunt with a hawk close-up before - I was kind of hoping you might let me watch. What kind of hawk is it?"
The man was tall, and although the thought that he might be good looking hadn't even crossed her mind, she was almost chagrined at how handsome he actually was. To be honest, if she had gotten a better look at him from the sidewalk, she might have chased him across the field even if he hadn't been doing anything more interesting than scooping dog droppings. Nice frame, well muscled, classically handsome face. He had blond hair with the kind of gold highlights that only come with a lot of time spent outdoors. Now his clothing looked a little odd - khakis and a long shirt that looked like it was made of hemp. Maybe he was an Earth-Firster or a pot smoker. His boots were flat out amazing, though. She had seen something like them once in a catalog that only sold handmade leather goods. Rich and good looking, apparently. He might be perfect, except for his somber demeanor. Something about him suggested that his serious expression was not just for nosy passersby, but that smiling and laughter were completely foreign to him. That was, in Michelle's opinion, a capital crime. "She's a falcon," he answered in a tone that expressly did not add "thank you for asking".
"She's phenomenal," Michelle gushed sincerely, despite the man's unfriendliness. On his forearm, the falcon shifted and puffed her feathers slightly, glaring at Michelle with an expression not unlike that of her handler. "Do you have to have a permit?"
"What? No." He looked even more perplexed. "Where did you come from?"
"Industrial Park Way," Michelle jerked a thumb in that direction. "I jog here every day after work. I live about a mile away, over behind the shopping center." A look of understanding seemed to cross his face, but there was something about the way he was frowning at her that she didn't quite get.
"You had best return, lady."
Michelle tried to keep her disappointment off her face. She supposed she had been ignoring his hints that he didn't want to waste time with nosy strangers. "Well. Sorry to have interrupted you. I guess people try to pester you all the time."
"Not really," he commented dryly and stared at her coldly until she took a few steps back.
"Thanks anyway," she tried to offer a smile. He gave her one last odd look, then turned his back and began walking toward the house. Highly disappointed, Michelle turned and walked down the dirt track toward the street. Well, she had to admit it served her right. A guy that good looking probably had to deal with random women throwing themselves at him all the time. He probably thought she was some kind of groupie. Her face burned a little bit in irritation and embarrassment. Dammit, she really had only wanted to see the hawk.
"Oh, well," she sighed aloud, reaching the sidewalk and breaking into a jog to head home. "Win some, lose s..." she trailed off and slowed to a stop. The sun was straight ahead and the sky was darkening with the lovely orangey haze of a dusty sunset. "What the hell?" It had to be past seven o'clock. She was normally done with her jog by six at the latest. Had she spent that much time panting after that jerk and his buzzard? No wonder he had run her off like she was some kind of stalker! Thoroughly embarrassed now, she picked up the pace. The sky had turned to purple and was dark in the east by the time she made it home.